Stephen Faulkner is a native New Yorker, transplanted with his wife, Joyce, to Atlanta, Georgia. Steve is now semi-retired from his most recent job and is back to his true first love – writing. He has recently had the good fortune to get stories published in such publications as Aphelion Webzine, Hellfire Crossroads, Temptation Magazine, Hobo Pancakes, The Erotic Review, Liquid Imagination, Sanitarium Magazine, The Satirist, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, ZiN Daily, Longshot Island, AHF Magazine, Midnight Street Anthology #3 and the anthology, “Crackers,” published by Bridge House Press. He and Joyce are both now retired and living the good life in Central Florida keeping busy volunteering at different non-profit organizations and going to the theater as often as they can find the time. His novel, Aliana in Paradise, was published by World Castle Publishing in 2018 and is available through Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. His second novel, Lunar Effects, will be published by Eden Stories Press by October, 2020.
When I was a kid between seven and thirteen years old spring and fall cleaning time had another name as far as I was concerned: work time and later, as my vocabulary grew, indentured servant time. During those times of year my sisters, Doreen, Andrea and Meg, would clean out their closets of all of the previous year’s fashion trend failures in order to make room for the new stuff being touted on television and in the local boutiques and department stores. So, it fell to me to drag shopping bagload after shopping bagload of frilly, funky, ugly, useless, sometimes utilitarian clothing or whatever had been in vogue the previous year to the collection boxes in the parking lot of the local Lutheran church. On those days, as far as they were concerned, it was just bring on the baby brother pack horse and get all this stuff out of here. Chucky won’t mind seemed to be their collective mantra; he’s done it before, he’ll do it this time, too. I never complained though I knew that I had the right and enough reason. What were they, crippled or something that they couldn’t lug their last year’s “finds” to the clothes collection boxes in the parking lot of the local Lutheran church? With between four and six – sometimes seven – shopping bags to tote two at a time the four block route, clean-out-the-old-stuff days were, for me, all morning affairs. I did it willingly, however; it must have been my accepting personality. I could have made a scene, argued the point that it was Saturday and they weren’t so all-fired busy that they couldn’t get off their duffs and do it themselves or at the very least give me a hand. I’m sure I could have gotten at least one of them to help make shorter work of the chore. But I never did any of those things, always came back into the house yelling, “What’s left?” for the next set of bags. I was sweet natured and accepting about it, knowing that this was the only thing for which my sisters ever took advantage of me. And, except for birthdays and Christmas, they were also the only times in my young life when they ever gave me anything without having to be bothered for it. Doreen would bake me my favorite cake, Meg would take me to the Sunday movie matinee in town and Andrera would buy me whatever my heart desired as long as the price tag, including tax, didn’t exceed ten dollars. The rewards, though expected, never were the real consideration for my helping out on those strangely special days. I took the role of being my sisters’ pack mule as a duty, something unusual to do to kill some of the bleak time of a boring Saturday morning. Of course, though I was glad to help and be made a part of the peculiar madness of the house on such days, I never refused anything that was offered in recompense for my freely given services. My arms felt like they were about to stretch to the ground from the weight of the bags in either hand. I made three trips to the six foot high steel boxes with their square, yawning maws up near the top. I was tall for my age, an inch or two shy of five feet – I was a gangling weed of a kid from several growth spurts by the time I had reached ten. Even so I had to us a hammer throw technique each time to get each bag into the gaping hole. Sometimes I missed, spilling the contents of the sack over the graveled asphalt of the lot. If it were the first bag I would take my chance with the second as I was usually better on the second throw with my timing and aim. Then I would gather up the spilled mess back into the first bag and try again with that one. Second time around I was usually able to guide the trajectory of the hulking bag directly into the open hopper of the Volunteers of America, Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries bin like a pro. Come to the third and usually the last trip, though, and my aim, would be fouled either by fatigue or a combination of that with boredom; by that time, after five or six throws, I just wanted to get the job over with and go home. On my third foray to the church parking lot the year I was ten I came upon a Salvation Army box that was loaded to its rusty roof which finished it as a viable target. My first two trips had already topped off the Volunteers bin, so now that one was out, too. I could see shadows shifting inside of the Goodwill box and so assumed it was the only logical choice. By that time though I didn’t know which of my three sister’s bags I was carrying, I could feel the telltale drag and bulge of shoes against my left calf and ankle as I huffed along. The bag against my right side had the soft feel of clothing, not a belt or sandal in the lot. My reasoning proved true when the first bag hit the bin just below its high and wide opening with my first upward heave and turned upside down, dumping slacks and blouses, halter and tank tops and frilly ‘jamas onto the ground with a soft fwumpish sound. Frustrated yet anxious to get the job done, I two-handed the overstuffed shoe bag and, with my back to the target hole, I spun a swift 180 degrees and let it fly. It sailed into the opening without even grazing an edge or corner, hit the inside back wall of the bin with the deep, hollow bonging of a church bell. Before the reverberation could diminish another sound came from inside the box, one that was very loud and sounded decidedly very human. “Who that?!” it yelled. The voice echoed tha-tha-tha-tha-tha from within the metal enclosure. I was already on my knees, scraping up the scattered shoes of my first botched throw into its bag. In that attitude of supplication I was halted, not quite sure that I had heard what I thought I had. “Hello?” I said, tilting my head the better to catch a repeat of the obvious manifestation of the magic to which I had just been sole witness. Even if I got no answer, the voice I had heard amid the clanging ring of the vibrating Goodwill box would have been enough to give me food for a week or more of serious pondering. “Hello,” answered the box, softly now so that there wasn’t any nagging echo in attendance. “Me,” I answered stupidly. Then, realizing that that would not be enough, I gave my name. “Chucky,” said the voice in a humming, thoughtful way. “Are you feeling kind of giddy, like fearful and nervous right now?” I said no as I rose to my feet. “And do you know who you are talking to right here, this minute?” asked the pleasant voice from the box. Now relaxed a little, I again said no, that I sure didn’t. The box shook with another gonging boom that caused it to shiver with sound of peeling thunder. “I AM THE SPIRIT OF GIVE AND GOT!!” it roared with a shout that surely made itself heard for blocks around. I took a quick, jumping step backward. To anyone that might have been watching me at that time I would have been seen to be visibly shaking, barely supported on rubbery legs. My tongue had gone numb; I could only mewl like a squeezed kitten. “You still there, child?” asked the spirit. A sound squawked from my throat as my glottis tried vainly to unstick itself from my uvula to make some note of affirmation. “I hear you, don’tcha worry about that none,” it said. Then, after a pause: “Wanna see me?” “Yuss,” I managed to squeak, my throat making all vowels come out the same. I humphed to clear my throat. “Yiss,” I tried again, louder this time. Hearing the strange word that I had just uttered, I then commenced to cough and hawk out my fear. From the open hole of the box a white shape rose like a faceless serpent. It turned toward me to show that it was eyeless, as well. But it did have a mouth and with that mouth it spoke without any real animation but that of simply opening and closing. No expression at all for the absence of nose or ears or eyes. “I am the spirit of give and got,” it said again in its deep nasal voice. “I give to those who ain’t got. With your kind help.” “You’re the one?” I said, my voice now back to its full register. Ma had told me that all that stuff that was put in the boxes in the Lutheran Church parking lot went to the poor. I had imagined the boxes to be above-ground openings into a network of tunnels and wide pipings that took your offerings right into the home of those that she called “the needy.” A spirit who magically transported such cast-offs, though a less reasonable explanation of how it was done was equally acceptable as the former version to a person of the temperament and willingness to believe as my ten year old impressionable self. “I’m the one that does,” the spirit said, its toothless mouth chewing on the words. It was dingy white, that head, its neck as long as an arm, bobbing and weaving in the shadowed frame of the box opening like a charmed albino cobra. “Those who need what you no longer have use for, are eternally grateful. As am I.” “If you’re saying thank you,” I said, picking the meaning out of the spirit’s wordy reply. “Then you’re welcome. They’re welcome to whatever we can give.” “As long as there is use for it and it’s not just rags, it is needed,” said the spirit. “This, however….” The sock faced spirit dove into the box and quickly came back up to toss a grime encrusted, threadbare old washcloth at me from the open front door of its home. “This kind of thing won’t do at all.” I studied the discarded item closely, wracking my memory for its place in our house. “This wasn’t from us,” I said when certain. “My sisters only throw out good stuff, just a year old, even sometimes less than that.” “Commendable,” said the Spirit of Give and Got as it descended back into the bowels of the Goodwill box. “Give your sisters my blessings and greetings.” “Can’t do that,” I muttered to myself, knowing the answers and ribbings I would be in for if I conveyed a message from a spirit that no one but myself could believe in. My sisters, though dear to me, weren’t the kindest or most understanding people in the world when it came to what they would call childish nonsense. Neither were my parents. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” rang the box, its sheet metal sides echoing out the ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay syllable of the last word as if off of the steep sides of a canyon. “I said I’ve got a full bag here and another one still at home,” I lied and waited for a long, quaky moment for a response. Apparently the spirit’s powers lay in helping others and not reading the minds of frightened little boys. It gave no reaction to my fear when it said in its calm, gently deep voice, “Give what you have to give. And go, then, for the rest. The hunger for adequate clothing by those who have not is never truly satisfied.” I tossed the previously spilled bag of shoes into the hopper with flawless aim and ran back home for the last bag. My impression of that racing run was that of impossible speed for a skinny legged ten year old. The back screen door of our house slammed twice in fast succession as I charged in to grab the handle of the shopping bag and back through the door on my super-sped-up legs to the parking lot and the Goodwill spirit of the donation box. Once the bag was inside in the spirit’s care it sent me off by telling me that my family would ever find happiness for its selfless generosity. It was only later that I came to the conclusion that the “selfless generosity” that the spirit deduced in my family’s nature was really a sham. That generosity was largely that of my sisters and that only because what was so generously given was stuff that was no longer needed or wanted. My smug pride dissolved like sugar in hot water. My faith in the wisdom of the words of the spirit of the box, of Give And Got, diminished precipitously. Pretty lame for a spirit, I thought as I came to the corner of my block. What did he know anyway?
*** As expected, Meg took me to the Sunday matinee at the local movie theater; the picture playing was a revival of The Stranger with Orson Welles. She had to explain what was going on in some of the scenes but seemed glad that I took an obvious interest in such a “grown up” film and hadn’t been overly bored by it. As expected, Doreen’s hot-from-the-oven fudge swirl bundt cake (anything with fudge or chocolate in it was my absolute favorite) was cooling on the kitchen counter when we returned, its scented steam filling the back of the ground floor of the house. The only unexpected result of my Saturday good deed was one that came from me. When Andrea asked me what she could get for me for being such a helpful little man (“Keep it under ten bucks,” she reminded me. “I’m working, but I’m sure not rich”) I asked her for the money she would have spent on me instead of the gift she was planning on buying. “No toy you’ve been wishing for?” she asked incredulously. If it was a toy I wanted, we both knew, a crisp new ten dollar bill would be useless to me; all the stores were in the downtown business district of our little city and are far out of my permitted five block radius of travel. “No book you want to read? Not even a t-shirt?” There were some numbers in my collections of serial books I didn’t have (Rovers numbers 118 and 136; the last few of the Starman series) and there were also one or two super-hero t-shirts I would have liked. But I resolutely shook my head and held out for the cash. Shrugging her shoulders while muttering something to herself and Doreen about me getting to be a regular little financier, she forked over the ten along with a sloppy kiss that took an entire sleeve to eradicate from my cheek. After dinner, with permission given to me on the condition that I should be back within the hour, I left the house at a dead run. Four blocks equals about a quarter of a mile in that town and I made it to the Lutheran Church parking lot in about two minutes (maybe three; I wasn’t carrying a stop watch, so I couldn’t be absolutely sure). No world’s record but for a kid my age I should have been rightly proud of the accomplishment. It didn’t matter to me at all once I got to where I was going, though I did hear the cheering of crowds egging me on for most of the route that I ran. The rhythmic flashing of the police car’s red rooftop light as it sat with three of its four doors wide open in the lot was enough to pull the Finish Line tape clear away to the center of town over two miles away. A square nosed truck with “Goodwill Industries: stenciled on its broad side stood nearby, its engine growling hotly in idle, its vertical pipe puffing greasy blue exhaust. The door of the Goodwill box was open, the box’s interior dim and empty, its contents laying in a huge heap on a large sheet of burlap laid out on the parking lot floor. The Salvation Army and Volunteers of America boxes were still bulging, probably to be emptied out within the next few days. One of the policemen was talking to the truck driver while the other one was handcuffing a man dressed in grimy clothing and leading him to the open back seat of the patrol car. The man’s face was deeply tanned with a tight webbing of livid, cherry colored veins standing out below his left eye like a smudge of smeared dry blood. His thin hair reached to his shoulders in ratty coils, his beard was chest length and broad and shot with gray. Though presently soured by circumstance, his face was a pleasant one, determinedly kind. On his hands, against the chill of the mid-autumn evening he wore not gloves but white socks worn like mittens, molded to the hands so that, conceivably, they could be employed as puppets with which to speak to gullible, magic enthralled ten year old boys. “Mister?” Both the policeman and the vagrant turned to me, questions tightening in squints around both their eyes. Only the vagrant, the bum who had used the clothing drop for a day and night’s sheltered rest, smiled at me. His teeth were yellow-orange, outlined at their lower edges and along the gums in shades of brown and black. I held up the ten dollar bill for him to see. “For the Spirit of Give and Got,” I said. The question on the face of the young policeman remained, even deepened. The vagrant, continuing his angelic smile, just shook his head. I felt foolish for not having brought along something more appropriate, like a cut of Doreen’s cake or a woolen scarf to be worn against the coming winter’s bone chilling winds. What could a man in his current predicament do with a measly ten bucks? “Give to the Spirit, then,” he said in a voice not so deep or booming as that which had issued from the large metal box. “What it requires.” “But you are….” I said, forming an argument before I was sure of what it should be. “Just a voice,” said the man, cutting me off kindly. “A conduit through which the Spirit of Give and Got sometimes speaks. But right now…” His smile faded as he shrugged. “Just a bum, homeless and sad.” “C’mon, old fella,” said the young cop as he nudged the man toward the open car. His more experienced partner had finished with the truck driver and was heading toward us. The young cop was obviously nervous, wanting to get this little matter back under his control before the older officer would be forced to intervene. The kindly bum did not resist as he got into the back seat of the police car. He was still smiling at me as the younger cop shut the door. The second cop reached us as I asked in a loud enough voice to be heard through the closed rear window of the car if he, the vagrant, were getting enough to eat. “When he’s in the pokey,” said the older cop to me as he got behind the wheel of the patrol car. “He’ll get his three squares, don’t you worry.” He then slammed the door, started the engine and put the car into gear. The younger cop was already in the passenger seat and seemed almost timid and still a bit edgy about the way in which this “collar” had been conducted by him. “Once he’s out – po’boy tomorrow – feeding him self’s going to be his problem.” The vagrant leaned forward in the back seat, the purplish patch under his left eye fading a little in the glare of the dome light and said something to the driver. The older cop nodded and gestured for the bum to sit back in his seat. “Says to tell you the Fifth Street Mission House. All donations gratefully and graciously accepted.” The younger cop pulled the passenger side door shut with a soft thump and the dome light went out, bringing a soft gloom to the car’s interior. The older cop gunned the engine, waved out of his open window to me and drove out of the lot. As the hum of the police car’s thrumming engine faded into the distance, the side of the open clothing drop box shuddered and rumbled two words to me as if carried on the undulant wave of receding sound: BLESS YOU! I heard it distinctly; it was not a trick of the ear or of the echoing nature of the metal box. The Goodwill box, open and empty, kept on rattling like artificial thunder, tolling off the echo you-you-you-you-you-you like a talking bell. The Goodwill truck driver was busy pulling the four corners of the burlap over the load of donated clothing, forming a mammoth hobo’s bindle out of the formless heap. He looked up, having been startled for the moment at hearing what was surely something that couldn’t have been heard, was not real. Then he shrugged his heavy shoulders before going back to the tedious task of knotting the four corners of sacking together with a thick length of frayed, hairy looking twine.