rumours of my virtue
Either Sadness Or Euphoria
Pink was the colour of the elastic tie that held her dark hair in a long thick mane behind her head. There was a small dimple below her left eye that depressed each time she smiled.When she listened, her left hand was tucked under her chin and held up her head, and when she spoke her arms were folded across her chest. She had thin lips that, if over-painted, resembled mating caterpillars, a round chin, and the most incredible hazel eyes. Although she was not overwhelmingly beautiful, she was the kind of girl that would make you melt if she caught you staring at her. The air around her always smelled of vanilla musk.
From across the room, through the drone of a synthesized orchestra, a slick-haired waiter waltzed toward their table with the entré atop a silver platter and a black wooden tray stand folded under his arm. A quick exchange of politeness, and then...dinner.
"Have you ever noticed," she said, watching the waiter walk away, "the more you pay for a meal, the less the portion?"
The blue button shirt he was wearing was tight around the neck. He tugged at the collar with a jerk of his head. His round shoulders always moved opposite of each other. Even when he did simple tasks such as pulling at his collar, his torso would twist and balance itself. His dark hair was tied back with a black band. His long face came to a point at the chin and he could barely peep out of his always squinting light blue eyes.
He was a wonderful listener. Rarely did he interrupt a train of thought or interject opinion where it wasn't requested. He was always being accused of generosity.
They met through a mutual friend who thought they would get along together. They did. On their first date (after eliminating a movie or dinner) they put their change together and filled up his Toyota pickup with unleaded and drove to the border and back. Paul Simon's Greatest Hits was the only tape in the truck, and even though it played through six or seven times, it was the perfect soundtrack for the drive. They talked all the night through stopping only when An American Tune played. For their second date, they drove to Corpus Christi and stuffed sandbags at the levee after Hurricane Jonah brushed the gulf coast leaving behind bent trees and miles of swollen rivers. They agreed that this dinner at The Café Chartre was officially their first date and if something serious developed, this night would act as their anniversary.
"I was thinking about what you told me in Matamoros," she said, pushing the last cherry tomato around her plate. "You told me that you felt sorry for anyone who doesn't have memories. What did you mean by that?"
"Well," he said, pulling at his collar, "some people go through their whole life without moments to remember. They trudge on satisfied with the status quo. I mean...when I get to be eighty years old and I have trouble cleaning the spit off my chin, I hope to be thinking of that drive we took into Mexico. Whatever happens to us, I'll always have my memories. I just feel sorry for those who let that steady pang of living overtake their life. I think it was that great American poet Stevie Wonder who said, and I'm paraphrasing remember, We can't allow even our memories to grow old."
"But I think too many people live in the past," she said.
"I'm sure some do. What's wrong with that? I live some of my life in the past. Don't you think that it's too damn depressing living in the present? And since none of us are capable of living in the future, the past is our only option."
She shook her head. "Right here we're in the present and it's pretty calm."
"Yeah, and I'm living right here right now. But tomorrow when we read that some bus caught fire or that a preacher was shot in South America or that an earthquake in Japan killed tens of thousands, I'll be thinking about how you tortured that tomato with your fork. I need my memories. I need them to keep me going."
"Ok," she said, "I'll concede that. But as soon as your past becomes an obsession, I'll be there to warn you."
"That's a deal," he said. "You see, the past is the only thing that remains constant in our life. Today changes so fast, and we have no control over how it effects us; we need our memories. Even if they are a product of our own invention, memories never change—unless you want them to of course, then they become what ever you please."
"So look back into your glorious memory file and find me your favorite memory," she said, unfolding her arms and taking her elbows off the table.
"Oh, that's easy," he said. "I was about eight or nine. We lived just outside of Texarkana on the Arkansas side in a big red brick house with a big front porch. It had a back wall covered with ivy and a watermelon patch on one side and a horse corral on the other. I can remember one day late fall. It was warm enough to go out with short sleeves and cutoffs, and me and my little brother, Frankie, decided to sleep out on the front porch. He was about six then. I remember how we spent the whole evening setting up camp with extra blankets and snacks and flashlights. And I can remember crawling into our sleeping bags, watching for falling stars, checking and rechecking our flashlights when suddenly somebody turned off the porch light. We panicked. The next thing you know, both Frankie and I were knocking at the front door with our sleeping bags tucked under our arms. Daddy looked down at us and laughed. Then he went and got his sleeping bag, joined us outside, and stretched out on the porch swing. I slept comfortable that night. I remember waking up early that morning and hearing daddy snoring. That...is a wonderful memory."
"I imagine that it would be," she said. "I didn't know you came from Texarkana. I guess I just assumed that you were born and raised in Dinero."
"No, we moved here when I was fifteen. Daddy got a job with reclamation and they sent us first to Austin, then Harrison, then here to Dinero. Did you know that Dinero means money in Mexican?"
"Yes," she said, "I did."
"So what's your glorious memory?" he asked.
"No, I mean before."
"Well," she said, "that road trip to Brownsville and into Matamoros was something I will always remember."
"I've never been too comfortable around people. With you, I feel relaxed. I guess it's kinda hard to explain. I like you. I trust you. So I'll always remember that night in your truck."
He paused. "Where you from?" he asked.
"I was born in Kenya."
"Africa?" He sounded shocked.
"...My dad worked for the government. We moved to Johannesburg when I was four and then to Nigeria when I was nine. We moved back to Washington when I was eleven. After I was thirteen, I moved to Elkin, North Carolina. I had an aunt there. When I was twenty and tired of Clemson, I came here to Dinero. I had a cousin in Austin who worked for the bureau, and he got me my job."
He waited to make sure she was done. The room was quiet—not silent—just quiet. "What did your dad do for the government?"
"He was a diplomat. He never made a full fledged ambassador, but he was always pretty important."
"That's my dad."
"I don't think I've ever met a diplomat's daughter before."
"Am I what you expected?"
"I guess I didn't expect anything." He paused. "Africa? Wow. I've only been to Mexico."
The waiter appeared again and they declined desert. She continued pushing the tomato around her plate.
"So...what's your worst memory?" he asked her without looking into her hazel eyes.
"I asked you first."
"But I won't answer until you tell me yours."
"Well...my worst memory?...Ok, I've got it. When I was about eleven, my aunt Rizzi took real sick with cancer or something. I can remember her in bed forever coughing with tears always flowing out of her always red eyes. How ugly she was. When I was a little boy, I remember my Aunt Rizzi being beautiful. Long red hair, always wearing a smile; my Aunt Rizzi was forever buying me things. She was my favorite aunt. Well, when she got too sick for the hospital, she went home to Grandma's to die. I can remember sitting, holding her cold, wet hands. It was so sad. One night when the whole family came over to see Aunt Rizzi, they got to visiting and neighboring and remembering old friends and they started jabbering on about the old places. Both my uncles, Uncle Rob and Uncle Petee, and my mother and father and grandma and Frankie piled into the car to take a trip down memory lane. They left me with Aunt Rizzi because I was always her favorite and she seemed so happy when I sat by her bedside and held her hand. I remember looking into her face and hating my mother for making me stay because every time I looked at Aunt Rizzi the old memories of her being so beautiful washed away. Well...somewhere between forced sucks of air and the low patter of her coughing, Aunt Rizzi died. She died while I held her hand. I felt her tense, then she puffed out one last time and just passed away. I can remember how her eyes were almost open, and how she stared at me but didn't see me. I was so scared. I just started sobbing and then started crying. I sat holding her hand and she wouldn't let go. She just held on and looked at me with those empty eyes. I bet it was three hours before they all came home and pried my little hand out of Aunt Rizzi's. As much as I loved her when I was a boy, I have a hard time thinking of her now."
The room was silent. People moved and spoons bumped ceramic cups, but no sound escaped. She sat across the table from him with her left hand tucked under her chin. She was crying. He reached over the table with his black cloth napkin and wiped the tears from her cheek.
"So what's your story?" he asked.
She didn't answer at first. She did fold her hands across her chest and lean back in the chair. When she began talking, it was more of a hoarse whisper. She didn't look up from her folded arms. "I...I was kidnapped when I was twelve." He looked up. She didn't. She continued, "A militant group kidnapped me and my brother from our house and kept me for a couple of weeks."
He lit up. "Jolene Freselle..." he said, "I know you. You're that little girl on the news years ago. I remember. That was you?"
"Yes. That was me."
"I can't believe it. I remember you. It was all over the TV. I remember my mother making us say a prayer for you. This is incredible. They had your picture in the papers and...they left your brother's head in a bag in the park. Oh, God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"That's OK. I understand. It's pretty distant to me as well. They killed him right away though. I'm thankful he didn't suffer much."
"Why did they do it?" he asked.
"I don't think they meant to kill him, at first."
"No, I mean why did they kidnap you?"
"I guess they were trying to get my father's attention. He was with the State Department. They didn't ask for money. They wanted political changes back in Kenya. They didn't get it. As a matter of fact it didn't change a thing. Just killed my brother, that's all." She waited for another question, there was none. "I'm thankful they didn't hurt me in any way. I mean, a little girl with all those men. But, then again, they weren't perverts, just terrorists. I was left in a dark room with a my hands tied and blindfolded most of the time. They fed me and let me use the toilet when I wanted. After two weeks, they just left and the FBI found me. I didn't see my brother murdered. I didn't know he was dead until later. I didn't even know what kind of fuss I made until I read about me in NEWSWEEK. I think that it only becomes frightening when I look back on it all. And I don't think back it too often. I'd rather think about now...about the present."
He didn't look at her. He was ashamed. He had absolutely no idea what to say. His life and memories seemed to pale at that moment.
"I don't think I've told many people that story," she said, "except for the psychiatrists and the FBI men. My aunt tried to make me talk. She said it would make me feel better. It didn't. I disappeared in Elkin. No one knew who I used to be. Then I came to Dinero...Now you alone know my secret. So...do you feel special?" She unfolded her arms and started playing tag with her fork and the tomato again. "You know," she continued, "that still isn't my biggest secret." She paused. "My biggest secret is that I was a virgin until I was twenty-three."
He nodded while staring at her tomato. His forehead furled in curiosity. He looked up at her. "How old are you now?"
She looked back at him, stabbed the tomato, and brought it to her mouth. "Twenty-three," she said and took a bite, "next week." It took him a second or two, but he finally understood and smiled. She smiled back and the dinner was over.
Pity For Mischance
She lived alone in a small house that sat about a quarter of a mile off the road on the banks of a long thin lake between Eugene and Oakridge, Oregon. She was about thirty-five years old and had been alone since she was twenty when her mother died in that very same house of a hanging suicide. Her name was Linda Mellasi and she spent her days alone, with her dog Banquo, collecting and salvaging metals. When she was home, she could be found in the backyard make shift shed that she had fashioned out of corrugated tin separating metals and running them through a pneumatic shredder. All around her yard, piles of rusted tin, spools of telephone copper wire, and drums full of shredded aluminum could be found. She sat on her assets until the price of return peaked. She would then hire some boys from town to help her lift them up to the truck and take them to Eugene for refund. She paid well. Usually she gave the boys all she had collected. She was in it for the game. She was a splendid speculator. She had little need for money. It was how she spent her days.
After her mother's suicide, her insurance company denied Linda her rights to a five hundred thousand dollar policy as benefactor. A lengthy court case, an important court case, established that Linda's mother was a mental invalid and a St. Louis psychiatrist proved to the judge that it was her illness that caused her death and that the rope was only a symptom of her psychosis. Linda took the money, paid off her bills, and retired to the lakefront house.
During the trial, most of her past was revealed. She had spent the last decade hiding from her own memories and when they became front page news, she accepted it with quiet reservation.
When she was six, Linda was savagely raped by her father and her uncle. This lasted for four years. Her mother later acknowledged the fact that she knew all along, but was too frightened of her husband to say anything. When Linda was ten, one winter in her fourth grade year, she didn't come home from school. The whole town of Red Stone, Minnesota was out looking for her. The next morning, a janitor found her asleep in the basement of the school curled up next to the boiler. When the sheriff came to take her home, he asked her why she had slept at the school. She told him that she was really tired and it was one place where her daddy and uncle wouldn't find her and where she could get some sleep. Social Services was brought in and within a month, both her father and his brother were in jail awaiting a trial that would put them both in prison for years. Linda and her mother moved to Oregon, bought the house next to Lookout Point Lake and kept to themselves.
The house was just off the lake and down the hill from the highway. The nearest neighbor was fifteen miles away in a small town to the east called Lowell and the nearest city was Eugene forty-six miles to the west. After her mother's death, and after the commotion of the trial had died down, Linda went back to keeping to herself. Once a month she would drive to the small market for groceries. They knew her in Lowell. And although she didn't have a phone, and rarely did she received letters, the town's people smiled and waved when she drove by.
She was a handsome woman, and occasionally some boy would get the nerve to ask her out, and sometimes she accepted. She was polite and friendly, and she enjoyed herself. They never picked her up at her house, they always met somewhere else. Most folks waved at her when she came in shopping. They all liked her. She was just a girl who liked to keep to herself.
One night, late April, as she lay in bed trying to get to sleep, she heard a knock. At first she thought it was her imagination. She never received visitors, much less at eleven thirty on a weeknight. Occasionally, when a car passed down the road, the headlights would shine in the window and illuminate the room. That was as close as she ever came to company. The door sounded again. She climbed out of bed, wrapped a wool robe around her shoulders, and went to the door. She turned the porch light on and looked out the peep hole. A man was standing there alone. Dark hair, short, stocky; he was wearing a green polo shirt and beige slacks. She didn't recognize him.
"Hello," he called out.
"What do you want?" she said through the door.
"Ma'am," he said, "I'm so sorry to bother you this late, but my car broke down 'bout a mile down the road. I was wondering if you could call a wrecker or someone and ask them if they could help us."
"I don't have a phone," she said.
"How far is it to the nearest town?"
"There is a gas station with a phone about fifteen miles to the east," she said, watching him through the peep hole. He started to walk away...then stopped and came back.
"Ma'am, is that the nearest phone?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so," she said.
"It's my wife and baby," he said. "I don't mind walking the fifteen miles, but I can't leave them alone."
She thought for a second and said, "If you want to wait a minute, I'll drive you to town."
"If you could, ma'am, I'd be so grateful. I'd want to pay you."
"Just wait a couple of minutes and I'll get dressed." She watched as he sat on her porch. She dressed quickly and grabbed her keys. She looked out the peep hole again. He was standing on the porch with his back to her. She opened the door and started to step out when he turned quickly and knocked her backwards. Another man came around the corner and rushed by her with a black crowbar in his hand. He ran through the house looking in all the rooms. The man in the polo shirt stood over her with a long shiny knife. It was a big knife. A Bowie knife, she thought to herself. Funny how things from history class come back at the strangest times.
"She's all alone," the man with the crowbar said and came back into the room. He was sloppy looking. Uncontrolled long hair, attempted beard, meaty hands, and dirty teeth; no wonder, she thought, he wasn't the one who came to the door.
From out of the kitchen, Banquo ran in wondering what the excitement was. When he saw the two men, Linda on the floor, and the knife, he began barking. He wasn't an attack dog. He was a Brittney spaniel. His job was to find the prey. The man with the crow bar took a long swing and brought it down on the dog's back. Banquo squealed in pain and fell. The man kicked Banquo across the kitchen floor and against the double glass door that led out to the wood landing. He slid open the window and kicked the dog out. When he closed the door, Banquo could barely be heard.
"Ma'am," the man in the polo shirt said, "I'm sorry we have to do this. Where's your man?"
She didn't answer.
"She's alone," the other man said. He walked over to the refrigerator.
"Find me something to tie her up with," the man with the polo shirt said.
The sloppy man opened the refrigerator. "She's almost as bad as be are, Ted. Look, there's hardly any food here."
"I told you to find me something to tie her up with," Ted yelled.
They found the laces off a pair of old hiking boots and bound her arms behind her back. They sat at the kitchen table. Outside, Banquo quietly yelped. Ted left the room and came back minutes later. "You're right, she don't have a man," he said. "I checked the closet and drawers. Just her stuff. Do you live all alone here?"
She didn't answer him.
"I asked you if you lived here all alone. Don't you think that's kinda dangerous? Who knows what kind of men live 'round these parts." Linda looked away. Ted reached across the table and with the back of his hand slapped her. Blood trickled out of her nose and into her mouth. She tried to lean her head so that the blood would flow down her face. With one hand Ted grabbed her by the hair. With the other he held the flat part of the knife to her cheek. "It's not polite to ignore your guests," he said. With a quick twist he pulled the knife away leaving a small cut in her face. She grimaced.
As they ate Linda saw the knife on the table and the crowbar on the floor going into the living room. "I don't think we've been properly introduced," Ted said. "My name is Ted, and this is Zack."
"Pleased to meet you," Zack said with a laugh.
"We're just passing through these parts," Ted continued, "and we thought we might soak in some of the culture. Ain't that right, Zack?" Zack laughed. "And what might your name be?" Ted asked.
She licked the drying blood from her lips and said, "Linda."
"Linda," Zack said, "Ted, I don't think we've killed a Linda before, have we?"
"Sure we have," Ted said. "Remember that girl in Texas?"
"Oh, that real young one. I remember. About six years ago, right? But she'll be the first Linda in the nineties."
Ted stood up and grabbed Linda's arm. He forced her up. He grabbed the knife. She watched Zack shovel cereal into his mouth. "Can I have her next?" Zack asked.
In the bedroom Ted turned out the lights and threw Linda on the bed. The sheets were already messed up. He opened the top drawer and slammed it shut, then he did the same to the next two drawers. In the bottom drawer he found what he was looking for—balls of pantyhose. He walked over to the bed and rolled Linda halfway over. With the knife he cut the laces away and tied her hands to the corner posts. She was on her back, fully clothed, arms bound at the wrist. He sat on her hips and played with her breasts. "I bet you like this," he told her. She didn't stir. With the knife, he traced a line up and down her belly. He put the blade to her chin and leaned down and tried to kiss her. She turned away. "You fucking bitch," he said, "too good to kiss me, huh?" He tried again, and again she turned away. He slapped her twice. "Cunt," he said. "Don't think for a moment I need you warm. I could just as well fuck you dead. Don't matter to me." With a rough swipe he tore the buttons from her blouse. With his knife he cut the straps from her bra. He put the blade to her chest and sliced through the material between the cups. With a hard jerk he pulled the bra around her.
"Oh," he said to her, "you like it to hurt a bit, don't you?" He moved down the bed. With the dull side of the blade touching her skin he cut through the elastic band of her skirt. He pulled those aside and reached into her panties. He stuck a finger inside of her and watched her face. She didn't move. She kept her eyes open, but just stared at the ceiling. He cut the panties away with the oafish grace of a butcher trimming fat off a roast. "This is generally where I stuff these in your mouth to keep you from screaming. But you seem to know the rules."
He stared at her and began breathing irregular. He stood up and set the knife next to her ribs. He undid his pants and stepped out of them. He pulled off his shirt and crawled between her legs. He spread her thighs apart with his knees and brought his hips down to meet hers. He put most of his weight on his hands that were up by her chest. He reached down with one hand and guided himself in. She didn't move. He started gnashing up and down changing his weight to his hips. He reached behind her head and tried to kiss her. She kept her mouth closed. He covered her face with spit. He grunted and coughed and grunted and coughed.
Zack poked his head in. "Is it my turn yet?"
Ted stopped and said, "I'm almost done."
In the half light that came from the living room Linda could barely see Ted's face. He was drooling and quickening his pace. He moved his hands under her waist and started taking long quick strokes. She was able to get one hand free.
He finished inside of her with a groan and a long puff of air from his lungs. In that moment of his release, she grabbed the knife and brought her hand back up to the corner post. He put both of his hands under her head. "I could have killed you first, but then you wouldn't have enjoyed it as much." He was going to laugh, but she had already buried the knife into the side of his throat. He was shocked. She had cut right through his jugular and severed the vocal cord. He fell to his side off of her. She reached up with the knife and freed her other hand. She rolled over on top of him. He tried to move her off, but all the strength in his body was being used by his lungs to bring in air. She could see his chest heave. He held on to his throat trying to curb the bleeding. In the half dark she could see his eyes bug out of his head. He tried to scream, but when he opened his mouth, all that rushed out was blood. The gurgling in his throat was so loud, she thought Zack could hear. She sat on his dead groin and brought the knife to his chest. With the last amount of strength in his body, he tried to cover his heart. She brought the blade down with so much force, it went right through his fingers. She bounced up and down on his hips stabbing and stabbing. Over a hundred times she entered his flesh. She started breathing heavily.
Zack came around the corner and thought they were still going at it. From where he was and in the half dark, all he could see was Linda bouncing up and down. "Come on, Ted, hurry up." Ted didn't answer. "Ted...Ted..." Linda turned around and Zack started to realized what was going on. He ran toward the bed. "You fucking bitch," he yelled, "I'll kill you, you fucking bitch." He lunged at her with both hands. She quickly swung at him with the knife and cut both palms to the bone. Before the pain hit, he grabbed her by the throat and knocked her off the bed. She held onto the knife and began stabbing him in the shoulders and arms.
When the pain finally struck him, he let go of her neck and ran into the living room. She stood and followed him. She still had the remnants of her blouse around her shoulders and a film of blood all over her body. In the light of the living room, the blood on both Zack and Linda took on a bright red glow. He barely had strength in his arms. He crawled on the floor looking for the tire iron. He found it by the kitchen. But by the time he tried to grab it, she was over him. She tried to stab him. He kicked her arm and the knife went across the room by the fireplace. He scurried on his knees over the floor. Before he had a chance to pick up the knife, she was on him with the tire iron. He fell back on the stone wall and tried to protect himself with his arms. With the first swing she could hear his forearm snap. Three or four swings later and both of his arms were broken. He rolled away from her trying to make it to the door. She followed him and swung at his back. Thump, thump, thump—three swings. On the third swing she hit the light. It was pitch dark in the room. It was silent. Even Banquo was quiet.
Zack rolled over to the wall and curled up in a little clump. He was losing blood from his arms and the pain from the broken bones was draining his strength. He couldn't hear a thing. He was sure his heart was beating so loudly that she would follow it. But it was silent. Up on the road, he heard a car pass and its headlight snaked in the window. For a moment, there was light. She was right above him. It was dark again. She started swinging and when the crowbar hit the stone wall, sparks arced in no particular pattern. She swung until her arms were tired.
By the next morning she had the house mostly cleaned up. The first thing she did was care for Banquo. She wrapped him in an old blanket, crushed up an aspirin, and fed it to him inside of a piece of ham. She replaced the light bulb in the living room and dragged both of the bodies to the landing. She mopped up the blood with the sheets and set them to wash. By first light she had the bodies in the tin shed. She put fresh sheets on the bed and tried to nap.
That afternoon she was in the shed. She spent the rest of that day cutting the bodies up into little pieces. She wore through a saw blade and nearly burned the motor on her circular. With most of both bodies in small cubes, and in plastic bags—except the heads, which she couldn't find a way to cut—she carried her load back to her kitchen and set a huge pot to boil. She cooked the flesh away from the bones and pushed the meat down the garbage disposal. It took most of the night. The next morning she was back out in the shed running the bones through her pneumatic shredder. She took what was left and used it for fertilizer. Her bruises had already began fading and her face had only a small scar. Banquo was walking with a limp, but didn't require a vet. Besides small naps, Linda didn't sleep. She sat most of the night in her living room nursing Banquo.
A week later while she was preparing dinner, a knock came at her door. Through the open entry she saw a sheriff peeking in. "Hello, ma'am," he said. "I'm Officer Langston. Mind if I ask you some questions?"
"No, come in." She opened the door and he followed her past the scarred wall into the kitchen. She continued cutting the fat off two steaks. "Would you like some coffee?" she asked him.
"No thank you, ma'am. Is that a real Bowie?"
"Yes." she handed it over to him.
"I just needed to ask you a few questions. Down the road a few miles we found an abandoned car. It was stolen. A gas station attendant in Eugene remembers two men filling up one night last week. I was just wondering if maybe you've seen them."
"I don't get many visitors out here, sheriff."
"I suppose not. Have you seen anyone suspicious around the lake?"
"No. But if I do, I'll surely call you."
"I appreciate that. Tell me, do you live out here all by yourself?"
"Just me and Banquo."
"...Banquo?" he asked.
"My dog." Upon hearing his name, Banquo limped in from the landing.
"That's a beautiful dog. Cocker spaniel?"
"No, he's a Brittney," she said.
"Banquo, that's an odd name."
"It comes from MacBeth. Banquo was the general that MacBeth murders in his own castle. Later Banquo reappears to haunt MacBeth. He helped kill old ghosts. That's my Banquo."
"Why does he limp?"
"He's a clumsy dog; not too bright." She takes the knife back. "Sometimes he doesn't know what's best for him." She smiled and holding the knife, rubbed the back of her hand over her scar. "Sometimes he gets into fights he doesn't know he can't win."
In the shaded loop that wound around the end of Frontierland, on a blue wooden bench that leaned against a white wood fence, in the shadow of the stone facade built to resemble a Spanish castle, Teddie Lorenz stopped to rest. By his side, standing impatiently, little Tansie and her mother watched the tram lift out of the castle, up over the park, and through the Matterhorn. Teddie grabbed Tansie's hand.
"You wanna go back to the train?" he asked her.
"Huh?" The contact surprised her.
"That tram," he said, "it gets off right next to the train. We'll be right back where we started."
Tansie shrugged. "Oh, I don't care where we go."
"Well then," Teddie said, sensing Tansie's anxiety, "I say we soar over Disneyland." He stood and softly pinched Tansie's cheek. "Then we can take the train back over to here. See how everything works out. Are you having fun yet?"
"Oh yes," Tansie said. "This is the greatest day in my life."
Teddie watched her walk up the steep steps that led to the tram. He tried to remember back when he was nine. Spending a day in Disneyland, he thought, would have been a great day. Standing in line two by two, Tansie turned back just before she stepped in front of the moving chair. "Teddie," she said, "thank you for bring me here today."
It sure is funny, Teddie thought, how the smile of nine year old girl can effect the heart. It is infectious.
He rode over the park by himself with Tansie and her mother in the chair ahead of him. The sun—the same sun he cursed every afternoon from the front seat of his air conditionless car—was directly overhead and smiling back.
It was just after the abdominal snowman lunged out of the cave inside of the mountain, Tansie looked back and waved. Teddie uncrossed his arms and waved back. Yes, he thought, sure is a great day.
They were waiting for him when he stepped from the chair and walked down the ramp. "Where do you want to go next?" he asked.
Someone shouted. "Teddie, Teddie Lorenz, is that you?"
Teddie spun around.
"Well I'll be goddamned, it is you. Hey buddy, it's me, Pete. How the hell are you? Jilli, Jilli, look who it is. Remember me telling you about old Teddie Lorenz? Well, this is him." Pete put his arm around Teddie's shoulders. "Sure good seeing you again, old boy." Teddie nodded. "Jilli, I want you to meet my best friend from childhood. Teddie, this is my wife."
She reached out her hand. "Hello," she said. "My name is Jillian, but you can call me Jilli. These brats..." She reached behind her and ushered two boys forward. "...are our kids."
"Bobbie, Carl," Pete said to the boys, "shake the man's hand."
Teddie took both of the boys' hands and turned around. "This is Gloria..." Gloria smiled and nodded. "...and this beautiful little girl is Tansie." Tansie pressed into her mother's leg.
"Nice to meet you, Gloria," Jilli said, reaching out her hand.
Gloria was pretty; Jilli was radiant. Gloria was more than a decade younger, but both women seemed the same age. They both stood about the same height, but Jilli seemed to tower over Gloria. Jilli reached down and stroked Tansie's hair. "You certainly are a beautiful little girl," she said.
"So how you been?" Pete asked Teddie.
"Good...real good. And you, how have you been?"
"Oh, life's been good to me. You know what, Teddie? I was just thinking about you the other day. Wasn't I, honey?" She nodded. He turned back to Teddie. "Remember the time we thought we saw a UFO and chased it on our bikes up behind Superstition? We were going to bring back evidence and become the heroes of the world. We were gone all night. I was telling Jilli here all about it just the other day. And remember how we weren't allowed to sleep out for weeks after that? Do you remember?"
Jilli said, "Oh, don't get him started on those old stories. We could be here all day."
"Hey, that's an idea," Pete said. "Why don't we let the girls take the kids for awhile. You and I can spend sometime catching up. We could go down by the pirates cove, get a drink, and reminisce. What do you think?"
"But Gloria, Tansie, and I..." Teddie looked at Tansie.
"Oh, let them go, Gloria," Jilli said. "You and I can spend some time together and get acquainted. It will be fun. Tansie could ride with the boys. She might enjoy being with kids her own age. What do you say, Tansie?"
Tansie looked up at her mother, shrugged, and said, "I don't care."
Gloria said, "Sure, Teddie, go ahead. We'll be Ok." She look down at Tansie. "This will be fun. Now you have someone to ride with down the Matterhorn."
"Ok," Pete said, "it's one-thirty right now. Let's say we meet back here at four. We can have an early dinner, on me."
"Come on, Gloria." Jilli said. "It will be great getting rid of him for awhile. He can be so boorish."
"Hey," Pete said, "I heard that."
Jilli said back, "Good!" They smiled at each other. "Hey kids, where do you want to go next?"
Both Bobbie and Carl shouted, "Star Tours."
"Let's ask Tansie," Jilli said. "Tansie, where do you want to go next?"
Tansie shrugged and said, "I don't care."
Gloria said, "We haven't seen Captain Io yet, or Star Tours."
"So let's start there," Jilli said. "Pete...I looked at the map when we came in. If you head west towards Adventureland, and take a right when you get to Main Street, USA, and then go north, for a bit, you'll find it. You can't miss it. It's clearly marked. It says...Memory Lane. See you at four."
They waved goodbye and walked off separate directions. Several times Teddie looked over his shoulder to see if Gloria had turned around—she didn't. Tansie, however, kept looking back.
"Last time we had a drink together," Pete said as they sat on a bench near the It's A Small World Stage, "let me see...We were freshmen at U.A. You were going with that big-breasted brunette, what was her name...?"
"Lynn, that's right. She had the biggest...whatever happened between you two?"
"I married her."
"You married her?"
"Then she left me."
"I was too." Teddie took a slow drink. "That was seventy-four. She took off with my MG, my cousin, and left me the bell bottoms. To this day, I have trouble wearing bell bottoms. So what's been happening with you?"
"Oh, Jesus, where do I start?"
"Where do you live now? L.A.?"
"No, I'm still back in Phoenix? Got me a house over on Bethany Homes. I'm doing well. I'm working for Packer Industries. Ever hear of us?"
"No. I'm sorry."
"That's fine. You'd probable recognize our emblem." He reached into the pocket of his shorts and grabbed his wallet. He pulled out a business card and handed it to Teddie. "We make paper products—cups, plates, bags, anything made of paper, we make it. I'm a Product Manager. Some title, huh?"
"Again, I'm sorry, Petee. I have no idea what a Product Manager is."
"Hey, that's alright. It's just another rich title. It's right below Vice President. With all those products we produce, one guy is responsible to see it goes from idea to shelf. That means development, manufacturing, advertising, marketing, and getting a cut of the kickbacks...no, I'm just kidding about the kickbacks. But they pay me well. Anyway, I really don't do much. I have plenty of other people doing my work for me. I just get the credit if it works, the blame if it fails, and the commission either way. Not a bad life, huh? Hey, I make ninety G's a year, they give me a company car, and they paid for the lot where I built my dream house. Jesus, Teddie, I've even got a clothing allowance in my expense account. I didn't pay for this outfit. Shit, I haven't paid for anything I own in years..."
"...so Pete was in L.A. for the month," Jilli told Gloria as they weaved their way up the ramp into Star Tours, "and I had a week off, so the boys and I flew in to take in Disneyland. I'm so glad we're here. And to think we came all this way so that Pete can find his childhood again. Sometimes I think Pete works too hard." They moved thirty feet in five minutes. R2-D2 moved up and down the line taking everyone's mind off the wait. "Look at the kids," Jilli said, "I think they're getting along just fine."
Both boys were standing on the railing trying to reach the robots. Tansie pressed her face up against the half glass/half metal fence.
"She is just a beautiful little girl," Jilli told Gloria. "So tell me, where did you meet Teddie?"
"Well," Gloria said matter-of-factly, "I was working at a diner down the block where he works, and he kept coming in asking me out. One day I just said yes."
"Ohhh, that is kismet. I met Pete during my senior year at U.A., I mean the University of Arizona. He was a business major and I was getting a degree in marketing. At first I thought he was a dork. I guess he was. But I loved him, I pitied him, and I married him. So how long have you and Teddie been married?"
"We're not married."
"You're...I'm sorry for...so Tansie is not..." Jilli struggled.
"No," Gloria said walking ahead another two steps. "Teddie is not Tansie's father."
"He's a nice guy, isn't he? I mean, Pete's always talking about how Teddie was the one in the gang who always cared the most. I mean, Tansie could have done a lot worse than Teddie."
"Oh," said Gloria, "she did do a lot worse than Teddie. The bastard is a stock car mechanic. At least Teddie goes to the same job in the same building every day."
"...two full baths in the basement alone," Pete said. "And get this, Teddie, a wet bar in my study. The place, without paying for the land, cost me about 600 thousand. I can remember growing up on East Van Buren and wishing that one day I could live on Bethany Homes Road. Well, I am now, and you know what? It's all I ever thought it would be. But enough about me, what have you been up to the last fifteen years?"
Teddie looked around trying to avoid the question. "Oh," he said, "I've been here and there."
"Did you ever finish school?"
"No," said Teddie. "After Lynn left me. I kinda sunk into the counter culture."
"You," laughed Pete, "a hippie?"
"Worse. I was a campaign volunteer for Jimmy Carter. Both times. No, really, I went out east. I kinda went 'cause' crazy. I marched to the nation's capitol for the ERA amendment. And remember the riots against Frank Rizzo's Gestapo in Philadelphia? I was there. Remember the marches in Brooklyn against the HUD cuts. I was there too. I wasted my time on every stupid losing cause in the Eighties. They tried to tell me that it was the "Me Generation", that the decade was the most selfish era in the history of the entire planet, but I didn't listen. Beware the Ides of March, someone said. I didn't hear them. I didn't see it coming. Anyway, I spent some time selling dollar poetry in Battery Park downtown Boston. And I spent a couple of years volunteering in a runaway safe house for teens in Chicago. And I did my time in Indianapolis on the listening end of a rape crisis line. Then I made my way to L.A. I took a detour through Phoenix. I stopped by the old houses. I even looked you up. Not too seriously though. Anyway, the city didn't recognize me. So here I am, older and much wiser. And do you know what I regret the most about spending fifteen years of my life as a bleeding heart?"
"The pay was lousy?" Pete was serious.
"Well, that too. But what I really regret is the fact that no matter how hard I worked; no matter how much I gave; no matter how loudly I screamed, I don't think it made one bit of difference. The world just got colder. Funny how little people care about the little people. The only ones who give a damn are those of us who haven't the power to do anything." Teddie sat back leaning on his hands, nodding his head.
"So where do you work now?" Pete asked.
"I'm a salesman."
"A salesman? No shit?"
"I know...I know. I kills me too. Do you ever see those commercials on the TV for the rent-to-own appliances? Well, that's me. I work in a corner store in El Monte selling stereos and VCRs to couples who really can't afford it. They walk in with dirty little ratty faced kids who look as if they could use some new clothes, and they blow fifteen bucks a week on a used colour television. Some things just ain't right. But I've been there four years now. It pays the bills. Barely, but it does."
"Do you know what I was just thinking?" Pete tried to change the subject. "I was thinking on how my dad always used to call you Boondoggle, remember? Boondoggle Lorenzie, he used to say. You used to like that."
"God, I haven't thought of that in years. I did like it. You know, I really thought your old man was something; working all day as he did and still having time to play catch with us."
"He has more time now, and he still plays catch with my boys. He's going to be tickled to death to hear that I ran into you. I can hear him now, Boondoggle Lorenzie you say, how the hell is the old boy? I just can't get over seeing you here." Pete stood up and raised his hand to the stage. "I guess it's true what they say here, it is a small world."
"We better be getting back," Jilli said to Gloria. "If I know Pete, he'll be sitting on the ramp counting the seconds we're late. I'm so glad we ran into you and Teddie. I'm glad we had a chance to meet. Where I live, you'd be surprised how hard it is to meet real people. Everyone is so directed at making money that they've forgotten how to pace life. You see, I've come to the conclusion, Gloria, that we as a people have forgotten the importance of the pause. We have so few times as these, I've become grateful for all of them."
"So where have you guys been?" asked Pete standing up from the ramp. "You're almost six minutes late."
"We were almost to the gate," Jilli said, "ready to leave you two behind when Gloria reminded me you were going to treat us all to dinner."
"Are you guys ready to leave?" Teddie asked Gloria and Tansie. They both looked tired.
"Ok," Tansie said.
"Sure," Gloria said.
"How about that dinner?" Pete asked.
"We really should get going..." Teddie said.
"Hey, how about tonight? Jilli's in town a couple more days. Why don't you give me your number and we can plan something."
Teddie looked over at Gloria. She nodded. "Ok," Teddie said, giving him his telephone number, "call us."
Jilli walked over to Tansie and gave her a hug. "I hoped you liked our company, Tansie. I hope my boys weren't too loud for you."
"Oh," Gloria said, "she had fun. Thank you."
"No," Jilli said, "thank you. I enjoyed our time together."
"Well, Boondoggle," Pete said, "it was great seeing you again. We'll get together. My treat."
Later, in the rented car, Carl and Bobbie bounced in the back seat among all the souvenirs, making a fuss.
"I wanted the toy robot."
"I wanted the big Mickey."
"So how was your visit?" Jilli asked Pete.
"It was so wonderful seeing Teddie again. It brought back a rush of memories."
"So what's this Boondoggle thing?" she asked.
"It was a name my father gave Teddie when he was a boy."
"What does it mean?"
"Do you remember those coloured vinyl cords braided together into a big square tether? That's a boondoggle. Boy Scouts used to wear them on their uniforms. Teddie used to carry his house key on a yellow and green one. No matter what he was wearing, he always had a boondoggle tied to his clothes. He was such a cool kid."
"So what kind of man did he turn out to be?"
"Well...remember when I told you he was the one who cared too much? I think that's the best way to describe him. He cared too much. Sad thing is...he probably works harder than I do, and he'll never ever make more that twenty thousand a year..."
Teddie had to speak up to talk to Tansie. His voice was picked up and blown out the open window and onto I-5. "So how did you enjoy your day, Tansie?"
She was in the back seat holding on to the black hat with orange mouse ears with her name stitched into the front with both hands. "This was the greatest day in my life," she said. "Thank you, Teddie."
"My pleasure, babe." He watched her from the rear view mirror. She was smiling. She was filled. She was happy. He turned to Gloria. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"Yes," she said, "I had fun. Did you?"
"I was happy to see old Petee again, but I always get uncomfortable meeting people I used to know."
"Even old best friends?"
"I guess we both changed. Or maybe it's just me. Maybe Pete's world past me right by. Still, I'm kinda glad I'm not like him. We see the world in completely different perspectives. You see, Pete is the kind of guy, and maybe he's always been the kind of guy who would sell his own mother for ten thousand dollars."
Gloria looked back and saw Tansie hold onto to the hat with a smile. Teddie looked back too. The whole car smiled. "You know what, Teddie?" Gloria said. "I think I could sell my mother for ten thousand. And I'm even willing to bargain."
Every Breath And Wink
Charles Ray Versey died under the weight of nineteen tons of Union Pacific steel. As fate had planned it, the 1973 Pinto Charles Ray had been driving was sitting waiting at the only crossroads in the county when the train passed and jumped the track and crushed his body beyond recognition. Air-powered cutters and oxygen-fed torches freed Charles Ray from his Ford coffin allowing, what was left of his body, proper burial.
Six humans gathered as the preacher whispered the final rites and commended the body to God and his earth. Six humans watched silently as dirt pounding off the wood coffin roared into the autumn morning. There were six humans gathered at the last moment of Charles Ray's earthly stay—one of them was Charles Ray, one was the preacher, and the other four were paid.
Above the cemetery, at about seventy-five feet, hovered the spirit of Charles Ray Versey. He watched as biodegradable paper-flowers were thrown over his wood coffin and shovels full of dirt filled the hole. At first, he struggled to hover (never having hovered before) until he found the right way to fashion his body to remain in place. There he stayed, above the cemetery, hovering, for what seemed a thousand years.
Charles Ray Versey was an uninspired man. The one constant in his life was his laziness. He had the ability to walk into a room, find his comfort zone, and plop down until he was forced to move. His life was one move to the next. His history was full of others doing his work. He was a walking testament to the nowhere man. A lazy death after a lazy life that began with a lazy birth; as a matter of fact, Charles Ray Versey was born caesarian.
It could have been forever, but finally someone came looking for him. An angel of the outer heavens blew out of a bright red light and begged Charles Ray to follow. "Were you just going to hover here forever?" the angel asked him. Not having an answer or reason to argue, Charles Ray Versey followed.
Into the heavens they flew. Charles Ray was curious but not interested on their method of flight. He was just not to be bothered with things that were. He was happy to soar through the heavens in a front prone position. It was something he was definitely good at—movement without effort. They flew for what seemed another forever.
"What do you have to say for yourself?" the Deity asked him in a great marble walled hall.
Charles Ray sat slouched back in a hard stone bench without focusing in on the Grand One. When the questions came again with a harsher tone, Charles Ray looked up and shrugged.
"You have two options," the Grand voice boomed. "First, you could prove that you are truly worthy of entering my kingdom and enjoy eternity at your most perfect leisure. Or second, you could fall through to the anti-nadir and spent forever in a cruelly calculated limbo. The decision will be made based on your life on your earth. You can have, what will seem to you, one of your earth's weeks to formulate a defense in order to convince me of your worthiness. For now...be gone."
Charles Ray had the purest intention of working on his case. He did want to work for his soul. He even spent time thinking of things that could be brought up in his defense. Trouble was, the room they gave him had the softest of easy chairs and Charles Ray fit into it as if he were upholstery. He fell into the chair that first day, and by the end of the week, the only thing that had changed was that he had kicked off his shoes.
While in the chair, Charles Ray thought back on his wasted life. He thought of the advantages he didn't take; the lessons he didn't learn; the jobs he lost; the friends he never made. He thought of all the Sundays he failed to get out of bed and all the nights he forgot to pray. In his defense, Charles Ray would not claim to be deeply religious. In its stead, he would profess to be spiritually shallow. He never purposely hurt anyone. He never stole from his bank or lied to his boss. Charles Ray never made excuses for being who he was. He was simply a modest man who set low goals and never reached them.
The massive voice quaked the massive hall. "Are you prepared for your fate?" the Deity boomed from his granite throne.
Charles Ray stood slouching and uncomfortable. He nodded.
"Mr. Versey," said the voice, "I asked you if you are prepared for your fate. I demand an answer."
Charles Ray dropped his head and whispered, "Yes."
"So be it then," said the Deity. "Charles Ray Versey, what evidence do you own that proves your worthiness for a heaven?"
Of course, Charles Ray could not answer.
"You never accomplished much, did you Mr. Versey? Tell me, how many times did you ever ask for a raise? Not even once, isn't that right? You deserved it, didn't you? You just let all those others waltz right by you. How many times did you give money to my churches? How many people did you pass without a smile or gift? Well, Mr. Versey, what do have to say for yourself?"
Charles Ray looked up in utter shame. "I..." He couldn't speak. "I never took what wasn't mine," he finally said. "I never hated anyone or treated someone wrong. I never broke a law in my life. I lived within the rules. I...I'm sorry."
There was a pause before the Deity spoke. His voice seemed to hush. "Charles Ray Versey, I have decided your fate."
Charles Ray choked in a huge suck of air. He looked at the Deity and bent his head. "Sir," he asked, "could I ask you one question?" The Deity nodded. "Well, Sir," Charles Ray continued, "was my life predestined. I mean, was it all decided before I was even born."
The Deity leaned forward. "Yes..." He said, "and no. There are an infinite number of directions your life can take. The wave of your hand traveling the speed limit on the interstate could forever alter your life. Every wink and breath you take changes destiny. You are in control of your own fortune, the master of your own fate. What you are and what you can become is a matter of your own motion. I, of course, know what you will become. You see, Mr. Versey, you live your whole life shaping and reshaping your reality so that you can come here before me and justify your decisions. You live life deciding between right and less right weighing everything with me as the qualifier. And just as the poets profess, Mr. Versey, Heaven and hell are in the balance. Is life predestined? Was it all decided before you came here? Well, Mr. Versey, every time you did or didn't do something you decided your fate. So by the time you came in front of me, your fate was secured. Does that answer your question?"
Charles Ray just shrugged.
Back on earth, deep in the Cascade Mountains north of Mt. Hood, in a small ravine, just off a wide-mouthed canyon, a small creek runs over a flat rock into a pocket of churning water. Small fish stop in the pocket to rest before running up the creek to feed. A white-trunked poplar allows its rich green leaves to hang over the clear water and give shade to the rock. No one travels the stream. It has and will remain unmolested for as long the mountains stand. It is nature at rest.
Back in heaven, fate was decided and sentence was passed. Be it right or less right, Charles Ray Versey was forever transformed into that flat rock. He was forever in the shade of the poplar thinking about the decisions he made in life. He knew that this was what he deserved. For eternity, Charles Ray Versey was a rock. He was happy. He was in his own heaven.
Inside Conifer Darkness
Spencer Dawley adored his father—as did most of the kids up and down the block. Mr. Dawley always seemed to be available to spend time with the boys. Whether it be a weekend of fishing; batting fly balls deep to the outfield; chasing crawdads in the small stream outside of town; or whittling toy machine guns out of dead cedar branches, the boys could always count on Mr. Dawley for, well for anything. While other fathers slaved away the sun on cosmetic riches, Spencer's father took the time to grease up all the boys' gloves with horse salve—the best kind, he says. While other fathers lounged in front of the television armed with tee-shirts and remote controls, Spencer's father was fixing flats and oiling up bicycle chains. Mr. Dawley seemed forever young, and if it was that quality that spurned snickers from the adults, it was what endeared him to the children.
It was the summer nights, those long, sleepless, warm summer nights, that the boys would remember most. They would lay huddled together mesmerized by the deep humming staccato of Mr. Dawley's voice telling and retelling old stories. Mr. Dawley would sit in a sagging hammock staring up to the sky as the boys gathered at his feet with their sleeping bags in a circle heads in and feet pointed out as a star. The booming whisper of his timbre owned the night and by the second story every boy was breathing as he breathed. He never retold any of his stories, unless, of course, they asked him to, and even then he would always add something extra. Mr. Dawley wasn't famous or anything, he just knew all about famous people. He read a lot. He had time to read.
For sixteen summers, Spencer would stretch out inside of his mummy bag and watch all the boys adore his dad. He was proud and he loved him. He had the perfect father, he thought, the perfect life and the perfect father. Life was good.
It was after ten years of career day at school that Spencer Dawley came home and looked for his father. He found him in the sewing room helping mother. Mr. Dawley sat with his right leg crossed over his left knee holding a ball of yellow yarn. "Hello, Spencer," he said. "How was school?"
"It was fine." he answered, "just fine." Spencer made his way over to a folding chair that was tucked into the sewing machine cabinet. He sat on the chair backwards with his elbows on the hard back. "Dad," he asked, "can I ask you question?"
"You certainly may ask."
"Dad, what do you do for a job?"
Mr. Dawley looked at his wife who looked back at him. She stopped
unwinding the yarn and waited. Mr. Dawley smiled and said, "Well, honey, he was bound to ask. About time too, he's already sixteen." He smiled. "Well, Spence, my son, "I've been waiting for quite some time for you to ask. Sometimes when you were younger I would want to tell you. I thought you needed to know. I was young then too. Now, I'm getting on, and it's about time you were told."
Spencer tried to read his father's face. He remembered all the afternoons that he would come home from school to find his father mending some trinket or building some box of sorts without a care in the world. Then, just after supper, his father would disappear for a couple of hours and reappear, just as mysteriously, without a word or change. They always had food on the table and the bills always seemed to get paid, and though his mother was a simple woman, she took pride, every few months or so, in going to a gathering with a new dress or shoes. He felt foolish asking his own father how he made a living, but he wanted to know. He was curious. His father's face wore a smile and no hint of a secret.
"Spencer, go get a light jacket. Tonight you're going with me."
His mother blew out a soft sigh and smiled. She looked as if she had something to hide. She looked guilty. He ran up to his room and pulled on his dark blue UCLA sweatshirt. It was early fall and getting on evening and this was northern California; it was sweatshirt weather.
Spencer and his father drove down the road in silence. Every now and then, Mr. Dawley would start to say something, then he would shake his head and change his mind. Spencer stared out the window and into the glow of the golden sun starting to fall into the Pacific. They turned onto Highway One listening to a big band station on the radio and headed north.
Spencer Dawley had spent little time in his life thinking about his father's occupation. He once thought that his father was a famous spy or something like that because when Spencer was growing up there was a locked room behind the garage where he was not allowed to play. Looking inside the room from a distance, and fueled by a child's imagination, he saw that it was filled with spy stuff like radios and rifles and dirty white sheets covering tables full of technical things. When in fact it was only a work room where Mr. Dawley spent a great deal of time tinkering and puttering the day away, and the door was locked because paint thinner and spray cleaners posed a danger to a curious boy. A few years later, Spencer began to believe that his father was an author because after he bought a home computer, he spent all of his time punching at the keyboard alone in his study. But when Spencer happened to glance over his father's shoulder at the coloured monitor, he realized all his father was doing was copying down his mother's recipes and making a genealogy chart. In time, and in Spencer's mind, Mr. Dawley became a diplomat, a retire astronaut, a war hero, a radio star, and a circus owner. Most of the time, however, Spencer didn't give much thought to all the free time his father seemed to have. He was only grateful that he had it.
Eventually, the car turned into a well traveled dirt road that seemed to appear out of nowhere and disappeared into the corners and darkness of the coast mountains. Dusk was just beginning to own the sky and it was difficult seeing through the conifer tunnel that engulfed the car. They finally stopped and Spencer got out and saw a dark pathway that led into the mountain. By the heavy salty smell of the air he knew they were near the sea. He followed his father up the pathway to the entrance of a tunnel.
"You know," his father told him, "since I first came here, yours are only the second pair of feet ever to touch this trail. Nobody knows how to get here. It's a secret place; no one else is allowed." It was almost dark now. They entered the mountain.
Inside, after about a hundred yards, they came into a giant cavern. It was well lit from no apparent light source. In a room that looked as if it were a giant train station, about a thousand people sat around keeping to themselves. Mr. Dawley walked through the room nodding and smiling at the people who smiled and nodded back. Spencer followed his father across the room to another tunnel on the other side of the cavern. They walked into the darkness around a corner and out onto a ledge in a cliff a hundred feet above the ocean. The sun had just splashed into the sea and the wind had a chill. The sky was a dark blue streaked with vermilion rose. It was the first time in his life Spencer remembered ever actually feeling colours.
"I've come here every night for twenty years," his father said, "every evening right at dusk. I came here the night I met your mother, the day you were born, and the night my mother died. Everything that has happened in my life, be it big or small, was underlined by this place. A day has yet to end without my watching night being born from this ledge. This is my job, son, this is what I do."
Spencer looked confused.
"I was about your age when my Uncle Benjamin first brought me here. You see, he didn't have any children and my father agreed that I should follow in my uncle's shadow. I was almost eighteen then. I took over for my uncle and watched him grow old without this place. He never returned, you know. Soon after, he moved to Colorado and when he did come visit, he never came to the cliff. Do you remember him? He used to pick you up when you were a baby and tell me that the day that you take over on the ledge would be both the happiest and saddest day of my life. I can see that he was right.
"We've been volunteered for this job; although chosen might be a better word. My son follows me as one day your son will follow you. We are taken care of. We are modest people, but you know all this. You'll know how to act. Soon you'll understand everything." Mr. Dawley walked to the edge of the cliff and leaned out. The salty mist slapped his face and he sucked in a huge breath through his nose. "I envy you my son," he continued. "Your life is just beginning, mine is coming full circle. I am an old man whose dreams have all come true. When I was your age, all I ever wanted to do was enjoy life; to attack each day with the vigor of a child on the first day of summer vacation. I have done that. I have been alive every second of every day of my life. I wish that for you too." His hands were clenched behind his back. He rocked back and forth on the edge. "You are not alone, you know. There are thousands more like us all over the world. That should be a comfort to you from time to time." He turned and looked toward his son. He was crying. They embraced and Spencer began to understand. Mr. Dawley continued, "We are the luckiest beings on this planet. I'm so happy for you, son. I'm happy for all of us."
"Dad," Spencer asked his father, looking back into the cavern, "who are those people? Are they like us?"
"No, son. They are the dead." Just then a bright light broke through the darkening sky and shot right past them. "And it is about time they embark." Mr. Dawley walked back into the cavern and stood in front of the crowd. They were standing. With a slow wave of a gentle hand, they followed him back out to the ledge. The light had transform into a staircase and each and every person, after exchanging a smile and nod with Mr. Dawley, began climbing. Spencer stood aside and began smiling and nodding to those who looked toward him. Soon they were gone and the light disappeared. Mr. Dawley took one last breath of the cool salt air and walked back through the empty cavern. At the entrance, Mr. Dawley turned back and stood still for a few moments. Finally he said, "It's all yours now, Spence. You are now the keeper of the key to the gates of heaven. God love you." He turned and for the last time walked out. Spencer stood inside the cavern and look around. It was empty. He understood fully. He walked away but turned back to the hall at the last second and wondered how the lights turned off. And just as he thought it, they did.
Blow You Old Blue Northern
Wet dough stuck between her fingers as she reached up to scratch her nose. White flour streaked her chin and cheek. Her mother sat back on the plastic backed hollow steel chair skinning red potatoes with a bent paring knife. She was Gwen Lance. Her light brown hair was pulled back behind her head exposing a round, fortyish, still pretty face. She had blue eyes and full lips that always looked painted. Her mother looked like an average, thin, white, grey-haired grandma. They both spoke in a deliberate Okie accent.
"So, baby, what's wrong?" her mother asked.
"Who said anything's wrong, Mama?"
"Well, nobody, but since you were a little child you used to bake bread when you were troubled."
"I'm OK, Mama, just got things on my mind, that's all." She picked up the dough and threw it hard to the table. "Did you hear that Myra and Bucky Wright were divorcing?"
"No," Mama said leaning forward, "and I thought they were so happy. I heard they just bought 'em a home up on Rock Point. Divorcing huh? I saw her the other day at Flynn's. I said to her, 'Myra, how you doing?' That's what I said to her and she said, fine."
Gwen said, "I guess Myra caught Bucky dropping off the little Tayborson girl in back of her daddy's house."
"...Little Tammy Tayborson?"
"She can't be any older that your Mitchie."
"I know that, Mama."
"And Bucky's nearly your age."
"I know. He was a freshman when I was senior."
"Poor Myra," Mama said leaning back on the chair. "And Bucky just got him a steady job with the railroad. I thought they'd be a happy story."
"I did too, Mama, I did too."
"Did you hear that Elma Wagoner had cancer?" Mama asked. "Ain't got long to live neither."
"Well, how old is she?"
"She ain't young; maybe seventy, seventy-five."
"She was old when I was a girl."
"She never remarried though I thought she would. I remember Matthew Wagoner, her husband. He was a good man. Died of tuberculosis, did you know that?"
"No, I didn't."
"Died in your daddy's arms," Mama said. "He had a coughing fit tightening a well up near Hawley. Your daddy tried to rush him to a hospital over at Medford, but he died on the way. That was back in '55 I believe. I thought Elma would remarry, but she didn't. And now shnbsp; "That's sad, Mama," Gwen said, scratching flour from her chin.
"Yup," Mama said, "sure is..."
Gwen greased up her hands, rolled little balls of dough, and lined them up and down a black oven tin. She filled three tins and set them under cotton towels to rise. She sat next to her mother and leaned back on the plastic backed hollow steel chair. She opened a half warm bottle of RC Cola and held it in her left hand. "You know what," she said, "Jimmy's coming home Friday night. Be back at 8:00." She laughed. "And that's one thing about cowboys, they don't give a goddamn when they get there, but they sure as hell do their arriving on time. He's been gone four months now, Mama. The tour ends tomorrow night in Lubbock and they'll take off Friday morning. He won't leave again until September and then he'll be back for the Internationals in January."
"With Mitchie full grown," Mama said, "maybe next tour you should go with him."
"Oh no, Mama," Gwen said, "I'm done with the road. I had my stomach full in the seventies. Day after day of traveling over the same hard roads through the same different states, and night after night of cheap booze, cheap perfume, and cheap sex—which I might add was the only benefit of the whole affair. No, Mama, I told Jimmy to buy me a house and a Riviera and I'd be happy. Trouble is, he did, and I'm not."
"You know I'm not one to pry," Mama said. "I let you kids make your own mistakes. That was one thing I promised your daddy before he died. He told me that the only thing I could offer was sympathy. But I've seen what's been happening these last twenty years. All I'm gonna give you is this; words my Papa said to me the day before you were born. I don't think I ever told you. You never knew my Papa. He died when you were a baby. But the day before you were born, and with your daddy off in the Korea, Papa touched my swollen belly and smiled. I was in pain and kinda irritable and Papa said to me, 'Troubles? I wish I had your troubles.' It was his way of telling me that everyone has little sorrows. And the worst kind is your own. It ain't no matter how bad your troubles seem, someone else would view them as minor."
Gwen thought for a moment. "Mama," she said, "I do love Jimmy so. I love him the way I did when I first met him. He still thrills me. Every time I listen to the radio, I feel like a school girl again. Every song seems to be our song. When he's home sometimes he wakes me up in bed and while he presses up to my back, he sings into my ear. He used to sing Still by Bill Anderson to me all the time. Then we'd go acting like kids again; just like high schoolers.
"It's a tradition," Gwen continued, "that on the first night off the road, we go down to the Tastee Freeze for a double cheese and chocolate coke. We've done that for twenty-five years. Trouble is, Mama, I'm now forty years old and I don't think I should still feel like a school girl. I wanna grow up, but I don't think I know how.
"And another thing...I know what goes on on the road. And I don't think I can be as forgiving as I once was. I'm just really confused right now, Mama. I wanna talk to Jimmy about it. Maybe get him to retire for a year or two. Give me back a husband. But I guess that's selfish." The tabletop timer rang and without thought, Gwen stood and put the black tins in the pre-heated oven. She reset the timer and sat down. "I'll talk to him, Mama. That's what I'll do. Right when he pulls in. We're both too old to be young. We got a girl almost twenty. We've got to grow up, be adults...yeah, I'll talk to him.
They were done...It was finished...anyway, they had stopped. He rolled over and grabbed a towel, one that he had strategically placed on the floor before the bout began, and politely handed it to her. Though it was awkward and the room was half-lit, she wasn't embarrassed or hurt. She cleaned the sweat off her body and watched him pull the tan cowboy hat off the bed post and put it on. She giggled.
"What?" he said without affront. "The hat?"
"Oh, I'm not laughing at you. It's just that I imagined that's what you'd do."
"You don't like my hat?"
She shook her head. "Oh no, it's not that..."
"For twenty years now," he said, "I've been thrown into the dust and the mud and when I stood up, I've put on my hat. It's like my comfort blanket. It don't mean nothing."
"Oh, it's fine with me," she said and threw the towel off the bed and crawled up next to him. He put his arm around her shoulder and kissed the top of her head. He was just over six feet and built hard. He didn't look forty-three. He was handsome. He looked like the Marlboro Man.
She asked him, "Did you know that you and I have met before?"
"I'm sorry, I..." He struggled.
"Oh, you wouldn't remember. I was young..."
"You're still young," he interrupted.
"OK then, I was just a little girl." She was a thin pretty girl with dark brown eyes and lips that always seemed painted. She had a bronze tint to her skin that made you believe that somewhere back in her family tree was a full blooded Mexican. She spoke slowly but confidently. "I was maybe twelve or thirteen. My father took me down to Odessa for an exhibition. I went down to see you. You were my hero, you know. I can remember all the girls in school were in love with Mel Gibson or Don Johnson but I was always bragging on you. The girls used to tease me, calling me Mrs. Jimmy Lance and stuff. I had my first crush on you."
"Maybe I should have met you then."
She laughed and slapped his chest. "I didn't know I went to bed with a pervert."
"You didn't," he said. "You just woke up with one."
"So anyway, we sat up in the stands watching you trying to tame a bull named Midnight Terror..."
"I remember that bull," he said in a rush of memory, "pitch black, a white spot on his back quarter. He beat me that night. I rode him three times. All three times he threw me like a wet forkball. You were there that night, huh?"
"I'm sorry I couldn't have given you a better show."
"I was happy just to see you. My father took me back behind the gates just before your last ride. I never knew how dark it was back there. The announcer called out your name and the place went crazy. You had asked if you could ride Midnight Terror one more time. The place would have fell apart if they wouldn't have let you. So I'm back behind the gate and I could hear you slapping the bull just before you hopped on. The place was quiet then. It was silent like church when all of a sudden the gate flew open. The crowd erupted. For a few seconds I thought God Almighty himself had appeared in the arena. I can't remember ever being so close to my heart. I could feel every nerve pulse. It was over soon and the world went back to its living and there I was. The gate opened and you walked in. My father stepped in and said, 'Mr. Lance, I would like to introduce to you my daughter Miss Jeannie Lee Bowles. She's your biggest fan.' You looked down at me and rubbed my hair with your gloved hand. You said with the cutest little drawl and the tip of your hat, 'Ma'am'. I looked up at you and with all the wisdom of a twelve year old girl, I said, Uh, howdy."
"That must have been some rub if you recall it all these years later."
"It was," she said, "but it was the dust I remember most."
"As you walked back under the stairs," she said, "and with my fresh young hormones pumping, I watched your Levis shake away. It was all in slow motion. You reached down with your hand, the gloved hand, the same one that had just rubbed my head with and slapped the dirt off. I watched the dust form around your butt and memorized it all for the sake of posterity."
"I'm glad my ass could give you pleasure in two decades," he said. "I kinda wish I hadda known. I kinda feel cheap, you know, used."
She rubbed her cheek on his chest and relaxed. "Why did you pick me?"
"Pick you?" he asked.
"You know, why am I the one who gets to sleep here tonight."
"Now if your gonna start asking questions, I'm gonna start pretending to sleep. Does it matter?"
"No, I guess not," she said. "I guess it's that...maybe I wanted you to notice me. Maybe I wanted to be someone special to you. Maybe I wanted you and I to be ordain."
"Are you one of those crazies who..."
"No," she said, "I'm maybe a little bit peculiar, but I'm certainly not crazy. I'm also a hopeless romantic. Aren't you?"
He turned toward her and in one movement kissed her and placed his hat on her head. "OK," he said, "OK. I know what you want. And it's true. I did see you above the crowd. I saw you before my first ride and you were all I could think about all night. You are so very special to me. I'll remember you and this night for a long time. Now kiss me and shut up."
"I'm nineteen," she said.
He shook his head and mumbled, "Christ."
"And you're forty-three."
"Thank you for bringing that up. I have a daughter 'bout your age."
"I know," she said, "Mitchie Lynn Lance. She's attending A&M, ain't she?"
"Yes she is."
"I read about her in the program. Is she a pretty girl?"
"Yes she is. What did it say about my wife?"
"It said that you were happily married."
"I am, you know."
"I'm sorry." he said.
"Nothing to be sorry about. I think that it's sweet you admit you love your wife. She must be very special."
"I don't think I have to tell you how queer it is lying here naked in your arms talking about my wife."
"Where did you meet her?"
"I don't remember?"
"How old were you?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I do, that's all, just do."
He slipped back to the pillows. She put her chin on his chest. The glow that fell through the window cut a red silhouette around her head and the hat. He was silent for a time. She wasn't sure if he was angry or contemplating. Finally, he spoke. "She was seventeen. I was twenty. I had been on the rookie circuit only 'bout five months when we did a show in some whiskey ville outside of Enid called Breckenridge, Oklahoma. I did OK, had some fine rides. But it was this girl I saw in up in the stands that caught my eye. All night long it seemed as if we were the only two in the place—like I was riding just for her. After the show she came back to the trailers. She was so cute in her cheerleader jacket. It was red, blue, with a white collar, and PATRIOTS stitched across the back. She had long brown hair and the cutest little smile. I couldn't stop looking at her.
"I took her to the Tastee Freeze for a double cheese and chocolate coke. I was a goner. We stayed up all night and just talked. I had never felt that way before. We exchanged letters for the rest of the tour and when I came back I asked her to marry me. I remember she cried on my shoulder that night and told me that the only hope the girls in Breckenridge had was to get lucky and marry a soldier from Vance, which was an air force base nearby. I promised to always make her happy and give her everything she ever wanted. Trouble was I was just a boy and she was just a girl. We never knew what true happiness was. She spent ten years with me on the road. She had Mitchie Lynn somewhere in Montana.
"I kinda wonder now what I took away from her. I did give her everything I could. I love her so, but I can't help wonder what I didn't give." He was quiet then.
She was quiet as well.
"So are you happy now?" he asked. "Got me thinking 'bout Gwen while I'm here naked in this bed with you. Maybe I should feel more guilty."
"I think it's beautiful that you love your wife. I don't want you to feel guilty. I just want you to be here with me tonight. I won't ask anything of you. After tomorrow, when you go, I won't follow. As much as I want you to be happy, and I know this sounds stupid because I don't even know your wife, but I want Gwen to be happy. I'm a stupid girl with stupid romantic dreams. You made me that way. All these years I've read about you; all those magazines articles; all those pictures of you and Gwen, I just wanted to be part of it. Now don't get spooked or nothing. I'm not a crazy. I'm just fulfilling a dream. Ever since I watched the dust from your denim, I wanted to be yours. And tonight, for just a little while, I was."
He stroked her naked back and fell silent. She held on to his waist and rubbed the scar on his side. He reached down and took his hat from her head and placed it back on the bedpost. He pushed her to her back and shifted on top of her. The red light that bounced off the hat caught them in a frenzy. It went on and on from there.
They were done...He put his hat back on and she again threw the towel from the bed. She said, "Do you know what I want?"
"To talk again?" he said.
"No, not really. I want something special from you—a souvenir. You don't have to do it if you don't want, it's not that important."
"What?" he asked.
"A bit of glory," she said. "Tomorrow night, during the rodeo, just before you step down on the bull; just before the cinch is pulled tight on your gloves; just before the gate springs open...would you do something for me? Would say my name out loud. It would mean so very much to me."
"That's all I want from you, to say my name out loud on top of that bull. It will be my ride. I want to tell my children and grandchildren about that you and the ride."
"Your name, huh? That doesn't sound like much." He stared out at the red light that flew in the window.
She saw a blank look in his eyes and said, "Jeannie Lee, my name is Jeannie Lee."
The bus was, of course, right on time. Gwen sat on the hood of the black Riviera bouncing her white boots off the rubber bumper guard in time with the music coming out of stereo inside the car. She knew what she wanted to do. She had rehearsed and re-rehearsed her opening lines. She was giving him a decision—not an ultimatum. She was willing to compromise. Her heart picked up a pace when the air blew out of the brakes and the bus came to a stop next to the fairgrounds.
He sat alone in the middle section of a black bus with his name three feet high painted on the side and stared out the tinted windows. The ride was relatively short, but once you've seen Texas, it seems like forever. Along the way, he thought of the girl and the ride and the night and the road. He thought of Gwen and Mitchie, and Jeannie Lee Bowles and who he was and how he wanted to be remembered. He thought of being forty-three years old and finding cheap thrills with teenagers and star-struck groupies. He looked out the window and realized that both his life and Texas was just rolling by.
He was the last one off the bus. Gwen smiled and said hello to the other cowboys and crew as they passed her on their way home or to a familiar hotel. When he finally jumped off the last step to the concrete, she slid off the hood. She felt her heart jump as he worked his way toward her. She stopped breathing when she saw that little boy smile grow under his big blonde mustache. He dropped his bag and reached out for her. She broke into a huge grin and ran into his arms.
"Did my pretty little snowflake miss me?" he asked brushing his face across her neck.
She answered by throwing her mouth over his.
They spun around the fairground parking lot as if they were alone.
He pulled her away from his face. "How 'bout we go for a double burger and chocolate coke?" he asked.
"Are you buying?" she said shedding herself away from him.
"I love you," he said, "but you know that, don't you?" He draped his arm around her shoulder and walked back to the car. Along the way he leaned down and kissed her neck. She bent her head and sucked in a breath. He started singing in her ear. Still—after all this time...Still—you're still on my mind. I love you...still.
Outside of town, just south of the interstate, sits twin refinery towers forever burning blue flame and throwing grey smoke into the black sky. On a dark two lane that passes behind the refinery, a dark blue four door Ford sits idling with lights off. Occasionally, the driver's window would open and an inch long cigarette butt would be thrown out. The night passed and under the shadow of the refinery lights, Larry Percelli listened to the oldies station and cried.
For the past twenty-years Larry has worked days as a sorter at the local post office. Only once, back in March of 1977, when his father died, did Larry ever take time off. Every morning, Monday through Friday, he walked into work, hung his dark green wind breaker, poured himself a cup of black coffee, and took his station. Every afternoon, Monday through Friday, he pulled on his jacket and walked home alone to his little house three blocks away. Larry lived alone and has never been married. In fact, in his forty-six years, he never even came close to marriage. He simply was alone.
Back when Larry turned thirteen, his mother planned a birthday party. Nobody showed up. There was Larry, standing in his living room with a bright green pointed party hat next to a paper pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey taped to the wall staring out the window wondering why nobody came. The radio was on in his sister's room and Larry's favorite song came on. When he was twelve, yesterday, Del Shannon sang Hats Off To Larry just for him. Now that he is thirteen, Del Shannon was making fun of him. It was a sadness he never got over.
Larry lived at home until he was twenty-three. He jumped from job to job until his uncle found him a job at the post office. He eventually bought himself a house and made himself comfortable. He dated now and then, fell in love more often, but never had the confidence or nerve to approach anyone new. He eventually grew more comfortable in fantasy. That was his life—he was forty-six, comfortable and alone.
Some nights, when there was nothing good on the television, Larry would get inside of his four door Ford and just drive. He always ended up parked outside the refinery staring up at the blue flame of excess gas burning to grey smoke out of the twin stacks. He sucked through a pack of Lucky Strikes and finished just before dawn. He would then slowly drive home for an hour of sleep.
Sitting in the dark, with the glow of the blue flame dancing around his face, Larry would stroke the small pistol he kept in his jockey box for safety. Night after night, he stroked the pistol and fought with himself keeping the barrel away from his temple. Night after night, sitting in his four door Ford, Larry tried to kill himself. He would raise the pistol to his head and then drop it to his lap. He listened to the oldies station and relived episodes from his past and realized that his life was filled with moments he failed to take advantage of. He was alone and stuck in a dead end job on his own accord. He was spending night after night inches from suicide by design not destiny. And again, by concrete precedence, he lacked the confidence or nerve to go ahead. He sat until the false dawn told him it was time to go home.
It was nearing his birthday. He parked along side the refinery and lit up a Lucky Strike. The radio was tuned to the oldies station and Larry stroked the pistol staring into the blue glow. Top of the hour and just after the news the DJ asked for sixty seconds of silence in memory of Del Shannon who was just found dead—the victim of a self inflicted gunshot wound. The red stereo light in his radio was on, but for a minute, the music stopped. When it started again, the DJ said, Charles Westover, also known as Del Shannon dead at fifty-one. The opening chords of Hats Off To Larry sent a chill down Larry's back. He pinched the pistol and began crying. He cried until the light blue glow appeared to the East. He went home.
Larry walked into the post office, poured himself a cup of black coffee and walked back to his station still wearing his wind breaker. Every now and then he would pat the right hand pocket making sure the pistol was still there. He was sweating like a faucet and not sure he was doing his job right. His head pounded and his breath was short. He knew what he wanted to do. He looked out the one window on his side of the building and from across the valley saw the grey smoke out of the twin refinery towers climb into the air. He stood and leaned against the wall and focused on the blue flame. He thought of Del Shannon and being thirteen and of living alone and how comfort is just another word for being lazy and of how his life was only one day after another. He reached into his pocket and stroked the gun. He shook his head and fought to keep a tear inside his head. He realized that just like the blue flame and the grey smoke, his life will just go on and on. He came to accept that. He hung up his wind breaker, walked back to his station, and went back to work.
A Ring Of Shadows
Waves of orange rolled over both faces as the two bodies sat next to the small fire. "Father," said one, "could you tell me the story of the beginning again?"
Rantaw reached down and helped his son curl up under a small skin blanket. The fire and the skin would be more than enough to keep them both warm this sleep, he thought. "I will retell you this story a million more times, Limar," he said, "but only if you promise to memorize it and tell your son the same words I tell you."
"I know," Rantaw said. "I know, when you do have a son, I want you to tell him the story of the beginning. We are only two of the few who carry on our history." Limar folded his hands under his head and relaxed. Rantaw continued, "In the beginning, back before we were, there was a dead moon circling around its mother star—Saturn. On a moon far, far away called Earth, war and hatred was cannibalizing the green land and blue water. A man, a great man, called..." Rantaw paused. "...Dr. Geoffry O'Dail envisioned a plan on which he would alter the path of a small meteor with several atomic rockets. The meteor would then crash into this moon. Because this moon did not turn, the dust would settle high in the sky and create a..." Again he paused. "...Green House Effect. Dr. Geoffry O'Dail predicted it would take a decade to melt the ice caps and bring life to the moon. The seas would evaporate and the green sun would feed the green plants and oxygen would be created." Rantaw saw that Limar had fallen to sleep. He whispered, "Sleep, my son, sleep." He looked up to the light green sky. "Time and sleep are the two things you truly own." He slipped under the skin and wrapped his arms around Limar. He too fell to sleep.
They stood at the peak of a mountain. They could see the next valley. And they could see the next peak. The sun was shining over that mountain. "There," Rantaw pointed, "that is our destination."
Limar had grown old enough and strong enough to make the pilgrimage. It was all that was on his mind. He had grown up listening to the stories of the landing site, and of the Doctor, and of the ark, and of the animals, and of the two he brought with him. One day, his father would tell him, one day you and I will travel to the beginning. The journey would take over ten sleeps. They packed food and water and skins and were off.
Because the moon they planned to land on didn't revolve, the sun would always face one side of the planet and be too hot to sustain life. And the dark side, the side the sun never saw, would be too cold. They landed on the ring of shadows that surrounded the planet. It would never be day or night. The plants would get just enough sun and the ice would melt just enough to create streams for water. They would never know dusk or dawn. They would never be able to tell time or use a calendar. It was part of the Doctor's master plan. He gave them a life—an innocent life. Then he died.
"They left Earth the day the last war started," Rantaw told Limar as they walked through the next valley. "There were animals and plants and two children. Dr. Geoffry O'Dail called his rocket The Ark. It took seven years in the space ship to reach our moon. It had been twenty since the meteor crashed to the surface. Dr. Geoffry O'Dail had been correct. He had created life. Because of the wars and the hatred on Earth, he was given only one ship and two children. Others would follow if The Ark survived. On that first day away from earth, The Ark turned and witnessed that last war. It was over soon. The once green and blue planet radiated like a small sun. The Ark turned towards Saturn and didn't look back."
As they curled near a fire and under the skins, the sky was getting brighter. Rantaw spoke. "Do you remember our passage into the dark land? The sleeps near the big fires? Do you remember the star I pointed out in the sky? The brightest of them all? That, Limar, was Earth." Limar fell to sleep trying to stare through the grayish green sky.
They could see the sun as they passed over the next peak. "We are almost there," Rantaw said.
The Doctor landed the spaceship in the ring of shadows, knowing fully well that life was only capable of surviving out of the sun. What he hadn't planned on was the slow movement of the moon. All his studies and research told him that the moon did not have an orbit. He was wrong, but not by much. The moon that revolved around Saturn did indeed have an orbit. Once every million earth years, the moon achieved one full revolution. That meant that the sun moved over the moon at a rate of half a mile an earth year. The original landing site was now completely in the sun and life had to continually move to endure. Rantaw and Limar rested in the last shadow before they moved into the desert.
The heat was bearable. They plodded over the sand and Rantaw continued the story to keep Limar's mind off the sun. "They landed and found that plants had already begun to grow. The oxygen was purer than that of even the spaceship. The temperatures were livable and the animals took to the food quickly. Dr. Geoffry O'Dail renamed the children and taught them to tend for the animals and the plants and had them memorize the story of the beginning. The children grew and gave birth and began another life. They taught their sons and daughters how to tend for the animals and the plants and to memorized the story of the beginning. Dr. Geoffry O'Dail told them that eventually their children's children would have to move to the next valley and he made arrangements for that time. After he was satisfied they could live without him, Dr. Geoffry O'Dail died." That is how the story of the beginning ends. Rantaw and Limar walked in the sun in silence. They stopped to rest.
Across the valley, at the base of another mountain, the sun bounced off the metal skin of the rocket. When he walked through the fence that once tended the animals, Limar saw the glory of the beginning. Rantaw spoke, "I came here when I was a boy like you. It is still the same." He too was almost speechless. They walked over to the old dwelling and saw the fresh footprints around the gravesite of the Doctor. "Some other boy is becoming a man," Rantaw told Limar. "Come over here, I want to show you the plaque." They walked over to the rocket. On the side, above the door, carved into the skin were the words THE ARK. Rantaw knelt at the foot of the door. Limar followed suit. The words were written on a golden plaque embossed in yellow script. They were the only words anyone on the planet could read. Every small boy or girl memorized them. They were written into the sand and mud of every village. The Doctor had made the plaque and planted it shortly after arriving. He made the children memorize every word and after he died, reciting the words became a religion. Rantaw and Limar spoke the words together. The plague read:
It was signed:
The phone rings behind them, she laughs to herself, and he challenges the stairs trying to make it look effortless. The phone meant nothing to him. It would ring again at one o‰clock. It was nine of now, and nothing breaks routine.
He looks at her as if she were youth itself. She owned that special gift of being young. Though she never took it for granted, she leaned on it. He saw a lust for life in her eyesÖa controlled abandon of sorts, a thirst for simply living. A new language would tempt her wanderlust and a different look would whet her appetite for days. He stops on the stairs and so does she. They look at each other with open curiosity and continue to the landing.
When she smiles, the world stops in audience. He, at times, catches himself as a spectatorÖwatching, wondering, embarrassed when an awe-inspired sigh escapes. He‰s sure he could be held in audience forever if it could happen. The time becomes twelve fifty-three.
The sun slaps reality back into his head.
He wishes it could be summer all year long. He loves the feel of the thin cotton sleeveless dress she wears. He loves the smell of her, the subtle mixture of perfume and powder. He loves the sun that bounces off her light brown hair into his eyes. It was heaven watching her walk off the stairwell into the day. It becomes twelve fifty-five.
He wants to spent the rest of his day talking to her. She has a gift. She is a conduit for thought. He wants to tell her of every light that has flashed in his mind. He wants to give reason for pulling at life‰s tailcoat, and what every fall he took meant. He wants to see what life is like through her eyes. He wants to sit still and record her heartbeat as she dashes through her past. He wants to watch her dance and hear her sing and stand close when she feels alone. He wants her to hear him play his guitar and sing a song he wrote for her. He wants to spread warm brie on hot bagets and watch her take those little bites and clean the crumbs off the corners of her lips with his forefinger. These are summer things and it‰s summer. But it is also twelve fifty-six.
Grey blue smoke betray her position as she drives away. He walks back to the stairs fighting the urge the look up the road. He remembers the smile she gave him as he closed the door for her. It was a giftÖthat smile. When she smiles, age stops.
She‰s good for him now. He finally has someone to share his pencil poetry with. He writes the way he always knew he would knowing someone will digest it. He thanks her for his writing becoming prolific. He feels like a child as she examines his metered thoughts. He blossoms as she laughs at his written humour. He starts up the stairs with her in his heart.
It‰s raining in his mind and he finds shelter in her smile. His life moves mostly forward when he thinks of her. For the time, this time, she has become his life.
The bass-line that pierces his flesh in a Kitaro song will always remind him of her. (As will most new songs for a time.) Through her smile, he reacts to thought.
He will write her a new story today, watch her smile as she reads it, loop himself into other lives, and get on with living. He has already done a thousand things this morning and he has a thousand things to do this afternoon. So much going on and still Kitaro bleeds space. He closes his eyes and smiles. Tomorrow, she returns and the ritual begins again.
He finally snaps himself back to reality. He turns Kitaro down and sits behind the desk. Before he has a chance to catch his breath, he finds the note tucked under his pen. The green-lined paper is all the evidence he needed. He unfolds the communiqu³. With Kitaro as a fitting soundtrack, he reads. In her distinct script, she wrote, So after work, how‰s about dinner? Your treat? The phone rings and in his mind he drafts the first line of her story.
Shiny New Buicks
Every work night at twenty past midnight, Thomas Banks drove into the almost always empty parking lot of the neighborhood QuickMart. He worked forty plus hours on the evening shift at Sony's American plant in Phoenix as product engineer. The QuickMart was his nightly reward for making it through another work day.
Thomas loved his job though. He made a decent wage. He did a job he felt good about doing. He worked for and with people he liked. He seemed to have it made...but of course he didn't.
It had been seven years since his wife had been killed by an out-of-control shiny new Buick piloted by a thirty-eight year old divorced alcoholic. It had been seven years since he felt a purpose in life. Seven years in grieving. He stayed alone.
Thomas Banks pushed open the double glass doors and walked into the convenient world of QuickMart. In his routine he had come to know a dozen midnight shift employees. They were familiar with him as well. "Hello, Thomas," Pam said. Pam was the new one.
Pam Cafferty was thirty-one years old. Her husband had decided that ten years of marriage was just about enough, so he gave her the car, the house payment, the two kids and took off for Texas. She took the midnight job out of sheer convenience. Her boys could sleep at her mother's and she would still be there to take them to school and be at home during the day. She had never gone to college, so seven dollars an hour working overnight was probably the most she could hope to earn. She sold her house and moved into her mother's. Her father had been dead for four years, her mother would welcomed the company. So if things were not working out well, they were at least working out.
She liked Thomas. He was pleasant and polite. He came in every night and bought a microwave pizza, large Mountain Dew, and a lotto ticket. They talked while the pizza warmed. It was routine. They talked of politics, world events, local gossip, and California. He had a pleasant smile, short blonde hair, and wore fitted button shirts. She felt comfortable laughing with him.
He liked Pam. She was a comfortable pretty. Her brown hair was cut short just below her ears. She never over worked her makeup or wore too much jewelry. She was a pleasant woman who laughed at his dry humour. And if he gave her a second thought it was that she was the woman who shared his life while his pizza warmed. He opened the microwave door and pulled the plastic off the processed cheese pizza. For four minutes he visited with Pam. She told him of the grade her youngest son received in math. "He's never been really good at math," she said, ‹Come to think of it neither one of us, his father or I, were very good at math."
"I never liked math much myself," Thomas said.
"I figured that with a job like your's," she said, "you'd need a lot math."
"Oh I do, but I don't like it much."
"What are you going to do over the holidays?" she asked.
"Nothing much. You?"
"Hang around mother's house, I guess. I wanted to take my kids to Disneyland this year. I kinda promised them. Maybe next year. It won't be the first promise I've broke."
The microwave rang. Thomas left Pam and came back with the pizza in a napkin. He set the pizza on the counter next to a Mountain Dew. He pulled the exact change out of his pocket and handed it to her. She punched the amount into the cash register and took the extra two dollars and handed him a lotto ticket.
"I guess we'll see you tomorrow, Pam." he said, putting the ticket in his pocket.
"Wait," she said, "your ticket, the edge is already pulled. Do you want another one?"
"You're lotto ticket," she said, "it looks as if the edges are opened. I could give you a new one if you'd like."
He took a new ticket and put it in his pocket. "Thank you, Pam," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow night."
"I'll have the Mountain Dew cold," she said.
He drove the two blocks to his house.
It was the house built for his wife. It was to be their dream home. They both worked hard for the money it took to buy the property and put up the house. They would lie in bed in a rented room designing the kitchen and closets and landings. For seven years they dreamed of the days when they could hammer a nail into any wall or paint any frame or knock out any ceiling they wished. They built a room for his computer and a room for her palates. They designed a large living room and separate rooms for the entertainment—one for the TV and one for the stereo. They built a special bedroom—one that would keep them in love forever. Three months after they moved into their new house, she was killed. He was in their dream home alone.
The house was dark when he turned on the kitchen bar lamp, set the pizza and the Mountain Dew on the counter, and sat on a padded stool all with one motion. He turned on the radio and finished reading the morning paper. At two-twenty, after he washed the dishes, he made his way into bed. It was routine.
The last thing Thomas did every night before he turned off the lights was pull open the lotto ticket.
"Hello, Thomas." Pam said.
Thomas put a frozen pizza in the microwave, grabbed a cold Mountain Dew from the cooler and walked over to the counter. "Good job," he said.
"For what?" she asked.
"This Mountain Dew is cold."
"That's what I get paid for."
"I'm not sure how to repay you," he said.
"Oh," she said with a smile, "the seven fifteen wage I get is worth all I do for you."
"No, not for the Mountain Dew, for the eighty thousand dollars."
"What?" she said.
"That lotto ticket," he said, "I won. It was worth one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars. After taxes, that comes to about eighty thousand."
"My god, are you serious?"
"And if you hadn't made me change tickets."
"...I did, didn't I?"
"So how can I repay you."
She shook her head. "The shit thing about it is that you can't. Employees of businesses that sell lotto tickets can't accept gratuities. So I guess a hand shake will have to do."
He reached out, shook her hand, and smiled, "I don't think so."
The next night, after work, Thomas Banks pulled into the almost empty parking lot of the QuickMart.
"Hello, Mr. Rockafella," Pam said.
Thomas didn't walk for a pizza, he didn't go for a Mountain Dew. He leaned on the counter and waited for Pam to join him. "So I've decided how I'm going to blow my money," he said.
"Oh," she said, "this should be good."
"I've thought long and hard about this. I'm going to take my eighty thousand dollars and blow it all on one roll of the dice in Vegas."
"No, I'm not. As soon as the check comes I'm gone. What I came to ask..." He stumbled. "I wanted to ask you if you want to go with me."
"I would pay for everything—the flight, the hotel rooms—two rooms—all you can gorge, and other necessities. I know that we hardly know each other, and I know that it's kinda sudden and all, and...hell...this is really awkward for me. So what do you think?"
"I think that it would be fun," she said, as Thomas went for his pizza.
With check in hand and boys safely harboured at mother's, Thomas Banks and Pam Cafferty boarded the shuttle flight to Las Vegas. They rented a shiny new Buick and drove to the strip. There was no clumsiness in their friendship. They were very comfortable just talking. They checked into the Imperial Palace—eleventh floor—adjoining rooms—rested before dinner, then sought out the best restaurant in Vegas.
"I'm glad you asked me to come with you," she said, unfolding the emerald green table cloth on her lap.
"I'll be honest," he said. "I didn't think you'd come. I was hoping you would, but...I didn't know." They ordered and talked. They were both very comfortable. "I'm not much of a gambler," he said. "I'm one of those guy who spend my time in front of a nickel slot machine winning and losing the same twenty dollars all night. The biggest bet I've ever made was throwing in ten dollars on the company's super bowl pool."
"And now you're gonna stake eighty thousand, some gambler."
They ate and talked politely quiet.
"I've known you for a little while now," she said in the rest period before dessert. "and I realize that I really don't even know you. For example, I don't know where you were born."
"Laramie, Wyoming," he said, "deep in the Rockies. Where were you born?"
"Phoenix," she said. "Probably die there." She paused. "There are two questions I want to ask you, but I don't know if I should."
"Why don't you tell me what the questions are and I'll tell you if you should ask them."
"Ok," she said. "First...why are you willing to lose eighty thousand dollars on one risk?"
"And second, I want you to tell me about your wife."
"That's a question?"
"Ok," she said. "What was your wife like."
He sat back, making himself comfortable. "I'll answer the second question first, then maybe the first one will make sense."
She made herself comfortable.
"Well, let's see," he said, not making fluid eye contact, "we met at Sony America about eleven years ago. I had just moved into town and she had just started as a secretary. We saw each other for lunch and it grew into a dinner and then, well, you know. I asked her to marry me after knowing her for only a year. I loved her so. She was exactly what I envisioned in a partner. She was intelligent, athletic, deep, artistic..." He paused. "We would spend night after night just talking. Sometimes we would talk about important things, things she was thinking, things that worried me. Other times we would just talk about life." He smiled. "Do you know what I remember the most? I remember the quiet moments. The comfortable times when we didn't need to talk. When just sitting side by side was enough. I thought it would be enough." It was silent then.
Pam asked, "What did she look like, your wife?"
"She was so beautiful," he said. "She was about your height, but with blonde hair. I remember it was mostly cut short. And she had this smile...God, what a smile. I used to carry her picture in my wallet. I don't know why I took it out. I just did one day. I don't know why, I just did.
"We were so happy," he continued. "I can remember that little rented hovel we called home for a while. We both would take turns cooking. It became our only luxury. We were saving our money for a house, so food was the only thing in which we splurged. She made me happy." He paused trying to compose himself.
"We had just moved into our house. It hadn't been three months when she was killed coming home to me from work. She was working overtime, not because we needed her to, but because that was the kind of person she was. All they had to do was ask her. She was driving home when a very sad man let his car lose control hitting my baby and ending the most pure life God ever allowed on this earth." He was becoming emotional. Pam reached across and touched his hand. At first he cringed, then he relaxed with his hand in her's.
"My insurance company sued his company and won a quarter of million dollar settlement," he said. "I didn't want the money. It was out of my control. After the lawyers split their fees and my house and everything I owed was cleared, my monetary share was eighty thousand dollars. Eighty thousand dollars—that's what my wife's life was ultimately worth. I put the money in an account and let it alone. I've lived off the interest, depositing my checks and never touching the principle. I couldn't. I would have been like selling what was left of my wife's memory. So for the past few years, it's been me and her memory in a house that her death bought." He paused. He sobbed silently. She held his hand. "I loved her...I love her. I miss her."
She waited until he looked back up at her. "I'm sorry I've brought back these memories," she said.
"That's fine," he said, "I'm alright. I've needed to talk about her. I've needed to open up. I've needed to finish burying her." He wiped the tears from his face and smiled. "Because of her and her dying, I am financially comfortable. I have more money than I could ever use. Since the day I met her, I've been saving for something. Some habits don't easily break. She would have wanted me to use this money for myself. And I figure that one roll of the dice would be the biggest thrill I would ever have. It would also excise the guilt I feel for my wife's death. She was taken so suddenly, so completely, I want to say goodbye the same way. Do you understand?"
"No," she said, "but how could I, right?"
"Could you do me a favor?" he asked. "Would you do something kind of strange for me?"
She stopped smiling.
"No," he said, "don't get me wrong. I'm not..." He began laughing. "What I want you to do is let me buy you the most expensive dress we can find. I'll buy myself a nice suit. When we blow the bundle, I want us to look fine. What do you say? Even the Arizona Lotto Commission would not look with disfavor on the that, would they?"
She shook her head.
"Ok, then," he said, "I want to pick the dress."
"I've got to tell you something," she said. "I look best in soft earth tones."
The spent the rest of the evening in and out of dresses and suits finally settling for a peach strapless and a coal black double breasted. They returned to their rooms and prepared in private. Thomas exchanged the check for cash and met Pam in the lobby. She was absolutely beautiful. She was right, she looked best in soft earth tones. He was taken. He stared at her open-mouthed until she nudged him.
"What?" she asked.
"You are so beautiful," he said. "I'm the luckiest man in Vegas."
"Let's hope so," she said.
They drove the Buick to Caesar's Palace holding hands on the way. He pulled into valet parking and helped her out of the car. They walked into the casino arm in arm. They made a bee-line to the roulette table and leaned against the green felt.
The dealer called for next round and Thomas pulled a stack of bills out of his inside breast pocket. He threw the lump onto the table and asked Pam, "What's your favorite number?"
"I don't want to..."
He whispered in her ear, "Pam, remember this is for show. Say fifteen."
"Fifteen," she said.
"Put it all on fifteen," Thomas told the dealer.
The dealer pulled the cash with his staff, called, "Red...15", and reached for the wheel. "Last call," he yelled.
Pam grabbed Thomas's arm. Thomas turned and grabbed both of her shoulders. As the wheel began spinning, Thomas kissed Pam. They didn't hear the dealer drop the white ball in the roller. They didn't watch the numbers spin, or the black and red squares combine into a dried blood red. They kissed in a casino filled with a thousand adults as if they were alone. They didn't hear the ball drop into a slot. They didn't hear a soft moan from the small crowd that had gathered. And they didn't hear the deal call, "Red...21."
As Thomas and Pam walked away from the table arms around each other, Pam said, "Thank you for this day. That was some rush. I'm sorry about the eighty thousand."
"Not exactly," Thomas said. "There was only about two thousand dollars in that stack of money."
"Two thousand dollars?" Pam sounded confused.
"Give or take the few hundred for your dress, my suit, our rooms, and the trip. That leaves us about seventy-eight thousand."
"But I thought..."
"So did I," he said. "When I came to Vegas, that money meant nothing to me. But I've thought about it and well, I need it now."
"For what?" she asked.
"Well," Thomas said, with eyes opened and smile intact, "don't you want to get some souvenirs for your boys at Disneyland?"
She said, "Just before your father died, we talked about what kind of man you'd end up being. He was a romantic at heart. Did you know that? He was born out of time. He should have been a pirate, or an officer in the Queen's fleet chasing the Spanish across the Atlantic. Anyway, he figured you'd be an oil-rig man on some floating platform somewhere. The lumberjacks of the future, he'd always say. He told me that he could close his eyes and see you covered from head to toe in black gold. Wearing riches, he would say, fighting modern day pirates and the sea. Waking up before the sun colours the Gulf a dirty red; tasting salt in your coffee; wearing the same oil stained shirt you wore the day before; an honest day's pay for an honest day's work, that was the life your father saw you living. What a romantic. Back then I thought you'd end up as a math professor at some small mid-west college doing graduate work for a science engineer doctorate. I guess we were both wrong. You were only six when your father died. Do you remember him? He was such a strong man. He used to pick you up and hold you over his head in the palm of his hand. I used to get so mad at him. You'll drop him, I used to scream. He never did...never did. Do you remember the football he bought you for your sixth birthday?"
"Yes I do, Mother," he said. "I still have it."
She seemed surprised he answered. "Do you remember that it was too big for you? No, your father said, it's the one he'll have to use in high school. He might as well get used to it now. I never understood your father. He was a complex man. What do you remember about him?"
"Well," he said, kicking his feet on the table, "I remember how big he was. I remember him holding me in the air. And I remember his moustache, although I just might be remembering his picture. For some reason I can remember the smell of a cigar."
"Your father didn't smoke cigars."
"No. His brother, your uncle did."
"Maybe that's where I remember it from."
"Son...did you ever wish that I would have married again?"
"Well, if I did, Mother, it was for your sake, not mine. I didn't want to see you alone."
"You never hated me for being your Mama?"
"You never hated me for not getting you a father."
"Of course not. Why are you asking me this?"
"I'm sorry, Son. Can I ask you about Libby?"
"What do you want to know?"
She held her breath for a moment. "Did you love her, Son?"
"Yes I did."
"Of course you did, you married her, but did you absolutely, completely loved her?"
"I did, Mother. I loved her as much as I love you. You gave me life and she gave me a son."
"When she left you, it really hurt you?"
"I had nothing left."
"You had your son."
"She had my son." He took his feet off the table and looked away.
"Did you know that they won't even let me see him?" She waited until he turned to face her. "Son, do you think Libby would have been a good mother? Do you think she would have been as good for your son as I was to you?"
"I don't know, Mother," he said. "Yeah, I believe she would have."
"I'm sorry for asking," she said. "Are you eating well? You look peaked?"
"That's tactful," he said.
"No, I'm fine. I'm OK."
"I'm sorry for not getting you a father..."
"Mother! It wouldn't have made a bit of difference. I had you. That's all I needed. I had you, Mother." He reached out and took her hand. "Mother, you've gotta stop sharing my guilt. I need to carry it all myself. I'm sorry you were hurt. I'm sorry for my son. I feel bad enough about what happened. If you try to take some of the blame, it will just kill me."
"I'm sorry, Son," she said. "I was just thinking of your boy. When you killed Libby, he lost not only his mother, he lost you as well. I was thinking of your son. Now he doesn't even have me."
The door swung open with a heavy metal-on-metal scrape. She stood up and walked around the table to her son. "I love you," she said. "I'll always love you." She leaned down, kissed his cheek, leaned back, looked into his eyes, began crying, and leaned down and kissed the other cheek. When his face became as wet as her's, she again leaned back. She tried to talk, but didn't. She tried to let go of his face. She couldn't. She shook her head and leaned down and kissed his lips. Then she left.
She was led through a well lit corridor out to the parking lot. He was led through the same halls only in the opposite direction. He was taken back to his cell where he would have to wait until lunch call. As he stared at the ceiling, he was forced to think about his life and his mistake. He thought about how much anger could control a decent man and how little effort it took to squeeze the trigger of pistol and let a bullet fly. He thought of how long it took for the explosion and how he watched the bullet leave the gun and enter his wife's face. He thought of how, at the moment of the eruption, he could have reached out and stopped the spinning metal. Then he thought about how long he would have to stay in prison and think about it all. He thought of his mother and his son and regretted hurting both. He thought of the too—big football and the oil rig platform and the car accident he and his mother survived. He thought of how strong his father must have been and how much he must have missed him. Then, after filling up on guilt and grief, he pictured his father as a pirate and he smiled.
The night air was thick with tension. No one spoke. The crowd, a safe distance away, hung on every sound or flash of light. A half dozen police cars half arched the building; a half dozen police lights illuminated the area in a alternating red and blue strobe. A dozen doors opened and a dozen police issued pistols peeked over the top. Back in the darkness the police captain stood surveying his forces. Silence was thick...tension was even thicker.
"Captain, sir," an officer said coming out of the light.
"Yes, son," the captain said without looking away from the scene.
"Travis Daley, sir, I've got him. He's here."
"Bring him to me, son."
The officer walked out alone and back in with Travis.
The Captain reached out his hand. "Mr. Daley," he said, "I'm Captain Willis Break. I'm sure you know the situation here."
"Is that really Teddy up there?" Travis asked.
"Theodore Alan Glaser, 22, 5 foot..."
"We need your help, Mr. Daley. A woman's life is at stake. Not to mention your friend's. I've set up marksmen all around. They won't hesitate an instant to end this crisis. One bullet, Mr. Daley, four ounces of soft lead, is that all your friend's life is worth?"
"Of course not," Travis answered. "Listen, Teddy's had some problems lately. He's not a killer. He wouldn't harm her...He wouldn't harm anyone. Please tell your men not to shoot. Please."
"Mr. Daley," The Captain said without emotion, "all I know is that your friend has a gun and hostage. My job is to close this situation anyway I have to without bringing harm to the girl. You have to talk sense to him. You have to give him a reason to give himself up. You have to save him. I've seen kids like this before. He's scared, real scared. All he needs is a good reason to turn around. I don't believe he wants to hurt that girl. I think he's just got himself into a corner that he can't seem to get out of. Do you understand? He needs you to say the right words that will let him surrender. All he needs is a reason. You have to give him one." The captain cleared his throat and began to whisper. "Listen, son, I'm not trying to be dramatic. But I don't want to kill that boy about as much as he don't wanna be killed. It's all on your shoulders, son. Sorry about the pressure. There's just no other way out. Give him a reason. You know him. You know what to say. You know what he needs to hear. Tell him." He handed Travis the microphone and stepped back. ‹It's up to you kid."
Travis twisted the mike chord in his hand. The night was cold and he was sweating. He coughed out the fear in his throat twice before he keyed the mike. "Teddy?"
A shout came out of the darkened building. "Stoney, is that you, man?"
"Yeah, kid, it's me. What the hell's going on here?"
"Oh Stoney, they pushed me...they pushed me real hard this time. Did they tell you they tried to kill me?"
"They told me you have a gun and a girl."
"She's OK, Stoney. I've explained it to her." Silence. "What am I going to do, Stoney?"
"What do you want to do?"
"I want to go home. I want to wake up and forget this ever happened."
"I don't think that's gonna happen this time, kid." Travis saw a shadow in the window of the building and a half dozen rifles take aim. He shouted, "Stay down, kid." The captain glared at Travis. "You know, kid, you've got to give up. You've got to surrender."
"Why, Stoney, tell me why?"
Travis looked over at the Captain and nodded with a smile. He keyed the mike again with a new confidence. "Teddy buddy, I've got to tell you, you're wrong...dead wrong. You and I know what brought you here, why you're upset. But all these guys with guns don't care." He paused. "You know my daddy. He and I never got along too well, you knew that. We never really talked. Just never got started I guess. Still he knew what I was feeling. He just understood what I was going through. I mean, if I was doing something well, if I was successful, he'd give me a pat on the back or a rub on my head. If I was slowing up, he'd give me a little shove. He wasn't much for words. But if he were here right now I know what he'd say. It was just like growing up. If I were about to do something real stupid, he'd always put me right. He would keep me straight. He'd stop what he was doing, whatever it was; he'd come over to me, put his arm around my shoulders and say, 'Hey kid, just knock it off.'"
Four hours later the drama ended as a sniper took aim and pushed a bullet through Teddy's arm giving the cops a chance to storm the building. The girl was reunited with her family amid tears and put aboard an ambulance despite not showing any injury. Teddy was wheeled down the stairs to another ambulance bleeding controlled but heavily in shock. One by one the patrol cars vanished until all that was left was Travis and the police captain. Travis stood behind the captain's car. The captain slowly walked up to Travis and shook his head. They stood face to face without saying a word. The captain tried to talk, then turned back to his car. Just before he closed the door behind him, Travis tried to speak.
The captain stopped him. "Boy," he said, "I been in this business twenty-five years and I think that was about the stupidest thing I've ever heard." He mocked Travis. "...knock it off. Just down right stupid."
As the captain's car pulled away, leaving Travis alone in the dark, he thought of his father and what he always used to say and he agreed. "You know, that's what I always thought." he said to himself and he went home.
The Indignity Of Decay
Only a mother could wipe drool off the face of an adult without affront. Only someone overcome with love could change stained and soiled raiment without an after thought. Nurses and orderlies do so daily and do so with surprising dignity, but only when on payroll and leave behind little humanity. Keeping control of one's bodily fluids keeps our place on the food chain. Humans covet independence. When we lose the ability to keep spit in our mouth, we lose our own existence. We are less human...and less alive.
Adeline Larson spent most hours of her day caring for her son. She would enter his room at prescribed intervals, stretch on the pale elastic gloves and proceed to clean what was left of his body.
She remembers the day they delivered him from the hospital twenty-six years ago. Swaddled in a blue blanket and all the eight pounds he was born, baby James Larson was the picture of health. Life for a newborn holds nothing but the future, and though the future is totally unforeseen, life for James Jr. was filled with promise.
Seventeen years later, the game after rushing for a school football record two hundred eleven yards, an overzealous linebacker snapped James Jr.'s right femur in two. It took all of mother and father, with the help of an orderly, to get James Jr. into the car after the hospital put him into a plaster cast. He had bulked up to a solid two hundred ten pounds of hard fullback muscle. He tried to help...he was helpless.
1984, the twenty-fifth year of James Jr.'s life, James Sr. easily carried his son from the car to the bedroom where he had come to die. He looked smaller than the ninety pounds the doctors said he was. He was yellow. He looked like a ninety-pound jaundice baby. Adeline begged the doctors to release James Jr. to her care. She wanted her baby to die at home with some civility. Death was certain. She wanted her son to endure his last days in the room he grew up in.
1984, almost no one knew what AIDS was. No one knew what HIV was. To the few, it was the killer of friends and lovers and strangers with similar secrets. The doctor explained the breakdown of enzymes and white blood cells and the inability to fight off sickness. It was 1984 and everyone with AIDS eventually got sick and died. James Jr. got sick and was dying. His parents wrapped him in a gray blanket and brought him home to die.
Adeline spent the first three months after James Jr. came home crying. She lost most of her friends. Some ignored her. She had little time for the others. She would stand at the bedroom door and stare at the satchel that was once her son. His hollow vacant eyes slowly blinked acknowledgement of the drugs that kept the pain beneath his breath. For three months, she waited for him to die and watched him disappear into a bag of wrinkled flesh and brittle bones.
His father refused to enter the room. He would sit in his favorite easy chair watching evening sit-coms on the 25" television with a picture of a young James Jr. and a high school MVP trophy on top. His son was not dying in the other room. His son was forever hurdling defensive backs or diving after a pass in the end zone. He never cried for his son. He never cried.
When he was well, or less sick, James Jr. never spoke about how he contracted the disease. He had to tell the doctor and the health worker who his partners were, but he told his mother nothing. She only hoped that he was a victim of love and not a dirty night of sweat and grunts. It didn't really matter. She would love her son anyway. She was curious but not pressing. He would die with his secret.
She would enter his room and stretch on the surgical gloves and begin her ritual for the day. She would wipe his face clean and rub the spit that had caked on his neck with a pop up towelette. She would change his diaper and check the saline and protein mixture that dripped-dropped into his veins. She would turn him over gently and change the bedding and give his muscleless back a massage. This generally took all of an hour and once every three hours after that she would come back in and recheck the mixture and wipe the spit from his face.
James Jr. stopped talking after the third month. He would groan with pain and yelp with memory. He had accepted his death and was waiting for the indignity of decay.
Adeline stopped crying after the third month. She would do her duty daily and without affront. She prepared both of them for his death.
He was shriveling up with each day. She couldn't help think that he would eventually become small enough to carry him once again in her womb. She had brought him into this world and she wanted to carry him out. She wanted to rebirth him—give him a second chance at life. Mothers shouldn't watch their children die. It is the only time women relive the horrors of childbirth.
One morning when she entered his room for her daily ritual, she noticed him struggle at the leather thongs used to hold him in bed. She tried to sooth him with the brush of the warm cloth against his forehead. He choked and winced and a tear rolled out of his left eye. Shhhh, she said over and over again, your mother is here. It will be alright, baby. He stopped moving for a moment. She swore he said, Momma. Then he died.
She cleaned him that morning as she had done each morning for the past six months. She changed the bedding and his clothes and she cleaned his body. She wiped the spit of his face and before she left the room she reached down and kissed him.
She walked into the other room and sat next to her husband. "Junior's dead," she said and walked to the phone to call the authorities. James Senior never took his eyes of the television as his wife walked away. He did glance up the picture of his seventeen year old son in the purple and gold high school football uniform. He saw the trophy and for the first time he began crying.
Adeline came back into the room and sat on the arm of the easy chair and put her arm around her husband. "It's OK," she said. "He's alright now. He's stopped drooling."
In A Perfect World...
He came home. He was half way through his six month adventure to the island on today's side of the International Dateline. He would spend a week back with his family and her. She had spent the last three months alone in their bed wishing not to be so. She longed for him—for the touch of his flesh—for the smell of his freshly bathed body. She longed for the gentle rocking of the bed as he tried to get up without waking her. She longed to be in his arms the mornings they awoke without appointments or schedules. She yearned for him to return. For three months, she went to bed alone staying on her side.
The last few nights were the hardest. She ached for him. She had a difficult time falling to sleep and awoke time after time to the slightest noise. He would be back where he belonged tomorrow night taking his place at the dinner table; beside her on the sofa; and in their bed. She ached for him.
The children made too much a fuss that morning getting ready. She was on edge. Everything they did bugged her. They rode the first few miles in silence. By the end of the ride they laughed and joked and returned to the semblance of the family he had left.
He rushed to her and kissed her full on the lips and though she didn't want to, and although she knew she would...she cried. His children grabbed at his pants and sleeves and he tried to touch them all at once. By the time they were back to the car, it was if he was never gone. She, at first, walked to the driver's side, smiled to herself, and took her place comfortably as a passenger.
The return hellos finally done, they relaxed at home and enjoyed quiet time. She sat on the sofa and let her mind wander to other things. He came out of the hall and without a word sat next to her. The sofa shook and she lost her breath. It was a comfortable feeling. She grabbed his arm and leaned against his chest. He was home.
She was uncomfortable telling him how much she needed him. She was somewhat embarrassed that she had no control over her animal desires. She loved him that night as if were for the first time. He was back in their bed.
Later, in the quiet, in the dark, she could sense him breathing. It was the most settled she could ever remember feeling. She lay awake thinking of her life and where it had come from and where it was going and what the last three months meant. She remembered nights of alone and how she hated them. She thought of how she had gone from daddy's little girl to wife to mother much too quickly. She thought of the years between childhood and childbirth and how suddenly her babies were growing older. She remembered her tidy little wife/mother life and how it all exploded with the glow of a three engine jet heading west that morning three months ago.
She thought of what she had learned about herself the past three months. She had cared for sick children; planned holidays and birthdays; fixed the car; cleaned the rugs; and juggled a job. She never knew she was capable of being so independent. She learned to like Mel Torm³ and short stories from struggling poets. For three months, she went to bed (their children just a room away) for the first time in her life alone and as the adult.
He stirred and took her attention. She turned to him and realized how much she loved him. In one week's time he would be back on the edge of today and she would again be alone. She was grateful for this time together. This close—inches apart—she still ached for him. Watching him sleep, she remembered why she fell in love with him and why he was the one she trusted that night so long ago and why he was the one she married. She knew that once he was gone she would miss him again. She knew how lonely the nights would be and how much pressure life would force upon her and how sometimes twenty-four hours seemed like too short a time for a day. She would attack the next three months with a new confidence and a knowledge that no matter what she approached...she would be ready. He would be gone, she would ache for him, and she would survive.
She wanted to sleep. She wanted to dream next to him. She wanted the morning to come filled with ritual. She wanted to be his wife and their mother and sit together in church amid the glances and nods of hello and welcome back. She wanted normal. She knew that in a perfect world he would forever fill the space in their big bed and in her widening heart.
He turned to her and with the moon sneaking into the room through the crack in the blind reached out for her. She sighed and pressed into his flesh. She pushed her face against his and said, "Since you've been gone I've learned two things. I know now that I love you absolutely...and because I love you and because you were away, I know now I should love myself as well." He kissed her and she fell to sleep.
On The Steps To Redemption
On the word God, the pale blue light instantly changed to two bright red spots. The echo of the sudden crash of the cymbals finally gave way to the rhythmic splatter of the high hat. Behind a black microphone stand on a hardwood stage, Reverend Jimmy Redemption stood alone arms out toward heaven. He spoke with a tear in his heart. "I know you can hear me," he said in a soft amplified whisper. "I know what you want to hear. Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, friends and strangers...It's time we admit what we already know. We can't hide from ourselves. Everyone present, everyone who can hear my voice or see my flesh, God knows you're a sinner." A rush of sighs escaped from the crowd of six hundred. "I hear you crying to me. Reverend Jimmy...Reverend Jimmy...I've been a sinner. I know, brothers and sisters, I do know. Can I get a witness?" Mutters changed to groans and then to shouts as Reverend Jimmy raised his hands and bowed his head. "Can I get a witness?" He shook his head. "Brothers and Sisters," he paused, "I too have been a sinner."
The crowd responded with a collective "No!"
"Oh yes, I was once like you. I was once much in love with the other side. I've been a friend of booze..."
"Yes, and I've been a friend of the dice..."
"Yes, and I've been a friend of the heathens..."
"Oh yes, and I've been a forn-i-cator."
"But I've changed. I'm a clean man. I've been redeemed. God has touched me. He has washed me with the water of the River Jordan. And he has asked me to do the same for you. Do you want to be saved?"
"Do you want to cleansed?"
"Do you want to be redeemed?"
"Do you want Reverend Jimmy to wash your sins away?"
"I thought that you would. And I want to help you. I'm willing to sacrifice some of my holy water—delivered to me from the banks of the River Jordan—water that I can employ to baptize your soul in His name." He was building to a crescendo. "I will ask that you sacrifice as well. In front of the holy fontanel, on the steps to redemption, you will find a woven basket. I need your sacrifice to carry this ministry to brothers and sisters like you all over this sinful country. Someone sacrificed so that I might be here tonight in your mist. Brothers and sisters, I want you to notice that the basket is threadbare. Common weave from a common cord. It will not support coinage. We need your paper. I need your paper. God needs your paper. Can I get a witness? Can I get a witness?" The crowd was pumped. It would have been a riot had the crowd moved. They just stood up and down on their heels and cried, "Amen, Amen," over and over again.
In the third row, to the right of the stage, below the tower speakers, Benjamin Cook reached into his back pocket for his wallet with his right hand and wiped the tears from his face with his left. Beside him an elderly black woman jumped up and down with a couple of twenty dollar bills in her fist. The line to the stage formed in front of them. He followed her to the steps. From where he stood he could clearly see the basket. It was already full.
Further up the stairs, next to the fontanel stood Reverend Jimmy. He would dip his fist into the water and ask each patron as they kneeled before him on a dirty velvet pillow, "Are you a sinner?" When they answered, whatever they answered, he would tap them on the forehead.
Benjamin took the next step and threw his last fifteen dollars into the basket. He closed his eyes and waited his turn. His hands were pressed together in exaggerated prayer. When he bent to kneel on the pillow he brought both hands to his face to wipe a tear. He closed his eyes and waited for the question. He heard, "Are you a sinner?"
He answered, "Yes." and he felt a wet slap on his forehead. When he tried to stand, he felt a weakness in his legs. He stumbled away.
He felt saved. He felt a rush of redemption. He made his way back to his seat. The black woman continued to bounce even while sitting. Benjamin was sobbing.
The black woman spoke. "That felt good," she said, as she reached into her tiny purse for two more twenty dollar bills. "You want to go for another round?"
"I'm busted," Benjamin said, "I gave the good Reverend the last of my funds."
"Was it worth it?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, "I guess it was."
She grinned at him while nodding her head. She handed him one of her twenties. "This redemption is on me."
They both took a place in line.
"Brothers and Sisters," Reverend Redemption bellowed, "I know how much my visit here has meant to you. I can see the salvation in your face, the deliverance in your eyes. But God has asked me to sojourn to the next village with his message.
"I'll be going," he said, "but I'll be back. Remember..." He paused as he looked at the 5x7 card in his hand. "Talbortown, I'll be coming this way again. But now it's off to Rock Junction and more sinners to save. Reverend Redemption loves you. God bless me...and you."
Echoes of bless you and amen bounced off the carpeted walls of the civic center auditorium long after Reverend Jimmy and his entourage had made their escape. The crowd filed out with one single smile. Benjamin followed the black woman out the doors and stood in the cool night breeze with no idea where to go next.
"Are we lost, son?" the black woman asked with her hand on his arm.
"I don't know where to go." he said.
"Do you have a home?" she asked.
"I have a place to live, but it's certainly not a home."
She took his arm. "Walk with me," she said.
They walked down the nightwashed Main Street of Talbortown. He told her his name was Benjamin and she said her name was Connie. He told her he was twenty-eight, she said she was sixty-five. She told him she was a widower twice and he said he was never married. He told her of the girl that left him alone and broke in Texas and she said that alone isn't so bad if you share it with someone. For an hour they talked and walked up one side of the street and down the other. She offered to buy him coffee. He accepted.
"My parents split up when I was eleven," he told her. "He used to beat us up pretty rough like. She found some other guy who loved her and hated us. So when I turned sixteen, I was gone. I ain't been back since."
"Do you wanna see your Mama again?" she asked.
"Maybe one day I do. Not right now."
"Every boy needs his Mama."
"I need much more than that right now," he said. "You see, I won't lie to you and say that I never took drugs or stole stuff or maybe even hurt some people. I did do that...and more. Right now I need some religion. Right now I need some God."
"I understand," she said. "We all need God now and then."
"This morning," he said, "I thought that I would not live to see tonight. I wanted so much to kill myself. I wanted so much to die. I wanted to...you know."
"Son, I understand," she said. "I was like that. Despair was my only friend. Then I found Reverend Jimmy and God found me. I am saved now. And you can be too."
"I want to be. I need to be."
"Then go with me to Rock Junction. And then Plattsville."
"You follow Reverend Jimmy around," he asked.
"There's a whole group of us who do. We go from town to town making all kinds of noise; praying and shouting and amening all at the right times. Get paid well too."
"It's your job."
"I call it more my trade."
"It's all a lie?" he asked. "It's all put on?"
"You can answer that yourself, Benjamin. What did you feel when Reverend Jimmy touched you? What did you feel when you threw that money into the basket? What did you feel when you thought you were redeemed? It was an honest feeling you had, son. That's what we do. We give God away for hundreds of searching souls. They give us money and they feel better. Do you really think that you would have felt the same way had you kept that fifteen dollars? Do you think that if you hadn't suffered God would have came to you. Of course not. It isn't the money thing. It's the suffering thing. Benjamin, take this word of advice from an old woman. The rich don't suffer. The rich don't need religion. It's the poor and the sad that need faith. We sell a commodity. It's a business. We sell God. Is it wrong?
"We travel from town to town," she continued, "opening doors for people like you giving hope at a damn good price. I get paid well. And it's worth every nickel. Reverend Jimmy is good to us and he's good for you. Listen. You need a job. We need a boy barker. It's like the circus. Only instead of stuffed gorillas, we give away salvation. Odds are better with us too."
"I just can't believe it's all so phoney." he said.
"Well believe it, son. That's the way life is. Ain't nobody got no answers..."
"Not even Reverend Jimmy?"
"...not even Reverend Jimmy. He's just a human like everyone who worships him. God don't talk to him any more than he talks to you or to me or even to that new husband of your Mama's."
"But it's God."
"Son," she said to him with a warm smile and cold hands, "I learnt long ago a lesson that I'm gonna pass on to you right now. I hope you remember it. It goes something like this: It don't matter who you serve or how you serve or when you serve; just that you serve." She smiled and nodded and patted his hand and paid for coffee with a fresh new twenty dollar bill.
Three Short-Short Stories
Rumours Of Rubber
The one good thing that came out of the debacle was that the research lab was refunded the entire two point five million they had invested in the machine. The bad thing, of course, was all the negative publicity generated by the whole affair. Science research is one of those fields that can ill afford bad press. Quiet, reserved motion, that's how you could describe modern science. As long as beakers bubbled and lights flashed and sections of states are not radioactively contaminated, payroll will continue. As long as bearded egg-heads and leggy assistants in white coats stand around scribbling on note pads and watching computer generated printouts, billions of Federal tax dollars and independent educational stipends would continue to flow. All it takes is one Love Canal, or one Three Mile Island, or just one Challenger to bring research science to a screeching halt. Nice, quiet, reserved motion—that's what scientists hope for; no waves, no ripples, no bad press—that's what should have happened.
No one understood why the team of scientists took it upon themselves to shake the research science's world by announcing that they had just invented a process of harnessing kinetic power into a viable energy source. Of course, the idea of using kinetic energy had long been theorized and had been discussed in the science community for years, but to make a cold announcement like that. It took the world by shock and surprise. Riches couldn't have been the motive. They worked for the lab which was working for the company which was working for the corporation which was owned by a conglomerate. They would not reap from the financial windfall that something of the magnitude would surely generate. And although their names would make the cover pages all over the world, fame would be a fleeting thing. (A scientist just ain't good heroes in this day and age.) It was perhaps abandoned zeal that prompted the announcement. They believed that they had answered one of humanities greatest questions and solved one of its greatest needs. They were good hearted men—these scientists. Unfortunately they forgot the first rule of science—Until you're sure, keep your mouth shut.
In the good old days of science, men could sit in a dark laboratory and chase the flags of dreams until they die an anonymous and impoverished death. Now and then, an Edison or Graham Bell or Watt would stick his lonely head above the crowd and get stuck in history books. But most of them eked out meager lives forever changing this and that searchin for that one moment of glory.
For example, in the early nineteen hundreds, scarcely a month would pass between announcements of someone else inventing synthesized rubber. Time and time again, the men who claimed to invent rubber would have to concede its failure. It was the brass ring every scientist was reaching for. Rumours of rubber filled every decade until just before the second world war when a group of German scientists working for the I.G. Faden Company (part Hitler's lightly veiled war machine) successfully mixed oils and closed the book. Without hoopla or fanfare, man-made rubber appeared on the wheels of jeeps and the casings of heavy artillery and the straps of rifles. Not one man took credit for the invention. There was no rubber hero. There was a war on.
The research lab asked for a machine that would detect subtle changes in the level of kinetic energy. Two point five million dollars later they had a machine set up that two dozen scientists could access when disproving theories. One morning, as snow fell outside, the team checked and rechecked their figures and fed them into the machine. With charts in place and lights flashing in no order, and power switched on, the scientists set out to invent energy. They thought they had.
They announced to the world that suddenly gas engines and diesel turbines and solar cells and nuclear power had become obsolete. They told the world that they had proven that a cost effective energy source was now available and the only worry the world had was how to maintain peace. It took the world by shock and surprise.
In fact, what they had proven was that low voltage passed through an ionized redundant switcher would cause a faulty micro VU meter to act the same way it would had new kinetic energy actually be realized. Of course, it hadn't.
They set out to find a new energy source. Instead, they became suspect in the eyes of the world. They wanted to prove that unlimited kinetic power existed. Instead, they proved that men, like boys, reassembled their dreams to appear to come true. In the end, they looked into a two point five million dollar machine for the answer and because of a defective seven dollar VU meter, all they found was a short.
The Canvas Calls
She pulled her long fingers through her dyed-black long hair ripping loose the one snag. In her other hand she held a white cigarette. She wore a black blouse with white ivory buttons and high waist baggy walking shorts. Her powdered face and bright red lipstick gave evidence of the walking dichotomy that she had become. Perhaps in some other place or time she would have been in style. Standing in front of her brother's door, just after midnight, she looked comical. She leaned back on the painted wood and spoke. "It's not our fault, Tero," she said, "How could we tease fate? How could we undo what has been done? How could we help but be born to him?"
Pressed into a padded worn leather sofa sat Tero. Tero was dark and handsome and sad looking. He didn't look up from his hands which were gripping the armrests. "I tell you," he said, "I'm cured."
"I've spent an awful lot of time and your money getting you help," she said. "You've been in and out of treatment centers for years, and you want me to walk right out this door? Do you think me a fool?"
"Well," Tero said as he glared right through his sister, "yes and no.
"Tero, you've wasted away a good part of your life hiding from what is. You are Ciro DiManni's son. Nothing can change that. Why do you try?"
"...and you are not Ciro's daughter?"
"Yes, I am," she said, "but I have accepted my crucible?"
"Crucible?" he said. "Christ, why must you fashion everything into an opera? You've live your whole existence as if life were a bad drama and you were just a bad actress."
"God," she said, "you even sound like Ciro's son."
"That's what I am. That's what I'll always stay. I will never be more than the son of that great Mediterranean painter. No matter what I do; no matter how many lives I save or destroy; no matter who I conquer, my name will always be a follow his."
"Does that diminish your talent with the brush?"
"When I paint well," he confessed, "it's his talent I carry. When my paintings are confused, it's because I could never own up to him. Even twenty years after the celebrated suicide he haunts my hands."
"So you escape into self pity?"
"No, you don't understand. He lives. He crawls into my mind and torments me."
"Tero, it's not the ghost of Ciro DeManni that haunts you, it‰s the echo of applause and the whisper of jealousy." She paused. "I look into your eyes and I see Papa crying on the floor of my bedroom that last night. I watch you smirk and see Papa walk through crowds of well-wishers and mock them with a polite wave of the hand. I see so much of him in you it frightens me. Why can't you just paint and live with your talent? Why do you have to act out every torture you submit to canvas? Why do you have to pretend to be Ciro Demanni?"
Tero's mouth fell open. He said, "If I live the torture of paint, then you live in the fantasy of ink. Look at you, you stand before me jealous of my ability to bleed. Is that why you write? Couldn't you afford the luxury of pain? Look at yourself. You've become a caricature. You're twenty-eight years old and still pretending to be fifteen. Baby, you weren't much at fifteen."
She was hurt. She said, "Remember the night he died? He came into our room with that blue painting of you and me. He fell to the floor and cried. Do you remember he made us stare into the painting until we told him we could see the colours dance? Do you remember that? He told us that the agony of art was the giving. He said that sharing was a cancer to him.
"I can still see him," she continued, "splay legged in front of the tilted easel like a world famous conductor in front of an orchestra. There he was happy. I used to sit on his lap and watch him suck the pulp out of tangerine peels with oil paint on his face. He was so handsome and huge. Remember his big moustache and bushy hair?
"I remember that last night," she said. "I can still see him standing over me. I saw sadness in his eyes. I saw the pain critics so much loved to see in his paintings. It's the same pain I see in your eyes tonight. Tero, are you going to kill yourself?"
"For twenty years I knew you would follow Papa. For twenty years I knew what path you would take. I remember you at the funeral, blinded by the popping of flash bulbs witnessing the ascension of the mediterranean god. You could have sold tickets. How he hated the crowds. He used to say that the problem of being famous was that too many people knew you. I remember you watching the whole show with an absurd curiosity. I knew then that I'd be back one day to witness your funeral. You've played the understudy for so long, I knew that one day, you'd beg for center stage."
"You're being ridiculous."
"Am I?" she asked. "Remember, Tero, I shared a womb with you. I know you better than anyone could. You talk of my taking up the typewriter instead of the oils. It has kept me sane. It has kept the ghosts away. I sweat and swoon at the keyboard for a week and a half and then dress like this clown and flirt with life. That's the difference between you and me, I could detach myself from my talent.
"I'm a brilliant writer," she continued. "I can create a whole new world in your mind without you having to leave the sofa. I can make simple paper talk and make strangers cry and then walk away. Do you get it? I can walk away.
"Tero, I don't deny your talent. I think sometimes Ciro would have hated you for the ease you create theatre on canvas. I've looked into your paintings with the curiosity of a tourist and have become captured by the magic of your colours. I've stared into the tapestry of light you have created and heard mountains cry. I've felt the coolness of the breeze on my skin as I gaze at the summer you invented with a blue hue. In your sketches, streams gurgle and rocks moan and the skies beg for rest. Escape is the highest praise I can give you. Your painting offer escape."
Tero spoke, "Are you finished?"
"No," she said, "that's the point. I'm not finished. As Ciro was not finished..." Her voice lowered. "He had so much more to give this world. But he mistook drained for empty. He forgot that the gift that God gave us was meant to be shared. An artist selfish is an artist forsaken. Ciro never realized that. He took what wasn't his. Don't you see? I write because I have to. You paint because that's what you are. The paper beckons me to create. For you, it's the canvas. For the rest of your life, you'll hear the canvas call. What I'm trying to tell you is that you have to learn when not to answer."
The room was quiet again.
She flicked a three inch ash off the white cigarette into a paper cup that was discarded near the door. She stared at Tero who stared at the floor. His hands hung lazily off the armrests and his head hung causing his thick bushy hair to fall over his eyes. She swallowed the last smoke of her cigarette, shook her head, and walked out. As she was about to close the door, she turned and said, "You have to own your own soul. You are not a prisoner of your talent. You are not just Ciro's son."
She tried to leave. His voice stopped her. "Hey, sis," he said, "nice shorts."
"You bastard," she said.
She slammed the door and he looked up for the first time. A smile poked out from beneath his thick moustache. "Just like Ciro's daughter," he said, "just like her."
Anglos and Angles
Being born on the north banks of the river afforded Enrico Rivera few luxuries, not the least of which was US citizenship. Across the Rio Grande his cousins struggled in a cash poor market economy moving from poor paying job to poor paying job relying on Yankee money to continue their low standard of living. Enrico, a tax-payer, moved from poor paying job to poor paying job as well, but did so as an American.
The fine line that was the border between the United States and Mexico blurred in this tight little borough that sits between Matamoros and Brownsville. Both countries treated the border like a convict cousin—acknowledging it's existence only when pressed. Residence were not really Americans because they were Mexicans and not really Mexicans because they were Americans. They stayed mostly to themselves.
For most of his life Enrico Rivera felt comfortable with himself. He was average. He grew up in a spanish speaking neighborhood, played with hispanic, spanish speaking neighbors, ate the same foods everyone else did, and looked like everyone else. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until junior high did he realize that he was a minority. Not that the numbers gave proof. Hispanic students outnumbered the other students three to one in Callen de Rius Junior High. In fact, most everyone Enrico knew was dark. Everyone, except the teachers—who were white—and the cheerleaders—who were blonde. It was in seventh grade, amid a school full of Hispanics, that Enrico Rivera first heard the phrase stupid mexican. He didn't understand, he just heard it.
It was also in seventh grade that Enrico realized he wasn't going to grow any taller. He was five foot four and so were most of the other kids. His father was five four as were his three older brothers. His mother barely made five foot. Throughout elementary school, Enrico stood even with most other students. In eighth grade he stood five foot four. Everyone began passing him by. In high school, he found himself looking up to almost everyone. It was there he found that border-Mexican attitude. He was angry that he was short. He was angry that he was born a Mexican in America. He was angry that everyone he knew worked for a white man and always would. He was angry at his mother and father for giving him birth. He was a healthy but an angry five four. He spent most of his adolescent life as an angry Mexican.
He met Hollie at the gas station where he worked nights. She was beautiful and white. She towered over Enrico at almost five eight. For some reason, she took to him. They began dating. No one told him how foolish he looked with his arm draped over the shoulder of such a tall gringa. No one told him that one day she would leave him like every white bitch did that came into the barrio looking for a cheap thrill. He wasn't the first hispanic to fall for the white meat. No one told him to be careful. He wouldn't have listened anyway. He was angry and stubborn.
Hollie went everywhere with him. She stood by his side when his niece was being baptized. She hung on to him at his sister's wedding. She held on to his leather jacket as he drove up and down the barrio on his Harley. Enrico smiled a little crooked smile when anyone saw him with Hollie. He was happy...angry still, but happy.
Of course one day Hollie left him. She found a black basketball player from the college and spent all of her time with him. Enrico felt the fool. All his friends laughed at how the gringa puta used him, and how in the world did he think that some white bitch would fall for a short Mexican? Enrico was hurt, ashamed, and angry. It would prove to be a lethal combination.
Part of Terence Columbus' basketball scholarship provided him with a night job at the college's convenience store. It was odd walking into Day-n-Nite at midnight for nachos and beer and giving money to the school's star forward.
Despite the fact that he stood almost six ten, Terence was a gentle looking man. His size was most deceiving in motion. It would only take him a few steps to move from one end of the store to the other. And one of Terence's greatest retail talents was that he could lean against the back counter and be able to reach all the cigarette packs, dirty magazines, and give correct change without moving his butt.
Late one night, after he had settled into his perch against the back counter at Day-n-Nite, and after scoring thirty-two points in a winning effort against Southwest Texas State, and after spending a few hours in Hollie's bed, Terence was shot to death by Enrico.
Even before Terence's body had been removed from the bloody floor beside the cash register, Enrico was the only suspect. There had been witnesses inside the store who positively identified Enrico and there was a police car pulling in the store as Enrico was pulling out. They arrested him minutes later at the parking lot of the gas station. He confessed before the reading of the Miranda and then fell silent. He didn't speak again on record until his arraignment trail when he answered, "not guilty," to the charge of first degree murder.
At this criminal hearing, Enrico was given as fair a trial as any border Mexican-American who killed the best hope for a division title could get. The state paraded witness after witness past the jury all of which agreed that Enrico was anti-social and more than likely a risk of eventually doing what he was accused of doing. Hollie was called and gave frank testimony to the cruel aggressiveness that she experienced at the dark hands of Enrico during their dating days.
With all the depositions given and only his parents able to give character references for the defense, the state's case rested on a the testimony of a forensic investigator.
With a chalk drawing on a dark green board, the investigator explained that of the three bullets that entered Terence Columbus' body, only one was considered fatal. The fatal bullet was perhaps the first fired. It entered Terence's heart and exited his left shoulder.
"As you can see," the investigator told the jury, "the trajectory of the three bullets are all from the same angle. This proves that one person fired all three shots. Also the angle of the discharge proves another thing. Given the coroner's report that Mr. Columbus stood six foot ten, and given the fact the all five witnesses contend the he was standing when the shots were fired; the killer had to stand about five foot four. And the defendant, Mr. Rivera, according to court records stands that five foot four."
The next day the jury returned after only thirty minutes of deliberation. The verdict was returned even sooner. "Guilty," the jury foreman read. Enrico didn't even flinch. To him the greatest injustice wasn't the fact that he was convicted of murder, but that he was proven guilty because he was short.
Enrico was sentenced to life imprisonment at Texas State Prison. He would be eligible for parole in only fifteen years.
Enrico began life at the penitentiary and found an irony even in prison. Because he was convicted of only second degree murder, and because of overcrowding, and because of his slight size, he was housed with the minimum security prisoners. And although his only glory in jail was the fact the he was a killer he had to live with lesser convicts—the one's they all called short-timers.
Licking Wounds That Won't Heal
He stood on the first step, hands on hips, daring anyone to ignore him. He wore a confident smile below hypnotic deep brown eyes. He was in control. The world was his to command. He stood, a hero in his own eyes; a victorious soldier, a fallen martyr—this was the pose he erected. A smile or a wink to a pretty girl, and all was his. A warrior with a cotton chest plate and words as a weapon. He was judge, jury, and executioner all with that snide all-knowing grin. He stood on that first step—ten years ago.
A decade of truth has tarnished the legend. He no longer stands in crowds—preferring to watch from behind dark glasses, he sits and silently wonders why the world refuses to name him king. If I ruled the world, he thinks over and over again...It has become a battle cry. He is still judge and jury, but he no longer holds court. He is a warrior without a war. A sad bleeding heart who witnesses weakness in man, but spites despite himself. He has seen happiness, moments of smiles and minutes of tears being brushed away with a swipe and a swoon. He goes on only because he has to. Now he stands on the first step, head down—a worn out soldier, battle weary, licking wounds that won't heal.
In the score and ten years he fought life, he recalls triumph with nostalgia and dried flowers. In this journey, he has captured defeat and allows it exercise in darkness. His is not a sad story—nor is it a melodrama. It is, however, a life's comedy.
Now he sits alone in the half-light and plays all the old songs and hints the room of patchuli and reads what was. Forever digs, he used to say. Fitting, let's begin digging...
I can see myself
It's golden sunrise
Young boy open up your eyes
It's supposed to be your day.
—Harry F. Chapin
Warm rain fell that early Wednesday morning in the middle month in the middle of summer. 6:05 am, three surgical lamps welcome him out of his calm wet darkness. With a slap and a and a cry, a slice and a tie, he is wiped clean with a firm gentleness. So began his life.
In his country, the President was recovering from a stroke and the youth were led by a swivel-hipped rock star. An electric blonde nymphet turned men to boys, and a young Massachusetts lawyer turned the ladies heads in his bid for king. The decade was roaring to a close.
(Within ten short months, the President would be retired, the rock star would be in boot camp, and the electric blonde would be bedding the Massachusetts king.)
Percy Faith owned the radio with The Theme From A Summer's Place. Celluloid belonged to Ben Hur, and the hardwood was treated to Sidney Poitier's performance in Raisin In The Sun. Pulp was blessed by the works of Robert Penn Warner's The Cave, and the Beat generation was given accreditation when Lawrence Lipton composed The Holy Barbarians—with a glossary of Beat vocabulary.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, civil rights took a positive turn when Blacks were allowed in public schools. Our Vice President took the Soviet Premier on a tour of a future kitchen, and a third of the world was at war.
Back in a little Rocky Mountain city a new cry bounced off old walls, and the first child born to a young couple breathed his first. The ex-marine took his baby in his huge hands and smiled. His young wife breathed hard knowing the reward was worth the pain. So it began.
Within a week, the baby began choking on his breath. His mother's fears were realized. She had given her baby her malady. She cried knowing what struggle breathing can become and she would have given everything to release her baby from the same. That week, they cancelled the circumcision because of the weakness of the child. The next week they cancelled again. Soon they forgot about the little surgery hoping to save what little breath the baby had. It wasn't until Jr High gym class did he realize he was different. His foreskin was left alone, traded in on breath.
In and out of the doctor's office the baby stayed that year. Shots in each arm every day tempered the child. After six months, the baby didn't even cry when the needle pierced its flesh. It took the pain as it takes its own heartbeat.
That first year, he was wrapped in a red receiving blanket and looked up to the strange world silently. Warm in winter, and cool in spring, his parents showered him with affection making sure not to smother the air around him. It was a good time. And not knowing life any other way, he sailed toward tomorrow with only the effort it took to breath.
On the anniversary of his birth, his mother was back in the clinic giving birth to a baby sister. She was healthy—she cried and cried. With two children at home, the young parents shared the babies. The mother, being weakened after childbirth, cradled her daughter trying to silence its never-ending cry. The father lost sleep helping his son breath through the long nights.
Year Two brought shared infancy with his sister and the one room apartment his parents could afford in the first trimester of marriage. His mother, a skinny brunette, would spend the day dancing on the hardwood kitchen to the small radio over the stove. His father would come home from work and roll in the brown rug with his children. It was why he woke up to go to work in the first place. He had purpose. He had reason to stay alive.
Both children wanted for nothing—being spoiled with every nickel gift the supermarket offered. The baby boy had shiny red trucks and the baby girl had soft stuffed dolls. What a time to be a baby. What a time to have these parents. Black and white pictures captured their smiles. Smiles and puppies, goldfish and red receiving blankets, they were the new decade.
Still inviting sickness, the boy swallowed those black and white days with controlled impatience. He tried to walk too soon, and couldn't. They tried to make him talk too soon; he wouldn't. His sister cried and cried and he lay back in silence attracting the same attention. With a blanket and steamed water tented over his bed, the boy-child grew his first three years fighting to feed his lungs oxygen. The moments alone and relaxed, when breathing was controlled, was the peace he knew. He survive the first three years with his sister next to him, with his parents over him, and with foreskin intact.
Now off you go horizon bound
and you won't stop until you've found
your own kind of way.
—Harry F. Chapin
Three years ago, he was given the name of his father. Now, three years later he has begun to resemble the ex-Marine in manners if not in appearance. A floppy gathering of black hair and enormous brown eyes atop an ever-present smile was his trademark. Danny Jr. took childhood in stride. His parents took care to protect their son, but the shortness of breath was getting worse and the moments of weakness were now too commonplace. Little Danny would run into a room, spin around with laughter, then fall to the floor choking on oxygen. His little sister would run over and sit by his side comforting him until the breath would return. She instinctively responded with compassion. His mother would pick him up into her lap and sing him to sleep massaging his little chest begging air to enter. Danny Sr. would wrap him tightly in soft cotton blankets rocking him into a calm. They were happy. They were a family.
The next year, late into an August friday night, family from both sides made the annual migration to their tiny house for the festival of the saints. In reality, the night was an opportunity to dispose of quarts of whiskey and kegs of beer. Music magically escaped the dark brown cabinet changing the room into a mini-cabaret. The four year old boy crawled out of the way and under the stereo cabinet letting the beat breath for him. With the music pounding into his flesh, he felt at peace. He was alone, and at peace. It was where he belong—with the music.
A pair of chilled hands grabbed him from the ankles and pulled him from out from his heaven. He was back in their reality.
His favorite uncle picked him up and sat him on his lap. Little Danny was offered beer and took a token swallow, but longed to be back under the stereo. Someone switched the turntable to 45rpm and began spinning Chubby Checker's Let's Twist Again. Everybody started to dance. Danny looked up at his uncle and smiled kicking his feet in beat. His uncle laughed and put Danny on the coffee table and asked him to dance. Everyone turned to watch. Danny blushed and tried to squirm away. No, no, they said, dance for us. His favorite uncle reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. It's for you, he said.
Come on, everybody said, dance for us, dance for a dollar. Danny looked around the room for an ally. Even his sister was dancing. (A buck is a buck.) With reservations, he began dancing. A whoop circled the room and his favorite uncle pu a dollar in his hand. Danny ran back under the cabinet and everybody laughed.
It was then, at the age of four, he first realized that he was most comfortable alone. He also swore that he would never whore himself for the entertainment of others again. That very next day, he gave the dollar bill to his sister and no longer had a favorite uncle.
And the wind would whip your tousled hair
The sun, the rain, the sweet despair,
Great tales of love and strife,
Somewhere on your path to glory
You will write your story of a life.
—Harry F. Chapin
December of his fifth year, his father was away. Danny Jr. fantasized about the battles his father was winning. Tucked into snow forts and behind ice walls, he conquered his own enemies, always saving his father at the moment before death. With a snowball cannon, and with tree trunks as the enemy, Danny won war after war accepting surrender around supper-time. The warmth of their new house on the hill melted the chill of the season.
Just a week away, Christmas sat looming as large as the sun after a snow storm. For a five year old boy and his four year old sister, the wait was unbearable. From a far-off country, with strange stamps and letters, a huge package arrived addressed My Children.
Christmas morning, before the sun awoke and just after Santa Claus left, the two kids began ripping the coloured papers and silk ribbons off nicely wrapped boxes.
From across the sea, their father, deep in guilt, sent them gifts from heaven. For his daughter, he sent her a dozen silk dolls and different coloured dresses, and for his son, he sent a motorized tank. Danny Jr. sat in his tank complete with army helmet and plastic canteen and waged war in his front room. He sat in his father's gift and never once missed him.
The next Christmas, his father was home along with a brand new daughter they had picked up mid-May. The front room was decorated exactly as it had the year before. It was that kind of touch his mother was famous for. She wanted to show her husband what he had missed the year before. Under the multi-coloured Christmas tree, dozens of gift were separated in piles for the three children. Danny Jr. ripped open his father's gift first remembering the tank of last year and hoping to better it. Inside a box, clasped with industrial staples, was a bright red truck. It was a nice truck, but it was just a truck.
He pushed the truck around the room remembering the tank and silently wished his father would go away again so he could have another great present.
That night, he lay in bed and realized how selfish he was. He walked to his parents' room and jumped on his father's bed and told him how much he liked his truck. And how much he was glad he was home this year. He crawled back to bed and thereafter, he remembers that tank and the red truck and looks forward to the gifts given from the heart—not from the pocketbook. Somewhere in time, the tank disappeared, but he still has the truck and the lesson he learned in the winter of his sixth year.
(to be continued...)