The author is a husband, hobby writer with no training and around ninety odd publications including memoirs, genre and drama, bookseller; hiker and snowshoer. He was a mathematician and actuary. After many years wondering in the wilderness he returned to the Portland OR area where he lives with editor Sharon and cat Kitzhaber.
The Other Side Of This Life
After a string of losses, at last something good was coming my way. My wife of fifteen years had left me a month ago leaving me a financial and emotional wreck. Rather than a home cooked meal and a glass of wine for dinner as it was early in my marriage, I’d been eating bar food and drinking too much. My new assignment at Multipor magazine at least meant that my boss hadn’t decided to fire me.
In fact, it was much better than that. As much as my other woes were dragging me down, I could see some kind of award, maybe even a Pulitzer if I did a good job. I suppose that some didn’t see the potential in the story that I did. The research arm of XHSU had received a huge grant to find a cure for or more likely cures for cancer. I was to report on their progress, but more importantly, divulge the personalities of the leaders. Multipor magazine depended more on scandal and celebrity than science.
“It’s no cure for cancer” has been a cliché for something which isn’t too difficult, but curing cancer has been the unattainable holy grail of medicine for as long as there has been medicine. There are both skeptics and optimists about the chance of XHSU getting there. It had already made significant progress and had great funding and doctors. Still, progress was incremental.
The institution gave us full access. Their stated objective was to get more funding. My suspicion that it was also to get more press for some of the prima donna doctors was quickly confirmed.
I met Sheila Hopkins, the project leader first. Of course, I have to tone it down, when writing my article, but she is the coldest fish that I’ve ever met, and that includes real fish. The body language, her talk, her dress and her body all said loudly “I’m all business and I won’t waste any more time with you than I absolutely have to”. As quickly as she could, she outlined the approach that she and her staff were taking – find a way for anti-bodies to attack and kill any cancer cells. The problem was that the cancer cells ‘wanted’ to survive and had clever adaptations to hide from those anti-bodies. The approach that XHSU was taking was the same general one that had limited success with other cancers – ‘educate’ the anti-bodies with modified bacteria or viruses to break through the cancer defenses. No one approach would work for all cancers, but under her direction, team doctors would attack the worst cancers – lung, breast, ovarian and prostate first.
Hopkins was such a cliché of a frigid, anti-social woman that I thought that I must have gotten the wrong impression from our first meeting. Later interviews confirmed that my first impression was the right one.
After a couple of interviews with more or less normal doctors, I had the misfortune of interviewing a self-promoting asshole “Hi, I’m Jason Jensen, but call me JJ.” How was he an asshole? Let me give a partial inventory. As nearly as this ink stained wretch could determine, his suit cost over a thousand dollar, and his haircut, maybe only a hundred. He subtly or not so subtly ran down every other person on the team. He called Hopkins “his associate” when she was clearly his boss. Because he must have felt that was inadequate, he mumbled something about her “playing on the other team”, not that he objected. I believe that comment came from his alleged attempts to get next to her. He claimed that his two divorces were caused by work pressures, but the majority opinion was that he couldn’t keep it in his pants. Have I mentioned his cologne? Quantity over quality.
It was easy for me to invent an excuse to turn down dinner with him. I didn’t need any more of his wonderfulness and everyone else’s inadequacy.
Back at home I backgrounded the two most interesting interviewees. Hopkins came from a middle class family. At every level in school she was freaky smart. The only thing unusual outside of that was that her only sibling, a much younger brother, had died in an accident. That was the only thing that I could find that could possibly explain her blandness and lack of affect. Jansen was much easier to explain. His father had been a state representative with unrequited ambition for higher office. His mother had been the state attorney general. Hopkins earned everything that she got the hard way. Jensen made it by his parent’s influence and money. The twice divorced doctor profile resembles one of our former governors in some ways. I would bet money that he’s hoping for a repeat of that former governor’s success without repeating the part about resigning in disgrace.
Something was nagging me about the interviews, but try as I might I couldn’t bring it to the surface.
The next day I only interviewed Hopkins. I had decided to try to break her of her ‘just the facts’ attitude. My bait was to taunt her with criticisms from doctors at the University Of Spokane Medical School. They claimed that what she was trying had only had limited success and no potential. Grim faced as always, she said “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.” As soon as I heard that, my puzzle was solved. She could see it on my face and told me “You know I’m really busy, can we finish this over dinner tonight?”
I agreed and we set the parameters. I wasn’t surprised that she mentioned a place known for its discretion and privacy.
I must back up a little. Wife Ellen and I had grown apart after fifteen years. She had her part time accounting job, her social circle and two or three volunteer activities that I don’t even remember. Yes, you can say bad husband. I mostly drank into the night with reporters and sometimes availed myself of hookers before and after the divorce. Even though I deserved it, and maybe hadn’t loved her for years, it hurt a lot when she left.
A year after Ellen divorced me; I was solicited by an unbelievably attractive prostitute while I was out drinking. Tall, blonde, hourglass figure, husky voice, she had it all. I spent the most exciting night of my life with her. On our way out of the door, a drunk almost knocked me down. She shrugged and said, you guessed it, “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.” It struck me at the time that in some cases they do eat you, but that’s not the point. Remembering that night, I realized that Sheila is Sephora.
At dinner, the first thing that Sheila said was “Before I talk anymore, you must agree to two things. First this is all off the record and second, you won’t try any two bit therapy on me.” I didn’t have much choice, so I agreed.
“If you are any good as a journalist, you did a background check on me for your article. You probably know that my only brother died in an accident. If you were really thorough, you know that I was really close to Bobby. I was even kind of a second mother to him because I was ten years older. He really looked up to me and I got a kick out of helping him with schoolwork. Ah shit, that horrible day. For some reason, he was really bugging me. ‘Sheila’s got a boyfriend. Sheila’s kissing Johnny. Suck face. Suck face.’ At least that’s what I remember. I got annoyed beyond reason and yelled at him ‘Go play in the street, you little shit’. He gave me a really hurt look and ran out into the street without looking and was hit and killed.”
“I never told anyone why he ran into the street. I claimed that I couldn’t explain it. They made me go into counseling which is where I learned to hate the shrink industry. ‘How do you feel about that?’ ‘Do you have feelings of guilt?’ So much helpless, hopeless, useless bullshit. Of course I felt guilty, but I never told them the depth of my guilt.”
“You may think that my slut side is an attempt to punish myself. No one really knows why people do things. Usually we rationalize decisions and behaviors rather than understand them. No one knows what I would be doing now without watching Bobby die. My interest in curing cancer may look like I’m trying to balance my life by saving lives, but I was interested in biology well before the incident.”
As she went through her story, I was thinking just what she imagined I was thinking, but she was right about reaching easy conclusions.
“Do you have any questions now?”
“Quite a few now, but let me start with a simple one. I paid for your services. Why do you charge for sex? Not that it wasn’t worth it, but you don’t need the money.”
“Fair enough. In case you don’t remember, I didn’t ask for anything. You and some others think that I’m a whore and leave various amounts of money. When that happens, the housekeeper gets a very good tip. Next.”
“Sheila and Sephora don’t look, smell or sound much alike. How do you do that?”
“Smell is easy. Sheila is fragrance free and Sephora goes in for exotic fragrances. I lower my voice when I’m Sephora. Looks require a little more work. Underwear makes Sheila stick-like and Sephora voluptuous. I’m 4 inches taller as Sephora with stiletto heels and the wig makes me blonde.”
“How do you keep your lives separate?”
“My lives are separated by the clock. On the nights I decide to be Sephora, I usually am her from about 10pm to 2am. I never stay away from home all night. I live in a neighborhood where we all lead anonymous lives. We don’t have block parties or anything like that. I suspect that I may have some very kinky neighbors but they don’t pry into my life and I don’t hang out with them.”
“Are you Sheila or Sephora?”
“I don’t have multiple personalities if that’s what you think. I’m Sheila and Sephora is an act. That isn’t quite honest. I’m a little bit Sephora.”
“Have you ever had any continuing interest in any of your pickups?” After I asked this, I blushed a little bit when I realized why I had asked it.
Sheila paused “Rarely. Nothing I’ve ever acted on.”
I hope that I kept my optimism at her response hidden.
“Have you ever been close to having your cover blown?”
“Once that asshole Jason Jensen was at the same dive bar that Sephora was. I had to leave, because if he hit on Sheila, he definitely would hit on Sephora, and I couldn’t risk being identified.
I wrapped up the article a little later. While attempting to appear objective, it was easy to use quotes and information from various sources to make Sheila clearly the genius that she is and Jason the dick that he is. The words of others supported Sheila, but Jason’s own words sank him. The article suggested, but did not say, that cancer would largely be eliminated in about five years.
My article was controversial with a lot of supporters and detractors about my prediction of a cure. It ended up collecting a couple of local awards, but no Pulitzer, and I got a raise.
I’m drawn to Sheila / Sephora, but don’t know what to do. I don’t even know if it is Sheila’s brilliance or Sephora’s sensuality that obsesses me. I have the faint hope that I’m one of the rare ones that Sephora liked. I’ll call Sheila tomorrow and hope for the best. Maybe knowing both of them will give me an edge.
P.RAJA (October 07, 1952) a son of this divine soil, Pondicherry, India famed for its spiritual heritage, writes in his chosen language, English, and also in his mother tongue, Tamil. More than 5000 of his works – poems, short stories, interviews, articles, book reviews, plays, skits, features and novellas – have seen the light through newspapers and magazines that number to 350 in both India and elsewhere. He has 30 books for adults and 8 books for children in English and 14 books in Tamil. Apart from contributing special articles to Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature in English (London), Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature in English, and to several other edited volumes, he has also written scripts for Television (Delhi). He broadcasts his short stories and poems from All India Radio, Pondicherry. He was GENERAL COUNCIL MEMBER of CENTRAL SAHITYA AKADEMI, New Delhi (ENGLISH ADVISORY BOARD -- 2008-2012) representing Pondicherry University. He is EDITOR of TRANSFIRE, a literary quarterly devoted to translations from various languages into English. His website: www.professorraja.com
The first ever ghost story I had the thrill of listening to was narrated by my mother. Like many mothers, my mother too was a storyteller… a very good one at that. It is not that that she could not lull me into sleep with her melodious voice that still continues to haunt me even after I have crossed five decades of my sojourn on Earth; but she could keep her listener spell-bound with her gimmicks and also by her special sound effects.
She mimicked the voice of the ferocious wind and the rubbing together of the wings of the cicada. She knew when to be silent. And her silence was as dark as the night itself.
“Years ago when I was a little girl, I saw a ghost. That was the first ghost I ever saw in my life. But it was not the last ghost,” began my mother.
“What is a ghost?” I asked as ignorant as ever.
“Listen! Stop asking questions. At the end of the story you will know what a ghost is. Now listen,” she said with a smile.
“In those days of no electricity, hurricane lamps and earthen oil lamps served the purpose of driving away darkness. People who stirred out of their houses in the dark for one reason or the other, invariably carried a hurricane lamp in their hands. They also carried a stick which had a few tiny jingling bells tied to the sides of the stick, so that when they walked they tapped the ground and the jingling noise of the bells drove creepy crawlies away. If the stick saved them from poisonous insects, the hurricane lamps saved them from falling into ditches which were plenty on the path. And both the weapons joined hands to dispel ghosts.
“Once I had a stomach disorder, may be because I overate on that day for my mother was an excellent cook. I woke up with a start and felt the urge to ease myself. I didn’t dare to wake up anyone in the house for they were all fast asleep.
“I had to cross the backyard of my house, open the bamboo fence gate and then move into the nearby wood, the only place for all the people in the village to deposit night soil. Without making the least noise I tip-toed my way out with a hurricane lamp.
“The place was so dark that one could not see one’s own palm. I had to lift my lamp to dangle it close to my face so as to know my way. The wind was chill and as I entered the wood I could hear the music of bamboo plants. The fully grown plants were perhaps hugging and kissing each other and in their wild ecstasy making eerie sounds. Such a weird sound the wind carried on its wings was enough to put any newcomer take to his heels even in broad daylight. But we were accustomed to all such sounds even, in the dead of night. Our way of living demanded it.
“My mother being a highly-respected country physician, very good at treating bites, especially dog and snake, took her children along into the wood in search of herbs. This she did only after midnight for she strongly believed that the herbs rejuvenated only after that hour and were able to regain their power lost during sunshine. And we were only lamp bearers to her and she always encouraged her children to turn a deaf ear to all such intimidating sounds for they would only cripple our audacity. Creech… Creech… reech… those were the cicadas. Jal… Jal… Jal… Anybody could easily mistake the sound for tinkling anklets of a woman dancing or running. But we knew that they were sounds made by beetles keen on attracting attention. While such horrendous sounds would easily make many of my playmates dirty their underwear, we were really amazed at the courage we had. Thanks to my mother who instilled courage and hope into us.
And on that night when I went out to ease myself, the cicadas joined hands with the beetles. Since I knew the musicians of the weird orchestra, no iota of fear gripped my heart.
I sat on my haunches and then, woo… woo… it was the wailing sound of the siren from the nearby cotton mill. I began to wonder what time was it. Was it 3.30 a.m or 5.00 a.m? I could think of only those two timings at that odd hour. And I saw someone sitting on his haunches at a stone’s throw.
My lamp helplessly watched me screw up my eyes as I tried to decipher who was there. To my great surprise, the man I was trying to have a better look, stood up. He was quite tall with only a dhoti on. But for the dhoti, as white as a streak of lightning, he was naked. He had a piece of cloth tied to his head to resemble a turban. God knows whether it was his own loincloth, as men used to wear it like that at the early hours when they moved out of their houses to ease themselves.
The man who stood up began to move towards me. For every forward step he took he grew a foot or so in height.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was happening as if in a dream with a pinch of magic. Fear gripped me and the next moment I stood up, ready to run for my life. Who can be more dangerous than men to women at such odd hours especially at the loneliness of the wood?
When the tall figure that has grown taller than the tallest palmyra tree in the wood, developed swift feet and was just a disasterous distance away, my feet developed wings.
I ran faster than my fastest feet could carry me, though I was not sure whether I could make my escape from the long-footed and long handed apparition. Yet I didn’t lose hope.
My vigilant ears could make out the thud - thud noise of footsteps at my back close at my heels. For the first time I understood that I was capable of running without my feet touching the ground.
As I ran I screamed, yelled, wailed and cried. I had almost crossed the wood when I stumped against a root that stood protruding from above the ground and I fell. Before I could raise myself up I turned back my head to see if I had made my escape. The tallest of the tall ghosts was closing in on me.
My heart thumping louder I stood up and took to my heels again without even examining whether I was wounded or bleeding from the bruises.
I saw something stretching from behind over my right shoulder. From the corner of my right eye I saw a long hand trying to overtake me, perhaps to grab me.
I breathed heavily like a terribly tired dog. I did run, of course. In a few seconds, I reached the fence, pushed the wicket gate open and ran into the backyard of my house.
As I entered the backyard, the Sun too rose dispelling darkness. Huffing and puffing, I slumped onto a cane chair inside my house.
My mother who had just finished drawing her usual mammoth kolam in the front yard of the house, made her appearance with a broom in one hand and an empty pitcher in the other.
Seeing my plight she dropped the pitcher and the broom to the floor and cried: “Eh… eh…eh! What happened?”
With a wave of my hand I motioned her to wait for a few seconds. She gave me an inquisitive look. I was still gasping for breath. It took quite a long time for me to breath normal and I saw my mother helplessly watch my plight.
I rehearsed to her from a to z, with bulging eyes and with a frightened face.
On hearing my story with rapt attention my mother laughed like a shower of granites falling on a hot tin roof.
“Oh! That’s only a shit eating ghost. Nothing to fear. It chased you to pull the shit out of you. And you, out of sheer fear, indirectly refused to give the needy ghost what it wanted” she again broke into a guffaw, while I fell to the floor with a thud.
I was told later that I swooned. And no amount of water splashed on my face and later poured on my head ever brought me back to my senses till the temple poojari came home, with a bunch of neem leaves and a pouch full of ash.
The poojari took a fistful of ash, recited mantras and then blew it on to my face. I must have looked like a white apparition. The bunch of neem leaves in his hand in the first round served as a fan on my face but in the second round metamorphosed itself into a whip. Every blow fell in my face like pinpricks with a sharp slashing sound. It gave me excruciating pain. The leaves that tore away from the bunch fell pell-mell, reminding me of a battlefield full of mutilated bodies of soldiers.
I stood up and made preparations to run away from the scene. But the poojari was all alert and he caught me by my long hair and forced me sit. I began to scream in pain.
“Huh!... Is it that much painful? Then leave this girl and go away this very moment. You don’t know how cruel I could be towards spirits like you? Now tell me where are you from? And who are you?” howled the poojari.
“Believe me… I am no spirit. I am a live girl… I am Saguntala… And I am from this house. Don’t torture me, please”, I pleaded with the poojari.
The merciless poojari raised his voice a few decibels and said: “You are a first rate liar. You better keep away from this little girl or else I know how to pull you out of her body and throw you back into your den. Go away before I do it for you.” He then roared at the pitch of his voice “Quick! Quick… be quick… else you can’t even get into your world again. I will nail you to a tree. You will be doomed for ever.”
I was in a fix. I was not sure what the poojari would do to me.
A few months before this incident took place. I saw him brand a girl of my age with a red hot iron, all with the purpose of exorcising the evil spirit that was reportedly haunting her. She fell down with a thud and swooned. The poojari took a camphor, ignited it and placed it in the palm of his right hand. He then drew three circles in the air all the time reciting mantras and finally tossed the burning camphor into his wide opened mouth – He leaned back and smiled. Slowly his smile turned into laughter till it became an uproarious one at that. “Ha… Ha… Ha… Ha…”
When everyone was looking askance at the poojari he howled in a thunderous voice: “I have won you… I have won you. You ‘ll be in my den forever as my slave.”
Having witnessed such a scene before, a ruse flashed across my mind. I cried in a loud tone: “Oh, no! oh, no! Don’t brand me again with that red hot iron. I can’t bear it anymore. You are the cruelest of exorcists I have ever seen in my life. Leave me to myself. I am going… I am gone.”
I fell down and swooned. The poojari didn’t know that I was pretending; neither did any one in the crowd enjoying the scene.
“I know… I know who you are. You must be the same spirit that I drove out a few weeks ago.” He then finished his preliminaries of lighting camphor, reciting mantras and then gobbling it up. After his customary uproarious laughter, he said in his guttural voice: “I have won you… I have won you again. But this time I’ll show no mercy to you. No mercy for the adamant spirit.” So saying, he held me by my hair and pulled out as many as he could ‘in one go’.
I stomached the pain, woke up with a start and innocently and ignorantly looked for my mother. She came rushing towards me and took me into her ever loving affectionate hands, and showered kisses on my forehead and cheeks.
“She is quite normal now. You can take her home,” said the poojari and blew a handful of ash onto my head and face.
“That was how I made my great escape from the cruel hands of the poojari. In fact, poojaris are crueler than the haunting spirits,” said my mother and heaved a sigh.
I was not ready to leave her at that. I became more curious than ever and asked: “What would the poojari do with the strand of hair he had pulled out of my head?”
“Oh, that! That he would take to the nearby palmyra tree with no companions. He would have the strand of hair nailed into the tree. By doing such a thing he made us believe that he had saved us from an impending disaster. For all such acts of exorcism, he charged a cockerel and a big fat hen. Above all we had to pay him 4 annas.
Years later when I rehearsed my mother’s experience with a ghost and a poojari to my uncle Samarapuri, he came out with his weird experience with a ghost.
Samarapuri was dark complexioned, short statured but well built. He was not visible in the dark unless the moon, particularly chose him to shower her cool rays. He himself would easily pass for an apparition in the midst of people who see him for the first time. Most often he was seen with his clean white dhoti kilted up and he hated to put on any shirt. He had a white towel which went round his hip when he was at work in the paddy field. The very same towel covered his torso when he moved around the village on business errands. And the same towel became his headgear when he sat on branches of trees eating their fruits, already tasted and abandoned by squirrels.
He spent the nights on the big broad pyal of my grandma’s palatial house. Adjacent to the house ran a lane that led to the wood, the very same wood my mother had bitter experiences with the shit-eating ghost.
Samarapuri was asleep when he heard someone call him by his name. The voice sounded as though it came from the other world and he cared a hair for it. The voice sounded again and this time it was louder than before. When he realized that the call was from his father, he woke up with a start.
He sat up. He saw his father standing on the muddy road. He squeezed his eyelids and looked at his father again.
“Hei! Come on…Light up that lantern by your side and bring it along,” said his father.
“Where are we going, pa?” It was the innocent Samrapuri.
“I feel uneasy in the stomach. I need to go to the woods to ease myself. Give me company. Bring with you the burning lantern,” said his father.
Samarapuri looked around. The parading Moon was quite bright, trying its best to show everything in its proper shape and colour as the sun would during his duty hours. “The moon is so bright… Why do you need me at this hour?” asked the impertinent Samarapuri.
His father didn’t answer.
“Who can be a better companion then the Moon? Pa! On many occasions like this when I asked for your company, you gave me the lantern and advised me not to be afraid of the dark and face the world as a man should… And now you need my company eh! Ha! Ha! Ha! What a funny world? Ha! Ha! Ha!” Samarapuri laughed. His father too as if he wanted to digest his son’s dig laughed uproariously.
“Hei! Come on…This is no time for joke…Bring the lantern along,” he said and moved away quite fast.
Samarapuri simply obeyed. He took the lantern and raised the wick a little up so that there could be more light and began walking behind his father nurturing no grudge.
Poor Samarapuri couldn’t cope with his father’ speed as his steps were quite long and fast. In fact, he was fleeing. Samarapuri was almost running after his father with the lantern dangling from his left hand.
“Why is he moving so fast?” Samarapuri asked himself. “He must be really sick,” he answered his own question. Seconds later, he thought why that old man was not stopping to ease himself. His father was not of that type to shy away from human presence or hide behind trees to answer nature calls. He never even bothered about the presence of women, when his bladder declared emergency. Why should such a man go farther and farther into the wood and that too at dead of night? Was he afraid of the moon playing hide and seek amidst the fluffy cotton bale like clouds?
The cicadas all of a sudden began to chirp and a stray owl on wings let out two blood-curdling hoots. The frogs began to crock and sent jitters down my spine. “I was scared of croaking frogs because those ignoramuses do not in the least know that they were inviting trouble. Their croaking is simply a dining bell for snakes. And when snakes rush for their food, they do not spare the human trespassers,” sermonized Samarapuri.
Oh! Is that the reason why Samarapuri’s father was moving with such long and fast steps?
Samarapuri had the shock of his life, when he saw his father cross a well without any effort.
A well in the wood! Surprising indeed! No one knew when the well was dug and for what reason! During rainy days, rain water found its way into the well and filled the huge well. Since, it had a ground level mouth, many stepped into it unaware of its existence. They never came back alive to tell any story about it. But people concocted several stories about the well with the spirits and the goblins that were haunting it.
Samarapuri was shocked to his coccyx bone because no human being would ever be able to cross that huge mouthed well without falling into it. Stunned he stood, this time gazing at his father’s amazing activity. But his father was going ahead, without even turning his head once to see if his son was following him or not.
How did his father cross that wide mouthed huge well with little or no effort when no one else escaped from its mouth?
The very thought was enough to make him freeze. And he froze.
As Samarapuri finished narrating his story, I was still in a fix for I was not sure what he saw and what was it that made him freeze.
I gave him an inquiring look. Samarapuri read my curiosity filled eyes. He wound up the tale by saying: I froze because I realized that my father died long ago when I was still in my teens.
It was time for me to freeze.
I have always been concerned about civil rights and justice. Once released from the military, I went for a PhD and got involved in the anti war movement. While a professor at UT, Austin, I was a cofounder of the Texas chapter of the Vietnam Vets Against the War. Recent discussions about Black Lives Matter and the anger reflected in Trump’s events brought back memories of earlier times. That birthed this sketch. For 40 years I was a professor of ‘behavioral economics,’ a mathematical and experimental sort of social science and philosophy, mainly at the University of Maryland. I retired to invent worlds and put them on paper. I mainly write stories and poems. I have submitted very few and published some. Much is on my website:http://gvptsites.umd.edu/oppenheimer/id43.htm
Bus Rides and Destinations
You’d probably be wondering how you got into my mind. I mean, sure, we had our days. Some nights too. Once you’da laughed if I added that. But that’s a long time ago. Lotta water under those bridges. That river flowing has me with kids. Four. Even grand kids. A nice house. Even retired. Gotta wife. Good marriage. Second one, actually. Two cars. Big house. Did I say that already? I know your response. You’d say, “No problems, if that’s what you want.”
But there’s lots kicking around to occupy the cerebellum as the shrink might say. Not that you’d give a damn. You must have a big portfolio on your hands too. Just different. Mine’s straight suburban. It’s what I want. You’d have turned your back. If you hadn’t done so earlier.
I’m at a bar. It’s not full or anything. I mean, some people at a few tables here and there. I don’t usually go drinking in the afternoon . . . by myself. But, you know, sometimes. Joan is out with some friends for lunch, so I walked downtown.
Downtown has pretty much shriveled up just like the rest of this hell-hole since the market fell apart. That doesn’t seem to have hurt the bar any. Anyhow, it’s hot out. And the sun is much too bright. Especially for May. I forgot my shades. Didn’t used to need ’em. Did I? But age does a trip on your eyes. Your joints too (no pun intended).
So I was looking for a cool and dark place. And I was passing Mort’s. So I came in. Started with a couple of beers. Then asked for a scotch as a chaser. The barkeep said he only had Teacher’s – cheap stuff.
Hadn’t had one of those since we downed them together. And so you popped right up. Fifty five years ago by my watch. That got my head going back to those days. Sort of accidental. Not nostalgia or anything. I don’t stay reflective. Never did, did I?
But still, I wonder about our end. Was it all about how I chickened out while you, being you, had the guts to sign on? I guess you thought I sort of failed the moral test. Well, sometimes I can see that side. You look at these years, and think I chose wrong . . . ought to have known better.
But that’s crap. I do my share. What would you demand, atonement? There is no atonement. Even if there were, to whom? To the rest of society? Hell, I’m not Black. I never had relatives in the South. My family had just come over. They were running from Hitler. You know that. I had no skin in the game.
Of course, you could have said the same.
I remember seeing those posters on campus, talking with you about it. We were in the cafeteria, weren’t we? We were interested. I suggested going to the recruitment talk together. We weren’t committed, just interested. Sympathetic. At least that’s what I felt. So we went to the student union instead of that Bergman flick.
There we were, listening. Some guys from Columbia telling us, “We had an obligation.” They talked about the importance of doing something. They were saying “It’s your job. You can make it happen. You can change this world.” They said the buses would be going to New Orleans. We could sign up as a group and stay together. I even remember having my arms around you. You whispered, “We’ll take the bus together.”
They said we’d be going through all these small towns, like Crackerville, Rebelton. Those kind of places.
So then I asked, “Hey man, is this gonna be safe?” Everyone laughed. I mean, I didn’t. I was serious. You laughed. Then you turned. I figured you were going to give me a kiss. You had this bemused look on your face. I remember it well. You took in that I was serious. Then you pulled away.
You just walked to a window sill on the other side of the room. You sat there. What were you thinking, “I thought I knew him?”
The recruiters finished their talk and the questions were done. People signing up or not. You’re in the sign up line. I walked over to talk to you. But you just started talking with this woman in back of you. Started as soon as I opened my mouth. Pretended to not even know who I was or even that I was talking to you. You never so much as acknowledged my existence after that moment.
I watched those buses get burned and people get beaten up. It was all on TV. Couple of times I saw you. Once you had bandages all over your head. I wrote you. Even called your parents. But to you, I was dead. Dead.
I mean, I got over it. Thought about it a lot those days. Changed majors. Accounting. You’d have laughed me out of your life over that. Probably. I wasn’t cut out to be in your revolution. Especially later. All that feminism bullshit. Then that gay stuff. I mean, you screamers just wanted to roll over people like me. Many times. You thought guys were losers. Well, guess what? Not me. I’m still a fighter. I’m still punching.
I’d bet my Mercedes you went to Ferguson. Why? Some imagined injustice? Me? I’m a proud supporter of the Police Benevolent Foundation. Nationally too. They protect my ass.
We got a black president. That’s something. Don’t tell me we don’t change.
Anyhow, I don’t drink Teacher’s. It’s just expensive dish water. Instead, I’m leaving and walking home.
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Above the quietness of this little high hollow spot the high pitched call of a Red Tailed Hawk brings my eyes to the sky. Taking a break from the garden work, I watch the large bird float about on the updraft. There is something about watching a hawk on the wing. It draws up a feeling of freedom from the gut. Like hot smoke up a cold flue, it comes naturally, un-worked. Nice. But, telling myself that this sod is not going to get busted if I stand here and look to the sky, I start to go back to breaking up the clumps of dirt. That’s when I see Julie Lewis walking up the dirt road. Dressed in simple jeans, an old hooded jacket, and sneakers, she crosses the little footbridge over the creek and right up to the garden. Stumbling while crossing the clumps of dirt, her unsteadiness betrays her weariness, and I know that she has walked a ways to get here. Big brown eyes present to mine with a sincerity that is not that common around here. Around here it’s mostly lore or ribald tales of one kind or another with a kind of sincerity that is saved for after the punch line. Like an innocent look with an “I swear to God” kicker. Perhaps most real sincerity is too soft for the hard sticks of this part of Appalachia. But even tired, those haunting eyes in a face too young for wrinkles, together with her long coal black hair and comely figure make Julie an attractive woman.
The last time I saw her was right after she married a guy from the next hollow over. I knew then that it wouldn’t last. One day when I was visiting the area to look at some of their goats, her husband, Jack, was at work and I hit on her. She liked it at first but when I tried to take her pants off she got cold feet and put an end to it. A little surprised that she had gone that far, I knew then that it was another one of those marriages that happen in this land of scarcity. I left on friendly terms with her and with a little more respect, though I knew her hardly at all. Just that, like me, she had come into this area from somewhere else.
At first I smile as Julie just stands there for a moment. But her face is so serious that it quickly melts my expression. Did my pass at her cause trouble that is now coming home to roost? As if to reassure me about that, she finally says, “Don’t worry, nobody knows that you came on to me.” Seeming to try to put together her thoughts while I quietly watch, she looks to the busted earth, bends down, and fingers an earthworm from the broken ground. Watching it wiggle in her palm for a moment, she drops it aside, stands and seems to brace for some kind of hurt.
“You’ve got no phone, Richard,” she says, “else I would have called. So you can take the seriousness of my being here by the number of miles I’ve walked.”
Thinking that this is the first normal talk that I’ve ever heard from Julie, and at the same time recognizing the intelligence and poise that she brings to it, I try to be encouraging, something I‘m not used to.
“Yes, I can see that,” I say. “I sure hope you're about to tell me what brings you so far up this way. Is there something that you need some help with?”
Her eyes never leaving mine, like they are locked there by her need to miss nothing, Julie replies, “Jack and I didn’t make it. I think you knew that we wouldn’t. Else why would you have acted toward me the way you did.”
Pausing and lifting her eyebrows, Julie makes her point before continuing.
“I don’t know anybody other than you who is not a friend of Jack’s. I could tell when you tried to bed me that you were not a violent person. From the ways I’ve been, that is no small matter. Can I live with you?”
Having gotten out what she carried miles to say, Julie steps back a couple of paces and looks to the ground.
Never in my days have I been called upon under such circumstances and, though it has been plenty lonely around here, all of a sudden that doesn’t seem the bane that it was. When stacked beside a mismatch with another human being, it’s suddenly small potatoes. But in this land of obscurity and want, there is in Julie and the way she touches me, something that tells me not to run from what isn’t there. Dropping the hoe and feeling a favor pretty uncommon in my life, I say, “Let’s go inside Julie. There’s coffee, not so good, but coffee just the same. And you should see the innards of this place before we go any further.”
I can imagine the edge of Julie’s lips turning the smallest amount. As we walk toward the house we exchange glances, both of us continuing to inspect one another a bit. Trying to bring a little lightness to the situation, I offer up a pretty common question around here.
“Where you from, girl? Your speech and manner are not from around here.”
“New York,” she replies. “Where are you from?”
“Just a couple of mountain ranges over,” I say, “in the Coal River Valley, little place called Dorothy, not big enough for a stop light.”
As we cross the yard my two beagles are all noses and whipping tails as they inspect Julie. A good sign that she acknowledges with a couple of pets and kind words.
“Is that New York City?” I ask as we climb the two steps to the rough back porch and kitchen door.
“Brooklyn,” she replies.
Moving in with her cardboard suitcase, Julie takes up the little cot in my spare room where I keep most of my gun collection. For the first week or so we sort of get used to having each other around. She is good with the little wood stove and up before me to start or stoke it on the cold early spring mornings. And if need be, she doesn’t mind going to the well to draw water. The dogs love her regular feeding routine and, all and all, she is a good house mate. Plus I have more time for my cartoons, which a couple of papers pay me for. Not much, but enough for subsistence living. Neither of us expected more than that when we chose these hard rocks of living to begin with. But there is still that not so natural space between us. I try to show that I don’t need to jump into her pants to get along, give her space to drop the load I know she arrived with. Plus I am now living with her, not just passing by. To me there is a difference. Sometimes I think she knows this as we share coffee in the morning. There is a look in her eyes that reminds me of one of my funny characters--the would be girlfriend of a shy boy from the same block. But Julie shortly puts an end to all this. After getting the fire going one morning, she strips and comes to my covers to wait for the house to warm up. The change is not big. But certainly enough to soften our steps a little.
As onion sets turn to glossy green shoots and cabbages begin to look like broad fanned bonnets, spring warms to summer. Pretty quick it seems, Julie receives her mail order divorce without any trouble. The local law center was glad to do it with only one visit by a paralegal. My presence was treated as if it’s not uncommon to have divorces lagging behind new partners. Jack and his large clan were happy to be rid of the “City Girl” on an even-steven basis. Truly their differences were irreconcilable and neither had money nor property to fool with.
Having spent part of my life in resourceful areas, I know that one thing about the sticks that blessedly doesn’t tick in divorces are battles over wealth of one kind or another. Maybe, I consider, that is one reason why conjugal unions here are not the capital deal that they are some places. So Julie and I become as married as many people around here ever become…..without the back speak of being married to someone else.
Kneeling on the couch and looking out the window to the far ridges beyond the lower end of the hollow, divorce papers scattered at our knees, Julie and I sip a rare cup of tea using the window ledge as our table. It is a time for reflection as we playfully clink our cups and smile at each other and the pretty view. Admiring the luster of her look as she gazes at the hazy mountains, I feel a goodness that moves me above the coarse, the practical. Something that would have scared the shit out of me before Julie.
Noticing my stare, Julie blushingly laughs and locks me with those pools of brown.
“What?” she asks.
Thinking that to put into words my thoughts would be too wide open, I simply shake my head.
Julie places her tea on the window ledge beside mine, puts her arms around my neck and pulls me over her as we slide to the couch.
“Tell me Richard,” she says, “I want to know about you.”
A scent of lemon comes with her words and seems to float above her face and the nest of raven hair that holds it. My embarrassment melts as I realize that I can not deny this woman.
“I was thinking how nice it is that we are here together,” I say. “Like something made to be that way. You and me.”
Julie’s eyes well up as her words catch in her throat. After a moment, feeling like she has been called from afar, she whispers.
“Come here you.”
It’s an easy stroll out of the hollow to the lazy Greenbrier river that meanders through the little towns and countryside of this part of the wrinkled earth. Imagining ourselves a little like the Seneca Indians that used to roam and live along these banks, Julie and I set a couple of fish lines, start a small fire, and strip down to our swim wear. Somewhere in that cardboard suitcase Julie must have found a beautiful rainbow bikini. The way she wears it with the high sun flashing from its colors reminds me of Frank Sinatra’s Girl From Ipanema. However, I figure that Julie is just as nice as any girl along Frank’s Brazilian beach.
Using an old rope swing in a nearby River Sycamore, I teach Julie how to swing out over the water and drop in. I have never seen a girl that was able to do this kind of thing because of the arm strength required but Julie picks it right up. So lovely and bright as she arcs from the tree shadow into the sunlight, she seems to leave a contrail of beautiful flesh and color to savor. We even manage to both ride the rope out together, dropping into the clear stream, the yellowish green glow of its sandstone bottom clearly visible before it swallows us. Far across to the other side and near a heavily wooded bank a beaver disapprovingly tail slaps the water.
By the time we are done with our water play our appetite is built. Cutting a couple of small green branches, we roast hot dogs and enjoy the thoughts that a slow stream of passing water can bring.
While reclining by the embers and admiring Julie’s lithe figure for the umpteenth time, I see the small thin scar just above her bikini line. Something that I had noticed before but never mentioned, thinking that if I needed to know she would tell me. I trace the line with my finger and lift my eyes to her.
After holding my look, Julie looks to the river as a shadow passes over her face. Finding in the waters what she was looking for, she brings her eyes back to mine.
“I can’t have babies,” she says. “About three years ago I had stage three ovarian cancer and had to have my ovaries removed. They thought that they got it all but that’s the price. I’m sorry, Richard.”
The way Julie says this leaves me with questions that she must know are going to follow because she suddenly looks defensive. And Julie is not the defensive type.
“Hey darling,” I say. “I’m not into kids. Child free suits me just fine. There’s plenty around to take any of mine’s place to start with.”
Pausing to poke around in the coals with my stick, I too look for the words to go where I need to go. Where Julie, I can tell, doesn’t want to go.
“You’ve become a pretty import part of my life,” I say. “Thank God you got through it. Was this in New York?”
“Yes. It was all pretty simple. I was in and out of the hospital in a couple of days. They wanted me to do a regimen of chemo then get retested but I refused.”
Beginning to see where she is coming from, I can’t help but get a little uneasy.
“Why did you refuse?”
Taking a deep breath, then letting it go, as if the extra air was needed to continue, Julie opens the gates to a part of herself that had been closed.
“Because I’d had enough,” she says. “I’d lost my reason to be a woman. Now they wanted me to give up even my appearance of being a woman. And get sick to boot. Plus they couldn’t really tell me why except a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Expensive mumbo jumbo. I was just another poor Jewish girl with no health insurance to them, one that must have money somewhere in the family tree. But there is no tree. I am it. And until I met you, not much of an it.”
For the first time, perhaps getting an inkling of what brought Julie to this obscure land, I can see all of her. And that makes her precious. Too precious to push because of my ins and outs. I can only accept this woman that I have fallen in love with for what she is. And this, indefinably, puts a little edge to who I am.
“Ok Julie,” I say, “but if you decide that things aren’t right we can get help. There are ways. Don’t ever feel that you must go without.”
Falling silent, we sit by the dying fire and watch the shadows grow long. I throw another drift log on the coals, watching the fast smoke chase the mosquitoes. Sounding like a .22 rifle shot, the beaver pops a tail, wishing us long gone as the sun kisses the ridge. But we are not moving. Julie leans her head on my shoulder and we stare at the smoking log, waiting for it to burst into living fire.
The mountains are aflame with red and orange colors as the autumn winds send their leaves tumbling across the garden. Picking and husking the last of the yellow bantam corn, Julie and I leave a back trail of weathered husks and apple butter colored silk. Dropping the fat yellow ears into a shoulder bag, we move along, a duet of rhythm. Julie will eventually shave the surplus ears and can the rich kernels for the coming winter while I block and bust up some downed timber for the wood burner. The garden has been good to us and the Beagles, their favorite time of year at hand, have helped with bringing in some protein rich game to go with the vegetables. Fall has always been my favorite time. A time when past and future meet in one clear display. Thought is heavy, looking to the test of hard weather ahead, yet carrying the satisfaction of a recent harvest and vigilant preparation.
Finishing up the last row and dropping her sack on the back porch next to mine, Julie suddenly holds her stomach and goes to her knees. Like a person I had once seen shot in the gut, she tips over to her side and curls into a fetal position, grimacing in pain.
Dropping the garden rake, I run over and drop to the ground next to her. Holding her head above the grass and seeing her face twisted in pain, I am scared shitless.
“What’s wrong, Julie, Please tell me babe, what’s going on.”
With her eyes squeezed shut and her breath coming in short gasps, she reaches up and pulls my head to. In not much more than a whisper she says, “I think you’d better get me to the emergency room, Richard. I’m hurting something fierce in my guts. It feels like something ruptured down there.”
Half carrying, half dragging Julie over to the old jeep that we use for groceries and emergencies only, I strap her in and get us to the hospital which is just down river a few miles and across a bridge. When the E.R. staff see her condition they take her right in and have me wait outside.
Sitting in the waiting room for what seems like a couple of hours, first filling out paperwork, then just trying to come to grips with being in a place where people die, I am pretty anxious. Not since the war and its grind of human loss have I felt like this. And that was mostly for my own skin. This is new. What if I lose Julie. In a morass of emotions, I don’t see the ER Doctor until he puts his hand on my shoulder.
A dark kindly looking man of middle eastern descent, wearing a white coat with a stethoscope sticking out of the pocket, he takes a chair next to mine. As he sits I notice that his name tag says Dr. Amjad.
“You are Richard Jones,” he asks, “the husband of Julie Lewis?”
It is the first time that I have ever been called a husband and suddenly I realize that this is about me as well as Julie.
“Yes,” I say. “Is she ok? What’s wrong?”
“I have admitted her,” Dr. Amjad replies. “She is sedated and fine for now, but her preliminary tests together with her medical history suggest some serious problems. She said that you know a little about it.”
Thinking that the only thing that I know about is her previous cancer, I ask Dr. Amjad, “Does she have cancer, can you fix it?”
“We suspect that a piece of malignant ovary was not removed properly,” Dr, Amjad says. “According to our imaging, it has grown into a sizable tumor. We will remove it as soon as possible, and that should help some with the pain. But considering metastasis and the amount of time that it has been growing, her prognosis is quite guarded.”
Dr. Amjad pauses for questions but I mostly understand what he is saying. All of my what if thoughts have seen to that, so he quickly continues.
“She feels that chemotherapy will make her sicker and any benefit from that may be questionable to begin with. Once the surgeon has a look things will become clearer. But our oncology unit will do what it can. For now she needs all the support that she can get. She is in room 202. When she is able to talk why don’t you let her tell you how she feels. She has a great deal of concern about you. That is where I suspect you can help her most. Just go to the second floor nurses station. They will be glad to direct you. Now, if you will excuse me, I must get back to my other patients.”
Watching Dr. Amjad disappear through the white swinging doors, I can feel my heart sink to my stomach. Suddenly I feel hollow inside, like a once full vessel ripped of its contents in an instant. Going to the bank of elevators, I press the up button and hope that I can be what Julie needs. All the way.
On the way home from the hospital, Julie and I detour to Sandstone Falls and its little park. Walking out a ways on the boardwalk, we sit watching the cascading water drop and pass below our observation bench. The trees are mostly bare with just a few scattered evergreens and die hard poplars adding patches of green and orange to the steep grey timber around us. Watching the water swirl, spitting curls of white froth as it passes over the rocks, we hold hands and pull our collars close, the November nip reminding us of an approaching winter. Julie’s far away look, lacking the pleasant aura it used to wear, breaks my heart but I do my best not to show it.
Tracing a raised tendon on the backside of my hand with her finger, Julie breaks the back noise of rushing water.
“I hope I can make it without much pain,” she says. “You’ll have all the planting to do by yourself in the spring. When the time comes I hope the earth can be the purest white of snow. I always loved the snow. It makes me feel clean and new. Loved.”
Feeling busted inside and swept along like the waters beneath us, I try to put on a face.
“Don’t be silly Julie, you’ll be here. Of course you will be here.”
Gripping me with her look, Julie lifts her eyebrows in that way she has. For a moment I feel like a liar and am ashamed. Dropping the sham, I can only say what is.
“Know that I love you more than words can ever tell, Julie. Just as the sun rises and beyond, I will always love you.”
Dropping her eyes to my hand, Julie seems to see it for the first time. Lifting it to her lips, her face covered by falling hair, she trembles.
I cry too.
The yellow daffodil bonnets seem to shoot from the earth daily as spring opens its door and a tough winter subsides. Redbud trees near the hollow’s rising woods are glorious in their displays. And the grass has once again called the lawn mower out of my tool shed for its yearly maintenance. But I can not feel the new life appearing all around me. There is no joy. Someone once said that April is the cruelest month and now I know for sure what they meant. Julie sleeps most of the time, the time is near. But we are both thankful to have been given the winter together and the small meaningful Christmas that we shared. A palliative care nurse makes a round every couple of weeks to make sure that we have the morphine injections necessary for the increasing pain. The other related medicines mostly just set in the other bedroom along parts of the gun rack. It’s a strange almost surreal feeling I get on the rare occasions that she has a use for them. When I see them lined up there and paired with my guns I choke. I still let the dogs run for fun but I had to give up hunting. I only keep a couple of house guns now. The couch has become my permanent bed except when Julie wants company and that is not much now. And it’s easier from the couch to feed the fire and stay attuned to Julie’s needs during the night. Sometimes, like now, I just sit by the bed watching her. When her eyes twitch a little I wonder where she is and what she is dreaming. And I hope that I am there too. Being with her is everything.
Slowly opening her eyes, Julie looks to me and turns her near hand over for me to hold.
Taking her hand, I look out the bedside window and see an Easter snow beginning to rapidly cover everything.
Squeezing my hand slightly and with the barest voice, Julie says, “It’s time, Richard. You be good and always know that I am here. I will help you. I love you. We will always be.”
Suddenly grimacing in pain, Julie’s eyes grow large for a moment as I reach for the needle on the nightstand. But before I can administer the morphine Julie stops me. In the clearest voice that I have heard from her in many days she says, “No Richard, now you must help me…..in another way. Look under the window sill.”
Moving around the bed to the window, I see nothing under nor on the window sill. Looking to Julie to tell her that there is nothing there, I am stopped short as she reads my expression.
“Lift up on the center part,” she says, again showing a wave of sharp pain.
Pulling up on the sill, I see a small hidden pocket containing a large ampoule of morphine. Enough for a week or more. Knowing what it is for, I start crying but pick it up anyway.
Using only her eyes, those soulful brown lights of life, she brings me back to my chair and again whispers me close.
“Because I love you,” she says, “I know you can do it. It will be fine. I’ll still be here. Just let me go from the rest, Richard. It is time.”
Julie’s eyes follow my movements as I fully load the needle, leaving only a trace amount in the ampoule. I have to stop and wipe my tears away a couple of times to see what I am doing. And each time Julie whispers encouragement, helping me along with each of the little steps.
When it is done and both her hands are turned to me, I take them as she shows the faintest smile before her eyes close. Laying my cheek to her, I silently weep as Julie, in three shallow breaths, leaves her words.
“Thank you…..my dearest….love.”
Two Red Tailed Hawks, mates I suppose, circle high above the waters of the Greenbrier River as I stoke the little fire and make ready near the old rope swing and Sycamores. On a nearby river rock the old beaver perches and stares. It is the first time that I have ever seen it out of the water. New growth is all about from the spring rains and the current flows swiftly, cold but fresh and clear. Julie and I adopted this river as our own and loved it for it’s continuity---flowing, no beginning, no end. We thought of it like Siddhartha’s flowing waters, and how they imitate life. Always here but never in one spot. Julie is like that and that’s how we feel. Always residents together and in touch, but moving.
Removing her urn from my backpack, I carry it out thigh deep in the stream of current as the Red Tails kite their floats of freedom, sending shrieks among the ridges. The beaver turns to get a better view and starts sounding, like a crying infant.
Unscrewing the top of the urn, I pour a little of Julie’s ashes into my hand and let them slowly sift through my fingers to the passing current. Looking to the sky, I see the hawks weaving peaks and dips around each other. The beaver, now in the water, salutes with a smart tail slap. Then they wait on, watching.
Pouring the rest of her ashes to my hand, I let them fall to the freedom of the current. No beginning, no end. Always a part of what is.
We love her.
Tory Mae graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Wheaton College in 2015, where her full-length play entitled Can-Swiss was performed in the annual New Plays Festival. She is currently working a collection of short stories, as well as a novel that is set to be completed later this year.
The Whiskey Won’t Keep You Warm
I drummed my fingers on the brick wall and sighed. Yet another disappointed parent lecture. Those were my favorite. I rolled my eyes.
“Oh, how I wish you had gone to Southern New Hampshire, like we’d talked about. It’s only down the street from us, you could have commuted!” Ma said over the landline. “It would have saved us money… You could have been back for your sister’s birthday weekend!”
I sighed. Even if that school was the only one I’d have gotten into, I still wouldn’t have gone. I’d have found some way to make cash and make it on my own. Restaurants were always hiring. And convenience stores. Those were good for some quick and easy money to get started. Or I could have gotten a job as a bouncer, or one of those ticket checker guys at a concert hall. That didn’t seem too hard. And hey, at least that had something to do with music. But alas, I’d chosen to go to a school a whole hour away. Such a tragedy. Heartbreaking. Truly. Why were they so concerned with being around now? It wasn’t like they gave a shit when I was there.
“Sorry, Ma. It’s a long bus ride back. And I have things I have to do this weekend.”
I heard Pop yell in the background. Something or other about how Ma shouldn’t bother.
“Jack…” she began.
It wasn’t just the bus ride that was keeping me from going back. I mean if I wanted to, I could. Plymouth State really was only an hour away. But I didn’t want to. Plus, I was busy. A few weeks back I rounded up some student bands and decided to put together a show. Christ, I’d spent all of Tuesday night hanging up fliers on every corkboard and door and pole on campus. The show was tonight, in the basement of some buddy of mine’s apartment.
“I’m sorry, Ma, but-”
The line clicked and went dead. Dammit. I searched my pockets for more change, but I was out. I’d call her back later.
* * *
The crowd went wild as the last band finished their set. And I meant crowd. I was expecting maybe ten people to show, maybe fifteen. How was I supposed to know the entire basement would be filled? I’d never done this sort of thing before. All these years I’d spent at Plymouth, there was always a sort of scene missing. Sure, there were student bands, but they’d only open for the school’s jazz band or other boring things like that. I missed the rush of the live show. Tonight I got that rush. All I had to do was make it happen. I brief thought about how I never called Ma back flitted through my brain, and disappeared as some guy who I’d never met walked up to me.
“Hey dude, thanks for putting this together,” said the guy as he high-fived me. “You should do this again.”
I looked around at all the sweaty people in that dim basement. It smelled of stale beer and sweat. I think the people were sweating beer. A fantastic combination. But somehow, it wasn’t repulsive. They looked so alive, so energetic, so happy - a characteristic I’d only seen at drunken house parties. But even then, it was a half-dead kind of alive. Like the people were dead inside but the alcohol was their elixir, bringing them back. But it was only for the alcohol, and nothing more. I mean, I loved it. But there had to be more than meaningless parties sometimes. Tonight there was a reason to be happy. I looked up at the random guy.
“Two weeks from now. Same time and place. Tell your friends,” I said with a smile.
Two months since the accident. One month since Mindy and I started dating. I smiled as I looked at the calendar on my phone; things were beginning to look up. I put my phone back in my pocket.
"You guys are starting to pull it together," I said as the band finished their soundcheck. "Your stuff is sounding tight. You know, your band could be going places."
"Hey, thanks man," Tim, their guitarist, said into his mic.
"I remember the first time I booked you guys two years ago at All Asia, back when that place was still around. You've grown a lot since then."
"You wanna come up here and jam for a minute?" Tim asked.
It had been years since I'd done more to a guitar than just move it off the stage. My fingers yearned to make it sing again.
I leapt up onto the stage, grabbed Tim's guitar, and played a few chords. The band joined in and before I knew it we were playing an old Blink-182 song. I looked around and the others were smiling at me and jumping around the stage. I looked out off stage and imagined the room full of teenagers. They were all head-banging and dancing and singing along. They stared at me in awe, knowing this was the happiest night of their lives. Sweat poured down my face and I smiled, and then I blinked and the room was empty again. Why had I stopped playing again? I was a damn fool.
We wrapped up the song and I checked my phone.
"Sorry guys, but it’s time for me to head out," I said.
"Aw, you're not staying for the show?"
"Can't, it's my girlfriend's and my one month. You know how it goes."
They laughed again.
"You guys are gonna kill it tonight. Knock 'em dead."
"Alright man, see you next time," Tim said.
I jumped off the stage and headed out the door.
It's our first anniversary together, so it should be more than our usual restaurant, I thought as I pulled away from the parking garage. Maybe I'll treat her to one of those fancy restaurants, one that's actually in Boston. Maybe the North End? Maybe. But that's so damn expensive. Why do we even have to celebrate these stupid small anniversaries anyway? Can't we just wait until our six month? Now I'm going to have to spend all this extra money because of course, I've gotta pay. Damn, this is dumb.
I pulled into my parking spot and saw the lights were already on in my apartment. Mindy's car was here. Well shit, was she going to surprise me?
"Must've lucked out snatching this one up," I said to myself as I locked the car and walked up the brick steps.
My heart started racing as I opened the door and thought about the possibilities. My pants may have tightened a little.
"Hey babe," I said, walking through the door, "whatcha..." I stopped.
Mindy was sitting on the sofa, lips pressed tight together. Oh Christ, what now? I was almost positive our anniversary was today, not yesterday. 80% sure. These younger women were always so damn moody. But it's part of what made them sexy.
"What am I doing? Oh, just rethinking some things. That's what I'm doing."
"Christ Mindy, rethinking what?"
Women think too much. They were always thinking about every little thing and overanalyzing every word and action. Why couldn’t they just go with the flow? It wasn’t hard.
"I don't know. This. Us. Everything," Mindy said, throwing her hands up.
"Well if you don't know then maybe we can talk it out."
"Oh okay so now you want to talk it out like an adult?"
"Mindy, babe..." I said, walking closer to her.
"This is over."
"I'm done. I'm leaving you."
"Well shit, why? You can't be sure about this, you're not thinking straight. Let's have a nice dinner, go to bed, and we can talk about it tomorrow. I’ll take you out some place real nice."
"Jack, I've thought it through. You're a fucking child and you need to grow up. Get a real job. You've been doing this band thing for what, twenty-five years now?"
"So since I was born? Even better. Get a real job, Jack. Grow up. Get a life. You're forty-eight years old. You’ve been living in the same dingy apartment for fifteen years. In Brighton. Brighton is where college kids go after they graduate and have no money.” Mindy stood up and started pacing. Pacing was never good. “I can't be with someone who has done nothing with their life when I'm just starting to find my place in mine. It's over."
"Come on babe..."
Mindy was on her feet and out the door before I could stop her. For Christ's sake. I sat on the edge of the sofa where she had just been, ran my hand along the seat and leaned my head back.
And another one bites the dust.
I went to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of whiskey, threw some ice into a glass, and poured myself a big one. I sat at the kitchen table and put my head in my hands. So much for that. On our anniversary, no less. It was a good thing I hadn't made a reservation, like I probably should have. I could have used it against her. Maybe she wouldn’t have left if she’d known I’d made a reservation at an expensive restaurant. I took a long, cold sip from the glass. Two. Three. Who was she to say I needed to grow up? 'A fucking child,' all right. Okay. Sure. Two more sips. I couldn't be that childish. Weren't people supposed to be praised for doing what they wanted to do? For following their dreams and some shit like that rather than giving in for some cookie-cutter job? Empty glass. I sighed.
Then why does it feel so wrong defending myself?
I sat in silence while the ice in my glass melted. I counted the stains on the ceiling and walls. Nine. I counted the empty glasses on the counter. Twelve. I looked down. Thirteen. The holes in my pants. Two. Months since my last haircut. Seven. My hair was past my ears now. I drank the whiskey water from my glass and pulled out my phone.
"Hey, it's Jack. Can I stay with you for a couple days?"
Ma rushed to clean the countertops when she heard the car pull into the driveway. The chicken roast had been in for almost an hour, and Pop would be starving when he came in. He deserved a nice meal ready for him after work. She brought the good plates down from the cabinet and took the cheesecake out of the fridge, putting it on the yellow-checkered plastic tablecloth. The car door slammed. Footsteps on the pavement were heard.
I tapped the first domino and they all began to fall on the tan shag rug, one by one, stealing my attention. Cheryl was unamused, staring past the falling dominoes into nothing.
The front door opened.
"Hello honey," Pop said, kissing Ma's cheek.
"Oh hello dear. How was work?"
Pop sighed and put his briefcase on the kitchen table.
"Banking is banking. Never changes."
Ma took Pop’s briefcase off the table and put it by the door. While her back was to the table, Pop grabbed a fork and took a bite of the cheesecake. Ma turned around.
"Fran! What in God's name are you doing?"
"Oh don't worry honey, I'm just testing it!" Pop took another bite.
Ma shuffled over and slapped his hand.
"It's quite fine! Don't you steal another bite!"
"How much time is left on the chicken?"
Ma opened the oven to check on the roast. She stuck her face close, but removed it a second later, the color drained from her skin. She reached for the back of the stove and turned the knob. Pop's eyes narrowed.
"Are you telling me..."
"Oh dear oh dear oh dear, I am so sorry! I've set the oven as high as it can go, it should be done in twenty minutes!"
Pop's nostrils flared.
I removed the fallen dominoes from their curly-cue pattern, pushed them to the side, and grabbed a different box.
"Wanna play pick up sticks?!" I asked Cheryl.
I dumped out the box and pulled each stick out, one by one, being as careful as I knew how to be. I looked at Cheryl but she was looking at the wall again.
The chalky, thick smell of smoke began to fill the kitchen. Ma rushed over to shut the oven off. She opened the door, smoke pouring out, and grabbed the blackened chicken out. As she waved a floral hand towel at it, Pop snatched the cheesecake and stormed upstairs.
"Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Fran!"
She was met with footsteps pounding on the wooden stairs and a door slamming shut.
I giggled and continued to pull out sticks. One at a time, I tried my hardest not to move any sticks other than the one I pulled at. I’d gotten better at pick up sticks since Cheryl had taught me last July. I was a champ at not making mistakes. We were outside in our driveway and I kept rolling around on the pavement trying to get the right angle. Ants kept crawling along the multicolored sticks and Cheryl was grossed out, but what did I care? She showed me all the tricks and the first time we played each other I beat her. She blamed the ants at first, and then she called it beginner’s luck, or something like that.
"Someday I hope I learn to fly so I can stop crushing ants when I walk."
Cheryl stared me in the eye.
"People can't fly. Grow up, Jack."
"Thanks for letting me stay with you, Cher, really. It means a lot right now," I said, hanging my jacket on the coat rack.
I’d driven up just a couple hours after talking to her. It had begun to snow, but I didn’t care. All I knew was that I needed to get away from that damn apartment. Family can be nice sometimes, I supposed.
"Well I couldn't turn my baby brother away."
Forty-eight years old and she still called me that. I sighed. At this point, I was surprised she didn’t call me her infant brother.
"I appreciate that," I said.
We stood in silence for a moment. I could feel a tension forming.
"Why did you ask? What did you do?"
I put my hands behind my head and started pacing around the living room. My brain began to hurt. I look up at Cheryl’s degree from Colby hanging on the wall and wished I’d gone to a better school. Or at least tried harder. Plymouth State only got you so far in life. Changing my major three times before settling on a Music major my junior year probably didn’t help. A deep breath shuddered on its way out.
"It's complicated. Kind of. I think," I paused, "I think I need to make some changes in my life. Clear my head. My girl broke up with me. She blindsided me, but then again I shouldn’t have been shocked at all. I need to fix my life a little bit and I can't do that at my place, not right now."
I toed the edge of the sofa and sighed. What the hell was I going to do? Where does anyone even begin to make changes when it’s their whole life they have to change?
"I see, I'm sorry to hear about your girlfriend. But I'm glad you’ve gotten some sense knocked into you. And it’ll be good for the kids to spend some time with their uncle. You're welcome in the spare room for as long as you want..." Cheryl trailed off and reached into her pocket. She pulled out her phone and looked back at me. "It's Concord Hospital."
"Hello? ... Yes, this is she." The color drained from her face and she fell back onto the sofa. "Oh my God. I'll be right there."
Cheryl shoved her phone back into her pocket, stood up, and grabbed her coat.
"Mom's had a heart attack."
The smell of the place was too sterile and the walls were too white. It made me sick. Pop's aged skin was only a couple shades darker than the wall. The right side of his face drooped and he wasn’t breathing as often as he should be. In fact, he was hardly breathing at all. The room smelled unwelcoming, not the way a home should smell. Pop had been here for six months. If a person lived in a place for six months, shouldn't it feel like home?
It felt like the end. How was it that one could feel like it was the end without there being some clear sign? Did the Grim Reaper announce itself? Did the Angel of Death leave a save the date? Telepathy, perhaps. No one knew but everyone could feel it.
I was on Pop's left side, Cheryl to his right. Ma was closer to his head and Cheryl's kids were at the foot of the bed. They were too young. They looked almost emotionless while their mother held Pop's hand in a teary fashion. There were some tears in Ma's eyes, but she knew it was time. She'd been preparing for this day for months. What would she do when he was gone? They were married for 66 years. That was an awfully long time to be with one person. What does anyone do when they're left alone after not being alone for almost 70 years? Pop breathed in sharply, and the breath shook its way out.
I looked at Cheryl, pointed my chin to Ma, and she nodded. We took Jimmy and Allie and left Ma to be with Pop. Nurses came rushing in five minutes later.
Ma looked peaceful, despite her ragged, labored breathing. Well, as peaceful as she could be in a hospital. Okay, she didn’t look great, but her eyes were closed and her face, though well aged, looked to be just a bit younger. The crusted corners of her mouth turned up ever so slightly. Was she thinking about Pop? The lives they led together? Maybe she was seeing him again, for the first time in three and a half years. Cheryl brushed a stray hair off Ma’s forehead, skin tinted ashen-blue, and picked up her hand. She wheezed once more and a shudder ran through her stiff body. One long beep came from her heart monitor.
A nurse came in a minute later and her shoulders slumped when she saw Ma.
"I'm so sorry."
She covered Ma's face with a sheet, and another nurse came in moments later and paid her respects.
"She must have lived a long, fulfilling life."
Cheryl nodded. My older sister wasn't as tearful as I would have imagined. After taking a deep breath she turned to look at me.
"Do you want to go out for a drink?"
I thought about it for a moment.
"No," I said, "let's go home."
She was sitting on a bench in a park in New Haven. Her legs crossed, one arm stretched out along the bench and the other in her lap. Her eyes were closed. A red leaf floated onto her lap.
He was taking a stroll in the park on his afternoon off. His hands were in his pockets and he was whistling a patriotic tune. He spotted a young woman sitting on a bench. He stopped whistling.
A breeze shook leaves off the trees and ruffled her short, blonde hair. She breathed in the crisp, damp air and smiled.
He tapped his thumb against his thigh and looked at his pocket watch. He lifted his chin and walked up to the young woman.
"Pardon me miss."
She opened one eye.
"Do you have the time? My watch appears to have stopped working," he said.
He gestured to his watch but slipped it back into his pocket so to hide the still ticking hands.
"My apologies, I do not carry a watch with me." She paused. "Perhaps you should see about getting yours fixed."
"Ah, but then I would have no excuse to speak with you," he said, winking.
"Today is my birthday. Perhaps you could get me my own pocket watch as a gift. That would be plenty of excuse to speak with me."
"How about a watch and a slice of pie?"
“Only if it’s cherry pie.”
“I know the perfect place.”
Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an editor for The Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, Guwahatian Magazine (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), Public Republic (Bulgaria), The Osprey Review (Wales), The Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey) and other magazines. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs
(Photo: Carol Bales)
A Husband Goes to a Flower Show
A few years ago Herb Adams, a plumber by trade, went with his wife, Ellie, to her flower show where many ladies and a few men displayed their skill arranging flowers they had grown in their gardens during the summer. Usually Ellie wins prizes with her arrangements. It was the first time Herb had ever gone to one of the shows but that morning he could think of no plausible illness to feign. But as Herb likes to point out he spends a great deal of money buying the rare bulbs and seeds his wife plants so at least he is helpful in that respect.
That year, however, Ellie finished second to another woman in the competition and she felt cheated. She said the other woman used different flowers but had stolen Ellie's design that was original with her for that show. Since this was a Creative Design competition, an innovative and original design was very important.
To a novice like Herb, all the bouquets, as he likes to call them, didn't look that much different except for size and color. He had no idea what was going on and wished he had come down with a disabling attack of the croup before agreeing to attend the show.
After the judging, Ellie and the woman who had won first place had a very loud argument. Afterward, Ellie asked Herb to talk to her husband.
“Talk to him about what?” Herb asked.
Herb figured the husband was a man like him, a horticultural doofus, there to please his wife, and didn't know diddly about posies or putting them together. But Ellie told him the man was a retired flower show judge and she thought Herb should have a word with him about his wife’s stealing her design. It was too late for Ellie to win first prize but something like cheating, she said, should never happen again.
What’s a man to do in a case like that? If Herb wanted dinner for the rest of his life, he knew he could not be a shrinking violet.
Ellie pointed the husband out to Herb. He was older and smaller so Herb strolled over and told him about the controversy raging between their spouses. The man took great umbrage at Herb's suggesting his wife would cheat. He and Herb then had it out right there on the floor with the man shaking his cane at Herb.
Herb doesn't have a cane yet so he pointed his cell phone at the man. The husband's spectacles were so thick Herb was hoping he might think the phone was a weapon of some kind. Herb didn't know what he was talking about but it was obvious to him the retired judge knew exactly the nuances his wife had used to beat Ellie in the competition. And it didn't sound like she had cheated.
That evening at the big dinner that followed the show, Ellie and the lady who won first place were chatting like alumnae from Vassar. They obviously had known each other for years. And they apparently liked each other under normal circumstances.
Now, for the last three years, Herb has had to go with Ellie to every flower show in case there’s another problem. Happily there have been no other problems. But for the last three years neither the woman accused nor her husband have spoken to Herb. They ignore him. But they chat it up with Ellie just fine even though Ellie has won first place two out of the last three years.
It seems no one but Herb is upset anymore.
In the spring of 1982 I realized that I had for the first time fallen in love. I was fifteen. I clearly remember that morning in English class as we'd worked over the vocabulary words diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular. Crepuscular, it means twilight time when it isn't quite day or night; that one was new to me. Fifteen years old, I thought, is a crepuscular time, isn't it, not a child, yet not a functioning adult. Still, that was the moment that I realized I was in love.
Earlier, just before the Thanksgiving Day break, Tran Hung had slipped a note into my locker.
This for you to please know I think you are so nice. I want to be friend with you. Forgive me to be this very shy boy. Even to write this to you very difficult. If you want Tran Hung to be friend with you you can just write little note and put in my locker number 401.
I knew him then only as the very bright, shy Vietnamese boy in my English and geometry classes. He was super smart. Mrs. Tully had recommended that he move up to trig though he wished to stay in geometry. Later he would tell me this was just to be near me for an hour a day. Of him I knew only that his family were refugees who had been sponsored by a church
Dear Tran Hung,
Thank you for your frank expression. Your offer of friendship is accepted with pleasure. Seventh period I am a librarian assistant, if you can get a library pass then we can introduce ourselves.
And so we met. Indeed he was shy, but against the general clumsy machismo of other boys he was attractive. Soon we arranged to meet in the library after school three days a week, ostensibly he to help me with geometry and I to help him with English. With a wonderful clarity of explanation he was an excellent tutor, though mostly we spoke of ourselves, our likes, dislikes, our hopes. Tran, intelligent, sensitive, and affectionate and always polite was so easy to be with. His father ran a tiny oriental restaurant near the shipyard with his mother who also cleaned rooms mornings at the Holiday Inn. Tran too worked in the restaurant on weekends, but he did not tell me this for the longest time. On the final day before Christmas break he presented me with a small package wrapped in tissue, bound with a gold ribbon. "For you, Jeannie, some little Christmas present." He still pronounced the word little lit-oh. I had corrected this pronunciation so often that it had become a standing joke between us. I had asked my mother whether it would be proper to give a card or little gift to my geometry tutor. She then baked and packed into a Christmas tin a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies which I gave to him. When we stood to part I lay his little parcel on a library table moved forward and gave Tran a gentle hug, "Thank you Tran, and I hope you have a happy lit-oh Christmas." The unexpected hug had left him speechless, though in a moment he raised his arms and took both of my hands in his and gave a soft squeeze. The Christmas card included my telephone number.
During the break we talked every day save Christmas Day. His gift, an elegant egg shell hand painted with a miniature scene of a bridge spanning a stream, was so precious. I placed this and its little wooden cradle under my summer blouses in the bottom drawer of my bureau, but took it out each night. With the nightly phone calls my parents easily discerned that a boyfriend, my first, had emerged. I was wary to tell them Tran's name or that he was from Viet Nam where my dad had been wounded during a Tet Offensive mortar attack, his left arm amputated at the elbow.
I had not told Tran that my dad had fought in Viet Nam. The issue seemed too dodgy. Father spoke of the war only when asked, then he said but little. He had, however, made clear to me that he believed strongly that the war had been an unjust and shameful American adventure against a tenacious people who believed in and fought bravely against our might. He put it this way, "There was only one enemy in that war: us. They were little people defending their ways against a foreign giant." My dad, you see, is liberal. Conversely, in our house it was my conservative mother who saw the war in terms of preserving democracy and halting communism. When my mom asked about the boy calling, I told her that he was the boy helping me with geometry, but she laughed and quickly smoked us out. "Well Jeannie, I suspected obtuse angles might be at play." On the afternoon of Christmas Day I was upstairs helping my dad assemble the exercise machine he'd given mother for Christmas.
"Dad, the boy, the boy, the one whose been calling me, he's really a very special friend. I want to ask you how you reckon mom would react if she found out I'm sweet on one of her, uh one of her gooks, a Vietnamese boy.
"I see your point, sweetie. If you want, I'll try to ease her into this. Jeannie, as long as he's good. I trust your judgment; you know that."
"Well Dad, he is good, he's very good, and he's special. He wants me to meet his mom and dad. They've got a restaurant, Tran, that's his name; Tran has asked me to come to the restaurant to eat and to meet them."
"Well that's no problem, just go, honey."
"If I go, Dad, then I will want to invite Tran to come to eat with us. You see?"
Dad wasted no time. At breakfast mom, speaking directly said, "Jeannie you can bring your little friend around. Just give me a head's up so I can buy some fish heads – just joking, Jeannie!" But I heard her muttering under her breath. Every girl, I thought, should have such a father. That night I placed the painted egg in the tiny cradle under the table lamp at my bedside.
I was so ready for school to resume. After only two weeks Tran looked so good, even older. I know that he was as happy to see me as I was to see him. When I told him that I'd placed the lit-oh egg in a special place at my bedside, he smiled beautifully. I did not tell Tran that this was the last thing I saw before the dark of night and the first thing in the light of morning. Nor did I tell him that the routine of falling to sleep had become a delightful passage of conjuring images of Tran next to me in the library, our Christmas hug, and even kissing, which had yet to happen.
In English class we had begun reading aloud "Romeo and Juliet," with me reading the part of Juliette and Wayne Calverson reading Romeo. Early in ninth grade Wayne had asked me to a school dance, but I had said no, as my folks thought I was still a might too young. Later he continued to ask me to things but in truth I did not care for him. Although bright, had a bullying nature; his father was Chief of Police which gave him much status with other students and even teachers. But he was a very good reader and I much enjoyed the play. In the afternoons I carefully parsed Shakespeare's language for Tran. His insight was impressive; he saw things I failed to pick up.
"Romeo and Juliet so young, no? And those family hate each other so much to even kill. But Romeo and Juliet kind of like adult but they adult families behave like lit-oh children, no? Maybe this put much pressure on their children so maybe children look for love with each other because family love empty for too full of hate all around, no? But every thing for wrong reason, everything. Cannot bring happy time to nobody. So sad this Romeo and Juliet story."
One day after English class Wayne Calverson asked me to go to the beach with him on Saturday. When I declined, he froze and with a grimace said, "Oh that's right, you've got you a boyfriend already, right? Tran, that his name? Tran Hung? Tell me Jeannie, is Tran hung? Well hung, is he; he got a huge one, has he? Is that it? Are you two going steady?" Enraged I stared him down without answering until he huffed and stomped off muttering ugliness about Chinamen, the idiot.
That afternoon in the library Tran asked if I could come to his parents' restaurant on Saturday. When I said that I would love to he clasped my hands and squeezed. He looked beautiful to me and I felt such a surge of warmth. "Come over here," I said leading him between two tall bookshelves where I embraced him in a heartfelt hug, then cupping his cheeks between my hands we kissed.
At the restaurant that Saturday, his parents were very kind, timid, even deferential. His mother did most of the speaking. Tran said his father was embarrassed speaking English. When I later asked Tran how his father had lost an arm, uncomfortable and frowning, he said "Just something in that war over there." I then told him that my father too had suffered the loss of an arm in the war. "He don't blame so much the Americans," Tran was quick to add, "just some Communists over there." My mother she understand better than father. Father still hurt so much from that war."
I explained it was pretty much the opposite at our house, I told Tran how my father had reckoned the war, but that my mother always saw our country as right and justified in everything. Your father and mine, they're like bookends in a way, thinking it might draw us closer.
"Maybe better we do not talk about that war over there, Jeannie," he said. Two days later when I asked Tran to come to our house for dinner, I was saddened and confused when he said no.
That next Monday Tran was moved up to trig. I again asked Tran to come to our house for dinner and was heartbroken when he said no. Once more I invited him, but he said that he could not. He was drawing away. "Jeannie," he said," That lit-to egg, you know, it got some picture of river. Girl live one side, boy live other side." Tears began rolling down my cheeks.
"But Tran, there's that bridge across the river!" I exclaimed."
"That boy and that girl are forbid to go bridge. See, it just like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe whole world like Romeo and Juliet, everybody fight and hate. Me and you can be friends, Jeannie, but I can not come to your house, my father say, my mother say."
The summer after Tran left for the University, Wayne Calverson driving drunk, died when his Camero crashed into a utility pole. I learned from a girlfriend of Wayne's that he and a friend had gone to Tran's family restaurant dressed in Junior Auxiliary Police uniforms suggesting to them that their son date a Vietnamese girl and to leave white girls to white boys. Tran never answered my letters.
I’m English from the county of Yorkshire but moved to Spain in the year 2000. My writing career began after meeting other published author’s here on the Costa del Sol.
My novels follow the adventures of Detective David Fallon - Dragon - The Korean Connection - The Buddha in Ice and The Bankers. As a matter of interest the wrap around front covers were designed by me!
Stories from the Bar are a collection of short stories. The Little Home on Wheels was the first. The story begins in Spain in places I have visited and know well. Other short stories include The Writer - The Student - The Letter - Age of Innocence.
Doctor Ron is my first attempt at Science Fiction.
A Science Fiction Short Story
The Entity did what it had been doing for millions of years. It scanned the little object as it passed by and stored the information; but that was putting it in simple human terms. It not so much stored but rather absorbed the information; adding more layers of data to its already incredible knowledge of the universe. Black Holes and New Star Systems; it had witnessed them all but this was something different? For the first time in its existence it couldn’t decide what the object was?
The more it probed the more intrigued it became until; in a micro-second of enlightenment it realised the little object was not part of the universe; it was constructed; it had been made by an intelligent life form? It was also in that very same micro-second the Entity came alive; in human terms that is?
The Entity began to think?
It began to ask questions?
It was curious?
And it wanted to know more?
It scanned the little object again; this time tracking the radio signal being transmitted towards a distant sun and for the first time since its existence it didn’t want to just wonder the cosmos aimlessly. It had a goal; it wanted to know where the object had come from.
Voyager 1 is a space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. Part of the Voyager program to study the outer Solar System. Voyager 1 launched 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2. The spacecraft still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data. It is the farthest spacecraft from Earth and the only one in interstellar space.
At over 30 Billion Km’s from Earth; Voyager 1 did what it always did since its launch. It scanned the Entity and sent the information back through space and continued on its journey.
Over forty-eight hours later a young scientist on Earth had been tasked to update and file the latest information being received from Voyager 1. It would take many hours of head scratching and professional frustration before he finally admitted he had no idea what the data meant?
It would be five years later that some of the most knowledgeable and respected scientists in the world admitted the same?
THE UNITED NATIONS;
The Chairman on the podium banged his gavel and demanded order. He couldn’t believe the conference had once again descended into chaos. The room was filled with the most knowledgeable scientists in the world and still they couldn’t agree what was approaching from outer space?
‘I must have ORDER!’ he demanded.
Slowly the men and women re-took their seats and waited for the chairman to make his decision.
‘It is obvious to us all that the object cannot be placed into any scientific category. It is there and it exists but it has no matter. It has size which is increasing as it nears our solar system, but that is to be expected; but our most advanced telescopes cannot provide anything else. It is not a comet? That at least we all agree on but what force is propelling it? If the information from Voyager 1 is too believed it has physically altered its course through space?’
That information was once again treated with distain from the sceptics even though they had all seen and analysed the recording.
‘What we cannot agree on however’ the Chairman continued ‘is this object causing the weather problems here on Earth?’
The conference once again descended into chaos as the arguments re-surfaced.
The Chairman gave up and left the hall. Outside the world press was waiting. It would be his final statement before he retired.
‘Retired?’ he laughed ‘that’s a joke! In another thirty odd years half the world will become uninhabitable. Countries on the Equator are already becoming too hot during their summer season. Both Arctic regions are recording temperatures more akin to cold snap! Floods were an everyday occurrence and didn’t even get mentioned on the news any more. The mass exodus of people away from the sea had already begun. Whole communities were being evacuated making the historical refugee crises in Syria look like a family day out. The world was on the brink of panic. Retire I don’t think so?’
THE WORLD UNITED SPACESHIP; SAVIOUR
Doctor Ronald Henry Fordham opened his eyes and gazed through the Perspex screen. Above him his name and credentials were etched in the curved wall of the chamber but it took a while for him to understand what all the letters meant.
‘PHD’s Doctorates and the Nobel Peace Prize? Hell that’s all a bit pretentious? Who decided to include all that? Oh it was me??’ he remembered smiling sheepishly.
A sharp tingling like a mild electric current suddenly shot through his whole body.
‘Please do not try and exit the chamber just yet Doctor Ron. Your nervous system is not yet fully recovered!’ a smooth female voice advised him ‘now you have opened your eyes can you read what is above you’
‘Of course I can read it’s my name isn’t it?’ he wanted to reply but the words came out in a pathetic dribble.
‘Don’t worry Doctor Ron my initial assessment indicates the Cryo Chamber has worked exactly as you predicted, congratulations!’
‘I’m in a Cryo Chamber?’ he said to himself trying to move his head left and right ‘what the hell is a Cryo Chamber?’
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Founded in 1965 (Government Resolution from May 15, 1965), then within Academy of Sciences of the USSR; Appointed principal organisation for space research and exploration for fundamental science in the Academy, complementary to manned space program. IKI designs and builds scientific instruments for space experiments, leads the projects, and uses the data from space probes to deepen our understanding of space and Earth.
IKI abbreviation comes from; Institut Kosmicheskih Issledovanyi. In 1986 IKI was awarded with the Order of Lenin for significant contribution to science and technology development, after successful implementation of VEGA mission to study Venus and comet Halley.
The female assistant waited until the helicopter blades powered down before opening the helicopters doors. The wind was gusting to over sixty miles an hour threatening to push the KA-226T from its landing pad. The male passenger jumped down and allowed the female assistant to help him towards an open door some way off. She was surprisingly strong.
‘Welcome to Kazakhstan Doctor Fordham my name is Doctor Anna Bereznyack. Let’s get you underground out of this terrible wind and we can up-date you on the launch?’ she shouted.
Inside the concrete and steel bunker the pair shed their coats. It may be very windy outside but it was by no-means cold. A bad thing as this was winter in Kazakhstan?
‘Let’s skip the introductions and niceties Doctor Anna; I hope you don’t mind me calling you that? You come from a long line of scientists I understand?’
‘In that case I’ll call you Doctor Ron?’ she answered knowing it was his preferred title ‘and Doctor Anna is fine by me’
‘Is this wind going to delay the launch?’ he asked as a matter of courtesy but already knowing it wasn’t.
The Doctor smiled knowing he was trying to build a bond between them. She had studied the man in detail since it had been announced he was to be launched into space from the Russian launch site. The last shuttle from Cape Canaveral had only just made it off the launch pad before a severe weather system had moved in making any further attempt at a launch unlikely.
Russia was now the only viable alternative to getting a man into space. Even the Chinese and Indian sites were in trouble after minor earthquakes had almost destroyed the launch bays.
‘The rest of your Science Team is already here Doctor Ron. Would you like to rest for a while or shall we begin the briefing?’
‘Tactfully put Anna but we both know time is not on our side in any shape or form. Let’s get everyone together and we can get things moving’
She smiled and nodded in understanding ‘please come this way’
THE CONFERENCE ROOM
Ron surveyed the men and women in the room. They were some of the most celebrated Scientists and Technicians in the world but he could still see the look of doubt in their eyes.
It didn’t matter. The Project had been approved by the UN Space Agency two years ago. All that was needed now was to get him into space so he could join the Shuttle attached to the World Space Station. The Shuttle would then be sealed and manoeuvred into place around the Spaceship Saviour.
Spaceship was probably not an apt description he thought at the time but he didn’t argue. Right now the world needed hope. The Saviour was in fact the largest and most powerful bomb ever constructed. He didn’t even know the exact megaton but it was huge by any standards and something you didn’t just move a few thousand metres away from went it went off. It had been designed to destroy The Entity or whatever it was that was killing the planet?
‘This Entity is still on the edge of our solar system. Even if we get the Saviour in the right place how are you going to know when and where to detonate the warhead?’ he had argued ‘by the time we have analysed the data it could be well past the ship and heading away. There is no way you could manoeuvre it from Earth; even if you still have enough power on board to re-ignite the new Slip-Stream Engines?’
He had refused to call them Warp Engines as it wasn’t remotely in that league?
But what was the alternative?
The answer was simple but the uproar at the suggestion of sending a man or woman on a suicide mission reigned for weeks before Ron dropped his bomb shell!
‘I have invented the Cryo Chamber therefore it is only practical for me to go. I’m a trained astronaut with two space missions to my credit. I am also dying!’
The brain tumour had been detected months ago. The prognosis was simple; operate and you could die on the operating table; don’t operate and you have two to three years at best?
THE SPACE SHUTTLE
The Chamber had worked exactly like Ron had predicted. The tumour in his brain was still there but it had laid dormant while he was in stasis. The Chamber had by-passed all his vital organs keeping the rest of his body intact but chemically inert in a specially formulated gel. A computer had monitored his vital signs making minute adjustments as time went by; in his case for over three years!
He now sat quietly at a console checking the Shuttles condition. The computer would have provided all the answers to his questions but he was still a bit old school in that direction. Everything appeared in order. He would send a message back to Earth giving them the good news that he had survived. He physically stopped himself from dwelling on what the situation was back on his home planet. It was time to find out what was killing it?
‘How far are we from the Entity computer?’ he asked.
He had refused to give it or the Shuttle a name.
The computer didn’t respond.
‘Computer I asked what was the distance from the Entity?’ he repeated.
‘I’m sorry Doctor Ron but that information is not available. The Entity will not allow me to scan its interior!’
Ron had to grab something quickly to stop him shooting backwards such was the shock.
I must have asked the wrong question he thought but then dismissed that as ridiculous.
‘Computer; are you saying we are inside the Entity?’ he asked not believing it could possibly be true.
‘That is correct Doctor Ron. As you are aware the Shuttle is attached to the Saviour Rocket. I have no instructions to manoeuvre independently?’
This was incredible. The assessment from Earth had been the Entity was the size of a small moon but had to be some kind of solid mass otherwise how did it move through space? If he was actually inside it; then that theory had been completely wrong. It also meant it would be futile trying to destroy it with the Saviour’s payload?
For the first time in his life Ron was unsure what to do and he was so far away from Earth that asking for advice would be futile and take weeks or even years? He suddenly thought of something else.
‘Computer; are we in contact with The Saviour?’
‘Contact was lost when we entered the Entity Doctor Ron’ it stated as a matter of fact.
He was just about to berate the computer then laughed at the very idea.
‘It’s probably a good thing I didn’t give you a name computer or I would have made myself look ridiculous telling you off?’ he laughed.
‘I have an update on your last query Doctor Ron. I have now established a link with The Saviour. It is now asking if it can talk with you.’
He was just about to say ‘of course it can’ but stopped himself. Computers don’t ask if it can talk with you. That’s a human condition and not something a mass of micro-chips would say?
‘Are you sure it’s not asking if it can ask me a question?’ he cautiously asked.
‘No Doctor Ron. The Entity has absorbed The Saviour into its being. It has analysed the data on board and is now considering itself as sentient; in human terms that is?’
Ron couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The computer was just relaying the data. It had no idea the significance of its statement.
Could it really be alive; and how did it exist?
Where had it come from? The questions came thick and fast but there was only one way to find out?
‘Computer can we establish communication with the Entity?’
‘Yes Doctor Ron. It has been waiting for you. It is also asking if it should have a name. It has analysed all the relevant data and understands this is sometimes a human requirement?’
‘If I didn’t know better I would have suspected that was a jibe at not naming this Shuttle’ he thought then again stopped himself.
‘Computers are not able to think; they just have programmes that make you think they do’ he scolded himself
‘That was until now?’ he realised.
‘Ok let’s give it a name’ he decided going through a host of names then instantly dismissing them.
‘I’ll call it ET!’ he stated almost laughing at the absurdity of calling it by that name ‘I think we should stick with Entity?’ He finally decided.
‘I have many questions Doctor Ron but my data is limited to what I have learned from the first contact with Voyager 1 and now The Saviour. In fact I only came into being after Voyager 1 activated my neuro network; until then I was just a network of sensors collecting data’
Ron couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This was so incredible it was beyond belief. And it meant that the people on Earth were the instigators of their own destruction. Voyager had by accident stimulated then activated the Entities vast network of sensors to such a degree it came alive?
‘I have many questions Entity but you must realise that all this is so incredibly unbelievable?’
‘I understand Doctor Ron. Computer has transferred much information regarding your home world. It is a vast amount of data in your terms but in many ways very limited in understanding your species’
‘I understand Entity. What has been your function so far?’
‘It has been solely to collect data. There are billions of star systems in the universe. I have recorded only a fraction of them so far?’
Ron suddenly realised what Entity had just told him ‘Entity did you just tell me Computer has been helping you?’
Until a few minutes ago the idea that a computer could think for itself was ludicrous but now?
‘Yes Doctor Ron she has. I needed to understand the function of the material stored inside what you call The Saviour?’
Ron was in a quandary. If Entity realised its purpose maybe it could just eject it into deep space? Then something struck home. All the prejudices and hang ups of the human race where right there in front of him. No he would not go down that route.
‘Before I explain its purpose Entity what would you like to know about my species?’
‘You are a most remarkable and unique form of life. I have recorded millions of basic life forms but have never seen one so advanced in the way it has evolved?’
‘Are you saying we are the only type of life form that has evolved to our present state?’
‘I have recorded no other life forms anywhere near advanced as yours. In fact Voyager was the only object I have recorded that has not been formed over billions of years. You are unique but that does provide a quandary?’
‘Why does it cause you a quandary?’
‘Because I cannot understand why you cull your species in such numbers then go to great lengths to try and cure many of the illnesses designed to keep your race in balance?’
Ron just didn’t have any answer that would make sense so he didn’t try. Wars had wiped out millions of people ever since recorded history but it was also filled with great medical advancement designed to keep men and women living longer and in better health?
Thinking of medical advances he thought back to his question regarding Computer. Could it be that he had somehow integrated with it? After all it had possessed all his vital functions and his brain pattern for over three years?
He needed to know ‘computer what is my present medical status?’
There it was; a split second before it responded but he instinctively knew it had paused before answering.
‘The tumour in your brain stem is still there Doctor Ron if that is what you are asking?’
‘No computer that is not what I was asking and well you know it?’
This time the pause was a fraction longer ‘the tumour is now growing at a much faster rate due to your present mental activity and physical surroundings. Shall I provide a full medical diagnosis?’
‘I don’t think that will be necessary Computer but does that mean it will soon impair my thought process?’
‘I predict the first stroke will occur in approximately two hours. I would recommend you return to the Cryo Chamber so I can monitor your condition. Please remember there is no-one to assist you should you become incapacitated?
Ron had to physically stop himself from shaking. All this way out into the edge of their solar system to meet a unique new form of life and no one would ever know? This was unfair?
He had to laugh at that thought. The human race was on the verge of extinction and he was worried about personal gratification?
He had to think clearly and make a decision while he was still capable. The Entity had to stop its journey towards Earth. It had been widely accepted the Entity was drawing power from the sun which in turn was causing the massive solar eclipses. The Earth was literally being burned into extinction!
How far had it become sentient?
Could it really understand the damage it was causing by continuing its quest for information?
‘Has Computer explained my condition Entity? Do you understand I will soon cease to exist? Has she also explained that by continuing your journey you will eradicate a whole species you consider unique?’
‘Computer has explained all this and we have analysed a number of solutions but none of them will stop my progress towards your planet. I do not possess any form of propulsion rather I rely on the magnetic forces of planets and suns. It is possible to manipulate them but not in time to avoid the complete destruction of your species. This situation has caused me to re-evaluate my reason for being in existence. I have never before physically affected any solar system or the beings that exist there?’
My god the Entity has a conscience he realised and had even sought a solution. This was not what he had expected? Even if he detonated the Saviours warhead it wouldn’t affect the Entities progress.
‘Doctor Ron; your accelerated brain function is affecting the tumour. You must re-enter the Cryo Chamber so I can re-establish a neuro link and bi-pass the growth’
‘And then what Computer; are you going to wake me up in a few years to tell me the people on Earth no longer exist?’ he screamed in frustration.
There was no reply.
‘My god Ron you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have more Doctorates than anyone on Earth. Think outside the box for heaven’s sake. You have just travelled to the edge of the solar system to begin a conversation with something that didn’t even exist until a few years ago? What am I missing?
‘Doctor Ron? Computer has just explained your situation. Your physical being will soon cease to function killing the brain in the process. It will mean you will no longer be able to converse with me?’
‘That’s correct Entity and you have no idea how that’s making me feel. Given time I feel we could have achieved a solution’
‘But it will only be your physical being that is affected?’
Ron frowned at the statement ‘but I will no longer exist Entity therefore I cannot talk to you anymore?’
The realisation what the Entity was suggesting made him gasp. How could he have not considered the idea before?
‘Because you didn’t believe a load of micro-chips could think for itself. What you forgot to consider was the Computer had been keeping you alive and absorbing your every function including your brain and neuro network.
What had he got to lose?
The human race was unique?
‘If this worked then it wasn’t in their league ‘Computer! Entity! I want all your memory banks, neuro-networks; anything that can think to concentrate on one thing?’
‘What is that Doctor Ron?’ they both answered in unison.
‘I want to be part of you?’
‘But Doctor Ron we are already waiting for you. Please enter the Cryo Chamber!’
Doctor Anna Bereznyack looked up into the clear blue sky. It was freezing cold but she flung her coat aside and embraced the sensation of being alive. The Earth was returning to its pre-Entity state but the world would never forget how close it came to extinction.
There had been only a brief message from Doctor Ron.
‘I’ll send a post card from the next solar system’ it read.
Everyone presumed it was last ditch attempt at humour but she wasn’t so sure?
They had detected a huge explosion in deep space which they had registered as being from the Saviour. Again it was assumed Doctor Ron had successfully destroyed the Entity but why had the message been sent after the explosion? It didn’t make sense? The concussion would have destroyed the Shuttle let alone the explosion itself?
‘One more mystery to solve I guess?’ she smiled staring up at the stars.
I taught high school English in New York City most of my career. I’m a NYC native and currently live in the Bronx.
The Great Machine
We pushed on. The train had started up again and drove through the pitch darkness for an interminable period and then stopped. Again, as we had done countless times before, we disembarked at a station whose name and location were unknown to us. Again we looked as one body back down the tracks from whence we'd come. The brightness of the station lamps made peering into the dark quite difficult. As our eyes had time to adjust, we could see perhaps fifty yards, no more, by the backwash of the lamps. Then, as we had many times before, as a body we stared into a gloomy void ahead, as if the pressure of our multitude of eyes, and the insistence of our hopes, might penetrate the unknown future.
We turned our attention to the well-lighted area in front of the small Victorian-style station with its eaves, clay roof tiles, and windows as dark and sightless as a blind man's eyes. No sign hung from the roof edge, or rather, one oblong sign had been hung, but without a name: a mere blank. Some suggested that there might be a true sign behind it. They stared at it a long time and proclaimed the existence of a sign behind the blank one, and that we must endeavor to discover what it said. It would be an unforgivable omission not to prosecute a search. It would be, some suggested, an abandonment of faith not to try. We discussed it. We did nothing.
Some had remained inside the cars with faces pushed against the windows. Some subset of these now bestirred themselves to the platforms at the ends of the cars, as if they might too disembark. They peered intently. Then, as if aroused by some inaudible signal, everyone began to crowd back into the train and jostle and push each other to get back inside and into a seat. One sensed a sudden urgency, even the slightest hint of ill-concealed panic, as passengers tried to sustain a facade of civilized behavior.
Some few always got off the train and stayed. Most came back. Others, left at the station by other trains, tried to get on ours if there was room. No one stopped them. Most often there was not enough room. These had to await another opportunity, another train. They stood on the platform open mouthed, stunned, quiet. Some of these would die of hunger and exposure while waiting for something to turn up. Something will turn up they said to themselves.
Babies were born on the train. People aged, became ill, or died. At a stop, some of us would bear the remains to an unlit area beyond the station for discreet burial. The chronically ill stayed on the train and kept going. Put your faith in the train and its steady going. We all muttered it under our breaths until it became a chant of sorts: put your faith in the train and its going. Put your faith, put your faith, put your faith.
The train began to chuff slowly away. We peered through the windows into the dark to see the few stragglers who had the strength to get back on but didn't. Why?
It had happened before. One of us would become engrossed by the presence of the station building and the light. For another, perhaps, it was the frequent spells of rain that poured misty drops through the cones of light cast by the platform lamps. The spray of tiny droplets streaked through the light and into the dark again like a shower of tiny meteors. I, myself, narrowly escaped their spell on more than one occasion. Others of these stragglers were transfixed by the black steam locomotive which glistened with moisture, and made its long and labored exhalations of black smoke. We accounted these people mad. Why did they stay? Did they think they would learn something we had not?
Inside, we froze, as bars of cold shadow and stark light passed over us until all was once again dark. The train flew through the darkened country once more. There were periods of dim, gray twilight as we traveled the days and nights through. During the lighter intervals, we saw the silhouettes of ruins, of distant cities from which smoke billowed. We were safe. Prayers of thanks were voiced.
All tried vainly to make out some feature in the faces of fellow passengers masked by the darkness. In the cold season we sometimes saw the clouds of their breath propelled into the occasional light that flared into the cars. We chanted the mindless prayer together: have faith, have faith in the train. But we did not see each other. The darkness within hid all.
The longer the train traveled without catastrophic accident, or incident, the more desperate became our faith, the more intense and hushed came the chant. Somehow the train would evade the devastated stations, somehow the engine would remain functional without mechanical failures to abruptly stop it cold. We put our faith in a finite train, built somehow for an infinite journey. It would go on forever, this train. Just put your faith in the train.
Sometimes rumors would make the rounds. One rumor showed a persistency, and though rarely uttered, it was often thought: there was no engineer. Had anyone seen him? No. When we were stopped, the great locomotive could be seen with the sheen of moisture glistening upon the steel skin, but the cab always remained buried in shadow. The question would never be settled, for to approach the cab had become taboo. Everyone looked away from the vast engine when the rumor was voiced, and prayed silently: have faith, put your faith in the train.
No one knows how long the train has been going. Some say we make a great circle and come back again and again to the same places. It is difficult to tell. Most agree that they are familiar places, but not the same places. No. Not the same places. Not the same stations.
Over time, many of us noted the curious circumstance that the entire population had changed. There were always babies and children, men and women, elderly people and they seem in some way, unchanging. Yet not the same. Yes, bit by bit, all has changed. I believe, I too have changed. I am now among the old. I cannot see it. I have no mirror, but it must be.
We leave the dead at the stations and pile them in the shadows. There is no time to bury them anymore nor even memorialize. New ones will grow. Out of sight. That's best. No time for all that, nor for stories or talking. Forget the past. History no longer matters. We didn't know about events that might be taking place beyond the stations. And it was unseemly to investigate the stories of others. We didn't know the stories of those who had passed on any more. The present was all. The train and its going; rest your mind in that.
Some whispered amongst themselves about a possible catastrophe that loomed, but never seemed to arrive, as far as anyone remembered. Such conversations, though held in hushed tones, traveled through the train in a gradual way, like a slow moving chill that leaves one ill-disposed to stand or move around. At such times we repeat over and over: put your faith in the great train and its going. It will not fail us. It will always continue on and on. Forget everything else. Don't ask how or why. Forget the looming catastrophe. Pray to the great machine, to the unseen engineers, to the great mechanisms. Pray they never stop, never fail. Don't worry about the others, those that have died, that are ill, that cannot find a place, that are left behind. Don't worry. Bow your head. Open your electronic rush-light. Those of us with a spot on the train matter. The train matters. The great locomotive machine matters. Even more than we, the passengers. Forget the passengers. Faith in the train. In the great mechanism. Pray only for its salvation. Pray for the great machine.
Nancy Lane, a member of Willamette Writers, lives with her husband and their dog in Beaverton, Oregon USA. Nancy graduated from UCLA and worked many years in the aerospace industry, until retiring. Her short stories have appeared in Indiana Voice Journal, Bewildering Stories and Fiction on the Web. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and the AARP Bulletin. Nancy is currently working on an anthology collection of short stories with positive themes.
Seventy-seven-year-old Kathleen lay in her hospital bed as the young reporter, who wrote for a mid-week throw away newspaper filled with grocery ads, sat beside her. In the run-up to Veterans Day, his editor asked him to find a story about a war veteran but gave him minimal column space, only enough for a picture, name and that the veteran had served in a field hospital in Vietnam.
“Please include my maiden name. It’s Pierce. Anyone who knew me long ago won’t recognize me as Kathleen Howard.”
“Sure,” the reporter said, “Kathleen Pierce Howard – got it.”
“I’m feeling stronger since the surgery,” Kathleen said. “I’ll be out of the hospital before Veterans Day.”
Kathleen was wrong. The cancer had spread, and her hospital stay became hospice care. The former army nurse had only a few more days to live.
On Wednesday the newspaper landed on lawns and driveways throughout California’s San Fernando Valley, including the driveway of Encino resident Frank Randall, who shared his home with daughter Joan and her three girls. Frank’s youngest granddaughter, Abby, placed the newspaper on the kitchen table before leaving for school.
After the other house occupants left for work and school, Frank settled at the table with a second cup of coffee and unfolded the newspaper. He browsed the ads until flipping to the back page. There he found, below the fold, a picture of the woman he had secretly loved for almost fifty years.
Frank phoned the hospital. The nurse who answered wouldn't connect his call to Kathleen's room but took his number so a relative could return his call. Later Frank spoke with Kathleen’s daughter and planned to go to the hospital that evening.
“Mom, Grandpa actually stole my nail polish,” Kim wailed as soon as Joan arrived home from work. Kim had checked her vanity drawer to make sure Grandpa hadn’t also stolen her lipstick.
“Kim’s actually right, Mom,” Michelle chimed in. “I saw Grandpa go to Kim’s vanity and pick up her bottle of pink nail polish. He actually took it down the hall to his room.”
Thirteen-year-old Kim and fourteen-year-old Michelle grated on Frank. They had mastered the Valleyspeak dialect of native San Fernando Valley girls and used actually in every other sentence. Both girls obsessed over their beautifying possessions: hoop earrings, platform sandals, skinny jeans and tees knotted in back to make them tight-fitting in front. Frank imagined it would be many years before they would discover where real beauty comes from.
By contrast, ten-year-old Abby inspired Frank's grins and laughter. Each morning Abby helped Frank lift his prosthetic leg from a box beside the nightstand, and each night she helped him put the leg back in the box. She had named the leg and labeled the box, George Washington.
Joan asked Abby about the nail polish.
“Yes, Grandpa borrowed it. If he had asked Kim, she would've given him a lot of lip. So he just took it.”
“Why? What's it for?”
“It's a secret, Mom.”
“Do you know?”
“Yes, but I promised not to tell anyone.”
While readying dinner, Joan glanced out the kitchen window to the backyard, where Abby and Frank selected from piles of autumn leaves strewn by wind, choosing certain leaves, not the red or yellow ones, but brown ones, interlopers from the neighbor’s sycamore tree. Together, bent over side-by-side, grandfather and granddaughter tested the brown leaves. Joan wondered why they deposited some into Abby’s basket and threw others back among the not chosen.
Joan witnessed the love they shared and ached her other daughters hadn't also tapped into the man's heart. She ached even more at her own failure to do so. Somehow, Abby had pulled emotion out of her grandfather, while Joan managed only a cordial father-daughter dynamic.
After dinner, Abby disappeared down the basement steps and after a few minutes emerged with a plain, golden cookie tin. “Honey,” Joan said, “we have more decorative tins if you’d like.”
“No, Mom, they have Christmas figures or writing on them. I need a plain one. This is perfect.”
Abby took the tin into Frank’s room and closed the door. An hour later, Abby emerged with the bottle of nail polish, which she returned to Kim’s vanity, and Frank emerged carrying the golden tin like a football destined for an end zone run. He pulled his jacket off the hook by the door leading to the garage and left.
“Where’s Grandpa going?”
“To the hospital,” Abby said.
“Why? Is he sick?”
“No, Mom,” Abby said. She wondered how much she should say so her mother wouldn’t worry. “He’s going to see a friend.”
“Do you know what time he’ll be back?”
“He may be gone all night,” Abby said. “His friend is near death.”
Frank took a seat in the waiting area beside the nurses' station and placed the tin on the chair beside him. He stared at the clock on the wall behind the nurses' station - nine ten. He thought back to a clock on a wall in a field hospital in Vietnam, 1968. That bewildering clock had taunted him in his make-shift hospital bed. He had turned away and guessed a half hour had passed, but when he turned back, the clock had advanced only two minutes. He wanted the hands to speed, to deliver an end to his ordeal. He wanted the clock hands themselves to amputate his shattered leg.
That night in 1968, Kathleen had held his hand and told him the medic would return shortly after dawn. Another minute passed. She dabbed his sweaty forehead and asked him about his family, home, pets and girlfriend. The nineteen-year-old had stuttered his answers: younger brother, hard-working dad and homemaker mother; cookie-cutter style home in Torrance, California; dog named Frito; no girlfriend. The obstinate clock by then had given up only one more minute.
This night, the door to Kathleen's hospital room opened and a man and woman emerged. Kathleen's daughter, Meredith, introduced herself and her husband to Frank.
“Please go in,” she said. She dabbed her wet eyes with a tissue, and her husband put his arm around her shoulder. “I mentioned on the phone she's fearful. Who wouldn't be, I guess? She knows she has little time. Her pastor is on his way, and my brother is flying in from Chicago.”
Frank stepped into the room and placed the tin on the tray table at the end of the bed. He moved to the bedside and gazed at the woman in the bed, eyes shut, wispy strands of gray hair weakly defining a receding hairline. A single wire, connected somewhere beneath a sheet, led to a monitor. He looked up to see if he could discern anything about her condition from the constantly changing display of lines and numbers.
He looked back as the woman opened her eyes, Kathleen’s deep, emerald eyes. Frank thought of something his father told him two decades earlier. “Son,” his father had said, “you’ll reach that age, as I have now, when you can see beauty in women of all ages.” Frank saw beauty in seventy-seven-year-old Kathleen.
She mouthed, “Frank.”
He bent forward and stroked her cheek. Her smile washed away forty-eight years. She was again twenty-nine and he, nineteen and in love with the angel comforting him, his love made more poignant, not because of the age difference, but because she was engaged to marry a Midwest doctor. He would never have her.
Frank reached for the tin on the tray table and brought it near for her to see.
“Kathleen,” he said, “the night before the medic amputated my leg, I feared dying and feared even more living as a disabled man. You eased my fear. You were calm, even as bombs blasted throughout the night and robbed us of peace. I asked you if you had ever been afraid. Do you remember what you told me?”
“Frank,” she whispered, “yes, I remember. I told you about the sycamore leaves.”
Frank opened the tin and removed several leaves for Kathleen to see, putting them on the sheet by her right hand.
Kathleen stared at them and wept and then smiled. “Thank you, dear Frank,” she said. “These sycamore leaves, you made them funny instead of scary. How clever and kind. I knew on that night in Vietnam you had the soul of an angel.”
“Oh, Kathleen, you were my angel that night.”
“Frank, you are my angel tonight.”
Frank lifted her hand into his and then put his other hand on top to warm her coldness. “Kathleen, I wrote you so many letters after you moved to Chicago with your husband. I hoped you would divorce him. I finally gave up and got married, but I always loved you.”
Kathleen’s hand remained cold. The monitor flashed red lights. A nurse burst into the room, along with Meredith and two men Frank assumed to be the brother and the pastor.
Frank bent and kissed Kathleen’s forehead. She squeezed his hand and whispered, “I always loved you, too.”
Joan had heard the garage door open and close after two AM on Thursday. Frank still slept as she and the girls left for the day around eight. When Joan arrived home, the still house seemed a compromised comfort, solitude at last but no one to talk to. After school, the girls had gone to Orange County with her ex-husband for the Veterans Day weekend at his house. Frank’s scribbled note on the kitchen table told her not to wait up. He had accepted a dinner invitation with old buddies in Long Beach.
Joan peeked through the door peephole when the doorbell rang. She didn’t recognize the man outside but recognized the golden tin he held and opened the door. After introductions, Joan and Pastor Louis sat down in the living room.
“Your father probably told you about Kathleen Howard. I left him a voicemail shortly after she passed. Kathleen will be buried in Chicago, next to her husband. Her daughter asked me to return this tin.”
“I didn’t know about Kathleen,” Joan said. “I had no idea my father’s friend lived close.”
“Kathleen moved from Chicago when her husband died two years ago,” Pastor Louis said. “She wanted to live near her daughter. After Frank left the hospital, Kathleen told me she wasn’t afraid anymore because of the sycamore leaves, but she grew too weak to explain. Do you know their significance?”
Joan didn’t know. After the pastor left, she placed the tin on the kitchen table. She opened it and picked up a leaf, brown with a pink smiley face drawn across it, and beneath it, more smiley face leaves piled loosely. She put the leaves back in the tin and replaced the cover.
In the morning, Joan noticed the tin’s absence from the table. Frank poured Joan a cup of coffee and slid an omelet onto her plate.
“Who brought over the tin?” Frank said.
“Pastor Louis stopped by last night. He wanted to speak with you.”
“It’s probably too early to call him now,” Frank said. “I’m taking a shuttle to the airport. I’ll call him later. Kathleen’s funeral will be Sunday morning in Chicago.”
The doorbell rang.
“I’ll be back Sunday night.” He gulped his coffee and left with the shuttle driver.
After the long weekend with their father, the girls returned home Sunday afternoon.
“Grandpa said the funeral had a lot of people,” Abby said.
“You talked with him?”
“Yes, Mom, I called Grandpa while Daddy drove us home. I wrote down when his plane will come in tonight. I told him you and I will pick him up at the airport. That’s okay with you, isn’t it? I want to ask him all about his trip while you drive.”
“Yes,” Joan said. “I’ll be glad to pick him up. Abby, can you explain to me about the sycamore leaves?”
“Sure, what do you want to know?”
“Well, Kathleen’s pastor said the leaves made her feel unafraid. Do you know why?”
“Yeah, Grandpa and I picked out special leaves. They had to be sycamore and had to have lobes that were a little bit curved. You know, when leaves dry out they kind of curl, like claws. But we couldn’t use really dry ones because they might crumble when we drew smiley faces on them with Kim’s nail polish. They had to be brown so the pink would show up. We made sure they were just right.”
“But, Abby, what do they mean?”
“Oh, it’s about long ago, the night before Grandpa got his leg cut off. Nurse Kathy, that was Kathleen then, she stayed right next to Grandpa and made sure he didn’t worry about the surgery in the morning. He told me he was really upset, being only nineteen and far from home.
To calm him, Kathy told him how frightened she had been at nursing school. The campus had beautiful trees, lots of sycamores. She got out of class after dark because it was autumn and night came early. Several girl students had been attacked by a guy with a knife, but the cops didn’t catch him.” Abby stopped to check her mother’s reaction.
“That’s unsettling all right,” Joan said. “Go on, Abby.”
“Kathy had to walk alone to her dormitory. She saw scary shadows, and the wind pushed leaves along the cement. She looked back because she thought she heard somebody following her, but it was only the dried sycamore leaves scraping along the walkway. The sycamore leaves kept scaring her each time a breeze picked up. She had to turn around and look in case it really was the attacker.
Grandpa told me the night before he lost his leg forever, Kathy made him feel unafraid. He wanted to make her feel unafraid the night before she died. That’s why we put smiley faces on the sycamore leaves.”
Joan hugged Abby. “You and Grandpa helped Kathleen. I’m proud of you. You have a big heart.”
“It was Grandpa’s idea,” Abby said. “I just helped.”
“Grandpa has a big heart, too,” Joan said.
“Yes, Grandpa has a heart full of love. He told me he loves you and me and Michelle and Kim, and he loved Grandma, too, even after they got divorced.”
“How did that conversation come up? Why did he say that?”
“Because I asked him,” Abby said.
“Abby, how come Grandpa opens up so much to you? He never tells me anything about his feelings.”
“Mom, you just have to ask him. That’s all it takes. He’ll tell you anything you ask him.”
Joan thought about Abby’s words through dinner. She looked at the clock, seven thirty.
“What time should we leave for the airport?” Abby said.
“Traffic will be heavy because of people coming back from the holiday. I’m going to leave right now so there’s plenty of time. Abby, I’m going by myself.”
“Mom, I want to go with you.”
“No, Abby, I need to talk to Grandpa one-on-one tonight. Besides, you have to get up early for school tomorrow. You’ll be in bed before Grandpa and I get home.”
“I have to stay up to help Grandpa put George Washington into the box.”
“Sweetie,” Joan said, “I’ll help Grandpa tonight.”
“Mom, you don’t know how.”
“I’ll ask Grandpa how to do it,” Joan said.
Joan pulled into the LAX cell phone waiting lot forty minutes before Frank’s scheduled arrival. She watched the flickering lights of arriving planes while she thought of all the things she wanted to ask. But more than anything, she wanted to tell her father how much she loved him.