The English Girl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.

The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.

The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.

That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.

The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.

As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.

‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’

 

The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.

Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.

English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.

And all the time he talked.

The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.

The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.

Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.

His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.

Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.

She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.

The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.

People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.

‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.

Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.

The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.

She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.

A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.

Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.

He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.

 

She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.

A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!

Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.

‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.

Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’

Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.

Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.

 

Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.

Anneliese proposed a farewell party.

‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.

‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.

Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.

The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.

Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.

Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.

‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’

‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.

‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.

The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.

 

The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.

He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.

pencilSarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Terror on the Beach

Fiction
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers


Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

When my bar’s invaded by snowbird oldsters and the local diet-soda-and-whiskey sets the atmosphere cloys. No matter how peppy the music on the juke or how festive the décor and lighting, these crowds alone are enough to make anyone swear there are no companionable evenings to be had in a bar. Mix them together and no one emerges at the end of the evening without feeling tainted by the experience.

The problem lies in the contrast. Snowbirds far from home on a warm beach in a cozy bar can feel they are momentarily outside of time, outside of the cares of the world. The essence of vacation, right? Throw in the girls in too-tight dresses with bikini strings showing around their necks and leg muscles taut from balancing on their spiky heels or tanned to their flip-flop-gripping toes and a bit of the past intrudes. The visitors from colder places sip at their diet soda and liquor of choice through little red straws with glossy wet lips and the gin-and-tonic with a lime wedge doesn’t taste so much of vacation anymore.

Confronted with these young things and the suitors that inevitably trail in their wake, the snowbirds get a bit less fun loving and little more judgmentally bitchy.

I’d refused yet again one woman’s request for “something fruity with an umbrella in it, like a Mai Tai” when I’d had enough and handed it all over to my bartender. He’s a smartass, but he keeps himself around by putting up with the shit I won’t.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, “this ain’t Hawaii. It’s Florida. Closest you’re gonna get to fruity from me is a lime in your tonic or a token strawberry in the daiquiri premix.”

Sometimes he does it better than me.

I strolled out of the bar happy to be leaving. Got in my little old brown Datsun truck and enjoyed a warm mid-June breeze blowing through the windows. It’s a good truck. Late 1960s model just a couple of years older than me. It’s been reliable since my uncle passed it on to me in the eighties. It survived the big island-wiping hurricane a few years ago because it was off-island with me.

Now it faithfully rolled me down Pickens Road to the main beach parking lot. My feet took me the rest of the way. Past the new lifeguard building and the large lights keeping the cement strip between tarmac lot and sandy white beach bright for the nighttime crowd at the restaurants and bars. On down to the spot on the beach just next to the fishing pier where the guys and I always meet.

Only one of them was there. Nick. Young one with an old demeanor. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the surf build.

“You all alone out here tonight?”

Yeah,” he said. “I think Lyle might be out in a little while. I called him. Think it should get interesting out here soon.”

A storm front coming in from the west had the Gulf roiling. The breakers were getting large, rough, and sloppy.

Nick pointed down the beach just outside the pool of light cast by the large chain restaurant trying to look quaintly seaside. Three young guys had stripped off their shoes and shirts and were tempting each other into the surf. Guys like these get drawn in by whatever magnetic force attracts fools with no adventure in their lives to dropping barometric pressure.

“They’ll go in you think?” Nick said.

“Oh sure, hope they’re sober,” I said.

“Doubt it,” he said. “Hope Lyle gets here first. He swims better than me.”

That’s Nick, thinking ahead.

“Man,” I said, “Let’s just stop them.”

“Good luck with that, D.”

“You’re not going to help me?”

“I’ll follow you down there, but I’m not getting involved.”

“Sure, let the woman do the work.”

What a puss. At least he followed me. It’s always easier to be a hardass with a friendly body standing behind you.

We moved slowly, taking our time since it looked like these three fellas were having a hard time convincing each other to go on in. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to get loud with them when the first one went for it.

He was the shortest of the bunch, curly blond hair, bright red board shorts. Maybe he’s a surfer, I thought. He’d know how to handle the waves then. It was a brief thought, one of those that forms without your bidding. Just pops up in your mind even though you’ll dismiss it immediately as foolish wishful thinking. If he’d been a surfer there wouldn’t have been enough novelty in the roughening waves to entice him. It was all messy chop.

Nick grunted.

I said, “Morons.”

The two friends moved closer to the water’s edge, cheering their buddy on. The guy managed to stay on his feet, splash around a bit and run back out to his friends before Nick and I made it to them.

They were slapping him on the back, he was pointing out at the gulf, urging his friends to go back in with him.

It looked like they were going to follow until they saw us. The short one waved, said something about needing to cool off, and then they were moving back up to the restaurant. Maybe Nick’s park ranger button up looked official enough to be trouble for them. It certainly wasn’t my five feet and three inches or Nick’s skinny physique that worried them.

“Well, that was too easy,” I said.

“You wanted it to be difficult?”

“Just wanted to have a little fun with them.”

“You always been such a mean little bitch?”

“Nah,” I said. “I was very nice before my house got wiped off the beach and my best friend was eaten by crabs.”

Nick sighed. He has no compassion for people who hold grudges against intangible forces of nature. “You’ll let it go one day and be much more content.”

He followed me back to the pier and we waited for Lyle. Who showed up with hoagies and Corona. We had a good night.

*

You can’t sleep on the beaches anymore. Back in the early eighties we did it all the time. Perfectly natural thing to do. Nowadays it’s loitering, I guess. No way for us to have slept down by the pier anyway with all those damned lights.

Couldn’t sleep in the truck either. Cops roust the parking lot looking for drunks sleeping it off in their cars. Everyone should be in their own homes, tucked up nice in their beds. That’s the responsible citizen thing to do.

Instead I stretched out behind my house. Not much beach, just scrubby beach grass on the small strip between my back porch and the bay. I used to sleep on a hammock out on the dock Mr. Scott and I shared. That’s gone now. So’s he. I don’t eat blue crab anymore.

*

Since I woke up feeling mellow the next morning, I decided to cruise across the bay and on through the intracoastal waterway to Perdido Key. The bay was rough with the storm still edging ever closer, but the sky stayed sunny and the wind kept me from sweating too much.

A nice day until I spotted Gary banging on his outboard on the Perdido side of Pensacola Pass. It looked like he needed help, so being the kind (to friends) woman I am I idled my small Bayliner up next to him and got out to help.

His wife’s another sort.

Two steps off the beach, ankle deep in Pensacola Pass, Gary’s wife was screaming “Shark! Shark! Getoutofthewatershark!

There were only two other people on the beach. They were laid out on their blankets unmoving, either uninterested because they weren’t in the water or unconcerned because no one else was really in the water.

Gary looked back over his shoulder, away from the sputtering motor.

“There. There,” his wife yelled again. “Get out of the waterwheresthedog! Joe! Joe!”

Joe lounged on the front of the boat, unconcerned about the shark menace, since he’d already enjoyed his obligatory Labrador water romp. After which he required uninterrupted relaxation in the sun. Sharks be damned. He didn’t even bark.

“Where’s Joe?” Gary’s wife yelled once again. “Get out of the water!”

A fin arched out of the water barely 50 feet off the stern of the boat.

Dolphin. One, two, three.

Gary turned back to his motor.

“They’re dolphins,” Gary said.

“How do you know? There it is again.”

“Dolphin, smaller dorsal, arcing, more than one. Sharks don’t swim in pods, Cheryl.”

His wife, still frantic, but daring to step into the water, said, “I’m not getting in this boat if the motor isn’t working right. Call the tow.”

Gary waved me over. Wanted to know if I had any idea why his motor wasn’t getting any gas.

We puttered over it a while longer. Cheryl kept her eye on the dolphins, still convinced they could be sharks. Joe kept sleeping.

“Gary.” I wanted to know. “Why don’t you have any tools in this boat?”

He gave me a sideways look. “You don’t either.”

“I have a rope. Give you a tow?”

He hated the idea, but didn’t turn it down.

We got to maneuvering the boats into position, not noticing the other two beach-goers had wandered over to Cheryl until they all three started hollering at me.

I’m waist deep in the water, trying to keep the small chop in the pass from shoving my stern too close to Gary’s bow.

They were pointing at me, waving, the old fellow jumping up and down. His companion, a young blonde woman in a red striped bikini charged into the water. She headed towards me, determinedly.

Gary’s yelling at Cheryl.

Cheryl’s waving back.

Joe’s paddling towards the young bikini woman, barking. He was ready to protect me, I suppose.

It all distracted me so much I didn’t feel the rope wrap around the foot of my motor, so when the chop nudged the boat away from me, I naturally tugged the rope to keep it close and, not having as much slack as I expected, I pulled the boat right into myself. I went down. Under the boat.

The sandy bottom was all stirred up from the activity, so I couldn’t see a thing. I stayed calm, pulled myself along the rope, untangled it from the motor, and swam clear of the boats.

I’m ready to yell at someone, give them full on scathing fury. I couldn’t.

The scene already too ridiculous.

Gary dove into the water to find me. Joe swam splashy circles around the bikini woman, not letting her retreat to the beach or dive into the waist deep water to help Gary search. Cheryl was still yelling incoherently from the beach and the old guy moved slowly towards his companion and Joe.

I’m fully on the beach, squeezing the salt water from my shirt when they finally notice me. I don’t know who saw me first, but it was Cheryl that came running my way.

I held my hand up in a halt gesture, stopping her before she cleared Gary’s boat.

“You just stay over there, Cheryl,” I said. “You and those damned dolphins caused all this. Dolphins, woman.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t see they are—“

“Dolphins!” I yelled.

Gary started some yelling of his own. The boats had drifted too close.

The husband-being-crushed threat trumped the husband-being-attacked-by-dolphin-possibly-shark threat. She charged into the water. “Help! Help!” Yelling yet again. “He’s going to be crushed!”

Joe continued circling the bikini woman. Her companion tried to coax Joe away when I waded past them to my boat. I could have called Joe off, but he looked happy.

Once Gary and I had the boats safely hooked up and I’d fired up my motor and pulled the line between us taut, Gary hauled Joe into the boat.

Cheryl sat in her seat, not looking at anyone, lips pressed firmly together, arms across her chest. She wouldn’t even pet poor innocent Joe when he nudged her with his nose.

The old guy and his companion moved back onto the beach without a word.

We made it back to Little Sabine before the sun set and without any more terrifying dolphin encounters. Gary pressed some bills into my hand for the extra gas I used towing him, and I told him to come by my bar for a few free ones later. Once he got his wife calmed down.

“Bring the dog along,” I said.

“Sure thing.” He snapped his fingers, the universal gesture for having a surprising thought. “Hey, dolphins heading into the Gulf means the storm’s not coming in here.”

“They were headed the other way, Gary.”

The bar opened slowly for a Saturday night and it stayed that way. A few snowbirds in and out, but none stayed for long. They were, no doubt, back in their comfy condo rooms watching the Weather Channel closely.

The televisions in the bar weren’t on. Gary came in with faithful old Joe around seven o’clock and sat at the end of the bar with me.

“Storm weakened. Coming this way. Just gonna be a tropical though. No big deal.”

My bartender gave him a Jack and Coke and a small bowl of water for Joe.

“Lyle’s bringing some oysters over from Peg Leg’s,” Gary said. “Fried for you.”

The raw oyster is a disgusting thing. I’ve tried it at different points in my life. No one has ever found a way to persuade me that there is any pleasurable value in slimy, salty, goo sliding across my tongue and down my throat. No intensity of hot sauce makes the oyster go down any easier. My gag reflex cannot be so easily fooled.

We hang out, talking of this and that. Nick shows up. Then Lyle comes with the food. Things stay quiet like I said until right before closing.

Lyle wanted to mine us for our opinions, once again, on the new condo towers going up on the edge of the National Seashore.

“Bumped as close as they can get it to the protected part of the island,” Gary shook his head. His most extreme bodily reflection of disgust. “Let ‘em that close they’ll find a way to push in more.”

“That’s what I said,” Lyle added.

Nick, the young one, didn’t agree. “The condos are an economic thing as much as the protected beaches. Without something protected and left undeveloped no one’s going to want to live here or visit. They’d kill the economy.”

“Developers don’t give a shit,” I said. “They get their money and run.”

“You know that’s not true,” Gary said.

I did, but I wasn’t going to admit it. The vitriol had been my solace for too long to give it up now.

“All these tourists and beach residents keep you in business,” my bartender said.

“That’s right!” Nick raised his glass and bonked it against the bartender’s raised fist.

“I get the tourist hate, D. Know where that comes from,” Gary said, “but what’s your problem with the locals?”

“Half of them aren’t locals,” I said. More forcefully than I intended, sure. “They moved out here just to say they live on the beach.”

“Oversimplification and generalization,” Nick countered, feeling smart.

“I know that.” Forceful on purpose now. “Who’s the former professor here?” I pointed at myself. “So here’s my analysis. They like the beach, have the money to live out here, so they do. It’s a status thing now. You can’t live out here now on a middle class salary anymore, can’t even rent that way. Used to before Ivan came through, but that was a stellar opportunity for certain factions to wipe out the old bungalows and build fancy, expensive. Upscale.” I hoped the ooze I saw dripping off that last word could be heard.

“It’s just the money thing you hate?” Nick said.

“No. It’s part of it. They move out here, like I said, because they like the beach, want to say they live here because that reflects their status. They like the view, but they aren’t beach people. They are neighborhood people.”

“Now what the hell does that mean?” This from my bartender who must have decided he doesn’t need a job anymore.

“They aren’t sleeping on the beach, so no one else can. They don’t want loiterers, but what the hell else are you supposed to do on a beach? They want it generic. The only changeable, unpredictable thing they want out here is the environment.”

“And you like that, right? The unpredictability?  The adventure?”

“Sure.” I said it too tentatively. I knew it wasn’t true.

“Hurricanes washing everything out. People sucked out and brought back to feed the sea life?”

Smartassery is one thing, cruelty is too far. Gary said something that sounded vaguely mediative, trying to defuse. It must have gotten through because I didn’t fire the bartender.

“Shouldn’t you working. Wiping something down. Closing the place up?”

I always shut the place down at midnight. No later. I have no interest in serving that later night crowd. They’re up to no good or headed that way, no need for me to contribute.

The guys retreated to the pool tables to give me some space. The final rituals of the night were performed in silence and I used it to calm down, think about why I have to be so angry. The guys clacking pool balls around in an attempt to get one in a pocket over Joe’s head so he’d bark was the only sound, so the noise of a couple loud vehicles sliding into the small lot out front carried right on into the bar.

“Hey,” I said to my bartender. Quiet. “Go lock that door before any stragglers get in here.”

“Sure thing. We wouldn’t want stragglers,” he had to keep up the sarcasm. I held my tongue somehow. He vaulted over the bar. He knows I hate this.

His sprint the few feet from bar to door woke up Joe, who jumped up and started barking.

The guys let out a cheer.

My bartender put a hand on the door and reached out for the lock. Not soon enough.

The door hit him in the face. He hit the floor. Three young guys came in ahead of their fourth, the troublemaker king, Nevin.

“No, no,” I yelled at him. “You get the hell out of here. I’m not serving you one single drink.”

“Shit.” My bartender pulled himself from the floor with help from Lyle, his nose bleeding.

“You broke his nose, man,” one of Nevin’s companions said. He’s new. Looks much younger than Nevin’s usual crew.

Nevin came my way, looking determined. That look he always gets when he’s working himself up to some ridiculous new frenzied act of vandalism. Nevin considered himself an eco-terrorist. Most of his victims and the police considered him a nuisance.

“This is gonna be the big one,” he said to me. Leaning on my bar. Like I’m a confidante.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Get the hell out and get on with it.”

“You got a room in the back. Let us use it tonight. No one will look for me here. Everybody knows you can’t stand me.”

“Hate wouldn’t be too strong.”

His new young friend was holding my bartender in a chair so Nick could pop his nose back into place. I recognized him. He was still wearing the bright red board shorts.

“Good to have an old corpsman in your crew, huh?”  Nevin was trying to be chummy.

“Get the hell out of my bar,” I said to him, knowing with the intuition briefly granted to us all when a bad situation happens that my bold words weren’t going to have any effect.

Nevin’s other two buddies, the ones I knew, flanked my friends. Arms crossed in stereotypical bad guy posture.

Red Boardshorts let go of my bartender. “Let’s just go,” he said to Nevin. “We can hole up in my hotel room over in Navarre. No one’s gonna come that far to find you.”

“No,” Nevin said, “I want to stay close, so I can hear it go off. Feel the island shake.”

Explosives now? No more petty vandalism for him.

“What are you blowing up?” I asked.

“Those ugly towers going up near the National Seashore,” one of Nevin’s buddies said.

Red Boardshorts chimed in all peppy proud, “A blight on the beach!”

Nevin’s always been a charmer, and he has a good eye for the naïve. Red Boardshorts, whose name was Peter, had obviously showed some sort of minor concern for the environment or made some comment about how beautiful the beaches are here, and Nevin had jumped on the opportunity to fire up the poor fellow to a frenzy of environmental righteousness. He’d tried that with me the first time he came dragging in here.

A phone rang. Gary pulled it out of his pocket and told his wife he’d call her back. “Got a situation here,” he said. Then he shoved the phone back into his pocket.

“There’s no situation,” I said, rounding the bar and striding right up to Nevin. Too short to get in his face, tall bastard, but my palms made firm enough contact with his chest to knock him into a table. “Get out now, Nevin. Take your idiot crew with you.”

“We are staying here for the boom,” he said, shoving me hard enough to topple me into a bar stool. I sprawled on the floor, so my view of the gun as he pulled it from his waistband was much more dramatic than anyone else’s. I had that perspective you always get in the movies, slow motion from the gun wielder’s hip. Close up shot of the slow reveal, grip to sight.

He saw me see it, so didn’t take time to address its presence with me. Instead he tried the common ground approach. “I know you don’t want them going up either, so just do your part to save the beach.” He turned so my buddies and bartender could see it. “Put your phones on the pool table and sit on the floor.”

Joe barked.

No one else protested. We did what he said.

Nevin’s buddies got worried after an hour passed with no explosion. They had a quiet conference in a booth on the other side of the bar. I sat against the front of the pool table with my bartender. He had a few suggestions about how to take them out. Like he was in some damned action movie. Big dumb hero. I’m sure he had planned some sort of catchy one-liner to deliver as well.

I twice talked him out of tripping one of Nevin’s buddies, and laughed when he attempted to talk Peter of the Red Boardshorts down. Maybe I should have been more helpful since the guy had a gun. Hindsight often makes me feel like a blind asshole.

This bartender of mine always did a good job behind the bar. He kept the place clean, made decent drinks, and held me in check when I wanted to berate a tourist or a dumb chick too drunk to make good decisions. I’d never been quite nice to him. Always gave him the impression that I tolerated him. I think he knew I respected him because I didn’t fire him when he pushed me too far.

He pushed Peter too far, and the dumb kid started yelling at him. Kicking at his legs. We all laughed at his tantrum.

He shot my bartender.

He may have said something like, “Now who’s laughing.”  Or one of Nevin’s other stooges said this and Peter was the one who said, “No. No. Oh, no.”

The voices were vague. I knelt over my bartender. Gary scooted up to his other side.

Peter reached for Gary.

Joe jumped over Gary’s head in full growl. He clamped his jaws onto Peter’s gun arm and shook. Peter’s hand reflexed open and the gun fell into my bartender’s lap.

I grabbed and sighted on Peter. I could pull the trigger and maybe get lucky like Peter had and hit a vital organ, deflating it like he deflated my bartender’s heart. Nick said something to me though, and I did not squeeze the trigger.

Peter went down, Joe holding on now, no longer shaking, but silently maintaining enough pressure to keep Peter crying out in pain.

“Shit, man,” one of Nevin’s other two stooges said. “We gotta go now. Just leave him here.”

Nevin nodded, his gun already put away. “Sorry, D. I didn’t mean for it to go down like this. Alec was a—”

“Shut the fuck up,” I yelled, sighting the gun on him now. My hands shook, and I knew I couldn’t have hit him if I worked up the guts to pull the trigger. All my bravado was trapped in my head. I couldn’t get it out through my fingers or through my mouth. All I could funnel from my brain were obscenities strung together in nonsensical patterns.

Lyle took the gun from my hand and laid it on the ground behind him. He pointed his finger at Nevin. “You gave him the gun and the ideas.”

“Come on man,” the second of the remaining stooges said. “Let’s go.”

Peter whimpered, quietly not to arouse Joe to greater bite force. “Don’t leave me.”

We all heard tires sliding into the parking lot. Sirens approaching. Pounding on the door and female voices demanding the doors open.

“It’s your wife, Gary,” I said. “You know she doesn’t like you out this late.”

*

While the medics packed my bartender into a body bag and treated Peter’s dog bites, I had the selfish thought that now I would have to deal with the snowbirds and drunk chicks all alone.

I sat on the floor against the bar, stroking brave Joe’s warm fur, thinking about Alec. Good bartender. Good guy who put up with me, made my life in here easy enough that I could just get up and leave whenever the crowd got on my nerves. I’d never thought about how much I trusted him. I relied on him, took advantage even. He laughed at me and I took it. Hell, we were friends; I’d never taken notice.

What a bitch.

No one had spoken to me. The cop knew me well enough to save me for last.

When he finally got to me, I told him what happened, every detail sharp.

“You think you guys have Nevin this time?”

“He didn’t pull the trigger, D.”

“No, he worked the guy up though. Brought them all here, held us at gunpoint. He’s got explosives rigged up on that new condo. What the hell else do you need to get rid of him!”

I’d let go. And he let me. I ranted. I jumped up off the floor and smacked my palms flat on the bar a few times. Kicked over a couple of bar stools. Pointed at the body bag. Pointed at Nevin and his buddies piled up against the far wall, cuffed and complacent.

But Nevin had the nerve to smile.

“Can’t you just find a reason to shoot him? Aren’t you cops good at that kind of thing?”

I went too far. He escorted me, not too gently, out of the bar, put me in my truck, took the bar keys, and sent me home. “Gary can lock it up for you.”

“Let Joe loose on him. He’s got the chops for it.”

“Go home, D.”

*

The guys took over the bar for a few days so I could wallow in the grassy shallows behind my house and grumble at the emptiness of the lot next door. Mr. Scott and I could have sat out at the end of the dock and talked this out without actually talking about it. I’d mourned his gruesome death, weathered it alone, but it’s easier to mourn someone you cared for, you don’t have to feel that you aren’t allowed, that your grief is melodramatic self-indulgence.

My bartender, Alec, and I never socialized outside of the bar, never really inside either. He was one of those people that are part of your life outside of established or courted friendship, who you don’t think too much about until they are gone. Not gone like moved away, but dead gone. Didn’t know shit about him.

Just took advantage. Like I do when someone amuses me. Or deals with the shit I won’t. Or takes responsibility when I can’t. Or is generally a better person than me.

I sat on the small strip of beach behind my house and thought about what I didn’t want to think about. Thought about myself. Shifted over to the broader stretch of beach on Mr. Scott’s abandoned property and tried to do some communing with him spiritually.

Such bullshit.

All of it.

So I picked myself up off the sand, out of the hollow I’d dug with my ass, took Mr. Scott’s bike out of my garage and rode it off island.

pencilGina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida. She has published fiction in The Bare Root Review, Toasted Cheese, Flash Fiction Online and Foxing Quarterly. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 in StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: ginaasr[at]gmail.com

Food for Thought

Fiction
Michael Retzer


Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

More time awake is spent at work than outside it. A person gets to know their coworkers real well during the week, throughout the years. I’d worked at Don’s Pizza for six. Years. Yeah, it’s not a glamorous job—I’ve received enough patronizing looks from acquaintances when they learn a thirty-one-year-old is tossing dough—but time is money, and my rent is a nightmare, but whose isn’t?

So about three-and-a-half years ago, my boss, Don Fonzarelli, he hired a new girl onto the crew. Shannon Austen was a junior at Millington High School, my alma mater, which I’ll always remember had great views of the Pike River from its north side.

Don gave Shannon the interview at Table One: Don on one side of the table, Shannon on the other.

I was busy shaping a piece of dough to send through the mechanical roller and saw the whole thing.

Sexual desires work in the way of a computer that is programmed to recognize square shapes. Codes tell the computer that this surface meeting this surface at that angle in a particular array of intersections makes a square: the computer recognizes the square in a millisecond at most. Humans are a bit slower—requiring maybe an entire second—but the genetic codes of sexuality are programmed to do one thing: perceive their programming. It was midsummer—July—and Shannon Austen had shorts on during her interview. I think that’s all I need to say. But don’t worry. The acknowledgment never went any further than it did. For, unlike computers, humans have something called a Good Conscience.

By the time I had the pizza made, Shannon had the job.

It was up to me to show her the ropes of the business. Don sure as hell trusted me, and why shouldn’t he? I’d put in enough of my time, made enough money, and Don knew I was probably going to be around for a while longer yet—

Sorry—perhaps I’m bitter—forgive me, please—this isn’t about me.

Don, during that entire first week, he scheduled Shannon both when he knew I’d be on the clock and when business would likely be slow. This way Shannon could learn the ins and outs of the restaurant without wanting to close her head in the brick oven.

*

The bell above the door chimed as Don left the restaurant; I was alone with Shannon Austen for the first time.

“Don said you’re a junior?”

“Technically I’ll be a senior this year,” she said. “But the new school year hasn’t started yet—so yeah, I suppose I’m still a junior.”

I nodded. “I guess you are.”

“So you gonna show me the ropes, Elijah—or what?”

“Quite the talker,” I replied.

We’d been standing in the middle of the kitchen. I turned and moved towards the back then.

“My dad has always taught me to stand my ground,” Shannon said, following.

I turned and faced her at the sinks.

“As much as I respect that, you have no reason for that here. We’re sort of a family here at Don’s. You’ll meet Manuel and Berta, the other two long-timers, later in the week—just Don and I run the shop on Mondays—and you’ll meet the others, a lot of them closer to your age, when you’re scheduled for your first weekend shift. Weekends are busy, is all—why Don waits to schedule you on them, once he knows you’re up to par on how things work. Tips sure as hell are nice though.”

She nodded. Having put in six years at the place, I knew enough to know when one of the newbies from the high school was paying attention versus simply looking for a desired sum of money to later cop a quarter-ounce of weed with.

Shannon wanted to keep her job. She’d be around for a while.

“So here’s the sink,” I said. “We wash in this bin, sanitize in the middle one, and rinse in this one.” I moved right to left. “Dishes obviously go in the drying rack on the end.”

“Is someone assigned to do dishes?”

“Not officially,” I said. “Usually we just lend a helping hand when possible. On weekends when it gets busy we might unofficially assign someone as dishwasher for the night, usually the newbies… hey, don’t hate the player, hate the game,” I said.

She stopped rolling her eyes and grinned then.

“And over here is the prep table, where we prep non-pizza items on the menu: things like your cheesy bread and bread sticks and subs.

“Over here is the fridge and freezer, freezer on the right, fridge on the left. I’m not even going to try showing you where everything is in there because chances are you’ll still forget like I do, and I’ve been here for—well, I’ve put in my time.”

“And I take it this is where we make the pizzas,” Shannon said. She walked to the mechanical dough roller and ran a finger across the board, collecting flour, and wiped the flour on her leg. It was August on her first day—but all in Good Conscience, remember.

“That’s where we start making pizzas,” I said. “This,” I said, patting the long rectangular cutting board nearby, “is what we call The Line around here, and pizzas are made on The Line. See all your ingredients inside the plastic containers in the topping refrigerator up there above The Line?”

“Yeah. Reminds me of Subway when they make your sub. Green olives, green peppers, pepperonis, sausage—”

“You got the idea,” I said. “And so you move down The Line with your dough, that’s what that first machine you touched is for, and after the dough is perforated and cut to the proper size with those pre-sized stencils, you start with your sauce and then move down The Line and put on whatever the customer asked for. We keep a copy of the menu on the wall there—” I pointed to the wall space above the topping refrigerator. “—for when a customer orders a patented pizza, say like the Honcho: sausage, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon.”

She leaned forward, scrutinizing the menu.

“Problem?”

She shook her head. “I’m just still sort of confused—is there a certain order we put the toppings on?”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “And good question. That sheet of paper on the wall there next to the menu, with the pizza diagrams, they tell you the procedure. The alternating green and black dot patterns signify where to put your solid meats. I’m talking sausages and hamburgers, the meats that can be formed into solid balls. Sheet meats, such as your pepperoni and Canadian bacon, are placed on top of the solid meats, and if there aren’t any solid meats then just give the pizza a single layer of sheet meats. Things like your pineapple tidbits and green olives—loose toppings—you just want to sprinkle those evenly across the pizza. And the toppings go on in that order: solid meats, sheet meats, loose toppings. Cheese last, and then a sprinkle of Don’s special seasonings.”

“Can we make one?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Most people are a little intimidated by all the information right off the bat—you sure?”

She cocked an eyebrow back. “I’m working here now, aren’t I?”

“That you are.”

“Let’s do it then,” she said.

“We have to wait for an order to come—”

The phone rang. We made a pizza.

*

Shannon Austen’s first day went pretty well. Her first week went great, and after a month she was making pizzas a hell of a lot better than Manuel. Between you and me, there was a pragmatic reason we always had Manuel running the oven: he couldn’t make a pizza worth a damn but he sure could time them: not too crispy, but crispy enough. Although, I had Shannon run the oven one day, and she did it just as good as Manuel, and in only a month’s time—

You get where I’m going with this.

Shannon was a wonderful employee. Don sure as hell knew it, scheduling her more than the high schoolers that were technically higher on the restaurant totem pole. However, as much as Shannon Austen was a stupendous employee, she was perhaps an even better coworker.

Can you believe me?

Thirty-one and a seventeen-year-old was becoming my best acquaintance. After about seven months—Shannon well into her senior year of high school at that point—we started talking at work, see. Because by then Shannon knew the ropes well beyond enough as to be asking questions all the time, so when we worked the slow shifts together we talked, we got real.

I remember asking her once if she liked her classes. It was maybe ten after six on a Tuesday, and business was crawling. We were sharing an unpaid pizza at Table One, but Don was out of town at a convention for restaurant supplies so there was no chance we’d get caught.

*

I asked her which class she liked best.

“Probably psychology,” she said.

“Psychology, huh? What about it?”

“The possibility.”

“I don’t think I follow.” I took a bite of pizza, watching the cheese stretch as I pulled the slice away.

Shannon broke the strand with a finger.

“Thanks,” I said, my mouth full.

“Welcome. But it’s such a new science, psych is. And beyond popular belief—I’m talking pop psychology, the stuff everyone thinks they know when they ask ‘Why would you study psychology, what is it you don’t already know?’—but so beyond popular belief, psychologists have just cracked the surface. And once neuroscience gets more on board and directs some of its funding towards the psych field—” Shannon stopped, setting down her slice of pizza as to then pantomime for emphasis. “Once neuroscience gets on board, it’ll be like exploring. The Marianas Trench. For the first time.”

“Metaphor for the mind,” I said.

She picked up her Honcho slice. “Glad to know you followed.”

“Hey now, just because I work, well—” I looked around the restaurant. “—doesn’t mean I’m not at least halfway there in my head.”

I waited for Shannon to finish chewing.

“I was fucking with you,” she said.

“Well, before you do,” I replied. “Have you yourself ever considered college? Otherwise who is to say you won’t be here next year right along with Manuel and I?”

The strangest thing happened then.

Shannon seemed to crawl into herself. She’d been in the process of pulling another slice of pizza from the pie and stopped, flicking a precariously placed sausage off the damned thing instead. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Hey, Shannon, I was just horsing around. Don’t worry about it.”

She looked up from the pizza. “I’ve thought of Gustavus.”

“Private school, huh?”

She nodded.

“That’s great!”

She shook her head. “My dad could never afford it. And there’s no way what I’ll have made here by next fall will cover near anything enough. Plus, my dad sort of needs me… I could never leave him—you know?”

I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the table. “Hmm. Well I don’t know about your dad but my sister went to school,” I said. “Augsburg. My family didn’t have money either, we were actually pretty dirt-poor, but turned out that worked in our favor cause the government gave Danielle—that’s my sister—more money because of it.”

“Really?”

I nodded, taking another slice of Honcho pizza.

“Maybe I’ll look into it.”

“I think you should. You’re a smart girl.”

She smiled. It was a normal smile. But her eyes frightened me. Her eyes widened, see, as if that’d been the first time she’d ever heard anything like it—it being my compliment, I mean.

But what did I know? I only made pizzas.

*

It was January when we’d had that conversation over a Honcho pizza; Shannon still had plenty of time to apply to school. I never mentioned it again, figuring it wasn’t in my place to do so, and in the meantime all of us down at Don’s spent more time making money. Shannon became quite close with a few other employees during that time, Berta and Manuel especially: Manuel, because Shannon never gave him a hard time when busy circumstances required Manuel to make a shit-poor pizza, and Berta, because Berta, who’d never had kids herself, sort of saw herself as a mother figure to Shannon, I think, once we learned Shannon didn’t have a mother. Had not a clue where her mother was; she’d apparently run off with a guy from Hard Times Saloon last year. Shannon lived alone with her dad. Probably why she’d said her dad needed her.

She could never leave him—her dad—you know.

Her words, not mine.

And her dad had always taught her to stand her ground. Shannon never let us forget that one. It seemed to be the only time she ever mentioned her father—and time is funny, see, because there is a thing called hindsight and in hindsight, after the money has been made, a sense of clarity is purchased. You see things that weren’t clear the first time.

I guess time sort of changes in this regard.

But this is all speculative. I’m telling you all this looking back. I’ve paid my dues.

*

I think it was March.

“I applied to some schools,” Shannon said. It was just the two of us in the restaurant again. It was Thursday, and Manuel wouldn’t be punching onto the clock for another hour, when the pace of business would presumably start picking up.

“Yeah? That’s great, Shannon.”

We were in the back by the sinks. I was busy running a few daily prep-work dishes I’d dirtied earlier in the day through the wash-sanitize-rinse cycle. I’d washed a whisk and the large dual-handled cheese knife before I realized she’d gone silent. Grabbing a reasonably dry dishtowel, I turned away from the sink, patting my hands.

“All right, what’s got you down?”

“You know how you ordered a pizza on your day off last weekend?”

“That was a good taco pizza—you make it?”

“I used your address. I just want you to know.”

“My address for what?”

“My return address,” Shannon replied. “For the college applications.”

The nearby freezer hummed. One of the three faucets behind me dripped.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s fine, I guess.” I tossed the dishtowel back onto the sink. “Can I ask why?”

Shannon in a way resembled a provoked and frightened turtle after I asked the question, her body slinking into the protective shell the fabric of her sweatshirt provided.

The faucet dripped behind me.

“Just never mind all right—” I began.

“It’s my dad is all.”

“What about him?”

“I told you I could never leave him and I just wouldn’t want him to get worried before I even know.”

I thought of Shannon’s mother not being in the picture, imagined a lonely man weeping over his wife that’d run out on him, clinging to the spitting image of her that was his daughter, that was Shannon, holding on to what was already gone the best he could. “Right,” I said. “That’s fine then. Have your acceptance letters sent my way.”

“How do you know I’ll get accepted?”

I winked, and went to answer the phone that had started to ring.

*

I’d never been to college, remember: a few odd jobs after high school, and Don’s Pizza had been my place of my employment since I was twenty-five. Don’t know why I never went. Just didn’t feel it, I suppose. Also don’t know why I stayed at Don’s. Guess the money that’d got me by thus far brought with it a purchased sense of comforting stability. Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware of the length of time it took universities to respond to applications. Shannon told me she’d applied in March, and it was mid-April when the first acceptance letter showed up in my mailbox. It was maroon, and in bold-printed gold font said ‘Congratulations!’. It was from the University of Minnesota, not yet her first mention of Gustavus, but I was ecstatic nonetheless.

Of course I was. I’d worked with the girl for almost a year at that point. We knew each other as much as any coworker knows another coworker. Perhaps more. Probably a lot more. I can’t explain it. Because it wasn’t like we’d shared any heart-to-hearts: we just talked, chewed the fat, shot the shit. Perhaps I’m referencing the subterranean nuances of emotion that conversation conveys.

Yeah.

I think so.

So anyway I set the maroon-and-gold envelope on the felt passenger seat of my out-of-date Nissan Maxima and drove over there. In all this time we’d failed to exchange cell phone numbers, and I’d never had any reason to look it up from the sheet Don kept attached to the back of each month’s schedule. I didn’t want to wait to tell her the news, and neither should Shannon have to wait to hear it. Luckily, I knew she lived in the puke-green rambler on Ninth Street in the west side of town, from one of the many times we’d talked. The street had trees on either side. They were just barely—and only on some—beginning to bloom, it being mid-April, yet the slow cruise on the spring-moistened asphalt was serene indeed. Most of the houses were beige or an off-shade of white—some even various shades of maroon—but only one was puke-green. And why had I never seen it before? I’d driven through the area thousands of times during the thousands of dollars worth of time I’d spent working for Don’s Pizza, making deliveries.

Conscious perception sees what it wants to see, I guess—

—and wait until you see what I was about to see.

*

The car lurched into park. I was excited.

I rang the doorbell, twice.

The front door had rectangular windows flanking either side that were the same length as the door itself. Translucent curtains covered the interior side of the windows. After some time a silhouette peeked through, and stared. I waved. The door unlocked, opening slow. The silhouette had been Shannon. I had my hands clasped behind my back, concealing the envelope.

“Oh—hi,” she said. She looked behind her. The house was dark, the way a house gets dark during the middle of the day when all the curtains are drawn and the lights are off. She looked back to me. “Why are you here?”

I stood there smiling.

She looked behind her. Looked back at me. “Just cut to the point, Elijah?”

“Fair enough,” I said. And I couldn’t blame her. At thirty-one I still didn’t enjoy unexpected visitors on my days off—who does?

She looked behind her. I brought the envelope into view, holding it chest level. She looked back at me. Her eyes widened. At seventeen years old she carried herself as much older, had since the day I first saw her with Don during her interview, but in that moment she looked just her age, a girl on the brink of womanhood. Taking the envelope, she ripped it open as a child does on his or her birthday—as if she didn’t already know what was inside the thing marked ‘Congratulations!’

I bent down and picked up the scraps of paper while she skimmed the letter.

“I got in,” she said in a single short breath.

“Congratulations, Shannon. You deserve it more than anyone.”

She gave me a hug then, although I didn’t hug her back. Something in my conscience, and so I waited for her to let go. But this was when things got weird. Bizarre. Shannon wore a tank top and a pair of shorts. This made sense, it being mid-April. But I had a solid hunch that they weren’t her day clothes she’d chosen that morning. Because as she released me from her hug and began rereading the acceptance letter, I noticed the disheveled wrinkles in the clothing, the way clothes get after they’ve sat in the dirty clothes basket for a few days.

Remember:

At the time, everything I’m telling you was marinating in my subconscious.

Hindsight. But of course you know all about that by now.

The house was dark.

“I should get going, Shannon,” I said. “Have to work in—” I checked my watch. “Twenty-five minutes. Figure I might as well make a sandwich before I clock in. Just wanted to stop by and give you this.”

She looked up from the letter. “Thank you, Elijah. For everything.”

“I only brought you a letter.”

She bit her lower lip, stared up at me, her eyes misting over. The house was dark, and an atavistic psychic twitch… Get out of there, man!

But it was too late. If only I’d had more time.

I heard the footsteps before I saw Shannon’s old man step into the entryway from a room off to the right. He had slicked back gray hair, was shirtless, and wore brown corduroy trousers. He had a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand.

“And to whom do I owe the pleasure!”

Shannon tucked the envelope under the back of her shirt and took a few steps back, away from the door. “Dad, this is Elijah. I work with Elijah at Don’s.” Her voice had gone up a few octaves.

The old man watched his daughter while she talked. “Is that right?” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. He looked to me then. “Any friend of Shannon’s is a friend of mine—Bill,” he said.

At thirty-one I’d shaken my fair share of hands, and I fucking hated the way Bill’s claw felt. “Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Firm handshake!” Bill replied, staring at the connection between us.

He released his grip then and hoisted up the corduroy trousers. They had that same wrinkled look as Shannon’s clothes, that fresh-out-of-the-dirty-clothes-basket look. Bill and Shannon hadn’t been expecting company, remember, it being Shannon’s day off, a Sunday—

Unplanned clothes—clothes thrown on in haste—taken from the dirty clothes basket at a moment’s notice—

When Bill let go of his beltless pants the fabric dropped a bit too far. He didn’t have any underwear on. I saw the upper fringe of salt-and-pepper pubic hairs. Then, using the same hand he’d adjusted his pants with, the same hand I had just touched, he patted between Shannon’s shoulder blades. And patted. Patted. “I like that,” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. “Good to know someone with a firm handshake is around my daughter. I don’t want anything happening to her, not Shannon—she’s my girl!”

Bill shot me a grin, his teeth yellow. He bent over then, directing the smile at Shannon, and kissed her on her forehead. When he stood up, two things: one, Shannon had her eyes pinched shut, lips pursed tight, her entire face pulled into a grimace; and, two, Bill had lost the smile, his eyes glazed over as he ran his tongue from one side of his lower lip to the other. He guzzled the rest of the Pabst, crushed the can over his thigh, letting it clank to the floor, and ran both hands through his greasy gray hair.

Good Conscience? Not there, not in Bill.

Bill Austen was plastered; the alcohol had fried his computer.

He’d always taught Shannon to stand her ground—her words, not mine.

“I have to go,” I said. “See you at work tomorrow, Shannon.” I turned. “Bill,” I said, nodding.

And I left.

*

The next day.

“Don’s Pizza.” Don answered the phone. I was busy scraping bits of burnt pizza off of the brick inside the oven. “Uh huh, I see—okay then,” Don said. “Get better,” he said, and hung up. He went back to counting the money in the register, thumbing the bills with the efficiency of experience—

Swish-Swish-Swish

And then he stopped.

“Shannon’s sick,” he said. “You don’t mind working for two today, Elijah, do you?” He looked over his shoulder. “I can call Manuel if you want.”

I looked at the most recent of the burnt-pizza scraps I’d been working on. I stared at it, a charred glob of cheese with a crusted pepperoni sticking out. “I’m fine,” I told Don, and pushed the metal scraper across the brick, knocking the stuck debris free. “I’m fine,” I said.

*

Are you fine?

My Good Conscience wondered this. It especially wondered when Shannon succumbed to the elusive phantom illness again on her next shift, and was then ‘sick’ so much she stopped showing up entirely. Don, the ardent, meticulous businessman that he is, he got fed up, and was, to his dismay—he’d said—forced to fire her. There’d be none of that on his watch, not on his time. I could’ve looked up her cell number from the sheet attached to the back of the monthly schedule… but what would I have said? I have no clue… and besides, Berta called her, to give her a heads up, let her know Don was furious and that she’d better watch out, but Shannon hadn’t answered, Berta then resorting to a sorrowful and withdrawn voicemail. Shannon didn’t answer when Don fired her over voicemail either… was she ashamed to answer? Had Bill… did he know that I might know… but what was there to officially know?

For a week I asked myself this, and a week later I received an acceptance later from Gustavus in my mailbox. One from Augsburg three days later. The following week a University of Wisconsin acceptance letter. But I remembered the way Shannon had hid the letter I’d given to her behind her shirt. She’d used my address for a reason, because her father couldn’t live without her, and so the damned letters remained in my possession. They sat on my kitchen counter, in the corner, collecting dust. They said ‘Congratulations!’ whenever I grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Bill Austen drank beer…

Should I have done something? No, really, I’m asking you, because I lost enough sleep over the whole ordeal during the months that followed. But what would I have done? What was there for me to prove? I was going on hunches, after all, and at the time I was baking in the oven of an angry Good Conscience, where sensible thinking burns away. And anyway, had I said something, Shannon would’ve probably held her ground and denied whatever it was I had only ostensible proof of.

*

I don’t work at Don’s Pizza anymore. Don was sad to see me go, of course, and I felt bad—terrible—leaving. I volunteered to train the two new guys Don hired to replace me. As a parting gift, call it. Thing was I had to leave. There was no question about it. That day on the Austen’s front stoop changed me, as a man. Millington haunted me after that. And the nightmares were brutal: I’d awake in a cold sweat, stuck to the sheets, and in my mind’s eye Bill Austen would be staring at me, standing in the corner of my dark bedroom, drinking a Pabst with his free hand down the front of his pants. I don’t even want to guess how many post-nightmare drives I took, cruising by the Austen home, five miles per hour at three-thirty in the morning. Some nights I’d even get out of the car and trot to the front stoop, where I’d stand staring at the door for minutes at a time, the acceptance letters clenched in my sweaty hands, before my senses—whatever was left of them—returned.

Okay, so maybe I did run. But I got a nice place in the cities now, been working sales at an appliance store for a solid year. And although I waited around five months before I burned the letters on the banks of the Pike River the night before I got the hell out of Dodge—I believe I knew I was gone the second the phone rang. When it was just Don and I down at the shop. The day after Shannon received the University of Minnesota acceptance letter in my mailbox. After I met Shannon’s old man, and scraped much more than burnt cheese and pepperoni from the brick oven…

Oh yes.

But time changes in hindsight, and memory might as well be as malleable as dough while it moves through the mechanical roller of time—am I sane in my recollections?

As I finish writing this, on a day off from the ApplianceSmart over on Doswell Avenue in St. Paul, I sit in the grass of the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Mall. I am out of place, thirty-four years old, amongst thousands of passing students—waiting—wondering if I’m not wasting my time.

And I’m hungry, could really go for some pizza.

pencilMichael Retzer is a recent University of Minnesota graduate, working as a mortgage processor when he’s not reading or writing.  He enjoys drinking craft beer, and lives with his girlfriend and cat.  Currently, he is at work on a mystery/suspense novel. Email: retze012[at]umn.edu

The Piano Lesson

Fiction
Kathy Mansfield


Photo Credit: Damien Farrell/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Damien Farrell/Flickr (CC-by)

They fell out of the back of the pickup in a jolted heap of cast-off jeans and worn out trainers, clutching half-bottles of cane spirit and dirty cartons of Chibuku beer, mostly empty now, filling the air with forced laughter. One had a tinny radio and a couple of them moved to the insistent beat of a township jive, their thin limbs poking into the air in some sort of time to the complicated rhythms. Without looking at the white people directly, and for Tonderai it was easier not to look after that first glance, easier to lose himself in the small sweaty mob, none of them really listening to final instructions before the big man drove away in a spray of spitting gravel, but they all knew they were there, watching from the stoep of the neat bungalow.

Nobody wanted to be the first: the first to open the inoffensive garden gate, secured only with an ordinary latch, no razor wire, no security fence. He certainly didn’t want to be the first to force himself to saunter down the short drive and up the three wooden steps to face them; the first to push their way through the front door, deliberately light a cigarette and blow smoke into their faces, drop the fading but still hot match onto the precious carpet, and start what they had talked about on the way in the back of the truck: how they would do it, the job they had been brought here for.

Tonderai, the thinnest of them, the tallest, the one whose nickname on the streets was Stick Insect, found himself first down the drive, the pack close behind, gulping down the last of the alcohol. There were two madams and in front of them, trying to be the one to face them first, an old baas—scared to death and trying not to show it—a bald head, stocky, tough looking, still some fight left him in. There were no guns.

The others were crowding round his back now—come on—just get in—what are you waiting for—ignore the old people—get past them—just get in—

He could see the women did not understand the language, but the baas did. ‘What do you want? What are you looking for? There is no land here—it’s just this garden.’

What’s he saying?—do not listen to him—the old snake—get in there—just get in.

They suddenly exploded behind him and all five of them burst across the narrow stoep and crashed into the cottage sitting room, jostling about among the old furniture, caught in the light of the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows, the distant purple of the Nyanga mountains looking like a poster Tonderai had seen once in a travel agent shop in Harare. He’d never dreamed he would one day find himself in this place, where the big people come for their holidays and yet here he was, pressed against the view while the others crowded about and sorted themselves out. They remembered their plans and lit their cigarettes, and dropped their matches and blew their smoke.

The white people followed them inside, the two women both held a hand up to their chests, clutching at their hearts; he had seen his mother stand like that with his grandmother at home, waiting to be told of another calamity about to fall around them, like the day the headmaster had sent home all the children whose school fees were unpaid. After some pushing and shoving and throwing cushions on the polished floor, the others sprawled in unaccustomed armchairs, two of them spread-legged on an ancient sofa, letting ash fall, tossing their empty cartons on the floor, not quite sure what next, leaving it to him to tell them what the boss had told them to say.

‘You have to get out of this place, baas.’

‘What do you mean? Who are you?’

‘We are here on the business of Comrade Mutasa. He is the one that sent us.’

‘But what do you mean? He was here last week and we heard he was to take the property at the end of the road. Nobody mentioned this one.’

Tonderai knew nothing of the ins and outs of the Comrade’s decisions, just that this property was now on his list and his boys were here to make sure the baas and his family left. They had twenty-four hours to pack and leave.

It wasn’t as bad as he expected: the man turned to his women and explained in English and only one of them burst out crying. He could see they were sisters, same grey eyes and pointed noses, he’d grown up seeing women like them on the streets of Harare, stepping into the fancy shops on First Street—Barbours, Greatermans—never a hesitation. The one who didn’t cry, the wife, remained steady, a homely face, like his mother in a way, her eyes gazing wide at him without a flicker, her hand still on her heart. The husband did not remain calm.

‘What the hell’s the matter with you people? Haven’t you taken enough from us already? We’ve nothing left. Where do you think we can go?’

‘Bill, that’s enough. These boys can’t do anything about it. Get the suitcases. The packing cases are out in the garage.’

He had been told this couple had been chased away from their fruit farm two years ago, and were used to it, so Tonderai wasn’t surprised they would just get ready and go. The boss man had said they were old, that five of them would be enough to scare them off; there would not be any fight in them. The others shifted themselves up and out of the comfortable furniture now the talking was over and it was all settled, and set off prowling round the room, shouting at each other to look at this crazy picture of white men in red suits on horses, or that pot thing in the shape of a fat man’s face with ears for handles. The Shona rang out, clattering among the teak shelves and beloved mementos—more fragile now than they had been for generations. They moved through the kitchen, banging down a pan or two as they passed, thought about smashing cups and plates from the counter top, but couldn’t bring themselves to follow through—the waste.

They marauded through to the bedroom part of the house, peering in at a small bathroom, too luxurious with its hot and cold taps and white rolls of toilet paper stacked high on a shelf. One of the boys seemed unable to help himself and strode in, turning on both taps, taking the round pink soap that matched the towels, holding it in his palms under the hot water, feeling the silky heat of it through the suds. He turned and threw the soap into the bath where it fell with a loud skittering bang, marched out to join the others, leaving the water to pour, bountiful and wasted, into the sink. Tonderai wanted to tell him to turn off the tap.

They were crowding into a bedroom now, staring round at the heavy wardrobes and a double bed, neat under candlewick with a matching cushion on the pillows. A cross over the bed, crucifix paintings on more than one wall—Jesus dead in despair—photographs in frames on bedsides. The wife turned round from her dresser, watching them jostle round her room, and said to Tonderai, ‘Please get those two suitcases from the top of that wardrobe,’ and she pointed to them behind him.

His long, skinny arms easily lifted them down, dropping them noisily at her feet as the gang exploded with whistles and taunts and repetitions—please get the suitcases—please get the suitcases—please—please—the suitcases. Shouting the words to each other, falling away pushing each other, laughing away down the corridor, still pumped up by the alcohol.

Then they found the television and collapsed in front of a football match—Sunday afternoon, there was always a football match. The white people went about their business: books were collected from shelves, ornaments and Jesus pictures disappeared into tissue paper and boxes, curtains were unhooked as the afternoon slid away and the boys slumbered in drink.

Tonderai felt a hand on his shoulder, soft, shaking him. He snapped awake and to his feet, glaring at her. ‘Are you hungry?’ His mother’s face. ‘We’ve cooked sadza for you and your friends.’

He kicked their ankles and told them—the Madam has cooked food for us. They woke and strolled outside into the garden, pissing away the alcohol, and then remembered the bathroom and the pink soap and hot water, but she had a tin bowl and a jug to pour over their hands, in their own way of washing before they sat at the table, the plates they had not smashed in front of them and she and her sister served the sadza and plenty of good goat stew. They were as ravenous as they always were, but ate neatly with their washed hands and didn’t speak until there was none left, and then there were big tin mugs of sweet Tanganda tea. Full, they stood and thanked her, clapping hands as the men do, polite now, and trying not to be ashamed.

‘Where is the baas?’ he asked.

‘He is still packing.’

The others went out into the twilight, sitting on the floor of the stoep, backs against the house wall, smoking, picking teeth, and murmuring now and then, as if they were interested, about the football scores for Dynamos this season. But mostly they were quiet. Tonderai went back into the sitting room, couldn’t sit down but moved between the pieces of furniture round the room, touching, feeling solidity with his fingers.

‘How will you take this furniture, Madam?’

‘We have a friend with a truck. The baas called him. He will help us. He’s done it before.’ She moved round him to empty a small bookcase. ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ Standing there, holding some photographs in their frames to her chest.

‘We have nothing to do, Madam. I am in Harare doing nothing every day. There is no work for us.’

‘But why this?’

He shrugged, ‘We were at the market. Those two youngest boys—they were selling airtime, and that other tall one he is my friend Julius, him and me were making a plan to get vegetables from Mbare market and sell to the white ladies in Avondale. But our problem was we had no money. That other one, with the dark complexion, I do not know him. He was just there when the boss came to us.’

The pickup had stopped and they were called over, offered beer and cane spirit and thirty dollars each, US dollars, given instructions by somebody it was better not to ask questions of and driven the three hours there and then, out of Harare, here to the Highlands, and off-loaded at her gate. ‘I finished Form Five Madam, and still I have nothing for my mother.’

‘You did your ‘O’ levels?’

‘Yes Madam. I got my English and Shona and Maths.’

‘You should get a job with qualifications like that.’

‘There is no work, Madam. The factories are closing everywhere.’

His nervy wanderings took him to the piano in the corner: high polish, beloved, tuned and much used. His hands moved onto the white and black keys, the way he’d seen keyboard players do it in dance halls, but when he did it now, jarring them down, the noise was ugly and meaningless.

‘Here, let me show you.’ She sat down, moved her hands and something beautiful floated out into the quiet room. ‘Sit here.’ She patted the stool and moved to make space for him at her side and he could smell the pink soap of her as he sat. She showed him how to hold his long-fingered hands to crouch over the notes, their thighs touching through the fabric of her skirt and his threadbare jeans.

She explained there were only seven notes, repeated over and over along the long length of the keys, and let him press them and hear the octaves change. She showed him how to find middle C, and called it The Cat and showed him the patterns of the black and white notes and they found all the Cats on the keyboard, always the same distance of eight notes apart. After C, next to it came note D—The Dog, with its two black notes looking like dog ears, close together, then The Elephant, E, always next to The Dog. After that The Frog and then The Giraffe, and Ant and finally The Bear. Then the animals all started again: C< D< E< F< G < A< B always in the same order, living in the notes and working with each other, not so mysterious as a piano had always seemed. He pressed the notes and repeated their names, easy to remember the animals in a line following each other.

‘What is your name?’

‘My name is Tonderai Chiyangwa, Madam.’ He wouldn’t dream of asking hers.

‘Watch carefully now, Tonderai.’ Her skillful fingers spread wide across the animals and she sang the Happy Birthday song, with his name, very quietly. ‘You try.’

He couldn’t get it at first, fingers not obeying, animals not in the right order.

‘Relax. Try again.’ She took hold of his hands with their dirty fingernails and laid them gently where they should be to start off, finding the D and the A notes. ’Like this.’ And this time it sounded like it, the tune he heard sometimes dropping out of cafes in Harare when the waiters gathered round with a sparkler firework on a cake, singing to some happy customer surrounded by a celebrating family.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Tonderai jumped up as if the piano stool had suddenly caught fire, backing away from the white baas, advancing across the room. ‘What in hell’s name are you doing, Clara?’

The shouting brought everybody piling into the room, crowding towards Tonderai, not sure what was happening.

Clara looked down at her hands, resting on the keys, ‘I was giving Tonderai a piano lesson.’ The baas snatched up a last photo, a large one in a silver frame from the top of the piano.

‘That’s Robbie’s piano! For Christ’s sake how can you do that?’

Everybody waited for her, looked at her sitting alone in the corner of the room on the piano stool, her hands still spread over the keys, hearing her breathing almost.

‘It’s exactly for His sake. He has His reasons for everything served on us. Look at him—they would be the same age.’

‘What’s got into you, Clara? A street boy… a… a terrorist, forcing us out of our home. How can you mention our Robbie in the same breath?’

‘Give me the photo, Bill.’ She held out her hand, swiveling round to face her husband and take it from him.

‘See.’ She held it out to Tonderai—a photo of a tall young man, face almost hidden under a crash helmet, straggling legs astride his motor bike, careless, laughing at his mother’s anxiety before setting out to ride his bike on the country’s potholed roads.

That night the boys bedded down together on the rugs in the sitting room, wrapped in the family’s blankets. They heard the Madam playing hymns on the piano each time one of them rolled over; Tonderai shushed any of them who complained and they listened to the music softly there, playing the familiar church tunes they had grown up with, hearing her small voice singing praises to her God. The next morning she and the sister fed them soft porridge with as much sugar as each wanted and as they were getting themselves up from the table she asked them, ’Will you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour?’ They all looked at each other without speaking and Tonderai knew what would happen. Each one of them agreed. Yes, madam, they would. They fell to their knees on the hard stone floor and closed their eyes as she stood over them and blessed them, her silent sister by her side.

Tonderai asked her, ‘If I see you in Harare, Madam, will you know me? After this?’

Then they carried out the instructions of the white baas to pack the vehicles with the boxes and furniture and suitcases exactly the way he wanted. The piano was the last item to be lifted and fixed securely with ropes and cardboard. And when the family left they sat in the shade on the steps smoking the last of their cigarettes, waiting for the Comrade to come from Harare to take them back to the streets they had come from.

pencilKathy Mansfield is a Brit, living in the UK now, who has spent her professional life working mostly in African countries. She writes about ordinary people living in sometimes extraordinary circumstances in these countries, though not about stereotypical ‘African’ tragedies: famine, war, destitution—plenty of people write about these issues. She writes about the other Africa: a complex, energetic, and optimistic continent of fifty-four very different countries. Her current project is a collection of short stories set in the context of Zimbabwe. “The Piano Teacher” tries to explore some of the human interactions and complexities that lie behind the headlines. Email: kathymh18[at]gmail.com

His Country

Fiction
David E. Grubb


Photo Credit: Eddie Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Eddie Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Dad’s call came too late at night and out of sync from our normal pattern of chatting on the phone. His stout voice echoed through the static, but feebleness edged between his words. This particular conversation had played out in my head many times and my heart sank before we spoke any words. A calendar on my kitchen wall marked the date—October 15, 2007—another bumpy milestone on the highway running through my life.

“David,” he grumbled, “it’s time to put my plan into motion. How soon can you be here?”

I had an odd sensation his words were spoken to me in 1970, the year of my birth. Somehow those words had taken over three decades to reach my ears, but were right on time.

“A day, maybe less.”

“You’ll come alone?”

“Yeah, I’ll leave ‘em here until…” I glanced down the hallway at the three bedroom doors of my home standing closed for the night.

“Till they have to come.” The weakness in his voice overtook the strength, ice in the fissures of rocks breaking them apart.

“Yeah.”

“If I could find a way…”

“You’d do it on your own.”

“My old body—I need your help.” Up until then, he’d admitted being unable to do something on two or three occasions, at most.

“I know, I’ll be there soon.”

“All right, see you then.”

“Yeah, I’m guessing late tomorrow.”

I placed the phone back in its cradle. Refrigerator hum and muffled voices from the TV in our master bedroom penetrated the sudden disquiet. I slumped further down in the heavy wooden chair. Shit, Dad expected me to uphold my disturbing promise. I’d hoped that he’d forgotten about our little pact. No such luck, although not surprising since Dad’s mind was sharper than my own would ever be.

Dad’s lifelong journey neared completion while mine continued the stages of midlife construction, the way things should be, I suppose. The same can be said for powerful oaths made in good faith amongst men. I’d pledged the promise to him a few short years ago while we sat around the fire at elk camp.

“I don’t want a fucking funeral.” His words came out of nowhere, we’d been talking about the Rockies and their chances of winning the World Series.

An uneasy scoff burst from me. “Who the hell said anything about a funeral?”

“No coffin, no graveyard—none of that shit, you hear me?”

“Dad, what’re you talking about?” I tipped the ratty, foldout camp chair back a little further.

“That’s not how I wanna be laid to rest.” He used a gnarled, crooked finger to point in my direction across the blazing fire.

“Where’s all this coming from?”

“Your Mother thinks we’re going to be placed right next to one another in the town’s graveyard.”

“And you want something else?”

“I sure as hell don’t want a damn preacher talking over my corpse in a pine box while yins mope and caterwaul, let alone have my useless bones taking up valuable land.”

“I see.” Three empty bottles clanked against one another when I kicked the clump of mountain grass near me. “Well, what do you want?”

“To be cremated and y’all spread my ashes wherever seems most fitting.”

“Where? Fossil Ridge?” I shook my head in disbelief.

“I doubt any of you could find your way in or out of there without me.”

A long, frigid day in the fields with no sign of game had already soured me. “True, but this is between you and Mom.”

“Why in the hell does she have any say in my demise?”

“I dunno, but I’m pretty sure that’s how those things work.” I wished another beer would materialize in my hand.

“You’re right, but does that mean it’s right?” He got up and put two more logs into the crackling flames, which surprised me. We’d already agreed to let the fire go out.

“Can we talk about something else?”

“No. Conversations like this get put off until it’s too fucking late.” His lip curled and he glared at me in an accusing manner.

“Fine. What I’m supposed to do about any of this?”

“Help me hike into Fossil Ridge when the time comes.” He headed off into the darkness. The ice chest, next to the old army officer’s tent used for base camp opened and closed.

“What do you mean, when the times comes? Nobody knows…”

“Oh, I ain’t so sure about that shit. ‘Sides, if I go on my own terms a year or two earlier than slated, well, that’d be damn fine by me.” He thrust another dripping wet bottle of ice-chilled beer into my hand and then eased himself back down into his chair.

“Dad, I can’t do what you’re asking.”

“I’m asking you to help me get back in to my old hunting area when the time is right. I’ll take care of the rest.” He moved his hands as if spreading or flattening the air beneath them.

“This is too much.”

“Yes or no? I’d ask your brother, but he’s gotten too damned soft.”

“You’re fucking serious.” I pried the cap off of the sweat-glistened bottle using one end of his hand-me-down hunting knife.

“I won’t ask again. Yes, or no?”

“You know I’ll do whatever you want.” I took a quick drink and slipped the bottle into the chair’s cup holder so I could hold out my open hands, a show of good faith.

“Yes, but will you do this for me?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“No hemming and hawing. I want a decisive answer.” His eyes squinted at me harder than they’d done in years, like the couple of times I’d gotten arrested while growing up.

“Fine. The answer is yes.” Christ, did I talk my way out of getting the belt?

“Thank you.”

*

Twelve hours after his phone call, air-bound to my birthplace, I sat next to an older woman whose perfume made me sneeze half the flight. She tried to gab my ear off and any other time I’d have met her word for word. Instead, I gave monosyllabic responses and halfhearted smiles until she turned to the window and dozed off. A large man had plopped down in the aisle seat, took over the armrest and began snoring before the safety video started to play. The rest of my flight was lost to the aggravation of my last-minute purchase of airfare—a dreaded middle seat—and the insurmountable turmoil in my head.

The tight confines of a compact rental car made my three-hour drive from the Denver Airport an extension of utter discomfort after the long, cramped flight. When the browned, grassy flats of South Park vanished from the mirrors my delight to be in more rugged country soared as best it could.

The mountains outside the car’s windows rose up out of sight. Aspen yellows and evergreen firs blurred past while more peaks further off in the distance beckoned. A dreamy town called Bailey rushed into view and I gunned the car into a gas station. The short pit stop became necessary because I needed to stretch and get some coffee. I filled the car up with gas even though the fuel saver’s gauge read three-quarters of a tank. The unbelievable Rocky Mountain air, before winter sets in, tasted savory and the home-cooked meal I’d soon feast upon popped into my mind. The combination made me salivate, but I’d have to make do with crappy donuts until I got home.

I stood at the gas pump stretching my legs and back, disdain for those new buildings and strip mall areas increasing with every whirring chatter of the pump. The unmistakable taint of Jefferson County’s overgrowth continued to expand and overtake the landscape with every passing second. It’d been eating away at nature for decades and this time the urban sprawl was more palpable than ever before. Cityscape would absorb the small town of Bailey in the next decade, if not sooner. When would my father’s plan envelope every bit of me? By nightfall, in the morning, or long after the deed was done?

I slid back into the small, awful-smelling rental car and pushed its limits on the aggressive inclines. As the engine whined I sipped hot coffee and ate large bites of mediocre cake donuts. Making rapid progress towards my parents’ home became more imperative and cleanliness of the car a whimsical idea.

*

The cabin-style log house, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, abounded with familiarity, but I’d lost intimacy with my former home many years ago. The same old pictures hung upon the walls, but newer ones were placed among them with similar care. Faces and people I’d never met stared back at me with matched uncertainty about the stranger gazing at them through the glass.

Mom’s eyes glinted with delight as I wrapped my arms around her and hugged as hard as I could without hurting her. I pulled away and the hint of questioning clouded into her gleeful look. The old boy’s explanation of my impromptu visit must’ve been good, but imperfect.

We spoke of our fictitious late-season fishing trip to Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir as if the outing was real. I wished he’d have let me in on that part before I arrived. Even so, Mom nodded and smiled while we talked about the fish we’d catch or the weather that might deter our fun. If she suspected anything was amiss, then she did a fantastic job of keeping any concern to herself.

During previous visits I’d scarf down Mom’s chicken and dumplings with blue ribbon apple pie, a ravenous teenager. This time I pushed the food around my plate and tried to make it look as if I’d devoured most of my meal. The flavors were off, much like the house, but a queasiness that had developed during our phone call was the real reason for my dismal appetite. Whenever I glanced at Dad’s face my stomach tightened up even more. His features were withered, more than I’d expected—more than I wanted.

His enthralling spirit, which always seemed beyond our time and place, had diminished. How was that possible? The mighty cosmos and time had managed to catch up to my father. Another impossibility of my youthful brain was shattered.

His once-ageless face and acquired old-man posture indicated any attempt at dissuasion would be pointless. The well-known stubbornness would remain unchallenged. Lying to my mom almost became the deal breaker.

The urge to let her in on our secret simmered and nearly boiled over many times while we ate the bountiful dinner at their centuries-old dining table. Disappointment had something to do with keeping quiet, but the small tip of the iceberg had greater mass below the water’s surface. Respect for his wish and upholding the lies for reasons unknown had a breaking point, but not quite then.

The nicks and dings in the walnut surface of the table top became my distraction whenever the need to avoid their questioning looks arose. Stories behind some of those imperfections in the aged surface mystified me like the foreign pictures on the walls. Smiles from what caused many of the known marks remained suppressed, unlike my sullen disposition.

*

As we began finishing the preparations for our trip and its aftermath, I could tell he’d done the best he could, but there was a lot left to do. In a few days, the list of tasks he’d given to me in secrecy after the scrumptious homecoming supper neared completion. He often tried to help me with all the tasks and errands, but he’d become out of breath and too fatigued.

He’d sit and watch me work, his all-knowing eyes pressing down on the invisible weights strapped across my shoulders. He struggled to hold in the corrective words I wanted to hear with a desperation I had yet to experience. His methods weren’t any better or worse than how I did things, they just happened to be his ways.

My mother remained oblivious about our activities and his plan because she wanted nothing to do with any of it. A normal pattern with her and my father. This time I left blame out of the equation. How could I fault her? If I could’ve ignored what we were up to and turned my back upon the whole ordeal, I’d have done it. I grumbled to myself, chastising my brother for not keeping himself in better shape. Would Dad have asked his first born for this favor if it’d been an option?

Hearing his gruff, muted call of my name through the bedroom door on the morning we left wracked my nerves and threw me further off balance. Twenty minutes after his knock and call I wrenched myself out of the sweat-drenched covers. If I’d stayed in bed any longer, he’d have been back to roust me again and my desire for a repeat of my childhood flashback was low.

Our early morning start, with sunrise a few hours away, was typical for him. A brisk, gloomy, late-fall sky held itself above us like winter had moved in overnight. We’d be gone well before my mother would be up, and I thanked her ability to sleep in. Mom’s presence busying herself in the kitchen would’ve made me fall apart quicker than a first-season elk blind.

The standard bowl of hot oatmeal and frozen blueberries went down as if I’d eaten wet cement. More than half the berries were unwilling to defrost in the grey goop, as if to set the somber mood in deeper. Some last-minute preparations whittled away the morning, but we were off right when first light began its soft glow along the mountain ridges.

An hour into the drive, we turned off of the main roads and away from civilization. We headed towards the infamous Fossil Ridge Wilderness area. That self-explanatory name was a magical, mystical place because of his fantastic hunting stories involving the area. Once again the ridge became our destination, yet remained a land regaled of untold wonders.

Fossil Ridge, nicknamed the breadbasket, because Dad killed an elk every year for decades to help augment our food supplies and for sport. An incredible feat to say the least, and unnecessary, because there’re easier places to hunt elk in cool, colorful Colorado. The strenuous half-day hike to get into his area humbled the fittest of people. God’s country, in many people’s eyes, but my father will forever own the deed to that hallowed place.

His new, four-wheel-drive truck gave an occasional protest as we drove over the craggy rocks and washouts of the old mining road, but crawled along with ease. The maroon Ford F-150 was the one new “car” purchase he’d ever made in his entire life. Back then the strange buy made little sense to anyone in our family. At this particular moment, the reason for his impulsive shopping spree became clear. His older, junky truck would have fallen apart on that damned road.

The horrible journey down the often indistinctive road took an eternity to complete. Every other time we’d made the trip, I grumbled about the bumpy ride and rough conditions. This time I did my best to savor everything about the drive. I doubted if anyone knew where the road ended, including him. When I stopped his fancy new pickup truck, the distinctive features of the road had vanished miles behind us. He gave no indication if I’d parked in the right place. All I got was a quick nod to say: “good driving, kid.”

I’d put a few nonessential items in my father’s backpack and not much else. The hike in would be extra murderous, because I’d have to help him most of the way. A cumbersome heavy pack on his old frame would make the trek worse. He hefted both packs while we geared up to leave the truck and I flushed with shame.

Before I could explain why his pack held next to nothing, he winked at me with his most familiar gesture of jest. He set the heavier pack on the ground at my feet and slung the lighter one onto his shoulders. His old body pivoted away from me and he began trudging up the trail whistling “Sweet Caroline.” The redness of shame burned into place and his wink became another picture-perfect snapshot in my cerebral photo album.

In a matter of minutes, I caught up to his lead and we clambered up an indistinguishable part of the game trail as if a pack of wolves were gnashing at our heels. An eerie feeling overcame me because of my novice mountaineering and orienteering skills. Could I find my way out of there?

He struggled as we made our way to the area I’d hunted once in my life, but had been to six or seven times on other occasions. He fended me off with angry recoils every time I tried to help him navigate rough terrain. I gave up. Dad led and I followed, like we’d done for so many years in my youth. The ten-year-old boy trailed his formidable father once more.

The hard day of hiking warbled along like an old out-of-tune player piano lilting out Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces. We moved toward Fossil Ridge with as methodic, deliberate, and determined a pace as we could maintain. Even so, our movement was half as fast as those mistuned melodies at best.

By late afternoon we arrived at the campsite, exhausted and almost too spent to set up camp. Fossil Ridge spread out before us like a green, yellowy-blue cornucopia of rugged, mountainous splendor. We’d made the arduous journey with an hour to spare from my bleak guesstimate when we started out from his truck. We arrived ahead of schedule because of his unwavering willpower and I shouldn’t have doubted him for a moment.

With a great deal of effort, we had camp set up right before nightfall. The edgy night of the mountains moved in on us, and the wintry chill became more noticeable as the sunlight faded away. Soon, the campfire glowed with red-orange coals and we were left with little to do but sit as close to the heat as possible.

We sipped on the beers I’d brought along and stared at the coals in silence under the same trance. Dad and I had been at that point hundreds of times before and always found ourselves talking without restraint for hours. This time the words remained unspoken and locked up inside of us. Maybe there was nothing left to be said.

Two loud, crackling pops of the fire brought forth a handful of flying cinders that landed a few feet outside of the rock circle I’d built in a matter of minutes. The embers were too far away to catch anything on fire. We remained sitting, staring… silent. Those rebellious embers turned from red glowing chunks to dark black invisible masses and blended into the murky night. This fade-to-black performance seemed to take hours, but in reality, less than a few minutes—and then he disrupted the quiet.

“You’ve been the best son a father could ever hope to have. I’m so proud of my son the military man and all of his accomplishments, including your beautiful family.” His voice was weak from our exhaustive exertions, but so strong with conviction my eyes darted over to him. The tingle of his heartfelt adulation coursed over every inch of my body like I’d just hit my first homerun in Little League baseball, again.

“I’m not sure what to say other than I love you, too.” The words sprang out strong and unwavering. The choked sadness pushing them forth somehow remained under control.

“I’ll be unable to repay you for what you’ve done.”

“I can say the same thing for everything you’ve done for me.”

“I guess—we’re even then.” He broke the long stare between us and turned to look out into the blackness.

“So it seems.” I studied the side of his face for quite some time before I turned my gaze somewhere else, anywhere else.

“I’ll be waiting for you right here or at least a place like it.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“Take your time my son… take your time.” His voice had lowered; like he was talking to me from out in the inked darkness. This chilled away the fading warmth his adulating words and looks had given me.

“I will dad, I will.”

As though he could sense that a cold chill, independent of the frosty night air, had gripped me, his warm, ice-blue eyes fell upon me again. His gaze gleamed with glowing adoration. I’d always tried to match his illustrious look while gazing upon my own sons and daughters. I hoped my brown, non-inherited eyes came close and his ancestry knew where that remarkable look of a proud father came from. This time I broke the connection that held us together for the last time of the evening. I stared at the dying fire wishing we’d just lit it and were thirty years younger.

Soon I stole glances at him, hoping he might turn to look at me and say the outing was just another glorious camping trip or a big hoax. I became aware that glaring at him would go unnoticed. He was staring out through the dark world around us to something else. I had a hunch he was reliving his bygone years. At that moment it became clear my desperate hope of returning to the house together was all for naught.

My father had come home to his Fossil Ridge.

“It’s going to snow.” I nodded my head up to the sky made blacker from the smattering of clouds fractured apart that were coming together. I’d packed for cold weather but not snow and grew worried about our warmth.

“Flurries, but I’d be shocked to see anything more than a dusting in the morning.” He adjusted his head to become more comfortable in the sleeping bag, but his eyes remained closed. The menacing sky was an unnecessary tool for him to make his assured prediction.

“It’s cold—even freezing.”

“Yes. It’s cold enough, that’s for certain. Good night, son.”

“Good night, dad.”

Cold enough for what? I stirred the grey-black ashes of our fire one more time. No red embers came back to life. I retired for the night and huddled deep in my sleeping bag. The stars were steady pinpricks of light as they came in and out of view from the amassing clouds. I wanted to absorb the starlight to warm the frigid darkness inside the pit of my stomach.

On the drive, he’d directed me to head home when the time came. He said to come back and visit him every so often, whenever I wanted to say hello or needed a shoulder to cry on. Staying at camp for a second night was the start of breaking promises, but I had my reasons. The blustery day went by in such a slow panorama of nature waking up, eking out life, and going back to sleep, I almost went crazy.

The night took even longer to move itself along the lines of time. Dad would’ve seen my fire, even if he was six ridges away, and came back to check on me. I sat there in the darkness trying to keep from freezing to death. Another frosty night and lack of heat source forced me into my sleeping bag long before the stars were lit up in full glory. I gazed up at the twinkling lights and darkening sky with a colder, blacker feeling in my guts than the previous night. My eyes tried to fix upon anything other than Orion, but failed. After a while I wished the great hunger would go the fuck away and leave me alone.

In the morning I made a fire to kill some of the time that was dragging by, as if I could save it to use later. When the sun reached the noon apex, I headed out of camp to find him. The cold, angry ground was still in my achy muscles and chilled bones as I walked due west.

He’d kept that part of our conspiracy to himself, but I had a good idea of where to search. In a little under two hours I found my father’s body, after becoming turned around more than once. During one of those wayward times, finding him became the least of my worries and priorities. Using every back country orienteering trick he taught me, I located him without getting myself lost in the immense wilderness of Fossil Ridge.

He’d traveled to the exact spot of his first elk kill. As inspiration for my own hunting prowess, he’d shown me his inaugural place a few times throughout my life. I bet myself he hiked up there in the pitch-black hours before first light in forty-five minutes or less. Even if I could’ve walked straight there, the feat would’ve taken me well over an hour in such conditions.

When I found him, he was cold, dead, and stiff. His majestic, ageless look was back in place on his face and looked like it could never be taken away from him again. I sat down beside my father’s body and put my back against the same twisted old pine tree he had selected to be most fitting for his last day of life.

I surmised he’d used the tree for the back of his throne as he ruled over his magical mountain kingdom. I sighed and finished the thought. For one last beautiful day, full of life, before the view became an eternity of vapid animation in death.

I’d once heard that the elders in some Native American tribes often did what he’d done. They’d go to the spiritual world by getting up one fine morning before everyone else and leave without saying a word. With quiet rectitude they’d go off to unburden the tribe of their dead weight. They’d find a magnificent or meaningful spot and sit down to wait for the spiritual world to take them back into its warm, loving embrace.

I sat by his side contemplating this and remembered I’d first heard this from him. I was a teenage boy when he spoke of this ancient practice, and I’d thought little about the concept throughout my life until that day. My father was a Native American at heart in a couple of ways, but he lacked any ties to those cultures. Even so, the way he had chosen to enter his spiritual world and eternal plane fitted the man he’d been without question.

For a long time, we sat next to one another as if we were on a riverbank fishing or sipping coffee on his deck, while a lazy Sunday morning warmed itself into a hot Colorado day. I floundered, flailed and stumbled while I tried to touch the connection between my father and his country. I came as close to grasping the link as anyone in this world ever could, but I also came up way short.

It was like trying to grab ahold of a particle beam running between two nebular worlds with frozen mittens on my cold, sluggish hands. The thought saddened me further but also made me glad. Could I have handled the charged volts I would’ve received had I been successful?

I broke even further from his plan. I carried my father’s body out of his final hunting grounds and everlasting kingdom. We owed it to my mother and the rest of our family. Many things dawned on me while I hauled his withered, timeworn body, which was now unmoving, rigid, and lifeless out of there. Fossil Ridge would always be his, and I couldn’t name or think of any place like it for me.

When I became an old man ready to enter my eternal romping place, Dad would welcome me into his kingdom, but following his lead seemed wrong. Where would I go when it became time for me to unburden the tribe as I slipped away from them in a hushed departure before dawn? The thoughts harangued me as I made our way back to his truck, using painstaking care to get us there in one piece while avoiding any more detours. I’d laid his body on the back seat when the answer came to me like a visage from my father who now existed on the other side.

He guided me one more time, or at least that’s what I tend to believe. I’d find my fantastic sanctuary in the netherworlds I would encounter when my own expiration date became the final milestone upon my rocky road. My Fossil Ridge would be found through the windows of my loving family’s eyes as I said goodbye to them from my deathbed at a ripe old age. That’s the way I pictured it in the daydream that helped hold my mind together as we drove back home.

While I stood over him at his funeral, which he’d voiced heated objection to every time the idea came up in conversation, I vowed to finish the promise. The tears that had started falling from my eyes when I first found him on his rocky outcropping in the vast wilderness of his country streamed anew from my eyes. The waterworks came with more fury and vengeance as I made the slight modification to our pledge. I whispered the renewal of my oath to him.

“Don’t worry, Dad; I’ll get you back home. It’ll be tricky, but I’ll spread your ashes right where I found you before the first good tracking snows fall. Mom deserves to think she’ll rest in peace with you forever. Hunt well, great Elk Slayer… hunt well and try to save a few for me.”

pencilDavid Grubb is a retired Chief Warrant Officer after twenty-two years of dedicated service from one of America’s Armed Forces. He’s been a creative writer his entire life yet never focused on it because of career and family. He’s changing that part of his life one day at a time and loving every minute of it. He also immensely enjoys being a stay-at-home dad. Email: grubbde[at]gmail.com

Rendez-Vous

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?!

The screechiness in my mother’s voice rose to such a painful pitch, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sure enough, she launched into a full-on tirade, her words audible to the people waiting across the room.

“You had one job to do today, Olivia. They knew you were picking him up at 11:30, didn’t they? Where is he?” she demanded even louder this time. The others in the lobby exchanged pitying looks and glanced away quickly when I caught them. All I could do was shrug apologetically and turn back to my phone and my panicked mother. Her irritating jab at my failure to do my ‘one job’ today aside, I vowed to keep my head, no matter what she said.

“Mom, they knew I was picking him up. The nurse said he was waiting in the lobby earlier, but he now he’s not here,” I replied as calmly as I could. “And that’s all I know so far.” There was a split-second pause on the line—all the warning I needed to hold the phone away again.

“Did they even bother to look for him? He could have fallen or something. Where did he go?” she shrieked. “Never mind, I’m almost at the hall… I’ll have to stall everyone. Just… find out where your grandfather disappeared to on his 95th birthday!” She hung up.

I was severely tempted to throw my phone in frustration. Any other day, I would have laughed at how Grandpa was pushing my mother’s buttons in that perfect way only he knows how. But not today. Exasperated, I leaned against the antique lamppost and let out a long sigh.

A cloud shifted outside and the sun suddenly poured into lobby’s tall front windows. It reflected blindingly off something on the floor directly into my eyes. I blinked and noticed a pair of glasses sitting next to the lamppost. As I picked them up, I realized with a start the glasses belonged to Grandpa.

The lobby was empty, except for the nurse at the desk. As I approached her, she glanced up nervously. I felt bad for her. The staff here at Grandpa’s seniors’ condo does a great job and he’s never complained about anything, except the Early Bird Special, which he insists he’s still too young for. But my mom always finds something to criticize and the poor nurses continuously take the brunt of it.

“I’m so sorry—I really don’t know what else to say,” the nurse began anxiously. Her nametag read Carmen. “He was right there and then I had to take a phone call. When I turned back, he was gone… he has a remarkable amount of energy for someone his age—”

“It’s not your fault,” I soothed, and showed her the glasses. “Aren’t these my grandfather’s? They were on the floor, by the lamppost.”

She shrugged and offered to take the glasses back to his room.

“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it. Maybe I’ll find him hiding in there too,” I said casually, but I was starting to get worried as I made my way quickly down the hall to his room.

“Grandpa? It’s Olivia,” I called as I knocked. No answer. As I stepped inside, I breathed in the familiar scents of Old Spice aftershave and strong coffee. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in his room. Had it always been this small?

“I only plan to be in here to shit, shower, shave and sleep. And maybe read.”

I remembered him saying that when we moved him in four years ago, after Granny died. He was adamant he was only moving for the social aspect, because “my health is perfectly fine, goddamnit!”  I eyed the shiny golf clubs in their leather bag near the door and grinned. In his nineties and still plays 18 holes twice a week, all summer.

I ran a hand along the smooth, polished mahogany of his beloved dresser—the one he built for Granny as a wedding gift and insisted he bring here with him. It was full of photos and mementos of their life together: their children and grandchildren, Grandpa’s military days, their many travels across Canada and Scotland, their prized garden. Their beautiful black-and-white framed wedding photo was front and center.

A can of brown shoe polish and a freshly-used rag sat to the right of the photo. Three blue patterned neckties lay discarded on the armchair along with a white dress shirt and a grey jacket. It looked like Grandpa had decided to wear something else today. I glanced quickly in his closet and noted his best blue suit was gone.

Something felt off as I turned towards the bed in the corner of the room. I saw his glasses case on the bedside table and as I bent to put them away, I let out a gasp when my name suddenly leapt out at me, in Grandpa’s meticulous handwriting on a folded piece of paper.

My dear Olivia,

I know the family has some grand plans for my birthday and that you are responsible for getting me there. Forgive me, but there’s somewhere else I need to be today. Please don’t worry, but since I know you will, you’re welcome to join me—if you can find me…

I left my glasses by the lamppost because I knew you’d return them here. But if you remember our scavenger hunts from when you were little, you know there’s more to it than that. You are my cleverest girl. I know you can solve the puzzle. When you do, we’ll have lots to celebrate.

Love,

Grandpa

I stared at the note for a long time, willing it to spill the secret. I know you can solve the puzzle… it was so like him to make this a game. I reread it a few times, each time feeling a different emotion—relief, confusion, and finally, a small twinge of excitement. But then the impossibility of the task settled in. How was I supposed to find him?

“You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” A singsongy voice suddenly called to me, making me jump. A tiny woman was peering into the room, smiling at me from behind enormous glasses.

“Yes, I’m here to take Frank out for his birthday today,” I replied, taking her extended hand and giving the warm, withered palm a gentle squeeze.

“He suspected there might be something like that today,” she murmured. “But looks like he has other ideas…” She nodded towards the note.

“Have you seen Frank today? Do you know where he is?” I asked, but she shook her head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?” she asked airily, clearly enjoying herself and in on the game. “Please wish Frank a happy birthday—if you see him!” She winked and shuffled slowly down the hall.

…you know there’s more to it than that…

My mind raced as I glanced around the room and my eyes landed on the small record player beside the armchair. He might have an iPad and a smartphone, but Grandpa still prefers his music from a record player. I flipped through the stack of records just to be doing something.

Each album was a testament to Grandpa’s wide variety in musical taste: from the fedora-clad Frank Sinatra, the haunting Ella Fitzgerald, to Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

Hanging from a lamppost…

Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?

Singin’ in the Rain had always been Grandpa’s favorite film. Could that be something?

I held my breath as I turned the record over in my hands and shook it, waiting for some kind of revelation. But only a wad of crinkled candy wrappers tumbled out.

“Oh, come on!” I burst out and flung the record onto the bed. Then I spied his umbrella stand next to the bedside table and on a whim, pulled out the umbrellas. More crumpled candy wrappers fell out, along with some whole pieces of candy. I recognized them as the same candy he and Granny used to have in a little crystal bowl in the foyer of their house.

I scooped one up and indulged a moment as I untwisted the ends and popped the boiled sweet into my mouth. A sweet and creamy mix of strawberry and vanilla flavours greeted me. I twirled the candy around in my mouth and remembered the glee of sneaking handfuls into my pockets every time I visited Granny and Grandpa.

But so what? The initial sweetness of the candy memory was fading away and I was still no closer to figuring out where Grandpa had gone. I gave the candy two hard crunches, swallowed the bits and gathered up the wrappers. I was about to pull out my phone and concede defeat to my mother when I noticed it peeking out from behind one of the picture frames.

The same little crystal candy bowl from their house.

It made the same tinkling sound it used to when I lifted the lid, and I wasn’t surprised to find it full of candies. But there was something else buried under the sweets at the bottom of the dish.

I pulled out something I never thought I’d find in a candy dish: a two-inch long, brass rifle shell.

I held it gingerly, away from myself like it was a grenade and felt my heart quicken. I really had no idea where Grandpa was going with this clue, or if this even was a clue. I thought back to the stories he’d shared with me about his WWII experiences. I couldn’t remember all the details but as far as I knew, he had spent some time in the UK before heading to France, where he’d been wounded.

I put the shell gently down on the dresser and gazed at the photographs. Grandpa’s smile looked the same in every photo—delighted, charming, and comical. What was he doing keeping a rifle shell in his candy dish? I searched for the photo of that man among all the Christmas and family gathering snapshots.

The closest I found was the black-and-white photo of him in his uniform, a young man at barely eighteen, his arms around his stoic parents, his smile still the same. How many times had that photo been pointed out to me? And how many times did I actually look at it?

I picked it up for a closer look and felt something tucked in behind the frame. I carefully pulled it out and saw it was a yellowed ticket stub from the old cinema downtown. What I saw when I turned it over almost made me drop the picture frame.

Scrawled on the back of the faded ticket, in Grandpa’s perfect handwriting in ink that was over 50 years old but just as clear as though it had just dried on the page—Rendez-vous May 21, 2016.

Today’s date.

Lamppost, glasses, candy, rifle shell, movie ticket, today—I had all the pieces but how did they fit? Only one person could help me with the puzzle. I bolted out of the room and didn’t stop until I’d parked my car outside the historic Bijou Cinema downtown.

But it hadn’t been a cinema in years; it was now a French bistro and confectionery.

At a small table in the corner, dressed in his best blue suit, his greying hair carefully slicked and combed and his brown shoes gleaming, sat Grandpa. His same delighted, comical, charming smile spread widely across his face as he saw me and he stood up and extended his hand. I had never seen him look so happy and all my questions and confusion evaporated on the spot.

“My dear Olivia! I knew you could do it!” He had tears in his eyes as he gave my hand a hard kiss and a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to someone very important.” He gestured to the woman opposite him, who I didn’t notice until now. She was maybe ten years younger than him, impeccably dressed in a lovely floral dress with a pink silk scarf tied chicly around her neck. She stood up timidly, took my hands and planted a soft kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Annette, je vous présente ma petite fille, Olivia,” Grandpa said, in near-perfect French. When and how did he learn to speak French?

“Olivia, this is Annette Vallois. She and her family saved my life back in 1943, when I was wounded in France.”

“Enchantez, Olivia,” Annette said softly.

The room was spinning and I felt the blur of tears running down my face. I looked at my grandfather and back at his friend. I realized, because of this woman, my grandfather is alive and my whole life exists. She smiled and gestured to the empty chair. I sat down heavily and both Grandpa and Annette waited calmly for me to respond.

“Annette, it’s so nice to meet you too,” was all I could say.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad, and exploring photography and visual storytelling with the photo blog Bridges and Benches. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Bus Stop

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine


Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I was greeted with smiles, jeers and whistles as I walked through the large room full of desks. All city precincts are alike—attitude and clowning. Nothing is holy. It has to be, or you go insane. And if you’re not one of the gang, then you are shown respect, but given little. I’m not on the force anymore, but I’m still one of the gang, and they definitely respect me, though an outsider wouldn’t know by the clowning.

“Hey Jewell, we’ll push our desks together if you’ll strip!”

“Sorry, I’m going down to the firehouse later and dance for them… they have a pole!”

Laughing grumbles followed this as I went into the Captain’s office.

“What’s up, Bud?” I asked, noting he was getting closer to the Lou Grant look everyday.

“Thanks for coming, Jewell.” He indicated a seat. The ancient air conditioner in his ancient office buzzed fitfully.

“What is it this time, Bud? Need me to sneak into another board meeting, church social, or political rally?” Now that I was off the force, I was extremely useful to them. I knew what to look for, and, as a private detective, police rules did not govern my conduct.

“Nah. I got a case bothering me. I’m about to mark it closed, but… my hand won’t put it in the file cabinet.”

“Hmm. A mind of its own. Just what kind of things does your hand get up to, now that Janet’s left?”

He turned red. “The same as before she left and none of your concern.”

“Okay,” I smiled. “Before you call me a cruel bitch again, what’s the case about?”

“Looks like a mugging that caused a heart attack. Found this fat, middle-aged accountant lying on the sidewalk, tits-up, just past the bus stop where the overpass drops from Old Town Heights across the six-lane. Guy had a really bad heart condition. He rode the bus everyday and his apartment was ground floor, half block from the stop. He was tasered from behind. His wallet was missing. He had abrasions on his hands and forehead so we know he initially fell forward. His glasses were found about five light poles down the overpass from the bus stop… and that’s it.”

“How did they get down there?”

“The glasses? Dunno, maybe some kids kicked them down the street.”

“And…?”

“And that’s it. Looks like he took a short walk, got mugged, had a heart attack, and died at the hospital.”

“Sounds solid. So, what’s the problem?”

“He was a very important suspect in an organized crime case.”

“Why wasn’t he in witness protection somewhere else?”

“He was. We’re the somewhere else. Case is from the West Coast. We now know that he compromised himself in several ways.”

“How?”

“Calls to his wife. His brother. Who knows who else he may have called. I think the safe house was the most exciting thing to ever happen to him.”

“Well, he was an accountant. ”

He agreed with a shrug.

“You think it was a hit?”

“My brain tells me it’s cut and dried, Jewell. My… hunch tells me different.

“Well, Bud, anyone who knows you would take your hunch over the meager offerings of you brain any day.”

He game me a tired look. “You’re never going to forgive me for firing you, are you?”

“Would you?”

“No. Now will you take a look at this goddamn case? Please?”

“I’d do anything for you, Bud.”

“God, how I wish that were true, Jewell.”

“You have four heart bypasses. Best it’s only a tease.”

“I don’t know. Death might be worth it,” he grinned.

“Oh, I guarantee it would be worth it, Bud. I guarantee it.”

He shook his head, handed me the case file, and left red-faced but chuckling. I sat at his desk and read. It did look cut and dried. Except for one thing. The glasses were found five blocks away, out on the overpass. In the picture, the gold-framed glasses lay folded, lenses up next to a rusty, cast iron light pole, looking put aside with care. Neither muggers, nor the dying man would have done this.

“Um, Jewell?

I looked up to see Debussy—Conan O’Brien in a blue uniform.

“Yeah, Gregg?”

“Bud said I was to assist you,” he stated softly.

“Gregg, the paramedic’s report said he was laying next to a light pole near the bus stop. But his glasses were five light poles away from the bus stop. How did they get there?”

The cop that wrote it up had only what the paramedics told him. The veteran bus driver knew the man by his picture, like he knew everyone in the city by their picture, he said. He had no recollection one way or the other of the man getting on or off that day.

I had Debussy drive me to the paramedic squad house. He was too quiet.

“What is it Debussy?”

To his credit, he was forthright about it. “They fired you. Even though everyone says you’re the best detective they ever met.”

I didn’t respond.

“You saved that little girl…”

“I did.”

“And they fired you… Why did you strip?”

“To gain the suspect’s confidence, Gregg. It was the only way. Her life was on the line.”

“But you lost your job for stripping.”

“There are things more important than a job, or a uniform, Gregg.”

He didn’t respond.

“Gregg, if the job is more important than justice, you will never make a great detective. You will automatically stop seeing clues that would lead you down a bad career path. You become permanently mediocre. If you’re good, though, you end up betting your job against solving every difficult case. You might not have a long career, but there are other things waiting.”

“Like being a private detective,” he queried.

“Or a stripper. Think you’d look good in one of those Chippendales G-strings?”

He had a Harrison Ford self-deprecating grin. “Not really.”

Neither paramedic could recall exactly where on the overpass they found the man. They also claimed they had not seen the glasses. I was getting pissed.

The quiet one leaned to his partner and whispered in his ear.

“Oh!” The talker looked me up and down with a slow smile building.

Debussy moved his hand to his gun. His look said: “She’s one of ours! One of ours! And if you don’t want an angry six-foot-four cop pistol-whipping you into a tearful puddle, you’ll be respectful.” The paramedic’s smarmy smile leached away.

“We…” He kept looking from me to where Debussy’s fingers petted the grips of his pistol. “We found him laying by the light pole on the overpass, just down from the bus stop.”

“Which light pole?”

“Don’t know. I was kinda busy.”

The quiet one shrugged.

“You found him on his back, though?”

“Yeah.”

“Which one of you hit him with the defibrillator paddles?”

“I did,” said the quiet one.

“And what were you doing?”

“What? Getting him…” he glanced at Debussy and calmed his voice. “…ready.”

“Go through it.”

“What?’

“Are you deaf?” asked Debussy, dangerously.

“Okay, okay. After I cut his tie off, I pulled his jacket open and then…” He hesitated.

“What?” I demanded.

“Damn! I took his glasses…”

“Stop.” I pointed to the floor. “Show me.”

With a glance at Gregg, he knelt down, tugging at his partner to come down and play the dying accountant. “I opened his jacket. I saw his glasses in his shirt pocket. I grabbed them and…” He hesitated, then twisted around and lay them down. “…laid them next to the light pole.”

“Like this?” I asked, showing him the picture.

“Yes! That’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Driving back I said, “So, Gregg, you never come to see me down at the strip club like some of the others.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Most of the guys won’t. They think you’re beautiful, but… the police basically forced you to become a stripper.”

“That’s not true. I became a stripper on my own.”

“I’m still not coming to see you.”

“Why?”

“I like you just like this. I want…”

“What, Gregg?”

“I want to become a detective and, you know, bring justice to the world. I hate injustice. Hate it!”

“Then look for the odd things in the cases you are on. Little things that most people overlook. Like these glasses.”

“But what does that tell us?”

“In Bud’s file it says he was found south of the bus stop next to the light pole. This proves the man was found five light poles south of the bus stop.”

“What does that tell us?” Bud asked, when we got to the station.

“It tells us he didn’t get off the bus at the bus stop,” said Gregg.

“Very good.”

“But… you haven’t proven anything.” said Bud. “He gets off at the bus stop and takes a little constitutional out across the overpass. Someone mugs him. His tie gets grabbed in the struggle. A second operator shoots him in the back with the Taser. He goes down, face forward; they grab his wallet and run. The paramedics try too revive him but it’s too late,” finished Bud.

I indicated Debussy should explain where he was wrong.

“Well… it was way too far for a man in his health to walk in that heat on purpose—it was ninety-eight. And it’s downhill so he would have had a real hard time getting back uphill.”

“He would not have done it,” I stated. “Never.”

“So… he must have gotten off the bus where we found his glasses,” Gregg finished.

“Right.” I beamed.

“But what does… why would the bus let him off there?”

Debussy was out of ideas now.

“To kill him out of sight, Bud,” I said.

“What?”

“He was tasered in the back, right?”

“Right.”

“Have the Medical Examiner check the body to see if the Taser shot was angled downward.”

“Down?”

“From the top step of the bus,” piped up Gregg excitedly.

“Very good. I’ll be back in the morning for the answer.”

“He was tasered from above.” said Debussy. “The toothpicks the ME stuck in the Taser wounds were at an angle.”

“The bus would have been full of people,” said Bud.

“They could’ve used another bus,” Gregg countered.

“How the hell would they have gotten away with that?”

“The driver controls the sign,” I said. “After getting him on the bus the driver could have changed the sign so that no one at other stops saw it as their bus. He tells the passengers that did get on that he is having trouble with the bus and everyone who isn’t getting off at the overpass stop, needs to get off at the next stop.

“And the real bus would be coming along behind, so no one would have a complaint.”

“Very good, Gregg. You’ve got my replacement coming up here, Bud.”

Bud looked the beanpole up and down regretfully. He had a love/hate relationship with detectives.

“You can see how it goes,” I said. “The bus passes the bus stop and he yells, getting pissed off. The driver stops five light poles out onto the overpass. The driver tells him that he either gets off there, or goes all the way around again. This makes him even angrier. He steps onto the sidewalk and gets a Taser in the back. The huge bus blocks the view of anyone close. The driver steps off, grabs his wallet, flips him over, and flees the scene. The whole thing takes less than thirty seconds because he has practiced.”

“His wallet was in his back pocket. Why turn him over?”

I looked at Gregg and he grinned.

“To tighten his tie.”

“Exactly.”

“Sorry, that doesn’t wash. We’ve looked into the driver. Nothing odd or bad. All the drivers have been accounted for, on and off duty. You’ve got nothing.”

“If I were you Bud, and I am so glad I’m not…”

“Thanks, Jewell.”

“I’d— no. You do it, Gregg.”

He looked panicked.

“Calm down. What’s the dilemma? Take your time. How do you solve that dilemma?”

“Uhm… all the drivers have been accounted for… so…” He looked down, then up quickly, “But not all the people who can drive the bus!”

I smiled. “Excellent.”

“What?” asked Bud. “Who else?”

“The head bus mechanic. He knows how to operate it as well as any driver, and could cover by saying he was test-driving it.”

I clapped and his face turned as red as his hair. Bud personally escorted Gregg down to arrest the head mechanic. He’d been given twenty-five thousand to pull the caper off and had almost gotten away with it.

After we met in Bud’s office, I offered Debussy lunch and he accepted.

“You like these kinds of cases, don’t you?” Gregg asked at lunch.

“Like dogs love tennis balls.”

“I understand why you stripped now. It was for justice.”

“Right. I would have died for that little girl. I almost did die for her, and I would do it all again, gunshot wounds, coma and all. What was a little nude dancing against her life?” I started tearing up. “I see her occasionally. She’s becoming a niece of sorts.”

He handed me his kerchief and I sniffed into it while he smiled at me.

“What?”

“It’s passion that drives you.”

“Sure… Oh, I see. You’ve been taught to keep passion out of it. Sometimes passionate righteousness is all you’ve got to go on, Gregg.”

“Thanks for the lessons, Jewell. I’m gonna make you proud.”

pencilEmail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

First in Time, First in Right

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meredith Bateman


Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First in time.

Davis Nichols woke to the branch he needed to trim scratching his window, just as the sun brought grey to the horizon. He got himself coffee. Took a quick shower, he’d done well with Violet, his daughter. She’d seen all this conservation stuff coming a mile away. It was sensible and so was she.

He fed the chickens, watered the corn he would later feed the chickens. She’d talked him out of pesticides, antibiotics. He missed her, but as much as she could hold her own on the rugged edges of tiny towns, she belonged in the city. She was going to make the world a better place. She was a voice for the silent men like Davis.

It was normal to miss Violet though, just part of the day. It had been lonely since she’d gone. The most memorable thing to happen so far was the branch; he kept his place in good repair. He would take care of it after he checked the mail. His post office box was in town.

Davis checked it every other day with Otis, his bloodhound, the most- and least-friendly dog in the world, depending on if he knew you. The new postal supervisor wouldn’t let Otis in the office anymore, even just the box section, so Davis went when he wasn’t working.

Otis followed him, sat right at his side as he opened the box. Lay at Davis’s feet as he dumped any junk directly into recycling. Violet had told him there was a way to get them to stop sending it completely, but it had involved filling out an online form and he’d told her he’d need her help with it next time she came on back home and she laughed and agreed.

The day the branch woke Davis up got unusual when he pulled out his mail and there was the sound of unwrapped metal, something small, as it fell from the stack of papers. He reached in and pulled out Abigail Clark’s broach. It had been her mother’s. Davis didn’t have much of a mind for jewelry; Abigail had stepped in and helped Violet accessorize for dances and the like after Charlotte died.

There was a photo of the broach on his mantle. He’d spent a frantic hour looking for it after it had fallen out of Violet’s purse as she’d told him over and over again how irreplaceable it was. When they had told Abigail she had laughed, but she never lent anything of her mother’s to Violet again.

Davis went into the main office, Otis at his side. Sam began to shake his head no.

“Sam, I found this with my mail. It’s Abigail Clark’s.”

Otis growled. The supervisor had come in early. He had been crossing behind Sam and stopped to stare Davis and his dog down.

“Got to get out of here with that animal.”

“I’m getting out of here. I just wanted to know how this got in my box, with no postage or wrapping.”

Otis growled.

The supervisor reached for the broach. He sneered.

Davis held it back.

Otis snapped.

“I know who it belongs to.”

Davis left. The supervisor was yelling at his back, saying things about come back, impossibility, and police. Davis had known Joel Harris, the sheriff, since grade school, he would have been happy to surrender the broach to Joel. He was Abigail’s neighbor.

As they walked back to the truck Otis was riled up, bristling and jumping like a dog half his age. Davis looked down at the dog and said, “I don’t like him either. It’s okay.”

That was when he saw the glasses. Joel’s glasses sitting at the base of the lamppost. Joel had been legally blind since anyone had thought to ask him how well he saw. With them he saw everything, he was a hell of a sheriff, but he never went anywhere without them. He picked them up. It was unsettling, carrying things that meant so much to his neighbors.

He drove to Joel’s and Abigail’s. There was nobody at either home. It made sense that Joel would be at the station. It made sense that Abigail would be tending her peas and raspberries. They wove in the wind, in a lonely dance.

Davis and Abigail were friends, that was all, but he ached to see her in her garden. He wanted to see Violet beside her, ribbons in her hair. They would all be laughing. The girls outright, Davis something silent at the edge of his lips.

He circled their houses, looking in windows. When he found nothing there was nothing to do but leave.

He stopped at the sheriff’s office. It was unlocked and empty. With a force of four and crime amounting to those speeding through on their cars and an occasional occupant in the drunk tank, teens and Sam Chambers, one thing or the other wasn’t that unusual. But unlocked and empty was strange.

Davis stood, hat in hand. Otis circled him. There was work waiting for him back home. It could wait, but for what, for Davis to stand in an empty station with his hat in his hands. He circled it around.

Allen, the deputy walked in from out back.

“Davis, how can I help you?”

“Have you heard from Joel today?”

“Sure thing, called in sick. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“I was just by his house. He wasn’t there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe he was sleeping.”

“Maybe.”

Allen reached to pet Otis. The hound didn’t growl, but he circled behind Davis, slow, unthreatened, and away from Allen’s hand.

“I found his glasses.”

“At his house? Did you go inside?”

“Wouldn’t go in a man’s house without invite. They were under the lamppost outside the post office.”

“That’s awful strange.”

Davis stood, Joel’s glasses in his hand. Allen stood back.

“I can take them and give them back to Joel when he comes back. Maybe he got a new pair.”

“Maybe so. Still, it’s strange where I found them.”

“It is.” Allen took the glasses and put them on the desk. “Folks should be careful when things are strange like that.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Davis left the station, got back in his truck, stared at the sky. For the life of him he couldn’t think of why he hadn’t mentioned Abigail’s broach. There was a storm at the horizon. He could tell by looking it would roll through fierce and quick.

He needed to cut his branch. Nothing in his past served as a frame to make a plan for this. He started up the truck and headed home. Otis lay down on the seat next to him. Davis wished he would stick his head out the window like normal.

The hound held the storm in his bones.

At home Davis put the broach on the counter. He went out back and got his hand saw. Headed to the tree. The branch was dangling at a strange angle. It hadn’t grown to reach his house without Davis noticing. He prided himself on noticing all about his farm before even needing to. That was how to keep it going.

On the branch was Ben Goodwin’s medic alert bracelet. Davis’s mouth went dry. It tingled and his knees matched the branch’s strange angles. Everything within him was as foreign as the farm he gave his life to. He pulled the bracelet of the branch. He got the feeling Ben wasn’t home either. Wondered if his friend still had use for the bracelet.

He sawed away anyway. It was something he could do, had been in times lean and fat. His face was wet with tears and though there was no one around he hoped the storm would come. Folks were dropping and if Davis could be all the things he was always supposed to be he might be able to see the world Violet was making.

He turned around and wasn’t surprised to find he wasn’t alone. He was surprised to see Otis sitting at the feet of the visitors. They’d met before. He sat right between the two of them, eating a steak. A dog is a dog.

First in right.

“Davis Nichols, father of Violet, widow of Charlotte,” he looked at his palm and turned something around it. “Lifelong resident of Eagle, Colorado.”

“Just outside of Eagle,” the other one said. He looked at a finger.

The first speaker tossed the broach. “Abigail let Violet borrow this once, right? I thought I saw that in one of the pictures.”

“Did you see the ring he bought for Charlotte?”

The man extended his ring finger. Charlotte’s ring was at the very top of his finger, he held it out to his friend to look at.

“I like it. It’s simple.”

The storm cracked above. Even Otis looked up from his bone.

“Let’s go inside,” the man with the ring moved it down to pull his coat aside revealing a pistol. This hadn’t been necessary and the other man didn’t bother. There was no one for miles and a gunshot would just blend in with the thunder.

Davis had a rifle, but he didn’t carry it around with him to cut branches. He brought his saw with him inside. He should have gone straight for his rifle as soon as he got home.

As soon as they were inside the man with the ring put it on the counter. The other set the broach next to it.

“No matter what I wouldn’t keep it,” the ring man said. Though Davis would want Violet to have it, somehow that made it worse. They sat down.

“Do you know what this is about?” the broach.

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that idea?” said the ring.

“Are they all right? Abigail, Joel, and Ben?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” the ring man said.

“Joel didn’t have senior rights.”

“Joel was a decent sheriff,” said the ring man.

“Allen, now he’s more reasonable. Anything that happened to Joel, not that I’m saying anything happened to Joel, didn’t have to happen to him,” the broach said.

“Joel was decent.” The ring.

“You’re right, they did have to happen to him.” The broach.

“What did you do to him?”

“See, Davis, you never have to find out.” The broach.

“Where do you keep the rights?” the ring asked.

“I have a daughter…” Davis said.

“Violet. She’ll probably let you stay with her. We’re paying and taking the water rights, or you’re paying and we’re taking them anyway. You won’t actually have to leave even,” the ring said.

“We’re not pretending you can keep farming.”

“No one’s saying that.”

“What do you think is going to happen? If you let the ground go fallow? If this land is allowed to dry?”

“Our interests are far enough away that we have no interest in the dust,” the ring said.

“It will reach you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’re reaching you now,” the ring said.

“All you want is for me to sign over my rights.”

Davis looked out at what had always been his whole life.

“Don’t think too long,” the broach said.

“Not much to think about,” the ring.

“This place is my whole life,” Davis.

“This place and Violet.”

“I raised her right. Abigail helped.” Davis’s eyes stuck to the horizon. “She knows how to do.”

“Think, Davis.” The ring put a picture of Violet on the counter in front of Davis. “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you know what you’re giving up?”

“I’m not giving it up. You have to take it.”

“Think again, Davis. All you have to do is sign the papers,” the broach said.

“For killers you don’t seem to want to kill.”

“Never set out to kill, just work for people who want their water,” the ring.

“It’s my water.”

“It was your water.” The broach. “They pay well. They pay well enough that men who never set out to kill would do anything. They’ll pay you well, then we don’t have to do those things.”

“Davis, did you think again?” The ring.

Davis answered by lunging at them with the saw. He had never done anything like that before. It wasn’t that he expected to get away from such a confrontation with his life.

The ring grabbed his left wrist, the broach his right. The broach squeezed and he dropped the saw. It dented the floor. Davis couldn’t help but notice that it needed cleaning just then and he smiled, and the rain started outside, but they were so close to each other that it was warm and they could feel each other’s breath.

“What do you want for Violet?” the ring asked.

“She stands to inherit the rights, doesn’t she?” the broach said.

“Out of everyone we’ve had to visit she’ll be the prettiest,” the ring said.

“They’ll catch up with us eventually. It would be nice to visit with someone pretty before they do.”

“It would.”

“What do you think, Davis?” The ring let go. He took a pen out of his pocket.

The broach let go of his right. “You don’t want us to visit Violet.”

The pen sat between them. Lightning cracked loud and oblivious outside. The sky opened and rain poured off the roof, onto the land, out to the sea.

pencilMeredith Bateman is a creative writing student in Denver, Colorado, a place where water is first in time, first in right. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

Indolence and Rhyme

Fiction
Steve Passey


Photo Credit: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean. —Socrates.

Tania spent the first four hours of every Saturday caring for a mentally handicapped adult man named Shiloh.

“Shiloh?”  She asked the program co-coordinator when she and Shiloh were introduced. “For real?”

“Shiloh,” the woman said. Her name was Gretchen and she had some problems herself.  Gretchen looked at Tania and said, “Don’t talk about him like he’s not here. There is a person inside there, just like you and I.”

“Terkle,” Shiloh said.

They settled into a routine quickly enough. Tania would walk him around the bike path down by the river. She’d ask him, “How did your parents come to name you ‘Shiloh’, Shiloh?”

And he’d say… “Terkle.” and point at the river.

They’d walk a little farther.

“So you are saying you named yourself? After an imaginary friend you had when you were nine? That’s actually pretty cool,” she’d say. Shiloh would laugh a half a laugh, like the last person in a room to get a joke but the one who enjoyed it the most. His laugh was the essence of his humanity, “Terkle” the essence of his “otherness.”

So four hours would pass, at eleven dollars per, and she’d be forty-four closer to making rent and feeding the cats. That’s what “Respite Worker” pays. She worked Mondays to Fridays at a call center. Mondays always started with an admonition to “upsell” and Fridays ended with people calling in sick in the morning and then other people quitting and walking out at noon. “I don’t need this shit,” they’d say, and they’d be gone and Tania and whoever was left that needed to make rent or feed the cats, would hang on.

Tania needed “the shit.” A thousand bucks a month base and then another six-hundred to seven-hundred in commission and she needed that shit. At least Shiloh was easygoing, as far as mentally-handicapped adults go. He never soiled himself. “Terkle” and a wave of his hand and that was that.

Forty-four dollars. But that was before taxes and withholdings.

After she took him back to the home she’d wait at the bus stop for the one p.m. to go home and feed her cats and smoke a fucking bowl with the TV on and the sound off. After a week in a headset Tania didn’t need to hear human voices. They would just disturb the equilibrium the bowl brought her. She’d fall asleep on the couch and dream sinsemilla dreams until Monday when she would have to get up and shower and go back to the call center and try to get people’s credit card numbers from them without being too-too clear about what the limitations were on the warranty they were buying. “You sell what’s good for the house,” her manager hissed at her once. The manager needed this shit too.

There was a card and gift shop next to the bus stop. If any creepy homeless fucks were in the stop she’d go into the card shop and idle around. Some of the cards were funny. A man sleeping in his own urine in a bus stop is not funny. In one section of the shop was a collection of journals, leather- or fabric-bound things with little brass clasps. Blue and black and red and brown. Some were blank; some had “My Journal” on them in embossed lettering.

Tania remembered when she used to write poetry, when she’d first started smoking, and she felt good all the time and always wrote high and was sure she was going to be something other than a call-center captive and wheelchair jockey. She and her friend Shellie would write poetry in their journals and read to each other and buy those “streak and style” kits from the discount pharmacy (or shoplift them when they didn’t have any money) and color each other’s hair with reds and greens.

Shellie’s poetry was good; it always rhymed. Sometimes Tania could not get hers to rhyme. One time they had smoked a little too much weed maybe, or written a little too much poetry longing for this boy or that or whatever and Shellie had written something nice about her. Tania could not remember the poem at all, but she did remember that they had made out a bit after Shellie read it to her and stopped after they had French-kissed and Tania didn’t know if she liked it or not. She opened up the journal to the frontispiece and read:

“Forever is Composed of Nows”

—Emily Dickinson

What if your nows all suck, she thought. My nows all suck. That’s why they feel like forever. She wished she could afford to smoke a bowl Saturday and Sunday. But “that’s how rich people live, not us,” she’d once told her cats, when thinking it out loud. Occasionally she allowed herself a bowl Thursday because Fridays were the sucky now, squared, at the call center. She wished that Shiloh had a prescription worth stealing but apparently he had nothing. “He’s off his meds” was never a phrase uttered in regards to Shiloh.

She took a pen out from her purse, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then wrote: “Go fuck yourself Emily”  under the quote and put the journal back.

She noted the price tag—$18.99—a little less than half of what she’d net pushing Shiloh around after taxes so she took the journal back out and wrote: “Yea, go fuck yourself, verily”  under her first phrase.

The rhyme made her happy and she was pleased that her printing was still neat. “I don’t print like a stoner with three cats and no life,” she thought.

She opened it again and wrote another line yet, to make it read:

Go fuck yourself Emily

Yea, go fuck yourself, verily,

You and your fucking nows

She put the journal back quickly then left the store and waited for the bus stop. $18.99 for a journal? She could pack a bowl for less and she needed the bowl more. Speaking of which: time to go home and pack that bowl. This was going to be a good one. She could feel it.

The next Saturday she picked Shiloh up. “Hey Shiloh! Wanna go Terkle-ing?” she said. He laughed his delayed-reaction laugh, pure and simple, and seemed really happy. Truthfully, she thought, he’s not hard to like, in his own weird way. Gretchen watched them walk out, and waved. Tania noticed that Gretchen had no hand, just a stump. Strange how I had not noticed that before, she thought. Maybe she’d had an appliance on. One of those plastic and metal contraptions. I wonder what happened?

When she brought Shiloh back she stopped to talk to Gretchen. “How much does this pay,” she asked, meaning Gretchen’s job. “To be honest, not much,” Gretchen said. “In fact, it’s a subsidized position anyways. I live from grant to grant. If they—the organization—don’t get the grant, I’m unemployed. Another fact: It’s grant application time now. If I’m not here in a month, you know what happened.”

“Did you always want to do this?” Tania asked.

“Nooooo,” said Gretchen, drawing out the “no” for emphasis. “Never even thought about it. I’m an introvert. I wanted to be a writer. A poet actually. How silly is that? I have a ton of little journals at home filled with my writing. No one has ever seen them. Then this happened.” She held up her stump.

“How did that happen?” Tania asked.

“Meh. It’s a long story.” Gretchen said, looking away. “Let’s just say it was electrical and leave it at that.”

“Electrical?”

“Yes. Electrical. The thing is I wrote everything in longhand. And I’m right-handed. Now with no right hand…” she sighed audibly. “I can’t write anything more than my name left-handed. Occupational therapy tried to teach me but that was it. Don’t even suggest typing. Typing is for data entry. You can’t type poetry. Maybe some can, but I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. For me anyways. Well, at some point in the process I told the rehab people I was a poet and they thought about it and found me this job. A grant came in and here I am.”

Tania nodded. She noticed that Gretchen had a lazy eye too. She wondered if that was “electrical.”

“You know, I like you Tania. That’s why I gave you Shiloh. He’s our star. Never shits his pants. Never grabs a boob.”

Shiloh wasn’t within earshot so it was all right to talk about him as if he wasn’t there.

She left Gretchen and her electrified stump and eye and went over to the gift shop and straight to the pink fabric-covered journal. She’d had one just like it when she and Shellie had kissed. The girl at the counter was texting on her cell phone and didn’t acknowledge Tania when she came in. The “Emily Dickinson” journal was still there. Tania smiled at that. She checked again and sure that she would not be seen opened the fabric journal near the middle. With her pen she printed:

You will read this

And then

You have twelve years

Nine months

And three days

Before you die

Use it well

Or not at all

It’s up to you

There is nothing else you can do

Try not to dwell on this

The thought of someone finding that after filling the previous pages with hearts and their “married” name when thinking of their crush really pleased her. She had an opinion of who bought fabric-covered journals and of what went into them. Rhymes about sadness never actually experienced personally, and ballpoint pen drawings of hearts and flowers and surnames from boys who would never talk to the writer because they were stupid and never knew what they were supposed to do. Her printing was neater than ever. Thank God she still had her right hand, she thought. At least I have that.

It did not rhyme, but Tania had never been a good at rhyming. She thought of Shellie and wondered if Shellie would be able to make it rhyme. They had lost touch but she did not wish to find her. What for? To talk about that one time they kissed and how they used to write poetry together but now no one could make ends meet even on two jobs and they all had roomfuls of cats and no one wrote anymore?

On the way out, the girl at the counter looked up at Tania. She was quite fat and spoke very nasally. “If you are thinking about buying one of the journals wait a week or two. It’s not official but the owner is shutting this place down. No one buys anything anymore. Those journals are $18.99 now but they’ll be half that in a month.”

“Thanks,” Tania said, and then, “I’ll be back. For sure.”

She walked out to the one p.m. Once she was home she smoked her fucking bowl and it was even better than the last one. She dreamt that she had no hands and was naked in a shopping mall. No one looked at her. She didn’t care. She was weightless, ascendant, and no one spoiled it by looking. Then Shellie came into the dream, Shellie, only one-hundred pounds heavier than she had been when they wrote poetry together all those times and even kissed. Shellie told her to “get her shit tighter” and all of a sudden Tania was dressed but still had no hands. “’Get your shit together’ doesn’t rhyme, Shellie,” she said, and Shellie said, “What are you talking about?” Shellie’s belly poked out from under her shirt and over her jeans. She was leading a small boy by the hand and Tania said, “Shiloh?” and the boy said, “Terkle” and laughed and Shellie yanked on his arm and led him away from Tania. Tania, heavy-legged and slow with the weight of sleep again, unascendant, could not keep up.

Tania woke up and wasn’t even mad. That was some excellent weed, she thought. The cats looked happy too. They can feel your mood but not dream your dreams. They dream of cat things. Murder, copulation, sleep—if it is possible to dream of sleep, cats would dream of it. She could not be sure how a little second-hand marijuana smoke affected them but they never complained.

Monday came and she started thinking about doing a Thursday bowl by 10 a.m.

Saturday came and she picked up Shiloh for their terkle-walk. Gretchen was with him.

“Guess what?” Gretchen said. She had her appliance on. It looked good, almost like a real hand. The nails even had red polish or were painted to look like polish so it looked like she’d just had her nails done.

“What?” Tania said.

“Less grant money this year. This is the last time you’ll see me. Technically I’m here to month-end but I have a bunch of unused holiday time they want me to take so I will take it and use the time to look for another job.”

“That’s terrible,” said Tania.

Gretchen’s electrically bad eye looked up and away, perhaps at her uncertain future. Or maybe a terkle. Who knows?

“No worries,” said Gretchen. “I’ll get something else. Maybe some call center work, they’re always hiring. I can handle a headset and I can work the phone keys easily. Especially if they have touch-screens. Ever work on a touch-screen computer? They’re awesome.  As long as I don’t have to write anything I’ll be ok and believe it or not I still qualify for some disability. Who knows but that I could be back here and you could be looking after me? Hey Shiloh? Wouldn’t that be something? We could all walk along the river and look for turtles.”

“Terkles,” Shiloh said, quite loudly. It was the happiest Tania had ever seen him.

“Turtles? Tania said.

“Yeah—turtles,” Gretchen said. Her bad eye had come around, she looked almost normal. “He likes turtles. He calls them “terkles” because he thinks it’s funny. Either that or they were called “terkles” back where he was from originally. He’s a bit of a hillbilly. I told you there is a person in there. You’re a bit of a joker, aren’t you Shiloh?”

She reached over and mock-punched him in the shoulder.

He laughed his easy laugh, quicker than usual, and longer. He beamed.

Gretchen kept on, “He thinks turtles live in the river. They don’t. Not in these parts. Too cold. Maybe they did back where he was from. But he’s pretty sure that one day, he’ll find one. I’m surprised he hasn’t told you. But he can be shy.”

Tania looked at Shiloh. He would not look back. He just smiled and waited.

“At any rate, you two look after each other.”

Tania took Shiloh out along the river. No turtles appeared.

After she returned him she went back to the card shop.

“One more week,” the counter girl said. “Then everything is on sale.”

Tania went to the journals. She picked handsome one, red leather with metal at the corners and a little clasp. She opened it and smelled the paper. Paper always smells good. The better the paper and the older it is the better it smells. This journal in particular smelled really good. She watched the counter-girl until she was sure the girl was engrossed in her phone again, then took out her pen and on the very last page of the journal wrote:

When I was young

If you had asked me

I would have said that all

I wanted to do was write poetry

I wanted to be a poet more than anything

Now I work in a call center

And look after a “cognitively impaired” man

I have three cats

I need the money

But it’s not always enough

I smoke a lot of weed

It gets me through

But it’s not always enough

I would be smoking every day

If I could afford it

And I don’t write anything, anymore

At all

Her printing was perfect, sublime. I wonder who will find that one, she thought. Someone is going to buy that journal someday, maybe for half-price, and some girl is going to get it and draw and write poetry—maybe with a friend—or maybe just by herself. No one will ever see it. She’ll fill the book and then she’ll get to that poem and she’ll be mad that she got a used journal or maybe she’ll think it was a friend and be mad at them for ruining her book or maybe she’ll think it’s a ghost and be excited and buy an Ouija board and try to contact the ghost of the writer. If I am a ghost, Tania thought, if I am that ghost, I won’t come when the Ouija board calls. Maybe, and more likely, she’ll never even see it because she’ll get about four pages into the journal and quit because she’s a popular girl and she doesn’t have to write poetry in a journal because she’ll have friends and boyfriends and play volleyball and get a car for her birthday and the journal will turn up in a garage sale her parents have twelve years after she got it and the cycle will start again with a new girl.

Tania went home and smoked her Saturday bowl and it was harsh and it burned and it was fucking wonderful and she slept deeply and dreamlessly for twelve hours. When she got up she fed the cats, restless with hunger and irritable, or possibly just filled with cat-ambition from their inscrutable feline dreams. The cats fed, she smoked her Thursday bowl on Sunday night with the TV on and the sound off.

pencilSteve Passey is from Southern Alberta. His fiction and poetry has been published in Canada, the UK, and the USA in publications ranging from Existere Journal, Minor Literature[s], and Chicago Literati. Email: steve.passey[at]hotmail.ca

Enlightenment

Fiction
Isabel S. Miles


Photo Credit: Erik Forsberg/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Erik Forsberg/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For me the penny dropped in my late thirties when I got into Zen. Since then I’ve meditated most mornings. In the evenings I listen, genuinely listen, to Bach or early Cohen and when I water my plants I truly see them. Constant, unforced awareness is key. It really helped when he, he… here and now, remember, here and now.

Caught myself just in time. It’s so easy to slip into the past or future: illusions both. Meanwhile, real moments, each an opportunity for wonder and joy, slip by. Right now I bite into my buttered scone, savouring the complex textures and flavours. Lemon lifts the Lapsang Souchong to a smoky clarity. I sip and order another. The intensity of the buttery crumbliness is only slightly diminished second time round.

Back in my office, I focus on the job in hand. First I clean and tidy the desk. There’s a smudge of ink, or it might be chocolate, on the surface and I fetch a damp paper towel. After that I sharpen my pencils and refill my fountain pen. I have chosen to write the draft by hand. Writing attentively, appreciating the flow of ink to words, lends beauty and meaning to even the Belgian marketing plan. Of course, I’ll have to type it into the computer later. It’s nearly half-past five when my boss sticks her head round the door. ‘Tuesday’s the deadline remember.’ As if I didn’t know. Meanwhile, though, it’s Friday. Stay in the moment.

In the supermarket I walk past the ready meals, preferring real food. There’s plenty of rice at home and I only need a few vegetables. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the “Two eat for £10” offer. Since he, well, anyway, nowadays, I always shop anti-clockwise. It feels right in a yin yang sort of way. So I circumnavigate the bread stand to check out the deal. Sometimes it’s all meat but tonight there’s mushroom risotto with goat’s cheese and caramelised onions! Slowly, side-stepping greed, I put it into my basket. Now the side dish. Italian salad or roast potatoes? Lastly I choose the cheesecake as it’s made with real Sicilian lemons and I think I might have a cold starting. The Sauvignon Blanc is lower in alcohol than the Shiraz so I pick it up. Then I change my mind; goat’s cheese demands red. Back round the way I came in. Someone’s staring at me. I close my eyes and repeat my mantra four times, silently of course. Good, he’s gone. As I’m paying I recollect my vegan supper plan and I do need to lose a few pounds but it’s too late now. Anyway, it’s Friday and I deserve a treat.

Darkness is falling as I put my key in the lock and the last few leaves on the cherry are barely clinging on against the east wind. Next week the clocks change and it’ll be dark by this time. Even now the house has a sinister look. This will be my first winter here without him but I have no regrets. ‘Here and now,’ I tell myself firmly.

Systematically I go round the house: switching on the lights, drawing the curtains, looking under the beds twice and into the wardrobes three times. As always, I check the shower. Then I switch on Classic FM in the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Before I wash and start cooking, I just check again that I locked the door properly.

 

Risotto and roast potatoes make a great combination. The crunch of one brings out the creamy softness of the other. I wonder why they aren’t served together more often. If people were more awake they might be. Most people live their lives on autopilot, unblissfully unaware. Not I, I focus on drying the plate then on polishing the cutlery with the tea towel. The curve of the fork is beautiful. Before bed I play my Buddhist Garden CD and sip the last of the Shiraz. There’s nothing un-Zen about a good glass of wine as long as you truly taste it.

Saturday morning is a fresh start. Apart from goat’s milk and yoghourt I’ll be vegan today. I accidentally make muesli for two but I’ll work it off at yoga. During the class I lose myself completely in the grace and precision of the asanas. My tree barely sways. Lunch is at the Good Life with Jenny. Wholemeal lasagne is so much healthier and the cheese they use here is made with vegetarian rennet. Their fruit salad with sour cream is so full of life it zings. Jenny can’t go to the gallery with me after all, but I’m happy on my own, each moment a wonder. After I’ve absorbed the paintings I spend an hour in Boots, browsing the alternative therapy shelves.

Saturday is one of my cleaning days. I used to hate it but now, simply by staying continually alert, I’ve discovered the joy of housework. At one time I would rush through the house in an hour and imagine it was spotless. Now it takes me six hours just to clean the bathroom, seven if I’m not in a hurry. As I’ve worked so hard, I keep supper simple, Thai curry with my special fried rice. After supper I read the Dalai Lama’s latest. Since I haven’t had a single drink I reward myself with cream in my hot chocolate.

As always my parents welcome me with hugs and a full roast dinner. Sunday is our special day and the only time I eat meat. Afterwards we veg out with a DVD then I help Mum prepare tea while Dad takes the dog out. Soon it’ll be time to head off. Sometimes, passing my old room, I feel like I could just curl up on the familiar mattress and stay there forever. This evening I spend so long in the bathroom my mum has to shout up twice and I pull myself together, closing the cabinet. Misery is an illusion. Just focus… ‘Om Namah Shivayah, Om Namah Shi…’

‘How are you doing love?’ mum asks as I pull on my jacket and dig out my car keys. ‘Are you finding it any easier?’ I’m perfectly all right and I wish she wouldn’t fuss. Still I kiss the top of her head. She smells like home and I want a cuddle but daren’t have one.

‘I’m fine, Mum,’ I say. ‘Don’t keep reminding me just when I’ve forgotten all about him.’

‘Did you call Marion?’ she asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s her turn. Anyway I don’t need Marion. I told you I spent yesterday with Jenny. I’ve got loads of friends, and you and Dad of course. I’m really lucky. Now I’ve got to go. Things to do!’ Normally I’d go into the living room and kiss Dad goodbye but tonight I just shout through. It’s all I can manage not to cry till I’m safely on the main road. For two minutes I let it wash through me, then give myself a shake. ‘All shall be well,’ I whisper. ‘All manner of things shall…’ Suddenly I realise I’ve closed my eyes to concentrate. I shouldn’t do that when I’m driving. ‘All manner of things will be well,’ I repeat, calmly and clearly, eyes wide open.

All the time I’m checking the house I’m struggling to hold it together but I keep on focussing. Several glasses of wine and a cheese feast pizza later, all really is well. I am watching a wonderful documentary on the origins of the universe. Gravity waves are passing through me right now as I sit here on my couch. We are so small in space and time.

It’s Monday, eleven a.m. and I’ve just got back from coffee break and am cleaning my desk, when Jenny appears again. ‘Tomorrow remember,’ she says. ‘Oh, by the way, you have chocolate on your chin.’ When the door is closed I make a face at it. Five years ago Jenny worked for me and she wasn’t always so efficient herself. Did I pester her? On and on and on? Of course not! Then I recollect myself. Anger hurts me not her. Like it hurts me not him. Anger hurts me not him and I let it go. I swallow and repeat my special secret mantra. I have to repeat it sixteen times, silently of course.

Mary, Bob, and I walk down to the canteen as usual but I just buy a few sandwiches and a couple of bags of crisps to keep me going while I finish the report. There’s more to do than I had realised. Actually I might have to work late, so I pick up another bag of crisps and some chocolate. By the time I’ve finished and tidied up my desk properly it’s eight p.m. I print out a hard copy and leave it on Jenny’s desk, next to the photo of her husband and children playing with their dog. I could get a dog. Or maybe a cat? Only the security man and I are left in the building. ‘You’re looking a bit tired, love,’ he says as I sign out. ‘Watch you don’t overdo it.’ He’s a nice man. People are kind.

It’s too late to cook but I’ve a choice of three takeaways. Neither pizza nor Chinese feel right but the curry house is excellent. While I wait I have a lager and the waiter asks if I’d like poppadum and pickle but I save my appetite. Orion is just visible as I turn into my garden and the naked branches of the cherry tree are silhouetted against a moon that’s just past full. The night is clear and calm and unbearably beautiful and I want to scream but I manage not to.

Before eating I bathe and put on the pyjamas he bought me last Christmas. They’re a little tight now but they’re cosy and they feel a bit like love. I go to my bedside drawer and take out the packets. Mum and Dad both get several months’ supplies at a time. These are my Mum’s and tomorrow she’ll look and see they’re missing. While I grind them in my lovely olive-wood pestle and mortar I hope the note will help.

Off and on, all through my life, it has struck me how much precious time we miss. Many mornings, I arrive at work and realise that I have no recollection of the journey. What a waste. Now I look at my photos and wonder, what happened to all the moments in between? Seeing my dad in his suede jacket I remember its feel against my cheek, elbow-high at the time. Not just that, I remember the jacket’s smell of wood smoke and the dazzling light of sun on snow that day, that moment. But where did the others go?

Pink tablets crumble easily but blue ones are really hard. I enjoy the delicate mauve that develops as they break down. Carefully I tip the powder into my lovely fragrant korma. They use fresh coriander and it’s flecked with green. His eyes were a different shade of green. Now the curry’s flecked with blue and pink too. I pour a glass of Pinot Grigio and turn the music up. Spem in Alium isn’t music it’s enlightenment and eternal joy.

Picking up my fork I appreciate the strange beauty of metal, ponder the weirdness of cutlery. The curry is delicious, contrasting meltingly yielding aubergine with grainy lentils. Right now, right here, I savour it all, not least the slight alien bitterness of the drugs. Awareness floods me: the sublime music, the light shining through the petals of the freesias, their perfume mingling with the spices, the delightful coolness of the wine. Slowly, thoughtfully, I finish my food, wiping the last of the sauce up with naan bread, the last little specks of blue. All gone. Mindfully I sip the pale golden wine. This will definitely be my last glass.

pencilIsabel Miles lives, writes and walks in the North Yorkshire Moors. She has published short stories in WTD Magazine, The View from Here and Ink, Sweat and Tears and poems in Shooter and Grey Sparrow Journal. She has completed a children’s novel and an adult novel, both of which she is seeking to publish. Email: smilesisabel[at]gmail.com.