Decisions

Fiction
Kimberly Klemm


astoria, oregon 080507.
Photo Credit: Corbin Keech

The little boy sat patiently waiting as he had for so many nights. This was the special time, soon after the others had gone home, when he and the android would talk.

The first time he had been startled. After being still for so long, the boy hadn’t expected any conversation out of the robot. Soon after the first booming “Hello!” though, he had recovered from his surprise and now was quite fond of their time together. He had even become used to the gaping silences between each sentence. However hard he tried, his attempts to start the conversations were never successful. He always had to wait on the tall, looming figure’s halting discourse to start their dialogue, so he leaned against a crate and started to wait.

The children were leaving. Although he couldn’t see them he could sense their presence—or absence. One had stayed. One always stayed. The correct response was to acknowledge this one. That’s what his program mandated. His conversational database was limited, but after a few weeks of practice he was adding new information gleaned from the boy. Old programs could be improved upon. He was created to store and use data as his system processed it. Unfortunately, there were many unresponsive pathways in his neural net. His functions had been limited to speaking and recording. These, however, he continued to perform if only because he had no other options. Until his circuits decayed he would run as his working programs directed.

“Hello!” he said to the boy he could not see. “You again?”

“It’s me!” said the child. “It’s me! It’s me!”

There was a long pause.

“How are you today?” He always started out this way. It was easier to store new variations on old conversations than to vary the conversations and save each one separately.

The little boy sat patiently waiting because the android usually took lengthy pauses between his sentences. If the boy didn’t wait he would get ahead of the machine and then they would both become confused. So, since he was young and easily bored, he drew pictures in the sand and threw rocks at the water and generally amused himself while the robot clicked and whirred and prepared its next words.

The boy’s name was Herbert and his mother worked long hours. Herbert had a sitter, but she didn’t particularly care what he was doing or where he was as long as he made it home before his mom. He’d only been late once and all hell had broken loose. They’d even called the cops, which Herbert was still young enough to think of as pretty neat. Neither his mother nor the sitter knew about the android. When they asked if he had found a friend, Herbert simply said, “Yes.” That was how he referred to the mechanical man from then on. In Herbert’s head, the android was his friend.

 

The children were leaving and Arthur couldn’t find his mechanical butler. The servant had been a present from his grandson and broke down more often than it performed its appointed duties. Summer was over and they wouldn’t all be back at the beach for another year. Arthur wanted to make sure the butler was properly shut down and stored, but the rest of the family was anxious to leave. The horn of his son’s Jeep sounded impatiently and Arthur sighed. He was becoming absentminded as he aged and no one seemed to want to wait on an old man.

 

The little boy sat still, patiently waiting, wondering if the robot had finally broken down completely. There had been the usual long pause, but it was never filled. Herbert decided to ask a question. “Do you have a name?”

He had tried this one before and the android had replied, “What’s in a name?” Herbert had been more than a little put off at that. He thought, perhaps, if he asked a question he had tried before the answer would be easier for the android. It didn’t however, appear to have any effect. Herbert felt let down.

Every afternoon when he came home from school he rushed to his room and put on his play clothes so that none of the other children would beat him to the beach. The abandoned warehouse near his home had a dock that reached out into the ocean. All the neighborhood kids would gather there while hunting for skipping stones. The robot was slouched in between two empty crates around back of the warehouse beneath the broken window. The other children had been curious about the android to begin with, but they bored easily and had quickly moved on to jellyfish spearing and other more interesting pastimes. Only Herbert had remained interested and eventually, been rewarded by actually being addressed once the others had gone. Now, it seemed Herbert was going to lose his friend after all. If the robot couldn’t talk any longer, he didn’t have any use for it. He kicked its useless legs, hoping the android would at least say “Ouch!” but there was nothing.

 

The children were leaving. Fewer and fewer of them came back to the beach every year. Their parents and their parents’ parents had been cottagers who would escape from the city for the summer bringing their BMWs and their pets and generally increasing the caliber of bridge nights for the locals they came to call friends. Their numbers, however, were dwindling. Arthur had argued nearly a week with his son and his son’s wife to keep them from renting in the mountains. He was afraid this would be his last year on the sands. After his wife, Ella, died, the kids had just lost interest in the beach house. They wanted to take ski trips instead.

Arthur couldn’t rally blame them. As the mean age of the summertime residents rose, there were fewer diversions for children and teenagers because most of the people still flocking to the shore were elderly. So, of course, the kids begged to be taken somewhere else and their numbers decreased even further when their parents gave in, sending them to camps and weekends away. Most of the children left were locals who lived at the beach year-round. Arthur wondered if they were lonely, remembering the friends he had made here when he was just a boy. There had been girls, of course; well, a girl. Cindy had been the best of the locals. She didn’t laugh at his accent and he had never kissed on the first date. She had been a great gal, but in the end she married another local.

Arthur sighed as he sat in the back seat of the Jeep watching the small, white cottages and ocean shoreline slowly slip away. He was going to miss this place.

 

The little boy sat patiently waiting at the window as his mother pulled into the drive. As Herbert’s mother walked up to the house, he put down his bowl and spoon and went to the door. The android was forgotten for the moment, a glitch in an otherwise normal day. His thoughts were easily distracted and Herbert’s mind was currently preoccupied with the bags and boxes he had noticed his mother pulling from the back seat of her car. There wasn’t much room in his anticipation for continued disappointment.

After the android had refused to talk, Herbert decided to walk home and watch television instead. The other children had left already and there wasn’t a reason to stay on the beach. He didn’t really want to go. It was just the best alternative on a list of not so good ones. His sitter had looked up from her book when he walked in and said, “You’re early.” Herbert stuck his tongue out at her and she shrugged and returned to her reading. They had a mutual policy of ignoring each other and any other exchange tended to be antagonistic. After a solid hour of watching TV, Herbert fixed himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and took up his post at the window. His mother wasn’t due back any time soon, but he liked watching the seagulls and neighborhood dogs. They took his mind off the android. He wasn’t so young that he didn’t know robots could break down. On the other hand, he was young enough to be upset at the mechanical man for something that was clearly not the android’s fault.

 

The children were leaving. Arthur sat in his overstuffed brown leather chair back in his state-side home waiting for them to unload the last of the luggage. At this point he just wanted to be alone and away from the over-solicitous pats and agreeable nods of his son’s family. In a few more minutes they would be gone.

As he waited, Arthur considered the problem of supper, deciding turkey on rye would probably be better than ham. He was already missing his mechanical butler and wishing the children had given him time to at least find and shut the robot down properly. Arthur sighed as much at the thought that he might never get back to the beach again as he did in exasperation at his son’s wife’s hovering. The grandchildren brought in the last suitcase. There were hugs, kisses, and waves and they were finally gone.

Arthur sat where he was for a time and then rose and walked over to the bookshelves. From the top right hand corner he pulled down a dusty green journal, tattered around the edges. He took it back to his chair and opened the cover. An ancient piece of sea grass fell into his lap and he carefully placed it back between the first two pages. Arthur began to carefully thumb through the yellowed leaves. Every now and then he paused, a small smile on his face brought on by a fond memory sparked by something he read. He didn’t linger over anything for too long, however. Arthur was searching for something specific; a number written hastily, long ago, liked with tears and promises. When he found it, he pulled a sticky note and pen from the table beside him and carefully copied it over. The he shut the old diary and went to make his sandwich.

 

The little boy sat patiently waiting on his mother to kiss him goodnight. He had turned off his light and crawled under the bedcovers. It had been a long, disappointing day. There was nothing in the parcels his mother had brought home worth mentioning and his anger at the android had resurfaced after dinner. When his mother asked him why he was sulking he told her half of the truth. He said a friend had let him down. It occurred to him that if he gave her the specifics she would want to find the owner of the robot and return it. The android might not be talking at the moment, but Herbert wasn’t ready to lose the only thing important to him that he didn’t have to share with anyone. It was his android friend and, anyway, telling his mother also seemed somehow disloyal.

Herbert’s mother turned on the light when she came into the room. He could tell by the look in her eyes she had something to say and he wasn’t going to like it. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked straight into his eyes. “Herbert,” she said, “we’re moving.”

Herbert blinked twice and wrinkled up his forehead. “Moving?”

“To the city. I’ve found a new job!”

“Moving?” Herbert repeated.

“I know it’s a bit sudden, but I think you’ll like the change. There will be lots of other children in our apartment building and you’ll get to go to the movies and visit the zoo. You’ll see; it’ll be great!” Herbert’s mother looked at him waiting on a reaction.

There wasn’t much of one. He looked like she had just hit him with a hammer.

“Sleep on it honey,” she said. “We’ll talk about it again in the morning.”

Herbert lay back on his pillows and his mother tucked the sheets in around him. She kissed his forehead and left, turning out the light again. As she closed the door, Herbert heard the phone ring. He thought it was odd at such a late hour, but quickly dismissed it as he turned over his mother’s news in his head and drifted into sleep.

The children were leaving. The little boy sat patiently waiting in the moving van while the last of his friends waved from her new bicycle and disappeared around the corner.

Herbert hadn’t visited the android in days. He had been back once or twice since the robot stopped talking. Nothing had changed. The mechanical man sat without moving and Herbert tried everything he could think of to make him respond. There just weren’t any words left in the android. Herbert had kicked him in the head hoping to knock something loose. After that he simply gave up. There were more important things to think about right now. Since his mind had been full of boxes and packing tape for the last few days, it came as a bit of a surprise when his mother walked up to the van dragging the android.

“Hey!” said Herbert. “What do you want that piece of junk for?”

“Piece of junk?” his mother replied. “This is a perfectly good mechanical butler. He just needs some repairs. We’re taking him back to his owner.”

“Who would want an android that won’t even talk?” Herbert sulked.

“A very nice old man, that’s who!” retorted his mother. She walked around to the back of the vehicle and Herbert could hear her arranging room for the robot. A few clinks and clangs later she slammed the retractable door down and came around to climb into the driver’s seat. “Ready?” she smiled at Herbert.

He crossed his arms, staring sullenly out the window.

His mother put the truck into gear and slowly pulled out into the street.

In the side mirror, Herbert watched the warehouse at the end of the street grow smaller. Soon the ocean was only a thin line, and then—the last time he looked—it was gone.

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Kimberly Klemm is 40 years of age living in both Georgia and South Carolina. She holds a BS in Business Management and has published both poetry and short fiction over the years. Her favorite hobbies are wines and cooking. Currently, she is employed as a technical writer. Email: kaktpgster[at]gmail.com

Winter Birds

Fiction
Melodie Corrigall


blue jays
Photo Credit: ekpatterson

Maria studies her family clustered around the table, hopeful not of food but of deliverance. She is stretching her arthritic limbs towards a decision—albeit not in the direction her family anticipates—but the last few inches are excruciating and perhaps the goal is unobtainable.

A peacemaker and the core of a happy family all her life, Maria longs for a new role. But with so few years left, she wonders whether she should upset the apple cart. From her family’s elated faces she realizes that inviting Mr. Walters was a mistake.

Resurrected by the arrival of the unexpected guest, the family celebrates the evening like comrades after uncertain battle—calling for drinks and remembering old songs. The guest, a usually-grim farmer, savours the attention. He hasn’t been treated so well since his wife’s funeral two years ago.

Anxious eyes monitor the old man closely for encouraging responses. Flying gratefully to the weathered face like winter birds to scattered seeds.

Maria—mother, widow, homemaker, and this afternoon, hostess—refills empty glasses and carries in more food.

“You’re a shrewd one, mother,” her son teases, nodding towards their guest.

“The old coot could do with a home-cooked meal,” Maria admits. And a little company she thinks.

She knows what it is to be stuck behind curtains in an empty house watching weekend visitors’ cars drive by. And weekdays when even before lunch, her chores are complete. With only the motley cat to advise on the weather, she busies herself picking leaves off pampered plants and organizing meals in case one of her children visits.

“Sorry, Mom, Buddy has a baseball game.”

“I have to bone up for a Monday meeting.”

“Jenny’s coming down with something.”

“The car is acting up… the weather is bad… it’s a long drive… sure you don’t mind?”

Sunday is the worst. More from habit than conviction, she and her late husband attended church, weather permitting. Then rain or shine, after a midday meal they hiked across the familiar terrain, commenting on the growth of the cedars, the height of the marsh grass, or the work to be done on the back pasture. “Like God on the seventh day,” Paul would chuckle contentedly, snapping off a dead branch to clear the path.

Widowed three years, Maria misses the companionship—the shared ritual of instant coffee and toast before turning in for the night, the Sunday walks, the mutual memories. She misses returning to a warm house after penning the chickens and finding her husband reading the paper. She does not miss her role as chief cook and bottle washer.

Till her husband’s death, Maria had never lived alone. Even when Paul was outside working, she was on call. Now her life is her own or almost. The children still have their say, of course. When she considered moving into town, her daughter protested.

“You’d hate to live anywhere but here, Mom.”

But would she? She pictures a small apartment near the park and the shops. Maybe she’d learn to do something—to paint or speak Spanish. Her sister Bea had started university at sixty-three.

“Fine for Bea, she’s different, Mom. You like looking after people, having your chickens.”

Truth be known, she hated chickens: ugly, noisy ingrates that pecked at your hands. Paul had insisted they were worth the effort but as soon as she got the energy, she’d cheerfully initiate a beheading.

Watching Mr. Walters joke gruffly with the kids even with the false promise he brings, she is glad she invited him. He is no hero, always complaining about something and never lifting a hand to help. But since Peggy’s death he is friendlier—needs must. They both have had to learn new dance steps.

Like her, he has been left to drift, all the routines disrupted, the familiar patterns destroyed. When a few weeks earlier at the local K-Mart Maria noticed him forlornly staring at babies’ wear, she had taken pity and helped him choose a gift for his grandchild.

The following week she had spotted him at the supermarket check-out counter: his clothes needing an ironing, his jacket frayed. He was staring at the frozen meat pie in his basket, “I sure miss her pies,” he sighed, prompting Maria’s invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.

“The kids would love to see you,” she lied. “We’ll be having turkey and pie.”

The old farmer squinted cautiously. “Sunday?” he muttered as if scanning a busy calendar. “Okay,” he nodded indulgently, and then smiled, “I’d like that.”

“Another helping, Mr. Walters?” Sharon encourages, tempting him with a generous slice of blueberry pie.

He declines. “Lord no, I’ve eaten more today than in a month.”

The man nods appreciatively down the table at Maria who looks away, then comments pointedly, “I don’t have much occasion for making pies these days.”

Her children flinch.

“Do I hear wedding bells?” Betsy whispers to her sister.

“They’re pie-eyed,” Sharon giggles.

Later, when the house empties—“Don’t forget to take some turkey.” “Where is Arnold’s hat?” “Are you coming up next weekend?” “Thanks for everything mother”—Betsy and her mother cozy up on the sofa. Outside, the persistent snowflakes bury the footprints to the road.

“I always hate to see everyone leave,” the older woman sighs. “I’m like a skeleton rattling around.”

Betsy squeezes back her impatience and smiles. “You can change all that now, Mom.”

“Move into town, you mean?”

“No, of course not, re-marry.”

“Re-marry? Why?”

“You need someone to look after.”

“I have the cats to look after.”

“Be serious, Mom,” the girl cautions. “You’re not like me; you’ve always had someone to cook for, to care for. That’s what you like.”

“Maybe I don’t.”

The girl winces. “Don’t what?”

“I cleaned and cooked for you kids and Dad but I don’t want to do it for some stranger.”

The girl gasps. They’d pinned their hopes on the old man. After all, her mother had invited him and he’d settled right in. Sharon would be furious. Even Bill wouldn’t be able to hide his disappointment. The future which they had talked of with their mother settled into down with a companion was fading like water colours in the rain.

“You like being a farmwife,” the girl coaxes.

“Would you?”

The girl sighs. “Then you and Mr. Walters?”

“I’m better off alone.”

“But is it fair?”

Turning from her daughter’s crumbled face, Maria slowly rises, takes off her faded apron, folds it, and places it beside the others in the drawer. A certainty is growing inside her. Her heart pumps like a fledgling bird, timid but determined as she meets the cool air for the first time.

She glances out the window at the snow collecting on the bird feeder, then stares through the lacy curtain of snowflakes at the ghostly silhouettes beyond. By morning the smaller birds will have to struggle to get seed. And when she moves into town, they’ll have to fend for themselves.

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Melodie Corrigall’s stories have appeared in Imagining, Room, Kinesis, Horizon Magazine, BC Woman, The Dalhousie Review, Toasted Cheese, The November 3rd Club and Other Voices. Email: corrigall[at]shaw.ca

It’s All Ice

Fiction
Liz Baudler


Remind me again why I decided to move from California to New England? #fb
Photo Credit: Chris McClave

“There’s no point in shoveling this, it’s all ice,” his dad said, scraping uselessly at the ground.

David looked up at his dad in the parka, at the gray sky. “We can take the ice off. We have salt.”

“There’s no point.”

“But we have to take the ice off, otherwise what’s Mom gonna say?”

“You can try it,” his father said shortly, shifting the shovel from glove to glove. “You can take off the top layer of snow. The ice might melt then. But I wouldn’t.” He slowly trudged away, thick hood bobbing against the back of the coat with every crunching step.

David stared at the snow, ugly with a day’s freeze, and the intermittent patches of warm wet brown driveway. It seemed to crystallize in front of him. He dragged his shovel and little sharp balls of graupel appeared along the edges. The driveway was at the end of the block at the bottom of a hill, and always collected the most snow in the neighborhood. When he was younger, he’d loved the house for this. But time went by and snow became not a medium for play, but for travel. Everyone always avoided doing the driveway—Mom was Mom, Dad was working, and Jeremy was a goof-off. So unless David did it, it didn’t get done, and you’d see countless legions of kids detouring onto the street rather than try to fight their way through the icy drifts.

He knew where there was a jar of salt, on the silver ladder in the garage. His boot slid over a lump of ice. He felt the hard peak of it bite into the arch of its boot and then suddenly it was over; he had slid but not fallen.

Tools hung on the ladder frame haphazardly. There was the hammer they had used for pounding in the Merry Christmas sign on the lawn, dangling grimly by a claw. The hacksaw glinted in the light bulb’s glare. Cans of screws and nails clattered menacingly as he reached for the glass jar of salt. He couldn’t remember when they’d used the nails. There weren’t many pictures to be hung or things to be fixed anymore.

Through the knit gloves he sensed the slickness of the jar as he tightened his grip on the top and twisted it open. It came easily, and he eagerly reached inside, grasping a generous handful as it whitened his palm. He cupped the salt in both hands and shook it, a friendly complete sound, like macaroni and cheese pouring out of a box.

Cradling it, he walked toward the behemoth ice mound that had almost tripped him earlier. Five grains, that should do it. They sat precariously on its crest and he did not wait for it to thaw. There was more to do.

The tire tracks were the real problem. They made highways of sheer slickness against the rest of the crusty snow, and the shovel barked unpleasantly when it encountered them. David scattered a bit of salt along their sides, walking towards his real target—the triangle. Various comings and goings had converged at one specific part of the driveway. All the tire tracks had crisscrossed into an uninterrupted three-cornered three-foot stretch. Stepping on it would be death. This was where the salt must go.

David hesitated a moment before he released it. The glass jar, fairly full, was still on the ladder, and that comforted him. He opened his hands and it poured out in a neatly controlled shower, hitting the ground to become invisible.

This time he waited for the little rewarding crackles, though to him it always sounded a bit more like sucking, the tiny Saltman slurping up the Big Bad Ice. The salt always won, he thought. At the end of the driveway where cars sprayed up junk from the roads it was mostly thawed from the salt that had landed there. It would start with one kernel, which would make one hole, and then—

A low humming motor made him look up, and the sounds of the great battle faded away. It was Jeremy’s car, Jeremy home from college, Jeremy who had taught him how to ride a bike, Jeremy who had run away to a dorm room with the smell of cigarette smoke.

Was it Jeremy’s car?

The paint was peeling in that peculiar pattern and the rust was blossoming freely. Last time Jeremy had been home, his dad had got mad about the car. “You should fix it.” he said.

“Why would I want to fix it?” Jeremy asked. “It works. Why don’t you fix it?”

“Why don’t you shut your mouth and start being responsible?”

“Why don’t you?” Jeremy shot back, and after a lot of bad words, he left, his dad still staring fixedly off at the taillights and the stream of exhaust.

“It’s the salt did that to the car over the years.” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t wash it in winter.”

“You didn’t wash it in winter.” David said, confused. It was the old family car.

His father looked at him and then went back in the house, leaving David on the front walk wanting Jeremy back. He remembered his parents explaining to him, as if they needed some sort of reason, that giving Jeremy the car would be a kind of responsibility—that in order to keep it, he’d have to return at a certain time each night, take care of it, and pay for things it might need like gas and oil changes. Responsibility sounded enchanting to David. He used to imagine it as something very heavy that you carried around with you everywhere, until his mother explained to him that it wasn’t always the big stuff, and that washing the dishes and putting them away was also a responsibility, though dishes weren’t as big as a car.

The car pulled up. “Hey, sport.” Jeremy said through the open window, a cigarette in his mouth. “Figured you’d be doin’ the driveway.”

“Dad said not to, it’s all ice.”

“Don’t lissen to him,” Jeremy said, leaning over. He seemed drunk, that smelly stuff that came in a can rolling off his breath with the words. “Not doin’ the driveway because it’s all ice is like not wanting to live ’cause we’re all gonna die. Or like saying we don’t have care about bein’ good ’cause we’re all gonna die. But that’s a good excuse, sport. Tell them that next time they want you to put away the dishes. We’re all gonna die. Keep goin’.”

Still laughing, he drove away with a screech. David stood still. He hadn’t had time to say goodbye again. He remembered that Jeremy called him sport because he was a total klutz and didn’t even understand football. It was stupid.

Jeremy had told him to keep going. He saw where the ice ended, down at the foot of the driveway, right next to his boots. Sometimes if you shoveled there, you broke the whole damn thing up. He pressed the shovel blade against the end of the freezing.

Crack. It flaked off into little bits. It got whiter when it flaked off, he noticed, a bit milkier, and then it would break. A dinner-plate-sized one broke off and began to slide down the driveway. Crack. Scrape. Crack.

He liked this sound even more than the salt slurping. Thud.

A large sheet of ice. Thud. Thud. Would not break.

Jeremy had told him to keep going. Break. Break. With the shovel.

David brought the shovel up and out, like he had seen his dad do golf swings. “Firm and easy now, watch the follow-through.”

Thok.

Ice chips flew through the air. Thok. Thok. If you hit it at exactly the right angle, big pieces would go flying. Otherwise you just made a little cut that didn’t do anything, not even when you kept hitting it and hitting it and hitting it.

Hitting it and hitting it and hitting it. Somewhere in between blows, a door opened.

“Stop that infernal noise!”

Mrs. Sampson, his neighbor, who’d call the cops when the music at their birthday parties got too loud. Probably watching All My Children, like their grandmother would, except their grandma wouldn’t yell. Forget her.

He was coming to the salt-weakened part now. Thok. Crack! Thud. The thud of nothing. The thud that meant your ice wouldn’t come off. Not even with salt. Not even with all the salt in the glass jar on the ladder.

Thok. Thok-thok-thok…

“Kid, I’m warning you.” She slammed the door.

He stopped and looked around. Most of the bottom half of the driveway was clear. Could he live with a little? There’d always be a little ice in winter. And maybe it would melt. No one would slip. You could walk around it. But…

His hands finally decided for him, stiff in their knit gloves that always got wet. He threw the shovel against the side of the house, not really caring whether it stayed up or fell back into the snow. He trudged through the mush of the walk, and pried the doorknob to one side with his cold claw hand. He wiped his boots, three wipes, on the cheery green Christmas reindeer rug that shed bits something awful, stomped on the heels to get them off, and walked sock-footed into the kitchen.

It was gray with the lights off and the shadows. A pot of cold macaroni and cheese was on the stove, and a note on the counter: David, I’m divorcing your father. Love, Mom.

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Liz Baudler studies creative writing of all sorts at Columbia College Chicago, and edits a literary magazine called The Toucan. However, she is not obsessed with toucans, or really, obsessed with much of anything, and she prefers to keep it that way. Email: mouse20101[at]juno.com

Caribou Detail

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


Sandbags
Photo Credit: Adam Henning

At four o’clock that morning, walled in by sandbags, I stood pissing into the open end of an empty rocket tube buried half its length in the ground. This acrid splatter, I thought, might have been the last worldly sound Sergeant “Ace” Card had heard the previous day at sunset when he’d been standing at the very same piss tube. A single bullet, from the Vietnamese village across the paddies, hit him in the forehead and exited just behind his right ear, exploding a sandbag beside him. He never heard the shot, nobody did. He was probably staring at the flame-red mimosa trees along the edge of the ville. We all loved those mimosas, the way they flashed scarlet then faded into black with the sinking sun. A clever sniper might have fired from beside one of those trees to blend the muzzle flash into the red. Even someone watching wouldn’t have seen it.

A volunteer patrol, including Ace’s best friend Freddy Peroni, took an APC out to the ville but they came up empty. Nobody had seen a thing. Freddy was violent with grief, ready to shoot everybody, even baby-sans. “Burn the fuckin’ place to the ground, they’re only animals anyway!” Freddy shouted, but somebody held him back. I heard later that Hernandez convinced him Ace wouldn’t have approved. Ace was a friend but on mission he was Sergeant Card and we were subordinate to the mission. Love for Ace and Hernandez stopped Freddy from doing a stupid impulsive thing that might have gotten more people killed right then and there, or in a sapper attack during the night. Fear had kept me back at the LZ that day, filling sandbags and piling them higher around the piss tubes. Love, fear, and hate, personal, intense, and interwoven, held us together. But like yarn in a sweater, if you pulled the right strand… we were all on a hair trigger. Our infantry company protected the artillery battery on LZ Flatiron, a small, treeless firebase with an airstrip on the only high ground among the rice paddies west of Danang.

I buttoned my trousers and watched a red crack open and spread along the dark jungle horizon. Soon the whole eastern sky would bleed a reverse of the sunset. Early morning and sunset were about the only beautiful times on Flatiron.

Back at the hooch, I washed and shaved in non-potable water, shrugged on a flak jacket over my fatigue shirt, and set my steel pot on my head. M-16 in hand, I headed for the command bunker and the night sergeant.

“Go on down to the airstrip and wait for the plane,” Sergeant Hall said. “Crew’ll help you. You ain’t never had Caribou detail before, eh, Kendall?”

“No, sir.” I said.

“Treat ’em with respect, don’t forget.”

“Yes, sir.”

About-face and I ducked under the low beam of the door. If I ever get to leave Vietnam, I thought, I’ll miss some things and people like “Ace” but I’ll sure as hell never miss Caribou detail.

A deep cool breath washed the bunker mold out of my lungs. All day we breathed either smoke from burning latrine barrels or cordite the 155s blasted into the air, or both. Re-supply flights dulled our hearing and whipped up throat-parching dust that gritted between your teeth, even after the planes left the ground. That morning, though, all I heard was the peaceful whine of generators.

The pre-dawn red crack faded into streaked yellow. Fragments of the orange sun flashed through holes in the tree lines and silhouetted a guard bunker. Two red dots glowed inside where the guards were smoking. A chill zigzagged up my back. I shouldered my rifle and humped toward the far end of the runway.

The heft of the 16 reminded me of hunting with my father on the Olympic Peninsula. He’d take me out of school for a day or two and I’d tote his gun while we hiked into the mountains that marched right down to the edge of Puget Sound. He gave me a .22 rifle when I was fourteen. I remember exactly what he said, “I trust you with this, son. I’d never give it to you if I didn’t trust you. It’s your license to kill, like the deer rifle’s mine. Learn to be accurate so they don’t suffer. Enjoy the pride of the hunt.” He was totally honest. For him, a gun was a natural extension of a man. My job was to be a man first and above all.

At the aircraft turn-around where the Caribou would stop and take on its load, I sat down on a sandbag berm. The pale sun began to burn the mist off a hectare of green rice between me and the village. Shouts of farmers sloshing and maneuvering water buffaloes drifted across the dikes.

Caribou detail’s work lay behind me in the soft yellow light: five body bags, thirty-two mil black plastic, stacked like cordwood, crumpled and stiff with night-cold. I kept turning to look at them, waiting there for me to load. Each had one journey left… back to the world. Sergeant Card was there, so were Booker, Shorty, One-eye and Werner, or at least pieces of Werner.

I don’t know why fuck-ups happen together, sometimes two or three in a row when you’re in the field. Just the day before Sergeant Card was killed, Werner and Booker were driving a Jeep back from a boom-boom run to the ville. Initiation run, they called it—short-timer like Werner takes a cherry like Booker out to the village, introduces him to the local whores. Before they left Flatiron, Booker kept making excuses, wasn’t sure he should go… had a girl back home. We’d egged him on, called him a pussy, gave him little shit like that. He didn’t want to look scared. Theory was the run took longer than they expected. They raced back to Flatiron so as not to miss chow… didn’t even see the fresh dirt in the road… ran right over a 155 round. Blast was only a kilometer away; everybody heard it, our first hit. We were all jumpy, pissed and scared. Without a thought, I volunteered for the “recon” patrol. Ace led us out to the ambush site. When we got to the big hole in the road, some guys stood motionless, just stared at the mess. The Jeep was bent in the middle, bucking bronco style. Booker got thrown clear and was almost whole. His fatigues still had fold marks and he hadn’t even sewn on his rank. We never found all of Werner… left the Jeep there.

Shadows shortened and the sun jacked up the heat. I still haven’t killed anybody, but losing guys like Booker and Ace… well… things change. My Uncle Roy was a Marine in Korea and he’d killed people.

*

I was just a kid, staying on Orcas Island with Aunt Helen, Uncle Roy’s wife, the day he came back from Korea. She was so excited she pushed me in my wagon with a broomstick all the way down her street to the ferry landing in the middle of town. Roy looked so beautiful when he strode down the gangplank in his uniform, with rank and medals. They embraced… held each other compressed into one person, rocking from side to side. Except for the uniform, I could hardly tell them apart. We walked back. They held hands and talked, laughing and kissing, stopping along the way to look at a butterfly and flowers. I pulled my own wagon.

Later in the kitchen, the amazing thing happened. My uncle took off his jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves. Aunt Helen was getting him a drink and I noticed the drawing. A smiling yellow and black bumblebee in a sailor hat with a cigar in his teeth was flying down Uncle Roy’s arm holding a tommy gun aimed straight at me. I touched the soft skin where the bee was with my finger. Roy jerked his head around and said, “Duck, boy, that bee’s got a gun aimed at you!” And he pushed my head down on the table like he was saving my life.

“What is it, Uncle Roy?” I asked, head squashed under his big hand.

“A tattoo… ink picture, somebody drew on my arm.”

“Does it wash off?”

“No, they make it with a needle. It’s there forever.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Naw, it don’t… if you’re a real man.”

“Why’d you put it there?”

He looked at me hard, squinted his eyes, extended his arm and aimed a finger-gun at me. I shrunk back and he pulled the trigger, made a gun sound with his mouth.

“I used to shoot people in the war,” he said, menace in his voice. “People like you are alive ’cause I killed them Korean gooks before they could come over here and get you and Aunt Helen.” Then he lunged and wrapped his arms around me, laughing. He hoisted me up on his shoulder while he danced around the room, circling Aunt Helen and stealing kisses. I laughed all the fear out of my body. He’d turned nice again.

“Stop that kind of talk, Roy!” Aunt Helen said.

When I went home, I snuck a ballpoint pen from my father’s desk to make a tattoo on my arm like my uncle. Aunt Helen sold poppies on Memorial Day for the American Legion. We went to the parades in Seattle. I saluted when soldiers marched by with rifles, blaring horns and drums that beat so loud I could feel the noise in my chest. That, I thought, must be the feeling of glory men get coming home from war.

Years later after I got my .22 and still hadn’t shot anything but a target, I heard that Aunt Helen was having a problem with rabbits on her farm. Uncle Roy had died and she lived alone on Orcas Island. Dad said I should go over and help her. He set it up. I took the .22 and hopped the ferry to Orcas.

Next morning at first light, I tiptoed through the wet grass in the pasture beyond the barn. Everywhere I looked in the field I saw rabbits. Some just showed their heads and others head and shoulders above the grass. I don’t think they were scared, only looking around. On my third shot, a big one did a flip and lay still. I snuck up on him ready to fire again in case he moved. He lay stretched out there in the grass, no obvious breathing. I couldn’t see blood, though, or the bullet hole… poked him with the barrel. My hand shook, but I picked him up by the ears, held him out in front of me like I’d seen in pictures of Greek warriors holding up the heads of their kills for all to see, enemies and friends alike… my first kill. I thought I felt a rush of pride but I was alone and birds chirped in the bushes. When I looked again, all around me the rabbits were back, heads above the grass, looking around.

I got drafted and volunteered for Vietnam. My father threw a party for our family and friends… first time I ever got drunk. Dad and I teamed up, arms around one another and sang old war songs Uncle Roy used to sing. I hoped I’d come home with a medal.

*

A trickle of sweat ran down my back. From the other side of Flatiron, whumps of an early fire mission were followed, seconds later, by the familiar thump of the blast in my chest. Beyond the dikes, gook farmers and boom-boom girls bent over knee deep in water, planting rice.

I reached out and pressed in the side of one of the body bags with my hand. It felt like a sandbag. Ace Card’s wife in Jersey would be waiting in long anticipation, I thought, like Aunt Helen. With Ace killed, the strings of anxiousness in her gut had drawn into a knot of loss, confirming her months of fear and dread. Her Ace couldn’t make the journey himself. They carried him to the aid station, stuffed him into a bag, piled him on the truck and stacked him here for the Caribou. Somewhere in that transit he stopped being Ace. She’ll be waiting and he’ll arrive all packaged up like a sewing machine, no ferry, no descending the gangplank. Only thing is you can’t plug him in and make him go. She and Sergeant Card will both know dead—from different sides, not like rabbits in the field. I started to gag from the thick rotten odor rising from the bags.

I spotted the speck in the sky out over the green paddies to the east. The Caribou was coming to bear the killed home so they’d become the dead. It drew closer, slowly descending in the yellow haze. The plane’s outline blurred in the heat waves. It resembled an ungainly gull, wings held high, tail raised, wheels reaching for the ground. It wavered as if trying to gain control of its awkwardness then dropped like a stone at the far end of the runway. Reverse thrust roared and slowed with a palpable vibration that would wake anyone from natural sleep. I drew my goggles over my eyes. It turned in the wide circle where I waited. Dust and pebbles pelted my chest and the wind flattened my uniform against my skin. I staggered back for balance. It jerked to a halt without pretense of grace and the great mouth of the cargo bay opened, lowered and finally licked the ground like a giant tongue. The crew chief hustled off the ramp as my ears blocked in self-defense. The roar and the gale didn’t permit meaningful sound, so we talked with hand signals.

He grabbed the head and I the foot of each body bag. At the top of the ramp, we swung it back and forth like a sack of grain—one… two… three… then heaved the precious reeking burden atop the growing stack of carnage. We did that five times. Somewhere between the third and fourth bag I felt stuck inside a cocoon, assaulted by noise, wind and exhaust. Tears washed from my eyes like I had no goggles on. I gave up all the reasons and motivations I’d borrowed from others all my life and lifted the plastic rim to let them drain. The crew chief didn’t notice, I guess. But he slapped me on the shoulder after the last bag… gave me a thumbs-up. The ramp rose, the pilot gunned the engines and the wind and dirt and pebbles returned to blow me backward onto the berm. The Caribou lumbered to the other end of the runway. I got back up and brushed off my uniform. The plane turned, raced toward me and lifted just as it cleared the last piece of tarmac. I stood at attention, sinuses throbbing from the dust and stench, saluting until the tiny speck disappeared.

pencil

Louis M. Abbey is a retired oral and maxillofacial pathologist from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Toasted Cheese, Indiana Review, The MacGuffin and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians. He currently lives and writes in the Boston area. Email: LNCABBEY2004[at]yahoo.com

Cracks

Flash
Rachel Haynes


Wet pavement reminds me of being 5 years old and walking to school
Photo Credit: bitchcakesny

His bedroom is hardwood, so when he wakes up he puts his feet within the wide floorboards and walks like a skier, parallel-footed, to the bathroom. The bathroom is hard to navigate, because the tiles are only four inches by four, and the grout is thick and grainy. Here he walks only on his toes, the balls of his feet cold and his heels in the air, wavering as he bends to brush his teeth. He has well-defined calves.

The hallway is hardwood too, so he skier-walks until he reaches the kitchen. There he has the relief of big, generous tiles, and his feet slap the floor comfortably, diagonally across each square. Over his Corn Chex, he watches his mother make toast. She steps forward, her bare sole sagging into a crack; backward, and her heel sinks into a four-way intersection. He imagines a pink X forming on her skin.

The sidewalk on his block is the worst part on the walk to school. The cement slabs are awkwardly sized: he must take wide, conspicuous scissor stomps to step once in each square, or take frustratingly small paces and step twice. But he knows the next block will be better, because there, two steps fit perfectly into each rectangle. He hears his mother calling to please be careful, and hurry so he isn’t late.

pencil

Rachel Haynes is a recent graduate in English literature. She is from Loomis, California, but currently lives in a small city in Brazil, where she teaches English as a second language. Rachel has never been published before, but she still likes people who have been. Email: rachel.bh.9[at]gmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Dawn Sandahl


cherry bite ---fruit macro
Photo Credit: Vanessa Pike-Russell

The Afterlove

is the pulpy red organ
born after love has been
born and also died.
Your body coughs it up;
glopping red on white tile.
Nobody talks about it
but it is there.
Not even you know
it is there until
weeks or years later
when you feel the cave
in your chest with your fingers
as if pressing a button,
and wonder where it has gone.
It has waited, shriveled,
all this time until
you felt its place.

You wake up swallowing
something that crawled in your mouth
and slid down your throat
while you were sleeping.
Are you imagining it?
No. You feel it, moving down,
as it becomes a part of your body now,
as it blends with the other red pulp inside.
You can never separate the two.

 

Bellows

I am the faded Mexican flag draped across a window, I am the red and yellow leaves skimming across the sidewalk, I am the greasy fried food on the corner of Mission, I am the young man on a bike racing past cars that got the green, I am the Laffy Taffy wrapper clinging to the drain, I am the marijuana smoke wafting from a basement level apartment, I am the piles of dog shit left to dry inside the white fence, I am the pastel ceramic carousel figurines in an old lady’s window, I am the DayGlo orange sign saying WIC ACCEPTED in a gas station window, I am the air that makes you shiver through your sweater, I am the stones folded into the pavement, so tiny and so many.

 

There is no going back

And to prove this,
Cortez burned the Spanish ships
on the shores of the New World.
His men pitched sailcloth tents
in the shifting sands and makeshift
lean-tos with washed-up timber.

More and more ships arrived.
Every summer night the beach blazed,
every orange face turning upwards.
The crowd gathered larger on shore.

When the ships stopped coming
the canvas forts wore thin.
The men decided to sail back.
They tore down their houses to
gather the singed Spanish boards.
But the ship-building failed.
The wood was too withered
by the sea to do anything
but burn.

 

How I drowned

In what box will I place you
under my bed?

I will lock you away,

mostly air.

At night your dreams
will rise to meet me.

My bedroom door will open
as if the wind
called it.

Instead of black empty hallway

you will be there.

Your chest the soft-skin
carapace of night.

Your lips the water that lives
in rivers.

Your silent call will bring me
to you.

I will follow you
to the sound of rivers.

In the morning,
I will wonder what brought me

to this muddy bank

as I choke
on the water
in my lungs.

pencil

Dawn Sandahl is a Michigan writer and poet. She enjoys poetry about nature and memory, speculative fiction, cats, and nature. In no particular order. Her work has been in Temenos and Editions Bibliotekos. She has edited for literary journals in the past and is currently the fiction editor for Greatest Lakes Review. She hopes to keep doing the things she does, like breathing. Email: d_sandahl2006[at]hotmail.com

Exclamation!

Poetry
Carl Leggo


Faculty Senate Meeting
Photo Credit: Michael Oh

what is the point?

what is the point
in exclamation?

what is the exclamation
in the point?

are we afraid
of the exclamation point?

afraid of the point in the heart
or learning there is no point?

 

like we are afraid of clichés of the heart
afraid of the heart?
prefer the illusion of sangfroid
where cold blood pumps slowly

I am dying
in meetings

we meet to
discuss the budget
review the department
review the faculty
review the department chair
review the faculty dean
& one another

we spend so much time reviewing
we are always looking backwards
with necks like pretzels

we meet to plan
programs and policies
procedures and processes
productivity and promotion

the academy is a speed dating service
where there is no romance, no seduction,
just reduction and a stupefying trance

we need textual intercourse full of pleasure,
instead of this coitus interruptus that leaves us
desiccated, depleted, dry like a dean’s dirge
about branding, and random, never randy,
encounters with potential wealthy benefactors

we need to claim more, declaim more
exclaim more, proclaim more

we need to reclaim
the bold voices of poetry

our poetry needs to startle
our poetry needs to howl

pencil

Carl Leggo is a poet and professor at the University of British Columbia. His books include: Come-By-Chance; Lifewriting as Literary Métissage and an Ethos for Our Times (co-authored with Erika Hasebe-Ludt and Cynthia Chambers); Being with A/r/tography (co-edited with Stephanie Springgay, Rita L. Irwin, and Peter Gouzouasis); Creative Expression, Creative Education (co-edited with Robert Kelly); and Poetic Inquiry: Vibrant Voices in the Social Sciences (co-edited with Monica Prendergast and Pauline Sameshima). Email: carl.leggo[at]ubc.ca