Don Rigtchy Thelort, born in Haiti but grew up in the Dominican Republic, having both sides of the island in his blood made him a perfect dancer, cook, and storyteller. English, being his third language become to be an obstacle after he moved to the United States. It was hard for him to publish his works or translate books written years ago from Spanish to English, so he decided to go to college to better himself studying Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University. Even if his mom and dad wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, he decided to pursue his dreams with no regrets. He lives in Fort Knox, KY with his two daughters and his lovely wife.
The drug business started like selling candy to kids, every addicted guy from the street would knock on Kent’s door to get some sweet nectar no matter the hour.
One day his daughter came from school with bruises all over her body because of a bully. Kent decided to pay some thugs to take care of the situation without thinking it twice.
“Why did you have to resolved it like that?” asked Marta.
“None of your businesses woman, I just need to do what I got to do,” said Kent.
“But, taking care of the business like that, is not the best option,” said Marta.
“C’mon woman, it’s for our daughter,” said Kent.
The bully was the mayor’s grandson, and he didn’t like his grandson being at the hospital, so for the next weeks instead of junkies on their doorstep, it was threatening letter from the Mayor. Marta was restless for weeks, so the best option was to move the business somewhere else, and to send Julie to her sister’s house until everything cooled down.
A night when kent was on his night shift, the drug dealers came to get their money that he owed them for a month now. They broke in the house, they were opening every cabinet looking for the drugs or money. They kept waiting for Marta to come out of the room or for Kent to come through the door.
The love that Marta felt for Kent was stronger than any thought of escaping. So she got on her feet with all the strength of the world to pay for Kent’s debt and she opened the door with a prayer on the tip of her tongue, hoping for a miracle.
“Where is your husband?” asked one of the thugs.
“You already know that he would not be here at this time,” said Marta.
“Are you trying to be a smart-ass?” said one of the thugs pointing the weapon at her.
They stood up there looking at each other when suddenly Kent open the door. The thugs had Marta in a headlock position with the pistol in her back.
“Where is the money, man?” asked one of the thugs.
“I swear, no later than Tuesday, you’ll get your money back,” said Jake.
“You are telling me that you ain’t got my shit, homie?” asked one of the thugs before pressing the trigger.
It took Marta by surprise that Kent had the money in the room but still lie to the thugs. Her body hit the floor, a second one went straight to her spine and everything turned pitch dark.
Marta wakes up in her room by Julie’s cries. She could see the repentance on Kent’s face, he was trying to redeem his actions, he wanted to apologize, but the harm was already there.
“So, Madame, I have a good and bad news for you,” said the Curandera.
“I am too old for surprises, what is the news?” asked Marta.
“The good news is, the bullet did not affect any major nerve” said the Curandera.
“So, I am not gonna stay like a vegetable?” asked Marta.
“No, but you are not gonna be able to walk straight anymore,” said the Curandera.
The news did not affect her at all, and it seems the broken one was Kent. Month flies with the remaining feeling that Marta had for Kent.
“Dad installed another lock in the house after the accident,” said Julie.
“ Oh, really?” asked Marta “He could have prevented it.”
“Where is dad?” asked July.
“He went for a walk,” said Marta “For a long Walk.”
He didn’t want to step back in the house, she wouldn’t let him get inside her heart, he just left without turning back, and Marta just closed the door without any doubt.
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.
LOUISE AND I
Rain pounds the tin roof like a blanket of hammers being shock dusted along its metal furrows. The dry is out. And about time too. My plants, kept alive by furtive irrigation, hang on. That’s the nice thing about weeds, they don’t care if you love them or not. Streams of water flow from the roof, out the front yard, and down the old overgrown logging road to the waiting creek bed below. I can almost smell the resin developing on the flower buds as their roots drink up. Hidden among the dried up corn stalks and topped more than once, the bushy plants will be a good stash for Louise and me next winter when the cold bites and busting up firewood is the only way to counter it…..to begin with. Like Thoreau’s wood that warmed when he cut it, and again when he burned it.
Emerging from sleep, Louise shuffles from the bedroom, thick dark hair amiss, and sleepy eyed.
“Did you save me some coffee,” she mumbles, “and are there any snakes in the out house?”
Butt puckering cold in the dead of winter and warm enough to shelter anything in the summer, the outside toilet is part of our way of life. The hand pump in the kitchen provides groundwater enough without the worry of busted pipes in the winter if we are away. Moving from the city to this Southern Appalachian high spot ten years ago involved some learning and adjustment, which we enjoyed doing. But a snake is still a snake. Especially when one is surprised by its presence.
Pointing to the electric burner in the kitchen area of our rough cut cottage, I nurse Louise’s slow rise.
“Fresh coffee that way and clean, snake free toilet the other way. Better take a roll of toilet paper though. The other one’s getting thin.”
Sticking a roll of toilet paper in her night pocket after pouring a cup of coffee, Louise waits for the rain to subside a bit, then bee lines it out the side door toward the outhouse.
Relaxing to the rhythm of the rain is good medicine. Detecting a methodical beat to it that seems to grow stronger, I suddenly realize that it’s not the rhythm of the rain. It’s the whop-whop sound of an approaching helicopter. A sound that still reminds me of loading the body bag of my friend on a dust off during the war. Doubly shaken with the added knowledge that around here helicopters are only used by the law, I rush to the front porch and watch as the chopper approaches. Flying low between the ridges of the hollow, it slowly banks and rises, passing directly above my withered corn and the pot plants growing there. It circles our property, and almost blows the tin roof off the outhouse as Louise, struggling with her panties and screaming in terror, emerges.
“My God Charlie, what the hell’s going on!!?”
Rising a bit more, the helicopter is still low enough that I can see someone leaning out the door and taking pictures as it hovers above the corn.
With my heart in my throat and the adrenaline pumping like it used to when I was doing the dirty work for Uncle Sam, I put my arm around Louise and try not to lose it.
“Guess I’m busted, babe. Just stay silent. I’ll take care of you.”
Her mouth dropping open as it all begins to register, Louise says, “Oh shit Charlie, what are we going to do?”
“Get me a lawyer,” I say, “and listen to what he tells you. Now go on and put some clothes on. This is just the beginning. The whole crew will be here very soon.”
Looking at me like our world is the Titanic flotsam and there is only room enough for one, Louise turns and goes inside.
Judge Reams, like his name implies, loves putting it to those whose misfortune it is to be standing before him. A fat balding man of fifty or so, he has a particular interest in the marijuana growers of his county. Using those that he has sentenced and bargained with over the years, Judge Reams has garnered most of the market share on marijuana. Becoming quite wealthy in the process, he is considered untouchable and well liked by the good ole boys of law enforcement. Only in this lost and forgotten section of the country could such a system still exist. And to our grief, Louise and I are about to find out about it.
Two weeks in jail before making bail is enough time for a thorough education in the workings of this justice system. I am told that I can get probation and community service if I show the proper attitude. Like pleading guilty to the sale and possession of a controlled substance. And additionally to grow “protected” pot for the judge. Taking the full charge, although the weed was only for personal use, I am able to exonerate Louise. But a full attitude with a deference is always something I have had a problem with. Ever since I went to “free” the Vietnamese people from communist rule by killing them. I refuse to work for the judge.
At my sentencing, dressed in none of the proudly hailed rhetoric or star spangled contrition, I stand, my heart breaking for Louise and our boarded up home. Judge Reams looks over the courtroom, ending with a stern gaze in my direction. Finally looking back to the papers in front of him and seeming to discover some pertinent information that has been overlooked, he smiles, raises his eyes to the prosecuting attorney, and nods.
“It is the decision of this court that you be incarcerated in the Morville Penal Institution for the period of one year and one day, not to include time served. I hope this will give you, and any other people coming from the big Northern cities to pollute our fair land, time to think about the consequences if you end up in front of The Law. Bailiff, he’s all yours, out of here.”
Sobbing loudly and drawing many stares from the inhospitable herd watching the proceedings, Louise, sitting directly behind me and my “court” appointed lawyer, tries to reach me but is blocked by one of the bailiffs.
“Charlie, I’ll be there,” she says. “Keep the faith, sweetheart, I’ll be there.”
Busing the empty table, and at the same time slapping the hand of an off duty prison guard trying to feel her up from another table, Louise looks at the clock and sees that her shift is almost done. Living off the money of those paid to incarcerate me is bad enough without the sexual abuse. But it keeps her close to me and her visits go a long way to help carry the load. Three more months and we are out of here. But where will we go? If only there is a way to clean up the place where we loved and lived for so many years. Letter after letter Louise writes concerning this but so far nothing. Me too, but we both know that mine probably end up in the trash. Looking back at the clock and trying to stay positive, Louise tells herself, just five more minutes. Maybe there is help in the mailbox at her little apartment over the gas station.
Aiming to avoid any sexual innuendo from the gas station attendant, Louise hurries from her old Volvo and up the steps to her apartment, grabbing a letter from the mailbox by the door before letting herself in. Exhausted from an overtime shift, she literally falls into an overstuffed armchair that came with the place and kicks off her shoes before examining the letter. Oddly enough, there is no return address on the envelope but inside, on State Department of Justice letterhead, there is a letter from the State Attorney General. Informing Louise that he is aware of the crimes of Judge Reams and his minions, the AG also states that he has followed my case and knows about my refusal to become part of the Judge’s operation. Not a very long missive, but direct and to the point, the letter says that appropriate measures are being instituted and it gives Louise a number to call if she would like to assist in this matter. Not thinking twice, Louise gets her shoes on, grabs her bag of tips, and heads out the door to the phone booth by the highway. Going down the steps at a speedy clip, she sees her afternoon paper, half folded, on the bottom step. “……….Marijuana” is all that is visible of the front page but it is enough to pull her up. She picks up the paper and unfolds it. On the top of the front page is the headline, “Governor Will Push For Legalized Marijuana.”
Waiting on the hard wooden bench in the judicially austere hallway, an old porcelain water fountain its only other adornment, Louise clutches her purse close to her body. Trying to keep her mind on the business at hand and off of her fears, she doesn’t notice the nearby door open and a middle aged woman of considerable girth appear.
“Judge Reams will see you now,” the woman says. “Just go past my desk and through the other door.”
Noticing how a hasty retreat from this position would be impossible, Louise passes by the woman, steels herself, and enters the Judge’s inner sanctum.
Behind a mahogany desk, socked feet up, and smoking a rank cigar, Judge Reams smiles and appraises Louise from her put up dark locks and smart short dress to her nylons and high heeled shoes. After blatantly pausing his gaze, he lets his eyes undress her on their trip back North.
“Oh my, this is much better than that stuffy outfit you wore to court. No doubt I can see why your boy lets you do his talking. And no doubt about why he wants to regain his freedom……and keep it. Sit down.”
Sitting down in a facing chair, Louise watches her dress ride up and squashes the urge to smooth it down. “Thank you,” she says, lifting her eyes to find the Judge riveted on her crotch.
Giggling like a girl, Judge Reams replies, “No no my dear, thank you.”
Putting on her best being a good sport smile, Louise says, “Will that be all? Can we get down to business now?”
Puffing up a fresh batch of poison and assuming a very studied look, Judge Reams replies, “Not yet, my dear. Drop your dress to the waist and let's have a good look-see.”
Hesitating just enough to cause Judge Reams to urge, lest he lose out on the sights, “Don’t be so modest dear. I have to see if you are wearing a wire.”
Thanking God and obeying his wishes, Louise exposes her upper half and the shear lightweight bra she is wearing.
Actually licking his lips, the Judge hauls his body out of the chair, slowly walks around Louise and returns to his chair.
“Nothing hidden in those canyons of delight I can surely see,” he says, pausing long enough to gauge and enjoy the fear in Louise’s face before continuing.
“You may cover up now.”
Trying not to shake as she closes the clips to her dress, Louise says, “You don’t really think I would do something that stupid, do you?”
“One never knows. Now let me lay out what I expect of my people, what they get, what I get, and the code. A code that far outweighs a year in the pen if broken.”
Louise listens mostly, asking only enough questions to make sure there is a thorough understanding of exactly what is being said. Thirty minutes on, choked with foul smoke and disgust, she accepts the Judge’s hand as he says, “I think that you will find that I am good to my people. And for one such as you, I’ll go a long way out on a limb. Now see yourself out. I’ll be in touch.”
With the utmost relief and thinking about how this is all going to play out, Louise finds her way out and back to her falling apart Volvo. Getting in and settling behind the wheel, she sets her purse in the passenger seat, opens it and removes the small recorder along with the tiny microphone that is hidden in a rivet hole. Pushing the rewind button she lets it spin for a moment before stopping it. Briefly surveying her parking spot for any dangers, Louise punches the play button and listens as it plays loud and clear, “And for one such as you, I’ll go a long way out on a limb.” Starting the Volvo, jamming it into first, and sprinting off, Louise grimley states to herself, “You already have you son of a bitch, you already have.”
Hoeing corn is never such a bad job, but the ass hole with a rifle over his shoulder standing in the middle of my row adds ten degrees to an already hot sun. One more month and the corn, along with the peas and carrots, will have to live without me. The turn key with the gun will have to find someone else to pretend he is master of. Working the fields after a winter inside is good tonic though. I am not any good with body building or playing basketball on a snow covered court. Nice to be back in the summer sun. Must mean, too, that my record supports the more relaxed security. But the gun is an insult. With a month to go why would I do anything that would require it?
Noticing the prison pickup coming down the lane, I gauge the sun and see that it’s too early to quit. Anything out of the ordinary around here draws a lot of review. Something being in stir requires--anything to break the monotony of doing time. Also it pays to be aware of little changes. Good for your health so to speak. Watching the pickup stop and call the guard over, I hoe a little faster, hoping to get closer and maybe hear a bit of the inside stuff. But before that can happen the guard leaves the truck and heads back in my direction, not planting himself off of me like before, but coming up close. Standing there a moment watching me hoe and shaking his head, he finally says, “Somebody must be pissing rainbows for you Chucky Boy. Gather your tools and get in the truck. The warden wants you checked out and ready to bird tomorrow morning. Your time is done, courtesy of the governor.”
Reflecting an opulence that borders on sham, the platinum capitol dome of the State House dominates the small acreage assigned to it by the city. Beside one of the most polluted rivers in America, its smell from the chemical factories that line the river’s edge make the air hard to stomach. Coal barges linked together ply the river’s waters and keep these grounds and those who walk them greased with the green stuff. And, by-God, tough on crime is more than a slogan around here.
Legalized marijuana, and a source of revenue other than coal, is the big national story of the day. An Appalachian fluke of even international interest, as evidenced by the many satellite trucks parked by the river waiting for me and Louise to emerge from the Governor’s office.
Holding hands and walking lightly with my pardon held high, Louise and I come out the capitol doors, down the steps and into the fray. A reporter from New York matches our stride and tags us with his microphone and question.
“After what you’ve been through, will you be glad to get back to the Big Apple?”
Louise and I stop, look at each other and smile.
“You tell them, Charlie,” Louise says.
Dropping the smile, I look to the ground for a moment then look up.
“I’m going home, chase the varmints out of our house, and get my allotted six plants going. And Louise is going to make some of the best apple pies anywhere….if the deer have left us our share of the apples.”
“Does that mean you are going to stay around here?”
“If you mean this state, the answer is yes.”
Louise puts her forefinger to my lips and says, “Our home is here. Why would we want to go through this all over again? Marijuana is illegal in New York. Now please excuse us. We have an old Volvo to gas and patch.”
Making it to the car and off the capitol grounds, I catch the first ramp to the interstate out of the valley and into the fresh air of the mountains.
Just being, mile after mile in the quiet green humps of Appalachia is a beautiful thing. Lest we become too light for the bounds of earth, however, Louise ponders aloud.
“Why would you talk about my apple pies? I can barely cook let alone make apple pies.”
“Image my dear, image. Hot Dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Do you know the Governor did everything he could to stop legalization of weed? But all things must pass and so goes tough on ‘crime’ for big bucks.”
“I know” replies Louise. “Do you ever think that we can just live life and not have to look it…..what a drag?”
“We got the corner on that babe, we earned it, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do……for ages. Remember our favorite spot on that old fake bear rug by the Buck stove?”
Stroking my inner thigh and brightening a bit, Louise replies, “Do I ever.”
“Well all my talk back there about things to get done didn’t include number one.”
“Really?” Louise says.
As shades of quiet green color the day, I let the silence spice the import of my reply.
“You can bet on it.”
Jim Meirose's work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Calliope, Offbeat/Quirky (Journal of Exp. Fiction pub,), Permafrost, North Atlantic Review, Blueline, Witness, and Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Published books include: Understanding Franklin Thompson (Exp. novel - JEF pubs (2018)), Sunday Dinner With Father Dwyer (Exp. Novel - Scarlet Leaf Press (2018)), Inferno (E-Chap - Underground Voices), Mount Everest and Eli the Rat (Lit. Novels - Montag). Visit www.jimmeirose.com to know more.
THEIR TWO VERY OLDEST PROFESSIONS
I opened the front door of my funeral home to the sharp knock that came exactly at noon, and a plump black-clad man abruptly said straight into my face, Hello. I need to speak to the owner of this funeral home. Are you the owner?
I’m the owner, sir. I’m Jamed Davis, my wife Wendy and I run this place. What can I do for you?
My name is Richard Bushes, and I need to arrange a funeral for my dear sweet departed wife. But, there is one requirement I have which you’ll find unusual.
I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Bushes. I’m sure we can accommodate any request at all. Come in, let’s go to my office and you can fill me in there—there’s little we’ve not done before. Step in--
No, wait. My special requirement is one I doubt you’ve seen before. Here, I’ll be blunt. I must be present in the embalming room and observe everything you do to the body of my dear Josie. Only if you allow me to do this, and you need to tell me that right now, can we talk about anything more.
I nearly gagged, but held it in tight; his look said huh? Well? Why the stare? An answer say an answer it ought to be easy it’s either yes or no but but--
My sudden throat phlegm loosened and slid away. From where it’d been I said, Mister Bushes, I am sorry, but that would be quite irregular. I’m not sure that is possible--
Fine, okay, stop right there, said Bushes, raising a pale hand. That’s the same answer the last dozen funeral homes have given me. But it was worth a thirteenth stab in the dark. Thanks for the honesty, Mister Davis. I’ve got to get to the next funeral home on my list. Good-bye and have a good day.
With that, Mr. Bushes lowered his hand and turned to leave.
—wait no wait this is a client grab him stop him turning away this is money food on the table money a few month’s rent cash no yes no don’t turn away go mister dollar money, wait a minute; don’t go, hey, hell, why sure maybe perhaps hey--
No no, don’t leave! I said, half stepping out to follow him. I said the request is irregular, Mr. Bushes; I did not say it was impossible! Let’s talk!
—turn back show me the money yes no, not money yet don’t spook him with that yet fish him back play him catch him don’t lose him don’t say money too soon--
Mr. Bushes stopped, turned back, and said sharply, Okay, then, tell me right now. What would make it possible, Mr. Davis? Money, I bet. Everything’s worth money. Tell me; how much money would make it possible for me to watch you embalm my poor Josie? Before you answer know that I’ve been a businessman for fifty years. I know what makes the world go ‘round, and so do you. Your business may be unusually morbid but it’s just another business, yes. All businesses are the same. So just tell me right out how many dollars will it take?
No, no, no, sir, no. Of course there will be fees, but know that it’s not that. This business is different; we know this is the saddest most solemn time for every client. Your obvious sorrow is what moves me to consider the request. I felt your pain when you thought I refused. I called you back because it’s our credo to never cause pain to an already grieving family member or friend. The primary product of the Davis Funeral Service is to relieve sorrow. We at Davis know what it is to feel deep loss. We will do whatever it takes to relieve you, even one tiny bit—please believe this Mr. Bushes please believe—here, yes let’s bow our heads and each say our own silent secret prayer for poor Josie yes now yes right now, listen hard be quiet and listen, you will hear her joyfully come near to you and tell you not to be sad, but to be glad, because in a few days they will have checked her credentials, declared her sinless, and issued her her very own personalized golden diamond-crusted easy-pass to see God at any time twenty-four-seven three hundred and sixty five for the remainder of eternity, which as you know is forever—and what beats forever, yes? Forever is better than a mere lifetime in which every day’s spent in the holy kingdom, and every day feels twice as good and new and joyful as the very first day, it’s unfading eternal pleasure and bliss she has entered to, aha—whew! Does that reassure you, Mr. Bushes? Does knowing this show you the unseen joyful side of death? Talk to me—oh God yes, talk to me!
Mr. Davis, that all sounds great, but you still haven’t said if you will let me watch.
My mouth opened to answer, but; his words had brought up some white hot flash from inside, that hit my quickly fading blissful love for death, with burning; with phosphorescence; it set off billion old style blue dot flashbulbs straight down into my gut—say to him say yes now reel him in, net him, stretch out over, reach down the net, saying,
Yes, yes, I am sorry Mister Bushes, yes, yes! Thanks for hanging around giving me time to think your request through, I’ve tossed it around and prayed on it, and God told me to say, Yes, of course, you may watch me prepare your lovely Josie. We will share the great joy of her embalmment together!
Very good. And, what will that cost in addition to your regular charges?
That will be—wait, let me figure, let me think.
—that’s it pull out your vintage calculator in your hand and in your head add up the cost of sharing something that has always been private except for your sweet Wendy; share foreplay; share coitus; share cunnilingus; share fellatio; share masturbation; share lovingly embalming the bare-naked freshly freshest dead--
Why the hesitation, Davis? Spit it out!
One minute, please. I’m running the numbers.
—but think hard think; to take money for such, may equal prostitution in the hands of some typically devious prosecutorial types, and that’s illegal, yes very irregular, illegal even, and immoral, and wrong and when the hot money burns into your palm it might step you onto the last winding road you will finally walk down, a winding road of white hot steel plates, flames licking down from above, all through your miserable barefoot burning weeks-long trudge to the very front gate of hell—and that’s just to reach the gate; that’s not even hell yet; hell is that, plus ten thousand times worse, but but food on the table but but rent for the bank my God—hell? No nonsense. Speak now make sense.
I looked up and said, I will need to know why you want to watch the procedure.
Really? What for? If you get paid what do you care?
It—it’s policy. You must tell me. Or there will be no deal.
—corporate fallback asshole mindless position that always works though the shield of the stupid office store clone policy policy yes everything has a ruling policy--
Fine. I have a phobia about undertakers, embalmers—anything like that.
Oh? I said, flipping up an eyebrow. That’s interesting. What kind of phobia?
You asked for this, Mister Davis—it will not please you to hear this, but here it is; I was taught as a boy that all undertakers are members of a cult and secretly feed on the entrails of the dead people they embalm. Doing that, says their doctrine, will act as a lucky charm to ensure their continued success. This cannibalism they do is a fraternal centuries-old secret. Sort of an Illuminati kind of thing. Like covens that eat children. Werewolves. Vampires. Embalmers are the same sort of things. Jim Jones, David Koresh. Bob Vila. That sort of thing. Norm Abrams. Ricky Scungilli and Donahue Splat. As for me, I am asking to be present to make sure you don’t eat the guts of my wife. That’s plain as I can get.
What? For real?
Yes. For real.
I stepped back, looked down, brought my fist to my chin, tried to hold on, pondered a second, then lowered my hand raised my face, and stated, That is probably the most extraordinarily silly thing I’ve ever been told in my life. Okay, fine. You win. I fell for it. This must be a joke. We’re on camera, right? You can tell me now. Where are the hidden cameras, Mr. Bushes? Your film and sound crew can show themselves now! You are so damned creative! You ought to write for the movies! But tell me, what burnt-out unknown former celebrity are you, which most people heading up these cheesy shows tend to be?
I do write for the movies. And I was never a celebrity.
Okay. Go on.
I ghostwrite for the movies. It’s a hush-hush fact that just about every successful name-brand screenwriter in Hollywood and similar creative enclaves, have to drink so much alcohol and use so many drugs to drive their struggle to show their faces at to all the correct all-night parties, to be able to kiss the appropriate asses to make it up the hundreds of steps in the ladder to the top of their profession, that by the time they get up there the partying drinking drugs and ass-kissing has made them shells of their former selves. Once at the top, they wake up and see, that their talent and ability to write has been falling away a little at a time, one party at a time, one ass-kissing at a time, or even lower things-at-a-time. They have lost their talent, but need to continue to produce. And so they secretly hire underlings like me when they reach that point, underlings with talent but with no hope of ever rising even one rung up the ladder because of naively believing that talent will win out and ass kissing drugging and multi-day nonstop partying is not only unnecessary but also completely wrong. But I and those like me make disquieting amounts of money to do our best and shut our mouths and provide the substance the public believes is behind the top stars of the Hollywood writing community. Do you find this shocking Mister Davis? Is your bubble burst? Do your pedestaled idols seem hollow to you now?
Oh, huh, what? Oh, no. Not really. I never idolized any Hollywood screenwriters to tell you the truth. I don’t even know who any of them are. As a matter of fact, I am usually so busy working this business that I never go to the movies at all. Janie and Wendy do. But I have no interest. But is sounds like fine work, sir. It sounds like a solid profession. All right then, come on in. Let’s go to my office and tend to the details. It’s funny how everything’s all details, is it not?
Yes, it is funny, Mr. Davis. Everything is details, yes—it makes you think pretty deeply, does it not?
Oh, yes, it sure does—but come on. The office is this way.
Sure enough—but hey, it pops the next thing into my mind. Consider this, Mr. Davis—what about if there were a--
We slowly talked our way to my office and as if some great pressure had been released, we talked and laughed and joked back and forth like that for quite some time about the existential pros and cons of moviegoing and screenwriting and taking focus off striving for success in favor of periodic long interludes of what amounts to adult playtime. This fascinating hour completely absorbed us in misty twinkling star-spangled vaporous vacuous words and ideas that came and lived just the length of our short-term goldfish-like memories and then left and dissolved to be replaced by the next next in the queue, that may or may not exactly mesh with the last next that was ejected; as a matter of fact, the bulk of the nexts mostly clashed with the bulk of the lasts and the colors they held when combined also clashed in a very tasteless sixties style endless string of bright silvery pearls beautiful in the mind-states we reached way back then yes exceeding in beauty the most precious rare bright and expensive priceless string of rare natural pearls as those only seen worn every twenty years at big weddings and funerals by the highest of untouchable unachievable British royalty. Whew! And what follows from that, and how it pertains to us, is simply put as what naturally follows—and blah blah blah, so on and so on, we went on back and forth constructing this crystal cathedral, and went on and on going to it harder and harder we pounded our brilliance together higher and tighter, and when we were done we lay spent side by side and satisfied and empty but of course, yes of course, only in the intellectual sense; and my arm twitched with fatigue bringing my watch-face up to my nose and I did an instant’s quick mental math of the time it told me and realized we’d been chatting on these issues for going on three hours and I hadn’t even quoted an overall comprehensive amount that he would have to pay for this experience what experience that other kind of orgasmic experience with a stranger for pay or this here kind of orgasmic experience with a stranger for pay and you know, both modes of experience are exactly and absolutely the same. Lord God I felt so dirty do you feel dirty, Mister Bushes, I do how about a cigarette there’s always a cigarette or two lit in old movies but I actually stopped smoking in the mid-nineties so thanks but no thanks. So back to work now where were we eh? I’m afraid I’ll need a few days or weeks to work myself up once more to focus on whether or not to let you look on while I embalm! It does not matter that this one time, I need to be strong and abstain from the entrails even though it may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do on this job; but one time of a thousand is absolutely nothing; if the price is right, anything is, of course, as you said, my sweet Bushes, possible! So okay, come on. Let’s hammer out the brass tacks! Time for business!
Hareendran Kallinkeel lives in Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in Special Forces. Waking from a hiatus of nearly a decade, he has recently returned to fiction writing. Prior to the hiatus, he has been widely published in online and print magazines. The title story of his short fiction collection, “A Few Ugly Humans,” has earned a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in 2005. Recent publication includes flash fictions in September and October 2017 issues of Aphelion-Webzine .
BURDEN OF A SAVORY TRUTH
“Mr. Raj, let’s begin with the murder. Please be completely truthful,” the ghostwriter says. “I want to capture the emotions to the very minute detail.”
Raj contemplates. Is it possible, to be completely truthful? He looks into the eyes of the young man, sitting in front of him on a leather sofa. Its comfy seats and back rest, ensconced in a framework of teakwood, should provide him the necessary comfort to endure a long story.
The intensity of eagerness in those dark brown eyes does not appear to Raj like an investigative journalist’s curiosity seeking a sensational story. He rather perceives it as a human’s desire to know the feelings of a fellow being. He decides that he has made a right choice by entrusting the onus of writing his story to this seemingly carefree lad. His eyes wander off to the thatched roof of his hut. A gust sweeps back strands of hair from his forehead. The fragrance of ripe mangoes interlaces with the heady smell of fresh paddy straws that cover the veranda’s ceiling.
Raj remembers the mangoes strewn on the ground, their yellow skin ripped by ravens, exposing orange-colored, juicy flesh. As a child, in his father’s family garden, he had competed with his sister and cousins, to be the first to pick up and savor the best mangoes… those with no blemish, dropping to the ground, so weighed down by their ripeness that a hint of breeze would nip them off the panicles.
Despite winning competitions in the chase to claim possession of unblemished mangoes, fate has cordoned him off from life with a blemish of twenty years in prison. To him that is the ultimate truth. Can anything dilute the tenacity of that truth? Does the fame as a writer compensate for the youth and freedom he lost?
Raj stretches his legs, leans further back on his easy chair. The ghost writer, impatience camouflaged in the guise of respect for an elder, waits for the undiluted realities of an acclaimed writer’s life to unfold.
A raven, the pitch black representative of an after-death ritual, caws on a tree in the courtyard. Silvery streaks of the afternoon sun, like the vivid flashes of everlasting memories, bounce off its sleek feathers.
Ravens were invited by clapping wet hands, to the offering of food, after cremating the dead. Acceptance by them, of ghee-flavored rice balls, laid-out on banana leaves, signified the culmination of rituals to grant departed souls passage to the other world.
When Vasu was killed, those who loved him realized how life had distanced itself from him. Ravens, the black angels of salvation, discarded his soul by refusing the offerings.
Vasu’s son, Gopu, clad in a dhoti, dipped in a river to purify his body before performing the last rites. He chanted mantras, the meaning of which was beyond him, under the guidance of a priest who supervised the rituals. He clapped his wet hands, beseeching the black angels to accept a humble offer, intended to serve a divine purpose.
But the ravens did not turn up to grant deliverance to Vasu’s soul. Maybe, Gopu erred in the performance of karma towards his father; maybe, Vasu never stood up to his own karma.
Gopu, shivering in the chill of a sweeping breeze, threw his arms around Raj’s shoulders, and broke into a bout of sobs.
The refusal to accept ghee-smeared rice by ravens symbolized a popular belief that victims of unnatural death did not receive passage to the other world.
A police constable walked up to them. “Time to leave,” he spoke, voice grim, before securing Raj’s wrists with a handcuff. Raj looked back at his nephew and watched the tremors of emotions jolt his strong, athletic body.
As he and his escort approached the police jeep, Raj saw his sister, Vasu’s wife, Sheela, standing by the side of the vehicle. Her untied hair cascaded down her shoulders… the molten lava of grief, erupting to incinerate the sinner for avenging the sin. She stared at Raj, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You’ll rot in hell.” She cursed between sobs.
Raj stood before her for a moment, palms folded, and accepted the curse. “I’m sorry, sister. But please… take care of Gopu.”
He allowed his sister’s curse to prevail upon him, when the judge asked him, “You plead guilty or not guilty?”
“I plead guilty.” Raj stated.
“That was a stupid decision to make.” The family lawyer struggled to contain his resentment as he stood outside Raj’s cell. “Everybody knew he was a rogue. We’d enough grounds to prove self-defense.”
“A human being shouldn’t assume Almighty’s role and take lives, whatever be the excuse.” Raj sucked in the stale, humid air that hung inside his cell. “I owe responsibility to what happened. I deserve to be punished.”
The lawyer threw his arms up.
“And you know too well that this isn’t the first time I caused a death.” The humidity in the cell became too unbearable for Raj. “My soul straying for unpaid sins is the last thing I’ll want.”
The lawyer left without another word.
Later, Gopu visited Raj in the prison.
“How long would my father’s soul stray?” Gopu asked, standing outside the cell, a hint of tears in his eyes.
Behind the iron bars, Raj realized that a prison cell did not merely restrict physical freedom but also choked one’s yearnings in the stronghold of its murky dampness. He couldn’t reach out to hug Gopu. His voice quivered when he said, “Go home. Don’t ever come back.”
Gopu shuffled away, shoulders stooped.
Did the burden of an unsavory truth weigh so heavy? Raj’s hands tightened around the iron bars. Could he wipe away destiny’s design by scrubbing his palms against rusted, cold iron?
The hints to Raj’s destiny, purportedly sketched among the lines that crisscrossed his palm, remained a matter of anguish for his father, right from the stage when he was thirteen.
“He’d earn fame that’d make others envy,” the palmist said, pushing tender areca nut and tobacco wrapped in a betel leaf, smeared with lime paste, into his mouth. He ran his hand over Raj’s right palm as he began relishing his pan, waiting for the stimulant’s psychoactive properties to kick in.
‘Don’t ever expose the lines of your fate to anyone’s scrutiny.’ Mother used to warn Raj when he was a small child. ‘Knowing your destiny alters your life.’
Raj pulled back his hand.
“What’s wrong with you?” His father, relaxing next to the palmist on an easy-chair, and watching the proceedings, asked.
“Nothing, father…” Raj wiped his hand on his cotton shirt. “It’s just that my hands are sweating.”
A shooting star, crashing down from the sky, disappeared behind the mango groves. Raj remembered his mother’s smile. Her face would brighten up like shooting stars’ glow when she held him close to her bosom.
Raj felt his hand grow cold. The palmist’s coarse hand had overridden the warm feeling his mother had left in his palms… almost wiping out his sense of security.
‘My father was a great palmist. But he never read hands for money,’ Mother had said. ‘It was a divine call for him.’
More shooting stars disappeared into the murk beyond the mango trees. How could he ever sift the sweetness of his mother’s smile from the ashes of fallen stars?
“You’re a good boy, ain’t you? Open your hand.” The palmist cajoled him, wiping a red trail of saliva oozing from the corner of his mouth with the back of a hand.
‘You must be careful, son. The clouds of ill fate hover above you.’ She’d press his palm between her hands, as if in a desperate bid to drive away the lurking demons of bad luck with the warmth she poured into his palm.
“May I…” the palmist spoke, indicating a spittoon by the side of father’s chair, seeking permission to spit out the pan, whose juices he had devoured to the last drop.
Raj stared at a maze of scarlet veins that accentuated the redness in his father’s eyes. Normally he didn’t like others using his belongings.
“Sure,” Father said, pushing the spittoon towards the palmist. “Please make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you,” the palmist said after spitting out the lump in his mouth.
“Show him your hand,” father said to Raj.
Raj stretched his hand, palm open. The palmist held the tip of his middle finger and resumed examination through a magnifying glass. Raj allowed his hand to be twisted and turned, for the palmist to analyze each hidden line that provided the clues to his destiny.
“Indications of misfortune...” The palmist’s voice lowered into a barely audible whisper. “It involves lives. He’ll be punished for taking one.”
Father scooped Raj abruptly into his arms, causing his head to crush against his muscular chest. “No! There must be a mistake.” His fingers groped through Raj’s hair.
Raj choked in the scent of his father’s sweat, tasted the salt in the pores of his skin, under the coils of hairs that matted his chest. He raised his head and watched a watery film float over the redness in his father’s eyes. Despite the smell of sweat, Raj kept leaning to his father’s body, his small hands soothing the robust neck and moving down to muscular shoulders.
The palmist shook his head. “Don’t ever look for what isn’t there at all,” he said. “I can only read what the lines of destiny on his palm suggest to me. You know…” The palmist’s eyes fell on Raj and he hesitated.
“It’s okay,” Father said. “Let him be… there’s no harm if he knows.”
Life would perhaps have been easier for Raj, if Father had not let him be. He would not have known that he had to owe responsibilities for the loss of lives.
“His mother’s death should be seen as the beginning,” the palmist said. “It’s not his fault though. Somehow, he’s been cursed to bear losses. Fate denies him lasting relationship with females.”
Later, the prediction had become true, when Raj lost his wife in a car accident while he was driving home with her after a vacation.
Father’s voice quivered when he spoke, “Give me a solution. You’d earlier foretold that his elder sister would fall for wrong charms, and now this!” Father’s grip around the easy chair’s armrest tightened, rendering his knuckles a pale hue. “There should be a remedy.”
“Do this puja, wear that gem... others may suggest many solutions…” The palmist put the magnifying glass back into his handbag. “But nothing can alter the course of destiny.”
For the first time, Raj felt his Father’s hand shake as it pressed against his shoulder. He had always seen the imposing figure as strong, brave, and powerful. Maybe, it was a myth that emotions could not shake such men.
The palmist rose to leave. “Pay me a thousand rupees. Check, in the name of Our Children.”
Father’s expression turned quizzical as he looked at the palmist.
“It’s an orphanage I run. I’ve nearly fifty children lodged there.”
Raj squeezed his palms together as he watched his father write a check for five thousand.
“Mr. Raj, are you ready?” the ghostwriter asks.
“Call me Raj. I’ll call you John.” Raj places a hand on John’s shoulder and squeezes. “It may sound strange. But those bleak walls of the prison cell stirred my imagination. Female organs drawn with charcoal on the dirty walls offered me another dimension of human perspective. My writings sold not because I’m talented but because they were destined to.” Raj fishes out a cigarette and lights it.
“You’re a prolific writer. How come you don’t write the biography yourself?” John shifts in his seat, before accepting the packet of cigarettes and lighter Raj offers him.
“The inner voice,” Raj says, blowing out smoke in curls. “I dread its intensity.”
John watches the curls move, twisting and turning, towards the ceiling.
“I’ll provide you a few details. Rest you must fill in,” Raj says. “I don’t want it to be an accurate account of my life. Play with your imagination, concoct a few lies. I don’t mind if images get distorted; true feelings may be too touchy.” Raj takes another drag of the cigarette and lets out smoke.
John’s eyes follow the rings, coiling into perfect ‘O’s.
“Not a scribe’s design, John. Since the breeze’s stopped, it takes its shape, moves its way.” Raj stubs out the cigarette in an ashtray on the center table between them. “Are you aware of ‘Marumackathayam,’ a prevalent tradition in Kerala in the earlier days?”
“Well, Raj...” John says. “Though our family never practiced it, I know it’s a matriarchal system of hierarchy.”
“Yes... one’s inheritance doesn’t go to his son, but his sister’s son,” Raj says.
“That explains why uncles became predominant in those days,” John responds as he stubs out his cigarette.
Raj nods. “A man’s sister’s daughter is the traditional bride for his son. Basic idea is to keep properties within the family.” Raj lights another cigarette. “We’ll begin with Vasu, my father’s nephew. I’ll tell about the murder later.”
Without Vasu there was no story. No murder, no prison term. No writing, no fame.
Raj takes a long drag on the cigarette. “My father objected to Vasu marrying his daughter, Vasu’s customary bride. Vasu, infatuated by her, was very possessive, which accounts for the dent in his psyche.”
The stench of Vasu’s stale breath invaded Raj’s nostrils. The reek of cheap arrack, mixed with the acrid odor of cheroot, stung worse than the knife’s blade Vasu held against his throat. “Get off me.” Raj’s voice assumed the tone of a hiss.
Vasu ground his hip to Raj’s groin, rather in an attempt to mock than to hold him down. “Shut up, bastard!” he said. “I’ve enough reasons already to drive this knife into your throat. Don’t gimme another.”
The blade cut into Raj’s skin and blood oozed out. He remembered the palmist’s warning about his destiny of having to take blame for lost human lives. He allowed the pain to sear him.
“But I wouldn’t kill you,” Vasu said. He withdrew the knife from Raj’s neck, pointed it against his chest, and stood up.
Freed of the suffocating odors, Raj heaved in a lungful of breath. The thick veins on his strong forearm became more pronounced as he got up, pressing a hand to the floor. The blood flowing from his robust neck had made his shirt stick to his chest, accentuating the sculpted shape of his toned muscles. Life would have been a lot easier if no one had ever read his palm. He would not have to tolerate the stench; or worse, the humiliation.
“You and your family will pay in a different way for dumping me, for marrying her off to another man.” Vasu scratched the stubs on his chin with the tip of his knife. “I’m gonna spend a lot of time pondering how. She’s mine. It’s destined.”
Raj pitied his rival’s perceived virility... a vanity, allowed by a virile man’s reinforced dread for bleak prison cells. “Vasu, if it’s property you’re after, don’t worry.” His passiveness veiled the contempt for the man standing tall in front of him. “I’ll give you a share of my mother’s property. But leave my sister alone.”
“Property?” Vasu laughed. “You know what? I could’ve pretended to be an all-abiding nephew to your father and received what he amassed, and claimed his daughter too.”
“It’s your fault you didn’t,” Raj said.
“You call it a fault; living the way one likes?” Vasu put the knife back into its sheath attached to his belt. “My mother chose to marry a man from a lower caste. That’s the reason why your father didn’t like the idea of me marrying his daughter.”
“Vasu, you don’t know my father. Caste and status were never an influence in his decisions. You know, he sheltered your mother when your father died.” Raj said. “What he abhors is your wayward life.”
“Oh! So your dad expects me to shake hands with those bastards who call me a pariah’s son? I should tolerate their lewd remarks about my mother so that I can thrive on your father’s estates?”
Raj casted his eyes down. “I feel sorry things didn’t work out well for you. But it’s over, Vasu. My sister is now married. You should find another girl; move on with your life.” He placed a hand on Vasu’s shoulder. “I’ll arrange for your marriage.”
“Get away from me, you son of a bitch!” Vasu shrugged off Raj’s hand. “No matter what… don’t think you can change destinies. Your sister is born to be my woman. And so shall she be.” Vasu stomped out.
Raj stared after him, suppressing the urge to go after him.
Vasu paused at the door and looked back. “And don’t forget the payback.” A smirk creased his cheeks as he said, “I’ll rip your family’s pride.”
Raj turned away from the glee on Vasu’s face. Was taking a life worthy of nothing? Wasn’t a prison cell better than humiliation? He slammed his fist against the wall.
Destiny’s lack of concern and insensitiveness toward human conditions became obvious to Raj when Sheela’s husband also died in a car accident on their honeymoon trip to Goa.
On the day of his funeral, Vasu barged into the house. His legs wavered as he walked up to Raj’s father. “Aren’t you satisfied yet? You spoiled your daughter’s life, like you did mine!”
Raj watched his father recoil from the stench of arrack Vasu spewed onto his face. Father held a hand up, as if to ward off the evil and its stench. “Go away. You should learn to respect death.”
“Father, I love Vasu.” Sheela, attired in a grieving dress, emerged from the bedroom, her feelings of grief overridden by her sense of loyalty to her paramour. “I’ve always loved him. You should understand the needs of a daughter, and honor Vasu’s love.”
Stunned, Father just stood there, looking at her.
Vasu laughed. “See, only a woman knows a man. They’ve mutual respect. Both you morons never earned respect.”
More than enough reason to kill…
Raj glanced at his father’s face. Instead of embers burning, he noticed a thickening film of tears beginning to blur the redness of his eyes. He stood silent, his broad shoulders stooped and the muscular chest heaving.
“Life is predestined. Isn’t it, father?” Sheela asked.
For the first time in his life, Raj saw his father’s dominant figure shrivel. All those years, from crib to floor, thence to courtyard, to hillocks, roads and seashores… Forgotten, defied, and denied.
Raj walked out, in the dire need for a vent to exhaust his fury.
Is the whole truth so trivial to be exposed to public scrutiny, through a memoir? Raj thinks. Can his audience ever understand the burden of savory truths? Burdens come only with unsavory truths.
“The death of Sheela’s husband was a matter of realization than shock,” Raj says. “The ways of destiny stifled me to acquiescence.” He runs a hand through his curly hair. “I was concerned about my sister’s conjugal life. I pleaded to my father and, finally, he agreed. Vasu claimed his traditional bride. This is the plot prior to the murder.”
“Mr. Raj… Raj, I’ll flesh it out a little and I’m confident it’ll come off well. Can we discuss the murder now?”
“Yes… the murder. That’s the hook.” Raj contemplates. “But before that there is a subplot. Life goes on; the characters have children, and they enjoy life. Until later, when the subplot takes an ugly turn…” He calls for his servant. “And, before I unveil the tension, we can use a drink.”
Moments later, a male servant arrives, pushing a food cart laden with a bottle of Glendronach Single Malt, an ice tray, two glasses, a bowl containing assorted fruits, and another with roasted cashew nuts. Bowing to his master, he leaves.
“You mind fixing a drink for me, John?”
“My pleasure, Raj… how’d you prefer it?”
“Double shot, on the rocks… and make yours too.”
John prepares the drinks and hands a glass over.
Raj accepts the drink, raises the glass in a toast, and downs it in a single gulp. He leans back in the easy chair, and exhales. “The subplot involves children,” he says. “Vasu’s son and my daughter… I’m the uncle, Vasu’s son, the nephew, my daughter the customary bride. Traditions survive in family.”
John listens, taking occasional sips from his glass.
“The subplot is transparent. The brother wants to keep with traditions. The sister too… Practically, her brother’s property goes to her son. The children like each other. No, they love each other… a comfortable situation, right?”
“Can I have a cigarette, Raj?”
“Exercise your freedom, John. That’s something I missed for the best part of my life… and that’s something you can lavishly enjoy in my place.”
John pulls out a packet of Wills Navy Cut from his pocket. “You know, Raj, foreign scotch is okay to me. But when it comes to tobacco, I prefer the native.”
“Now you need a conflict in the story,” Raj says. “Sheela failed to understand Vasu’s hatred for his uncle’s family, but her father always did.” Raj makes another drink, gestures John to pour his.
John downs the remaining drink in his glass, relishing its flavor lingering on his palate, and reaches for the bottle.
“You prefer something other than fruits and nuts? Red meat or seafood, perhaps…” Raj asks.
John shakes his head. “It’s a wonderful place you’ve here, Raj. A hut that challenges a saint’s notion of an abode… So naturalistic in its elegance that it’d put the ancient hermits to shame of their dwelling. The best part though is your sense of hospitality.”
“Yes, I wanted this hut built in tune with that of the saints’ abodes. I find my peace in here, John. That matters.” Raj lights a cigarette.
“What bothers me is the repetition of the conflict in the family,” John says.
“A Hindu joint family, John… conflicts are bound to occur in such a setting.” Raj replies. “It happens in every family, one way or the other.”
“Yes, maybe, what’s the resolution?”
“The dent in Vasu’s psyche, aggravated by the feelings of revenge, prompts him to molest his brother-in-law’s daughter, the prospective bride of his son.”
“Damn it! How could he?”
“Ha! He could, because his advances within the family had been tolerated,” Raj responds in a snapping tone. “My fear of prison cells…”
“If I were you, I would’ve ripped him into pieces,” John says.
“You’re not deterred by the hands of fate… or the fear of prisons. My father had no curses to deal with. He contained his fury for the apprehension that I’d interfere and get hauled off into prison for taking a life.”
John thinks for a while and then asks, “Now fill me about the exact details of how you did him in, so that I can capture your real emotions when you committed the murder.”
Gopu stood still holding a knife, its blade painted crimson. Vasu’s body continued to jolt in spasms, and then went limp.
Palm readers have never predicted a life behind the bars for Gopu. “Uncle...I’d no other options but…” Gopu said as my daughter, his bride, cringed towards a corner of the bedroom.
Raj looked at the pool of blood around Vasu’s head, and then at his daughter. “You did the right thing,” Raj said as he wrenched the knife from Gopu’s hands. “‘You had to do it ‘cause I’d never mustered the courage.”
“Get away, Gopu. Don’t ever tell anyone you’d been here,” Raj said. “And, always take care of my daughter.” Gopu walked out, without a second glance.
Was that filament of truth so trivial to be revealed to public scrutiny? Raj thinks as he pours another drink for himself.
John sits and waits while Raj ponders, pretending to relish the drink, whether the burden of a savory truth should be revealed to public scrutiny.
Lian has been in love with stories for as long as she can remember. She's also Puertorican.
Have you ever had to face someone you loved and had to tell them something you knew would shatter their hearts into a million small pieces? At the very end, I never expected to feel this way. It is true that I've been mentally preparing myself for months now, ticking items off the list one by one, and yet I thought I'd be ready. I am not.
As I made my way down the dreary hallway, my steps grew heavier. The weight of death loomed over me like an eclipse shadowing everything that could've been, everything I should've been but will not. The hallway isn't very long and yet I find no matter how many steps I take, I don't get any closer to her door. A younger version of myself walks past me with her dad in tow. He's lugging an armful of presents with a smile on his face. Christmas is meant for happiness, for family, for giving. Not this time however. I've already taken everything from her. The only thing she has left is hope and that's what I'm here for tonight. I will be the death of her.
I never intended to do so. I had never been able to appreciate everything she had done for me. After my parents passed away, grief consumed me. I just wanted to get away. But she'd have none of it. All those evenings when I'd come home bruised and bloodied, she'd patch me up and feed me. She never asked me any question. Not who or what or why or how. When I came through that door and she'd see me, she would grab the first aid kit and tell me dinner was in the oven. Maybe it was pity, or maybe she was kind like that but when I finally did disappear I essentially spat all that right back in her face. She truly deserved none of it.
And now, 10 years later, with nothing to my name except stage 4 terminal cancer, I am making my way up to her door with a box of chocolate truffles -her favorite- to tell her that I'm dying. After everything I've been through, I imagined I've become fairly acquainted with grief. Yet I try to imagine how she'll react. Maybe she'll open the door and not ask questions. She'll give me some food and smile at me. But no. Too much time has passed and too much has happened. She'll cry. It seems the only logical response. I'd never seen her cry however. And here I was to make that happen for her.
Finally reaching the door, I raise my free hand and knock three times. "Aunt Cecile?" There was silence from the other side of the door. I knock again. "Cecile, it's me, Maddie." Nothing. I sigh, picturing her inside the apartment with her eyes wide in surprise, maybe unable to believe that it's really me. "It really is me, auntie." I feel the knot on my throat and my eyes burn with unshed tears. "I am so, so sorry... about everything." Still no response. I carried on. "I'm sorry I never appreciated everything you did for me. I'm sorry I wasn't good for you. I'm sorry I disappeared. I'm sorry I never called. I'm sorry for the ten years of silence. You deserved so much more and I am so sorry, aunt Cecile..." I clenched my fist and wiped the tears and snot from my face. "Please, open the door..."
After a pause, I heard bolts and latches click undone. My heart quickened as I came one lock closer to her. I took a deep breath, took off my wig, and placed the bag of chocolate on the floor, ready to be in her arms. The doorknob twisted as the door pulled inwards. "Aunt Cecile!"
I felt the air escape my lungs as if my radioactive body was no longer a pleasant place to be in. I fell to my knees, crumbling like a weak tree in the storm, and rested my head on her lap. I cried. I cried molten lava on my icy skin.
The beautiful, elderly black woman in a wheelchair sat before me. Her hair was in a bonnet and the soft pink crocheted shawl she held was wrapped tightly over her nightgown. Her sad eyes regarded me with the intensity I had been feeling since I stepped out of the hallway.
Have you ever had to face someone you loved only to have your heart shattered into a million small pieces?
"I'm sorry, child," her liquid copper voice said.
She was not aunt Cecile.
Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes. He is a Push Cart Prize nominee for his story “Can You Come Here for Christmas?”
Back in 1963 my family moved to Chula Vista near San Diego where my dad's ship was home ported. I attended tenth and eleventh grade there. That was the year the Beatles popularity in America went wild. And it was not just the music, it was the whole package: mod clothes, their very funny flippancy, their lyrics and harmony, and importantly to many -their hair. Bobby McDowell and Steve McDonnell, best friends, were the first at our school to affect a Beatles hair style which they copied from the Meet the Beatles album cover. Mrs. Crenshaw the tenth grade English teacher told them to not come back to class until they each had a proper young man's haircut. That went nowhere as Steve's dad, a lawyer who represented the school district, sent a terse note to Mrs. Crenshaw. In my junior year I was in two classes with Bobby and Steve who always sat together as seating was alphabetical. The two mop tops we called them. Bobby was the short funny one and Steve the taller super smart one. Sometimes they tried talking with funny British accents and colloquialisms. I remember that they won that year's talent show singing "Love Me Do" sounding just like their idols from Liverpool. They were cool. I did not know them well; it was rumored that they smoked weed, so I kept my distance. Remember, this was the early sixties. We moved overseas in 1964 so I did not graduate with this class. I later heard that Steve had become a surgeon. Of Bobby, I never heard anything.
Last month boarding a flight to Halifax the man taking the seat next to me looked vaguely familiar. Steve McDonnell? Indeed, it was he.
His face lit up. "Yes, I remember you, you're Rebecca Easterlin; we were in Biology and Chemistry classes. You lab partnered with Jeff Karl. Well what a merry coincidence."
The coincidence continued. He was headed to the same surgical laser optic conference as I, and we were even booked into the same hotel. I happily agreed to join him for dinner.
We met at the hotel's dining room and began with a martini. We chatted a while about our seemingly parallel medical careers, and then I asked about his friend Bobby McDowell and he paused, a frown creased his face. "You hadn't heard?"
"I guess not, so tell me."
His composure took on a noticeable edge. He paused, took a sip of his drink, and said, "Bobby killed himself, that summer just after graduation."
"No! He was such a jolly little guy, it's hard to believe he'd do such a thing. Do you know why?"
"Yes Rebecca, I do, but it'll require another martini to explain." Steve ordered a second round with an avocado sushi appetizer. As the waiter left. He looked at me and said, "It was his hair. Oddly enough, hair led poor little Bobby McDowell into the worst kind of adolescent depression."
"But I remember his hair, yours too, you guys had the first Beatles haircuts. The first ones. We thought you guys were so cool."
"Well not everyone did. Let me go back a little. We sort of grew up together from fifth grade; I knew Bobby McDowell better than anyone. Bobby was naturally funny, really smart and funny and well, pretty sensitive too. He could make me laugh harder than anyone I've ever known or even seen on t v. But down inside he was pretty insecure. His family situation was miserable. He didn't have a dad and his mom was a chronic alcoholic. She worked the day shift at the fish cannery on Vista Point then usually hung out at Jokers Wild until closing time. When he was little he spent more time in Holy Redeemer's free Day Care Center than at home. But by fifth grade Bobby was pretty much on his own in terms of feeding and clothing himself. My family was more fortunate and my mom and dad both took to Bobby. My mom saw to it that Bobby had new school clothes each year. She even cut his hair." Steve paused for maybe a full minute staring out a window where two seagulls perched on a rail. He was my best friend, the best friend I've ever had. He spent a lot of time at our house, meals, sleepovers almost every weekend. My dad bought us both guitars and we spent mega hours learning every single lick the Beatles ever recorded. Ditto the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Are you ready to order?"
"Yes, Steve, I'll have the grilled haddock, broccoli, Roquefort on the salad. But please go on." He signaled the waiter, placed our orders, and called for a bottle of Pinot Gris. "The year we were in Mrs. Reinschmidt's English class we read David Copperfield. Bobby identified with David. He even bought a little peaked cap like the one on the book's cover He loved read aloud to me his favorite passages. You can see into that, can't you? I mean a boy sort of adrift with no real parents?"
"Clearly," I said.
"Bobby began calling me Steerforth, mind you, just in private. J. Steerforth young Copperfield's wayward mentor and protector. Truthfully, I was a little flattered. Bobby looked up to me. I thought maybe this was a matter of my family having, well, uh more comfortable means and status. But I always saw him as an equal. I'd tell him, 'Don't sell yourself short, Bobby. You've got brains and you’re the funniest guy in this hemisphere.' But he'd say, 'No you're Steerforth, you're stronger, you're smarter, you're athletic. Everyone looks up to you.' I'd just change the subject and let it go. Now let me get to the hair.
He paused and I could see the slightest mist in his eyes. He finished off the martini, looked back at the seagulls for a couple of seconds then continued
"You said you thought our haircuts were cool. Well so did we. We were goofy with hair that year, mirrors were impossible to pass by without a check in. But not everyone thought us cool. Old Lady Crenshaw tried to get us sent home until my dad read her the riot act."
"I remember that."
The jocks gave Bobby a hard time. You know how those who are way into their thing can sometimes disdain or even dislike those who don't share a love for their team or their political party or their whatever.
"Oh yeah. my granddad was that way about people who didn't drink. When I was fourteen he told me, 'Darlin', don't ever trust a man who doesn't drink.' Silly, isn't it?"
"Exactly, and I think it was that sort of exclusivity that they pushed against Bobby. They wouldn't mess with me, maybe because I was our school's lead pitcher, but Bobby had no interest in sports, which is understandable. He grew up without a dad. His thing was music and art. Oh he could draw like you wouldn't believe. Did you know that he won a full music scholarship to UCLA? He called the jocks apes and cretins. Of course, this too pissed them off, anyway they started calling him Queer Bobby. I knew this, but said nothing about it since Bobby never mentioned it. Maybe I figured he just sloughed it off, I can't remember my rationale at the time. To be sure we were not going to cut our hair, moreover, like the Beatles we let it grow longer."
Our orders came and we dug into our meals. I could feel the buzz from the martinis and glanced skeptically at the Pinot Gris, but I didn't have to drive, did I? Steve didn't continue until after the waiter brought our coffees.
"I had mentioned hair. Bobby was in the Boy Scouts. In our senior year, he wanted to go for Eagle Scout because he thought it would look good on his scholarship applications. The Scouts met in the basement of Holy Redeemer, Father Brophy was Scoutmaster. Some of the jocks at our school were in Bobby's troop and they carried the Queer Bobby appellation to the troop. That shit, Father Brophy, I might add, did nothing to stop what was clearly homophobia, and it makes me madder than hell because later it came out that that fat priest was as gay as a goose. At the scouts Christmas party, Bobby's supposed friends pulled him down and stripped him of all his clothes even his socks, jeering him with 'We wanna see if a queer got a package like a real guy. Hey you got hair like a girl maybe you girl parts between your legs too, Bobby?'" They smeared capsaicin ointment on his privates. Bobby never said a thing to me about this. I only learned about it years later from my dad. He had to take depositions from several boys who had been sexually abused by Father Brophy."
"Boys can be horrible, can't they?"
"Priests too," he said.
"After Christmas I could see something was eating at him. He became quiet and clingy, wanting to be with me all the time. Baseball practice was about to begin and I thought maybe he'd find something cool to do. By now our hair was hippy long and told him I was thinking about a haircut before any college interviews. He said he would never cut his hair, but then he asked me this, "Steerforth, do you think this hair makes me look queer?" I remember it so very well, the intensity in his voice, and his penetrating stare. "Queer, Steerforth, does my hair make me look queer?"
"No, Bobby. I don't know what queer looks like, but you Bobby McDowell I am certain do not look queer."
That spring we each got good news of Bobby's full ride at UCLA and I my acceptance letter from Stanford. I was ecstatic but Bobby just grew quieter, almost morose. Now I think it may have been a kind of separation anxiety working on him.
Then a couple of weekends later he was sleeping over, he came over to my bed and stretched out next to me. It was a Saturday night we had watched some scary movie on tv before turning in. I thought Bobby's just frightened. But he put his face close to mine and said, "Would you kiss me Steerforth, please?" I was stunned. I knew he was not joking. "Just kiss me, please," he repeated.
"What did you do?"
"I kissed him." There was such an intense, earnest pleading in his voice I sensed a tremendous need within him, he was desperate for some physical approbation, so yes, I kissed him. Not a passionate kind of kiss, rather the way I sometimes kissed my dad when he was leaving on a trip, a simple affectionate kiss on his lips. He didn't do or say anything until he'd returned to his bed, then "Thankyou Steerforth. God, how I will miss you. You know, I love you."
They found him with a sketch book he'd labeled Steerforth and Davy with scores of sketches of me and him, all with our long hair. "Now how many years has it been? Forty? I still feel the gall of guilt for having been so goddamn blind to Bobby's need. For not seeing his plight. For not calling down those shit heel Jocks and that pedophile priest. Was I so ego centered I couldn't see that my friend whom I loved, and who loved me so deeply? Yeah, his love was something different than mine, but so what. So fucking what, Rebecca? If I had looked into his heart, listened to the signals he was blaring out; they were alarms. In his confusion, I believe he was convinced, Rebecca, convinced that his hair had made him queer. and I was too damned dumb do a thing to calm him, to let him know that even if he were queer, so what? We're most of us at least a little queer, aren't we? I would have done anything. Anything. It's more than forty years and still I miss him so.
Kelsey Maki is an assistant professor of English at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. As a writer, Kelsey’s first love is literary fiction, but she also writes travel articles, dabbles in magical realism, and pens an occasional poem.
Her writing has been published in the print collection Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women—Volume I and online at Panoply, WritersResist.com and WhatTravelWritersSay.com. Her website is available at kelseymaki.com.
People in my town don’t have time for abstractions. Some of us can barely breathe, let alone listen. We have black lung and kidney disease and cancer. Our kids are overdosing on painkillers. We don’t want to hear about the root causes of income inequality or listen to a lecture on the declining market value of metallurgical coal. No. We want someone who’s willing to raise a little hell, flush out the system, clear whatever shit is stopping the flow of opportunity to our tiny town. In Clemency, West Virginia, we pick politicians who have the most hate, turnip-faced men who articulate the anger we’re told not to feel.
Clarification: When I say “we,” I don’t mean me. I would never vote for a snake-oil salesman who has stupidly stumbled into success, a small-minded narcissist with his eyes in the rearview mirror. I stand proudly with the 17% who went the other way. But the dissenters in my town aren’t talking, and the other side—after so many years of being overlooked—is acting bold. I’ve seen them with their shotguns, standing on slanted porches, daring me to encroach with my peace offering. When this happens, I raise my plastic jugs and wait for them to lower their weapons. Most do, but the ones that don’t will have to figure out another way to get clean water.
Shari says I need to stop provoking people. She says I should’ve known better than to slap a “Feel the Bern” sticker on the back of my pick-up. It doesn’t matter that I’m a fourth-generation West Virginian. It doesn’t matter that my father, a miner, was killed six years ago in a Black Mountain Energy explosion. It doesn’t matter that two years after Dad died, my mother went off the rails, out of her head on meth. Everyone in town knows my story, and they were proud to claim me as their own when I won the state wrestling championships, but the same people who cheered when I placed in nationals, when my success in sports was a point of pride in our small town, now see me as a traitor, an outsider, the enemy—a view that has remained despite my diagnosis.
It’s been two months since the doctor spotted my inoperable brain tumor and I’m still on the fence about chemo because I’ve seen too many people bed-ridden by the so-called cure. Other than an occasional headache, I feel fine. I’m still working as a medical transcriptionist, still trying to decipher the garbled recordings of nurses as I attempt to create a written record of other people’s health problems. When I’m not working, I deliver clean water to the people affected by the chemical spill, filling plastic jugs from the faucet of a relatively rich friend that lives three towns over.
Since the spill, people have been paying attention to our town. Case in point: in a few short hours, my face will be beamed across the country as I attempt to give “the West Virginia perspective” on what happened. Excitement spins in my stomach as I roll down the highway on a Greyhound bus, wondering why—out of all the residents in my great Mountain State—they picked me. It might be my blog, which has seen a steady uptick in followers, or it might be that viral video: one minute and fifty-two seconds of footage that shows me doing something stupid, a drunken prank caught on someone’s phone and posted to YouTube.
The woman from the network assured me she wouldn’t bring up the video, and WFUN was footing the bill for my hotel and transportation, so I thought what the hell? Carpe fucking diem. People in my town don’t listen when I’m standing right in front of them, but my words might resonate when I’m shouting through a screen instead of shouting in someone’s face. These days, I’m always shouting. Shouting about our shitty water, about big coal’s decimation of our land, shouting about the politicians who refuse to protect us, and the idiots who deny climate change despite all evidence to the contrary. I feel like I’m screaming at a world that’s completely insane, hollering into a huge storm, my tiny voice powerless against this great, roaring ignorance.
My heart is racing. I’m sweating. Breathe. It’s a trick Shari taught me, and for a moment I almost miss her. My mind slows and slips back into the present. I stare out the windows, as my New York-bound bus bumps over hills and slides through secret hollows—passing towns where people still live in trailers or coal-company shacks. On the highway, we flash through Maryland and roll into Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, on a four-lane road that runs past refineries, the summer sun slants through the windows and I feel suddenly tired. The air up here is different, orange-hued and heavy. Stuck in afternoon traffic, sweating through my shirt, I close my eyes and nap. In Port Authority, I wake up to some dude shaking my shoulder. Time to get off the bus, buddy. His words hang in the air, and for a moment he looks like a sage or a specter, floating off before I have a chance to ask about the best place to hail a cab.
On the street, everyone is moving. Fast. I stumble into a place where people are waiting for taxis. The man driving my cab has dark skin and neatly combed hair. Beads of sweat dot his upper lip. Strings of beads dangle from his rearview mirror. His dashboard resembles a shrine in which so many tiny gold Buddhas—some fat and smiling, others slim and meditative—have come to mingle. I watch the meter tick and hope WFUN will make good on its promise to pay. The cab takes a tight corner and rolls to a stop in a suspiciously empty parking lot.
Where I’m supposed to go next is unclear. I pull a paper from my pocket and call the number. The woman sounds surprised when I tell her I’m here. She orders me to wait outside the building, which is windowless and black. Everything is starting to feel a little surreal. I stand beside a door without a handle, sparking cigarettes to pass the time. My excitement turns to apprehension as I run through my pack. I’m trying not to think about all that could go wrong, opting, instead, to take in my surroundings, the looming buildings and complicated cacophony of street noises. It’s uncomfortable: standing in the sweltering parking lot, smoking cigarettes with a change of clothes draped over my forearm, carrying my pants and shirt the same way a butler carries his white cloth, trying to act dignified despite feeling demeaned.
I wait twenty minutes before calling again.
“Oh my God! I got totally sidetracked!” The woman, recognizing my number, offers an apology before I have time to speak. “I’m coming right out!”
The door swings open and a blast of cold air hits me. In the threshold, blocking the entrance, stands a blandly attractive woman with hair that’s yellow and hard. Her lips are parted and it’s impossible not to be acutely aware of her teeth, which are unnaturally white. I’m about to smile back, but I stop myself, remembering my two dead teeth, which, unfortunately, are in the front. The woman’s eyes graze my clothes: a sweat-stained Steelers tee and basketball shorts that hang past my knees. I have no idea what she’s thinking. Her skin is pulled tight; her face, a mask. I look down, pretending to be suddenly interested in my funeral clothes, in my pants and shirt, both black, but not the same shade. The dry cleaner’s protective sheath is thin and warm and I’m worried that the blazing sun might melt it, leaving a layer of goo on my one nice outfit.
“Noah Bainbridge?” The woman smiles and extends her hand.
“That’s my name.” I wipe my sweaty palm on my shorts before shaking.
“Misty Walton, W-F-U-N News.” She pumps my hand. “You really should stay in your street clothes.” She smiles again, a blinding white flash, more disorienting than the heat.
“Okay.” I’ll agree to anything as long as it gets me inside.
Misty raises a slender finger and motions for me to follow her, which I do, ducking inside the building, trailing her down a series of secret corridors, my eyes adjusting to the darkness.
The building is strangely silent save the clip-clap of Misty’s shoes and the swish of sheathing against my leg, a shivering metronome keeping time as I follow Misty down the dim hallway, which eventually empties into a large room, where floodlights are focused on a newsdesk. Beside the desk stands a table with sparse offerings: fruit, bottled water, bags of chips. People wearing shirts emblazoned with the words “WFUN CREW” are milling around the table. Misty points to the corner, to a small dressing room where she tells me to wait. I grab a bottle of water and two bags of chips before retreating to the room.
In my plywood cave, I sit on a metal folding chair beside a tiny table and a stack of stupid magazines with blurbs intended to con people into feeling unworthy or unprepared: “10 Tricks to Banish Belly Fat,” “Summer Sizzle: All the Best Gear for Grilling,” and “Man Think: How to Seem Smarter than You Actually Are.” I eat my chips, drink my water, and wait, wishing I’d brought some books. Most people don’t know this about me, but I’m addicted to non-fiction. From science, to politics, to history—I read it all. People in my town think I’m part of some left-wing conspiracy when I refute their opinions with actual evidence: I’m talking unbiased statistics and shit. I take a deep breath and contemplate putting on my funeral clothes. For one, it’s cold. Also, I’m curious to see what will happen if I defy Misty’s directions.
* * *
Noah Bainbridge roars up my gravel driveway in his pickup, plastic jugs rattling in the cargo bed. The jugs are dusted with dirt by the time he arrives, but at least the water is clean. I watch him out the window and wonder what it would be like if we were the same age. I’m twenty years too old for him, but that doesn’t stop me from fantasizing.
“It’s about time.” I punch open the screen door and step outside in my slippers. It’s still early and I’m too tired to put on proper clothes.
“Good to see you too.” Noah speaks with an unlit cigarette hanging low on his lip. This takes talent. I always think it, but I never say it. He places two plastic jugs on my porch and goes back to get more, his head brushing the Make America Great Again! flag I’ve strung above the stairs.
“I heard you was going on television.” I say this with suspicion, hoping he notices.
“Somebody should.” He drops two jugs—thump, thump—then mumbles some “truth to power” nonsense, which I ignore.
“Where’s Shari?” I ask.
“She’s home contemplating the nutritional content of kale,” he says, sparking his cigarette.
I smile. “Sounds about right.” Since Noah’s diagnosis, Shari has turned into a health nut. We all laugh at her, but I can’t say I’d act any different if he were mine.
“I’m tired of her telling me what to eat. God forbid I do anything fun.” He takes a long drag and blows the smoke out the side of his mouth.
“Bet your drunk ass got in trouble after that video!” I’m speaking a little too loudly, trying to embarrass him. It was a dumb prank, and I know some people in our town are seriously pissed, but not me. Actually, I thought it was funny. Even after the tenth time watching, I still laugh.
“Shippenblank wanted to have me arrested. He dropped that shit as soon as he found out how my dad died.” Noah stands still. A cone of ash forms on the tip of his cigarette. He has that wounded, thoughtful look in his eyes.
“Thanks for the water,” I say. I’m trying not to look at him. It doesn’t matter. The outline of his body—strong shoulders, tight butt—is burned in my brain.
“I know it’s not enough. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He leans over the railing to ash off my porch.
“Not on the fucking flowers!” I yell.
“Shit, sorry.” He jumps back, squints, then laughs. “Plastic flowers? That’s some country shit, Lorelai.”
I laugh too, but my laughter feels a little too intimate, so I shut it down by saying something mean: “Your secondhand smoke is gonna kill me before the water gets a chance.” I stare at him with a scowl I’ve perfected. I’m angry at how he makes me feel. This dying kid and his sexy arms. I watch his smile fade. He drops his cigarette and stomps it out. Sure, the paint is peeling, but my porch is my porch and stomping out a cigarette is an asshole thing to do.
* * *
I’ve been sitting here—freezing—for more than an hour and still no sign of Misty. The crew, when I ask, says that everyone is new and Misty is the only one who knows what’s going on. It’s an upstart network whose goal is to be “CNN for the next generation.” I want to tell them that their target audience doesn’t watch TV, but I keep these comments to myself.
Misty strides into my small dressing room and gives me a sympathetic look. “I’ve been reading about you on the internet. Who would’ve thought that a wrestler from such a tiny town would medal in the national championships!”
“I haven’t wrestled since my junior year. Knee injury.”
“That doesn’t matter. I think you’ll be a great subject. And handsome, too.” Misty smiles aggressively. “Do you really have a blog about your brain tumor?” Her smile is gone. She leans in, demanding an answer.
“It’s not a regular thing. I write when I have a realization that might help someone.” I speak while digging for my cigarettes. I’m not bothered by her question, but her tone, her air of entitlement, makes me mad. I light a cigarette and take a drag, ready to raise my middle finger to the NO SMOKING sign.
“You’re like a saint or something. Saint Noah,” she says.
“No.” I tell her. “They call me ‘No’ for short. Spelled N-O. Or maybe K-N-O-W on a good day.” Bad jokes are a nervous habit of mine, and if anyone can appreciate homophone humor, it should be a newscaster, right?
But Misty doesn’t smile. “You shouldn’t be smoking,” she says, pointing to the signs. “Besides, we’ll be live soon.” She strides across the room and takes a seat at her desk. “If you need to do anything, do it now.”
“I’m fine,” I say, sinking into the seat on the other side of the desk. I wait while Misty fluffs her hair beneath the floodlights. She looks relaxed and poised, which is the opposite of how I feel. A red light flashes: ON AIR! and my stomach spins in sync with the flashing. I close my eyes and try picturing a positive outcome, a mindtrick from my wrestling days, but instead of pinning someone to the mat, I imagine myself engaged in a complex dance of logic and wordplay. I’m saying something profound, uttering words that will make people realize the truth about Black Mountain Energy and CEOs like Shippenblank.
“I’m here with Noah Bainbridge, lifelong resident of West Virginia. He’s going to tell us what it’s like to live in a place where the people are poor and powerless.” Misty feels far away, her words wiz by like asteroids. I say nothing and float on. There’s a pain—sudden and sharp—in my shin. Misty doesn’t apologize for kicking me. “Noah, tell the good people of our country about the work you’re doing delivering clean water to the residents of your town.”
“There are people doing a lot more than me . . .” My voice sounds distorted, as if some strange gravitational field is stretching and bending my words. In front of me, Misty is receding, her form a shrinking blur. I look around. The faces of the crew appear as bright and barren as tiny moons. Never in my life have I felt so far away.
* * *
“I know you didn’t just drop your cigarette on my porch.” I’m angry. There’s no point trying to hide it.
“I’m sorry, Ms. McCoy.” Noah picks up the stomped cigarette and puts it in his pocket. He thinks this “Ms. McCoy” act will get him off. “There. All gone.” He wipes his hands on his tee shirt.
“You shouldn’t be smoking.” I say it mean, not wanting to sound sensitive, not wanting to show my concern, my fear, which is mixed with anger and made to look like something else.
“It’s not like it matters.” He smiles, but I can see he’s not amused.
“Poor you! Stop moping. We’re all dying, most of us just aren’t aware of it.” I don’t know the details of his condition, why they can’t do anything to help him, and I don’t ask.
“The famous McCoy family finally has a philosopher? No shit.”
“Time to grow up, Noah.”
“Time to take down that fuckin’ flag, Lorelai.” He’s pointing at my Make America Great Again! banner, which is already starting to fray.
“Stop acting like you’re so evolved! It’s a free country!”
“Is it?” Noah asks. I can see that he’s thinking. “Freedom of speech, right to bear arms,” I rattle off a few Rights then pause, waiting to see if he’s listening. He isn’t.
* * *
“How would you respond to those who’ve never been to your state, to people who don’t understand your problems, to those who would label you and your family, and pardon my rudeness, ‘rednecks’ or ‘white trash’?” Misty’s eyes are cool and hard. She doesn’t look like she gives a shit about offending me.
“The term ‘white trash’ is a slur. People like you are only making things worse.” As soon as I say it, the world draws into sharper focus and I feel strangely lucid.
“You sound like a serious person who wants serious change. Yet some would say the stunt you pulled at The Freedom Festival distracts us from this.” Misty adjusts her earpiece and signals to someone I can’t see. Behind her desk, a large screen descends. A feeling of dread washes over me as I wait for what I know is coming. From the phone call, to the bus ride, to the dressing room—I’d been worried it would come to this.
Onscreen, a pixelated cellphone video plays. An aging rocker in a cowboy hat stands surrounded by flags. He strums his guitar and a mess of distorted sound floods the newsroom. It’s as if the Star Spangled Banner is being shredded then sloppily restitched. On the side of the stage, stands the union-busting CEO of Black Mountain Energy, the man with the worst mine safety record in the country, Thomas “T. Rex” Shippenblank, who looks more than a little ridiculous in his red, white, and blue costume, a spandex outfit that highlights his girth. Seeing Shippenblank, even if it’s only on a screen, makes my heart race. My muscles tense as I think about my father’s death and Shippenblank’s lack of concern for anything other than the bottom line.
All of this happened exactly one month earlier, on the Independence Day celebration at the so-called “Freedom Festival,” a pro-coal rally designed to turn the people in my town against each other, to convince us of an either-or-fallacy: jobs or the environment. Why people are still falling for this shit I’ll never know. I blame Shippenblank for the death of my father and the toxicity of our water. I blame Shippenblank for the pro-coal propaganda that has poisoned the minds of people in my town.
In the video, Shippenblank thanks Ted Gunnison for his rendition (read: destruction) of our national anthem then proceeds to insult the “greeniacs” and “elitist enemies of coal.” The crowd is getting rowdy and the shaky video pans around to show people, patriotically dressed, jeering and booing. Before long, the jeers and boos coalesce into an organized chant: “Coal Pride! Coal Pride! Coal Pride!”
My buddies, the men in this town who know what’s really going on, had wanted nothing to do with The Freedom Fest. But earlier that day, sucking down some cold ones as we sat beside my barbeque, we began to bat around some ideas. The people at the rally would be drinking and most of them had guns, so we knew that if we did anything, it would have to be more practical joke than protest. Dixon suggested dumping buckets of slurry-infused water on Shippenblank, which seemed like a good, albeit implausible, idea. Then Jeff jumped up and said he had the perfect thing. We stayed seated in our lawn chairs while Jeff ran to his house, which was further down the dirt road that we all lived on. When Jeff returned, he stepped into the center of our circle and held up a small canvas cradle from which dangled a series of resistance bands.
“Behold the balloon launcher!” Jeff shook the contraption for dramatic effect. “We fill some balloons with our shitty water, stake out a spot on the outskirts, and fire during Shippenblank’s speech!”
“Fucking genius!” Mutt grabbed a handful of balloons, colored green and ribbed to resemble grenades.
“Whatever’s in our water will eat at those balloons. No way they’re gonna hold,” I said, filling the role of skeptic, a role I felt entitled to after my diagnosis.
“Let’s test it,” said Dixon.
“You’re about to be disappointed.” I motioned for Mutt to hand me some balloons and ducked inside.
At my kitchen sink, I filled three balloons with water that still smelled like licorice and let the balloons set for a while, thinking they would pop, surprised when they didn’t. I took the balloons outside and placed them in the grass beside the cooler.
“Looks okay. Looks like it will hold.” I said, still waiting for one to pop.
“We should finish the beers, then fill the cooler with ammo,” said Dixon.
“Gotta drink the beers. Except you, No. You’re driving,” Mutt grabbed the last few beers and gave one to everyone in our crew except me, a move that would’ve made Shari proud. He tipped over the cooler and left the ice to melt on the grass. I went inside to fill the balloons, handing them off to Dixon, who stacked them in the cooler.
Water grenades loaded, we piled in my pick-up—Dixon in the front, Jeff and Mutt in the cargo bed in the back. The concert was being held at a “repurposed” mountaintop, where hydroseeded grass is sprayed over scorched earth, in a practice akin to rolling cheap carpet over the site of a nuclear explosion. I was driving slowly, afraid to take the bumps too fast, not wanting our ammo to explode, fearful we’d arrive with nothing but some ruptured balloons sloshing inside our cooler. I knew the boys were getting rowdy when they began to sing “We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn!” The thought that this prank might not be our best idea crossed my mind, but we were having too much fun to stop. On the neon-green grass, we staked a spot on the outskirts of the rally and waited for Shippenblank’s speech.
The video, of course, shows none of this. There’s no footage of the launch: Dixon and Mutt, standing a few feet apart, each holding his separate handle high. You can’t see me as I place the balloon in its canvas cradle and take several steps back, pulling the cords taut, setting my sights on Shippenblank, trying to gauge the trajectory of the grenade I’m about to launch.
Misty—her head turned, her eyes fixed on the screen—watches while a water balloon shoots toward the stage. There’s a collective gasp, then a hush, as the grenade sails past Shippenblank and knocks off Ted Gunnison’s cowboy hat. Shippenblank drops the microphone and stands stone-still, staring dumbly at the crowd. A few seconds later, another balloon flashes across the screen, flying fast and straight, smacking Shippenblank in the middle of his fat face. People yell as Shippenblank falls to his knees and shields his head. There’s a swirl of people as the cellphone videographer spins around in an attempt to locate the shooters. By this time, Dixon and Mutt have dropped the handles of the launcher and are running toward the truck.
The video zooms in on me, holding the launcher while trying to drag the cooler across the grass. The crowd is chanting “Lock him up! Lock him up! Lock him up!”—like I’m some kind of criminal. I ditch the launcher and the cooler and sprint across the grass, slowing only when my foot snags on someone’s discarded blanket. My stomach spins as I stumble, taking two unstable strides before accelerating across the parking lot. The chant is louder now. Fortunately I’m no longer in the picture, peeling out in my pick-up somewhere outside the frame. The video ends, the screen goes blank, and Misty turns her attention to me.
“Shippenblank said he would’ve sued had your father not been among the brave men lost at Black Mountain.” Misty says this matter-of-factly. I’m trying to control my anger, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of seeing me react. What I want to say: You lied, Misty. You’re a liar and your viewers need to know this.
What I say instead: “Why don’t you report on the unsafe mining practices instead of making a story out of some stupid water balloon? Don’t you trust the intelligence of your audience? Why don’t you tell them about how my father wasn’t allowed to take his safety equipment into the mine? You know how precautions can eat into profits . . .”
Misty is not moved. She refuses to respond to my point. “Did you read what people are saying in the comments section below your video?” Her voice is high-pitched and abrasive. “Some are saying you’re a fool, while others claim that you’re pioneering a new form of environmental protest that weaponizes water balloons. Was bombing Shippenblank with the water he poisoned a deliberate attempt at irony?”
My response is reflexive, quick: “I don’t consider a water balloon a weapon. Most people I know would find your questions ridiculous.” And suddenly I feel a strange solidarity with the people of Clemency, even if most of them disagree with what I did.
“So,” Misty’s brow is furrowed and her eyes are stormy. I can see she’s contemplating a counterpunch, payback for my previous comment. “You seem to be saying that the residents of your town are apolitical.”
“That’s not what I said and if you’d really done any research, you’d know that.” Sweat pricks my underarms. My head is hot with anger. “Here’s a history lesson: in my state, there’s a long legacy of activism. The real rednecks were pro-union miners that signaled their solidarity by wearing red bandannas around their necks. Some were black, many were immigrants, but all were poor. I know this doesn’t neatly fit into your narrative about us ‘intolerant hicks.’”
Misty is stunned. She says nothing, so I keep going.
“At the Battle of Blair Mountain, people from different cultures stood shoulder to shoulder, seeking safe working conditions and fair pay, standing up to the state police and the US Army in the largest confrontation since the Civil War.” I feel a surge of confidence. Me vs. Misty: it’s a match I can win. I feel the stories—the ones I’ve read and the ones I’ve lived, everything in my swirling experience—coming together and rising in a cresting wave containing my knowledge, my history.
* * *
“Really, Lorelai?” Noah shakes his head and smiles devilishly. “You want to get into an amendment fight? Do you have any idea how many books I’ve read?”
“Stop lookin’ so smug. You and your frigging books! And you wonder why the people in this town don’t like you? A local boy who does good by bringing us clean water, one of our own who will soon fall to cancer, you’d think everyone would love you! But no one does!” As soon as the words are out, I realize I’ve gone too far. It’s the meanest thing I’ve ever said. I shake my head and sit down on the steps of my porch. I’m remembering Noah as a boy, then a man, holding his championship medal on the front page of our paper, back when our town still had a newspaper.
I am a hard woman, a sour woman, a strong woman. Yet I feel as if I want to hang my head and cry: for Noah, for me, for all the forgotten people who live in our tiny town. I wonder if there will ever be a way for us to get past this meanness. It’s a question I want to ask Noah, but when I open my eyes and look up, he’s gone.
Keith Burkholder has been published in Creative Juices, Sol Magazine, Trellis Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Poetry Quarterly, New Delta Review, and Scarlet Leaf Review. He has a bachelor's degree in statistics with a minor in mathematics from SUNY at Buffalo (UB).
Alone at the Microphone