An innocent crush turns violent in Gary Porter's viscerally thrilling short story.
By David Joy
For Uncle Butch
In all honesty, my father probably had it coming when he bolted a three-foot bar off the side of my mother’s ragtop Park Avenue to get a mirror far enough out to see around the twenty-foot Travel Mate. Then again, his decision was a matter of safety.
The water pump was out on his pickup, the part he’d ordered hadn’t come, and, though I wouldn’t call him cheap, my father wouldn’t pay five times what it’d cost him to fix it himself for some glue-sniffing teenager at the Jiffy Lube to spend half a day on an hour’s work. Mama’s car wasn’t ideal for hauling the pull-behind, but we were headed out of town. The family reunion was in two days, and, like always, the old man made do.
But Dad’s making do didn’t make a damn to my mother who peddled cosmetics to family and friends, bored housewives, church secretaries, PTA committee members, Bojangles cashiers, and anyone else who considered it rude to blow her off entirely when she moved into her pitch. We’d be walking through the Food Lion and she’d stop some lady with a buggy full of groceries and say, “You know, I hate to bother you, but you’ve got absolutely gorgeous lips. You ever think of adding just a touch of lip-gloss? Maybe Sassy Fuchsia, or, no, no, I think Shock Tart might be your color.” She’d hand her card to the stranger and I’d try to avoid eye contact, walk behind kicking those cards under shelves so Mama wouldn’t chase the strangers down and try to hand off another when she found the card she’d given tossed on the floor. My mother was blind to a lot of things. She really was. But one thing she saw clear as day was how that mirror my father bolted onto the side of her car was going to be the final nail in her Mary Kay coffin.
“You think anybody’s going to buy product from a woman in a car like that? You think anyone’s going to take me serious with a trailer mirror bolted five foot off the side of my car?”
“Three feet seven and three-eighths inches,” my father said. He’d had me hold the tape eleven times to make sure he’d measured correctly, that extra three-eighths being just enough for him to see around the back of the trailer from the steering wheel. “I’ll take it off just as soon as we get back.”
“What about the holes, Tom? You don’t think the holes where you bolted that thing on are going to hurt the resell? Take that mirror off the side of my car.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be making any trades," he said as he tilted the mirror a few inches in then nudged it back an inch or so out. "And I’ve already told you. I’ll take it off when we get home.”
“If we get home,” my mother yelled. “What if this thing breaks down in the middle of nowhere?”
“Then I’ll just underpin the son of a bitch and we’ll live out the rest of our days right there where the universe decided to set us,” my father said, finally looking up. “Hell, we’ll open up a hotdog stand, Grace, maybe sell boiled peanuts right there on the side of the road. You like boiled peanuts, don’t you? That'd suit you just fine.”
“It’ll buff out,” I said, trying to ease the tension just a hair to keep all that blood in Mama’s face from blowing her head up like a hand grenade.
“Be quiet, Henry. Just go in the house and see if your sister has her suitcase packed.”
“I really don’t think—” I started to reason.
“I said go in the house,” Mama barked.
So I set the tape measure down on the driveway and went inside like I was told.
If my little sister Anna hadn’t gotten into Mama’s product halfway between home and hell, I imagine my mother would’ve wrapped her hands around Dad’s throat and squeezed till his Adam’s apple shot north or south. The Buick wouldn’t plane off with all that weight on the back so the exhaust ground the pavement till a flurry of sparks followed behind us like the tail end of a comet. It was the tailpipe, muffler, and everything meant to hold the exhaust in place that finally broke free just as we crossed the state line. The Travel Mate hopped over what fell off and Mama turned to look behind only to find Anna smeared with Purple Eclipse eye shadow and Peach Pop cheek stick like some sort of six-year-old carny with lipstick on her teeth. My father never was one for praying, but folks who do always talk about a merciful God and to me that’s exactly what this was, mercy.
We must’ve reached the campground some time in the middle of the night, because I was asleep. I don’t remember my father parking or him moving me from the backseat of the Buick into the camper. I just woke up in the Travel Mate and stepped out that next morning beside a catfish pond with a few dead channel cats circling around a floating fountain that was anchored with white rope a hundred feet off the bank.
Dad’s cousin Larry came to give us a ride. My grandfather couldn’t drive anymore, and, ever since my grandmother died, Larry was the only one in the family who would volunteer to take the old man grocery shopping or to the doctor or across the county line so he could buy beer on Sundays. Grandpa told Dad to call Larry. When Larry came, we loaded up and hung a right by a sign that read Turtle Creek Campground with a giant smiling turtle holding a stringer full of fish, and Larry drove south on a state road as broken and crackled as a dried out snakeskin.
“I hid your daddy’s keys inside one of those spice boxes in the kitchen,” Larry said when he pulled in front of my grandfather’s house. “You know the ones I’m talking about that got roosters painted on ’em, those wood boxes that all fit inside one another: the tea in the coffee, the coffee in the sugar, the sugar in the flour, and so on?”
My father nodded.
“Well, the keys are in one of them. The sugar one maybe,” Larry said. “That truck ought to fire right up. I crank it and let it run for a little while about twice a week, drive it out to the grocery every couple of trips. Still runs good.”
“Thank you, Larry,” my father said. “For everything.”
“I’ll see y’all here in a little bit,” he said, then backed out of the driveway and sputtered down the road.
A pair of beagles bawled when we went inside, but my grandfather didn’t stand to greet us. He didn’t say hello, good to see you, or drop dead and die. He just shouted over his shoulder from where he sat at the kitchen table, “You’re late,” and went right back to shoveling cold oatmeal into his mouth. He wore a gray woolen coat with two stars on the collar, and a pair of sky blue trousers the same heavy material as the coat. A battered and worn kepi lay on the table next to his bowl of oatmeal. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a museum.
Our family reunion was centered on one of Dad’s cousins, a woman named Sherry who spent a year of her life in a mental hospital, having discovered the grave of one of our Confederate ancestors. She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary and headed up the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and had stumbled onto some diviner who used dowsing rods to track down the unmarked graves of long lost relatives. For $300 this woman would wander around a field till those rods crossed and then she’d stop, raise her hand to God, and right there would be the grave. According to Sherry, this lady was batting a thousand, never once came back empty-handed, and so Sherry ponied up the $300, the lady went to work, and now here we all were to dedicate the grave of Alphonzo A. Roseman who was discharged from the Confederate Army on May 16, 1863 and died without a penny to his name.
My father’s share came to $27.32. Sherry said this over and over on the phone like he wasn’t good for it. Dad asked how much his father owed and she said that totaled up to $42.67. Dad asked if that was for both of them and Sherry said, no, that they each owed separately, so he rounded up one penny to $70 when he wrote the check, said it would all come out in the wash. That Saturday Dad shoved that check in an envelope and muttered something under his breath about brain cells and well water. He licked the envelope closed then sucked back on his Coors so hard that the can crumpled. I rode with him to the post office where he dropped another fifty cents for a stamp with Elvis on it.
“Well, are y’all going to sit down and eat, or just stand there drooling on yourselves,” my grandfather said.
“Are those steel-cut oats?” Anna asked.
“No, they’re Quaker Oats,” he said.
“Mama makes steel-cut oats.”
“Well, these here are Quaker Oats. Are you too good for Quaker Oats?”
Anna shook her head and shuffled a little to the right to hide half of herself behind Mama’s leg.
“Wilford Brimley used to be the spokesperson for this oatmeal, and if it’s good enough for him then I reckon it’s good enough for any of us,” my grandfather said. “Wilford Brimley was in ‘Cocoon.’”
“What’s ‘Cocoon?’” Anna asked.
“He has diabetes,” my father said, pronouncing it like “beat us.”
“Diabetees,” my mother corrected him.
“Diabeetees. Diabeetus” my father said. “However you say it, Wilford Brimley has it. Now he’s on commercials for insulin or something.”
“Suit yourself,” my grandfather yelled. He hammered his fists against the table and the spoon jangled against the rim of his bowl. “Picky eaters have starved to death in this house.”
We held still for a moment or two and waited for my grandfather to go back to eating. Stay still, be quiet, and don’t look at a bear, and it will usually just mosey on about its business. When he did, my mother took my sister into the back to get her ready for the reunion. Dad sat down next to his father, and I sat next to mine.
“I don’t know why y’all couldn’t just stay here,” my grandfather said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“I know there is, but Anna’s allergic to dogs.”
“That’s nonsense,” my grandfather said then knelt down to pat one of the two beagles on the back. “A person can’t be allergic to dogs.”
Dad shook his head.
“How are you holding up?” He asked.
“Hot dogs make the gout flare. Liver mush makes the gout flare. Cube steak makes the gout flare. Hell, even beer gives me fits anymore. Sometimes I just want to take out my pocketknife and chop that big toe right off. Can’t get around anyhow. And what don’t bother the gout gives me the diarrhea, so how’s that for—”
My father had stood up and was halfway to the coffee pot when he interrupted.
“No, Dad. I mean how are you?”
He was trying to ask how my grandfather was holding up since my grandmother died. That first month or two after we drove down for her funeral, Dad called his father every night to check on him. Months went by and the phone calls turned from once every couple of days to once a week to once every “I’ll get around to it” actually got around to it back to just birthdays and holidays. Grown-up chores weren’t all that different from childhood ones.
“I wish I could tell you it gets easier everyday, but it don’t,” my grandfather said. “It just don’t. That ain’t the way life works.”
Dad poured a cup of coffee into a camouflage Waffle House mug. He took a sip, spit that sip back into the mug then took the pot over to the sink.
“That’s two days old,” my grandfather said.
“Well then what in the world you saving it for?” my father asked as he dumped what was left down the drain.
“Cause I’ll still drink it.”
“Ain’t no wonder you got the shits, Dad,” my father said and I snickered.
“You can make a pot of fresh if you want. Coffee’s in the cabinet.”
My father washed out the pot and carried the old filter and grounds over to the trashcan with those beagles circling his ankles, tripping him up like he was going to give them a slice of cheese. He grabbed a tub of JFG from the cabinet and started to make a fresh pot.
“While you’re over there, look in the freezer and grab that trash bag for me,” my grandfather said.
Dad reached into the freezer as the coffee maker started to percolate. There were patterns of icicles that looked like Queen Anne’s lace frozen on the black plastic, and the bag seemed to steam when my father set it on the table.
“What is this?”
“Your old uniform,” my grandfather said. “I thought Henry here might want to wear it to the dedication. He looks about the same size you were.”
“No, Dad,” my father said.
“What uniform?” I asked.
“This is the uniform your father wore when he was your age. We used to travel around doing reenactments. He ain’t ever told you about that?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t want—” my father started to say.
My grandfather pulled a folded uniform the same colors as the one he wore from the bag and continued to talk over my father.
“How old are you, Henry?”
“Twelve,” I said.
“Then this ought to fit you just right.” He slid the uniform across the table like he was passing bread.
“Why’d you have it in the freezer?” I asked.
“Because it stunk and I didn’t want to wash it.”
“I don’t want him wearing that thing, Dad,” my father said.
But my grandfather wasn’t listening and I was intrigued.
“What do you know about the War of Northern Aggression, Henry?” my grandfather asked.
“I don’t want him—”
“Have y’all covered that in school?”
I didn’t know what my grandfather was talking about and I shook my head. Dad kept trying to say that I wasn’t going to wear that uniform, but my grandfather kept right on talking. When I tried to unfold the britches, the wool, frozen solid, crunched in my hands. Dad poured two cups of coffee and carried them back to the table. He pushed one to the old man, hoping, I think, that the coffee would shut him up. I sat on the edge of my seat and listened to something I didn’t know the first thing about, just waiting for that uniform to thaw, waiting for my father to give me permission to try it on.
Lesson number one, wool doesn’t breathe. I learned that halfway through the service. There were about a dozen of us in uniforms, probably sixty or seventy people in all, crowded in a fenced-in cemetery that was just two degrees shy of catching fire. My father kept staring at me during the service. He looked disappointed and I wasn’t sure if it was with my grandfather or with me, and he finally just quit looking altogether when the crowd sang, “Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.”
Lesson two was that Cousin Jeff was always remembering something, like how my grandfather purged a ’possum for two weeks, feeding the animal nothing but sweet corn and buttermilk, to get all of the gaminess out of the meat, or how one of his and Dad’s cross-eyed cousins, Robbie Gipe, played the guitar solo from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” on a busted accordion to win the eighth grade talent show, how Robbie’s mom sang funny in church because of her cleft palate, or how Aunt Betty wasn’t always Aunt Betty, but when they were real little was Uncle Bert, though no one ever talked about Bert anymore and so really it was like he’d never been born at all.
“Me and your daddy used to go squirrel hunting,” Jeff said. “We went everyday after school and every weekend that I didn’t have to go see my dad. Your dad was a crack shot, Henry. See a squirrel. Bang. That fast.” He shook his head with amazement. “I bet you’re the same, ain’t you? Y’all do a lot of squirrel hunting where you live?”
“No,” I said. “I ain’t ever been squirrel hunting.”
“That’s a shame,” Jeff said. “I bet you’re a natural.”
I’d never met Cousin Jeff before in my life.
My father stood with my grandfather under a sweetgum in the middle of the cemetery, and my mother was just a few feet away from them twirling Anna beneath her fingertip like a windup ballerina. Some relative I hadn’t met came over and asked Jeff if he’d gotten his license back or if he still had to drive a moped to get back and forth to the plastics plant, and, while Jeff explained that he didn’t work at the plastics plant anymore, that he’d taken a job driving a school bus, I tiptoed away.
“You hot yet?” my father asked when I walked over.
“Itchy,” I said.
“A lot of soldiers died of heatstroke on long marches because of these uniforms, Henry,” my grandfather said. “None of our ancestors, of course, but families like Sibleys and Powells and Browns, hell, them sissies killed off in droves.”
A fat redheaded woman in a black pencil skirt that was shaped more like a pear than a pen popped out from behind my mother and said, “Tom, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Galloway.”
I learned from context that the redhead was our fat cousin Sherry who spent a year in a mental hospital and money on nonsense.
“Mrs. Galloway here’s who found the grave,” Sherry said.
Mrs. Galloway held out her hand. “You can call me Perline,” she said.
Perline Galloway didn’t look half as crazy as any of our family. Petite and kept, she wore a pale yellow pants suit that brought out the green in her eyes.
“How’d you go about finding this grave?” my father asked.
He never was one for mixing words. My father shot straight and didn’t care whether what he said came out sarcastic and dry because that’s exactly how he meant it. That was just his sense of humor.
“Well, it was awfully hard with all of these power lines,” Perline said, looking overhead and waving her hand about like she was shooing flies.
“I said it was awfully hard with these power lines,” Perline repeated, stressing each word as if it might’ve been her accent that caused his confusion. “All the electricity makes it difficult.”
“Say those dowsing rods were spinning like helicopter blades, huh?” Dad laughed and shook his head. “Say you lifted right off the ground?”
“No,” she said. “No, Mr. Roseman, that’s not what I said at all.”
“You can call me Tom.”
“You ever think of wearing a little eye liner, Perline?” My mother stepped forward and rummaged through her purse for a card. “A little touch of Mint To Be around those eyes and you’d have men lining up to buy you supper.”
“You’d be surprised how much of a demand there is for finding graves, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. She glanced at my mother long enough to take the card, snapped open her hand purse and slipped the card inside, and my mother, sensing a tough sale, took Anna by the hand and walked toward a group of women who were smoking cigarettes behind a minivan. “I get two or three calls a week,” Perline said.
“Really?” my father asked.
“Really,” she said.
“You ever run any specials?”
“You know, specials: buy one get one, half off during hunting season, a free Dairy Queen Blizzard. Anything like that?”
My father stood staring at Mrs. Galloway with a slight grin on his face, and I think he wanted her to laugh with him, I honestly do. I don’t think he meant to hurt her feelings though it was obvious he did. For my father, laughter made things bearable. But Mrs. Galloway didn’t share his sense of humor, and, for that matter, very few people I ever met did. My father always came off in a way that he didn’t intend.
“Family is still important to people around here, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. “But I wouldn’t expect you to remember something like that.”
Perline Galloway turned and walked away and Sherry stood red-faced and huffing like she was having an asthma attack. When Sherry stormed off, my grandfather looked at my father for what seemed an eternity. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. And once forever had come and gone, he shook his head, turned his eyes to the ground, and walked away.
We were alone, my father and me, and I stared to where a group of headstones rose from a parched patch of land, the red clay cracked and grassless. There were trees in the cemetery where we were and there were trees further in the field, but none of the trees could cast shade onto that place. It made no difference where the sun was in the sky.
“Who’s buried over there?” I asked.
“Over there.” I pointed. “Outside of the fence.”
“That’s a black cemetery,” my father said.
“Oh,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I’d never really thought about one cemetery being any different than another. Six feet deep is what they said on the old Westerns my father watched on Saturdays. All graves were that deep, one no different than the next. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“I don’t either.”
A moment passed.
“Did anybody in our family ever own slaves?” I asked.
My father stared to the place I’d pointed.
“They did,” he said.
“How come?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Henry.” He didn’t look at me, but he squeezed my shoulder so hard that it almost hurt. “Some things don’t have a good answer.”
There’d been around seventy family members gathered at the gravesite and that number was nearly doubled now that there was free food. They circled the buffet like a wake of buzzards. The way they pecked and fought over fried chicken and frog legs, white potato salad and yellow potato salad, fruit salad and ambrosia salad, every kind of salad except real, honest-to-god salad, green bean casserole and squash casserole, broccoli casserole and macaroni casserole, quartered pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread, quartered peanut-butter-and-jellies on white bread, Aunt Fay’s homemade persimmon preserves on white bread, and plate upon plate of deviled eggs, oh, the way they pecked and fought and snarled and pulled pocketknives made it hard to deny we were family. The same blood that coursed through their degenerate bodies coursed through my own. We were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, no matter how you cut it kin. Blood kin. And it was my mother, sister, father, and I who butted our way to the front of the line.
The adults ate together at long tables that stretched the length of the fellowship hall. They crammed all of us kids into a Sunday school classroom that still had Vacation Bible School decorations taped to the walls—a giant smiling Jesus in a bathrobe with all of these laughing children playing ring-around-the-rosy around his legs—though my cousin Austin said Vacation Bible School had been over for over a month. That’s who I sat beside at a table that was no more than a foot off the ground, Austin and his little brother Odell, the three of us crouched in preschooler chairs with our knees up to our ears.
Austin was seven months older than me and he must’ve learned a lot in that seven months because he seemed to know more than any kid our age ought to know about things like sex and income taxes and how to check the transmission fluid in a ’94 Astro van and why Uncle Richard was missing those two fingers so that it looked like he was signing “I love you” the way deaf people do when he waved. Austin had a mud-colored birthmark that looked like a horse standing on its hind legs that ran from the corner of his mouth up and over one eye. Odell was a year younger than me and he and I had the same birthday though Austin had to tell me because Odell never said a word.
“Most folks think he can’t talk at all, but he can talk if he wants to, can’t you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell nodded his head up and down with a big, wide smile on his face.
“He just don’t want to talk. Don’t like to talk, do you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell shook his head no. Austin said Odell hadn’t said a word to anyone except him since their mother died in a house fire. He said this over and over while we ate, “Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Our mama breathed too much smoke and now she’s up in heaven with Jesus. Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Now she’s an angel.”
Austin knew most of the other kids in the room because he lived just down the road and they’d all grown up together. When we finished eating, he called over our cousin Ricki, a girl named Ricki, who wanted to audition for "America’s Got Talent" with this trick she’d taught herself to do with a ball chain. Ricki reached into her pocket and pulled out a long stretch of ball chain like you might hang dog tags on, or cut short and use for a key ring. She tilted her head back and ran that chain down one of her nostrils and started snorting back about two inches at a time. When there was a pile of chain gone, she coughed and choked and shoved her hand back in the back of her mouth till I was sure she was going to be sick, but she didn’t get sick. Ricki pulled the end of that chain through her lips so that it ran up her nose and out of her mouth then stood there with one end in each hand, her eyes crossed, and her tongue out saying, “Ahhhhh,” like she was in the doctor’s office.
“Bet you ain’t ever seen nothing like that have you?” Austin asked. I hadn’t and neither had Odell, and we sat there wide-eyed shaking our heads.
After lunch, all of the boys were headed down the street to one of our cousin’s houses. His father had built a paintball field in their backyard with piles of worn out tires and busted pallets stacked up for bunkers. According to Austin, this kid’s dad got ten dollars a head to let local kids shoot the hell out of each other with high-powered paintball guns. According to Austin, this kid almost lost one of his eyes after a boy named Ty, who wasn’t kin to us at all, froze his paintballs for an entire week inside a meat freezer then came and almost killed half the JV football team with paintballs as hard as marbles.
I didn’t think my father would let me go. I told Austin that I couldn’t mess up my grandfather’s uniform, and, seeing as I didn’t bring a change of clothes with me, I wouldn’t be tagging along. Austin said he could scrounge up some clothes and for me to go and ask my dad, and, though the truth of the matter was that I was scared to death and didn’t want to go, I couldn’t think of any good excuses so I took my plate to the trash and went to track down my father.
I found him standing with my grandfather outside of the church by a thick hedge of boxwoods. My father’s back was to me so he never saw me standing there. My grandfather glanced in my direction, but turned his attention back to Dad. He didn’t seem to care that I was there. Maybe he even wanted me there to hear what he had to say. He was yelling about how my father made Sherry cry. He jabbed his finger into my father’s chest and talked so sternly through clenched teeth that his words broke apart into spittle. He glanced down at me again then asked if my father thought he was above his raising, if he was embarrassed of where he came from, of who he came from, and, if so, why in the hell hadn’t he just stayed home. My father stood there staring at his shoes, shaking his head, and didn’t say a word until the old man was finished.
Later that night, back at the campground, I would listen to my father explain things to my mother, while they thought I was sound asleep. I would lie awake in the Travel Mate and eavesdrop through the opened trailer window as she listened to him the way that she always did when he needed her most. My father would say that he knew the Civil War was about more than slavery, that it was also about economics and land and states rights, but that regardless of what his ancestors may or may not have fought and died for the war was about one thing now, 150 years afterward, the war was about one thing, slavery, and that it was a waste of time to try and amend how the history’d been written and taught, that it was a waste of time to try and convince others that it was about something else, that if it all boiled down to one thing and that one thing, whether it be true or not, was slavery then that was nothing to be proud of.
That very next summer when three lunatics tied a black man behind their pickup truck in Jasper, Texas and dragged his conscious body down the asphalt for three miles before he struck a culvert, the murderers towing what was left of him another mile after that, I watched my father cry as he stared at the television and listened to the story. He prayed those first few nights, something he didn't think anyone saw, and, afterward, something I never saw him do again. A few years later, when the NAACP rallied at the Statehouse to have the Confederate flag removed from the capitol building, I watched my father rip a six foot by four foot flag off of a seventeen year old kid’s pickup truck as he spun donuts around a black mother and her two children in the Ingles parking lot one Sunday. I watched that kid slam on brakes, climb out of his truck, and tell my father that that flag was about heritage. I listened as my father told that boy he didn’t know a thing about heritage, that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he needed to name names, he begged the boy to name names, and when the boy said he didn’t know their names but that his dad told him he had ancestors who fought and died for the Confederacy, my father told that boy that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he’d show him graves. He’d take him to the monument for Alphonzo Roseman or the grave of Quintus Curtis Patterson who was imprisoned as a POW or the grave of Robert Franklin Smith who was wounded at Gettysburg, taken prisoner, and later died in a prison camp in Point Lookout, Maryland. My father would scream that that was our heritage, that that was our family, that that boy didn’t know a goddamn thing about nothing.
But right then outside of that church, while I waited to ask my father if I could go let my cousins shoot my teeth out with paintball guns, my father didn’t say any of that. My father just looked at his dad and told him how much he loved him.
We stayed at Turtle Creek Campground the rest of the week and only saw my grandfather once more when he agreed to let my father take him out for the Wednesday night buffet at Shoney’s. Cousin Larry leant my father two fishing rods and a tackle box. I took a handful of quarters and bought a tub of red wigglers from a vending machine that sold live bait by the campground office. I was trying to catch catfish and my father was trying to catch a buzz. All I caught that was of any account was a bluegill shaped like a saucer, and a shellcracker that had a giant tumor growing out of the side of its head. My father got drunk.
There was a black man and his son fishing just around the lake under a giant pin oak that had catalpa worms tangling its limbs with webs. The man had cut two sticks shaped like Ys and whittled the bottom ends into points with his pocketknife then jabbed those sticks in the ground to hold his fishing rods. He had a small copper bell clamped to the end of each rod and every couple of minutes one of those bells would get to ringing and his son would run down the bank and set the hook on another fish. They had an entire stringer of catfish, and, in between setting hooks and reeling in fish, the boy would walk down and pull the stringer up out of the water to count how many they’d caught while his dad re-baited the hooks and cast again.
“Why don’t you go ask what they’re fishing with?” my father asked. “I bet they’re using chicken livers.”
“They didn’t have any chicken livers in the vending machine,” I said.
“Or stink bait. They might be using stink bait.”
“They didn’t have stink bait either,” I said.
All of a sudden one of the bells rang and a fish yanked so hard that the rod holder ripped out of the ground and the rod skipped down the bank toward the water. The man jumped out of his chair, tripped over his tackle box, fell, and had to scuttle on his hands and knees those last few feet to grab ahold of the handle just before the fish drug his rod, reel, and all into the lake. The man came up with the rod doubled over and waving high in the air, and he tried to regain control as the drag screamed on his Zebco. Once he had his footing, he handed the rod to his son, and my father chugged the last half of his beer, crunched the can in his fist, stood, and said, “Come on, Henry.”
We were right there when the boy finally managed to reclaim enough line to get the fish within wading distance of the bank. The man had already rolled up his pants and taken off his shoes and socks. He waded into the lake with a trail of bubbles marking each step he took. When the fish came close, the man yelled instructions for his son to move a few feet to the left then a few steps to the right so that he might have a chance of getting his hands around their trophy. He knelt and cradled his arms in the water as the fish swam into him, and, when he had his catch in his hands, he carried the fish up the bank as if he were carrying a drowned child.
“My God, would you look at that,” my father exclaimed, his words almost breathless.
The fish was three feet long with scales as big around as fifty-cent pieces. Its barbeled mouth opened and closed for air, but its golden body was too spent to move.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A carp,” my father said.
The man and his son looked up when they heard my father’s voice.
“Y’all want this thing?” the man asked.
“What for?” my father asked.
“I thought y’all might eat these things,” the man said.
“What do you mean y’all?”
The man suddenly looked like he was about to choke on what he’d said and he stuttered, believing that he’d offended us. My father held his expression long enough that even I started to believe that the man had, but then he cracked a smile. Dad burst into laughter and the man looked confused for a second or two before he too started to laugh.
“You got any pliers?” my father asked.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Right there in that tackle box.”
My father lifted the trays from the tackle box and when he found the needle-nosed pliers he carried them over and knelt beside the man and the fish.
“These things got mouths like rubber,” he said. He worked to get the hook loose while the man held the fish against the ground. “You know I had an uncle who used to eat these things. He used to go catch them with some kind of dough balls he made in his bathtub. He used to put all kinds of things in that dough, everything from garlic to Kool Aid. He’d fillet all the bones out, cut out that mud vein—they’ve got a nasty mud vein running all through the meat—and then he’d smoke them.”
“I’ve got a cousin who grinds them up and makes carp burgers,” the man said.
“Poor’s poor,” my father said. “My dad brought one home one time when he was between jobs, but my mother wouldn’t let him bring it in the house.” He set the pliers on the ground and looked up. “There,” he said. “I think that’s got it.”
The hook was out of the carp’s mouth and the man grabbed the fish by its gills. He carried it down to the water and set the carp in the shallows. The man’s son was around my age and we stood together in silence watching the fish lie on its side, its flank out of the water, one fin rowing the air.
“You want a beer?”
“No. I better not,” the man said.
“Come on now,” my father urged. “Just a beer. Just right over where those chairs are. We can watch the boys fish.”
The man agreed and their voices softened as they climbed the bank and walked around the lake to my father’s cooler.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
“Henry,” I said.
“Mine’s Marcus,” he said.
We watched as the carp rocked its head side to side and before long the fish had righted itself. Marcus and I stayed put and watched as the carp slowly recovered. The fish lay there, its gills opening and closing, catching its breath and we did not say a word. All of a sudden, the surface exploded, water dripped from our smiling faces, and our wetted shirts clung to our chests. We looked at one another and keeled over in laughter. Marcus shook the water from his hair and I turned back to where the fish had been. Mud swirled the bottom and the water lapped the shore. And just like that, like the final act of a magic show, the thing we’d been watching was gone.
When we left Turtle Creek Campground, I didn’t know when I’d see my grandfather again. I didn’t understand what had happened between the two of them and I couldn’t foresee the day when my father would get a call and we’d drive down to bury his dad, just as we had his mother, beneath that scorching sun.
What I knew was that, come Monday morning, I’d start sixth grade at Smoky Mountain Middle School. I knew that I’d have Mrs. Hedgepath for Language Arts and I knew that was going to be a bad thing because everyone knew she was a bitch. I knew that I’d go out for basketball that fall, that I’d probably wind up riding the pine, and that, given the way I already felt, I’d more than likely fall in love with Jenna Gilmore.
That was the thing about twelve years old is that there was only black and white. There was no distant past and there was no far off future. There was only one way to think of time.
Mama’s Park Avenue blew a tire and lost the back left hubcap just as we came into town. My father didn’t blink and my mother didn’t say a word. He hobbled the camper home, threw the car in park, and the two of them walked inside the house holding hands and slept for two days straight. I kept Anna and me alive on Chef Boyardee, Cool Ranch Doritos, and fruit snacks until that Sunday night when my parents stumbled out of their bedroom and my mother asked if we were hungry.
I asked my father when he was going to take me squirrel hunting.
I told my mother I felt hungry forever.
David Joy is the author of the critically acclaimed Where All The Light Tends to Go. Check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @DavidJoy_Author. Also check out our interview with the author, his novel’s appearance on Bruce, Bourbon, and Books, and Joy's drunken playlist.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Sean Tuohy
I met Gracie Rosen on a warm Tuesday morning at the Pelican Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach. It was less than a mile from the hotel that I call home but they were worlds apart. The Pelican was a grand place located right on the beach. Piercing the bright blue Florida sky, The Pelican offered stellar views of the ocean from their five hundred dollar night rooms. The balcony dining room offered brunch to the public and I figured since I was meeting a client I could foot them for the bill and grab eggs.
Gracie and I sat across from one another in the air-conditioned dining room. To our right floor to ceiling windows gave a sweeping view of the surf below. I sipped at coffee as Gracie abandoned her fruit salad. She was a tall young woman, long limp, shoulder brown hair, and wearing a pants suit that was muted but tasteful.
“Dennis recommended you to me,” Gracie started. “He said you used to work with him.”
I nodded, “I was still with the Sheriff’s office then.”
“And now you do private work?”
Gracie considered this before she spoke.
“My firm hires a lot of private detectives but they don’t look like you,” she said.
I glanced down at my outfit; tropical shirt that was fraying and stained khaki pants. Not my worse but not my best either.
“Lawyer?” I asked.
Gracie nodded, “Dennis works for us now. I work in corporate law. A lot of south American clients opening businesses here.”
I studied her face and could see the distress in her eyes; it was lingering pain.
“But that’s not why we are meeting, is it?”
Gracie quickly pulled out her cell phone and unlocked it. She handed it to me and looked away. On the screen I found myself looking at a young olive-skinned man with tubes coming out of him lying in a hospital bed. His face was a black and blue mess.
I handed the phone back.
By Pam McGaffin
The earthquake hit a little past midnight while her husband was asleep and Hayley was in the spare room reading about frozen embryos. She didn’t know what it was at first. The deep, throaty rumble sounded like thunder or a passing truck. Then a bow wave traveled through the floor, up her body and into her brain, where it registered: quake. She probably should have ducked under the desk or the doorjamb, but she just sat there, holding her breath. Once the shaking stopped, she stood up, tightened the belt of her robe and walked to their bedroom to wake Bill.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” he said, rubbing his eyes, squinting at the sudden light.
“Let’s turn on the news,” she said.
She switched on the clock radio, expecting that high-pitched tone that signals an emergency broadcast, but instead got one of those late-night call-in advice programs. A woman from Liberty, Mo., stuck in a dead-end relationship. She tuned through the dial, trying to pick out something that sounded like news in that chopped-up calliope of music and voices, but found nothing.
She wanted to keep trying until they got some information, but Bill was too tired. He was a self-employed contractor, mostly home-construction and remodeling, and was often tired. Hayley knew from keeping the books the long hours he put in. She reluctantly pressed the radio’s on/off button.
“They’ll know more in the morning,” he said, waiting for her to get into bed before he turned off the light.
In minutes, his breathing fell into a deep, regular rhythm. Lying awake, her thoughts turning and returning, she could have sworn she felt the bed shake. Aftershock? Or body memory, like the lingering sensation of floating you get after you step off a boat?
If Bill had stayed awake, she might have initiated sex—just for sex. They’d stopped going to doctors, but Hayley still had a pinhole of hope each month that maybe a miracle would give them what years of hormone therapy and treatments had not. There would be no miracle this month. Her morning temperatures had already dropped, a sign her period would start any day.
What a great pregnancy story that would have made, though.
“You could say the earth moved,” she’d joke, patting her swollen belly. But she knew the earthquake babies would be born to other women, women who never had to read up on frozen embryos or in-vitro fertilization, the next step they never took.
Hayley woke up late, took her temperature (another drop), got up and turned on the cable news. She had to wait through another suicide bombing in Afghanistan and a nuclear test in North Korea before they got to local news of the earthquake.
“Five point seven!” Hayley yelled to Bill, who was in the kitchen making toast.
The epicenter was forty-five miles away in a foothills town they loved for its cinnamon rolls.
“It was in Granite,” Hayley reported. “Hope that bakery survived…Boy, that’s selfish of me, isn’t it?”
Bill chuckled between bites of toast and sat down next to her on the couch. They watched interviews with Granite people, including a grocer who lost most of his wine aisle and the owner of a historic theater that dropped its marquee. Nobody was hurt. The only quake-related fatality was an elderly man who died of a heart attack. He lived at the end of a road blocked by a landslide. Aid couldn’t get to him in time.
“How sad…to die afraid and alone,” Hayley said.
“He’ll be forever known as the man who died of a heart attack in the 2009 Granite quake, if people remember him at all.”
Hayley didn’t think she’d do very well in a major disaster given her catatonic reaction last night. At least she’d have Bill. He’d help her through it. She saw herself snuggling with him in their army surplus tent, which they’d set up in the backyard of their collapsed home. Sharing a single sleeping bag, sirens wailing all around them, they’d keep each other warm and thank their lucky stars to be together and alive.
“We really should get an earthquake kit together,” she said.
Bill picked up the remote and changed the channel to ESPN.
“We should do this while we’re thinking about it,” Hayley said, moving between the remote and the screen.
“What? You want to do this today?” Bill stared up at her, mouth cocked open. “Game 3 starts at noon.”
“Well, if we hurry, you’ll only miss the start.”
“Can’t this wait until tomorrow? I doubt there’ll be a major quake between now and then.”
Bill had a way of making her feel ridiculous, but she persisted.
“Come on,” she said. “Indulge me.”
He sighed and turned off the television and said,
“Do you even know what you’re doing?”
The survival-supply store Hayley found online took them into the city’s industrial bowels. They had a hard time locating it in all the gray and beige warehouses. Bill was about to turn around and go home when Hayley spotted the nondescript letterbox sign, “Delridge Supply.” In a small display window, a screen flashed through a loop of earthquake scenes: a collapsed freeway; a cracked stucco building; a firefighter with a bloody, dusty child in his arms.
They sure know how to get you.
When the firefighter and child popped up again, she followed Bill through a swinging glass door into a large room crammed with survival gear.
The masculine smell of rubber and metal assaulted her nose, recalling countless childhood hours spent in the garage watching her father fix engines. From Porsches to power mowers, he could get anything started again. You’d think that, the morning after an earthquake, this place would be overrun with such fix-it men, as well as less dedicated hardware geeks, but only a few customers ambled about. As if to remind everyone why they came, a radio behind the counter was tuned to the local news, traffic and weather station (“Everything you need to know”) for quake updates.
Hayley watched her step as she navigated around a big center table heaped with pre-assembled survival kits for car, office, and home. She wanted to ask for help, but couldn’t find anyone obviously in charge. The only possibility was a plump, pimply teenager in desert camouflage pants who knew far too much about emergency food.
“The beef stroganoff and chicken parmesan aren’t bad,” he told a man scanning the freeze-dried dinner options.
The boy looked to be seventeen or eighteen, probably an outcast at his school, but a big man here. Hayley pegged him as the owner’s son. Amazing how some kids imprint on their parents so easily, while others bead up and roll off like water on wax.
On the other side of the room, a little boy pawed through a box of pocket knives.
Hey, dad, better watch your kid!
No one else was paying attention. She should probably say something or go over and distract the child. While she debated what to do, the boy dropped the knife, still closed, back in the box. Hayley forced herself to look away. The kid wasn’t her responsibility.
She joined Bill next to a bin of emergency flares.
“God, this place is overwhelming. Everything looks so necessary,” she said.
“Why don’t we just buy this big kit here and be done with it?”
Bill picked up the price tag: $149.99.
“That’s for a family of four. Besides, I want to build our own.”
Bill sighed and looked at his watch.
“You just want to get out of here so you can make the start of the game.”
“Yeah, so? Why does this have to be a big production?”
Hayley turned to walk away, colliding with the little boy, who ran smack into her legs.
“Oh!” She said, putting her hand on his head to steady them both.
He backed away, eyes wide.
“Hey there, buddy,” Bill said.
He stuck out his hand for a low-five. The boy smiled shyly, slapped Bill’s hand, and ran over to his father.
She envied her husband’s ease with children. He loved kids. It didn’t matter to him that they couldn’t have their own. He kept talking about adoption, perhaps China, unable to understand why Hayley couldn’t move on. She’d tried to explain, telling him that adoption felt too much like surrender. If they adopted an orphan from overseas, who’s to say what they would be getting? The child could have a whole time bomb of problems passed down by people who didn’t want to be parents. She just wasn’t ready to take that leap of faith.
Bill liked to point out that having your own is no guarantee. He didn’t understand her reticence. Can’t conceive? Then adopt. Plan A. Plan B. The whole thing was too easy for him. Sometimes, during her hospital visits, she wished Bill could step into her skin and feel the torture of infertility: the Clomid crazies; the self-hatred; the humiliation of lying on an exam table with your feet in stirrups while some doctor injects washed sperm through a tube into your cervix. All Bill had to do was look at pictures of naked women, jerk off into a cup and leave.
Those nurses, they always twittered about his healthy sperm count, as if that would make Hayley feel good, as if their comments didn’t remind her that she was the problem. She hated the staff at that hospital, particularly that one nurse, the one who said to Bill, “I hope you’re driving,” that time she momentarily forgot her age. The nurse had been asking her a series of routine questions, and she answered all of them including the date of her last period, but her mind blanked at “How old are you?” She could have blamed the hormones, bought herself a little time, but she got flustered and said twenty-seven, her age when she and Bill got married. She’d missed her actual age, thirty-six, by almost a decade, as Bill pointed out. He could have been more supportive. He could have helped her grace her way out of embarrassment. But he didn’t. No, he and that snotty nurse both stared at her like she’d gone around the bend.
A loud crash.
The same little boy who’d run into her legs stood in shocked awe next to the tower of folding shovels he’d tipped over. Then, like a thrown switch, he started to bawl. His cries drowned out the radio and paralyzed every adult in the room, but the father, who said, “Christ,” and rushed over to put the shovels back.
Eventually, Desert Storm—Hayley had to give the teenager credit—brought over a finger puppet, a dragonfly with iridescent wings. Captivated by the color and movement, the boy stopped sobbing and actually smiled.
“Parents who let their kids run wild get what they deserve,” Hayley whispered to Bill.
“These things happen.”
“Oh, come on! I suppose you’d think it perfectly fine if he played with those pickaxes over there?”
Bill rolled his eyes.
“Hayley,” he said, patting her shoulder, “It’s O…K.”
She jerked away from his touch and snatched a yellow and red box off the shelf. She didn’t know, didn’t care what it was; she just needed to do something with her hands.
“Need any help?” Desert Storm said, appearing next to her, smiling. Before Hayley could reply, he asked, “May I?” and reached for the box in her hands.
“Have you ever used this stuff?” He asked, taking it from her. “It’s great. There are no harmful fumes, so you can burn it in the house.”
He opened the box and took out a squat tin tub. He pried open the lid using a can opener he just happened to have in his pants pocket. Then, with a cigarette lighter from another pocket, he lit the wick, producing a delicate blue flame.
“Each can burns for at least two hours and generates enough heat to keep food at a safe temperature. You don’t want to risk E-coli poisoning in a disaster.”
Bill murmured and checked his watch. Hayley wanted to slap him. He wouldn’t be so cavalier if he’d felt the quake, not knowing if it might be The Big One. She imagined him buried in rubble and clinging to life. Being the one to find her husband’s bloody exposed hand, Hayley would summon the search and rescue people and shout encouragement down into the heap, where she could just barely hear his feeble tapping.
Or maybe the earthquake would swallow them both.
She decided to buy a package of canned heat out of politeness to Desert Storm, who tried so hard.
“Is that it?” Bill said staring at the box on the counter. “Is that all you’re getting?”
She handed over the exact amount: $6.82.
Walking to their car, Hayley felt a drop of rain. A couple parking stalls over, the father of shovel boy was buckling his son into a car seat.
At least he uses a car seat.
She opened the passenger-side door of their Honda Accord and tossed her purchase in back. Bill started the car and tuned the radio to the game, which was well underway.
The rain picked up. Big drops pelted the windshield, but Bill didn’t start the wipers until the glass got good and wet. Hayley cranked up the heat and turned the fan on high. She liked it warm. Bill always turned the heat down way too soon.
As they drove, she stared out the window at the rain and warehouses. The color commentator remarked on the irony of the team missing the earthquake back home by playing an away game in Oakland. Bill’s chuckle made her turn to look at the profile she knew so well, the tumble of gray-blond curls, the long, straight nose. She waited to see if he would feel her stare and turn, but he kept his eyes on the road and his ears on the play-by-play.
“I hate it when you treat me like that.” Her voice sounded so grave over the muffled cheers of the California arena.
“I hate it when you patronize me,” she repeated, sure that he heard her the first time.
“What are you talking about?”
“In the store.”
“The thing with the kid?”
“You were being patronizing.”
“Hayley, not now.”
They stopped at a red light. Bill waited for traffic to pass so he could turn onto the main arterial to the freeway.
“You’re so damn oblivious!”
She turned away and fantasized escaping. Just open the door, jump and run. She could get lost in the thicket of warehouses.
Bill slammed his hand on the steering wheel. Hayley turned and saw him glaring at the radio, mouth open. It took her a second or two before she realized his anger had to do with the game, not her. He could care less if his outburst gave her a heart attack. She reached over and switched off the radio. The windshield wipers squeaked. They got on the entrance ramp to I-5.
Before they reached the freeway, Bill turned the radio back on…loud. The game flooded her ears like an insult. She turned the radio off again just as they started to merge into traffic. Bill immediately reached for the knob. Hayley moved to block him. They banged hands.
A driver in the right lane blared his horn. Bill cranked the wheel to the right. The Honda fishtailed, glancing off the right guardrail. When it stopped sliding, their car straddled two lanes. Hayley saw herself scream in her mind’s eye, but nothing came out. Beyond the silhouette of Bill’s head, through the driver’s side window, she saw a blue pickup truck shudder towards them, unable to stop. The truck hit the back of their car with a sickening crunch. The impact whipped her body sideways.
Now traffic rushed towards them head-on. Brakes squealed. Cars swerved. Some drivers got stuck with their turn signals blinking. Eventually a traffic jam built up behind them, protecting them.
Hayley’s legs shook. A million adrenaline needles pricked her skin. Her tongue was so dry and rubbery she didn’t think she could talk, but she managed to croak out,
Bill sat hunched over, his forehead on the steering wheel. Seconds passed before he lifted his head. His face had gone bloodlessly white, except for the red imprint on his forehead from resting it on the steering wheel.
“I’m okay,” he said. “Are you?”
“I think so.”
When Bill spoke to the state trooper, he said he slid on the wet pavement and over-corrected. He didn’t mention their spat.
They took a cab home. Without the car, Hayley felt stranded even though she had no desire to go anywhere. She wanted a bath and a drink. She also wanted to talk, but was afraid that, given the opportunity, Bill might just tell her to go to hell. Without pause, he’d walked downstairs to catch the end of the game on TV. Hayley stopped in the kitchen, poured herself a generous glass of Scotch, leaving the bottle on the counter as an invitation. She carried her drink into the bathroom and turned the hot water on full, drowning out the TV and Bill’s weighted silence.
She set her glass on the tub rim and slid into the water up to her neck. The Scotch went down warm and sharp, spreading from her throat into her chest.
Under water, her body appeared magnified—breasts, belly, pubis. For years now, she’d been living inside of herself, noticing every twinge and ache. She relished the pain of the egg before it popped out of the follicle to travel up the fallopian tube. There, it would await the onslaught of sperm and the lucky one that would penetrate and merge.
In less than two weeks, she’d feel the first cramps and see a brown spot on her underwear. She’d tell herself that a little bit of cramping and bleeding is normal if you’ve just conceived. But the cramps and bleeding would turn into her period and another month’s failure. Hope turned to defeat turned to hope, over and over again. Bill rode sidecar, never able to anticipate her ups and downs because he couldn’t feel what she was feeling. How hard that must have been.
She downed the rest of her Scotch with one burning gulp. As she set her empty glass down, the bathroom door opened and Bill came in with the bottle and his own glass. He poured her another drink and sat down, slump-shouldered on the toilet seat. She inched herself upright, so she sat half out of the water, feeling the heat from her upper body turn to steam.
“You’re here,” She said, her voice sounding high and small like a girl’s.
“Too bad. They still have a couple more chances, don’t they?”
“Yeah, they’re not out of it yet.”
She tried to think of something else to say about the team or the players, but knew her ignorance would betray her effort. Bill sipped his drink and nodded, as if he’d just solved a problem in his head.
“I suppose the car is totaled,” she said.
“I’d say so.”
The thought of their dependable silver Honda pressed into a block of scrap brought a stab of grief. The car had seen them through the last ten years marriage. They’d taken it on trips to Canada and the coast, singing to Golden Oldies, trading romantic memories, and making married-couple plans, which always included children.
When she threw out the last of her birth-control pills, they celebrated with champagne and sex. The possibility of pregnancy made it thrilling, even dangerous. She had only just begun to think of pregnancy as something to achieve rather than avoid. But the excitement wore thin with each passing month, until sex became more chore than joy. Then the doctors took even that away, reducing conception to a series of scientific steps, no coupling required. Before they knew it, they’d wasted five years. When she and Bill finally called it quits, Hayley saw only an empty sameness ahead.
At the sound of her crying, Bill said,
“It’s just a car.”
Hayley shook her head.
“I miss the way we used to be,” she said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Things change,” he said. “People change. Doesn’t mean we hold a wake.”
She smiled, tasting the salt from her tears.
“I’m sorry,” Hayley said.
“For what?” Bill asked.
“Everything. The way I’ve been…our not getting pregnant.”
“There are some things even you can’t control, Hayley.”
Bill swirled the Scotch around and around in his glass, staring into the vortex. His mouth spread into a grin, and he chuckled to himself.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“You, and your cans of Sterno.”
She remembered tossing the bag in the car. She didn’t remember taking it out.
“Oh, no, I think I left them in the backseat.” Hayley hated losing things, even little things, and a $7 box of Sterno was a really little thing. “So much for our survival.”
She hadn’t meant it as a joke, but Bill let out a snort. It was kind of funny. She had to smile then, too, in spite of herself.
Pam McGaffin is a writer living in Seattle with her husband, Mark; sons, Casey and Charlie; and a pit bull-mix rescue dog, Ben. Her short stories have appeared in the online literary journals Eclectica and Amarillo Bay. She's working to finish her first book, a young-adult novel set in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1960s. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @PamMcgaffin.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Elizabeth Nicklis
The wind, the rain, the water, it was all the same. The pilgrims had been seeing the same landscape for the last two weeks: the rolling waves, the occasional blue sky, the clouds, the boat, and the people. There were more than 100 people on board, and it was very crowded. They had all been excited and ready to leave so they could live according to their own beliefs without a king to boss them around. It was a brilliant dream, but many were getting pretty tired of the boat and were growing anxious and grouchy. Two people had already died—one drowned, the other got sick—and everyone was getting restless.
Stephanie was very tired of the boat. The closest person to her age was Olivia, who was only nine. Stephanie was eleven, one of the oldest children on the ship. She had dark brown hair worn in braids and a pretty pink and blue calico dress. She was cheerful and had rosy cheeks and a voice like a lark.
The captain walked by. He, too, seemed to feel the toll of this journey.
“Captain,” Stephanie said. “How much longer to shore, may I ask?”
“A good while. A storm’s brewing,” he said in a gruff, gravely voice.
Another storm, Stephanie thought. Great.
Stephanie noticed that the boat had begun to rock and the sun was hidden from view by dark, ominous clouds. The waves were big and choppy. The whole scene was scary and promised death. The rain began to fall and people rushed to get under the cabin's protection.
However, Stephanie stayed on deck to see the stunning storm. The waves crashed onto the deck, soaking her skirts. The rain came in torrents. Thunder boomed and lightening flashed in great shows of light. The boat rocked violently side to side, the boards screaming. A yell went up followed by a splash and commotion. A rope was thrown into the sea. Stephanie watched with horror as a man was pulled up wheezing, shivering, and dripping wet.
“Oh my,” she said softly.
A towel was placed on the shoulders of the man and he was brought to the cabin. The boy next to Stephanie suddenly fell over the railing and tumbled into the sea. Stephanie gulped and made her way to the waiting comfort of safety. The storm was over as quickly as it begun and people filed out of the cabin in rows.
Three more weeks went by. Week after week of everything being the same. But then, Stephanie heard it, a thin wail spread across the boat. A wail of life. Men, women, and children rushed around a young woman. She looked tired. She had deep circles under her eyes and her skin was pale, but she was smiling proudly and her eyes shone. A bearded man, whom Stephanie recognized from around the boat, was kneeling next to her holding out a bundle. If Stephanie had any doubt of what was in there, it dissipated when a tiny pink face peeped out from under the wraps. The baby gurgled and cried.
Stephanie approached the mat where the boy lay. His blue eyes sparkled when he looked at her and he smiled adoringly at her glowing face.
“He likes you,” the mother whispered, smiling.
“What is his name, ma’am?” Stephanie asked.
“His name is Oceanus, for he was born on the sea,” the mother said. “And what might yours be?”
“My name is Stephanie,” she said shyly, blushing.
“What a beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”
Stephanie’s cheeks flushed again. She slowly backed away from the crowded area. She went to her cabin and sat smiling until sleep arrived.
As the days went by, more and more sickness overtook more and more people. They were little more than seventy-five people still alive. Hope was needed, and badly. One woman threw herself off the boat in a crazed state. Stephanie’s family had perished tragically and they all were resting under the water. Stephanie was grieved and lonely. Then the call went up,
“Land! Land ho!”
Those that remained excitedly gathered around the deck to view land. The idea that the horrible journey was over was bright in people’s minds. A majestic, dark mound rose out of the mist, but then…they went through it. The boat just simply cut through the huge cloud and all hope was dashed. People, even more discouraged than before, solemnly walked back under cover.
Is There Enough?
The food rations were smaller and smaller. Survivors could only have meager meals two times a day. Stephanie stared at her plate. Dinner consisted of dried fruit, some corn, and dirty, unfiltered water. Her stomach growled more and more often. Rumors spread that there wasn’t enough food for everyone and that sacrifices had to be made. And on top of that, people were getting angrier. Their leaders had promised land. Where was it? The brilliant sea voyage on shining blue waters, happy people, enough food for a feast every day? The ribs showed on the animals and nobody smiled, laughed, or joked anymore. Stephanie was lonely, hungry, and alone.
Home at Last
“Land ho!” the booming voice sounded again.
Three months after they left, the pilgrims had finally reached their destination. Preparations were made and people gathered their things in celebration. Everyone crowded against one another to see land, and this time they were sure it wasn’t a cloud. The trees, rocks, hills, and flowers were definitely real. The waters glistened and the sand sparkled in the sun. Women cried and children shouted.
The long journey was over!
Well, not quite. They had to sail for two more weeks to get past the large, spiky rocks. In December, they finally docked in Plymouth.
Plymouth Rock marks the spot, Stephanie thought.
People poured out onto the hot sand, weeping and praying. The minister gathered everyone ‘round to join together in an earnest prayer to God for delivering them safely. Little did they know that in one year, they’d host the first Thanksgiving for the Native Americans who helped them through hard times.
But all Stephanie cared about now was that she was home. She was finally home at last.
Elizabeth Nicklis is a homeschooled 11-year-old who is crazy about writing. She hopes to some day make more money than her Uncle Daniel. Also read her first Thanksgiving tale, "A Tragically Hopeful Thanksgiving."
By Gary Almeter
Holly’s curiosity about the contestants never waned. Sometimes, as the contestants were pondering how much the big screen television cost, or as Bob was explaining how to play Cliffhanger, Holly would wonder a variety of questions. “Who does this person love?” “Who, if anyone, does she wake up next to every morning?” “What did your mother call you as a baby?” “Are you a good girl?” “How do you treat your wife?” “Do you drink too much?” "What kind of man was your father?"
Holly had red hair, that brilliant iridescent rusty orange color, which both belied its humble Texas origins and solidified her unique girl-next-door-meets-Hollywood-glamour charm. She came to be known as the clumsy one; the one who provided comic relief. While she understood the need, she grew to resent this role because she wasn’t really that clumsy. Task anyone with parading up and down a sleek and highly-illuminated sound stage in an effort to transform ordinary household items into concupiscent objects of desire and that person will drop an item or two in a decade. So yeah, clumsy was a misnomer. That notwithstanding, she did recognize that her name by itself did connote a certain frivolity and effervescence since it was one of the plants most associated with the Christmas season and also the first two syllables of “holiday.”
The house where Holly grew up, the house that her father built, is still there, on the corner of Hacienda and Magnolia Streets. The manager of a fast food restaurant lives in it today. Aluminum siding has replaced the cedar shingles and a closed in porch has replaced the veranda where they used to sit. Holly likes old words like that—words her grandparents used to say like veranda, foliage, rubbish, and shears. The shed and the fence and the barn are all gone as are the shade trees and the adjacent fields, upon which dozens of houses, split-level ranchers clearly built in the 1970s, now stand. Without the tall elms there are unobstructed views to the backyards, the clotheslines, the swimming pools, the trampolines. Where Holly grew up, people decorated their yards with big rocks and drove big trucks and believed that when they talked to God he listened to them exclusively.
The first time Holly saw snow she was 12 years old. She was brushing her recently washed hair and for inspiration, had a little transistor radio tuned to a Top 40 station. She was using her hairbrush as a microphone and singing along to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” when she heard her mother jubilantly exclaiming from downstairs that it was snowing. Holly rushed outside. Everyone else on their street spent the next half hour or so gazing upwards with tongues outstretched, taking running starts and sliding on the street pavement, and generally frolicking about. Holly was also staring up when Larry Cooper, a new kid a grade above Holly in school who had just moved to their street from Atlanta and who Holly thought was fresh, came over and old Holly that he was in love with her. The snow didn’t stick at all. In the midst of making a snow angel, Holly saw that her still-wet hair had frozen which, when considered in conjunction with Larry Cooper’s proclamation, made her laugh. Her mother had freshly laundered dungarees on the clothesline and those had also frozen.
As it turned out, Larry Cooper’s mother was sick so his parents sent him to live with his aunt. One day Larry asked Holly to the movies. After some efforts and orchestrations on the part of Holly’s mother and Larry’s aunt, it was agreed that they would go see “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie and Annette. Larry’s aunt, who everyone fancied a suppressor of such exuberance, had advocated they go see “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which chronicled the life of Jesus Christ. At the movies, Larry told Holly that his uncle had lost his job and that he was likely going back to Atlanta. When at the theater, which in its day was one of the nicer ones, Holly had difficulty not focusing on the marble black and white checkered floor, gleaming brass railings, and red velvet ropes embellishing the lobby. Holly remembers Larry telling her that he was moving back to Atlanta and thinking only that the red plush on the chairs had balded to such a degree as to render them almost unusable.
Holly’s mother was Miss San Antonio Bexar County Outstanding Teen in 1948. She did not have iridescent rust colored hair but did have the same iridescent smile that she passed down to Holly, but she was a real beauty. She had brown hair with glimmers of bronze in it and blue-blue eyes that held within them an infinite capacity for chastisement. To chastise Holly she did not have to speak, her eyes did it all with one piercing gaze. But when she approved of something that Holly did, everything about her seemed to soften. The stream of bluish light emanated from her eyes was like a melting delphinium. Holly recalls being five and watching her mother get ready for an evening out. Her mother wore a silver-fox fur piece and a white kettle hat and a silk dress and her father wore a tuxedo. Holly’s mother dabbed some Chanel on Holly’s wrists.
If I don’t like it here I can always leave, Holly had thought when she first arrived in Los Angeles.
Leaving San Antonio was the first time she had ever left anyplace without feeling totally bereft at the departure. The only thing that terrified her about living in Los Angeles was thinking of her parents’ demise, that her parents would die while she was away, that they would die alone (which was ridiculous in light of the fact that they had a sizable family nearby), that they would die before Holly would have kids. They would go about the minutiae of their daily lives thinking that Holly had moved to Los Angeles as a means of escape rather as a destination.
The rental agent who showed Holly her first apartment was named Mr. Voltura. He spoke with a slight British accent and taught mathematics at the community college at night. He told Holly that he was not supposed to show the apartment as its former tenant had just died and the entire contents of the apartment was part of an estate that still needed to be appraised. He said he was making an exception for her. When they entered it, the apartment looked like it had been ravage. All the drawers were open and there was grime on top of every single surface. As Holly walked around the entrance and what would soon be her living room, the decedent’s brother emerged from the bedroom and told them that he was trying to get things in order. He told Holly that his sister, the former tenant, was a nurse and that her friends and patients were always giving her things to thank her for things that she had done for them. The brother, who Holly pictured sleeping atop the sofa covered with invoices and old financial documents, told Holly that if she wanted anything she could take it.
Her first roommate J.D. was an enthusiastic production assistant for a company that made pornographic films. Holly saw his ad for a roommate on a bulletin board. He would come from work wearing a carpenter’s belt repurposed and filled with porn accouterments: dildos, lotions, lip balms, towels, lubes of varying scents and viscosities, hair brushes, and spray bottles. He would sometimes wash and disinfect the dildos while the two watched television. Holly got her own place when she got the role on the show.
Holly never married. She had a number of lovers and a less significant number of boyfriends while she lived in Los Angeles, including one of the stars of “M*A*S*H” who I won’t name because that would just be poor form and I generally don’t like to gossip. They dated before the era of omnipresent paparazzi so no one knew about it. Her singleness made the on-air flirtation with the contestants, especially the ones in the military, that much more endearing. Her mother said that Holly never had any taste in men. Holly broke up with the only one Holly’s mother ever liked shortly after she told Holly that she liked him. As justification, Holly told her mother that he was dull. The thing is, Holly had really liked him too but such an admission would have felt like acquiescence to her mother who had not wanted her to move to Los Angeles. The boyfriend—his name was Denis—was Russian. His family had moved from Latvia where his father had worked in a Riga Autobus Factory when the factory was destroyed in a war of some sort.
She kept a pile of paperback books on her nightstand. The book tower featured Russian literature mostly, “The Brothers Karamozov” and “Anna Karenina” among them. Denis went to Tufts University and majored in Russian Language and Literature. He had also been a member of the Tufts Beelzebubs, Tufts University’s premiere all-male a cappella group, and frequently regaled Holly with stories of their a cappella triumphs. She had heard him speaking Russian once and it made her feel so naughty. She dated him during the xenophobic Reagan years. It was so unlike her on-screen persona.
After Holly had to literally push Bob off of her, she filled out a sexual harassment complaint form. By the time she had sat down in the offices of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman she had lost her nervousness. Mr. Goodson lifted the pink sheet of paper and shook it at her.
“Do you recognize this?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.” That is the sexual harassment complaint form I filled out.”
“It would appear to name Bob on the complaint,” Mr. Todman chimed in.
“Yes,” Holly said.
They went on to explain everything that Bob had done for people and what a nice guy he was and how everyone looked up to him and how sometimes innocuous things like remarking on someone’s clothes might be construed as sexual innuendo when in reality, there was no such innuendo attached.
Holly wanted to say that this was far greater than mere innuendo and that she was often scared to come to work. Bob had made his intentions quite clear and that really the police should be called. All she said was, “I’m sorry.” She twisted her lips, as if she had tasted something foul that he just had to spit out , and walked out of the office.
She used to resent the other two ladies with whom she was, and would perpetually be, associated. With the help of her therapist, that resentment has now dissipated. She thinks about them with some frequency and with fondness. Nonetheless, in light of geography and the passage of time she rarely sees them and was surprised when Dian called her and asked if she and Janice could visit for a few days. They were both still in Los Angeles and doing well.
She bought the home that she now lives with the money she got in the settlement. “Millions,” she told Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today Show” after telling Ann how she lost everything during the decade-long court battle. She had to fill the home from scratch and while so doing would, with great frequency, happen upon products she once coyly caressed on national television. She reveled in it—walking up and down Best Buy and gingerly massaging the Whirlpool refrigerators, the Amana washers and dryers, the GE self-cleaning ovens. With great flourish she walked through the Bed Bath and Beyond at the Alamo Quarry Shopping Center and caressed the Hamilton Beach coffee maker, the Cuisinart blender, and Kitchen-Aid toaster before she put them in her cart. She even bought a Michael C. Fina diamond necklace for herself just because. She stocked her pantry with foodstuffs she never would eat—Chef-Boyardee ravioli, Sue Bee honey, and Jif peanut butter—as a celebratory and defiant punctuation mark to the years she spent shilling that shit on the show.
She rarely watches television so, when in need of ambient noise to fill the home, she listens to The Beatles. Her parents, Beatles devotees, listened to them non-stop when she was growing up. This made them anomalies in San Antonio where most people listened to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can’t think of her father without picturing him with a cigarette in his mouth. She recalls the smoking and the cigarettes fondly in a good, 1950s, “we are an indomitable species” sort of way. He had rust colored hair too. Holly has also inherited his mannerisms. He was both elated and disappointed when she told him she was going to Hollywood. She also pictured her mother with a dishtowel in her hands.
Holly found herself slowly drinking coffee in her kitchen with the two women mentioned earlier. She notices that Dian’s tits are less perky and Janice’s skin isn’t as luminous, but that is of no consequence to these old buddies who each secretly suspect the feeling they have for each other is more akin to what veterans might feel. They are remembering the past, talking about Bob, Rod, and Johnny as though saying their names would summon them from the dead. They all had issues with Bob. Holly was prudent and judicious, and had no patience for any sort of wrongdoing. After her complaint, she had simply tried to disassociate herself with what was happening until he asked her to lie with respect to Dian’s suit against him. They sat outside and drank mimosas remembering contestants they abhorred or adored or for whom they felt profound sympathy. They recalled those t-shirts with iron-on fuzzy letters evincing the contestant’s devotion to Bob, and how Bob would make people who guessed the price of the item up for bids with precision dig deep into his pocket and pull out a hundred dollar bill. They did this all day.
That night after dinner, they sat on the terrace and watched the sun set. Barrels of bright orange poppies separated the flagstones form the lawn that sloped down the hill to the lake, where it ended abruptly as if it were a scene in a child’s coloring book.
Holly gathered up the dishes, carried them to the sink, sprinkled them with dish soap, adjusted the water. She let it run while she took some paper towels from the dispenser next to the sink and wiped the kitchen table down. Janice and Dian were upstairs packing. It was almost time to drive them to the airport and Holly wondered if she would drop them off at the departing flights gates or park her car and walk in and wait with them.
For the first time since she has known these women, the threat of betrayal is not widely felt, does not seem to invade every conversation and every meal. They had survived the chronic and perpetual threats that come from being models in Hollywood and the perpetual litigation that came as a result of Bob. For several years there was no communication whatsoever and at court dates and depositions and hearings they would sometimes not acknowledge one another and studiously look the other way. But they were still intimately bound up and to one another. Holly noticed how their posture as each of them sat in their chair—leaning forward arms on knees—made their bellies bulge. This would have made Holly sad at one time but currently didn’t. She couldn’t even recall when she last felt sad.
People recognize her with some frequency when she is out and about in San Antonio. Sometimes people see her and point and say “Holly!!” or “Come on down!!” Other times people will say something akin to “I know you from somewhere” and then go through their mental Rolodex until they get it. Most of the time she feels people stare, wonder, and point. Her thirty-pound weight gain was well documented in public court documents. She wanted it that way. She’s in her 60s now.
It’s hard for a woman of limited means to plan her own demise. She learned that during that time she lived in her car and would entertain thoughts of suicide at odd times. Not when she was sleep deprived and gazing up at the stars when parked outside Concepcion Park; not when “Eleanor Rigby” came on the oldies radio station she usually listened to and she had to simultaneously think about how lonely she was and about her father playing the record in happier times; not when she was hungry. Depression is mean. It hits you when you least expect it. It hit her at times like when she saw kids jump roping. Or the tree that reminded her of the tree in the backyard of her childhood home.
But what could she have done? Her car was not reliable enough to accelerate to a speed that would guarantee her death if she tried to wrap it around a telephone pole at 110 m.p.h., and she could not afford prescription pills. She could neither afford nor tolerate the idea of putting a gun in her mouth. She wasn’t going to jump off anything because that method invariably gave you seconds of lucidity to regret what you had done. So she stuck with it, the lawsuit and the living.
Oddly, the worst thing about living in your car after losing your home while in the midst of a protracted lawsuit with a beloved game show host and a television network isn’t the actual living. It was actually quite cozy. You get accustomed to the contours of the seats and figure out how precisely to arrange your jean jacket against the window to achieve maximum support. You figure out which parks and Wal-Mart stores to get to and when to get them to guarantee a safe spot underneath a street lamp of some sort. The tough part of living in your car is getting out of your car. The toughest part was walking into a gas station restroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant in a plastic bag so that onlookers could only assume that you were living in your car. Moving about in the presence of other humans feeling the exposure, the humiliation, the embarrassment. Otherwise, you were shielded by a roof and four doors.
Holly stops with some frequency at the Neiman Marcus at the Shops at La Cantera and buys bags for people. Holly likes the Tory Burch tote bags. They’re luxury items and probably impractical but she feels that you need that sort of stuff the most at hard times. She delivers them to the Battered Women and Children’s Center. Holly will also stop at CVS and buy enough toothpaste and deodorant and lotion—the good brands—to fill up the bags.
Now and again, she will pick up a product once featured on the show. Holly will secretly hold the item, as if to a camera, and smile before she defiantly and triumphantly drops it into her shopping basket.
Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short stories "The Love Song of JFK Jr.," "Goodbye, Buster Bucheit," and his writing playlist.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Anne Leigh Parrish
They sat on six acres, so there was plenty of room. And since getting laid off, he had plenty of time. When the cement plant was hiring again, he’d gotten a phone call from Dodd, his supervisor there for more than fifteen years. Clarence said no thank you, he was doing just fine in retirement. Sandy needed a second cup of coffee for that one. Clarence was forty-seven years old. Who the hell retires at forty-seven? Especially with five years left on the mortgage and the salary from her job with the school district not exactly plush?
Sandy’s mother advised her to button her lip.
“The man’s in bad shape,” she said.
Sandy knew all about his bad shape. The hunting accident had happened more than four years before, but Clarence was in those damned woods every day, walking silently as he’d been taught to do by his own father, waiting for the buck, holding perfectly still, taking his time, then very gently squeezing the trigger of the 30.06. Poor Lucas had to get his ass in the line of fire at the wrong moment. Well, not his ass, his left arm, which was probably better since he was right-handed. Not that he used either hand for anything gainful, living off his little sister his whole adult life. Lucas was in the hospital for a while, learning how to deal with a shattered humerus, enjoying the morphine and the kindly touch of his nurses.
Really, he’d taken the whole thing a lot better than Clarence had. Lucas was proud of his arm’s gnarly surgical scar, even of its shrunken muscles, and the way it dangled by his side while he gestured wildly with the other one.
No matter how many times Sandy told Clarence that things could have been a whole lot worse, because after all Lucas was alive and well, he got all dark and distant.
And then the lay-off came. While Sandy put pencil to paper and figured out how they were going to make it on his unemployment and her salary, Clarence sat in front of the television set with the sound off, his feet on the coffee table, arms folded across his round stomach. When he looked up from the screen, he seemed not to recognize his surroundings.
He needed to pull out of himself. So it was ironic that the vehicle for that action was Lucas, the one who’d shoved him down inside in the first place.
Lucas had a car with a bad carburetor. He’d rebuilt it four times already with no luck. Maybe his funky arm and hand made the job a failure, maybe it was because he’d always been a few bricks short of a load anyway, but he just couldn’t get it to work. So Clarence told him they’d go out to the junk yard and look for the kind of car he had, a 1980 Buick Le Sabre.
The junkyard was under new management. Clarence didn’t know Foster had sold out. The boy behind the counter told him so. Not much of a boy, really, at well over six-feet with the tattoo of a dagger on his forearm. What threw Clarence, but not so much Lucas because Lucas had had a bunch of weirdness in his life, was that the guy was knitting a baby sweater with tiny needles. Doing it well, too, as far as Clarence could tell. Sandy was an occasional knitter. The boy, Glen, explained that his wife was expecting and had wanted to knit a bunch of sweaters, hats, and booties for the coming winter but had very bad arthritis, the kind you get when you’re a kid, so Glen said he’d learn and do it for her. His mother showed him how, and then asked him flat out if he had a thing in general for girlie stuff. He wasn’t offended. It seemed like a fair question. He liked to knit, he realized, but it made him reluctant to handle auto parts, on account of the grease and grime, so the customers did their own picking and carrying.
Clarence digested this information and said what he was looking for. Glen nodded. The GMs were in row three, more or less. His father—the new owner—had been trying to get the place organized. That guy Foster had had a screw loose when it came to keeping order, but then that made sense, didn’t it, owning a junkyard. Get it, screw loose? Old cars? Glen put his knitting in his lap and laughed until his face turned red and his eyes watered. Clarence had to hand it to him. Being able to crack yourself up was a worthy talent.
Clarence and Lucas made their way down the wide, dusty row. The drought was in its fourth month. Burns, Oregon was naturally dry anyway, and now it was even drier. Clarence wanted to move somewhere wet, with sixty inches of rain a year, like the Olympic Peninsula, maybe, or the east side of any island in Hawaii. He used to have quite a thing for geography when he was a kid. He’d picked up a lot from his mother’s old books. He didn’t figure he’d be able to talk Sandy into moving. She didn’t love her job, but she was dedicated to it. She was the secretary for the whole school district. Okay, it had maybe four hundred students in it, but someone had to keep all the paperwork straight, and that was her.
After forty-five minutes no Le Sabre was to be had, so they took the carburetor out of a Monte Carlo instead. Although the Le Sabre had a bigger engine, a V-8 versus a V-6, Lucas was pretty sure the carb would work. And it did. Lucas was delighted.
Clarence wasn’t. He was agitated. Something had woken up inside him, and wasn’t being at all quiet about it. He’d never been one to believe much in second chances, but his was staring right at him. He wanted to bring old cars back to life, thereby bestowing a second chance upon them too.
Sandy said a hobby was fine, a hobby was good, as long as it didn’t end up costing them a lot of money. Clarence removed his baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. Clearly, the thought of money hadn’t occurred to him. Salvage cars were cheap, not free. He begged her to take a closer look at the books and see if there a little funny money he could have. Sandy brewed another pot of coffee and stood, listening to it drip. Clarence had three more months of unemployment coming. He could use half of it. That was the best she could do.
The first was a 1975 Camaro. He got his buddy, Brewster, to tow it home for free. Brewster didn’t have much to tow in the summer. Winter was when everyone broke down or skidded into ditches, so he glad for something to do.
The wreck itself only set Clarence back seventy-five dollars. In good condition, the car would have been a collector’s item, but it was missing both bumpers and the passenger seat. And the radio. And the back lights. It lacked a windshield, too. Clarence listed all these drawbacks in his head while he circled it lovingly on the dead swath of grass where Sandy once had had a flower garden.
Every morning he was up to beat the midday heat. He took things off and put them back on. He went again and again to the junkyard, prowled the rows looking for what he needed. Sometimes he found it. Usually he didn’t. Glen was still knitting. He’d stopped making baby clothes, and was now working on a scarf for his dad.
After a week and a half, Clarence gave up on the Camaro and was jonesing for a sweet little Ford Galaxy. It had no steering wheel, but the leather seats were intact. So were two of its whitewall tires. The paint must once have been red. It was impossible to tell. He got it for a song because Glen had just taken a phone call from his wife. His side of the conversation made it clear that some medical issue had come up, and he was clearly worried. He let the Galaxy go for fifty.
By the first week of September, roughly nine weeks from the time the first injured car had made its appearance on their property, there were six rusting carcasses outside Sandy’s kitchen window. Clarence spent every daylight hour, even in the heat, under them, inside them, on top of them, poking, prodding, in an obscene display of affection that bordered on sexual.
There was fire in his eyes, and a cool steadiness in his hands. Even the way he sat on the porch when the day was done and watched the sun sink beyond the distant rise spoke of man standing firmly in the center of his own heart.
After another week, Sandy was back at work, using the ancient computer system to update enrollment records, vaccination records, absenteeism among both students and teachers, and the roster of licensed substitutes. Then she met with the head of the PTSA, a toad of a woman named Emeline Dorn, about her plans for fall fundraising. This was an annual headache, because residents of Harney County weren’t exactly knee-deep in riches. Bake sales, rummage sales, and sending a troupe of six-graders door to door with a canned speech about needing to buy new sports equipment (when the district really needed to invest in technology) were going to produce about the same number of dollars that year as in all the years before, somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty. Emeline really wished Sandy could be a little more enthusiastic. Sandy suggested Emeline consult with the principal, Alvin Crockett. Alvin’s father-in-law owned the local radio station. Sandy made this suggestion every year, and Emeline acted upon it every year, and every year the principal’s wife wrote a check for over a thousand dollars just to make her go away.
In the middle of the second week of school the new high school science teacher was accused of inappropriately touching Marla Mayvins on the buttocks. The teacher was a young man, in his late twenties, and Marla was fourteen going on thirty. The usual hysterical uproar ensued, and he was put on leave without pay, pending an investigation. Sandy was reminded again how little true justice there was in this world. She’d crossed paths with Marla a number of times over the years because her attendance was so spotty and her mother had no interest in urging Marla to get up in the morning and get on the damned school bus. Why Marla had gone to school that particular day, when the science teacher, Roy Randall, was supposed to have goosed her, was proof that the thread holding all things together was unfair, corrupt, and basically stupid.
It was this sour mood that Sandy returned home to find that Clarence’s latest acquisition was blocking her access to the driveway. She had four bags of groceries to unload. She found him around back, sitting on an iron bench he’d also brought home from the junkyard, drinking a diet Coke, and staring happily into space. He offered to carry the bags in for her, if that would help. What would help is if he got rid of some these useless relics, called Dodd, and went back to work. The merry light in his eyes turned cold. He was sorry she’d had a bad day, but that was no reason to take out her problems on him.
You and those fucking cars are my problem, she almost said. Keeping those words to herself was the most painful thing that had befallen her in a long time. She wished then that she had developed a taste for liquor.
Glen’s baby was born and he took time off to help his wife at home. He told Clarence to take whatever he wanted from the yard, that they’d settle accounts later. Clarence and Brewster transported four more cars and parts of cars, particularly tires which Clarence had become attached to. Sandy’s yard looked like its own salvage operation, and she told Clarence he should go into business for himself. He didn’t understand. He didn’t bring the cars home so he could resell them. He had them to work on. Only he didn’t work on them the way he had. He seemed to have come to the end of his already limited expertise. Sandy said he should look for work at a service station. Maybe one of the guys there could teach him about cars. They were certified mechanics, right? Clarence couldn’t possibly mix commerce with art. He hoped she understood. Fine, she said, then call Dodd and see if he’ll still take you back. Clarence wasn’t ready for Dodd, either.
Another day, Sandy came home to find Clarence welding car parts together. He’d been a welder when he was younger, and still knew his stuff. As to what he was making, he couldn’t really say. There was just something so beautiful about how the metal could come alive under the heat, bonded, and become something else entirely. Sandy felt like she was losing her mind. Roy Randall, the science teacher, had been let go, and Marla Mayvins was playing the downtrodden but plucky victim for all it was worth.
She didn’t mean to break down and cry, because she wasn’t a crier. But it was just too much. She needed him to help, to earn some money, it didn’t matter how. Would he possibly think of selling his pieces? She knew people who did that. One of the English teachers at school crocheted hats for cats. She posted pictures on the Internet, and people actually bought them. The cats looked cute with their ears all bundled up. Clarence realized she was coming unglued, and brewed a nice strong pot of coffee. As she sat, huddled, still sobbing quietly, he regretted that he wasn’t a drinking man.
The weather turned cold. Clarence gave up working on the cars, and longed for a large, heated garage. What would it set them back to build one? Sandy didn’t answer. The set of her chin said he should probably not bring it up again.
The day that Clarence’s last unemployment check arrived, it snowed for the first time that season. Gorgeous fat flakes drifting all around. Sandy usually loved snow and how cozy it made their home feel. Now their home was a trap, with Clarence always in it, doing nothing but silently wishing for what he couldn’t have.
She supposed it was inevitable, really. She’d read cases of people who’d reach the end and become desperate. The spare gas container they kept out back had just about three gallons in it, which was plenty to douse all the cars, and parts of cars. She was careful not to get any on the tires and pulled them out of reach because she didn’t want to smell burning rubber. She also moved the welding equipment, which might have some future value. Clarence had fallen asleep in front of the television when she went out in the twilight with the matches in her pocket. For a moment she wondered if the flames would reach the house, and if so, would she wake Clarence up and drag him to safety?
The noise, smell, and dancing light woke him up. He stood beside her, with his hands to his head saying, what the fuck, what the fuck? She told him to shut up and appreciate how pretty it was, the flames and snowfall, like some ancient scene or reckoning. A true clash of opposites, she said. Fire and ice. Does that make sense? She asked. He could find no words at the moment, though he agreed wholeheartedly that it made complete and perfect sense.
Anne Leigh Parrish is an author based out of Seattle, Wash., and recently published her first novel What Is Found, What Is Lost. To learn more about the author, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AnneLParrish. Also read her short story "Smoke" or check our interview, In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
Editor’s note: Writer’s Bone favorite Anthony Breznican asked me recently if we wanted to run an illustrated excerpt from his novel Brutal Youth and I couldn’t have been more excited to oblige. When you’re done reading, be sure to check out my interview with the author, as well as his chat with author Steph Post. Enjoy!—Daniel Ford
With school back in session, the artist Cassandra Siemon has created new illustrations to accompany excerpts of Anthony Breznican’s dark coming-of-age novel Brutal Youth, which is new in paperback.
The main villain in the novel is a character named Father Mercedes, a priest who is literally stealing from the church collection plate and planning to scapegoat the parish’s troubled high school if the shortfall is ever detected. That won’t be hard—it has become a dumping ground for delinquents, misfits, and troublemakers.
The character was inspired by a real priest named Fr. Walter Benz, who was caught embezzling more than a million dollars from the churches he served in my hometown.
In this scene, we meet Father Mercedes for the first time in St. Michael the Archangel’s gymnasium, which has been converted into a chapel after a catastrophic church fire. Sister Maria, the school’s principal, has come to give him she needs money: the school is literally crumbling around them…
His back was to her, his face turned up at a ceramic statue of the resurrected Christ, suspended from the ceiling with its arms extended in the shape of the cross and a peculiar neutral expression on its face—less the throes of agony than the boredom of a minimum-wage employee at the end of a long day: Don’t ask me, I’m going off shift.
The dark figure in the pews looked back at Sister Maria, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. His eyes were shadow pits, and his thin gray hair was neatly combed across his scalp, though a little damp with sweat. His face had a similar expression to the impatient Christ.
“Good afternoon, Father Mercedes,” she said.
He smiled, and the cigarette bent upward toward his nose. “Sister,” he said. “Let me guess—bad news?”
She walked toward him down the central aisle of the church. “The ceilings are leaking again—four of them,” she said. “You’ve seen the problems, I take it?”
The priest’s unlit cigarette danced as he spoke. “Oh, that and a lot more.”
He held a gold-plated Zippo in his hands, sparking the flame, touching it to the tip of his cigarette, and exhaling a corona of blue haze into the air. She despised this about him, smoking in a church. He did it all the time when no one was around—no one he cared about, anyway.
Father Harold Mercedes was only seven years older than her but always seemed much more ragged and tired. Many parishioners found his roguishness charming. To the students, his bad habits made him a maverick, a fellow rebel—the priest who bought rounds of beer at the P&M Bar, placed bets on the Steelers, took annual vacations to Vegas and Atlantic City, and occasionally let slip a curse word.
His Friday-night poker buddies would tease the priest, “Ah, better go to confession, Father!” And he would close his eyes and say: “I forgive myself.”
Behind his back, the older parishioners called him Diamond Hal. The kids called him Father Pimp.
“We’ll need money to repair the damage, Father,” Sister Maria said. She reminded him about the eroding brick and the past failures of temporary fixes. He smoked his cigarette and let her talk, not really listening. When she finished, he rose from the pew and shrugged. “Why bother fixing a school that may not exist in another year?”
The nun crossed her arms. “I don’t think that’s very funny, Father.”
The priest blew smoke through his nose. “That’s because it’s not a joke, Sister. When I ask for things, when I ask for extra money—a special pass of the collection plate—our parish council tends to ask two questions. First is: ‘Why are we supporting a school that only causes humiliation for the parish?’ And the second question is: ‘When will we finally rebuild our burned church?’ My answer to the second one is, ‘We can’t afford it yet.’ And so the parish council’s response is to repeat the first question—‘Why, why, why’ . . . ,” he said, exhaling smoke again. “. . . ‘Why are we supporting a school nobody wants?’”
In the twelve years he’d served as pastor, Father Mercedes had proved himself adept at wielding the parish council like a bludgeon. He didn’t need the panel’s approval for much, but it was always easy enough for him to manipulate them into whatever cause he supported.
The nun’s shoulders sagged. “Shall I control the weather in the meantime?” she asked.
“I’d prefer you control your students,” Father Mercedes snapped back. “If you want to keep this school, you’d better force these students to become something worth saving. Frankly, a lot of parishioners believe you’re the worst principal we’ve ever had at St. Mike’s. Do you like the idea of being the last one, too?”
The nun closed her eyes. The priest was waiting for an answer. “No,” she said finally.
“Good.” He nodded. “Then we’re going to see some changes around here, yes?” He reached out his hand, and the nun shook it reluctantly. “Take care of that for me,” he said.
As the priest left her, the silence of the empty school returned, that great after-hours stillness she had once found calming. For the first time, Sister Maria felt lost there—and, finally, afraid.
She sat down in the pew, opening the hand that had just shaken the priest’s.
In her palm was the blackened stub of his cigarette.
By Dave Pezza
A metallic shriek echoed in the Tuscan morning. Anna threw off her covers and scanned the room for threats. The guest room door shot open. Scott Brunelli barreled in with a two-gallon bucket of water weighing down one hand and a stack of ceramic tile under his arm. Once past the door’s threshold, Scott caught Anna in her white tank, the top band of her pink underwear just visible above the fallen covers. He glanced down at the pink scrap and returned to meet Anna’s green eyes, wide with surprise. He stood while she sat, mirror images of shock. Neither had expected that something like this could have happened in the part of the world they had hidden themselves.
Scott became aware that he was standing in a woman’s bedroom, staring at her in bed. He felt the heat of embarrassment and averted his eyes.
“I’m so sorry…I mean mi scusa,” he said.
Scott felt for the bucket he had dropped, losing his balance a little as he bent down. Anna sat in bed, not reaching for the covers. The heat from the morning sun had warmed the rained soaked coals of her will.
“Mi scusa,” Scott repeated, backing out of the room on his knees, still feeling for the bucket.
At the sound of her New York accent, Scott stopped and looked at her again.
“Hey!” Anna exclaimed. She had been sizing Scott up while his eyes were closed.
“Sorry, but you’re American?”
“Yea, a half-naked American wondering why you’re in her bedroom?”
“Sorry, sorry,” Scott continued, bucket finally in hand, “I thought this was…someplace else.”
“I have the wrong room.”
“Sorry, I didn’t…“
“Dude, I don’t have pants on!”
“Sorry!” He said again, his voice cracking.
Scott ran out the door, slamming it shut, spilling water the whole time. Scott took a moment outside of Anna’s room to catch his breath, replaying the misunderstanding. The Old Man had just come in from working the wet saw. He had cut a small piece of tile into an “L” shape and shuffled down the hall toward Scott, checking the edges of the freshly cut tile.
“Finite?” He asked, kneeling down and near the threshold of the second floor bathroom.
“No, wrong room.”
“Ah so,” the Old Man hummed. He nodded to the water dripping onto the floor from Scott’s bucket.
Scott looked down and sighed. The Old Man smirked and bent down on his kneepads and placed the cut tile into the bathroom floor. It fit perfectly. Scott peered at the white tile grid the Old Man had just finished, reminding him of the work still to be done.
Anna took a deep breath after Scott exited in a rush of air and noise. She let herself collapse back into bed, happy to be alone with the sun.
“Cute,” she heard herself say quietly.
Cheeks still flush, she covered more of herself with the comforter and woke an hour later to a knocking on the door.
“Hold on! Gimmie a sec!” She said as she hopped across the floor to the two-drawer bureau to grab a pair of jeans, nearly knocking over a lamp.
The handle turned, and the door opened.
“Wait!” She said, hopping with one leg in, one out.
“Buon giorno,” Anna’s great aunt said as she walked through the door. Anna stopped dead on the other end of the small room, wearing only one leg.
“Anna! Sei nudo,” her great aunt said sternly, quickly shutting the bedroom door.
Anna collapsed into the chair, crushing the white nightgown her aunt had lent her, and jimmied her bare leg into the jeans.
On the other side of the Tuscan villa, Scott sat on his knees surveying the bare floor before him, sweating from the brim of his backwards cap. He mixed grey sludge called thin set with a wood-handled trowel. Most of his tools were second- or third-hand. Scott scooped up some of the loose grey matter on the edge of the trowel and slapped it onto the bare floor with a splat. He began working the thin set with the trowel in broad half circles, spreading it in uniform lines from the trowel’s blocked teeth in a broad arch. Scott held one of the tiles like a record, fingers touching the sides, thumb under the tile’s center. Slowly, he lined up the tile with the floor’s far corner and prepared to drop it in. The corner piece, if crooked, could ruin the whole layout of the floor. He dropped the tile in place, wiggling it into the thin set. He exhaled audibly.
Anna ducked from room to room, knowing Scott would be in one of the villa’s bathrooms. She held her coffee with both hands, letting the cream mug warm her fingers. Her long hair swayed cheerfully to and fro as she tiptoed barefoot up the stairs, her slender figure making little noise. At the top, she looked both ways, turning left to follow the wisp of Italian pop music surfing down the hallway. She came upon the full bath, the Old Man sponging the tile floor with water, bobbing to the small portable radio echoing out of the white cast iron tub. He would break after making a few passes with the sponge and take a quick gulp of coffee from the black mug resting on the tub’s wide lip. Anna crept past the door and continued down the hall.
Finally, she stuck her head into the half bath, nearly spilling her coffee at the sight of Scott’s ass in the air.
Please don’t fart, she thought. She backed away and propped herself up against the wall, watching him go about his work, sipping her coffee.
Scott moved the level across the partly tiled floor, hoping the bubble inside the venomous green liquid would line up balanced. At the very corner, where he laid the first tile, the bubble sat still in the center. But as Scott moved it across the rest of the newly laid tile, the bubble teetered left of center. He had bent low while on his knees to get a better look at the reading, seesawing his butt into the air. He continued to move the level, but there was no way around it. He had botched it, wasting time and thin set in the process.
“Piece of shit,” Scott fumed in a whisper. “Fuck this,” he said louder.
He grabbed the putty knife and stabbed the gap between the tile and the floor. With a wet pop, the tile separated from the floor. Scott grabbed the tile with his other hand and cocked his arm, ready to bash the tile onto the floor. He stopped, hand in midair. Instead, he dropped the tile with a splash into the bucket of water and dropped his head and shoulders in defeat. Anna felt Scott’s tired frustration through her body. She recognized the tone of his curses, a timbre of dejection from much more than an uneven floor.
“So you’re just going to sit there and pout?” Anna asked from the hallway.
Scott, startled, lost his balance, and caught himself before falling on his back.
“Holy shit,” he gasped, craning his neck around to see Anna’s bare feet and skinny jeaned legs, leading to a familiar white tank. Scott could see the outline of a bright pink bra underneath.
“Now we’re even,” she said with a smile.
“I guess so. Sorry about that earlier, I really had no idea where I was.”
“Clearly,” Anna said, feigning offense. “On second thought, you aren’t in your underwear behind a closed door. You might still owe me.”
“Fair enough,” Scott said awkwardly.
“Run into a problem?” Anna asked, looking at the bare square of floor.
“I’ll have to start all over again.”
“I’m guessing I didn’t spread the thin set evenly, and now the tile is uneven.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Well, can you fix it or did you ruin my aunt’s floor?” Anna asked matter-of-factly, void of sarcasm or judgment.
Scott noticed she had a bare, stripped down tone, as if she had grown tired of playing coy, an old trick for a defunct game.
“No. Nothing like that. I just have to pry off all the tile, wash off the thin set, and level off the floor, all before it starts to harden.”
“It really does.”
Their eyes met and a mutual feeling of empathy stumbled across their stare. Anna broke it by taking a sip of coffee from her emptying mug. Scott turned back to the putty knife and the crooked floor.
“I guess I’ll leave you to it then, sounds like you got some work ahead of you.”
Anna pushed herself off the wall and stopped before walking away. Scott pried another tile off the floor, trying to sense if she was still behind him. Anna looked down at her empty mug and then Scott’s back.
Screw it, she thought.
“Hey, I’m going to grab another cup of coffee; would you like one?”
Scott turned around on his knees with a look of surprise and thankfulness.
“I would love one.”
“How do you take it?”
“Milk and sugar if it’s not too much of a hassle?”
“Be right back,” she said and twirled off down the hallway.
“Thanks,” Scott called out after her.
Anna bounded down the hallway, still on her toes, ponytail swinging wildly from side to side. She passed the Old Man kneeling outside the bathroom, sponging the tile just in front of the threshold. Anna briskly made her way down the stairs, stopping abruptly after she jumped the last two steps. She landed with a muffled thud on the carpet.
Scott pried off the final tile, and tossed down more thin set. He enjoyed making the sound. It reminded him of playing with wet sand on the beach as a kid. He thought of its immaturity and subsequently his age. Three years ago, he had graduated from college, now he was tiling this damn half bath. But money had become tight as he trekked across Europe, burning any savings he had managed to accumulate after school. His thoughts switched back to Anna, the leggy brunette he was already fond of. She emanated a stark detachment in her tone that drew him to her.
Anna moved the sludge at the bottom of her mug with centrifugal force, the remaining fluid failing to dissolve the coffee grounds, permanently separated. Could it have been circumstance that landed this guy, an American working a blue-collar job in Italy, to her Aunt’s villa? She tapped her feet on the carpet. More of the same had begun to pervade her sojourn. She hadn’t slept well the last few nights. Her new settings had begun to wear off. All she meant to leave had begun to creep back into her life.
“Why” crowded their minds, weighed their tongues. Why was he here in Tuscany tiling bathroom floors? Was he Italian, born to American expatriates? Was he educated? Coffee brewed in the background, her mind churning and gargling with possible answers to questions she might never know. Scott pried and washed tile, wondering how long she was in country, if she had a boyfriend, if she would grab a drink with him.
Anna tiptoed up the stairs again, vying for balance. She watched the tide of coffee in the mugs she held. When she reached Scott, he had just placed the first tile of his newly leveled floor. Anna opened her mouth to announce a freshly brewed cup when she noticed him moving carefully and slowly, dropping in the tile and reaching for another in a stack by his knees. She stood for a few minutes unwilling to break his concentration. After his display of genuine frustration and disappointment earlier, she thought of dropping off the coffee silently. A much changed person sat before her: effective, smooth, and terse in a modest way. Eventually Scott felt her eyes, her hesitation itching at his back. Without turning, he said,
“Admiring the view?”
It took her a few seconds to reconstruct her demeanor.
“Just the work,” she replied, handing Scott the steaming mug.
Scott grasped it carefully with two hands like a child.
“Thank you, so much,” he said, bringing the mug to his lips slowly, feeling the steam in his face. It lifted the sensation of exhaustion from so many early mornings this new transitional life had wrought in his eyes. They shared a moment of caffeinated respite. Anna broke the silence.
“Well I’ll let you get back to it, I wouldn’t want to be in your way.”
“No, not at all,” Scott lied.
He liked having her there.
“Are you sure?”
“Yea, you can help me out. If that’s cool with you?”
Anna’s face lit up.
She helped Scott, handing him tile and tools as he lay the tile in a grid. They kept each other company, talking continuously. Scott listened thankfully to her American accent. The sound of her voice soothed him. Much that typically crowded and nagged his mind relented while she spoke. The more they talked, the further they led each other through the past. Working his arm in broad strokes with the tile, Scott listened to Anna, talking now about her first trip to Italy as a kid. He felt a release from his own problems, problems built in his head and stored in the aches and pains of his present. Before long, Anna knelt in the hallway handing Scott the last piece of full tile, posing her newest question, digging a little deeper.
“So after Holy Cross, how’d you end up here?”
The silence following her question made her nervous. Maybe she had dug too far.
“Well, I worked here and there, and after a while I really needed to get out of the States. I had always wanted to see Europe. So I started in England for a few months and branched out into the continent, but I ran out of money. I ended up in Italy, where I could get by with the Italian I learned in high school.”
“How’d you come by this?” Anna asked pointing to the nearly finished floor.
“I used to tile with my grandfather in the summer as a teenager and found this job in the Italian paper,” Scott said with a hint of serendipity in his voice.
“Wow,” Anna said. “I didn’t know things still happened that way.”
She handed him the final tile, looking at his eyes. Scott took the tile, laying it in the last square spot on the floor.
Scott was about to ask Anna why she was here when Anna’s aunt came, asking her to lunch in the city. Anna walked to her room to change, watching Scott walk the other way to make cuts on tiles that would fit around the bathroom’s threshold. She heard the shriek of the wet saw as she drove down the driveway in the passenger’s seat of her aunt’s car. Anna didn’t know if she would see Scott again. A familiar part of her wished she wouldn’t. It would be easier that way.
The next morning, Scott kneeled on the newly tiled floor, his bucket in Anna’s spot. He began to grout the floor, filling in the cracks between the tiles with the beige colored mush. He looked over his shoulder after finishing a few rows, hoping to see Anna’s slender figure in the doorway, holding a pair of steaming mugs. After he was done, Scott replaced the grout with a bucket of water and a sponge. He would ring out the sponge and lightly wipe the floor, cleaning the remaining film of grout off the face of the tiles. Scott focused on finishing the job, determined to make every pass swift and smooth. Before noon, he stood at the threshold, the floor a pattern of white ceramic accented by near perfect beige lines. Scott took a deep breath and collected his tools. After rinsing them off and storing them in the back of the Old Man’s yellow Fiat hatchback. Scott walked to the villa’s kitchen and found the Old Man finishing up the grout on a few broken tiles.
“Finite,” he reported.
“Bravo. Carica la macchina.”
“Si,” Scott replied taking the Old Man’s tools out to the hose.
Outside Scott turned on the hose and began washing off the tools, the water ran down the driveway to a patch of grass reaching around toward the back of the villa, connecting on the other side. The gravel driveway cut through like a stain running down from the front door. Anna turned into the driveway, hooded in sweatshirt. She walked past the puddle forming at the driveway’s mouth, and followed it to the villa. Scott saw her walking up as he loaded the last of the tools and buckets into the hatchback.
“All finished?” Anna asked.
“Yep, thanks to all your help.”
“I was happy to. Thanks for keeping me company yesterday.”
“My pleasure, really. Have a nice walk?”
“Yea, just needed some fresh air. It’s gorgeous just walking along the road.”
“I know. You go to Florence and Rome and see all these beautiful buildings and works of art, but nothing is as gorgeous as the Tuscan countryside.”
Anna smiled and continued to walk up toward the house.
“Hey, I still owe you one,” Scott called after her. “Right?”
Anna half turned, her hands in her sweatshirt front pouch and hair falling out of the right side of the hood.
“What did you have in mind?”
* * *
Scott sat at the long bar. Behind him, the pub’s booths were occupied by Italian couples, enjoying their Thursday night dinner and wine. All but one pair sat beside each other. The last couple sat facing each other, legs entwined underneath. Scott asked for two fingers of bourbon, forgetting how expensive it could be overseas, exchange and import rates lending an exotic quality to his native spirit. Finally, glass in hand, Scott hunched over the bar, figuring he had some time before Anna would arrive. Soccer played on the bar’s flat screen television. Always soccer, all the time here. Soccer and odd reality shows, not that he could make out more than a few sentences at a time. They spoke it so fast, faster than he had anticipated. He was good at getting by now, but not with the Italian.
Outside, Anna stepped out of a taxi. The bar’s exterior read “Pappagallo del Azzuro” in ornate African block letters, a painted blue parrot perched on a ring next to it. Once through the French doors, Anna saw the place dark and large. Booths lined both walls, separated by a bar that stretched from the back wall to the second row of booths. Glasses of every shape and size blanketed the space above the bar proper. A black and white photo of a man in a white tuxedo playing chess by himself was framed above the bar. Just beneath it, Anna recognized Scott’s overladen shoulders. Her heels clacked on the way over, turning heads as she walked.
Scott heard the clacking grow nearer, turning to see Anna already beside him, waving the bartender over.
“Martini sporchi, grazie.”
“Mi comprero` che,” Scott called out after the bartender.
“You know, it’ll take more than a martini to see me in my underwear again,” Anna said, looking him square in the face.
Scott was hit bluntly. She wore a billowy blouse that hovered over her tight blue jeans, riding low on her waist. Scott couldn’t see her heels under her boot cut jeans. The result was a defibrillator to his soul, a spark on which to lay kindling. She wore a shade of red lipstick between promiscuous and elegant. Anna caught his eyes on their way back up, confirming that, indeed, she looked good.
“But it’s a start, right?” Scott asked.
Anna raised an eyebrow as if to consider it.
The bartender returned before they could begin a proper conversation.
“Grazie,” Anna said.
Taking a sip of her dirty martini, Anna asked, “How’d you find this place?”
“My first night in Florence I was walking through the streets, getting a feel for the city. I came upon this place and knew I had to check it out. ‘Casablanca’ is one of my favorite movies.”
“I had no idea…was this the bar in the movie?”
“No, just themed after the movie,” Scott pointed up towards the picture of Humphry Bogart in white.
“Ohhh. Cool. That makes a lot more sense. I’ve never seen it.”
“Really? You’ve never seen ‘Casablanca?’ It’s a classic.”
“Nope. I mean I’ve heard of it, of course, but I’ve never seen it.”
“You should check it out. It’s one of the best movies of all time.”
“What’s it about?” Anna humored him.
“Well it’s basically a love triangle set in French Morocco during World War II.”
“Is it a war film? I can never seem to get into those.”
Scott felt embarrassed by his enthusiasm.
“But keep going…love triangle in Africa, World War II…” She encouraged him.
“Yea and there is this American named Rick who owns a bar in Casablanca, and a lot of black market stuff goes down there. See, Casablanca is the last city for thousands of refugees trying to flee Europe from the Nazis.”
“So Rick’s a bad guy?”
“No, definitely a good guy, but really jaded and hard. He lets all these deals go down in the bar so people can escape to America.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Yea, but his whole world gets turned upside down when the woman he loved who ditched him in Paris years ago shows up with her husband, a big time Czech freedom fighter who just busted out of a concentration camp.”
“That’s got to hurt.”
“Yea, and the plot of the movie is them trying to get Rick to help them get to America.”
“You’ll have to watch it,” Scott said, smiling.
He took a draught of his bourbon and waited for Anna’s reaction.
“I guess I will.”
“I can lend it to you if you want.”
Anna tried excitement in earnest.
“So the Papagallo de Azzuro is the name of Rick’s place then?”
“Umm, well, no. The Blue Parrot is the name of the rival bar in Casablanca”
“Well that’s confusing.”
“Yea, Rick’s place is just named ‘Rick’s.’”
“That’s not very original.”
“No, I guess not.”
Anna could tell she wasn’t holding up her end of the conversation and finished her martini, hoping something would pop into her head by the time she placed the glass back down on the bar.
Scott hadn’t talked a whole lot the first day they met, and Anna had nothing else to go on. So she kept with ‘Casablanca.’
“So why is it your favorite movie?” Anna asked as if reading from a teleprompter.
“I guess because I find Rick’s struggle to forgive or forget the girl so difficult, especially since there is so much riding on it. That type of internal struggle played out so well is really refreshing to me.”
“Like whether to be a jerk or not about it?”
“No, it’s more than that. Rick has to decide whether or not all that jadedness and anger is worth putting aside, if it’s worth really loving someone even if it means letting them go.”
“That’s really deep.”
“Yea,” Scott said, much removed.
They sat for a long minute only drinking. They ordered another round, and Anna ventured further.
“Do you think you could do it?”
“Let someone go like that, without all that bitterness, all that spite.”
Scott was surprised. He had been given a brief glimpse behind her subtle guise.
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Is that why you’re here in Italy, tiling bathroom floors?”
The question put Scott off, but she was right. She might have pegged him the moment he crashed into her room. Those who had lived with some darkness could sense the hidden scars, like soldiers who left the line with their bodies unscathed.
“Because I’ve let someone go?”
“Because you can’t decide.”
Scott downed the rest of his drink and looked directly into Anna’s green eyes.
“Yes.” Scott took a moment to try and hide the effects of the bourbon on his face.
Anna felt he was annoyed. She had yet to earn this level of intimacy. She would have to offer up something herself. Something she had tried to atone for by crossing seas and changing lives.
“I guess I’m here for the same reason.”
“Really?” Scott asked, his guard back down.
“Yea, I ended a serious thing, and then spent months wondering if I had ruined something people spend their whole lives trying to find.”
Sitting next to her at the bar, Scott tried to ignore his sympathy for her. After all, it was a strong woman like her that had tossed the first stone of the avalanche that had become his life. Maybe now was his time to find answers. Answers to questions he should have asked. Answers that could have saved him.
“Then why didn’t you try to fix things? Why didn’t you go back?”
“I wasn’t sure he would have me. And even if he did, there would have been this unevenness, this score that might never be settled.”
Anna finished her drink and stared at the empty glass, feeling her words lingering in the air. She looked straight ahead now at the past. Scott could tell he was losing her.
Scott ordered another round, hoping to save the night. Once the drinks arrived they talked honestly about their last few months. By the time Scott asked for the check, some semblance of a first date had been scavenged. Their energy finally matched their mutual attraction.
“Sure you don’t want another?” He asked.
“No…I think I should be heading out if I’m going to get a taxi back.”
“All right, I’ll close us out.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“No worries, I got this one,” he said.
“Can I at least pick up the tip?”
“It’s fine, really,” Scott said.
“I’ll get the next one.”
Scott looked up from calculating the twenty percent tip in his head, something he’d been told he didn’t have to do in Italy, bars and restaurants added extra charges to make up the difference. But Scott did so anyway.
“They’ll be a next one?”
“We’ll see,” Anna said, some of her coyness had returned after that last martini.
Once outside, Scott walked her to the intersection where the taxi had dropped her off. A warmth in Anna’s face felt bold against the brisk night air. She walked closer to Scott as they neared the corner, watching their breath mingle in the night. The alcohol had her wanting to sing. The song left her head and entered her throat, flowing out of her mouth warm and jovial.
“I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form,” she sung.
Scott looked over at Anna, her eyes closed and head tilted upwards. He would never have taken her for a Bob Dylan fan. It bolstered something inside of him. He chimed in for the chorus,
“‘Come in’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm!’”
They stood on the corner stumbling through lyrics and belting the chorus, standing close now for warmth and harmony.
Up the street, two college kids walked toward them, Oxford button down arms jammed deep into their jeans, shoulders hunched. Scott spied them as they crossed the intersection diagonally, craning their necks as they passed Scott and Anna. The shorter of the two turned and yelled back,
“Ciao bella, how about a private show?”
“How about you keep on walking, pal,” Scott responded.
“Maybe you should shut the fuck up, I was talking to the lady,” the kid shot back, emphasizing “fuck” like he had just learned the word.
“And the lady says keep on walking,” Anna replied, stepping away from Scott, shoulders back, her feminine sense of propriety enflamed.
The taller of the two turned back to stand with his buddy, who faced Scott and Anna squarely.
“And what if we don’t?”
“Kick your ass is what we’ll do,” Anna said steaming and tipsy.
Scott had never been in a real fight before, but he had seen enough of them to know that this is how they started. Scott walked quickly in front of Anna and headed them off.
“Fellas, why don’t you keep on walking to wherever it is your—”
Scott felt a warm numbness on the side of his face. His vision went black for a second as he tried to fight off the pain. Disoriented, Scott lunged forward feeling flesh beneath him. On the ground, Scott found himself, fists clenched and falling heavy on the kid’s stomach and kidneys.
Scott fell backward this time. He had forgotten about the tall one. The two positioned themselves on either side of Scott now, swinging their legs backward and landing their shoes into Scott’s ribcage and spine. Each of them got a couple of hard kicks before Anna appeared brandishing a small plastic tube that hissed liquid in a wide spread over Scott. The kids began choking and gagging on the pepper spray as Anna got closer, emptying the tube. The kids bolted down the street holding their faces.
Scott sat up holding his sides and felt an immediate burning in his eyes. He choked,
“Are you okay?”
“Yea,” Anna said tearing, “but I caught some of the mace.”
Scott fell back down fighting for air from the spray in his throat and the pain in his chest from the fractured rib. Anna helped Scott up, and he led them to his apartment. They washed out their eyes and mouths, and Anna filled Scott’s bathtub with cold water and what little ice he had in the freezer. She helped him out of shirt before he shut the door and eased into the tub, curbing the swelling in his chest and back. When he could take it no longer, Scott carefully dried himself off and emerged from the bathroom in a towel to find Anna passed out on the bed. Scott threw on sweat pants and collapsed onto the couch, his feet hanging off the end.
Anna woke in the middle of the night, mouth dry and eyes aching. She took a drink from the kitchen faucet and noticed Scott, feet off the couch, holding his side while he slept. She recalled the evenings events and felt a wave of embarrassment and guilt rush over her. She had helped egg those kids on, and now Scott was in rough shape sleeping on his own couch. And she had maced him on top of it. Anna gently put her hand on the swollen side of his face and rubbed her thumb on his cheek until he woke. Scott looked up, his left eye almost swollen shut and asked,
“You like Bob Dylan?”
Anna couldn’t help but laugh. Scott laughed too, but stopped as an acute pain shot through his chest and back.
“Yea, my grandfather was a bigtime Dylan fan, so I grew up listening to him.”
“Your grandfather had some pretty good taste in music.”
“I think so too.”
Anna removed her hand now, feeling awkward.
“I feel so bad I passed out on your bed.”
“No, I do, you must be in so much pain, let me help you to the bed.”
“I’m fine here, really.”
Hearing his name in her voice for the first time caught his breath. He nodded. She helped him to the bed and tucked him in. She settled herself under a blanket on the couch and Scott drifted back to sleep. He woke later, twisting his head to see red digital numbers reading 5:30 a.m. He moved his legs, the only part of him that didn’t hurt, hitting something dense and soft. He turned his head slightly to see Anna, calm and serene, a foot away. She had brought over the blanket from the couch and occupied a small part of Scott’s pillow. Scott smiled and inched his way over, afraid of the pain and waking her. He put his foot under hers and fell back to sleep.
They woke at noon, Anna snuggled up to Scott’s side, her arm draped carefully across his chest.
“So thanks for letting me crash here,” she said with a smile, nudging closer to him.
“It was the least I could do,” Scott joked, trying not to move.
They laid for a few minutes before Scott broke the apartment’s hearty silence.
“You know, that was the first fight I’d ever been in.”
“Yea, besides playing around with my brothers and stuff.”
“I would have guessed you had taken a few punches before.”
“Why did you do it then?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you had never been in a fight before, why did you fight those guys last night?”
Scott had yet to consider that. Why had he? He liked Anna, but he certainly didn’t feel close enough to her to throw punches to defend her honor. And Scott didn’t believe in chivalry; it always seemed just another form of flirting to him.
“I guess it’s time I started fighting.”
“Fighting for what?”
“Fighting to be warm, I suppose,” he said with a smile.
Anna gently moved her head onto Scott’s chest. Neither one would be in Italy in a month’s time, but that didn’t matter.
Dave Pezza spends his time trying to justify printing "writer" under "Occupation" on his passport application. Pezza has never been to a concert and not screamed "Freebird" at the top of his lungs. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Pezza.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Marcus Morales
It was New Year's Day in Chenogne, Belgium, and there were scattered Germans fighting Americans in the misty, snow-dusted forest. It had something to do with gaining control of the strategically desirable and architecturally adorable port city of Antwerp, but the soldiers had all but forgotten that there was a point to this game. The Germans were bad and the Americans were good, so you know who to root for.
PFC Carver and PFC Walton took cover behind a dead Panther, but they were certain it was a dead Tiger. For six minutes they had been firing at a broken up battalion of Germans and ducking behind the bulk of the vehicle in turns. They were good on ammunition, so they decided it'd be better to pick off as many enemy combatants as possible from cover before advancing.
But they were getting awfully comfortable behind that tank.
Carver scratched his nose and peeked out.
"All I'm saying is that if Patton slapped me, I'd shove my fist up his ass, turn him into my little meat puppet."
"No you wouldn't."
"Yeah, I know," he sighed. "Man, I've been trying to kill this one kraut for about five minutes, but he's still movin' and shakin' and up to something."
"Who? That one hiding behind that tree straight ahead?"
"Shit, buddy. That one just got Murphy," Walton said as he wiped away frost from the barrel of his rifle.
"Oh yeah? Never much cared for that spud-eating mick anyway."
"Yeah, well, he owed me a sawbuck. Now I ain't ever getting it back."
"He wouldn't of paid you back if he survived. Micks are delinquents."
"Yeah, I s'pose."
Carver licked at his cracked lips.
"Man, I am sick of this fuckin' battle. It's damn boring. Honestly, I wish one of these krauts would just pop one off into my thigh so I can pass out and get some decent shut eye."
"I'm sick of this war in general. I wouldn't mind if a jerry popped one off in my brain."
"Yeah, but I wouldn't want a headache before kicking the bucket. But yeah, I ain't a fan of this Europe. If I was running the show, I'd let the krauts keep it. I'd throw in Canada and Alaska if they promised to quit being troublemakers."
"It might work. They seem to not mind freezing their sacks smooth."
"I should'a been a diplomat."
Walton began to rise from snow ground seat.
"Stay put and save your rounds. I'm gonna kill this one tree kraut."
They heard Captain Papanikolis' proclaim with staunch abandon.
They turned around and saw the superior officer fifteen yards away near a creek. He was suffering from sustained head trauma and dead set on going out with gusto.
"Where the fuck does that blowhard think he is?" Carver asked.
"He probably thinks he's at Thermopylae. The oily Greek son of a goat." He then put his hand beside his mouth and called out, "You charge, Jason! We'll phone the Argonauts!"
Captain Papanikolis charged ahead with three subordinates foolhardy enough to follow orders from any mad dog who outranked them. They were all shot.
The subordinates survived their flesh wounds only to die of more serious ones later, but the good captain took one in the heart and was done as dinner.
"You think he heard my barb?" Carver asked in a lighter tone.
There was a moment of silence for the wasted barb.
"Don't you think we should advance already?" Walton asked.
"Yeah, yeah. I just got to kill that shit-assed kraut hiding behind the tree. He's run out of ammunition. He's gonna make a run for it so he could catch up with all his little buddies. I'm gonna get him from here.
"I have a feeling that if I don't do it right now, he'll catch up with me later, and skewer me with a bayonet like breakfast sausages. It's the ones that frustrate you that end up killing you."
"Yeah, it'd be the pits if you went out with a blade in your belly."
"It'll be the double pits if I'm knifed by that one particular kraut."
A bullet whizzed past Carver's ear.
Walton laughed. "You wanna borrow my helmet?"
"Jesus, shit," he said with a wave his hand. "I'll pass on the lice."
"But, hey, you almost got your wish."
"No, no. That was your wish to get popped one in the head. I told you, I can't put up with headaches. Even for a second."
"But it wouldn'ta been with a knife and it wouldn'ta been by the hands of your tree-lurkin' jerry."
"True. Goddamn, I really want to kill that particular kraut. More than anything."
"More than you want to drink a nice bottle of Kentucky bourbon?"
Walton's head cocked.
"Really? Hmm. More than you wanna be deep in your brother's wife's snapper?"
"Damn it all. You're serious, aren't you?"
Walton stopped asking questions. They waited for something to happen.
GEFR Lamprecht and GEFR Mundt were lying on their bellies behind the propped up corpses of lesser soldiers. Earlier Mundt joked that the men were more resourceful dead than they were alive. Lamprecht didn't laugh, but he grinned so Mundt was certain that what he said wasn't in poor taste.
Conversation between the two had died down after they shot the imaginary horses out from under that saber-rattling officer and his three-piece cavalry.
Mundt decided to break the silence.
"Where's Rommel when you need him, hm?"
Lamprecht cleared his throat.
"He's playing tic-tac-toe with Otto von Bismarck in hell."
"You really think Rommel's in hell?"
"Everyone goes to hell."
"A comforting thought. Tell me more about all the things we can do in hell after we're killed by cowboys."
Lamprecht scratched his ear and took a deep breath before speaking.
"Well, first thing I'm going to do is put my name on the waiting list to play chess against Napoleon. I think I could hold my own for a while, and he'll have to resort to one of his filthy tricks to get my king in the end.
"Then we'll catch a play by Shakespeare. He's been writing consistently down there, and I hear his modern stuff really takes the cake."
"Ooh," Mundt said, clicking his heels. "That sounds good. I hope he's written a play about American gangsters."
"He has. It's about Al Capone and the Valentine's Day Massacre, but he’s waiting until Humphrey Bogart dies so that he can play lead."
"I hope that happens soon enough."
"Hopefully. Then we'll play doubles tennis with Fredrick the Great and Peter the Great. We'll get trounced, but it'll be nice. They're gracious winners.
"Then we'll have drinks and a lovely seafood medley with Joan of Arc and Cleopatra. The latter has taught the former to be quite the blow job artist so if you play your cards right, you might have something to brag about to Rommel over tic-tac-toe."
"I'm sold. Let's have the cowboys send us to hell already so we can be nice and warm, hm."
Lamprecht shook his head.
"No, I don't think so. I couldn’t just let someone kiss me off unchallenged. They'd really have to earn it. Besides, we wouldn't want to let down the Führer."
He raised a mischievous grin.
"Fuck Hitler," Mundt spat. "We'll see him in hell soon enough. I'll kiss Freud on the lips in front of him before beating him silly with leberwurst. The vegetarian cunt."
"No, you wouldn't."
"Yeah, I know," He sighed. "It looks like our dear comrade Spengler is going to wait there until the tank yank gets out and chases him out from under his favorite tree."
"That's likely. He's been eyeing Hermann's 42 for some time, but it seems as though he's become shy."
"He should try to come to us. The bonesaw can't have too many shells in it anyway."
"Yeah, he can use us for protection if he survives, and we can use him for protection if he dies."
"True enough." Mundt put his hand beside his mouth. "Hey, Tarzan! You can't live in that tree for the rest of your days! Come join us! We have warm cognac and your Jane is tugging us off like your mother ape taught her!"
They smiled at each other and waited for a response.
"Did he hear my joshing?" Mundt asked in a deeper tone.
"Go fuck yourself!" Spengler yelled.
They laughed and Lamprecht nudged his friend with an elbow.
"I think he did."
"I should have said it in English so the cowboys would see that we're in good spirits."
"You speak English?"
"Yeah. My French isn't too bad either."
"Good for you. I speak English some, but I'm not very confident in it."
"Let's see," Mundt said in English. "Speak some English to me, old man."
"Piss off." Lamprecht continued to speak German.
Spengler called out, "Do you have any extra weapons? Or some ammo for a Sturmgewehr 44?"
"No, you're fucked in that regard, soldier," Lampbrecht said. "You might as well run over here. Either we'll protect you and you'll live, or you'll die among friends."
Spengler sighed, and then they heard him muttering prayers.
"You haven't told him the cold hard facts about the afterlife, have you?" Mundt asked.
"No, and I don't think I will."
Spengler made a run for it. Carver hit him twice: one in the lung and one in the kidney.
They heard Carver shout, "Hell yeah!"
Spengler howled and fell to his knees.
"For the Fatherland!" He said before his head hit the snow with the grandiose grace of the white swan.
"What a dramatic death," Mundt said.
Lamprecht shrugged. "Well, he knew he had an audience."
A lot more Americans began pouring from the wood work. They were still a fair distance away, but they'd be too close before anything could be done about it.
"Are we surrendering?" Mundt asked.
"Not me. I'm not in the mood to surrender. Besides, like I said, I'm insecure about my English. I don't want to be taunted by yanks."
"Okay. Hopefully, we'll be lucky."
"In battles, it's best not to care too much about what will end up happening to you, either way."
Carver and Walton came from behind the Panther and charged toward Lampbrecht and Mundt the way Papanikolis would have if his head had been screwed on straight.
Both parties opened fire.
There were a lot of missed opportunities, but Lamprecht shot Carver square in the forehead.
Walton felt a brief pang of jealousy before rattling off three bullets along Mundt's twisted torso. He hopped onto Lamprecht. They struggled some, but he eventually pinned Lamprecht's shoulders to the ground.
Walton shouted, "You shot the wrong brain, jerry!"
He shoved the bayonet attached to his rifle into Lamprecht's neck twice. The first plunge was deep, the second was shallow. The sound of Lamprecht choking on his own blood made Walton's stomach drop.
Walton continued to advance, leaving Mundt to bleed out without company.
Mundt saw his fellow soldiers made prisoners be taken up a hill, lined up like cattle, and mowed down with machine guns by some of the Americans.
He looked over to his friend's corpse.
"I just saw a New Year's Day massacre," Mundt said. "It's not Shakespeare, but it was fun to watch anyway."
It almost looked like Lamprecht was grinning, but it was just the blood crescent dripping along the corners of his mouth.
Marcus Morales is a Chicago-based writer. He is currently working his next project.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Gary M. Almeter
Buster Bucheit died on May 20, 1980, the 199th day of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Arnold’s Little League team had been slated to have a game that evening and had to forfeit when neither Buster, nor his son Chuck, showed up. Arnold went home that evening, turned on the news and saw a poster board, rudimentary by today’s standards, which said “Day 199” behind John Chancellor’s right shoulder. Arnold thought the numbering odd, more like the price of a Broyhill recliner on “The Price is Right” than a standard by which people measured days.
Iranian militants had nothing to do with Buster’s demise, nor did any of the other international skullduggeries or domestic crises that peppered that era. Buster was not a character in Watergate or ABSCAM and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had never met Jim Jones. Buster’s death was an accident, insofar as no one was ever criminally charged or civilly sued. Arnold always suspected that Buster, a man he genuinely liked, was more likely than not the victim of something more nefarious than mere negligence but something falling below any criminal standard. Something in between what happens when country folk operate sophisticated equipment and a sort of vicious hazing.
Buster wasn’t his real name. It was Charles. Arnold thought that Charles just didn’t suit him, so Arnold started calling him Buster. To himself and then to his family. Buster was his Little League coach—the first coach of any type Arnold had ever had and his first introduction to the concept of teamwork.
Arnold was ten years old in 1980, the minimum age for little league in his small town, and had only just met Buster at the first practice that March. It was odd to see someone new in a town as small as Auslandersville so at the outset Arnold was intrigued by Buster. There were no tryouts because only eleven kids signed up. Arnold had done so reluctantly. His mother read about the league in the church bulletin, wanted Arnold to be part of a team, told Arnold he was playing, and dropped him off at the diamond behind the church. There was Buster, talking baseball.
Years later, Kevin Costner would make playing baseball in cornfields look poignant and nostalgic. Noble even. It was none of those things to Arnold at that age. Cornfields bordered two sides of the Auslandersville diamond. At that time of year, they were newly plowed and freshly manured. An over-the-rickety-wood-plank-fence home run meant retrieving a ball that had more likely than not landed in a pile of fresh cow shit. Smells also included piss and fecal residue of deer, skunks, woodchucks, and every other animal that country folk deemed acceptable to dwell.
The baseball diamond also abutted the church cemetery. It was still cold in March, but not cold enough to keep the playing surface from being muddy. There was no backstop, just the old shed where in the old days they used to park the congregation’s horse and buggies. Neighboring farmers mowed the grass whenever they had a hankerin’.
Before the days of Under Armour and the proliferation of moisture wicking fabrics, kids like Arnold’s teammates wore jeans and hooded sweatshirts with unyielding iron-on patches declaring their allegiance to International Harvester tractors or Dekalb corn seed. They hung those sweatshirts, jackets, and the batting helmets on the crosses that sanctified and adorned the concrete headstones. Arnold invariably wore his “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” sweatshirt and his “Mork and Mindy” suspenders to the first practice and kept to himself.
There was a lot going on back then in Auslandersville despite being just as removed from the international skullduggeries of the day as Buster. There were lots of countries that were pissing righteous Americans off, and folks like those in towns like Auslandersville relished and reveled in their ability to feel part of the zeitgeist by hating along. As much as they prided themselves on being separate and apart from the world, the townspeople also yearned to be included, to be both immune and relevant.
Auslandersville was located about 40 miles west of Buffalo, an odd little city which was becoming even smaller and sadder with each factory closing and steel mill downsizing, and the subsequent loss of each tavern and family that supported those factories because “the goddamned Japs” had figured out a way to make the steel cheaper than God-fearing red-blooded Americans. Arnold listened while grown-ups got drunk and played cards. He heard snippets of portions of remnants of this talk evincing something that teetered between bewilderment and disdain.
This was also mere weeks after the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice. Those “commie bastard Russians” were defeated just a few hours north in Lake Placid. The Cold War was in full swing and a man named Ronald Reagan was in the midst of a near sweep of GOP primaries, promising a return to greatness which, underneath the polish, was a cowboy’s country swagger.
It was also around this time that people kept track of how many days a country named Iran was holding American hostages. Fifty-two in all. Nick Pfenning’s son joined the Marines and was stationed in the Middle East somewhere. Nick could spare a son or two on the farm as he had eight sons in all. After church Nick would educate people about what was happening. It was also around this time that folks began seeing a nefarious looking truck driving through the town. It was hand-painted brown with the sort of leftover paint that one would find in a barn. Old beaten-up pick-up trucks, like Chevys or Dodges with rusted doors and hand-made wooden flat beds on the back, were not uncommon in Auslandersville. What was unusual about this one was that it had a crude representation of the finger, or “bird” (five humps, spray painted white, with the middle hump longer than the two on either side of it) painted on one side and the words, “Hey Iran,” spray painted on the other. Kids called it “the finger,” but Arnold had no idea what that meant. Arnold asked his mother and she told him it was a “very bad insult” and that Arnold should never to use it.
It’s astonishing how kids are expected to navigate the world with what little information they have. Arnold knew so little about everything. We all know so little. Especially about what other people go through. What other people are going through. What other people have been through. The shit through which other people routinely go. The shit through that one must traverse.
The “Hey Iran” truck, incidentally, belonged to one of the Muhlfeld boys.
Buster was new in town and, even at ten years old, Arnold could tell that Buster was a man perpetually out of place. Buster was a larger man, overweight but not quite obese. His girth was anomalous in Auslandersville, a town of men who were perpetually fit from a perpetual regimen of plowing fields, harvesting alfalfa, chasing cows, and lifting tractor tires and sacks of grain. He drove an itty bitty little Datsun in a town where everyone drove balls-out Chevys and Fords. And, what’s more, he didn’t even fit into the tiny car. He would open the door, hold onto the hood, set his feet, and then do this pivot and lunge move to get his ass in the car. He used a piece of twine to fasten the muffler of his Datsun onto its undercarriage in a town where people instinctually took to their welders to fix such a thing. His too-blue Wrangler jeans, work boots, and burgundy Members Only jacket looked nothing like what they saw Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, and Tony LaRussa wear on television. His last name, pronounced “Boo” (like what a ghost says) and “kite” (like what Ben Franklin used to discover electricity) neither looked nor sounded like the names in a town filled with German farmers. You know, names with too-prominent consonants like Armbruster, Geissler, Vogel, and Keiffer that make everyone sound constipated. He made jokes and played baseball in a town where people chewed tobacco and took weather, corn, and tractors and the analysis thereof very seriously.
Buster was well suited for his role as coach though. He could hit a baseball over the fence consistently. He showed the boys how to stop ground balls by putting a knee on the ground. When Arnold misread a fly ball and caught it with his eye, Buster stopped practice, led him to the bench, and got some ice. The next practice, Buster brought in a pirate’s eye patch for him. Buster was goofy in a town that neither appreciated goofiness nor engaged in it. He had a round jolly face, tight curly hair, floppy jowls, a hearty laugh, and a friendly wavy moustache. But he also had a bumper sticker that read, “They Will Get My Gun When They Pry My Cold Dead Finger Off the Trigger.” He was like a friendly pachyderm that had just joined the Charlie Daniels Band.
Buster’s son Chuck was also on the team. Arnold had never seen him before because Chuck went to a school in the city near where his mother lived. He looked like the kid in a story about a kid and his wooden shoes and windmill that Arnold’s aunt had brought him from a semester abroad in Norway. He had blond hair, blue eyes, and perfectly square, symmetrical features. Chuck had an enthusiasm and boisterousness that Arnold both envied and resented. Though the resentment eroded somewhat when Arnold saw him take an envelope of Big League Chew out of the back pocket of his too-tight jeans, take out a large handful, and stuff it in his mouth.
“Do you have to chew like a pig?” Buster had asked when he saw the bulge in Chuck’s cheek.
This was not the sort of talk between father and son to which Arnold was accustomed. Chuck turned red and spit the wad of gum into the cemetery. It was the first and only time Arnold saw Chuck look embarrassed.
At that first practice, this kid asked Buster,
“Where do you work?”
“I used to work at the steel mill,” Buster said. “But have been out of work for the past few months.”
Buster was also, therefore, not a farmer, like everyone else. Arnold couldn’t help but picture Buster with a bandana on his head next to his best co-worker friend, putting his baseball glove on a bottle of Schotz Beer, and waving goodbye to it as a lively song about making Buster’s dreams come true played over the factory PA system. Arnold wondered to myself if Buster was more Laverne than Shirley or more Shirley than Laverne. He concluded that Buster was definitely more of a Laverne—neither polished nor apologetic, fiercely loyal, and prone to mischief.
“The Japs put an end to that,” Chuck replied in an effort to curry favor with his father.
Arnold’s resentment was reignited when Chuck started to play catcher, a position for which he was uniquely and inarguably suited. Like Buster, he was large. He could throw to second while squatting and could hit the ball over the fence with frequency. Chuck was a favorite of the guys on the team, the new kid, a natural leader, a good teammate.
“I don’t need a cup to protect my balls,” Chuck has said when Buster told them about how they had to get a cup to protect their ten-year-old balls. “I need a Tupperware bowl.”
As the season dragged on, Arnold grew to vigorously dislike Chuck. Arnold rolled his eyes at Chuck’s “Dukes of Hazzard” discourse and was disgusted by his "Dukes of Hazzard" t-shirt with the General Lee on the front, his aluminum bat, and his cool, mesh Yankees cap. On the bench, Chuck would try to engage him in conversation about the game, favorite television shows, and the weather. Arnold would ignore him or move down the bench. Chuck spat when he talked and was about twice as big as Arnold was, so that his meaty arm and leg engulfed Arnold’s.
Arnold preferred reading to playing baseball. Or doing anything outside. He was ambivalent about the Miracle on Ice and was neither a leader nor big enough to exert any influence and inevitably resented those who did. Arnold couldn’t understand the notion that he didn’t live with his mother. Arnold imagined him and Buster waking up every morning face-down on the sofa, each in last night’s clothes, one leg drooping above a carpet strewn with ice cream containers and empty bags of Fritos, a crust of spit caking the throw pillows under their snoring, tobacco stained mouths while the late night test pattern on their television filled the room with a multi-hued glow.
Arnold was jealous of his name, the monosyllabity of it, its simplicity, the way it connoted toughness, the way it was a synonym for the word throw, the way it rhymed with words like “buck” and “truck”—mighty things to which mighty boys should aspire. Arnold was named after a great-grandfather who passed away a week before he was born. And in 1980, his name suffered the rare double-defect of being the name of the then-omnipresent precocious fish-out-of-water black kid on “Diff’rent Strokes” and of being one of those fucked up words like orange or purple that literally rhymed with no other words forcing kids to new depths of mean spiritedness. Note this was also before Arnold Schwarzenegger became a household word synonymous with toughness, which would have offered some redemption.
So kids said “Arnold” with a tone, almost like they sang it, but one you sing with disdain. Arnold had an aversion to Chuck because he fit in so effortlessly even though he went to a different school. He wrestled with teammates and talked about the nuances between a GMC and a Ford F-150. He was boisterous, confident, and made friends easily. Chuck squatted over home plate to assume his position as catcher and his butt crack showed. Some kids laughed, but he didn’t give a shit.
Arnold discovery of hate led him to believe that it was common, perhaps even expected, for people to hate easily and hate often for reasons that clearly required no reasoning. As such, Arnold started developing his own aversions; kids who wore digital watches, kids who didn’t catch on in math class as quickly as he thought they should, kids who could make their fingers do the Mork thing like when he said, “Nano, Nano,” and kids whose parents eschewed tenets of nutrition and gave them Reese’s cups in their lunch.
The Sunday following that inaugural practice was Easter Sunday. Arnold’s church was hosting the cantata, and churches from all over the region were coming to sing songs about the resurrection. It was odd seeing Buster, who just days prior had taught Arnold and his teammates how to protect their scrotums, standing at the altar in a white turtleneck singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” It cemented Arnold’s devotion to him. It was as though Butch Cassidy was singing with the Osmonds.
The baseball season proceeded smoothly. Chuck played catcher and hit home runs. Arnold was, to his own amazement, rather adept at baseball and played second base, a coveted infield position that he played in a surprisingly authoritative manner. Whenever someone tried to steal second, Chuck would throw the ball to Arnold, and, more often than not, they would get the runner out. While trotting off the field Chuck would make it a point to say, “Hey nice tag Arnold.” Arnold usually said, “Thanks,” or nothing at all. He certainly never said, “Great throw,” or anything to acknowledge Chuck’s efforts.
The thing is, Buster and Chuck both really liked Arnold. When it was time to travel to games, Buster usually offered to drive him. Once when Buster drove Arnold to a game in a similarly small town, the trio got into the tiny Datsun that smelled of sweat, baseball leather, and dirt, and Buster, with a flourish that belied his embarrassment, quickly threw away a Burger King cup filled with spit and chewing tobacco.
On the way home from that game they stopped at Judy’s Dairy Shack for ice cream cones.
“Coach Bucheit, I don’t have any money,” Arnold had said.
“Don’t worry about it,” the coach had replied.
When they got to the dairy shack window Judy herself was in there smoking a cigarette by the soft serve dispenser.
“Arnold order whatever you want,” Buster said.
“I’d like a small dish of maple walnut in a dish,” Arnold said timidly.
Chuck, who had ordered a large twisty cone and was standing behind Arnold licking it vigorously and looking appalled at his selection.
“Maple walnut? Who gets maple walnut?”
Arnold ignored him.
“Maple walnut? What are you an eighty-year-old man?”
Funny how a person questioning your choice of ice cream can make you hate them. Don’t these ice cream questioners know this? When has such a question ever garnered a positive reaction? When has the person fielding the question ever thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the questioner’s analysis and switched ice creams?
“I just like it,” Arnold said, capitulating.
The boys got back in the car while Buster paid Judy. The driver’s side door opened and in lurched Buster with a large twisty cone with sprinkles and off they went.
“Dad, have you ever heard of a kid getting Maple walnut ice cream?” Chuck asked, eager for his father’s approval.
“Jesus Christ, Chuck,” Buster replied. “Not everyone has to like everything you like.”
Arnold was taken with the notion that Buster got sprinkles. Such an indulgence for an unemployed Little League coach. So very colorful for a man perpetually in Wrangler blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Like a large mustachioed Johnny Cash replacing Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Arnold thought about Chuck many years later when the senior Senator from Utah’s chief of staff looked at Arnold’s veggie burger as they ate lunch together in the Russell Senate Office Building and suggested Arnold was trying “too damn hard to mollify PETA.”
At the night of the night, as a parting “fuck you” to Chuck, Arnold left his dish and plastic spoon in the back seat of Buster’s Datsun in the hopes that Chuck would have to clean it. The following week, Arnold’s mother gave him $1.75 to give Buster at practice. When Arnold approached him with the money in his outstretched hand, Buster politely refused. That forced Arnold to sheepishly tell him that his mother told him to “not take no for an answer.” Arnold was relieved when Buster accepted. The fat rolls rode up his wrist as he wedged the three quarters into his Wranglers. Arnold wondered then if Buster was poor, something he hadn’t considered because the vision Arnold had of Buster always had him surrounded by candy wrappers.
At some point in the early part of May, Buster started working for the town highway department. Though he arrived at practice far more exhausted, and maybe a tinge defeated, than when he didn’t have a job. His job was to fill in potholes. Arnold would sometimes see him on the town’s half dozen or so paved roads as Arnold road home on the bus and happened to look up from whatever book he was reading. Buster would walk behind a large dump truck and shoveling hot asphalt into the numerous and sizable potholes that had materialized during the upstate New York. It looked torturous. The other men on his crew were usually smoking or sleeping in the cab part of the truck while Buster sweated like a motherfucker.
Arnold woke up on the morning of May 21, walked downstairs to get breakfast, and found his parents sitting at the table. They told him that Coach Bucheit was dead. His father said that he had been pinned by a dump truck on Centerville Road. Arnold neither asked for nor sought any additional information, but it was all the kids on the bus that morning would talk about. An authority on such matters said that he was shoveling the asphalt into potholes on Flanders Hill Road when the brakes of the truck from which he was shoveling gave out and ran him over. Someone else equally knowledgeable about such things said that his father told him that the truck had tipped over and a truckload of hot asphalt had spilled over and onto Coach Bucheit. It didn’t matter really. All Arnold could think of was the men in the front of the truck snoozing while Buster worked and died.
A few days later, Arnold was once again part of a reptilian parade of yellow buses that winded its way down the town’s Main Street at 3:15 p.m. on any given weekday. Arnold saw Chuck standing outside the Hillcrest Funeral Home.
He leaned against one of the pillars there and wore an ill-fitting blue blazer. It was hot outside, so the bus’s windows were open. A few kids yelled, “Hey Chuck,” or give him a Fonzie thumbs up. Chuck smiled, nodded, and returned the thumbs up. Arnold saw this play out a few times as the buses passed by.
Chuck saw Arnold. Arnold saw Chuck. And then Arnold gave him the finger. A big-old, motherfucking, ten-year-old middle finger. Chuck, on the steps of the funeral home, just looked at him with sad and bewildered eyes. Arnold looked down at the metal “Happy Days” lunch box on his lap, coated with purple glaze from the purple drink that had exploded, feeling simultaneously slightly ashamed and slightly triumphant.
If Chuck told anyone that Arnold gave him the finger while he was standing on the front steps of the funeral home, Arnold never heard about it.
Chuck went to live with his mother in Buffalo and didn’t play any more baseball for Auslandersville. For the remainder of the season, no one talked about Buster or his accident. Buster was technically an outsider, so it wasn’t as though they had lost one of their own. Nick’s father Jim, a farmer who could spare evenings since he had plenty of sons who could assume evening cow milking duties, took over as head coach. Jim was unlike Buster in most ways. He was a thin man, which prompted Arnold to think about calling him Slim Jim. Arnold decided against it and never gave him a nickname.
Arnold didn’t see Chuck for more than twenty years.
When he did see Chuck again, Arnold was thirty-one and working in Washington, DC for a Senator (who we should ostensibly keep anonymous but whose identity will be apparent to anyone who read or heard anything resembling news in the last decade; especially in light of the fact this narrative relies on the fact he is from New York). The Senator promised his constituents and his wife (who, a formidable politician in her own right, was really fucking pissed) and the party leaders that he would, in exchange for their support and in an effort to regain their trust, seek treatment for undisclosed addiction and personal issues after being found in a hotel room with a Brazilian hooker, her dead pimp, and a bunch of cocaine.
Arnold’s capacity and general propensity for loathing had diminished about zero percent in the decades since, so the Senator, as a boss and a person, was the target of a great deal of his hatred. This was the summer before 9/11 when people had an insatiable appetite for this type of shit. A summer littered with such scandals that precipitated a wave of pessimism, ill will, and the presumption that people, thanks in no small measure to the heralded Senator, were generally rather shitty.
But Arnold liked the ancillary parts of the job. It paid well and afforded him access to people and a modicum of prestige. And a means, he thought, to fully an irreversibly extricate himself from whence he came.
Some years prior, Arnold left Auslandersville for Princeton. The admissions committee actually cited his origins as a contributing factor for his acceptance (cementing Arnold’s idea that Auslandersville was more like a third-world country than a place suitable for human habitat). Arnold flourished at Princeton and, as they say, rarely, if ever, looked back. It was there Arnold met and befriended the Senator’s son and when Arnold needed a job the Senator hired him as a speechwriter jack-of-all-trades sort of thing.
Of the many degrading things that Arnold was tasked during that tumultuous summer of 2001 was arranging the Senator’s smooth transition to the treatment facility, which had to be done in days to minimize the fallout. The Senator chose Creekside Behavioral Health and Addictions Center because it was in New York State, about 40 miles south of Buffalo in an old mansion on Lake Erie that had once been a summer home for one of the captains of industry who had prospered in Buffalo in the 1920s. It was far enough away from his native New York City to minimize paparazzi. Arnold was tasked with making sure that the Senator would have as much privacy as possible. Since a big part of Creekside’s program was trips off campus to serenity inducing hiking trails and nature preserves, Arnold needed to make sure that the van windows were appropriately tinted and paparazzi proof. That was his job. To tint the Senator’s fucking windows.
The Senator had two sons. Tap (Yale) and Tanner (Princeton). Both douchebags. The Senator was the sort of person who would (and did) buy a Yale Lacrosse windbreaker and a Princeton Lacrosse windbreaker, pay a seamstress to cut each in quarters, then switch and resew the quarters so that he was left with two windbreakers each composed of two Yale quadrants and two Princeton quadrants so that he could wear it to the one fucking annual meeting of the two schools and walk around New Haven like he owned the fucking place and cheer on his son Tap for one half of the game and then cheer for Tanner for the other. This was the pinnacle of douche. Arnold secretly took the fucking half-Yale-half-Princeton-all-douche windbreaker from his office and sneaked it into the bag the Senator would be bring for his thirty-day stint at Creekside to further amplify the Senator’s imminent demise. Also sort of douchey.
Anyway, Arnold found a place, the ridiculously named “Falcon’s Auto Painting and Custom Upholstery” to tint the windows. It was near Creekside, and the owner, the ridiculously named Herman Falcon, assured him that he had enough High-Performance Charcoal Window Tint in stock and that he could coerce “one of his bozos” to work overnight so the Creekside vans would be ready for the Senator’s arrival the next morning.
Arnold flew to Buffalo, took a shuttle to Creekside, met their director, and made sure their facilities were adequate and adequately prepared for whatever media attention they might get. He then had to stop by Falcon’s to make sure at least one of the vans would be ready for him to pick the Senator up from the airport early the next morning.
Falcon’s seemed far from everywhere but was only about a fifteen-minute drive from Creekside. One of the Creekside workers drove him east, away from Lake Erie, through some sort of town center, past a bunch of abandoned houses and storefronts and an old brick library, then out of the town center and over to Falcon’s. The road out of town was lined with apple trees and overhead waterfalls of flowering towering shrubs of some kind, fragrant sweet pepperbushes probably. In a few minutes, the paved remnants of the old lake side town gave way to a wide sleepy road lined with corn stalks and not long thereafter they pulled into the dirt driveway of an old shop with an old painted sign that said “Falcon’s.” There were three of those vintage Mobil gas pumps out front, like in an Edward Hopper painting. They were rusty, had broken gauge windows, and were clearly not functional, though one could discern they were once red and noble and as such, still commanded a modicum of reverence. Like heralded robot ghost sentries, retired but still standing at attention, to protect the auto repair and upholstery place from invaders.
Getting out of the car driven by the Creekside liaison was like stepping out of the present and into that Edward Hopper painting. It was around 9:00 p.m. when Arnold walked in and found a fleet of four white Creekside passenger vans spread out like patients etherized on an operating room table. It was hot as fuck, especially for that late at night, way too hot to be without air conditioning, as Falcon’s clearly was.
As Arnold took off his jacket and loosened his tie he heard someone apologize for the heat saying that the AC shut down automatically at 8:00 p.m. Arnold turned around and saw a large man with a “Chuck” patch on a blue and white striped collared shirt that had grease stains up and down the front. They introduced themselves though Arnold knew right away who it was. If Chuck recognized Arnold or if his name rang any bells, he didn’t show it. Chuck had the same perfectly square, symmetrical face, as though he had worn his catcher’s mask throughout adolescence and his head and grown into and around it.
“Ordinarily, the window tinting process was a simple one,” Chuck said. “You measure the window, cut the film with an X-Acto Knife, stick it on the window, and then squeegee it smooth. Under ordinary circumstances I’d be done in a few hours, but in light of this goddamn humidity, the tint is bubbling like a motherfucker so I gotta squeegee the fuck out of it and it’s gonna take a lot longer than usual.”
“Of course it is,” Arnold said.
“The override for the AC timer was in the boss’s office,” Chuck said, as perspiration dripped off his forehead and onto a piece of the tinting film that he was cutting which he wiped vigorously with some sort of chamois cloth. “I was lucky he let me keep the radio on.”
Chuck went on to explain that when doing big jobs like this one he liked to do all the back windows at one time, then all the driver side rear windows at one time, then all the passenger side rear windows until he had worked his way up to the front windshield. This, he said, was so he didn’t have to take the same measurements multiple times. It made sense but it also meant Arnold was going to have to stay there until the job was done. So clearly both men he had no choice but to sweat and squeegee like the compliant motherfuckers they were.
Arnold took some papers out of his briefcase probably worth more money than Chuck made in a week. Chuck kept working, cutting, squeegeeing, and pasting. And the country radio station played something by Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, or whoever the fuck it was.
Something happens to a place at night. The shop, which flourished by day, seemed strangely forlorn. The daytime jingle-jangle of metal tools and the omnipresent whirring of air compressors were replaced by nothing but intermittent grunts and late-night country radio. The shop walls, covered with motor oil signs, girlie calendars and license plates belonging to a different era, certainly fostered Arnold’s sense that he was far from home. Shadows made from the one streetlamp on the wisteria ivy growing frolicked on the windows, opaque with decades of dust and repair shop residue during, as though taunting the two men stuck inside.
They did not speak much to each other for the first several hours. Arnold made some phone calls. Chuck took a break around 1:00 a.m. and there was some country song on the radio apparently sung by Faith Hill.
“What I wouldn’t do to be Tim McGraw,” Chuck said.
Arnold looked at him, annoyed, perplexed, and only slightly amused.
“Tim McGraw is married to Faith Hill you know,” Chuck explained. “I wonder whether Tim eats Faith’s pussy. Of course he does because how could you not eat such great pussy. I bet Tim just goes to town on Faith’s motherfucking pussy and goddamn what I wouldn’t do to Faith Hill’s pussy if given the chance to eat that shit myself I would tear that shit up.”
Given the forethought Chuck had clearly expended on this issue, it would seem that such conversations were neither anomalous nor cause for embarrassment at the shop.
“I don’t have any comment on that Chuck,” Arnold said. And having exhausted the discourse on Faith Hill’s lady-parts, they resumed their work or more accurately, Arnold did his work while Chuck did his. On the cusp of disgust, at his companion and at the state of things in general, Arnold realized he had heard similar conversations about the ferocity with which one might eat another’s pussy, though such conversations were conducted in far more refined, even heralded, settings.
Chuck, who had been diligently applying window tint all night in an effort to preserve the Senator’s ego, broke another silence some time later.
“My dad used to tell me that people don’t change,” he said.
Arnold looked at him with nervous puzzlement and said, “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”
Chuck went back to his sweaty window tinting.
“You were such a dick to me when we were kids,” Chuck said a few stupid country songs later. He said this in something between an inexplicable southern drawl, further slowed and muffled by a mouthful of chew and exhaustion, and a kid’s aggrieved pronouncement, like in that commercial when the kid says, “you sunk my battleship.” But it was a grown up’s voice so it contained a sufficient amount of grown up intolerance so was delivered in a tone akin to, “You sunk my fucking battleship you fucking prick.”
While the boisterousness and confidence Arnold loathed so readily in the spring of 1980 had diminished, Chuck still didn’t give a fuck about what anyone thought. And hadn’t changed. He spat when he talked. You could see his butt crack when he squatted over the rolls of window tint and cut out his shapes. And he didn’t give a fuck.
“It’s not okay to call me, a paying client, a dick,” Arnold said.
“It’s also not okay for you, whether a paying client or a kid, to be a dick,” he replied.
Such truth from the mouth of Chuck.
Arnold looked at him and shifted in his seat a little bit but couldn’t muster anything to say to question or combat Chuck’s assessment. It was jarring, being recognized, and acknowledged after luxuriating in presumed anonymity for so many hours. Arnold dealt with fucking senators for fuck’s sake but nevertheless somehow felt smaller than Chuck, this ghost from the past. Arnold gathered up the papers upon which he had been working, timidly closed his briefcase and sat up in an effort to appear larger.
“I’m sorry,” Arnold exhaled. “I was.”
“You was what?” Chuck asked.
“An asshole. A dick. Mean,” Arnold replied.
“We were kids. That was a messed up time for me anyways,” Chuck replied, with kindness, in a voice that belied the scope of how messed up that time was. Bo and Luke Duke’s perpetual skirmishes with Boss Hogg were messed up; losing a parent is incomprehensible.
“I think I just hated that town, Chuck,” Arnold said. “And I took it all out on you. Because you let me. “
“You were dad’s favorite,” Chuck said.
“I don’t know about that,” Arnold said. “I know that some people love small towns. I don’t. I get that everybody knows everybody and there’s a real community that you can’t and don’t get in other places and people take care of each other and all that John Cougar Mellencamp bullshit. If you’re like me, though, and don’t fit in, a small town can be a prison.”
“That’s why dad liked you so much,” Chuck interrupted. “You didn’t fit in.”
“Why did he even live there?” Arnold asked. “Why’d he let people treat him like that?”
“It was cheap,” Chuck said. “And he was tired of the city. He loved Auslandersville.”
“I get that,” Arnold said. “Though it’s tough for me never understood why people loved small towns. And why I was constantly told I was supposed to. I hated the idea of knowing everyone.”
“People were always real nice to me,” Chuck said. “I loved it there.”
“It showed. And that bugged me,” Arnold said. “I could never understand how you were from somewhere else, and went to school somewhere else and yet fit in so effortlessly.
“What can I say?” Chuck asked through an impossible wide smile that revealed teeth slathered with chew. “I’m just a natural born leader.”
Arnold could not physically go back to the cruddy baseball diamond in his cruddy hometown in 1980 and start a conversation with Chuck. Or to the tiny, silver Datsun outside the ice cream place and ask him what his favorite truck was. Who is favorite singer was. His favorite episode of “Dukes of Hazzard.” He also could not go back to the bus ride home and stop himself from giving a bereaved Chuck the finger. But Arnold asked Chuck to sit down and as he did so, Chuck became the young person with a baseball uniform t-shirt, muddy pants, and a catcher’s mask who was squatting behind home plate brusquely and loudly uttering baseball batting heckles and coating the bars of his catcher’s mask with spit. Through the cacophonous memories, Arnold apologized to him. And it occurred to him that every single moment of someone’s life is a crucial one.
“Do you remember that night we got ice cream cones at that rat infested shack?” Arnold asked when he was done with the first van.
“Sure,” Chuck replied.
“So do I,” Arnold said.
Had it not been 2:00 a.m., Arnold probably would have asked Chuck if he wanted to get some ice cream. So Arnold just signed a carbon invoice on a greasy clipboard, got the keys for a van, shook Chuck’s hand, and drove away.
So that was the day when Arnold was sitting in a repair shop, feeling annoyed but omniscient, when, in a break between two worlds, a memory came to him and rebuilt some months. Months during that Iranian Hostage Crisis that, unlike the current skullduggeries of today, Arnold thought had receded. Arnold realized that the fact Buster died during the Iranian hostage crisis was more significant than one might suspect. It seems to have been the beginning of an era, probably every generation has one, wherein he learned how to hate and hate well.
Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short story "The Love Song of JFK Jr." and his writing playlist.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Alexander Brown
The young pharmacist’s assistant had placed the prescription on the counter in a way that suggested I wasn’t the right person for the medication, that there had been some kind of mistake.
“Are you sure you’ve taken these before?” The faceless girl had wondered. “Sir, hello?”
I muttered something before heading back out into the snow.
It was October in Toronto, the city I grew up in and still called home. Winter had come early, and I wasn’t sure why. The previous night the news was on in the background of another bar, but I hadn’t the energy to tune my ear. I was busy working on another highball of bourbon.
“This is going to sound ridiculous, but we’re out of ice. If you want to go somewhere else, I totally understand.”
The young bar-back had shared with resignation.
Lucky for him ice was no longer a luxury I cared for. It slowed me down. There was work to be done.
Back in the cold the car started slowly, as if it hadn’t been ready for the weather either. Thunderclouds formed in my head, and I struggled to open the bottle resting in the passenger seat. The lightning began to strike, and I closed my eyes, gripping the steering wheel with frozen fingers. The world was a raw nerve.
I washed the Naltrexone down with sour coffee left over in the cup holder, and I turned on the radio. Some pop group was regurgitating the same old song and for a moment I laughed to myself. I had already become the grumpy old man that hated what was on the radio.
I was all of thirty-five imperfect year’s old.
Those years had passed like exits on a highway.
Spadina Road was crawling north. The soccer moms had forgotten how to drive in the snow once again. It was a distinctly Torontonian ritual.
I was hitting every light and the storm in my head had started to roll away. It wasn’t the Naltrexone, that was just to help with the cravings and sensations – part of the “program”—but the thought of doing something, anything, would often help.
I had been sober eight hours, and it felt like a lifetime.
The stale coffee sat on my lips, and the radio was off now. Before me through the oscillation of the wiper blades lay walls of snow. The city had disappeared.
I arrived at my office on Eglinton, parking in another garage below another building. The engine in my meek import evaporated with a whimper with the turn of the key, and I sat in the darkness for a moment or two. The digital clock on the dash told me I had five minutes to spare.
When I startled back to life on the couch of my single apartment at dawn I had been very close to calling in sick. At some point it had caught up with me. There were no details but I knew I had done some damage. The past was an impenetrable blur.
I came in though. Mostly because I knew he would be here today: my first appointment. A boy I cared for very much. A boy I desperately wanted to help.
And the only one who could possibly help me.
I was a psychotherapist of some regard. That could mean anything, but I partnered in on a practice and an office with an older woman I rarely saw, with a name I still can’t pronounce. It might have been Czech or even Greek. She lost me at the ninth vowel.
I had gone to two schools: one on the ocean, one in the heart of Middle America. I was indifferent to both but I still remember the waves. And now I was back home, in a place I always loved, but I always doubted the feeling was mutual.
The boy’s name was Adam, and he wasn’t much of a boy at all. He was twenty-five and I had been seeing him ever since I had started two years ago. He wore a kind look that blended nicely with his dark, handsome features. He had the build of a former athlete that didn’t take it seriously enough, and he wore his long, wavy brown hair just barely off his face.
But above all his most striking feature was his eyes. They were large, almost Disney-like in scope. And they were black. So black you could often make out your own silhouette from across the room. It was an abnormality I had never even heard of and one even he would laugh about. Even though there was power to them—an uneasy melancholy.
I often found myself awake at night, wondering if the light could pierce them.
And now he was in my office, with a smile on his face. The same honest smile he always wore. Sitting forward on the couch as always. The only sound between us was the faintest ticking of a clock.
It would be the last time I ever saw him.
That morning the dawn had been ugly, the sky a sickly hospital grey. The air hung thick as napalm. The light and the cold had cut through the recesses of my brain, flooding the cavernous darkness with unwelcome light.
I had no use for blinds. Sleeping off a hangover was a luxury reserved for college kids. I preferred the penance of a waking nightmare. There was always work to be done and lessons to ignore.
The drinking had started as it often does. There had been no trauma, but an undiagnosed mental illness grew deep roots in the years in which I should have been free. Instead of cutting loose, having fun, making friends, I was trapped. My mind and body wound so tight there were times I had to pry my trembling hands open so I could do something as simple as answer the phone.
In time I started to see the right people, and I grew fascinated by the human brain. I considered mine a lost cause, but, as the psychology electives in college continued to mount, I realized I had made up my mind in regards to a career. Something I never thought I could do. The proverbial they say that depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder leads to an emotional flatness, making routine feelings inaccessible, and real decisions near impossible. I was lucky then to discover that the instrument of my ennui had become my one true interest.
Drugs and alcohol came into the picture then, though they never interfered with my studies. I self-medicated daily, but I was disciplined. I respected the power of the clock. Class at nine a.m.? Bottle down by midnight. No exceptions. It was a bruised, beautiful system. It never failed.
It was a lie. One I carried with me into my thirty-fifth year.
I had told myself the work was fine.
Trust the system.
It’s gotten us this far.
You wouldn’t quit now.
You can’t. I know you can’t.
The work wasn’t fine. The thing most drunks will tell you is that in the depths of whatever fresh hell you’ve introduced to yourself, time has a way of melting. Moments and mornings disappear. Hours are days. They’re right. I told myself I’d never miss an appointment, and I hadn’t. But I was getting close. And with that had come a fresh, lingering feeling that had taken root in the marrow of my bones.
I needed to go. This place was different now, every room a lesser version of itself. I had become nothing more than a shadow, darkening everything I touched.
I needed the road.
Trust the system.
You can’t go.
Bottle down at midnight.
It still works.
But I had to.
Just not yet. I needed to speak with him.
He was late again, that therapist of mine.
A few minutes had turned into ten, ten into fifteen.
It was October then, and I remember the early snow. In the months to follow I remember the ice and how it blanketed the city. I ended up spending Christmas in the dark, but I spent most of my time wondering if he made it out.
I never saw him again, and I had wondered if he was happy. I had thought it strange at the time when we didn’t schedule our usual follow up, but it felt inevitable. I visited once, a month, maybe two, later. His office had been all boxed up. A kind Greek woman told me he had left, and that it was for the best.
“He seemed happier,” she had said.
And I believed her.
In my previous visit I had told him of my trips to the doctor. He had known about the depths of my psychoses when I went away to college— also to the sea—but I always left the specifics out.
This time I had told him a story. In it was a boy who was very sick, who visited the school doctor once a week, each time requesting a different kind of blood work, each time asking for a new referral. If it wasn’t a tumour then it had to be organ failure. If it wasn’t organ failure it had to be a parasitic disease. The days felt like dreams and the nights were alive. He would count the tiles above his bed over and over again, making sure they hadn’t changed in the night. He would chew on cough drops because his tongue would burn, and he would keep ice packs on his hands to numb the clenching of his muscles.
As the weeks turned to months, the doctor, a kind man who said little but wore his compassion with ease, began to suggest that perhaps there was some other force at work.
“Maybe,” he had put gently, “it’s all in your head.”
That’s not possible.
I’m sick. I know I’m sick.
When graduation came and it was finally time to go home. The boy went home with a smile on his face, relieved that he would no longer feel alone, but even in his own bed he found himself now counting the cracks in the ceiling. Wherever he went, there he was. There I was. And I hated it.
Then I found Nick. Referred to me briskly and off-hand by a pre-occupied family physician.
From the moment I first set foot in his office I sensed a connection. Like some unforeseen hand had pierced a hole in the world, giving us just enough time to find each other before all the noise swallowed the city once again.
He was empathetic and charming, and he wore every one of his thirty-odd years on his face. He had lived and loved and told stories of his own struggles often, always with a laugh. Only recently had that light faded. The years were catching up to him.
I would often catch him looking at his reflection in my own eyes—once a defect, now a peculiarity I’ve chosen to embrace—tilting his head as if he was exploring the very curve of the earth itself, wondering if he was on the right axis, seemingly never happy with the result.
His smile had faded but I hadn’t let mine go. I could still see him trying to muster up the energy to help. The gears were still turning, but there was no one left to pull the levers. He had to go, and so did I. It was time to let Winter come for someone else. We would be okay, the two of us, even in spite of ourselves. He was the family I never had.
Free of Toronto the earth becomes electric. For every rock a tree, and every tree a stream. The breeze carries sweetness. Its touch is soft. The light is pure.
It feels like a lifetime since I’ve seen the boy. It’s only been years.
Long, good years.
It’s October again and I am sober. When you give up the drink time unravels like a garden hose. If you use it wisely, those small, lucid moments become the greatest gifts. A reward you never knew you could receive.
I went north, and now I’m here. Life is quieter and the lake is my hole in the world. No storms can touch it. This time of year the air is cool and charged with caffeine. The smell of the dying leaves clears my head.
The weatherman said it should be a fair winter, and I’m inclined to believe him. There’s been no unwanted snow, no ice to strangle the trees.
At dawn I bundled up and took my old birch canoe out on the lake. The surface was glass.
I still see him in my office, Adam, telling me it will be all right, that both of us will be fine. Just a young man with eyes of black, already so wise beyond his years—the father, brother, and son I’ll never have.
I wrote him a letter last year around the holidays that was returned to sender. It worried me then, but less so now.
In the letter I had listed off every little thing that I had ever punished myself for: the depression, the anxiety, the emotional distance, the drinking, the fear, the doubt. All things I couldn’t change—at least not then. But there is a now, a beautiful, wonderful now, that exists far removed from all that weight and all that pain. I told him I would see him there one day, and that it was the thing I looked forward to most.
You’re not sick, he’s not sick.
And I believe that now. Wherever he may be.
Back on the lake the sun had burned through the clouds, opening a hole in the world, and the light crashed down upon the glass. It blinded me at first, but then it began to dive, deep down through the darkness.
I thought of the boy with eyes of black and smiled. I knew the light had pierced them.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Sean Tuohy
All the evil that happened started when Amanda Molina, a fifth grader from Davie, Florida got snatched off the street while walking to school one cool November morning. Within an hour she was reported missing by the school, her parents notified, and a report was sent out to local police, state troopers, and the media. Robby Hanes, a three-time loser with a meth habit, took Amanda. He grabbed the nine-year-old black-haired girl off the corner violently, leaving behind one scuffed pink tennis shoe, and threw her in the back of his Ford pickup. He slapped and punched Amanda, giving her a black eye.
Robby was no sex-predator. He had no thrills for little girls. He liked them young, but not that young. He knew two Cubans who would buy Amanda for a cool nine hundred bucks. Robby could care less what they did with her. He needed the green, nothing else. He set up a meeting at the Evergreen Motel on North U.S. 27, a single-story flop house built in the 1960s in the middle of the Everglades. The neon road sign had been smashed years before. All the rooms smelled of mold, and the parking lot was made from loose gravel. The rooms were all by the hour.
By the afternoon thick brooding rain clouds rolled in from the northwest and threatened rain. The sky rumbled with thunder. Robby paid for his room at the Evergreen and dragged in a sobbing Amanda. Once inside, he tied her hands together with zip ties and pushed her on to the soiled carpet. Robby, to make sure she wouldn’t try anything, kneeled down and shoved his face into Amanda’s. She repelled back in disgust and terror as Robby spoke.
“You fuckin’ run,” Robby threatened, “I’ll kill your family. Got me?”
Amanda released a whimper, which was enough to satisfied Robby.
He flopped down on the dusty bed and flipped on the television. The Cubans would be here shortly.
* * *
Detective Eli Cohan didn’t hear about Amanda Molina because he had his radio flipped off. He drove his unmarked Ford with one hand; the other was busy unscrewing a nip bottle, which he downed in one gulp. Cohan had been a Broward County sheriff deputy for nine years. Six of those years were spent loaded. He liked pills. He needed pills. His shoulder was three types of messed up after Haitians loaded up on angel dust threw Cohan against a brick wall. The doctors all said the same thing: the pain will always be there. Cohan popped pills morning, afternoon, and night. When he couldn’t get pills, he drank. Cheap vodka worked the fastest. That had been his third nip of the morning.
Cohan pulled onto 27 and gunned the engine of the Crown Vic down the two-lane blacktop. He raced around lumbering trucks and slow moving cars. He tapped fingers against the wheel. He was jittery. He had run out last night and couldn’t get a re-up until this morning. The night had been hell; cold shakes, vomiting, and nightmares. He had shit himself. Blinding sunlight glared on the windshield, making Cohan groan and fumble for his sunglasses. Soon after, rain clouds bullied their way in and blocked out the sun. Cohan was thirty-three, small, and lean with a swimmer’s build. Brown, shaggy hair and three days of growth on his face. He was a Florida Jew, but hadn’t believed in God since high school.
The Ford spun into the Evergreen motel parking lot kicking up dust. Cohan parked at the far end, away from the manager’s office. Cohan rubbed his temples, which felt like they were about to implode. He grinded his teeth as he kicked open the door. The Glock 23 clipped to his jeans clunked as he stepped out. The air smelled of rain. Cohan took in the parking lot; a rusted Ford on its last leg was parked four spaces over with a BMW double parked behind it. Through the rear window Cohan could make out the head of someone in the passenger seat. Cohan walked over to the room marked number 11. He slammed a fist against the door. Behind the door he heard a television go mute, movement, rushing bare feet coming toward the door. The door opened slightly, the security chain clanking into place. Buggy formed in a crack in the door, his long thin face, scabbed dry lips, and sunken eyes glaring at Cohan.
“You’re late,” Buggy said quickly.
Cohan remained silent; he didn’t want this to last any longer than it needed. He slipped over the bills. Buggy shut the door. Rustling behind the door followed by more bare feet. The door was ripped open and Buggy handed over a bag with six pills.
“Enjoy,” Buggy said, slamming the door.
Cohan dry swallowed two pills and strolled back to the Ford. He pocketed the baggy. He went back to his car and noticed movement from the right side. The BMW’s passenger door opened and a heavy Cuban wearing sunglasses and a purple button-up got out. He opened the rear door and waited. The Cuban was watching the motel.
Cohan stopped and without realizing his hand dropped to the butt of his gun.
The door to the motel room the pick-up was parked at opened and another Cuban, overweight and in a pink shirt, hurried out with a little girl missing a shoe in his grasp. In the door frame, a lanky meth head fella watched.
This was all bad mojo.
“Hey!” Cohan shouted.
Pink Shirt halted and looked toward Cohan. Meth Head, startled and spooked, spun around to find Cohan. Purple Shirt at the car was swearing in Spanish.
For half a second there was no movement, no sound, nothing at all but the rumble of thunder.
Pink Shirt, holding the girl, bolted toward the car. Meth Head dove into his room and disappeared.
Cohan moved toward the BMW, now gripping his Glock in his hands.
The Cuban threw the girl’s small frame into the back seat and slammed the door shut. Purple climbed back inside while Pink raced to the driver’s side.
A gunshot echoed and the bullet slammed into the ground at Cohan’s feet. Cohan skidded to a stop and pivoted with the gun leading the way toward Meth Head, who stood in a weak stance in the doorframe with an ancient .38, smoke curling from the barrel.
“Drop it!” Cohan warned and then fired three quick rounds. Two went wide and slammed into the doorframe causing wood to splitter and fly. The third caught Meth Head in the chest. His dirt-smudged shirt bloomed red and he stumbled back into his room.
Tires crunched on gravel and Cohan spun back around to see the BMW speeding away leaving a trail of dust.
Cohan fired at the tires. Bullets pinged and panged off the metal rear. The rear left tire exploded and the car dropped. Pink lost control, and the car fish tailed into a cloud of dust and ran against the motel.
Cohan rushed forward, gun held low, toward the now stalled out Beamer. Overhead lighting cracked and on cue fat raindrops began to fall.
Cohan was five feet from the driver’s side when the passenger side door was kicked open. Purple’s wide face popped into frame. He held a silver MAC-10 over the roof of the Beamer.
“No,” Cohan said to himself and fired a single round.
The wall of the motel was painted red with a splat. Purple Shirt’s head snapped back violently and fell out of sight behind the car.
As Purple Shirt’s brains spattered on the wall, the driver’s door was pushed open and Pink Shirt stepped out. Cohan saw something clasped in Pink Shirt’s hands and Cohan fired three rounds into the driver’s side door. The door window shattered and Pink Shirt let out a yelp as he crumbled to the ground.
Cohan was breathless. His heart pounded so loud he could hear nothing else. He stood for a moment in the roaring silence that comes only after a gun battle. The manager’s office door opened and a frail looking man poked his head out.
“Call the police!” Cohan barked at the man as he moved toward the BMW.
Cohan ripped open the rear door of the BMW and felt pain shooting up his right side. He winced and gritted his teeth. Cohan looked down to find his black polo shirt moist with blood. A bullet had gotten him. Cohan fought the pain and looked into the back seat.
Amanda sobbed, tears raining down her brown checks, eyes blood shot. Cohan and Amanda locked eyes, and he could see the fear.
“I’m a cop,” Cohan said softly and held out a hand.
Amanda reached out with her bound hands. Cohan grabbed her and yanked her out of the car. He hoisted her up, winced again in pain, and hurried away from the BMW just as three BSO squad cars screamed into the Evergreen motel’s parking lot.
The bullet had grazed Cohan without hitting anything major. He was losing a lot of blood and went into shock. Purple Shirt had gotten a round off before he lost his brains. Amanda and Cohan were rushed to Broward General. The media caught a tearful reunion of Amanda and her grateful parents.
They found the pills both in the pocket of his jeans and pumping in his veins. Cohan was locked up at Broward General in a private room. He had a view of the rooftop. The rain had come, soaked everything, and was now gone.
Sheriff Albert Kinney stepped into the room in full uniform. Into his third year as Broward’s sheriff, Kinney had lost what was left of his hair. He was an imposing man with a thick grey moustache parked on his upper lip. Kinney wasted no time.
“You’re a pill head,” Kinney said matter-of-factly.
Cohan began to speak but Kinney held up a palm for him to stop, “Report came back. You’re goddamn high.”
Kinney sat down in an empty chair against the bland-colored wall and let out a deep breath.
“The whole country has heard what you did” Kinney said. “CNN picked up the story an hour ago. You are a hero for the next fifteen minutes, Cohan, and then shit is gonna hit the fan.”
“You need me to say something?”
“No, I need you to not be a pill head,” Kinney snapped back and fell silent for a long moment. “The pills we found on you are in the trash, the report is in my hands, and we’ve told the news that you were following up on a tip.”
“What happens next?” Cohan asked, trying to hide the building fear that was growing in his voice.
Kinney looked at Cohan with a pair of dead grey eyes and said,
“You get clean.”
* * *
Rehab nearly killed Cohan. He was sent up to a place in the panhandle under a false name, Kinney had set it up. While Cohan got the poison purged from his system his face was featured on every news program.
Hero cop saves kidnapping victim….
…Justice served by hero…
The hero was laid up in a bed shaking, weeping, and wishing for death. He walked out clean and sober. He was welcomed with open arms and cheers. Reporters calling and begging for an interview. The Molinas wanted to meet and thank the man who saved his daughter. Cohan said no. They sent a card and Cohan tossed it. Amanda sent a card she wrote, the lettering done nicely, and Cohan kept that card at his desk.
He was put on light desk duty, paper work, and he welcomed it. He sat in his office and kept his head down. He wanted to be left alone. Cohan spent hours at his desk recalling disgraces in his life. Pills swallowed. Drug money slipped into his pocket. Roughing up tweekers for the hell of it. Cohan hated himself for a long time. With each new memory brought back to the forefront Cohan knew he was scum. He attended meetings that told him he wasn’t, told him to embrace his misdoings and to carry on with life.
That’s what he planned to do.
It was a hot May morning when Cohan got the call. It was Friday and Amanda Molina, now entering high school, ate breakfast and went to school. Cohan thought about her often; how was she? Did she remember him? Did she think about him as much as he thought about her? He never reached out to her. He kept his distance.
That morning, Cohan sipped lukewarm coffee and scanned reports. His office was in the rear of the detective’s bureau and over looked the bullpen. The morning frenzy had not swooped in just yet and Cohan enjoyed the silence.
His cell phone chimed; the number on the screen was blocked.
Cohan answered, cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder, and scanned reports.
“It’s the hero cop,” the jolly voice said.
Cohan cocked an eyebrow.
“Long time no talk, big man,” The voice carried on. “I never see you no more. I miss you. You miss me?”
The voice clicked with a memory bank in Cohan’s brain.
“I like to go by James now, “ Buggy told Cohan. “Because Buggy didn’t fit me.”
Cohan’s heart raced. He hadn’t seen the pill pusher since the Evergreen Motel shooting. There had no mention of Buggy in any of the reports. Cohan felt a wave of dread wash over him in that moment.
“Got time for coffee?”
“Coffee?” Cohan stammered.
“Yeah, look we got to talk, we got to talk about the motel.”
There it was, Cohan thought.
Buggy chuckled and said,
“Yeah, you know the motel. I remember it. Do you?”
“Where are we meeting?”
They met at Express Coffee, a coffee stand painted in faded neon blue on Andrews. Cohan pulled into the parking lot and found Buggy, now James, waiting for him. Buggy must have cleaned himself up. The long narrow face now had flesh and color. He wore jeans and black t-shirt while leaning against a battered sedan with tinted windows.
Cohan got out of the car slowly; he brushed a hand against the holstered pistol.
Buggy smiled from ear to ear. Cohan felt an explosion of anger in his head.
“Good to see you, Detective,” Buggy said.
“What do you want?”
“No small talk?” Buggy smiled wider. “You never did make time to talk. What do I want? I want you to listen to me.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” Cohan said.
“You killed three guys while high. I know this and you know this but the news don’t know it. They called you a hero cop. Big hero who was high out of his mind.”
“Old news,” Cohan said. “I’m three years clean.”
“Good for you. I’m on month number seven. Got locked up in Polk County for a while. I got to say being sober is not bad.”
Cohan glared at Buggy and asked,
“Are you here to threaten me?”
Buggy waved Cohan’s comment off.
“Naw, I just want to know what you are going to do to keep me silent. I got an idea what you-“
Cohan launched himself at Buggy, grabbed shirt collar, and slammed him against the Saturn.
“You got nothing but—” Cohan said through gritted teeth.
“Fuck you!” Buggy shouted. “Got your deed to rights, motherfucker. I got you buying pills off me. I got you taking pills in front of me. I go to the news, I share my story, and you find yourself in the dead zone.”
Cohan’s grip grew tighter. Three years of clean and sober. Three years of living the good life. Three years gone down the drain. Cohan loosened his grip and stepped back slowly.
“How much you want?” Cohan asked in defeat.
“Last month BSO snatched a hundred pounds of pills that they found in Miramar. Good stuff. I want it.”
They sat in Buggy’s car; Cohan in the passenger seat and Buggy behind the wheel. Cohan thought about yanking his Glock and plugging three bullets in to Buggy.
“Suspect approached with the intent to cause me harm which forced me to use my weapon,” Cohan thought. No go. BSO would investigate and find his story was filled with holes.
“The pills are locked away.”
“I know that, Detective, I know that but you can get them. You walk in, get me the pills, and we call it even.”
“You want me to steal for you?”
“You score me the pills and I go away forever.”
Cohan’s hand drifted back toward his gun and the idea of killing Buggy grew stronger.
“I got a girl,” Buggy said after a long moment. “She knows what I know too. Something happen to me and she makes the calls. She will take you through the shit so don’t get smart.”
“I can’t walk out with a hundred pills,” Cohan said. “No way. Not even the Sheriff could do that.”
“Get some of them,” Buggy said with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “I don’t need all of it but I need some. Get me a couple grand’s worth and we’ll be even.”
Cohan’s head was splitting. The bullet wound from the Evergreen ached suddenly and all Cohan wanted was pills to take away the pain.
“Give me a day,” Cohan told Buggy and then got of the car.
The evidence warehouse for Broward’s sheriff office was located on Sunrise Blvd behind a chain link fence. During the day two deputies were on duty, normally a rookie or elderly dog close to pulling the pin. Cohan sat in the office with the latter of the two as the elderly deputy squinted at a computer screen.
“I’ll find it,” the senior told Cohan over his shoulder while he squinted at the screen.
“You know I can find it on my own,” Cohan began to rise from his chair.
The cop waved Cohan to sit down.
“I’ll find it just give me a damn—” The cop squinted harder and leaned in close to the screen and then smiled brightly. “Look at this!”
The senior officer led Cohan between the stacks looking at a slip of paper. Cohan was a few steps behind.
“You put those three down at the motel?” The cop asked over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Cohan said noncommittally.
“That was the Lord’s work you did that day sending those three to hell.” The cop stopped and looked at Cohan. “You believe in God?”
The cop thought about this for a long minute and nodded deciding that this was good enough for him.
“Your drugs are over here.”
They walked deep into the warehouse and came to a stop before a metal shelf that held several hundred pounds of pills. Cohan stared at the bags and the urge came back. He wanted those pills, needed those pills. He suddenly imagined himself shoving fistfuls of bright colored pills in his mouth like mad dog. Cohan gulped, suppressed the urge.
“Is this it?” The cop asked. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
Cohan nodded slowly.
* * *
“Who the hell is this?” Cohan asked, his right hand falling to his gun butt.
Buggy stood ten feet away hands up in the air. Behind him a stubby man with tree trunk size arms stood. The man had a shaved head and a nasty frown. He had trouble stamped on his forehead.
“This guy?” Buggy said. “This guy is my friend Bishop. He’s cool.”
“I’m cool,” Bishop croaked.
“I don’t care if he’s cool,” Cohan snapped. “I don’t know him and I don’t want to know him. He comes close I pump him full of lead.”
Cohan’s gaze was hard and his fingers were now gripping the butt tightly.
“Look, Detective,” Buggy said. “This here is my business partner. He just wants to hear your idea.”
“I’m here to listen,” Bishop echoed. “That’s all.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t need to like it. You just have to give us your idea.”
Cohan fell silent. His shoulder pulsed with pain. He began to rub it but stopped suddenly.
“There is no way I can get it out without getting caught,” Cohan told the pair.
“Then how do you get it to us?” Buggy pushed.
“I don’t bring it to you,” Cohan told him. “I bring you to it.”
* * *
Cohan rented a single-story family house in Dania Beach near Fort Lauderdale Airport. The whine of jet engines rocked the night sky. The house was void of anything personal and many of the rooms sat empty. Cohan sat hunched over the kitchen counter that evening, the hum of the air conditioner filling the background, scribing a letter. He wrote three lines in crooked black ink. Pleased with the message, he sealed the letter in an envelope.
* * *
That night, the heat was thick and hung in the air like a wet towel. Despite the AC turned to full blast, Cohan was sweating. Buggy and Bishop ducked down in the back seat. Cohan felt hard metal prodding him through the back of his seat.
“Try something smart,” Buggy warned in a whisper. “I’ll pump buckshot into your back. Got me?”
Cohan said nothing.
They arrived at the warehouse just past ten. Cohan was buzzed in and pulled up close to the front door. Cohan took a moment to gather himself.
“Camera is placed just above the door,” he said over his shoulder. “Once the door opens you come busting in. Make sure you make this look good.”
Cohan stood at the door, one hand on the handle and his head craned up toward the camera. He gave a short wave. The door buzzed open. Cohan pulled it open and got slammed from behind. Cohan flew inside and skidded to the floor. Rushing feet past his head. A boot caught Cohan in the midsection and he lost his breath. Cohan hacked on the cold floor. He looked up as the two figures of Buggy and Bishop hurried past him toward the glass walled office. Bishop, the bigger of the two, kicked open the door and strode in with the shotgun leveled at his hip.
At the sight of the barrel, the old cop guarding the place put his hands up in the air. Bishop yanked the old timer out of the chair onto the floor by the collar.
“Don’t move!” Bishop shouted into the man’s ear.
Buggy came back and helped Cohan up on to his feet and dragged him to the office.
“Where is it?” Buggy asked, poking Cohan in the side with his pistol.
Cohan sucked air through gritted teeth as he showed Buggy through the stacks. Bishop stayed with Old Timer.
“Why’d you kick me?”
“Got make it look good, right?”
They turned the corner and came to a stop before the pills. Buggy went wide at the sight and smile crept on to his face slowly.
Buggy threw the plastic baggies into a black leather bag. He filled it quickly. Cohan leaned against a stack rubbing his ribs.
“You are good, Detective,” Buggy said over his shoulder.
“Hurry it up,” Cohan said. “We’re gonna need to call this in.”
“What are you gonna say?”
“That two masked men jumped me outside of my house and forced me here at gun point.”
Buggy stopped and then slowly moved toward Cohan, the pistol down at his thigh.
“You gonna give them names?”
Cohan shock his head.
“No. I just need you gone. Gone for good.”
“Sure thing, Detective.”
A shotgun blast shook the walls. Cohan and Buggy snapped up and look back toward the office at the same time. They bolted back down the stacks and came into the office. The air smelled of gunpowder. The windows of the office were splattered with blood and fluid. Bishop stood in the doorway, smoking shotgun at his hip, staring at his handy work. Cohan shouldered past Bishop and found his heart stopping.
The old man’s chest was a mess of blood and guts. He stared blankly at the ceiling. His legs and arms spasmed. The smell of voided bowels filled the cramped spaced. Cohan’s legs gave out and he fell to the floor.
Buggy slapped Bishop out of his giddy daze.
“What happened?” Buggy snapped
“He made a move! He made a move against me! I put him down,” Bishop growled.
The couple began to shout at one another, their voices rising and carrying. Cohan stared at the corpse in front of him. Cohan noticed the old timer’s piece, a battered old Sig 226, on the counter next to the phone. Cohan dragged the body to the phone and snatched up the gun. He pressed the phone to his ear and leveled the gun at Bishop.
“What the hell are you doing?” Buggy said.
The line picked up.
“Officer down at the—” Cohan began but never finished.
Bishop brought up the shotgun. Cohan dropped the phone to the floor and fired two shots. They went wide and chewed up the doorframe. Bishop and Buggy ducked out of the way.
Bishop blindly fired into the office. Buckshot shattered the windows. Cohan hit the floor hard and rolled while firing. His ears rang. Clouds of smoke filled the room.
Cohan scrambled to his feet breathlessly and carefully moved toward the door, pistol leading the way. He found Buggy spread on the floor at the door lying on his back. A hole in his head and baggies of spilled pills carpeting the ground beside him.
The door to his right banged open and Cohan pivoted toward the sound. He covered the ground quickly and crashed through the door into the parking lot. Bishop was at the car’s driver side door. He spotted Cohan coming out the door and brought the shotgun up to bear.
Bishop and Cohan pulled their triggers at the same time. Cohan rapid fired and emptied the clip into Bishop. The round cut Bishop’s legs out and he crumbled to the ground.
The door absorbed Bishop’s buckshot.
Cohan stood rigid in the parking lot, empty gun in his white knuckled grip. He took in a breath. Pain washed over him. Cohan went weak and his legs gave out. Cohan fell like an aged oak tree. He landed with a thud and found blood oozing from holes in his chest.
Cohan craned his head up toward the night sky and took in the twinkling stars and smiled.
* * *
Amanda Molina loved Eli Cohan. Her heart, all of it, belonged to the man. She thought about him once day. She wondered what he was doing, eating, thinking and whether he thought about her like she thought about him. She wrote to him but heard nothing. The doctors, and there had been many since she had been taken, told her to move on and release her hold on the past. Amanda didn’t want to release Eli Cohan.
The day she found a letter with her name for her in the mailbox after school she didn’t think much of it. Like most teenage girls she rarely received mail, and with her birthday around the corner she assumed it was a card from a relative she didn’t see often. Amanda carefully opened the envelope and pulled out the lined paper from within. She read the single line over and over again.
Amanda, You were the only thing that I ever did right in my life. Eli
Sean Tuohy currently resides in Boston, Mass., and is working on his next screenplay. His love of pop culture and films scares small children. Tuohy once worked as a professional clown.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Carol Reid
The nurse narrowed her eyes and said,
“Your father is going to need some help.”
Caddie hadn't seen headwear like this charge nurse's stiff white old-school cap since her teens. She wanted to reach out and yank it off, maybe a bit of scalp with it.
“He'll be coming home with me,” Caddie said.
She'd taken herself off the call list at work and settled it with Dan on the way to the hospital. She slept on the sofa bed last night to test it out, and with the mound of pillows at her back, the new television and remote control in easy reach on the side table, and the length of the entire house between her husband and herself, it had been the best seven hours in recent memory. Her father would be as comfortable as a man could be with a cut-line from shoulder-blade to rib and just one remaining lung.
A younger nurse pushing a wheelchair came into her father's room. Caddie shook out and folded his pyjamas into his small suitcase and slipped in the sheaf of aftercare instructions. He came out of the bathroom clean-shaven, dressed in creased slacks, pressed shirt, and carefully knotted tie as if he were heading to the office. He handed her his shaving kit and toiletry bag. The younger nurse helped him slip on his jacket.
“Bring the car around,” he said. “I'll be down in two shakes.”
“Dan's got it. He's watching for us.”
The white-capped nurse gave her a look that said “go.” It seemed to Caddie that her flinty eyes softened just a bit.
“I'll be at the gift shop,” Caddie said.
She headed the wrong way down the hall at first and had to walk past her father's room again before she found the elevator. No worries that her father or the nurses would notice her mistake. They were a circle of three, deep in conversation. She punched the down button and bumped the suitcase with her knee.
For her mother, Caddie had made endless batches of egg custard, every few days discarding the watery uneaten portions, replacing them with fresh ones. Time was counted in rows of little glass dishes lined up in her parents’ fridge. Her father had taken long solitary walks during her visits, or wandered through the aisles of the grocery stores, list in hand, mapping out his wifeless future.
“‘Do I want some grapes,’ he asks me. Now, he asks what I want. There is nothing he can do,” her mother said, waving away the tray set in front of her.
Caddie felt the downward plunge of the elevator car in her stomach and pressed her back into a corner. Her father would just have to put himself in her hands for the couple of weeks ahead. Her sainted brother lived a thousand miles away, with a nervous wife and three nervous children.
“You and your brother are apples and eggs,” her father had said during the muddled conversation in his kitchen ten days ago. “I can talk to him.”
“You mean he talks.”
Caddie added “convivial” to the long list of her brother's virtues. Her father handed over a large brown envelope.
“If I pack it in, you'll have my pension while you take care of things. It's all here.”
Dan told her to put all that paperwork away until it became necessary. Dan’s father had died when he was thirteen. He'd been talking about it more than usual while Caddie's dad was in the hospital.
The gift shop was full of breakable things, coffee mugs and praying hands paperweights made of an opaque glass. A china thimble hovered at the edge of its narrow shelf. Caddie placed a bet, and fall it did. It rolled intact under the legs of the glass display case of knitted toys and baby blankets.
Those must be what people steal, Caddie thought.
All she wanted right then was to hold her young son, but it was right to have left him home. His megawatt smile when she told him he'd be staying next door with Denise left no doubt. He'd come back from Denise's with tales of quinoa and kale for supper and the remnants of face paint on his chin and cheeks. For a moment, Caddie felt warm.
The two nurses and her father emerged from the elevator. He stood out of the chair immediately, and the charge nurse took his arm. He patted her hand as if they were old friends.
“All right, Dad?”
“Right as rain,” he said, and tottered down the walkway with Caddie at his heels. Dan had the car running in the pick-up zone, and two other cars idled in the lane, waiting to take the space. He got out and pulled the suitcase out of Caddie's hand, but she shouldered him away when he tried to help her father into the car. They ran a red light to get onto the bridge and Caddie wanted to smack him.
It was twilight by the time they crossed the strait on the big ferry and moonlit dark as they travelled the slow road up the peninsula. Her father dozed on and off, slumped in the back. Near Roberts Creek, he gasped and said,
“Slow down. When you see Greyfriars Road, turn left. Old Hugh Branford has a house down there. I want to see if he's still alive.”
They made the turn onto the narrow gravel road, but it was dead dark right down to the bottom. There was a car in Branford's driveway, not new but looking operational, and a Boler fifth-wheel sagging at the side of the woodshed. A flashlight beam poked out of the bush behind the house. Caddie recognized the tall, barrel-chested man moving into the clearing with a small dog on a leash.
Dan cut the engine and turned on the radio.
Caddie got out and waved.
“I'll just help my dad out of the back; he wanted to say hello.”
“Well!” The big man shouted. “Are you planning to get home tonight or were you looking for a bed?”
The little dog circled its master's legs and sat down.
Her father was having trouble turning his body to get out of the car. He gripped the doorframe and groaned to his feet.
“Heading for the last boat,” Caddie said. “He just wanted to say hello.”
“How are you, Branford?” Her father managed to ask.
“Better than you, I reckon. You look done for.” The two old men shook hands and shrugged at each other. “I think I heard your Rina died, is that so, Jock?”
“Yes,” he said. “Three years already.”
The two old men traded banter about the state of Branford's property and her father's health. There had always been so much talk whenever her dad met up with his friends. His face and voice changed when he was with them, everything lifted and brightened. Her mother had disliked them all.
“We should be going,” Caddie said. The worst part of the road was ahead, all blind corners and hairpin turns until they reached the cove where the small ferry would take them the last leg up the coast to home.
“I'll come and see you, Jock,” Branford said. “Not many of the old guard left anymore.”
“Not many,” her father agreed, and the two men shook hands again.
Caddie had to step between them to help her father get re-settled on the seat. She thought she felt cobwebs brush her face but it must have been a stray hair or two falling from someone's head. Surely they had not stayed long enough for even the most industrious spider to spin her threads around them.
A big raccoon leading her kids crossed in front of them as they drove up Greyfriars Road. She rose up on her hind legs in the beam of the headlights and challenged the car to pass. Caddie loved the chittering sound they made, although, unlike Dan, she was never fool enough to want to tame one.
“Mr. Branford was principal of my school, before we moved right into town,” Dan said as he turned back onto the dark highway.
This was new to Caddie and mildly interesting. Her father perked up at the sound of Dan's voice.
“Wildwood School? So he was, just before he moved up to the board office. Not an easy school.”
Caddie would have preferred her father stop talking. His voice was phlegmy, and his breath was short.
“He took a bunch of us to Vancouver Aquarium in seventh grade,” Dan said.” First time I ever saw the polar bears. Best thing that happened that year.”
“You could have said something to him just now,” Caddie said. This was the most Dan had said to anyone since they left the house that morning.
She couldn't trouble herself to answer.
“Good chap, old Branford.”
Caddie could hear her dad's breath wheeze in his half-empty chest.
“That's what people say to me about you these days. They stop me in the street.”
Caddie rubbed her tired eyes.
“Rest now. We'll be there in about half an hour. You can get yourself a chili dog on the boat.”
It was an old joke, her dad and his chili dogs with a Scotch chaser. Her stomach began to churn, and she put both hands on the dashboard.
“Sorry, sorry,” Dan said as he took a corner hard.
Caddie wished he would let her drive, but that would bring along its own aggravation. Dan turned around to check Caddie's father. No complaints were forthcoming from the curled-up form in the depths of the back seat.
When she was next aware, they were parked on the open car deck and a chill salty breeze was seeping through the cracked window. The sound of the water sloshing through the ferry engines rose and fell out of time with her father's slow, shallow breathing. Coast people are tidal creatures, she thought in that way she had of complicating things. Just as well Dan had gone upstairs. He didn't care for her imaginings, and as the years went by she began to get guilty pleasure out of sharing them. This needed to be a healing time for her father. Each of them, Dan, their son Evan, Caddie herself, had a part to play. For two weeks she could keep her nasty side to herself. More and more she was getting like her mother had been, full of poison darts.
Within a few minutes, the ferry was bumping up against the dock, and Dan came back to the car smelling of coffee and Old Port cigar. There'd be no more cigars for him for a while, no more clever remarks for Caddie. And Evan would have to be less of a boy until her father was up to going home.
She felt a familiar surge of energy as they drove up the long hill from the terminal and reached the straight stretch. Dan left the rest of the ferry traffic in the dust and they were in their driveway at ten to midnight. The nap had charged her up. She wanted to scrub floors and baseboards of every speck of grime, maybe clean out a closet or two. But there was nothing that needed cleaning. She wished she could run next door and wake up Evan, but he had school in the morning. Denise would get him fed, ready, and to the bus stop just as the sun rose.
She went inside and put on the kettle to boil while she helped her dad to his bed. He was as bright-eyed as she, but she felt the lack of strength in his body.
He sat on the edge of the mattress, working his feet from his shoes.
“One thing you could do,” he said. “Fetch those two bottles of Scotch out of the cupboard at my house. The rotgut and the good one.”
Dan came in with the trash from a day spent in the car and Caddie plucked the keys out of his hand.
“Just running over to Dad's.”
“I've got dayshift,” Dan said.
“I'll make your lunch when I get back. Go to bed.”
She went back into the kitchen and took the kettle off the stove.
“Does he want tea?” Dan said.
“Ask him,” she said, then took a calming breath.
“I won't be long.”
She found the good scotch where she'd last seen it, still in its canister, seal intact. The rotgut was next to the sink, a sticky glass beside it. There were maybe two fingers remaining, enough for a healthy nightcap. Next to the breadbox were a half-shredded plastic bag and couple of dry crusts torn into ragged pieces.
She picked up the bottle and swirled its contents, back and forth. She would not bring him cigarettes, no matter how many times he asked. Her father had given up his Craven 'A's only when the doctor threatened to cancel the surgery. The house still smelled powerfully of smoke; the drapes and carpet were thick with it. She grew up in a cloud and at twelve didn't hesitate to accept the first smoke offered her, but the habit never really took. Her mother had never smoked tobacco in her life, but she had gone first, and not easily. Caddie needed her mother. The strength of it shook her. She was the grownup, the caregiver, now. She put the bottles in a cloth bag and drove slowly back home.
Her father had changed into his pyjamas and lay atop the sheets, watching the television with the sound turned off. She set the cloth bag beside him.
“All's well at your house,” she said. “The mice, too.”
He took out the sealed canister and admired it.
“All right. I'll get a glass.”
From the kitchen she heard the vacuum pop of the lid being released. She put the heavy tumbler beside him on the end table. He held the bottle with both hands, supporting it as one would a newborn baby.
“That scotch is almost as old as I am,” she said.
He twisted the cap and the seal cracked open. With the first few drops came that singular scent of earth and heather that made Caddie want to hold her breath.
Her father leaned back and sighed, holding the glass against his breastbone. Caddie went back into the kitchen, took out bread, meat, biscuits, fruit, and made her husband's lunch.
Her father was groggy when she went in to say goodnight. He poured himself another drink and stared at her.
“You know, your mother would have walked out if she could have. Taken you and your brother both. If she’d had money.”
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to talk about that now, Dad. I need to get to sleep.”
“She was an unhappy woman, Caddie. There was nothing I could do.”
Caddie crossed her arms and pressed her lips together. She took the glass gently from his hand as his eyelids fluttered closed.
Dan crept out of bed at five. She'd barely slept. He sat back down on the bed when she waved a limp hand at him.
“I'm going to Dad's place to set out traps today. He can't go back to that.”
“Wait ‘til I get back from work.”
She turned over and pressed her face into her pillow.
“Evan will be home by then, you can't watch both of them.”
“You’re lucky to have him around, Caddie. My dad was gone so fast and I was just a kid. You’ve had him around all these years.”
He tugged at a strand of her hair.
“That’s what you should be thinking about right now. Right?”
“You’ll be late,” she said.
Dan closed the bedroom door behind him. The purr of his truck engine warming up lulled her to sleep, as always.
Her passage from sleep to waking was a shuffle-fall of memories, like a deck of cards. Her mother in the hospice bed, eyes black with pain. Her own feet slapping the linoleum to the nurses' station, the ward nurse stern and ugly in her denial. The long walk back to her mother's room, the short, useless apology. Her mother's smile, the worst thing.
Caddie opened her eyes to pale October light. She could hear the television chatter at the far end of the house. She put on her robe and raised the blinds. Spider silk laced the outside of the bedroom window, tiny flies caught among the filaments. She slid the window open and the web came apart, strand by strand.
Her father looked thinner in daylight. He hadn't put on his glasses, so she picked them up off the end table and handed them over. He was more himself with his specs; the way he raised his eyebrows to keep them set on the bridge of nose made him appear always a little startled, more alive. But the bottles visible at this time of the day gave an air of ruin, so she picked them up too and tucked them in a corner of the hutch.
“Best try to eat,” she said, “I've got your corn flakes.”
He ate some, holding the bowl on his lap, dipping the spoon with great care.
“I need to go into town soon. You'll be all right on your own for a while, eh?”
In her head she worked out configurations of traps, glue boards, and chunks of bait.
“I might call Stella,” her dad said.
When her mother was still at home someone had thought it a good idea to send a hospice nurse to the house, “to help.” Her mother had come to raging life at the sight of her. Death was the enemy, and this was death's serving girl. Caddie had sent her away, but her father had gone outside and talked with her for a long time. Not just that once, apparently. This Stella had phoned the day of his surgery, asking for news. The call could have been intrusive, but her voice on the phone was warm, low.
“I really like your father,” she'd said.
Caddie didn't remember much else about it.
She brought him the handset.
“Don't trouble yourself if it rings. Sure you'll be all right?”
“Yes,” he said.
Caddie picked up what she needed at the feed store and carted it by the armful into her father's house. She set everything down on the kitchen counter and pulled open all the curtains. A tired pallor had settled over the place, after just the past two weeks. Or had it been gathering since her mother's illness? She knew her dad had a service come to clean from time to time. Didn't he? For a few minutes she stood and listened. Where were they? Nowhere and everywhere, little secret creatures.
Just off the kitchen was the windowless pantry, fitted with dark wood shelves still laden with jars of preserves dated five years previous and big sacks of flour and oats. A mouse hotel if ever there was one. She pulled the string of the bare bulb overhead, hoping that if they were there and they jumped, none would land on her. The dim light revealed nothing, just more shadows and a smell of dust burning on the hot surface of the bulb. She baited the traps and set them on either side of the flour sack, which had a small tear on one side. The glue board went on the floor, pushed up against the inside wall. She hoped they found the trap. A fast kill would be easier than slow, for them and for her. In her head she practiced the hammer blow to the ones she found alive. Even in her head, she pulled back.
She went from room to room like this, sizing up the dark corners. In the living room, she remembered the skinny Christmas trees of her childhood, heavy strands of hot lights making their needles drop by Boxing Day. She wedged a trap in between the wall and the piano.
She thought she could smell them in the closet in her parents' bedroom where her mother had once scattered her high heels, where all the skirts and dresses so quickly disappeared after she was gone. She remembered the rustle of the fabrics her mother took such care in choosing for her party clothes–brocade, heavy satin, silk–almost like the sound of wings.
Her father's old clothes hung in a clump, as ever, taking up barely a third of the space. Caddie swept her hand between the hangers: no mice, just unaired wool and Dacron with no room to breathe.
She stood in the doorway for a minute or two, listening for a snap or a squeal, then locked up and left.
There was a blue Public Health van in the driveway when she got home so she took Dan's space beside the carport. She slammed her car door, but it was no more than a soft thunk and her house was built solid. They wouldn't have heard her from the living room. She walked around the side of the house and tried to keep her eyes on the ground but a crow dropping walnuts on the roof got her attention. Through the side window she saw them, sitting together on the edge of the unmade sofa bed. Her head was on his shoulder and she was talking, whatever she was saying made both of them laugh. Caddie turned back and went to the front steps. She was still sitting there when Stella came out of the house.
“Hey, Caddie,” Stella said.
She'd gone quite grey in the three years since Caddie had seen her. Her blue eyes and smile lines seemed intensified.
“So great that you can have your Dad stay here.”
He'd probably like it better with you, Caddie thought.
Stella sat down beside her, letting the silence settle between them. She heard her mother's voice in her head, her mother's words almost on her tongue, and didn't trust herself to speak.
“I'd like to come visit again, if it's all right.”
Stella, too, appeared to be struggling with something in her throat.
“Your dad and I are friends, but you're his daughter. He's grateful, Caddie. He thinks the world of you.”
It was as if Stella were speaking a foreign language. Her words had nothing to do with the way things had always been between Caddie and her father. She said,
"Do you remember my mother?”
Stella nodded and rubbed her forehead.
“She told me not to come back. Putting it mildly.”
More crows flew in and gathered on the roof. Caddie could hear the scrape of their beaks prying moss from between the shakes.
“Is he afraid?”
“I don’t think he is,” Stella said.
“Can we talk about it?”
Caddie expected Stella’s arm to snake around her shoulder, or her hand to squeeze Caddie’s arm. But she kept still, and her hands stayed folded. Caddie got to her feet.
“Okay,” she said. “When you come back.”
A dust devil tore up the driveway toward them. That time already? Evan had run down the hill from the school bus by himself and the thrill of it was all over him. He flung himself into Caddie's arms and the half-eaten apple in one hand stuck in her hair.
“Hi!” He shouted at Stella.
She laughed and said, “Hi to you!”
“Grampa's friend,” Caddie said.
Evan waved as Stella got into her van. He tried to squirm out of Caddie’s arms but she caught and held him again until the van was out of the driveway. He looked up and clapped his hands hard at the crows until they scattered.
“Resting. So you've got to get all your wiggles out before we go inside, okay?”
She flung him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and swayed back and forth until she felt him relax against her. For the first time she wondered if bringing her father here in this condition had been a bad idea. Evan had been barely two when her mother became ill. She couldn't bear to have her grandson near her, as if the hand of death might brush him with its fingertips.
Evan flinched, and she realized she was squeezing him too tight.
“Down you go,” she sang, and set him on his feet.
Her father’s eyes were closed when they went inside so she tip-toed Evan into his room, and they worked a puzzle together on the floor until the backdoor slammed open. Dan soon peered around Evan's bedroom door.
“He's awake and wondering where you all are,” Dan said.
Caddie got up off the floor.
“Go talk to Grampa, sweetie.”
She caught Evan's sleeve as he began to bolt.
“Slow speed, okay?”
He nodded and started to walk down the hallway toward the living room.
“When's supper?” Her husband asked. “I want to change the oil in the truck before dark.”
He was already walking away.
“Hang on,” she said. “Just stay here a minute.”
He stopped and turned to look at her.
She tried to sound sensible.
“My dad might not get better.”
Dan shook his head.
“That's pretty negative, Caddie.”
He was itching to get outside, she could tell.
“If you need help with supper, call me.”
Instead of going into the kitchen, Caddie went upstairs. She closed the bedroom door. Then locked it. She took the long brown envelope her father had given her weeks ago out of her desk drawer and pulled the string from around its seal. The expected documents were there, birth certificate, will, pension transfer, house title. She unfolded the will and looked it over. A simple split between Caddie and her brother and some small bequests, one to Hugh Branford for a large bottle of bad scotch. Separate from these was a small, flat bundle tied with a narrow blue ribbon. Letters addressed to her mother in her father's hand. She opened one, then another, and tried to read bits of each but had to close her eyes. She had never witnessed the love held in these scrawled words, but she saw it now like a flickering newsreel playing in her spinning head. She refolded everything, tucked it away.
From the hall, she heard the rattle of Lego pieces spilling and her son giggling. The living room carpet was awash with yellow, red, blue cubes and headless Lego people.
Her father stood at the edge of the rocky multi-hued sea holding the lid of the bucket.
“Grampa dropped it,” Evan said. “You better pick this all up, Grampa.”
“We'll pick it up,” Caddie said. “Sit down, Dad, before you fall down.”
She put her arm around her father's waist and let him lean on her a little as he lowered himself into Dan's easy chair.
He pulled a handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and held it against his forehead. After two ragged breaths he cleared his throat and appeared to relax. Evan gathered up an overflowing handful of blocks and Caddie knelt down and raked the remaining Legos into a mound.
“How long are you going to live here, Grampa?”
“We want Grampa to stay until he's all better,” Caddie said.
Evan nodded and put his arm around her neck.
“Day or two should do,” her father said.
Caddie leaned back on her heels.
“Dad,” she said. “I want you to stay.”
“We're ruled by women, lad.” he said to Evan.
He crumpled his handkerchief into his pocket. A spot on his trousers caught his attention and he tried to rub it away.
"Fetch me a drop when you get up, Caddie."
“Well,” Caddie said, “Maybe I’ll join you in a small one.”
His eyebrows rose.
“Will you? The good one, then. I’ve grown a taste for it.”
In the kitchen she poured out a couple of tots of the good scotch and took a sip. It warmed all the way down. She brought her father his drink and sat down on the carpet beside his chair. Evan circled them, hopping carefully on one foot then the other. Her dad tried to cross his legs, sighed and leaned forward a little.
“Does it hurt, Dad?”
“Somewhat,” he said.
They sat quietly until long after their drinks were empty. Evan built a Lego fence around them. When it was complete, he went to the back door where he stood like a guard against whatever was out there waiting to get in.
Carol Reid lives on the west coast of Canada, close to the north end of Highway 101. Her short stories and micro-fiction have appeared in many print and online journals over the past thirty years. Carol is the current fiction editor of MadHat Lit.
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.
By Daniel Ford
A stuffed duck peered at Mike from a shelf above the cashier’s head.
Ducks were her favorite. He didn’t remember why. She was just crazy about them. She made him call her baby duck. It was the only pet name they had, and she always lit up when he said it.
The teenage cashier with too many piercings and tattoos awkwardly held three bucks and a handful of coins in front of him. She was more annoyed than confused. There was a line—the usual suburban snake of grumps, foot-tappers, and thrifts eager to use their coupons.
“Do you want a receipt?”
“No, that’s okay.”
As Mike started walking away someone pulled his jacket.
“Excuse me? You forgot your bag.”
The woman had blond hair and heels.
“Thanks. Lost in my thoughts. I appreciate it.”
“Any time,” she said. “You mind me asking if you were over there?”
She motioned to the dog tags on his key chain.
“In that case, I should be thanking you.”
“That’s not necessary. I was doing it for my mother.”
“A momma’s boy, huh?”
“Born and raised.”
“And here I thought you guys were just bags of muscles.”
“I’ve got those too, but I love my momma.”
She giggled. Her laugh sounded like Muddy Waters’ “Kansas City” on vinyl.
Mike felt a pinch in the back of his neck.
“What are the odds you let a grateful citizen buy you a drink?” She asked.
“It’s a little early…”
“Didn’t say it had to be alcoholic,” she said.
“‘A waste of a drinking occasion,’ my father would have said.”
“Come on, we can start with coffee.”
Mix caffeine with whatever was happening? Mike thought. Probably not a good idea.
He was attracted to her honey maple rasp and stonewashed eyes, but he could feel the sweat moving in a long stream down the back of his knee. His socks were drenched inside his boots.
Mike’s father didn’t raise him to avoid giving his name and number to a beautiful woman, but he needed to immediately freak out in a secure bivouac. Outside, fall was closer than it had been yesterday. He tossed his bag in the trash and marched to his car, not even remembering what he bought.
Deep breaths, he thought.
Mike was still sweating when he sat down in the driver’s seat, but he wasn’t as angry. He started the car and turned the radio on. Music helped him ease out of it. He popped open the glove compartment. A picture of her was taped inside.
“Home,” he said.
The GPS charted his route. He turned his blinker on and waited for the traffic to die down so he could make a left turn. It took a bit, but the delay made him feel less surly.
“Are we ever going to leave this bed?”
“God, I hope not.”
“We have to at least attempt to do something today.”
“I’d argue that we’ve done plenty already.”
“I mean real things.”
“That all seemed pretty real to me. Seriously, what could you possibly want to do out there when you could keep making love to me in here?”
“You’re insatiable. Aren’t you hungry? I’m hungry.”
“One of us can go get food and the other could stay here and hold down the love fort.”
“Don’t say ‘love fort’ ever again.”
“Trying to get used to the lingo already? Can you believe the draft went that high?”
“With our luck, yes.”
“The news says things are improving, but now we need more muscle over there?”
“I’ll give you a full briefing when I get back.”
“I prefer you give it to me right now.”
“Ugh. ‘Ma’am’ doesn’t sound good on me.”
“Everything sounds good on you.”
“He bedded the girl and is still in hot pursuit. You’re not going to use those lines on other women over there are you?”
“Come on, give me some credit. I’d never re-use old material.”
“We’re not going anywhere, so get back under the covers.”
“Fine, but only because I’m chilly.”
“Pretty sure all my heat is gravitating to one place at the moment.”
“Well, I’ll just have to go where the heat is I guess. Consider this your incentive to come home.”
“Now I’m using teeth.”
Mike’s fifth therapy session didn’t go well.
He didn’t mind talking about things, which made his panic attacks even more arbitrary. If he were anyone else, every session would feature a breakthrough. For him it was chatting with a therapist who seemed just as disappointed that they hadn’t found anything close to a root cause.
Damn my parents for being loving and supportive, Mike thought. Would have been easy to pin all this on an abusive mother or absent father.
“Are the attacks happening more or less frequently?” Ernest asked.
“Same amount. More powerful.”
“I’ve been back a while.”
This room reminded Mike of most of the accommodations over there—federally mandated gray walls and IKEA-like furniture built by the lowest bidder. Ernest didn’t have a beard, which unnerved him a little bit. The guy could probably go a month or two without shaving.
How much knowledge and life experience could he actually have without the ability to grow facial hair? Mike thought.
Ernest paused his questioning to write a few more illegible lines in his notebook. He did a lot of writing during these sessions, which also caused Mike anxiety. His pen movements were swift, especially when he was crossing out full paragraphs. Mike was impressed that someone could think out loud and on the page simultaneously—even if that person was wrong most of the time.
“Do you feel like killing anyone during these episodes?”
“No. Feels more like high school heartbreak.”
“Did someone break your heart in high school?”
“Of course. Feels like we’re fishing here.”
“We are. Could you possibly have anything else to reveal?
“I was an altar boy as a kid.”
“Did you get molested?”
“Too bad. You’d be rich.”
Mike had told him about the killing. The fear, the sweating, the loneliness, the fire fights, the bullets he took, the blood, her death, the crying. The ability to open up about it all only provided more questions.
Ernest rubbed his cheek where his therapist beard should have been.
“Can you still get it up?” He asked.
“You’re pretty old. Can you get it up?”
“Nothing wrong with your sense of humor. So you didn’t think of any fresh ideas?”
“It’s pretty random.”
“Like the duck?”
“Like the duck.”
“Thinking about her doesn’t necessarily trigger an episode then?”
“If it did, I’d be in an asylum by now.”
“You think about the good and the bad?”
“Everything. I cry about it. I have a drink. I usually don’t have to flee the premises or check myself into the emergency room.”
“You don’t remember going?”
“Not until I regained consciousness. Woke up to a pretty hot nurse. Wish I hadn’t soiled myself when I walked in.”
“What were you doing before?”
“Can’t remember. In line for a movie maybe? I vaguely remember a woman screaming into a phone.”
“How many of your buddies died over there?”
“We lost guys too fast; I didn’t have time to make friends. I can’t picture faces. I only have snippets of a couple of guys. How he was shot. What info was on his dog tags. A hometown or two.”
“Ever feel guilty you survived?”
More old territory, Mike thought. Spinning in circles.
“Yeah, but I’ve always had bad luck. I guess I was saving up all my good luck to make it back. Living and carrying on seemed the best way to honor those guys who didn’t make it. Certainly better than being angry all the time.”
“I know. Pisses me off, too.”
Mike examined a bright blue beer bottle before bringing it to his lips.
Bud Light sucks unless you’re drinking it for free on a back deck with your brother, he thought.
He was alone at the moment. Phil had gone in search of meat they could dump on the grill. God willing, he’d return with a pair of cigars as well.
Phil and Mike didn’t have to be soldiers here. Phil had served well before all the real shit went down, but the system had used him just the same. Wounds of peace could be just as deep as those from war.
“Burgers?” Phil asked from the screen door.
“Got hot dogs?”
Mike finished his beer and started another.
“How’s therapy?” Phil asked, carrying a plate of red beef patties and pale hot dogs.
“I’m still fucked up.”
“I’m not. It’s a problem.”
“Want to fucking switch then, Sally?”
“Just stating a fact.”
“Seriously, let’s trade my aggression and depression for your ‘episodes.’ Jesus, you fought a war for years. I get a decade’s worth of paper cuts and I can’t sleep at night. Shit’s fucked up, man.”
“You did more than that,” Mike said.
He let his brother rant for a while and then got up to examine the disaster on the grill.
“These animals are deader than they were the first time,” Mike said.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“What are we going to eat now?”
“Adjust your skirt, sit down, and finish your fucking beer.”
Phil scooped up the blackened meat and dumped it into the trash barrel.
“You want help?” Mike asked.
“I’m not going to fucking tell you again. Keep fucking drinking!”
Mike laughed as Phil went back into the house fuming and did as he was told. He pounded his beer and then guzzled the next one. Then he opened up another and eased back into his deck chair.
While Phil dealt with solving their dinner crisis, Mike stretched out his legs. The alcohol was starting to hit home. His boots felt heavy and reassuring on his feet. Someone suggested he give sneakers a try, but Mike knew he’d never feel safe. Boots kept him ready. Poised.
He woke up one morning to find mortar shells for breakfast. The forward operating base’s makeshift walls fell apart like particle board. His roommate grabbed his M16, headed into the heat without his boots, slipped on the recently waxed tile in the hallway, and was decapitated by a shoulder-fired missile. Mike put his boots on, threw the body over his shoulder, and grabbed the head by the hair. A wall collapsed on him soon after. A military working dog found him a day later alongside the pieces of his roommate. He was half dead, but still had his boots—the only things he needed to stay alive.
“Chinese will be here in thirty minutes,” Phil said, returning bare-chested. What was left of his shirt ended up with the discarded meat. He slammed the grill cover and roughly threw on a white V-neck t-shirt. Mike would check his brother’s walls for holes later.
“You didn’t even ask what I wanted.”
“You haven’t ordered anything other than chicken and broccoli since you’ve been alive.”
“Maybe I wanted to switch it up.”
“I just calmed down,” Phil said. “Do you think you could lay off?”
He couldn’t have been too mad because he revealed a pair of Ashton cigars. Mike pressed the dark brown tobacco under his nose and inhaled deeply.
There isn’t a flower or perfume that smells this good, Mike thought.
Phil lit his and walked to the far corner of the deck, becoming a small burnt orange smudge. His midsection was fuller now, but his arms still contained the brawn he developed during his military career. Both brothers had inherited their mother’s obsidian hair, but Phil’s was graying prematurely like their father. Phil smoked his cigar like he did most things: swiftly and without enjoyment. He put it out in the half-broken terracotta platter next to him long before Mike reached the midway point of his.
“You’re an asshole,” Phil said.
“But a concerned one. You’re lucky to have me as a brother.”
The brothers waited for the food on the deck despite a drop in temperature.
“You remember when Mom would force Dad to grill during the winter?” Phil asked after what felt like a year of silence.
“I don’t think anyone ever forced Dad to do anything. I think it was the other way around. Dad forced his grilling on Mom.”
Their father loved being in charge of dinner. He’d grill anything and everything. Mike remembered him stationed in the backyard wearing a Yankees beanie. Half frozen beer on the side burner he never used. The dog whined incessantly to be let out, but their mother wouldn’t dare because that mutt would have died laying out there in the snow waiting for the old man. His face used to get redder than the raw meat. Mike couldn’t remember him happier.
Their father never talked as much as when he was out there with a poker or spatula in his hand. He wouldn’t shut up. If he had to have a serious discussion with anyone, he’d bring home a couple pounds of steak tips and take forever to cook them. Whoever needed straightening out would be standing out there in all kinds of weather willing the fire to burn hotter so they could run into the house where he wasn’t chewing their asses out. The family had the mother of all cookouts when he died.
He never saw Mike in uniform.
“What was that bird he tried to cook once? You know, the one where Mom ended up so pissed because it tasted like gravel?” Phil asked.
“That’s it. Worst Thanksgiving ever.”
“Pretty sure we ended up at McDonald’s and you threw up after eating twenty chicken nuggets in five minutes.”
Mike’s stomach burped, reminding him their takeout was late. He could tell Phil was anxious because he kept lighting his shoelace on fire and then quickly extinguishing it. He didn’t stop until the material blackened and fell into a pile of ash below his feet. The metallic scratch of the lighter held Mike’s attention until he started drooling boorishly. Phil smacked his arm in the “what the fuck’s wrong with you” manner only brothers can pull off right.
“You’re sure you’re not messed up?”
“Yep,” Mike said. “I’m going to take a piss.”
“Breaking the seal two beers in. That does not bode well for the rest of this evening.”
“I’ve had seven.”
“In that case, make sure you don’t piss all over my floor. Find some toilet water!”
Phil’s bathroom was still his wife’s. She had moved in with her mother when Phil had gotten too aggressive to be around her and the boy. They spoke often. She wasn’t giving up on him. They made it work and the kid was handling it well. They were functionally maladjusted.
The beer flowed swiftly out of Mike. His head felt a little fuzzy, but he wasn’t drunk. He couldn’t remember the last time he drank enough to feel inebriated. The medication kept him pretty level.
Mike glanced at the clock on the wall. It was stopped at a quarter to four. He had no idea how long he’d been here. He hadn’t wanted to stay this late. It had been days since he last visited her. He washed his hands on the pink hand towel and headed back toward the deck.
Phil had lit all the Tiki torches surrounding the deck. A half dozen takeout cartons were on the kitchen table.
Mike didn’t feel hungry, he felt panicked. Maybe he was drunk.
Drank and smoked too much without eating, he thought. As always.
However, his body told him he wasn’t cocked. He couldn’t tell if he was dizzy or disoriented from the water now pouring out of his eyes. He knocked over a food container trying to grab onto a chair. Phil yelled from the outside. Something about being careful.
His legs gave way, but his boots kept him upright. Mike took another deep breath and tried to focus his attention on the screen door. If he could get there, Phil would realize he needed help.
The deck was on fire. Mike blinked a few times to prove what he was seeing was real. Phil hadn’t been annoyed; he was the one in danger.
Mike’s training took over. He burst through the screen door, leaving it hanging stunned on its hinges. He wrapped his arms around Phil’s midsection and sent them both into the calm surface of the pool.
The spiky smell of chlorine invaded Mike’s nostrils and he lost consciousness before he could realize the fire hadn’t been real.
Mike finally made it to the cemetery after he left the hospital.
Phil had been in the bed next to him with a few broken ribs. There was a bouquet of flowers on the table near his bed. Mike was discharged before his brother woke up, but he was pretty sure Phil had been faking sleep so he didn’t have to talk to him.
Mike noticed someone had brought her flowers as well. They looked out of place though. She never cared much for plants. She preferred to have a bowl of fruit or a painting to add color to a room. Something she couldn’t kill and then feel guilty about.
Mike had been sweating through his fatigues in a desert mess hall when she died.
A full bird colonel had approached him on his way back to his bunk. He hadn’t had his helmet on during morning drills, so he had braced himself for a good hiding. Half the world was on fire, but God forbid his lid was unprotected. Protocol trumps perspective in the Army.
He had given Mike the news empathically. He had saluted the officer, thanked him, and went to his bunk to cry privately. Nothing happened at first, but eventually, he wept for days.
The enemy had sent snipers to the U.S. It took a while to eliminate them all. The Army had to take over a few cities. There were refugees at Denny’s and Costco. Traitors were suspected everywhere. The news media would have gone even crazier had the government not suspended the First Amendment for a few months. It took years to sort out. All the soldiers serving in the U.S. ended up institutionalized. And forgotten.
She ended up in the ground.
There was no romance to it. She hadn’t been driving to meet Mike’s incoming flight. She just ran into dumb luck with a bullet attached to it. Copycat snipers sprung up in a few towns. She had been stopped at a light, the bullet pierced the windshield. Mike had heard from some people in town that a few assholes behind her had honked their horns.
He never knew what to do standing in front a tombstone. Typically, he hung around until his feet hurt. He thought about and discussed her so much outside these gates that he had nothing left by the time he visited.
Despite her preference for life and happiness, she was much more comfortable dealing with death than he was. She had an older family, so she dutifully attended funerals, brought holiday decorations to cemeteries, and recited a handful of prayers if nothing else seemed appropriate. She knew when to be solemn and when to lighten the mood. Mike was by her side for quite a few of those moments, and she never failed to make everyone feel a little better. Mike, on the other hand, giggled awkwardly when he should have been silent and stoic. He was assigned grave duty when he first landed over there. He just dug the holes, filling them in was another private’s job. He kept death at arm’s length, and it rewarded him with a ticket home and a lover in a casket.
At least Mike’s episodes abated while he stood here motionless. That’s how he knew she didn’t have anything to do with what was happening to him. Memories of her, large and small, were everywhere he went, and they were always welcome additions to his daily life. He wasn’t religious by any stretch, but he believed there was a script people couldn’t possibly understand. It wasn’t his time to be with her, so Mike had to be satisfied with the time that came before.
When he got drafted, both of them just assumed they’d have plenty of time to work it out when he returned. If he returned. He often thought about what their wedding day would have been like. Her side of the church would have been full. He supposed he could have hired a few people to supplement his shrinking family. All of his friends (and Phil) would be standing up beside him. She probably would have taken pity on him and loaned him a few bodies so that his parents weren’t lonely.
Mike would have loved her wholeheartedly forever.
He checked the time discreetly. He didn’t want her to think he was bored. After his poolside heroics, the doctors upped his medication. Mike figured they would have been impressed that his subconscious instincts led him to help instead of hurt. Over there, he would have been given a medal and a promotion. The Army may have even burned down the deck to ensure the feel good story had a ring of truth to it. Instead, Mike got six pills and a schedule.
“Goodbye, baby duck,” he said.
Mike couldn’t keep a smile from forming on his face. He let it have its moment before he headed to his car.
Mike took an open seat at the counter of his favorite diner.
Diners were one of the rare things they disagreed on. She hated them. She always complained the food was too greasy. She had a strange phobia of eating where she could watch her food being cooked.
"Coffee?" Thomas, the owner, asked, already pouring Mike a cup.
His gentle face was betrayed by a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses he claimed he had been wearing since the late 1950s. He opened the place at five a.m. thirty years ago, yet his button-down shirt and black slacks didn’t have a visible stain or wrinkle. He was lean, bald, and the horniest widower Mike had ever met.
"Actually, do you have tea?"
"Are you shitting me?"
"Yes, keep pouring."
"I'll be back with your chili, asshole."
Mike didn’t make it a habit of pairing chili with his morning coffee. He was skirting the line between breakfast and lunch, so Thomas was probably hedging his bets. He liked to have Mike’s food ready before he ordered it. Thomas never gave him a menu and loved to use him as a guinea pig for new recipes. He didn’t charge, so Mike couldn’t complain about the extra bathroom time some of the man’s experiments induced.
Mike added a few extra sugars to eliminate some of his coffee’s strength. He listened in on the conversation the older regulars were having about the hometown AAA team’s tough late-inning loss last night. So-and-so blew the save, and the much-heralded, brawny outfielder struck out four times. These old timers were cataloging statistics with the ease of Bill James. They were even sophisticated enough to include WAR, FIP, and OPS+, but most of them agreed that they were bullshit. A guy was a baseball player or he wasn’t.
Mike tuned out and absorbed the diner’s music. He was convinced Thomas had his daughter positioned in front of a cassette tape boom box. Mike did have to admit that there usually was a respectable amount of oldies, folk, and classic rock. There are few places in the world he was able to relax (thanks to recent events, that list was even smaller), but he felt right at home with these old bastards, degenerates, and hungover hipsters.
“I had a feeling I’d run into you soon enough,” a voice said behind him.
Mike swiveled in his seat and found himself staring at a familiar pair of long legs. She had her blond hair worked into a ponytail, which matched perfectly with her dark yoga pants and purple sneakers. Her torso was all rebel; she wore a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and a black leather jacket that made him long for a Marlboro Red.
“You going to gawk, or ask me to join you?” She asked.
The typically mute and motionless South American regular sitting next to Mike immediately shifted to the next open stool as soon as he caught sight of her. He encouraged her to sit down with his broken English and wayward eyes.
“Do you mind?” She asked.
“Of course not, ma’am,” Mike said. “But I’d watch him, he gets handsy.”
The guy didn’t understand, but nodded his head vigorously.
“I’ll take my chances,” she said. “Do all military guys talk like you?”
“We’re polite killers. I’m Mike.”
She grabbed his hand before he had a chance to fully extend it. Her grip was as strong as any commanding officer’s.
“What can I get you, darling?” Thomas asked.
Mike noticed his baritone dropped an octave.
“Oh, I’ll have whatever he’s having,” she said.
“He’s having coffee and chili.”
“Well, that won’t do,” Nikki said. “What do you recommend?”
“For you?” Thomas gave her an exaggerated once over, which made her giggle. “Tea, scone, and half of my bank account after our inevitable divorce.”
“Make it a blueberry muffin and you’ve got a deal. They look delicious!”
“Can I expect my omelet any time soon?” Mike asked.
“You’re getting chicken pot pie today. Homemade. You’re going to love it,” he said. “At least you better, I ordered ingredients for a week.”
Thomas walked away, but not before giving Mike a couple of animated fist pumps.
“So, this is where you hang out?” Nikki asked.
“Either here or the strip club,” Mike said. “I work the afternoon shift.”
“I’d pay good money to see that. What do you actually do for a living?”
Shit, Mike thought.
He wasn’t looking for anything, but he certainly didn’t want to scare her away completely. Another added bonus of surviving that desert cemetery was a decent combat pension that allowed him to be pretty fluid about employment. He worked as a bouncer one night, a grocery clerk the next. He may have even worked security for a local strip club. The low point was signing up to be a clown at a farm hosting an event for military families. Some kid stole his red nose.
A hand slapped Mike’s back. He almost spilled his coffee all over Nikki. Ernest’s clean-shaven chin appeared over his shoulder.
Gang’s all here, Mike thought.
“This cover band is making a hash of this Warren Zevon song, don’t you think?” Ernest asked.
“I think this is him,” Mike said. “The speakers suck.”
“You guys want to move this to that table that just opened up?” Thomas asked. “I’ll send this knucklehead’s chili over when you get settled.”
“Chili and coffee?” Ernest asked.
“We’ve been here already,” Mike said. “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”
Nikki eagerly strutted over to the table. Mike caught Ernest’s arm.
“Is this allowed?”
“As long as I pay, sure,” Ernest said.
“In that case, after you.”
“You mind if I excuse myself to use the ladies room first?” Nikki asked.
Mike made a big show of gesturing toward the restrooms. His goal was to keep her interested long enough to figure out if he could still be interesting.
“You like Warren Zevon?” Ernest asked.
“Do you have a favorite song?”
“I’m partial to ‘Searching for a Heart.’” Mike held up his hand. “It’s not a thing, I just like the tune.”
Ernest laughed and Mike half expected him to pull out his notebook and write it down.
“I’ve always dug ‘Werewolves of London,’” Ernest said.
“Then can you tell me what the hell that song is about?”
“You’re the worst. Why was I referred to you again?"
“The government likes cheap.”
“They didn’t pay you to follow me, did they? As you can see, I’ve already got someone on my tail.”
“Are you considering asking her out?”
“I feel if I answer that question, I’m going to get an invoice tomorrow,” Mike said.
Mike’s hand started shaking. He didn’t notice it at first because his mug was empty and he still hadn’t eaten anything. He knew he was in real trouble when the tremors reached his elbow. The diner’s sweet symphony of assorted languages, whitewashed porcelain plates meeting cheap metal tables, and fry cooks flirting with waitresses coalesced into a high-pitched whine that threatened to lacerate his eardrums. Mike could see Ernest’s concerned expression, but he knew if he didn’t use whatever motor skills he had left, he wouldn’t make it to the bathroom. He sloppily exited the booth, slurred incoherently, and took three long strides past the counter.
Mike lowered his shoulder through the bathroom door, sank to his knees, and lifted the seat without studying its condition. He violently threw up a mix of half-digested coffee and medication. The sight of it made him vomit even more. He emptied myself out, but his body refused to believe it. Dry heave after dry heave forced his head further into the bowl. It felt as if all his ribs were cracking. The ringing in his ears was deafening. He wept as hard as he was throwing up.
Mike’s body finally began to accept he had nothing left to give. He swallowed hard, forcing down whatever stomach acid had been on its way up. He flushed the toilet and collapsed.
He felt drunk, as if he had spent the morning chasing gin and tonics with rotgut whiskey. He could hear a voice shouting at him. Phil. His brother was trying to open her door. He kept telling Mike to be quiet.
Mike’s deployment date was close. Phil had decided his brother needed a sendoff that would require a liver transplant. Mike drank every shot handed to him and smoked a cigar every hour. A cheap champagne fight broke out, which added a layer of suds.
Phil lost his grip on Mike, whose head slammed against the door. He didn’t feel anything and tried to drunkenly explain that there was a trick to the lock. He didn’t get a chance to try it. She was standing in front of them with a baseball bat in her hands. She thought someone was breaking in. The rest of the men scattered.
Mike fell into her arms and then immediately hit the floor. She didn’t have the upper body strength to catch him. She made him crawl to the bathroom, poking him with the end of the bat to keep him moving. Mike managed to slide into the tub before she dumped a gallon of ice water on his head. He lost his breath and started crying. All of his insecurities and fear rushed out.
“Why are you with me?” He asked. “You could be with anyone. Why did you choose me? You can run away after I leave. Don’t wait for me. I love you too much to see you waste your time. I don’t want to die. I want to stay here with you. Why are you with me?”
“Because I love you” was her answer to most of his questions.
The others she ignored. She was his forever and he couldn’t believe it fully. All her love didn’t seem possible.
Didn’t she harbor some kind of unrequited love for someone? He thought. How could she possibly love him with her whole heart?
He was laid out like a starfish thinking about all this when she returned hours later to dredge him out of his emotional waste.
“Get up,” she said. “Get up and I’ll figure out a way to make it all go away.”
She may have only said it once, but Mike heard it on repeat.
Mike shouldn’t have looked at himself in the mirror. His cheeks were hollowed out and he was the color of a Styrofoam cooler. He didn’t have the strength to splash water on his face, so he unlocked the door and rejoined the world.
His breakfast companions hadn’t left.
“You want to talk about it?” Ernest asked.
“Not until I’m legally obligated.”
“He’s fine,” he said to Nikki.
Mike didn’t want to face her, but he did. The cloth she pressed to his forehead was cold, but her smile was warm.
“Welcome back,” she said.
Mike needed shaving cream.
He had been using soap and water for weeks since prematurely trashing his last purchase. His skin was getting raw. He could have asked Phil for some, but it had been awkward since Mike had saved him from flames that hadn’t actually existed. The only good thing that came out of the whole scenario was that his wife and son moved back in.
Mike considered banning shaving all together. Would have been a hell of a lot easier. He looked good with a beard, but she used to hate it. A beard meant she wouldn’t kiss him. He couldn’t live without her lips, until he had to.
Deep fall had set in, so he knew the ducks would be gone. He glanced at the front counter on his way in and was proven correct. He walked down the center aisle, confident he would escape this trip unscathed.
They didn’t have his preferred brand. He eyed the cheapest one and noticed soap was on sale.
Do I need soap? He thought. I’m still showering, right?
A guy in line started chatting up the women in front of him. Mike’s ears honed in and heard him deliver a line that would have made Bill Clinton blush. The woman was visibly offended. Her voice sounded familiar. Sure enough, it was Nikki, who had a young kid with her. She hadn’t mentioned him. He could be a nephew. Either way, considering how well their last meeting went, he didn’t blame her.
Mike watched the guy back off. She wasn’t in any trouble and didn’t appear to see him.
Small miracles, he thought. Now, do I want “Alpine Shower” or “Misty Springtime?”
That’s when it jumped him.
Mike started to see numbers form, but they didn’t mean anything. They appeared one at a time. Over and over again. The sequence didn’t add up. He wasn’t looking at a birthday, anniversary, or an online password.
He shut his eyes. He thought he heard shouting, but couldn’t tell if it was part of the episode or reality. It sounded like an ambush or tactical strike. Each shout he heard sounded like hot metal striking flesh.
“Wake up soldier,” Mike said.
He was in his apartment, which was a mess. The table was set, but dinner was abandoned on the stove. Deep pink lipstick rimmed an empty wine glass. He heard laughter coming from his bedroom. He had a towel wrapped around his waist. He followed the trail of discarded clothing. He pushed the bedroom door open and found her curves ensconced underneath a slim sheet.
“Hey,” she said.
“You’re not real,” Mike said.
“You keep saying that, but I keep showing up.”
“I needed to get shaving cream. And now I’m here.”
“Take off your clothes and get back in this bed.”
“I’m only wearing a towel.”
“My lucky morning. Not too many of those left. Get into the bed and bring that with you.”
His towel had parted.
“I want us to do it 343 times. You’re not going to stop until I tell you to.”
“What did she say?” Mike asked out loud.
He was half back in reality. He could see her in the bed in the paper supplies aisle. He could reach out and touch her hips next to a 12-pack of toilet paper.
She gestured to him to lie down. She never wanted him to leave the bed. But there were postseason baseball games to watch, a fantasy football team to manage, bank accounts to worry about, affairs to get in order before basic training. All she needed was for him to be next to her and he kept putting it off. He always walked in to a comatose lover buried underneath every blanket he had. He’d squeeze her firmly, reclaim a square of the comforter, and fade to sleep adamant that he’d make it all up to her the following night. It never happened. He ran out of tomorrow nights.
“Did I stutter?” She asked. “How are you going to follow orders when you can’t hear shit? Or are you embarrassed because I caught you checking out that blond?”
“I was just being friendly. I’m only human.”
“What could she possibly have that I don’t?”
She threw the sheet off the bed. Her skin was illuminated like a soft white light bulb. She moved slightly so her ass was in full view, and then laid flat on her back. She fully opened her legs.
“How much wine did you have without me?” She asked. “I said make love to me, silly. Maybe I’ll break you, and you won’t have to leave.”
“The Army would probably draft you instead.”
“I’m too much to handle,” she said. “Stop wasting time. Let’s get to it. I want my 343.”
343, Mike thought.
They came one after another again, slowly this time.
His draft number.
The woman ahead of him in line for the movie was reciting a telephone number. His brother’s clock had been stopped at 3:43. All those baseball stats at the diner must have included a three, a four, and a three. The soap was three for $4, and the shaving cream was three bucks. his change from his first pharmacy visit was $3.43. It had never been the ducks.
Son of a bitch, Mike thought.
His mind flipped solidly into the present and started working on a new callous for his newly discovered wound.
“He’s got a gun!”
The screaming hadn’t been an illusion. The customers in the aisles had hit the ground. Those by the registers were catatonic. The guy from before had Nikki’s arm in a vise grip. His other hand held a .38 Special snub nose. He had it pointed at the cashier. His speech was slurred, his clothes were dirty, and his hair was unwashed. Mike could see the outlines of the guy’s dog tags in the back pocket of his fraying khakis. Maybe Mike knew him over there. The man had come home and lost his way. Or maybe it was the other way around. The danger was real this time.
“Sir, please drop the gun,” Mike said.
The man lowered the weapon to his hip and turned his head just enough to survey his new enemy with his peripheral vision. He shoved Nikki away.
Mike felt pretty dumb. He was unarmed and was putting a crowd of people in more risk. He hadn’t consciously raised a fist in anger since he arrived back home. The only advantage he had was that this guy still had his back to him.
The guy’s elbow flinched and his right foot moved just enough for Mike to figure out he had made up his mind to shoot.
Mike’s forearm disrupted his aim, but didn’t disable his trigger finger. A bullet tore through Mike’s right bicep. There was more screaming. Mike ignored the pain and threw his left fist into the guy’s face. The robber dropped immediately. The gun discharged again, but the stray bullet only shredded a bag of cheese puffs. Mike picked up the gun and emptied out the rest of the ammo. He walked calmly to the hardware section and grabbed an extension cord. He turned the former soldier over on his stomach and tied his hands. The threat had been neutralized.
“You can call the police now,” Mike said to the cashier.
She yelped, but picked up the phone. Mike felt hungry and a little lightheaded.
“There’s a lot of blood, so she should call the paramedics too,” Nikki said.
She was right. His shirtsleeve was bright red.
“Thanks,” he said.
Once the paramedics arrived, they stopped the bleeding and bandaged Mike’s arm. They told him to stay put until they gave him a final once over after they checked out some of the older customers who were finally calming down. The cheese puffs hadn’t made it.
Nikki’s kid stared at him, trying to get the courage to ask something.
“Did it hurt?”
“Just bad luck with a bullet,” he said.
“Were you a solider over there?”
“Well, thanks for saving my mom,” the kid said.
“Sure thing. How old are you?”
“You like school?”
“Just don’t join the Army someday,” he said.
The kid made a face that clearly showed his frustration with yet another adult telling him what to do. Mike could see Nikki giving the police officer an earful. She was going to press charges up the ass.
His body started freaking out, starting from the pit of his stomach. He was going to throw up all over this kid. Or throw him through the automatic door.
A worried survey of his immediate surroundings found his draft number missing. The cop’s badge number was a mix of fives, sevens, and nines. All the price tags in the area were out of sight. None of the promotional signage featured a three, four, or three. The kid was the only person within a foot of him.
Fuck me, he thought. He’s 10. Three plus four plus three.
Mike flashed back to a peach orchard.
She stood up and proudly showcased a small peach. She held it close to her smile. Norman Rockwell would have had a field day.
The present returned. Mike decided not to wait for the paramedics and resolved that growing a beard was a safer alternative.
The kid stared at him awkwardly again.
“Take it easy,” Mike said.
Daniel Ford is an author based out of Boston, Mass. He's also the co-founder and co-host of Writer's Bone. His short story, “Cheap,” can be found on Amazon. Ford is currently in the process of shopping his first novel, Sid Sanford Lives!
To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page.