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

The Day We Stopped Talking

Flash
Stephanie Gail


Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

The day we stopped talking was a Monday. We sat at the dinner table, you and I, cutting our hamburgers apart like it mattered. We never ate them with bread, always on a bed of spinach. Yours with ketchup and mustard, mine with barbeque sauce and globs of ranch dressing. You commented on the dressing before we stopped talking.

The day we stopped talking was a normal day. For the most part.

The invitation was hidden under a stack of mail. Your mail. I’d hidden it there after you opened it. But as we’ve been not talking, the sounds of a fork and knife slashing through the spinach, I know it’s there. I feel its presence in the absence of our words. The ink seeps through the stack of mail, like blood or tears or something.

I haven’t looked at you since we stopped talking. I grab a fry off the plate in the center of the table—the one with the paper towel seeping up the grease. I peel the thing apart and consume it bite by bite. We’re still not talking, but my eyes focus on the next fry instead of your face.

Your hamburger is half-eaten. Your fork scrapes against your teeth and makes that sound that makes me cringe. Since we’re not talking, I can’t tell you to stop. So you do it again. Fork against teeth and the invitation still hiding.

I almost ask how work was today, before I remember we’re not talking. Before I remember that invitation. Before I remember how I can’t tell you how I’m feeling. What I’m feeling. It’s weird not to tell you. Not to talk. But we’re here. With the spinach and the burger and the fork and your teeth.

You get up and walk outside. Probably to turn off the grill. The funny thing is, when we’re talking you always say “remind me to turn off the grill” when we start eating. And I always say “turn off the grill” right after that. And we smile.

But now you are up without instruction. And I am sitting at the table, not looking at your mail pile and not thinking about the invitation. And we’re still not talking.

I wonder how long this will last. How many days or weeks or months. I wonder if we will continue to stop talking and even though I know you are thinking about asking me to marry you, we stop talking and we end things one day and we marry other people and have children with other people and grow old with other people and when we are about to die with those other people by our sides and they are telling us it’s okay to go, that they love us and it’s okay to leave them, we stop. Just before our last breath. And we think back to our dinner table and us, you and I, and our one last regret is the day we stopped talking.

pencilStephanie Gail is a high school English teacher who finds it ironic that reading and writing time are hard to find during the school year. Since it’s summer, she finally has time to write and read things that don’t involve phrases like “formative assessment” and she is very happy about it. Email: stephanie.gail1618[at]gmail.com

Wish

Poetry
Judith Taylor


Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC-by-sa)

I don’t want death driving
something delicate, like a carriage:
I don’t want Gentleman Death

in his long black car
shimmering by to take me away.
To have to maintain polite

conversation with Death, of all the people!
No. Send me a death
dull and true

in charge of a heavy ox-cart;
with a load to haul, and no concern
for anything in his road.

Death in a shapeless hat,
his old clay cutty not even lit
as he stares away

towards his destination,
never looking to see what caused
that jolt.

A Death who does not stop
and who is mercifully uncaring.
And maybe his oxen look to see

where they put their feet
but the solid timber wheels
do not discriminate.

On the day I hear that wagon rumble
I will lie down to wait.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com

We’ve Changed Grammatically

Poetry
Lauren Scavo


Photo Credit: Ronn "Blue" Aldaman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ronn “Blue” Aldaman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We were a compound sentence:
two subjects and their corresponding predicates,
joined by nothing but a monosyllable.
We could stand alone but chose not to,
and our souls, though independent,
corresponded in subject and substance
so that our names belonged as a unified thought.
Now we are a comma splice:
two thoughts connected in subject
but missing a coordinating conjunction—
the tiny piece of something
that means nearly nothing on its own,
but when it isn’t there, you know it isn’t there
and you feel its absence
in the way you stumble over words,
like they are incomplete or out of place.
We are two independent clauses,
and all that connects us is a comma,
and in that way, among others,
you are like the mistake I made
on my eleventh grade research paper on Julius Caesar.
But instead of Times New Roman,
I wrote you in the shape of my veins,
and instead of turning you in to my teacher,
I introduced you to my parents.

pencilLauren Scavo is a recent graduate of Grace College, where she studied Drawing/Painting and English. Her hometown is in Pittsburgh, PA. Email: scavolj[at]grace.edu

Color Blind (For Real?)

Poetry
Marc Livanos


Photo Credit: BuzzFarmers (CC-by)

Photo Credit: BuzzFarmers/Flickr (CC-by)

Why is my race your foe needling you to lord over me,
saving me from my own savagery?

Why is my skin color a phobia gnawing at your innards,
making door locks snap as I approach?

Why is my punishment swift revealing deep-seated prejudices,
exposing unrecognized biases?

Why is my street flashing “blue”
when verdicts and fines from the 2008 meltdown are reversed?

Why is my excessive “heat” normal
when straight powder has a lighter sentence than crack?

Why is my wanting to explode unexpected
when a child or brother of mine is killed?

Why is my disinterest in school surprising
when suspension leads to a Juvenile Delinquency record?

Why is my broken home shocking
when a JD record forces Family Services to see if mom is at home or work?

Why can’t you see how I feel when redlining my community continues
as Hudson City Bancorp pays $33M to make redlining allegations go away?

Why can’t you see how I feel about Democrats wanting a piece of Dr. King
when they created a welfare system making fathers abandon their children?

Why can’t you see how I feel about Republicans
when they just want another mockery of the Civil Rights Act?

Why can’t you see how my heroes are athletes and entertainers,
not your pandering leaders?

Why can’t you see how I feel when the NBA, reacting to LeBron going pro
out of high school, forces players to wait till 19, while PGA, AHL and MLB do not?

Why can’t you see how your rise from poverty
didn’t require you to deal with what I do?

Why can’t you see how your decades of
pensions and home appreciation were denied me?

Why can’t you see how your decades
of opportunities were never mine?

Why can’t you see how I feel
when you just see me as another deadbeat or dealer?

Why can’t you see how my constant smile and nod
responds to your hurtful put downs?

Why can’t you see how I just want
you to be truthful?

Why can’t you see the difference
is the difference within you?

Why can’t you see your problem
doesn’t emanate from me?

Why can’t you see I’ll respect you
when you respect me?

No point our talking
if you won’t hear me.

pencilMarc Livanos’s chapbooks Panhandle Poet — Solitude and Panhandle Poet — Second Helpings are available at Barnes & Noble. His poems appear in Straylight Magazine, Poet’s Espresso Review, Emerald Coast Review, Stray Branch, Old Red Kimono, The Poet’s Pen, Conceit Magazine, The Ultimate Writer Quarterly, PKA’s Advocate, WestWard Quarterly, Zylophone Poetry Journal, Feelings of the Heart, FreeXpresSion, Shemom, Ceremony, JerryJazzMusician, and The Pink Chameleon. Email: marcl[at]mchsi.com

Pocket-Sized Compliments

Poetry
Theresa Kelly


Photo Credit:  Jessica Suárez/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Jessica Suárez/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I keep your compliments in my pocket
On the bad days, I pull them out and wipe off the dust
to remind me.
On the good days, I try to write you a poem,
but the words blend together and get lost in my hands
I’ve only ever written poems about panic and heartbreak.
I talk about everything, but I lack the ability
to turn you into a metaphor.

pencilTheresa Kelly is a 2016 graduate of West Chester University. She received her degree in English secondary education. She has previously been published in Lip, Literati, Daedalus, and Toasted Cheese. Email: theresajoykelly[at]hotmail.com

The Curse

Poetry
Marchell Dyon


Photo Credit: halfrain/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: halfrain/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

In her prehistoric thinking if no one stoned her
She would throw herself against the rocks
From her arriving spring into the night

She ran away from the moon’s light hunting her every step
She wanted to remain as she was
She did not believe in the evolution of womankind

She wanted her chest not to sprout and flower
She wanted the red wetness between her thighs to stop
You are a woman now, was all the advice

Her grandmother gave with a smile
No more make-believe but woman’s work
No more dolls but babies at your breast

Her older sister had warned her about the curse
Seven times Cain, said her older sister
She looks back at the moon calling her

She tried to shut her ears to the sweet lull of the moon
She knew she could not stay forever hidden from the goddess
But she was determined to try

pencilMarchell Dyon is a disabled poet and budding storyteller. She believes her disability has inspired her creative spark. Her poetry has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Full of Crow Poetry Magazine, Rainbow Rose Ezine, Blue Lake Review, A Little Poetry, Medusa’s Kitchen, The Stray Branch, Strange Horizons, Mused Bella Online, Convergence Literary Journal, Silver Blade Magazine and Torrid Literature Journal. She is from Chicago, IL. Email: marchelldyon[at]yahoo.com