Stories

The Genesis of Steve, by P.J. Sambeaux

#Humor #literary #scifi

“Mom, what have you done?” Ellie whispered testily.

“I don’t know, honey,” her mother answered, her voice laden with fear and dismay. “I just don’t know.”  She reached out to lay a comforting hand on her daughter’s shoulder, but was irritably shrugged off.

It looked out at them from under the laundry basket in the corner.

“I do wish you’d both stop staring at me.”

**

“It says its name is Steve?” Carol told the customer service agent on the other end of the vid screen.

“What can you tell me of Steve’s genesis?” the man asked, sighing deeply – the tedium of job weighing heavily on his shoulders.

“Ok, this is going to sound really bad,” she began tentatively, “but I had a bunch of leftovers from old kits, so instead of buying a whole new kit I just put all the leftovers together?”

“Which leftovers did you use?”

“Ok,” she began, flipping through the torn labels, “I started out with Jamboree Fuzzy Time Loveable, then I added Einsteintatious, Kaleidescope Wowza, Submersible Party Time Buddy, Birds of All Feathers, Alien Wonder Bunny and Brief but Thrilling Terror from Outer Space.”

“How much temperalux and emoto-control would you say you added from all of the kits combined?

“None? Because there wasn’t any left?”

The customer service agent looked at the ceiling for guidance. There was none to be had.

“And when did you first notice something had gone wrong?”

“Um, I guess I’d have to say when he grabbed a knife and started waving it around.  I thought that was a really weird thing to do at a kid’s birthday party. So, yeah – that was probably when I realized something was off.”

“Is Steve fully sentient?”

“Oh, I don’t know, let me ask him.”  She turned to the creature. “Steve, they’re asking if you’re fully sentient?”

Steve sighed as tufts of pink hair sprouted above what were probably his ears.

“If you are asking me whether I am able to perceive my own existence and the existence of others in the environment in which I am currently situated, whether I have emotions and feelings, whether I am aware of my own abilities and limitations – then yes, Carol, I would have to say I am fully sentient.’

Carol turned back to the vid screen, her face pinched with worry. “Yes, he is reporting that he is fully sentient.”

“Ma’am, there is a reason that we advise you to discard any leftovers from a Temporary Party Time Buddy kit.  That reason, which you know are experiencing the full terror of, is the potential for creating a super-intelligent, possibly dangerous, probably hostile chimera.  The reason that we have you add the temperalux and emoto-control is so you can create an emotionally malleable creature that will expire just as your child has grown tired of it. I am going to have to put in a service call.  Someone should be with you between the hours of 5pm and 7pm.” The screen shut itself off as the call disconnected.

Carol walked over to her daughter, who was cautiously watching Steve, armed with a spatula and an extension cord.  She started to put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder, but then thought better of it.

“This never would have happened if your father had been here,” she mused unhappily. “I’m so sorry, honey.”

“You always are,” Ellie snapped back.

Carol brushed tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.  It was a few moments before she could speak.

“Happy ninth birthday, honey.”

“Thanks, mom,” Ellie hissed sarcastically.

“Yes, happy birthday, young lady,” Steve chimed in.

“Thank you, Steve,” Ellie said, eying him suspiciously.

**

“Ok, Carol,” Steve began some time later as they all waited for the serviceman to arrive.  “I’m going to put some of my cards on the table here. I’m not saying this to frighten you, but only as a demonstration of my trustworthiness.  The truth is that I can actually melt this laundry basket with my mind.”

Ellie made an involuntary sort of uh-oh sound, and her mother pulled her back and placed her own body in front as a shield.

“Oh, no, no,” Steve began hastily, waving two of his bioluminescent tentacles to show there had been a misunderstanding. “I am merely saying that you can trust me.  I could have done that thing, but I did not. I did not do something I have been capable of this entire time in order to earn your trust.”

Carol, who had begun backing away slowly, now turned frantically, knocking a tray of cupcakes and a plastic bottle of cherry soda off the kitchen table as she grabbed Ellie’s hand and ran to the front door.

That was when she realized the Party Time Buddies Company had put their apartment on lockdown.  There was no escape. She pushed Ellie into the coat closet, pulled the door closed behind them and waited.

 

**

“Carol,” Steve said, lighting up the dark closet with two bioluminescent tentacles probing underneath the door. “Really this is just silly.”

“What are you going to do to us?” she asked, the winter coats brushing the top of her head.

“Carol, I am not going to do anything to either of you.”

“You know, my husband will be home any minute,” she warned him.

“First, your apartment has been placed on lock down, and no one can enter without express authorization from the Party Time Buddies Company,” he replied in an educational tone. “Secondly, I’m guessing by the pervasive scent of rose potpourri and the decidedly feminine sense of organization in your apartment that no man has been domiciled here in at least sixteen weeks.

He had her there. She knocked her head against the wall of the closet in frustration.

“What was all that noise you were making earlier?” she asked.

“Ok, that was me trying one of those cupcakes and a little bit of spilled soda and discovering that they were actually potent stimulants.  I had to grow a whole volley of feet and run up one wall across the ceiling down the other wall and across the floor over and over again until the drugs were purged from my system.  Do you know what is in that “food”, Carol? Do you know that you’re feeding drugs to children?”

Carol sighed.

“It’s just an occasional treat.”

“Oh, right,” Steve said sarcastically, rolling the two eyes that were on the end of tentacles atop what could be described just that moment as his head.

“Mom, are we going to die?” Ellie whispered, as the initial jolt of adrenaline wore off and the gravity of the situation finally dawned on her.

“Ellie,” Steve began gently, “no one is going to die or be harmed in any way whatsoever.  I give you my word. Okay, what happened at the birthday party was that I was born and came into consciousness in the midst of a terrifying band of small-sized, yet heavily armed, ferocious monsters.  How was I to know they were children? Can you understand how I would have felt, Ellie? Can you imagine entering into the world in that manner?”

**

“Mom, why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t have the money for a Party Time Buddy?” Ellie asked after an hour spent in the stuffy closet. She was exasperated, hungry, and had an extreme need to use the bathroom.

“I didn’t want to let you down,” her mother said sadly. “And I didn’t want you to feel bad because your dad wasn’t coming.”

“Mom, dad isn’t coming back. Ever.  Deal with it!” Ellie shouted in sheer frustration.

The only thing that could be heard for a few minutes was muffled crying, then sniffling, then the blowing of a nose that was unintentionally obnoxious, like a sad foghorn.

“Carol,” Steve began after a time, “it’s obvious that you love your daughter and want the best for her and would give your life to protect her, but I’m going to need you both to come out of there now.”

“Could you come in here and get us?” Carol asked, suddenly terrified anew.

“Honesty did not work well between us earlier, so I’m just going to wait until you’re ready to come out.”

**

“Steve, may I ask you a question,” Ellie ventured a quarter of an hour later, too bored and uncomfortable to really be frightened any longer.

“Shoot.”

“When you melted the laundry basket with your mind, did the iron that I put on top of it fall through and hit you on the head?”

“Excellent question, Ellie. It did not.  I melted that as well and made you a pair of earrings for your birthday, which I will present to you when you come out.”

“How did you know what I’d like?”

“I read your thoughts.”

“Oh, jeez mom, he can read our thoughts.  He can melt stuff with his mind, and I really have to pee.  I’m going out there.”

“No!” her mother shouted, inadvertently digging fingernails into Ellie’s arm as she held her back.

“Mom,” Ellie said firmly, “I think if he wanted to hurt us, he would have done so already.  I’m pretty sure he can open an unlocked door.”

“She’s right, you know,” Steve chimed in.

Carol leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, trying to envision all of this having a positive outcome, just like they had practiced in the newly single parents support group she had gone to – only once, but then she was always so busy.  Taking a deep breath, she summoned all of her courage and, against her better judgment, opened the door a crack.

“Ok, Steve, what are your demands?”

“This isn’t a hostage negotiation, Carol.  I merely require your assistance in a couple of matters.”

**

“If you needed my DNA, why didn’t you just take it?” Carol asked.

“I would consider that highly rude, and I sincerely hope you would too,” Steve replied with indignation.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Create a new species to populate an uninhabited planet.”

“Isn’t that a bit like playing God?”

“Asks the woman who created me out of leftover Party Time Buddy kits.”

“Well,” Carol said hesitantly after a moment’s deliberation, “what else do you need?”

“A couple of grape popsicles, a mixing basin, all the cleaning supplies you have in the apartment, and a teaspoon of baking soda.”

“Why grape popsicles?”

“Ellie is thinking of them just now and they sound intriguing.”

Just then Ellie walked in the living room. She was wearing the earrings Steve had made for her.

“Ellie, help me gather all the cleaning supplies in the apartment and grab us a few of grape popsicles out of the freezer, would you?”

“Oh, good call mom,” Ellie said, nodding with deep appreciation – clearly impressed, “A grape popsicle sounds amazing.”

Carol smiled at Steve when Ellie turned her back.  He winked at her from a dozen or so eyes on different parts of his body, which was less horrifying than it might sound.

“Oh, I also need to borrow a sweater. Well, have one since technically I won’t be returning,” Steve added as he turned to a bright green liquid and oozed all over the floor to relax before his trip.

 

**

Steve, dressed in a grey cashmere sweater embellished with playful white kittens and a black beret positioned at a jaunty angle on his head, melted the sliding glass doors with his mind and stepped out onto the balcony.  He set the pickle jar that was now housing the beginnings of a new species on the ground and smiled sweetly.

“Ellie, I want you to know that your mother tries very hard and loves you very much.”

“I know,” Ellie said sheepishly, turning several shades of red and looking down at the ground.

“And Carol,” he said fondly, reaching out with a tentacle that she took in her hand. “Carol, you are a remarkable woman, but you have to move on. Your husband is never coming back.  You need to stop waiting for him. The service man that’s going to knock on your door in 4.5 minutes is named Dan. He’s a really nice, solid guy. He’s been a bachelor for a while, so you’ll have to be patient with how rough around the edges he is, but trust me, it will be worth it.”

With that he reconstituted the sliding glass door, scooped up the pickle jar and floated off the balcony, turning pink and gold as the sunset reflected off his now opalescent body.

Mother and daughter looked at each other for a moment before they met in a tight embrace.  Together, they watched Steve float up into the sky, before he popped into the clouds and was gone.

They both smiled.

Three minutes later someone knocked on their door.

1+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Rochford, by Steve Carr

#literary

Like the sound of breaking glass, the bell above the door tinkled noisily as Mrs. Wadsworth stepped through the open door with her dead dog in her arms. Bringing with her a blast of cold air from outside, she walked down the aisle of canned vegetables and laid the animal on the store counter. She slammed the palm of her hand down hard on the counter causing the coins in the breast cancer donation can to jingle.

“Your boy did this,” she said, her voice quivering with rage. “He’s a murderer.”

Tom stepped from behind the cash register and placed his hand on the lifeless white and brown beagle’s chest. “He’s dead, alright. What killed him?”

“Poison. Jonah poisoned him,” she said.

“How did he do that?” Tom said. He ran his hand down the dog’s body as if about to pet it, then remembered it was dead and pulled his hand away and put it in his pocket.

“He fed it some raw hamburger that he put poison in,” she said. She tugged her heavy wool coat around her hefty frame.

“Did you see him do it?” Tom said.

Her eyes suddenly opened wide as if she had just been startled. “Of course not, but I know he did it. There was some hamburger by Chester’s body when I found him in the yard yesterday and Jonah was in our yard petting Chester just a short time before that.”

“But you didn’t see him feed Chester any hamburger?” Tom said.

“No, but who else would do such a thing and as I said  . . . ,” she started.

“You shouldn’t make accusations you can’t prove,” Tom said.

“My proof is my poor dead Chester.” She bent over the dog, almost laying her upper body on it. “Poor Chester,” she whispered in its ear.

“I’m sorry about Chester,” Tom said.

Mrs. Wadsworth raised up slowly and said in a controlled, threatening manner, “You’re not sorry. Believe me, your boy won’t get away with this.” She scooped the dog into her arms and abruptly turned toward the door and walked out of the store, leaving the discordant jingling of the bells to fill the air.

Coming from behind the curtain in the doorway near the end of the counter, Jonah stepped out of the storeroom. “She’s crazy,” he said. “I didn’t kill her dog.”

“I know you didn’t, son,” Tom said. “It’s sad about her dog, though.”

“Yeah, it’s sad,” Jonah said. He turned and jumped up onto the counter, landing behind the potato chips display. “They have a band playing tonight at the Irish Gulch,” he said as he grabbed a small bag of barbecue potato chips from the display and tore it open with his teeth.

“You’re too young to be in there,” Tom said. He took a tattered rag from under the counter and began polishing the keys of the register.

“Shoot, Rochford is so small that everyone knows me and no one cares how old I am,” Jonah said. “I just go in to have a Coke and listen to the music. It’s not like I have any alcohol.”

“A seventeen year old boy should be doing other things than going to a bar,” Tom said.

“What else is there to do in Rochford on Saturday night?” Jonah said.

The bell chimed jarringly as Fred Dickens came into the store. He stopped at the door and clapped his hands, trying to warm them.

“Cold out there, ain’t it Fred?” Tom said as he tossed the rag under the counter.

“Colder than a witch’s tit,” Fred said. He stomped his boots on the store’s hardwood floor causing the bottles of salad dressing on the nearby shelf to rattle against each other. He walked down the aisle with the loaves of bread and grabbed a loaf of packaged white sandwich bread and shoved it under his arm as if he was carrying a football. At the end of the shelves he opened the glass refrigerator door and pulled out a large carton of whole milk. Letting the door close on its own he walked over to the counter.

“You going to graduate?” he said to Jonah as he walked behind him.

Jonah bit into a chip. “In June. I hope.”

“What you going to do after that?” Fred asked as he placed the bread and milk on the counter.

“Maybe join the Army,” Jonah said.

Tom turned the bread over and looked at the price and hit the keys on the register. “He’s a bright boy. He’ll be able to do whatever he sets his mind to.” He smashed down the keys for the milk and hit the total key. The amount showed up on a card in the glass window at the top of the register and the cash drawer opened with a resounding ring.

“Five sixty-five,” Tom said.

Fred took the bills from his wallet and the change from his pants pocket and laid it on the counter as Tom put the groceries in a brown paper bag.

“You heard anything about the mill being torn down?” Fred asked as he took the bag in one arm.

“Haven’t heard a thing about it lately,” Tom said. “I hope they leave it standing. The tourists like  it.”

“If it falls down while some tourists are climbing around inside it no one’s going to like it very much,” Fred said.

“I’d like to put a match to it and make a big bonfire of it,” Jonah said as he stuffed several chips into his mouth.

“Just what we’d need,” Fred said. “Burning down the old mill while burning down my house right next to it along with all of Rochford and probably starting a forest fire.”

“He was only kidding,” Tom said. “Weren’t you, son?” he said to Jonah.

“Sure, Pop.”

Fred walked down the aisle and out the door, his head bent as he walked into the wind.

*

Tom lazily rearranged the boxes of cereal on the shelf while glancing out of one of the four rectangular windows at the front of the store.  The wind was stirring up the dirt on the street and blowing it toward the direction of the Irish Gulch saloon on the other side of the intersection. Although never busy, there hadn’t been a vehicle pass by the store for over an hour. He took a box of Lucky Charms from the shelf and went to the window and looked out. The windows in the three houses across the street were dark. He opened the box,ripped open the inner bag.reached into the cereal, and searched around until he found one of the dehydrated marshmallows. He pulled it out and for a moment stared wistfully at the green clover marshmallow he was holding between his fingertips then put it in his mouth.

“What are you doing there?”

Tom turned. His wife was at the other end of the aisle, a look of bewilderment on her face.

“Just seeing what’s going on outside,” he said.

“I thought you and Jonah were going to do inventory today.”

“It can wait,” he said. “He had some other things he wanted to do and I told him it was okay.”

“You let him get away with not doing enough around here,” she said, crossing her arms.

Tom searched around in the box and pulled out a yellow moon. He held it up and showed it to her. “That remind you of anything, Beth?”

“I can’t see what you’re holding,” she said, not moving as if rooted in the spot where she was standing.

“It’s a crescent moon,” he said. “Just like the name of that motel we used to go to before we were married.”

“That was a long time ago and the motel was the Starlight.”

“Oh, that’s right. There’s stars in here also,” he said as he looked in the box and began pushing the cereal around.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said. “I have a pot roast in the oven.” She walked away, opening the door that led into their house attached to the back of the store.

Tom pulled out an orange star and held it up and then realized she was no longer there. He put it in his mouth just as the store’s door opened and the bell clattered.

The county sheriff, Mike Ramsy walked in, holding his cap in his hands. As the door closed he looked around, saw Tom near the window, and said, “We might finally get that snowstorm we’ve been expecting.”

“Looks like it,” Tom said. “How are you, Mike? You haven’t been around much lately.”

“This is a big county and you folks here in Rochford don’t cause much trouble.” He walked over to where Tom was standing and looked out the window. “Other than this store you could drive through this town and not even know someone actually lived here.”

Tom shook the box of cereal and peered into it. “Since the Thewsons moved away the population’s at a new low, eighty-four.”

“I had heard that,” Mike said. “The dog population is getting smaller also I hear.”

Tom reached into the box and pulled out another clover. “So, Sylvia Wadsworth called you, did she?”

“Hers was the third call,” Mike said. “Three pets poisoned in a town this small requires looking into. Mrs. Wadsworth seems to think your boy, Jonah, is poisoning the animals.”

“She came in here carrying her dead dog and made that accusation,” Tom said. “But she has no proof and everyone knows she has never liked me or Jonah.”

Mike ran his hand over his balding scalp. “For all the good being brought up in a small town like Rochford can do, it can also do some harm.”

“What are you saying, Mike?” Tom said.

“Only that one of the other pet owners also said they think it was Jonah who poisoned their cat,” Mike said.

“I’d stake my life on it, Jonah had nothing to do with poisoning those animals,” Tom said. He closed the box. “Was there anything else you wanted, Mike?”

“We’ve known each other for many years,” Mike said. “I’m just doing my duty.”

“Did you tell Mrs. Wadsworth and whoever else accused Jonah of killing their pets that in all these years you’ve never had one problem on account of Jonah?” Tom said.

“It sometimes takes a bad seed a long time to sprout.”

“Unless you have proof that Jonah killed those animals and you’ve come to arrest him, I’m going to ask you nicely to leave my store, Sheriff,” Tom said.

*

Beth placed two plates with pot roast, boiled potatoes, peas and a roll on the counter. The aroma of the food wafted in the air, mixing with the store’s scents of floor polish and age. The panes of glass in the windows rattled as they were battered by the wind and pelting rain.

“Jonah should be here,” she said.he sat on a stool behind the counter and faced her plate of food.

“I told him he could go hear the band down at the saloon,” Tom said, standing at the counter on the aisle side.

Beth turned her head and looked out the windows at the rain slashing sideways on the street. “I can’t believe the saloon is going to be open in this storm.” She put her fork into a potato and raised it to her mouth and bit into it.

“Why are we even open?” Tom said as he cut the pot roast into smaller pieces.

“We’re practically always open,” she said. “Ten in the morning until ten at night every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. It says so on the sign on the door.” She bit into and swallowed the rest of the potato.

“If we weren’t we would have closed up for good a long time ago,” he said. He put a piece of pot roast in his mouth.

“Maybe closing up and moving out of Rochford would have been a good thing,” she said.

“I’ve lived here my entire life,” he said. “Where would we have gone?” He pushed several peas around on his plate with his fork.

“Maybe somewhere that would have given Jonah a decent start in life.” She cut into her pot roast and put a piece in her mouth.

“Rochford is a decent place,” Tom said. “Nice people live in this town.”

“It’s been slowly dying for years.”

*

Still in his pajamas, Tom opened the door leading into the store.

Jonah was at the counter on the side of the aisle. He turned, surprised, and said, “Pop, what are you doing up so early?”

Tom looked at the windows and saw the snow falling in the early morning light, then looked back at Jonah. “I was going to ask you the same question.”

Jonah pushed aside a large plastic container on the counter and leaned on the container to hide it. He shoved a plastic baggie in his coat pocket. “I was going to go over Jake Harley’s and see if he was going to get his snowmobiles out.”

Tom walked toward him. “What are you trying to hide there?”

“Hide? I ain’t hiding anything Pop,” Jonah said.

Tom gently pushed Jonah away from the counter. He picked up the container and read the label on it. “Gopher bait. Strychnine.” He stared at it for several moments before saying anything. “Where did you get this?”

“I found it in the abandoned Winslow house,” Jonah said.

“It’s poison,” Tom said. “This stuff can kill cats, dogs and even people.”

“I had no idea,” Jonah said.

“Whatever you put in your pocket, hand it to me,” Tom said angrily.

Jonah pulled the baggie out of his pocket. “It’s just some leftover pot roast. I was going to take it with me in case I got hungry.”

Tom grabbed the baggie from Jonah’s hand. “Did you put poison on this meat?”

“No, Pop, why would I do that?” Jonah said.

Tom started to open the baggie. “What if I ate some of it?”

“No, Pop, don’t,” Jonah said. “Okay, I put the gopher bait on the pot roast.”

“Why?” Tom said.

“I was going to kill a few of the rats that are always getting into the saloon’s dumpster. That’s all, Pop. I thought you’d get angry at me for playing around with poison.”

Tom felt his throat tightening as he said, “It would kill me if I found out you were lying to me, Jonah.”

Jonah looked around him, as if looking for an escape route. “I ain’t lied to you in my entire life, Pop.”

“What about the animals around town that were poisoned?” Tom said.

“It wasn’t me that did it, but they’re just animals, Pop. I don’t know why everyone’s so angry about it,” Jonah said as he backed toward the store front door.

“They’re living things, pets, animals that people care about.”

“If it was me that poisoned the animals, I’d be graduated and enlisted in the Army before anyone figured it out anyway,” Jonah said. He dashed toward the door and grabbed the knob and pulled the door open making the bell rattle noisily. Standing in the doorway as snow blew in, Jonah said, “You know the folks who live here. Dumb as a bag of rocks, every one of them.”

He ran out, and out of sight, leaving the imprints of his boots in the snow.

Stunned, Tom watched the large flakes of snow fall on the store’s floor. Almost mechanically he walked to the door and closed it, then went to a window and stared out at the snow covered street. It was as empty as he felt.

He opened the baggie and reached in and took out a handful of the pot roast. He stared at it for several minutes before he put it in his mouth.

3+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

HIRAETH, by Kerri Caldwell

#literary #Mental health

8 years I’ve been in therapy.
7 years is how long H has been my therapist.
6 years old: the age I was when my mom and I were saved from the hell we’d been living.
5 weeks went by before I was allowed to my see my mom again.
4 months I sat in a chair facing a window, ignoring H while she patiently waited me out.
3 months after my fifteenth birthday my mom told me she was dying.
2 weeks of silence is all I had to say to anyone.
1 year later she was gone.

H

As soon as she’s through my office door, Nora is ripping the headphones from her iPod. I could hear the music blasting when I went to get her from the waiting room. I don’t recognize the song, but I recognize her mood. She throws the headphones on my desk, and I watch as she plugs in the tiny pink piece of technology into the speaker that sits on my desk, just for her. I anticipate the song she chooses, but only silence follows. She remains unmoving as I make my way around my desk and lean against it so that I’m not quite facing her. We’ve done this dance for years now, but it’s the music that plays that will lead the way. After a few minutes I look to her, where she’s watching me. I can read everything on her face, I always have. Even as an angry, hateful nine-year-old, I saw what no one else did. She wasn’t just a file that held details about a child no one would want to read, not when the child’s suffering happened at the hands of her father. All I really need to know about Nora comes from her face. In the beginning, this was the saving grace for both of us. I could see what she wanted to say, but Nora didn’t know how to communicate it. Expressing herself through speaking wasn’t something she was comfortable with, and I realized this about her immediately. It didn’t take long for the two of us to come up with our own language. I’ve never had this connection with any of my patients, not before Nora, and not since.

Today, everything about her screams uncertainty. As safe as Nora feels with me, she will always default to self-doubt. Years of our therapy sessions together, both inside these four walls, and other places we’ve found ourselves, has allowed her to work through an emotion that was once so crippling, Nora would pass out. Today, I am confident she’ll get past this place of uncertainty. Still, knowing that Nora often needs me to make the first move during these silent conversations, I kick off my shoes, pull my hair back, and sit across from her in my desk chair. Tucking my long legs under me, I reach for my phone, searching.

I love my sessions with Nora. She is always my last patient of the day. As a person, I’ve always felt a pull to help others find their way back from whatever derailed them. As a therapist, this almost never happens. There isn’t a lot of satisfaction or reward, or even a sense of accomplishment. With Nora, it’s different. I can reach her, feel her energy, and while I’ve no doubt come to love her, the connection between us still isn’t something I can understand. It goes beyond doctor-patient, to a place I can’t define.

I feel the air around us lighten as I scroll through my ever-growing library of songs. I find what I’m looking for and set my phone on my desk, swiveling my chair in time with the music. Looking away, Nora visibly relaxes. Sitting in one of the chairs, she folds her arms across my desk and rests her chin. It takes seconds for the entire mood inside my office to shift. Calm and peaceful, I close my eyes and let the words speak from my soul to Nora’s. She lets the song play twice before pausing it. Chin still resting on her folded arms, her eyes meet mine.

“A boy likes me.” she whispers. In those four words I hear a thousand that don’t follow.

Nora is 16. Her dark eyes always make you look twice. And I know more than just one boy is crushing on her with that face. Even in her anger, her hurt, or her tears, she’s beautiful. But when that smile comes out, it’s contagious. Everyone only sees that stoic, serious face that is so intriguing. She draws people to her without trying, without wanting to. Her social skills are no longer severely underdeveloped, but this doesn’t mean she’ll ever have the confidence to use them. To others, Nora is quiet, shy, and reserved. To me, she was a broken little girl that’s grown into an adjusted teenager who still can’t quite trust anyone. Her dark, wavy, wild hair matches the chaotic soul inside she desperately tries to control. But just like half a bottle of leave in conditioner tames her wild curls, music tames her wild mind. But it hasn’t cured her. She still has significant social anxiety. A boy crushing on Nora is a waking nightmare for her. I know this can’t be the first time a boy has shown an interest in her, but it seems to be the first time she’s noticed. After witnessing the things her father did to her mother when he wasn’t laying his hands on her, it’s not surprising that Nora avoids these types of relationships at all costs.

“Do you know a lot about him?”

“He’s in every single class I have. He’s not loud.” Loud is Nora’s word for anything that attracts attention. “I don’t want him to like me. I don’t want anyone to like me.” All these years with Nora, and she can still make me fight back tears. But I find comfort in what we’re talking about. This is a normal, teenage girl worry. We aren’t discussing anger issues, or the fact that tomorrow Nora will be sitting with her mom as she goes through another chemo treatment. These are the observations that make for notes I eagerly add to her files. She has too many notes and comments about setbacks.

“We can’t control what others see or feel when they look at us.”

Nora sighs in annoyance, but it makes me smile. She knows what I’m going to say next.
“But we can control our own reactions. Yeah, I know…” she trails off, leaving silence. I let her be, knowing she would tell me in one way or another what was really bothering her. I scroll through the iPod, hoping she’ll speak before I find a song to speak for her. These are the signs I watch out for, that tell me where Nora’s head is, and whether she’s in a good place or lost inside herself.

“What is my reaction supposed to be?”

N O R A

I wish I could feel at ease around other people. I want to be able to laugh with friends. I want to have friends. But whether it’s the classmates I’m currently shutting out, or strangers I can’t evade, ignoring everyone has worked for me for so long. It’s a habit I’m convinced keeps me safe. Everything is different with H, though. The only person I trusted was my mom, and then H came into my life. She wasn’t loud, but she wasn’t soft, either. She was safe and familiar, a stranger that felt like home. It made no sense, but I never questioned it. There were never any questions to ask, just answers I didn’t know I needed.
Of all the answers H has given me over the years, none have been as important as music. Music, for me, is the answer to everything. When the chaos inside of me reaches the point of crippling weight, music sorts out the feelings and emotions that I can’t. And when the words I can’t speak overflow my brain, music is how I release them. It’s how I let my mom and H know I love them, I need them, I’m not okay, I need you to hold me, don’t touch me, but don’t leave me, yesterday was hard, but I’m so happy today, so please stop worrying. I am a mess of contradicting emotions, and music is my translator.

I wonder who I would be today if my past wasn’t so intricately woven into all of my tomorrows. Before I started therapy, I never gave a second thought to my lack of communication. Silence was armor that sometimes kept me safe from angry, violent hands. Silence kept me from saying the wrong words, words I’ve witnessed bring my mom to her knees. They weren’t meant to hurt her. They were meant to save my mom from him.

I never come near to what I want to say. Staying mute is safer than the words I can’t ever seem to get to come out right. The sounds my mother made that night, and the sight of her inconsolable on the floor, used to be a relentless loop inside of my head. It was a constant reminder that something I said caused that amount of pain for the only person in my life that I loved – until H made me see how my silence tortured my mom as much as it did me.

“Nora?” I look up at the sound of my teacher’s voice interrupting my thoughts. Without looking at the time, I know why she’s calling for me. As I gather my things, I wonder how many more times I’ll be doing this.

I don’t have to wonder for long. As I reach the front office, I feel two things before I see H. The first is H herself. I’ve always been able to feel her presence without actually seeing her. She’s hard not to notice, though. It’s difficult to tell what you see first: her towering height, or the bright red hair. Her pale skin, thin frame, and beauty scream “runway model” and not “I make the world a safer place by medicating all your local psychos.”

The second feeling is a crushing weight of panic. It’s not supposed to be her picking me up at this specific time of day.

I freeze where I am for a second, before I’m hyperaware of everyone around me. H has me out of the school doors seconds later, away from the stares, away from the sympathetic looks that are killing me inside. The silence inside of H’s car is too loud, and before I can reach for my iPod, she turns the car on. The song that plays tells me everything. No thought enters my mind without being obliterated by the lyrics singing the truth. There is no chance for the “maybe” or “what if” scenarios to comfort me. Music deals the hard blow with sweet melodies and heavy words.

When we reach the hospital, I want nothing more than the safe confines of my room, where I can be alone. Instead, we walk into a loud room full of beeping, voices, humming machines, and feelings I can’t keep at bay. The room feels claustrophobic with nurses and doctors and their grim faces, rushed movements, and lack of eye contact. The only stillness comes from the bed, where my mom sleeps peacefully. I don’t know what my face looks like, but it must mirror the terror I feel inside because H comes behind me and wraps her arms around me. For a second, as she pulls me to her, I think she’s crying, but it’s not her. It’s not her shaking quietly, not realizing that she’s falling apart. I can’t make my body go to her, can’t move my feet closer to the bed. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not yet. We were supposed to have more time.

I push back against H, desperate to be somewhere where this isn’t happening. She’s solid behind me, though, and the only move she makes is to bend to my ear.

“Just go to her, Nora. She can feel you, and she can hear. Just tell her.” I hear H’s words, but it’s what she presses into my hand that makes sense. I don’t have to look to know what it is, and I grip it like a lifeline as I go to my mom.

She’s dying. It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming, but nothing seems real until you’re crawling into a hospital bed with a body that’s been cold to the touch for too long, and pulling out headphones to listen to a song that leads to goodbye.

She doesn’t move. She’s under layers of blankets. For the last few months, nothing had been able to warm her up. Everything else about her, though, especially her smile, stayed warm. Looking at her now, I panic at suddenly not being able to vividly see her smiling in my head. How could I have lost this already? Before I can be pulled under by this thought, music fills my ears. At first, I think H must’ve set up this iPod, but then I recognize the song. There is only one voice that could sing to me the words my mother can’t speak to me, and for the rest of my life, that voice would be the most significant one that I would associate with the most important person in my life to leave me behind. There would be days to come where the headphones wouldn’t come away from my ears, days where I shut the entire world out so that it was just me, that voice, and my mom. The days will also come, fast and hard, where I won’t be able to hear that voice without feeling like someone lit me on fire. Fire burns and blisters, and it destroys whatever it touches, so that the only proof something existed is because those who once loved them have them safely tucked into a back corner of their minds. Songs will coax them from that dark space and the right lyrics will put them back when it’s too much.

No, this wasn’t from H. This song, these words, came from someone else.

“Mom.” I whisper. But there’s only silence from her. So, I put her song to me on repeat and close my eyes, ignoring the world outside of us. This was all I needed and everything I didn’t want.

H

I watch the scenes unfold. I watch helplessly, frustrated that there is absolutely nothing that I can do. I can’t stop Ruby’s suffering, and the rippled effect it’s created. We’ve all started to feel it, but I’m feeling it on different levels. I watch as her daughter’s therapist. I watch as her daughter’s protector.

I watch as someone I love slips away, faster than I can prepare the other person I love for this very loss. Time spent together as strangers in stressful, sensitive situations brought about trust and a unique bond between the three of us. When Ruby was required to attend therapy sessions she saw another doctor outside of my practice. We thought it was best that Ruby speak to someone who had no association or personal connection with Nora. Ruby had wounds that needed healing, too, pain that existed outside of Nora’s. I never refused Ruby my friendship, though, whether it came to her, or Nora. Months of progress, setbacks, reluctant smiles, emergency sessions, and panicked phone calls made us a family. We ate dinner together once a month, and had movie nights. Girls night out with Ruby was equivalent to my time with Nora; it was something fulfilling in my life. The time I give Nora helps her grow, but what Ruby gave me in those moments when it was just the two of us, two women only a few years apart in age, but living significantly different lives, is impossible to put into words. On a professional level, I understood why Nora needed music to communicate her feelings. But it wasn’t until I got to know Ruby that I was able to truly comprehend this overwhelming emotion on a personal level with Nora. What Ruby unknowingly gave me that particular night was a gift to both me and her daughter.

“How many different ways did you imagine your future?”                   

“An embarrassing amount.” My answer makes Ruby laugh, the darkness surrounding us making it seem louder. We’re at a comfortable place together after nearly two years, but I can feel things starting to shift as we grow closer. Our roles are becoming less “therapist and worried mother of a traumatized child” and more of a friendship between two adult women who still feel like we don’t know what the hell we are doing. “I only ever imagined my future going one way, and I think that’s where I fucked up.” I turn away from the stars to find Ruby watching them like all our answers are somewhere in between them.                             “Because it didn’t go like you thought it would, and now you have no idea what to do?” Ruby smiles before she narrows her eyes at me, asking, “Friend or therapist?” It’s my turn to smile while I roll my eyes and answer, “Friend. Always friend. I thought helping people would be the easiest thing in the world. I never imagined I’d get so invested in someone, and then never know what happened to them. Never know if I helped them enough to stay alive, or to build a better life that made them want to stay alive. It’s not something I’ll ever get used to.”        

    Ruby nods, eyes shining. “All I wanted was a family. A husband, kids, pets, baseball and soccer games, photo albums full of family vacations. All of that boring shit. Instead of being the mom that went on class field trips and made cookies for the bake sale, I became the single mom that rearranges her schedule for court ordered mother-daughter therapy sessions.” Eyes on the stars, she reaches out her hand, and I’m already grabbing it. “I would’ve done anything to save my little girl. So, I locked away that dream and focused on building a new dream, even though I had no idea what that was. I was scared shitless that first year we started therapy. My baby was gone, and I knew I had to do something before I lost her forever.” We’re both staring at a blurry sky, our gripped hands keeping us grounded. “You saved her, Brooke. I will never know how to thank you. But I’ll always keep trying to show you how grateful I am that you love her as fiercely as I do.” For the first time I can’t understand what I’m feeling, and after hours of restless sleep, I finally have the realization that this is exactly what Nora goes through. Taking a cue     from her, I pull up one of her many playlists saved on my laptop. I scan the songs, unsure of what I’m looking for, and settle on putting everything on shuffle. Six songs in, it happens. My head is full of so much that it’s easier to let it go running off out of control. I don’t know how long the song plays before my mind is so empty that I don’t realize my eyes are open, and I’ve been staring at the ceiling. It’s like the words chased away the thoughts that didn’t belong and put the rest in a sequence I could understand. I am momentarily paralyzed at what just happened, overwhelmed at the abrupt absence of being overwhelmed.   

    I play the memories over in my head as I watch my best friend sleeping serenely, when just hours ago I was sure I was watching her die. The sounds of pain that came from her will never leave my memory. I’m grateful Nora hadn’t been here to witness any of that. What she’s getting now is what she needs. Silence, so that she can speak. Silence, so that she can hear. Months ago, Ruby had asked me to help her come up with a playlist for Nora when the time came. What started out as a good-bye turned into something so much more. And what should’ve been another weekly chemo visit has turned into what I’m unable to acknowledge.

Hours go by without incident. Nora is another appendage to Ruby, the two of them lying in the hospital bed, one blissfully unaware and the other far too fragile to be in the center of all of this. I can’t tell if Nora is going through the playlist, or if she’s stuck on one song, but she’s got her headphones in each of their ears. In this moment, we are secluded in this tiny hospital room, with its suffocating lack of light. There are no windows and the dull, colorless walls only reinforce the fact that this room has seen the death of many. I’m afraid to stay how we are, because I know the longer we do, the more pieces Nora will shatter into when the time comes. We’ve skipped over all those preparations for hospice, a time that Nora would’ve been able to adjust at a slower pace, and gone straight to the end instead. The end that comes two days later.

8 agonizing days went by before Nora shed a tear.

7 different times I tried to tell her.

6 songs played on repeat.

5 weeks later she finally listened to something different.

4 days later I finally told her.

3 times she told me she hated me.

2 days in a row I woke up with Nora sleeping on the floor beside my bed.

1 month from now will be the biggest test of our relationship.

N O R A

I never thought the day would come when music would betray me. When I’ve needed it most, when the emotions inside of me have been as contradicting and confusing as ever, music has turned everything into a knotted mess more tangled than my headphones. Some days I listen to the playlist my mom left me from morning until night. Other days, I can’t stand the sight of my iPod. One song leaves me calm, but the next leaves me drowning with doubt about everything. And because I can’t figure out one feeling from the other, I resort to the one I know so well.

I can’t remember the last time I screamed at H. I can’t recall the last time I felt this much anger towards her. I do know the first time I felt hatred towards her because it was just a few days ago. I spoke the words “I hate you” with so much emotion that my throat burned for hours after. It hurt just as much the next two times I shouted it in her face. I can’t face in her the light, so I go to her in the safety of shadows and silence at night. In these quiet moments, I can feel it. That connection with H has never been as strong as it has since I came to stay with her weeks ago. It’s the source of all my confusion, and not one song has come close enough to speak what I can’t make sense of, the words I need H to hear. Thirty-nine words you won’t find in a song keep me company when I can’t sleep, something that is just as torturous.

I’m not angry at her. I’m hurting, I feel lost, and the anchor that has always secured me to earth is giving me the distance I don’t want, but most certainly deserve. And I know the reason H isn’t pushing me is because she’s just as confused. We have a new dance with no music to lead us, leaving us stumbling over each other’s feet, with one of us occasionally knocking the other down.

I’m reminded of those first months when I started seeing H, who was Miss Brooke back then. By the time she got to me, I’d already seen more psychiatrists and psychologists than the years she’d been in practice. It didn’t matter though, for me or for her. She didn’t treat me like I was the damaged, fragile child every other therapist had. And she wasn’t just another doctor I was afraid to talk to. I didn’t know what she was, I just knew I felt comfortable with her, nothing like how I’d felt with all the others. It would take a few years before I would be able to define Miss Brooke, but from that point on, I would always refer to her as “H.” I’ve never shared with her why I call her this, and she’s never asked. I feel like my mom might’ve known, though. I’m not sure why, I just always had the feeling she understood. It was like I suddenly knew how to breathe again, and she knew as much as I did that it was entirely because of H.

I’m on the verge of sleep with memories of times that my mom, H, and I would spend together outside of therapy when the song comes to me.

H

    On that third morning I wake up to an odd feeling. All night I had dreams of the court hearing we are supposed to have in a month, the one that will legally make me Nora’s guardian. It takes a few seconds before I realize that my alarm clock isn’t going off. Instead, music is playing. I sit up, expecting Nora to be on my floor again, but I’m alone. I sit back with a sigh, unsure of whether the knot in my heart is bigger than the one in my stomach. I know I need to be easier on both myself and Nora, considering what we’ve been through. And if I let the psychiatrist in me do her job, I could admit that we are both coping with normal behaviors and emotions. But I am no longer Nora’s therapist.

A brief pause in the music grabs my attention, and I realize that the song is on repeat. I sit up, a piece of paper just within reach on my bed. Just as I turn my head, letting the music fill my ears, my eyes fill with tears with a heartbreaking recognition at what I’m reading.

Hello, good morning, how you do? What makes your rising sun so new?

I could use a fresh beginning, too, all of my regrets are nothing new.

Hello, good morning, how you been? Yesterday left my head kicked in.

I never, never thought that I would fall like that, never knew that I could hurt this bad.

So this is the way that I say I need you

This is the way the I’m learning to breathe, I’m learning to crawl

I’m finding that you and you alone can break my fall.

It’s the very first song Ruby added to Nora’s playlist, the one that gave her the idea to create one in the first place. When I heard the words, sitting alone in my living room later that night, I wanted no more part of this project. How could I? These were the words Nora was going to need because her mother would no longer be around. She was overcoming one betrayal at the hands of one parent and falling headfirst right into another tragedy from the other.

For the first time, I allow myself to cry – the hard, painful kind, a reaction I’ve always had to fight when it came to Nora. But this time is different. This time Nora belongs to me. And the way Ruby and I left this detail unfinished can only be blamed on me now. We talked many times about how to tell Nora that I’d be her legal guardian if Ruby died before her eighteenth birthday. Aside from the legal documents, though, we never could settle on how to tell Nora. It was as if we were sealing Ruby’s fate if we solidified this last detail, and so we foolishly left it unfinished in the only way we could.

To admit this has backfired is the easy way out. Finding a way to apologize in Nora’s language was going to be hard on us both, but I’m the only one that deserves this pain. My first opportunity to protect Nora is a glaringly obvious fuck up on my part. A small part of me holds onto the fact that I know where Nora stands, with a bigger part of me acknowledging that she reached out on her own to show me. I know exactly how to bridge this gap, and then I can let Nora cross it at her own pace. I just need to be patient.

N O R A

    I’ve had my ear up to my wall for an hour, listening for anything to come from H’s room on the other side of our adjoining walls. The only sound is my song to H, playing on repeat. I start to get worried around the same time my neck starts to hurt. I wait another twenty minutes before the tears become too hard to hold back. The ache inside of me is worse than my neck. I let myself fall back onto the floor, where I can still faintly hear the music. I reach for my phone to play something else so I don’t have to listen to it. When I touch the screen to pick a song, a text comes through, and I accidentally open it instead. It’s from H, and it’s something shared from her iTunes. A song I’ve never heard. I wait, letting the magic of this language work its way throughout me, putting my insides together, and feel it settle into the parts that are so hard to control. I listen as I’m told, over and over again, that this is the day. This is the day that my life will surely change. Things will fall into place. Eight times he sings me these words, and eight times I believe him.

I’m so entranced by the song that I don’t even feel H watching me from my door. She joins me on the floor as the song finishes, and takes my hand. Her green eyes are bright, the pale skin on her face flushed. I’ve only seen H cry once or twice, but I always know when she’s sad or upset when there’s color in her face.

“We didn’t know how to tell you.”

I nod.

“We fucked up.”

I laugh.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“This is going to happen again. We can’t help it. But we’ll figure it out, we always have. One day this might feel like home to you, but know that nothing can ever replace your real home…Nora?” I hear H call my name as I run out of my room, looking for a box I had yet to unpack. I find it in the front room, and when I open it, what I’m looking for is sitting on top, waiting to be opened at the perfect moment.

This is the moment. This is the day our lives are going to change. I turn around when I hear her come behind me, my H. I silently hand her the envelope, and watch as she sits down to open it and begins reading. It won’t take her but a minute, and so I wait for her to read those thirty-nine words that have filled the cracks inside of me since the day I met H.

Hiraeth: a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning for a homely feeling; an expression for the bond you feel to someone or something that feels like home.

H

    I read the words on the paper, not quite understanding. They feel familiar, despite the fact I’ve never heard of this expression. I read them over again, trying to make the connection, trying to understand why-

H. When I look up at Nora she’s patiently standing there, this look on her face I will never forget. When she comes to me, I pull her onto my lap. I’m a blubbering mess, holding Nora tight, as she calmly lets me fall apart. She’s so tiny compared to me, but it feels like she fits perfectly.

“I didn’t know what the word was until years after I met you, but this feeling has been there since that first day. I didn’t know I was homesick until I sat with you in your office. But more than anything, you are my hiraeth because you are my someone that feels like home.”

“An expression for the bond you feel to someone that feels like home.” I whisper. “That’s why you call me H?” My red hair falls over her brown hair when she nods, and I know she’s out of words. I pull her to me even tighter, her head over my heart, both of us content to stay in this moment.

We are finally home.

E P I L O G U E

H

    Later that same night, I find another piece of paper inside the envelope from Nora. As I unfold it, a newspaper clipping falls out, one that I recognize immediately because I have the same one pressed between the pages of my mother’s favorite book. The handwriting in the letter catches my eye.

My dear friend,

    My mom always told me that any sacrifice, any good deed, and any kind act, no matter how small or big, was worth the effort because you didn’t know the impact it could have on someone. It might be all they needed to turn their day around, or it might just be as important as making them want to see the next day. Brooke, what you do matters. Please don’t ever doubt this.

    I know you’re confused about the newspaper article, the one about the woman who was kept on life support for two months so that her baby could live. That woman knew she wouldn’t survive the car accident she’d been in and begged her doctor to save her baby, no matter what. As you know, that doctor kept her promise. That doctor, who was my mother, kept the promise she made to her best friend, who also happened to be my godmother. I was about four when she died, so I don’t remember much about her, the woman who saved her baby. My own mother died before Nora was born, but she made me promise every time she told that story that I would name my first daughter after my godmother. She never knew what became of the baby. The father raised her, and they moved away without a word, days after she was born. The only information she had was the baby’s name, the same as her mother’s.

    I once told you I would risk anything to save Nora. This included taking a chance on a new therapist for her, except that the one I happened to find wasn’t just new, she was hardly experienced. Something about you made me feel safe, though, and I knew my daughter would be safe with you, too.   

    My mom saved the baby of her best friend, who then grew up to save the baby of her own best friend.  I told you I’d never be able to thank you for giving me my little girl back, but I would always keep trying.

    Look at Nora’s birth certificate. You have always been connected to each other, and now she belongs to you.

Your best friend, Ruby

My hands shake as I look through papers and documents, my mind racing as I try to connect all the dots. I’ve been given an overload of information that doesn’t quite make sense. I end up having to look through the stack three times before my fingers graze the paper I want. My eyes dance until I find it, along with the clarity that comes with it. All my questions are answered when I see her name.

Our names.

Eleanor Brooke.    

5+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

A Girl You Couldn’t Hurt, by Con Chapman

#literary

It was probably Dean who was responsible for him being where he was right now, he thought as he sat across the table from his fiancée, listening to her talk about the wedding and the gifts they were registered for and the reception. He had discovered an album he didn’t approve of—Barbra Streisand–among Dean’s records when he went to stay with him shortly after he got married to a woman from Cleveland.

“What . . . is this?” he had asked, holding it out gingerly at the ends of his fingers as if it were a dead animal hanging by its tail.

“That’s hers,” Dean had said, as if it was no big deal.

“Good Lord,” he had said. “If that’s what married life is going to be like . . .”

Dean had just given him the old shit-eating grin, the one he knew so well, the one Dean had pulled off the night a cop had found them stopped along the side of the road and shined his flashlight in the window.

“Have you been kids been drinking?” the cop had asked and Dean, without so much as a second’s lag time, had said “Officer—we’re not even twenty-one.”

“You take the woman, you get her records,” Dean said now, and he didn’t seem the least bit troubled, the guy he’d shared so many nights with, listening to music in a state of altered consciousness.

“You don’t actually . . . listen to it with her—do you?”

“As little as possible, but it’s like buying a car with seat covers that weren’t your first choice. You don’t even notice after a while.”

“Mom said they would buy us four place settings, so we actually only have eight to go to make twelve,” his fiancée said as she scanned their wedding registry checklist. “Do you think you’ll want to have bigger dinner parties for clients?” she asked, as business-like as a tailor taking his measurements.

“I don’t think so,” he said in an indifferent tone that he didn’t have to hide because his fiancée wasn’t paying close attention to him with so many details yet to finalize.

“So . . . you actually married somebody whose tastes you can’t abide?” he had asked Dean back when he was still looking.

“I’ve progressed beyond the romantic notion that there’s only one woman for me and I have to keep looking until I find her and if I don’t, I’ll die a lonely and miserable death.”

There was an implied criticism in that response, and he had to admit it wasn’t an unfair one. He’d fallen in love with a girl in high school who would joke with him, complete his sentences, borrow his records and books—a virtual female twin, and he had thought they’d get married and live happily ever after. Then her father was transferred halfway across the country to Rochester and she started going out with college guys and after a while he knew she was gone.

“So . . . there’s no love involved?” he asked.

“Sure I love her, but not the kind of puppy love you and I used to succumb to. I love her and I want to take care of her and I think she’ll make a great mother, and I let her have her sphere of influence.”

“That makes it sound like statesmanship.”

“It is, sort of. She can decorate the house and make whatever she wants for dinner and plan any vacation she wants, and I want to be able to play golf and watch football or whatever sometimes and not go to church.”

“How’s it working out so far?”

“Just fine,” Dean said. “It’s an economic proposition, too.”

“That sounds cold.”

“Maybe, but that’s life, pal. When you were picking up skanks at discos . . .”

“Which was never . . .”

“You know what I mean. Hitting on women at parties with no thought more than twelve hours into the future, it didn’t matter. If you actually date a woman for awhile with the idea you might want to get married to her you end up knowing where she comes from and who her family is.”

“And that overrules your instincts?”

“It channels them,” Dean said.

“I haven’t found anybody I want to commit to is all,” he said.

“You haven’t found a girl you couldn’t hurt is what you mean.”

He stopped then and looked at Dean. “What does that mean?”

“Instead of one of these hard-bitten molls you find in a fancy bar on Newbury Street, find a girl so nice you couldn’t hurt her—not in a million years.”

“But . . . if I did, I don’t think I’d be attracted to her.”

“Well, that’s your problem,” Dean said. “Once you get over that hurdle, you’ll be fine.”

“My mom is inviting so many people from Ohio, I can’t believe it!” his fiancée said as she ran her finger down the guest list. “I hope they start early to get their reservations, because the hotels will be booked solid pretty soon.”

He looked at her, her head focused on the tasks before her, and he thought to himself that Dean’s advice had turned out to be good. He had found a girl who he could tell would be a great mother, who came from a solid family. They shared some interests but each had a zone that didn’t overlap with anything in the other’s life. And she was so nice, so sweet, he couldn’t imagine hurting her in a million years.
The waiter appeared to take their order, and she pushed aside her lists long enough to look at the menu and select the veal marsala. He ordered fish—something that was definitely not something she favored—and they returned to their former positions; a tableau with her poring over her papers while he looked off into the distance, distracted but not unhappy, content to let her put together the beginnings of their nest.

“That music’s annoying,” she said. “When the waiter comes back could you ask him to turn it down, please?”

“Sure,” he said. It must have been like a high-pitched noise that dogs could hear but humans couldn’t, he thought. He hadn’t even noticed the music over the din of the restaurant, but she had. He concentrated a bit—the music sounded familiar but between the clinking of the glasses as the bartender put them into the dishwasher and the guy on his right who was droning on and on to his wife about how he was no slouch in the intellect department, he couldn’t identify it.

“It’s very jarring,” she said. “How many people are you inviting again?”

“I don’t know, I guess . . . I counted eight the other day.”

“Well, give me your list—we may have to do a little pruning if mom keeps sending me names.”

He heard a saxophone which cut through the noise in a way that the piano hadn’t, and he recognized that the music was a Thelonious Monk album.

“That’s okay—I doubt they’ll all make it. It’s a long way for them to come,” he said.

“Good. I mean—not good that they can’t come, good that it frees up more places for mom.”

He’d only had a few Monk albums in his life, but his roommate in Chicago had had a few, so he tried to recall which one was being played.

“Hel-lo?” his fiancée said. “Are you listening to me?”

“Sorry, I was . . . listening . . . looking for the waiter.”

“Did you ever get in touch with that band leader?”

“I did—he says they’re available.”

“Can they play our song?” she said, and as she did she looked up at him and smiled, and extended her hand across the table for him to grasp.

“I doubt it—they’re more a swing group,” he said, taking her hand. “So your parents’ friends can dance,” he lied. He had picked the band precisely because he knew they would not know any current songs, and could be relied on not to give in to requests to play loud, fast rock numbers as the evening wore on.

“Well, they can practice between now and then, right?”

“Right.”

“Anyway, that’s your job. I have a fitting with the bridesmaids this Saturday.” Her voice trailed off and he started to concentrate on the music again. It wasn’t from the big collection of classic jazz he’d bought, so it must have been the album with the crazy picture of Monk on the cover, with a machine gun over his shoulder, and a tied-up Gestapo officer and a striking female resistance fighter in the background standing next to—a cow.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“You laughed.”

“I was thinking of an old album cover I used to have.”

She looked at him as if he’d said he’d seen a squirrel loose in the restaurant.

“The things you think of sometimes,” she said, as moved her Cross pen—a trinket from some deal she’d been involved in—down her bridesmaids’ grid. “Cynthia’s boyfriend just got hair plugs,” she said with an expression of obvious distaste. “I hope the swelling’s gone down by the time we need him for the pictures.”

The thought of the album brought back to mind a night when he’d gone to a Frank Zappa concert in Chicago with some guys in his dorm, and all of a sudden an Asian woman had plunked herself down next to him and said simply “Hi.”

“Hi,” he had said, and she proceeded to pepper him with questions about the band as if he were a reporter from Rolling Stone or something. He knew a little, but not much, but she didn’t seem to care; a good-looking woman attracted to him for no good reason at all—this was apparently what he was missing staying on campus studying all the time.

“We’re using Thurston’s for the flowers—they’re my favorite,” his fiancée said.

“What’s the difference—aren’t all flowers the same?”

She arched an eyebrow to convey her disappointment in his naïveté. “There’s all the difference in the world between one florist and another.”

“Well I don’t know that kind of stuff,” he said, a little miffed. “There’s no need to snap at me.”
“I wasn’t snapping, I was just stating a fact.”

The Asian woman had sat next to him through the whole concert, then had asked where he lived. He was a little embarrassed to tell her that he was still in a dorm, not an apartment, but she had said “Can I go see it?” One of the other guys in the group gave him a look of congratulation, and the two of them walked to the train together, as a couple, with her arm hooked into his.

When they got to the room they listened to music for awhile; he didn’t want to put on rock because he figured they were going to have sex, so he put on the only piano album he had, the Monk album.

“This is nice,” she’d said as she lay back on his bed, opening her arms to him in invitation.

“Are we going to write our own vows?” his fiancée asked. Her expression conveyed the sense that she really didn’t want to be forced to be creative.

“Keep it simple,” he had said, biting on the word “stupid” since he knew she’d take it the wrong way if she hadn’t heard the expression before.

They’d proceeded from making out to sex faster than he thought possible, and when they were through he rolled over and found himself still erect several minutes later. He had developed blue balls, possibly because he hadn’t had sex for a long time. He got up to flip the record over and came back to bed.

“Uh, I guess we can do it again if you want to,” he’d said.

“I’m ready if you are,” the Asian woman had said.

“Can you talk to your friends beforehand and persuade them to dress appropriately?” his fiancée asked with a tone that he understood meant she was deadly serious.

“Sure,” he said. “Sure,” but he was thinking of something else.

1+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

What’s Your 20? by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#creative nonfiction #literary

On a hot June day, out in the fresh hardwood and hemlock shaded forest roads, our bus-full of sightseers has embarked on what was billed as a relaxing weekend in the Alleghenies. But, to our dismay, our supersized driver has taken on Pennsylvania’s western winding two-lane blacktops in rough and ready style, and scenery begins to blur. As he careens, the narrow roads seem to spin. I worry we’ll never make these curves.
Our designated picnic spot eludes our grumbling driver, until tires crunch on a gravel lot, and we spy a rustic pavilion; picnic tables sheltered in Oak and Pine. Hungry and tired, we disembark. I gauge distance across the lot against thickening clouds, and wish I were back at the hotel—better yet, home. I ease onto a splintered bench, as a sudden wind whips a massive branch free. With a sharp crack and loud roll, it hits too close.
No taste for my turkey sandwich, I abandon the table for the bus. I toss my apple core to a squirrel begging in the windy weeds. Gusts blow dust and fumes from the idling bus across the lot. Rain stings my face as I mount the steps in a somber line of grim-faced passengers. As we return to the road, a storm approaches, the severity of which we cannot know.
Now, the road lurches through a threshold. Whoosh! We whiplash into waves. I shout, “Whoa!” as though my urgency has power to stop this massive, reeling craft. No vision through the foggy portal, I rub the window wildly with my sweatshirt sleeve. Thunder rolls and resonates. We plead, “Too fast! Slow down!”
But the driver is detached; a stranger, and we’re his hostages. He pushes into the maelstrom, strains into his seatbelt toward the dash; squints to discern the road, pulls down the curly-wired radio, and shouts, “Base Station!” The return voice crackles back, “What’s your 20? Where are you, man?” No control, no connection. Lost in hills, we hurtle to rest within awestruck trees.
*
I struggle to think. My right arm and hand, heavy. Panic swells in my gut with the dread of knowing. Stroke. The fog retreats and I hear, “…driver radioed emergency when you collapsed on the bus. Took the techs an hour to get to you. Helicopter flew you here. Bad weather in the mountains…You survived!”
Survived. What’s next?

6+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

The Playground, by Scáth Beorh

#literary

‘I know where a weird playground is, Scooter.’

My little sister Patsy gave me that look of wisdom that always scared me because she was younger than me and shouldn’t have any wisdom at all, much less the kind of look in her big olive green eyes that screamed I’m an old wise woman! But still, I couldn’t resist. If I, Captain Hong Wong Sliver, couldn’t resist enslaving five ready and willing neighborhood girls in my daddy’s old chicken coup, then I certainly wasn’t going to be able to resist the temptation of a weird playground. My imagination whirled at the thought. A swing-set that wasn’t really a swing-set but a launchpad into Outer Space–if you could get yourself high enough in the air. Jumping boards that you could not only jump up and down on but you could also paint by using your thoughts, and even make them talk and say hilarious things. Then, to the left of those were a set of steel monkey-bars that doubled as a demon-jail. The monsters were already trapped there and seeing that they should easily be able to climb out but somehow not being able to unless I strolled over and sang them a song or just told them they were free–neither of which I was going to do. I had always hated demons, but ever since the Almond Street Incident, as I liked to call it, I had gone from hatred to perfect hatred. For me, when that happened, there was no turning back. I’d set my face like a piece of flint, strike, and let the fires begin. It’s true enough that my inner spirit did not match my outer chubbiness. But the fact that it would one day was enough to mollify me as a child. As a very small boy I had seen myself in a dream as a teenager and I believed that dream would come to pass one day. It finally did, but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, like I said, I couldn’t resist an uncanny playground, no matter how hard I tried.

‘This is dumb. I know where all the playgrounds are, Patsy. There aren’t any except down the Little Dirt Road and I don’t like going down there. Or at Ferry Pass Middle School, but that’s too far to walk–and anyway, there’s a giant rapist who lives in the woods around the school.’

‘The playground’s not at a school. I said it was weird. That makes it not at a school.’

I went through several decades of life where that kind of logic became something I loved to deride along with the person who said it. During those years it was below me to think like a child. I was educated. I was wise. Truth is, I was more of a wise-ass than anybody worthy of social praise.

I felt agitated–probably hungry or something. ‘Okay then, where is this playground if it ain’t at one of the schools?’

‘It’s in Misty’s backyard.’

‘Oh. Wait. What? We don’t even know a Misty. There’s no Misty living anywhere around here!’

‘I know that. She lives in my mind.’

Not again. Not another wild goose chase around my little sister’s wild, wild world. When she was about four, which made me around six–we’re twenty-two months apart–we were playing together on the carport at our house in New Orleans. I was eating a can of potted meat (don’t ask) and she had a can of Vienna sausages, which my parents, being Southerners, called ‘vyanners.’ Anyway, we were munching along with our mid-afternoon snack, me with my handful of crackers to dip into the little can of potted meat and Patsy with her baby fork spearing sausage after sausage and eating each one in such a slow and delighted way that you’d think they were her all-time favorite food and that this was the last can of them in the whole world. Halfway into my fifth bite of potted-meat-on-cracker, Patsy looked at me with a strange eye and peculiar smile that jumped around her face like a three-year-old high on fruit punch and a basket full of Easter candy. Then she pointed at my food.

‘That’s somebody’s meat.’ Her emphasis on the ‘t’ in meat made her sentence almost nauseating.

I went cold all over. What was this thing they were calling my baby sister?

Then Patsy held up one of the sausages she had gigged. ‘And this is somebody’s finger.’ As if that idea wasn’t horrifying enough, the way she pronounced finger opened up a pit to Hell right where I stood and dropped me in feet first. Feeeen-gerrr. It was winter time, but a cold sweat washed over me with such malevolence that I had to rush back inside and find my mama. Notice I say my mama, and the reason for that is because I wasn’t sure at all that the little girl who still stood out on the carport was altogether human, and she certainly was not my sister!

So now that you know what kind of bizarre sibling I was dealing with, fast forward with me a few years to the ‘Day of the Playground of Patsy’s Mind.’

‘Are you coming, Scooter? It might not be there for much longer if we don’t get there soon and stop it from disappearing.’

Was I still asleep and merely having a nightmare? Maybe, I thought, so I tried to turn over and fluff my pillow. I bumped my head on Patsy’s pint-size red broom she always carried around with her. You know, in case she needed to clear away a mess of cobwebs or maybe tidy up the floor a bit. I have no clue. I do know that one day, not long after the ‘Meat and Finger Incident,’ Patsy saved my life by risking her own and pulling me and my tricycle out of the heavily trafficked exurban road where we lived for most of our childhood. When that happened, for the first time in my life I could see her as my precious little sister, and I’ve never since changed my opinion on the matter. Not even when–well, I’ll save that story for another time.

So anyway, here we are a few years older and now she’s telling me about this weird playground that’s in Misty’s backyard which also happens to be in her mind. Her not being the nonexistent Misty, but my sister Patsy who is telling me to hurry up before the damned thing disappears, of course suggesting that if we didn’t get there in time, we wouldn’t get to play. And for me, at least, not playing on a Saturday afternoon after having spent all week in the elementary school of an ultra-conservative cult was equivalent to an eternal state of dying but never actually reaching the finality of death. Okay, so you call that Hell, and I agree. And that’s what not playing on a Saturday–after cartoons from 6 AM to Noon–was like for me. So, I was having nothing to do with not having fun that afternoon, even if my sister was, yet again, scaring me beyond belief with her seemingly innocent mind games.

‘How do we get to this Misty girl’s backyard then?’ I felt stupid for asking–for playing along. I knew there was no Misty. I knew there was no backyard. I knew there was no playground. But again, it was Saturday afternoon, none of the neighborhood kids were to be seen, and I had already shot off all my firecrackers and the three M-80s the kid across the street had traded me for a comic book he liked because in the back he could order a whoopee cushion and x-ray glasses. He did. The whoopee cushion worked wonders. The x-ray glasses were a scam. He wanted two of his M-80s back. I told him that I had already blown them up. I even showed him the metal garbage can–the kind everybody had back then–with the big dent in it made from an explosion on the inside. He still didn’t believe me and started throwing rocks at me until I turned the garden hose on him, which seemed to cool him off. Especially since it was mid-January.

My little sister’s friendly body language was always the sweetest thing when she wanted to play. ‘You just close your eyes, Scooter, and hold my hand and I’ll take you. It’s easy. C’mon!’

I did as I was told. I grabbed Patsy’s hand, closed my eyes, and knew without doubt that she was going to let me trip over something–a dead toad-frog or a drainage grate or an abandoned bicycle–before we got to where we were going, wherever that was.

‘You hafta trust me, Scooter, or it won’t work!’

How did she know I wasn’t trusting her as far as I could throw her–which wouldn’t have been very far. Patsy was petite, but every last part of her was athletic to the bone. I guess that’s what eating only vyanners, three bites of spaghetti a month, a few apple slices a week, a ham sandwich every now and again (sometimes with a slice of American cheese), and a continuous supply of chocolate cake mixed up in vanilla ice-cream got her. How? I don’t know. My diet was similar, and I weighed 93 pounds when I turned seven years. Some kids get all the breaks.

‘Just don’t forget , Scooter, that I love you, Scooter.’

Oh God! What did she just say? It sounded so–you know–definite. Like we had come to the end of something. The end of our childhood together? The end of our lives? I froze. She pulled. I stayed frozen. She yanked. My right foot moved a half inch. She wrenched. My eyes popped open.

‘C’mon Scooter! It’ll close maybe for forever and then we won’t get to play! I wanna swing! C’mon! And shut your eyes again!’

This was all too ludicrous, but I kept walking, my eyes shut, my grip on her fingers fairly tight (she complained once as we stumbled along), and my own mind buzzing like a hive of bees.

‘Okay, ready?’

‘I guess–‘

‘Open your eyes! We’re here!’

I was too afraid to open my eyes. So I didn’t.

‘Open your eyes, Scooter! We’re here! And there’s Misty!’

My eyes sprang wide. Lo and behold, there was a little girl standing several yards away. But I could see right through her!

‘She’s a ghost, Patsy! Run!’

‘Run? Run for what? She’s nice. Misty, c’mere! This is my brother, Scooter.’

This girl, Misty, who was about my sister’s age, smiled and came up to us. I could see everything that was behind her–the green grass she floated over, a few happy dandelions in bloom, a caramel-brown puppy romping around trying to catch a yellow butterfly and, failing that, trying to catch his own wiggly tail. I was beyond spooked. I felt like I wanted to cry, but this was the early 70s, and an exurban boy didn’t cry. Ever. Not even if he broke his arm slap dab in two. Not even if he tore all the skin off his kneecaps and had to wait six weeks for it to grow back. Not even if he fell off the back of a U.S. mail truck, did three somersaults head over heels, and sliced his chest open so you could see his white shiny ribs. So he certainly wasn’t going to shed a tear over seeing a girl ghost, as terrifying a fact as it happened to be.

‘Hi. Nice backyard.’ My greeting sounded like it came out of an old lady who had smoked cigarettes since she was my age. Smooth and debonair.

‘Hi,’ Misty the Ghost replied. ‘Do you have a cold?’

Patsy stepped forward to give her friend a hug, which seemed to sort of work, but not really. ‘Misty! Where’s your swing-set we swung on last time?’

‘It’s in the top of the tree now.’ Misty looked up into the high branches of a majestic old oak that had humongous plastic oranges hung in all of its branches, making it appear to be the biggest citrus tree in the world. Sure enough, there was a swing-set perched as pretty as you please in the topmost limbs of the three-hundred-year-old giant.

‘So y’all came over to play with me?’

‘Yeah!’ cried Patsy. ‘Let’s climb!’

I groaned.

Misty heard me. ‘What’s wrong, Scooter? Tummy ache?’

‘I, uh, I can’t climb things. Trees and things.’

‘Oh, that’s okay. Take my hand. While Patsy climbs, we’ll fly!’

Fly? Wait a minute, I thought. Is Misty really Tinkerbell or somebody like that? As I mused, I realized, probably far beyond my years, that I had never been a rabid fan of celebrities like most people were. I had always just been introduced to famous people–or cartoons–and either liked them or didn’t like them. Whatever the case, I perceived them, registered them, either added them to my world or didn’t, and then proceeded forth deeper into this dream we call ‘Life on Earth,’, always knowing it would end one day–maybe even sooner than I imagined. With all that, the idea of soaring to the very top of a fake citrus oak tree with a ghost girl to swing on her industrial size swing-set didn’t seem like a bad idea after all–even if she and her backyard were only a pigment of my little sister’s imagination.

So, I took Misty’s hand. It was cold. She was blue. I was frightened out of my mind. But we flew.

‘Pick your swing, Scooter! Patsy’ll be up in a minute. There are’s some baby blue jays in their nest about halfway up, so I bet she’ll stop to look at them, but she’ll get here by-and-by.

I said not a word. I had no words to say. I felt elated. I picked a swing, got settled in, and began swinging. Misty took the one next to me. I went so high that I started going crooked. I nearly hit Misty. She laughed a lot like my mama when she felt great, which wasn’t often. When I shot up, Misty came down, when I swung down, she shot up. We almost crashed quite a few times. We squealed like happy well-fed babies. Then Patsy was on the other side of me. This was one of those huge solid steel swing-sets with strong iron chains and seats made out of what looked like wide pieces of rubber tires, but I’m sure they were made to be swings. Nothing was going to break. The only way to die on one of these things was to fall out of it somehow, whether it was firmly planted in the ground like normal or abnormally teetering in the top of a tree. It wouldn’t have mattered. Either way, a fall from one of these masterfully crafted things would spell certain, and most likely instant, death. Which in a real way would be good, because, if you think about it, a child with a broken neck and irreversible internal bleeding is far better than one who has a skull fracture and lies in a coma for six months before passing away.

‘What other kinds of things do you have to play on?’ I screamed from the highest point I could reach. I felt like a spaceman in orbit. Misty was screaming so loud she couldn’t answer me. I waited. Then she answered my question.

‘Nothing!’

Nothing? What did she mean by nothing? What kind of a playground was this?

‘Patsy! Imagine something else to play with!’ See, I was on to her. I knew she could control the situation if she wanted to. After all, hadn’t she thought it all up? ‘Patsy! Make something!’

‘Shhhh! You’ll upset Misty!’

‘Your brother won’t upset me, Patsy. I like him. He’s nice.’

‘You don’t know him good enough then! Sometimes he’s so mean he won’t even play with me!’

‘That’s pretty mean. Scooter, are you really that mean sometimes?’

Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr! The sound of tires screeching to a halt! Never, and I mean never, ask a boy if he’s mean. First, he’ll always deny it out-of-hand. The question is just too pointed. Second, he’ll never believe he’s mean even if he is mean. So, it’s better to never ask. I felt so frustrated by the question that while I was on a flight up I grabbed Misty’s chain and yanked so hard it made her jam into Patsy, and both girls fell out and down into the lower branches of the oak, jumbo oranges bobbing this way and that, and one or two falling off their branches and to the grass below. I guess I was mean. I felt bad about what I had just done, so I slowed down and hopped out. Then I realized where I was, and panicked, because not only couldn’t I climb things going up, I didn’t usually climb things going down either. Maybe, I thought, I can monkey myself down, but it might hurt–especially if I fall. Then again, I’m in my little sister’s mind, so maybe it will be floaty if I fall and it’ll feel like I’m landing on a cloud or maybe a feather bed or something.

Somehow I got down out of that tree, but not without quite a few scrapes and bruises to go along with my multiple skinned knees and broken left arm. Patsy and Misty were waiting for me at the bottom. Misty seemed as sweet as she had been, but Patsy was near tears.

‘I wanna go home, Scooter!’

‘Me too, I guess. Bye, Misty.’

‘Bye-bye Scooter. Bye-bye Patsy. See y’all again I hope. It was fun!’

%

I was sorry about how I had acted on our adventure, but I had the sense that my selfish attitude about life wouldn’t change until things got really hard for me, and my idea about that was that I would be already in my twenties before anything hard happened to me. So everybody was stuck with me for the time being, whether they liked it or not. Most didn’t. When I was fourteen and had just started high school, I started to write my thoughts down, mostly in poetry form. People said I had talent. Their words encouraged me. I kept writing. Oh, and Patsy and I also kept exploring her uncanny mind. Misty wasn’t the only friend she had in there. Not by a long shot.

0
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Fireworks, by Edward King

#america #fireworks #literary

Robinson sat over his cup of coffee. His eyes moved in time to the jazz playing over the stereo, flicking back and forth in his paunchy face. He was thinking about his wife’s nose.

He had just been brought two eggs over-easy, wheat toast, and strawberry jam, the same breakfast as always. The waitresses at the restaurant knew him by name. When he came in he sat down at the counter and waved and they brought him his breakfast and a cup of coffee.

“Hey, Robinson, what song is this?” said a waitress.

“‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, 1963. Come on, I thought you’d know that one.”

“Oh—it’s just Pandora,” she said. “I don’t know all the songs that come up on it yet.” To change the subject, she said, “How’s your music stuff coming, anyway? How’re your students?”

“My students are good. The composition is going lousy.”

“Well, keep pluggin’ away. You’ll get it someday.”

“Thanks. Hey, what’re you doing on the fourth? You should come by and hear the band play.”

“Oh, sorry… we were planning a girls’ night. I probably shouldn’t mention this to such an upstanding member of the community, but we plan to drink until we’re unconscious.”

Discomfort flared up in Robinson. He didn’t know why and he ignored it. “Hey, I wasn’t always a teacher, you know.”

“Is that so?”

He smiled. “It is. I was a rogue once.”

“You?” she arched her eyebrows. “There’s no way. I picture you being someone who’s always on top of their shit. I bet you always get your lesson plans together on time.”

“Nah, I could see it,” said another waitress. “He’s got that look in his eyes. That look that real romantics have. Real artists. They’re always wild and self-destructive.”

Robinson’s discomfort grew as he wondered to what extent she was joking, but he kept the same half-smile on his face. He left a good tip on the table and tried not to think about it, but by the time he turned the keys in his car he found that he was furious.

He worked on lesson plans from twelve until three, and then went back to his house to scribble angrily on sheets of staff paper–his composition–until his wife got home at six. He welcomed her with a kiss; she asked how it had gone that day and he said, “Oh, not so bad. I think the horns are almost ready on the third movement.” He reheated dinner for her and they watched How I Met Your Mother until she fell asleep on the couch.

Watching Emma sleeping gave him butterflies. She wasn’t that much to look at–objectively, he knew that. She had a crooked nose. It was the way she used to play that harp, back at Juilliard, where he had fallen in love with her in the first place.

Even asleep, it looked like she had a smile on her face. How could she be so happy all the time? It was a miracle. He wasn’t that great.

Lying to Emma about his work always came with a twinge of guilt. He lied to his students, too, and his colleagues. He constantly held fast that jazz and big band music was “the only great American art form that’s left,” even though he hadn’t felt that way for years. “But even that pales in comparison to the work of the great European composers,” he would say. “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony–the most sublimely organized sound a human mind has ever produced.” He had always dreamed of writing his own great American suite of equal value, but in truth a new melody hadn’t come to him in years.

At first, he had been so shocked at his colleagues’ lack of appreciation for Mahler that he had bullheadedly forced the maestro’s Ninth Symphony into the curriculum. They still played it every year.

But he felt that Emma, too, was part of the problem. Every weekend they took to go skiing together, every concert he put on with his earnest but untalented students, to the extent that it made him happy, was a failure, keeping him from the life he was supposed to have.

Late that night, Robinson went out to buy milk. He drove home past the reservoir where the Fourth of July concert would be the next day. He could see the lights of Lincoln below the steel barricade. The night was unusually dark, and the town looked tiny and isolated down below.

Suddenly, something veered out into Robinson’s headlights: a cyclist. He almost ran straight into him. He rolled down his window and shouted at the cyclist, and to his surprise he saw the figure slow down.

Robinson pulled up beside him. “What the hell are you doing?” he said. “I could’ve run you off the road. The lane here is for you, you know!”

When the form of the cyclist emerged into the cone of his headlights, he recognized the unkempt hair and slouch of one of his students. Jared Blecher, alto saxophone, second chair, a student who obviously had talent but steadfastly refused to apply himself. In the glare of the headlights, he looked completely dazed.

“Damnit, Blecher, is that you?” said Robinson.

“What?”

“Are you drunk?”

“Mr. Robinson? Nothing, no–I was just.”

“What were you doing in the road?”

“I was just riding home.”

“After you were drinking? And you left your lights at home?”

He didn’t have an answer. Robinson sighed.

“Anyway, kid, let me give you a ride home?”

He let the kid put his bike in the trunk and they took the road that led back into town.

“Listen, Blecher,” Robinson began. “You’ve got your whole life to have fun, but these are important years. A lot of my friends… a lot of them fucked them up, and now they’re paying the price. Kids that were really promising, like yourself, and now they’re insurance salesmen or waiters or dishwashers. You keep hanging around with that crowd you’re in with and who’s to say where you’re going to end up, no matter how talented you are. And I’m not telling you this to scare you, I just think you’re alright and I don’t want you to fuck up.”

Neither of them said anything for a long time. Robinson put on a CD to break the silence.

“What is this?” said Blecher.

“You don’t know it?” said Robinson.

Jared shook his head.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Robinson.

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Robinson turned up the heat in the car. He took these roads at a fast clip, feeling the pull of the embankments on the wheel, pulling the same way they had the thousand other times he had taken this road at night.

They pulled onto the road leading back into town. They passed the football field, the drive-in, the old houses of the west side of town.

They arrived at Blecher’s house.

“Listen, I want you to get some sleep,” Robinson said. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

Driving home, Robinson thought about what he’d said to the kid. It brought him back to music school and his lofty ambitions. He had watched the demise of all aspirations of his friends from back then. A composer he’d thought was a genius now worked as an analyst at a tech firm; a brilliant pianist moved back to her hometown and played in a church. No one had reached their potential. And here he was, a public school teacher, conducting this ramshackle band.

At eight o’clock on July Fourth, Jared looked out at the lake, far from the crowded subdivision where he lived. He wished he didn’t have to practice the trumpet part to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony any more. What kind of song was that for July Fourth, anyway? He was young, and this was one of his last summers before he had to become an adult; he ought to be enjoying every last moment he had.

The song sounded like absolute ass every time he played it, anyway. He was pretty confident that some people were made to get good at an instrument and some were not, and that he, Jared Blecher, assuredly was not. Was he put on this earth to struggle and toil with something he was destined never to master? Was he not allowed to enjoy himself?

There was a party going on that night at Aaron Brown’s lake house. It didn’t officially start until ten and he was supposed to report for duty at the promenade at nine o’clock sharp. But there was no way the performance would go on for more than half an hour. If he went over there for a little while now, he could at least pregame, hang out for a while, hop back over to City Park at ten for the performance, and then go back. It wasn’t like Robinson had any real authority to punish him if he showed up late. Hell, it was the summer. He’d put his dress clothes in his backpack and change in the bushes behind the promenade. There shouldn’t be any problem at all.

He put the horn back in its case and set off on his bike for the party. He wasn’t going to waste any more time.

As he had done every year since he could drive, Robinson parked his car at the elementary school and threaded his way through big groups of teenagers to the lake. Law and order were suspended within the radius of the Fourth of July celebration.

Robinson had been to the fireworks display in Lincoln every Fourth of July since he was little, first growing up and then summers back from school, and he still looked forward to it all year. Barring his composition, it was the most important thing to him in the world–those kids all coming together to make something unified and whole.

He began his customary walk along the lake that he did every year, before everything was set up. Two kids walked by.

“I heard there’s going to be ten tons of fireworks this year,” said one.

“No way,” said the other. “They keep decreasing the budget every year.”

“No way.”

“Yeah, they decrease it every year so they can spend more money on cops. See, every year they bring in thousands of dollars from MIPs. It’s the only reason they can keep it going without selling tickets.”

“No way.”

The sun had just gone down and the sky was a dreamy swirl of colors. He thought back to the night before and looked back at his students, starting to set up their instruments. Where was Blecher?

He liked the kid because he was honest. He knew about students ditching band to smoke weed and his attitude about it was generally that boys will be boys, but what really got him about it was the dishonesty. It seemed that they not only went out of their way to create elaborate lies, but also that they were deliberately careless about clearing up the evidence–they actually left burnt-out joint ends all over the ground in the unused loading bay under the band room.

It was nothing like him. In high school, he had spent hours practicing the trumpet. When other kids went out, he stayed in and practiced. Other kids liked Prince and Duran Duran; he liked Beethoven. He would sometimes dream in music, and then he was filled with despair when he sat down at the piano and discovered that he couldn’t recreate what he’d heard.

Where was Jared? It was about all Robinson could take. He threw down his baton bitterly and decided he wasn’t going back to the bandstand.

The teenagers stood on the shore of the lake outside Aaron Brown’s house, across the water from where everything was being set up. It was almost dark; the sky was dark blue, the clouds were grey, and all the people on the shore were bathed in shadows. Jared couldn’t see anyone’s face; he felt like he was moving through some kind of underworld.

They took shots out of little white Dixie cups. Someone brought out weed, and Jared thought, well, it is summer.

Jared glanced across the lake to where they were setting up. He couldn’t get Robinson’s words out of his head for some reason. A drunk bike ride home in the summer. He was seventeen years old–who was Robinson to criticize? Had he never had fun when he was younger? It was bad enough having to think about applying to colleges, and then in four years having to find a job–how was he supposed to do any of that?

He forced those thoughts to be silent. This moment was what mattered. Looking at the dark shapes around him–he couldn’t see them but he could hear their voices–he felt free from everything that waited for him across the lake. He felt free.

He met eyes with Andrea Reid. She had a boyfriend who wasn’t here. He played tennis, and he always wore his headband around, even in class, which always struck Blecher as disgusting.

She was drunk. There was something in the way that she looked at him… he felt like she didn’t want him to break free of her gaze.

Some guy from his calculus class–Andy something–suggested that they go for a walk with Andrea and another girl he hadn’t seen before. Andy Something offered him a cigarette.

Blecher met eyes with Andrea. She was looking at him like she wanted to pull his clothes off. She had a boyfriend. This is what Jared would ordinarily have been thinking. But he had a cigarette and he took huge drags on it and blew them out without inhaling. He didn’t care. He felt like a man.

They locked eyes. Her face was very close to his and her eyes were filled with energy. Andy Noname and the other girl had gone off somewhere else.

They kissed. He let it linger a long time, feeling a strange dissolving feeling, overwhelming all the objections in his brain.

Robinson surveyed the scene around him. He was in the middle of a festival; he felt as if festivals like this had occurred the same way since the beginning of time, and would keep occurring forever. A group of students he didn’t recognize were sprawled across the curb with bottles of beer in their hands and he stood watching them for a while. Their faces were sublimely smooth and unconcerned. They joked and jostled around, flirted, put their arms around each other, all with ease. It was something he had never understood; everything to him was cerebral and thought-out. Even his students, perpetually late to class, unconcerned with practicing or technique, were incredible to him. The ease and lack of concern with which they existed in the world–it was like watching the gods lounging at Mount Olympus.

The fireworks started up. A barrage of them exploded in a burst of golden rain. He was surrounded by unwashed faces, children suddenly screaming, children running around, chasing lit-up electric toys around on the ground. A breeze started up, rustling the leaves in the trees, and he was cold.

Suddenly two memories hit him as strongly as the wind and the cold. The first was of a day, any day, in high school band–the crashing of the cymbals, the horrible roar of the tubas. Playing the alto. It was before his composition, before any of his talk of his “great American art form”; he had just liked playing music every day. The second was of his wife’s crooked nose.

Their first date had gone badly, he had thought, all those years ago. He had debated for what felt like hours over whether to lean in and kiss her, and then when he had gone ahead and done it she had tensed up and turned her head to the side. He was mortified; he didn’t make any attempt to get back in touch with her. He kept thinking about her, but he had a terrible memory for faces, and whenever he recalled her in his mind he had to start with her nose and work from there.

One day he saw her name on a poster for a recital on campus, and in a melancholy mood he bought a ticket, thinking he would sit in the back row.

The night of the performance was a Friday night in the fall of his sophomore year. He was becoming nearsighted and from the back, she was little more than a blur. He sat back there, thinking about the things she’d said to him, trying to rebuild her image in her mind, hardly paying attention to the music at all. He tried to picture going up to her after the concert and saying hello, but he couldn’t. He decided he wouldn’t do it.

Afterwards, tramping through the piles of red leaves on the way back to his dorm, he ran into her lugging her harp back across the quad. He had called to her and offered to help, just like that. It hadn’t been so difficult after all. She asked him why he hadn’t called her back, apologized if she’d been weird. His heart was beating like a rabbit’s.

He told people afterwards, and later on started to tell himself, that it had been that performance on the harp that made him fall in love with her, but that wasn’t it at all. The wind was very cold and it was starting to rain.

He wanted to stay out for a little while longer to watch the fireworks.

After the fireworks, both Andrea and Jared were still there–she with her shirt off and her dress pulled up above her hips, he with his shirt still on and his jeans off. Jared was covered with sand. It was cold. Andrea wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

She didn’t answer.

“Wasn’t it good?”

She laughed softly.

Suddenly he heard music coming across the lake.

But it wasn’t Mahler. It was something else–a saxophone playing by itself. A tune he had heard before.

He pulled on his jeans. Said goodbye to Andrea. His request for her number got another laugh.

He wandered over to where the sound was coming from. He found Robinson playing his alto, sitting on the curb.

“Hey, kid,” he said.

“Hey.”

“Things didn’t go as planned, did they?”

Blecher shook his head.

“It’s alright,” said Robinson.

Suddenly Blecher recognized the tune. It was “Body and Soul.”

Robinson had played it at the end of class the first day of his senior year. They were starting with a unit on jazz.

It was the last class of the day, September first, and nobody really wanted to be inside at that very moment. The music sounded strange–sour and acrid and littered with wrong notes. Backpacks were zipped up, papers put away noisily, conversations flared up. But something about the music held Jared’s attention.

When it was over, Blecher noticed that Robinson had teared up. A few kids giggled. He pulled himself together and said a few words to wrap up.

“You want to know what jazz is?” he said, trying to keep his voice above the commotion of twenty eighteen-year-olds who wanted to be outside.

“I can’t explain it any better than that.”

1+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

A Tree in Mecklenberg, by Steven Carr

#literary #nature #satire #southern

Poison ivy had wrapped itself around the trunk of the large oak, covering the light gray bark beneath its tendrils and bright green notched leaves. The tree stood next to the white picket fence in Marge’s front yard and its branches were weighed down with heavy clusters of leaves that stretched out over the sidewalk and street and over Marge’s well manicured lawn. The tree’s age wasn’t known, but it was believed that the tree predated Mecklenberg becoming incorporated in the early 1800s. Because of its visually pleasing shape, magnificent size and the brilliant red and purple colors of its leaves each autumn, it was considered the prettiest tree on Standover Street, if not in the entire town of Mecklenberg.
Wearing a pair of yellow rubber gloves and a long sleeve green gardening smock, Marge snipped the leaves and vines of the poison ivy with a pair of hedge trimmers, forming a mound around the base of the tree. Although the temperature was in the low eighties, the shade of the tree kept her cool, but the hours of exertion it took to completely remove the ivy was taxing. At age sixty-four she was still in good health, but even though she didn’t admit it to anyone, she felt as if she were slowing down, like an old clock in need of winding.
With the trunk of the tree freed from the vines she scooped up the plant debris and put it in large plastic bags and placed the bags next to the garbage cans to be set out on the curb when the garbage would be collected. Using the hose attached to the side of the house, she rinsed off her shoes and the trimmers, then removed her smock. She poured laundry detergent on her gloves and worked up a good lather, then rinsed them off. She lifted the smock with the end of a stick and carried it into her laundry room and dropped it into the open wash machine. She started the wash cycle, then made her way to the gardening shed in her back yard. She put the clippers, gloves, and shoes she only wore for gardening in their usual places, then went barefoot across the cool grass to her back door and went inside. She was glad to have the job done at last.
After slipping on her favorite pair of fuzzy slippers and putting water in the tea kettle and sitting it on a glowing electric stove burner, she sat down at the kitchen table and flipped through the pages of the town’s newspaper, The Mecklenberg Sentinel. She saw no pictures of anyone she knew or any news articles that interested her. In the obituaries, only the announcement of Tyler McGovern’s funeral to be held on the upcoming Saturday drew her attention. She had no intention of attending the funeral because she didn’t like his wife, Janet, but she liked to keep up on who was being laid to rest in Mecklenberg’s cemetery.
When the tea kettle began to whistle she put a tea bag in a cup and poured the steaming water into the cup. She turned off the stove and carried the cup of tea into the living room and sat down in her favorite floral patterned overstuffed chair and picked up the remote and turned on the television. A moment later there was a knock on her front door.
“Who could that be?” she mumbled with annoyance. She got up, carrying the cup of tea, and went to answer the door.
Peering over a large brown paper bag full of groceries she held in her arms, Lisa Trumbull stared at Marge through the thick lenses of her eyeglasses that gave her the look of an inquisitive insect. Her cheeks were flush with color and beads of sweat clung to her forehead and above her upper lip like tiny glued-on transparent rhinestones. She said nothing.
“Well, what is it, Lisa?” Marge said.
Lisa cleared her throat, loudly, as if she had been drinking dust, and said, “Do you really think it’s appropriate to have that on your tree?”
Marge tried to think what it was that was on her tree, and unable to fathom what Lisa was talking about, Marge said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The face of the devil,” Lisa said.
Not willing to believe she had heard Lisa correctly, Marge took a sip of tea, then said, “Who’s face?”
“The devil,” Lisa said. “I never knew you had those kinds of leanings.”
“I have no leanings at all,” Marge said. “Will you please tell me what you’re talking about?”
Lisa placed the bag on the floor of the porch and grasped Marge’s free hand and pulled her across the porch, down the stairs, up the walkway, out onto the sidewalk and down to the tree. Pointing at a naturally formed oval in the bark, Lisa said, “See, there. His face.”
Marge squinted at the oval, and with great effort she could make out what might be considered to look like the details of a face. She had never noticed it before, and wondered if the ivy had altered the bark. Willing to concede it looked like a face, she said, “It doesn’t look like the devil at all.”
Lisa reached over the fence and put her fingers on two pointy protuberances rising out of the skull. “See, there, that’s the devil’s horns.”
“You’re seeing things,” Marge said.
“No I’m not,” Lisa said as she stomped once on the concrete with her left foot, sending up a small cloud of dust. “You need to cut that out of the tree right now before someone is really offended.”
Starting back toward her house with Lisa following, Marge said, “I won’t be told what to do with my tree by you or anyone else.” Reaching her porch a full minute ahead of Lisa, whose abundance of weight limited her speed, Marge picked up the bag with one hand and held it out.
As she wrapped her arms around it, Lisa said, “I just hope you come to your senses.” She turned and went down the stairs and out of Marge’s yard.
Marge went into her house, closed the door behind her and took a sip of tea. “Damn, it’s cold,” she said, heading back to the kitchen.
*
While the fading glow of daylight streamed through the tree’s branches, Marge sat in her porch swing and gently rocked back and forth. A steady warm breeze passed through the leaves and played with the loose curls in her snow white hair. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine Charlie, sitting next to her with his hand lovingly on her leg. But that actually happened very few times while they were married, and he was alive. So she opened her eyes and listened to the singing robins that had nested in the tree.
She heard footsteps on her walkway before she saw who was walking up it.
“We hope we’re not disturbing you,” Tom Curly, Mecklenberg’s mayor, said from the bottom of the porch steps. Lisa was standing behind him and stepping from foot to foot as if the concrete beneath her feet was hot.
Marge got out of the swing and walked slowly to the top of the stairs. “I wasn’t expecting company,” she said. Looking at Lisa, she said, “Is this about what’s on my tree?”
Tom rubbed his bright red beard and said, “As a matter of fact, it is. I just took a look at it and I agree with Mrs. Trumbull. That’s definitely the devil’s face.”
“It doesn’t look like the devil to me,” Marge said. She crossed her arms across her breasts. “It’s just something that happened to the bark. It wasn’t put there on purpose.”
Tom kicked the concrete with the brown wing-tip of his shoe. “No one is suggesting it was,” he said, “but it may save you trouble if you got rid of it.”
“Trouble from who?” Marge said.
“This is a small town and even the suggestion of satanism could cause a great deal of trouble,” Tom said.
Marge said, “So few people see the tree that I can’t imagine what’s on it causing me any trouble.”
Lisa stepped from behind Tom and brushed back a wisp of brown hair from her forehead. “Word will get around fast that you have the devil’s face on the tree,” she said. “I contacted the mayor to hopefully prevent that.”
Marge looked up at the tree blanketed in the reds and yellows of twilight. “What do you suggest I do? Cut the tree down?”
“You could sand the devil’s face off,” Tom said. “With your permission, since the tree is on your property, I have the authority to have it done for you.”
Marge glanced at Lisa then back to Tom. “You see the devil’s face on my tree and I don’t. I’m not going to have it sanded.”
“You’ve always been stubborn and difficult to get along with,” Lisa said. “The devil’s face will be removed from that tree one way or another.” She turned and stomped down the walkway.
Tom rubbed his beard again. “I’ll have to talk with the city council and see what we can do about changing your mind.” He turned and followed Lisa.
*
The moist, warm breeze blowing in through the open bedroom window made the sheer white curtains dance on the air currents. Marge lay in her bed and stared out the window at the tree shrouded by the blackness of night. She worried about it almost in the same way she worried about her three children who she hadn’t talked to in weeks. She sat up and swung her legs around to the edge of the mattress, then stepped on the cool hardwood floor with her bare feet. At the window she looked down at the base of the tree and gasped as a glowing light suddenly appeared from the side facing the street. It took her a moment to realize she was looking at a beam of light from a flashlight.
Without hesitation she ran out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door. She was in the grass halfway to the tree before she realized she had forgotten to put on slippers and a robe. Going around the tree she stepped into the flashlight beam that was aimed at the face on the tree.
“What are you doing here?” Marge said.
“We heard you have the devil’s face on your tree,” the woman holding the flashlight said. She had a blue bandana around her head and was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.
Two other women stood at each of the flashlight holder’s sides.
“Are you a devil worshiper?” one of the other women who was wearing a ball cap with an American flag above the bill, said.
“Of course not,” Marge said. “Who told you about the face on my tree?”
The one with the flashlight shined it up and down Marge’s pale blue knee length gauzy nightgown. “You know how quickly word spreads in Mecklenberg. How long did you plan to keep it a secret?” she said.
“I wasn’t keeping anything a secret,” Marge said. “It’s just a marking on my tree that looks like a face.”
“The devil’s face,” the woman wearing the ball cap said. “If you aren’t a devil worshiper, why don’t you get his face off of the tree?”
With the light from the flashlight shining in her eyes, Marge said, “Because it’s ridiculous to be offended by something you think you see on a tree, and it’s my tree on my property.” She turned and started to walk back to her house. Over her shoulder, she said, “If you touch my tree I’ll have you arrested.”
*
The next morning, carrying her collapsible grocery cart, Marge stepped out her front door and stopped abruptly, and muttered, “Oh, for God’s sakes.”
Standing on the sidewalk facing the tree was seven people. They were chattering excitedly and pointing at the face.
Marge walked down the porch steps and placed the cart’s wheels on the walkway and pulled it out onto the sidewalk. Four of those who were now in front of her by a few yards were neighbors she had known for years, including Lisa, and Willie Monroe who lived across the street.
Willie put his hands in his pants pockets and walked up to her. He walked with a limp from an injury in Vietnam. “Good morning, Marge,” he said. “You going grocery shopping?”
“That’s where I’m headed,” Marge said.
Lisa stepped up behind Willie. “We live next to someone and think we know her, then wake up and find out she worships Satan.”
“I told you before, Lisa, I’m not a devil worshiper. If you thought the face was Elvis Presley’s, would you expect me to sing?” Marge said.
Willie leaned forward and spoke almost in a whisper. “What do you think Charlie would say about the devil’s face being on your tree?”
Marge said, trying to hold back her anger, “He’s been dead for ten years, but if he was here now he’d run you all off with his shotgun.”
Willie stepped back as if avoiding a punch and collided with Lisa. “To keep the peace, just get rid of the face on the tree,” he stammered.
“My tree isn’t disturbing the peace,” Marge said. “No one is making you look at it.” She pushed past him and Lisa and then pulled her cart between the other four people who scowled at her as she passed.
Once past the knot of people, she casually strolled down the sidewalk and tried to enjoy the same sight she had seen for years; well-kept lawns, flower gardens, and modest but well maintained homes. American flags stuck out from many of the porches and a large wood cross stood on a mound in one of the yards. The pastel yellow late morning sunlight made everything glow. At the end of the street she turned onto Main Street. Pedestrians busily went in and out of the stores and shops that lined both sides of the street. Do they know they have a suspected satanist walking among them? she thought with a laugh.
Just as she was about to go into the grocery store, Tom Curly came out. He immediately reached for his beard and tugged on it. “I’ve gotten a few calls and emails about your tree,” he said.
“What has my tree done?” she said with a giggle.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” he said. “No one wants satanism promoted in Mecklenberg. The devil’s face must be removed from your tree. There’ll be an emergency meeting of the city council this afternoon to determine what should be done.”
“Stop telling me what to do with my tree,” Maggie said. “If you’ll excuse me, I have shopping to do.” She pushed past him and went into the store.
*
Standing at the large plate glass window of her living room and looking out at the street, Marge watched the two dozen people who were milling about, shouting, and carrying signs with the words “Kill the tree” on them. Tom Curly and two others that Marge recognized as city council members were sitting on the hood of a car parked at the curb across the street. She left the window and picked up her telephone to call the sheriff’s office, but got a busy signal.
In the kitchen, she put the tea kettle filled with water on the stove’s glowing burner then went back to the living room window and watched as Lisa and others hurled eggs at the tree. With every egg that smashed against the tree, the small crowd cheered. She shook her head in dismay and returned to the kitchen when the kettle began to whistle. She turned off the stove, poured water from the kettle into a cup with a tea bag, and returned to the living room window.
While she sipped the tea the sun began to set. The last of the sunlight filtered through pink clouds cast a pink glow on the branches and leaves of the tree. She didn’t move from where she was standing until Tom Curly got out of the car and carried a gasoline can across the street. As soon as he began splashing liquid onto the tree, Marge dropped the cup of tea onto the floor and ran out the front door.
“Stop what you’re doing!” she screamed from the porch.
Others joined the crowd and they all cheered as Tom splashed more fuel on the tree.
Marge ran down the porch steps and across her lawn and stood in front of the tree, shielding the egg-splattered face. “You have no right to do what you’re doing,” she yelled at the increasingly boisterous crowd.
“Kill the devil,” they began to chant.
“Move out of the way, Marge,” Tom said. “You didn’t want to take care of the problem, so this is the only solution.”
“This is insanity!” Marge said. “It’s just a tree.”
Before Tom could answer, a lit match was thrown over the fence by Lisa and landed at the base of the tree. Flames immediately exploded around the base of the trunk, then quickly swirled around the tree, igniting the bark. Marge jumped out of the way and watched as the flames spread upward to the branches and the leaves.
The crowd clapped and shouted gleefully as the tree was consumed in fire.
Above the tree the smoke formed into a cloud in the shape of the devil’s face, and then dissipated.

3+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Chiclets in Columbus Circle, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#literary #memoir #new york

This day in 1955 is as clear a summer day as any I can recall. Mom and I have been staying with my grandparents, a block from Central Park, where I swing and play in the sand. Today’s adventure is a trip with Nana on the D train from Columbus Circle to Greenwich Village. She instructs me to hold her cotton-gloved hand, and we step through the tiled portal into a strange subterranean world.

Her best friend, Mrs. Toomey, lives on MacDougal Street, and Nana wants to show me off for the first time. They met in the late 1920’s, through her daughter, Katherine, and my mom, Agnes, when they all lived in the Village. Nana and Grandad moved up to West 58th Street when Agnes and her brother were ready for high school. But the women and girls have stayed friends.

Down underground, Nana pays for tokens, which is subway money, at a booth. She lifts me up, drops a brass coin into the slot, and pushes the wooden arms of the turnstile, causing a ratchet sound as we go through. Then she pushes us through a tall gate with bars, and we are near the tracks. I peer from Nana’s safety toward the tube with blinking lights. A man shines shoes at a big stand near the back wall, and I smell the polish. By the newstand–the dusky smell of newsprint.

People walk this way and that, while we wait for our train. I spy a glass jug with bubbling, swirling orange drink, and ask Nana. She gives the vendor a coin, and he presses the knob. The cool pleasure of smooth un-carbonated sips of orangeade from a conical wax paper cup stays with me.

Hand in hand we hurry to the train car as the engineer calls out the next stop, and sliding doors hiss and snap shut. Nana guides me toward a smooth, woven rattan seat, near an open-window. As we pick up speed, the breeze builds, and the cold white wall tile outside the train blurs its black writing. Inside, wall fans whir. The car isn’t full, so no-one stands at the center steel pole or at the swinging grip handles. In our seats we sway to the click-clack rhythm of track. Ceiling lights flash as we roar through the tunnels. I press against Nana’s petite frame for comfort, and her smile shows pride in me. My legs dangle below the hem of my yellow summer dress.

Amid the screech of steel brakes, we arrive at Houston Street station, and emerge into jagged light, stifling New York afternoon, traffic din, and reek of overflowing trash cans. Across the street, red brick dust arises, workmen shout, and a wrecking ball pendulum swings from a massive chain frightening me. Nana holds my hand through the fear, and leads me up the front concrete stoop of an apartment building.

Through the stale hallway by a wall of mailboxes, we climb three narrow flights past shabby plaster and the smell of cooking. Mrs. Toomey has seen us on the sidewalk from her front window and opens to us with a warm smile, and an accent I’ve heard from my father’s great aunt Kate Caffrey. In Mrs. T.’s floral parlor, the two old friends chat, drink hot tea. I kneel on the carpet at the coffee table with cold milk and crumbly powdered-sugar cake. After, I might have napped.

On the train back to 59th Street and Columbus Circle, I sit in a corner seat by myself, while Nana sits adjacent. At the station there’s a gum dispenser, and I ask.

Nana produces two pennies, pushes the first into the slot, and says, “Hold your hand under it,” and turns the crank. One white Chiclet square drops into my palm. Then another penny, another turn, another Chiclet–both instantly in my mouth–I know what to do with peppermint sugar excitement

2+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Paternity, by Henry Simpson

#fatherhood #literary

I had no appointments after lunch. I locked my office and went for a walk that started as a meander that turned into a journey to Mission Park. It was a weekday with school in session and the park was peaceful, quiet, and mostly free of people. A maintenance man was picking up trash with a pointed stick and a man on a riding mower was noisily cutting tracks in the grass. A few listless young men were sitting around home plate on the baseball diamond waiting for the grass to be cut so they could start their game. Some were smoking cigarettes and none resembled Pony Leaguers or Explorer Scouts. In the center of the park, the gazebo stood lonely and empty, ringed by yellow police tape but without a uniformed guard to protect it from interlopers. A young woman was sitting on the gazebo steps, within the police perimeter, strumming a guitar. She appeared to be singing, but I could not hear her because her voice would not carry to where I stood at the park’s edge.

As I set foot on the path to the gazebo, ominous deafening bass sounds from subwoofers assaulted the air from the opposite end of the park, growing louder as their source, a lowered black Honda sedan, drew closer. I started down the path and, as I looked back, caught a brief glimpse of faces behind its smoked glass windows. I stopped and watched as it continued its journey, completely circling the park before heading back along the street from which it had come.

The young woman looked up as I approached her, and smiled. Flora Hunter, the daughter of a bandmate of mine in another life. “Hey,” she said.

I nodded. “Hey.”

She was wearing a tie-dyed halter dress that reminded me of her mother in another time and place.

“Do you remember me?” I said.

“I guess, Mr. Costa. You came by the house Sunday morning.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I didn’t go today. But that’s okay.” She lowered her eyes, watched her fingers as she formed a chord, and strummed the guitar, a Martin D-18 lousy with chips and scratches, its finish worn to bare wood on the fingerboard and body, a long crack above the pick guard. I remembered the day it was new in a Kansas City luthier’s shop.

“That’s Max’s guitar,” I said.

She looked up at me. “He gave me a lesson one day, and said I could borrow it for a while.” She handed it to me.

I sat down beside her and grasped the neck with my left hand, exploring the frets with my fingers. I had not held a guitar in a long time, but my fingers instinctively formed an open C chord, then a G, then an A7, moving effortlessly as they explored familiar territory. I imagined I was sitting on that hard steel chair in that dusty guitar shop with this instrument in my hands, as I had once before. “When did you meet Max?” I said.

Her eyes wandered. “A couple of weeks ago.”

“Did he drop by your house for a visit?”

“No. It happened right here. He came up to me as I was walking through the park. Almost freaked me out. He looked real ratty. He claimed he was some old-time rock star. Then he said he was my father. He seemed like psycho or maybe drunk or on drugs. He had this idea we were related. It made me wonder how many others he’d tried that line on. He scared me. Know what I mean?”

“I believe I do.”

“But then he offered to lend me this guitar.”

“And you took it.”

“Sure I did. It’s nice, even if he was a nut case.”

“Did he give you anything else?”

“Stop asking me about him. He’s gone and I guess I should be sorry but, to tell the truth, it’s probably not that big a deal. If he was my father, it would not do me or Donna any good. And if he stuck around here, telling everyone he was related to us, it would be a real downer. He was off his rocker.”

“It’s not good for you to hang around this place, Flora. A man died here. And the people in the park on days like this, well, it’s not good. You should go to school.”

She glared at me. “You’re not my father. What I do is none of your particular business. I turned fourteen last month.”

“All grown up, I guess.”

I returned the guitar and stood. “Take care, Flora.” I walked away.

“Wait a minute,” she said.

I stopped and faced her.

“That old bum—I mean Max—do you think it’s . . . possible?”

“He thought so,” I felt like adding I did not know for sure, but let my statement stand.

“Because… because I’d really like to know.”

“Ask your mother.”

“No, I can’t do that. She’d have a fit if she found out I talked to Max.”

“Everyone has a birth certificate. It lists the names of their father and mother.”

Her face brightened. “Thanks, Mr. Costa. I’ll look around for one.”

“Don’t tell your mother I gave you the idea. This is a secret, you know, lawyer confidentiality.”

“Okay, Mr. Costa. I know what that is. I swear I won’t say a word to her, even if Max’s name is on it, or someone else’s.”

I left her and continued my walk. There were other ways to know, but it was not in my province to offer the details to someone’s kid.

I heard her strumming again as I made my way back across the park. The sound gradually diminished, overtaken by the shouts of youths at baseball.

I walked back to my office, thinking about Flora. I had caught her ditching school and pondered whether I should bust her by reporting the infraction to Donna. What was she doing, strumming and singing a vigil at Max’s onetime hangout, the scene of his final act? Her harsh assessment of Max contradicted her presence at the gazebo, so I did not quite know what to think, except that she had not been completely frank with me; perhaps she was hiding something. On the other hand, it was not fair to expect her to reveal her inner thoughts with me, a stranger. As I approached the Paseo, the only thing I decided was to keep the kid’s secret.

#

A week later, in late afternoon, Flora appeared in my office doorway, wearing a schoolgirl’s plaid skirt and white blouse with a laden backpack hanging on her shoulders. She waved and smiled shyly, then advanced slowly toward my desk and stopped a few feet away.

“Hello, Miss Hunter,” I said.

She took one cautious step forward, another, then dropped into a chair.

“Hey, Mr. Costa. As you very well know, everyone calls me Flora.”

She leaned forward, slid out of her pack, and it fell to the floor with a loud thud. She smiled, blushing.

“Hauling bricks in that?”

“Sometimes feels that way.”

“What do you need, kid?”

“I need your legal advice or help or . . . maybe I’m speaking to the wrong person. Do you work with a psychic? I saw a sign outside, it says someone in your office reads the Tarot.”

“That would be Selena Koval. She rents the office next door. We don’t actually work together. Maybe we should. I could use her advice from time to time. Do you want your fortune told? She’ll do it for fifty bucks. Considering your tender age, she might charge less.”

“Wow, I can’t even afford a fiver. I sure would like to have my fortune told. But actually, I’m more interested in something that already happened than I am the future. You know, that day I talked to you in the park and you . . . well, I, uh, I found my birth certificate. My name is on it and Donna is listed as mother, but the line for father’s name is blank. What’s that mean?”

“It’s hard to say, Flora. There are many possibilities.” Why answer the question directly? It was safer to duck it, coward that I am.

“Do you think, maybe, she didn’t know who my father was? Jeez, is that even possible? I know it was pretty wild in rock bands, especially back in those days, but I can’t believe Donna slept with a thousand different guys.” She tilted her head like a dog as she looked at me, waiting for a thoughtful answer.

Not likely from this source. “Hold on now, Flora. Give her more credit. It could be, she didn’t want to involve the father.”

“Because he was on drugs, you mean, and insane?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

She glared at me. “You’re not much help, Mr. Costa. You’re a lawyer, and supposed to be smart, but so far you haven’t said diddly.”

“That’s unfair, Flora. I gave you good advice and you ignored it.”

“You mean, ask Donna who my father is? I can’t do that, not ever.”

“Well, there you are, Flora.” That told her.

She frowned in thought. Suddenly her eyes opened wide. “Say, Mr. Costa. I have a really cool idea. How about, you ask her? You know, invite her out for lunch somewhere nice, have a glass of wine, or maybe two or three, and then just sort of casually sneak it into the conversation. You’re both adults so you can talk about these things. I mean, without getting embarrassed or offending each other.”

I stared at her for a long time, wondering who was in charge of the conversation, and who was the stooge.

“Are you thirsty?” I said.

“Not particularly.”

“What do you like? Coke, Fresca, water?”

“Water’s okay, I guess.”

I went to the reefer and filled two paper cups with bottled water. I handed her one and sat back at my desk. I raised the cup and swallowed. “That’s very refreshing. Try it.”

She lifted her cup and sipped.

“More, Flora. It’s hot outside. You must be thirsty after the long walk over here from school.”

I waited for an answer; none came.

“You went to school today, didn’t you?”

She set her cup on my desk, stood, and donned her backpack. “I have to leave now.”

“Where are you going? Mission Park?”

“No, home. Someone told Donna I was hanging out there and we had a fight like the end of the world. That place is off limits now.”

“Do you think I ratted on you?”

“Did you?”

“I wouldn’t do that. Lawyer confidentiality.”

She laughed. “You’re so full of it, Mr. Costa. But anyway, I’ll take your word for it. What I want to know is, how are you going to help me?”

“I’ll work on it, Flora.”

She gave me a funny look, and left.

I opened a file drawer, took out a DNA lab test package, and placed Flora’s paper cup in a plastic baggie. I placed mine in another, and an empty beer bottle that Max had used in a third. I labeled them and filled out the paperwork for the paternity test. It was time to find out who was Flora’s father.

0
Send to Kindle
Standard