James grew up in California and has a background in philosophy. He has lived all over the U.S., Asia, and currently lives in Europe where he teaches English. His writing is influenced by Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, among many others. This is his first published story.
EVERYTHING IS REAL, NOTHING IS TRUE
You follow Chloe out of the apartment, getting lost in the labyrinth of corridors and memories as you try to reconstruct the events of the last several hours. All that time seems lost to you now. You’re standing right next to her in the elevator, yet she’s a million miles away.
Outside, the sun has only been up for an hour or two, but the rays are bright enough to serve as a reminder of how tired and dehydrated you are. Your pace slows, pained by the harsh light and your inability to understand exactly what has happened. You search your pockets for your sunglasses, but they’re not there. She’s already across the street near her car when she looks back at you, annoyed because you’ve gotten so far behind. But she’s also more than just a little disconcerted; she’s not used to being the strong one coming out of situations like this.
When you close the passenger side door, she asks unsympathetically, “You going to be all right?”
“Yeah. I just need to… get my bearings,” you tell her, which somehow sounds like a lie. You want to say more; you want to ask her what happened, but instead you say nothing. Her thoughts are clearly somewhere else. It’s up to you to figure this out for yourself. You adjust the seatbelt and she’s already pulled off the curb before you have it buckled.
She’s silent as she drives down the surprisingly empty road – what happened to all the traffic you heard earlier? – and you’re finally in a position to sort out your thoughts, get a grasp on what moments ago seemed out of reach. This began two days ago when you first needed a place to stay. You had lost your apartment and job, run out of money, and burned many bridges. Your last option for any help was Mick, your connection – and Chloe’s boyfriend. Thinking you could have things sorted out by the time you got your final paycheck next week, you asked Mick if you could stay the night at his loft. You knew they lived in the industrial part of town that had long been abandoned, which would help you keep a low profile until you left. After checking with Chloe, he enthusiastically offered his couch, not just for the night, but the whole weekend. Chloe, he said, would love to have you over. This seemed odd to you, as you and she barely knew each other, but you were more relieved to have somewhere to stay. You didn’t want to fuck this up.
You met Mick that afternoon and he took you to the loft. On the way there, he extolled the virtues of living in this part of the city; not only were there no neighbors to complain when they held their band practice, but he didn’t have to worry about anyone calling the cops when he fired off his guns.
As if needing to demonstrate this latter point, he decided to show you his guns after you got to his home and did a couple lines together. You felt as if he were trying to impress you with his machismo, but it only frightened you instead. When making transactions with him before, he had often told you many stories that always ended in violence. His stories didn’t illustrate his badassery to you as much as his instability.
“With this baby, I can easily take out all the fags in this city,” he said, positioning a sniper rifle on his windowsill and aiming it at imaginary passersby.
You weren’t sure how serious he was, but were nonetheless relieved when you heard the downstairs door unlock and you knew you wouldn’t have to be alone with him any longer. Chloe was home.
As Mick put away his toys, Chloe greeted you with a familiarity that seemed unwarranted, but not offensive; the most time you had spent with her previously had been about fifteen minutes when she had made a delivery to you that Mick couldn’t make himself.
She had been preparing a roast for dinner all day, but Mick, in his excitement to show off to you, forgot to follow the instructions she had left for him. When it was finished, it came out too dry. She told Mick off while he shot you looks and winks to suggest that she was crazy. When she noticed this, she got even more pissed off.
Feeling a bit responsible, you took some of the blame, explaining that you had distracted him. You placated her by telling her that the roast smelled good and you were looking forward to tasting it. But, being spun, no one was particularly hungry. No one ate more than a few bites.
“It was really sweet of you to stick up for him like that, but it wasn’t necessary,” she told you as you helped her wash the dishes. “He’s always undermining me like this. Especially when his friends are around.”
“Well, I’m your friend, too,” you said to her. Her smile told you how much this meant to her.
As you watch her drive now, you can’t help but wonder if she ever liked you. Looking at her lips, you think it wasn’t that long ago you were kissing them. Her makeup had worn away and you targeted each of her freckles with your lips. Coming up for air, you wanted to look her in her amber eyes, but her raven hair was in the way. She stopped you when you tried moving it; she had a pimple on her cheek and she didn’t want you to see it. You told her it didn’t matter, but it mattered to her.
Now her eyes, unblinking, are fixed on the road. With her makeup on, she looks like a completely different person. Her skin is unnaturally pale, her lips unnaturally red. Her pimple is gone, and with it her freckles and warmth.
You wonder where she’s taking you. You want to ask, but you think she might not know, either. You can wait until you get there to find out. In the meantime, you return to your thoughts.
Last night, after another fight with Mick during their rehearsal, she’d brought you to the apartment where she worked. You sat with her in the living room, flipping through the erotic coffee table books while she read her reviews online. Even with the lights on so dim, this place seemed so much more posh than where she lived with Mick, and you finally understood how she could afford it.
“Mick told me you were a masseuse, but I didn’t realize that these were the kinds of massages you give. A hundred-and-fifty-dollar handjobs?” you asked her.
“Two hundred dollars,” she answered, laughing. “I only give upscale handjobs.”
“Ah, I see. And I always thought a handjob was just a handjob. I guess I’m pretty naïve about these things.”
She laughed again and closed her laptop. “Come here. I’ll show you where I work.”
She led you into one of the bedrooms. With the lights on so low, all you could make out was a massage table in the middle of the room. She told you to remove your shirt and lie face down on the table.
Not being able to see anything made you uneasy at first. Soon you could feel her hands on your back and you got more comfortable, probably the most comfortable you’ve felt in days. You lost all track of time as her hands traveled and conquered all the nooks and crannies of your back. An hour passed, maybe two. You dozed off, but suddenly woke when you felt her hands go down your pants. They were only there for a second. When they returned to your back, you could tell she was getting tired. You asked if you could return the favor.
“Yes, please,” she answered.
You and she traded places. She lay down, keeping her dress on, and you stood over her, topless.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Good,” you answered quickly, trying to hide how you really felt. But given the circumstances, you decided to risk sharing more. “I’m a little turned on, actually.”
“That’s cool,” she said into the face rest of the table, her muffled voice making her sound weary. You chuckled to yourself. Her tone had been neutral, but you were relieved it wasn’t repulsion.
You rubbed and petted her back awkwardly, not knowing what you were doing. You imagined you were lulling her to sleep like she had done to you. But you found a spot on her lower back that she responded to with moans. You took this as a good sign and rubbed her here more, clockwise and counter-clockwise, eliciting more and more moans from her. You were pleased that you were doing a good job and making her feel good, but you soon got bored with it and were becoming more aware of your own exhaustion. You didn’t want to stop pleasing her, so you asked her what else she liked, hoping she might suggest something more comfortable for you. She turned around and said she liked to have her legs rubbed. She made no attempt to cover her exposed nipples as the neckline of her dress rode down.
You started at her kneecap, but the only way you could keep going down was to remove her boots. She didn’t want that, so you decided to rub upward instead. “Careful,” she said as your hands came into contact with her thighs. She kept repeating this word, whispering as she parted her legs more and more the closer your hands got to the center. Rubbing in between her legs now, you could feel how much she was enjoying this, but her soft admonitions confused you. You weren’t sure what to do, but you knew you wanted her to stop talking, so you leaned down and kissed her. You were sloppy at first, not just kissing her mouth, but all over her face and neck and chest. Her reactions showed you that you made the right choice. She responded in kind, smearing her makeup on you. But you were physically incapable of going any further; in the last few minutes, your boots had become unbearably heavy, planting you to the floor. You weren’t sure you would be able to lift your legs. You didn’t want to stop what you were doing to take them off, worried she might realize she was making a mistake and put an end to this. So you remained standing, leaning over her, touching and rubbing her as you kissed her more methodically, as she did the same.
Now, you reflexively glance at her crotch, hidden by the folds of her dress, before looking out the windshield. It’s a clear and sunny morning, but you somehow see it all as a shade of gray, like you’re traveling through a tunnel. For the first time, you notice music has been playing, loudly, and you wonder if it’s been playing this whole time. Did she turn it up so high deliberately? Is she trying to drown something out? You turn down the volume, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Silence remains between you two until she passes a cop car. She notices the way you automatically tense up, less from the chemicals in your system and more from the fear of Mick somehow finding out what happened between you and his girlfriend.
“Are you going to be able to maintain if we get pulled over?” she asks.
“Yeah, of course,” you reply curtly as she runs a red light. “But we wouldn’t have to worry about getting pulled over if you would stop running red lights,” you say with a hint of malice, wanting to make it clear it won’t be you that gives you away.
You feel her glancing at you. Expecting it to be a glare, you don’t meet it, but you’re surprised to feel a hint of warmth emitting from her, see a grin in your peripheral vision. It’s too late when you turn to confirm this; her grin is gone, her eyes back on the road.
“I guess you’re right,” she says quietly.
Feeling a little bolder, you decide it’s time to establish where it is she’s taking you. Though she has taken a long way around, you recognize the route and decide to say something before it’s too late. “You know, you can’t take me back to the loft.”
She remains silent. You wonder if she heard you, and your newfound confidence sinks at the thought of having to repeat yourself. Waiting, trying to decide what to do, you look out through the windshield, hopelessly attempting to reconcile your perception with reality. She runs another red light. Looking at her for any indication that she’s aware of what she just did, you hear her say softly, “I can’t take you back to the loft.”
After everything had been cleaned and put away from the dinner, she had wanted to get to know you better, and this had led to an all-night bonding session between you two. Mick had gone to bed with a migraine; the smell of pot wafted through the loft from their bedroom. Chloe dug out her old notebooks full of poetry and songs, and you shared with her the notebooks you had in your bag. You spoke almost nonstop all night, getting to know each other by reading each other’s words, trading compliments, giving release to the thoughts that had been cluttering your mind, divulging your secrets, sharing your plans for the future. It was like you were making up for all the lost time that you had never actually spoken to her before now. Her positive responses had encouraged you to share more about yourself than you had shared with anyone in a long time, some of your ideas seeming grandiose, but not unrealistic. She made you feel you were capable of anything.
As she becomes more conscious of the situation, her coldness starts to melt, puddles forming in her eyes. She puts on her sunglasses, but you don’t need to see her eyes to know that the dynamic has changed. You’re the strong one now.
Making random left-turns and illegal U-turns on the empty streets, she wonders aloud if she’s a bad person, the way she falls for anyone who treats her with any kindness. It was just the other night when you were wondering the same thing about yourself, sitting alone with her in the loft, your and her notebooks spread out on the floor, lines of dope cut out on a mirror. She asked what inspired you, what motivated you to write so much. You told her it was about finding answers to questions like this, exploring the events of the last several months that had led you to this point – rock bottom – and whether this made you a bad person. She had said, “No, of course not.”
You want to reassure her now, but because of her coldness toward you, you’re not so sure she deserves it.
“I need you need to talk to him for me,” she pleads without looking at you directly. “You saw how he treats me. Please. Say something to him. He’ll listen to you.”
“It’s impossible,” you say automatically, absolving yourself from any responsibility. You didn’t intend to get involved with her like this. The only reason you left with her after their fight last night was because you felt responsible for what happened, not to solve any relationship problems. You had intruded on their band practice; he was upstaging her for your benefit, showing off his self-taught skills at the bass. It truly was accidental when he unplugged her mic with his foot. Then again, he wouldn’t have been anywhere near the cord if he wasn’t trying to impress you as you watched from the other side of their rehearsal space.
“Goddammit!” she screamed.
“What? Relax, Chloe. It was just an accident,” he said, “I’ll plug it back in. No problem.”
“No, forget it. This whole rehearsal has been a mess. When you haven’t been playing over me, you’ve been talking over me. I’m done. You and Jeremy can keep playing together, but I’m outta here.”
She went to the bedroom to get her jacket, and as soon as she disappeared, Mick gave you an apologetic look that also somehow insinuated that she was the unstable one. He and their guitarist continued to jam. She stormed across the loft to the rooftop terrace to smoke. You had no reason to stay in the main room anymore, so you followed her to apologize.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said, “but I appreciate the sentiment.” She smiled at you between drags. “This is always happening. Whenever someone comes over, he just has to show off.”
“Well, it’s pretty obvious he taught himself.”
She responded with a chuckle.
“And I was focused more on you, anyway. You have a great voice. You’re very talented.”
“Thanks, dear.” She leaned her head against you in lieu of a hug so she could still smoke. After she finished and put out the cigarette, she asked, “Wanna take a drive with me?”
“Um, sure. Where to?”
“Anywhere. I need to get out of here. Mick’s going to be an asshole the rest of the night. He probably gave you the impression I was overreacting, right?”
“Yeah.” You were surprised by her clairvoyance, but quickly realized she knew her boyfriend pretty well.
“Come on, let’s go. You won’t need anything. We’ll just be gone for a little while.”
By your reckoning – which is way off – this was at least eight hours ago. But you can’t be sure of anything right now, only that you’ve delivered a self-serving answer to a not-so-unreasonable request, and this hasn’t made her feel any better.
“Look, he’s not going to listen to me,” you say, hoping your explanation will be enough. “I’m leaving in a few days. Nothing I can say will change him. Besides, if I say something now, after spending all night with you, he’ll know something’s up.” You feel like you’ve made a good case for not getting involved.
“You’re right,” she replies, a single tear streaming down the right side of her face. “God, I’m so stupid. He’s never going to change. And no one will ever stick up for me. You saw how useless Jeremy was. And now you.”
You want to say something; you want her to feel better. But you know if you apologize, it’s just going to sound hollow. You say nothing and she drives on in silence.
Your make-out session with her got interrupted by the loud wailing of the landline from the kitchen, each urgent ring a harbinger of doom. There was no question about who was calling. You both stopped kissing each other and stared into each other’s eyes, letting the phone ring. When it stopped, you stood up. Then it began ringing again.
“Shit,” she said, getting up off the table. She checked her phone, which had been charging on a vanity table that seemed to materialize with the sunlight shining through the windows. “Fuck. Six missed calls. We have to leave.”
Suddenly you could hear the traffic below on the street, each vehicle distinctly sounding like Mick’s motorcycle, the sounds seemingly disappearing in front of the building.
She looked at you, at first mystified by the circumstances, but then a grin crept across her face. She came over to hug you, rubbing your crotch. “Thank you,” she said with a kiss. “I’m going to freshen up. Why don’t you get dressed and cut us a couple lines. My stash is in my purse.”
You did as she instructed, but feeling chivalrous, you decided to use your own dwindling stash. You cut lines on the vanity table – taking a little extra for yourself – and snorted yours. The ritual of cutting the lines, feeling the burn in your sinuses, and tasting the drip in the back of your throat were all familiar to you, but the actual rush of the drugs was gone. Your tolerance was so high, this meager amount only kept you functional.
She returned to the bedroom with a fresh coat of makeup on and a new personality, bereft of any of the warmth she had shown you just a few minutes ago.
You decided to freshen up yourself. To get her makeup off you, you had to confront your reflection. You didn’t even recognize the person in the mirror. Your face was a sickly pale that only brought out the darkness of the bags under your eyes and the shadows in your sunken cheeks. And your eyes, they were all pupils. You took a grim satisfaction in all the weight you’d lost since the last time you examined yourself, taking a bit of pride in the gauntness you thought you could never achieve.
You quickly washed your face, fixed your hair, attempted to compose yourself. You found her scrolling through her phone when you returned to the bedroom; the line you cut for her had disappeared. She looked up, and all she said was, “Ready?”
But, back in the car now, you know how little composed you really are, and how little composed she is, too. If you go back with her to the loft and stay with her and Mick over the weekend as planned, there’s no way you can be discreet about what happened. It’s bound to slip out no matter how careful you are.
She seems to have the same thoughts going through her head when she says, “What are we going to do?”
“First… we need some water. Pull over.” She stops the car outside a convenience store with large storefront windows. “I’ll be right back.”
When you pass through the door of the shop, you step into a whole new plane of reality you’re not fully prepared for. No one in the shop notices you, as if the bells on the door failed to announce your entrance. But you heard them… right? You pass through the shop like a ghost, cautiously making your way to the coolers in the back, and you grab a couple bottles of water. You wait behind some pensioner paying for the morning newspaper and a coffee in loose change. It still strikes you as odd that no one seems to notice you. Are you really here? Of course you are, you’re standing here right now. You can feel that, see it; the sound of the coins clanking in front of you, the weight of the bottles in your hands, the smell of coffee coming from the cup in front of you. You begin to doubt your memories of the last several hours. Did any of it really happen? Were you ever really with Chloe? If not, how did you get here? You look out the store’s front window, looking for her car, but you can’t see it. Did she leave? Or was she never here to begin with?
It’s your turn at the cash register. Despite being ill-prepared for any social contact, at least you know you’re real when the cashier rings you up, takes your money, and gives you change. The cashier doesn’t say anything, but it’s not because you’re not real; he just doesn’t care. So you’ve established that much.
You walk toward the door, unsure whether you’ll find Chloe’s car on the other side. You decide that if she’s there, then everything that’s happened really happened. And if not – well, then you have a whole new slew of problems to deal with.
Anxiety sets in as you get closer to the door and open it. You search for her car and you don’t immediately see it and start to freak out. But you glimpse something car-like out of the corner of your eyes, and when you look at it directly, you can see that it’s hers. She’s here, always has been. Everything is real.
“Jesus,” you say after slamming the door in your rush to get back to the car. You look back at the storefront window you looked out of and realize she had parked just out of the line of sight from the cash register. The whole time you were gone, she was here, fiddling with her phone.
You both empty your bottles quickly. She looks at you and asks, “Now what are we going to do?”
“Okay, look.” Your mind is racing, almost as fast as your heartbeat. “My bag is still at the loft. We have to go back to get it. When we see him, we’ll say we went to a bar or club or something and ran into some people I know. We’ll say they agreed to let me stay with them, so I wouldn’t have to impose on you guys so much. The less we say, the better.”
“All right,” she says, reluctantly accepting this story as she puts the car into gear and starts driving in the direction of her home. “Is there anything in your bag that will incriminate us?”
“No.” You want to tell her not to be ridiculous, that she’s being paranoid. Instead you say, “Of course not.” But she’s planted the seed of doubt in you.
“Okay,” she answers, satisfied. But a few moments later, there’s panic in her voice. “You told him you thought I was hot. Why’d you say that?”
"He told you I said that?"
"Of course he did. And now he'll know."
"No, he won't. He's too self-centered to figure it out. When I told him that, it was like I was complimenting him. He’s all ego and no self-awareness. He’s like… Quentin Tarantino. He knows I'd never make a move on you. I'm harmless. In fact, even I’m having trouble believing this happened."
She laughs, the last blocks of ice melting. "I guess you're right."
Seeing her warm up allows you to relax a little and not worry so much about the present situation. "When he told you that, how did it make you feel?"
"It made me feel good."
"Yeah. It was a compliment, wasn't it? I'll tell you something else. It made me want to get to know you better."
"I guess you know me pretty well now."
She laughs again. She slides her hand into yours on your lap as she says, "There's still a lot I don't know."
Knowing things are cool between you now, you’re able to relax even more. You bask in the drive on the familiar streets, enjoying the music on the radio and having her hand in yours.
She removes her hand from yours when you’re a block away from the loft. She straightens up, bracing herself for what’s to come. You find yourself doing the same.
Mick groggily greets you at the top of the stairs leading to their loft when she unlocks the front door. “Where’ve you guys been?”
You quickly relate the story you concocted. “Chloe’s going to drive me there.”
She showers him with affection to distract him from asking any further questions or from discovering any holes in your story. It’s all a bit over-the-top, you feel, but you don’t betray this as you grab your bag and hug him, thanking him for everything.
“Yeah. No problem. Keep in touch,” he says, heading back to bed.
Reeling from your performances, she peels off the curb a little too fast for this to be casual. But maybe you’re reading too much into this. You search your bag, looking for your sunglasses and getting frustrated as you come up empty. You can’t go back for them now.
“So where am I really taking you?”
“Um, how much cash do you have?”
With a free hand, she digs into her purse and throws a pile of bills onto your lap.
“Between this and what I’ve got, I can get a cheap room for the rest of the weekend.”
“Okay. Is there somewhere in particular you want to go to?”
“Just the first cheap hotel you see will be fine. You know, the ones with weekly rates.”
You’re dismayed at how quickly she finds one. You wanted a chance to spend more time with her. But you know that she’s got to go back and smooth things over with Mick. And she probably needs some sleep.
You prolong saying goodbye, but you can see her getting a little restless. You know you don’t have enough of your stash to get you through the next couple days, but you decide not to ask her for more, having already taken money from her.
“So, I guess this is goodbye,” you say, opening the door.
“No, wait. Come here.” She gives you a big kiss and as big a hug as she can manage without unbuckling her seatbelt. “This is just goodbye for now. Call me on Monday.”
“I will,” you say, stepping out of the car. You close it behind yourself and watch her drive off, her arm raised so you can see her waving to you through the back window. You smile at this, but feel a little troubled, as you’re unable to conjure up the image of her face in your mind.
You probably need some sleep, too.
You show up at Chloe’s building a little after nine p.m. She buzzes you in after you call her on the little phone at the front. You’re immediately lost as soon as you enter the lobby; you recognize nothing from the other night. With help from the security guard, you’re able to find the elevators in the right wing of the building. Still lost when you get to her floor, you somehow manage to find her apartment. It takes a few minutes for her to answer after you knock on the door.
When you see her holding the door open, the despair you felt all weekend almost completely disappears. Maybe it’s the smile she has for you that helps, the familiarity of her open arms and her lips on your face. She takes you by the hand and leads you into her room. “How was your day?” she asks as you drop your bag on the floor.
“It was all right, considering...”
“I’m coming down.”
With a sympathetic look, she says, “I’m so sorry. I wish I could’ve seen you sooner, but I had a really late client. He just left a few minutes ago.”
“It’s cool,” you say, wondering why you didn’t seem to pass him in the halls. But you have something more pressing to worry about. You want to confirm the plans you made with her when you called earlier today. “You said I could stay here tonight, right?”
“Yeah, as long as you don’t mind sleeping on the futon.”
“That’s fine. Mind if I take a shower?”
“No, go right ahead. You can leave your clothes here. I have to make a quick phone call. I should be back by the time you’re done.” With a wink and a smile she’s gone, closing the door behind herself.
Feeling vulnerable standing naked in a strange shower makes you a little anxious and too impatient to read the labels on the bottles on display; a brand of cleansers that bear her namesake. It takes a little while for you to find something that resembles soap. As you lather yourself, you become increasingly troubled by her disappearing act and who she might be calling. You suddenly can’t be certain of her intentions. You know this to be a symptom of sleep deprivation, but you can’t help it as your anxiety worsens, leading you down the path to outright paranoia. You become frantic enough to cut your shower short.
You wrap a towel around yourself, and you’re relieved to see her waiting for you when you re-enter the room. She’s sitting on the massage table in the middle of the room. Your anxiety hasn’t completely disappeared. She seems to notice how tense you feel.
“Come here and lie down,” she invites you. “Let me put on some music.” She quickly makes her way to where the CD player rests on the vanity table. She holds up two burnt CDs for you to choose from, but with the lights dimmed the same way as last time, it’s too dark for you to see them properly. “Enya or Portishead?”
You watch her fumble with the CD and the CD player, and you lie down, putting your face in the massage table’s face rest as she presses the play button. You hear her adjust the volume, and a second later you feel the towel you’re wearing disappear. Your heart races, unaware of what’s going on because you can’t see anything. But you’re soon calmed when you turn your head and discover the mirrored closet doors on your right side. You watch as she pours lavender oil onto your back and rubs it into your skin. Though you can feel it, you only know it’s really happening because you can see it. She notices you watching her in the mirror and playfully removes her Hawaiian top with a mischievous grin, a la Bettie Page. She climbs on top of you in just her plain black skirt now and replaces her hands with her upper body, rubbing her breasts against you, touching your skin with her nipples. You can feel her warm breath on your neck, soon replaced by her soft lips. You put your face back into the face rest, confident this is not an illusion; eyes closed and smiling, you forget the state you were in just a few minutes ago.
A few more kisses and she climbs down. She’s standing in front of you now. You can feel her body pressed against your head as she pours more oil on your back and rubs you. You reciprocate by rubbing her legs, sliding your hands underneath her skirt when you meet the hem at her knees and massaging the backs of her thighs.
“How are you?” you ask, speaking loud enough to be heard.
“Tired,” she says with a small laugh. “I’ve been doing this all day.”
“Do you want me to take over?” you ask. You’re on your feet before she can answer. Instead of speaking, she lies down in the same position you were just in.
Just as unsure as you were the other night about what to do, you start by rubbing her shoulders. Moving down, you find the same spots on her back she seemed to enjoy the other night. She tells you to use the oil, so you pour some on her back and rub it in like you think you’re supposed to. Despite her moans of approval – which you interpret as her wanting you to continue – like the other night, you’re too weary to keep this up. Instead of rubbing, you begin kissing her. You tell her to turn over, and when she does, you help her out of her skirt, kissing each region of her body as you uncover it. Completely naked now, you climb up on top of her. Starting at her chest, you kiss your way up to her mouth. As the music plays in the background, you go through the motions of making love without any desire to climax, which will cheapen the way you feel, bring an ending to this sooner than you want.
Too tired to keep going like this, you lie down – “like a sprite,” she says – with your head on her chest. The rest of your body is on the edge of the massage table with your legs interwoven between hers. Despite a slight discomfort this position causes, you feel an overwhelming sense of calm. You repose like this, still, silent, comfortable in each other’s warmth. For the first time in a long time, you feel safe, secure. Wanting this to last forever, you know that it won’t. The CD plays on, adding to the atmosphere, giving you a sense of time even though it sounds like a mix. You lie together through several more songs, but your peace is shattered when she says, “I have to go.”
You don’t move, wishing you hadn’t heard her, wishing she hadn’t said this. You want to stay like this just a little longer, but you’re afraid she might find this overbearing. You both get up slowly, embracing each other quickly. She takes a shower while you get dressed.
Though she’s not gone long, any time away from her seems like an eternity. You’re perturbed by the change in the atmosphere of the room as she returns and gets dressed. Putting on her makeup - becoming somebody different than the person in your arms just minutes ago - she seems to be aware of what you’re feeling. Telling you to sit down and wait for her, she knows what’s bothering you before you do. “I can’t have a serious conversation without any lipstick.”
When she’s done, she needs a cigarette and you need fresh air. Looking at her, she doesn’t seem the same. But you know underneath all that makeup, she’s there. As you follow her out onto the balcony, the air outside is as refreshing as a splash of cool water on your face.
“I want more than this,” you tell her. “I want you.”
“You have to understand,” she says, lighting a cigarette, “I’m not going to change my life. I can’t. My life is far from perfect, but I’m happy.”
You watch her take a drag and blow smoke out through her mouth. As you process what she’s just said, you try to convince yourself you don’t understand what she’s talking about.
“Sometimes I get clients who come up here and I’m not what they expect or I won’t do what they want. They insult me; they make me feel like shit. I had somebody do that to me the other day. And when I came home – well, you saw what happened. He’s not like that all the time. I know there’s not much of a future in the relationship. He’s not going to marry me, but I can’t leave him. He’s the anchor I’ve always needed in my life. We love each other.”
It finally dawns on you what she’s saying and what these words mean. You will never be with her.
Contemplative, she stares out into the night as she finishes her cigarette. Still unsure of what you’re feeling and what you want to say, you follow her gaze. When you look down, you’re met with complete darkness, an abyss where the roofs of other buildings and alleys below you should be. On your right is another building as tall as the one you’re in, and you think it’s the wing you entered in, but the street you came in from is on the left. You watch the vehicular and foot traffic on the street to reconcile this incongruity, but the apathy of ants offers no clues. The stars above you and the bay out on the horizon also offer no help with the displacement you feel.
Next to you, Chloe flicks her finished cigarette from the balcony to the building directly below you. Distracted from your vertigo, you follow the cigarette butt with your eyes, watching the narrow arch it makes on its way down, gravity flipping it upside-down and back again as it disappears into the black hole below. You can’t see it land. Surprising yourself, you reflexively fight back the sudden urge to follow it. Confused by what made you want to jump, you deliberate on it for a few seconds. It doesn’t take long for it all to come back to you.
“I’m afraid... I might’ve misled you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not who you think I am. All the things we talked about, everything I said the other night. That wasn’t me.”
“Oh?” she says with a grin. “And who was it?”
“I mean, it was me. But not the real me...” You can’t find the words to explain yourself, so you give up.
“But you are real. That’s what I like about you.”
You can’t tell if she’s being serious or sarcastic when she says this. The grin doesn’t help.
“That’s not what I mean,” you say, irritated at yourself for not being able to say you want, irritated at her for not letting you feel sorry for yourself. “Forget it.”
You stand next to her, both of you remaining quiet for a long time as you stare out into the city. She suddenly disappears from your peripheral vision. You stiffen, as if caught in a trap, as her arms suddenly close around you. Her body presses against you; warmth replaces the threat of imminent danger. She rests her head against your back. It takes little effort to let yourself relax.
Looking out over the balcony, an idea from a few minutes ago comes floating back to you. You’re struck by how easy it would be to just jump right now, end it all in a matter of seconds, executed in just a few quick movements. All you’d have to do is unlatch her from you and leap over the rail.
You dismiss this not without some annoyance at yourself for having such a stupid idea. It’s soon gone, but you still feel abashed. Memories of recent mistakes and misperceptions you’ve made come flooding back to you, all bearing an unmistakable similarity to the one you made just now.
“I thought I had it all figured out,” you say to the night, defeated. “I thought I knew what I wanted.”
“You do,” she says with a kiss on the back of your neck, as if to confirm this. “You’re just a little confused right now.”
You realize that if it weren’t for her faith in you, making the leap over the rail wouldn’t be so difficult.
“No.” You break free of her grip and turn around to show her you’re not joking. “Look, when I told you how talented and beautiful I thought you were, I might’ve been lying. I’ve been wrong about so much lately, maybe I was wrong about this, too. I don’t know what’s true anymore.”
She smiles, a weak mask; you can see the hurt she feels underneath. “You need to crash,” she says, rationalizing your remarks. It’s unclear if her motivation is for your benefit or hers.
“I’m sorry. I’m so pathetic. Just a few minutes ago, I had this urge to – look, my grasp on reality is slipping. I desperately need to sleep...” You try to justify it further, but you only succeed in making the situation more awkward. You’ve ruined the moment, the feelings, everything.
“Yeah, you look like you’ve been pistol-whipped,” she says with a familiar grin.
Though you have to force it, you can only respond with a smile.
“Come on, I have to get going. Walk me to the door.”
The CD is still playing inside the apartment. Having been put on repeat, it offers no indication of the time that has passed since she put it on. Chloe cleans as she makes her way to the front door, picking up discarded towels, rubbing the kitchen countertops with a damp sponge. She stops every few minutes to ask you how you feel, and before you can answer, she has her arms wrapped around you, squeezing you tightly. After she’s hugged you for a sufficient amount of time, she goes back to what she was doing, finding another chore that requires her immediate attention before she leaves. You suspect her cleaning is a pretense for her to stay long enough for her to feel confident that nothing will happen after she leaves. You appreciate the sentiment, but you’re also irritated that she won’t go; fatigue is consuming you.
Not wanting to seem ungrateful to her for letting you sleep here tonight, you offer to help. She says she doesn’t need it, but you tie the garbage bag she pulled out of the trashcan as she loads the dishwasher with dishes she can’t ascertain are clean or dirty. She turns it on when she finishes and looks about her for anything else that needs to be done.
“I guess that’s it,” she says. She gives you another hug and a small kiss. “Is there anything you need before I go?”
“No, I think I got everything.” You look around as if to make sure there is nothing you need, humoring her to get her to leave.
She picks up the bag you tied earlier and adjusts it with the armful of clothes already in her hands.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “Do you want to grab something to eat with me?”
You smile at her persistence and you think it’s sweet that she’s so concerned about you. But you’re also exhausted, and it’s becoming harder for you to remain polite. “No, I’m not hungry. I just need to sleep.”
“All right.” She finally gives up with a weak smile. “Think you can find your way out of here?”
“Yeah, I dropped stones behind me on the way up.”
She laughs. “Okay. Call me tomorrow?”
Her arms are too full to give you a hug, so you hug her instead. She surprises you with a small peck on the cheek. You hold the door open for her as she leaves and says, “Good night.” You watch her disappear down the hall, and when she’s out of sight, you close the door and lock it. You turn off the dishwasher and CD player and fall onto the futon in the living room. Before you get a chance to get undressed or get too comfortable, you close your eyes. They don’t open again until the next morning.
She wakes you up two nights later, finally returning the countless voicemails you’ve left for her in the meantime. She wants to confirm the hotel you’re staying at and your room number. You had insisted on needing your sunglasses even though they could’ve been replaced for eight bucks at 7-Eleven. But you weren’t sure she’d come of her own volition, so you provided an excuse to see her one last time before you leave the city tomorrow; your last chance to be with someone who really understands you.
You step out of the shower feeling refreshed and truly clean, clear-headed and in control. You’re surprisingly pleased by the sight of your reflection. Marathon sleeping and binging on healthy food have brought back a more natural color to your skin, the bags under your eyes almost completely gone, your natural eye color perceptible.
You’re not fully dressed when there’s a knock on the door. You check the peephole to make sure it’s not Mick brandishing a handgun. At this point, you realize how silly it is to have thoughts like these still, but your system isn’t entirely clean. Besides, if he was going to hurt you for messing around with his girlfriend, he would’ve done it by now. You open the door to a smiling and affectionate Chloe, embracing and kissing you before you have the door shut again.
“Mmm… you smell good,” she says, leaving traces of her lipstick on your chest. “I can’t stay long. I told him I’d only be gone for about fifteen minutes.”
You guide her out of the hall and into the main bedroom. She digs through her purse for something and pulls out your sunglasses with an ironic look.
“Thanks,” you reply with a knowing grin. She saw through your lame excuse.
You hug and kiss her some more, but you feel her restlessness. You look her in the eyes to figure out what she wants. She laughs in exasperation and lifts her dress up to reveal nothing on underneath. She takes your hand and guides it along her body as she reaches down and touches you underneath your underwear. You push her onto the bed, kissing and caressing her exposed body, but you don’t want to take it any further than this. You just want to hold her and keep her like this for the same reason you couldn’t do anything the last time you were together. Anything that has a beginning has an end.
You lie for what seems like not long enough. She cuts your bliss short when she realizes you’re not going to give her what she wants. She gets up and fixes her dress and hair, re-applying her lipstick. As you begin to protest, she reminds you that she’s in a hurry. “He’ll be waiting for me. Come on, get dressed and walk me to my car.”
The fog has rolled into the city for the night. You break out in goose pimples through your thin shirt. But your shivering provides another excuse to hold her tightly as you stand with her next to her car. She lights a cigarette and holds it up. “This is how long I can stay. Okay?”
“Okay,” you answer, happy to have these last few minutes with her.
“You never did tell me why you're leaving."
"I need to get away from all these hills for a little while.”
She gives you a quizzical look, as if you’ve delivered the punchline to some inside joke she wants to be in on, but is too polite to ask.
"Talking about changing my life doesn't seem to be getting me very far. I actually need to do something about it. This is the best solution."
"Change is scary."
"Life is scary. But I can't hide from it anymore."
She laughs, automatically prompting you to wonder if there's anything she takes seriously.
Her laugh isn’t any different than what you’ve heard from her before, but just beneath the surface, you hear something new. It’s an artificial sound, like she’s forcing herself to laugh. It’s not unlike the way she wears her makeup, to hide what is really there.
The realization that she isn’t quite real disturbs you, but you're able to contain it. Fearing her facade will crumble completely by virtue of knowing these few cracks exist, you choose to ignore them. The way she seems to feel about you and the way she makes you feel is real enough. This is how you want to remember her.
"You promise to keep in touch?" she asks.
"Yeah, of course.”
She’s finished her cigarette and stubs it out on the ground with her foot. She turns around and hugs you tightly and kisses you on the cheek. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'll miss you, too," you say after returning her kiss.
"Promise me one more thing?"
"Promise me you'll take care of yourself."
After a final hug, she gets into her car and waves to you with her arm out the window as she drives off.
Instead of going directly back to your room, you decide to go for a walk.
Taking these first few steps into the new reality you’re creating for yourself, you find you’re unable to shrug off the knowledge that nothing is true.
Joseph Anthony is a twenty-six-year-old writer from New Jersey. In May of 2012, he graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in English & Psychology. Anthony is the author of two books, "An Uneaten Breakfast: Collected Stories and Poems," and "The Alphabet of Dating," (both available at www.diamondmillpress.com and on Amazon). His work has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Danse Macabre, Eleventh Transmission, Lavender Review, Five 2 One, Samsara Magazine, and The Corner Club Press, among others. Anthony's new book, "Some College Somewhere," stories chronicling the life of a self-destructive college student, is set to release October, 2016. The story "I Really Wish You Weren't," first published here by Scarlet Leaf Review, is a piece from that collection. When he's not busy writing, Anthony works with second and third grade autistic students.
I Really Wish You Weren’t
“Looks like I’m late,” Courtney said to me.
"It’s okay,” I said.
“I’m really sorry, baby.”
“Don’t be. People are late every day.”
It was spring and The University was alive. Girls who had been inside studying all winter made their way outside to reward themselves for months of hard work with a few hours of sunbathing. Guys who had been inside playing video games put the controllers down long enough to come outside, take their shirts off, and throw footballs around so the girls could watch.
Courtney had long brown hair, athletic legs, straight teeth, and a round button nose. Her skin was so white that the sun forced me to squint when it hit her at a certain angle. Sliding her feet out of her sandals to rub my legs, she reached out, taking one of my hands between both of hers. We were seated on the hill overlooking the common courtyard of the Main Street dorms, she with her back against a tree and I with my back against her chest. As she wrapped her legs around me I turned my head back and looked into her eyes. They were watery, glossy mixtures of fear and happiness.
“People are late every day,” I repeated. “We’re here now…together…that’s all that matters.”
The girl that made my adolescent life a living hell sat across from me in Sunday school.
The devil works in mysterious ways.
She used to smile at me from across the circle and I would smile back, as a priest-in-training sat in the middle singing songs about God and playing the guitar. That was as far as anything ever went until eighth grade.
Alex, short for Alexandra,—way too good of a name for her—had misleading green eyes and fire red-hair. She was tall, had a long nose, and too many teeth in the front of her mouth that turned every smile into a sneer. When I met her in second grade CCD, I was too stupid to run and oblivious to the fact that she liked me. During the eighth grade winter dance, her friend Gurt came up to me while I stood along the padded walls of the gymnasium with a group of friends and asked me point-blank, “Matthew, do you like Alex?”
Gurt smiled at me the way a magician does before the prestige. She was chubby. Not just fat—I’m talking big bones on a big body. Her face was ugly—demonic. Feeling pressure from all eyes to answer, and ignorant of the true meaning of the question, I said, “Yes.”
I meant that I liked her as a friend.
Sometimes all the devil needs is a misunderstanding to carry out a plan.
Later that night, my phone rang. It was Alex, over at Gurt’s house with a group of girlfriends that were huddled up around her while we talked. She kept me on the phone for almost three hours, listening to the dry air through the phone lines, talking about nothing.
“So…well, it was nice talking to you,” she said.
“It was nice talking to you, too.”
I knew what was expected of me. “Alex.”
I felt as if I had no other choice. “Will you be my girlfriend?”
We both hung up the phone, she feeling giddy—as victors do after they have pursued and conquered something—and I feeling deceived, suffering a loss too faint to pinpoint in my heart, overwhelmed with apprehension.
Breathing through our noses, Courtney and I sat there together without saying much, getting high on the scent of the trees that smelled like sex.
“Finished,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
Lost in the moment, I hadn’t even realized that she had been drawing on my hand.
“What do they mean?” I asked, wiggling my fingers.
She had drawn a different symbol above the nail on each, just below where the third knuckles bent. They were simple, miniature reminders of monumental things.
“This arrow,” which was drawn on my index finger, “is so when you point to something you want, you know that it’s okay to go after it and follow your dreams.”
I flexed the finger, pointed toward the sky.
“The middle finger has a peace sign, to remind you to always be peaceful.”
I leaned back to kiss her cheek. “The heart on the ring finger, to remember to love?”
She nodded. “And the smiley face on your pinky is to remind you to smile. And so you always have a friend.”
I took the pen from her lap and replicated each picture on her fingers, adding a small “” on her thumb.
“What’s this one?”
“A cross to remind you to have faith that things will work out for the best, no matter how bad they seem.”
Courtney grabbed my bangs, pulled my head back, and slid her tongue into my mouth. She found my thumb and held it still so that she could blindly draw the cross on it. The wind blew hard and a loose leaf fell. Strange, every flower was blooming.
She pressed her ear to my back, pulling me tight, and I could tell that she could hear my heartbeat because her fingers tapped my abdomen synchronically with every thump.
Alex was as emo as they came. She wore her hair short and spikey, or low over her eyes. Her nails were always painted black, and her lipstick shifted from shades of red and pink to blacks and grays as she progressed through grade school. She wore baggy black nylon pants with chains on them, and the entire first week after we started going out, I avoided her like the plague. We didn’t have any classes together—she wasn’t smart enough to get into honors classes—but she always found me at lunch. Day after day, she would sit on my lap, crushing my nuts while I ate, feeling much heavier than she looked. Every day before going to the cafeteria, I would come up with a list of possible things that we could talk about: the weather that day, my trip to the Grand Canyon the previous summer, school, the forecasted weather for tomorrow—anything to make the awkward silences less suffocating.
“Can’t believe how hot it is out today.”
She’d nod her head and say, “Uh, huh.”
Without fail, I burned through my list of conversation topics to get me through to the bell, sweet merciful release, when Earth Science would come to my rescue. She just sat there, watching me eat, crushing me beneath her startling weight and horrible personality.
She began hanging out with my friends and me after school, finding any excuse she could to piss all over whatever it was that we were doing, forcing all of us to sit on the curb in front of my house, staring at each other because she was boring as fuck.
“You want to play truth or dare?” Trevor suggested one day.
I shot him an angry look and he smiled back at me, intending to have his fun no matter what it meant for me.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” everyone agreed.
“No, that’s lame,” I said, but it was too late. It had already been decided.
I knew what they were going to dare me to do before the game even started.
“Matt, I dare you to kiss Alex.”
She brought her face close to mine and forced her tongue down my throat. It was all I could do to keep from gagging. I could feel her teeth on my tongue as she opened and closed her mouth on mine.
The fact is she repulsed me. I made up an excuse a few minutes later, claiming that I needed to get ready to go out to dinner with my mom’s friends from work, and when I went inside, I went straight for my toothbrush. I scrapped my tongue with the rough bristles until it bled, swirled mouthwash through my teeth, rinsing and spitting over and over until my mouth ran dry.
It didn’t matter though, I still felt violated.
The more I relived it, the more nauseous I grew until I was dry heaving in the bathroom sink. After composing myself enough to get up to my room, I lay on the floor, hugging my knees to my chest, pulling myself into a tight ball, coping with the mind-rape the best that I could.
Two weeks later it was Halloween, the last Halloween where I planned to go trick-or-treating because I knew I was getting too old for it.
“Let’s go,” I said to Alex.
“I don’t feel like going.”
“Why not? Let’s just go up and down the street real fast. I really want to.”
“I’m not going.” She crossed her arms over her chest on Trevor’s basement couch.
“I guess we’ll just stay in and watch TV,” Trevor said.
So we sat there for two hours, doing nothing on one of the last nights I knew I could still feel like a kid.
“I’m going trick-or-treating,” I said.
I got up and left. The guys in the group followed. The girls trailed a hundred feet behind us as we walked down the middle of the dim side street. From behind, I could hear Alex bitching.
“I don’t want to go. I don’t know why I’m going. Why are we walking out here?”
“Because I want to go and I’m tired of being miserable with you.”
She gave me a how dare you look. “If you want to go trick-or-treating so badly, fine, but walk away and you’re walking away from us.”
Us. That bothered me more than being force-fed her tongue. I kept walking ahead with my friends.
Before we turned the corner, I looked over my shoulder at her and said, “I’d rather die than be with you.”
“Oh, you’ll be fucking sorry,” she said.
“Maybe we should get a puppy.” I suggested to Courtney.
“My friend Melissa works with The University raising Seeing Eye dogs. I could ask her where they get their puppies from. Or maybe they know a breeder who could sell us one.”
She and I had been living together since the end of junior year. The night she moved her stuff in, we took a shower together, christening one another while a bottle of Montrachet chilled in a bucket of melting ice in the bedroom. We drank it, both of us still soaking wet, wrapped together in one large towel, as the water took its time evaporating from our bodies. Strings of her hair stuck together in clumps, forming thick strands. I touched them, breaking them between my fingers.
With my hand resting on her shoulder, I drew closer and lowered my head, taking in the smell of her shampoo. She exhaled and I could smell the expensive wine on her breath. Something inside me ached for her. I grabbed her hip as her lips found my neck over and over. We collapsed into one another, pressing our bodies into the hardwood floor ravenous, unhindered by pain tempered by passion.
All of a sudden she stopped moving. Her eyes on my face, pupils dilating—unblinking with concentration—she placed her hand on my cheek and began running her fingertips up and down my long diagonal scar.
I must have winced. She asked, “Am I hurting you?”
My face began to burn where our skin met. I liked that it hurt. It felt as if she were healing it—healing it with her magic fingers.
“Blink,” she said. And when I did, my cheeks were wet and my vision blurred.
Rays of gold and orange poured through the blinds, mixing with limb and skin in a fleeting, picturesque moment as the sun went down and we turned into one grey ball in the wake of dusk. Please don’t stop was all I could think. Please never stop.
“A puppy would be fun.” she said.
“Good practice, too.”
The week after I broke up with Alex, an openly gay kid at school asked me out. I let him down as easy as I could, but he seemed surprised when I said, “No.” I should have put things together when that happened, but ignorance once again hindered my ability to make an important connection. It took something a little more blunt, more painful, to realize what was going on.
“I always knew you were a fag,” this kid Frank said to me. He was someone I’d been friends with until he decided I was full of myself and began giving me a hard time. “All goody-goodies are fags. I knew you had to be one.”
Caught off guard, a hard blush indicated guilt and gave him confidence as I stared, not knowing what to do.
“You checking me out, little bitch? You want some of this? I’ll give you some.”
“I get girls all the time.” A lie, but it was the only thing I could think of and something needed to be said.
“Oh yeah? Like who, puss?”
The truth was Alex was my first girlfriend. Hers was the only name I had to throw at him.
“You hooked up with Alex Brandt. Now I’ve lost all respect for you.”
The fist he was about to hit me with dropped to his hip and I understood why. The thought of me kissing Alex Brandt was pathetic. Admitting it was painful enough and Frank knew that. As he walked away, I like to think that he realized I was suffering much more than anyone knew, and that I felt every bit as pathetic as I must have looked, standing there with my ironic defense.
It wasn’t long before I felt like the whole school was watching me. Friends I’d had my whole life stopped talking to me. I felt like melting into myself, like crying my eyes out in someone’s arms, but there was no one there for me. Every fiber in my body desired to stay home, to hide, to avoid the cruelty of others. But I dragged myself out of bed and went back to school each day. I pretended that I was okay. This bravery was rewarded in time. Most people soon realized that it was nothing more than a rumor. Some of my friends even began talking to me again, all of them in silent, mutual agreement never to bring the situation up. But the devil had done her damage.
The cruel thing about self-confidence is that it can take a lifetime to rebuild, yet a second to destroy.
Courtney’s friend Mellissa gave us the name of a breeder thirty miles south of campus that had a reputation for turning out well-behaved, intelligent dogs.
“Might be a bit expensive,” she told us.
“Money’s not an issue.”
“Well, then that’s the place to go. Ask to speak with Rico when you get down there. Tell them Melissa Zhan sent you.”
Courtney and I took West End Avenue down to the train station, passing by empty shops with For Rent signs in the windows and some abandoned, run-down frat houses that kids used to enjoy sneaking into. Tiny grass blades peaked out of every crack in the empty parking lots we passed. On the front porch of one of the houses was a group of kids sitting in a semi-circle, cross-legged—their fingertips stained yellow, smoke betraying their breaths. Avoiding eye contact, I flipped my hood up and put my arm around Courtney as we walked.
On the train, we watched strangers come out of nowhere, stare at nothing, get off at their stop, and fade back into oblivion. A young man, no older than either of us, sat in the seat across the aisle, playing with his pocket watch.
“I’ve never actually seen someone with a pocket watch before,” Courtney whispered.
“I know, right?”
I leaned across the aisle, extending my head into the neutral space. “Hey buddy, what time is it?”
His eyes brightened. Fumbling with the watch, forgetting how it worked while under pressure, he looked from us to the watch to make sure we didn’t disappear before he could answer. Finally opening it, he said, “Two-thirty.”
“Nice watch,” Courtney said.
“Thanks. My dad gave it to me.”
He seemed happy that we’d given him a chance to use it. Roused from whatever he had been thinking about, it was like he’d just drank a large cup of coffee. As the three of us traded small talk, I got such positive vibes from him that it made me sad. I hoped he had someone to love him. I turned away, stared out the window, watching the graffiti on buildings go by as fast as life. When we reached our stop, Courtney and I got off, two strangers to the other passengers fading into our own oblivion.
“We’d like to speak to Rico please,” Courtney said when we got to the breeder’s lobby. The receptionist at the desk began to say something but was cut off by a thin, lanky man in a gray tuxedo. He had wispy grey hair that matched his shoes.
“Rico’s not in, but I’m more than capable of helping you. I’m Maxwell. Co-owner. I’ve been running this business with Rico for over twenty years.”
Courtney looked at me, asking What should we do? with her eyes. I nodded.
“That’s fine, Maxwell. What kinds of dogs do you have?” I asked.
“All kinds, sir. Labrador retrievers, beagles, terriers, basset hounds, Danes, Dobermans, Rottweiler, Siberian huskies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, dachshund, collies. Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
I began to see why we’d been told to ask for Rico.
Courtney looked over at me, smiling. “That’s quite an impressive selection.”
“How about we start with Labs?” I asked.
“Yes, excellent choice, sir. Labradors are our most popular. Very intelligent. Very loyal. Excellent temperament. Very smart. Damn near almost human.”
He walked us through long, well-lit hallways that resembled a hospital’s. We passed rooms full of older dogs housed in what looked like plastic cubbies—no cages, no bars.
“Here we are,” he said, “the lab room. Feel free to watch them play, see how they interact. Observe their demeanor. Interact with them yourself, if you’d like.”
The room was sectioned off into six square cube-pens that separated the puppies by litter. Maxwell watched us as if we were the puppies. His razor slash lips peaked slightly upward at the corners, pleased with what he saw. When we felt like we’d placated him enough, Courtney reached down and picked up a puppy. He was a yellow Lab with a strange brown tip to his tail, as if it had been dipped in chocolate on the day he was born and it had remained, a tattoo.
“You hold him,” she said, extending her arms, passing the pup to me like he was a priceless vase.
Everything about him was miniature. A complete, healthy dog, only everything was tiny. He had kind, thoughtful eyes. He was calm, studying the world from his perch in my hands. I massaged his paws, which were a few sizes too big for him. After pressing my nose to his, he licked my upper lip with a small sandpaper tongue. His breath smelt new.
“I lovvvve him,” Courtney beamed, giddy, making fists with her hands, raising them to her chest, shaking them with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning who has received what she wanted.
I ran my hand up and down the puppy’s forearm as if to say, You’re ours now, and when I did, I was surprised when his du-claws scratched me.
“I lovvvvve him, Matt. We could call him Split because he looks like a banana split!”
“Split,” I said to him.
Split licked his nose, unaware of what was happening.
“Yes, then, very good. I must say, I love working with younger people. They always fall in love with the first thing they see. It’s quite precious. Makes me love my job.”
Maxwell took Split from me and walked out of the room to get him ready. As soon as he was gone, Courtney jumped me with kisses.
“You’re pretty when you smile. You should do it more often.” She took my head between her hands. "I’m gonna fix you, Matthew.”
There are multiple lies to every truth, injustices for every good deed. Maybe someone somewhere was benefitting from my suffering. Maybe I was paying my dues early, so that one day I would know what I had in Courtney. Either way, trouble is always easier to find than it is to lose.
Six weeks after she realized that Plan A had failed, Alex turned to Plan B: telling everyone at school that I had gotten her pregnant.
“I can’t believe you fucked her!” Frank yelled at me in front of everyone in the cafeteria.
“I didn’t do it.”
Turning to the kids around him, with his arms out past his shoulders, he said, “Yeah right. Did you see the size of her stomach?”
Alex really was pregnant.
“Her stomach’s ballooning up already. You sick fuck. What are we, 13? That kid’s going to come out retarded!”
Right after I broke up with her, Alex started dating a high school man-child named Damon. Damon had flat-topped black hair that was so short you could see every blemish on his scalp. Trevor pointed to the picture in his older sister’s high-school yearbook after we followed Alex home one day after school. We watched her get into Damon’s black coupe. Saw him drive away, swerving, as Alex’s head bobbed up and down in his lap. Row after row of grinning, youthful faces came to a crashing halt at Damon’s stoic mug in the yearbook. Like a man with a secret that he was prepared to take to the grave, his mouth was flat, his face expressionless. A five o’clock shadow gave his cheeks a leathery look, like an animal’s. They made a perfect match and would make perfect demon babies together that would grow up to torment the world, to hurt innocent people and smile while they did it.
“I didn’t sleep with her” became my motto.
I offered these same five words to all the kids that stared at me. Relationships I’d worked on for years were decimated beyond repair. Teachers questioned me, grilled me as if I were a hardened criminal. The school called my mom, dragged her into it, even though she was weak and ill. I stole a handle of Absolut vodka from the liquor cabinet—considered killing myself with it. Would that even make Alex sorry for what she’d done? I doubted it. While Frank was shouting at me that day at lunch, I saw Alex across the cafeteria, smiling from ear to ear, laughing at me and pointing with that same friend who’d tricked me into saying that I liked her. My life was a game to her.
I returned the bottle before anyone ever noticed, but I liked knowing that it was there. In the midst of it all, I felt like I’d won something when I came to grips with the fact that I was a loser.
Tiny blinking lights of distant boats betrayed the horizon in the dark.
“Take my shirt.”
The three of us had spent the day at the beach together. The warmth of the sun was replaced by the coldness of the moon. I handed her my t-shirt and she slid it over her black tank top. “Thanks.”
Split bounced from her lap to mine. Courtney’s hip brushed against my hand and goosebumps blanketed my body. My nipples got hard as she traced an arrowed-finger in circles over the left one. Our puppy nuzzled my chest with his head, doing his best to warm me.
“I really wish you weren’t just late,” I said.
Courtney gave a full belly sigh before lying on her back, offering, “Me, too” toward the stars.
I leaned back next to her on the sand, both of us staring up at the infinite sky, considering all that might have been.
While Courtney thought of baby names, I thought of how one morning, after waking up too many days unhappy with my life, I had decided to change it. The day I made a conscious decision to stop giving a fuck about other people freed me from their malice. And somehow, through interpersonal disconnect, despite my justifiable bitterness, Courtney had found me.
It had been years since I had thought about the future with such hope. A baby would have given life meaning.
Split had fallen asleep between us, his head resting on Courtney’s breast, a well-proportioned pillow. Through closed eyes we imagined an unfocused, hazy life together. The world spun us. We extended our outer arms and together made an angel in the sand.
William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem." You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle).
“Marge! Let’s watch the final period.” Stanley fiddled with the remote control. “Marge!” He glanced at the television set and pressed another button. “Jesus.” He got out of his seat and looked behind the unit.
Marge walked in holding two cans of beer. “What’s wrong?” She set one can beside the easy chair.
“Beats me. I’m not getting a signal.”
“Is it still on DVR? We watched a movie last night.”
He stared at the remote then pressed a button. The voice of an announcer boomed out of the twin speaker system with a deafening roar. “Jesus.” He repeatedly stabbed at the control until the volume diminished to a normal level. “Ha. I forgot about that.” He sat down and gave a triumphant look at the TV. “Gunna watch the game with me?”
Marge stood in the middle of the living room looking out the large window onto the street. Two police cars idled from either end of the street and stopped beside one another.
Stanley picked up the beer can and pulled the tab. There was a pop followed by a fizzy noise. “Damn.” He grabbed some tissues and dabbed at his pant leg. He glanced at his wife. “Aren’t you going to sit down?”
She stared at the police cars. “Yeah, sure.” They slowly pulled away from one another and disappeared out of view. She bent first one way then the other trying to see.
He grinned at the television. “All right. This is going to be a good one. I’ve been dying for this all week.”
Marge slowly sat down but continued to look out the window.
“Boston is the favorite, but I made a bet in the office pool for Toronto. Call me crazy, but I think they’re going to do it this time.”
A blue Cadillac came into view and pulled into the driveway of the house across the street. A man and a woman got out and walked up to the house.
“Nonis had his work cut out for him when he put Orr and McLaren on waivers at the beginning of the season, but he had to do something. The team needed to be turned around.”
The man pressed the doorbell. The front door opened and the couple spoke with another man. He moved out of the way and ushered them in. The door remained open.
“That’s why I think this is a better team and they have a chance.”
The three people come into view in the large window to the right of the front door. The two men were gesturing at one another.
Stanley took a sip of his beer. “The Leafs are 40 games in right now and standing at 21-16-3.” He took another sip. “Oh!” He pointed at the TV as he yelled.
The owner of the house raised a fist and swung at the visitor. The man moved out of the way and the owner stumbled out of sight.
“Did you see that?” Stanley slapped his forehead. “Ah, come on ref. That was a penalty.”
The owner came back into view and tried to punch the other man two more times. Each time, the man ducked out of the way. The owner spun as the second punch missed and the other man moved in. His first punch hit him in the stomach and a quick second slammed into his cheek. The owner fell over and disappeared from view.
“Boo,” Stanley said. “Don’t let those bozos get away with that, ref. Give him 5.”
The man and the woman talked to each other as the man gestured to the floor. He took the arm of the woman and turned her to the door. The man visibly shook, staggered a couple of steps then collapsed. The woman turned back and her mouth opened in an inaudible scream.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Nonis.” Stanley took a sip of his beer. “I’ve got ten bucks riding on this.”
The owner of the house stood up. He held a gun at the woman.
“Stanley...” Marge stared wide-eyed.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I shouldn’t bet. But what’s ten bucks? It’s only for fun among the guys.”
The man took a couple of steps then bent forward to examine something. The woman raised her purse and slammed it down on his head. She turned and ran.
“Not now, Marge. The game. It’s the final period and this is critical.”
Marge leaned forward as the woman burst out of the front door and ran toward the Cadillac. When she reached the car, the owner appeared and there was a dull bang. The woman half fell to the driveway clutching her leg. Marge gasped and stood up.
“Whoa!” Stanley yelled. “Did you see that, Marge? What a slap shot from center ice. That Bernier can stop anything.”
The man rushed across the lawn and bodily picked the woman up and threw her over his shoulder. He went back toward the house. The woman pounded his back with her hands while her legs kicked around.
Marge gestured toward the window.
When the owner got to the front door, the woman grabbed the doorjamb with both hands. There was a struggle until the man half turned and slapped her hands away. The two of them disappeared into the house.
“All right,” Stanley said. “Things are really heating up now.” He glanced at his wife. “You better sit down. This is going to go on for a while.”
She slowly sat back down as a police cruiser came in from one side and screeched to a stop in front of the house. The owner appeared at the door and waved his arm at the car. He stood for a moment then raised a gun and Marge heard several shots in a row. The front door slammed shut. The passenger side of police cruiser opened and a cop crawled out. He peered over the hood at the house.
“Come on. Come on. Quit fooling around you guys. Go for it. Go in for the kill.” Stanley held onto his beer can and waved it at the television set. Some of his drink spilled onto his hand. “Oh damn.” He passed the can to his other hand and wiped his hand on his pants.
The owner stood in the middle of the living room window and shook his fist at the police car. The policeman pulled out his service revolver and aimed it over the hood. He fired and there was a crash as part of the window pane shattered. The man ducked out of sight.
“Shhhh. Keep it down, Marge. I want to hear the play by play.”
A second police car came in from the opposite side and pulled up to the first one. The cop scrambled out of the car and positioned himself by the hood. The front door opened. As Marge watched, both cops stuck their guns over the hoods and fired. A barrel appeared at one side of the opening and there was the bang, bang, bang of a semi-automatic rifle. Both policemen hide themselves behind their respective cars.
“Damn it, Marge. I can’t hear a bloody thing.” Stanley got up from his chair and backed up to the front door keeping his eyes fixed on the TV. He kicked backwards and the front door slammed shut with a loud thud. “Watch, Marge, watch. This is going to win it.” He moved back to his chair and sat down.
She cocked her head. Was that a siren? The two policemen glanced up from behind their cars. The owner briefly stood in the open doorway before closing the door. Marge looked to one side. There definitely was a siren.
“Go! Go! Go!” Stanley jumped in his seat.
A van pulled up to the left. It had SWAT marked on the side. Marge saw four men dressed in military gear come out the back and crouch down as they came up to the two police cars. A barrel appeared through a side window and there were more shots. One the SWAT team aimed a large gun over the hood and fired. She heard a muffled thunk and saw something go through the broken window. Immediately, the room filled with smoke.
“Oh my God. Are you crazy?” Stanley shook his finger at the screen. “That wasn’t a check; that was a kill. Ref! Ref! Get on that guy.”
Another series of shots came from the house. The SWAT team fired two more rounds of what Marge figured was tear gas. One of them got out a bullhorn. “Give up. We’ve got you surrounded.” The voice was muffled, but she could make out what was being said.
Stanley held the remote up toward the television set and raised the volume. “Shhhh, Marge.”
The cops peered over the cars at the house. It was quiet. Gas was billowing out the broken living room window. Marge saw something move off at the far end of the house. There was a flash in a window followed by a dull pop. The entire window blew out and flames curled out of the house and licked up the side. Puffs of smoke poured out of the window.
“I think Nonis has done a fine job with this line-up. These guys are great.”
The cops stuck their heads up to look more closely at this latest development. The fire was getting more intense. The front door opened and all the cops ducked down. The woman appeared. She staggered forward, limping on the one leg. Two members of the SWAT team rushed up to help her as the others moved forward weapons pointed at the house. Smoke was now coming out of several spots on the roof.
“Okay, this is it. Come on you guys. You can do it.”
The two cops got the woman to the end of the driveway where they stopped. The woman turned back and pointed to the house.
Stanley leaned forward in his chair. “This is it. This is it.”
Marge twisted in her chair and saw a fire truck pull up to one side. Several fire fighters pulled out a hose and moved closer to the house.
The television speakers issued a deafening roar of stadium cheers and clapping. Stanley threw his arms up in the air. “Yea! That’s it. Way to go Toronto. I knew you could do it. Yahoo!”
The end of the house erupted in a fireball. Shingles, wood, and various unidentified pieces flew everywhere. The firemen, policemen and the SWAT team ducked for cover. Flames engulfed the one end of the house. Marge visibly jerked in her seat and held her hands up to either side of her head. “Jesus.”
Stanley stood up and danced in one spot. “I’m a win-ner. I’m a win-ner.”
An ambulance pulled up on the opposite side. The police led the woman to the vehicle. The other cops stood staring at the house as the firemen directed several hoses at the fire. Smoke billowed from the front windows.
Stanley turned to his wife. Marge sat saucer-eyed, her mouth agape. He grinned. “Yeah, I know. Wasn’t it a great game?” He rubbed his hands together. “Boy, I’m starving. What’s for dinner?” He pulled his wife up from her chair and kissed her on the cheek. “My sweetie. Aren’t you glad you watched the game with me?” He put his arm around her shoulders and led her toward the kitchen. “Let’s eat! All that excitement has left me famished.”
Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
MITCH BLADE PRIVATE EYE:
THE SOUND OF SIRENS
Sometimes Mitch Blade followed an ambulance. Sometimes he followed a cop car. Especially a cop car when its sirens were blaring and its lights were flashing like the one in front of him. He did this sometimes, like now, when he needed a case to keep afloat. The private eye business wasn’t exactly a big buck business.
Private Investigator Mitch Blade was tailing the County Sheriff. He wasn’t afraid of losing him in the dust of these county backroads. He knew where the sheriff was going. Only two places where trouble brewed regularly in this rural community and they were right next to each other, the Warnock farm and the Bailey farm.
There had been bad blood between the families for years. It all started when the patriarch Solomon Warnock died. Evidently this Solomon hadn’t been wise enough to leave a will splitting his baby, his 320 acres of farm ground, and thus his estate passed intestate to his son and
daughter. His son being Ben Warnock and his daughter now being Mrs. Newt Bailey. They couldn’t agree as to how to divide up the acreage and a partition suit followed in which County Judge Orville Parmentier decided who got what. Neither brother or sister liked what they got and Judge Parmentier liked to boast that he must have made a fair decision. After all neither one of them liked it.
Then the hatred just festered. Fight over fence lines, where they should be, who should pay for them, what type of fencing. It all ended up in court again after both parties would not accept the township fence viewers decision. Judge Parmentier made the fence viewers decision a court order. Again neither sibling liked it.
Then Newt Bailey tiled his north 40 that didn’t drain properly and brought the tile to the township road. Newt needed to tile sixty feet under the road to the drainage ditch on the other side. By law the Baileys owned to the middle of the road and then the Warnock property began. Thirty feet of Warnock property had to be tiled to connect to the drainage ditch on the other side and Ben Warnock wouldn’t let him do it. Newt offered him big bucks to buy a drainage easement. Ben wouldn’t sell him one no matter what the price. His refusal prevented Newt from draining his field and when there was a wet spring Newt still couldn’t plant his field.
Then Newt Bailey shot and killed Ben Warnock’s dogs. Ben sued for the value of the dogs but old Judge Parmentier ruled Ben’s dogs were chasing and killing Newt’s sheep and under the law one had a right to protect his property and shoot the dogs. In fact Newt shot his own dog he testified because it was running with the pack of Warnock dogs. His dog had got up the blood
lust up and had to be killed too he said. Of course some say he killed his own dog to pump up the evidence.
Then Newt’s hogs allegedly got out through a portion of Newt’s fence line and rooted up Ben’s hay field. So Ben rounded up the hogs and shipped them to market and sent Newt half the proceeds after deducting damages to his hay field. Of course some say Ben cut the hole so the hogs could get out and root, his hay crop having been cut a week before was moldy and ruined from a week’s worth of continual rain. Ben fixed the fence before anyone could see just exactly how and where the hogs got out.
What now wondered Mitch as he spotted up ahead the sheriff’s car parked next to the Bailey’s truck along the Bailey’s creek bottom land. Mitch parked behind them but at a distance. He didn’t dare enter onto the Bailey land for fear that a paranoid Newt would accuse him of spying for the Warnocks. To the west of the Bailey’s land was the Warnock property. The Warnock property was high up on a cliff that ran parallel to and above Coal Creek. All of Coal Creek was on the Bailey property.
An ambulance came, sirens blaring, skidding to a gravely stop. Paramedics jumped out, climbed over the fence with a ton of medical gear and hurried down the creek bed.
Mitch waited for about an hour before the sheriff came into view followed by the medics carrying a stretcher. On it was a small covered body followed by an angered Newt Bailey.
The body was loaded into the ambulance and sirened away. Sheriff Cassidy sauntered up to Mitch and got in his face. “Don’t even think about it Mitch. There ain’t no money in this one.” Mitch
said nothing. He didn’t believe in snappy comebacks. Last time he tried it the sheriff put him in jail overnight on some trumped up charges then dropped them and let him out the next day. Better not to antagonize the law. He couldn’t win that battle.
Newt Bailey came up to Mitch. “My step son, Reuben Johnson, my wife’s boy, he was hit on the head from behind and stabbed in the chest. Kid was just 14.” Newt had once tried to hire Mitch to dig up some dirt on the Warnock family but Newt didn’t want to pay the going rate. Mitch didn’t want to step into that pile for anything less.
“I’m so sorry Newt. Give my condolences to your wife and the Johnson grandparents.”
“I need to hire you.”
“Find evidence proving Warnock killed the boy so my wife can sue him for wrongful death and get a judgment. Get his land. Just called my lawyer and he said we don’t need a reasonable doubt like a criminal trial, only evidence that it’s more likely than not that he killed the boy. Also find evidence absolving me of anything and everything connected to this murder. Warnock will probably hint that I killed the boy, since Reuben was literally the proverbial red headed step child. When he does, I can then sue him for slander. Gives me another shot at his farm.”
“What reason would he have to kill a fourteen year old? It doesn’t make any sense Newt.”
“Sure it does. Why everyone knows that old Ben Warnock has gone looney crazy the past few months. Dementia setting in and he’s been drinking heavily. More than usual I hear. Got drunk. Worked himself up and had the boy killed to get back at me and my wife. I want justice for her and her son.”
“Sounds more like you want money Newt.”
Newt said nothing and stared into space.
Mitch broke the silence. “Well your lawyers will be making the money here not me. Last time you tried to hire me you wouldn’t pay the going freight.” Mitch paused. He was hurting for business, fishing for an offer. “Maybe Newt we can work something out this time.”
“Last time I didn’t offer you a piece of the pie. Five percent of what we recover from the Warnocks. Could be thousands. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds silly Newt. It’ll be years before there’s any money, if any at all. One fifty a day for three days minimum.”
“Two days at one hundred a day. You wouldn’t be out here Blade if you didn’t need the work. Think about it a hundred bucks a day is a hundred bucks more than no bucks a day.”
Right now a hundred bucks was big bucks to Mitch.
“Here and no receipt,” said Newt stuffing him a hundred dollar bill in Mitch’s shirt pocket. “Half now, half when I get my report on Monday. Reuben was killed down by the slag piles where the old coal mine was.”
“Was he by himself and what was he doing there?”
“By himself to the best of my knowledge and you know how the creek and the old mine ruins attract kids. Just screwing around back there to the best of my knowledge. Get back to me forty eight hours from now, one p.m. Monday,” said Newt as he turned his back to Mitch and left.
Mitch hoofed it the half mile along the winding creek to the crime scene. That dumb sheriff and the medics had tracked it all up with mud and sand from the creek bed. Foot prints were everywhere obliterating any that might have been there before. No way of knowing if the kid had been there alone or not. Mud and blood in one big spot. That’s all there was.
Then Mitch saw something. There on an old post sticking out of the ground, a remnant from the coal mining days, the initials R.J. and today's date carved in the post. There were fresh wood shavings at the base. The kid had just carved them before he was killed.
There’s got to be more here thought Mitch. Something else that goof ball sheriff overlooked. Then he saw it, a log. It looked out of place laying there all alone. It was freshly cut, chainsawed at both ends, about four feet long and about six inches in diameter. Looked like it was from a osage orange hedge tree and was oozing sap at both ends. And there was a brownish reddish spot on one end, ever so faint and it was blood, dried blood.This wasn’t some old piece of driftwood that had floated down the creek and washed ashore. No it had to have come from the cliff above. Mitch’s eyes scanned up the twenty foot embankment.
He lifted the log. Weighed at least forty pounds. Someone would have a hell of a time wielding this log and using it as a weapon. Mitch lifted it up on his shoulder and carried it back to his car, put it in his trunk and started back.
The Warnock homestead loomed ahead and there in the middle of the road was planted big Ben Warnock furiously ranting and raving for him to stop. Mitch tried to slowly drive around him but Ben suddenly darted to the driver’s side, grabbed hold of the door handle and pounded on the rolled up window. Ben was drunk. Mitch stopped.
“Need to hire you Blade,” slurred Ben.
“I got a job Mr. Warnock for a couple of days. Thank you anyway.”
“I’ll pay you double whatever that penny pinching Newt Bailey is paying you.”
“Newt’s paying me one fifty a day,” said Mitch hoping to discourage Warnock.
“He’s not paying you that. The most that little weasel would pay is a hundred.”
“One twenty five soon as you’re done working for Bailey.” Warnock’s head bobbd up and down his body swayed as he tried to steady himself against Mitch’s car.
Mitch wavered. He lacked the guts to pass up more work. “I’ll talk to you Monday. See what we can work out. Can’t to talk to you until then.”
“I’ll be at your office then with cash money,” Ben again slurred his words as he regained his balance and backed away letting Mitch drive off.
When he got back to town and Mitch decided to call it a day, too exhausted for his usual Saturday night dredging for clients at the bar. Tomorrow he’d go talk to Sheriff Cassidy even though he knew it would be an exercise in futility.
“Get the hell out of here Mitch you big ape,” screamed Sheriff Hoppy Cassidy. Hoppy being the nickname that Mitch had implanted on him to get his goat. ”The case is closed. Well almost closed. Going to close it tomorrow. Can’t do it today. Don’t have a full staff it being Sunday.”
“Well there’s no harm in telling me then so that I can tell my client.”
“Newt already knows. He’s the one that cracked the case. Seems them Mexicans Ben’s got working for him, the ones living in his old chicken coop, they killed the boy. Warnock paid them to do it. Newt said they confessed to him that Warnock hired them. Newt’s got witnesses to the confession too he says. I’m going to get those two greasers in here tomorrow and sweat legal confessions out of both of them. Should have it all wrapped up before noon. Get them to rat out Warnock to save their mangy worthless flea bag hides.”
“The lad was stabbed with a small pocket knife, wasn’t he? Wasn’t a deep wound was it?”
“How the hell you know that Blade?“
“Seems to me a Mexican would use a stiletto or a switchblade, more their style, wouldn’t you say so Hoppy.”
“Well you see that’s where old man Warnock outsmarted himself. Had the Mexes use a pocket knife so it would look like the kid fell on his own knife. Everyone would think it was an accident but I caught on to that old trick. He can’t fool me none.”
“And the blow to the back of the head. That was a piece of coal slag to knock him out with before they killed him, right?“
“You got it Blade.”
“Hoppy you never cease to amaze me. I just don’t know how you do it.”
But Mitch knew why he did it. Why Hoppy had bought Newt’s story. Newt probably promised him a piece of the pie.
“Just doing my job which is more than I can say for you Blade. Now get the hell out of here.”
As Mitch got into his car than his cell phone rang. It was Newt.
“Well Blade heard that you just talked to the sheriff. Case is wrapped up. Don’t need you anymore so just give me what you got.”
“Not until tomorrow.”
“Your services are no longer required Blade. Quit messing with me. You been paid for one day. Give me my day’s worth. Or didn’t you come up with anything?”
“I’ll give you what I’m sure of. Reuben carved his initials and the day’s date on one of those old posts in the slag piles with his own pocket knife and he wasn’t knocked in the head with a piece of slag.”
Silence on the other end of the line, each party waiting for the other to say something. Finally Newt joked, “It’s a little short of exactly one day now but I ain’t expecting a refund from you Blade. Keep the change,” and he hung up.
Mitch called Mr. Warnock. “I just became unemployed.”.
“You’re hired,” said Warnock. “Meet with me at my place in thirty minutes.”
Mitch did. Warnock was sober now and slid two fifty cash across the table to Mitch which Mitch quickly scooped up. “Tell me what you found out so far.”
Mitch told him about the post carving and of his convoluted conversation with Sheriff Cassidy. “But there’s one more thing that Hoopy and Newt don’t know about. It’s in the trunk of my car,” said Mitch handing Ben the keys. “Have the Mexicans get the log out and bring it here.”
“Juan, Jose,” hollered Warnock. They came running. Ben gave them the keys and gave them their instructions in Spanish.
Back they came tossing the log back and forth between them like a game of catch, smiling and laughing all the while.
“What’s so funny Ben?”
“They say that this is the log that went flying over the cliff yesterday when they were chain sawing down hedge trees on my pasture ground. Said they cut that piece off but instead of it falling to the ground it got caught in some tree branches and then somehow the branches sprung back and catapulted the log over the edge to the creek below. They thought it was funny.”
“There’s nothing funny about it Ben. That log hit the Johnson boy in the head, knocked him out or killed him outright and he fell on his knife. You could be liable. Those Mexicans were working for you and they might be found negligent. The Baileys have got a chance at a wrongful death suit. Probably can’t get anyone for a homicide but if comes out about that log, and Juan and Jose talk, you are in for a long costly legal battle.”
Warnock paused, closed his eyes, and shook his head as he cursed under his breath. Then from his billfold he took ten one hundred dollar bills and looked at Mitch.
Mitch shook his head no. “I’ve already been paid.”
“Consider it a bonus.”
Mitch said nothing and took the money. Warnock had just bought his silence.
Well there weren’t any Mexicans sleeping in the chicken coop that night. They flew the coop. And the log, well it accidently got burned up that night.
Pot bellied balding Sheriff Cassidy wasn’t as stupid as he looked. He knew that Mitch had called his hand and on Monday he announced that the case was still under investigation.
The day after that the Baileys and the Johnsons buried. And on the third day Mitch Blade sat in a stupor, alone in a seedy dive, spending some of his hard earned big bucks, listening for the sounds of sirens.
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
TEN DAYS AND TEN NIGHTS
After her husband died, well-meaning friends suggested Sandy take her first trip without him. She was a newly retired speech therapist with a hefty pension, while Richard, who had failed gloriously in several business ventures, had gotten back on his feet again, earning good money by selling hand-purifying products to supermarkets and restaurants in the Philadelphia area. The living room of their Elkins Park condo was an homage to their travels, particularly Sedona, Arizona. Sitting shiva after Richard’s death, friends remarked on the beautiful obsidian-blue coffee table that reflected everything set upon it, whether candies and pretzels or tortilla chips and salsa the mourners brought in.
Friends and family were wonderful. Richard had a way of making new friends, a “collector,” his wife had called him. And there they were – Meg and Mike Lokoff from their condo, fiery human rights advocates; popular liberal Republican congressman Dmitri Petrakis and his wife Nora, and Jade and Matt Greene, a young vegetarian couple he had met at a MoveOn rally.
Sandy Rosenberg learned about “Elite Tours for Seniors” from her cousin Ellen. She did her research and three months after Richard’s death she was aboard a luxurious coach – you daren’t refer to it as a “bus” – to points south, including New Orleans, which she had always longed to visit, ever since reading as a teenager “Raintree County” by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
She did not regret her decision the first day on the bus. It was at night that she realized what a mistake she had made. The trip would be an endurance test, how to endure the sorrow of missing her husband which was a thousand-fold worse while on the road.
At home, Richard was still with her. His presence - his smell, the tiny hairs from his beard she found while vacuuming, his overstuffed socks drawer with his monogrammed white hankies - all this surrounded her and gave her comfort despite his sad departure over the eleven months the cancer had returned and set about devouring him, tissue by tissue.
The people on the bus were nice enough. The name of every passenger was stenciled above their seat and there you sat the entire time. Wandering the aisles was forbidden for legal reasons. Ridiculous, she thought. Quickly the forty-five passengers became a little family, traveling seventy miles an hour down interstate highways, as scenes passed by too quickly to contemplate: red clay earth, musky rivers, ramshackle houses, mansions with red tiled roofs, cotton fields with eye-catching white puffs and tall swaying leaves of corn. Sandy knew in advance she would shuck off that horrible word “widow” and tell inquiring minds she and her husband often took separate vacations, which had been true. Why make herself miserable by telling people Richard was dead? Her shiny oblong-shaped turquoise ring, from Sedona, glittered on her ring finger and gave the lie that all was well. At times, she even believed that Richard was waiting for her at home.
A short chunky balding man named Douglas Conway was Elite Tours’ “escort.” He stood at the front of the bus with a microphone and narrated some of the famous places the bus passed. “The planes flying overhead are from Washington D.C’s Dulles International Airport. If you’ve ever been there, you may have seen the birdlike building designed by the famous Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.
“On the right is the stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play.”
The men on the bus were particularly interested in this.
“Doug knows everything,” said the elderly widow named Freda who sat next to Sandy. She knew when to talk and when to keep quiet.
Sandy nodded and quickly fell asleep. The bus was a perfect sleep tonic. So many of her friends took sleeping pills, since the older you got, the harder it was to sleep. She and Richard simply enjoyed falling asleep wrapped in one another’s arms.
Suddenly Sandy felt someone nudging her arm.
“Sandy, did you see that?”
Summarily awakened, she bolted upright.
“What, what happened?”
“It’s Doug,” said Freda and pointed to the front of the bus.
And there he was sprawled out face down on the floor. Paul, the bus driver, was giving instructions to several passengers who had moved forward to help. The first aid kit was fetched from a high shelf and Doug was helped to a sitting position on the floor.
“The damn traffic,” said Paul, “I had to slam on my brakes so I wouldn’t hit that black Lexus that cut me off.”
When Doug stood up and leaned against the front seat, everyone could see a huge bump sprouting like a mushroom next to his eyebrow.
“That poor man,” Sandy said to white-haired Freda.
“Oh, he gets paid plenty. I’ve been with him on several trips. It’s hardly the end of the world.”
Nothing, thought Sandy, is the end of the world, except for Richard when he closed his eyes for the last time. He lay dying in the bedroom in a special bed they’d purchased years earlier after seeing a convincing commercial on television. When the topic of sleeping at home in one’s bed came up, Sandy began to describe their bed, omitting that it became his sarcophagus.
“You’ll never believe this, dear,” said Freda. “My late husband, Artie, may he rest in peace, sold these very same Dyno-Matic beds.” She paused and laughed. “He made a fortune.”
The first of the ten nights on the road was spent in a Hampton Inn in southern Virginia. Sandy and Freda wheeled their suitcases to the elevator and promised to see one another for the continental breakfast the next morning.
Sandy slid the plastic card into the lock on the fifth floor and let herself into the room. How nice! The lights had been turned on in a welcoming gesture. Dinner had been a couple hours earlier at a rest stop, lit up like a stadium in the dark of the night. All she wanted to do was sleep. She’d shower in the morning. And sleep she did until the blast of a television set next door woke her. It was impossible to fall back to sleep.
Visions of Richard swarmed over her like bees zooming out of their hive. Getting out of bed in her long yellow silk pajamas, she paced around the room, pressing her face into her hands. Before she knew it, she was shaking with sobs. Her tears flowed unstoppable. Worst of all, she was filled with a sense of emptiness, a hole in her stomach that felt like a cannonball had ripped it open.
She was panic-stricken. Nothing like this had ever happened to her.
“Richard, what should I do?” she cried out.
Still in her yellow pajamas, she padded barefoot down the carpeted hallway, pocket book in hand. There it was. Her savior. Not Christ almighty, but a vending machine, all lit up and reflecting her own image. She studied all the offerings to choose from. She poured all her change and her dollar bills into the machine as if she were playing blackjack at Bally’s Casino in Jersey, then listened to the comforting chuck-chuck-chuck as the snacks poured out. Gathering them in her arms she trotted back to her room, spread them out on the bed as if it were Halloween and lay on top of them, still shaking with fright.
“What has gotten into me?” she wondered. Should she call someone? She retrieved her cell phone from her purse and clung to the cold metal, telling herself she’d call someone if she must. Meantime, she unwrapped the shiny orange wrapper of a Reese bar and nibbled on the rich chocolate and peanut butter. Finishing that, she popped open the top of a Diet Coke, which fizzled all over the bedspread. She swished it around her mouth, then went into the bathroom and spat it into the toilet. She hated sodas. She picked up a white washcloth and dabbed around her mouth, then returned to the bed. What next? Hating herself, she reached for the easily recognizable green bag of Herr’s Sour Cream and Onion potato chips. “Please,” she prayed. “Let me enjoy this.”
The television droned in the adjoining room as she ripped open the bag, dipped her red-manicured nails inside the bag, and pulled out some greasy chips which tasted perfectly marvelous. She got up from the bed and walked around the room.
Pulling a pillow from the bed, she lay down on the carpet and fell asleep.
Aboard the bus, Doug acted like a flight attendant, walking down the aisle and taking orders for drinks and snacks. Richard had always liked bloody marys so Sandy ordered one, confiding to Freda, “My husband’s favorite.” Doug handed her a see-through plastic cup with a tiny red straw attached. Not bad, she thought, and clinked the ice in rhythm to the wheels of the bus.
“Richard,” she thought, “I see why you like this.” A feeling of warmth and nonchalance overtook her, as she leaned her head on the head rest.
The days passed by in a blur of doing. Sandy wrote a postcard with a picture of the late Martin Luther King to her cousin Ellen. “Will never forget Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where MLK, his dad and granddad preached. Nice red carpet.” Sandy didn’t mention she slipped a ten-dollar bill in the collections box to help refurbish the church, whose floors, in particular, needed restoration from the thousands of visitors each year.
Finally, they were there. The Big Easy.
“New Orleans, here we come!” The bus driver Paul became suddenly animated.
“On the right!” shouted Doug from the front of the bus. “See that sign! We’re entering the parish of Ville de La Nouvelle-Orléans or Orleans Parish. The city is ninety percent rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.”
The passengers applauded. Standard behavior on bus trips, Sandy learned. Clapping.
“We made it! Good job Paul!” said the passengers in unison.
“Paul is going to get a huge tip from me,” said Freda.
“Tip? We’re supposed to tip them?”
“Well, it’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s nice, a nice thing to do.”
Doug, wearing shorts with many pockets, ordered everyone from the back of the bus to exit first. The passengers twisted their way down the narrow aisle, then stepped cautiously off the bus. They were seniors after all. Elite seniors. Sandy made sure she took Paul’s hand as he waited for everyone on the sidewalk below. Men, she loved them.
She wanted to walk alone through the huge park which Doug suggested was a good starting point for the New Orleans traveler. She felt awed by a Catholic church with three spires beaming in the distance. Being confined to the bus all day made a person yearn for freedom. Her feet fairly danced through the park. So much to see. Couples with linked arms, moms pushing babies in strollers, benches where people sat eating snacks and drinking beer. “I’m coming back to life, Richard,” she whispered. She found a bench and sat down in her white capris and striped navy top. She clicked her sandals together and remembered how she and Richard loved to go dancing. They took ballroom dancing lessons so they could dance at his daughter Heather’s wedding by a prior marriage.
Vendors were everywhere in the park. One strolled nearby. She looked the young man in the eye and he walked over to her, pushing his jangling cart. Sandy peered inside, while the young man spoke, ascertaining it was her first time in the city.
“Do you like fish?”
“I love fish,” she said enunciating each word like the speech therapist she was.
“May I suggest you try our famous Crawfish Grilled Cheese Sandwich?”
She made a face. And looked up at him.
He picked up a sandwich, kept hot under a steamer, and asked her to taste it.
Sandy took a tiny bite.
“Oh my God. Un-be-lievable!”
As was the price. Everything was cheaper down south. She also bought some honey-roasted peanuts, for later, back at the hotel.
That night the bus picked everyone up at 8:15 and headed for the famous French quarter. Doug read off some of the street names: Bourbon Street, Basin Street, Canal Street. “Get this,” he said, his voice rising. “We cherish history here – unlike New York City, where you’ve got those boring numbered streets and avenues. No wonder the city hasn’t amounted to much.”
He waited for the trickle of laughter.
“And that fellow Napoleon,” he continued. “He may have died back in 1821 on the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic, but we cherish history here, so we’ve named our streets after some of his famous battles like….”
“Waterloo,” called out Fritz, who sat in front of Sandy and Freda.
“Go on,” said Doug.
“Marengo. Austerlitz,” he said, his voice rising.
Doug walked over and gave him a high five.
As they exited onto Bourbon Street, it was impossible to believe it was night time. Colored lights fairly blinded your eyes. People on balconies, like in A Streetcar Named Desire, tossed down trinkets for tourists to catch mid-air. Sandy caught a navy-blue beaded necklace and put it around Freda’s neck. She caught a silver one for herself. The noise from the people in the balconies, their music, and their shouting was a cacophony of joy. “What did it remind her of?” she wondered. Aha, the sounds in the Citizens Bank Stadium where she and Richard watched their beloved Phillies’ baseball games.
Unlike anywhere she had ever been, these New Orleanians, or whatever they were called, simply loved having fun. Walking along next to Freda, with her silver necklace bobbing against her chest, she spotted two women standing bare-chested on a balcony with a black wrought-iron railing. Sandy nudged Freda and pointed upward. The women on the balcony waved, breasts bouncing up and down, to the crowd below. Sandy waved back.
“That’s what you call ‘free spirits,’” said her elderly companion.
Following Doug, ducking in and out behind masses of reveling walkers, the group visited two well-known night clubs. Fritzel's European Jazz Club and Funky Butt, where the entertainment was up close and in your face. For a moment, Sandy forgot who and where she was, her face lit up like a candelabra. She ordered a Kahlua and Cream in both clubs, delighting at its coffee taste and feeling a slight buzz in her head. When it was time to board the bus and return to their hotel, she informed Paul and Doug not to worry, she would walk home. The hotel was only ten minutes away.
Comfortable in her navy-blue sweater and white capris - and nursing a paper cup of Kahlua and Cream - she retraced her steps, staring skyward at all those brave celebrants whose only calling was: rejoice. They did this every single night of the week. Year-round. How envious she felt of their joie de vivre.
Three people stood on one of the balconies. From their view, they could see Sandy with her short black crown of hair and her swinging set of silver beads rocking along her chest. A young man leaned over the balcony. “C’mon up!” he shouted.
She smiled. And nodded her head.
They looked innocent enough.
In a flash, he was downstairs, and leading her gently inside the door. She followed him upstairs onto the balcony. Music was booming from inside the house.
“Look who I found!” he said to the others on the balcony, holding Sandy’s hand, and introducing them to one another.
“You like our city?” young Rita asked.
“I love it!” she exclaimed. “Absolutely love it. We came by bus, all the way from Philadelphia.”
They motioned for her to sit down in a white wicker chair with tiny flowered cushions. She quickly looked over the balcony at the revelers below.
She was so happy she thought her head would explode. And took another sip of Kahlua.
White-haired Barbara said she must go inside. She was feeling cold. Soon everyone followed. They sat on a red leather sectional while Christmas lights fluttered on and off, even though Christmas was months away. Sandy remembered a line from A Streetcar Named Desire where Marlon Brando, after ravishing Blanche, had reminded Stella, who he was attempting to lure back, how “colored lights” had enhanced their lovemaking.
“Refresh your drink?” asked Robert, whose name was pronounced the French way. He had skin the color of café au lait and spoke with a southern twang.
“I’m fine,” smiled Sandy.
“I’m going to brew some coffee,” said young red-haired Rita. They all agreed it was a good idea.
Rita brought the coffees out from the kitchen on a gray, hot and steaming.
“Guess I’ve got to sober up sometime,” laughed Sandy.
Robert and Rita were a couple, she learned, and Barbara was Rita’s mother. The couple worked in the post office. Barbara was ailing, and her hands shook slightly while she sipped on her coffee.
“It’s sad,” said Rita, who wore a low-cut black blouse, “but Mom’s cancer came back. She’s doing well with the chemo.”
Barbara put down her coffee and grabbed a hold of her huge mound of curly white hair.
“Voila!” she said, lifting off her wig and laughing.
Sandy was silent, not knowing what to say.
“I hope we haven’t shocked you, miss,” said Robert.
“Shocked, yes. But it’s not what you think. I’m going to tell you a secret I haven’t told a soul on my trip to New Orleans.” She began to fiddle with her silver necklace.
“On August 28, I lost my husband to cancer. The two of us met in a bar in downtown Philadelphia, where we shared some drinks and some cigarettes.” She sipped on her coffee. “Love at first sight, you might say. We were never apart again. Sometimes I think I’m going to lose my mind when I remember I’ll never see my Richard again.”
She reached into her pocket book and fished out her smart phone, with a photo of the two of them together. She smiled as she passed around the lifelike photo of tall Richard, with his barely shaven beard, and herself leaning against him, tousling his steel-gray hair.
“That’s my Richard, for what it’s worth.”
Rita took the picture in her hands and rubbed her thumb along Richard’s visage. “A fine man,” she said. “A handsome man. Look how he loves you. And he always will. Even in eternity.”
Sandy took Rita’s hand in her own. “Thank you for listening to my story, Rita. And Robert and Barbara. I wonder if I was supposed to come all the way to New Orleans, or as you people say, ‘N’orleans,’ so I could find a bit of peace from my sorrow.”
They all kissed goodbye, first one cheek, then the other. Robert led Sandy down the staircase and they hugged goodbye at the front door.
Outdoors, the revelers were in full swing, but Sandy was in her own private world as she walked back to the hotel, fingering her silver beads, as if they were the rosary.
Back at LaQuinto Hotel, Sandy slipped into her yellow pajamas and sat on the soft bed. Reaching into her pocket book, she took out the honey-roasted peanuts and chewed on each one thoughtfully.
“Richard,” she finally said when she pulled the blankets over her. “I give up. Here I am in New Orleans, Louisiana, my lifelong dream. And I meet you here?”
The bus ride home took only four days, four days sitting on the plush burgundy colored seats, with the little trays that came forward to hold your drinks and your snacks. She always requested peanut butter crackers from Doug, with an occasional cream cheese and chive filling. Sandy replayed her French Quarter adventure over and over in her mind, each time remembering something new.
White-haired Barbara said she had lost her fear of cancer once she realized the specialists were doing their very best for her. “It’s in God’s hands now,” she had told Sandy, “whether I will live or die.”
Freda, looking up from her paperback, said, “Well, it won’t be long now before we’ll be sleeping in our own beds.”
“Can’t wait,” said Sandy.
“Your husband will be so happy to see you,” said Freda.
By the time she stepped off the bus for the last time, tipping both Paul and Doug with a crisp twenty apiece, she had planned out her future. Of course she would stay in her condo. She loved it and Richard would wait for her – he was their condo – he was the air she breathed and the carpet she walked on.
The cab dropped her off at 312 Meetinghouse Road. Jingling her keys in her hand, she turned the latch of her condo, fully expecting Richard to be seated in his short blue terrycloth robe, sitting and reading the Philadelphia Inquirer. Perhaps even drafting one of his numerous Letters to the Editor.
“Oh, dammit, Richard,” she said. “How forgetful I am.”
She went into their bedroom and opened up a drawer of the end table on his side of the bed. Without looking, she scooped up three packages of Kool Menthol cigarettes in their inviting green package.
“Darling,” she said out loud. “I’ve been meaning to do this since that dreadful day in August.”
Clutching the three green packs of Kool Menthols, she walked into the courtyard of their condo, where the blue sky shimmered above.
Hidden behind a white fence was a huge green Dumpster. She entered and like one of the Phillies’ pitchers, tossed the deadly cigarettes that killed her husband straight into the Dumpster.
“Damn you, Richard,” she cried. “Damn you.”
Back home, she curled up in their huge bed, clutching a pair of his blue pajamas. “I missed you, Richard,” she said. As the words slipped from her mouth, she realized the feeling that a squirrel was gnawing in her stomach was gone, and that a calmness prevailed over her grieving body.
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s short stories have appeared in online literary magazines: Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, Five 2 One and many more. DC’s stories are also in print anthologies: Crab Fat Lit, Blue Crow and Scarborough Fair. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s Literary Contest for 2016 for the short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for the short stories, The Bell Tower and Taps. DC was the grand finalist winner for the short story Billy Luck at Professor Punks Defenestrationism literary site for 2016.
The Creep Factor
Tammy had nightmares of the man she saw in her store window. His elongated face chased her through the streets of the San Fernando Valley, her terror mounting like a progression of staccato hits rising up the scales on an untuned piano. She always woke up screaming before the crescendo.
It all began after Rachel had a gun held to her head for a measly fifty dollars. How dumb could the thief be, holding up a pillow-and-accessory shop when Dazzles, Tammy’s store three doors away sold jewelry? It was costume, plastic, some silver, a few pieces of gold, but, a pillow store?
After the police left, Rachel came in screaming and crying, “Why me?” her eyes red and twitching, mouth pinched. Tammy knew what Rachel was thinking: you take in more money than I do, why didn’t he put a gun to your head?
She felt that the robbery at Rachel’s had been a prelude to something bigger, a feeling—dread. It all came back to the dream. She was at the Pacoima county-fair, at an old-time taffy-pulling contest where the taffy wasn’t taffy but the face of the man she saw outside staring in at the window display, his phantom shape morphing into multiple cells until a valley of identicals hunted her.
Tammy had a panic button under the cash register. The counter was next to the back door for a fast escape. A six-foot bank of back-to-back showcases stretched down the middle of the long, narrow store, and ten others lined the east and west walls. The glass doors reflected whoever looked into them and gave her time to assess people. Still, she thought of buying a gun.
Tammy stood at the counter with the computer on. She was browsing through listings of Bakelite necklaces on eBay when the door swung open, the buzzer alarmed. Since the robbery, Rachel entered her store like a bull in search of a red cape.
“They caught the asshole that held me up!”
“The douche spent my money. Cops said I won’t get it back.” Rachel stood just inside the door, her arms crossed, and her attractive face gaunt.
“At least he’s off the streets,” Tammy said.
“He’ll be out soon enough. And probably come back to rob you.”
Tammy sucked in her breath.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I hate coming to work. I’m so afraid.”
“I understand.” Tammy walked down the aisle. “At least you weren’t hurt.”
“Emotionally, I was.”
Outside, two women looked at the window display. One held a manila envelope, the other several letters. Three months earlier, new neighbors moved in with a shipping and PO Box store. Tammy’s walk-in business increased. The customers were a mix of drifters, aspiring actors and models, hopeful reality stars, and self-published writers. They talked about themselves and shared intimate details, as if she were someone without judgment, and perhaps that was the reason, for Tammy saw the best in people, and she had to admit; it made a slow day go by faster.
The two women left.
Tammy was about to speak when the man in her nightmares looked into the window.
“What’s the matter?” Rachel asked. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
He stood hunched over, dressed in a long black coat, looking at the second shelf in the window display.
He was a giant but not really. He just appeared that way. His face and extremities belonged to a man seven feet or taller. His features all merged into the center of his enormous face, leaving his jaw and forehead a wasteland of acne craters. And his eyes, they were two dots of sub-zero tourmalines.
Rachael turned around. “Ew, who’s that?”
“I think he has a PO Box next door. He scares me.”
“You’ve waited on him?”
“Probably just a looky-loo. It’s the normal-looking guys you have to watch out for. Like the asshole that robbed me.”
The man left.
Rachel opened the door and looked back at Tammy. “I keep thinking the next time someone will kill me. Or you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Was she really, Tammy wondered? Even so, Rachel left a chemtrail of gloom behind.
Tammy went back to the counter.
She entered her fourth decade of life without husband or child. She attracted men who used her, takers. It made her feel needed, in control, but they always left anyway. She wanted to change, but habits were stubborn, and men wanted younger women.
She dreamed of romances like those in a Nora Roberts novel. She wanted to love and be loved with a passion that could heat Pluto, someone to share in the distinctions of life, to be swept up a switchback of foreplay and countless orgasms.
She went on-line to meet guys, lowered her standards to the bell curve, where all she asked for was a man, under sixty, with a full set of teeth and a decent income. Not even the Internet helped.
She glanced at the large framed mirror—impossible not to look at—that hung on the back of the showcases at the end of the counter. There was no other place to hang it, and her customers needed to see their reflection when buying a necklace or earrings.
Tammy was without glamour, in a most glamorous town, lacked charisma in a city brimming with alluring women, but she did the best she could: added extensions to her lank dark hair, wore contacts that tinged her brown eyes green, ran five miles three times a week at Balboa Park. And she was short in a town where the average woman could play professional basketball. She might have a humdrum face, one that no boyfriend ever lied about by telling her she was beautiful, but she had compassion, could discover the kernel of beauty inside another no matter how hideous the person. So it distressed her, made her feel like she wasn’t trying hard enough to discover the inner goodness of the man in the topcoat who looked into her window and tracked her in her dreams. He couldn’t help what he looked like. She worried that she was turning into a shallow, selfie type of woman.
Tammy passed the day with customers and the occasional consignor who came in to pick up their check or add jewelry and knickknacks to a showcase.
It was a half-hour before closing. The January twilight cast a chill as darkness descended. The street lamps on Ventura Boulevard illuminated empty sidewalks. A light show of pink, blue and yellow neon flashed from the Thai restaurant across the boulevard and into Tammy’s store.
She stood at the counter, matching receipts with money she had taken in for the day.
The door opened. The buzzer warned. A gust of cold wind swept exhaust and the smell of frying fish into the narrow store.
The man appeared.
As much as Tammy wanted to see his inner perfection, she felt the sensation of having her skin peeled.
She grabbed the money and the receipts, went into the bathroom, shut the door, and hid her day’s worth in a bag behind the paper towels. She looked out the back window. Except for her Honda, the parking lot was empty. Her phone was under the first shelf of the counter. She told herself she was being ridiculous. It was always the ordinary-looking men who were rapists and murderers, not the ones with warped faces and mismatched body parts.
Tammy recited the affirmation that her Buddhist friend Qwan had given her: “I see beauty in all things and in everyone.”
She opened the door. The blood evaporated from her brain and left her woozy with fear. “Can, I help you?” she stammered.
He stood in front of the counter, his long arms stretched from one end almost to the other, braced, an anchor for his gigantic head. “I’m looking for a jade ring.” His voice garbled like nails thrashed about in a garbage disposal. His pinprick eyes seemed to enjoy Tammy’s terror.
She thought about lying, but what if he saw the ring? “I, um, yes. A man’s ring?”
“Yeah. A man’s ring.”
“There’s one in the second case in the front,” she said, hoping he’d walk away so she could open the back door. What for? To run out? And leave him alone in her store? Stop looking at his appearance, Tammy told herself.
“I want to try it on.”
Tammy nodded. She hurried from behind the counter, went around the hanging mirror and down the west aisle with her key poised to unlock the case.
He lumbered toward her as if he wore concrete platforms, his expression smug.
He stood close beside her. Affixed to his long coat was a metallic odor, iron, or was it blood?
Tammy reached in and gave him the ring.
Scars crisscrossed the top of his huge hands and knuckles. He jammed the ring onto his pinkie.
She glanced out the front window, hoping someone would come in.
“How much is it?”
His breath smelled like a jar of old pennies.
“Hmm.” He stared at her and massaged the tip of his middle finger back and forth over the jade then tapped the stone with his teeth.
“What’s the best price?” he asked.
“I can take ten percent off.”
“Hmm, $255.00, even.”
“Not with cash,” the man said. He stared at her. There didn’t seem to be any life coming from his eyes, not human, more reptilian. She expected a forked tongue to shoot out between his lips.
She’d pay the tax. She wanted him out of her store, out of her life, out of her dreams. “All right.”
He held out his skillet sized hand—fingers that looked like they enjoyed pulling the wings off of sparrows—the gemstone dwarfed on his pinky.
“I’ll think about it.” He yanked off the ring and handed it to her. “I’ll let you know, tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Someone else is interested in it. It might be gone by tomorrow.”
“I’ll take that chance,” he said and walked away. The hem of his long coat touched her leg.
She shivered, watched him go out the front door and realized she had sweated through her blouse. The waistband of her skirt was damp. He did nothing overt. He could have knocked her down and run off with the ring. He could have raped her in the bathroom. He could have knotted his wiener like fingers around her neck and snuffed her.
He didn’t want to pay tax. That was all he demanded.
Tammy prayed he wouldn’t return.
The next day was cold, but she kept the back door open. She turned the thermometer up to seventy-five, thankful for the people in the alley: car's parking, people shouting into their phones, UPS and Federal Express trucks screeching.
When she went home the night before, she had a glass of wine, then another. She had called Qwan, who suggested she meditate. She instructed Tammy to go beyond the physical to the spiritual world to seek answers. Tammy cried out, “I’ve tried that, and I’m still scared to death of him!” Qwan replied, “Focus not on his body but on his soul." “I don’t think he has one,” Tammy whispered. She said good-bye to Qwan and found divinity in another glass of wine.
At four in the morning, she shot up in bed, the monster in her dream the color of jade. The arms of his coat turned into green batwings. He chased her through the store until she dived into the mirror and vanished.
With three more hours before rising, she heaped the covers on top of her, shuddered, and squeezed her eyes shut. Tears streamed sideways across her cheek.
That morning she put on four-inch heels, and for the first time teased her hair—like her mother used to do—to make herself appear bigger. She carried the only weapon she could find at home, a souvenir from Disneyland: a tiny Swiss Army knife with scissors attached. She never harmed anyone, even spiders she’d toss outside. For Tammy, all God’s creatures were worthy of respect. But nothing could quell her fear of the man.
Tammy polished the counter. She ran the vacuum, swept the sidewalk in front of her store. Her feet hurt from the high heels. When she’d bend over her teased hair would smash into showcases, and shelves.
So great was her anticipation of being murdered, that, she began to think of flower arrangements and who would give the eulogy at her funeral. Her mother would be in shock, her father forlorn. Rachel would be thinking, glad it wasn’t me.
Tammy waited and waited. She peeked through the bathroom window whenever she heard a car, truck or motorcycle. She went out the front door and looked in at the PO Boxes. She glanced east then west. Cars backed up on Ventura. A skateboarder headed toward the Galleria, but no man.
That night, after she got home, she finished a bottle of wine, slipped into bed and closed her eyes like the lid on a coffin.
The next day Tammy dressed in her favorite sweater, lavender background with tiny pink hearts, and a navy blue skirt that showed off her athletic legs. Her hair obeyed the brush, and she wore just the right amount of make-up to enhance her features.
She felt invigorated from a good night’s sleep and that the man had decided against the ring, and therefore, wouldn’t return. How foolish, she thought, to work herself into a panic. Tammy hated being a victim.
She was sprucing up a case when the door opened the buzzer alerted.
A young Asian woman walked in, small and delicate, with long black hair parted down the middle. She went to the right aisle.
Tammy saw her looking into the second showcase. “Can I help you?” she asked, walking toward her.
The woman pressed her forehead against the glass. “My boyfriend wants me to see that jade ring.”
“He was here the other day.”
The man had a girlfriend!
“He can’t afford it, but he’s up for a part in the new James Bond film.”
“He’s an actor?”
The woman looked at Tammy. “Yeah. He’s up for the role of the new henchman.”
“Yeah, the other actor died. They need to cast someone scary looking.”
Tammy felt a hiccup launching in her stomach. “So, he’s like getting into the role?” The hiccup expanded into a chuckle.
Tammy felt giddy. She laughed. “I have a feeling, he’ll get the part.”
“I hope. What’s so funny?”
“Me. I’m laughing at myself. Can I take the ring out for you?” Tammy asked, feeling like the sun, the moon and the stars aligned instantly for her. She felt ashamed for judging him, stupid for being afraid, ridiculous for having nightmares about him.
The woman sighed and stared into the showcase. “No, I’d have to work overtime for a month if I were to buy it for him.”
“Why buy it for him if he gets the role?”
“Even if he gets it, he can’t afford it.” She looked at Tammy. “He has a hard time finding work.”
“Because of his,” Tammy searched for a kind word, “distinctive looks?”
“That, too. People are picky about who they hire. So now he’s trying to be an actor.”
What did she mean by, that too, Tammy wondered?
“He thinks because I’m Chinese, I know good jade. I’m about as Chinese as Taylor Swift. It’s a nice ring. But he’s dreaming.” She turned and walked out the door.
Tammy went back to the counter and sat on the stool. She pondered the meaning behind everything the woman told her. He was trying to be an actor, had a hard time finding work and not just because of his looks. What other reasons? Had he a prison record? Murdered someone? Would let his girlfriend work extra hours to buy him a ring—selfish, but so were a lot of men. She seemed intelligent. But Tammy knew love wasn’t just blind. It could be deaf, too.
She was reaching for her phone to call Qwan when the ringtone let out, “All You Need is Love”.
“Dazzles, Tammy speaking.”
“I was in the other day.”
Tammy’s neck and arm hairs became stiff as antennas. “I remember.”
“Don’t sell the ring. I’ll be in tomorrow.”
“Congratulations,” she said trying to keep the tremor out of her voice.
“The role, of the henchman, in the new James Bond movie. Congratulations.” She heard his snicker and then the dial tone. Tammy glanced about as if something could save her. God help me!
Dave Barrett lives in Missoula Montana, where he teaches writing at the University of Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Midwestern Gothic, Potomac Review, Gravel and The MacGuffin. His vignette--BEN AILING--can be heard in Episode 52 of the No Extra Words podcast.
Chapter Eleven of “Gone Alaska”
Exchange at Sea
When I opened my eyes that morning. . .it wasn’t to the image of Miss Sue Ann Bonnet spooning chicken broth into my mouth and replacing cold compresses from my forehead. . .as I’d been dreaming. . .rather. . .to Philip Swanson’s upside-down face beaming down at me like Satan himself. . .kicking madly on the head-piece of my bed board inches from my left ear. . .yelling:
“Out of that bunk and up on deck! That’s it! By God . . . look at him, boys. The Wonder kid from Roxie’s Whorehouse! Out the night before to make it with all whorehouse employees and kick ass on every rebel-rouser and sorry son of a bitch in Pelican, U.S.A.! That’s him all right. Rested now and just a-raring to go at them lines out back!”
“All right! All right!” I protested when Swanson started to physically pull me off the bed board. “I’m getting up—damn it!”
I swung my legs over the edge of the bed board. Thus, semi-seated, with my sleeping bag still wrapped around my legs, I was at least allowed to hold my head in my hands and wonder.
“What time is it? Where are we?”
There was enough light in the hull that I guessed it was somewhere around nine in the morning. I could tell by the familiar see-sawing action of the floor that we were at sea, but this see-sawing was more marked than usual.
Swanson had thrown together a pot of coffee and was lighting the stove’s pilot.
“You slept through half the morning,” Swanson said, extinguishing the match just before its flame reached his fingertips. Only Swanson had mastered the technique of lighting our damper less stove with a single match stick. “After the Rapp brothers brought you down from Roxie’s I let you sleep the rest of the way out.”
I shook my head carefully. I remembered something about being carried back to the boat from the whorehouse and how Helen had dropped a vase over my head. Palming the top of my skull, I felt a bump the size of large walnut.
“Thanks. . .” I said. Then, checking myself for other bruises, added: “Where are we? How come we aren’t in Pelican?”
Swanson explained that the Alaska Board of Fisheries out of Anchorage had posted an EMERGENCY THREE DAY CLOSURE coming up in three days. The bad thing about this was the dates of this closure coincided with the peak of the King Salmon Run. Each year, a day either way of a fixed calendar date, the greatest number of migrating King salmon flooded these inlet waters on way to their natal streams. The money made during these three days often determined a good season from a bad one. It was Swanson’s opinion that the regulators had chosen to announce this closure date at the last minute to catch fishermen off guard.
This is why we’d put-out from Pelican last night for Esther Island. Esther Island was a misnomer: a kind of underwater reef that formed a shallow expanse of water salmon liked to travel over as they come off the open ocean. It was at the northern head of Chicagof Island, midway between Cross Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It was here Swanson believed we might “head-off” some of these salmon before they poured into the inlet waters from the open sea.
I remembered the conversation I’d had with Sue Ann Bonnet about decreasing fish counts and over fishing, but decided it was probably not a good idea to bring this up right now (particularly in wake of the trouble I’d caused the night before!).
“And that’s where we are right now?” I said, my aching head beginning to throb.
“You got it!” said Swanson. Then, pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee, finished:
“I’d best get back the wheel. We’re near a good-sized wash-rock ‘bout now. Feel free to mug up . . . splash your face . . . and what-have-you. But don’t be pussy-footing around. A little something’s come up and I’m in need of your services above.”
And like a bee ordered back to its hive, Swanson turned and disappeared up the 5-step ladder.
Dashing, tripping, stumbling, falling, crawling across the floor of the hull, I made it just in time to vomit into an empty herring bucket across the room. Like a dog over its dish, I held my face over the salt-rimmed bucket and continued to wretch. My skull squeezed down on my brain each time a new heave came up. In midst of this came a weird urge to pray. But to what God or image I could not think! Perhaps for the first time since I’d been out here I realized just how removed from the rest of the world I really was. No one, not even Brian Connelly back in Juneau, really knew where I was at this moment. I’d made reference in a post card that I was fishing: but as to exactly where and with whom I was fishing, nothing. As far as he or anyone else was concerned, I could be anywhere along the Alaskan coast from Ketchikan to the Bering Sea! Overwhelmed by the thought, I clawed the hardwood floor as a new wave of nausea rose up inside me.
Finally, there was an end to it—or, at least, a great slowing down. The spinning slowed. The hot flashes cooled. Slowly, very slowly, I stood up.
“Christ. . .” I thought out loud. “What have I gotten myself into?”
From above came the rattling interruption of Swanson’s voice:
“Haul ass, down there! I need you on the bow-point! Pronto!”
“Screw yourself!” I cursed beneath my breath, knowing Swanson couldn’t hear because of the engine.
Because the swells outside were getting worse, I opted to sit on the floor while getting dressed—one sock, one foot at a time.
“Right on time!” was the first thing Swanson said when I appeared on deck.
I’d found the wheelhouse deserted, and came upon Swanson taking a leak over leeward side.
The light outside and the sound of the Western’s engine was brighter and louder than I’d even expected. The waters around us were bluer, wider than usual; choppier too. The boat was tacking hard right, as though caught in some strange whirlpool of a current. Not more than a hundred yards to the left of our wake, a capsized rowboat bobbed in a strange circular fashion on the water: like the dial on a broken compass.
“On time for what?” I said, looking away as Swanson adjusted himself in front of me.
Swanson pointed directly over my shoulder.
Turning to see, I saw nothing: just the wide open swells rolling by, a few seagulls cartwheeling overhead. Shrugging my shoulders, I indicated that I didn’t understand.
“No,” Swanson said, once again pointing over my shoulder. “Up along the prow. Over the roof of the wheelhouse.”
Still shaking my head, I stepped back a little and the object Swanson had so ardently been alluding to came into full and sudden view.
“H-o-l-y shit!” was the only thing I could think to say. “H-o-l-y fucking shit!”
No less than twenty feet off our prow, another trawler, the Lacey J, was running alongside us. Two men in stocking caps on the Lacey J’s deck were waving good- naturedly at us. With a shudder, I noticed that no one was at the wheel of the Lacey J. And there was no one at our wheel either! Had this positioning taken place in a quiet harbor or cove, I’d think little of it. But here—on a flooding sea, in some of the roughest water I’d encountered yet—the closeness of the other vessel was terrifying.
“Look at those crack-heads!” I said, turning my torso towards Swanson but unable to turn my eyes from the Lacey J in irrational fear that doing so might cause our two trawlers to collide. “What are they up to? They must be twelve-miles high!”
Braving a glance in Swanson’s direction, I discovered I’d been talking to a steel pipe.
The wheelhouse! I thought. Of course! Swanson had gone there to steer us clear of these two fools and their trawler!
But entering the wheelhouse, I found it as vacant as when I’d first come up. The steering wheel was locked in auto-pilot: turning a quarter turn to the right, thumping to a stop, bouncing back to the left, and then repeating the process.
Rushing back outside, I searched fore and aft for my skipper. After stumbling over a tool-box and saving myself from toppling overboard by grabbing a steel cable, a horrid thought entered my brain. Maybe Swanson had fallen overboard. The way the boat was rocking and wind was blowing it wouldn’t take much to toss anyone, even an old salt like Swanson. Swayed by this notion, I scrambled about on deck in renewed hysteria.
Not until I’d literally tripped over Swanson did I uncover the secret of his whereabouts.
“Hey! Aaaaah! Get off--!”
While searching out to sea for Swanson’s floating carcass, I’d inadvertently stepped on his outstretched hands just as he was climbing up from the holds below deck.
A strong swell rocked the Western World’s stern, forcing Swanson to grasp my leg as he crawled up out of the hatchway. I grabbed his elbow and lifted him to his feet.
“Thanks. . .” Swanson grumbled, then quickly added:
“Here. Take this. Like this!”
Swanson shoved a half-frozen salmon into my arms.
Shocked, I simply stared at the fish.
Swanson grabbed my stiff hands and twisted them about until I was holding the fish properly through their gills.
“That’s better,” he said. “It’s a fish. Not a goddamn infant!”
The Lacey J’s position had slid back so it was riding left to our stern. Only one of the crewmen was on deck now, the other manning the wheel.
“Yo! Swanson!” the stocking-capped man at the rear of the Lacey J called across the white-capped waters. “We ain’t got all morning.”
Swanson shrugged his shoulders and nodded towards me.
“Yeah, well. . .” the other fisherman answered. “We still ain’t got all day.”
Swanson gave a big thumb’s up sign to his fellow fisherman. Under his breath, he mumbled to me:
“What a doofus! Word is his pretty young wife is banging some cannery hand while he’s out here busting his balls!”
I noticed the stocking-capped fisherman was no longer smiling and was leaning over the side of the Lacey J as if to hear what Swanson was saying.
“Come on,” Swanson said, nudging me forward. “You heard the man. We need your services on the bow. Pronto!”
“The bow?” I asked. “In these waters? How come?”
We were at the door of the wheelhouse now. Inside, scattered electric messages sounded on and off over the CB radio. Through the water-sprayed window of the wheelhouse, I saw that we were within a few hundred yards of that strange area where the tidewaters of Cross Sound met up with the tidewaters of the Pacific Ocean—where the GREEN gives way to the BLUE—the waters between them foaming into a roaring silvery line of froth that stretched as far as the eye could see.
“Just a little chore,” Swanson answered, in his most matter-of-fact voice. He appeared busy re-tying a knot on a rope attached to the crosstrees overhead. “It’s very simple, really. All you got to do is take that there soaker up to the bow-point, and hop over to the Lacey J with it. Then either Joey or Gabriel, there, will swap you a little something for the fish. You jump back aboard with the something. Simple as that.”
Giving the knot a good tug, Swanson slipped past me into the wheelhouse.
Pot. That was the little something Swanson was asking me to risk my neck over. We’d run out of it the day before Pelican and Swanson had just about lost it. When I entered the wheelhouse during a lull, Jimi Hendrix was playing at full volume and Swanson was scratching the bottom of his pipe with a straightened paper clip for resin. Boxes and papers and magazines were strewn about the wheelhouse; the Pin-Up calendar was torn from the wall; and his coffee cup shattered on the floor. Thankful he hadn’t noticed my presence, I’d tip-toed back to my lines and hadn’t thought about the episode again until just now.
“You’re joking,” I said, following Swanson into the wheelhouse. “Really. This is a joke, right?”
Now Swanson was busy grinding the Western World’s gears into neutral, then reverse, then forward into low. I had to brace myself by pressing my free hand against the ceiling. Raising the fish to eye level, I continued:
“For a stash of pot you want me to jump boat—“
“Get it out! Get it out!” Swanson started shouting. “Get it out of my face!”
I stood there with a confounded look on my face.
“The fish!” Swanson said. “Get that goddamn fish out of my face! I’m trying to steer the boat, goddamn it!”
Bewildered, I jerked the salmon away from Swanson’s face. At that instant, a great groan came up through the floorboards as the Western World lurched into higher gear. That same instant, I toppled headfirst into the dashboard, dropping the salmon onto the floor of the wheelhouse along with pen and pencils and other miscellany from the dash.
Stumbling to my feet again with the salmon, a clip-board, three pencils and a coffee coaster, I apologized for dropping the fish.
“Sorry. I just don’t see why we can’t—“
“Because I said so!” Swanson interrupted. “This is my boat. If you don’t like it . . . pick up your gear and go. Right now. Just pick it up and go. The day I start letting a puller tell me what to do—“
“I ain’t telling you what to do!” I interrupted, raising me voice at Swanson for the first time. “Just let me know why we can’t throw the bloody fish across instead of me risking my neck jumping!”
Both of us were surprised by my sudden outburst. There was an awkward silence for several seconds as we looked at and away from each other at the same time. Finally, Swanson spoke:
“We ain’t throwing it across, goddamn it, because it’s too damn easy to lose that way.”
The Lacey J was pulling up alongside our prow again. Through the wheelhouse window, I saw the man on deck had moved up to the Lacey J’s bow-point. He was crouched there on a knee, pointing at his wristwatch.
“All right,” I heard myself saying.
Without another word between us, I took my rain slicker down from its nail on the wall and left the wheelhouse, thinking, the man is relentless.
Walking up that bow-point was about as easy as walking up the curve of a banana. The gales went unchecked here: strong enough to knock over a small child; and, quite possibly, a full grown man trying to balance a hangover; a twenty-pound fish, and a dozen other thoughts completely unrelated to the task he was performing—the most recurrent of these being that if he had any sense at all he’d up and quit on the spot; have Swanson deliver his own goddamn fish; fetch his own pot; etc., etc.
“How goes it?” came a voice over the wind and blasts of water against the Western World’s flank.
It was the fisherman crouched on the bow of the Lacey J; the one Swanson had referred to as Gabriel. He had a large red face that matched his stocking cap. I guessed it was a face made red as much from drink as from the elements; a sad but generous face. Overtop of a long-sleeved thermal shirt, Gabriel wore a black T-shirt with some faded lettering across the chest.
ANYONE CAN BE A FATHER. . .
BUT IT TAKES SOMEONE SPECIAL
TO BE A DADDY!
I wondered if Gabriel’s wife had gotten him the shirt before or after she’d started fooling around on him.
I was past the anchor windlass now. From here out, I was on my own. There were no ropes or cables to hold onto now, no wheelhouse to fall back on: just the sky above, the sea below, and this terrible oblivion tottering all around me.
“Great!” I called back, fearing another spoken work might send me over.
“Just go easy!” Gabriel encouraged. “This is nuts—but, if you take your time, it’ll be all right!”
I found myself glancing out at the water too much. It was fine when my sights were set on the course of the water, but when I redirected my sights to the course I was taking along the bow I discovered that the very boards I stood on tended to run out beneath me also.
“Hey, kid! Slow it down. And keep low!”
Gabriel again. I glanced up long enough to see that he was acting out what he meant by “keep low”: squatting up and down like an overgrown baboon.
“Got it! Keep low,” I heard myself repeating. “Keep low.” I reprimanded myself for thinking Gabriel looked comical. This advice just might save my life.
Aping Gabriel, I inched my way along that mile-long last five feet to the end of the bow-point. . .thinking, and, at the same time, trying not think, about those war horror stories regarding soldiers who crap their pants in the line of fire. I’d always laughed right along with my schoolmates at the thought. I wasn’t laughing now.
“Holy Christ. . .” I whispered, when I’d made it to that edge.
I took a knee and waved at Gabriel.
“What the hell are we doing here?” I braved across the wave and foam.
But Gabriel didn’t seem to hear me even though we were only fifteen feet away: fifteen feet, that is, at a given moment. It all depended on the rise and fall our two bows. Our trawlers were rising and falling on the beginning of open ocean troughs. At one moment, you’d become elevated on a mound of water; then, the next moment, this mound would cave in and you’d find yourself at the bottom of a watery bowl, with nothing to see around you but climbing walls of water.
Gabriel was instructing me to remain crouched while Swanson edged our prow closer to the Lacey J. Soon, our bows were see-sawing about ten feet apart. Gabriel stood up and moved to the edge of his trawler’s bow. He signaled me to remain crouched while the trawler’s inched closer.
It wouldn’t be long now. My breathing quickened to match my heart. My mouth and throat were dry and I wished I drank more water after vomiting in the hull. Our bows were rising and falling opposite each other now. When one came up, the other came down. It made me shudder to think what would happen if I should somehow wind up in that no-man’s land of water between the two heaving bows. For a second, I imagined my body floating face down in dead man fashion between the boats . . . my green rain slicker puffed up with air. Then, the next second, one of the two hulls would come smashing down on top of me—busting my skull open like watermelon; my body repeatedly throttled by the hulls of the two trawlers until I was, inadvertently, pushed aside. Then Swanson, or the men aboard the Lacey J, would drag my carcass out of ocean with a long-handled gaff.
“Hey! Heads up! If you’re gonna jump—now’s the time!”
Shakily, I stood up, holding onto the anchor until I was sure of my balance.
“You all right?” Gabriel asked. He was within eight feet of me now. “Want to call this damn thing off?”
“No,” I said, forcing a smile. “I got it.”
The boats were dangerously close now. Not only did I fear making the jump, but now had the additional worry that our two prows might collide.
I toed my way to very edge of the bow. I switched the salmon into my other hand to assure a better grip. Then, carefully timing my jump midway between the rise and fall of our two bows, I leaped across to the Lacey J.
Gabriel was there to greet me as I landed on the bow of the Lacey J. In my zeal to make it across, I’d jumped a little too far. If Gabriel hadn’t been there to catch me, I might have continued right on over the other side of the Lacey J.
“Guess I overdid it a little,” I joked.
“I’d say!” said Gabriel. “Had me thinking you were Michael Jordan a second there!”
We laughed at the slapstick notion of me going into the drink on the other side.
A couple of seagulls were circling overhead. Pointing toward the gulls, I said:
“Maybe they were waiting for me?”
“Yeah!” Gabriel laughed. “Right!”
A fresh gale blew across the bow the Lacey J. Both of us were relieved when it let up.
I turned the nearly-thawed salmon over to Gabriel.
He handed me a half-ounce of weed in a Ziploc sandwich bag, and, in a second sandwich bag, a fistful of twenty dollar bills.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
Gabriel’s face flushed.
“You’ll have to ask your skipper about that?”
Apparently, the stash of pot was not the only reason Swanson had sent me here.
Gabriel turned—as though to leave—then turned back—offering me his hand.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Adam,” I said.
“Adam, huh?” Gabriel said, scratching the back of one of his big red ears. “Well . . . good luck, Adam. You’re doing something I could never do.”
Gabriel glanced uneasily towards Swanson.
“Worked a whole summer with that son of a bitch ten years ago. Wouldn’t do it again for all the tea in China.”
Then, raising the salmon as though to give reason for his hurry, Gabriel walked back to the Lacey J’s wheelhouse.
I looked towards Joey at the wheel. Joey was pointing emphatically past me towards the bow-point. The reason for his urgency was apparent at a glance: our trawlers were pulling apart. Already there was a good eight feet of space between them.
Shoving the two stashes in the front pockets of my jeans, I hurried to the edge of the Lacey J. I leapt back aboard our boat while the Western World’s bow was still coming up. I landed somewhat successfully—falling hard on my knees beside the anchor.
I returned Swanson’s thumbs up from the wheel, then remained crouched on the bow as our two trawlers pulled apart. I saw Gabriel emerge on deck again for an instant, then disappear inside the Lacey J’s wheelhouse.
Who was this Gabriel?
What else could he tell me about Swanson?
Or—better stated—what could he tell me about him that I didn’t already know?
When the other fisherman on the Lacey J, Joey, waved goodbye from the wheel . . . I did not wave back.
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)
It's Almost Sunday Morning
In the summer of 1956, any Saturday at midnight, especially when the moon was out and the stars were bright, you would be able to see Grandma Groth sitting on her front-porch swing waiting for her son, Clarence, a bachelor at 53, to make it home from the Blind Man's Pub. He would have spent another evening quaffing steins of Heineken's.
Many times that summer before I went away to college, I'd be strolling home at midnight from another pub, just steps behind staggering Clarence. But unlike Clarence, I’d be sober so I'd always let him walk ahead of me and I'd listen to him hum "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Sometimes, very quietly, I’d join in. I don’t think he ever heard me.
However, on the last Saturday night that Clarence and I came down the street in our odd tandem, I didn't see Grandma on her swing even though the stars were out and the moon was full. For some odd reason, on this particular night, she wasn't waiting to berate him.
So far so good, I thought, for Clarence. He won’t have to listen to Grandma give him hell. But then, not far from his house, and without warning, he toppled into Mrs. Murphy's hedge. It was like watching a sack of flour fall, in slow motion, off a truck.
When I finally got him up, I managed to maneuver Clarence slowly down the sidewalk toward his house. He didn’t make a sound but it wasn't easy moving a man that big who was essentially asleep on his feet.
Somehow I got him through his back door only to encounter Grandma, a wraith in a hazy nightgown, standing in the hallway, screaming. She began thrashing Clarence with her broom, pausing only for a moment to tell me,
"Go home to your mother now so you won't be late for Mass. It's almost Sunday morning!"
After that, she resumed thrashing Clarence. He never made a sound, just took the blows across his back, head bowed, without moving. But Clarence was a man who said very little even when he was sober.
After that sad night in 1956, I never saw Clarence again, either marching to work in the morning, his lunch pail gallantly swinging, or staggering home at midnight from the Blind Man's Pub.
But many a midnight after that, years later, I'd be coming home from the other pub and I'd see Grandma reigning on her front porch swing, broom in hand, waiting. Maybe Clarence was coming, I thought. But if he was, I never saw him.
I remember coming home from college every summer and asking the neighbors if they had seen Clarence. Not a sign of him, they said. But on a Saturday night when the moon was out, they’d still see Grandma, on her swing, waiting.
Now, so many decades later, as I stroll home at midnight, after an evening at the Blind Man’s Pub, I can see the moon is as big as it was the last night I saw Clarence.
Suddenly I realize I’m older now than Clarence was the night he disappeared. And even though Grandma's been dead for many years, I can see her in the starlight. She's sitting regally on that swing, broom in hand, waiting. So for old time’s sake, I give her a big wave, hoping to hear her say, just one more time,
"Go home to your mother now so you won't be late for Mass. It's almost Sunday morning!"
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.
Bo Jangles on the ties: a one, a two, a hop to the rail, on down the tracks of time. White water calls the beat and sidelights of leafy green splash from the walls of steep timber. Soft-shoes on lines of dusted steel kick high. Suddenly a flash douses the spot, sweeping rivers and roads to dead flats, time hooks to nowhere, and high kicks shrivel to torn sneakers atop a trash pile. Mood becomes fickle, an independent push. And the beat is the simple thumping of my heart.
Children with smooth lidded eyes over flashes of alabaster dip and bump black winged gargoyles above the muddy Mekong. A little one runs to catch up, a broken and tailless kite swirling in her draft. Stopping, she holds her kite to me, dark eyes saying, “You can do it, you can make big people die. This is only a toy, fix it.” Pushing away the rags and bamboo, their smell of nuoc mam shooting slivers up my nose, I walk on.
Turkey Vultures lift from the rails, offal trailing from their beaks. Like kites they soar, hovering high while their radar feathers my skin. The pushback of a mashed eyeless carcass, nested in thick bone colored snakes, looks up at me from under foot. Locked by its haunt, I am suddenly jarred back by a blare. Leaping aside, I wash in the coal dust with the opossum’s severed head, draining down to the clack of steel wheels.
In the canyons of the yard the walls of ebony blocks shiver and screech, protesting my steps across their sooty plain. Slag piles give up their ghosts and morph to the dirge, a lazy waltz for one.
Smoking rags hanging from blistered lumps of wet red beg, “Kill me, it will be fine. Please.” A phantom screams over as waves of melting wax run purple down the waving engineer’s face, his locomotive throwing spears of color from its tumbling canisters of sunshine.
From the stage Lucy says, “About time you got here. We’re missing Joe, Jane will take his lines. You’ll do the same ole same ole. Where you been? You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”
Looking to the steep hardwoods rising sharply all about, I feel more at home in this small amphitheater. Like a bit of colored glass in a bowl of jewels. Sometimes I think it would be nice to just stay here and put on faces.
Planting her fists on her hips, Lucy loudly cues, “Well are you going to answer me or not?”
“I took the tracks,” I reply. “It’s been a while. Just wanted to pass that neck of the woods.”
“Well, I’m glad you made it. Nobody else can do that part like you. Hard to believe that you’re not even a veteran. How’d you ever miss that one?”
“Just lucky, I guess.”
“Well get on backstage and suit up. They’ll start arriving soon.”
Heading around back, thinking that life is but a stage, I am pulled up again before I can exit. “Oh! And one more thing. You missed the run through. We’re going to pull it back a little tonight. You know, like no big deal, got it?”
“I got it, no big deal.”
Jessica Williams is currently in her first year undergrad. She is currently working on a business degree with a minor in creative writing. She has written multiple stories including Kansas Trials, which despite the title was actually based on her childhood home in Roswell Georgia like her other short stories. Jessica writes primarily Romance, Erotic Romance, and general fiction.
“I can't man.” Trent said shaking his head. “I just can't talk to her if that's true.”
“Believe it or not, it is.” Milo responded.
“How do you know though?”
“I just know alright?”
“But---” Trent started.
“She is what she is and she does what she does. If you like that then go for it, but I suggest you bark up a different tree.” Milo shrugged. “It’s up you.” he said walking away. Trent stood there speechless, wondering if what he had just learned was true.
He walked into the band room that afternoon, and saw her in the office on the couch. She was laughing. She was beautiful, majestic, alluring. He watched her as he swiped a hand down the side of his face. Did he want to believe that what Milo said was true, or did he want to get to know her and find out for himself?
He walked into the office and sat on the adjacent couch from the one she was on. She was laughing at whatever Crane was showing her on his phone. Her laugh was so warm and inviting. It almost made him laugh too. How does Crane do it? He has to know what people say about her, how can he just ignore it?
Jesara stopped laughing and looked at Trent. “How are you? Haven’t seen you in a bit.” Trent was stunned, unable to speak. Her chocolate brown eyes pierced into his soul as he searched for an answer. “I’m fine.” he replied. He looked over her. Her thick dark hair hung effortlessly in tight curls, her dark eyes glinted. Her skin almost flawless, and her dark pink pouty “kiss me” lips. She smiled exposing her near perfect pearly whites.
“So what are you doing this weekend?” She asked
“Uh… I … uh… I don’t know yet.” He stammered.
“Well I'm inviting the usual over tonight, for my famous weekend long sleepover. Wanna come?”
His eyes opened wide. He had no idea how to answer. Of course he wanted to go. He wanted to spend a weekend in Jesara’s house, go to sleep and wake up with her. But, if what Milo said about her was true, was that the best idea for him?
“Ill...Um--” he started. “I'll have to think about it.” Her face scrunched up in question. “Oh, okay.” she replied. “It’s just that...I might have to help my step dad this weekend.” He lied. “Its fine, if you can come cool, but if not that's fine too.” She smiled at him. She used Cranes knee to stand up, and walked out of the office, Crane followed her like a puppy.
Trent stared at the door, wondering what he should do. He didn't want to believe what Milo said, but Jesara was so pretty, it would make sense if she were a little… well ‘promiscuous’. In his mind, he decided to go and not develop a relationship with her. He sighed, got up off of the couch, and left the office. He grabbed his book bag then left the band room to walk to his car.
When he got home, he went straight to his room, pulled out his phone. He opened his messages and texted Jes. Looks like I can make it! Super excited. It read. He put his phone down on the bed and walked to his closet to pack. A few moments later his phone bleeped. It was from Milo. I just heard you’re going to Jesara’s sleep over. I can’t believe you would still go knowing she’s just a dirty slut. Trent stared at the message, unable to comprehend why he would say that. It must be true, if he was so passionate about keeping him away from her. But how could Milo possibly know? He didn’t know her. They didn’t even talk. His phone bleeped again this time from Jesara.
GR8! I’m happy to hear that! It’s gonna be so fun. Don’t forget your PJs! Trent couldn’t help but smile, his tummy warming. He liked her. He really did, but he could never push himself to date someone...slutty.
He pulled up to her house at 8 and parked on the street. He looked at her stately house. A few other cars were parked on the street and in the driveway. The usual 10 plus me. He muttered and trotted to the front door. He rang the doorbell, and after a few beats Jesara answered. She had on an oversized sweater, blue pajama shorts, and knee high fuzzy socks. Her face lit up when she saw him, and she gave him a hug. She pulled away and they walked into the house.
She held his hand as she led him to the basement. He looked at her, her thick pony tail bouncing as she walked. Then he remembered what Milo had said about her. He pulled his hand away without thinking. She looked at him, hurt flashed in her eyes. He smiled and pushed passed her to go down the stairs.
Victoriana and Elia were laughing at the bottom of the stairs, positioning sleeping bags in the hall. Cole, Luciano, and Andre were in the family room playing a game while Jean, Allyse, Maylee, and Crane watched. He scanned the room for Aksel before confirming he was in the john. “Looks like the gangs all here.” Trent said, turning to look at Jesara.
She was looking down at the floor, “Yes, we’re gonna party till we’re purple.” she said, sarcasm evident in her voice. Her normally sparkling eyes were dim. She seemed almost angry.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s whatever.” she said
“That wasn’t exactly a no.” he said grabbing her arm. She yanked her arm away. “Trent, don’t fucking touch me. The hell is wrong with you?” At this Crane got up and walked over to them. “What’s goin on guys?” He asked.
“Nothing… nothing important at least.” Jesara said.
“Come on Jes, I wanna know what’s wrong.” Trent said.
“How about we get back to the party, and if Jes feels like talking to you tonight, then y’all can talk then, ok?” Crane pleaded. Trent looked from Crane to Jesara. “Fine.” he said. “Fine.” she agreed. She turned away, walked to the couch, and sat down next to Jean.
Trent looked back at Crane. “Why the fuck did you get yourself involved?” Trent asked.
“It’s Jesara, I’m always involved. Don’t think I don’t know exactly what’s goin on here. I know why you didn’t want to come over this weekend. Trust me, I know what Milo says, I know what everyone says. But, Jesa’s someone who just attracts the wrong kind of attention. She’s well...She’s hot. And, she’s mine. She will be mine. You don't deserve her, especially since you could believe the slop you heard. You disgust me.” Crane said, turning away. Crane walked into the kitchen and started popping popcorn. Trent went and sat down on the couch close to Jesara. She looked at him, squinted her eyes, got up, and went to the game room.
Trent followed her. She was standing in the middle of the room with her arms crossed over her chest. The light cast down over her, like a vail. She had shaken her ponytail out, and her coils hung around her shoulders. It to everything in his power to not grab her and kiss her right there. His phone bleeped. He tried to ignore it. “You really should answer that,” she said coolly. “It’s probably one of your friends.” he pulled his phone out and looked at the message. It was from Milo again. You know man, if you want to fuck the whore, then fuck her. It’s really none of my business. If you like loose good for you. He looked back up to Jesara, her anger was prevalent. “Look---, Did I do something wrong earlier? Your entire mood changed in seconds.”
“What the hell do you take me for?” she asked.
“Meaning?” he demanded.
“You talk about my mood changing… Your entire view of me seems to have change. What happened? What do you take me for?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Earlier. My hand? You acted like it was on fire.”
“Jes… Jesa I just----, I don’t know, I hear things.”
“Things? What things?”
“Milo… he just told me some things about you.”
“What the hell could Milo tell you? He doesn't know SHIT about me! We aren’t friends, I’ve never even talked to him.”
He sighed, even angry she was still unbelievably beautiful. He wanted her. He wanted to touch her, feel her skin under his fingertips. “I’m sorry Jes.” He said, moving closer to her. “I never believed him anyway.” He was standing over her. She looked up into his eyes. He leaned down and kissed her. “He’s dumb.” he said kissing her again. She smiled at him. “What did he say anyway?” this time she kissed him. “He said you were a hoe. I knew he was lying. I knew he didn’t know you like that.” She pushed away from him. “What!?” she asked. “He said you were a slut but I didn’t really believe him.” he said. “You were going to avoid holding my hand, because of what Milo said?” She asked. “Well that and having sex with you of course.” He shrugged. “What the hell makes you think I would even want to have sex with you? I can’t believe you!” she said pushing past him to leave the room. “You’re right, he was lying. Even if he was telling the truth, I can’t believe you would avoid me, before talking to me about it. Ask me before judging me asshole.”
She slipped out of the door. Trent stood there motionless. He kissed her, he finally kissed her and managed to fuck it up. He took out his phone, and texted Milo. U fucked up my chances with her man. Why the hell would U lie to me about that? He left the game room. She was in the kitchen now talking to Aksel. He shook his head, realizing how badly he had messed up, and took a spot on the couch next to Cole, Jesara’s ex-boyfriend. They had dated for two years, and still somehow managed to be friends after he broke up with her. How? His phone bleeped, Milo. Dude she fucks with everyone. Don’t think for one second that she’s not just messing with u. I’m glad I fucked it up for u. I’m glad that she’s not going to fuck u. U know that’s all u wanted from her. He balled his fists after reading the message. How could Milo be such a jerk? How could Trent be such a jerk for believing him? How did Cole manage to still get along with her? How was Crane able to ignore what people said about her and still love her? How did Andre and Luciano manage not to upset her, when he so easily did? He turned to look at her in the kitchen, she was laughing again. So sexy. So damn sexy.
It was about three in the morning when they finally settled down to go to bed. Trent placed his sleeping bag next to Jesara’s. She didn’t put up a fight, it seemed as if she had forgotten what he had said. When they were settled and comfortable, they dozed off to sleep.
Trent woke up later feeling warm silky lips on his. Hair brushed his cheek. It was soft. He knew it was Jesara. He held her face in his hands, and she shifted to be on top of him. His cock twitched under her. She moaned quietly as she kissed him harder, slowly tracing his lips with her tongue. He opened his mouth and let her tongue explore, He held her in his arms slowly moving his hands around her back. He slid them down her ass, gripping its firmness. He wanted to take her right there, but he remembered they were lying next to everyone.
“Uhh...Jesa?” he whispered, “Everyone is around us.”
“MMM I know.” she purred into his ear.
“I want you so badly.” he said.
“Then take Me.” she slipped her hand down into his sleeping bag and gripped his erect dick. He sighed, and almost creamed in her hand. “Jes---” he breathed. She slowly unzipped his sleeping bag and pulled it back. She reached into his pajama bottoms and took his cock in her hands. She slowly stroked him and gently massaged his balls.
“How do you like it?” she cooed into his ear.
“Jesa--I want you.” he said shaking.
“Like I said. Just take me.” she said as she bit down on his neck. He moaned audibly. To his left, someone shifted in their sleeping bag. Had he woken someone up?
She leaned down and took his arousal in his mouth. The warmth caused him to make a loud grunt. Someone shifted again, this time standing up. Jesara kept going. He tried to get her to stop, but she kept going at his dick. Then a flashlight was shined on them. Jesara looked up, but continued to stroke him. “Cole, did we wake you?” she asked, then went back to sucking his cock. Cole just stood there slowly stroking his own dick through his pants. Seeing his ex-girlfriend blow another guy seemed to do wonders for his libido.
While Jesara blew Trent, Cole sat close to her and kissed her neck. Trent had never experienced anything like it. He came in her mouth. She looked up at him, pouty lips parted, and began licking the cum off of her lips. Trent felt someone kick his side, he turned to look, but nobody was there. Nobody was around them at all. He looked back a Jesara and Cole, they seemed to be fading away. He couldn’t feel her on top of him anymore. He blinked, and they disappeared.
When he opened his eyes again, it was morning. Jesara was sound asleep tucked in her sleeping bag. He felt a sense of euphoria as he laid there watching her breath. Then he felt his dick was wet...sticky. Disappointment set in as he looked and saw he creamed his pants. It was all just a dream, she hadn’t serviced a bro. She had been sleeping soundly next to him all night. Like she said, she wasn’t a hoe. Of course she didn’t like him like that.
He laid in his sleeping bag, going over the dream in his head. It felt so...real. He pulled out his phone and texted Milo. You are so wrong about her. She is NOT a hoe. Stop spreading that shit. Milo was wrong about her, totally wrong. He could see that now. He turned and looked at her. Her beautiful sexy face relaxed and innocent. She was perfection. She was pure. She was not a slut. He knew that now, and would never forget it.