Blue Bonnet Review

A Literary Journal Featuring Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction by Talented Writers Around the Globe

A literary journal featuring poetry, fiction and nonfiction by writers around the globe. 

The Proposal

Sean McCarthy

Charlotte went to the window as soon as her daughter Diana backed out of the driveway.  She leaned over and pushed aside the curtain just a bit, watching the traffic pass by, glancing one way up the street, then the other.  Making sure Diana hadn’t forgot something, that she wasn’t coming right back.  Diana had said she was going to pick up a few groceries, and buy Samantha a couple notebooks for school.  Charlotte turned to Jack, Diana’s fiancée.   Jack sat on a stool in the middle of the room 

“I’m so excited,” Charlotte said , clasping her hands together.  “You must be excited.”

“Well, it’s still a little ways off,” he said.

Charlotte resumed her seat by the window. “My cousin got married in June.  It’s a beautiful month to get married.”  She paused a moment, her mouth hanging open. “Johnny Carson was there—he flew in just for the wedding, and then he served as master of ceremonies.”  She paused again. “Me and him both. I still have his autograph. I had a picture of the two of us, Johnny with his arm around me, but it burned in the fire.  Everything burned in the fire. We lost everything.  It makes me so angry every time I think about it.”

            The fire had occurred just a few weeks before.  More than half the house had burned.  The official report had said that someone had been freebasing in the attic--they found the remains of a syringe, a spoon, residue—but after Charlotte had spoken with the investigator, and read the report, she had discarded it in the neighbor’s trash. 

“Electrical,” she now told Jack.  “I’ve been telling Martin for fifteen years that that old house needed new wiring.”  She sighed.   “But he just wouldn’t listen.  And now look at us.  Homeless.  Fifty-five and homeless.”  

Fortunately, they had only homeless for less than a day.  Charlotte’s third oldest son Danny had bought an old Victorian on auction a mile away, converted it to a three family, and he was now letting them—Charlotte, Martin, and their three youngest adult children: Stephen, Roger and Bibi-- stay there for free while they rebuilt.  The apartment was on first floor and less than three blocks from the abandoned factories and project houses of crumbling red brick.   The living room was a big room with white walls, long windows and hard wood floors, but there wasn’t much furniture it—just the chair Charlotte sat in, a kneeler by the window which Charlotte had borrowed from a church over in Whitman, the stool Jack sat on in the center, and the small table beside it.  Charlotte could picture a dance in the room.  Lovely ladies in low cut fine dresses, and men in dark suits.  Everyone spinning.  And then maybe a polka.  She smiled at the thought. 

The table beside Jack was draped with a cloth and topped with scissors, a comb, gel and Barbasol; Bibi was cutting Jack’s hair.  Practicing.  Bibi was twenty-two, and had just finished hair dressing school.  Of the children at home, Roger was a year younger, and Stephen two years older. Diana had told Charlotte that Jack worked in the mental health field—doing something with the crazies—and Charlotte was curious about this.  Roger had some trouble—he had been reading the Summa Theologica, a worn paperback copy stuffed in his back pocket at all times, and he had confided in Charlotte just last week that he himself was Thomas Aquinas.  Charlotte had told him to go clean out the shed.  Stephen had temporarily had some problems, too, and there were rumors spread by her other children that he was experimenting with drugs,  but that was all over now, Thank the Lord.  Over and done with.  Charlotte had talked with him just the week before the fire after she found him in his bed covered in vomit, scabs up and down his arms, and he assured her he was finished with it. Bibi, though, had never tried drugs.   Not like Eddie…and like Diana; Diana didn’t fool her, climbing out on the rooftop smoke a joint back in high school, and Eddie was stoned all the time still.  Bibi, though, was different.  Bibi had already cut nearly everyone in the family’s hair, and so now they brought in Jack. Bibi had all the gear; she just needed a job.  She wore tight denim shorts, cuffed high on the thigh, and a T-shirt, cut mid-riff.  Her hair pulled back from her face with a red bandana, the knot tied on top; they were in the middle of a heat wave that had already lasted a week.

Bibi cut up around Jack’s ear.

Charlotte was watching.

“I’m so nervous,” Bibi said.

            Jack looked at her sideways.   “Please don’t be.”

            Charlotte crossed her legs at her ankles, and folded her hands in the her lap, barely containing herself.  She was a pretty woman with short blonde hair and empty blue eyes.  Much heavier on bottom than on top, her weight centered low.   Everyone said Diana looked just like her, but Charlotte wasn’t foolish, even when she was Diana’s age, she was easily fifty pounds heavier.  She noticed Jack glance at the framed inauguration invitation by the entranceway to the kitchen.

            “It was one of the few things to survive the fire,” she said. 

             “Where did you get it?” Jack asked.

              Charlotte paused, mouth open again.   “We were invited.  Me, Martin, and my mother.  My mother was very active in local politics—she was actually a Kennedy Democrat, I was raised a Democrat, but then after Roe vs. Wade, we all jumped ship.  Anyway, all three of us campaigned for Nixon, and so he invited us to the inauguration. And to the ball!”

            Bibi stopped, looked at her.  “What was he?  President or governor or something?”

            “President,” Charlotte said.

            Bibi waved the scissors about.  “I knew it was one of those.  I’m a Republican, so I only follow people in my party.”   She resumed cutting.

“Bibi is going to be hairstylist to the stars,” Charlotte said to Jack.

“Shut up, Ma,” said Bibi.  “You’re embarrassing me.”  Bibi stepped back and blew her bangs up away from her eyes.  Bibi didn’t look like Charlotte.   Dark hair, dark eyes.  And curved everywhere she needed to be.   “I’m so hot,” she said to Jack.  “It’s so hot in here.”

“When we get the house rebuilt, we’re going to get central AC,” Charlotte said.  “I can’t wait.”

Bibi leaned in close again, reaching up, pressing against Jack.  She snipped at the top of his head.   “I don’t want to go to short.  Just tell me when to stop.”

“Diana used to want to be a hairdresser,” said Charlotte.

Bibi snipped again.  “Really?  She never told me that.”

“She did,” said Charlotte.  “She just never…never had the knack for it. She used to cry herself to sleep after she flunked out of hairdressing school. I remember it so clearly. I would go in and hold her, and tell her there would be something else for her in life, that there was something for everyone.  And then of course, the asshole stepped into the picture and we all know what happened then.”

“Ma, don’t swear,” said Bibi.

“I’m sorry,” said Charlotte, “it’s just that every time I think about him, and what he did to our family, my blood begins to boil.  And Diana has always been so…”  Charlotte stopped, searching for a word.  “Fragile.  She’s always been so fragile.”

“Well, she does pretty well for herself now,” Jack said. 

“She does,” said Charlotte,  “but that’s because I put her through nursing school. We had to find something. Especially after she got pregnant with Samantha.  I worked sixty, sometimes seventy hours a week so she could go to school.”

“I thought you watched Samantha for her when she went to school,” said Bibi.  “When Samantha was little, I mean.”    

“I did,” said Charlotte,  “and on top of that I was working sixty to seventy hours a week.  Sometimes I would take Samantha with me as I went house to house, apartment to apartment.  Cleaning windows, and…and scrubbing floors, teaching her the value of hard work.  And the value of  a dollar.  Samantha used to like to wring out the mop,” she said gleefully.

Bibi stepped back to look.  Charlotte looked, too.   Jack was twenty-eight and Irish, maybe a little good looking, and maybe kind of short.   He had a look about his eyes like he could be a wise ass, like he thought things were funny, but he was quiet, and as far as Charlotte knew, non-violent.  That was good, the one before him, the asshole, had been violent.  Charlotte hated to think of it, but then again, maybe it had been a good lesson for Diana.  After leaving her, going to him.  Charlotte had told her she had to choose, and she did, and that was where it got her.  Fiddlesticks.  Separated in two years, divorced in three.  And now, this one, Jack, had been around for a year or two, something like that.  Maybe longer.  And Charlotte figured they had probably been sleeping with each other all of that time.  Doing any number of filthy things. He was Catholic, said he was Catholic, but she had confided in Bibi that he was probably full of shit.   “Dime store Catholics who show up to Mass on Christmas Day and Easter,” she said.   “But Jesus takes them in, just the same. He takes them in.”

 Now she smiled again.  “So tell me, Jack, are you in love with my daughter?”

“Ma…,”said Bibi.

“What?” said Charlotte.  “It’s a very straightforward question.”

“You’re embarrassing him.”  Bibi stepped back.  “You’re face is turning red,” she said to Jack.

Jack nodded.   “It’s warm in here.”

Bibi wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist.  “It is.  I’m so hot.”  A few wisps of hair had fallen free from her bandana, and she blew them up and away from her eyes.   She stepped in closer. “I wish I could just take all my clothes off right now,” she whispered.

“So are you?” Charlotte asked Jack again.

“I am,” he said.  “Sure.  Of course I am.  That’s why I proposed to her.”

Charlotte had heard the proposal story. Now two months back. Diana had called her the next day.   Summer Solstice, Fort Revere, high on the hill overlooking the Hull Peninsula, Nantucket Beach, Massachusetts.  The asshole had been giving Diana the business that day, refusing to drive the kids home—Sam and her little brother—and Diana was upset.  A basket case.  That was the problem with Diana, it didn’t take much to turn her into basket case. Had never had to deal with the ups and downs, Charlotte had, didn’t know how to turn lemons into lemonade. Anyway, Diana said she didn’t know Jack was planning on proposing, didn’t know he had bought her a ring till he slipped it on her finger.  He had asked her to close her eyes as he read her a poem he wrote her.   Then he asked her to marry him in the last line, put the ring on her finger, told her to open her eyes.  Then the cops came and threatened to arrest them for trespassing, for being in the park after sunset or some holy horseshit like that.  Charlotte must have heard the story a hundred times by now.   She figured most of it was a great big lie. 

Now she just stared.  “Well,” she said at last.  “Just because you proposed, it doesn’t mean you love her.  Plenty of people get married for reasons other than love.”

“Like what?” Jack asked.  He had that wise ass look in his eyes now.

“Sex,” Charlotte said.   She hesitated waited, letting it sink in.  Then:  “For all I know, you could be looking for just a lot of sex.   I told Diana—they won’t buy the cow if they’re getting the milk for free, and I think she listened to me.  I hope so.”

Bibi turned.  “Ma!”

“It’s true,” said Charlotte.

Jack swallowed his breath. “Well, I love Diana.  And I admire her.  She’s accomplished a lot considering all the road blocks she’s had.”

“Road blocks she put there herself,” Charlotte said.

Jack didn’t respond.

Charlotte just stared some more.  Mouth open, silent.  Her thoughts were suddenly silent, too.   This happened sometimes.  Everything would shut down. And then when she went to speak it was almost as if her words weren’t her own.  She could hear them, but she didn’t think them before she spoke.  The words just came.  They came from Christ. 

“Well,”she said at last“there’s some things I think you should know then.”

“Ma, don’t do this,” said Bibi. 

“I’m worried about Diana,” Charlotte said.  “She needs some help.”

“Help?” Jack said.

“I think she needs to see a psychiatrist,”  Charlotte said.  “I think she needs to be on medication.”

.           Bibi suddenly put her scissors and comb down on the little side table, right next to the jar of blue Barbarsol.   “I’ll be right back.” 

            Both Charlotte and Jack watched Bibi walk from the room.

 “Bibi didn’t want me to talk to you about this,” Charlotte said.  “She said it’s none of my business.  And you know what I said to her?”


She was beaming now, smiling wide.  “I told her I’m a mother, it’s always my business.   And if you’re going to be her husband, it needs to be your business, too.”

“But I’m not really sure what you’re talking about,”  Jack said.  “Diana seems pretty well adjusted to me—especially considering all she’s been through.   She works full time, raises two kids on her own—“

“Well…,”  Charlotte interrupted.  “Diana sometimes remembers things that never really happened.”


            Charlotte shook her head.  “Never.  Like when she first got pregnant?  She tells people how angry I was, disgusted and ashamed.  How I locked her upstairs and wouldn’t let her out of the house.  That never happened.”   Charlotte smiled.  “I embraced her. We all embraced her. And then I cried because I knew the child was a gift from God.  We all cried.  Even big six foot four Roger.  And then after we were all done crying, the first thing my mother did was call Father Paul, he came over and blessed Diana and the baby, and then we had a big breakfast. With ham and eggs.  And…croissants an muffins.”  She started kicking her feet in the air.  “I even had a little champagne.”

 Bibi scurried back into the room. Tips of her toes.  Her feet barely left the floor as she moved, and she held a new pair of scissors in one hand, and her spray bottle in the other.  She was down to a bikini top, or what might have been half of one.  

“I’m so hot,” she said again.  “I’m afraid I’m going to drip all over you.”

“And then after we ate,” said Charlotte,  “and the Father said another blessing, we all sang.  Beautiful hymns.  The problem with Diana was she wanted us all to react negatively.  She wanted us to be angry with her because she was so angry with herself. She’ll never forgive herself.”

“I barely remember any of it,” said Bibi, “I’m still so young.”

“But a child is a child I told her ,” continued Charlotte,  “and a blessing from God, and it doesn’t matter what old fuddy duddy way it came into being.  Even if it was in the back seat of a beat up old Corolla.”

“Is that what the priest said?” Jack asked.

“Well…, Father Paul is a very pious man.  Very pious.  One word comes to mind when you meet him—Holy

“I think he’s an asshole,” whispered Bibi.

Charlotte looked at the ceiling.  “He reminds me of….John Paul II.”

Bibi spun her head around, looking at Charlotte, eyes wide, smiling.  “He looks just like him!” 

“He does,” said Charlotte.  “Just like him.  As a matter of fact sometimes I believe they are one in the same person.”

Bibi looked puzzled.  “What do you mean?”

 “Kindred spirits,” Charlotte said.  “I think they might be kindred spirits.  I’m so happy he’s going to marry you. In any case, regardless of the joy we all felt, he is a priest, and he had a job to do.  Diana had fornicated.  She was a fornicator—no two ways about it, it doesn’t matter if it is in The Four Seasons Hotel or on top of the refrigerator with nothing on but an apron—and he had to talk to her about it.  But he did hear her confession, and he offered her penance.  And then once it was done, he pulled me aside outside the confessional, and he started to cry.  He told me it was beautiful.”

“Fornicating?” Jack asked.

“And then after she gave birth, he was the first one in the hospital.  Blessing the baby again before she was even baptized. A holy, holy man. We’re lucky to have him in our lives.  Diana is lucky to have him in hers.”  Charlotte wiped at an eye.  “In any case, she might tell you some things about me, about all of us, but you need to know that they’re just not true. Diana does that sometimes—she doesn’t tell the truth.”

“She hates my guts,” whispered Bibi.

“I remember when she left the family, left us for the“--Charlotte silently mouthed the word “asshole”again —“and we didn’t know where she was. Not for over a year. I went looking for her everywhere. All over Massachusetts.”  She paused, the empty feeling in her head settling in again. Empty but... soothing.  “Everywhere from the Berkshires to Cape Cod, and then finally one day I found an old bill from her insurance company—her car insurance—and I so I jumped right in my car and traveled over to get her new address, but of course they wouldn’t give it to me. It’s confidential, they said, but I stood my ground.   I’m her mother, they said, there’s no such thing as ‘confidential,’ but they still wouldn’t budge.   So then I made a plan.”

“What did you do?” Jack asked.  

Charlotte noticed he sweating a little himself now, what was left of his bangs clinging to his forehead.  Bibi lifted the spray bottle.  Sprayed him. 

“Well,” Charlotte said,  “I left the building and hid outside in the bushes, looking in the window and waiting for the secretary to go to the ladies room.  Oh, I waited and waited.  And then as soon as she got up, I raced in and rifled through the cabinet until I found their file.”

“Sounds like Jessica Fletcher, “Jack said.  “Diana loves that show.”  Bibi had the clippers out now, buzzing the back of his neck.

Charlotte ignored him.  “Well, I had to work quickly, I’ll tell you,” she said, “but that’s what I did.   I copied down her address—they didn’t have a phone number, despite all the accidents she had been in—and then I raced out the door before the secretary even made it out to find her.  And then we—me and Bibi—went to find her.  Do you remember that Bibi?”

“I remember it.  I was only fourteen.  Or maybe I was fifteen.  I was something like that.  I was still pretty young.  And then when we found her I thought, “shit!  That’s my older sister!”

“I think you were only twelve,” said Charlotte.

Bibi shook her head.  “No.  Diana still lived at home when I was twelve.  That’s when she got pregnant.” 

          “Well, it couldn’t have been much after,” Charlotte said.   “I remember thinking I had to get you home so you could get some sleep for school the next day.  Bibi was our honor’s student.”

“I got all D’s,” Bibi said.

“And I remember sitting in the car, in the snow, and in the, in the…”Charlotte huddled herself in her arms, shivering, “in the cold.  It was so cold.  Our car didn’t have heat back then, but I had a little trick I used to play in those days to keep warm, picturing myself on a warm beach on tropical island.”  She hesitated.   “Wearing a big white hat and dark sunglasses, with black men in white suits serving me lemonade.”

Jack nodded.  “Of course.”

“Anyway, I had to send Bibi up to the house to talk to her because I knew she wouldn’t let me in, wouldn’t talk to me—she was still so angry with me for loving her so much.   She had blamed me for everything that happened with him—said I made her make a choice, me or him, and that just wasn’t true.  A mother’s love is unconditional.  And here she was, this poor little girl in the dark and cold, ringing the bell.”

“Diana?” Jack asked.

“No. Bibi.”

“It was freezing,” said Bibi.

“And what did you tell her?” Charlotte asked.

Bibi jumped up on her toes.  “I told her that Jesus loved her!  I told her that we loved her!”

Charlotte nodded.  “That we loved her and wanted her back.” 

Jack was looking at Charlotte, and she could tell he was waiting for her to go on. But she was silent herself, for the moment, just smiling, waiting herself.   For something. Anything.  A word or phrase to pop from her lips.  She never knew when the divine intervention was over, or when it was just beginning.   And that was one more thing that made it so beautiful. 

“That’s a wonderful story,” Jack said at last.

“It was wonderful.” Charlotte sighed.  “And it was beautiful.  And now we get to the problem. Now that you’re engaged, I’m afraid Diana is just making the same mistake all over again.”

“What?” Jack said.

Charlotte smiled wider.  “I think this marriage is a big, big mistake.”

She watched his eyes.  At first taken back.  Perplexed.   Bewildered, that was the word, bewildered.   And then turning just a little bit defensive.  Angry.

 “But I’m nothing like her first husband,” Jack said. 

Bibi had put down the clipper, and was rinsing the scissors again in the Barbarsol.

Charlotte hesitated.  “I know you’re not.  I think you’re wonderful.  Simply wonderful.   I tell Diana that all the time.  The problem isI just don’t think that Diana is…really quite ready.”

“She’s twenty-eight years old.”

“Twenty-eight going on eighteen,” said Charlotte.   “She missed all those developmental years when she was raising Samantha and living away from home, and now I think it’s haunting her.  Diana’s main problem is that she’s selfish.   She’s always been selfish, and she won’t do anything unless it benefits herself, and that includes getting married—a second time.  Her temper is out of control, and her poor little girl—my Blessed granddaughter—is terrified of her.  She calls me up, begging me to come stay with them. ‘Please Grandma, please come stay with us.’  All she does is yell at her, blaming her for ruining her life, and once,”  Charlotte paused, “she said she hated her.  Her own child.”

Bibi sprayed Jack’s head again, and began to run her fingers through hishair.  Charlotte watched a small drop of water move down over his brown onto his cheek.

“Now don’t get me wrong,” Charlotte continued,  “I have seven children myself, so I understand stress.  But I never raised my voice to them, and if I felt like I was going to,  I would remove myself from the situation, and prostrate myself at the feet of the Blessed Mother—she burned in the fire—until I had composed myself.   Until I got over it.  Sometimes it took a few minutes, a few deep breaths, and some serious going back and forth with Our Lady, but I always got over it.  And then I would come out and give them a hug.  The trouble with Diana is that she doesn’t know how to get over it.  Doesn’t know how to hug.  And then she takes it out on everybody around her.  People like me, and her child.  Her poor helpless child.”

Charlotte’s head went blank.   And then she was there, in her own thoughts.  Younger. Smaller.  Seventies pants suits, and piled hair.  Wrinkle free and just the right amount of lipstick.  Sitting in the front row of church, then prostrate before the stations of the cross.  Running the bake sales in the basement of the church, and then waving to Father as he hung his head out the window as she and Martin and the kids drove by the rectory in there woody station wagon and and beeped.   Everybody singing at once.  Carptenter’s songs…I’m on the top of the world, lookin…down on creation…  It was all there for a moment, and then it was gone.

“I’m not sure what you want me to do,” Jacksaid.

 “I want you to leave,” Charlotte said.  

 “Excuse me?”

“You don’t even have to break off the engagement—Bibi and I can just make something up for you—you can just go.”  She waved her hands in the air.  “No strings.   Just go.  You’ll be scot free.”

Jack and Charlotte sat staring, eyes locked.  Bibi put down her scissors and comb again.  “Wa-lah!”  she said.  “Finished.”   She tiptoed around Jack, and grabbed a mirror, holding it up to his face, standing between him and Charlotte. 

“Do you like it?” she asked. 

Jack nodded a little.   Shifted in his chair.

 “Just think,” Charlotte continued. “Your whole life ahead of you.  Free.  You don’t have to worry about two kids, a ready made family, or any of that nonsense.”

Bibi undid the barber’s smock, and brushed off hisneck.  Blew a little at the side of hisface and ear. 

“Missed a spot.”  She stood back and smiled.   “I have to go clean up,” she said after a moment, and she scurried off to the kitchen, the empty spray bottle in one hand, scissors, comb and Barbasol in the other.   The faucet turned on in the kitchen.   Moaning loudly.  Air in the pipes.    

“And as a little extra incentive,” continued Charlotte,  “I’ll even throw in a little treat.”

Jack stood up.  “And what would that be, Charlotte?”

“Bibi,” she said,  “Just for the afternoon.   You can have your way with her, and then you can both go to confession.   If that’s what you do.  I’m not sure if you celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation or not.   I know you celebrate fornication—because I know you sleep over Diana’s apartment, Samantha tells me—and maybe for you that is a sacrament, blow jobs and sex toysand all that happy horse shit,  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing a little tryst won’t be an issue for you.   In any case, she’ll do whatever you want—we already talked it out, and she’s willing to make the sacrifice, she’s willing to soil her soul to help save her sister’s—and then you’re free to go.”  Charlotte hadn’t broken the smile.

               The sink turned off in the kitchen, and footsteps pattered down the hall.  Bibi.  Heading back to her bedroom.  A car passed out in front of the house.  Charlotte glanced at the driveway and then back at Jack.  He was white, his mouth still open, but something again was building in his eyes.

“So what do you think?” she asked at last.

“I think it sounds crazy.”

“Is love crazy, Jack?” she asked.  “If I love her, and you love her, and Bibi loves her, is it crazy to do what’s best for her?   I think we both know that the two of you getting married wouldn’t be the best thing for her.”  Charlotte nodded.  “She needs to be with her family.  She left her family once, but we’re willing to forgive.  That’s what this is all about, it’s about forgiveness.”  She paused.  “It’s about Jesus.”



“I see.”  Jack started to step forward.  He shook his head.   “I’m sorry Charlotte, but I can’t.   I won’t.”

She nodded.   “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”


“Positive.  I think I know who needs help.”

Charlotte kicked her feet in the air again.   “Then you passed the test!”

 “The test?”

“I had to test you to see how much you loved her. And you passed!  I’m so happy.”  Charlotte stood up, started towards him as if to embrace me, but then she stopped.  “But do me a favor, don’t tell Diana. She won’t appreciate it, and she won’t understand.  Let’s just keep it between us.”

Jack didn’t answer.

“Do you want a dish of ice cream?” Charlotte asked.  “Double Chocolate?  You can eat some ice cream while you wait for Diana.  Fiddlesticks.  This heat is awful.”

The stereo went on somewhere at the front of the house.  Bibi’s room.   Charlotte was always telling her to turn it down.  A man singing,  “And in between the moon and you, angels get a better view, of the crumbling difference between wrong and right….   It was a song Bibi played all the time.

Jack was about to respond, when a horn blew out front.   Charlotte walked him to the front door, talking about Stephen.  Stephen was applying to Harvard, she said, and was expected to receive a full scholarship.   His SAT scores were so high, she said, that the school was already offering him a lecturing position while he worked towards his degree.  

“I can just see him strolling about campus in a tweed coat and smoking a pipe,” she said.

They passed by Bibi’s room on the way to the door.  Bibi was flat on the bed, now down to nothing but a red pair of panties, high on the hip.  She looked over at them , rolling onto her side, and gave a small wave.  The ceiling fan spun above her.

 Outside, Charlotte stood on the front porch and watched Jack walk to the car.   The two children were in back now.  Samantha and Calvin.  And Diana had that look on her face.   Always impatient, always in a hurry.  Never taking taking a moment for the Lord.   

Diana said something to Jack, and Jack shut the door.   The spoke for a moment, and then Diana looked up at the porch.  Looked up at her mother.  

The sun was beginning to set, breaking in reds, but the sky was still deep blue.  It was a beautiful day.  Thank the Lord, Jesus Christ, Charlotte thought, for beautiful days.  The car began to back out of the driveway, and as it did,  Charlotte smiled wide, and began to wave.

It's Not Easy Being Short in America

“It's not easy being short in America,” I told this girl who slept with me once as an experiment. “People saying, ‘You’re cute’ all the time. Reaching out, trying to pinch your cheek.”

            She wouldn’t look at me, she couldn’t button up fast enough.

            “So, just between us, how’d I do? Good?”

            She was absorbed tying her sneaker laces, double knots it looked like.

            “You got a name? Come on, give us a hint.” 


            “How about a favorite movie? You like Forrest Gump?”      

            “None of your business,” she said, springing to her feet. She held up one of the boots I wear with the five inch heels. “Why didn’t you tell me about these? Isn’t this what they call elevator shoes?”

            “Oh, now you’re the one who’s pissed? What’s the matter, you didn’t realize you’d be doing a freak?”

            “Don’t be crude, and don’t look so offended. I already told you, I have a serious boyfriend at my school. I just wanted something to compare him to.”

            “And? How was it?”

            “About the same.”

            “Well, if the earth didn’t shimmy I must not have been on my game today. I’m actually more a night person. But next time…”

            She rolled her eyes, headed for the door.

            “What, no good bye hug? Don’t burn your bridges, sweetie, you’re no Scarlett Johansson.”

            She did not look back. 

            Okay, the bar was dark but of all the losers she did pick me out, so I figured maybe my long drought’s over, maybe by some miracle I’ll even find someone. I should’ve known though when she asked, “Can we please turn the lights out?” and then she said, “No, all of them.” 

            I did happen to date a terrific girl a few times, very refined, she was an illustrator and, believe it or not, she was so cute my stomach was all in knots, but when it came time for me to put the obligatory moves on she said, “Please. This isn’t easy for me, you’re a lovely person to enjoy dinner with, but I’m not attracted to you.”

            “Hmmm. Suppose I go on a diet?”

            “No,” she said, “you’re not that overweight. And I do like you. Just not…um…” Then she trailed off.

            This, I must admit, set me back a ways.

            “It kills me to ask you for advice, of all people,” I told my ex-wife on the phone. “Because I finally got used to not seeing your face, or hearing your voice absolutely everywhere, but what’s wrong with me? The height thing?”

            “Trust me, that’s the least of your worries.”

            “Well, you said you couldn’t take it anymore and split before our first anniversary so I figure you have a whole list of constructive criticisms I could get cracking on. Any pearls of wisdom?”

            “You take things too personally,” she informed me. “You’re too sensitive. Women like men with strength and confidence.”  

             “Okay, all right, that’s about enough!” I said, because the second she spelled it out I felt doomed. I mean, it’s a toss-up which I’m more devoid of, strength or confidence. When her newborn started crying in the background I began to speak fast.              

            “What about being short? Here in America.”

            “Stop it!”

            “Okay, swear it’s not the height thing. Swear on your mother.”

            “You’re the one, you defeat yourself.”

            “Sure, say that now, but didn’t you get it on with that moron Paul just because he’s a six footer.”

            “You,” she screamed, “are a mess! Nobody in their right mind would put up with you as long as I did.” The way she hung up, my ear still hurts.

            It took a while to get over this and I got a lot of No’s until I stopped even trying. Then, just as hitting rock bottom, a benevolent universe (or perhaps a random one) presented me with the incredible Miss Polly. On cue, as they say.

            “You are a very kind and considerate person,” she said, after kissing me at the end of our second date. “It’s not everyone who’d be so concerned as to whether I was starving, after working late, that they’d miss a play they’d had their heart set on seeing for months. Thank you.”

            “And you,” I said, “are too good to be true. What planet are you from? Or did some genius invent you?”

            She touched my nose.

            “So,” I asked her flat out, standing right there in the shadows on her door step, “do you care about strength or confidence?"                                                                                                             

           “What do you mean?”

            “I’m a man of numerous qualities, but neither strength nor confidence is among them. I can fake it for a while, but the truth always comes out.”

            “Sometimes, if you pretend, you start to believe whatever it is yourself.”

            “You do this?” I asked, kissing her palm. “You pretend?”

            “I can. I can pretend you’re strong. And confident. If it’ll help.”

            “And tall?”

            “I don’t care about that. But, yes, if you insist.”

Texas Eagle

          It started when I was twelve. Others who think themselves better qualified will tell you it was much earlier. But I know it was twelve. Who knows better than me? It’s my life. I’m the one who’s been living it. It started when I was twelve.

            I know it was when I was twelve because that’s when I began working at the store, Hubert’s Sew and Vac. In some places you can work at a family business when you’re twelve. That’s what the law says. Or at least that’s what Hubert said the law says, and it was not my place to question it.

            “Hub . . . Hub. Where’s our son?”

            “I thought he was in back with you.”

            “He’s in the bathroom again.”

            The bathroom. My refuge. It took me away, if only for a few minutes, from dealing with people and their troubles, as if having a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t vacuum anymore is trouble, or a sewing machine that doesn’t sew anymore is trouble. I had a Walkman cassette player. I bought it at a garage sale, along with a bunch of old tapes. I could block out the noise. Block out Hubert. Block out Darla. Block out the world. I could do all that--and listen to Roy. Because Roy knew about loneliness and love and what it’s like to be empty.

            Vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, an occasional floor scrubber to break the monotony. Not just on Saturdays, but every weekday after school let out, until Darla grabbed her car keys from next to the cash register and headed to the back door. That was my signal we were heading home for supper.

            Darla was always tired at the end of the day and didn’t have much to say. She had white hair. She had white hair even before I was twelve. Maybe she had white hair forever. I just don't remember her any other way. She never asked about school. Or how was I, or anything like that. She must have already known the answers, so why bother? That was okay with me, too.

            At school I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t exist. I was a name on the roll call sheet and a voice from the back of the room. That’s all I was.


            “Louder, please.”

            Good grief. It’s one flippin’ syllable, lady.


            “Thank you.”                                                                                                     

            She wouldn’t call on me the rest of the period, and I sure wasn’t going to volunteer. It was the same, no matter what class it was.                                                                                             


            “Thank you.”

            Being invisible did have its advantages--nobody much bothered to bully me. After proving my worth at the back of Hubert’s Sew and Vac for what seemed an eternity of exile, I was finally allowed to work at the front counter. That’s where I first saw Lisa Sanders.

          She was in the company of her mother and a vintage Lewyt, one of those vacuums that looked like a 1950s space craft. Hubert could barely keep his eyes off the Lewyt. “You hardly ever see one of these anymore. They’re indestructible. But I guess you already know that. I’m not sure I can even get parts for it. But we’ll give it a shot.”

            I could barely keep my eyes off Lisa Sanders. I knew I’d seen her once or twice at school, but never this close up. Astonishing bluish, greenish, brownish eyes, set off with just the right amount and color of eye shadow. So pretty. Such a pretty woman. Darla never wore eye shadow.

            I didn’t dare enter into conversation with Lisa at the store. Not with Hubert or Darla around. And I didn’t want to appear too forward, either. It was just awkward for me. And for Lisa, I’m sure.

            It took me a week to find Lisa’s locker and memorize her class schedule. After English class, I saw her standing there with some boy.                                                                                     

            “Hi, Lisa. How’s that Lewyt working?”

             “Good . . . I guess.”

            The boy made a move towards me, but Lisa held him back. If my pretty woman didn’t care, she wouldn’t of done that. I’m sure of it.

            I tried to talk to Lisa a few more times, but there was always something or someone in the way. Then graduation. And life moves on. You can’t always wait for others.

            I knew it was time to get out on my own. Hubert and Darla had this big discussion about it. They didn’t know I was listening. Not that I planned it that way, but you could hear everything going on downstairs through the cold air register next to my bed.

            “I’m going to have to hire someone if he leaves. That’ll cost us big time.”

            “Maybe he’ll . . . get better if he goes off on his own for a while.”

            “Get better? At what? He know the inside of a vacuum cleaner as well as I do.”

            “I mean better adjusted.”

            “He seems fine to me.”

             The conversation ended there.

            One day in July, I just left. No note, no big, dramatic statements; there were no big, dramatic statements to be made.

            The Metra bus was empty most of the way downtown. Unusual. Just the woman across the aisle, the driver and me. It was noisy. Something was loose inside the bus and vibrated every time we hit a bump. There’d be the noise and the woman across the aisle would sway from one side to the other. I wanted to say something to her. I didn’t know what to say, so I put on my earbuds and listened to Roy the rest of the way to Union Station. The woman got off a couple of blocks earlier. I said good-bye to her. I needed to say good-bye to somebody. She must not of heard me.

            Union Station was huge. Huge. A gigantic waiting room with high ceilings and long wooden benches. And echoes. Lots of echoes.

            “I want a ticket to Texas.”

            “Where in Texas?”

            “I’m not sure. Where does the train go in Texas?”

             “See that rack of schedules over there? Get one that has Texas on it, and when you make your decision come back.”

            There were schedules for places like Champaign and Carbondale. I didn’t want to go to Champaign or Carbondale. I wanted to get away. I wanted to go to Texas. I saw schedules for New York and one for Washington D.C. and one for San Francisco. All tempting, but I wanted to go to Texas. Someone from security came over to where I was sitting then and started asking me questions. 

          “I just want to get away from around here for a while."                                                                         
          “Can’t stop you for that. Just don’t cause no trouble on the train. You’ll end up getting kicked off somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They can do that, you know.”

            There was only one train to Texas. The Texas Eagle. I don’t know why the lady in the window at Union Station just didn’t tell me that up front.                                                                                                                       

            The train sat there and sat there. I put on my ear buds. Finally, I drifted off. I was in dreams. The cassette must of replayed a couple of times. When I awoke, there were people seated all around me and we were moving. There was a black lady with a small child across from me. The train was noisy. Noisier than I’d imagined. And it swayed. Worse than the bus at times. I went up to the dining car, but it was already closed. Before I fell back to sleep again, somebody said we were in Missouri. Missouri took a long time.

             Then I woke up. The train was stopped and all kinds of people were leaving the train, or getting on, and there was confusion in the aisle as those coming on board bumped into those who were leaving and otherwise. It was pitch dark outside. This must be Dallas. I jumped up, grabbed my backpack and joined those leaving the train before it pulled out for who knows where.

            The red lights of the train disappeared under the bridge at the south end of the Little Rock depot and the man at the window wasn’t going to stop it.

             There was no more Amtrak going to Texas for another day. There was an Amtrak going to Chicago in a few hours, but that was the wrong way. It was going to Chicago but it was called the Texas Eagle, too. Why? That makes no more sense today than it did then.                                                            

            People from the train headed to waiting cars that soon vanished. The only other person left on the platform was a man with a camera.

            "Why do you have a camera?"

            "For taking pictures of the train."                                                                                                        

            “At night?”

            "Freight trains run all night."

            We shared names. His name was Ken. Ken offered me a ride out to the Interstate. We went through the drive-thru at a McDonald’s, and he bought me something to eat. He insisted on paying for it.

            “That’s the main road to Texas. I-30. Good luck.”                                                                                  

            The semi driver put on his four-way flashers and pulled over. “Hurry up. I’m not supposed to be stopped here. They’ve got me on GPS.” There was lightning somewhere to the south. Hubert always called it sheet lightning. You couldn’t see it in the city because of the houses and the trees, but if we went out to the farm you could see it for miles off. Not really bolts of lightning, just the sky lit up all over from one end to the other. I thought maybe it would be raining in Texas. Some people like sunny days. They’re okay, but I think I like rainy days better. I told the driver a little about where I was going. I tried to tell him about Roy, too. I don’t think he bought it entirely. After a while I put on the ear buds and fell asleep again. And dreamed. We drove all night.                                                                                                                                                                 

            “Where are we now?”


            “McKinney? That’s in Texas?"                                                                                                              

            “Yup. I have to take another road to get around city traffic. If you want into Dallas, you’ll have to get out here."                                                                                                                                   

            He dropped me off in front of a strip mall with a Denny’s, a Target and a Home Depot. It looked like Chicago, not Texas.

            At the shelter I asked somebody about Wink, Texas and how to get there. Nobody knew there was such a place as Wink, Texas.

            “It’s where Roy was from. I want to go there. See what it’s like.”

            Somebody in charge at the shelter said, “The Central Library is on Young Street. A couple blocks from here. They’ll have maps there.”

            I talked with the gentleman at the reference desk and he showed me Wink on a map. “It’s a long ways. Over four-hundred miles. This is Texas.”

            “How do I get there?

            He wasn’t much help. “No trains or buses go there. At least that I can find. You’re on your own . . . “ He was right about that, except I always had Roy. That counted for a lot.

            Back at the shelter that night, somebody stole my backpack. It was time to move on.                                                                                                                        

            The last twenty-five miles into Wink, Texas were probably the hardest. It was even hotter, drier than the clerk at the Love’s in Odessa said it would be. I must of walked half of it. At least half of it. It was worth it in the end.

            There’s a museum for Roy, right there on the main street. I couldn’t get in at first, but someone from the city hall a few doors down the way had a key and showed me around. Nice people. I could of spent the rest of the day there. At least.

            The man who showed me around must of thought I thought Roy was still alive. He tried to set me straight. Just some confusion on my part explaining why I was there in the first place. People don’t understand when I try to tell them. I don’t try much anymore.                                                         

            I was only gone maybe a month in all. I took some time to explore. To see what I’d been missing all those years on the other side of the counter at Hubert’s Sew and Vac. Saw a lot of people and a lot of places and a lot of Texas.

            Back in Dallas, I caught the Texas Eagle. Somewhere along the way, I asked the conductor why they called it the Texas Eagle if it was headed for Chicago. He didn’t have any answers, but later on I think I caught him talking about it to the other crew members when he saw me enter the dining car. I got off the Metra bus a few blocks short of my regular stop and walked the rest of the way home. I’m not sure why. I just did. It was about four o’clock when I walked up on the front porch. I didn’t have to ring the doorbell; Darla came and opened. She stood there, her hair as white as ever.

          “Hubert’s dead. He died right after you left. Where have you been? We couldn’t find you anywhere.”                                                                                                    

            “I had to pay a visit to a friend.”

            “A friend? Your own father dies and we can’t find you and you miss the funeral? Who is this friend, anyway? You never told me about any friend.”                                                                                              

            I never did explain. Like the others, she wouldn’t of understood anyway. Only the lonely.

Tred Well Across the Sky O Mightiest of Comets

         Ruth Deming

         February 6. Not as cold as we’d expected, though windy as hell. We parked our van across the street from the park, which closed at dusk.

          “Shhh!” cried Sammy, as we got out and grabbed our gear.

          We planned it days in advance, our military-like operation of sneaking into the park, taking the high hill, setting up our telescope, and then partying afterward.   

          This was the first night that offered a clear view of the western skies.

          Sammy led the way with a flashlight that outlined the snow-covered path, tramped down by intrepid hikers and joggers. Tiny pebbles of deer scat littered the path like breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel.  

          Atop the hill, my little brother David, who had Asperger syndrome, began to recite what he’d read about it, while the rest of us scurried about setting up camp.

          David, who was a handsome twelve-year-old with dark hair like my own, spoke in a soft voice.

          “Louder, David,” said Maggie.

          He gave her a look, yes, he had good eye contact, and began again.

          “Comet Lovejoy was discovered on August 17, 2014 by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer in Queensland, Australia. It was the fifth comet he’d  discovered.”

          “Okay, David,” I said. “Get to the good parts. Tell us where to find it.”

          He cleared his throat and looked up at the vast winter sky atop our hill. The moon was halfway above the horse farm off in the distance. And the stars were blinking on and off like diamonds.

          “Visible to the naked eye for experienced observers..”

          “That’s us!” cried Maggie and a couple others hooted with joy.

          “…with dark skies and keen eyesight. In January 2015, it brightened and became one of the brightest comets located high in a dark sky in years. The comet came to perihelion – closest approach to the sun – on January 30 – that’s a week ago - at a distance of 120,000,000 miles from the sun.”

          “Shee-it!!! A hundred twenty million miles from the sun!” said Bill, who was already swigging from his private stock of booze he removed from his jacket pocket. Who did he think he was? Hemingway?

          Bill was my neighbor, a clever guy, who lived with his old father. He’d  just been released from prison. Again. For another DUI.

          Sammy told everyone to relax, we have plenty of time to party and see the comet. He pointed toward the sky. “We have a perfect view up here. Give me a few minutes while I set up my telescope.”

          The Meade Telescope glowed white. The snow up here was so frozen our feet didn’t sink in. We walked on top of the snow banks, careful not to slip and fall.

          “Please, everyone, be careful,” I said. “It’s treacherous up here.”

          Out of my backpack, I took out my offerings. Removing my gloves with my mouth, I set out a blue glass tray, then opened a baggie and poured out Triscuits, which I set in a circular pattern. Onto each cracker, I put cut-up cheese: Muenster, horseradish cheddar, and Swiss.

          With “smoke” pouring out of our mouths, we were as busy as a real military operation planning its assault on unsuspecting troops down below. My brother David had pulled out his black Nikon and began taking photos. Click! Click! Click! That boy had more interests than I did.

          I will tell you this, though. I was interested, very interested, in Sammy. He was a divorced man who lived in the neighborhood. I’d wave to him when I walked our dog, Fluffers. I still lived with my folks and David, saving money to buy my own place.

          As David was taking a picture of the white telescope, he stepped too far backward and slipped. There he was, sliding down the hill in his green jacket and matching hat, his camera held aloft in the air.

          “Wheeeeeee!” he screamed as he went down the hill.

          Jesus, here I was, in charge of my younger brother, and look what I’d done.

          He came to a stop somewhere near the bottom. Sammy went after him, sliding down on his butt. “He’s fine!” he yelled up at us and led David up the hill, very slowly, by the hand.

          I hugged David when he made it back to camp. Hugged him hard. “Sorry, Diddy,” I said. “You okay?”

          “Embarrassed,” he said. “But I kind of liked it. Sort of like skiing, backward.”

          I walked around, clapping my hands together to keep warm, and decided to make an announcement.

          “So, we’ll watch the comet and then we’ll eat. Right?”

          I waited to hear what Sammy would say. I was relieved when he looked up from the telescope – he had removed his cap and his field of black curls tumbled out – and he stuck out his thumb and said, “Right-o, Katydid!”

          Maggie and I huddled together. She was jumping up and down to keep warm. She lived far away in Philadelphia, but we were best friends since childhood. She was the only normal one in her family. She called her parents “fiends” as they were always arguing with each other and the four children, two of whom became heroin addicts. Maggie, with the stoicism of a Buddhist monk, knew enough not to indulge, and kept firm on her course to become a psychologist. She lived in a dorm at Temple University.

          David had come over and photographed us in our huddle, Maggie’s blond curls spilling out of her warm cap.

          Sammy stood up. “Ladies and gents,” he announced. His black mustache had snowflakes on it.

          “The telescope awaits you. What you do is close one eye and put your best eye – usually the right – on the lenspiece. Blink a couple of times for your eye to adjust and then gaze upon the heavens.

           “Ladies first,” he said, motioning to me and Maggie.

          Maggie stooped down a bit and put her eye to the lenspiece.

          “Wait a minute!” she said. “I should close one eye, right?”

          “Yes,” said Sammy, “I just told you that.” He patted her on the back.

          In a moment she began to shout.

          “I think I see it!” she called. “I do see it!”

          There was complete silence on our hill. Five people conjoined in the wonder of the universe.

          The nearly-full moon was off to our left. A hazy moon, white with gray shadows on it. 

          It was my turn next. I brushed my hair from my face, closed my left eye, stooped down and viewed the night skies. It took a moment to focus. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

          “I see it moving,” I whispered.

          “Impossible,” said Sammy. “It’s too far away.”

          Nonetheless I saw what I saw. The comet swung along like a slow-moving horse and carriage, orange as a tabby cat, sweeping slowly across the sky. I could even hear it singing. A sort of lullaby. The comet was huge – as big as three moons – and I could barely tear myself away.

          To my surprise, Sammy grabbed my bare hand when I moved away. He held it a moment before letting go.

          “Katy, lovely, Katy,” he said.

          When it was David’s turn, my brother looked through the lens and said, “Hello thou mightiest of comets. Tred well across the sky, say hello to Perseus and Andromeda, who sparkle above you, and I shall see you when I, too, have turned into a star, the Star of David.”

          “Whoa, man,” said Sammy. “You is one profound dude.”

          “I’ll toast to that,” said Billy, taking a swig, like Hemingway.

          What merriment traversed after each one of us – Bill, Maggie, Sammy, David, and myself – paid obeisance to the comet. Then we attacked the hors d’oeuvre table. I bit into the delicious combination of the horseradish cheddar, which I had just discovered, and the salty taste of the Triscuit.

          “Yum!” I said out loud.

          “Sammy, can I get you some?”

          “Sure, lovely lady,” he answered.

          Afterward the five of us stood atop the hill, each one immersed in our own thoughts.

          “Let’s everyone make a wish,” I said.

          We felt the cold air burnish our faces and rush through our clothing. Standing as still as chess pieces, we were silent, immersed in our own thoughts.

          “Please, God,” I thought. “Please make Bill stop drinking. He is a good man. I wish this for Bill and his elderly father, Luke.”

          Maggie said we should all tell what we wished.

          “No way!” we all said.

          “Okay, everyone,” said Sammy, removing his jacket, his gray argyle sweater and unbuckling his jeans. “In the fine tradition of the ‘Polar Bear Club, who jump into the Atlantic when it’s freezing, I dare you all to get undressed.’”

          Amidst loud laughter and moans, we all peeled off our jackets and hats, our winter boots and warm clothes and stripped down to our bare naked bodies. We whooped and hollered and jumped up and down on that high hill, while my brother David photographed us all. 

First Impressions

            The tram swayed and rattled through the city suburbs, with wheels screeching at every junction, and its bell clanging approach. 
“The Royal Palace,” shouted the conductor. Only the boy and his father alighted. The young boy stared across the road at the elaborate gold-painted railings surrounding a very large and plain white building. When his father guided him across the road the boy noticed that in front of the palace was a dull tarmac courtyard and soldiers in sentry boxes either side of the main entrance. The soldiers  never moved and reminded the boy of  chocolate soldiers he‘d seen displayed in the window of  a chocolatier.
“Are they real soldiers? Asked the boy.
“Yes,” smiled his father.”
“Why are they there?”
“They’re guarding the king.”
“Where’s the band?”
“What band?”
“The band with a big drum.”
“There isn’t one.”
“I always thought there was a band and the soldier’s marched.”
“Only on special days like the King’s birthday.”
“Is this not a special day?
“I think we’ll go home. I can play with my toy soldiers. They are much more fun.”
“I think we’ll have some pommes frites and then go to the fair,” smiled his father.
“Maybe I’ll play with my soldiers tomorrow.”


Where we fit in

The three-year-old yorkie met the sixteen-year-old terrier on an early fall day.

          “Saucer just needs a younger dog to play with,” Rebecca told her husband Timothy as she sat Tea beside the terrier. The younger dog tried to wake up the old one with a lick on the nose. It tasted dry and pasty.
          “We don’t need another dog to take care of Saucer. She’ll be gone soon and we can start traveling and enjoying our retirement. We can visit the kids and their families.” Timothy stared down at Tea as if she was a stain that would not go away.
           This job would be a challenge, Tea realized.

           Eight days later, Tea was standing on the back porch waiting for Rebecca to open the door and let her back in. She hoped Rebecca had not forgotten her. It was getting cold. Tea remembered her previous owners as she gave off a shiver.
            Those other owners left the front door ajar on a late summer day. Tea took the opportunity to get away from them and various pet sitters who had no clue how to take care of a pet they did not love. Her wild world experience lasted only one night before a tall man, who seemed nice, coaxed her toward his arms. No love there as he shoved her in a cage.
           During her days of confinement, Tea hoped she would find a home before the gas chamber found her. When Rebecca came in, Tea gave her a look of someone needing redemption. Rebecca looked like she needed Tea to love and Tea needed that love. Tea was sure she had not made another mistake with an owner. Yet on this eighth day with Rebecca, it was getting late and no one was coming to let her in.
         Tea started to yelp and couldn’t stop as panic set in. Her yelps got louder as the neighbor’s back door light came on. Timothy let Tea in and there was no love in his face.

            Over the next three weeks, Tea watched Saucer move a little slower, get lost more often in the house, and sometimes become generally confused. Tea felt like she had an obligation and a duty to keep Saucer moving.
           Tea kept the older dog active and alive. There was the run around the coffee table until Tea caught up to Saucer and they changed direction. Tea played tug with Saucer’s favorite rubber toy giving the older dog a chance to win each time. It was that or watch more teeth come loose. The long days of lying around and doing nothing became days of long strolls in the Sun along the fence line of the backyard looking for squirrel.
            Soon, Rebecca spent more time tending to the tiredness of Saucer who played too hard with the youngster Tea. During recoveries, Tea stayed with Timothy who had no time for dogs and chased Tea away.
            “I need another dog to balance things out,” Rebecca told Timothy one cold winter day.
            Really? Tea wondered where this came from. Saucer was happy when Tea gave the old dog a run. People should really learn to speak dog.
            “What’s another dog gonna do? How are we going to visit the kids with three dogs? How are we supposed to travel when we have to spend money taking care of these dogs?”
             “You don’t like traveling.”
             “I was doing it for you.”
             “I’d rather you got me another dog.”
              Tea ducked behind the sofa to avoid this tone. On her way, she passed Saucer asleep on the couch unawares. Being deaf and blind had its advantage.
              Rebecca added, “The kids and their families can come here and stay in their old rooms.”
            “They have homes and rooms of their own. We need to visit them.”
            “I don’t care. I need another dog to take care of if it’s just going to be us.” Tea thought Rebecca should be taking care of Timothy. Peering around the corner of the sofa, Timothy looked as old as Saucer.
            “I don’t want to use my retirement years taking care of dogs.”
            “I need another dog. I’m getting another dog.”
             When the stale air got quiet again, Tea emerged and looked out the window. She watched Timothy enter a small shed outback where he had a workshop. Soon, the man produced loud, grinding noises.

           Rebecca called this third dog Cup. Another yorkie that was smaller and younger than Tea. The now middle dog Tea watched Cup and Saucer consume Rebecca’s attention. One was small and fragile and the other slow and needy. Tea was stuck in the middle being neither.
             On long afternoons, Tea watched Rebecca and the two dogs sit on the small couch with no room left for her. Rebecca scratched both dogs behind their ears. No one scratched Tea anywhere and she thought how great a nice, long scratch would be. She looked at Timothy who sat in the living room recliner snoring with drool spilling out of the corners of his mouth. Tea jumped onto his lap, licked off the drool, and woke Timothy. Very quickly, Tea found herself hiding behind the sofa again.
           Tea could do nothing else but continue with what she thought was her duty. That which was to bark at Cup when she pooped on the rug. Or, run outside to check on the neighbor’s dogs since Saucer no longer sensed them. But, Tea did this with some hesitancy and not quite sure this was her place in the family or not.

            As winter ended, Timothy stayed more often in the shed out back using noise to grind metal things. From the cold recliner, Tea watched Cup, Saucer, and Rebecca on the short sofa sit together like a proper family.
             On a warm, spring day, the kids and their families visited for Timothy’s birthday. The excitement bore down on Cup and Saucer, yet Rebecca had nothing to do with them. The human family had the priority. Tea stayed with Cup and Saucer like a mother she would never really be. She stood in front of hands reaching for Cup and laid next to Saucer who would not know someone was there.

             On the day when everyone left, Rebecca and Timothy along with three stressed out dogs stood on the front porch watching the cars drive away. Tea watched the sunny air melt the dirty snow and she felt stronger with the thaw and a warm breeze ruffling her fur. However, Cup did not know better and ran through a slit in the porch gate. Moving vehicles lived on the black tar before them.
             Tea ran with the owners after Cup as Saucer stayed on the porch. A quick bark of the older dog stopped the youngster just before the black tar. Not the middle one who kept running.


Wyoming Magician

Walking smartly past the mango trees and then slowing suddenly in his stride to charitably use the broad front page of a local newspaper to shade someone’s cradled infant from the fiery afternoon sunlight, a Wyoming magician hopes out loud that his wife isn’t still in Laramie; ‘hopes she’s gotten, held, and nurtured the attention of a curly-haired electrician (a curly-haired neighbor) who seemed to have absorbed completely a spell the magician placed upon him a mere two days before the magic man had to fly south to Marco Island.

This magician’s swarming hope, which he veritably shouts now through the newspaper and directly at the infant and then shouts a second time, back toward the mango trees, is that his wife and Curly have by this time run off to locales unstated and unknown, to begin a brand-new life together. O how sweet a return flight looms for the magician if he’ll just be able to calmly sit upright and buckled in his jet as it rises through the heavy Florida air, and feel beyond a reasonable doubt that his wife is anywhere but in Wyoming.



Being Young and in Love

                The door swung open all in a rush, and they entered with a breath of midnight wind. She didn’t look at us, but back up to him, as though for reassurance, tucking a few wayward strands of hair behind her ear again. They both had dark hair and were dressed in foreign dark clothes. Being young and in love, they didn’t give their surroundings much notice, most of their attention being taken up by inner exploration, down the passages of the human heart. Yet they did not take a shadowy table in the corner – unexpectedly, she wanted to sit up at the bar with the rest of us. She perched next to me, as it happened.
               Ours is not a large town, and so their arrival was something of an event. Ned and Tailor took up their game again with practiced indifference, Dennis scowled into his ale, and Agatha gave the man a drunken greeting from where she sat pressed up against the wall. The two of them waited, looking at the empty floor behind the bar, and whispering lowly in foreign accents. She took out a small book from her pocket and pointed at something in it and laughed triumphantly; he grabbed it away of a sudden, and then she tried to reach over and take it back, though her playful slaps seemed like caresses. I am not as provincial as the others, having some trade here and there in the country round. So I laughed at their antics and obligingly asked if they wanted a drink.
               “Wine, wine!” she purred, but seeing my look, he shook his head. “Beer is fine,” he said.
               I jumped down from my stool and went around to the other side of the bar, and gave him a pint of the usual, and her a half pint.
               “I’ll start you a tab,” I added, seeing there was no money forthcoming. “What’re your names?”
               Their names were Ted and Hanna.
               “We’re not from around here,” Ted volunteered in his clipped accent, smiling rather sheepishly.
               "Well it doesn’t hurt to see some different faces for a change. You come up from London?”
               “Oh, London!” she breathed. Then she looked up at the water-spotted ceiling, as though London were there. “It was beautiful, with the river, and the gardens, and all the wendy-windy streets.”
               “Not to mention the smell,” I said, unable to help myself.
               “And the Tower!” she breezed by me. “So magnificent!”
               “My father was there. He found it rather less so,” Dennis pronounced with a scowl.
               “That’s because he was in the wrong parts though, weren’t it?” Agatha sang out, sipping her barley water merrily. “Down in the – ”
               “Right then, what can I do you for?” Dirk came out from the back at last, wearing his hat at a rakish angle. Whether he’d been back there with Janey or simply asleep I couldn’t tell, for his hair would have been mussed either way. The young lovers looked towards me inquiringly, and I pointed out the tab. “Ted and Hanna,” I added, by way of introduction.
               “I can read!” Dirk pointed his angular nose at the young couple. “Been out for a midnight stroll? Wander too far over the moonlit heath? Har har!”
               They laughed politely at his impertinence, apparently taking him for a wit. But when asked if she wanted to meet our tavern mouse, Henry, whose front door was just at the base of the bar, she sat up straight, leaning into him for support and looking down with some trepidation. Having got his rise, Dirk retired, and I reintroduced London into the conversation.
               “I’ve been there myself, once. Long walk. Never seen so many people in one day, the day I wandered the streets of London. Corn Hill and Fleet and Greyfriars … so many streets…”
               But now she was whispering into his shoulder again, her lips so near his that from behind you’d think they were kissing. After a lengthy private conversation filled with nervous chuckling, some decision seemed to have been made by the pair. She turned back to me just as I had finished my pint and was thinking of shoving off.
               “Do you have a … a place to stay in this town?”
               “You can stay at the tavern here. There’s a room in back. Or, at my house. That might be better,” I added, thinking of Dirk and Janey.
               “Your house? That’s very kind,” he said, somewhat surprised at the offer. He had taken out an apple, and was cutting it carefully in half – one half for each of them.
               “Well, the room in back,” I began, but it was then that the door swung wide again and Blaise the shepherd, more or less our village idiot, came bursting in. “There’s plague! Plague in London! The whole city shut down – bodies in the streets, they say! And in Lincoln, and Bath! Sir Thomas just rode by with three knights. They’re summoning all the peasants to the manor house!”
               As he said these words I heard the little church bell begin clanging disconsolately. Dennis swore and rushed out, and Agatha began wailing.
               “Didn’t you say you came up London way?” Ned asked in a deadly voice, as he and Tailor began edging past the young couple towards the door.
               Then it was just me and the lovers. I guided them through the back room, roused a shrieking, naked Janey from the rushes, and pointed to a footpath that led the opposite way from the manor.
               Being young and in love, they took it in stride, and their bodies seemed to melt into one as they strolled under the murky stars, down past the mill pond and into the woods.



Before you jump to any conclusions and assume I’m one of those weirdos who frequent websites where all the ladies take their clothes off, rest assured that I most certainly am not. Unless I’ve been drinking, in which case, anything goes. But, I wasn’t drinking, at least, not too heavily, when the incident I’m about to describe happened. I was tooling around online, trying to find an illegal download of a movie to watch for free. Sometimes, it’s better to splurge on the two ninety-nine rental fee. But this was like a week ago when I was not the wise man that I am today. So, I’m surfing through all the sites—movylocker, freefilmz, multivideo—and, all of a sudden, a chat window pops up. It was a slightly more sophisticated than your average text box because it also featured a picture of the person to whom I was speaking: Emma. Emma was a rather adventurous type who lay there not completely naked, but almost. The expression on her face suggested she wasn’t quite within the throes of ecstasy, but on the verge. She said:

Emma (22:37): hey you :)

Emma (22:37): looks like all guys here are gay, no one wants to chat with me

Emma (22:38): or maybe they think im ugly, i dont know... am i? :/

Emma (22:38): helloooo! why won’t you chat with me??? are you gay?

To prevent this sweet smokin’ hottie from having her self-confidence shattered (and not to prove I’m actually straight because that would be silly and immature), I replied:

Me (22:39): I will chat with you if you can answer the following question:

Emma (22:39): :) oh, thanx baby...

Me (22:39): Please don’t call me baby. I don’t know you that well. Now, what is the square root of 24,591? Don't cheat!!!

Emma (22:40): haha, awesome!

Me (22:39): Wrong answer, baby.

Emma (22:40): im alone now, you want to come over maybe?

Me (22:40): I will come over if you can answer this question: Who is buried in Grant's tomb?

Emma (22:40): ...

Me (22:41): Take your time. It’s a tough one.

Emma (22:41): when are you free?

Me (22:41): Wrong again.

Emma (22:41): bring some alcohol ;)

Me  (22:41): I'll bring alcohol if you can provide a valid identification insuring you are over the age of twenty-one …

Emma (22:41): cool, no problem...

Me (22:42): AND if you can answer this question: What is two plus two? 

Emma (22:42): well, do it waiting :)

Me (22:42): Three strikes, you’re out. Sorry, Emma, this isn’t going to work.

Emma (22:42): omg, im so ready for you.. hurry up

Me (22:42): You're kind of an idiot, huh?

Emma (22:42): chat session has timed out.

Me (22:43): Baby?

Me (22:43): Emma!

And that was the end of my whirlwind romance with Emma, the One Who Got Away. A man, not quite as wise as me but close enough, once said, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” I believe this man was onto something because my laptop has been running mysteriously slow since Emma, which leads me to the moral of this story. If a text box ever pops up on your computer featuring a happy fun girl looking for a good time, just bring her the goddamned alcohol. And, for the love of Jesus, whatever you do, do not question the poor girl’s intelligence. Emma, oh, Emma, my darling, it was wrong of me to test you with those silly quizzes. Please, please, give me another chance. I don’t care if you’re just an internet robot scam. Please come back, baby. Emma. Emma!!!

Gertrude Goes Down to Her Locker

                Gertrude, or Gertie to friends, went downstairs to her apartment building’s dimly lit storeroom. She had decided to dig out some old cookie cutters from the kitchen supplies she kept stored in her walk-in locker. Janie was coming over tomorrow with the grandkids and Gertie thought it might be a nice idea to make sugar cookies as a family activity. She smiled to herself, thinking how much she enjoyed having the three children over but appreciating that at the end of each visit, they all went home. That amount of activity in her apartment all the time would be exhausting. Gertie had done her time; it was best to stick with visits of limited durations.

                She dug out her ring of keys and selected the right one for the storeroom. Turning the key in the knob, she opened the door into the darkness and reached around to flick on the wall switch to light up the room. People say you have to be careful, being a woman and alone, but after five years in the complex Gertie felt as though she knew everyone and had never heard of any problems. She felt safe coming down to her locker even late in the evening.

                Gertie stepped into the room and shut to the door. She spied a metallic object on the floor off to the side. She bent over to pick it up, and turned it around in her hand, wondering what it was. It was rectangular and not heavy for its size. She held it so she could look at the one end. Gertie remembered seeing such an object on a few of those police shows on television. In fact, she had seen this type in a movie. It was the bullet clip for a gun. She could see the first two bullets and wondered how many were in a clip.

               Why would such an item be on the floor of the storage room? Gertie looked around. There was nothing else on the floor beside her. She looked down the length of the rectangular room. Walk-in lockers stood to the left and right with a narrow corridor running down the middle. “Hello?” said Gertie. “Anybody here?” Of course, there wasn't anybody here. Who would be down here in the dark?

                Gertie put the bullet clip in her pocket and continued down to her locker at the far end of the room. She went through her keys, found the right one, and unlocked the padlock. Swinging the door open, she went into her locker and looked at each of the boxes she had stored on a shelving unit set up against the one side. She had been smart enough to label each box with its contents and found one with the word cooking printed in block letters with magic marker. Fortunately, she had also arranged the various things she’d stored into a number of boxes so each individual box didn't weigh too much. Gertie pulled the box off the shelf and put it on the floor.

                Gertie knelt down and pulled up the four flaps of the cardboard box. She took things out of the box one at a time and set them aside until she picked up a plastic bag of cookie cutters. She smiled then put the rest of the contents back in the box, folded down the flaps, and put it back on the shelf.

                A noise came from the far end of the room. Gertie looked up. She heard voices. Somebody else was coming into the storage room. The voices were indistinct, but she thought she heard two, a man and a woman. The door to the storage room slammed shut.

                “Gee-sus H Krist, woman. Can't you remember where anything is? Why the fuck didn't you leave this in the apartment? Why put it in the locker?” said the man. Gertie could hear their steps coming part-way down the room. They stopped. “Give me the fucking keys, goddamn it!” There was a familiar tinkling of a ring of keys followed by fumbling with a padlock and then the squealing of unoiled hinges.

                The woman said, “I think it's on the bottom shelf.”

                “Think? You think?” said the man. Judging from the tone of his voice, there was no doubt he was not at all happy with the situation. “Crap, I'm gunna have to go through this complete fuckin' mess.” Gertie peeked around the door of her locker to look down the corridor at the couple. “Jesus, you are really goddamn stupid, woman.” The man got down on his knees and crawled into the locker. His feet stuck into the corridor.

                The voice was muffled, but Gertie could still hear him. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” The noise of boxes being moved around broke the silence. There were other noises punctuated with “Shit!” and there was a loud crash. After a moment of silence the man started in again. “You stupid bitch. The box containing the statue from Florida fell off the shelf onto the cement. Fuck! It's broken!”

                Gertie stared down the corridor, intrigued by the scene playing out in front of her. “I'm sorry,” said the woman. She backed away. Was she trying to distance herself from the man’s wrath? The woman turned and walked back to the storage room door. The man continued whatever he was doing while swearing. Gertie watched as the woman stopped beside the door. She was fiddling with something but Gertie couldn't see what.

                The woman finished and walked back to the locker where the man was. She stood at the door. She lifted her hand. Gertie's eyes widened. The woman was holding a gun. Gertie watched as the woman squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. The woman squeezed again. Nothing. She held the gun sideways and looked at it. She pointed it again and squeezed a third time but nothing happened.

                All this time, the man continued in the locker making the sounds of somebody pushing things around and opening boxes while cursing from time to time. The woman now held the gun up in the light, looking at it as if to see what the trouble could be. She looked at the barrel, looked at the trigger, and then turned it over. Her eyes widened and she looked around the floor. Seeing nothing, she walked back to the storage room door and fiddled with whatever she had done before.

                Gertie picked up her bag of cookie cutters, exited her locker, and closed the door. She put the padlock back in place and clicked it shut. The woman was walking back from the door to where the man was when she looked up and saw Gertie. Her head shook in surprise and she held the gun behind her out of sight.

                Gertie walked down the corridor toward the couple. She could now hear everything the man said. “You dumb bitch. I'm gunna kill you for fucking this up. I've never seen anybody so fuckin' stupid before in my entire life. You are such a retard.” The woman stared at Gertie with wide eyes. As Gertie approached, the woman moved to give her room to walk by. The light from the overhead bulb shone onto the woman's face. Gertie looked. The woman had a black eye. Gertie stopped and stared at the woman. Not only did she have a black eye, she had a cut on her lip and there appeared to be bruising.

                The woman realized Gertie had noticed her face. She lowered her gaze to the floor. Gertie continued to study the woman then looked into the locker at the man down on all fours rummaging around in the darkness. “Fuck, you cunt. How the hell am I supposed to find anything in this shithole? What a fuckin' mess. You're gunna pay for this. You hear?”

                Gertie looked back at the woman, who had looked back up. The two of them stared at one another saying nothing. After a few seconds, Gertie reached into her pocket and held out the bullet clip to the woman.

                The woman didn't move. She looked down at the bullet clip. She looked back up at Gertie. The woman didn't move; she didn't take it. “You're gunna pay for this, you bitch,” said the man.

                Gertie held the bullet clip up a little higher as a second offer and half-smiled at the woman. The woman hesitantly put out her hand. Gertie dropped the clip into the woman's hand. She turned briefly to look at the back of the man as he continued to curse, then stepped over his feet and continued down the corridor.

                As Gertie approached the door, she noticed an air vent. The grill had been removed and was lying on the floor. She figured that was the woman’s secret cache. Gertie opened the door of the storage room and stepped out. She heard the man say, “You fuckin' dumb cunt.” Gertie pulled the door shut, and it clicked into place. She hesitated at the door before turning to walk to the elevators. She pressed the up button and waited for an elevator to arrive. A little bell rang and one of the doors opened. Gertie was about to step in when she heard a muffled bang. So, that's what a real gunshot sounds like.

                The elevator door started to close so Gertie stuck her arm up and it opened back up. Gertie stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for her floor. The door slid shut as she held up the bag of cookie cutters to look them over. She imagined the grandkids would have a great time making cookies with her.


                Gertie had boiled the kettle and made herself a cup of chamomile tea. Sometimes she felt a little peckish later in the evening and a biscuit with something hot to drink was a good way to wind down the evening. She walked from the kitchen into the living room to stand by the window. She looked down from her third-story window onto the parking lot and the common central area of the complex. It was a nice moment to reflect on things. Her neighbor Barry liked to say, “I like to cogitate.” Gertie smiled, thinking she liked to reflect. She wasn’t sure if she liked to cogitate though.

                The lights of a vehicle appeared out of the darkness. It was a van and it pulled into the lot and took a spot close to the side entrance of the building. The headlights went out and somebody got out. Gertie saw the figure walk up to the building and guessed it was a woman. She walked into the light of the main entrance and Gertie recognized her as the woman who had been in the storage room.

                Gertie took a sip of her tea and then bit down on her cookie. She wondered if the woman would get away with killing that man. It was hard to say. From the various police shows she had watched on TV, Gertie knew the police were getting more and more scientific in their investigations. Their ability to find evidence meant getting away with a crime must be more difficult.

                Gertie turned and looked at the bookshelf beside her. On the top shelf was a framed photo of her husband, Toby, taken years ago up at their cottage. She stared at the picture thinking about that part of her former life. It seemed so long time ago. Gertie glanced out at the emptiness of the parking lot, wondering what the woman was doing.

                A movement to one side caught Gertie's attention. She stared in the semi-darkness and realized someone was pushing the baggage cart from the main entrance. The building had a luggage cart like those found in hotels as residents from time to time needed to move boxes, groceries, or even baggage between apartments and vehicles. It was a handy thing to have.

                Light shone onto the walkway and Gertie could make out the woman. There was something, a bag, a rug, something on the baggage cart. Gertie imagined it was the body of the man. Did the woman wrap it up in something? There must have been blood. Gertie thought you couldn't shoot somebody without there being blood. How did the woman clean it up and what was she going to do with the body? There was a great deal to consider in trying to figure out how to get rid of something bad in your life.

                Gertie shook her head as all these questions came flooding back to her. They were the same questions she had asked herself ten years ago. Toby did not start out to be a bad man, but he had difficulty dealing with things. His education wasn't the best. He found himself passed over in his company and as the years wore on he became progressively bitter about his lot in life. He had gotten angry with Gertie twice. The second time involved Gertie phoning the police and that incident changed the nature of their relationship. He never touched Gertie again, and that meant never.

                Unable to deal with his work or with his home life, Toby developed a problem as he tried to escape his situation: he drank. He wasn't a falling-down drunk; he was what they call a functioning alcoholic. Toby held down a job and he coped. But after work each day he drank and drank. Most nights he didn't fall asleep insomuch as he passed out. Gertie was surprised the human body could take that much punishment, but the day did come when the doctor told her. Toby was set to retire in six months. The doctor had taken Gertie aside to explain that Toby was going to die in a year if he didn't stop drinking. His liver was shot; he had cirrhosis, and this was his last chance.

                Gertie knew that after so many years of drinking Toby would not stop. She also realized that she would have the onerous task of taking care of him as he went downhill. On top of it, once Toby stopped working, his pension wouldn't be that great and making ends meet would be another problem.

                The solution to Gertie's problems presented itself with no intervention on her part at all. After the doctor had given her the news, Gertie went with Toby to their cottage. It was after the end of the season; the leaves were changing colors, and nobody was left on the lake. Toby had been sitting on a lawn chair out on the dock, watching the sunset. He had been sipping all evening and had fallen asleep or passed out in his chair. Gertie walked out and told Toby it was time to go to bed. Toby didn't move. She put down her flashlight, shook his arm, and tried to pull him up. Toby roused himself and half stood. Then he stumbled, lost his balance, and pitched to one side, falling off the dock into the water.

                In the darkness, Gertie couldn't see what was going on. There was a little splashing and a little gurgling. She hesitated. Gertie could rescue him. She could jump in the water and hold his head out of the water. But she hesitated. She waited. The movement stopped. Silence. There was what seemed like a bubble breaking or gurgling then once again silence. She stood still, waiting. Listening in the silence. She could hear the crickets. A loon cried on the other side of the lake. Other than that, it was quiet.

                Gertie bent down beside her chair and felt around until she found the flashlight. Picking it up, she turned it on and shone it on the water in front of the dock. At first she couldn’t see anything. Then, by moving the beam, she could make out the outline of her husband floating face down in the water. He was still. Gertie turned off the flashlight. She looked up at the stars. She listened to the crickets. It was over.

                Toby died before his retirement date so Gertie got his full pension; a full pension for one instead of two. Toby died quickly instead of lingering on for years and requiring expensive hospital or home care and who knows how much work for Gertie. Toby left his wife a little something so she could live comfortably. Not richly, but comfortably.

                Gertie had watched the woman wheel the baggage cart around to the back of the van and then proceed to half pick up, half drag the package, whatever it was, into the back of the van. After finishing the job, the woman pushed the cart back to the building to leave it at the front entrance for somebody else to use. Then she came back out, got in the van, and drove off into the night.

                Gertie had sold their cottage and their house and moved into a condo apartment. It wasn't luxurious, but it was comfortable. Gertie turned away from the window and looked around the room. She reached out and touched the framed picture of her husband making a minor adjustment in its position. She'd have a good time with the kids tomorrow. Gertie went to the kitchen to leave her mug. Time for bed. Tomorrow would be a busy day.

Travis and the year we were twelve

                After their shift at the mill, the mill hill men hung out at the ESSO filling station on dual lane highway 29 drinking Coca Cola and counting the Yankee cars.
                “If there is anything I hate,” said the mill worker, “its nigras, trailer park trash, union members and queers.  None of them belong in my church. The colored people and trailer park trash have their own churches. I know the Lord don’t like it one bit if one of those communist union members or queers sat in our pews. I just know it in my bones.”
                “Yep,”  mill worker 2 chimed in, “look at that big Yankee car. Doncha know that those big cars flying south are just filled with Jews on their way to Miami?”
                “Yep, poor black and white trash oughta stick to pickin’ cotton and taking up the garbage and Jews oughta stay in New York or Miami period.,” said millworker 3.
                “Yep,” said the mill worker wiping Coca Cola off of his chin, “We have the experience. Don’t need the union with its bunch of commies in this town. They gonna blow us all to kingdom come with the atomic bomb.”
                The mill workers had the best jobs in town. The equipment was never shut down. The cotton was spun, bleached and printed in the mill. Every white male, except for teachers and ministers, worked the mills or the cotton gin. Working at the PRINTWORKS was particularly valued since the pay was higher and it presumably took more expertise to put color into something than take it out.
               The mill hill people lived in levels along the foothills depending on where the man of the house worked. Each level along the hillside represented groups of different sized, but almost identical, houses beginning with the large white house at the top of the hill with decreasing house size and salary down the hill. The worst level was the one with shotgun houses in the gulley. Like everything else that was not in a sloping run off area, the houses were rusty orange/red up to the windows from the red clay dirt that blew around or washed up when the gulley flooded. They were five little houses with sloping porches and glass Coke bottles forming the borders for the pathways between the houses. The middle house had a tractor tire in the common yard that once held flowers someone had believed would spiff this place up. Now a profusion of weeds grew higher and higher in the tractor tire and there would  be forever a single purple iris pushing up and reaching for the spring sky in false hope–  the dreams here were dead and they would live forever in the ugly mud red-white shotgun houses with many skinny children and skinny dogs.
                “It wasn’t always this way,” said Travis, our neighbor who preached to me and Sally from under his 1936 military doo doo brown Pontiac that never moved except when it was pushed out of the shed into the sunlight.
                “Early on, the mill workers came in from the farm, worked the week and went back home to the farm and family over the weekend. Things changed when the mills made communities with cheap houses. There was no individual freedom on the mill hills like what you have on a farm.  The mill hill is just one big collective uneducated brain.”
                Freda Smith lived at the bottom of the geographical caste system. She had the desk in front of me at school and fucked nearly everybody. Girls were pregnant at twelve because their father or brother or mother’s boyfriend knocked them up and they had to stop school because they couldn’t fit under the desks. Freda’s father raped each of his girls when they were barely of age. The younger girls would watch in horror as the next sister in line reached the appropriate birthday and went screaming into the outhouse with their skinny father. He was throwing off his overall straps and undressing the sister as he closed and locked the outhouse door. Freda was old and knocked up before we got to the fifth grade. She later became a well-known hooker. At least she finally made some money from the lesser part of fucking. She was not pretty.
                “Social progress can be measured exactly by the position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included,” sort of quoted Travis.
                It was the communist people in the union who were scary. Everyone knew that the state troopers with boots up to their genitals would come in if the union guys made a ruckus at the mill, and we were afraid of both. Really, the southern union people did not like anyone less than white or anyone that would take a job from their current membership, but they had to pretend that all were welcome since that is superficially what unions are supposed to do.
                It was the communists who knew what was going on in that small town. The whole population was being watched constantly.
                “There are communists running the new supermarket,” the history teacher announced confidentially before the air raid drill, “just keep your eyes peeled and be careful. And stay under your desks until you hear the air raid gong signaling the end of the drill. Please memorize the sign over there. You will be tested.”

2. . PROCEDURE - Move to shelter areas in accordance with
directions on air raid signs hanging in corridors  and elsewhere

                        SILENCE IS MAINTAINED AT ALL TIMES

                        SIGNAL FOR RETURN IS A SINGLE GONG

And someone had hand written below all the signs, “Bend over grab your ankles & kiss your ass goodbye”
                The white children hid under desks and Freda couldn’t make it under the desk pregnant and Florida Smith always peed when the alarm went off and pee ran to the back of the room because the room slanted and the dumb or outspoken got to sit in the back behind Florida. The little black kids in the little black school had double desks which made for pretty crowded conditions after the alarm sounded.
                “One is forced to ponder what portion of their brains government officials used to come up with the idea that cheap wooden desks would protect school children from the A-bomb,” said Travis from under the doo doo brown hood, “You children would die huddled under a desks standing in pee-pee. The notion of this death scene would fall into a yet unidentified category of hell and embarrassment for any school aged child.”
                Sally and I listened to the old army shoes sticking out from the front of the doodoo brown car. Sally was my childhood friend -  the result of the meeting between two twelve year old people with hormones beginning to beat the shit out of each other. When we were children, Sally lived in one part of town called colored town and I lived in another part of town called town. We did not decide this; it was the way things were in Dark Corner. I thought I would lose Sally. I was sure the communists were going to bomb colored town first.
                Actually we could die just for hanging out together. This would be the response from our neighbors, not the communists.
                “The communists have the atom bomb and are going to blow us to kingdom come and the commie unions are coming to get us no matter what,” I said to the shoes. “The communists have already running our government and probably the FBI. This means they know everything.”
                “You children should not listen to this crap,” said Travis, wiping his greasy hands on his old khakis, “We are still a democracy and democracy is for all people of this country – and it is indeed one road to socialism. We need to give all people an equal shot. And you two know what I am talking about! ”
                “Good lord Travis,” Sally said, “you know its socialism that is the road to communism. I read it in the history book. ”
                “History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends,” he quoted from under the car.
                We knew there were drums of food and stuff all lined up in a dank corner of the furnace room at the school where we could hide during the communist takeover of the USA. The communists were going to bomb this little southern town. The survivors of the atomic bomb would eat radioactive crackers and drink polluted water in the furnace room and sit and watch each other die of radioactive poisoning.
                “There are only two or three blankets and a cot down there in the furnace room and we have a population of 800 white people,” observed Travis. “This assumes, and is expected, that no black people are allowed in the furnace room. Of course, the cot and blankets have long been taken over by a black janitor for naps, assuring that no white person will ever snore there anyway.”
                Travis McCoy was my father’s unexpected next door neighbor friend. Travis had a massive shock of auburn hair and bright blue eyes and a bright chubby face. His brick red mustache came out of his face in a wild bushy outgrowth. Travis knew about me and Sally. At least he knew we were up to something. He lurked and watched constantly; he had seen us, he was pretty sure he knew what we were up to, but he never said anything
                The local gossip was that Travis went a little nuts after the war. Perhaps he was hatching some sinister plan to kill us while we were hiding in the dark in our old barn trying to figure out how to touch each other. We never really knew what Travis had done in the war other than go a bonkers and come back to the house where he was born and work swing shifts at the mill. My father said he drove a tank in the war and drank his way through at least three European countries.
                My father, Big B, and Travis would talk every afternoon after they were home from work.  My father was the school principal who was writing a critique of the south in his latest thesis, but we didn’t know this. They would stand in the driveway and talk about stuff – the south, the weather, the war, the mill. Most of the conversation was series of grunts our Scottish ancestors used to make around the fireplace. This could go on for hours.
                “How’s the mill?” My father would inquire every freaking day.
                “Urrgh and umm,” Travis would respond.
                “Umm,” said Big B.
                “Yep, arrgh.”’ answered Travis.
 My father bought chickens so our yard would look like the rest of the freaking neighbors.
                "This is not a fucking farm,” my DAR mother with the immense vocabulary would scream, “get those ugly birds off the property.”
                Travis would grab the chickens that wandered into his backyard and break their necks by spinning them around by the head.  His alternative was to chop off their heads with an axe and let them run around the back yard with no head until they just keeled over in their own chicken shit. He would then naively present the feathered chicken to my mother, who was already disgusted with the entire neighborhood.
                “Chickens are the main reason people become vegetarians,” she would scream.
Travis scheduled each day. He shuffled home after work at the mill –  down the dirt driveway at exactly 3:30 pm and on to the big white shed, wiping his hands on his war khakis to grasp the shed door. He had to check his car. Then on to one of the outhouses; they had two. They stood side by side proudly in the backyard near the house.
                There was always the horror of an invitation to eat rhubarb pie with dirty old Mrs. McCoy. None of us had any idea what a rhubarb was, but the pie was not clean. She was not someone who washed her hands. Only the white among us was invited for pie. The darker among us could have pie outside on the steps. The darker of us did not like rhubarb one bit better that the whiter of us so we had a rhubarb pie pile in the back of the barn. The mice didn’t eat it either.
                “We have to eat the pie; we have to eat the rhubarb pie” sang Sally, a black person who should not sing.
                Travis emptied old Mrs. McCoy’s slop jar and took care of her in general. He took care of the old man, but the old man died. He died in the upstairs bedroom of the house - the dusty white house with the bushes up to the second floor window. He died there in a dark room under the old dirty print quilt his mother made. He died with the wind blowing the bushes against the window. The angels of god were also flapping the bushes against the window to announce their arrival in this strange place.  We saw him there, having tiptoed to peek at a dead body.
                “Why have we been quiet for days?” screamed my little sister Suzy, “The old man couldn’t hear crap”.
                 Then the brother died. The tall skinny bent- over TB-ridden Baptist hypochondriac named John died. Old Mrs. McCoy told us as a matter of fact that he had married the town slut and that she had been married before to the town drunk. This and other information was delivered over rhubarb pie. My little sister, baby Suzy, who had inherited her ever running mouth from our mother, was thrilled to learn new words and none of them was rhubarb.
                Travis took care of them and he watched and watched over us -  still sitting in the barn loft just looking at each other. Travis watched us as if he had to as a loyal person to whatever he was into… and he took care of his light doo-doo brown Pontiac. He also read dirty books and magazines in his room. I know, because he once showed us his dark bedroom.
                “We figure he is a socialist or something by the other books we saw there,” I said to my father.
                “Say something like that again,” my father said to us gently, “or if you even think it again, neither of you will be able to sit for years.”
                Travis was brought home from the mill one day, his big bloody body lying in the bed of an old truck. He had been beaten senseless by a mob screaming, “communist and queer” over and over again. My father placed ice on his face which seemed to be swollen beyond help.  Sally and I watched his feet hanging off the back of the truck as if they were going somewhere without his body. The protector of our innocence had had the shit beat out of him. Once he was better, he went back to work and came home each afternoon at exactly 3:30 pm. He never really talked to anyone again. This was the day we learned everything. We lived and grew up in Dark Corner.
                And the Chakuga River continued to run the print works mill color of the day. And we sang the high school of the white people’s anthem, “Far above Chakuga’s waters, with its waves of blue (green, red, whatever).”
                When Travis puffed his cheeks the wind would blow down the hills of corn and way beyond to our kites and to the blue mountains and cause the barn doors to slam all over Dark Corner where the sun hardly shines.
                This was the year we were twelve. I would sit on the hillside next to the road watching Freda make a cheap score on the front porch swing of the little red mud stained white house and watching Travis’s khaki butt sticking out the front hood of the doo-doo brown car and watching the clothes line swing on the wind. Just holding my warm basketball and looking over to the mountains. The mill is gone now.


A Sheltered Life, With Dancing

By every estimation of their high school peers they were the best-looking couple on the dance floor.  The gymnasium had been transformed by loving parents and student volunteers into a thing of, if not beauty, at least attractiveness, with multi-colored crepe-paper streamers floating down from the ceiling.  The couple danced with the kind of effortless precision that could only have come from a great deal of practice together.  During the slow tunes from the amplified phonograph her head rested lightly on his shoulder, and when the tempo increased very little changed except that, briefly parting but still holding hands, he would circle her head gracefully, then his own, drawing her back slowly to resume their former closeness.

               John his name was, a popular soccer player and the sort of extraordinarily handsome fellow who invariably turned every senior girl’s head but was not known to be dating anyone.  But who was the astoundingly beautiful girl with flowing dark hair, they all wanted to know, until someone, a neighbor of their wealthy Dallas family, said she was his sister, Deena, who attended a private school.  So far as anyone could remember, John had never mentioned having a sister.

               In September of that year he entered Southern Methodist University and joined a fraternity, which pleased his parents.  The following year Deena joined him and was courted by nearly every sorority on campus but, much to their parents’ dismay, decided to go her own way by joining the Independent Students Association, which was thought by some, including her father, to be a near-Socialist organization.  Her brother, as always,  supported her without question.

               John’s fraternity sponsored a good many formal dances, and John and Deena’s graceful dancing became something of a sensation.  Very few of his fraternity brothers knew the beautiful Deena was his sister and would ask for her phone number, to which John would merely shake his head no, and later he and Deena would laugh about it.

               This kind of thing continued, in various permutations, for four years.  In May of John’s senior year the traditional college graduation dance was held at a local country club, and unlike the high school dances had been, this was truly an elegant affair.  The preceding dinner was catered by the best restaurant in Dallas, the endless champagne a superb year.  As the thirteen-piece professional band began playing, John and Deena were the first couple on the dance floor and hardly left it all evening.  Deena’s gown was an off-the-shoulder deep maroon velvet, highlighting her alabaster skin and nicely complementing the maroon cummerbund of John’s tuxedo.  As they swirled across the polished floor, her hand at the back of his neck and her forehead pressed tightly against his chin, other dancers made room for them, as though realizing they were witnessing something special and even unique as the two almost seemed to become one person.

               It was their last dance together for a long time.

               Often over the years they had marched together, holding hands, in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, their determination to make the world a better place, or at least a saner place, brightly apparent in their eyes.  But despite their determination and their arguments with some of their peers, the war was by then in full fury and John, two weeks after graduation, went through naval pilot training at Pensacola and was assigned to an aircraft carrier in South Vietnam.  He and Deena wrote nearly every day, though sometimes her letters to him, full of love and hope and good wishes, were delayed by more than a week.  When his plane was shot down near Chu Lai, it took the U.S. Navy nearly a month to inform Deena and their parents that John had miraculously parachuted to safety.  Some twenty years later she occasionally called him “Tom Cruise,” referring to the overly romanticized movie Top Gun.  He told her she was far more beautiful than the actress Kelly McGillis in the film, and she laughed and thanked him, though she already knew.

               Following his tour of duty and her graduation from college, they discussed what they wanted to do.  One thing was certain–they both wished to leave the cloying political and religious atmosphere of Texas, and when a decent job in the burgeoning California technology industry opened up for which John was qualified, they moved almost overnight to a house they bought south of San Francisco on Monterey Bay.  Their parents tried to talk them out of it but, seeing this was hopeless, offered to pay part of the cost of the house and furnishings.  The siblings turned them down.

               John was good at his job and was promoted several times over the years, with commensurate increases in pay.  For her part, Deena became active in many of the Southern California charitable organizations as well as those promoting some semblance of equality for immigrants.  There was a scare at one point that she had breast cancer but the tumor turned out to be benign.  At the urging of his fellow veterans John eventually joined the VFW, which gave him and Deena an opportunity to attend the Saturday dances at the local hall, and to their great pleasure they discovered that, if anything, they danced together now even better than they had before, each anticipating the other’s movements so perfectly it was as though they were telepathic, reading each other’s minds or, more realistically, their bodies.

               One of their favorite restaurants was an upscale French bistro overlooking the Bay called Le Chat Noir.  One evening they were having a late dinner on the deserted patio, and before the café au lait John asked Deena if she would like to dance.  There was no dance floor in the restaurant and therefore no dancing, but just as the waiter was about to tell them they could not continue, the manager shook his head and smiled at the couple who were regular customers.  As they danced among the tables it began to spatter rain but they were oblivious, Deena even raising her lovely face to catch the drops as they fell.  It was, they agreed, one of their best evenings in a long time.

               Sometimes they would fly down to Baja for a long weekend.  They discovered a secluded beach away from the throngs of tourists where they swam nude every afternoon before returning to their hotel to dress for dinner.  It was their habit, at cocktail hour, to sip frosty piña coladas on the deck and watch the sun slowly, brilliantly disappear into the ocean. For a small inn their hotel had excellent food, and since they had no interest in the noisy bars and restaurants along the malecón they usually dined on the hotel’s open-air patio.  The hotel also had a small terraza for dancing to a live band.  One evening, as they glided seamlessly across the multicolored tile floor, they overheard one of the waiters say to another, “Qué pasión!”  And it was true, their dancing was nothing if not passionate.

               Over the years in happy seclusion at their house on the bay Deena worked in the garden nearly year round, growing vegetables such as peppers and beans, herbs John used for cooking, and flowers, primarily showy ones like hibiscus, morning-glories, and poppies.  Digging in the dirt, she claimed, made her feel more a part of the earth.  John at some point took up playing a guitar he’d had since college, and long, pleasant evenings on their patio after supper he would serenade Deena with plaintive Brazilian love songs.

               Some months after her sixty-second birthday Deena, complaining of constant exhaustion, began losing weight.  In a series of terrible visits to doctors and hospitals, along with several MRIs and painful internal examinations, it was determined that she had advanced, inoperable uterine cancer.  Her doctor wanted her to stay in the hospital but John wouldn’t hear of it, and together with the help of a hospice nurse he took care of her, night and day, feeding her what little she would eat, bathing her, trying in every way he knew to comfort her.  Late one night a month or so after leaving the hospital she feebly grasped his hand, pulled it to her parched lips, and whispered, “I love you, John.  I always have, you know.”  And then she stopped breathing.

               He buried her in a cemetery plot they had chosen together, next to an ancient oak tree.  The stone mason completed the headstone they had both wanted, engraved with two hands clasped tightly together as though to ensure a peaceful pas de deux into another, magical world.

               After Deena’s death, John, distraught, unable to sleep or even eat because of his overwhelming sadness and loneliness without her, took matters into his own hands.  He signed up for a tourist bus tour to Tijuana, where on Avenida Revolución he found a veterinary supply shop that would sell him a small bottle of Nembutal.  Back home, he took an antiemetic for two days to prevent vomiting, then lay down on the huge bed with the bottle of Nembutal beside him.  He had looked for and found a particular photograph of himself and Deena standing at a railing at a seaside restaurant, with a single sailboat passing across the gorgeous reflection of the setting sun.  They were laughing together, their arms around each other’s waists.  It was, he thought, one of the beautiful Deena’s best photographs ever.  Smiling at her, he poured the contents of the drug bottle into a small glass and drank it down.  “I love you,” he said aloud, already drowsy.  Shortly after that he fell into a deep sleep, from which he would never wake.



Yes, we were worlds apart so different except for in our hearts.  I relished our time together, her creativity, and the ascension of her art.  Taking my hand, she moved it towards the thread that connects everything, showing me textures I didn’t know were there, creating compositions like her rendition of a flower, the petals bright blue, full of life, and flowing human forms, free of humiliation, which bent willingly with the wind.  Her consideration changed everything, and when she took my hand I became something I could never have been.  With her palm she tilted my chin, allowing me to see galaxies, the heavens, and baby blue skies, which could only come alive through each other’s eyes.  I looked on with awe at the wonders in her work, mirroring the wonders which I saw before me, her eyes, her soft arms, and open heart.  Rebels in love, neither of us ever wanted to part, but if our families found out, we’d be turned out, so, with year after year taken, our souls were shaken. 

Her family made her marry because a husband was what they wanted.  I was what she wanted, so, I couldn't give up.  I visited her once, but she told me to go.  Yet, years later I found her again, and she’d forgotten whatever she may have uttered.  Still, she was my mirror, and I was surprised to see in her the same, engulfing flame, which couldn't care for all the rules and restrictions.  Complaining to me that it was all true, she confessed that her husband couldn’t really care, not the way that I used to.  So, I reached for her still, but to no avail because the boundaries remained, waiting to cut her and to cut me, if we tried to extinguish our pain. 

Others only allowed me close enough to re-examine her compositions, so, in a lofty museum, I sat in front of them alone, with the whole world, and now they all knew what I already did decades before.  These onlookers were fair weather, but I’d been there for the birth.  Standing in front of these pieces again, I had the same longing, sitting for hours, rarely shifting, and wishing that we could go back, so she could again fill the missing pieces of my heart. 

In a way, I already died years ago because I never loved again, nor had my own children.  So at my end, it would truly be death, no child left to serve as a remnant of what I was.  The only energy of me that would remain would be my life-long longing for her. 

Years ago till my last breath, yes, the death of one meant the death of the other.  Though we both despaired, it was hard to break the bond we'd created, but one of us did die in the end.  Matters not who, for we were always one, not two.  And with this death, the world was actually relieved that things were finally settled for it was never able to bear our love.  To each other, we were the purpose of life itself, but to everyone else, I was nothing but a Palestinian and she was nothing but a Jew.    


Dear Claire,

     It’s been so long since I’ve written to you I guess you’ve already figured out something must be wrong. Well, I’ll tell it to you straight, though I wish to God I could dress it up a little better - Kenny’s dead. I realise this’ll come as a hell of a shock, I still can’t believe it myself, especially so soon after Scotty. I was with Kenny at the end but I wasn’t prepared. I’m writing you this letter so that you will be.

     I’m so sorry I haven’t kept in touch, really I am; the number of times I’ve had the phone in my hand ready to call, but I think the sound of your voice after all this time would break my heart.

     It’s an awful thing to say, but I was looking forward to Scotty’s funeral just to see you. I couldn’t face it in the end, and Kenny told me you didn’t go either. I can understand that, but I’d bet everything I own that you spent that whole day thinking about the four of us, thinking about the old house. I’ve felt so close to you lately. As close as when we were kids.

     Do you remember that game we used to play?

     We’d be in the pines at the back of the playing fields, or the ruins in the orchard, anywhere away from the crowd. It was the old house though wasn’t it? That’s where it started, where it really worked. That place always scared the crap out of us; except you of course, you were never scared.

     I can see it so vividly as I write this, a skeleton with half a roof and a hell of a reputation. I would never have set foot near it by myself, not even in daylight, but it was different when we were all together. It was an evil place, or so Scotty always said, and it was easy to believe all the stories once you were inside listening to the dry crackle of its crumbling walls. It was the greatest ghost train ride I’ve ever been on.

     It smelt of piss and wine and vomit, but those were good smells then; the smells of the weekend. Sometimes, climbing through the hedge to meet you guys with a carry out banging against my knees, I’d hear your voice and my heart would stop banging and start singing. Even though I didn’t stand a chance with you, it was enough to be around you.

     We left the old house behind so long ago Claire, but it haunts me still.

     When we’d filled ourselves with drink, our brains sodden enough to merge with the damp on the floor, we’d play the game. Scotty, always the Am-Dram queen, would add a little extra flourish. Do you remember the time he rolled us all cigarettes out of bible pages? I used to think he was crazy. Now I’m not so sure.

     We’d sit in a circle facing each other, and in my mind’s eye there’s a makeshift fire between us and our clothes would stink of wood smoke all week. Kenny would have his ghetto blaster pumping out Dio or Sabbath, and our shadows would dance over the crude pentagrams carved in the leprous staircase.

     Can you see them now like I can? Kenny’s big smiley face, not a bone in that big ball of flesh, facing Scotty who always took the game so seriously.

     And me, facing you.

     You knew I loved you didn’t you? Loved you heart deep and soul wide. Still do. I think I loved you even more because you never mentioned it, never acted strange around me. But of course you knew. We knew everything then.

     We’d sit awhile staring into each others eyes until it started to feel right. I’d watch the embers reflected in your eyes; I thought it was your soul laughing. Jesus, I feel like John Boy Walton without the voiceover here! But I learnt something looking at you. I learnt it is a vain pursuit to search inside yourself for a soul; look in others, that’s where you’ll find it.

     Then, after we were quiet for a bit, Scotty would say ‘What am I thinking?’. Scotty was the first to realise that we were more than just a gang of losers, that there was something special between us and always would be.

     ‘What am I thinking?’ Kenny would say ‘You’re wondering what my tongue would feel like in your mouth,’ and we’d all laugh and Scotty would get angry and say ‘Play the fucking game!’ and we would, we all would, because the tension would be gone. No matter how outlandish or outrageous our thoughts, no matter how hard we tried to catch each other out, we always guessed right. We had one mind, a group mind.

     But did you ever feel it wasn’t ours?

     Maybe when people have a connection as strong as that they can tune into each other. It was like we all were transmitting a signal that only we could receive. Kenny always tried to grope you afterwards; ‘We’re so close Claire, cheese and crackers.’

     Ah Claire, but he was so right.

     The worst thing about death and suffering is that the pain is not your own; everyone shares it, goes through it. Even your own pain is not truly your own. But there was something between us that was ours and ours alone. I used to think that was a good thing.

     God, how did it come to this? After we left school we all just drifted apart. Kenny began hanging with the wine team round the shops tapping cigarettes and spare change. Scotty got a job at Tenshift making bin liners twelve hours a day. We’d see him once a week, then once a fortnight, then once a month. It was like we were weaning each other out of our lives.

     I started seeing Jenny round that time. You hated her, I always knew that, I think that’s why I went out with her, to get a reaction out of you. It didn’t last. I met another girl, Sarah, and we got married. That didn’t last either. I guess the chains we forge in childhood are stronger than those we forge when we grow up for I never think of Sarah at all now, but I can’t get you out of my dreams.

     I know you’re married.

     My mum told me she saw you pushing a pram down town. I hope you’re happy Claire, honest I do. Everyone’s lights were always brighter than mine; I hope he shines for you the way I never could.

     I was down the Washington one night when I overheard a couple of guys playing pool say, ‘Did you hear about Graham Scott?’ My ears pricked up at the name, it had been so long since I’d heard it. ‘They found him up at that old derelict house by the orchard.’

     I knew it was our Scotty before I heard the details. At the mention of his name I felt a burst of joy, like I’d found something precious that I hadn’t realised I’d lost; then it fell from me, lost forever. I went looking for Kenny and he told me things I’m only beginning to believe now.

     Are you scared? Fear is like a biscuit in your tea, you drink it right to the end. Ken told me childhood bonds can never be broken no matter how far you stretch them, and though in our youth it’s just baby chains that bind us, they grow tighter with age. And we were always connected, tight.

     Can you tell what I’m thinking even now? We were scared of the devil in that old house, of childhood monsters; I think we were right to be.

     If one link breaks in a chain like that then the whole thing comes apart. You know the old saying - if you go to one funeral you’ll go to three - there’s truth in that. Kenny talked about you a lot and I couldn’t begin to write the half of it down without blushing. Remember how he’d always stare at you and say something like ‘I’ve just spun a web in my pants’? He said the only reason a beautiful girl like you would hang with us was because you were chained. There’s truth in that too.

     He didn’t seem sad, though the drink had taken its toll, he was still the same old Kenny with the big goofy grin. I hope you’re thinking of him as you read this and smiling too. It was never my intention to upset you but I have to tell you what Kenny told me because it’s all coming true.

     He said Scotty was bitter at the end, cursing us all but you especially, he said you were the worst of us, that the packaging was nice but the inside was filled with poison like an asbestos Easter egg. It’s typical of Scotty to say something like that, something odd and hurtful. He always used to say ‘It’s not the jokes that make me funny, it’s the lines’, as if that somehow explained it all. I wouldn’t take it to heart though, you know what his moods were like, changeable as a child’s ass.

     He went too far that last night we were all together, I know that know and I knew it then. Kenny had gone to buy us all chips out of his first, and probably last, pay-packet; he made such a big deal about getting everyone battered mushrooms too. Scotty was acting strange that night, well, stranger than usual; crazy little bastard could howl with the best of them.

     He had bitten off the neck of a bottle of Smirnoff, crunched it all up without cutting himself. Later on I found the bottle resting against the outside wall where we always took a whiz and it was still full. What I’m saying is he wasn’t drunk when he did that; I don’t think he drank anything that night.

     I heard him praying on the other side of the wall and I sneaked up to watch him through the broken window. There he was, kneeling down to the wonky painting of Satan daubed above the fireplace, and I laughed thinking , here goes mad Scotty, but when I looked at him he was so intense, so into it, I got goosebumps.

     He was praying for all sorts of weird shit. By the end he kept saying ‘You can have my soul if I can have her’, over and over. There was blood in his mouth then, running down his chin and over his entwined fingers. I felt genuinely sorry for him, all his macho bravado stripped away to reveal a pathetic little boy.

     Then I saw you watching him from the other window and when he said ‘One night with her’ you walked away. I think that was the moment when the key was put in, when the door was opened.

     We never saw each other again, at least not all together, and I’ve always blamed Scotty for that. That was the last time the four of us were in the one place at the one time, before the four corners were blown to the wind; take one away and the whole house comes down. You see, I’ve started to think we were the old house, forbidding, unwelcoming to the outside world but really just sad and crumbling, trying to hold ourselves together.

     I don’t know which haunts me more, that house or the fact I was never honest with you about how I felt. I’m trying to make up for that now.

     Kenny told me Scotty had ran away from home and moved in up there. Staggering home one morning from God knows where, Kenny saw him sprinting past with a tape recorder in one hand and a suitcase in the other. He ran after him, said it took all his strength just to keep him in sight, and by the time he caught up with him Scotty had lit a fire just like the old days.

     He was crying. I don’t have to tell you how often Scotty’s dad beat on him but this one must’ve been a real clinker because he was covered in welts across his face and arms. He told Kenny he’d been hit with a poker, and for the longest time that’s all he could get out of him.

     Kenny sat with him, listening to Holy Diver for the millionth time, hoping a plan dawned on him before the sun. Then it got cold and the face above the fireplace began to glow and Scotty stopped yapping and started laughing and Kenny said his balls tried to crawl up his gut at the sound of it.

     ‘You know she never loved me.’

     ‘Who?’ Kenny asked him.

     ‘Claire. She never loved me. Never loved any of us.’

     ‘Yeah she did, just not like that. We were mates.’

     ‘Were,’ said Scotty and started crying again.

     ‘What’s going on Scotty? What’s this all about?’

     ‘I’m dying.’ Blunt as you like.

     Ken slumped down beside him, put his arm around him. He knew he wasn’t joking, said he knew it, felt it, before Scotty opened his mouth; the way it used to be.

     ‘What…I mean…how-’

     ‘Doesn’t matter Ken. The chain’s tightening. Do you think we were so close by chance? Do you think we fluked it? Those voices we used to hear, they weren’t ours. We thought they were, but they weren’t ours at all.’

     ‘What are you talking about now? You’re not making any sense.’ But Kenny said he knew exactly what he meant, said he heard the whispers as he held him.

     ‘I bought it. I bought it for all of us. Now I have to pay. Thing is, I can’t afford it. Come morning I’ll be dead and then you’ll be able to go home and stop worrying about me. See, I still know what you’re thinking. They’ll keep telling me right up until the end.’

     ‘Scotty, I think maybe your dad’s hit you round the head once too often.’

     Scotty smiled. ‘I’m glad you’re here. I get to tell you I’m sorry.’

     ‘Sorry for what?’

     ‘For leaving you my debt. In a few weeks you’ll be dead too, but before you go tell the others, though something tells me they’ll find out for themselves.’

     They sat in silence, and as the fire burnt down so did Scotty. He died in Kenny’s arms the way he died in mine. As his last breath rattled in his throat the rotten staircase finally gave way. That’s all I have to tell you, except nothing is ever all Claire and we both know it.

     Maybe Scotty was crazy at the end, but maybe not, maybe we had tuned into something bigger after all. Kenny swore he heard those voices and I believe him. I can hear them too.

     They buzz and crackle in my head as I write this, stabbing my brain with their needle whispers. They say they have travelled such a long, long way to answer our call. But they don’t speak of my death, not yet; I seem to be on a different wavelength.

     They tell me to go and visit you and your little family; they want me to visit soon.

     Can you tell what they are thinking?

     We were always so close, cheese and crackers, so I wanted to write and warn you. Warn you that I’m going to snap the baby chains that bind us, for they told me that is how I will survive.

     And they have told me of stronger fetters to keep you close.

Sapodilla Fruit

My son came home from second grade with a baby rabbit. It had shown up in his teacher’s yard, and she had brought it to school and installed it in an aquarium. Through the glass it watched the students watch the clock and pencil numbers onto worksheets. But after a couple of weeks, the teacher began to feel uneasy about this baby bunny. She was sure there was something wrong with it. It was bringing bad juju into her classroom, making it nearly impossible for her to teach, retarding her students’ thinking. She consulted with some other teachers, and they concluded that this bunny was clinically depressed. So my son’s teacher gave it to him to take home, because she knew that I had worked as a clinical psychologist. Perhaps she thought I could treat the rabbit, and I did.

I carefully sliced some shards off one of my Zoloft pills, and gave them to the rabbit. Within a week, his mood had brightened considerably. I wasn’t working anymore (my clinical license had been revoked, for reasons that are irrelevant here) so I had plenty of time to hang out with the rabbit in the yard.

As he grew into adolescence, I realized that the rabbit and I had a lot in common, despite the fact that I was Jewish and the rabbit’s background had been Episcopalian. Like myself, he was no longer a believer. I began taking him out of the cage and holding him on my lap, stroking his furry ears. Together on my deluxe garden chair, we had many deep and thoroughly enjoyable inter-species discussions.

He thanked me for curing him with Zoloft. I said: You’re welcome. You’re now my only client.

He said: Well, you’re doing a good job.

We sat in silence for a while, watching the fruit of the sapodilla tree fall and squish on the patio. Later I let the rabbit down and he snacked on them. He offered to share, even though he knew that the fruit of the sapodilla was too bitter for my taste, though I liked its smell.


Bitterness on the Tongue

More coffee, Doc?  His eyes continued to dart toward the bedroom door, waiting for it to open, hoping that it would, hoping that it would not.

Doc Higgins held the ceramic cup in both hands.  It was cool to the touch and the coffee it held seemed even colder than the room itself, and it had baked to the color of tar.  Yes, Jim—thanks, just a splash.

Taking the cup to the kitchen and pouring more of the terrible coffee would afford Jim Heartwood a break from watching the bedroom door, perhaps even from thinking for a moment or two about Barbara and the baby.  All right:  about Barbara.  The baby was beyond thought, beyond worry, already becoming grief.  And grief wasn’t a thought.  Grief was a place . . . a place where one lived—in Grief—perhaps forevermore.  Thanks, Jim.

Jim’s overalls were draped across his frame as if upon a scarecrow in his field.  In fact his body seemed like old wood nailed together, moving cracked and splintered beneath his loose clothes as he creaked across the living room into the kitchen to put more of the hours-old coffee in Doc’s cup.  Doc half expected a murder of crows to alight blackflapping on the furniture at Jim’s departure.

In a moment Jim returned.  Doc took the cup with another thank-you, and there was nothing more he could think to say.  It felt like the word-making part of his brain was utterly exhausted.  Jim meanwhile arranged his wooden bones into a chair that was too small for his scarecrow frame and his arms angled wearily, looking like broken wings.

Doc brought the bitter coffee to his lips and moistened them.  He hoped the smell of scorched coffee would enliven him so that he could speak—any words, leave be ones of wisdom or comfort.

With relief he heard the earliest birdsong begin in the predawn blackness.  The long terrible night was nearly over.  Time was inching onward, and it alone could accomplish what was beyond his science and his art.

A cooling breeze entered through the windows, pulled in from the night by a box fan in the kitchen window, but with the arrival of morning summer’s oppression would return, seeming full on by eight o’clock.  The birds would cease their singing for the duration of the long hot day.

Doc moistened his lips again with the brew, as bitter as wormwood.

Jim bolted standing as if anticipating the opening of the bedroom door a moment before it actually did.  It swung out slowly and Sarah Goodpath, the midwife, stepped into the hall.  She was carrying a wash basin of liquid (bloody water, Doc imagined).  Sarah closed the door with her shoulder and foot.  The starch was fading from her dress, which was sycamore-bark brown, as dark as her tightly fixed hair, though a few filaments of white had come unpinned.

Doc had never seen her looking so weary.  He knew that in part she was weary from prayer—a great internal weariness from trying to bend God’s will.  Doc, who’d been the village’s physician for more than thirty years, well understood weariness of that sort.  He’d been wanting to call Pastor Phillips for a few hours but Barbara wouldn’t hear of it and Jim was in no state to override her. Nor was Doc.

Sarah, still by the closed door, shook her head.

Is she holding out hope? Doc realized his hands were trembling and he tried to steady them.

I don’t believe it’s so much holding out hope, Sarah said quietly, then blew a strand of hair from her ashen face.

What then?

Sarah stepped away from the door and looked at Jim, who had sat again and was balanced unsteadily on the edge of his small chair.  I don’t know if she understands about the child.  She talks to it, coos to it—like you would.

She must be in shock.  Doc placed his cup on an end table—there was a picture of Jim and Barbara in a yellow frame, likely their engagement portrait.  They probably believed then that the house would soon be overrun with little ones.  Their radiant faces showed no hint of  the years of waiting, of the years’ effects.

There are cases, right? said Jim, wavering on his chair’s edge as if blown by a breeze.  It’s happened before, and not just in the Book . . . isn’t that right, Doc?

Well, I suppose, Jim—yes, there are cases . . . but they’re extremely rare.

So it’s possible . . . maybe Barbie knows something you and Sarah don’t—a mother’s intuition, something like that.

Doc and Sarah looked to each other.  Her exhausted eyes, exhausted to a depth not possible within the skull, seemed to warn Doc against giving false hope, warn against a weight that would crush Jim Heartwood.

Well, I suppose, Jim.

Sarah . . . would you come here?

Sarah lowered her eyes and reentered the bedroom, still holding the basin she’d meant to empty.  The door clicked shut—a sound that separated two very different worlds.  A scent escaped the room, something both antiseptic and sweet, like iodine and lilac.

Doc scratched his ear and looked at Jim, who now seemed his adversary in a way.  They occupied different truths, and somehow Barbara must find her way to Doc and Sarah’s truth.  He’d been counting on Jim to be her guide but now that wasn’t possible.  He thought of the ancient Greeks’ ferryman transporting souls from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead.  An imperfect metaphor yet the image lingered.

So much so that when Doc heard a scraping sound of wood on wood, he at first heard it as the ferryman’s pole against the side of his shadowed bark, a sounding from the depths of Doc’s dreaming imagination.  He snapped alert as he realized it was Jim’s chair legs upon the oaken floor.

I need to check the garden, make sure the rabbits haven’t burrowed beneath the wire in the night. 

Doc looked out the front screendoor, and the first eastern streaks purpled the pieces of sky that could be seen in the Heartwoods’ tree-filled yard.  The leafy trees were lavender-black silhouettes against the lilac canvas.  He thought of exiting through the screendoor too, of simply walking out of this hard place—he would feel as a man struggling in a river when he pulls himself into the safety of a boat, his anxiety instantly a thing of history, of memory only.  But Doc felt a vague yet potent sense of obligation to remain.  Watching the lavender sky bleed to palest blue, a fragile blue, he’d heard it called once in a poem, Doc sorted through each member of this confined universe—Jim, Barbara, Sarah . . .—and it became clear that his duty-bound feeling rested with the child.  Doc was there in the Heartwoods’ home to tend to mother and child if need be, and tending to Barbara was beyond him.  There was still service his oath owed the child.

Doc stood and walked past the bedroom with Barbara, Sarah and the child to the small room that the Heartwoods had prepared as a nursery.  It was dimly lit by the still fragile daylight, which lent a semi-stability to the items in the sparsely furnished room, as if they had been nearly realized but were now fading back from whence they came.  There was a small bureau with an attached mirror (Doc glanced at his unshaven, haggard reflection, still half in night’s shadow), a hamper, a corner cabinet, and of course the crib, painted white with stenciled star-shapes, stars that wore tails like comets.  They were unordered, chaotic.  Beneath the window was a child-size desk and chair, both simple and unadorned, probably pine (Randall Houndstooth, the furniture-maker, could fashion such a set of a weekend).  Upon the desk were two stacks of books, children’s books no doubt.  Doc, suddenly bone tired, went to the little desk, pulled out the chair, which felt of solid construction, and he squatted on its low seat.

Barbara was the village’s librarian and had ways of acquiring even the rarest books.  These were clothbound, except for one or two in leather.  They seemed old, of the previous century, and not from any library’s collection.  These books belonged to the Heartwoods.

Doc opened one gilt-edged volume, a translation of Slavic folktales, and turned to a story titled The Tailor’s Lost Son.  There was a haunting illustration at the beginning:  a child with overlarge forlorn eyes peering from an oval, ornately framed mirror.  The child is wan, its hair hanging unevenly, and beyond the gaunt child the reflected room is dim and sparse, as hopeless as the child’s expression.  Doc angled the book’s page to catch the gradually dawning light from the window before him.

The story begins with the tailor taking his young son with him to deliver a new tunic to the viscount.  He wants to impress the boy that among his customers is a wealthy and powerful man like the viscount, whose special order has put the tailor behind schedule.  To save time he decides to take the shortcut through the woods, even though they can be dangerous.  In fact, several villagers have been lost without explanation in the ancient forest . . .

Doc sensed someone behind him in the small room but dismissed it as his imagination.

. . . At first the walk in the woods is quite pleasant.  Birds are singing and even though it is autumn there are still colorful flowers peeping out here and there along the forest path.  Presently the path forks, which the tailor does not recall, nor of course which is the correct way to the viscount’s castle.  As far as one can see both paths are quickly swallowed in gloom.  The son looks to his father expecting him to know the way . . .

 Again Doc sensed someone behind him.  This time he turned.  He was surprised by a girl standing just inside the doorway, watching him.  Sarah Goodpath had a teenage daughter, Ruth, and at first Doc assumed it was she, standing quietly in the nursery’s semi-gloom, but Ruth was dark and this girl was light; Ruth had the sturdy broadness of Ronnie Goodpath, but this girl was lithe like a willow.

Hello, said Doc.

The girl wore a dark dress that contrasted with her blond hair and pale features.  She watched Doc intently but did not respond to him.  In fact she was motionless, except, Doc noticed, her long fingers moved at her sides, pressing the air.  Perhaps the girl was a relative of the Heartwoods, visiting to help with—

I didn’t go to a foster home, she said, her sudden voice surprising Doc again.

A foster home . . .

I didn’t go.

To a foster home.

I never left the house.

All right.

The girl, still pressing the air with her fingers, shifted her gaze.  Which one are you reading?

Doc had forgotten he was still holding the book.

Which story?

The Tailor’s Lost Son.

That’s a good one.  But sad.

The father and son have just come to the fork in the path in the forest.

The girl stopped moving her fingers.  I have to go.

Go where?  Are you visiting the Heartwoods?

The girl turned to leave but stopped and looked back at Doc.  It’s a hard thing, a hard, hard thing, but there’s no help for it.

The room had grown light enough that Doc could see the girl had green eyes, eyes as green as McCall’s field in summer.  You’re right—there’s no help for it.

The girl stepped lightly out of the nursery.  Her blond ponytail was tied with a ribbon of black lace.

Doc closed the book and replaced it to the stack.  The yard was becoming lighter and Jim was crossing it with his hands held before him like a penitent’s.  In them he carried blackberries or blueberries, an offering for his wife’s breakfast, but small recompense for what Doc must take from her, from them both.

Doc heard the screendoor open and close, then he rose stiffly from the child’s chair and left the nursery.  Perhaps a trace of the strange girl’s lilac scent lingered near the doorway.  It was pleasant, and contrasted with the coffee’s bitterness that lingered on his tongue.

Kensho at the Piggly Wiggly

At the Piggly Wiggly on Race Street the only two check-out girls on duty were working the same register —the store was dead as Judas—and discussing various topics such as boys, the recent local boom in natural gas, and whether or not Christopher Reeves could still perform even though he was paralyzed. Meredith thought yes, he just wouldn’t feel it, but June disagreed. After that topic grew stale June leaned against the silver counter where people signed checks and credit card receipts. She wrapped her arms around herself, her eyes growing distant, her mouth slackening to an emotionless line.

June had recently wondered aloud whether her father, who’d killed himself when the girls were young, had found the best solution to all of this—she spread her hands out—all of this emptiness. And Meredith had known something drastic must be done.

“But hey, you know what?” Meredith said now, hoping a new topic might pull June out of it. “I just love brushing my teeth.”

            June nodded.

            “You just feel so clean afterward. You know?” Meredith said.

            “Yeah.” Some light returned to June’s eyes. “For sure.”

            “And,” Meredith said, “it’s great when you eat something that sticks to your teeth, and then you brush them. Like, have you ever eaten a banana? Like, eaten a banana, and then brushed your teeth?”

            This really made June nod. “That is so true,” she said.

But then that topic died and June drifted off again, staring into space.

            “Doesn’t it just seem pointless sometimes?” she said a moment later, her voice soft.

            “Pointless?” Meredith asked, taking out her cell phone.

“Yeah. Like—like it’s just going to be the same thing over and over. And then you die, and that’s it. You know? And if that’s the whole thing, well, then what’s the point?”

            Meredith held her phone up and wrote a text message. June returned to staring at the ground, clearly not expecting an answer. A few minutes later a maroon Oldsmobile pulled into the parking lot and began driving toward the Piggly Wiggly.

            “Is that Billy?” June asked.

            Meredith looked up. “Oh.” She looked concerned. “I wonder what he wants. He’s been acting so crazy lately.”

            They watched as the Oldsmobile continued to approach. When it was at the last row of parking spots it still showed no signs of slowing.

“Meredith—he’s not stopping,” June said. The car was almost to the grocery store’s double doors.  “Meredith, do something!”

            Meredith left the checkout stand. She walked up to the sliding glass doors, which parted with a swish. As they opened the Oldsmobile glided through, clearing the doors by just a few inches on either side. It looked as if it had been planned that way—as if the driver had practiced it, getting the spacing down, the timing just right. It was that smooth. And as it happened June was aware of it being the strangest thing she had ever witnessed, which seemed a rare thing itself, to know in the moment of an event that the event was singular.

But then the car struck Meredith, the front fender plowing into her knee and knocking her down. She lay on the ground moaning, reaching at her leg. Billy jumped out and clambered over the hood to where she lay, calling her name. Meredith hissed something June couldn’t hear and Billy stood up and took a handgun out of his waist.

June’s wonder at the strange event quickly became a black hole in her stomach. Meredith had told her some frightening things about Billy the day before, things she had trouble believing, but now this seemed to confirm them. Her legs went weak, and she dropped out of sight behind the register.

            June curled into the checkout counter as the sound of Billy’s boots squeaked toward her.

            “Come on out,” Billy said, rapping his gun on the counter. 

            June stood, her arms shaking at her sides. Billy lifted the gun and a dark stain spread across the front of June’s green jeans.

            “Oh no.” Billy looked over his shoulder, but Meredith opened her eyes wide and jerked her chin at him, and he turned back. “OK,” Billy said to June, pointing the gun at her face. “Let’s go.”

            June got into the backseat of the Oldsmobile and Billy lifted Meredith into the front. He put the gun on the dash and reversed out of the store, pulling onto Race Street. 

“Meredith,” he said, once they were driving. “Do you think it worked? I mean, can we tell her now?”

            Meredith nodded, wincing at the pain in her leg.

            “Hey June,” Billy said. “Hey—just kidding!”

He pointed the gun over his shoulder and shot a stream of water that hit her cheek. For a moment, she thought she’d been shot dead. 

            “Just what?” June said.

            “Just kidding!”

            “Just kidding?”

            “Uh huh. Meredith planned the whole thing!”

            “Meredith what?”

            “For you,” Meredith said weakly, holding one hand in the air and doing what her and June liked to call magic fingers.

            June wasn’t sure how she felt. She looked out the window. Her heart was beating frantically, like it had before her first kiss. The smell of urine wafted strongly to her nose and she did not care. They drove by Mrs. Stockton’s house, its two front windows like empty eyes. They passed a rusted bike, tall grass and green tendrils interwoven in its frame.

She saw that the bike was blue. The same exact blue as the sky shining over them. Beyond the bike a crow stood on a post, preening its wings in the brilliant sunlight. The wings were not black as she had always thought but rather an iridescent indigo, a magnificent color.

June looked around, out the car’s other window. It was like that everywhere.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “This is just—this is just. Thank you.”