Olivia's stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, STORGY, Penny Shorts, The Fiction Pool, Five on the Fifth and Scarlet Leaf Review. She began writing fiction as soon as she could hold a feather and self-published her first story, Mrs. and Mr. Patchwork, aged six.
Later, having studied English Literature in London, Olivia trained and worked in journalism. She moved to Morocco and continued writing as a travel writer, studying linguistics and working as an English teacher. She spends half of her time in a fictitious world.
As a journalist, Olivia has written for Fodor's Travel Guide, The National, Elle Decoration as well as several travel supplements. She lives and works in Casablanca, Morocco.
Facebook: Olivia Gunning-Bennani
That Saturday, Rali carried the book in his hand despite the potential for rain. The rains of December were prone to falling thick, swamping the city of Casablanca in minutes. But Rali went out with neither coat nor bag. So far the day was warm and sunny enough. No need to carry more than the necessary.
He took a bus leading from one world to another. It was a Parisian vehicle, so old that it had been withdrawn from French traffic yet was still considered viable for Morocco. The windows were cracked, the upholstery full of holes and the engine hacked up pitch smoke. The skeletal driver’s steering was psychotic. At extreme speed, they swerved and veered away from the eternal strings of seven-storey apartment blocks that overlooked the dual carriageway. These new slums stretched back like cement forests onto what had been, until recently, farmland inhabited by peasants. The bus careered across three lanes of traffic and roared through red lights. Everyone held tight, unfazed.
Rali got off at Oasis. It was one of the few remaining quarters where colonial French villas survived. Red hibiscus bursting with yellow pollen as dazzling as turmeric, purple bowers of bougainvillea, the perfume of honeysuckle and the hum of contented insects.
He walked along five different narrow roads to reach her house. Rue des Colombes, Rue Gavarnie, Rue d’Aix, Rue Tholonet and finally, Rue Franceville. Number 91.
His age inverted.
So early to be a criminal.
From the road, Rali could see that the yellow-walled house was in disrepair. He rapped at the corroded iron door, which scraped open.
“Salam,” Rali said, to the emaciated guardian of the house.
“Walikoum Salam,” replied Kebir.
Rali started towards the front door.
“La,” grunted Kebir shaking his head and index finger.
They followed the stretch of drive around the side of the house to a small back door. The paint was peeling and a pane was cracked.
The garden had once been something else. A place where chic ladies, svelte as their Vogue cigarettes, bronzed themselves, chinking glasses of pastis. Where children squealed across the lawn and where summer lawn parties chattered. Now it was arun with ivy and oleander, oranges heaving at their branches. The grass was long, spike-like, parched.
Somehow, though, there was glory in the great volume of everything. It allowed the garden to enfold itself away from the world over the yellow wall, the world that crawled and spread and clattered.
Casablanca. Real city. Raucous city of fallen elegance. The city that Rali knew, for the first time since the whole mess had started, was where he should be.
“Her room is this way,” said Kebir. The white-painted stairs were yellowing, chipped with time and inattention.
Four doorways left the first floor landing. They walked to the furthest, the narrowest. Kebir opened it onto a slim, creaking staircase that turned back upon itself. Rali followed.
“Madame Fiona’s room,” announced Kebir. He turned and was gone.
Rali entered, hesitantly.
“Ahh finally,” she said from the bed. “You turned up.”
“Am I late?” Rali stammered. He’d not expected directness. He was used to the French penchant for jabbing comments but weren’t the British evasive?
“I’m sorry, Madame.”
“It’s fine,” she said, her English accent unmistakable. “Sit down. Did you bring a book?”
She turned to him, as if turning were painful, to make the first eye contact.
Her fine white hair was drawn back symmetrically into a very long plait. She was slender-limbed, frail, with a fine nose and chin. Dressed in white and grey. Something ethereal hung about her like sweet air. Something between one thing and another, one place and another, one person and another.
“Look at that,” she said. “We’re wearing the same colours.”
Rali looked down at his grey joggers and white T shirt. The same colours. His limbs, in contrast, were dark and his hair black, chopped short. The beginnings of a beard smudged his chin. He was tall with substantial shoulders.
“Ah,” she said, eyeing the book. “Amin Maalouf. Leon l’Africain. Another book I haven’t read. If only my eyes hadn’t given up on me.”
“Yes I thought maybe… it was a good book.”
“Something we should read?”
She smiled and within her face there was a softness.
“Remember French isn’t my first language. I might need help.”
And so Rali began. Less faltering than he feared.
That year, the holy month of Ramadan fell during summer, and my father rarely left the house before nightfall because the people of Granada were uptight during the daytime, arguments were frequent and their dark moods were a sign of the piety, since only a man who didn’t observe the fast could maintain a smile beneath the fiery sun….”
“When is Ramadan this year?” she asked.
“Ah. A summer fast.”
“Yes, this year it’s going to be hot and hard.”
“Do you do it?”
“No. I have done. Not anymore. Maybe I should.”
Rali remembered when he’d first cheated during Ramadan, aged 15, smoking joints behind a rock on the far end of the beach.
“Read on please.”
I…circumcised by a barber and baptised by a pope. I have many names and many nationalities but come from nowhere. I’m the son of the road. My country is a caravan. My life is the most unexpected of crossings.
Rali read twenty-two pages, barely looking up. He told of the ancient Alhambra, the sharing of brimming goblets, of veiled women, of sultans and djinns. Fiona was quiet. White head upon white pillow. The window was open and the quiet breath of late afternoon swished against the eucalyptus branches that encircled the room. The only room at the top of the house, almost a tower. At each wall there was a window, a small bathroom leading off into a corner.
He closed the book and placed it on his lap. She was asleep. He waited. Would she awaken? For a while he listened to the movement of the air outside and of her breathing, steady, rhythmic. It was the closest thing to silence he’d heard in so long. And he felt all the scurrying pieces of his life begin to settle inside his head.
After a few minutes, he left.
* * *
When Rali got home, his mother was making a tagine of chicken, lemons and olives. The odour reigned over the house.
“How was it?”
“Did you read?”
“Of course I read.”
“How does she look?”
“Kind of old.”
“What about the book?”
“Dunno. I think she liked it. Said she likes travel books.”
“You’re going back on Wednesday.”
“The only way I can keep you on the straight and narrow.”
“And it’ll help her get better.”
“I hope, anyway,” said his mother. “She was always good to me when I worked there.”
After lunch, Rali went to his room and gave into the thoughts of Hassna that had threatened reinvasion since he’d chased them away at dawn. It wasn’t the first time he’d traced back to when Hassna had made her entrance into his life.
Hassna from his street, his childhood, his classroom.
Hassna of the thick straight hair, shiny as a panther’s eyes, black as its coat, her own dark eyes sharp as spears. Hassna, the everyday neighbour, yet for so long so invisible. Hassna sobbing in a doorway when a football caught her high forehead, skipping with friends and crawling with marbles. And a few years later chewing gum with the gigglers and whisperers. Until the day that Hassna was grown up, with lipstick and pretty shoes.
Then one morning she passed before him on her way to the high school they attended, stopping and turning.
“Rali – feel like walking with me?”
“I’m not going.”
“Oh come on, don’t fuck up the year again.”
He gave in. Hassna was suddenly worth going to class with, going to school for.
They walked together, from that day, every day, for the rest of the year. And somewhere along the way, charm and captivation ran stitches between them. They began to feel their route was somehow shared, that they could see the same world. Enamourment stole in.
* * *
By Wednesday, the weather had changed to hot, full of illusions. Kebir was waiting at the great metal gate. He smelt of old sweat and bitter coffee. They exchanged few words. The garden had been watered and flowers slung out thick perfume.
“Take the same route,” Kebir said, and started towards the garage door.
Rali stopped and watched him, wondering where his quarters were, if the garage were actually his room. Kebir began turning the handle. But then felt Rali’s eyes and turned.
“Well go on then!” he said irritated.
Rali knew that Kebir had waited before opening the garage door.
“Ah you came back,” she said as he entered the room. She was sitting up in bed, dressed in pale blue cotton. Clean, tidy, brushed.
“Of course,” Rali said.
“Are we going back to the Alhambra?”
“I guess. I mean…if you’d like.”
“Well, I adore the place.”
“You've been there?”
“Ahh, have I?!” She lay back against a triangular pillow, her grey eyes alight.
“My husband was an archaeologist.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Yes. We adored ancient sites. The places civilisations inhabited. We went all over Africa.”
“That’s lucky,” Rali said.
“A life without travel is a poor one.” She paused. “Anyway, read.”
They moved away from annexed Granada to the Sahara. The vast Sahara. A desert crossing with the paternal uncle during the freshness of night amid the cries of jackals and the chants of turbaned Cadis.
“I imagine you haven’t been to the Sahara either,” she interrupted.
He continued, knowing he was monotone. The text became laborious and his thoughts followed another path.
“Where are you thinking of?”
“I’m sorry Madame?”
“You’re somewhere else.”
He faltered. “I am.”
“Where is that?”
Rali hesitated again.
“I don’t know, Madame.”
“Where you’ve just come from, Rali? I heard you’d been away. From Morocco.”
“I was in Paris, Madame. But I ran away.”
“Why did you do that?”
Rali, generally taciturn, was surprised that he was so close to telling. But he balked.
“I’d rather not say, Madame.”
He read on, telling of the great kings, inspired poets and intrepid travellers unable to reach the destiny they believed was promised to them.
“Death,” said the poet, “holds life by both ends.
Old age is no closer to death than infancy.”
A shadow passed over their faces as their eyes locked.
“You’re closer to infancy, Rali, you know.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I don’t feel like it.”
“And I’m at the other end,” she said.
They looked at one another for a while.
“I’m tired now, Rali.”
And as she lay down, so tentatively, he saw how weak she was.
“As you wish, Madame. Do you not want me to continue with Leon L’Africain?”
But her eyes were already closed.
* * *
“How is Madame Fiona?” Rali’s mother asked.
She was stuffing lumpy cushions into faux-satin embroidered covers that she washed every month. They had no outside space so the washing was strung from one window to the next along the outside wall of the flat, sagging like a vast petticoat.
“Seems ok,” he replied. “Still can’t work out what’s wrong with her.”
“No, it’s a mystery,” she shook her head and battled with a large stretch of foam. “What are you reading to her?”
“Never heard of it,” said his mother, who’d never read a book.
In his room Rali took out another book. It was the first time he’d allowed himself to look at it since Paris. He turned the pages very slowly. Falling in Love and Loving, by Italian sociologist, Alberoni. He stopped at the parts Hassna had highlighted. The parts he knew by heart.
How Hassna loved reading.
“When I get into a new book it’s like discovering a new fruit,” she’d say.
How she’d chanted the words of Alberoni to him, reiterated them like incantations. He looked at the part she’d extracted for him.
“Falling in love is a process in which the other person, the one whom we have encountered and who has responded to us, overpowers us as an irresistible love object. It is this fact that compels us to rearrange everything in our life and to rethink everything, starting with our past. In truth, it is not a rethinking but a remaking. It is a rebirth.”
“Bitch,” Rali thought, reading it through again. “How the fuck did I believe in it?”
But he had believed in it, that humid June, exams nearly through, as they lay on a blanket in the wasteland near the old quarry, the endless construction of blocks of flats edging the skyline like ugly lace. Wild lavender grew rapid and tall around them. There was a burnt mattress littered with foil and tubes, remnants of the junkies. It was there that Hassna and Rali fed and concealed their mutual infatuation from everyone, most of all Hassna’s parents and team of boxing-ring brothers. And there that they laid their plans.
“Imagine,” Hassna said, black eyes vivid. “By the time you get there in, say, November…”
“Ok, I hope. But imagine November is sure…”
“Yeah…” he said, kissing her forehead. “Carry on.”
“I’ll have a studio or something set up with all we need. Cups, dishes, towels.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“No you are.”
Hassna left in July.
“I’ll be with my cousins first. Helping out my aunt with the cleaning company near Clignancourt. Until college starts.”
“Your brothers will find out!”
“Don’t worry,” she’d said. “Leave it to me.”
They organised cyber cafes dates where nobody would trace them. The connection was usually too erratic for video chats but they managed to meet online and sent long emails.
She was so efficient. By the end of the September she had him a work contract fixed up at a Moroccan bakery in Barbes helping with deliveries.
“Lucky I’ve got contacts and that you’ve got that licence,” she said. “Your bike obsession turns out to be useful after all.”
Rali earned cash washing cars and sold hash on the side to speed up procedures. He needed to pay for the plane ticket and visas. It all took, as Hassna had envisaged, about five months.
How the months had trawled.
He read another part of Alberoni that they’d highlighted during that five-month wait.
“A brief separation is enough for us to realise that we receive something special and unmistakable from that person we have fallen in love with, something that we’d always been looking for and that can only come from him or her; if he or she leaves us it will be lost to us again and this time forever.”
* * *
During the following session, Leon L’African led them to Fes. The exiled Moors within the immaculate medina. The Jews and the Andalusians. Concealed debauchery and public piety. Disease and death and adventure.
“I’ve been to Fes,” he volunteered.
“Ah! That’s a place to visit. Did you take the train? I love that journey.”
“No. I went by motorbike.”
“Do you have a motorbike?”
“I had one. Well… it wasn’t mine,” he stopped for a few seconds. “I stole it.”
“Stole?” Fiona was grinning.
“Yes. I stole it and I took to the road and followed the signs to Fes.”
“Because I wanted to escape. And I love bikes.”
“Did you get caught?”
“Yes. I didn’t have insurance. The police stopped me.”
“Well I managed to get out of it. It was my neighbour’s bike.”
“You stole from your neighbour?”
“Well, we worked it out.”
“I see.” Then she smiled and said. “Motorbikes are a lot of fun.”
“Madame…” His shoulders dropped and he leaned back against the wall.
“Please… call me Fiona.”
“Alright. Mrs. Fiona. Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What happened to your husband?”
There was a tender pause in her eyes.
“Cancer. It took him.”
“And it may take me too, Rali.”
He fell cold, wordless.
“It’s alright, Rali. We all have to go. And anyhow, I find it so desperate trying to live without love.”
Fiona watched Rali’s face tipped towards his shoes, two vertical lines forming between his eyebrows.
“Such deep lines for such a young face,” she said. “Tell me where they come from next time.”
“I think I’ll go now, Mrs. Fiona.”
* * *
The previous October, Rali had left Morocco like a miracle. Visa fixed, pockets stuffed with more money than he’d ever held. He’d arrived in Paris in the early hours and Hassna was there. They waited all night for the dawn train to Gare du Nord, huddling on the hostile ground of the platform at Paris Orly; two abandoned kittens.
“That was so long,” he said to her. “So hard to be apart.”
For ten days, Rali accompanied the Barbes baker through the streets of Paris, learning the ropes, delivering Moroccan pastries to restaurants and caterers. Hassna hadn’t been able to find an affordable studio so they had a room in a shared house. The housemates were mostly immigrants yearning for papers. Sometimes the electricity worked. The kitchen was revolting and the bathroom stank of blocked drains. But they had their room and made it nice.
As he made his way home through the quarter of Barbes, Rali heard his own language. Shady figures collected there, selling drugs and imitation sunglasses. Every day, the atmosphere was tense and menacing, the police aggressive and suspicious. Every day, a Maghrebi was pushed up against the wall by a duo of officers, frisked and sometimes taken away. Rali looked down as he passed, avoiding gazes.
* * *
The next time Rali arrived at Fiona’s bedroom door, a man was there. A doctor? Fiona was sitting on the edge of the bed. He and Fiona spoke in near-whispers and she was nodding with a smile that looked at once knowing and sad. Rali hovered awkwardly, half turning to go.
“It’s alright, Rali,” she said. “You can come in.”
“I don’t want to bother…”
“Come in,” Fiona said.
She and the man finished their conversation. The man took his briefcase and left quietly, nodding at Rali.
“Could you help me to that seat,” Fiona said, her eyes skipping to the large wicker peacock-tail chair in the corner. “I feel like sitting today.”
Rali had never touched an older woman. His grandmothers had died together when he was a baby in a car accident. His father had been driving. Rali took Fiona’s frail forearm and she clasped her wan fingers around his wrist. With his other hand, he pushed gently under her arm and she lifted herself, diaphanous, to her feet. They crossed the room to the woven chair.
“We bought this in 1978,” she laughed. “It’s done pretty well!”
“Yes, Madame. It’s nice.”
“Now, Rali, this time let’s do some poetry.”
“Yes. Do you mind? I see you brought Leon L’Africain again.”
“I don’t know any poetry.”
“I’ve got something. Go over the mantelpiece. I think it’s there.”
Rali found the book. “Stevie Smith?”
“A favourite of mine. It’s in English I’m afraid. Find In my Dreams.”
“Alright Madame. I’m not sure I’ll be very good at…”
“Just get on with it, Rali. There’s no judgement between you and me.”
He opened the book to page 42. Fiona smiled contentedly while Rali read, with a definite accent, but fluidly all the same.
In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don't know what I think.
“Aren’t you glad they don’t know what we think, Rali?”
“I suppose so, Madame.”
“They really don’t know,” she added and looked through the eucalyptus branches at the window.
For a while they didn’t speak. Rali looked at the poem again, rereading it to himself. Fiona watched him.
“Do you ever write anything, Rali?”
“Not really. Well, I’ve scribbled a few things but not much.”
“Will you read something of yours next time?”
The silence was punctured by hooves trotting past and the call of the rag-and-bone man. Fiona’s eyes were still open.
“Don’t be too afraid to leave again,” she said.
* * *
November had embarked in Paris with predictable wet and gloom. In the evenings, Hassna and Rali would sit on their single mattress talking and eating unsold food from the bakery – pasties, crepes and so on. It didn’t taste like home but it was free. Occasionally they’d take a walk in the quarter where the streets were fraught with the pain, disaffection and the fear of asylum-seekers, inbetweeners. There was damp in the walls of their room, which they tried ignore by reading Alberoni.
This uniqueness of the other person actually increases when we fall in love. And it extends to us as well, in that our desire to be loved is caught up with our sense of being unique and even extraordinary, certainly irreplaceable anyway when we are simply being ourselves.
It was this uniqueness, their uniqueness, that made Paris just about bearable.
Until Friday 13th November, when gunmen entered a concert venue and shot more than 130 people dead, while others opened fire on cafes and restaurants. Bombers walked into the stadium during a football match. A synchronised, slick attack that rocked Paris into dread.
The city stopped. Shock. Their shared house was suddenly quiet, half-empty. Fear infected the streets. Rali felt nervous eyes follow him.
On Monday, the baker announced he would be closed for a few days. The city was in lockdown, state of emergency. But a week later, the baker said he didn’t need Rali anymore and that’s when Rali cracked. He pleaded. And when that didn’t work he lost control, bellowing and raging. And when that didn’t work, he stepped outside, desolate. He eyed the black-clad, armed officers on the street corner. He eyed the boss, whose back was turned, and he took the bike that wasn’t his and sped off in quiet, deft rage.
Hassna was incensed.
“You did what?” she cried.
“I took it,” he sulked.
“Are you insane? Do you want us to go to jail? Be deported?”
“Oh shut up,” he said. “What the hell did you want me to do? That cunt fired me for no reason.”
“So you….took his bike?!”
Hassna looked at Rali with a regard he’d never seen in her before. In all the faces she’d shown him
“Do you know who we are now?” her voice raised several pitches. “Do you know how we’re seen?”
“Oh for god’s sake,” he rolled his eyes and then began mimicking her. “Do you know who we are?”
That was it.
“Is it that I don’t recognise you,” she said. Her words were slow. “Or rather that I didn’t I know you before?”
“Fuck off and leave me alone.”
And that’s what Hassna did. She turned and left, livid. She left and she never came back.
* * *
Fiona was in the garden. She sat on a plastic lounger with green cushions. There was a tint to her usually transparent cheeks. Make up. But her face was drawn, her lips thin as threads, her skeleton finely visible through ashen skin. On the small mosaic table beside her was a long glass with pink drink in it, slices of cucumber floating between the two straws.
“Rali!” he smiled. “Here you are. For our last session.”
“Is it, Madame?”
“Yes, Rali. And the first time I’ve been in the garden for months.”
“Yes, very.” She took a sip of the rosy drink. “Kebir carried me down this morning. Such a pretty day. And do stop calling me Madame.”
“Yes it is. Sorry.”
“Did you bring me something you’ve written?”
“Yes, Madame. It’s not very good. I was always bad at writing.”
“I just brought one passage. Quite short.”
Fiona smiled. “That’s fine Rali.”
Rali read his clumsy words, both voice and paper trembling.
She may be cruel to me, making me suffer, but because I love her and I have so much affection for her, I don’t want to make her suffer. I just want her to be happy.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Fiona. It sounds like nonsense.”
“Not at all! Carry on!”
Love shows the differences between what is separate and what is united. Love separates in order to unite. But in the end, in all human relationships, there is dissatisfaction and deception. People may laugh at what I say, but that’s how it is. For me.
There was a silence.
“Are you ready to leave again now, Rali?”
“I don’t know, Madame. I’m completely lost.”
“That’s why you need to go. You need to travel. But this time, alone.”
She looked up at the eucalyptus branches, their tongue-like leaves stroking the old yellow house, the menthol scent hanging over the garden like soft goosedown.
“I have something for you, but I can’t walk far enough. You’ll have to carry me. Kebir is out.”
And so Rali lifted the tiny woman. A bag of precious bones, brittle as a burnt biscuit.
“Towards the garage,” she said. “Careful.”
He carried her along the dusty, worn driveway. And when her long plait fell over his shoulder and down his back, he realised it wasn’t her real hair.
Rali set Fiona down and she took three tentative steps.
“Open the door, please. It’s not locked. “
Rali twisted the handle and heaved the door open. Fiona steadied herself on his arm and shuffled forwards.
She turned on the light.
He looked. A motorbike.
That’s for you, Rali.”
“Is that a Triumph Bonneville?” Rali managed to pronounce, words jamming in his throat.
“It is indeed. It’s a T120TT, built in 1967.”
“A 650 cc,” Rali said, awestruck.
“That’s right. My husband and I bought it in 1975. We were in our twenties.”
Rali approached the bike like an explorer in a tomb.
“Get on,” she ordered.
The fuel tank was deep red and the seat black leather with gold logo. He climbed on, bending his body to grip the handlebars. The fenders, exhaust pipe and spokes shone, and in the round, glinting mirrors Fiona’s face beamed.
“It was on that bike that my husband and I rode through North Africa. It’s been along every stony track and sandy path.”
“I can’t take it,” Rali’s throat clasped for air and sound.
“Take it,” she said. “And go.”
They stared at each other for a few moments.
“You have to, Rali,” said Fiona. He saw her eyes dampen. “And anyway, I have nobody to give it to. We installed a storage compartment. There’s some money in there. Enough to get you by for a few months. Spend it wisely. All the papers have been transferred into your name. It’s yours. I’m trusting you.”
“But where shall I go?”
“That, I don’t know. Maybe you’ll plan or maybe you’ll just follow the wind. Just go. And the further you go, the more you’ll understand. We’ll never know what you’re thinking. But, eventually, you will.”
Rali studied the black-faced speedometer. 130 mph.
“Now give me a ride back to my chair. I want to finish my Pimms.”
Rali helped Fiona onto the passenger seat. Her breakable fingers held at his waist as he fired the bike up and took her along the drive, back to her pink drink.
He set her down, helped her onto the green lounger.
“That was a great ride,” she laughed.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Fiona.”
“Goodbye, Rali.” She smiled, laying back her head and looking up at the eucalyptus leaves sweeping the sky like brushes on a drum.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.
It was hardly surprising that, once he got himself elected mayor, Frank Volante would use his position to make money. I can already imagine what our cliché-ridden local rag will say with formulaic and disingenuous shock, “he betrayed the voters to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.” I’ll be counted among the cronies. Though it may be futile to dispute the label—it’s a sticky one—I’d like to point out that a crony is a pal of somebody powerful who gets special favors. What I am is an acquaintance who got shaken down. The public won’t much trouble with the distinction, lucky for me, the district attorney has.
My business card reads:
Heavy Equipment Broker
I remember my trip to the printers when I filled in the order form for two hundred of these cards, on heavy cream stock. I had just taken over the business from my dear, generous, gruff, late Uncle Albert. A very young woman put out her little hand for the form. It must have been her first job; she looked like she ought to be pondering a prom. Smooth red hair and freckles. Her cold formality suited her about as well as a dowager’s frock would. Not a smile, all business. “Next Tuesday.”
About the business on my card I had mixed feelings; in fact, it would be fair to say that all my feelings are mixed. I didn’t care for my profession yet I liked the sound and heft of those words on the card. Heavy is ponderous but also serious, like the cream stock of my business card. Equipment is comprehensive, open-ended—anything large, physical, and not alive would qualify, from a jackhammer to a tractor-trailer, new, used, rented, or bartered. Broker boasts strong consonants that convey confidence and has associations with substantial people like insurance executives and ship-brokers. Never mind the whiff of bankruptcy, the ghost of a broke broker, or a broken one.
Few people think about the complicated and ferociously competitive market I serve. Tooling down the highway they’ll see the yellow behemoths and whine about the delays rather than cheering the overdo maintenance or hailing the new road. At least here in the Midwest, what they all notice is the manufacturer’s name on the scrapers, diggers, and front-loaders. Are they American, Japanese, Korean—or, God help us, Chinese? The idea that their highways are being smoothed by something made by Komatsu in Ishikawa rather than by dear old Caterpillar in good old Peoria upsets lots of people and infuriates plenty. I hear about it. “Why don’t you buy American?” Pushed to the wall, I silence the angriest with applied pedantry. “Caterpillar,” I say, “has fifty-one plants in the U.S. but fifty-nine overseas. As for Komatsu, they operate facilities in Pennsylvania, Georgia, California, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arizona. And, for your information, they even make mining equipment in [here I pause] Peoria. And all of these plants issue paychecks to American citizens.” My lecturette doesn’t alter anybody’s feelings but it does give me something to say and a minim of satisfaction. At least, I figure, they’ll have to grant I[m a guy who knows his business.
I was a year behind our future mayor in high school. Frank Volante may have been an egoist who felt entitled to everything, but there was no denying his charisma. He could even be sweet, the way those who are never insecure can be with those who always are. Frank was one of those golden boys—popular, an operator, class president, starting left guard on the football squad. As for me, I ran cross-country (not very quickly) and went in for long novels, classical music, and especially painting. Frank’s father owned the city’s premier funeral parlor and was apparently the Rotary Club’s President-for-Life. Volante’s Funeral Home saw off the city’s elite. The family lived in a big Victorian house with a wide porch and about five acres of land around it. My parents ran a sweet shop and we lived on top of it. At one time or another, I hated Frank or envied him or admired or despised him. As I said, all my feelings are mixed.
Paul Parrish was my best friend in high school. Paul liked books and art too. I talked him into signing up for cross-country, though he was even less athletic than I was; I told him it would give us plenty of time to chat as we jogged. We could talk Dostoyevsky and Monet. Paul was long-limbed but slightly built; he was smart and gay. The bullying began in kindergarten.
The school ran an athletes’ bus that left at five-thirty, after all the various teams wound up practice. Paul always stuck close to me while we waited for the bus, always sat beside me. He explained it was safer than being alone. Our friendship earned me some trouble of my own, but nothing more than some guilt-by-association name-calling. Perhaps this was because I went on enough dates or maybe I just didn’t look as vulnerable as poor, mantis-limbed Paul.
One dusky November afternoon, a clutch of football players decided it would be amusing to go after my friend, to beat him up. I’d love to be able to report I stood back-to-back with Paul, defended him, even took a whooping alongside him. But the facts are that I edged away from him and there wasn’t any beating—the first because I was a coward, the second because Frank Volante deftly stopped his teammates. “Cut it out, you oafs.” Oafs, a word out of old fairy tales, that’s what he called them; and the brutes grinned as if it were a particular endearment. It’s not the sort of occasion you can forget and all by itself is enough to account for my mixed feelings about Frank Volante—and myself.
Frank went to college in the South then did some time in the family business wearing a black suit and a serious face; but everyone knew it wasn’t for him. He was too full of life, too gregarious and fun-loving and ambitious for the undertaking life. So, it wasn’t a surprise when he decided to run for City Council then, only two years later, take on our long-time mayor.
The Volante campaign followed the tried-and-true strategy of attacking the incumbent’s record, character, and length of time in office. New Ideas, New Blood was the aggressive slogan. He made a lot of promises and nearly daily public appearances. Many featured his wife Elizabeth, who had gone to Smith and looked pretty, superior, and ascetic. On weekends, Frank Junior came along. At eight years old he’d already mastered the art of being well-behaved and looking mischievous at the same time, a real chip off the old block. The only one of Frank’s promises he tried to keep was fixing up the city’s streets and bridges. That’s where Charlie Zlodic came in.
Zlodic was to be the contractor—alleged lowest bidder—but his outfit was small-time, not to mention dodgy. He didn’t have anything like enough heavy equipment, and that’s where I came in.
As for me, after high school I went to a university with a good fine arts program. I wanted to be an artist. You can imagine what my parents thought of that goal and their predictions weren’t wrong. With my degree and my limited talent, I moved to New York City, found a place in Lower Manhattan large enough to be called a studio apartment but too small for an artist’s studio, too cold in winter, too hot in summer. I hung out with young artists like myself, drank beer when I could afford it and learned to love bagels. I met some interesting women; there was a serious relationship but one of us was too neurotic. It lasted three months then failed. Then I failed and came home despondent and defeated. That’s when my good Uncle Albert took me in. A more honest business card would read:
Heavy Duty Broker
Is there anything more slippery than the self?
Uncle Albert taught me the heavy equipment business and that included a lesson about graft. “Avoid it whenever you can, but don’t act surprised if it comes up. It’s how a lot of business gets done, especially with politicians. Sorry, but it’s just the truth. The smaller the town, the more of it there is. The big guys usually don’t risk it or need to. For them, the graft’s already in the bottom lines. Just be very, very careful.”
The first meeting I had with Frank and Zlodic went smoothly, no problems. It was in the mayor’s office. Frank was all bonhomie. He said he remembered me from high school, though I’m sure he didn’t. He probably had somebody look me up; nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling warm when he said it. Zlodic I didn’t take to a bit. He looked thuggish; his mouth reminded me of a straight razor. A secretary brought us coffee. Starbucks, no less. Could I arrange for the necessary stuff on this list? No problem, I said. Could I give a price estimate? Sure. Smiles all around. Handshakes..
The second meeting was a week later. I was summoned to a suburban diner. Frank handled things as smoothly as you can while laying out something crooked as a bentwood rocker.
“Charlie here’s giving me a private contribution, in consideration of the size of the contract, and, well, we both think you could do the same. Your contract isn’t exactly tiny either.”
They explained how it would work: I’d up my bill to Zlodic by ten percent and he’d up his to the city by fifteen and most of the extra cash, ninety percent, would go to the mayor—for civic improvements, of course, albeit off the books. We’d get to keep what was left over, five percent each.
“It’s a win-win-win,” said Zlodic trying to sound jovial. When we got up from the booth, he slapped my back. He slapped it hard.
What to do? The subtext of that slap on the back wasn’t obscure. I could go to the authorities, to the D.A.’s office, and who knew what they were up to or in on? It really was a huge contract, a colossal fees for me; but somehow this only made things worse. I had bad dreams. In one nightmare I was back in New York, hurling brush after brush of purple and black paint at a canvas when Uncle Albert stepped through the door. He was wearing an undertaker’s suit. He glanced over my shoulder, shook his head and said, “It’s crap.” I was a mess.
It was the D.A.’s office that came to me. One of the assistants, Adlai (yes, after Governor Stevenson) Johnson phoned, set up a meeting in the lounge of a Ramada Inn, and told me they’d been watching Charles Zlodic for a long time. Johnson was a youngish man, very clean-cut and with a clear message.
“He’s done some serious things, Mr. Halloran. I Mean violent stuff.”
They’d also had their eye on the mayor ever since he and the D.A. got into an argument over some campaign funds.
“I’m telling you up front, Mr. Halloran. We’re going to indict. We know about the kickbacks. We know it wasn’t your idea, Bert. It’s the other two we want. What is it the French say? Sauve qui peut? If you’ll testify it’ll make our job easier. If you don’t—well. . .” His look was precisely as hard as Zlodic’s slap on the back.
I felt sick and had to go to the men’s room. When I got back, Johnson capped his case for my cooperation.
“You should know this, Bert. Zlodic got wind of our investigation. Yesterday, he came in and laid out the whole scheme. A three-way. He said it was your idea, Bert.”
What if I’d made it in New York? For that matter, what if I’d taken over the sweet shop, married somebody like that red-headed girl with the freckles? What if Frank hadn’t rescued Paul that day? What if.
I can spill the beans, get immunized and disgraced at once. I can take my chances in court. Maybe the expensive lawyer Frank’s no doubt going to hire can get us all off. I can also take the fall, which, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover, might be that lawyer’s strategy.
I’ll probably do the right thing—though I can’t claim to know for sure what that is. I’m already fantasizing about giving up on heavy equipment, selling the bungalow, moving away, starting fresh, maybe trying the other coast this time, taking a shot at fixing this botched and broken canvas.
Robinson Markus is a political science and film junior at Northwestern University. He's currently building Community Currency, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that seeks to erase educational inequities through the collection of wasted foreign currency. In his free time, he reads anything you put in his hands.
Don Pedro found himself in a contemplative, melancholy state as the train rolled through the vast, brownish countryside. He had taken the ride once a year for a short 30 years now. He enjoyed its repetitiveness –- the subtler insights one discovers on the 7-hour train in late September. The trip was etched into his brain. He marveled at its consistency, envisioning the beaten-down villas and downtrodden farmers near Aranda de Duero, the straight-shot to Burgos, and finally the color and flair of Vitoria-Gasteiz -- the final sign of the film festival's proximity within the hour. Don Pedro knew every sight and stop on the journey to the San Sebastián, yet he was afraid of everything familiar to him this time around.
The flat, dull Castilian land echoed the machinations of his brain. 2 hours of sleep. 7 hours left. He usually felt that the train's pace provided just enough time to gaze out and appreciate his surroundings; it affectionately fit in with the Spanish lifestyle. Although, at first, he struggled with a 3-hour chat before, during, and after dinner, he eventually understood why the Spanish value time differently. He had accustomed himself to, and now appreciated, the dangling conversations that meander throughout the Spanish lifestyle. Today his impatience ran up his spine.
He didn’t feel like sleeping. Aside from a yabbering elderly couple scouring around for seats, the car was scattered with silence. The British wife could hardly get a few words out in her harsh cockney accent before Don Pedro's fluent English met her broken Spanish. He listened, oddly carefully, to the two bicker-backer over the window seat. Soon enough he sat in an uncomfortably restless silence.
He stared down the slim, black bar that vertically divided his window's quadrant. Its existence was meaningless. It cut up the window, obscured Don Pedro’s view, and provided no structural integrity; he enjoyed it. He discovered cooperative game theory between this 2-foot bar, the tannish telephone poles of the Spanish countryside, and the jagged “kak” noise his car made every few seconds against the rails. As the window bolted on at 75 km/hour, Don Pedro’s mind played its own game. He examined if, at the exact moment the train “kakked” against the rails, his little bar could perfectly obscure a telephone pole in perfect synchronicity. A tad short of the pole. Tad long. Way long. Short. Short. Long. Upon perfection, he stared out without looking at anything, with a slight smirk curving up the right side of his face. With no prior reasoning, rationale, thought, or planning, nonsensical beauty was created purely within the confines of his mind. He pondered over the purpose of a purposeless black bar, amused by the miniscule, serendipitous boundary between pure reason and absurdity.
The ticket inspector was a balding, Spanish man in his 50’s, who appeared as if he had meant to leave his job decades past. He habitually lumbered through the aisles. Like clockwork, he would walk 3 steps, swivel his head to the right, and lay out his right hand without the slightest eye contact. After stamping the right side, he would automatically shuffle his left foot around and lay out his left hand. He did this 1,366 times in one day, and had little interest in the slightest alteration.
Despite the complete lack of personable engagement between both parties, the inspector’s visit put an end to Don Pedro’s little game. He accepted that one cannot stare at a window bar while maintaining sanity for seven hours, and so he did little more than stare vacantly at the seat in front of him. He felt sunken. His head raced as time slowed. His heart clamped inward. His shoulders locked up against his spine, and suddenly a shudder sprinted up his course, tightened back. His breathing was now audible across the aisle, his eyes widening with a manic, paced anxiety. He dashed off as he tried to run away from his head. He ripped the bathroom stall’s lock across the door, plunged into his seat, and cripplingly withered over himself. Why? Why did he have to be on this train in this state? His lifelong conversations, his decisions, his thoughts -- they had all put him here right now. His thoughts felt like trains speeding along in every direction until they all violently smashed into one another as a flurry of tightened, anxious tears burst out.
He threw water on his face, hurriedly, trying to break out of his situation. He stared, firmly, with a twisted, intense yet forlorn gaze into the mirror. As time continued to unwind, he watched his hands slowly reduce their quiver. His shoulders loosened up, his throat breathed through a full gust of air, and as the harsh stare of his big, brown eyes reduced to a gaze, he felt attached to himself once again. Consciously, he placed his hand on the door handle, exited, and walked back to his seat. After a few seconds of a tense reflection, he laid his head against the glass window. The rough, functional quasi-pillow reflected his condition all too well.
He wrestled himself up as the train pulled into its next station, and glanced at the master clock that towered over the train station. It was 11:48.
That luscious, light curl of brownish-blonde hair that danced across the right side of her forehead flashed into his mind; it fell onto his shoulder as it moved, ever so slightly, back-and-forth to Elton John crooning that “this one’s for you” as the two danced as one under the Chicago Skyline. He was thrown onto the dark, glimmering blue of Lake Michigan – the Navy Pier. The entire scene seemed to be a wedding gift from the city itself, perhaps a last farewell for Peter. The two stared out onto that water the whole night, joyously ignorant of any life direction, until it turned every shade of blue. She had been in the United States for 5 months. He knew nothing else.
She broke the aura of the evening, pondering the inconceivable, inevitable idea of an entire life together.
“It’s 11:48. Where will we be at 11:48 in 5 years from now?”
Tension rode through the tone of the newlywed’s words. A moment passed, as the young man locked his eyes into the water.
“Well –- I suppose -- when that moment comes, I’ll probably say... ‘Oh wow! Look! It’s 11:48! Remember that question you asked on our honeymoon? Well we made it!’”
He reveled in his self-aware ignorance, and she couldn’t help but smile and embrace the crazy, happy-go-lucky kid on that twilight night.
As the train pulled away from the station, Don Pedro asked himself why he had not seen Lake Michigan glimmer, shine, or smile for 41 years now.
His head had no conception of night or day. The car was rather full as he brought himself back into his immediate surroundings. Across the aisle, two younger Madrileñan girls, of about eight and ten, glowed with excitement while they battered their parents with questions. Why did the train smell funny? Did grandma have any presents for them? Which hotel are they staying at? Will grandma take them to the zoo this time? How much longer on the train? Why does it keep stopping? The girls and their parents, however, were not functioning at the same pace. As the mother closed her eyes for a half-nap, the father acceptingly turned to engage his daughters, diving into a fierce, joyful explanation of a tiger’s claws that gleefully terrified the children.
Don Pedro’s ears perked as he picked up English a few rows behind him.
“It lets you break out of the cycle, you know?”, said a young, rebellious voice that reminded Don Pedro of his fellow creative writing students during his DePaul years.
Another deeper, calmer voice chimed in, speaking in a slow, reactionary manner.
“We’ll always be in the cycle. It helps you recognize your place in the world – understand how you fit into everything that’s out there. That’s not breaking out. That’s stepping back.”
The first voice took a purposeful, half-second pause. He spoke with a rebellious fervor.
“We left the US for a bit because of the xenophobic, racist sexist who holds our highest office -- the vacantly-minded narcissist who ensures that our country is fucked in every imaginable way, while simultaneously guaranteeing that everyone on this train thinks we want ‘America First’ branded onto our foreheads. Yeah?”
He continued, with a newfound motivation and momentum.
“Exactly. We broke out. We came out here for classes for a few months. We ignored -- rejected -- everything inside our country. Acid does the same thing for the individual. It lets you realize how to pave the right way when it didn’t exist before. Escape everything around you to find what’s real.”
“You’re escaping the real,” a third friend interrupted. He spoke with a calm assurance. “You never get out of it. You just learn to accept what’s out there.”
As Don Pedro looked back over at the sleeping children, he suddenly realized he’d been eavesdropping for the last 30 minutes. Good – the more distractions the better.
When he gazed back out the window, a brown hare scattered across the barren plains.
What was its name? Doña Maria convinced him to buy it after they bought their two-room apartment in Malasaña. Whenever it twiggled its jet black ears, she would giggle, turn to her husband with her serene, carefree smile. Aside from that rigid white splotch that sprinted up its forehead, black fur ran down its face and camouflaged its eyes. Its color ensured he always forgot the furball existed until illuminating the room. It was quite an odd rabbit. Many nights, after the two got home from an exhibition, gallery, or shoot in the Cascorro Factory, they would sit down for a crammed, candlelit dinner.
They were living inside madness – la movida madrileña. Post-Franco, the young couple lived, worked, and breathed the artistic chaos that rumbled out of their neighborhood, which had never heard the words “status quo”. Their films were at the center of a skirting dash to get out everything that had been pushed deep down during El Generalisimo’s rule – sexuality, expression, and any drug you could smoke, shoot, snort or pop. It was a beautifully absurd time. The creators, the thinkers, and the doers all worked together whenever they pleased, and for the first time in a long time, everyone in Malsaña knew they were in the good old days.
Whenever they sat down at their 4'x4' oak table that they received from the coffee shop owner down the block who never took off his bike helmet, the cage behind them would scrim, skram, and skirt; the rabbit would slash its paws and claws against the locked-door of the wire mesh cage. It would clash its teeth on the bars -- gnawing as if it had never thought of chewing its way out before this very instant. Every night, for the length of a full dinner between the young couple, it would chew past the turn of each hour. The next day it would do exactly the same thing. Don Pedro could never tell whether the rabbit forgot yesterday's attempts or whether it practiced a blind, respectful optimism.
The day it stopped hit him like a brick. Maria had just finished on the set of Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, and she was working through a structure for her new screenplay. They both knew it would get the truth out about the HIV epidemic, but neither of them had any idea how. Don Pedro was picking up freelance writing whenever it came to him, but Madrid's business community didn't comprehend the merit of hiring an audiovisual essayist for press releases and grant writing. During the day, he would sit, alone, in his apartment, skimming through the papers for any paragraph that would get him a few Euros. He sometimes felt that the magic dust that clouded his youth was fading.
She came home late. As the lights flickered, frustration from a long day on set stomped through her boots. In a slow, surreal, flashing moment, they sat down and looked across the table at the person they found themselves with at 27. She brought back a margherita pizza from "Ay Mi Madre," so the two sat down in a dawdling apartment, occasionally interrupted by the opening and shuffling of the cardboard box.
"Did you find anything today?" Her voice uncomfortably trudged along.
"Sent an inquiry in."
A silence sat over the room, as the two, simultaneously, existentially visited the condition of their life.
She glanced up at the round clock that ran a minute early.
"Do you know what time it is on that clock?"
He looked up at the clock that read 11:47. A smile at the clock moved to Maria's glowing face -- a visual reminder that gratefulness is often forgotten.
He slowed time down. Something was off. His ears, suddenly surprised by the lack of sound from the corner of the room, drifted his focus over to their restless pet. It sat there -- in a seemingly pleasant silence. It acted as if, at a time when questions about the past, present, and future were spinning through Don Pedro's head in a manic discord, every atom in the universe had decided to unify to create this tranquil moment. The rabbit did nothing else but sit there -- accepting the present in everything that it was.
"Maria. I love you."
The brakes screeched –- Vitoria-Gasteiz –- 3 hours left. As the train began to board, a spacy, gawky man kissed a loved one a short goodbye as she disappeared into another car. He was wearing a mauve and black button-down with floral patterns sailing out and through one another in every which way -- a coke-fueled fossil of the 80’s that belonged on Hunter S. Thompson. He wore Lennon shades that didn’t exactly fit his stretched face, yet somehow they combined with the frazzled, uncombed black hair to form a strange, post-modern creative aura. After slogging his eyeballs over the numbers and letters in the aisle, he slid into the open seat to Don Pedro's left.
A tad more energetic, Don Pedro brought out his copy of The Road to Wigan Pier. As he began to ponder the American paradox between those who need socialism and those who approve of socialism, he drifted off with Orwell just barely within the grasp of his sliding, drowsy hand.
Orwell dropped to the floor as Don Pedro startled his head up to the right. He looked over the man's composure and complexity for a few brief moments.
He answered sternly; stress, frustration, and emptiness piled on as he re-engaged himself.
“I apologize –- but -- I could not help but to notice your readings. You speak English, eh, completely, yes?”
An .mp4 video was paused on the man’s laptop.
“Is the phrase, eh, to ‘spill the beans’, something you say ... normally?”
Don Pedro eyed the man's dark, greenish-brown pupils.
“Spill the beans?”
The man paused, and then spoke with more energy.
“You see, to ‘spill the beans’, it is the subtitle for the film. Is this a normal, ah, expression for the English speaker?”
Don Pedro shifted to the .mp4.
“Do you ... translate films for a living?”
The quixotic figure hunched his brow. He shifted his weight around, as if simply uncomfortable with answering questions, and reluctantly spoke.
“No, no. I am, the director. I question how the subtitle is appropriate for the film.”
Don Pedro focused on the man.
“Ah - yes, yes, it is said often. Are – are you going to San Sebastián?”
The Director twitched his eyes straight back to Don Pedro; his mind had just remembered it was still in conversation.
“Yes, yes I am. And you are to – Bilbao?”
“Ah. Well. The film, it shows tonight and tomorrow. I will be there for answer, a few questions tomorrow, if you would like.”
“Unfortunately I won’t be watching any films.”
“You are visiting family?"
A silence passed while the conversation carried on.
“I'm introducing a film.”
The director perked up, examining Don Pedro’s melancholy face with his own squirrely head.
“Ah! It surprises me we have not met. Which is your film?”
Don Pedro stared straight at the black bar.
“It is not my film. It is my wife’s – Maria Visgarret.”
The Director locked his eyes down.
“I – I – I apologi –
“It's ok. You couldn't have known."
“No no no, truly I apologize. I – the chance of a person such as, ehm, myself, starting this conversation – I cannot -“
Don Pedro sat on the Director’s words, and the Director swallowed them.
“Thank you. You’ve helped me more than you could ever know.”
As the heavy, bulky train doors swung open, Don Pedro felt present. He shook the man's hand and trotted off, insurmountably content with everything he would never understand.
Andrew was born in Yorkshire, England many years ago but now lives in Cheshire where he writes stories and contemplates his deteriorating faculties. Andrew's stories have appeared in the Scarlet Leaf Review and other magazines both online and in print. For many years Andrew was a librarian but now works as a support worker.
I am running, escaping from the horror that I have left behind. There is a monster in my house, a monster covered in blood, with fangs and claws ready to bite and to kill. I run through the empty suburban streets not daring to look around, or to stop, and now behind me I can hear his footsteps, purposeful and unrelenting.
I wake to the stench of piss; mine or somebody else’s? For a moment I am dazed and unsure who I am. Slowly I look about me; there are two sleeping bodies close by, both covered in blankets. I think for a moment and start to come round and leave my nightmare behind. I realise that I am Samuel, although that name doesn’t feel right, but that is what people call me, and that I am in the underground car park where I live.
My stomach feels empty, but then it always does, even when I have something to eat I know that I will be hungry again soon. It is always there at the back of everything else; when I am talking to people, walking, begging I am always aware how hungry I am. I stir and start to realise how cold I am, and I rub my arms and legs vigorously under my blankets, trying to rub some sense into me.
Gripper stirs close by me and mutters to himself briefly, whilst slightly further away I can hear Johno snoring. As usual Rosa is up and gone by this time, presumably she is at her usual spot near Covent Garden begging, stealing or talking to her friends. I feel a little warmer now and I push off the blankets and shake them before folding them up and leaving them with the rest of my pitifully few belongings in a dark corner, and going out to face a new day.
The car park has been my home for, well since I can remember which is not long actually; it looks and sounds like a cave, it is grey and green and every sound that we make echoes strangely. Everywhere there is the smell of petrol and rubber whilst in our dark corner this is merged with the odour of sweat and sick. Even this early in the morning there are a few cars above us, but none will venture down here until later when the rest of the car park is full. I do not remember even how I found this place; one morning I awoke and realised that I had been here awhile and I have gradually come to accept this place as my home.
Rosa and Johno have been here the longest, though both are vague as to how long that is, but then time does not mean much when you are on the streets. Recently Gripper joined us, an older man who I am very fearful for, he is so vulnerable and frail and spends much of his time drinking any form of alcohol that he can get his hands on. I am sure that he will die soon, and I hope that I do not wake to find him stiff, perhaps choked on his own vomit. Occasionally I see these, my companions when I am out and about in London, particularly Rosa and then we talk, but most days I only see them late at night when we chat between snatches of sleep.
Before I set out I make sure I have my book with me, tucked into the pocket of my big army coat that someone gave to me. The book is John Betjeman’s collected poems, a hardback edition which I try to keep as neat as possible and is the most precious thing that I own. I don’t know why I have it, but it has always been with me, and I seem to know the poems off by heart so that when I start to read one it as if I am reciting something from memory. The poems conjure up a different world; churches and guilt, wealth and Oxford, but somehow this consoles me, as if there is something better out there just waiting for me.
It is cold and I just keep walking. Once out on the street and away from the car park I try not to retrace my previous journeys, that would be foolish, and London is a large city and there are plenty of new places to go and to beg. My shoes are the worst thing; they look quite chic, well they did once, but they are now old and very uncomfortable so that I stumble along in agony, an agony almost as strong as my hunger. The shoes offer no protection when I walk through puddles or in the mud, so that when I get back at night my socks are wet and stained with dirt and blood.
I like to walk by the Thames and look out along the river, imagining what is out there. I want to leave London, leave England, get on a boat, and travel to some distant country but I just don’t know how I could do this. Gripper lived abroad, he told me of his travels in the Middle East but when I asked him how he got there he confesses not to remembering. I imagine guiding a small boat down a river, a boat with a large white sail, the sun hot and yellow, and there in the distance are fishermen hauling in fish, absorbed in their work. I am on my own and free so that if anyone finds me I can sail away to a harbour, safe.
I find a spot and for a few hours try to beg, but I get no money, not even food. Later I see an older woman wearing jeans and a duffel coat, she reminds me of someone, although I am not sure who, but I feel compelled to follow her, and anyway it is something to do. My mind is full of these half-remembered pictures which send me off here and there trying to capture what it is that I have forgotten. She walks fast and determinedly perhaps sensing that she is being followed, but I stay a couple of paces behind her just wanting a glance of her face which might help me to discover something. She walks into a small café, and as I have no money I wait close by, sitting on a damp bench.
When I come to myself it is getting dark and the café is closed; the woman must have left some time ago. So often I realise I have been in a trance and that hours have gone by; this is dangerous, I could be picked up and taken way, unresisting. I find a small park and sit on another damp bench. I have not eaten all day and so after awhile I go to a shelter I know where they give you food and don’t ask questions.
I sit on my mattress unable to sleep. Johno has found lots of newspapers and earlier he and Rosa sat reading them. I grab a pile and start to look through them. Sometimes when I am looking through old newspapers I see something, there is a flash and my mind briefly works before closing down again. This time I see a photograph of a woman and a boy, he looks like me, or as I would have looked three or four years ago. He has a happy smile and looks well-cared for. I start to feel upset and shut the newspaper without reading any of it, and then I put it on top of my damp mattress and soon I fall asleep.
I hear moaning and there is something in my hand that I cannot let go of. I feel fear inside me, there is somebody that I am frightened of and I need to hide from him. There is blood on me and I start to cry. I wake up feeling wet, at first I think it is the damp, but then I realise that I have wet myself. I take off my trousers and pants and hang them to dry and then shivering I cover myself in my blanket and watch the shadows.
There is a grey car that somebody has left overnight, I look at it and think of getting in it and driving. But I am not sure that I can drive. Gripper says that he can drive, that he used to have a fancy car, and for a moment I have a vision of us driving off somewhere, beers in our hands and music playing, but I doubt Gripper could drive anywhere now, that he could not even start a car.
Rosa gets up, slowly and quietly and disengages herself from Johno. They are lovers although they barely talk to each other. She told me that she was once a housewife and had a fancy house and a child, but things went wrong and in the end she just left. Her accent is Scottish, but she won’t tell me where she is from, or why she left. Johnno looks after her, he used to be in the army and nobody would mess with him. I hope that if they came for me one night that he would protect me too, but I don’t think that he would. You have to be selfish in this world, and to look the other way.
Rosa feels my eyes on her and she gives me a smile. There is still something pretty about her even though she is skinny and unkempt. I can imagine her wearing expensive clothes and a stylish haircut, she would be one of the people you see on the street who won’t give you any money because they think you will spend it on drink. There is only a small space between normal and us, and it is so easy to go from one to the other, well in the downward direction. Rosa turns her back on me as she alters her clothing and then I hear her eating something, chocolate probably. She is a good thief and it is chocolate that she likes to steal. She will leave some for Johnno, by the time that he eats it she will be long gone.
“Kind o’er the kinderbank leans my Myfanway,/ White o’er the play-pen the sheen of her dress,/ Fresh from the bathroom and soft in the nursery/ Soap-scented fingers I long to caress.”
I found some money, I don’t remember how. I just became aware that it was in my pocket solid and damp, so I went to a McDonald’s and bought a burger and a milkshake, I ate it so quickly that I had no time to taste it, but for a moment I felt warm inside and satisfied. Suddenly there is a man sitting next to me wearing a uniform.
“Hello friend” he says, “you look hungry.”
I nod, I distrust all people but people in uniforms most of all. He looks elderly and he is not a policeman. He disappears for a few moments and then returns with two packets of fries and pushes one over to me. I resist for a few moments then start eating.
“Have you anywhere to sleep?”
“Where?” I just look at him.
“I am sorted” I tell him at last. I must smell terribly, after all I wet my trousers (was it last night?) and have I been out in the rain all day so that I am very damp. I have been thrown out of libraries and another McDonald’s because of the way I smell, although the young woman who threw me out of the MacDonald’s did give me some more food and as she did so, kissed me on the cheek.
“You look lost” the man tells me.
“I am lost. I don’t know who I am. I have nightmares.” Then to change the subject I show him my book of poems.
“John Betjeman” he smiles approvingly and then he recites the lines about Joan Hunter Dunn playing tennis in the noonday sun.
“Come with me.” The man tells me. “I won’t hurt you and I will try to help you”, his eyes are grey and they look kind. I notice that he looks tired and it might for that reason I say yes. Should I go back to the car park? But the only thing I need are my clothes which I am wearing and my book. I should say goodbye to Rosa and the two men, but who knows what time they will be back. I finish off the fries although I am feeling sick, and then I set off with this man who I don’t know, but who for some reason I trust.
It is the singing that I like best in chapel on Sundays. Many of the hymns I recognise: “Amazing Grace”, “Our God reigns”, “Make me a channel of your peace”, although I am not sure where from, perhaps I used to go to church in my previous life. I sing along gustily, singing a hymn of thanks to God, but also to the Salvation Army and to Phil who rescued me and who has given me hope.
I had seen members of the Salvation Army on occasion when I was on the streets, or half-noticed them, part of the background to my struggles to survive, but I had not spoken to them as they made me scared. Phil says that perhaps I was not ready yet and that God had put him in the right place when I was. When I went back to the chapel with Phil that night I was shaking, wondering whether I should run back to the car park, to my friends. I could have easily, but something kept me walking.
They found me an older lady to live with, Betty Gray and then to my surprise they found me a job working in a Tesco. I could not remember my name, I was just known as Sam, but Phil sorted it out; got me a National Insurance number and a surname. I even got a bank account. I wondered who the real Samuel Phoenix was, perhaps one day he would come to collect my identity and money, but for the moment that was me.
The job was not difficult, going through the frozen food section and deciding what needed replenishing, and then down into the basement and into the big cavernous freezers and loading boxes of food onto a big trolley and bringing them up. At first I worked with a lady called Wendy, a little younger than me and very abrasive, but once they realised I was doing my job well and was honest they trusted me to work on my own. The only problem was my lips, the cold in the freezer made them peel, but I did not mind and one of my colleagues gave me a stick of lip salve which helped.
“I did wonder if you would come back that first day.” My manager Liz told me during my first supervision, “many of you brought by the Sally Army don’t.” She sniffed slightly, she smelt of mint and was pretty although rather skinny for my taste. “But you have done well, you don’t talk much, but that doesn’t matter. Continue to work hard and you could certainly get promoted. Well done Sam.”
I do not really want promotion, I had only been there a few months and already I was getting a little bored. Yes I am proud that I have maintained this job, that I get there on time, have never phoned in sick, that the other staff regard me as one of themselves, but I miss the excitement of the streets, and I feel a little trapped, that there is no way to escape. But this is a start and somewhere I feel safe. But then it might all come crashing down; some days I walk in and expect them to ask who I am, what am I doing in the staff area and then to telephone the police, whilst the staff look at me uncomprehendingly.
In the staff room they question me, so I put down my book of poetry and try to respond without giving the game away that I am not one of them.
“What football team do you support?”
“Forest” I reply surprisingly myself, who are they? Forest? But it seems to pass muster.
“Are you from Nottingham then?”
I shake my head, “I just like them.”
Then there follows a conversation about someone called Brian Clough who I gather is their manager and Teddy Sheringham who plays for them. I just nod and ask questions in turn so that my ignorance lies hidden. Some of the lads tease me in a good-natured way if Forest, my team, have done badly, and I try to follow their results so I can join in these conversations. Perhaps when they play one of the London teams I will go and watch them, it would be something to tell the lads at work.
I dream of a woman, an older woman with thick black hair and glasses. She is holding me, and I can feel her large breasts against me. “Andrew” she calls, “Andrew”, but that is not my name, and I am feeling smothered and scared. I wake up my heart is beating fast, and I am hot. I have wet myself again. I slowly get up, unusually I have remembered where I am. I hope that I have not woken up Betty with my nightmare.
Betty is a kind woman and one who does not talk much. We often watch television together barely speaking, and she never asks me anything more personal than what I fancy for dinner or whether I am warm enough. I am very grateful for this undemanding love but then I suspect that she has done this before and knows what people like me want and need. She has two sons, both of whom visit most weeks and treat me with respect and kindness when we bump into each other.
I gather up my sheets and pyjamas and as quietly as I can I walk down the stairs and put them in the washing machine. The house smells of air freshener and pot pourri; I hope that the smell of urine and sweat does not spoil things. It is three o’clock in the morning and I stay up reading some John Betjeman.
“Now with the bells through the apple bloom,/ Sunday-ly sounding/ And the prayers of the nuns in their chapel gloom/ Us all surrounding.”
Later I put on the washing and then have a shower. I eat some toast and go to work, just another man in the South London suburbs on his way to earn his crust.
“Do you want us to get in touch with your parents?”
Phil is in his office sitting in front of an overloaded desk, he looks as he usually does, tired as if almost overwhelmed with all the misery that he sees around him.
“No” I tell him. When I think of parents nothing comes up. Are they somewhere in Nottingham? But I have no desire to see them. I shiver slightly and blackness swoops down upon me.
“It is okay” says Phil, “don’t cry.” And he finds me a cup of tea, strong and black.
There is a service every Sunday morning in the chapel. It is quite a distance from where Betty lives but I don’t mind the walk. Different people from the Salvation Army lead the service, quite often it is Phil, and when he preaches he speaks quietly as if it is just you and him in the chapel. This morning the windows are open which is fortunate because many of the people smell, a few months ago I would not have noticed it, but now with my respectability has come fastidiousness and whilst I often talk to those being helped who have come in, swap tales and laugh at their jokes, I do not feel the same as them, I have become something better and I pity these people.
“You seem happy.” Phil says to me after the service, he had not lead today, but even so he had been surrounded by people afterwards, but he had looked at me, so I knew that he wanted me to wait for him.
I shrug, but at the moment I do feel happy, I have eaten and feel full and more importantly I know that I will eat again once I get home and this evening and the next day and so on.
“Yes, and I am very grateful.”
“You don’t have to be grateful, I am grateful to you for letting us help. I still remember you in that MacDonald’s so unhappy.” He smiled in fond remembrance. “Do you still have those nightmares?”
I nod, although they are less scary on a Sunday morning than when I face them at night and wake up wet and crying.
“Have you tried prayer?” he asks. The room feels warm despite the window being open and it is small or seems that way because of all the books, boxes and other junk that litter it. I can smell Phil, a whiff of aftershave or perhaps it is holiness.
“I try, sometimes when I am in bed at night, I try and I read that bible you gave me but I feel as if there is something blocking me.”
“God’s grace is open to all” Phil tells me, “no matter what you have done.”
There is a chair next to me and Phil comes over sits in it and bows his head.
“Please pray with me.”
I bow my head as Phil speaks.
“Dear father, please help this our brother Sam. We thank you that he is safe now and with people who care for him. Please show him the way to you in your infinite mercy. Show him that whatever he has done that your arms are open just waiting to receive him into your embrace.”
Phil then recited the Lord’s Prayer and after he had done he squeezed my shoulder.
“Thank you” I said, and I was grateful to him, grateful for trying, but there were no waiting arms for me. I felt that I was the same person that I had done a few moments before; I did not feel bliss or a sense of grace and love, nothing at all. I walked out of the chapel and said goodbye to a few people. Curiously I felt let down by Phil, perhaps I had discovered that he was human, that he could not help me with everything, that he could not save my soul.
I am putting items in the freezers at Tesco, bags of chips which we are always running short of. It is hot and I long to be outside going for a run on Clapham Common or maybe just along the streets. Still an hour to go, but I am happy. The job is quite physical which I like and I had a rather flirty chat with Marie a girl who works in the bakery. Perhaps I should ask her out somewhere, although I am not sure what Betty would say if I brought a girl back.
“Excuse me”, the problem with this job is that you are always being interrupted by members of the public asking where something or other is. There is a young man looking at me, well-groomed with smart jeans and a shirt with an understated flowery design.
“Do you know where the lentils are?” he asks, and then he does a double take, “its Andrew isn’t it? What are you doing in London?”
I look at him, not knowing what to say. Do I know him? I don’t think so, but so much is a blank. He continues to look at me, and suddenly his look changes, and he looks very scared indeed.
“It is okay mate, it can’t be…. Someone I used to know.” He hurries off and out of the shop.
I dream that I am going home, to a house with red bricks and a small garden at the front. I am glad to be there, I have been away for such a long time. The door is ajar and I push it open. I feel scared as I look in the dining room which is laid for dinner and the downstairs toilet. I know there is something in the kitchen so I go upstairs to avoid it, I look at my bedroom with rows of books including my John Betjeman poems. There is a room next to mine, I open the door, it is dark and there is a creature in there, and I am overwhelmed with terror. I wake up and rush to the toilet and am sick and sick again, and then I howl. The bathroom window is open, and through it I can see the stars, and I continue to howl, not knowing why I am doing it or why I feel so desperate.
It is similar to being on the streets; always looking, being aware, noticing anything that is not right. But now I have a rifle and armour and I am on the side of law and order, well that is the theory, but I am not sure that I feel any safer.
I went into the army recruiting office one day, just a whim really. I did not tell anyone, not anybody at Tesco and not even Phil, especially not Phil. They accepted me and I left Phil a note and was gone. I needed to leave, meeting that bloke in Tesco had scared me, I was getting too comfortable, and when you get comfortable then you are vulnerable, and I felt that I had got all I needed from the Salvation Army.
Yes I did miss Betty and I still think of Phil on occasion, but I have learned to let go of people and to forget them. Once I left the streets I rarely though of Rosa and the other two, never went to try to find them, they were the past and now so is Phil and his friends, no doubt he is helping somebody else find their way in life and has forgotten me.
Within a few months I was fully trained and then I was posted here to Northern Ireland. I became friends with my fellow soldiers; they were a tough lot, did not give much away, but we were loyal to each other and when large numbers of the population hate you and want to kill you they are precisely who you want on your side. I do not tell them much about myself, but I have constructed a personality of sorts which I can hide behind.
For a long time after I joined the army my dreams started to fade. I was so tired with all the training that perhaps I forgot them as soon as I was awake. I would stagger onto my bunk at night, try to read a poem and next moment I would be being woken up the morning light glaring into our dormitory, and some jumped-up officer shouting at us. I loved tiring myself out and learning how to survive. Only once after we did hand-to-hand fighting did I dream; I dreamed I was fighting, punching out at someone who refused to surrender, and then there was that name being called “Andrew, Andrew”. Fortunately we changed our own bed linen so nobody knew what had happened.
And now we are in Belfast, in Ulster marching the streets or driving in our armoured vehicles, watching the people on either side of us, knowing that someone could be planning to kill us; fire a gun, toss a bomb. I do not want my last moments to be lying on the ground surrounded by jeering mobs who can think of nothing better than kicking and spitting at a dying English soldier. I am scared much of the time, but then fear can be healthy.
I see a woman as we drive along; she is walking slowly towards us and as we get closer she catches my eye. She looks about forty; it is October and cold and she is wearing a green army coat as if mocking our uniform. I cannot read her expression but as I continue to look at her she raises her hand and like a child playing pretends to shoot me, I feel like joining in the game and returning her fire with my finger, or my rifle…. We drive past her and I continue to scan the streets, but the woman stays in my bed, and I hope that I will see her again, although I am not if I would love her or kill her.
“Had I kissed and drawn you to me,/ Had you yielded warm for cold,/ What a power had pounded through me/ As I stroked your streaming gold!”
There is a house I recognise in front of me and I am walking towards it. As I go through the door there is that same woman I saw today, she is making a cup of tea, and she smiles at me as nervously I sit down, and there is someone else there, but I cannot seem them properly.
“Is it poisoned?” I ask her, and then I throw it at her, the cup crashes to the floor, “stop trying to kill me,” I shout.
I hear her weep and walk up to my room and lie on my bed. Then I look out of the window but there is just blackness and suddenly I realise that everything around me is black, that I cannot see anything. I start to scream.
We are told to go to a house, it is in one of the Catholic areas of the cities; the house is part of a terrace and there is graffiti on it; “IRA”, “informers” and other words that I cannot read. I am with Matt, an older man.
“What are we doing here?” I ask feeling nervous. There are dribs of people about and most of them are looking at us hostile and mocking. Angel and Simon are close behind us, but I do not feel safe. We walk in, the door is open and there are members of the RUC there.
“Sorry” one of them says, “it isn’t nice but we need back-up”.
I can smell blood. The hallway is narrow and dark and the constable leads us to the back of the house, the floor is covered in muddy footprints and I feel guilty about adding to them. We walk into the dining room and in front of us there are four people sat round a table with something red on their clothes. It is a mother, father and two boys, the two boys and their father’s heads are bowed as if in prayer, but the mother is looking straight at me, her eyes brown and sightless.
I was on day release from the unit; my dreams had stopped and when my mum and my brother Danny had visited I had been calm and polite.
“Andrew if you start to worry, just ring me” my consultant said as he drove me to my home on the outskirts of Nottingham. There was the house from my dreams, I walked towards it and opened the door, my consultant watched me step in and hug my mother, and then I heard him drive away, he was going to pick me up that evening.
I followed my mother into the kitchen and there was Danny, we sat around the kitchen table just a normal family having tea. Danny was scared, I could tell and so was my mother but less so. We drank tea and ate Battenberg cake, my favourite. The kitchen smelt as it usually did of disinfectant and there were the same pictures on the walls; one of me and one of Danny, but the one of Danny was bigger. He did public speaking and there were a couple of certificates he had won, one of which he must have received whilst I was away.
“We are glad you are home” said the woman pretending to be my mother, and Danny nodded but not meaning it.
They watched me eat the cake and drink the tea, I knew that this was a mistake, this visit, that nothing had changed.
“It tastes funny” I said, after realising I had not said anything for awhile, and I stood up. Danny ran upstairs as he had been told to whenever I got upset.
“Poison” I said, “poison”. The woman ran for the telephone, but I had the knife I had stolen from the kitchens, and brought with me in case something happened, and I caught her before she could ring anyone, pulled her down onto the floor, and then I stabbed her over and again, something that I had wanted to do since I could remember. She had stopped making any noise and lay in front of me still solid and hateful. I wiped the knife on her dress, her best one that she must have worn especially for my visit. I felt calmer for a few moments and relieved that I had done what I needed to do. But I knew that I could not stop now, so I went upstairs for Danny.
I remember running out of the garden I must have grabbed a book of poetry before I fled, because there it was in my hand. And then nothing, until I woke up in that underground carpark smelling piss and sick and trying to remember what my name was.
My rifle is in my hand and I am sweating. I look at the people around me, the living and the dead, and realise that I am weeping. I push Matt aside and run out into the open where the air is clear and fresh and where I feel free. There are still plenty of people outside the house and they look at me and laugh as I stagger out and start to run whilst behind me I hear my name being called, fading into the grey Belfast sky.
At first I just run, to escape the house and my memories, but soon I start heading towards the docks, they are nearby and there will be boats from all over the world and perhaps someone will let me come aboard and take me to where I wish to go, somewhere safe and hidden, somewhere faraway, a harbour.
Susandale’s poems and fiction are on WestWard Quarterly, Mad Swirl, Penman Review, The Voices Project, and Jerry Jazz Musician. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan. Two published chapbooks, The Spaces Among Spaces from languageandculture.org, and Bending the Spaces of Time from Barometric Pressure have been on the internet.
Pogy’s Trailer Court, flanked with a grocery store on one side and a dairy queen on the other___ sat behind a major highway: Routes 6&2. There were five streets in Pogy’s with ten trailers per street: Karen’s trailer was the second on the second street. And in the back-est room of Karen’s hump-back abode, David was stretched out on a narrow bed with his elbows propped up to read. But he left Melville’s Moby Dick* when he heard Veronica’s Harley zooming into Pogy‘s whose entry was heralded by a sign that read, ‘Only Pogy’s Residnts Alowed. All Others Will Be Toad Away. That Means You.’
Veronica, the only girl that David knew who owned her own Harley, also sported creepy fingernails out to here and filed to sharp points. Painted purple, Veronica’s nails added to her fearsome MO. All the girls and most of the boys in Pogy’s moved out of Veronica’s way and quickly when she roared by. Though only five feet tall and weighing a mere ninety-five pounds, Veronica carried a mighty reputation for kicking ass.
Soon after Veronica va-voomed over to her trailer four streets over, David heard a car swerve in. Looking out the window by his bed, he saw the Donalds’ car pull up alongside his.’ He held his breath until eek, their car braked to a stop.
‘What the hell, they’ve pulled up to the wrong trailer: Karen’s.’
Though he waited for the Donald’s to drive over to their trailer; it wasn’t going to happen. They sat in their car for a full thirty minutes before they realized that they were parked by the wrong trailer. David heard Mr. Donald and the Missus mumbling slurred confusions.
‘Now, their car is starting up again.’ Closing his eyes in petition, he prayed, ‘Sweet Jesus, don’t let them hit my car, or ram into Karen’s trailer.’
Slowly opening his eyes, he looked out the window to witness the Donalds’ car: this time swerving away from Karen’s trailer with tires squealing. But when they backed up to change directions, they hit a section of rolled-up fencing. After driving over it, they pulled over to their trailer, the one next to Karen’s.
‘Alleluia, they made it, but, whoops, they left their headlights on, even as they are stumbling up the steps to their trailer.’
Though the Donalds were not yet aware and wouldn’t be until Monday, when they were ready for work, not only was their battery dead, but the fencing they drove over punctured holes in their tires.
Watching the Donald’s heading to their trailer door with stumbling steps, David thought,’ may the Lord be praised. Tonight, the Donald’s have miraculously made it home: I hope without maiming or annihilating any who may have been in their blurred path. It is, after all, Saturday night., and on Saturday nights, barring at Pogy’s is a time-honored ritual, as sacred to Pogy’ folk, as Sunday church is to Christians.’
Meanwhile, the twins in the room next to David’s, had finally settled down. ‘Their eternal, perpetual, perennial coughs are coming fewer now. After two straight hours of coughing, the kids have hacked out everything but their brains,’ David thought before he heard Rick stumble to the toilet. A steady stream of urine splashed, but Rick, being too worn out from the twins’ coughing to flush, sleep-walked his way back to his cot, pushed snug up to the baby bed the twins shared.
‘The twins need a room and beds of their own and I need to be gone, and so, as soon as I put together two more checks from Forces training, I will be exiting,’ David thought with a smug assurance that he carried around with him like a lucky stone in his pocket. A necessity, really. If he didn’t believe in his soon-to-be departure, he would be unable to get out of bed in the mornings.
Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. ‘This is the best I can hope for at Pogy’s: Pogy’s on Saturday night has, at last, mellowed out.’
He set his wind-up alarm for 7am. ’Tomorrow being Sunday, I’m heading to training again. And so it’s time to leave the leviathan spouting while he heads menacingly toward the Pequod.’
He shut off the pages of Moby Dick,* and pulled down a torn shade on the window by his bed. Pulling the covers around his shoulders, as if to shield himself from Pogy’s, Saturday night revelry, David thought, ‘and hope when I sleep tonight, I don’t fall into another one of my ghastly night-mares. Faces of the unknown close in on me, walls rise around me. Horrors all! My dreams tell me to vacate, like I did last summer when I split, as in out. Most nights, I slept on the beach. Sometimes I drank coffee at an all-night diner then drove around until I ran out of gas. I was away from Karen’s crybaby face, away from the pullout table sticky with cereal and curdled milk, and away from my half-brothers: Rick, and the twins.
The twins being part Cherokee, part White Horse, they are a part of me. I see myself in those two tots: eyes too big for their faces, ears too big for their heads, and half smiles that flicker around without settling. I’ll leave before they grow into those awkward parts, as I am in the process of doing. If I stay until they fit their faces, I will be a part of them, thus a part of Karen, and I’ll be beyond escape from the walls of this trailer that hold s me prisoner.’
A new sound emerging, footsteps coming from around the back of the trailer: clumsy, faltering, and coming closer. ‘A raccoon getting in the garbage can, or one of Karen’s jealous boyfriends checking up on her?’
Cursing, stumbling, bumping into things. “Be quiet, don’t wake the kids.”
Pushing the torn shade aside, David looked out to see Karen weaving towards the trailer. ‘Oh no, not again;’ he despaired.‘Karen is loaded to nth. There’s shadows behind her: slurring speech, too. Someone is with her; he’s stumbling,also, but who is he? Whoops!‘
Quickly, he dropped the shade. ‘They are directly outside my window and both careening towards the trailer door.’
Falling back on the pillows, he waited with clenched fists, ‘both are blind are with 80 proof. Will Karen and her swain manage to climb the steps and make it inside the trailer?’
Hearing the trailer door open, he held his breath. ‘The door is squeaking open, but I fear closing it will be beyond their abilities. Consequently, it will be left open to let in every creeping, crawling, flying, toxic critter at Pogy’s, and that includes Karen and her night’s lay.’
After lowering his feet to the floor, David padded down the narrow hallway with the intention of closing the outside door, but he stopped cold. ‘Karen’s yet weaving back and forth in the room with the open door. And, oh no, she has the worst of the lot with her; she has Sonny in tow. Oh, no, not Sonny!’
His hand flew to his forehead. ‘Both of them are lurching towards her bedroom while holding on to each other and to the furniture for support.’
In rapid movements, David stepped back into the hallway to hide in the walls’ shadows even while he estimated Karen’s companion: ‘Ah-hh, Karen’s tonight’s one-night-er is Sonny, the weathered cowpoke from a row over. Though deep furrows line his pocked face, and his sagging body is held together by blue tendons that wind around his tattooed arms and bony legs, his legs with knees the size of golf balls___ there’s plenty of notches on Sonny’s belt; he’s a babe magnet for the thirty-forty-something group in Pogy’s.’
David caught his breath and held it tight inside his chest. ’Worse yet, Sonny is married and his
betrothed, Dottie, is suspicious, vicious, and only one row over. No doubt, she’s waiting for her magnet man to appear. A standing joke at Pogy’s: Dotty trying to keep tabs on her wayward hubby.’
Back to his bed David padded with light steps, ’what if, at this very moment, Dotty is quizzing herself, ‘where is my Sonny-Boy?’
He rolled over on his stomach and banged his fists on the pillow. ‘Why Sonny?’ he moaned to the gods of fate. ‘She said she was going to Eddie’s and Eddie’s is crawling with Karen’s specialties, those flannel shirts under Texas hats. At Eddie’s, there’s three cowpokes for every cow-gal. On their Harleys and in their pick-ups, they roar into the red-neck palace to sock ‘em away until loaded enough to blow their balls with fists flying at any provocation … say, if another flannel shirt winks at their night’s pick-up, or if a cowpoke sits in his bar stool when they get up to boogie. And at Eddie’s, it’s a rodeo, rustling boogie: Texas hats on their heads, the cowboys lean over their feet and shake their shoulders. Now and then, a sexy shake of their hips. Seldom, if ever, do they even move their spurred boots.
Why Sonny, I ask you again, you: you, the gods of fate. Most of Eddie’s cowpokes are without mates like Sonny’s, Dottie ... a quadrate, sturdy, brawlen’ babe, she won’t hang back for a minute on “taking care of any little sluts gonna’ be dicking around with my Sonny-Boy.”
Both his teeth and fists clenched tight when David heard Sonny and Karen bumping and humping around in Karen’s bedroom. Unclenching his fists, David tried holding a pillow over his head and ears to shut them off, but the pillow was too small, and the trailer’s walls too thin, and too close to silence the spurious activities coming from Karen’s bedroom.
David so itched to knock their gloopy heads together to deaden the drunken tittering, the hiccups, and the slurred titillations: the most pernicious being, “Sugar Pie, you’re so darn young and purty’, I can’t believe you’re letting old Sonny love you like I’m doen’.”
David balled his fists and held them closed tight to keep him from scrunching Sonny-Boy. ’I’d knock Sonny around absolutely if it wasn’t ear popping. But a fist fight would switch on Rick and the coughing twins to their mother‘s sordid life.
Yea, and then the commotion of me and Sonny duking it out would waken Pogy’s , a-hem, upstanding citizens. They’d fly on over here and within minutes they’d be joining in the yelling and the rumbling. Sure enough, they’d put the finishing touch on another Saturday night at Pogy’s. Worst of all, the rumbling would be noisy enough to compass Dottie from one row over. She’d be seething and snorting over here to Karen’s trailer. And then would occur some stupendous moments for the whole trailer park to witness.’
Thus and so, David determined to keep the rage inside his stomach where he felt it flashing and zinging around like fireworks on the fourth. ‘How much longer will it be before Karen and her conquest clock in to a finish? Or maybe, just maybe, Sonny will flash on his bartender, wifey. Why, say, that would be excellent!’
When the remote possibility presented itself, David sat straight up in bed. ‘Yea, what if Sonny remembers through his eighty-proof fog, that not only does Dottie tend bar, but she doubles as a bouncer at a saloon on the East Side. Then he’d be scared out of his pants, or in Sonny’s case, he’d be scared into his pants. Why yes, he’d be so scared, he’d be his way out, and over a row to Dottie.’
Yet sitting up motionless in bed with his feet hanging over the edge, David continued to hold-his-breath hope that Sonny would be scared into his pants. To hold himself in bed, he monitored the time until he heard Sonny’s feet dragging across Karen’s bedroom floor.
A muddy snort before Karen’s bedroom door slid open. Clump – clump: Sonny, bumping along the furniture fell back into the sofa, and stayed collapsed within the cushions of cigarette holes and diaper stains. Slurred curses followed the booms and the bangs that propelled Sonny out of the sofa. Thick, heavy footsteps slugged toward the yet-open door; David heard him fall against it. Sonny cursing: David balling his fists, and the trailer’ door swinging back and forth.
At long last, David heard Sonny stumble down the outside steps. After taking a deep breath, he unclenched his fists. Peeking under the shade, he saw Sonny weaving past his bedroom window.
He thought. ‘Oh thank-you, Lord, for small favors; Sonny’s managed to climb into his blue jeans. T-shirt clad with Texas hat on his head, and carrying his flannel shirt, he limps along with …’ David’s head fell forward. ‘Oh no, Sonny’s spurred boots are on the wrong feet.’
He collapsed into laughter. ’A pretty comical scenario: Sonny’s feet pointed in alien angles: the right to the left and the left to the right.’
Impromptu, under the street light, Sonny zipped his fly.
Chuckling, David continued to watch Sonny stumbling along with his boots on the wrong feet. Weaving back and forth, pausing, and starting again to stumble along, Sonny braked his legs to a wobbly stop. Shifting from one foot to the other, Sonny was trying to figure out what foot was responsible for
his lack of balance.
‘A new drama unfolds,’ David predicted.
And as Sonny was struggling to right his weaving stand, he lost his balance. His corded arms flailed about when he spiraled to fall down into the gravel “What the hell!” Sonny whooped. “Gawd-damn and shit,” he bellowed upon landing.
His legs pummeled in circles: his arms jabbed the air when Sonny struggled to stand. Shakily, he rose in a weaving way.
David thought, ‘like a snake being charmed out of a swami’s basket.’
Sonny managed to stay upright, but only for a minute or two, only to fall again into the gravel. This time, he sat for a long time with shaky fingers clutching his head. ”Where the fuck am I goen’ anyhow?” he asked himself aloud.
He scratched his head. “I’ll light up a smoke and think about it,“ David heard him say.
But not only did Sonny forget where he was headed, but Sonny couldn’t remember where his cigarettes were. He sat in the gravel with a confounded look on his face. At last, he snapped his fingers. “Ah-ha!”
Remembering where, Sonny reached up to unroll a pack of Lucky Strikes from his t-shirt sleeve. Inside the cigarette pack’s cellophane wrap was tucked a pack of matches. Smiling gingerly, Sonny poked a cigarette between his lips, lit a match, and cupped his hand around the cigarette for lighting. But after puffing only a drag or two, he snuffed out the smoke with a tidy grind into the stones. He tossed the butt behind him.
David figured, ‘Sonny’s smoke must not be that tasty. Or maybe it is not so fun taking a smoke break in the gravel.’
Suddenly before Sonny loomed a mental image of Dottie. David could tell that it was Dottie who
popped into Sonny’s mind. Sonny was looking straight ahead like he was seeing a ghost. He glanced at his watch, but the time was fuzzy coming through eighty-proof. Sonny knocked his wrist with quick jabs and his head with his knuckles.
David figured that Sonny was trying to drive focus into his fuzzy mind.
Sonny looked again - “Three-forty,“ David heard him say. “Why, the old gal ought to be sawing logs ‘bout now.“
Straining to lift his leg, Sonny managed to hoist it up to his chest. But when he jerked off one of his wayward boots, again, he lost his balance. With a loud “Shui-it!,” Sonny fell over backwards into the gravel. He laid there for a long time.
David moaned in exasperation. ‘What if Sonny can’t get up? What if Dottie comes a barreling around the corner?’
But miraculously, Sonny came to with a “Fuck!”
Sitting straight up like Lazarus come back from the dead, he bent to pull off his other boot. It was with a mighty effort that Sonny weaved himself upwards to a wobbly stand. This time he managed to stay upright before he wobbled onwards.
‘Oh no, Sonny’s clean forgot his boots and his flannel shirt, too. He’s left them lying in the gravel, as he zigzags along barefoot, one row over.’
The next day, before the crack of dawn when a quiet hangover hung over Sunday’s trailer park, David recouped Sonny’s boots and shirt. He shoved them into Pogy’s, community burning barrel, and while the flames were blazing away last night’s evidence with the rancid odors of cloth and leather smoking up Pogy’s, David headed back to the trailer. He was more than ready to square off with Karen. He pushed the trailer door open to the flies and mosquitoes that flew in last night, and stayed to buzz around the kitchen. They seemed to be everywhere, sizzling on the screens, crawling across the sticky table, and flying around the cupboards, even as Karen stood numb at the table. Beside her paralyzed presence tottered the twins who had crawled out of their crib, and were crying beside their mother with runny noses, dirty diapers hanging low, and both babes holding up empty bottles to be filled.
“Hey Karen, you wanna’ trade a vertical Sonny for Dottie on your back?” David demanded.
Karen rubbed her eyes, somnolent, focusing on nothing, and staring into space with the void vacancy of an eighty-proof hangover.
Watching her, David thought, ‘she sees no one and nothing else, but herself.’
In a braying voice, she said, “Something about Sonny reminds me of your daddy, Davey.”
Enraged, David said, “You have the gall to say that to me, Karen?”
He dropped his head to an in-your-face proximity: so close that Karen fell back. He was so incensed, so utterly furious that his words could not travel beyond a whisper. “I am not Davey to you, Karen, and you better hold faith that Sonny-boy is not White Horse. There’s not enough room in this trailer for a fly, another fly, much less another set of twins.”
Yowling, Karen began to recite her old crucifixions.
David thought, ‘here we go again: ‘snowed under, desertions, married lovers, jealous boyfriends, my unfaithful father/ slash her cheating man, murdered in a bar. Caged-up, beaten down, her youth spent ... all that drivel.’
David snarled like the cornered creature he felt himself to be. “Don’t peg yourself on my account, Karen. You are nothing to me, I mean less than nothing, and soon as I scrape together enough cash for a deposit on an apartment, I am out of here: out, completely and forever. And damn, if I’m not getting closer to exit time.”
That’s what he said, even as he knew what would follow. She sighed, she cried, she sniffled, she sobbed. The twins joined Karen in her chorus of sloppy, sordid misery to awaken Rick, who then padded barefoot from his cot to the hallway between the kitchen and the bedroom. Standing quiet in his raggedy blue pajamas, he rubbed his sleepy eyes open.
David turned away in disgust, ‘revolting: Karen’s sniveling and play-acting at being tapped out. Verbatim the scenes when she told White Horse about her pregnancy with the twins.’
He thought further, ’I have got to move on: absolutely on!’
Stomping out the door, he headed for his car to drive to the Rieger Hotel for Forces’ Training: classes and physical workouts, of which neither Karen, nor anyone else in his acquaintance, were aware.
The Priest who comforted him when his father, White Horse, was murdered, had a childhood friend high up in Special Forces. Knowing how David wanted to escape his life with Karen in the trailer, he helped David secure the position as a trainee. David was more than eminently qualified: secretive, in need of escape, intelligent, and had no one holding him here: David, a half-breed orphan, more than fit the position of a Secret Service recruit.
Though languages came easy to David, judo and defense he dreaded, and Sunday was defense.
With Moby Dick in hand, he thought, ‘I’ll be early for training, but what the hell? I’ll read until it’s time to gear up for defense. Anything beats being here.’
Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
Ignorance Ain’t Bliss