I walked into a clacking of pool balls and a velvet layer of cigarette smoke drifting around the poorly ventilated bar. I saddled up across from the bartender and motioned for a beer on tap. Two stools away was a three hundred pound man who was barely recognizable, and if he hadn’t looked my way and grunted, “Trigger,” I wouldn’t have known him at all. Only three people called me Trigger, and two of them were killed in a car wreck ten years earlier. When I was thirteen, me, my cousin Gary, along with two of his friends went out back of Grandpa Jones’ property to hunt grouse. Stampede, Grandpa’s black lab was tagging along for the hunt. He got ambushed by a pack of coyotes and they tore him up pretty bad. By the time we shot one and scared off the rest, something had to be done with Stampede. He had half his insides spread out over the dew covered morning and was howling out a blood curdling wail. We drew straws and I lost, I was the trigger man.
“Hey Gary, How are ya?”
“What brings you home?”
I hadn’t visited my hometown in twenty-five years, back when my last parent passed away. After that, I meandered around for awhile and then took my talents down south, where writers are needed, and not thought of as out of work artists. “Needed to come home, needed to feel the past. How you been?”
“I had a bout with meth. After it was done with me, I went to a hundred and fifty pounds, then after I was done with it, I went to this.” He pushed away from the bar and slapped his belly. “I gained back my weight and then some.” His face was flush and puffy. He looked like a heart attack waiting to happen.
“How’s your family?
His dad was my mom’s nephew, even though they were almost the same age. Gary had half dozen sisters, all younger, all still living in the area. I had a lot of cousins whose last names were different, so gossiping around me ran the risk of bringing up kin.
I asked the bartender, “I thought you couldn’t smoke in buildings anymore?”
“You can’t but no one complains,” he bent forward, “We let them smoke because it keeps them drinking. No one complains.”
I got his insinuation and smiled. I slid my beer over two stools and re-sat next to Gary. “Good to see ya man.”
“I read an article about ya.”
“Me?” I put my hand to my chest. “About?”
“You won some award down there in Los Angeles for something you wrote.”
“Yeah, well, work is work.”
“I’m jealous, if I’m being honest.”
Gary was heir to all of his dad’s fortune, and his property out in the valley was a farming Mecca. Gary was never going to be without. “Why?”
“Come on Jack. You left and never looked back. You don’t sit up here and rot away your existence.”
I thought about it, “No, not up here, but I rot nonetheless.”
He laughed, “I seriously doubt that.”
I left our hometown with a goal of working for myself. I worked for a studio doing nine to five shit all day long, it was as if I never moved, just changed careers. “Coming from you that surprises me. Life is good to you. I know you must be running Uncle Ron’s operation.”
“You’re right, and one day I’ll be buried right next to him, who will be buried next to his father, and so on. That’s the point.”
Gary was venting over a silver spoon. I smiled and he knew why.
“Hey Faggot!” a younger man stood at the end of the bar.
I had too many friends in the industry that were gay to be offended, besides, being offended over something that didn’t pertain to me was not my style, it only fueled my humor. “Are you speaking to me?”
“Are there any other faggots in the room?”
I quipped, “Sorry, I’m already spoken for. You’ll have to get another date.” I pointed to the bartender for three beers.
“Look dude, I realize I look like I’m from out of town.” I had on a pineapple short sleeve shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals, “but I don’t have cork boots, flannel shirts or red suspenders,” I pointed at his, “that say STIHL on them to prove I’m a local. Sorry to disappoint you, but I promise you if I get up off this stool, I bet I can punch you three times before you can lift a fist. Problem is, after that, this aging body will need to sit down and rest. I don’t think my cousin here is up to helping, although I bet he has a gun on him and then this escalates into something much worse than you and I are prepared to deal with.”
“Cousin? Uncle Gary you know this guy?”
I handed Gary a beer and slid another down towards my adversary. “Let’s be merry and gay!”
Gary lifted his glass and looked over, “This is Cousin Jack.”
“Sorry guy, I didn’t know.”
I asked Gary, “One of our relatives?”
“Yeah, that’s Tina’s boy.”
Her kids were little when I moved away. I remembered her having a boy about ten at the time, “This that little kid who got into the manure pile the one Fourth of July?”
Gary laughed, “One and the same.”
I watched as he apologetically walked back to the pool tables, sloshing beer onto the floor behind him. I sat there at the bar for another two hours, catching up on twenty five years lost in time, lost in my quest to find my soul in a life not there, not in the confines of the hallowed ground I traipsed on as a boy. Gary was my conduit to catching up on the doings of a town I hadn’t thought about other than in reflections on raining Los Angeles days, something we didn’t have many of. When I got ready to leave the young man who had insulted me earlier, came up and shook my hand, said he didn’t mean any harm. In truth, had our degrees of separation not been so close, harm is exactly what we would have extolled on each other, and at my age, harm is something I neither wanted for myself or others.
Before I got to the door, Gary called out, “You going to make it out to the farm to say hi to dad?”
I had the door open, smoke pouring out like liquid from a bottle, out into a crisp June evening, the sun having departed hours earlier, “I’d like that. Let me see what I can do.”
I didn’t make it out to say hi, and the last time I saw his dad was when I came back next time, for his dad’s funeral. I said goodbye instead.
“My daughter is getting married tomorrow.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“I don’t know, it seems like time has flown by.”
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
“Tracy, same as my wife. She looks like my wife.”
“You know, if you ask me, you don’t look old enough to have a daughter getting married. Is she young?”
“Not that young. Twenty-three. Let’s face it Doc, I’m eternally young looking.”
“Okay, wipe the smile from your face, being young-looking can be a curse. What’s your wife think of that?”
“She looks like she did the first day I met her. She’s kept her youth as well.”
“Well then, you two are made for each other and very fortunate. What’s bothering you, Jack?”
“Doc, I can’t get this weird feeling out of my head about my past.”
“Do you think your daughter’s marriage is bringing it on?”
“Well, maybe…but maybe not. It’s more like I can’t remember that much about yesterday but I can remember everything twenty-five years ago.”
“How old were you twenty five years ago?”
“Uh, what, twenty-three.”
“Same age as your daughter.”
“Yeah, same age.”
“So were you with your wife twenty five years ago?”
“No, it was just before I met her that my memories are so vivid.”
“Okay, so what was going on in your life at that time?”
“I had just finished college and I was still dating my college sweetheart, or we were actually breaking up.”
“Wait, are you telling me that the vivid memories are from just that period and not all the years before that as well?”
“No, those are vivid too, but that time period is what’s bothering me.”
“Why that period?”
“Because it’s right after that that I have a memory loss.”
“What can’t you remember?”
“How I met my wife, how we had a child, where we lived.”
“What about now? You know where you live now don’t you?”
“Of course, but that’s because we moved back to the place I was living twenty-five years ago.”
“Take me back. Just relax and tell me about twenty-five years ago.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Where were you living?”
“West side of
“Were you working?”
“I was a salesman at an electronics store. Same thing, same place I am now.”
“Was your girlfriend living with you?”
“She had moved out a few months before that.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“I was crushed. I mean I was a wreck.”
“Good God. I had never had hives before and I would breakout every time I would call her up and ask her to come back, which I would do daily.”
“Sounds like you were pretty obsessed to call every day?”
“Obsessed? I was in love.”
“And was she is love with you?”
“I thought she was, I mean we lived together for Christ sake. I gave up my college fucking career for her. She was everything to me and she just decides to leave? What the fuck is up with that?”
“Calm down. It was years ago and a lifetime of events have occurred since then.”
“That’s just it Doc, everything since then is eroding away and that’s the only thing I can think about.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“The night my memories quit registering.”
“What happen that night?”
“Tracy and I got into a fight…”
“That was also my girlfriend’s name.”
“My wife reminds me of her. They look a lot alike.”
“So, you two got into a fight? About what?”
“I had given up.”
“Given up? You mean you had no will to live?”
“You’re funny Doc. No, I mean I had accepted that she wasn’t coming back. I wrote her a Thanksgiving card letter. I told her I would always love her but if she was happy without me, then I wished the best for her.”
“Did you mean it?”
“Yes and no. I was willing to walk away but I was hoping the letter would show her that I was a better man and worth keeping. Anyway, she shows up two weeks later at my door and wants to see me.”
“She had started dating this guy and wasn’t sure if it was right for her.”
“That must have been painful?”
“No! God no. I was happy. She was confiding in me. Doc, I was sure she wanted me back.”
“So what happen?”
“Nothing, that was the sick part. She asked if she could spend the night. Oh yeah, I was ready for that, except all she did was kiss me goodnight and roll over that night. I wanted to make love to her and she didn’t want to have any of it.”
“Now that must have hurt.”
“You have no idea.”
“Trust me Jack, I think I do. So you got into a fight with her about that?”
“No, but when I saw her chest the next morning I think she was trying to spare me, because she had hickeys going all the way across her chest. I think she thought I would blow up if I had seen them that night. Anyway, she left without incident and I started calling her again.”
“So when did the fight take place?”
“When was that?”
“About a week later.”
“And how did that take place?”
“She had agreed to go to dinner with me on her birthday. I think I sort of begged her into going but it was set up. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together but I scrounged together enough to get a reservation at The Lance.”
“I was going to be so cool and sophisticated.”
“Is cool and sophisticated what she liked?”
“What did you like about her?”
“She was everything I wasn’t.”
“She was from the city and had refined taste. I was country. She was learned in sex and took me to places I had never been. Man she was good in bed. I couldn’t get enough of it from her. She was funny and smart. She was cute, but could dress and look like a woman. We would go to these parties her friends would put together and she turned me on to good wine, fancy drinks, and designer drugs. But mostly she made me feel like I wanted to be somebody”
“But I thought you said she caused you to quit school?”
“That’s the weird part. She made me feel like I wanted to be somebody right now. I had no patience anymore.”
“Sounds like you lost your innocence too?”
“Yeah, she leaves me and takes my fucking youth away too. That was messed up.”
“So did dinner that night not go well?”
“Dinner didn’t go at all.”
“I called and called and fucking called some more and her phone just rang and rang.”
“So what happen?”
“I drove over to her place.”
“And she wasn’t there.”
“But you found her?”
“No, I waited in my truck, in the dead of winter, with no heat until ten at night. Finally, a car pulls into her parking spot and some dude opens her door and sees her to her apartment. Of course, I can’t leave well enough alone so I sneak up to the stairwell and get the wonderful opportunity to see them in a deep passionate kiss. I could have puked.”
“So why didn’t you go home?”
“You’re the fucking doctor, you tell me? I didn’t go home because I had to get this rotten shit she did to me off my chest. I spent three years with this bitch and I think I deserved to be treated a little better than that.”
“Jack, you’re the one that said you sort of pushed her into it. It sounds like she didn’t want to be with you. Why not see that?”
“If I hadn’t been in love I’m sure that would have been so much easier to see and do. You know, she knew I was head over heels in love with her. She should have never come over to my place if she had no intentions of rekindling our romance. I was wounded and needed to recover. She just couldn’t let me go without dangling herself in front of me one last time to see if she could make me want her again.”
“I thought you said you never quit loving her?”
“I didn’t but she didn’t know that. My letter gave her up. She even said the night she came over that she didn’t know if she could start over with me but she sure as hell couldn’t stand someone else with me. What kind of remark is that to someone trying to figure out life?”
“It’s not right, but sometimes people say things they think are going to soothe.”
“Doc, you think that’s soothing?”
“No, she shouldn’t have said that. So tell me, what happen?”
“I waited until the guy left and then I went up the stairs and knocked on her door. When she came to the door, she asked from the other side, ‘Who’s there?’ and I answered, ‘Me’.”
“Did she open it?”
“She put the chain on the door before peeking out, as if I was a stranger.”
“Did she let you in?”
“No, I let myself in.”
“I broke the damn door. Doc, I was pissed. How dare she stand me up. At least have enough balls to not say yes in the first place and if you do say yes, then fucking go!”
“Calm down. It’s too many years ago to get those hives again.”
“So you’ve broken in. What ensues?”
“Nothing at first, she’s so calm and sweet that everything’s fine. She apologizes and sits me down on the couch to explain things.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that her boyfriend wanted to work things out and that she owed him that.”
“What did you say?”
“What do you think? I was the boyfriend as far as I was concerned. I thought it was rude not to give me the same consideration.”
“When did the fight start?”
“An hour later.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s a long time but believe it or not she told me to lay down in bed and get some sleep, that I was upset and a good night sleep would make everything better.”
“You lay in bed with her.”
“Yeah, that was dumb.”
“Smelling her pillow, touching her body, hearing her voice, I couldn’t help myself. I knew deep down this was going to be the last time I would ever be with her and I wanted to make love one last time.”
“And she didn’t want to?”
“I don’t think so, but she thought she could outsmart me. She said she would but that she didn’t have any condoms. She knew I never wore them so she thought she was safe. I had one. I whip that thing out and she freaked. She was back pedaling and I was not taking no for an answer.”
“So you raped her?”
“Never got the chance.”
“She held me at bay long enough for the police to arrive. The neighbors heard our fight, and believe me it was a fight. We were slapping each other like prize fighters and swearing like truck drivers. I was calling her a whore and she was calling me a loser.”
“So what do the police do?”
“That’s what’s weird. It is right after the next incident that my memory seems to be stalling.”
“Well, I come out of the bedroom, butt naked.”
“You were naked?”
“I didn’t tell you,
“So did you answer the door?”
“Didn’t have to. The door wasn’t locked and they were standing there with their flashlights looking at me.”
“What did they say?”
“To go home.”
“The police told you to go home?”
“And did you go?”
“I think so.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“This is where it all becomes unclear.”
“Let’s see if we can walk you through this.”
“Did you put your clothes back on?”
“Let me think. I turned to the bedroom and one of the officers said I couldn’t go back in there. Something to the effect, ‘Stop’.”
“And then what?”
“I turned back towards them and asked, ‘Why?’”
“What did they say?”
“I think it was something like, ‘Put that down.’”
“What did you have?”
“What did I have? I picked it up off the floor when I heard the cops come in. What was that? It was black. I was clutching it.”
“Was it a weapon?”
“No! No, it was…it was my wallet! I had my wallet in my hand. They wanted me to put it down and I was going to show them a picture of Tracy and me so they wouldn’t get the wrong idea. That must be why they let me go home.”
“Jack, I want you to think. They wouldn’t have let you go home. What exactly happen next?”
“God, I am trying to remember. Let’s see…one of them must have pushed me hard in the chest because I can still imagine the pain. Yeah, I think he must have punched me hard in the chest. Right here. Ouch, damn that still hurts twenty-five years later. Right here Doc. Oh Shit, Doc, there’s blood. Look at this, there’s blood all over my hand.”
“Just relax, I’m going to help you.”
“Guys, I got a bleeder. Get me some epinephrine.”
“Doc, what’s happening?”
“You’ve been shot young man. Are you awake?”
“Shhhh. We’re losing him. Get me the gurney. AS14 to base, AS14 to base.”
“Base to AS14”
“We need lift to General. Arterial and pulmonary damage, heavy blood loss.”
“My daughter is getting married tomorrow.”
In an alternate universe, the earth is a place where accidents don’t happen. They don’t happen because what if they could be prevented? And if so, would you be any the wiser in thinking that this was a place where accidents COULD happen, or blissfully happy that they didn’t?
Put yourself in the head of our protagonist, Pete Mallory. He went from blissfully happy to knowing the uncertainty, the uncertainty that accidents can happen. This is his story.
Accidents don’t happen on Earth. I would say they never have, but that wouldn’t be true. What I discovered is that we used to live with accidents as a part of our existence but technology erased them from the annals of time. I didn’t even know what an accident was, as I am sure you don’t. But I do now. You see I am The Redeemer. How I became a redeemer began when I first met Hanford Davis.
He seemed like a normal guy - a little haggard looking from being overworked, but other than that, quite normal. I picked him up alongside Highway 66 on a parched existence of roadway as I headed to Abilene, Texas. His thumb stuck out and he waved anxiously for a ride. He looked harmless; thinning blonde hair, a pair of round spectacles that magnified soft blue eyes, a diminutive stature and a big ol’ grin with a set of pearly whites that glowed.
With it being so damned hot out there in the Midwest, I couldn’t let him just dehydrate until nothing remained of him and I think he knew that, in fact I know he knew that. He hopped into my two door silver Daiwoo and tossed a near empty backpack in my back seat.
“Hi, my name’s Hanford.” He patted a light dust off his dull brown slacks and dull brown dress shirt. The little guy had a disarming demeanor. He turned sideways in the seat and faced me and with his hand extended, he smiled and continued, “I sure am glad you picked me up.”
I introduced myself as Pete Mallory and offered a bottle of water from a sack of five I purchased a few miles back.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
I asked him what he was doing out there in the middle of nowhere and he informed me, “Oh contraire, I am not in the middle of nowhere, I am in the middle of somewhere.”
“Semantics, my friend, semantics.”
“Semantics to you, but there is far more to what I say than you think.”
“Oh really, like what?”
“Well…” Hanford pulled the glasses from his face, “did you know people die of accidents everyday?”
His comment left me surprised and confused. “Excuse me, what do you mean?”
“I mean every day people die of car wrecks, accidental drowning, falling down, electrocution, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. They are in fact called accidents.”
At that moment, I knew I picked up a lunatic. There was never a death outside of old age, war or disease…ever! “And how come I have never heard of these accidents?”
“Because of me.”
I laughed. “Because of you!”
He placed his glasses back on and casually stared at the roadway, repeating in a monotone response, “Because of me. I am The Redeemer.”
Sarcasm had never been far from my lips and I used that moment to dramatically ask,“Please, tell me Hanford, how do you prevent these accidents?”
“I go back to the scene and alter the event.”
I took an impudent view in his eyes because frankly, I didn’t buy any of his story and I recall questioning with what could be considered naiveté in hindsight how he went about doing this. “Isn’t it a little late to go back to the scene if these accidents have already happened?”
“They haven’t happened yet.”
“Then how do you know they’ll happen?”
“Because they already did.”
“You’re talking in circles. One minute you are saying they haven’t happened and the next you are saying they already did.”
Hanford answered in a matter of fact remark, “That’s right.”
“That’s right, what?”
“They both have happened and haven’t happened.”
“You mean you think they’re going to happen?”
“It winds up looking like that.” He started laughing. “Everyone winds up thinking I’m nuts, but that’s okay because my job isn’t to be understood but to alter the outcome so that harmony abounds.”
“So why are you here?”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
“Pete Mallory, I am here for you.”
“Yeah. You see, you are going to get killed in a fluke accident and I have this little black box.” He reached back and pulled his pack up front. Inside, he removed a calculator-sized box that had a bunch of lights and knobs and one big red button. “This…” he held it up, “Tells me where to go and what time I need to be there. When I push this red button, it takes me back in time and I can stop your death.”
I almost started laughing but he seemed so serious that I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I looked at the box and had to admit that it looked like an elaborate hoax. It didn’t look like a toy and I wondered if it was once a real calculator. I don’t know why but I had to prove how absurd his argument was. I think part of me wanted to help him get over his delusional thoughts, besides, for some reason he was a very likeable little fellow. “Well, are there a lot of these accidents?”
“Oh yes, thousands upon thousands and they happen all over the world.”
“Wouldn’t you have to live a long time to do your job?”
“You would think so, but since I go back in time for each death, it takes me a long time to age one day!”
“So, how old are you, Hanford?”
“That’s a trick question. I am only forty-five, but I have been on this day for twelve years. In all, I would guess I have been on this job for about thirty-five thousand years! Of course, I only acquired this job twenty years ago.”
Hanford squinted as he grinned, “Time is a little tricky for me.”
I let his chronology go and moved on. “How did you get the job?”
“You know, it seems so long ago I can barely remember. I got it from the last guy who had this job. He’s retired now and lives in upstate New York. I have had to undo his death three times now, he’s very accident prone, and he doesn’t remember giving me the box that first time we met.” He crinkled his nose, “I kind of don’t like that.”
“Have you ever had a prolonged stay at a hospital?”
Hanford started laughing. He laughed so hard from deep down in his belly that I thought he wouldn’t stop. “You would think so, huh?”
“Oh, I am sure of it.”
“Well, the sad truth is everyone I come in contact with, if I decide to tell my saga, thinks the same thing and after I am finished with them, they still think the same thing.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, once I save your life, the incident never happened and for all intents and purposes, was never going to, so everything that I said happened, didn’t. Thus, I am just a kook, but don’t worry, I am a harmless kook.”
“So tell me about my death.”
“Really, you want to know?”
“Yeah, why not.”
“Well…” His smile broadened and he became animated. “You pick up your car tomorrow morning and while you’re standing under a statue of an ax…”
“Yeah, it’s this goofy statue of a half man half ax, but it falls perfectly and you die instantly. It is the weirdest thing.”
I started laughing when he identified THAT as being the weirdest thing. “Now wait a minute, you said that this is going to happen tomorrow, but we should be in Abilene by late tonight.”
“No, you’re going to have car trouble in about a half hour and have to stop. Hey, hold on, you’re going to stop at that station to get the car fixed. Yep, the station is about a half hour from here.”
“What if I hadn’t picked you up?”
“Trust me, you didn’t the first two times. That was okay. I just re-hit the red button until you did, trying different ways for you to pick me up.” He smiled as though he felt proud of himself.
“You know, Hanford, if I had any sense I’d just drop you off, but since this is all supposed to happen tomorrow, how about we stop and have a drink? You are allowed to drink?”
“Oh, I would like that very much.”
“In fact, I’ll pay for a room for you too.”
“That is mighty generous of you.”
I laughed and kidded, “Well, since you’re going to be saving my life, it’s the least I can do.”
Hanford looked content to just sit and look out the window like a dog going for a joy ride. He would occasionally look over at me and smile. My heart skipped a beat when, as Hanford predicted, my car pinged and sputtered and then finally stalled. I looked ahead and I could see a roadside gas station close enough to coast to, and if that coincidence wasn’t enough, as I came to the depot, I could see the statue of Ajax the Ax. “Well, well, well. Look at the statue.”
Hanford was nonchalant, “Yep.” As I rolled to a stop, nearly at the garage, I looked over at Hanford getting out. He turned to me and said, “Would you like something to eat?”
I was too irritated about my car to really care. “No, I need to talk to the guy running this place.”
He disappeared around the corner and I could make out his profile through the glass windows as he entered the building. I got out and looked at Ax man. I began to feel that I was set up for a practical joke, but I couldn’t figure out how Hanford made my car stall. A few minutes passed before Hanford returned. He had a Twinkie half in his mouth and the creamy center smeared on his chin. “Hey, Hanford, look!” I stood directly under Ajax the ax, “Don’t you want to stop me?”
He pulled the dessert out of his mouth and looked up at the statue, “Naw, it doesn’t happen until tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?” I grabbed a cable that helped support the statue, shaking it violently.
He turned towards the road and walked to the edge of the property, shouting back at me, he continued, “Yep, it happens tomorrow…” He pulled his black box from his pocket. “…At nine thirty seven in the morning.”
Out in the middle of nowhere, there didn’t appear to be a town in sight. “Well, I don’t think there is a motel anywhere close.”
“About five miles up the road is the Snake and Lizard Motel and Bar.” He walked towards me, breaking apart another Twinkie.
“So you HAVE been here before?”
“How do you know there is a motel near here?”
“The attendant in the gas station told me.”
“Oh. Did he happen to mention if he was a mechanic?”
“Yep, he’ll get on it right away. He said to expect the car to be ready tomorrow morning.”
I quipped, “Nine thirty seven?”
“Probably.” He reached me and stood with me under the statue. With a huge grin on his face, he confided, “You know, sometimes I don’t tell the people about my mission, but when I do, I always get the same reaction. Just once, I’d like to get someone who’d believe me.”
“You’re asking for blind faith. And if you’re correct, even if somebody does believe you, how are you to prove that you actually saved them from death if they don’t die?”
“Pete, I like you, you’re very astute.”
“Well, I like to think that I’m nobody’s fool. By the way, do you know Rosemary?” I felt sure she put him up to this. That somehow she found the ultimate prank to pull.
“Rosemary? Rosemary? Rosemary? Rosemary who?”
“Spalinsky! She has a brother named David, huh?”
Hanford had just given up the gig. “Yes she does. You do know her. She put you up to this, didn’t she?”
Hanford put his arm around me and laughed, “And here I was just accusing you of being astute. No, she didn’t put me up to this; I don’t know her, but I have met her. In fact, that is where I met you once.”
“Do you remember when you were fifteen, you and David’s family went to Lost Lake for a family picnic?”
Now I knew someone sent him to pull a gag. Hanford remembered something that only David’s family or my own could have told him. “Yes Hanford, I remember.” I rolled away from his arm and pointed a finger at him. “You’re a sneaky little devil.”
“Think back, do you remember a guy telling David to show him his best cannon ball jump from the dock?”
“No, I can’t recall that.”
“Probably not. It became so insignificant that I doubt you would. Anyway, that man was me. David dove in and broke his neck so severely that he died. I came back and made him do a Canon Ball instead. You see Pete, those are the things I do.”
I stopped and stood there disbelieving. “Goodness gracious, Hanford, do you expect anyone to believe all this?”
“Of course not. It is both my blessing and my curse to have this job.”
I tired of all the nonsense. “Let’s find this motel.”
He informed me, “We are going to have to walk.”
“Five miles? In this heat?”
“Can’t the gas station guy take us?”
“He’s the only one here.”
“Great. Well, we might as well get moving.” I went to the gas station attendant and gave him my keys along with my take on what might be wrong. I grabbed a duffel bag of clothes from my car and Hanford’s backpack and we started walking down the road.
It dawned on me half way to our motel that logistical problems existed with Hanford’s story. “Hey, Hanford? If there are so many deaths everyday, how come we aren’t hearing about them right now?”
Hanford smiled and pulled the box from his pocket. “Because I take them in chronological order.”
“Even so, you are telling me that there isn’t a death between now and when I am supposed to die?” I felt rather happy with my hypothetical question.
“There are a lot.”
“So why aren’t you there now?”
“Because I have already been there.”
Something didn’t seem right. “Wait a minute. If somebody is supposed to die an hour before I am supposed to die, how can you already have been there since you are with me, I am assuming right up until I am supposed to die?”
“This is the paradox that I don’t expect you to understand, but the time continuum isn’t the same for me, and if you could see the last person I saved right now at this time, you’d see that I’m there right now in your time.”
“You have completely lost me.”
“And I expected I would.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you’re with the last person you saved right now?”
“Only in your time, not mine. For me, I am only in one place, but I am overlapping in your time.”
“So you are in two places at once, in my time?”
“Actually, I am in hundreds of places.”
“Stop, Hanford. I can’t take this anymore.”
“Okay.” That’s all Hanford said.
He seemed comfortable letting it go, but not me. “If you’re in hundreds of places at once, have you ever come across yourself and did that screw up the universe?”
Hanford smiled. “You watch too much television.”
“Well have you, and did it?”
“Yes, I have come across myself and no it didn’t screw up the universe. It was odd the first time but only for my first self.”
“Your first self?”
“Yes, the self that was earlier in the time continuum.”
The conversation went back and forth for the entire journey. I tried to understand his logic. I had to admit that he thought about this idea for a long time. He had answers for all my questions and rebuttals for all my arguments. Of course, much of his argument centered on the notion that ‘I just couldn’t understand’. When we got to the motel, I ran the conversation to a dead end and didn’t know for sure what felt more tired, my thoughts or my feet. “Let’s get a drink, Hanford.”
One thing about Hanford, I never met an easier going guy. I went into the Lounge Lizard Bar, a dark little place with colors of red everywhere. The lounge was graced with six plush red booths with high back coves and a single lit candle at each table. Inside, the bartender served a lone female patron at the counter. She dressed as if the evening had already begun, a gown and pearls along with a pair of high heel pumps. Her hair, teased and set, fit nicely with the cigarette she smoked from a long black holder. The two carried on a conversation and I gathered they knew each other.
As I approached the bar to order two drinks, she spoke up. “Only strangers we get in here are those that are lost, passing through, or broke down and by the sweat on your face, I’d say you broke down.”
I looked at her and noticed how much older she was than I first thought, fifty on a good day, the wrinkles hidden at a distance by liberal applications of makeup. “Good call.”
“You boys look like you could use some company.”
I thought about Hanford for a moment - maybe a tired old hag might help him out of his mental state. “Sure, why don’t you join us?” I looked at the bartender. “Two whiskey cokes and whatever the lady wants.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Coming up.”
“Dotty.” She held her hand out for me to help her off the barstool.
“Delighted to meet you. Hell, I’m delighted to meet any young man that’ll buy me a drink!”
“My friend over there is Hanford.” I whispered, “I don’t think Hanford has been hanging around many ladies lately.”
Her voice was husky, as though smoking robbed her of the softness a woman’s tone. “Is he gay?”
I laughed, “No. He’s just a little light on the social scale.”
“Well, let’s see if ol’ Dotty can cheer him up.”
I watched as she sauntered over to our table, bemused by what sort of conversation they might strike up.
Hanford stood from his spot and bowed graciously, “Dotty, it is good to see you.”
“You know her, Hanford?”
She looked at Hanford then bent over and grabbed the bowl with the candle in it. She raised it to his face. “Hey, I recognize you. You walked me home one night about ten years ago while I was living in Houston.”
“I remember you were walking along I-45.”
“Yeah, and you also kept me from getting a ride home. I could have had a ride from a nice guy but he didn’t want to take you too.”
“Oh, it was okay, I enjoyed the walk. You were a gentleman.”
I squeezed into the booth and sat down. As the three of us got comfortable, I looked over at Hanford and spoke under my breath, “Someone you saved?”
He just smiled.
“Well, what have you been up to, Hanford, since the last time I saw you? It seems like ages.”
“That’s an understatement Dotty. I have been pretty busy. Seems like my work is never done.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“My friend, Pete’s car broke down.”
“I know that, Pete told me. No, I mean what brings you through here?”
I thought it would be interesting to see him go about explaining this.
“Oh, I was passing through and Pete here picked me up.”
It irritated me that he didn’t break out into his fantastic tale of saving the world. It also reinforced my thoughts that Hanford came here to pull some sort of trick on me and in a small way, it rather disappointed me. I really wanted to be mystified.
“Do you have to stay the night here?”
“Yeah. And you? What have you been up to?”
“Oh, this and that. I wound up here after I was dumped off by a truck driver. I run the motel.”
I piped up, “Great, we need a room.”
“Well you can have the pick of whatever room you want. We have twelve rooms and they’re all available.”
I looked at Hanford, “Do you have a lucky number?”
His voice became rather dry. “Luck has nothing to do with it, I do.”
After a couple of drinks, Hanford stood up, ready to go. I hadn’t been a very good friend. I felt wounded that he didn’t open up with his pitch about time and accidents, so I behaved rather flippant towards him during our conversation with Dotty. Dotty, obviously felt it, because she excused herself, saying she had some paperwork she had to complete and when I went to the office to get the room, she acted rather cold to me.
She checked us into room two, the room right next to the office. Hanford was nice enough to ask her if she might be willing to give us a lift in the morning and she agreed but I think if I had asked she would have had a reason why she couldn’t do it.
When I got into the room, I sat on the bed and apologized. “Hanford, I’m sorry I acted like such a boob at the bar.”
“That’s okay. I know you wanted me to talk about the same things with Dotty that I’ve been talking to you about, but Pete, she isn’t the kind of person that would find even the simplest amount of interest in it.”
“I don’t think that’s why you didn’t talk to her about it.”
“Because I think you’ve been sent here by some of my friends to play a practical joke on me. I suspect, tomorrow morning when we go back to the gas station, the statue will fall and all my friends will come screaming out of hidden places with, “April Fools.”
“But it’s not April first.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really, but I do understand your skepticism.”
“Well, wouldn’t you? You meet me and tell me some fantastic story how you took over for some guy who was redeeming lives.”
“I fully expected how you’d feel but the more I get to know you the more I have come to some decisions that will help you understand.”
“I hope so because I like you. You’re such an unassuming person and I find that to be such a great quality.”
“Well thank you, Pete.”
I no longer knew what to say. Since the entire conversation, when we’d been alone, centered on his work as a redeemer, I decided to continue on that path. “So Hanford, how long have there been Redeemers?”
Again, he gave me a paradoxical answer, “For sixty years, but since the beginning of recorded history.”
“I think I understand now. For sixty years, historically we have had this ability, but the first redeemer went all the way back and began correcting deaths?”
“Bravo, you’re catching on.”
“Do most of the people you save catch on?”
“Most people don’t get the luxury of me telling them anything and no one whom I have told has gone as far as you in understanding.”
“Well, I want to preface this, I DON’T BELIEVE A WORD!”
“I thought you said I’d just think you were a kook when this was all over?”
“I am beginning to change my thoughts about that, Pete.”
“Why is that?”
“I can’t tell you yet, but I think it’ll all become clear tomorrow at nine thirty seven.”
“Are my friends going to be there? You can tell me. I’ll keep the secret and they’ll never know I knew.”
“No, Pete, your friends aren’t going to be there.”
If my friends did plan to be there, Hanford didn’t intend to tell me. He played the game very well.
After each of us showered, we sat in front of the TV and watched the news. Hanford didn’t find any interest in the news because according to him, “I have seen this broadcast twice now.”
“What do you mean? It’s live.”
“I had two other people I had to save in this area tomorrow and this broadcast comes out of Albuquerque.” I might have challenged him on the point, except he beat me to the punch and started repeating the main points of current news, so I left it alone. After the news, I rifled through the channels but nothing seemed interesting.
As I turned off the TV, Hanford asked me, “Pete, have you ever wondered why, since we have guns for war, no one has ever used one on somebody? Have you ever wondered why we kill for politics but not for passion?”
“Well, because society knows better.”
“Haw!” Hanford laughed. “My single greatest amount of time is spent undoing violent accidents. Do you know how many people kill out there?”
“You’re telling me people kill people other than in war?”
I teased Hanford by raising my hands up and shaking them as though spooked. “Isn’t that dangerous, Hanford?”
“Absolutely. In fact, I once had this guy that was determined to rob a store and kill someone. Six times, I had to go back and undo his acts. I would go back, find a police officer and bring him to the store. The first time, he ran off and went to another store, shooting and killing that clerk. The next time, he went back to the first store and shot and killed the attendant there again. The fourth time, he went to a new store altogether. The fifth time, he shot the police officer. The sixth time, he got shot. Each time that I went back, it turned out to be a failure for him. I finally developed a strategy of frustration. I frustrated him into thinking it was divine intervention by meeting up with him on his way to the store. He chose not to harm anyone. I understand he has found God and is a preacher in South Dakota now.
“Crimes of passion are the worst though. Stopping a husband or a wife from killing their spouse is utterly nerve-racking, especially when one of the spouses is determined to get the job done. Repeatedly though, frustration works the best. Whether it is suicide…”
“That’s where people kill themselves.”
“People do that?”
“All the time. Anyway, whether it is suicide, murder…”
“That’s where people kill other people.”
It all puzzled me, “We don’t call war murder.”
“No, and I’m not sure why, but that is called war, which is just as horrible.”
“Why don’t you stop war?”
“Too much work. Maybe someday, a Redeemer will figure out how to go about that, but until then, it is too hard of an undertaking. As far as I know, every Redeemer before me has let wars pass.”
“So you were saying?”
“Oh yes, whether it is suicide or murder, frustration seems the best way to prevent it. I find I have to go back a half dozen times and sometimes a year later and steer the culprit away from the act and eventually they just get so frustrated that they quit trying. I think I’m the single greatest reason why people go to shrinks.”
“You make me want to go to one.”
I surprised Hanford and he started laughing hard. “You’re so funny, Pete.”
“So are you, Hanford.”
“Oh, you do not mean that, you think I’m a loon?”
“You’re right, I do.”
“Boy do I have a surprise for you, Pete.”
I really thought my friend Rosemary would appear from the closet. That was the surprise I anticipated, but he lay back on his bed and took his glasses off, resting them on his chest as he rubbed his eyes. He said, “Tukareta, Daremo wakkatekurenaidarouna?”
Hanford turned his head and looked at me. “I was just lamenting that no one understands me.”
“In what language?”
I lay down on my bed and rolled over to face Hanford. I propped my head up with my hand and asked, “You know how to speak Japanese?”
“Yeah. I can speak all languages.”
“Well, when you have so much time, you can practice, and when you’re responsible for the world, it’s important that you speak the language of the people you’re saving. If you don’t, they have a hard time following you.”
I hadn’t thought about that one. “How long have you been studying Japanese?”
“I guess thousands of years, since my first case of saving someone who spoke Japanese, which took place on my first day of work. Of course that was thousands of years ago, nineteen eighty.”
I closed my eyes and laughed. This sounded so absurd. How could twenty years ago have been thousands of years ago? “You’re too much, Hanford.”
I don’t recall falling asleep, but I do remember getting the wakeup call at eight in the morning. Hanford was already up and I could hear him in the shower singing. I pounded on the door. “Hey, Hanford, I’ll be at the lounge. When you get out, come over there and have breakfast with me.” My stomach growled as hunger had taken the best of me.
“Okay,” he shouted back at me.
Fifteen minutes later, Hanford showed up and sat down across from me at the same lounge table we found the night before. I already ordered for him and the waitress, a pretty young girl no more than twenty-one, must have realized he was my friend because she met him at the table with his warmed plate.
“Thank you, Monica.” He politely took the plate before she could set it down and slid it over to the middle of the table, scooting in all the way to the center. I think he wanted to be able to see everything around him.
“Let me guess, you have saved Monica?”
“No, I looked at her name tag.”
Monica looked at her lapel to see if she wore her name tag and then asked, “Would you like some coffee?”
“You know Hanford, we’re going to have to hurry if you’re going to save me.”
“Not really. I could stay here past the time and the statue won’t fall on you.”
“Well, I’m a glutton for punishment, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“I didn’t think you would.” He looked at me and smiled. “But more important, you’re going to learn something today about this world that you didn’t know existed. It might jade you or it might create you but you’re going to learn it, I have decided you shall be my replacement.”
I laughed. “You are going to make me take your job?”
“This I have to see.”
I thought about his decision and for a moment I felt maybe it’d be fun to defy time. I realized how good he was, because I actually raised my hopes that he was truthful. I shook it off and remembered I was dealing with a lunatic, or even worse, a practical joker who was sent here to play a trick on me and giving in to the notion meant I was had. Still, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued by the idea.
I ate breakfast, thinking about his decision constantly. Every time I looked up at Hanford, he smiled and looked back at me.
About nine o’clock, Dotty came in and greeted us as we finished up. “So boys, are you ready to go?”
“So good to see you this morning, Dot.” Hanford stood and bowed.
She shined for Hanford and frowned at me. “Hello, what’s-your-name.”
I started to re-identify myself but it dawned on me she really didn’t care. “Well, Hanford are you ready?”
He looked at me and cryptically asked, “Are you?”
I shook my head and snickered. “You’re too much.”
I sat in the backseat of Dotty’s 77 Ford Thunderbird while those two enjoyed a conversation down the five miles to my car. As we pulled into the station, I looked at my watch and noticed it neared nine thirty.
I’d barely exited the car before Dotty signaled to Hanford, “I have to get out of here, I have an appointment and I’m going to be late.”
“Okay, Dot. Drive safely.”
“Oh Sweetheart, you’re so kind.” She waved to him and barely looked at me as she hurried off, leaving a cloud of summer desert dust billowing about us. Hanford waved and followed her tracks up to the roadway and continuing to wave his hand as if that would be the last time he’d see her.
“Don’t worry Hanford, the way she’s driving you may get a whole bunch of chances to see her again.”
He turned back and stated, “No, this’ll be the last time I’ll probably see her.”
I looked at my watch and mocking him I took a position under the statue. “Hey Hanford, it’s getting close to the time.”
Hanford approached and smiled. “I want you to understand that I don’t hate you and there’ll be times you curse me for what you’re about to be faced with, but you can handle it. Someday when it gets to be too much, and believe me, thousands of years can be too much, you can pass on your job.”
As we talked, a wind from the south picked up and above me Ajax the Ax creaked with age.
Suddenly, without warning, one of the cables snapped and the statue lurched forward.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. Hanford stepped in front of me and took the entire force of the blow from the falling statue of Ajax the Ax. Before he did, he shouted, “Everything you need to know will come to you from the box.” He shoved me out of the way releasing his backpack into my care. It stunned me. I never saw someone die before their time. It just didn’t happen. The gas station attendant came running out and stood alongside me with the same lack of understanding on his face.
“Dead? How can that be? Ain’t no one ever died ‘cept out of getting old, war or diseases.”
I knelt down and realized Hanford hadn’t been nuts at all. He knew everything. He had knowledge no one else possessed. Remembering his words about the box, I stood and unzipped his backpack. Inside, I found the empty bottle of water I gave him along with the small metallic box. Staring into the screen, a date appeared, for twenty-four hours earlier. Sitting there trying to make sense of it all, I pushed the flashing red button. Suddenly, I found myself driving down the road, heading to Abilene. I recognized the area, because there up ahead of me, Hanford struck a pose with his thumb out waiting for a ride. I just went full circle and wound up where I was when I picked him up the day before. Looking at my watch and realizing I was in that place and time, I slowed to a stop and rolled the passenger side window down. “Hanford?”
“How did you know my name?”
“I can’t tell you for sure. Would you like a ride?”
“Thanks.” He stepped into the car and tossed a near empty backpack into my backseat. “I sure am glad you picked me up.”
“Would you like some water?”
He looked at the five bottles I had in the back seat and remarked, “Don’t mind if I do. So what is your name, Mister?”
“Pete Mallory, and am I right? Is your name Hanford?”
“That’s scary. Yes, my name is Hanford, Hanford Davis.”
“Where are you headed, Hanford?”
“Abilene, and you, what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Oh contraire, I am not in the middle of nowhere, I am in the middle of somewhere.”
“Semantics my friend, semantics.”
“Semantics to you, but there is far more to what I say than you think.”
“Oh really, like what?”
“Well…” I began to explain to him, “Did you know people die of accidents everyday?”
I was bouncing a blue handball a foot in front of the wall so that it would bounce a foot up, make a high arc, and fall back down to me. I’d tossed it so many times that my precision was monotonously excellent. I was surprised they let me have the ball. It belonged to my Fox Terrier and he’d chase that damn thing for as long as I would throw it. Now the wall was the replacement for Ringo. I was surprised because in prison they normally wouldn’t allow someone to have a ball. They don’t allow contraband and this certainly wasn’t on the list of acceptable items. Still, I was grateful because it, in some odd way, brought me back home in my thoughts.
Anyway, I was bouncing the ball when my new celly, Johnny finally got around to that all important question new cellmates ask each other, he says from the top bunk as he is etching day one into the wall, “So what did you do?”
“For a living?” I was playing with him.
I could hear him trying to dig into concrete, “No, I mean what did you do to land here?”
The ball plopped into my palm and I hesitated my repetitions. “Well, I’m here for three felony convictions of first degree murder.”
“So why aren’t you upstairs?”
Johnny was referring to death row.
I started back up with my ball, “Well, they considered it a crime of passion, and were generous enough to give me life without possibility.” Pop, pop, slap… pop, pop, slap, over and over I tossed the ball.
Johnny must have been dying to tell me his punk ass story because when I didn’t plead to know what he did, he slid down off the top bunk and sat next to me. I looked down at his butt sitting where my head normally lay at night and he realized he invaded my space because he gave me an apologetic look and lifted his scrawny frame from my bed and sat down on the steel rim of our immovable toilet slash sink. He had his red jumpsuit unzipped down to the waist and had tied off the arms around his midsection. He looked stupid because he couldn’t fill out the standard issue tee-shirt. Why is it that only the biggest of big men and the littlest of little men wear their issues that way? All it does is piss off the guards at chow time, and everyone gets a shakedown. Can’t be taking those sugar packs back to the cell to make pruno with.
So Johnny spits out, “I’m in this shithole because I got fucked by the system.”
“And what crime were you unjustly convicted of that gives you such righteous indignation?” Poor bastard, I knew he was trying to figure out if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but it didn’t stop him from proving he was an idiot.
“A cop died while trying to catch me in a car chase. I don’t understand how I’m responsible for manslaughter when I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.”
“Really, you wasn’t doin’ nuthin’?”
I was circling the ball in my palm, paying attention to the worn out Wilson logo. I never noticed that it was slightly engraved into the rubber and even with the white coat of color faded away, was still visible. “Why were they chasing you then?”
He dropped his head, “Crack house.”
Johnny might not have been the most literate of sorts but he certainly had good timing because he piqued my interest and got what he sought, attention. “And how does the crack house play into your story?”
“They came in the front and I went out the back.”
I had to admit that I didn’t pay much attention to my cellys. Since I’m here for the duration of my time on earth, I knew I’d see many of them come and go, and Johnny was no exception. In the first twenty-four hours that we roomed together, I don’t think I took more than a glance at him. I could see that he was extremely thin and yellowish white, a victim of severe drug use. Taking a long look at him as he grinned at his ability to flee the scene, I noticed his teeth had either rotted away or stood out as lonely sentries; couldn’t have had more than eight in his entire mouth. I hope they didn’t promise him they would get those fixed in here. “So you fled the scene of a crime.”
He was shaking his head like he must have in court, “NO! NO! NO! I fled the scene of someone else’s crime.”
“Then why flee?”
“Well, lets just say, it wasn’t a good place for me to be if I wanted to stay out of jail.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but your actions helped you bypass jail and you wound up in prison.”
“Johnny slapped his knees and stood up. With his hands going in all directions and not making any connection with his words, he ranted, “That’s the issue. I don’t deserve what they gave me. I fled the scene but I hadn’t committed no crime. I hadn’t gotten what I come for so I didn’t have no drugs on me. I just wanted the hell out of there. They come chasin’ after me like I’d killed the president. I go around a corner in my
“And you are an expert on police pursuits because…?”
“Because I watch TV. I know they suppose to fall back and follow you with a copter.”
“So you killed a bunch of chickens. What sort of crime was that?”
“The chickens? Hell, half them chickens were runnin’ around like freed prisoners.” Johnny looked at me like I was an idiot. “The cop died…what do I call you?”
“You don’t.” I looked at him and could see he thought I was a selfish prick for not at least giving him my name so I lied and told him, “Hank. My name is Hank.”
“Hank, what you doing?”
“You mean this?” I held out my palm and showed him the ball.
I wondered if he lived such a sheltered life that he didn’t know much about sports. “It’s a handball.”
He laughed and I found myself getting defensive. “And it’s my handball. Are we in agreement here?”
“Whatever. If you say it’s a handball, it’s a handball.” He looked at it for a good ten seconds and then asked. “Can I hold it?”
“For a minute.” I tossed it to him and he held out his hand as if to catch it and it flew past his hand without him so much as flinching. What’s worse, as it bounced off the wall and came to rest harmlessly beside the toilet, he pretended he had it in his hand, twirling it like a jewel in his grasp.
“This is a nice ball.” I sat up and pressed myself past him, moving him out of the way as I reached down and picked up my ball. As I took back my property, he held his hand up to the light, “What color would you call this?”
I held the ball in my thumb and forefinger. I thrust the ball into his face and said. “Blue, you moron.”
Johnny, held his hands up between us. “Sorry, Dude. I’m not trying to bust your chops and I don’t want any trouble.”
Dinner comes promptly at Johnny stood as the guard yelled, “Mainline.” He yells that to get the prisoners to clear their hands off the bars, because when the rack opens, bones don’t stop it.
He looked at me, as I was still laying on my cot reading from a copy of Popular Mechanix and squeezing my handball. “Hey, Hank, it’s chow time.”
I had almost forgotten that I told him my name was Hank and didn’t realize he was talking to me until I looked up over the page and saw him staring at me. “I don’t get to eat with the general populace.”
“No way, Dude, that sucks.” Johnny had such a command of the English language. “So you gonna eat in here?”
I smiled to keep from laughing. “No, lifers eat after you guys do.”
Johnny fashioned a puzzled look that I’m sure he must have practiced in the mirror to perfect. He contorted the right side of his face so one cheek raised to his eye and forced his mouth to open in the corner, exposing a huge gap where his canine used to be. “What for?”
“Because lifers think differently than those getting out some day. They don’t want us influencing you.”
“But they got me roomin’ with ya.”
“I didn’t say they were smart.” I laid the magazine against my chest. “Besides, they’re overcrowded and every once in awhile they bunk us up together.”
“Do ya get the same slop?”
I think he was starting to think of me as a mentor. “Yeah, but we don’t get to barter or get seconds like you.”
“You want me to keister you something back.”
I’m not sure Johnny was fully aware of what keistering meant but I got the general idea. Still, part of his education couldn’t be telling people that he was going to keister back some food. “If you mean keister, as in shoving something up your ass to bring back to me, then no thanks. If you mean that you are going to sneak something back in, sure.”
“Bring me a plum back.”
“Whata they don’t have no plums?”
“They will, it’s Thursday.”
“Well, Hank, then a plum I’ll getcha.”
He turned and looked at me. “It’s Hal.” I stood and put my hand out. “My names actually Hal.”
He reached out and shook my hand. “Oh. Well then, Hal,
I watched Johnny leave and as he stepped out, prisoner 893276 came alongside him. He asked, “So you roomin with Ballman?” He then looked past Johnny and gave me a holler, “Ballman, this your new rug?”
“Michael, don’t get too comfortable in here, you need to get home to the wife and kids.”
Michael was the biggest white guy in cell block E. Built like a mackintosh truck, and twice as sturdy. He had been my next door neighbor for two years but his time was nearing an end. He was getting out in a month or two. Michael was in for trafficking drugs. I am certain that he did a fair amount of them, but I think they differed from what he sold. I believe his choice drug was steroids. That’s how big he was.
“Don’t worry bout me, I am ready to go home.”
I believe he was ready. I clutched my blue handball and held it out like an eye watching him. “Be good, Buddy.”
After I got back from dinner, Johnny was lying on his top bunk reading. I doubt he moved from the page he was reading for ten minutes. I suspect Johnny wasn’t much of a reader. The echo of mainline led to the clanking of iron on iron as the bars slammed shut.
Johnny spoke in disgust. “I hate those bars.”
“Beats the alternative.”
“What could be worse?”
Our cell block consisted of a long row of cells with four rows below us. We had a runway that was railed and beyond the abyss of five floors was a massive reinforced glass window in front of another set of bars. That window was our view of the rising sun. From cell block E, we could see the entire east side of the prison, the valley beyond the prison, and the mountains beyond that. I directed Johnny to a single story stone gray building at the far east end. “You see that building?”
“That is the modern housing facility and you would rather be here than there.”
Johnny scratched his head. “Why?”
“Because they have four walls with only a small window, a really small window outside. These bars allow us this view.” We stood there enjoying what they didn’t have.
Johnny went back to his bunk and for the next three hours treated his magazine like a puzzle. I think I heard him turn two pages.
At they turn the lights out. It’s mandatory but they don’t stop the rest of the hoopla of singing, cell to cell conversations, or reading by moonlight. I had forgotten my plum when Johnny whispered, “Hey Hal?”
“You still wanna plum?”
I smiled. “You made it back with it?”
He peeked over the bunk and I could see in the grays of moonlight his toothless grin, “Yeah.” He held it out like a trophy.
“Thanks.” I held my hand up but he pulled back the plum.
“I wanna see somethin’ first.”
I was hesitant. Anytime somebody wants something in a place like prison, it comes with a price. “What do you want to see?”
“I wanna hold the ball.”
“Keep the plum.”
“Come on, just for a minute. I promise I’ll catch it this time.”
I had it clutched tightly in my fist and I thought about it for moment. “Sure.” I tossed it up and on to the top bunk. I can’t be for sure if he caught it, but it didn’t come back so I guessed he found it. He thanked me and dropped the plum down to my bed. I relished the fruit. Plums have always been my favorite and that made Thursday my favorite day. By the time I finished my plum, I heard Johnny snoring away. The little prick was faking it. He had my ball and he thought he would sleep with it. That wasn’t going to happen. I tossed my sheet and wool blanket off me with fervor and stood up. “Hey?” I shook him roughly.
“What?” He played the sleepy role all too well.
“Give me back my ball.”
I tried to keep my cool but I snapped when I asked again and he repeated, “What ball?”
I put my thumb so that it lodged tightly into the back of his jaw bone and put my index finger against the other side. I had a tight throat hold on him and I stepped up onto my bunk so I was thrusting downward into his neck. I could hear him silently choking out a “Please stop.”
“Then give me my fucking ball!”
Tears were rolling off from his eyes and down his temples. “There is no ball, Hal. I swear.”
“Do you want to take your last breath, Johnny?”
“Please, hear me out.”
I lightened the grip but maintained my hold. I don’t know who put him up to this but I was going to find out. All my sanity was wrapped up in that ball. It was my only treasure from my former life that I had. I lived with that ball and it never left my side. Johnny was about to tell me something when a flash of light entered our cell and I turned to see Guard Johnson staring at us.
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but you had better get back in that bed or so help me I will make your life a living hell.”
I was stuck. There had not been a night that I wasn’t with my ball. Yet, in this place if you learn one thing, it is about relinquishing control. I had to accept that Johnny had won…this round.
Mornings come early. Five-thirty to be exact. Friday morning came a little earlier. I was awoken by a half dozen guards yanking me out of my bed, rather rudely. As I caught my bearings, I saw Johnny lying on the floor with his sheet wrapped around his neck. One end was secured to the moving section of bars and the other end was secured to the stationary section. I looked like Johnny had committed suicide. Although I heard nothing, I knew that my altercation wasn’t going to go over well with the prison.
They hauled me out and threw me into a detainment cell. The detainment cell, or suicide watch cell, is a cell that they use to monitor inmates twenty four seven. The entire way there, I kept asking. “What is this about?”
Officer Johnson kept answering, “Shut up!” I suspected that Johnny had gotten prison justice and I was about to be the scapegoat.
I must have been in that cell for a half day before the head of criminal investigations and the prison psychiatrist came together to see me. During my time in the detainment unit, I realized I had my ball in my pocket. Any other time I would have been overjoyed, but the fact that it was in pocket meant I couldn’t tell the truth about why I was choking my cellmate. Those punk ass guards had planted it on me. I was cooked. I was let out but before they opened the bars, they handcuffed my waist and then my hands to my waist. They repeated the action with my legs and ran a chain up to my waist from my feet. I was walking hog tied.
I had seen investigator Parks a couple of times on incidences that happen on our block, but never met him. Dr. Weller and I were well acquainted. If you kill your wife and kids, they tend to want to speak with you from time to time.
Parks and Weller walked ahead of me and two armed guards made sure I stayed in rank. I could tell they were talking about how to handle the situation. As we worked our way down a hallway of administrative doors, I wondered if Dr. Weller was trying to make sense of this or if he was in on the cover up. He kept arguing with Parks to let him speak with me first. I really wanted that. Parks was telling him it was cut and dry and that there were witnesses. Guards no doubt. He wanted to take me straight to his jurisdiction. I didn’t want that.
The final conversation went something to the effect of, “Ron, I believe I can get to the bottom of this better than you can. Please just give me an hour with Hal.” The good Dr. was pretty convincing because Parks agreed and as we went one way, Parks veered off in another direction. When we reached Dr. Weller’s office, he turned to the guards and said, “He’s chained and I think I can handle it from here.” The guards relinquished control of me to him and I shuffled along with the Dr. into his office.
“Have a seat, Hal.”
I sat down in a plush leather high back office chair. I hadn’t sat on anything that soft in a long time. It would have been nicer if my hands weren’t cuffed so damn tight and if my wrist weren’t clamped to a fucking chain around my waist, but all in all, I couldn’t complain.
“So tell me, what happen last night?” He pulled a small tape recorder out of his top drawer. “You don’t mind if I tape this do you?”
Since I didn’t know who was on my side, I did the one smart thing I could think of, I objected. “Yes, I do mind.”
Surprisingly, he obliged my objection and put the tape recorder back where it came from. “So talk to me.”
“I don’t know anything.”
He shook his head at me. “Nothing?”
“No, I went to bed…” I hesitated, “after an argument with my cellmate and that was the last time I spoke with him.”
“What did you argue about?”
The ball was in my pocket. I couldn’t tell him about Johnny taking my ball. I was confused as to what to do.
“Hal, look at me.” I looked up and he was staring pleasantly at me. “You can talk to me.”
“No I can’t.”
I raised my voice so loud that I must have come across like a lunatic. “Because I don’t know whose side you are one.”
The guards opened the door but the Dr. shook his head in a single motion and they removed themselves as quickly as they entered.
The Dr. leaned forward and grabbed a pencil and pad. “Can I tell you what I think?”
“What do you think, Dr.?”
He started drawing a diagram of cells. “I think Johnny was depressed. I think he rigged a noose that would tighten when mainline opened. I think to force mainline to open without a check, he started a fire and tossed it in a forward cell, that way no one would look further down the row. Did you know that the cell next to yours had a magazine thrown in it from your cell, a magazine that was smoldering?”
I was shocked and I didn’t know why I asked but I did. “What was the magazine?”
“I think it was a Popular Mechanix.”
I was framed. I had to just listen to him. I couldn’t tell him that was the magazine I was reading and not Johnny. Everything about this was closing in on me.
“Anyway, one of the inmates heard you two arguing over a ball. The inmate claimed you were accusing Johnny of taking a ball you had. What was that about?”
They might think they were going to frame me but they weren’t. “Nothing. Johnny had borrowed a handball I have had since I was in here but he gave it back to me before we went to sleep.” I would lie my way through this. I would lie until some guard came out and admitted putting it back in my pocket.
“So where is your handball now?”
I fumbled to get my hand into my pocket. Leaning to one side like I was trying to fart, I worked my hand just far enough in to retrieve the ball. As I pulled it out, I showed it to the Dr. “Right here.”
There was a file on the Dr’s desk that he started thumbing through. “Would that be the ball that belonged to your dog?”
“Do you recall how your family was killed?”
It was painful. He was asking me to recall something the courts blamed on me. “I know you want me to tell you how I did it, but all I know is what I discovered from the police. My kids were bludgeoned to death and my wife was strangled. My dog had been run over.”
“And you don’t remember doing it?”
“I know that you think I’m in denial, but I didn’t do it.”
“Humor me while I read the report out loud.”
“There’s nothing humorous about it.”
“No there isn’t, and this report from an eye witness bears that out.”
Numbness overcame me, but I was shackled and helpless to avoid hearing his words.
“It was like he snapped. He came tearing out of the house screaming at the kids when the dog got run over, ‘I told you not to throw that ball out in the road. You know he would chase it.’ He then picked up a shovel that was leaning against their mailbox and swung like an ax at the littlest kid. The lip of the shovel sliced into his skull and I think he died right then and there. As the bigger kid tried to move away he wheeled the shovel neck high and nearly decapitated him. His wife tried to stop him and he dropped the shovel and took her to the ground. Before I could get to them he had choked her to death.” Dr. Weller looked up at me. “Any of it sound familiar?”
“My neighbor was suffering from Alzheimer’s.”
“Yeah, but his recollection on that day was pretty clear. Not to mention all the forensic evidence that supports this version.”
“Doc, I can’t tell you anymore than I already have. I was asleep that afternoon. I worked the entire weekend and I was so tired that I laid down for a nap and didn’t hear the crime happen. If I’m guilty of anything, it is not having been there to save my family.”
The Dr. sat back and stared at me. He sighed and crossed his arms. “Can I have the ball while we decide what to do with you?” He could see I didn’t like that idea because he added, “Trust me, I can see that you get it back for good once you get to a place outside the detainment unit. If you don’t do this, they might take if from you permanently. They might think that bad things keep happening when that ball comes out.”
I rolled the ball in my hand. I looked at the Dr. and then again at my ball one last time. I practiced once, twice, three times with my wrist hoping I could get it up high enough to bounce onto his desk. It made it up and over his desk. As it rolled off, I said, “There you go.”
He pressed a button and the two guards came back in.
The guards took me back to the detainment cell. I was happy to get the chains off. Even though I felt like a pariah sitting alone in a cell that had a glass front and everyone and their mom able to watch me it was better than those chains. The lights never went completely off only in my cell. The lights where the guards stood vigilant, remained bright and if I used my wool blanket to cover my head they would quickly rap on my glass to get me to show my face. Still, it was better than the chains.
Three days later, they had a transfer prisoner heading out to another prison that they housed with me for a few hours because he was considered suicidal. All five detainment units were full and since I was the only non suicidal inmate being watched, they chose me to double up with.
The guy was not only suicidal and nuts, he was brutish and mean. When he entered the unit, he looked at me and stated in no uncertain terms. “Stay on your side of the room or I will kill you.”
I brazenly reminded him, “I was here first.”
He added, “And shut the fuck up.”
What a jerk. I fumbled in my pocket and found my blue handball. I was surprised they let me have the ball. It belonged to my Fox Terrier and he’d chase that damn thing for as long as I would throw it. Now the wall was the replacement for Ringo. I was surprised the prison would allow me to have it. They don’t allow contraband and this certainly wasn’t on the list of acceptable items. Still, I was grateful because it, in some odd way, brought me back home in my thoughts.
WHEREVER YOU ARE
Ryan looked at the wrapping paper neatly folded in the corner behind the wood stove - Its shiny metallic blue surface reflecting the glow of the late afternoon sun peeping through the venetian blinds. He wondered how something insignificant as the paper could bring him to weep--a simple window dressing on his heart. He picked it up and opened the stove. He stroked the creases out of the gift-wrap and thought for a moment the first time he laid eyes on the paper.
It sat on the floor by the dresser upstairs. He didn’t go upstairs and into the room because it hurt to see no one there, so he closed it out of his life.
It was four days after Catherine left that Brutus scooted up the stairs. Ryan, worried he would do a duty in the closet, chased after him. Had he not caught out of the corner of his eye, something strangely new, he might not have found the gift. As it turned out, he noticed something written on the vanity mirror. 'To my love, you will never know what you mean to me, love Catherine'. A lump, deep and wide, developed in his throat and slowly ran its way to his stomach. The dark red cosmetic made a striking remark in the room of baby blue walls. He remembered touching the words etched across the glass and smiling as tears built up and then crashing through burst full force from his heart. “I love you too.” The words echoed in silence.
Brutus wagged his nub and buried the top of his head against Ryan’s hip, nearly taking him off his feet. He laughed with tears still stuck in his throat, “I love you too, Brutus.”
The old mastiff snorted.
At that moment, he noticed a gift box wrapped in pretty blue paper. There in the corner of the room, tucked away as though purposely hidden, it sat. At first, he wondered if it was something she forgot to take home with her, but as he neared, he saw a card atop with his name blazoned across it. He lifted the card and opened the leaf, ‘In time you will come to realize what we had was both unique and fleeting, but wherever you go and whatever you do my hopes will always be with you. What you find in this box I hope will help you get what you richly deserve. Honey, I may never see you again, but I so loved knowing you.’
Ryan picked up the boot box sized package. As he left, he turned and faced the room before closing the door, catching one last breath of the Chanel that still clung to the walls, casting Catherine’s indelible imprint upon the room and an imprint upon his life.
Ryan put the gift on the family room table and let it sit there for two days. Curious, but wanting the surprise to keep alive the dream that she still wandered somewhere about the house, he attempted to leave it alone, but each time he passed it, it called to him as though the spirit of her presence remained tucked away with the contents. With each day, the blue of the wrap seemed a little more blue, a blue as rich as her eyes, as deep as the ocean, and as true has his pain.
On the morning marking the one-week anniversary he took her to the airport, took her to a plane going back to Yakutsk, he sat down and unwrapped the gift. As he, with careful grace, kept the paper from tearing, he recalled the first time he looked into her eyes.
The cafeteria of the local college had an orientation for exchange students and the bubbly tall Russian girl pushed her way into Ryan’s life. With rolling R’s, as though she auditioned for a new Bond movie, playing the seductress spy, and with broken English, she questioned, “Do -think - could trouble you for a pen?”
Ryan gave up the pen and begged her to keep it. For the next year, he kept an appointment at the college for lunch and Catherine continued waiting for him at the same table where she first found him. Through the language barrier, they found each other’s innermost feelings and forged a friendship that found love as the ultimate reward.
She rented his upstairs for her senior year and he accepted her into his life with a rush of unexpected emotions that overwhelmed his senses. With each day, he became more aware of the true nature of happiness, and he thanked God he found it.
Inside the box, Ryan found the essence of her wishes for him, a wool sweater, akin to the one they’d seen Hemingway wearing in a picture, neatly topped the box, underneath, a tablet and beautiful pen. On the top page was scribbled the inscription, “To my writer; write for today, write for your life, write for there may be a day when you write no more, and write for me.”
He lifted the pad and underneath laid two lockets on one chain. One, a broken heart, the other half he felt sure with her, and the other, a heart that opened and inside a picture of the two of them. He smiled.
Catherine went home to fulfill her destiny. With her Visa expired, she returned to her mining town to marry the man her parents selected for her. She’d sowed her oats, she saw the world, and now she went home.
Ryan closed the stove and pressed the paper to his heart, pushing with all his might, hoping it would forever be pressed into his soul. His tears dried and he tucked the paper safely away just under the pad of paper she left with him.
Forever a part of his thoughts, forever a part of his soul.
Editor’s note: On a cold and rainy October night as Ryan stoked the fire and warmed some cocoa, and Brutus curled up on his blanket getting comfortable by the heat rolling off the stove, a knock pounded out a distress at his door. Brutus stood and woofed a deep and anxious cry and when Ryan went to investigate, unlocking first the bolt and then the handle, he opened the door to the sight of a soaking wet Catherine. “I could not forget you and though Pappa and Mamma begged me, I had to come back, come home.”
The tears rolling off his eyes were matched by the droplets cascading off her locks of blonde hair clung to her face. There in the cold rain, he stepped out into the night and embraced the woman who owned his soul and took on the shower as though it cooled his burning love, laughing because his happiness hurt so good. They married only a few months later, and together, they started a life as husband and wife.
I had to write this story as it unfolded, because it was so unbelievable that if I hadn’t, I surely would have convinced myself that it didn’t happen.
I hadn’t been sleeping well. I kept having the same dream, or actually, a continuing dream, and it drove me to the brink of insanity because of the shear nature of its realness. I’d go to sleep and dream I was a bitter seventy-five-year old, divorced and living in a run-down trailer in the town where I grew up. Mind you, at the time I had this dream, I was a promising architectural student in my twenties, so it disconcerted me that instead of it being the best time of my life, day and night, I dreamt about it being towards the end of my life. I didn’t have any worries by day that weighed on me to think I’d end up where my dream kept putting me. Nothing pressed my thoughts on a fictitious future, but every night, I fell asleep and continued an odyssey that picked up where I left off the night before. It felt so real that every morning it brought me to tears.
My friend Todd sat across from me in this all night diner one evening as I poured out my despair to Helen, a pretty red headed waitress. Helen was studying to be a beautician and paid her way through with the dining gig. I came in a lot, usually at night when I tried to defy dreaming by not sleeping. I suppose the lack of sleep affected my judgment because Todd, who had less discriminating taste than I did, swore that Helen was a tired looking forty-year old who was skinny like a woman on speed. Helen was actually a twenty-five year old mother of two whose husband left her after she put him through school. I think the drained look was more from the stress of her life than the years.
However, as haggard as Helen may have looked, she was sharp and had a unique sense of timing. Whether it was doling out witty one-liners or passing along a piece of sage advice, she always said something that made me think. As I told Helen about my dream, she suggested that a prudent person would seek the advice of a professional. When I mentioned that I went to the doctor to get some sleep aids, she laughed and said I went to the wrong kind of doctor.
“I think she means a shrink, Danforth.” Todd smirked. He always thought I leaned towards the melodramatic and I’m sure would have howled if he knew I took Helen’s advice and went to a psychiatrist the next day.
“Is that what you mean?” I turned in the booth so that I faced Helen head on.
She’d bent forward and placed her hands on the table, leaning over the two of us. “Although you say everything in your life’s fine, maybe there’s something in your past that’s eating at you.”
“But my dream is about me in the future, or at least I think it’s me, and I think it’s the future…fictitious future.”
“Maybe that’s the problem.”
“You don’t know what’s the past, the present, or the future and,” she hesitated and smiled, “what’s fiction and what’s real.”
That’s where my story began.
I walked past Dr. Hylan Hessler’s office every day on my way to school. His office was usually empty, and it struck me as odd that there was only a messy desk and chair. There wasn’t any other furniture, and with the exception of one poster, it was barren. I wound up there because, although I thought I’d probably not get the best care, I had a feeling he was cheap. Besides psychiatry, according to his window writing, he was also a self-proclaimed expert on the paranormal. He had a painted window that asked, ‘Does your ghost have issues?’ That explained why he said to me when I entered his small two-room office, “Spooks or kooks?”
He pulled an unlit pipe from his mouth and stepped away from a cluttered desk of stacked books and manila folders. “Do you have ghosts in your house or in your head?”
“Oh.” As he approached me, I was struck by his height. He was tall and the fact he was extraordinarily thin made him appear that much taller. “I guess they’re in my head.”
I stood in the middle of his office as he did a 360 around me. He had his arms crossed and the heels of his saddle shoes clicked on the wooden floor with each step. “You look like a grounded young man, proud in your stance, attentive, well groomed.” He continued circling me, “A little tired. Have you been getting enough sleep?”
I tried to follow him with my head, but he snapped his fingers. He wanted me to gaze at a poster affixed to the back door of his office, a little black dot in a sea of white that made me dizzy staring at it. “That’s the problem. It isn’t that I don’t sleep, but rather my dreams are disturbing me.”
“I thought you’d come in sooner or later.”
“Excuse me?” I never saw him before nor spoken to him. “How could you know I was coming in?”
“Elementary. You walk past my shop window everyday.”
“You look, and there’s a hesitation. Most people do one of two things when they pass my office: They either don’t notice, or they snicker at my paranormal advertisement.”
“Well then, when can I start?”
“My guess is that you’re a student at the university, and since today is Saturday, I assume you were hoping you could begin today?”
“Yeah, I was sort of hoping we could talk today.”
He led me away from his nearly empty front room into a beautifully decorated second room. It was in stark contrast from the dimly lit, dusty wooden-floored entry room, with its fifties feel and uninviting echo. He asked me to remove my shoes before I stepped onto his plush white carpet. Man-size plants crept up the walls where there weren’t bookcases, and each bookcase was crammed with fine leather-bound books. The walls were white with a thin ten-inch molding strip of lavender flowers just below the ceiling. Although there wasn’t a window, the lighting was superb. A ceiling fan and lamp with blades the shape of leaves beamed light over the entire room. The lights were fluorescent and gave the illusion that it was always daytime. In one corner was a neatly kept oak desk, enormous and taking up nearly half the floor space. Behind his desk, one of his bookcases had a cutout for his portrait and degrees. A couch sat in the middle of a room with a high back leather chair beside it.
Suddenly, I realized I probably couldn’t afford this man. “I’m sorry…”
“Nonsense! Don’t let my surroundings fool you. Just as you thought I was cheap because of my front, now you think I’m expensive because of this?”
“Well…” I let out a sigh and my shoulders drooped, “Yeah.”
“How much do you have?”
“One hundred dollars, and I was hoping we could do this in one session.”
“Obviously you don’t know how doctors of psychiatry work. Getting you hooked on coming in is part of the process. However, I wasn’t asking how much money you have, but rather how much time do you have?”
“Like I said, I was hoping we could get this done in one session.”
“For one hundred dollars we can have a lifetime of sessions, and besides, I won’t take you for just one session.”
“You’re telling me that you’ll see me as much as I want for one hundred dollars?”
“That’s right, Danforth.”
He shocked me. “What did you just say?”
“I said, ‘That’s right.’”
“No, you called me by my name.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“Well, there wouldn’t be if I had told you my name. How did you know my name?”
He smiled and coaxed me to the couch. “You look like a Danforth.”
I turned to him and put my hand to my chest. “I look like a Danforth? How many Danforths have you ever met?”
“One but that was many years ago. You remind me of him. It was one of those coincidental slips.”
“The only people I know with the first name Danforth are my father and grandfather. You haven’t ever been to Ohio have you?”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Perhaps I have, in another lifetime.” He winked.
I kept thinking to myself how this was weird, but maybe because Dr. Hessler knew so much about me he could help me stop this other life from tormenting me in my dreams.
“So tell me about your dreams.”
“I dream that I’m this old man. I know it’s me because I’ve looked in the mirror in my dream, and although I’m old, I’m definitely looking at me.”
“Can you control your events?”
“Well, I can control what I’m doing. Is that what you mean?”
“I mean can you change things just by wanting to?”
“No. I can’t do anything extraordinary. It’s as if I’m there for real, as a real person in a real world.”
“Are you married in your dream?”
The doctor lowered his head and peered over his glasses. “How do you know that?”
I smiled. “Because the neighbor told me.”
“What do you mean the neighbor told you? You mean you don’t remember?”
I was perplexed. “How can I remember something that isn’t real?”
“Then how did the neighbor know?”
“She says she’s been a friend of mine for years.” I recalled something she said to me a few nights earlier. “She says I’m suffering from amnesia.”
“Tell me about that.”
“What do you want to know?”
“How did the conversation unfold?”
“She came over and said she was worried about me. That I didn’t remember my kids’ names, and that I’d been in an accident, falling and hitting my head.” I put my hand to my forehead and felt the knot.
“What kind of accident?”
“I don’t know.” I laughed, “I don’t think I was there!” I pulled my bangs away and showed my scalp. “Although, here’s the mark.”
Dr. Hessler quietly ‘hmmmed,’ and jotted down something in his notebook. “Have you seen any pictures of your family?”
“I’ve been so disoriented. I left the trailer when I first showed up there. I thought I was in someone else’s place and was worried that I’d been sleep walking, so I just sat on the porch. I didn’t know where to go, so I just sat there. Ever since, I either stay in the front room, or I go onto the porch. Other than using the bathroom.”
“Is it day or night?”
“What do you mean?”
“I looked at my watch one day, in fact, that’s how I discovered I was old. My hand had so many wrinkles. My face felt fragile, and when I looked in the mirror, I was horrified to see an old man. Anyway, every time I show up there, the time is exactly where I left off.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not following you.”
I mean, I am living another life there. Every eight hours of sleep I get here, is eight hours further into the old man’s life.”
“Interesting. Do you sleep there?”
“Every third eight hours.”
“What do you mean, every third eight hours?”
“If I’m there for the eight hours I sleep, then I am reaching my bedtime in the dream, and so I sleep.”
“Do you dream when you’re sleeping as the old man?”
I was frightened realizing that I did dream. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what I dreamt and just bit my lip trying to make sense of it all.
“What do you dream when you sleep as the old man?”
“I dream that I’m a young man. I dream that I’m here, in this world.”
“Is this one of those dreams?”
“I hope not.” With a nervous laugh I continued, “Besides, I know my past. No, my dreams when I’m sleeping as the old man are less clear. Like my mind is in a fog. That’s what makes my dreams that I’m having now so frightening. When I dream about being old it’s so real. I can taste, touch, smell, feel cold, everything I can do right now. I just can’t remember my past.”
The doctor leaned forward in his chair and laid his notebook to his side. “I want to put you under and guide you to some discoveries.”
“I want you to find some pictures of your family.”
“Okay. Do you think it’ll work?”
“Dreams are a subconscious process. All we need to do is get you to that place. Once you’re there, I can plant suggestions by speaking to you.”
Dr. Hessler pulled a lighter from his pocket and held in front of me as I lay on the couch. He flicked it on and instructed me to look deep into the flame. As I did, he suggested that I was getting tired, that I wanted to rest, relax, sleep, sleep, sleep…
I was confused every time I was in the trailer. However, I became more accustom to my surroundings, because everything remained the same.
I felt someone wanted me to find some pictures. I was lying on a couch with holes in the cushion and a faded checker design of orange and brown stripes. I sat up and put my feet onto a green shag carpet, if you could call it carpet. Between the stains and tears, it was just thin cloth on the ground. The T.V. was on, and the movie I was watching the last time I was dreaming was right where I left off. I stood up and decided to find out more about me.
I visited this place for over a month and never went to the bedroom. I slept on the couch, and the furthest I went down the hall was to the bathroom. The bedroom scared me. I didn’t know what I would find and for some reason didn’t care. A voice told me to go down the hall, go to the bedroom, explore.
I expected to feel deja vue, but I didn’t. Nothing seemed to fit, and yet, it didn’t feel like a dream. I was there, in the flesh. My steps were slow and old. I felt my weight hurting my feet and the smell of stale air invading my senses. I stepped past the bathroom and committed myself to going all the way to the bedroom.
The bedroom was pure American trailer, brown paneling and yellow glass lamps. I couldn’t help but notice a small wicker chair that would have fit a toddler. It was my chair I had as an infant. I had taken it to college and used it as a plant stand. There it sat, a clear identifier of me. This was my room!
I could sense I had a task and went to the dresser. Clothes hung out and I wondered how I became such a slob.
I searched all the drawers and found nothing. I searched the closet and still found nothing. I was about to give up when I noticed the corner of a photo album peeking out from under the bed. My eyesight wasn’t what it was when I was in my real world and I adjusted the glasses on my face, unaccustomed to me, so I could get a better look. I struggled to crouch down and, as I picked up the album, fought with my knees to get back to standing.
Before I looked at what would certainly explain my situation, I became aware I didn’t want to be there. I repeated several times, “Wake up, Danforth,” but to no avail. What was frightening me? I considered that perhaps the last time I spoke to my parents, I picked up on a vibe that they weren’t doing well, and I was somehow living vicariously through them. However, the age I progressed to was many years past my parents. My dad was only fifty-five and my mother fifty-three. Maybe they had mentioned something about Grandpa.
I made it to the front room and sat in a recliner. Grandpa had passed away a year earlier and maybe this was something subconscious about him. We were close and I liked him but I seldom saw him. He lived in Florida, not Ohio.
I sat with the book on my lap when someone banged on the aluminum-sided door. It rattled like a stack of tin sheets. I could see Mrs. Orman through the slatted windowpanes.
She was my only connection to this world. She was the only person I’d met so far. I struggled to my feet and opened the door. I smiled. “Come in, Mrs. Orman.”
She was slightly overweight and dressed in a bright yellow skirt and blouse. She looked like a grapefruit. She had an infectious smile and laughed, “How are you today, Danforth?”
Skeptical of everything, I glared at her. “I’m fine. And you?” I made room for her to enter. Someone was in my head telling me to talk to her.
“Oh, I’m great! I just stopped by to give you this.” She held up a basket with steam rising from it.
“What is it?”
“It’s my corn tamali pie you like so much.”
I reached out to take it from her. “Thank you.”
“It’s heavy.” She shed her smile and replaced it with a warm look of concern.
“I’m sure I can handle it.” I grabbed the handle and as she released it, it almost took me down. She stepped inside the door and grabbed my elbow.
“Let me help, Danforth.”
I felt shame that I couldn’t carry it. It was only a basket with a casserole dish in it. “Thank you, Mrs. Orman. Would you come in for a moment? I need to talk with you.”
The kitchen was a mess. There were dishes that were not attended to for what appeared to be months. I could see that Mrs. Orman looked shaken by my lapse in taking care of myself.
“Have you spoken to your daughters?”
I wasn’t sure what to do. This was a dream after all, right? I didn’t have to cater to all this drama. I wanted to turn to her and explain she was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. I felt sorry for her. She had no idea she didn’t exist anywhere outside my thoughts.
“If you don’t call your daughters, I will!” She was visibly upset.
“Can you help me?” I didn’t want to go into detail about my dreams. I didn’t want to go down that road. I didn’t know what response I would elicit, and the last thing I wanted to do was have her leave and never come back. She was not only my source of understanding; she was also my only source of entertainment. “I need you to help me with my amnesia.”
“Oh, Danforth,” she took me by the arm, “are you feeling lost?”
I bowed my head and laughed. “You might say that.”
We headed back to the front room, and I picked up the photo album. We sat on the couch, and I thumbed through the pages. I started on the last page. “Who are these people?” It was a picture of four adults, three women and one man.
“Danforth,” Mrs. Orman looked shocked, “those are your kids.”
“My kids? But they’re…” I looked closer at the picture. “They’re old.”
She smiled. “Coming from a seventy-five year old man, I wouldn’t be casting aspersions on anyone. Besides, they’re only in their forties and fifties.”
“Why is that impossible?”
“Because I do have some memories. I remember everything before I was thirty, and I didn’t have any children.” I felt proud of myself, and tipped my head to Mrs. Orman.
“Then your memory is playing tricks on you, because you did have two of your kids before you were thirty.”
“How would you know?”
She rubbed my hand as though she felt sympathy for me. “Because I know you, Danforth.”
It dawned on me that maybe these were my adopted children. “Did my wife have these kids when I met her?”
“No Danforth. You had the two when you met her.”
“What are you saying?”
“You and Helen only had two children together. Your first two were with another woman.”
“Did you say Helen?”
“Yes, Helen. Your ex-wife?”
I flipped pages with a fury, stopping at a picture of me with a woman. “Is this Helen?”
Mrs. Orman leaned into me and whispered, “Yes.”
I pulled the album closer to my face. It was the waitress from the diner.
“I know her.”
“Of course you do. It’s Helen.”
As confusing as it appeared, it made some sense. For the first time, I knew of a relationship between my dream and the real world. I wasn’t sure why the waitress was on my mind though. I enjoyed talking to her, and found her attractive, but didn’t give her much thought. She was a waitress at a diner. Somehow, I felt this woman must have weighed on my mind and I asked Mrs. Orman, “Do you know how I met Helen?”
“Can you tell me?”
Mrs. Orman looked like she wanted to cry. “You mean you don’t know, Danforth?”
“No, and I don’t know how you would know either.”
“You’ve lived here for ten years. Your children come by to see you often, and even Helen comes by on occasions.”
“So, how did I meet Helen?”
“She was a student at N.Y.U. and you worked at a diner. She used to come in to study there, and you and she became friends. You’ve talked fondly about this story.”
“A student at N.Y.U.?”
“Very funny, Mrs. Orman.”
“You see my last memories are those of ME being a student at N.Y.U., and Helen working at the diner.”
“Danforth, I promise you, Helen was a successful architect in Cincinnati.”
“An architect no less. What a riot!” My dream had flipped my life with hers and, as much as things became clearer, it irritated me. “Well, I can promise you, I could recite the principles of architecture right now.” I found myself in a stupid argument with someone in a dream.
“Helen always said you should’ve been the architect and not her. That it was your passion.”
“Of course it was my passion. I spent years studying it.”
Mrs. Orman stood abruptly, shaken by my outburst. “I have to go, Danforth. I’ve upset you and I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah…fine.” I shook my head because I was mad. I wasn’t sure why I was mad, but I was. I managed to smile because, although confused, I was grateful. “Thank you, Mrs. Orman. Really, I mean that.”
She smiled back and before she left warned me, “Danforth, I’m coming over here tonight to clean this place and I don’t want no for an answer!”
I laughed, “That’s okay, I have to go somewhere anyway.”
“Oh, Danforth, you’re so funny. You don’t ever go anywhere.” She pulled the casserole dish out of the basket, put it on the table and took the carrier with her, humming a light tune as she closed the door behind her.
I wasted no time and piled a large helping of tamale pie on my plate, but as my old body would have it, I could only eat about half of what I dished out.
I sat back on the couch and turned the TV to the news but never got the chance to listen; too tired I drifted off to sleep.
When I came to, I was lying on the floor of an abandoned office. As I stood up, I realized it was where the doctor’s office was. There was no wallpaper, no ceiling fan and lights, no bookcases, nothing. I looked at my watch and realized that only two hours had passed since Dr. Hessler put me under, and yet, there was no sign that he was ever there.
“I pooped corn.”
Todd stopped drinking his soda. “That is WAY more information than I needed to know.”
“Oh yeah? Guess when the last time I had corn was?”
Sarcasm spilled out Todd’s mouth, “Ah…Yesterday?”
“No, this afternoon.”
“When the doctor put me under, Todd!”
Todd went back to drinking his soda. “Very funny.”
“I’m dead serious.”
Todd tried to piece things together. “So you’re telling me that you went to a doctor that disappeared, whose office isn’t there, and that gave you a lunch that is working its way through your system?”
“No! You’re such an idiot sometimes.”
Todd had a grin that lit up his face. “Then who gave you the corn?”
“She’s the old lady you used to be married to.”
“No! Damn, Todd. I swear, you’d screw up a wet dream. Mrs. Orman was my neighbor. Helen was my wife.”
Todd Whispered, “Helen, the waitress?”
“Dude, you must be desperate, horny, or both!”
He made me mad because I knew Helen could be attractive if she did something to herself. “You take down that flowing red hair and put a little makeup on her and she’s good looking, Todd.”
Todd snorted. “I know. I’m just teasing you. Still, you’re a fast tracker and she…” he whispered, “Is a single mother working as a waitress.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. She’s taking care of her family first.” I winked at Todd. “Sort of like how I take care of you, my friend.”
Todd frowned, but I knew he was grateful for our friendship. If he and I hadn’t become friends during his sophomore year, he would have dropped out as an underachiever. As it was, I forced him to go with me when we went to the library and made it my duty to make sure he was ready when we went to our tests. I was seven years older than him and he clung to me like a younger brother.
Helen came by with our coffee, and Todd, resisting the kick from under the table, told Helen, “Hey, Waitress? Guess what Danforth found out?”
She stopped and put her hands on her hip. “What did he find out?”
“You two used to be married.”
Helen surprised me when she lost her smile and warned Todd, “That’s not funny.” She didn’t even look at me, turning instead and leaving without another word.
Todd raised his eyebrows. “Whoa!” He winked. “I guess she doesn’t like you very much, Danforth.”
I noticed Helen handed all her orders to another waitress and took off her apron. “Todd? I think our waitress is really upset.”
Todd twisted his head and look over his shoulder. “Wow, she’s leaving.”
I stood and scooted out of the booth. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
I hurried to catch up with Helen as she made to the street. “Helen?”
It was cold that night and her breath billowed out steam as she insisted, “Go away, please.”
“I’m sorry, it was just a dumb dream.”
“Did you go to a doctor like I told you to?”
“Yes.” I pulled up alongside her and let out a sigh. “But that’s where things got weird.”
Helen stopped walking and faced me. “What kind of weird?”
“The doctor and the doctor’s office disappeared.”
“Yeah. Doctor Hessler put me under and led me through my dream, but when I woke, he and his office were gone.”
She stuttered, “Dr. Hessler?”
“You know him?”
“I used to know a doctor by that name, but it can’t be the same doctor.”
“A tall man and skinny? So skinny that he was gangly looking?” Helen shook her head no, but her fidgeting body language said something else. “You know him, don’t you?”
She grabbed my hand with one of hers and placed the other on my chest to make me stay. As she released me, she backed up, leaving me alone on the sidewalk, lamenting as she left, “I wish I hadn’t given you that advice now.”
After Todd and I got back to campus, I couldn’t wait to go to sleep so I excused myself and headed to my flat. My dream life held answers and I was no longer fearful of going there. Curling up on my bed, I waited patiently for sleep to overtake me.
It didn’t surprise me to find myself sitting on the couch with the half-finished plate of tamale pie. It was exactly what I expected. I looked at my watch and realized that not a second had passed since I last closed my eyes in this place. I retrieved the album and started from the front. The first picture was of two children and me, taken in front of the diner, and I looked proud and happy. With my apron on, I held a little girl in one arm and grasp the hand of a little boy.
The next picture made me laugh. Helen sat in a booth studying. She had an assortment of books open and was with a study partner engrossed in their work. Helen had a pencil she used as she pointed out something on the page to her classmate. It was Todd.
The pictures chronicled our lives. Each page was some momentous event: Helen’s graduation, a sign of the architect firm in Cincinnati of “Geddy, Leigh and Mulligan,” a new house, a baby, a second baby, Helen getting awards for her work, and so on. However, I noticed as the years went by in the album, the pictures of me showed a man growing sad. I was a successful woman’s husband. From that first picture, where I appeared to be on fire and ready to take on the world, to the last picture, where I became the distraught image of being beaten like a defeated boxer, the downward spiral was that of a man who didn’t have a happy journey in his life.
The phone rang. I reached to the end table and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Danforth?” A deep voice asked.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“It’s Dr. Hessler.”
“Dr. Hessler? Where are you?”
“I’m in New York.”
“But I don’t understand. When I woke up, the room was empty and you were nowhere to be found. Everything was gone.”
“You asked where I was, not when I was.”
I scooted over to the edge of the couch and put my elbow on the armrest. “I don’t understand.”
“Do you remember me telling you that I had met a Danforth once?”
“Of course. I thought it was creepy.”
“You were the Danforth I met all those years ago.”
“So…” I hesitated, “WHEN are you then?”
“I am now. I am of this world, the real world.”
I put my hands to my face and let the phone fall to the floor, an old man cheated out of his life. As bad as the album portrayed my existence to be, I couldn’t remember it. Instead, I was at the end of my life with no memories other than some fictitious life of me as a college student.
I could hear the voice of Dr. Hessler shouting, “Danforth!”
I picked up the receiver and apologized. “I’m sorry Doctor, but I really need some time to understand all of this. Are you saying this is the real world?”
“Yes, but…” He cautioned me, “Only if you want it to be.”
“Doctor, why would I want something that I don’t remember, and that apparently made me so miserable?”
“I will restore that and let you decide.”
“You? How can you restore my memories?”
“Because I’m the one that took them from you.”
“Why would you take my memories away from me?”
“This wasn’t about you, Danforth.”
“If I lost everything, how was it not about me?”
“I will explain. But keep in mind that what we sacrifice can sometimes be far greater than what we receive.”
She quit wiping my table and stared at me. “Yes.”
She smiled. “Why what?”
“Why did you do it?”
“Danforth, what are you talking about?” Helen sat down in the seat opposite me. It was the first time I recalled her ever sitting down and taking time for herself.
“I have just come back from my dream, and I know what should have been. I had a long conversation with Dr. Hessler.
Helen lightly touched her eyebrow and ran her finger across her forehead until she had replaced a fallen lock of hair that impaired her view. “You were never supposed to know.”
“But why? Why trade what was for this?”
“Because of you.”
“Wait a minute. You had so much success. You had everything in life that we strive for, and apparently it isn’t like you left anything great when you left me. How could you pity me?”
“I didn’t leave you.”
“Helen, I was there. You left me. You lived in a big house with a doctor and our kids came to you for the holidays. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re wrong.” She reached out and took my hands as I fiddled with a straw. “You left me because I took your entire manhood away from you.” She stared out the window, her eyes slowly filled with tears. “You were miserable. We had parties and all my colleagues would pass you by as though you were the butler. The kids came to me if they needed money. If the phone rang, it was for Helen.” She turned her attention to me. “You got tired of it all and left. You didn’t want any money, and you moved into a trailer on the outskirts of town. One day, I received divorce papers.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you would change lives with me to put yourself in this position,” I said.
“I went to Dr. Hessler one afternoon for a remedy to my depression. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so sad. We had been divorced for ten years and I had moved on. He suggested putting me under hypnosis, but before he did, he asked me, ‘If you could go back and relive your life, would you?’ I answered that I would if I could change one thing, and he asked what that was.”
“And you said to change places with me?” I asked.
“That was my request.”
I let out a heavy sigh. “What would compel you to do that, Helen?”
“Because you deserved it. You’re the kindest person I’ve ever known. You put your first wife through college while your life was on hold. When she left you, leaving the kids behind, you raised two beautiful children, and you again put your life on hold. When I met you, I was a struggling architectural student, something you always wanted to be, and you never once felt envious. Instead, you helped put me through school. I love you for being you, the most giving man in the world. We had two wonderful daughters that you raised. All your life has been on hold. I gave it back to you.”
I shook my head. “But that’s how fate’s supposed to work. We can’t just blink and it goes away.”
She leaned forward with an impish grin. “Well, it did for me!”
I touched her cheek. “I can’t let you do this.”
Tears streamed down her face. “Please don’t take this back. Please!”
“To have my pain so I can have your pleasure?”
“I won’t have your pain, because your happiness is what I’m seeking, Danforth. It always has been. I’m the most grateful person for knowing you.”
“But if things change, I won’t be the same person.”
“Yes you will. It’s who you are.”
“I have to think about it.” I slid out of the booth and tapped the table with my index finger. “It’s hard to understand what’s happening. I thought I understood who I was, but it seems I’ve been living a lie for the past twenty-nine years.”
Helen caught my hand. “Dr. Hessler led everything to this moment so it would work, Danforth. All you have to do is accept it.”
“The most disturbing part of this is that I had two children that I don’t even know.”
Helen squeezed my fingers. “I never would have agreed to this if Dr. Hessler hadn’t promised me that they would be with me.”
I left the diner promising to weigh her words, but my heart leaned towards asking Dr. Hessler to turn it back. That’s why Dr. Hessler put the dream into my head in the first place. He knew I had to choose Helen’s decision as well. It was free will.
I thought my dreams ended because Dr. Hessler had resolved the issue, but when I fell asleep that night I was surprisingly back in the trailer. I sat on the couch and had just hung up the phone after my conversation with the doctor. The phone startled me when it rang again and I thought Dr. Hessler was calling me back. “Hello?” I answered curtly.
“Danforth?” A soft voice spoke.
“Yes, this is Danforth.”
“It’s Helen.” Her voice was fragile.
“Are you Helen the architect or Helen the waitress?”
There was dead space on the line and finally she concluded, “So you know.”
“So are you dreaming right now?”
“I’m like you, Danforth. I’m in both worlds. When I went to Dr. Hessler and he offered me this choice, I found I returned every night when I went to sleep. But I’d like to put an end to that. Whether you decide to stay or go, I’ll understand, but I want you to decide.”
“I’m sort of angry, Helen.”
I sighed. “I don’t know my children. Who they are, what their names are. I don’t know anything about them!”
“Would you like to talk to them? They’re here visiting.”
I whispered, “What are their names?”
“Catherine and Danforth.”
I located the album and thumbed through the pages, finding a picture of them as adults. “Do they have children?”
“Yes. Danforth has three boys and Catherine has a boy and a girl. Dear, we can talk to each other or you can talk to your children.”
“Fine, put them on.”
I could hear the exchanging of the phone and someone in the background asking some kids to ‘hold it down’.
“Dad, is that you?” A deep voice asked in lively tones.
“Yes, Son.” I liked the sound of that – Son.
“Helen had a pretty wild story she told us. Did she tell it to you?”
“Whatever Helen told you, it’s the truth.”
“Come on, Dad. It’s make-believe.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
He answered, “Shoot.”
“Suppose she was telling the truth, and if it meant that you would be her child instead of mine, would you still want it to be the truth?”
“According to Helen, it’s about changing your life for the better, and I would die for you Dad, you know that. So, I guess my answer would be yes.”
My daughter gave the same answer as my son. I thanked them both for speaking with me, and they sensed I was in a fog about who they were. Of course, that just meant they thought I suffered from amnesia. Nonetheless, it was great speaking with them.
I had one more person to speak with before making my decision. I needed to know if Dr. Hessler could return my memories so I could base my decision upon my relationships with my children.
About noon, I went into the diner because I knew Helen’s shift started. When she saw me, she came over and asked if I had made a decision.
“Do you remember last night?”
“You mean in our dreams?”
“You know, having my children speak to me didn’t help your cause. I want to know them for who they are. I don’t want to change their existence.”
“So what did you say?”
“I asked for a modification.”
“I asked him if he could make your kids still your kids.”
“Obviously, he said he couldn’t, because I didn’t have any children when I woke up this morning.”
She smiled. “Actually, you do.”
“Do you remember when you were twenty, going to a sperm bank?”
“No…” Then, like a light bulb charging on, I reversed myself. “Wait a minute, I do remember.”
“Well, you were batch number BA745 and my cousin was the recipient of your sperm, twice. She had a boy and a girl. Tragically, my cousin was killed and because she had no immediate family, she willed them to me.”
“Your cousin wasn’t by chance their original mother in my previous life was she?”
“Isn’t that convenient. And you believe all this?”
“Of Course.” She smiled. “DNA can prove it too!”
“And pray tell, what are their names?”
“What else, Danforth and Catherine.”
I looked at Helen. “That’s creepy. Don’t you think a woman naming their child Danforth, and that the donor just happens to have that same ODD name as unexplainable?”
“Truth is stranger than fiction.”
I smiled. “So how many Mulligans do you get?”
She sighed. “I won’t ask again.”
I left without making a decision. Dr. Hessler had given me seventy-two hours to think about it. All I had to do was seal the deal with a kiss before midnight of the third day.
I stayed away from the diner for the next two days. I wanted to weigh everything without the pressure of someone else.
About eight o’clock on the day of my decision, I went to the diner to tell Helen I had made a decision. When I got there, she wasn’t at her shift. I waited nervously to see if she would come out of the kitchen, but after fifteen minutes, it was obvious she wasn’t at work. I asked the young woman working Helen’s tables if she knew where Helen was.
“Helen has gone home.”
“Can you give me her telephone number?”
“I wish I could, but she went home to Oregon.”
“Yes, she flew out this morning.”
I went back to my flat that night stunned I had waited too long. Now, I’d have to settle for the life given and not the one granted. Helen had said I was always a giving person, and I did for others first, and for myself only if I had the time. Of which, she said I never did. This time, I had taken my time and thought about what I wanted only to have my time cost me. I went to bed that night sad and lonely, realizing I wouldn’t return to my young life.
I awoke to the telephone ringing. It was my sleep hours in my dream. I sat up and turned down the TV. Mrs. Orman had cleaned the place and it smelled fresh. Looking at my watch, I noticed it was ten-thirty at night. Reaching the phone, I expected Dr. Hessler to be on the other end, and was pleasantly surprised that it was Helen.
“So have you made a decision?”
My heart grew heavy. “I have but it’s too late.”
“What do you mean?” She had the same sound of concern as the one I felt.
“I had to see you before midnight tonight, and you flew back to Oregon.”
“You were going to say yes?”
“I thought about everything, and if you went to all that trouble to give me a life, you must be someone very special. A guy would be a fool to not want to share that all over again.”
“The special one is you, Danforth.”
“When midnight strikes, Dr. Hessler says I’ll have all my memories back. Perhaps we can get together with the kids and have dinner?”
Helen sniffled. “That would be wonderful.”
I wished her a good night and hung up the phone.
It was ten fifty-five when someone knocked on my door. It was a frantic knock, with each set of three raps louder than the ones before. “Danforth!” Mrs. Orman’s voice hollered.
When I opened the door, Mrs. Orman rushed in and found my shoes and coat. “We haven’t a moment to lose. You have to get to Helen’s house right now!”
“Hold on, Mrs. Orman. What’s going on?”
“She called and said you had to be there before midnight. That it was life or death.”
“But Helen’s in Oregon.”
Mrs. Orman rubbed my shoulder. “Oh, Danforth. You poor man, that fall must have really knocked you silly. Helen is at her home in Cincinnati.”
“How far is that?”
“About forty-five minutes away.”
We made it to her car and raced off to Cincinnati. At Eleven fifty-five we were still ten minutes away and clearly not going to make it.
“Mrs. Orman, you can slow down.”
“Danforth, I’m trying to get us there.”
“Look, the sign says ten miles and we only have five minutes. We didn’t make it. Please, just slow down.”
She released her foot from the accelerator and the car coasted to a safe speed. I watched the beams of light from each passing light post pass us like foreign beacons, aware that in five minutes this would all make sense. Soon, I would know where I was.
At eleven fifty-eight, we had to slow for a car that blocked the roadway. A man waved his hands for us to stop. As we neared the car, Mrs. Orman shouted, “That’s your son!”
He was handsome and tall. He didn’t look like he was in his fifties and had a presence about him that would make a father proud.
I stepped out of the car as soon as we came to a stop and asked, “Are you okay, Son?”
“I’m fine, but Helen insisted that she see you before midnight and the only way we were going to do that was to meet you part way.”
“It’s good to see you. Is Catherine here too?”
A woman poked her head out of his car. “Right here, Dad.” I thought she was so lovely.
“Dad, if you’re going to see Helen before midnight, you better get to the car.”
I walked around to the passenger side of the car and an elderly woman stepped out. She was tastefully dressed, as though she just came back from dinner at a nice restaurant, and smelled like she was dusted in roses from the most expensive perfume.
“Helen.” I didn’t have to ask, I knew by looking into her eyes that this was my waitress.
“Are you ready to have your whole life changed?”
“If it’s with you.” I looked at my watch and before the minute hand stroked twelve, I closed my eyes and gave her a kiss.
When I opened them, we stood in the diner with the owner insisting that we get on out of there.
“You’re shift is over, Helen. Go home you two.”
Helen giggled at me and said, “I guess this means yes?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “Yes what?”
She smiled and pulled a picture of her with her apron on, holding her two kids, one in her arms and the other by the hand, in front of the diner. “Have you ever met my children?”
I recalled seeing them, but I didn’t know if I had ever met them. “I don’t think I have.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the diner. “Boy, do I have a story to tell you.”
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
I met him on my way to
I was surprised to find out when I decided to get him out of that heat his entire life’s belongings were in that sticker plastered backpack. Pulling up to him, I lurched the eighteen-wheeler to a stop and swung the passenger door open. Leaning across the passenger seat, I looked down and said, “Hey, Kid, you want a ride?”
His dog had more enthusiasm than he did, but he managed to nod his head and crawl up into the cab.
I shot my hand out and said, Name’s Carl.”
Kid was beat. “Ben.” He didn’t take my hand because his dog growled before he could. “This here’s Mack and he’s friendlier than he’s suggesting right now.”
The dog didn’t quit looking at me and I asked, “He isn’t going to do that the entire trip is he?”
Ben grabbed Mack’s muzzle and shook it playfully. “Probably.” He sat back and looked out the side window and muttered, “Probably.”
I don’t think Ben said two words until we hit the state line. Suddenly, he perked up and asked, “Carl, can you stop right here?”
I thought maybe he wanted out at Laughlin so I stopped by the side of the road.
“Can you wait for two seconds?” He unzipped his backpack and pulled out an instamatic camera. He circled to the front of the cab and ran across the road. Shouting to me, he asked if I would hang out the window. I leaned out and a bright flash caught me just above my name on the door.
He hurried back and jumped in. “Okay, thanks.”
“What was that for?”
“Part of my trip.”
“Where you headin’, Ben?”
“No, I didn’t always want to be a truck driver.” I ground the gear and jiggled it into second. The big Peterbilt shuttered and slid into a smooth glide. In front of us was a line of semis for miles. Most of us traveled at night. It beat the onslaught of cars by day. “But, you know, I have a wife and a house.”
“So what did you want to be?” He looked at me as if he studied me for a sociology project.
I smiled realizing I had long since forgotten my one true ambition. “I wanted to be an actor.”
“A regular Marlon Brando!” Ben looked at me. I could tell he was thinking that a big ole gruffy overweight truck driver was no leading man. “So what changed your mind?”
“Hell, I don’t know.” I thought for a moment. “I guess I grew up.”
Ben patted his dog on the top of his head. “Sad.”
“Son, we all have to grow up some time.”
“But we don’t have to lose our way, do we?”
I was being chastised by a kid who didn’t understand life that well. “It’s not about losing our way. It’s about clarity.”
He and his dog looked up at me. “Do you think you see clearer now?”
“No,” I shook my head softly but not because I was sad about the truth but because I was resigned to the truth. “I just see.”
“So you don’t see what you could have been?”
“I see what I am.” I shifted the rig up and we whistled along at sixty-five. Outside, the static of a pending storm filled the desert air.
Ben pulled a notepad from his backpack and by the light of the cab, jotted an entry. It dawned on me that Ben wasn’t asking his questions to solve some mystery, but taking notes about those people he met on some journey he was embarking upon.
“How about you, Son, what do you want to be?”
He looked at me with this dumbfounded expression. “President, of course.”
I laughed, but stopped as quickly because I could see Ben was dead serious. This boy wanted to be president. “Not to rub you the wrong way, but you sort of need to get into law, political science or something like that to be a politician.”
“Like Ronald Reagan?” He crinkled his nose letting me know there were exceptions to every rule. “Besides, what makes you think I’m not studying those subjects?”
“So when are you going to run for president?”
He slapped his notepad on his knee. “As soon as I gather the data I need to understand what people need. What do you need, Carl?”
I answered, “Better healthcare.” Not that I needed any right then, but the fact that I couldn’t afford any meant that someday I would.
We traveled through the southern tip of
He jumped out of the cab, his dog now comfortable, crossed over my lap and stuck his head out the window with me as Ben took another photo.
“Hey, give me that camera. I want a shot of you and your dog.”
He walked up to the door and I let his dog out. Together they stood there on the asphalt of a warm
We traveled all the way to
Before he left me, he imparted these words that never rang truer than yesterday. “It’s never too late to get what you came for.”
About twenty years have passed and yesterday at the breakfast table I saw Ben. My wife and I never had kids and for some reason I always envisioned that if I had had a son, he would have been something like Ben.
“Honey?” I said it with so much shock in my voice, my wife turned and actually paid attention to me. Something she had long since quit doing.
“I have to go.” I got up and grabbed my ball cap and coat.
“Where are you going?”
“When will you be back?”
She thought I was kidding and said, “Okay, I’ll see you later then.”
“You won’t but that’s okay, I was never really here anyway.”
I am heading to
It’s never too late.
Wayne sat down on the bed and lifted the note close to his face. Pulling the wire frames from his eyes, he read, ‘The missing ingredient has always been love.' He frowned and dropped the note. The paper floated, gently rocking through the air like a leaf tumbling harmlessly to the ground. He watched and sadly smiled as he realized that action had been his marriage, slowly falling down.
It was neither a feeling of remorse nor comfort, but rather somewhere around anxiety he felt - Anxiety for the uncertain future. If love was the most important thing in a marriage then he failed and a split might make life less stressful, but if it was the benefits of a matching partner, of which Julie was, then life would become as hard as rock candy.
Either way forward was the only direction to go, and go, Wayne started to do. He knew there was a need to cut out the waste. He stood and walked to the sliding glass door, the sun peeking through the vertical blinds and leaving a zebra shape on the jade colored rug. He heard the yapping of the small toy Pomeranian Julie had pampered for the last fourteen years. Little Leona had grown old and spent a lot of time outside because an inability to differentiate between the grass and the carpet irritated Wayne more than a blister on a bowler’s finger. He only allowed her in when the weather was too cold. Even on warm days when Julie would leave the door open for Leona to come in and out, the dog only made it to the yard to do her duty half the time. Great odds for gambling, bad odds for dog shit.
Wayne opened the blinds and slid the door open. Leona ran in and sniffed around like a hound at an airport security checkpoint. It made Wayne nervous to see her searching, "Hey!" he raised his voice. "Don’t you dare go to the bathroom!"
The dog stopped and looked at him. Her head tilted and she looked as puzzled as a tourist trying to figure out exchange rates.
"I have a deal for you." He bent down and showed the dog the kind of theater affection a mall Santa shows a child sitting on his knee.
He tried to pat her on the head, but Leona would have none of it and bolted after two taps, heading for the kitchen as though an audience member at a Julia Childs’ show. Wayne knew she ran off to see if there was any Alpo in her dish.
"Wait up girl. I'm giving you a grand treat." Wayne caught up with her and found Leona sitting beside her empty dish. Wayne laughed as Leona’s tail wagged busier than a feather duster. “Now you want to show affection.” Wayne passed her and headed for the refrigerator. Inside, Wayne found an uneaten steak from the previous night. He took the steak and the beautiful china under it and placed it on the counter. "This is yours little girl."
The dog put her front paws on Wayne's leg and stretched as far as she could, waving her nose in the air, sniffing with enough jubilation to start up a marching band.
He tossed the meat and plate in a sack and grabbed the keys to his car. "Let's go." He motioned to Leona and she hurried after him.
They jumped in his car and drove for miles, well out into the countryside. It was beautiful. The oaks and alders were well into their fall decline and the leaves had turned orange and yellow, with occasional green ones that defied their longevity.
All the while, Leona preoccupied herself with the steak. Wayne had opened the sack and laid the plate on the passenger floorboard. She devoured every ounce of life from the T-bone faster than a lioness decimates a zebra.
When he came to the bluff of Dodson's Hill, Wayne slowed down to catch the beautiful setting sun. He pulled over to the shoulder and spoke to Leona, "We're here."
Leona jumped up to the seat and then onto Wayne's lap. She surveyed the land, scanning the horizon like a lighthouse surveys the ocean. Wayne rolled down the window to give her a better look.
"This is the place to be at sunset Leona. It's so pretty. It just brings peace, inner peace." Wayne opened the door. "Let go for a walk girl."
The two of them exited together, walking through knee high grass, Leona twirling in circles like a child’s toy top, hidden from view as Wayne's pace slowed to half of hers.
Wayne found a clearing of dirt and rocks with a fallen timber to sit on. He bent down and picked up a stick. "Leona." He waived it at her as she found her way out of the grass and to him.
He threw the stick far out into the clearing and Leona retrieved it. He threw it again, this time a little farther, and still Leona played the game. The third time he threw the wood, he heaved it with the might of a ball player trying to throw out a runner at home. It went over the clearing and down into a shallow ravine. Leona tore after it like the pole sitter at the Daytona 500, with little regard to its location. As she headed out, Wayne pondered, "Leona? Do you know what sunset means?" He paused and, as she disappeared over the rocks, the sun disappeared over the horizon. "It means the end to the day, it's twilight, but the key word is end." Wayne turned back to the car and quietly pulled the keys from his pocket. As he walked, he looked back to where Leona had disappeared, He hoped she would perish quickly, and as long as Julie would never let her be put to sleep, this might be as kind as Wayne could be.
He opened the door and hurriedly turned the engine over. Turning the car around, he pulled on the headlight switch and illuminated the field where Leona had darted off. Wayne caught the sight of two red eyes glowing from his beam. It rushed towards him, bouncing up and down and drawing closer. Wayne straightened the car in the direction of east and put his foot to the gas. In the rear view mirror, he could make out his wife’s dog dashing after him. He looked away, not wanting to focus on what he just did. The drive brought a somber reality and he felt slimy for his actions, but he knew it was for the best. Maybe somebody would pick her up. It would take them at least a week to figure out the little mutt was as worthless as tits on a boar. The little dog would get a week more than she would have received at Wayne's house.
Wayne pulled in the driveway, surprised to see Julie's car in its spot. He figured she probably came back to pick up some belongings. He parked his sixty-seven Mustang next to her Ford Ranger and sat wondering about all the time he and his wife had invested in each other. As he filled the air around him with thoughts of love and incompatibility, a loud tapping on his window caught him off guard. Startled, Wayne turned and saw Julie looking as impatient as a mother waiting for her daughter after a late date. He opened the door and asked, "Can I help you?"
"Well, I thought you would be a little happier to see me than that."
"Hey, from the note I didn't know if you were ever coming back."
"The Dear John note."
"Oh, that. That was just telling you what our marriage was lacking, I was saying I am going to work on that, that I love you and I think I need to show it a little more, that I need to spruce up our lives."
"Well, that's great." Wayne heard the words and felt as shocked as peeing on an electric fence over what he originally read into the note. "Here I thought it was over."
"You're so silly. You've never done anything so distasteful that I would just up and leave you."
Wayne got out of his car and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank-you"
As he headed up the stairs to the front door she asked him, "Oh, by the way, Where's Leona?"
Remembering his youth, Charlie realized his mother and father had him in a tug of war. Charlie never knew if he should run or fight. However, one constant remained about his parents – the first move should be friendly and if all else fails then make sure you get the last laugh.
His mother, Twyla Gordon, the cautious one, routinely, daily, and with baited daring, told him to choose the path of least resistance, to run, not fight. His father, John Gordon, on the other hand, created an entirely different universe for Charlie to travel in. His father stood defiantly for everything: risk taker, dream-maker and all around confrontational human being if people wanted to go that route.
It was his father’s attitude that earned Charlie a whipping as a child for pulling the elastic straps of Sally Kellogg’s dress. She cut in front of him and refused to be fair, and as a six-year old, he didn’t differentiate between the sexes, so he gathered the two vertical, candy striped straps that clasped at her waist and ran up over her shoulder into his left hand and twirled Sally around in a twirling motion. She looked like a spinning top, baby blue and yellow frills pirouetting to a rumpled landing somewhere between the pile of sleep mats and the wooden letters in Mrs. Darwinkle’s first grade class. Although he was semi-iconoclastic to the boys for as long as such deeds last until the next hero emerges, Mrs. Darwinkle had no choice but to call Charlie’s mother.
Twyla Gordon arrived with a ballyhoo of pomp and circumstance, dressed in a long mink coat and high heel red spikes that clicked on the sterile smelling linoleum tile of Nob Hill Elementary. Charlie knew then that it was nothing more than a façade and that underneath the coat she probably wore shorts and a sweat top. Twyla didn’t get out much, so she didn’t do much more than lounge around the house.
Anyway, that day Twyla saw a need to fight and not run, to make a statement for the betterment of her son. “Charlie,” she raised her voice as stern as a mousy person can, “What’s gotten into you?”
Charlie was conscious that the other kids huddled right inside the door, listening to him and his mother in the hallway. Although, he would chalk up his defiance as an attempt to gain attention from his classmates, if the truth was told, Charlie only cowered from his father. His mother was always gentle and he tended to speak his mind to her. Charlie learned later in life it was her way of manipulating him. If she gained Charlie’s secrets she could actively work to change his way of thinking. For as weak as she turned out to be, she screwed up other people’s lives way better than his father ever could.
“She cut in front of me.” Charlie answered her in the same uncharacteristic way that she asked him, with an unfamiliar bravado between them. Being unaccustomed with defiance, Twyla grabbed Charlie by the upper arm and in one swift movement twirled him around and stroked him with her open palm on his bottom side. Fortunately, for Charlie, he was anesthetized to anything softer than a John Gordon spanking, and he didn’t know whether he should laugh or take the stern silent approach. He felt confused over the sudden transformation of Twyla Gordon.
“Now, are you sorry for what you did?” Twyla continued with her caustic delivery.
Charlie, still uncertain about what transpired, answered, as he knew his father would want him to, since in fact, his mother acted like him. “No!” Charlie remembered shaking his head and looking up into her eyes. He acted as serious as a child could. He refused to be sorry, and if Twyla wanted to act like John, then she should have understood and been on his side.
Twyla’s mouth opened slightly and Charlie saw her teeth clenched. She slapped Charlie across the face, something that would have detained her by child services if it was thirty years later. In 1968, considering the times, that could still be called good parenting. “I’m so disappointed in you, Charlie Gordon.”
Funny, Charlie remembered, at that moment, thinking the same thing about Twyla.
When Charlie’s father came home that night from the steam plant, the smell of slag heavy about him, Twyla had given him the ‘why for’ of the adventures of Charlie Gordon. Charlie recalled his father looking confused as to why the boy was in trouble, he knew that John would have to spank him too, because after all, it was a team thing between John and Twyla.
John had to take his job as head of the household seriously and uphold the law, so he stood from the dinner table and placed his hand under his son’s elbow, squeezing Charlie to attention. Charlie vaguely remembered thoughts of resisting, but he knew the consequences to resistance. As they marched to Charlie’s room, John slowly and with purpose had loosened and released the belt that held a death grip around his bulging belly.
When they entered Charlie’s room and the door closed behind them, Charlie learned the meaning of the last laugh. His father released Charlie, spinning him to a facing position. As Charlie watched, his father folded the belt and cracked it down upon the top bunk of Charlie’s bed. It echoed well beyond the walls of his room and John shouted, “Don’t ever do that again.” He cracked the belt three more times down onto the bed when a knock interrupted the session. John reached out and grabbed Charlie and spun back around to the door. In one motion, he sat on the bottom bunk and put Charlie over his knee. “Come in.”
Twyla came in and motioned something to Charlie’s father. As John slid Charlie off his knee and onto the bed, Twyla wryly smiled at her son as though she taught him a lesson. When the door closed behind his parents, Charlie grinned from ear to ear.
Charlie looked up at the alder and noticed the subtle change in the color of the leaves. The wind, an autumnal, acted like the grace of an aging man and said 'I am tired.' The heat left it. The wind’s warmth had not quite died and from time to time a pleasant waft of heat eased itself up to him like a fleeting young damsel precociously giggling a love song. But as wishful as he hoped that the warmth would stay, there existed no punch anymore. Charlie, however, felt thankful it was not the death-wind though, the wind from the north.
"Excuse me, sir?"
Charlie turned to see a well-dressed woman of at least fifty. She had an attractiveness that made her young looking, but the air about her led Charlie to believe this woman hadn’t been young for a while. She looked at him with recognition in her pleasant smile.
She stood at the end of the bench where he sat, dressed in a full-length black wool coat, well tailored. A façade, Charlie thought. "Are you Charlie Gordon?"
"No, I'm sorry,” he lied, “You must have me confused with someone else."
"Really?” She nodded her head as though disappointed to hear his response, and yet as if she hoped against hope that he might not be. “Do you know a Marzo Kazan?"
Charlie felt as though he'd heard a ghost, but he tried with all his might to smile. "No, I can't say I do."
She smiled again, not a smile that looked bewildered, but saddened by something. She pulled the purse from her shoulder, sliding it down as though loosening the strap of a bra, and with a casual grace unsnapped the clip and removed a picture. She stared at the photo briefly before handing it to Charlie.
He focused on a snapshot that was unmistakably him. In it, he stood amongst a backdrop of rhododendrons with a beautiful young blonde woman. "This is you, isn't it?"
"Are you the police?" He looked at her. She hadn't enough fanfare for the police.
She again smiled but this time looked amused. "No."
Charlie wondered if it might be more covert. "A private dick?"
Charlie again looked at her. Her dress reflected a professional woman, an expensively tailored professional woman, but she wore a pair of leather gloves that didn't fit the suit. Suddenly, the reality of the moment became apparent. "Are you here to kill me?”
"Yes I am."
Charlie bowed his head and looked down at the sidewalk, trying to focus his attention on a course of action. With the silence of the lonely park before him, he could almost hear his heart pounding. Without resisting, he sat up, crossed his arms and smiled with surprise. "Oh my. I knew this day was coming. I just thought it was somewhere way down the road."
She remained standing, her hands politely locked with the fingers at her waist. "Why did you leave?"
"I was getting railroaded. I was going to prison for a fist fight?" Charlie raised his voice and started to make a hand gesture when he realized his actions spooked her. She retreated her hands into her pockets so Charlie lowered his voice and became a gentleman. "And when I found out the prosecutor was in on it, I fled."
She tilted her head to one side and spoke with warning, "Do you have any idea who Marzo Kazan is?"
"I can tell you one thing, he's more powerful than I thought." Charlie looked up at his executioner and frowned. A corona glowed about her from the afternoon sun, making her seem almost angelic.
She lifted a hand out of her pocket and reached into her purse, pulling out a gold cigarette holder. She shook the case, forcing a cigarette to pop up from one corner. Before she acted she stated, "Not really, just well connected." She offered the cigarette to Charlie and he took it. After pulling one out for herself, she turned the case over and it became a lighter. She snapped a flame to attention then stepped forward and lit Charlie's smoke.
He took a long deep drag and let it out. "I knew it was something. I kept hitting dead-ends when I tried to find out info on him. It was like his identity was a secret." He leaned back on the bench and motioned for her. "You can sit down can't you?"
"I can." She, with the kindness of a schoolteacher, sat and placed her clasped hands on her lap. "But I must warn you, that man over there?" She leaned forward and pointed to a man in a black double-breasted suit with a wide yellow tie about thirty yards away. He relaxed on a bench at the opposite side of the walkway, shaded from the early fall sunshine, his overweight body heaving and sweating from being out of shape. "If you try anything he’ll shoot you before you can breathe hard."
"Fine. I hadn't really given it much thought. If you were able to find me this fast I figure struggling, or running, is pointless."
"You figured right." Her demeanor when quick became less pleasant and much more direct.
"So whom is he connected to?"
"His father? What's he, some bad Italian?"
The woman opened her mouth, and then closed it with a smile. "He's a man who gets his way, Charlie."
Charlie crossed his arms and shook his head. "Seems to me his father wouldn't allow him to go after people for kicking his ass, especially when he deserved it. He's such a schmuck, his dad has to know that."
"Oh his father knows what an insidious little worm his son is, but he is his son, and by the way, it is his father that sent me to find you, not Marzo."
"So a man I've never met is having me killed?"
"You humiliated his son, and then ran without being punished. Did you think he wouldn't?"
"Have me killed? Yeah, I kind of thought he wouldn't."
"Well, you apparently don't know the
"No, nor do I want to."
"That won't be a problem, Mr. Gordon. Are you ready to go?"
Charlie got a rush of adrenaline that spun his head and sickened his stomach. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth.
"I don't mean 'ready' to be killed."
"Oh." Charlie opened his eyes to witness her near laughter.
"We're going to take you to dinner first."
"What?" Charlie shook his head. "Why?"
"You did, after all, win a fair fight didn't you?"
"Well, there you go. We feel an obligation to treat you to a last meal."
"I think this is sick, and I'm not going to be tortured for the next hour wondering when you're going to pull a gun out and shoot me. Just shoot me now."
"Can I be frank with you, Charlie?"
Charlie felt shocked hearing this woman talk as though death was a ritual that should be enjoyed up until the act, and who knows maybe after the act as well. Flippancy flowed from his lips, "Oh, please do lady."
"My name is Helen."
"Please do, Helen." Charlie's became irritated. She behaved too damn nice to be a killer.
"Killing you is a job. I have nothing against you, but before I kill you there are procedures we're required to follow for our boss. Look at it this way, you're getting a free meal of your choice, and you get to live a little longer."
"Sounds like a death sentence."
Well, there might have been logic in her words. At least with a little more time, perhaps he could figure out an angle that would best suit his needs. He slapped his knees and stood. "Okay let's go."
They marched to a black limousine, the only car among the leaf scattered parking lot. The ride was long and slow. As they traveled from
The horn of an eighteen-wheeler rumbles the ground slightly when it pushes its way through the air. It was a sound forever etched in Charlie’s memory banks and part of a great friend. Charlie ran from the house when he heard that sound, not running away from terror, but rather, to his grandpa. Even though they lived a quarter mile away from the head of the block, Grandpa knew Charlie wouldn’t have it any other way. Once a week, he would roll into town in his big red Peterbilt and pick his grandson up for the ride of his life. Charlie would sit in his lap and steer the big rig while Grandpa worked the clutch and sticks. Charlie loved Grandpa, and Grandpa loved Charlie.
“Now don’t tell your parents I’m letting you do this,” he would laugh.
Charlie thought it was their secret and it would be years later that he found out everyone knew. Still, he wouldn’t have traded the confidant relationship for the world. Grandpa understood Charlie and when all else failed, he always knew he could trust Grandpa.
It was that trust which allowed Charlie the forewarning of Grandpa’s death. Long before Charlie’s father – Grandpa’s son knew of his sickness, Charlie knew.
One afternoon on a trip to the house, Grandpa stopped the truck and lifted Charlie off his lap, placing him in the seat next to him. “We need to talk.”
Charlie remembered looking up at a stern looking Grandpa. “About what?”
“About Grandpa coming to see you.”
“What about it?” Charlie scratched the back of his neck. It was such an odd thing for Grandpa to say, after all, he would come forever, right?
“Grandpa hauls some bad stuff sometimes and since I load and unload a lot of it myself, some of it has made me very sick.”
Charlie thought he was going to tell him that he would have to go see a doctor, but instead he said, “I’m going to die, Charlie.”
“But can’t the doctors make you better?”
“No Charlie, they can’t. The things I carried got into my lungs and gave me a disease that’s taking my breath away.”
“Why did they give you things that would make you sick to carry in your truck?”
“Well Charlie, business is business, but guess what?”
Charlie didn’t want to guess what, he just wanted his grandpa to say he was ‘funning’ with him and that everything would be okay. “What?”
“I got the last laugh. The company got into a lot of trouble and they have agreed to pay me a lot of money. I have put it into a trust for you, Charlie.”
“But I don’t want the money.”
Charlie remembered Grandpa patting him on the head and echoing the words, “In life you don’t always get what you want, so make sure if you are rushing headlong into trouble, that trouble knows you’re coming.”
Charlie Gordon learned much about the
"Why are we going back to
The two in the front seat started laughing, "No, the mop up."
Charlie wanted to ask exactly what that meant, but thought it might not be a pleasant thing so he resumed his own personal conversation.
The woman chuckled. "I like you Mr. Gordon. You have a wonderful sense of humor."
"It all in the timing." Charlie leaned forward and placed his arms across the back of the front seat, placing his chin on top of his hands. He made himself comfortable. "You know, the person you should be taking to dinner is Marzo."
Helen continued driving, not looking away from the road. "Marzo is under the weather."
Charlie laughed from deep in his stomach and smiled as though he hid something. "I know."
Helen took a brief moment to eye Charlie and, he in turn, winked at her. "Well, well, Charlie. Have you been keeping tabs on Marzo?"
Charlie lost his humor and curtly replied. "No."
"Then how did you know Marzo felt under the weather?"
"Oh I'm sure before this 'dinner' is over, you'll find out a couple of surprises."
"I hope you're being cute, because Mr. Kazan doesn't like surprises."
"Then Mr. Kazan is going to hate me." Charlie suddenly realized what a hostile environment he was in. The smiles from his captures disappeared. For the first time in the entire trip, the associate accompanying Helen spoke directly to Charlie, "Please sit back." His hair looked oily and clung together, slicked back with strands of gray streaking in indiscriminate places.
Charlie defiantly smiled, but obeyed. He opted to remain quiet, and so did the two in the front seat.
The restaurant 'A Slice of Italy' stood out in a stereotype overdone Italian motif. As they walked towards the back, Charlie thought it was humorous that fat men dressed in pinstripes and power ties really existed. This seemed so foreign to him. Charlie grew up a west coast Heinz from a middle class family. His family certainly hadn’t been as extended as the Mafia, and absolutely never involved themselves in the lives of others like Mr. Kazan did.
The three of them sat at the rear of the restaurant, Charlie sandwiched between the two in a booth at a large circular table. A slick looking young man met and engaged them in conversation. Charlie thought he might be twenty-one but he certainly wouldn’t want to bet on it.
His slenderness reminded Charlie of a frail willow and he wore his hair greased back like an Italian cliché. He whispered to Helen, "So is this the schmuck that pounded on Marzo?" Helen nodded and he continued, "He don't look so tough." Charlie smiled and the boy turned his conversation to him, "What you smiling at punk?"
"I'll kick your…"
Helen intervened, "Go away, Anthony."
Anthony straightened out his tie and dusted some lint from his jacket. "You'se lucky."
'Oh yeah,' Charlie thought, 'real lucky. I'm having my last meal and I'm the lucky one.' The whole situation was surreal.
"What would you like have, Mr. Gordon?" Helen handed Charlie a menu.
He looked at the writing inside and smiled. The words, in Italian, made Charlie happy he read Spanish fairly well. He could make out most of the dishes. He always like Cannelloni and never found a good place to get any. "Is the Cannelloni any good here?"
Helen raised her brows and smiled. "The finest. Why Charlie you’ve picked my favorite dish."
She elbowed him softly in the ribs and whispered, "I knew there was something about you I liked."
"Thank-you." Charlie didn’t feel thankful, but gave one of those responses when someone says something flattering. He wondered why she bothered to be nice to someone she planned to kill anyway.
He thought about the moment. How in the world did he come to be sitting in an authentic Italian restaurant in
Sitting in a courtroom, Charlie met an attractive young blonde woman who sat next to him having a restraining order put on an estranged husband. A cuteness possessed her and she couldn’t have been over five-feet tall, Her personality seemed infectious and Charlie found himself drawn to her.
With a friendly smile, and a high-pitched voice, she stated, "Courts are such a pain."
Charlie found it funny. His experience didn’t seem that bad. Both he and his ex went through the process at home and met once in court to finalize. That day, he was watching a friend go through his.
"So how much are you getting taken for?"
Charlie shook his head. "None. I'm at peace with my ex."
She shook her head with the banter of sarcasm, "Well la-de-da, you obviously don't have an ex like me."
"No, I have one like mine, and I knock on wood." He rapped the pew three times.
"So you're single?"
She put her hand out for Charlie to shake. "Mary. Mary Chase."
Charlie accepted her palm. “Charlie Gordon."
"Charlie, I can't tell you how stupid this is, especially for you, but I would like to talk with you again."
Charlie remembered laughing. "That's the worst pick-up line I've ever heard. You won't get many men if you scare them off with fear."
"Charlie, if you only knew."
He had to admit, her mystery intrigued him.
When she got up to leave, she turned to face him as she scooted sideways past his knees. When she got directly in front of him, she bent down, brought her breast dangerously close to Charlie’s face and spoke softly, "Mary Chase, C-H-A-S-E. I look forward to seeing you again."
'Wow!' Charlie thought, 'What just happened? I think I just got hit on.' He remembered how he watched as she departed through the two court doors. As they began to close and slowly narrow her image, she turned to Charlie and made eye contact. Right before the doors eliminated her completely she raised her hand, blew him a kiss and waved her fingers in a little girlish wiggle. Charlie shook his head in amazement. The rest was a blur.
For a year they dated, even though Charlie learned her ex, a man she would someday have to reckon with, stood firmly in his path. She and her ex, after all, had a child together, Little Marzo.
Charlie broke his thoughts and looked at Helen, "Yes?"
"What kind of wine would you like?"
"A pinot noir." He paused but kept his gaze on her. With a wink and a smile, he continued, "The finest."
Helen smiled large, she had a flawless set of teeth, and her eyes smiled. "Charlie if I didn't know better I'd say you’ve read my bio."
Charlie wanted to banter with her. To retort with a jesting verbal jab but knew nothing good could come from it. Instead, he asked a question. "Helen, how well do you know Marzo's ex-wife?"
Helen took a cigarette from her case, sitting at attention beside her plate. She lit the end and puffed hard. With an expulsion cloud the whiteness of sulfur, she barked, "Mary Chase? Let me tell you something Charlie, that girl is no merry chase, especially when you think you almost have her caught." She smiled at Charlie, "But you know that don’t you Charlie?"
Happiness never seemed more illusive than when Marzo Kazan came back into Mary’s life. Charlie felt pained. He thought she was so happy with him and that no matter how intrusive Marzo could be, she could never resist Charlie. How could he have been so wrong? Not only did she collapse to her ex's will, she denied any romantic involvement with Charlie. She would sneak visits to Charlie’s home, but she made sure she accompanied it with a security blanket of secrecy. Charlie learned to quit counting on a future with Mary. Marzo had some sort of hold on her that led Mary to cancel the restraining order. Charlie thought in the beginning that Marzo only tried to continue being a father to little Marzo, which Charlie thought was admirable. However, he took to spending entire nights at Mary’s as though a sentry on duty, as though he came back for good. He had a jealousy streak that would be trouble if he ever discovered Charlie as a past lover of Mary’s. Mary reinforced the plea of secrecy a thousand times with Charlie.
As Marzo’s stay turned into months, she became more volatile in her remarks about him. "If you were going to kill someone, how would you do it without getting caught?" She once begged to know.
Charlie sat in a corner booth of an out-of-way Mexican restaurant, listening to her pondering death plans. "Don't be ridiculous, you don't have to go to such extremes, just call the cops and renew the restraining order."
"You truly don't understand…he has control. Involving the police would be the worst thing I could do."
"Does he threaten you?"
She laughed at Charlie. "Of course, and he tells me what would happen to me if I ever tried to leave again, but Charlie that isn't why he has control."
"Look, if you don't want to involve the police, why not just tell him about me, and if he flips out he'll have to deal with me.”
Charlie should have taken a long look at her expression and realized he sealed his own fate with the remark.
"Charlie, he'd kill you."
"Him? I seriously doubt it, he's a punk."
"You’re right, but you’re no match for the aftermath. Please just promise me you'll never fight him. Marzo must be killed in a way no one will ever suspect the killer."
Charlie didn’t like the direction of the conversation. They swept the talk under the rug and quietly ate while brooding in their own space of thought.
Helen interrupted his memory. "Smell that Charlie."
The aroma, overpowering Italian spices along with a stack of French bread filled his senses. There in front of him, a most favorable helping of cannelloni looking like the finest of its kind Charlie ever seen.
"Charlie? Do you want to say grace?"
Charlie didn’t find any humor and he didn’t think she meant it to be humorous. "No, do you?"
She leaned forward as though she ponder actually clasping her hands, but pulled back and replied, "No."
He put a fork full of Cannelloni to his mouth and blew on the heat. With it hovered in front of his lips, Charlie pressed for more from Helen. "So, what about Mary?"
"Mary probably told you how she hated Marzo so much she wanted him dead?"
"Yes, she did."
"She's been trying to get Marzo killed for years. She's hated him ever since the first time they went out."
"What happened the first time they went out?"
"She got pregnant"
"Well, if everyone knew she wanted him dead, why hasn't somebody just offed her?"
"Are you kidding? Nobody in this circle is going to cross the
Charlie took a bite. It was divine. "So why not convince Marzo to leave her alone?"
"Charlie, you don't have any children. You don't belong to a family where sons are the legacy. Mary wasn't ever going to be left alone by Marzo."
"Marzo's a jerk."
Helen took her glass and motioned Charlie to do the same. As they raised glasses to toast, she confirmed, "Yes he is, but he's a rich jerk. You could never give Mary what he can."
Charlie smiled with defiance. "And he could never give her what I can," He pulled the lip of the glass to his nose and took a cultured smell of the bouquet, "and did."
"That's why you’re here."
Charlie, exhausted by the stress, continued, "Why was I such a big deal. By the time he and I got into the fight, he'd already won. I gave up on ever having a full time relationship with her. We were slowly phasing out visits completely."
"Your fight verified you slept with Mary, and Marzo was never going to let you get away unpunished. We were the ones that went to the prosecutor."
"That's why he railroaded me?"
"He didn't railroad you. He tried to save you life. He asked us, ‘How much time would you be willing to accept to not kill him?’ We wanted a year and a day. Later, your attorney got together with the prosecutor and us, and we conspired for you to lose. But the dummy you are, you don't show for sentencing and everyone has a problem.”
“I wasn't going to jail for a year. Geez, I talked her out of trying to kill him. He should have been grateful.”
“What was wrong with a year? We have guys doing that for the family, and they could do it standing on their head.”
Charlie felt indignant. “Well, I'm not part of the family and a year is way too long, not to mention I lost a wonderful job.”
"Well Charlie, that's why you’re here."
Charlie thought about his job. His retribution lay in that job. "Helen, do you know what I did for a living?"
"Of course, you were a physicist for an energy company."
"Yeah, a company that subcontracted to the Japanese government to regulate and implement procedures in nuclear plants."
"So what's your point Charlie?" She refreshed his glass.
Charlie had half his dish finished and stirred the food with his fork in a wide circle on his plate. "It's just that I have access to some pretty heavy stuff. Things that not even your family is privy to."
"Charlie! Are you begging for your life with bribes?"
Charlie laughed. For the first time, the words out of Helen's mouth were funny and Charlie had the upper hand. She sat, completely fooled by the direction of conversation. "Not hardly. In fact, the direction I'm going might speed up my demise."
"Then go on, I'm interested so far."
"Have you ever seen radiation, Helen?"
Helen continued eating as she listened. "I didn't think you could?"
"You can't, but you can see what it does to people after long exposures to high doses. It's ravaging and by the time you figure out what it is, it’s too late. Radiation actually effects molecular arrangements, and once that's done, it's over."
Helen crossed her arms and took a very serious look, "Where are you going with this, Mr. Gordon?"
"Remember earlier tonight Helen when you wondered how I knew Marzo was under the weather?"
She looked horrified. A blank stare followed her opened mouth.
"That's right." Charlie winked at Helen. "He's suffering from radiation sickness. He drives around in that Mercedes and won't even let his own child ride in it, in fact, that's what gave me the idea. I didn’t want to hurt the child. I find it quite ironic the car is his coffin."
“I broke into his car before I ran. I placed a plutonium rod underneath his front seat. Let me tell ya, that was a chore. I'm out there in the dead of night breaking into a car with a radiation suit on, a bright yellow one piece covering every inch of my body." Charlie snickered with delight. "That car is so hot, I'm surprised it doesn't glow in the dark."
"Charlie, I think we're done eating." Her demeanor changed and she looked as if only business dwell in her mind. "Let's go."
Charlie stood from the table and scooted out of the cove, he wanted to laugh and although he dared not, he couldn’t wipe the smile that beamed across his face.
He followed behind as Helen took him to the back of the restaurant and towards the alley doors. He slowed his pace, but Helen's assistant shoved him hard in the back, driving him forward and into rank. Once outside, Charlie saw the seclusion and knew this would be his final destination.
"Get on your knees, Charlie."
Charlie stayed standing. He looked at Helen and flared his nostrils in defiance.
Helen pulled a revolver from her pocket and placed the end of the barrel hard against his forehead, directly between his eyes. "Get on your knees."
Charlie looked her in the eyes.
"Charlie, you think you one upped Marzo, but in the final assessment you died first."
Charlie laughed. "Haw! Marzo was dead the first time he drove around in that car." He looked deep into Helen's eyes. For a moment, he saw something resembling fear. He spoke softly and slowly, realizing something else. "And anyone else that sat in that car for more than ten minutes.” He gazed at the sweat accumulating on her forehead. “You must have questioned Marzo about me, you didn't by chance go for a drive with him did you?"
Helen's eyes began to fill with moisture.
Charlie could see her shaking. "You did. Have you been feeling queasy?"
A tear fell from her cheek.
Charlie refused to oblige Helen and bow down to his knees, remaining fully erect. "But Helen it's not who laughs the loudest that matters, it's who laughs last, and I'm doing it. Who knows how many of you I'm laughing at?"
With a voice full of hurt, she echoed her favorite line, but it had no punch anymore. "That's why you’re here?" She used her free hand to wipe the stream of tears rolling down her face.
Charlie reminded her, "I'll meet you on the other side."
He watched as the muscles on her trigger finger began to tighten. He smiled and closed his eyes.
A Day in B Flat
My name is Alan Freytag and everything I am about to tell you is the truth as best I can remember it. I swear to the validity now because before this tale is over, I will test your belief in reality and perhaps about Karma as well.
We were sitting around a campfire in the dead of summer. We, being me, my college friend Ted, and Bill the artist. We were in the Arizona desert and didn’t need the fire for anything other than light. With the shadows of our bodies dancing against the rocks that back-dropped our desert location, we got into a deep discussion, a deep discussion for thirty-year-old men – awkward sexual experiences.
Ted shared just about anything personal that ever happened to him, which wasn’t a lot since he had been a fat kid that stuttered when he was young. Bill, on the other hand, was quiet and seldom gave me more than superficial dialogue, even though most of it was colorful and I found that I liked hanging out with him. I met Bill when my boss gave me the rights to commission the painting of our company bathroom into a jungle, and I picked Bill. Only he wound up making the jungle scene into a carnival rendition that sort of crossed boundaries between nature and a violent uprising at a zoo. It was magnificently done in a creepy way that scared everyone that used our restroom.
On that hot August night, Ted told us how he got caught masturbating by a friend when he accidentally left the door unlocked and forgot that his friend was coming over.
I cried foul because I was that friend and I remember the incident all too clearly. I convinced myself that I didn’t catch him because for something so private, relationships can crumble from that sort of embarrassment. There he was, butt naked, lying on the shag carpet in front of the TV with a porn tape spilling out cheesy music as some guy was giving a silicone boobed blonde chick a hard one.
“You can’t tell a story that one of us already knows.”
Ted, who was looking down through the neck of his beer bottle at the flames, twirling it like a Kaleidascope, twisted his eyebrows and squinted. “Says who. Besides, one embarrassing moment is enough ammunition for you. You have had that on me for years.”
That was the point. “Exactly! And I want more bullets. Because I was there, I am obligated not to share that embarrassing moment and besides I feel too guilty to tell anyone. Now give me something I can use.”
I stared at him for a moment, hoping I could persuade him to divulge something else but he wasn’t budging. I turned to Bill. “How about you?”
Bill was tall and lanky, always paused as though he wanted to think of the right words first, words that would have importance and relevance. He squinted for an immeasurable length of time and then let go of a semi smile, almost debonair. He insisted, “No, you first.”
I saw something in his expression and I wanted it, “What are you thinking, Bill?”
“I said, you first.” He took a deep breath and blew into his bottle so it sounded like a foghorn, all the while circling his hand for me to hurry up and continue.
“Alright.” I tossed my bottle lightly into the fire, sizzling foam pushed out the end as it nestled in the embers. I picked up another and cracked the top, sat upright and leaned into the fire. I gazed at the flame as I recalled my sophomore year of high school. “Her name was Renee and I had my pecker sticking out my trousers and her panties were down to her knees when her father walked in the room.”
Ted looked at me like I was retarded. “Why would you try to screw a girl in her parent’s house?”
“We weren’t. I was at the house where she was babysitting.”
Bill, who hadn’t cracked a smile through either story asked me, “So how did her father walk in?”
“Because it was next door to their house.”
Ted condemned me. “And you think I’m an idiot for not locking my door.”
I said, “You weren’t sixteen.”
Bill continued, “So what did you do?”
“I did what any quick thinking kid that was scared shitless would do. I assessed that the relationship issue at that moment was between Renee and her father. Since it had nothing to do with me, I zipped my pants up and said, ‘I can see that you two have a lot to talk about.’ I then ran out of the house. I can remember for a good month after that, answering the phone every time it rang, using as deep a voice as I could, thinking her dad would call and I could pass off being my father. But,” I took a swig of beer and sort of felt bad that I never had much to do with Renee after that, “he never called and I never dated his daughter again.” After I finished, I turned to Bill, “Okay, spill, Bill.”
Bill sighed and told us, “You two cannot tell a story to save your asses.”
Ted countered with, “You haven’t told us anything yet.”
And boy let me tell you, I sort of wish Bill had picked another embarrassing moment than the one he settled on.
Bill shook his index finger at both of us and insisted that we try to find the humor that he since discovered. And for the record, I still haven’t found the humor. Anyway, he began by excusing his behavior as drunken. He then said, “We went to this nightclub in San Francisco and met these two women that were probably five to ten years older than us. My buddy and I were twenty-one or twenty-two and here these two gals are all over us. I figured it was for drinks and if that was it, it worked. We bought so many drinks that my buddy passed out and I wound up leaving the place with one of the two gals we were feeding drinks to.”
Bill stopped. Not like he wasn’t going to continue, but more like he was trying to get a mental fix on that night. When he continued he rushed the story along to where they were lying down on her bed in some apartment on the Avenues. He said, “We were kissing when she went down on me and unbuckled my belt, unzipped my pants and started sucking my cock better than any woman I have ever met.”
Ted, whom I think had forgotten that these were embarrassing tales was smiling out of pleasure and not humor. I was close enough to slap him across the head and warned Bill, “That isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand, it gets humorous.” For the first time in our duel to outdo each other, Bill started to laugh. Whatever he was thinking, he thought was funny. “So, she is going to town on me and I reach down over her back and lift her dress until I find her panties. I slip my hand down the crack of her ass and was going to slide a finger into her crotch when I find a pair of balls instead.”
Ted spit his beer all over me, the fire, his shoes, the ground but outside of that was a zombie from what Bill just said. His expression was one of shock. I, however, was horrified. And more so, I cautioned Bill. “You had better be kidding.”
Bill was laughing so loud and with so much conviction that any creature within ten miles could hear us. “God honest truth.” He was holding up his fingers in a scout’s symbol of allegiance.
“Stop Bill.” I couldn’t believe he just told us that. “That is a story that should stay a secret and you should never tell anyone.”
He was still hysterically laughing when he questioned, “Why, Ted admitted to masturbating?”
“Yeah, and every kid, whether he admits it or not, has masturbated. I don’t know too many boys that have had oral sex with a transvestite.”
Bill scorned me, “A drag queen, not a transvestite,”
“That’s worse, Bill.”
As we were trying to gather ourselves from that awkward moment, Ted got an idea. “Can we change the topic to people we would most like to have a conversation with?”
I can remember taking charge of the group and directing all of us that Ted’s idea was a good one. I was trying to forget Bill’s story but every time I looked at him he would smile as though he couldn’t understand what the big deal was. My thoughts were on Bill’s moment and how mad I would be. I was having issues with the fact that Bill was so at ease with it all. Ted was saying something about wanting to sit down with Ted Kennedy, which seem apropos since he was starting to get shit faced on alcohol.
“What are you saying, Ted?”
“I said, politicians. I would like to be a famous liberal politician.”
“Great, one friend that has gender issues and one that wants to be a politician. What a pair you two make.”
Bill shook his head and challenged me, “Alright Mister I-have-nothing-in-my-closet, who would you sit down with for an evening?”
“Bill Gates.” I thought I had given the definitive answer.
Bill questioned my logic. “What would you get from an evening with Bill Gates? You won’t be entertained. His one fascinating quality is his money. Why not just ask to sit in his vault?”
“Who would you want to spend the evening with?”
Bill smiled and answered before the echo of my words died. “Liberace.”
“Liberace? Bill, I swear, you are getting weirder by the moment. Is there something you’re hiding about yourself?”
Ted was shaking his head in agreement, even though by that time, he had finished two to one every beer Bill and I had drank. His motor skills were reduced to slow movements of his head like a spectator at a tennis match, only he was missing where the dialogues were originating, looking at the person not speaking.
“Liberace was an entertainer. And he could teach you a thing or two about the piano in one meeting, or so they say. That is time well spent.”
I was about to disagree with him when he continued, raising his hand with his right index finger pointed straight up to the heavens, “Furthermore…”
Out of nowhere a buzz came ripping from my right to my left, like a firefly on fire, moving as fast as an arrow shot from a bow it missed hitting me by inches and before I could move it struck Bill in the neck.
Bill fell straight back and off the rock he was sitting on. I could see from the light of the campfire that Bill was bleeding from a wound to his neck that he was cupping with the palm of his right hand. “Oh shit,” he screamed.
Ted was panicked right out of his drunken state and the two of us jumped to action. I had a flashlight among my things and wasted no time running to Bill to see how bad it was.
To our surprise, when I convinced Bill to let me look at the wound, it had cauterized itself and quit bleeding. Furthermore, Bill sat up and seemed reasonably well.
When I took a closer look, it appeared that whatever it was that darted passed me with so much illumination, had stung Bill. He had a welt the size of a softball on his neck with an entry mark in the dead center. It looked like someone had given him a shot.
We looked around for the bug that hit him, but there wasn’t anything other than scurrying lizards and beetles, none of which was what I saw fly past me.
In hindsight, I should have insisted that we go see a doctor right then and there. We were only an hour outside of Phoenix and for some reason I let Bill talk me out of going for help. He insisted, “It feels like a bee sting and I have never been that allergic to bees.”
The damn thing looked like a lot more than a bee sting.
That next morning, we woke up early because Ted had a gargantuan hangover and rose at the crack of dawn to continue drinking. He was of that belief in the hair of the dog mentality. Anyway, the night before was so vivid that the first thing I did was check on Bill. He was sleeping like a baby and didn’t seem to be laboring, however, the mark on his neck was swelling up and he looked like he had a balloon under the skin. I nudged him and he awoke with a roaring grunt.
“You okay, Bill?”
He rubbed his head and slid his hand slowly over his wound, “Yeah, I feel good.”
“Shit!” Ted leaned over us and looked at Bill’s neck. “You don’t look good.” He took his beer and tipped it so amber fluid rushed out and onto Bill’s neck.
Bill sat up and brushed the beer away from his neck. “Knock it off, you idiot.”
“I was just trying to disinfect it.”
Bill shoved Ted lightly to get him out of his space, “You think beer is the best disinfectant? Especially backwash beer from your bottle?”
I reiterated my belief that we should go to the doctor and even though Ted agreed with me, Bill would have none of it.
“I am fine. I once fell into a yellow jacket nest and was stung 50 times, that was way worse than this and I survived that one.”
“Whatever,” I said, “But we aren’t staying any longer. In case your neck gets worse, we are going back to the city.” It didn’t matter whether we stayed in the wilderness or not, because what happened over the next two days was going to happen anyway. That I am convinced.
I dropped Ted off in Phoenix and drove Bill to his place in Scottsdale. Before I left for Tempe, I asked him again. Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you to the doctor’s?”
He grinned and shook his head. “If I feel like it is getting worse, I’ll drive myself.” As he got out of my car, I worried, “Are you sure?”
“Knock it off, you sound like my mother.”
Whether I sounded like his mother or acted like his mother, I had every plan on checking in on him after I went home, showered and ate lunch, and I would have if Dorothy hadn’t been at the apartment when I got home. I was dating a coed from U. of A., and she pretty much came and went as she pleased. That afternoon she was playing twenty questions about my trip. I think my musty camp smell eased her fears and she was sure that I wasn’t skirt chasing. Even so, she would have felt much more at ease if I had come forth with every nugget of dialogue I had with the boys. A few of the stories I left out, and for good reason. I didn’t see any point in Dot knowing too much about my exploits or those of my quirky friends.
By the time I got around to checking up on my friend Bill, it was ten at night. I rang his doorbell and I could hear him yell from inside to enter. All the lights were out but I could hear the TV blasting away. As I came into the front room, Bill asked me if I could get him a blanket.
“Why is it so dark in here?”
Bill was lying on the couch and said, “I haven’t moved since I came home. It was light when I came home.”
“Is it okay if I turn on the lights?”
“Be my guest.”
When I turned on the lights I was shocked when I saw Bill’s neck. It was as big as his head, if not bigger, and the spot where he was stung looked like he had a tumor coming out of it. “Son of a bitch, Bill. We have to get you to the hospital.”
“No! Believe me the worst is over.” He smiled. “If you had seen it two hours ago you would have thought it was too late for me. This has come way down and is shrinking by the moment.”
I looked closely at his neck. “Damn, that was bigger?”
“Way bigger. I just need to stay here for a couple more hours and everything will be fine, back to normal, ready for work!”
I found Bill a blanket and acting more like a nurse than a friend I carefully unfolded it and covered him from shoulder to toe. I fetched him a glass of water and a box of his favorite cookies from the kitchen. I checked his medicine cabinet for aspirin but I’m not sure that is what he really needed. When I came back from the bathroom, he had wrapped the blanket up over his neck so just his head from the eyes up were exposed. He was peering out and watching Larry King interview some dude who had written a book that pissed off Oprah because she had recommended it and it turned out to be fiction instead of his claimed truth. As Bill watched, I watched Bill. The portion of the blanket covering his swollen neck pulsated up and down, and I swear made undulating motions like a pregnant belly.
“Good Lord, Bill, is your neck moving?”
He looked away from Larry like he was irritated at me for disturbing his concentration. “I am the one stung and you are the one hallucinating.”
I was not hallucinating.
Some people might say I was neglectful, a bad friend, irresponsible for not taking it more seriously, but they weren’t there. I can’t say why, but Bill had such a firm grasp on reality and was free of pain that I just chose to believe that everything was going to be all right. Now, there was more evidence against my thinking than for it, but I was there and it was a judgment call on my part, albeit a bad judgment call. I left Bill that night, hoping against hope that my gut feeling was wrong and that my friend’s assurance was correct.
I bet I flip-flopped a hundred times on the ride home. Every time I stopped at a light, I was questioning whether I should turn around, gather my friend and rush him to the hospital. However, Bill was a big boy and if he said it was shrinking and that he felt fine, who was I to argue. It wasn’t my place to be his mother. Right?
I keep telling myself that I did the next best thing by setting my alarm clock for six a.m. and checking in on my friend. I called Ted that night and told him I would be by to pick him up. I told him about what I saw and that if it had worsened when I got there, I’d need help loading Bill into the car. The next morning, I slipped out of bed without disturbing Dot, who by the way, created a few memories of our own that night. I dressed and raced out the door.
Ted and I got to Bill’s about a quarter to seven. I rang the doorbell but this time Bill didn’t answer. I banged on the door and he still didn’t answer.
“Why don’t you see if it’s locked.” Ted said.
I turned the knob and the door swung open. Inside, I could hear the TV still humming away. The morning light was more illuminating than the lights I had left on when I departed, so we had clear sight of Bill. To our horror, the blanket covering Bill was nearly flat against the couch, and yet, you could see a deflated skull from the eyes up just past the end of the blanket. As we stepped closer, I noticed a bloody tube, like intestines or an umbilical cord, leaving the blanket and running over the couch. As I stepped around the couch, I could see that it continued down the hallway of Bill’s house.
I cautiously followed the tube with Ted close behind me. Bill’s hallway was dark but I could see something moving at the end. Bill’s hall light switch was inconveniently in the middle of the hall and I was halfway in before I could shed light on what was at the end of the hall. Before I tripped the switch, I turned to Ted, “Do you have a weapon?”
Ted fumbled through his pocket and came out with a very large pair of nail clippers, I think they were toe clippers. He rotated the file out and handed it to me. I took a brief look at his solution and then back at him. “Thanks, thanks a lot. It’s good to know I can manicure to death whatever is in that corner.”
Ted pulled out a second, smaller pair. “Me too.”
I switched on the light and after a quick adjustment from darkness, I focused in on a newborn, fully aged, and completely naked LIBERACE. Born out of the neck of Bill and swinging the umbilical cord like a jump rope. As God is my witness, that is how Liberace was reborn.
TREASURES OF ABSURDITY
I should have known things were terribly array. In hindsight, it appeared obvious. Under a spell, however, I only felt intoxicated by the treasures of absurdity.
Digging in the backyard, trying to find my septic tank, I spiraled into a mess. Like a bizarre dream, I found more than my septic tank. Barely digging two feet, I hit a fluidy fluorescent blue liquid, odorless and but a handful in amount. I quickly discarded it, both physically and mentally, continuing to shovel dirt from the ground. Maybe thirty seconds later, I happened to come across a potato. Not a living potato with skin, but rather, a potato completely peeled and completely clean. Then another potato, in the same condition appeared before me, then another and another. My first thought should have been, "How in the world could this be?" But instead, I yelled to Peggy, "Honey, did you toss peeled potatoes in the garbage disposal?"
Peggy stood in the kitchen busy preparing a cherry pie. The aroma drifted out to my position in the yard. I awaited her response.
"What potatoes?" She eyed me with a vexed look on her face, peering out the window.
I held one of the potatoes up, twisting it in my hand like a jewel. Peggy looked bemused if not a little put off, "A whole potato? Through the disposal and through the pipes! Isn't that a bit unusual Jack?"
I should have known how right she was, but for some strange reason I found nothing unusual at all.
Peggy wanting a closer look at the potatoes, joined me in the backyard. As she approached she queried, "What's that," looking down at the blue liquid among the dirt. She touched it and it didn't respond.
"I don't know." I snapped curtly, wanting more interest in the potatoes.
"And what are those?" She looked down into the hole.
I turned to see a batch of clean picked cherries among the potatoes. Together, Peggy and I gathered the treasures in our arms, almost giddy with delight, we laughed until we cried. "Grab a shovel and help me see what else we can find." We started digging, making the hole the size of a child's wading pool. I looked up at the hot sun, startled to see the hole now more than just wading pool deep. Although Peggy had only been out with me for a few minutes, we had somehow dug a hole ten feet deep.
Peggy stopped in revelation, "Look!"
I stood there gazing at a Frigidaire refrigerator. Not concerned over the fact that a perfectly nice, running reefer found its way ten feet deep in my backyard, I smiled at Peggy and responded like a child at Christmas, "What's inside?"
Inside was a battery of goods, from milk to T-bone steaks. I closed the door and forgot completely my purpose for digging the hole. Peggy had sat down at an oak table complete with leafs and chairs, playing solitaire with a deck of cards portraying nude female dancers as the suits and numbers. Above me, the hole no longer had an opening but rather a rock ceiling. To one end, an opening with light shining through as though daylight offered an exit, at the other end, another tunnel, blocked by a creature like no other I ever saw. It was made of the same blue fluorescent color as the liquid I initially encountered. It blocked the opening like the web of a spider, affixing several appendages to all portions of the rock. It scared me. A translucent body pulsated and two eyes followed my every movement.
I grabbed Peggy's hand and pulled her close to me, "We must go."
As we hurried the other way, we came to an impasse. Another one of the creatures blocked that path as well. This one appeared green, but presented itself in the same menacing fashion as the other. I picked up a rock and threw it, landing a direct hit. The creature rocked like a web in the wind, shrieking with alarm. I threw another rock and dislodged the green monster. It rolled backwards, gathering itself as it came to rest. It leaped forward and took flight, revealing a set of beautiful pink vein riddled wings. It flew past us, barely clearing our heads, looking at me with disconcerting anger and leaving me with the sense that I might regret my decision to remove the creature from its place of rest. I looked back to see the second creature fly to the first creature. As water pouring into water, they became one.
I took little time watching as the two creatures enveloped each other, together they became a creature not unlike me. It had two legs, two arms, and a head. Other than the anatomical similarities it deviated by looking brutish and mean. It was large, well over eight feet tall, and had a weight pushing five hundred pounds. It was slow but walked with purpose. As we left through the opening vacated by the green creature, the new creature, purple in color, followed to find us.
We appeared to be in a cave of immense size. One which became a maze of dead-ends and a game at that. With each incorrect path, our back track brought the purple creature closer to us. I knew that if we failed too many times in our movements, soon the creature would have our exit blocked and it appeared to mean us harm.
"Honey," my wife spoke up, "Why don't we use these bread crumbs to mark our spot?"
I looked down at her hands and indeed; she had a fresh sack of Wonder Bread. She began kneading pieces and breaking off chunks.
"What a novel idea." I took each piece she broke off and laid it before us. As we ran and tossed down bread we furthered ourselves from Big Purple, but I expected to find the breadcrumbs sooner or later. As long as I didn't find the bread I assumed we made progress. Every time we ran out of bread, Peggy would just pick another up from the ground, 'amazing how she did that.'
Peggy stopped me, "Honey, I could swear we've been here."
However, no breadcrumbs could be found. "Okay, lets backtrack."
She looked at me as though I turned crazy, but followed me anyway.
We followed our own crumb trail until we came to its end - the monster scooted on its rear, eating each piece.
"Wow, if we only had peanut butter."
Peggy seemed ecstatic, "Right here!"
"And a knife?"
Peggy had this whole 'ask and you shall receive' thing down. I applied some peanut butter on the bread and threw it to Big Purple. It greedily gobbled it down and let out a bellowing tirade.
Peggy looked at me, "I don't think that was a good idea."
"What is it saying?" I watched as it tried again.
From behind me, Peggy began laughing, "I think it wants this." As I turned, I saw her holding a bottle of milk. From the beads of sweat rolling off the glass you could see how cold and refreshing it looked.
"Well, give it to him."
She eyed me defiantly, "No."
The creature stood and stomped its feet. Its arms outstretched towards the bottle. Peggy pranced around, doing a dance like a belly dancer. In fact, she took to wearing a belly dancing outfit. As much as I resisted I couldn't help but beat the drum in my hands. As I tapped my foot on the ground to the rhythm of the music now blaring through the cave, I screamed out, "Please just let him have the milk." I felt pity watching an eight foot creature crying out, "Meeeeeeooooooolk."
"No." Peggy became insistent. "Not until the big baby puts this on."
She held a huge diaper in one hand and some baby powder in the other. I looked stupid wearing a hula skirt and no shirt, since she now had a pleasant dress and a frilly apron on. My goodness, she looked like *June Cleaver.
Big Purple stomped his feet, shaking the whole place and cried, "Meeeeeeooooolk," one more time.
"Listen here buster." She sounded a little more like Linda Blair in the *Exorcist, "Put this on if you want the milk." She tossed the diaper at Big Purple's feet.
Big Purple looked down at the diaper and then back at me, as if wondering why he had to embarrass himself. After all, a monster of enormous size shouldn't have to. This sort of thing is reserved for secondary monsters of minute size.
I just shrugged my shoulders, as dumbfounded as Big Purple.
He let out a huff and snorted as he picked up the cloth.
"Oh, I almost forgot. You have to wear this also."
The monster and I both let out a "Huh?"
She held up a bonnet.
I quickly slapped my hand down onto the drum as if to say enough, but instead of the taut canvas my palm expected I came down upon a keyboard and the music emanating produced the song that goes, *'naw naw -- naw naw, naw naw -- naw naw, hey hey hey goodbye' Peggy had a tye dye shirt and blue tinted glasses on, she fingered a peace sign at me and called me "Dude."
The monster still cried and still sat in his diaper.
Cute wouldn't be the word I would use to describe our guest, but adorably amusing wasn't far off. Since Big Purple held up his end of the bargain and adorned the outfit, Peggy tossed the milk to him, but as it reached his fingers, it developed a nipple and took on the shape of an oversized baby bottle.
Big Purple looked at me with acceptance of "It figures." His one brow rose in the middle and his lips pursed.
I had to admit, that with all his intent and purpose, I mean wanting to do us harm and all, I felt sorry for him. I’m not sure if a large part of it might not have been the diaper, bonnet, and bottle, but a side of me could empathize with him when Peggy got in one of those 'moods.'
I stepped forward to see if I could 'reach out' to Big Purple, but he let me know it might not be a good idea by growling from a depth that only anger occupies. Turning to Peggy, I implored, "Let's get out of here." She had on a Super Heroes outfit with a big M on her chest. I think the emblem meant MOM. Her lips starting moving and words came out after she finished. I looked at her and replied "Huh?"
Again she repeated. Like a bad Japanese movie being dubbed, the words came after her lips mouthed them. With a quick flurry of hand gestures and a mammoth back flip, Peggy concluded. She threw her hands up and a crowd cheered. She looked so cute wearing the skimpy little gymnastic clothing. In truth, the noise of people screaming who didn’t exist was a bit unnerving.
She looked sternly at me and pointed. "Get a job, Jack!"
I looked down and noticed I wore one of those thin dirty T-shirts that are tank-tops, and, and, and I had a beer gut. I slapped my hand to my face and felt stubble. "Knock it off!"
"Okay then, get out of the pool and lets go home!"
I put me hands to my hips and realized I wore *Speedos. I would have preferred trunks since I don't have the figure for such revealing shorts.
I only thought briefly about it, but I heard a, "Oh," from Peggy and looked up to see a wonderful two-piece wrapped tightly around her. I had envisioned a time of a hundred and fifteen pound body and got it. "Yeah, now there you go!"
"I didn't do this."
I smiled from ear to ear. I was learning.
"Fight back or die." Words that kept recycling in Danny’s head as he drove down the highway, in dress blues heading to a funeral wondering why time had not blurred his memory. Fight back or die became a motto for Danny in his life. Those words his cousin Kenny delivered to him while sitting on top of Danny with his fist clenched and cocked back. Kenny, a big athletic kid who had eight years on Danny, was the bully of the family. Danny hated when his parents made him and his older sister go stay with his cousins for the summer. It meant being around Kenny.
His cousins lived the life urban parents think would be good for their kids. They lived on a farm in rural
“Fight back or die,” was an ultimatum Danny had to decide on. He chose to fight, kicking and screaming at Kenny until Aunt Chloe intervened. Danny never understood Kenny. He couldn't tell whether his cousin was joking in an asshole kind of way or if he was just a cruel SOB. His cousin seemed to relish tormenting people. Candy and Debbie, being older and wiser, would disappear and Danny had learned that Debbie steered clear of her brother, especially when the cousins were visiting. Debbie liked Danny because when he came to visit, he could take her place as a guinea pig in one of Kenny's imaginative punishments.
Memories of the day Kenny tried to get him to take the bone out of Hondo's dish were as clear as yesterday. Hondo was their scruffy old German Sheppard. Had Uncle Wilton not come along and replaced his boot where Danny's head would have been, Danny would have lost his face. Instead, the dog caught a fat piece of leather boot between his jaws. Uncle Wilton and Hondo had a violent tug-of-war for almost a minute, Hondo snarling without regard that it was his master’s shoe he had a hold of.
"Don't ever bother Hondo when he's at his dish, Danny." Uncle Wilton warned.
Danny watched in horror as Kenny laughed. Danny wanted to tell his uncle that Kenny had told him to do it, but Kenny grabbed Danny, saying, “I’ll take him out to the barn, Dad.”
“You boys behave,” was all Uncle Wilton said, unaware that their son was a monster.
Danny had gone to the barn only to realize Kenny was bent on continuing acts of violence against him. Each time, Kenny had chosen to fight rather than die.
Now he was heading to Kenny’s funeral. Danny had touched ground on leave from the Marine Corps when Mother called and said Kenny had died in a fire. Forty-eight and back living at home with Aunt Chloe, apparently he had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. How aunt Chloe made it out was a wonder. She didn’t get around that well anymore, but obviously well enough to flee a burning home.
Danny hadn’t been out to the Fellers’ farm in years, but still recognized many of the curves of the old
When he reached the river and made the big sweeping right turn, he knew everything about the farm would be different. As a child, fear crept into his heart when they made that turn and saw the big three-story house. It had been peeling white and barnyard red in color with a near dead lawn and a white picket fence.
Making the turn, Danny felt fear again, but not because he thought about spending two weeks with Cousin Kenny, but because the house was gone. He might have hated going there but it was a part of his childhood and now it was no more. One scorched black fireplace was left standing. The picket fence looked like the fire department had leveled it with their trucks. Singed earth and burned yard trees a reminder that something awful had happened. Danny slowed as he passed in front of the house. In his mind, he could see the house and he could remember where the upper right bedroom was that he and Kenny shared all those August nights. He could remember the sound of the creaking floorboards as Kenny dragged him along to spy on the girls, and the shrieks from the girls when they caught them peeking.
Nothing outside of duty was compelling Danny to go to this funeral. Kenny had been in the Corps as well, but dishonorably discharged for going AWOL. However, he earned two Purple Hearts, one for bravery and one for stupidity. He had saved a fellow marine by dragging him away from the Vietcong, getting shot in the thigh in the process. He also lost his left hand when he dropped a grenade and tried to pick it up. His dishonorable discharge, Danny thought was rather unfair. After they mended him back to health, he still had two months to serve, minus his hand, but instead he went AWOL because they said they wouldn’t allow him to re-enlist.
They were burying Kenny next to his father out at Cadaleesh cemetery. Uncle Wilton had died mowing the yard. He’d dropped dead of a heart attack. Danny wondered why his uncle bothered to mow a yard that was yellow twelve months out of the year.
The Cadaleesh cemetery was quaint and sat beside the community grange hall. Black oaks lined the perimeter and dotted the landscape. Seldom were there more than five cars at the grange parking lot, unless of course, there was a funeral. As Danny pulled into the gravel entry, he was surprised that the lot was nearly full. He didn’t think Kenny had that many friends. He noticed his parent’s car and his sister’s and parked alongside them.
As he stepped out of his car, he saw his Dad approaching. He seemed anxious as he hurried to Danny’s side. “Son, they need another pall bearer, they’re a few men short.”
“It’s good to see you too, Dad.”
After a hug, he apologized, “I am so glad you’re home, but like I said, not many people came to see Kenny, and there just isn’t any young men to carry his coffin.”
“Looks like a lot of cars to me.”
“That’s for a reception at the grange.”
“Yeah, Kenny didn’t have too many friends.” It didn’t surprise Danny they were a pall bearer short, even though he thought there’d at least be six. “So how many do they have?”
His father frowned. “Well, counting the minister and his son, there is the Sexton and…er…you.”
“You mean to tell me, no one showed up for Kenny?”
“Huh!” Danny pursed his lips and wondered how much weight cousin Kenny had gained. He hoped this wasn’t going to be an unmanageable task. He gave his dad his Garrison cap and followed him to the hearse. There at the back of the car, a thin gentleman wearing black and carrying a bible stood beside a young boy of perhaps fourteen. Next to them was a dirt-covered gentleman in overalls and carrying a shovel. “This is who we have?” Danny asked
“The boy replied, “Yep.”
“You can’t weigh more than a buck ten soaking wet.”
“I’m strong though.”
Danny smiled. “I bet you are, but the last thing I want is to drop Cousin Kenny and have him rolling around on the ground.”
The boy laughed but his dad gave him a staring reprimand.
“Look, no offense Reverend, but if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to go see if some of those people at the wedding reception will help.” Danny turned to leave but stopped, spinning back around, he asked, “You don’t think that is sacrilegious do you?”
The man of cloth grinned. “No, I suppose it would serve a reception well to know where we’re all headed to one day.”
Danny apologetically entered the hall, asking the front door person if there were some young men that would be willing to lay a man down to his final resting spot.
The groom, standing a few feet away turned. “Yeah?”
“Dude here says his buddy just died and needs some help getting him in the hole.”
A tall husky young kid standing nearby stepped forward. “I’ll help.”
The groom spoke up, “I think it would be a good omen to do a good deed.” He pointed to the kid. “This is my new brother-in-law. How many do you need?”
“Three, four, if you can spare the time.”
Tom whistled to a man in the back and waved his hand, “Earl, come here.”
Along with the doorman, Tom brought his brother-in-law and Earl to assist Danny. The entire wedding procession tagged along. Tom’s conviction about being a good omen, and a line about what went on there would leave a lasting impression and give weight to the meaning of life was over the top but convincing. Danny only hoped the eulogy would live up to Tom’s hype.
Danny allowed the minister’s son to help and the six of them carried Kenny’s coffin up the hill and to the plot.
The wedding crew made for an odd vision, lots of bright colors, as they all gathered around to pay their respects as the reverend Peter McAdams began his eulogy. Danny noticed that Kenny’s sister showed up late, coming in up behind and standing next to her mother. She had mascara ramped down her face like racecar tires squealing down the runway.
When the good reverend asked if anyone had words to say, Aunt Chloe spoke up. Most of what she said was forgettable. She rambled about what a fine boy she had. Only the wedding guest bought that one. However, Debbie had a few things to say that, to say the least, made the moment a little more interesting.
“Thank you all for coming to my brother’s funeral. I don’t know who any of you are, except for my cousins here.” She held her hand out to the four of Danny’s family and Candy’s kids. She was shaking and it was obvious she had a few drinks before she arrived. “So I can only assume, you really didn’t know my brother, or you wouldn’t be here. Especially you.” She pointed to the bride, decked out in a beautiful white dress. “You see, my brother was a shit. He was the reason my father died. He was supposed to mow the yard, but he just didn’t have the time, so one hot afternoon, my overweight father did it himself.” She pointed to the grave next to Kenny’s. “That’s Dad. Hi Daddy.” She waved to him.
Candy stepped forward to stop Debbie, but Danny caught her arm. As they made eye contact, Danny shook his head and whispered, “Not on your life. I want to hear this.”
“As for having to have him as a brother, where do I begin?”
Aunt Chloe burst into tears, bawling at the top of her lungs, but Debbie continued, only in a voice that boomed over her mother’s sobs. “My brother sucked off my mother until the very end. Ate all her food, lived in his old room, and took her social security checks for his own spending money.”
“Damn!” Danny uttered. He put his arm around his big sis to stop her again. “This is way more than I bargained for.”
“But theirs so much more to Brother Kenny, like, he burned down her house. The only favorable thing he did was be in it when it went up.” She turned to her mother, “Mom, he’s why you never saw me anymore.” She turned to Danny, “As for the big hero. He was stoned when he dropped the grenade and was too out of it to run, and the soldier he saved was wounded in the first place from Kenny’s friendly fire. There was little redeeming value to him, and to be buried next to Daddy is the second biggest crime of them all.” She smiled with anger behind her gaze. “The biggest crime you ask? When I was sixteen, I had to have an abortion because my brother came home drunk and decided to consummate our relationship.”
You could have heard a snail crawling it was so quiet. Debbie proceeded to step down the two feet into the hole where the casket rest. She unzipped her pants and rolled them down to her knees. She squatted in a lady like position, slipped her panties down and peed on Kenny’s casket. There was a collective gasp, although Danny wasn’t one of them. He just stood there clutching his shocked sister and marveling at his cousin’s ability to make this the most interesting funeral ever.
Debbie pulled her clothes back on and composed herself. She attempted to climb out of the hole with dignity but struggled to get out, so Danny let loose of his sister and stepped forward with and outstretched hand to help his cousin out. Debbie, popped up with Danny’s help. She turned around, leaned over the grave and spit on the casket. “Good riddance.” She parted the crowd like the
Every one was stone quiet until Danny turned to the crowd from the wedding reception and said, “Thanks for the help and good, good luck with your lives. I hope this was the omen you were hoping for. I know Kenny is somewhere looking at all of you and thanking you for coming.”
Fight back or die. Looking at the destruction Kenny had caused in his own families lives, he realized they decided to die rather than fight back.
Everything sort of made sense and not liking Kenny was okay. In fact, not liking Kenny was appropriate. Danny didn’t think he’d look back with as much fear anymore amd he decided he’d take that experience as a lesson learned about the importance of standing up for yourself.
It was a dark night, the kind of night power saving cities force you to use the moon glow to see and I was walking to the store for some essentials. The magnificent stars offered the best lighting, save a porch light now and then. I was talking to myself and I was talking to God and I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but since my wife seldom went with me, and my kids no longer lived with me and weren’t there to come along, it seemed the least lonely way to pass the time, besides, God seemed to answer me a lot more than I cared to admit. I was walking because we lived too close to drive, or maybe because of what Linda told me time and time again. Her exact words were, “Cliff, start walking, you’re getting so fat.” I’d love to have protested that sort of remark, except I had put on some weight and although ‘fat’ was a stretch, it wasn’t too far off. So I walked down to the corner grocer every couple of nights for odds and ends. That night I needed baby milk. Yeah, I know I said the kids had moved out, but I was remarried to a woman twenty years younger than me who wanted a family of her own So at 45, I had the beginnings of a new family.
Anyway, money was tight so anything I could do to keep fuel in my truck helped. The nights where we lived were warm for January; at least for the Januarys I grew up with they were warm. It was my first winter in southern
I didn’t think much about home anymore. Those thoughts were the ones that keep me up at night and I had a host of other things keeping me up so I didn’t need bad thoughts added to the mix. You see I was only five years removed from the pen. That’s penitentiary not quill, and the thought of my years locked away in a lifeless existence just didn’t seem to fill the happy place that I so desperately wanted to keep flooded with good things. It was funny but I never really gave freedom much of a thought before I went in. But I did now. It was all around me and I took full advantage of it when it let me.
A police motorcycle was passing by and I couldn’t help myself from making note on what the officer was doing. They say you can tell an ex-con by his reaction to a patrol car. Cons look diligently ahead but their eyes are fixed on what the law is doing. It wasn’t that I worried he was going to stop and ask what I was up to walking down the sidewalk of our residential neighborhood; no I wasn’t a lawbreaker. I didn’t look like a lawbreaker and I didn’t have lawbreaker tendencies. It was true I couldn’t get a job because everyone thought I was a law breaker, but up until the time I broke the law, I had never been in a police car. I was nothing more than a tenth grade math teacher in a small town waiting for the next day, next paycheck, next ‘what if’ to come my way.
Now I know what you’re thinking, Cliff must have had an affair with a student, got his self in trouble and paid the price. In fact, maybe that was where he got his trophy wife? Relax, it was worse than that.
My daughter was 15 years old and a beautiful young girl. I had never been a very tolerant person about boys courting my little girl. However, as she grew older, they seemed to come out of the woodwork. One of the boys that Cindy felt special about was a young man three years older than her and someone I knew as a former student in one of my classes. I tacitly approved because I thought I knew this young man. To make a long story short, I came home from school early one afternoon because I’d forgotten the students’ homework assignments and heard something that bordered between ecstasy and torture coming from Cindy’s upstairs bedroom. I was upset because sex was the only thing it could be. I knew what she was up to and at fifteen I knew that was a way too young. Apparently my daughter and this young man were so involved in the moment that they didn’t hear my less than subtle steps. Oh how I wish they had. I wasn’t ready for the sort of anger I was about to feel. The young man, whose name I just can’t bring myself to say anymore was probably the most startled of the three of us. He jumped off Cindy and stood staring at me for a moment before he opted to bolt past me. Unfortunately for both of us, he didn’t make a clean get away. I caught him at the top of the stairs and spun him around. I grabbed him around the neck and without thinking shoved him backwards. Our stairs were wooden and didn’t have a mid flight landing. It was an older model home and had an extra two feet of space between floors so instead of 13 steps ours had 17. The fall broke his neck and killed him. Suddenly, the sex he was having with my daughter was irrelevant. I stood at the top of those stairs and amid the frantic screaming of my 15 year old I couldn’t believe what I’d done.
In my heart, I know I didn’t mean to push him down the stairs, but a jury’s empathy with an angry father seemed to work against me. The jury believed that I had an ‘I’ll teach you’ attitude and that I, in a fit of madness, took the young man to the stairs and tossed him down. I got five years. I lost everything, my job, my life, my family, but so did he. At least I had the chance to start all over.
As for my current wife, after my release my former wife had been two years gone and I had to be readjusted to life on the outside. The state offered some courses at a community college and although I really didn’t want to be a welder, I took them anyway. One afternoon I met Linda in the cafeteria. I toyed with not telling her I was 40 because I had always looked younger than I was, and in fact, I held off telling her anything at first because I was still living in a half way house and I had no intentions of finding any common ground between us. Coincidently, over the next year, I only saw her in the cafeteria. I never seemed to run into her anywhere else. We’d talk about inconsequential things like the weather and it wasn’t until I was out on my own and free of the judicial system completely that we had our first full conversation. That’s when I found out that she already knew who I was. I felt ashamed but Linda didn’t seem to care that I was twice her age and an ex-con. She was a devout Christian woman and made it her duty to help me restart a relationship with God. Of course when we developed a relationship, we had to move far away from her parents because regardless of Linda’s devotion, her mother and father didn’t share it. Linda married a killer.
My corner grocery store was owned by Mr. Kim, a nice Korean man who kept his prices competitive with big grocery stores by having cornered the market on gambling. I lived in a predominantly Asian part of
That night was quiet. “No cards tonight Mr. Kim?”
He had a look of incongruity as though I had wounded him. “No, no, no. No cards played here. You want casino. This grocery store.” However fervent in his delivery I couldn’t help notice he winked at me.
“Awfully quiet tonight.”
“Ladies night over at bingo hall. All my customers vanish on Tuesday.”
I smiled and made my way to the infant section. As I looked at the coupon Linda had given me and paired it up with the right canister, the bell above the front door rang as someone else had entered the store. I heard a man speak and didn’t really pay attention until he shouted, “Is anyone else in here?”
I looked over the row and a tall skinny young man was waving me to come forward. I hesitated thinking he was selling something but as he continued insisting I noticed he had a gun in his waving hand. I brought my canister of baby formula with me and held my arms out to my side to lessen the gunman’s fears.
He swung the gun back and forth between Mr. Kim and me, shaking from the excitement of the moment. “Alright, all the money in the cash register.” He used his gun to point at the till.
Poor Mr. Kim still had his hands raised and didn’t want to put them down. I stood there holding my canister in one hand and leaning against the counter with the other. I whispered, “Maybe if you let Mr. Kim put his hands down he can better assist you.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, just get the money.”
I knew this wasn’t going to be pleasant. I went in there a lot and I’d watched Mr. Kim open that till plenty of times. In fact, Mr. Kim made it a point that you saw inside because it was always near empty. He wouldn’t take big bills and unless you knew that he had illegal gambling going on, you would’ve guess that he was broke. Of course, this just meant that our semi-agitated robber was about to get full-blown agitated. Mr. Kim pulled out a five and three ones and then asked, “You like change too?”
Had this not been a robbery, I would have laughed. Our shaking bandit turned to me and said, “How about you, how much do you have?”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the only money I had in the world, a ten-dollar bill. I held it up and said, “This is buying this.” I then held up my canister.
He reached for my money and said, “Not tonight.”
Before he could grab it, I pulled it back and said. “Oh yes, tonight.”
Mr. Kim screamed, “You no make trouble. Give him your money. Not worth your life.”
Not worth my life, Mr. Kim? Hmmm, I thought about that one for a second and realized how wrong he was. Money is earned, money is sacred, it gives us the freedom to choose and it was most certainly worth PRINCIPLE at that very moment.
Our assailant had reached that point where wisdom is swept out like the tide and stupidity rolls in like frothing foam. “Give me your damn money! Listen to the Chinaman, it’s not worth your life.”
“He’s Korean not Chinese and you let me be the judge of what this ten dollars is worth.”
He huffed, “Look Mister, I don’t want to shoot you, but if you don’t give me your money I’ll shoot you out of principle.” Mr. Kim was nodding his head in agreement; his hands had regrouped in the up position.
Suddenly, something ironic happened. The motorcycle cop I had so visually stared down parked his bike across the street and was talking on his microphone. The air could have spawned electricity as the voice of HQ echoed with a list of numbers that none of us in the store were privy to.
“Oh my God,” our numb-nut gun-toting jackass had just come to the realization that this was not going well. “Did you call the cops?” He turned the gun on Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim turned his head sideways and squinted. “How you think I do that with my hands raised?”
“Put your hands down!”
Mr. Kim quickly lowered them and became aware that the tables were turned because his expression went from uncertainty to amusement. He too was wondering how our new friend was going to get out of this one. “What you gunna do, Smarty pants?”
The young man thought for a second and then blurted out as though he was proud of himself. “I’m going to take a hostage.” He pointed to me, “You, I’m going to take you.” He smiled. “If I take a white guy, I’ll be safe. I take the Asian guy they might shoot us both. That’s what I’m going to do.”
I stopped him. “Relax Lone Ranger, taking me might get both of us shot quicker.”
“Well, that’s my plan.”
“You don’t have to take a hostage. Just leave right now and you can walk out that door.
“Yeah and as soon as I get out that door, you’re going to come running out screaming.
”That cop isn’t here for you, although he might be stopping to pick something up from here.”
“Let’s just see.”
“Are you prepared to go to Jail, or worse, Prison?”
“If I have to.”
I stood there dumbfounded. “If you have to? The only way you’re going to prison is if you want to. I’m giving you a chance to walk right now. No strings attached, no running out there calling for the cops, nothing.”
“I came in here for cash and I’m not chickening out.”
“Can I ask you a couple of questions?”
“Like what?” He was agitated but whispering.
“Have you ever been behind bars?”
“Nope?” He pointed the gun at me and sarcastically asked, “Have you?” He looked at me as though the idea was preposterous.
“Yeah.” These were the first two Californians I’d told my secret to. Mr. Kim looked surprised but our confused bandit acted as though I’d lied.
He insisted, “For what?”
“You murdered somebody? No way. How?” He looked astonished in a happy way and asked as though he was talking with a celebrity. He put his gun on the counter covering it with his palm and placed his other hand on his hip.
“That’s unimportant, but I’ve been to the big house and it’s a place you don’t want to go.”
“Prison’s a cake walk. You get TV and three square meals.”
“That’s part of it. Can I tell you about the other part of it?”
“Well, when you get to prison, you go to what is called a receiving center. This is the worst place on earth. You are in a 6 x 8 cell that has two to a cell, unless it is overcrowded and it usually is, and then there is a rug…”
“A rug?” Both Mr. Kim and our third leg asked in unison.
“It’s not carpeting, but rather someone who sleeps on the floor beside your bunk, unless of course he’s bigger than you and you become the rug. Anyway, there’s no TV in receiving and you only get out of your cell for one hour a day to go to the yard. Learn how to play pinochle it’ll come in handy. Once a week you have your choice of getting out for the hour in the yard or for two hours for a movie. However, the movie is old and there is absolutely no sexual content, ever. Speaking of which, when you feel the urge, you have two choices, suppression or self pleasuring, and of course you have cellmates so that isn’t recommended. Depending on how long you’re in, that could be one long suppression. You might wind up in the receiving unit for a year, and for the type of crime you’re committing, you will be.”
“So where do you go after that?”
“Your destination prison. As for the TV that you so wonderfully referred to, remember this, you’ll share that TV in a quad with four other cells, each having at least two people. That means that your tastes will be that of the Alpha male…”
“What’s the Alpha male?”
Mr. Kim who by then was resting on the counter with his elbows propping his hands under his chin chimed in. “Top dog.”
“He’s right. Again, there is another drawback. It isn’t lazy times in prison. You get one day off for every two days of good behavior, and working is considered good behavior. So you can watch TV after your day is done but only until .”
Mr. Kim broke in again. “Dumb kid, bedtime!”
“Lights out.” I squinted. “That means all the electricity goes out and your cells are locked. If you are outside your cell when the bars close you get a demerit, and you don’t want one of those. They just wipe out good days.”
“What kind of jobs do you get?”
“Nothing good, and the pay is 17 cents an hour, enough to buy your monthly supplies of toothpaste, colored pencils, paper, envelopes, Top Ramen.”
He scoffed at me, “It ain’t that bad.”
“It’s worse than that bad. Because the one overriding thought in your mind, the feeling that just can’t be conveyed until you’ve been there is the lack of freedom. When you’re feeling down, you can’t turn to the guards because whether you’re a good soul or not, you’re one of the inmates and they’re the guards. They’re jaded from all the lies and can’t tell sincerity from untruths, and besides, that isn’t their job. Their job is to make sure you follow the rules. If you aren’t at peace with God, it is an unbearable place to be.”
Our tall fellow looked so much shorter now. He wanted to say something but he was speechless.
“Take this advice, Son, when you’re young you have so much you can be and so little you should want for. As you become older, the things only youth allows you to be become wants. Those are the things we have no control over; they are set in time. If you make mistakes, a whole bunch of your ‘can bees’ become wants. Those are the tragedies because they were the things you had control over. Soon all you have are wants and there are no ‘can bees’. All I can say is find God, ask him to show you the way. It’s not too late.”
He put his gun in his pocket. “So you’ll just let me walk out of here?”
“Yeah, you don’t want this kind of trouble.”
“What about him?” He nodded at Mr. Kim.
“If you give him his eight dollars back, I’m sure he’ll agree. Neither one of us wants a snooping cop around.”
He put the eight dollars on the counter and even laid a buck down for a pack of gum. “Thanks, Mister.”
He didn’t give me his name and he left in a hurry.
As I stood there holding my canister, Mr. Kim laughed. “That some story you tell. If I didn’t know better, I say you really been there.”
“Well, thanks Mr. Kim. If I didn’t know better, I would say you have a poker room in the back.”
We winked at each other. I laid the ten dollars on the counter but he pushed it back. “Baby milk on me.”
THE GREEN CUP
He came to our home through the church, appearing at a Sunday service with nothing but the clothes on his back and a green tin cup.
He went by the name Paul Smith and he was well manicured, a tall drink of a man, slender without being gaunt, brunette without being dark, noticeable without being too noticed. Immediately, my wife Helen and I liked Paul. I suppose his articulate speech and manner helped favorably. However, existing in Paul was a sadness that compelled us to want to embrace Paul as though he needed help.
When my wife and I overheard him asking Minister Bishup if there might be shelter near by, we were quick to interrupt, “Don,” I broke in, “Helen and I would be willing to put this gentleman up at our home.”
Paul turned to me and introduced himself and remarked, “I only need a place to rest my head and gather my thoughts, and shelter is more than I need.”
Helen reached up and squeezed my upper arm. She pulled herself past me and insisted, “Mr. Smith, please take our offer. I think there is a reason for all this.”
That could be described as a Helenism; she always looked for the sign. I smiled. A part of me agreed.
“I only need a place until next Saturday morning, and actually I won’t be sleeping on Friday night.”
That sounded odd, but not so odd that I questioned it. “All right, that would be great.”
Paul met us in the parking lot after the service. I thought he’d opted to forego the sermon and asked, “How come you didn’t stay for Church?”
“I heard the sermon.”
“He spoke on inner strength, and cited Philippians 4-13, ‘I can do all things in He who strengthens me.’ That a man can overcome his vices with the help of the Lord.”
“Well, you did hear the sermon.” Funny, I didn’t remember seeing him in the chapel, and I looked, but his knowledge of Minister Bishup’s sermon hit right on the mark.
Helen asked Paul if he’d like the front seat of our car.
“If that would make you feel more comfortable.”
“It would, you’re our guest.” Her soft voice was such a soothing grace in my life.
I tried to make conversation with Paul, but he seemed so cryptic that most of what he said didn't make any sense. “So where are you from?”
“Nowhere really, I'm kind of in limbo.”
“What do you do for a living?”
He eyed me and wryly smiled; then he looked down at the green cup in his hand, twirling it back and forth in his palms. For the longest moment he said nothing, finally saying, “I am here to fill this cup.”
I chuckled, but having just been to church, I thought for sure there might be some hidden metaphor in his answer, “With hope?”
We all laughed and Paul’s humor put me at ease. His blue eyes sparkled against his black hair and a perfect set of white teeth seemed to glow.
When we got home, I saw Alan’s car and knew he had made it home from the night before. I suddenly felt relaxed that my boy was alive. I turned back to Helen and she shared a similar look, albeit with pensiveness attached. I noticed she wiped a tear with her hand and moved a few strands of blonde hair into her eyes to hide the sorrow.
Paul looked as though he knew nothing of any problem and struck right at my core, “That’s a nice sports car. I had one just like it.”
I looked at him. “That’s our teenager’s.”
“I’m sure it has been a great source of entertainment for him and a headache for you?”
“Don’t you know it, especially the latter.” I could see the conversation bothered Helen and she exited the car first. She didn’t make eye contact with me and hurried to the front door in a movement somewhere between a walk and a run.
I turned to Paul. “Well, shall we go in and see where you’ll be staying?”
I put Paul in the room next to Alan. With my son’s door closed, I guessed he slept off a hangover. It embarrassed me when Paul asked to be introduced to my son. “I think he might be asleep.”
“Hmmm, a late riser?”
“Well, when you don’t go to bed until the sun comes up it’s hard to get up early.”
Paul entered his room and closed the door behind him. I shouted into the wood, “If you need anything just let me know,” but he didn't answer.
About six o’clock that evening, right after Alan got up, Paul opened the door and joined us, his green cup still in his hands.
Helen and I sat on the couch and had hoped to have a talk with Alan, but the avoidance rang out with a peal louder and clearer than if he had not come out at all. Alan had walked past us without making eye contact, heading to the kitchen, so I asked Paul, “Ready for some of that coffee?”
“It’s not time yet, but thank-you.”
Alan came out of the kitchen. Paul’s voice must have caught him by surprise, “Who’s this?” His demeanor, a curt and rather rude direction, had snappiness to his question.
I stood, “Alan, this is our guest, Paul Smith.”
Alan stepped forward and put his hand out slowly. “You’re not a shrink here to ‘talk’ to me are you?”
“No. I’m just a traveler your parents are putting up for the week.”
“Traveler? What kind of traveler?”
“A lot like you Alan. I’m seeking something, but I’ve found it so my journey will be over soon.”
“What have you found?”
“Oh, so that makes you like me. I don’t think you know me well enough to make that claim.”
I seethed with rage and raised my voice, “Alan Stuart Simpson, you apologize now!”
“For what? Some guy I don’t even know trying to analyze me? What did you do, hire some shrink to stay with us for awhile?” Alan left before I could reply.
“Get back here!”
With his back to me, he flipped me off, mumbled, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and closed his bedroom door.
I could hear the lock slam shut.
I headed towards his room, but Paul caught me by the arm. “Let him go. He’s obviously at odds with you, and right now all you’ll do is compound the problem.”
Paul looked me in the eyes, and I saw compassion like nothing I’d ever seen before. My natural reaction should have been to act like Alan and be offended someone butted in, but for some reason I accepted Paul’s assurance. “I guess.”
Helen hadn’t said a word. She stood and went to the kitchen returning with a plate of food she had laid aside for Paul. In a resigned voice she offered, “I left you some dinner.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Mrs. Simpson, I’m fasting right now, but I thank-you so very much.”
Helen stared at me. She looked wounded by Paul’s response.
“Please don’t take it wrong. Your meal looks wonderful, and Cornish game hen was once my favorite dish, and this looks like the finest prepared game hen I’ve ever seen.” He smiled and took the plate from her hands. He lifted the plastic wrap and smelled the waft of steam that rose from the meat. “It truly is.” He handed the plate back and without so much as a word turned and returned to his room.
I looked to Helen and wondered aloud, “I find it hard to believe that Paul doesn’t have a home and a family.”
“Yes, he doesn’t strike me as a vagabond.”
“Not at all.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. Every time I’d begin to slumber, I’d be thrown awake by horrible dreams of my son getting into an accident. He was drunk and coming home from a party with his girlfriend. He survives but kills Christie. The screams of regret kept haunting me.
The next morning I told Helen about the dream and she admitted having the same dream.
“Oh my goodness, Honey.” She spoke with fear in her timber, “That’s a sign.”
“Dear, it’s a sign we love our son and are worried about his drinking. I think you’re reading way too much into this.”
She shook her head and rolled out of bed. As she walked towards the door to begin the day, she echoed, “It’s a sign.”
I sat in bed until I smelled bacon frying. I took a shower and tried to wash the fear from my soul. I sat under the jets and let the sound against my scalp drown out my thoughts. I would have stayed longer, but someone operated the water in the other bathroom and my shower changed from hot to cold, and then back, quicker than I could react. I knew it couldn’t be my son because he never got up early after being out all weekend and figured it could only be Paul. I hurriedly dried and got dressed. If I ate quickly and drove fast I would make it to the school before my students did. High school kids can be so unforgiving.
Leaving the bedroom, I caught Paul crossing the hall, from the bathroom to his room, with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist and the green cup in his hand. Besides his six foot slender frame, I took notice of a scar that ran from his left shoulder, across his chest and finished down near his right kidney. It looked fresh, and I really wanted to ask how he received it. It looked fatal, but Paul didn’t seem to be affected by it. “Are you coming to breakfast, Paul?”
He smiled and chuckled, “I’m fasting, remember?”
“Ah, that’s right. What about coffee for that cup?” I pointed to it.
“It’s not time yet.”
I thought, ‘Mysterious.’ I ran to the kitchen and sat down to a plate of food beginning to cool past warm. “Is Alan up?”
“What do you think?”
“Well, make sure he gets to school on time.”
Helen rubbed my shoulders and bent over, kissing me on the head. “I’ll try.” She sat down in the chair next to me and scooted it very close. “I’ve been thinking about the dream.”
“What about it?”
“I think we should take his car from him for awhile.”
“Honey, I don’t want to alienate him enough to leave. We’ve lost him right now, and I want him near so we can find him again. We can’t take his freedom from him.”
From behind us, Paul’s voice boomed forward, “You haven’t lost Alan.”
“Paul?” He startled me, “What makes you think we haven’t lost our son?”
“Because, he has lost you.”
Helen seemed to take exception to Paul’s remarks. “Why do you think he has lost us? We have been here for him for whatever he needs.”
“Exactly, you are here, but he can’t find you. The problem is his. He has lost you and can’t find you. You have answered questions deep within you and just assume he will follow, but he needs to answer those questions for himself. Free will is a powerful and important responsibility.”
I looked at Paul for guidance. “And will he answer them?”
Paul pursed his lips but managed a unique smile out of the action, “Hmmm.” He turned and headed back down the hall as quietly as he entered the kitchen, the cup clinging to his fingers as though a life support.
I had little time to ponder the conversation and left after a hurried breakfast. Alan never got up while I ate and he failed to show up for school.
I questioned Helen about Alan when I got home from school. I wanted to know where the hell he’d been.
“Honey, please don’t swear.”
“Helen, I’m fed up with Alan’s attitude. I have let him have anything he wants, and I expect him to keep his attendance at school for it.” I began to fume.
“Actually, he said he felt sick and he has been in his room all day.”
“What? Listening to music with the door closed?”
“No. In fact, the door has been open all day, and Paul as gone in and made friends with him.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to think. “Well, was Alan polite?”
Helen smiled. For the first time in weeks, she smiled with humor and had a joyous chuckle. “Yes he was.” She came up to my side and locked her arms around me in a hug. “I found out something about our mysterious guest.”
“He used to be a doctor.”
“Really, how did you come up with this information?”
“Besides him telling me, he diagnosed Alan's ailment and prescribed the remedy.”
“And what’s Alan’s problem?”
“He has an inner ear infection.”
“And you’re sure of that?”
“Well, I called Dr. Morris and he paid a house visit. Sure enough, the diagnosis was the same and so was the prescription.”
Now, my thoughts began to churn. Why would a former doctor be traveling with no money, no clothes, and no real identity? What did my visitor hide? And what did the green cup have to do with it?
I went to Alan’s room; embarrassed I thought such things about my boy. As I came into view of Alan in bed, I saw Paul sitting in a chair next to him reading a book out loud, his cup in his lap. I squinted and read, *The Anatomy of the New Testament. I waited until Paul finished reading the paragraph. I listened as he told Alan about the Apostles and what the history of their lives had been. Funny, I never really questioned the validity of the Bible and Paul verified much of what I believed, and he did it in a way that seemed to be catching Alan’s attention.
“So how’s my boy feeling?”
“You don’t mind if I sit in and listen do you?”
Paul smiled and began reading again. For the next two hours, he read to Alan and me until Helen served dinner. As soon as she called us to the table, Paul went to his room. We didn’t see him again that night.
After I went to bed, my dream of an accident repeated itself. Helen shook me on one of my yelps, and asked, “Are you having the same dream again?”
“So am I. It’s a sign!”
“Honey, stop it. It isn’t a sign, it’s a concern.”
“It’s a sign.” She rolled away from me and pulled the covers over her shoulders, muttering one more time, ‘It’s a sign!’
As though the day was a carbon copy of the day before, the next morning went very much the same. Forced out of the shower early, I again saw Paul and the awful scar. The difference turned out to be Alan. He got up before I did and had already gone to school. It had been a pleasant surprise.
When I came home after school I asked Helen what our guest did all day.
“As far as I know he never came out of his bedroom, but Honey, there is something strange about Paul.”
“No kidding, there’s so much mystery to him it’s almost spooky.” I qualified it though, “Only, when I’m near him I feel at ease.”
“Well, this morning while he showered I wanted to see if I could wash his clothes. I wanted to give him some of yours to wear.” She sat down at the kitchen table and used her hands to act as if she pieced something together. “When I went into his room, his clothes hung on a hanger and his underwear folded neatly on the bed.”
“So what are you telling me? He’s extremely neat?”
“Not that.” She pulled me by the hand, forcing me to a seat next to her. In a whisper she continued, “He has no smell.”
“What are you talking about?”
Mr. Smith, or Dr. Smith, or Paul, whatever his name is, has no odor. It’s as though he’s purely clean. His suit smelled like it just came off the rack, and well,” She hesitated and lowered her whisper, “So did his underwear.”
“You smelled his underwear?”
“Shhhh, not so loud.”
“Honey,” I hushed my voice, “You smelled his underwear? That’s sick.”
“I realize that, but I was so shocked, besides, they were like brand new. A man who has been in the same clothes for at least three days, should definitely have an odor.”
“I think you’re going nuts. Please, from now on, just let the man have peace.”
“Something is going on here, and you should be a little more observant. I’d tell you I don’t think his bed has been slept in, but you’d just think I was being paranoid.”
“Yes I would.” I shook my head and went into the front room. There, in my favorite spot, the paper waited for me. I took refuge in my chair and turned on the news. While the hum of newscasters created a party in my front room, I lost myself on page five - the sports.
Helen served dinner and to my surprise Alan decided to partake. It pleased me to have him eat with us, he seldom did. Happiness overwhelmed me.
Still, Paul remained in his room.
Nightfall didn’t produce Paul and after the cryptic thoughts by my wife, I decided to check up on him. I knocked on his door.
“Come in, Art.”
I opened the door. “How did you know it was me?”
He sat in a chair reading the Bible. He closed it and placed it on his lap next to his green cup. “It was your knock, it sounded like you.” He lifted the book and held it out to me. “I hope you don’t mind I borrowed your Bible?”
“Not at all.” I stepped into his room and as I came closer to the book I realized it wasn’t mine, or at least, wasn’t my present Bible. The bible I had lost years ago had found its way into Paul’s palms. With astonishment I asked, “Where did you find that?”
“Oh, it was in your garage.”
It never spent a day in my garage, but I didn’t intend to argue with him. I felt more overjoyed he had found it.
“What can I do for you?” He relaxed and motioned for me to come all the way in.
“I was just wondering if you would like to come out and be a part of our family?”
“As much as I would love to, I can't right now.”
“Okay.” I felt awkward. “If you should change your mind, we’re getting together for a game of Pinochle. We could use a fourth person.”
“Alan is playing?”
“Yep. Cards are our glue.” I smiled but inside I frowned that it took games to bring us all together.
As I turned to leave the room, I noticed the bed. I had to agree with Helen, that bed didn’t appear to have been slept in.
Paul never made it out that night, but Helen and I had a great game with Alan nonetheless. I felt so delighted to have Alan’s attention. He acted chipper and lacked the moodiness Helen and I had become so used to.
That night as I tried to sleep, I still couldn’t shake the dream, and Helen again woke me with calls of ‘Signs’.
The next morning I crossed Paul in the same spot as I did the first two mornings and the scar seemed to catch my eye more than ever. Still, I couldn't bring myself to ask about it. We didn’t exchanged words and I bowed my head as I passed him.
Alan sat there eating breakfast when I got to the table.
“Can I go to school with you this morning, Dad?”
It stunned me to hear him say that. “Absolutely.”
Helen smiled at me.
The day went without a hitch. I saw my boy at lunch. He ate with the ‘in’ crowd. I didn’t care for them, but the social thing had become important to Alan and I realized how vital that is to a young man.
After school, Alan said he wanted to stay and would get a ride from one of his friends. I felt good that I was gaining my son back. I thought about what Paul said, maybe my boy would find me.
When I got home I hugged Helen.
“What’s that for?”
“I don’t know. I guess I, I mean we, should do that everyday.” I winked at her and she kissed me on the cheek.
Disappointment set in around dinnertime when Alan didn’t make it home.
Helen asked me, “Who did he say he’d get a ride from?”
“He didn’t say.”
“You didn’t ask?”
“Honey, I have to trust my son.”
“I don’t see where he’s given us any reason to trust him.”
“He’s been wonderful this week. We have to reward him for baby steps.” I didn’t want to be mad at Alan. I just wanted him to come home the same happy kid I saw that morning.
Alan didn’t come home, but Paul did come out to the front room. Helen chose to be silent and I didn’t really have much to say, so Paul stayed long enough to part some wisdom. “Alan needs your faith. Don’t tell him what he's doing wrong, but rather have faith that he’s being watched over.” He looked out the window when he said that. He seemed to be talking to everything. He turned towards the hallway, catching me with a smile and a wink. He locked his arms behind his back and his cup dangled from his fingers.
I don’t know why I said it, but I asked, “Would you like that cup filled yet?”
He stopped and did a half turn to face me. “No, not yet.” With that he disappeared to his room.
Thursday came with a headache, the dream more vivid than ever. The screams sounded louder than before, and Christie still died.
Helen said nothing, but I could see she had the same dream, shaking her head at me with the ‘sign’ look.
When I entered the hall, I noticed Alan’s door closed and I knew he’d made it home. I didn’t pay attention to where I walked, paying way too much on the closed door. I bumped into Paul, dripping wet, and cup in hand. As I made contact, I touched the scar with the back of my hand. I thought it burned me. “Ouch.” I looked down and my hand glowed red with a white welt in the center.
Paul quickly grabbed my hand and rubbed it gently. As he released his grip, I couldn’t believe it, the pain went away and the mark disappeared.
“Did you see that?”
Paul gazed at me. “See what?”
“I was burned, didn’t you see that?” I held up the back of my hand to him. “Right here.”
He laughed. “I think your imagination is getting the best of you.” He continued walking, closing his door behind him.
I kept that illusion to myself. I didn’t want to alarm Helen any more than she seemed to already be. Even though it seemed spooky, I didn’t worry about him being alone with her, because he seemed to be a protector and not a threat.
Alan didn’t make it to school and I feared he had slipped back again. I became irritable and, quite frankly, I took it out on my students.
I didn’t know how to prepare to go home that night. I knew I’d probably have it out with Alan, and I didn’t want to. Something about the things Paul tried to tell me, told me, don’t fight with your boy.
As I pulled into the driveway, my anger began to well up. My son worked feverishly washing his sports car - the bright red a little brighter. The car laughed at me, telling me it owned my son more than I did.
I opened my door and slammed it shut behind me. I approached Alan, but before he could see me, Paul appeared from somewhere. “Can I speak with you?" He blocked my view and I found my thoughts of Alan blocked as well.
As though confused by my surroundings I followed his question. “Sure.”
He took me around the house and past the Peonies, “I sure like those.” He pointed to one of the flowers. We wound up secluded and stood looking at the flowers. “Temperament is the key to understanding.”
That turned out to be the talk he wanted to have? I looked at him for a moment and he at me.
“You understand, don't you?”
The funny thing is I did. “Yeah.” I left him standing along the side yard. He, with his cup, hung out amongst the flora.
It surprised me when I came around the side of the house and to the front that Alan and his car had gone. I didn’t even hear the rumble of the engine.
Entering the house, Helen looked despondent. “That son of ours washed his car today and hauled out of here with a bunch of his things.”
“I saw him out there washing it, but I didn’t see a bunch of his belongings.”
Helen looked at me with surprise, “What do you mean you saw him? He left this morning.”
I laughed. “Honey, I just saw him.”
She went to the window and looked out. “And he was just washing his car?”
She used an index finger to call for me. “Then show me where the water is?”
I joined her at the window and stared at the driveway. It wasn’t wet. “That's impossible. I came home and planned to talk to him, but Paul confronted me and took me to the side of the house.”
“Paul hasn’t been here all day either. He took off right after Alan did.”
I didn’t know what to think. I know what happened, I did see my son, and I did see Paul. “Helen, I’ve got to go to the library. I don’t know how long I’ll be, but keep dinner waiting.” I kissed her and pulled my keys from my pocket.
I didn’t know for sure what I planned on looking for, but something told me to look in the obituaries. For two hours, I went through three years of our local newspaper, and yet, I found zero. Nothing caught my eye, but something still told me I did the right thing. I exhausted every inch of paper and finally, in frustration, I gave up. As I headed for the doors, I caught an old copy of the Skyway News, a paper from the neighboring city. I don't know why but the back of my hand started to feel the burn I thought I felt when I touched Paul. I was compelled to pick it up. There on the front page I found my answer. Doctor takes own life after accident claims wife and child. The copy only a week old and the picture unmistakably Paul brought me to a numbing silence. I read on and noticed his name wasn’t Paul Smith, but rather Dr. Luke Christianson. The article said he jumped from a fourteen-story building nearly slicing him in half on impact. The article went on to say Dr. Christianson, while inebriated, lost control of his 69 red corvette as it swerved off the road and flipped over, killing his wife and child instantly. When I read the year and make of car I stood shocked. That car was the same model and year as Alan’s, even the color was the same.
I was somber. What should I think? Where had my son gone, and more importantly, why did a dead man stay at my home?
I went to all of Alan’s hangouts, or at least, all the hangouts I knew and I couldn’t find him. I searched into the night and didn’t make it home until two in the morning. Helen had waited up and I handed her the newspaper I found.
“Why are you smiling, Dear?”
“Don't you see it?”
“Paul is with Alan.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “Okay and why?”
Helen brought me to the couch and sat me down. “Ever since Paul came, I felt closeness to him, like he was observing us. As odd as the things I discovered about him, I didn’t fear him, but rather I embraced his presence. Whenever he looked at me, he did so with a peace that soothed my heart.”
As I listened to her, she echoed what I felt. “I know what you mean. I felt the same thing.”
“When Alan left this morning I didn’t even see Paul go, but I felt it.” She stroked my hand with love, “Let’s go to bed, Sweetheart. Tomorrow will be okay, I have faith.”
For the first time in a week, I slept peacefully. The dreams ceased. Even though six seem to come earlier than usual, I didn’t feel tired, but refreshed. I went to the hallway and both Alan’s and Paul’s doors remained open and neither had come home. I don’t know what I would have said to Paul if he had come back, I don’t know what I could have said.
I hurried and ate breakfast because I wanted to get to school in case Alan showed up. He didn’t, but I didn’t worry. My outlook on life turned pleasant and my students seemed to appreciate that.
I came home and Helen had no news, but that was okay, we didn’t worry. We went to bed early and Helen prayed for forgiveness. She prayed for ours, for Alan’s, and especially for Dr. Christianson’s. “Whatever he’s done, Lord, please give him the peace he deserves.”
I kissed her goodnight and drifted off into a slumber.
I awakened in the middle of the early morning. I looked up and Alan stood over me. The clock on the nightstand read 3:30 am.
He whispered, “Dad, can I talk to you?”
I nudged Helen and she rolled over. “Honey, Alan’s home.”
Helen jumped out of bed. “Are you okay, Alan?”
“Yeah, but I have to tell you something. It’s about the man who stayed with us.”
I assured him, “We know.”
“Oh, but you don’t know it all. Please can we go to the kitchen so I can talk to you two?”
I grabbed my robe and slipped on my Romeos. We all met out at the table and he began to tell the story of the night.
“I went to a party tonight, and boy did we drink. I drank so much I was too drunk to even stand. I had a great time and was the life of the party, but Mom and Dad, I should have killed Christie in a car wreck tonight.”
Helen was frantic. “You didn’t wreck tonight did you?”
“No, I never got the chance.”
I began to understand. “Why?”
“As Christie and I were heading to the car, I saw Paul, and his green cup. As much as I wanted to get in the car, he convinced me to take a walk with him, so I left Christie in the car while he and I wandered off. We found ourselves at an all night diner about a half-mile down the road. He laid the cup in front of me and said, ‘It’s time.’ The waitress filled his cup with coffee and he slid it in front of me. I told him I didn't want any coffee and as I pushed it back he touched my hand with his. Suddenly, I was in my car watching a horrible accident. It killed Christie.” Alan looked down at the table as if lost. “He slid the coffee in front of me again and this time I took it. He talked to me for hours and even broke bread with me. He assured me that when I got back to my car, Christie would be fast asleep and I could take her home. Dad?” He looked at me with his mouth wide open. “Paul saved my life. He showed me redemption. I don’t know if I can ever apologize for being a bad son, but I promise I am going to try to change.”
I rubbed his head as he began to cry. “You already have.”
We became a family again. For the first time in a long while, Alan slept with his door open. I felt so happy I left mine open too. We slept in the next day, letting my own internal clock wake me.
As I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and thinking about Paul, Helen shouted for me to come quickly. I jumped out of bed and hurried to her voice. There, on the kitchen table was my long lost Bible and the green cup steaming with hot coffee. A note under the drink caught my eye. I lifted the cup and read the writing on the paper, ‘Tell Alan, the cup is for him. I hope my stay didn't inconvenience you; I get to go home now, remember to keep the faith, Paul.’
David awkwardly approached the door, nervous that such a beautiful girl would agree to go out with him. His knock was shallow but loud enough for someone on the other side to come answer. A tall gentleman, no older than twenty-two greeted him.
“Hello, you must be David?”
“Yeah, but you have me at a disadvantage, I don’t know you.”
He held his hand out, “Sorry, I’m Kyle, the twin.”
He didn’t answer but the resemblance was uncanny. As Kyle opened a space for David to enter, he quipped, “That’s the name SHE’S using today?”
David stopped and looked bewildered, “What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” He smiled and then laughed, “Come in and have a seat. I’ll get CARRIE.”
He disappeared and David thought the conversation was sort of eerie. He looked around the room, a nice American home with family pictures. There appeared to be a spot above the fireplace where a portrait used to be, a soft dust outline gave the dimensions. However, there were a host of tabletop photos in beautiful gold frames. David stood from the high back chair and walked to a mahogany chest with twenty or so pictures. There were pictures of two parents and pictures of two boys. David canvassed the pictures but didn’t see any shots of Carrie.
A voice from behind him caught him by surprise. “SHE says she’ll be down in a moment.”
David turned, “Oh, okay.” He was more interested in the photos. “Who are these two?” He held up a photo of two boys.
“My twin brother and I.”
“Oh, so your twin is your brother?”
He laughed, “Duh, we ARE identical twins.”
“I don’t see any pictures of Carrie.”
“Sit down David. We need to talk before CARRIE gets here.”
David began to feel nervous and a pit began to develop in his stomach. “Okay.” He worried that she was about to come to her senses and not want to go out with a plain guy like him.
As they sat down, Kyle opened with; “I don’t have a sister.”
“You don’t? What about Carrie?”
“Carrie? Carrie is Carl, my twin.”
David sat stunned and speechless, “What!”
Kyle pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows, “Early on, he started dressing like a girl and as you can see,” Kyle laughed, “he’s a knockout.”
“I think I’m going to be sick. I have to go.”
“No! At least stay and greet her.” Kyle reached out and grabbed David’s arm. “You can’t tell Carl I told you. You have to swear to keep this a secret.”
“Well, I’m not going out with HIM.”
“Fine, just tell HER you can’t go out.”
“HIM, Kyle, HIM!”
“HIM, HER, she’s still a great gal.”
David was in shock. Just when he thought he was scoring, he was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. “Thanks for telling me. I just don’t know how I would have dealt with this had I gotten too involved.”
“Well that’s why I told you. The last guy beat the shit out of her.”
“HIM, Kyle, HIM!”
“HIM, HER, what’s the difference?”
David shook his head, “Would you like to know the difference?”
“Just promise me you’ll be gentle on her.”
David whispered, “Don’t you think this is weird?”
“You know, she’s my brother and I love her. I just bear with it. I think if you got to know her you might change your mind.”
“HIM, Kyle, HIM.”
“HIM, HER, what’s the difference?”
David couldn’t believe it. He stood ready to leave when from atop the stairs, his date appeared. David looked up and remembered just how stunning Kyle’s sibling was. David shook off the thought he just had and acknowledged HIS presence. “Hi.”
Dressed in a full-length skirt and wearing a turtleneck blouse, Carrie seductively descended the stairs. David thought for sure that the outfit hid all the male features. He was sickened that he had been duped but he was even more sickened that he found Carrie attractive, even desirable, STILL!
Carrie spoke up. “So are you ready?”
David stood at the base of the staircase. “Uh, I have to talk to you about that.”
Carrie looked worried, “Oh, what’s wrong?” She hurried her pace down the stairs.
David watched as her breast bounced, thinking how real they looked. He tried to look further down without being too obvious. Carl apparently was very good at hiding all the clear indicators, right down to a very feminine walk. “Can we talk in private?”
Kyle interrupted, “Hey, I’ll let you two alone, I have to get out to the garage. I hear my car calling me.”
As he passed, Carrie nodded her head, “Oh yes, the car. Boys will be boys.” She winked at David.
“Well SIS, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Do I ever?” She laughed and David thought it sounded so gay.
As she reached the bottom of the flight, she gathered David’s arm and steered him to the front room. David felt the hair on the back of his neck raise and his ears get warm. He slid his arm out and faced her. “Carrie, I can’t go out tonight.”
“Oh, do you want to change it to tomorrow night?”
She looked wounded. “Why?”
“Well, the truth is, I have a girlfriend.”
“You do? Why didn’t you tell me the other night when I met you?”
“Well,” he thought about the words he was about to say and felt appalled, “you were so pretty that I forgot my morals and Kelly.”
Carrie sat on the couch and dipped her head. “I meet a great guy and he’s taken. I just can’t seem to catch a break.”
“Do you really think this is the way to go about getting a date?”
“You mean church?”
David couldn’t believe HE just asked. “Well, yeah.”
“Where else are you going to meet a man that is understanding?”
David wrinkled his face in puzzlement. “I don’t think church is the right place to meet the man you’re looking for.”
Carrie looked at David with almost as much puzzlement as he had. “Then where?”
“Have you tried a personal ad?”
“Weirdos, that’s all you get in those ads.” Carrie sat back, “Hey, why wasn’t your girlfriend with you at church?”
“She isn’t into church.”
Carrie looked hopeful. “Maybe she isn’t the girl for you. Maybe you need a change of pace.”
David thought about her proposition and quivered, “No! I think she might be exactly what I should have right now.”
“Well, if she isn’t willing to go to church with you, I think maybe I’m a better match than she is.” Carrie was belligerent in her response.
David looked at his watch. “Wow, it’s getting late. I promised Becky I’d be back by six.
“I thought you said her name was Kelly?”
“Yeah, Kelly Becky. Her whole name, Kelly…Becky. It’s an Irish slash English thing going on.”
“Oh. Well I guess if you can’t go out, you can’t go out.”
“Yeah, it’s a shame but you know how relationships can be.”
Carrie smiled and then raised her eyebrows in wonder. “Maybe if things don’t work out for you two, you could give me a call?”
David looked at Carrie, “That’s a possibility.” When hell freezes over, he thought. He stood from and backed away from Carrie, bumping into Kyle with his back. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Kyle had a grease rag in his hand and questioned David, “Aren’t you two going out?”
“Can’t man. I just came over to tell your…SISTER I had other commitments, but it was great meeting you Kyle. Really, I mean that.” He shook his hand, grease and all, grateful to have been headed off by Carl’s twin.
“No prob dude. I’m only sorry that my little Sis got stood up.”
As David left, peeling rubber out of the driveway, Kyle and Carrie stood at the door watching.
“Kyle, I have the worst luck with men. Am I ugly?”
Kyle choked, “Please, you’re beautiful. That guy wasn’t for you. I’ll find the right guy for you.”
They walked together back to the front room and Carrie walked aimlessly to the fireplace. “I just don’t get it.” She looked above the mantle. “Hey, where is the family portrait?”
“Oh, I took it down to have the frame dusted.”
She looked at the table where the rest of the family pictures rested. After a quick survey she noticed, “All the pictures of me are gone.”
Kyle acted surprised, “They are? What a coincidence, I guess the ones I took off the shelf just happen to be yours.” He came up along side her. “Well, I’ll be.”
“Just a bunch of pictures of you and Carl. Where is Carl?”
“He’s out still working on the car.”
Carrie walked to the stairs. “Well, I guess I’ll get out of this dress and come out to the garage with you two.”
Danny and I were good friends, check that, Danny was a good friend to me. We grew up neighbors and by virtue of being a neighbor I associated with him when a lot of my better friends wouldn’t. He suffered from Asthma from the first day I knew him, wore glasses so thick that you could burn insects by them, and always had a runny nose under is carrot red hair. Until we were in the second grade, his shoes were never tied because he didn’t learn to tie them and had he not, in a moment of shame, begged me to teach him I doubt he’d have learned at all. He had a bad penchant of always apologizing, even when he had no reason to do so. More than anything else, Danny wanted friends and was willing to suffer the insults of practical jokes and endure the false hope of promises by so many people he knew telling him he would be invited to places that they had no intention of keeping their word on. I suppose that was a sparing thing though, because once at my twelve year old birthday party, Jimmy Rider and Tommy Drake tackled him in our backyard football game and when his glasses flew off, they took turns finding them with their shoes. Jimmy picked up the crushed magnifying glasses and stated, “They musta’ broke when they came off Danny.” They tackled him just to be mean. He didn’t even have the ball. I hadn’t given him the ball the entire game because I knew they wanted to hurt him. Danny sat there on the grass, stained from shoulder to shoes, telling the guys, “Sorry I ruined the game but I can’t play without my glasses.” He turned to me and asked if I wanted him to run home and get his other pair. Even though Jimmy and Tommy encouraged him, I forbid him to go. “No, the game is over anyway.” I looked at my five friends on the opposite side, “You win.” Outside of Jimmy and Tommy, Greg Hester, who was on my team, could be just as mean. “Way to go Danny. If you weren’t such a moron we coulda’ won.”
I don’t know what compelled my friends to treat Danny so poorly. They were good guys, great athletes all the way through school. I played on the state championship football team with Jimmy and Greg, and Tommy and I were starters on our basketball team. All four of us were on the baseball team together. They were popular guys and we had a pact that we formed when we were in high school. We would have each other’s back no matter what. I dated Greg’s little sister Tammy from my junior year until part way through college. I spent a lot of time at the Hester’s, sort of my second home. Mr. and Mrs. Hester sat next to my parents at all the sporting events we competed together in.
By the time I hit junior high, it wasn’t cool to hang with Danny, although we both took the bus home and as soon as Jimmy got off, which was about a half dozen stops before us, Danny would scoot from the front to the back and sit next to me. Jimmy wouldn’t let Danny sit anywhere past the second seat from the front. I could have stopped Jimmy, he knew I could stop him real easy if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to see Danny endure the ridicule so I welcomed Danny not making waves about it.
If anyone considered the guys cruel to Danny, they thought they were saints compared to the girls. Guys that invite you along so they can make fun of you still give you a chance to interact regardless of how many times they use you as their monkey. The girls we grew up with never gave Danny the time of day, other than to shriek at his presence. The only girl that was pleasant to him was Tammy Hester. Part of it was that she was a sweet person; the other part was she knew I never had an unkind word about Danny and that Danny would do anything for me.
Because school was a social nightmare for Danny he didn’t excel at anything, even school. I used to tell him, “Danny, you have to crack the books. Some day you might be a doctor!” He would laugh, “No, I’m not ever going to be anything, except your friend that is.” I did enough studying for the both of us. I was an only child and my parents kept a watchful eye on my schooling. If I wanted to play sports, I had to keep my grades up. I did well in school. I had one B in junior high and two Bs in high school. The rest were As. Danny once beamed with pride all the way home on the bus when he had one B and the rest Cs. That swelling of joy was one of the best things I ever saw in Danny. All our lives, I saw his pain hidden behind eyes that brushed it off and for that one afternoon as school was ending for the summer, nothing could bring him down.
What did bring Danny down was high school. We saw a lot less of each other because I drove to school and Danny still took the bus. I probably should have given Danny a ride but our interests had differed, me becoming more involved in the totality of high school life and Danny slipping into that place where kids go when they are unwanted, the make believe world where they are the characters they watch on TV or read in books. Of course, I still saw Danny at the Christmas holidays because he always came to our house with a gift for our family. He acted embarrassed and always said his mom made him bring it over but I learned years later that the gift always came from Danny and his parents had no feelings one way or the other. He would stick around and eat my mom’s cooking. She would tell him what a fine young man he was growing up to be. I think he sometimes wished my mom was his. I also saw Danny everyday after the state championships in football. I broke my arm making a tackle on the next to last play of the game. We won but I wasn’t around for the celebration. When I got home, there was Danny. He had gone to the game with my parents. He went to all the games with my parents. He never sat in the student section because there wasn’t anyone that would talk to him, so he kept stats right next to my father. My dad would say, “How many yards does Steve have?” Danny would rattle off the total, or my dad would ask, “How many tackled does Steve have?” Danny would always give the right number but argue that I should have credit for more. That year I broke my arm, he came over everyday and would sit around and talk about all the times we had together when we were kids. It amazed me how he remembered them as being so good when I remembered how bad they were for him. He had energy of never quitting on the idea that one day life was going to turn around and he was going to have it all.
My parents weren’t too happy that I gave Danny driving lessons in my car. Since I had a broken arm, I decided to let Danny drive, however, one morning going to school, Tommy and Greg pulled up alongside us and challenged Danny to a race. Danny was so nervous that when he kicked it into first and ran it to second, he pushed it into reverse and dropped my transmission. I wanted to cuss but Danny was so upset that he nearly cried. I smiled and shook it off. I flagged down Tommy and Greg and was going to get a ride when Danny whispered, “Please don’t make me ride with them.”
“Yeah, they are going to dump all over me about your car. Maybe we can tell them you’re out of gas?”
“Danny, That clank you heard could be heard all over town. I’m pretty sure they know what happen.”
His eyes welled up and he said, “You go with them then, I’m going to walk back home.”
When Tommy pulled up alongside, Greg asked, “You need a ride?” He looked at Danny, “Not you.”
“Shut up, Greg. No, we’ll walk.”
“Walk! You won’t get to class until third period. Come on, hop in.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself.” With that, Tommy revved his Camaro and they were off.
Danny looked at me, “You seriously want to walk?”
“Danny, the bus stops right there.” I pointed to where several underclassmen from our school were standing.
We took the bus that morning and I discovered that even the younger kids weren’t very nice to Danny, but since I had become one of the jocks at our school, Danny had a newfound accomplishment walking on the bus with me. I was grumpy and scooted two freshmen out of the back seats but Danny apologized and thanked them for moving. I hadn’t taken the bus since junior high. One of the juniors on the football team took me under his wing when I was a freshman and I rode with him until I got my license midway through my sophomore year. It felt kind of nice talking with some of the kids I didn’t know and I think it really helped Danny because none of them could believe he was my friend.
I think about that moment a lot because I made a decision that day to make life better for Danny and in hindsight, I screwed things up. I should have continued to let Danny live his life as it was intended to be. After my car was fixed, I drove Danny to school. We would swing by Tammy’s and get her and he would jump to the back seat, just happy to be part of somebody’s clique. Even though Danny would sit in silence once she got in the car, Tammy always engaged him in conversation about what he was up to. Danny was shy and the answer was always the same, “Nothing.” If she asked what he was going to do on the weekend, “Nothing,” however, if she asked what he thought about one of the games we played, and I was in it, he wouldn’t shut up so she seldom asked that. He was my driving buddy until we graduated from high school. In that time, he came into his own and was much more assertive if challenged. The old Danny would never allow himself to get put into a situation where he might get punched, but the new Danny not only put himself in that situation but actually welcomed a punch when it came at the end of Scott Parker’s fist. Danny might have been unpopular but Scott was downright hated. Scott was held back when we were little and joined our class in the second grade. He was bigger than most of us until about the eighth grade when most everyone caught up to him and a few of us surpassed him. Still, he had a penchant for fighting and unless you were willing to carry it through, if you said something he was going to fight. Danny didn’t know that. Danny was sure that because Scott knew he was a friend of mine, he was safe. What Danny hadn’t counted on was Scott not caring if I beat the shit out of him. Scott looked at a day where he got into two fights as a banner day, even if one of them led to a black eye.
It was right after fifth period in the fall of our senior year, Scott stood in the center of the hall as Tammy passed, never taking his eyes off her and staring at her ass as she walked away. He commented, “Why don’t you let Scott have some of that.” Danny took exception and reminded Scott who he was talking to. “You know that’s Steve Longmire’s girlfriend?”
Scott growled at Danny, “So, who the fuck cares!”
Danny should have turned and walked away but instead decided to throw an insult, “Greaser.” Not that greaser was much of a barb but Scott didn’t need a barb to start a fight. Scott walked towards Danny with purpose and before Danny could get the words out, “What are you gonna do…” Scott dropped him with a hard punch to the stomach. I had just come out and saw the tail end of the incident, the punch. I shoved Scott into a locker as he stood over Danny prodding him to get up. Scott laughed, “What, are you going to sucker punch me?” His face was buried into the locker and I had my hand around the back of his neck. I let him go and allowed him the courtesy of turning around but I didn’t give him the chance to talk. I bloodied his lip and blackened his eye. There was a commotion from the other end of the hall and judging from the sounds of students, it was old man Jefferson, our vice principal. I stood Danny up and looked over at Scott who quickly wiped the blood away from his face. Everyone started walking away as if nothing happen but Jefferson took one look at Scott and stopped the crowd. Scott getting sent home wasn’t a big deal to anyone but me getting sent home would be so when Jefferson asked, “What happen?” No one knew a thing.
I gained respect for Scott because all he had to do was fess up and I’d be in the office with him, but like the true fighter he was, when he was asked who did it to him, he said, “I ran into the locker.” Jefferson grabbed him by the arm and off they went. I never got called into the office. However, one day Scott told me that someday Danny wouldn’t have me as his guardian angel. Danny on the other hand, got much needed attention from a lot of kids at school. He got a lot of “Way to goes,” from kids that cowered to Scott. That day he got punched I asked him, “What were you thinking? Scott Parker doesn’t take shit from anybody Danny.”
He looked at me and I could tell his stomach still hurt. “Nothing.”
Danny put effort into school our senior year. I could tell he wanted more than he thought he was entitled to, and why shouldn’t he, why shouldn’t we all. Even though he had more confidence, I could never get him to ask a girl out, not that anyone would have gone out with him, but I really wanted to see him on a date.
When our senior prom came around, Tammy needled a girl in her class to ask Danny to the prom. She was chubby and had so much metal in her mouth I wondered if she could pick up radio channels. Danny came to me one afternoon and said a sophomore had asked him to the prom but that he didn’t have anything to wear. I don’t think he realized you rented a tuxedo, not owned one. We were standing by the lockers and Jimmy was next to me. He blurted out, “How would you get there, by bus?”
As much as Jimmy wanted to rib Danny, Danny was a new guy. He had confidence and getting rattled by the likes of Jimmy took more than simple put downs. He had grown several inches over the last two years and we didn’t tower over him anymore. He was still rail thin and with his red hair teased out into an afro he sort of looked like a light bulb. I grabbed his jaw and shook it with pride. “He can double date with Tammy and me.”
“Bullshit, we’re all supposed to go together.” Jimmy sneered at Danny.
“You know Jimmy. You’re an ass and I sort of want to have a good time. I think we’ll substitute you with Danny.” I was serious.
Jimmy fired back, “You take that dweeb and no one else is going with you.”
“Really, you think so?”
Jimmy stood there, wearing his Lettermen’s jacket like a beacon, full of himself.
I saw Tommy coming up the hall, “Hey Tommy?”
“Hey, if Jimmy can’t go with us, can we take Danny instead?”
Tommy looked at Danny. “He got a date?”
“Yeah, why not.”
Jimmy countered, “Fuck you, Steve.”
I was friends with Jimmy a long time and never in all those years did I ever threaten him. I think because of that he felt he was on the same playing field as me. That day I warned him, “Watch your mouth.”
Jimmy and I had a falling out. It would be several months before we renewed our friendship. I think it killed him that guys were willing to follow me over him. He tried for a few months to foment resentment but it all backfired. One day he came up beside me on the baseball field and apologized. I said, “Don’t apologize to me, apologize to Danny.”
“Geez Steve, you make this more difficult than it should be.”
Back to the prom. I told Tommy and Greg that this was Danny’s moment and to knock off the teasing. Surprisingly, if you pulled Tommy away from Jimmy he was pretty good. Greg was more my friend than Tommy and Jimmy and because of that had come to accept Danny after he started riding to school to me. Not that he was overly nice to him but he didn’t go out of his way to mess with him.
I was glad I went with Danny to get his tux. When we got to the shop, Danny immediately picked out a purple color. I protested, “No way in hell are you getting a purple tux. This is a big event, not a costume party.”
“I like it though.”
“Danny, look at you. You have red hair. You would look like the Joker in Batman.”
“What color do you suggest?”
“Black, just like mine.” Then I thought about it, all of us were going to wear black, and with his build, Danny would look the worst in his. “I take that back.” There in front of us was a tailed white tuxedo, “I would take this one here, and get the cane and top hat too.”
He looked great and he knew it. The night was special for Tammy and me but it was magical for Danny. He had never worn a tuxedo, he had never been in a limousine and I know he never tasted Champagne. In fact, he tasted a little too much Champagne and I had some explaining to do to my parents when Danny’s mom called that night when I got him home. Still, in his 18 years, that had to be the biggest moment in his life.
That spring I had to choose from several colleges that asked of my services as an athlete. I grew to six-five and I was being coveted for football, but the truth was, I wanted to play baseball. Baseball was my first love and remained the best times I ever had in sports. I had sixteen offers to major universities to play on the gridiron but only two division 2 schools offered me baseball scholarships. It was looking like I had no choice until Arizona came calling. One of the finest baseball programs in the country, the only division 1 school to even show any interest, showed up at my door. They had a letter of intent and I signed it. What luck. Turns out luck had nothing to do with it. I learned a few years later that Danny had sent a bunch of reels of my baseball highlights and caught the attention of one of the assistant coaches. Danny was always looking out for me.
Playing at Arizona would put me close to home and in some ways that was probably for the best. Besides, Danny was enrolling in the local community college and he could come with my parents to my home games only an hour away.
That summer, all my friends knew we were going our separate ways. Greg was going to an NAIA school to play football, Tommy to Boise St. to walk on to the basketball team. Jimmy was staying home and playing baseball at the community college. We filled everyday with summer fun, spending most of the time down at the Rocks working up the courage to jump off the cliffs. There were warning signs that jumping was dangerous but we watched Scott Parker and his friends do it all the time. The Rocks overlooked the river and as long as you didn’t swim out too far and go over the second set of falls, you were fine jumping in. It was deep under the Rocks.
None of us had the courage. Danny kept saying, “I’ll be the first.” But we knew he was just as petrified of the fifty feet as we were. I remember it like it was yesterday. We had a six pack of beer between the five of us and we had run out. I had another six in the car and went back over the ridge to get them. I was only gone for two minutes when Greg came chugging over the ridge and told me Tommy and Jimmy pushed Danny in.
I dropped the beers and ran as fast as I could to the edge of the Rocks. “What the fuck did you guys do?” Over the side I could see Danny struggling to make it to the shore, edging closer to the falls. Danny could barely swim.
“Oh come on Steve. He was standing at the edge telling us he was going to jump and all we did was help him.”
Danny wasn’t screaming but I knew he was trying as hard as he could to make it to the shore, and failing. I tossed my tee shirt off and without an ounce of the fear that ran through my body so many times looking over that cliff, I jumped. When I hit water, I was moving so fast I hit with a thump. Surfacing, I could see Danny was at the falls edge. He had somehow braced himself against two rocks and water was rushing up over his back and trying to push him along over the fall. I swam to the shore and skirted the bowl of water until I was standing where the water met the earth, four feet at most from Danny. The rush of water was deafening but we were screaming so loud we could hear each other. I got on my knees and reached out as far as I could. “Take my hand, Danny.”
He was afraid, “I can’t.”
“Yes you can, take my hand.”
He reached out and our hands met, I grabbed his wet slippery hand and in one motion, jerked him towards me so I could grab him at the elbow, his feet lost their position on the rock and he was dislodged from his security, but I grabbed with both hands and yanked him as hard as I have ever pulled something. In one motion I ran him past the rapids and over to the shore. I saw total relief on his face. “Thank you for coming.”
“What were you thinking?” we sat there against the wall of the rock and peering over the fall.
“Nothing. I don’t think I was really going to jump, I just wanted to show those guys up. When they pushed me, I sort of didn’t have a choice.”
“It’s okay,” he smiled, “I did it!” We stood to walk back and he looked at me, “Besides, I knew you would have my back.” Just as the words came out us his mouth, his foot slipped out from underneath him and he tumbled back into the fall and over. I couldn’t believe how fast he was gone. I started climbing down the rocks on the side of the falls, some seventy five feet below I could see Danny floating lifeless in a shallow pool of water.
When I got down to my friend, he was gone. Danny was dead. I cried and I have never cried so hard in my life.
I don’t know if there is Karma in life or not. Maybe there is. We buried Danny and I never hung out with Tommy or Jimmy again. Turns out, Tommy never made it to Boise St., instead he worked at his father’s gas station. I’m sure he’ll get it someday and he’ll do just fine. Jimmy went to the local college but dropped out when he got a girl pregnant. He married her and I hear he has found God. Good for him. He has struggled through the years, in and out of odd jobs. He didn’t stay in very good shape and the last time I saw him he looked pretty fat, and very bald.
As for me, after college I hovered around the minor leagues for five years, even made it to the show for one glorious month, as the Yankees were in a pennant race. I have a ring to prove it. My official stat line reads, 1 for 4, one homerun, three RBIs, and two put outs. My claim to fame was my homerun secured their division title. Unfortunately, I tore an ACL in that game and would never return to the majors.
I teach high school now and my wife and I recently had a son.
We named him Danny.
Sometimes the lives we convince ourselves we are living are so believable that not even in our own home are they disputed.
I lived on this beautiful street in southern California, where on any given Saturday you would see anyone of my neighbors mowing their yard, playing catch with kids, riding up and down our street on bicycles. It was lined with old growth Ash trees that canvassed the blacktop like umbrellas on a rainy day. Everyone celebrated the Christmas holiday by lighting up those trees, it was a sight to see, brilliant white twinkling lights; parades of cars shuttling kids all December to view what we did. Even more spectacular was Halloween. Some time ago, long before I moved there, the two houses at the top of our block were occupied by young actors. Together they convinced the rest of the block to make the holiday an event to remember, over time, as each neighbor bought into the idea, Halloween became our blocks true inspiration to celebrating getting together. Although one of the actors moved out, the other still resided in the only gated house on our block, and he along with his second wife, continued to spearhead the all out blitz of decorating and celebrating. They opened up their grounds and had a menagerie of haunted goblins and an outside house of horror for every kid to scream and laugh all the way down our block.
I moved there ten years earlier. Fresh out of college, newly married, embarking on a life outside the sphere of my parents. I worked for the aerospace industry and the income afforded me the house we called home. It wasn’t the nicest house on the block but it wasn’t far from it. Most of us all had three thousand square foot homes, save the actor and the Symons, who lived in considerably larger homes. There were twenty homes on both sides of our street, running three blocks slightly up hill where it ended at the base of a large hill, teed off by a foothill drive.
The houses slowly rose in value the closer you got to the hill. At the hills edge was the actor’s house, across the street the former actor’s house, next to that house was the biggest house on the street, it belonged to Mr. Symons. Two doors down was our house, next to us was the Bridges, who had an ongoing feud with the neighbor on the opposite side because of two tiny dogs that always barked. Frankly, I never heard them but Mrs. Bridges, (Denise) swore that Mrs. Darwimple, the owner of the dogs purposely made them bark well past the nine o’clock hour. Denise’s husband was not an assertive man and no matter how many times Denise begged him to go over to the Darwimple’s and put an end to those yapping mutts as she liked to call them, he would smile and mosey on his way. Mr. Bridges owned a successful laundry mat and would spend long hours away from Denise. I think it was a way of keeping his marriage intact. Mr. Darwimple and his wife were retired. He had been a postal carrier for forty years and had lived on our block when it was brand new. They were one of only two remaining original owners. Outside of the Hendersons, who lived second from the end and across the street way down at the other end of the block, and the Jipsons, who lived across the street and one down from us, we didn’t associate with that many of our neighbors. Between the Symons and us was a young couple who had fights that were legendary in their short time on our block. She had a voice that could peel paint it was so blood curdling, and she wasn’t afraid to use it on Bob, her husband. However, because of her temper, none of us felt comfortable getting that close to them. They appeared headed for a divorce at any moment, and as my father used to say, “lay down with dogs, get up with fleas.” The middle of the block was largely Italians or Chinese, who had immigrated to our town about twenty years earlier. Together the two ethnic groups made up about forty percent of our town, and although there was nothing wrong with that, they tended to stick to themselves and as such, I never really got to know many of our neighbors in the center of the block. Alan Jipson was my closest friend on the block and if I wasn’t his closest friend than it was Kyle Symons. The Symons and their three kids, Alan, his wife and their three kids, and me, my wife and our two kids spent a lot of summer afternoons barbequing in the backyard of the Symons. They had a large pool, big basketball court and Mrs. Symons had a way of making you feel welcome in their home. Kyle was smart, I think that is what attracted Alan to him, Alan liked smart people. For me, he was a pretty good guy but because Alan and I both worked in the same industry I was way more in tune with Alan than Kyle. Kyle was the director of operations for non profit organization that made millions for ravaged poor communities, home and abroad. He always had an ear piece in his ear and even in the most leisurely of times was not completely off work. He was ten years our senior but his kids were the same ages as ours. His wife Alice was much younger than him, the same age as my wife Chloe. Chloe, Alice, and Alan’s wife Rebecca were the real nucleus though. They would all sit in the kitchenette of Alan’s house, looking out down the block and God knows what they surveyed about our lives on Wilmington Street.
As I said before, in 2008, I had lived there ten years, almost eleven. Alan had moved there the year after me, and the Symons three years after that. I remember the day the banks reported there was trouble in paradise, followed by a collapse in the economy, however, we seemed to be insulated. The aerospace industry was safe, we weren’t losing our jobs. None of the houses on our block, or any of those with people we knew, had bought into the poor loans, so our sphere of friends appeared to be safe.
2009 brought a new president and for better or worse, we all thought that maybe the mistakes made would be corrected. However, so much fighting took place in our government; one side convinced it did nothing wrong bringing the wheels of advancement to a halt and the other side unwilling to push reform without them. The fix to our economy would not be quick. By march of that year it was stunning how many homes were up for sale, how many were foreclosed, how many were vacant. As the spring edged into summer, more homes went under and our little corner of the neighborhood braced for economic times that could be rough for us all.
We were barbequing at the Symons when I joked with Kyle, “Aren’t you glad you bought eight years ago!”
He winked at his wife, “Yeah.”
Rebecca who was sitting at the edge of the Gazebo tilting back and catching sun onto her bare shoulders, chimed in, “Well, I for one don’t feel sorry one bit for the banks that gave out faulty loans or for the people who agreed to inflated payments. Serves them right.”
Kyle turning steaks with a tong, softly responded, “People just trying to get a home, however they can.”
Rebecca continued, “Don’t buy what you can’t afford.”
Chloe spoke up, “No, I agree with Kyle. It’s nice to see families complete their dreams.”
Rebecca was like a pitbull, she wouldn’t let go of her viewpoint. “That’s fine but lets earn our way there.”
I didn’t want to remind Alan’s wife that she owned a home because her husband earned their way there. I was a little ashamed that she was so callous towards a lot of people suffering.
Kyle put a steak on a plate and walked it over to Alan’s wife. “Rare, the way you like it.” As he handed it to her he proposed a question, “So tell me Becky, if someone won the lottery who you didn’t much care for, would you be jealous?”
She huffed, “You’re kidding right?”
“No really, would you be jealous?”
She put her plate on the table under the gazebo, “Damn straight.” She looked off at the pool and shouted, “Kids, don’t dunk your little brother!”
Kyle gained her attention, “So why not be happy for them? Someone’s dream came true and you would be jealous of that.”
She gave the audience of onlookers an astonished look. “If I didn’t like them, duh!”
“What if it was someone you liked, not your husband but a friend.”
She hesitated and Kyle jumped in with, “You’d be jealous then too!”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“But you hesitated.” He came out of the sun and stepped up the two steps of the gazebo so he stood over Rebecca, “you hesitated because it’s your natural instinct to not want someone to have what you have.”
Alan’s wife looked wounded, “That’s unkind to even say that.”
Kyle apologetically bowed but added, “Maybe, but perhaps you should consider what you really want for your fellow man. Looking at someone else’s faults is really easy to do when you don’t care much for their well being.”
My wife lightened the moment, “Well, mister philosopher, if you don’t get over there, we are all eating well done steaks, and THAT wouldn’t be caring for my well being.” She grabbed Kyle’s shoulders and turned him back to the grill.
Chloe sat down and said, “Alice says she wants to have a garage sale. Lets get rid of some of our junk.”
Alan contemplated, “I don’t know if a garage sale is going to net anything. There are people selling off some pretty good stuff right now. You think we could get rid of junk?”
From the grill Kyle offered, “I’m thinking about getting rid of some nice stuff. Like you said, there is good stuff out there, maybe I’ll step up with someone else’s misfortune.”
Rebecca drank the rest of her wine cooler, “Know you’re talking Kyle.”
I asked, “What are you thinking about getting rid of?
“Maybe our piano.”
I was shocked, the entire family of his played that piano. “You’re grand piano?”
“Yeah, it’s getting old.”
“Kyle, pianos don’t get old, they age like wine.”
Something wasn’t right and I didn’t put my finger on it at the time, partly because he backed away from actually selling the piano, however, when the garage sale did happen, there was a disproportionate amount of very nice things that came out of the Symons’ household.
Throughout the summer, the Symons pared back on many of their possessions. One day, Kyle drove home in a used little compact, way down from his Escalade. I was standing in the front yard watering my lawn. It was hot that summer and lawns needed a lot of watering to stay green. Everyone maintained their yards but Kyle, letting it yellow for the first time since they bought the place. “You having the rig worked on?”
“No, I decided with the price of gas, it was time to let it go.”
I wanted to make a comment on the bucket he was driving but I was surprised by his frugality and lost my train of thought. He smiled and took his briefcase with him into the house.
Alice said that the pool’s filter system needed to be fixed so they were shutting off the heat until it was repaired. Because of the weather, the kids were fine with it, although they didn’t swim until the late evenings like they used to.
On one of the barbeques, I was surprised to see the gazebo gone. “Where the heck is the gazebo?”
There was a picnic table in its place and it seemed like it only bugged me as everyone enjoyed a cold iced beer.
“The kids wanted more room to play basketball, so I sold it.”
I was dumbfounded. “You sold it?”
“Yes, is that okay with you?” In the seven years they lived there, I never saw Kyle’s emotions turn over from his reserved philosophical self. His remark to me was curt and snapped like a dog with a bone.
“Yeah, it’s fine.” But it wasn’t fine. I watched him that night and he wasn’t his usual self. He was normally engaging and that night he led no conversations and as if a nervous habit, wrung his hands as others joked about all they could imagine as humorous.
In October, on one afternoon, I came home for lunch and was surprised to see Kyle’s car in their driveway. Kyle was known for long hours at his office. I asked Chloe, “Is Kyle home for lunch?”
She was sitting at the kitchen table and looked up over her glasses at me, “If he is, it is one long lunch. The car hasn’t moved since Monday.”
“What you mean it hasn’t moved since Monday?”
“I mean it’s been in the driveway without moving,” she was moving her fingers like sign language, “for four days!”
When I got back to the office, I went to Alan’s cubicle and asked, “Has Kyle told you anything about having problems or anything.” I stood as he fumbled with a hole-punch. He grit his teeth and pried. With an explosion of little circular confetti flying around his desk he said, “What kind of problems?”
“I was sort of hoping since you two talk all the time, you’d tell me.”
“No, seems to be the same old Kyle.”
“Doesn’t he seem a little tense to you?”
Alan, who lived for getting yelled at by everyone, looked up, “You’re kidding right? I don’t know about you but my project manager is a little tense. Next to him, Kyle is pleasant.”
When I got home, Mrs. Bridges was watering her yard, “Hey Denise, How are you?”
Denise was a school teacher, which was odd because she had no patience. “I’m fine, and you?”
“Good.” Then it hit me, Denise knew things that others didn’t know, or at least that’s what was purported. “Have you seen Mr. Symons today?”
“Yes, I saw him put the garbage cans out.” She smiled like she knew something, “It didn’t look like he had gotten up yet, he was still wearing his pajamas.”
“Mr. Big Shot hasn’t found work since A.R.F.A.D. went under.”
A.R.F.A.D. was short for Area Relief, Foreign And Domestic. How she knew it went under and I didn’t was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t news I enjoyed hearing. “How long as he been out of work?”
“I think, eight, nine months.”
I was muttering more to myself when I said, “What’s he gonna do,” but Denise fired back, “I don’t know but they’re gonna have to give up the lease on that home.”
“He doesn’t own that house. The owner lives back east. You remember Mr. Harper?”
“Yeah, Tom Harper still owns this house? But I remember he had this house up for sale.”
“Apparently, Kyle talked him into renting it.”
I smiled at Mrs. Bridges. I didn’t know what else to say. I was shocked. When I told my wife, she said it couldn’t be true but I told her don’t say a word to Alice. If it was true and they chose to keep it a secret, it would be embarrassing to call them on it.
When October came, they decorated the house as we all did for the festive Halloween season. I looked at Kyle differently. I was trying to size him up and find out what made him tick. He didn’t let on, outside of a noticeable strain when he was in thought. It came a sigh of relief when out of the blue on an early November day as he was faking going to work he said, “We’re going to be moving soon.”
I acted shocked, “Why?”
“A.R.F.A.D. went under about a year ago and I haven’t landed anything significant since then.”
“Are you on unemployment?”
He nervously laughed, “Yeah, I get the max, 475 a week. Not enough to pay any of my bills and more than minimum wage.”
“How have you survived?”
“Well, as you saw, I sold a lot of things, plus I had some savings. Now we’re broke.”
He told me they were looking for a small apartment. An apartment with three kids would not be easy to find. He said they could afford a two bedroom and that if he could get it, then he could drop down in expectations of what work he would find. I told him he should go to my company and see if they had anything for a man with his talents. He winked and said, “I’m not eligible to work for a company like that.”
I said, “Why not?”
He sadly laughed and said, “Trust me.”
Since I knew his secret, seeing his expressions when he came home everyday, told volumes about the success of his searches. I asked him if he had any luck with work positions and he admitted he was more worried about living arrangements. “The landlord wants me out by the end of November and I can’t find anything.”
“But I see things out there everyday. You can get a little house for half of what you must have been paying for this place.”
“I can.” He gave the smile a man gives when he is graciously turned down for something, “But because my credit has suffered so much this last year, I can’t survive the credit checks.”
“What are you going to do?” I looked at my watch. It was the 20th of November.
“Greg, I wish I knew.” He smiled, grabbed his briefcase and left me. I think he was drained from our conversation and drained from the day.
Later that night, Kyle dropped by our house. He apologized for walking away so abruptly and assured me he had figured a solution. He said he didn’t want to say anything for fear of jinxing it, something I found very surprising coming out of such a secular person. He admitted that life was tough and that poor choices in his life had made them tougher. He asked me if I was aware that he was once married before. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him once mention a previous marriage. Even more shocking is that he had two daughters from that first marriage. He said the marriage ended poorly and he seldom heard from the girls. He said he sent Christmas cards and birthday cards every year, and added that he financially settled up with his wife long ago. Now, it was gifts to the girls he felt sorry about being absent on. As much as it sounded like a soul purging, it really wasn’t. He felt a need to tell someone his burden because in his words, they were so heavy on him that keeping those secrets weren’t worth it anymore. His sorrow wasn’t about not having answers to life’s questions but rather about his own misgivings as a young man, misgivings that put him where he was at that moment, a place he didn’t like very well.
Before he left my house, he asked me, “You and the kids go to the Methodist Church up there on the hill don’t you?” I knew he wasn’t asking me because he was interested in going but rather because in all the years we were neighbors and friends, he never asked or was interested in our Sunday outings, besides, it was pretty obvious that we were Jack Methodist. My oldest daughter was the churchgoer and she would hound us to come along, so once a month we made the trip to salvation, as I liked to call it.
“Yeah, we go every once in awhile.”
“The one with the big statue of Christ, with his arms wide open?”
“That’s the one.”
“I suppose a lot of people go on Thanksgiving weekend?”
“Yeah, I’m sure our daughter will insist we go.”
He smiled, “Church can be a good thing. You should thank her.” With that, he said goodbye and left our house.
Sunday came and as predicted, Caroline, our daughter was up and primping for Sunday service. I smiled at Chloe and said, “I suppose it’s a good thing to go to.” She agreed and we got ourselves ready for church service. When I left the house, I noticed that Kyle’s beat up little car was gone. Over the years, I seldom saw their cars out of the driveway on a Sunday morning. They tended to sleep in on the weekends.
I drove the family, all four of us up the hill and was surprised as we came around the bend to the church to see more cop cars than I thought the town owned. The closer I got to the church the more I realized they were at our church, centralized by a car directly in front of the statue of Jesus. A uniformed officer was directing traffic past the scene and one by one on-lookers drove slowly past the parked vehicle. A sheet covered the front windshield and top of the car, hiding the visibility of whatever had happened. It was one of those death scenes. As we made our pass, I couldn’t help but notice the rear of the car sticking out from under the sheet. It was Kyle’s car. I don’t think anyone else noticed and to make sure I honked to the car in front to hurry along. My wife and kids quickly looked to the person I was behind and I sped past the scene.
We parked in the church parking lot and I told the kids and my wife to wait. I wanted to go see what happened. When I made my way to the line of police officers, one officer stopped me and said, “Sorry, but no one can come any closer.”
I offered, “I know whose car that is. Maybe you would let me talk to someone?”
He called another officer over and I was asked a few questions. They allowed me a glimpse to see if I could make a positive identification, it wasn’t hard. Kyle had apparently come to that spot and who knows what was on his mind. I hoped he prayed. His head was resting back against the head rest and if I took nothing else away from that moment it was that death has an ominous presence on the participants wearing it. He had shot himself and the interior of the car was a blood riddled coffin.
I was shaken. “His name is Kyle Symons, he’s a neighbor…I mean he’s my friend.”
I went back to the car and took the family into the church without them knowing who was in the car. They would find that out later.
They buried a very popular man the day before Thanksgiving and a lot more people showed up than I expected. He was well liked by his former workers and his former wife and their two daughters came as well. They looked remarkably like their father.
Life is fragile, even more so if you don’t have a purpose. Before long, my daughter didn’t have to encourage us to go to church we were attending on a regular basis and even joined as members. Before a year was up, Alan and his wife, along with their kids were going as well.
Alice and her kids moved back to Oregon, where she was from. I understand that there was a policy on Kyle’s life that paid her enough to buy a house. Enough to buy a house and not worry about mistakes he’d made in his past.
Everyone just wants to be happy.
Crossing the center line
When I was 32 years old I lost my wife to cancer. I was left with an unborn son, a degree to finish, and a lot of sorrow to overcome. I didn’t finish the degree because I couldn’t get out of bed for a month and the sorrow disappeared at the end of the shot glass. I moved back in with my widowed mother, miles away from the college I was attempting to get an advance degree in engineering in, and miles away from all that I knew as secure. I had piled up a ton of debt that I couldn’t pay back and the hospital was clamoring for me to make good with my wife’s left over bill. I turned a blind eye to it all, took a job at the local Wal-Mart, doing night stocking, played softball with all the left behind guys from high school, and spent my days off drinking heavily at the local pub. When I wasn’t at the bar drunk, I was at the bar picking a fight. I picked so many of them that I was thrown into the slammer on too many occasions. In fact, I was thrown in so many times that I had given up my right to vote or carry a gun. Needless to say, my mother wasn’t too proud of her ‘little boy.’
I couldn’t pick up the pieces of my life. Everything was God’s fault. I wanted to have back what I had when I met my wife. I wanted to feel her caress, her kiss on my lips, her soothing words of encouragement when it rained in my life. There was so much noise in my head that it drowned out her beautiful nightingale whispers. I was alone.
I had met a few girls when I moved back home, mostly at the end of the bar, good for a night around the bedpost, but not as a replacement for Beth. I wasn’t the marrying kind anymore. I had no ambition to lift myself out of the cesspool I had created around me, and with a mother that was barely in her right mind as well, I had no one to be a rock for me. I slowly came to rest with no dreams left to drive me forward.
That’s when it happened. One spring morning when the birds sang and the rain had stopped, the sun peaked out from pillowy white clouds and heat warmed the valley below, I woke with a hunger for more. I was 35 years old and felt the need to move on, to get up, to dust off, to purge what had ailed me. I didn’t lay there, I didn’t roll back over and force the pillow to shutter out the light, instead, I stood and showered the grime from my soul and took a breath of life one more time.
My mother and I were complete opposites. I was a night person so days were hard; she was a day person who made nights hard. Where she was industrious by day, I was productive by night. Where she was loathsome of the setting sun, I was rejecting of the rising sun. But on this day, I was happy to be alive. I felt energy to begin anew. I smiled at my mother and sat with her over coffee and Danish. I don’t think I spoke more than two sentences, two sentences that weren’t destructive since I moved in with her, but that morning we talked a great deal. We talked about life without Dad and life without Beth. We agreed that the wheels of life don’t fall off because someone dies and the struggle we all have to continue the journey, albeit unique, is necessary. She touched my hand and said my life was still so young and so hopeful and that I should make a run to the finish line with the zest she remembered my father having in his thirties.
I quit Wal-Mart and took a job at the newspaper. It was a day job and paid twice as much. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was a start. With each day, I opened my eyes a little more to what was around me, the swaying of tree branches, the fragrance of flowers, the babbling of brooks, the beauty of young women enjoying the coursing sun. One day, while shopping for groceries, the woman at the checkout stand said, “I know you, you’re Mr. Stewart.”
I laughed, “Tony. Mr. is sort of formal.”
She was so pretty and must have been ten years younger than me. Every time I looked up I embarrassed myself getting caught staring at her. As I paid for my groceries, I asked “Would you…” but she interrupted with, “I would love to.”
“But you don’t know what I was going to ask.”
“I’m sorry, were you going to ask me out.” She had anticipation in her look.
“Ah, I was.”
I felt warm. I felt wanted. I felt worthwhile for the first time in years. “How about tomorrow?”
She whispered out of range of the elderly woman smiling at our direction, standing next to me waiting to be served. “4362 Wicker Rd. Seven O’clock.”
As I grabbed my groceries, the woman behind me said, “What a cute couple you two would make.” She took the words out of my mouth.
4362 Wicker Rd. was where Rebecca lived. Rebecca was all I knew and that was because it was on her nametag. I couldn’t think of another time in my life when twenty four hours went by so slow. I was the proverbial kid waiting for Christmas. When the night arrived I showed up with flowers and an apology that I hadn’t asked her name. The last name Garner meant nothing to me, I didn’t know anybody with that last name, saved from an awkward moment had she an older sibling I went to school with. Turns out she had several older siblings, all younger than me.
She was a kindred spirit. So much my equal even though the age difference. It didn’t take any time at all for me to fall in love and for her to fall in love and for us to be inseparable. Where my Beth had been my rock, Becky was my grace. Where Beth was my raging brunette, Becky was my willowy blonde. Where Becky told me tales of my greatness, Becky laughed at my jokes. Where Beth would read me the instructions, Becky would ask to be read. Where Beth made love from her heart, so did Becky.
I was resurrected from my own hell, brought from the depth of a fire I built by a stranger that become my better half. I married Rebecca Garner on my thirty seventh birthday, two months shy of two years knowing her, three months shy of my mother’s passing. I was so blessed to have my mother there when we married.
A week after my thirty ninth birthday, Rebecca Garner Stevens gave me triplet girls. They say they looked like me but all I could see was their mother’s beauty. They were splendid and magnificent, three identical copies of their mother. They were beautiful and Beth would have approved.
I went back to school and finished my advanced degree in Engineering and was fortunate to land a great job close to our home, the home my mother had willed to me upon her death. Life had given me a new stake in happiness.
Rebecca Garner Stevens still owned the house on Wicker and from time to time would check up on it as we had renters occupying the dwelling. Wicker Road was a gentle sweeping curve up a hill that had a gravel pit on the left as you worked the way up to the house. Rumbling dump trucks hauled gravel almost in a convoy, day after day, from the pit to various jobs down below in the city. One afternoon, She and the babies were late for the sitter and the renters held a past due rent check. Busy to get everything done, she hopped in the minivan and buzzed me on her cell phone. We chatted about me picking up formula because she was in such a rush. I could barely hear her as the trucks rolled past her, grinding gears and muffling roars. I can only guess what happen as I listened in horror, she screamed loudly and then went silent. She was caught crossing the center line. I called out, “Becky?” But the phone went dead.
I wasted no time working my way through morning traffic. My speed was only matched by those of patrol cars, sirens wailing, passing me in route to which I traveled. From a distance of only a few miles I could see a plume of black smoke on the horizon, I raced ever faster.
Coming around the bend of Wicker, I saw a dump truck whose grill looked like a biker with bugs in his teeth. The bugs being the crumpled pile of a minivan, a crumple pile on fire. As the fire department was gutting the blaze, I was out of my car and running to the scene. Two officers stopped me as if I was a perpetrator of a crime, knocking me to the ground and holding me in place, all the while apologizing, “You can’t go over there.”
I was screaming, “That is my family.” I laid there, my cheek against the hot pavement, tears cascading down onto the roadway as they zipped up four bags, three so small they could be carried away under one arm. “Not my babies! Not my wife!” I don’t know how long they kept me under knee, but when I was released, my family was gone. They sedated me because I was the fifth victim. I went in and out of consciousness, uncomfortable to be awake, begging to be put under again. They obliged.
When I woke it was a spring morning. The birds sang and the rain had stopped, the sun peaked out from pillowy white clouds and heat warmed the valley below, I woke with a hunger for more. I was 35 years old and I didn’t know if what I went through was real or not. I could hear my mother downstairs, I shook my head because I felt a hangover. I laughed to myself, somewhat relieved, but also sad that the woman I met wasn’t real. The life I was going to live wasn’t real. I stood and showered the grime from my soul and took a breath of life one more time. I went to the kitchen and I smiled to Mom. She was alive, that was a good thing. Maybe the dream was a wake up call. If so it worked, I knew I had to get on with my life. Beth would want it that way.
That afternoon, I happen to stop by the grocery store for supplies and much to my surprise, if not horror, my checkout girl was named Rebecca, but more than that, it was the same Rebecca. Behind me was the little old lady that said we would make a good couple and as if cued Rebecca said as I started to leave, “I know you, you are Mr. Stevens.” And I as if cued, said, “Tony, Mr. is a bit formal.” I couldn’t help but add, “Would you…” and she couldn’t help but say, “I would love to.” Before I knew it I had asked her out and she gave me the address on Wicker Road for the next night. The old woman said, “What a cute couple you two would make.” What had I done!
I waited the next twenty four hours in disbelief, knowing I had come full circle to where I started, sure I knew the future and it was horribly grim. Given a second chance, I knew of only one way to stop it, one way to give Rebecca the freedom of life. I could not go on that date. I could not fall in love; I could not let her fall in love with me. I would never know her caress; I would never know her laughter; I would never know her beauty.
I drove up the hill to her house and as I did, I could see the grill of an oncoming dump truck. It was familiar, as though I had seen it before. It looked like the grill that took my beloved Becky so many years from now. I could hear the loud blowing of the horn, I could hear it but I was not completely in that moment lost over the loss I would someday experience if I went on that date.
I looked up and smiled as I was crossing the center line.
Mark sat at the end of a love seat in a shrink’s office, leaning back and resting as he told all about himself. He wasn’t troubled, just curious. “I’m sitting there fixed on the image of this woman in a magazine. I can’t take my eyes off of her. I don’t know how long I gazed at her but when I looked up at my wife I saw the saddest smile on her face. She knew. She knew something that I didn’t know. I didn’t love her.” Mark mimicked the same smile, addressing his own feelings that he somehow let her down.
“What did she look like?”
“She was exotic, Asian, pure looking. Her eyes, her eyes, something about her eyes.”
“What did your wife look like?”
“Hmmm, you know, part German, part English, part Irish, part anything else white. Her maiden name was Smith. Pretty run of the mill.”
“Was she pretty?”
Mark hesitated, thinking of her face, “Yeah.”
“Was she a nice person?”
“How about you two together, were there sparks?”
“We dated from our junior year of high school on. It was the thing to do. She’d tell you that I was attentive but not romantic. If I bought flowers it was because they were on sale. If I bought candy it was because they looked good and I knew I’d get some. If I bought her a present it was practical and useful.”
“How about now? Are you romantic now?”
Mark laughed, “Yeah, very much so.”
“Because my wife was right, I wasn’t in love. You have to be in love to be romantic.”
Mark’s Shrink interjected, “Or want something.”
“Well, neither one applied to me I guess.”
“So how did you resolve your feelings?”
“I didn’t. My wife did. About a year after the magazine incident, and probably several other events where I was caught in heavy thought, she managed to wake up one morning and say ‘goodbye’.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“It was the saddest happiest moment of my life. I knew what I wanted and she knew it wasn’t her.”
“Did you leave?”
“Yeah. She actually offered to move out but I said no, you keep the house, keep everything. I left with my clothes.”
“Where did you go?”
“To a hotel.”
Mark’s Shrink laughed. No I mean where did you go in life? How did you meet the woman you’re with now?”
Mark thought about it for a moment. He must have gazed off because his Shrink asked, “Mark?”
“Yeah, I was just thinking about how those next few weeks dictated the rest of my life.”
“I have a sister fifteen years older, and after she got done yelling at me for being so insensitive, she suggested that I should take a trip to China or Japan or Korea or to any other Asian country. She thought maybe it would jar some sense into me and I would be at the doorstep of my wife asking to be let back in. I thought about it and said, ‘why not’.”
“So which country did you pick?”
“I don’t know.”
Mark’s Shrink sat up and leaned forward, whispering, “Why are you so guarded about that?”
Mark was surprised. “About what?”
“I could tell you the difference between a German girl and a French girl. I could give you preconceived ideas, right or wrong, about a whole bunch of different cultures. I know what I am drawn to. You chose Japan for some reason, what was the reason?”
“Class, Westernism, Culture.”
“You identify that in Japanese?”
Mark rested his head against the palm of his hand, “Yeah, I do.”
“What about Koreans?
“I didn’t have a huge knowledge base to work from Doc. I grew up in a town that had one black family, a couple of Mexican American families, and the only Asians were half, whose moms were something I wasn’t sure of. Unfortunately, National Geographic gives you a pretty pedestrian view of what people are really like. Besides, I was going to take a three month trip abroad to test the water, to see if my heart would race like it did that first day I saw that picture.”
“So did it?”
“What? My heart race?”
“The moment I got on the plane and my stewardess said, ‘Ohayo’.”
“Didn’t you consider that superficial?”
“Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. Is that wrong?”
“Just asking. Seems that it sort of sets you up when you fall at first glance for someone. There is nowhere to go but down after that.”
“Sorry to contradict someone with your expertise, but I don’t think that’s true.”
Mark smiled, “Because I was wowed by just about every woman I saw when I landed and all I had to do was find one that appealed to the rest of me.”
"And did you?"
"And do you still?"
"Every time I look into her eyes."