Alice watched the leaves swirl and pile like tossed confetti in her tiny back yard. The curtain filtered the yellowish October light, making lacey patterns on her arms. The peppermint tea in her mother’s bone china cup had turned cold.
She listened to the neighbors’ children playing next door. The backyard sounds— laughter, chatter, the occasional screech—were homey, like clucking chickens. The couple had moved in as newlyweds. Alice remembered the birth of each of their three children. Evie, all blonde curls and long spidery limbs, Stuart, still pudgy baby-fat and chortling giggles. Even Josh had a certain handsomeness, such smooth dark skin, big blue eyes, if one looked past the crippling cerebral palsy.
Alice never had children. She hadn’t married. She’d been asked and almost said yes, but there were complications. Her ailing mother needed her at home. Then, after her mother died, Alice was over forty, that odd, unmarketable time for women— feeling pushed to get pregnant, maybe too old to do so, and too young not to care. After a couple of disastrous rendezvous with men she met online, Alice quietly gave up on dating.
That evening, her old friend Peter came over for a drink. They did that now and then, using the old cut glass barware her father used to serve drinks, the decanters, the cocktail shaker. Both would dress for the occasion, Peter with his scarlet bow tie, Alice in a navy skirt and white silk blouse with a lace collar. Peter always brought nuts for them to munch with whatever recipe in the Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide caught Alice’s fancy.
This evening’s drinks were Old Fashioned’s. Alice arranged the decanter of bourbon and the bitters, an orange and bowl of maraschino cherries on a silver tray. She placed it on the buffet next to the ice bucket. She got two Waterford crystal glasses out of the china cabinet, making sure to avoid the ones with chips.
Peter brought a little sack of curried cashews that he poured into a flowered china dish. They sat opposite each other, across the coffee table, raised their glasses in a silent toast and sipped.
Peter cleared his throat, setting down his drink. “Alice, have you ever wanted children?” He fidgeted with his cocktail napkin, folding it over and over on his knee. “I think about it once in a while. I do like babies.”
“That bourbon is going right to his head,” Alice thought. “Oh Peter,” she said, sighing. “Do we really have to talk about it? I want to enjoy my drink, not dwell on the impossible.”
“I’d like to, if you don’t mind.” Peter swirled his drink, grabbed the cherry by the stem, and popped it into his mouth, licking the juice off his fingers. “It’s always seemed ridiculous to even think about. But times have changed and I wonder. Maybe I should consider it seriously.”
“Peter. You are 48. You are a single gay man who has never even dated a woman.”
Peter glanced at Alice and sighed. “It would be easier if I were straight.” He sat up, leaned forward, and looked Alice right in the eye while she raised her glass. “But listen. If you are the slightest bit interested, I think we should give it a try.”
Alice had started to sip, sucked in a huge gulp instead, choked, coughed, stood up, slapped herself on the chest, circled the room, gasped for air. She wondered if she were going to faint. Peter jumped up and followed her, patting her on the back. “Take a breath, Alice. It’s okay, we don’t have to.” He took her elbow, guided her back to her chair. He fanned her with his cocktail napkin. “Are you all right, Alice? I’m so sorry!”
“Goodness, Peter.” Alice leaned back in the chair and looked at the ceiling. She swallowed. “I can’t say I haven’t thought about children, but us? Are you crazy? How do you propose we do this?”
“Well, we don’t have to do it like other folks. You know… that way.” Red started creeping up Peter’s neck, and it didn’t seem to be a reflection from his bow tie. “But what if I, when I came over for drinks, I brought some…” Now it was his turn to cough. Peter sputtered, cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink. “Oh dear, how should I say it, Alice? The male part. You know.” Peter pursed his lips and wrinkled his nose as if he had caught a whiff of something noxious and whispered, “Sperm.” He dabbed his lips with his napkin, peeked at Alice out of the corner of his eye with just a touch of a twinkle. “I’d pass it to you when I came in the door. In a paper bag, discrete.” Peter winked at Alice.
“Peter! And then what?” Alice was shocked, but also now a bit amused. He had really thought this through.
“You could go—upstairs maybe?— and put it where it needs to go,” Peter said, putting his hand over his eyes and turning away delicately, “then lie on the sofa and put your feet up. I hear that helps. I’d fix the drinks.” Peter turned back to Alice with a slight smile, placed his glass on the coffee table and crossed his hands in his lap.
“He looks quite pleased with himself,” thought Alice. Then, “Good gracious!” she said as the details started sinking in. “There’s is a certain amount of risk, you know, especially at our age. I don’t know if I could get … in the family way … at all.”
“Oh Alice, please! Say yes! We could have so much fun! We could make plans over drinks. Think of baby names, who would change diapers, that sort of thing.” Peter cleared his throat. “You’ll never guess what I bought last week.”
“What?” Alice was not sure she wanted to know.
“A stuffed toy. A velvety baby duck. Yellow.”
Alice’s eyes narrowed, her brows pulled together, two creases appeared. Her mouth pressed into a flat line and her lips disappeared. But then, slowly, her forehead smoothed and the corners of her mouth curled up slightly. She hesitated, took a deep breath, then stood up and leaned across the coffee table, placing her hand on his knee. “Peter,” she said, “we need another drink.”
Kathryn Lord is a Maine native. With her husband Drew, she spends the cold months in north Florida, just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and the warmer times in a home she built herself on the Maine coast. In a former life, she was a psychotherapist and Romance Coach, for which she maintained a busy website (Find-a-Sweetheart.com) and taught herself to write. Her story “What Grows in the Garden” appeared on Literally Stories on 1/20/2017. She has a self-published book available on Amazon, “Find a Sweetheart Soon.” Now she dyes silk scarves, hosts Airbnb guests, and writes.
“I’m pregnant!” Aunt Leslie said, beaming, standing up at the table, banging her knee as she rose.
No you’re not, God, shut up,” her son Jason said.
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Mom said.
“You guhys don’t understand,” Leslie said.
“Drunky McDrunk,” Jason said.
“I have a baby,” Leslie said, tearing up.
“Leslie, sit down.” Mom.
“In my living womb. Jesus Christ has blessed it.”
“And the wine evidently,” Dad muttered. Mom shot him a look. Jason wolfs down a crescent roll. I stare at my hands.
“My baby,” Leslie sobbed, sloshing wine on her plate.
“Not on the china,” Jason said.
Dad glances at his watch. Mom is ready to cry. Al, Leslie’s husband, comes back from the toilet. He sees his wife.
“That’s not my baby,” he said, and then adds: “And who’s Jesus?”
Jason laughs and spits crumbs.
“Leslie, sit down, please,” Mom said.
“So we can eat,” Dad said.
Leslie and Al sit. I folded my hands. Mom wants me to be comfortable because I’m home for the first time in months and Leslie is messing it up. Mom goes to say something but is interrupted.
“Our baby,” Leslie said, looking at Al, and Al pats her shoulder.
“Red flag,” Jason said.
Dad clears his throat.
Mom begins. “Let’s all be thankful please that Nate is home from…” She won’t say it because she’s being sweet but Jason says it of course.
I nod slowly.
Leslie reaches for more wine. No one stops here. Mom wants to make some speech so I stand with my iced tea and I say, “Hallelujah and little fishes.”
Al laughs and Mom scoffs.
“Nathan,” Dad said.
I nod. Not good enough. “Thank you all for the support,” I said and sat down.
“So, Nate,” Leslie said, “Did you have to sit in a padded room?”
Mom grimaces. Dad glances at his watch.
“Next to the drunk,” I said.
Jason drum rolls.
“Everyone,” Mom said. She’s so upset. Her daydream is beginning to unravel. Leslie is unfazed. Al shoots me a look. He is sorry. I wave it off.
“Turkey,” I said.
And so Dad carves and there’s no noise except for silverware and things being destroyed.
“Who wants to butter me a roll?” Al said.
“Not me,” Leslie said. “You insulted our buh-by.”
“Jesus forgives,” Dad said.
“This turkey is great,” I said.
“This turkey is dry,” Jason said.
“All of you, PLEASE,” Mom said. I wish this day was going better for her but she had to know that all of us in one room was a bad idea.
“I will just never understand you, Allem,” Leslie said, putting down her fork. “I just can’t understand why you won’t accept the fact that my womb is currently inhabited.”
“Hide the wine,” Dad whispered to me. I get up and begin to move it. Mom does not stop me so I guess she finally had enough. No more drinking at family functions, I guess. I thought I would have set the tone but it seems that Leslie has surpassed me. It’s nice to see a new champion.
“Leslie,” Al starts.
“So, Al,” Mom said, “How’s the fishing line business?”
“It’s in knots,” Jason said.
I put the extra bottle of wine into the garbage can. I look outside for a while, hearing muffled voices, just bouncing around. I’m suddenly exhausted.
“Come on, Leslie, that’s enough,” I hear Dad say in his authoritative voice.
“I would have to agree, Mom. Just can it, okay?” Jason.
I shuffle back into the dining room but Mom strides past me, blotting her eyes with a silk napkin. I watch as she fumbles in the kitchen for a bit to make noise, only to look up at me seconds later. “Where’s the wine?”
“In the garbage can,” I said.
“THIS IS ABOUT THE BIBLE,” Leslie shouted.
Mom nods and fishes it out. “I want a sip.”
So much for that new rule. I walk back in and sit down. Jason shoots me a look as if to say, you should have stayed right where you were at, dude. I just shrug.
“Leslie, enough already, for God’s sake,” Al said.
“You’re right, this is for God’s sake,” Leslie sobbed.
I look back at Mom and she’s putting the wine back in the garbage can. I’ve finally had enough of this crap.
I stand up and I roll up my sleeves and I lay my arms down on the table. I show them all my needle marks, the ruined skin, what I worked so hard for. I let them stare in silence for a while. I roll my sleeves back down, looking at Leslie as she looks at me with red eyes, as if she’s suddenly lost her tongue somewhere in her fat unhealthy body. Dad pats me very oddly on the shoulder and I accept it. I don’t think he was prepared to do that. I’m expecting a speech from someone, from any of them, but no one says anything. Not even the mother of the son of Jesus.
Kevin Richard White is the author of the novels Steep Drop and The Face Of A Monster through No Frills Buffalo. His short fiction has been previously published by Akashic Books, Tahoe Writers Works, Crack The Spine and Cactus Heart Press among others. He is also the head editor of Viewfinder Literary Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Breen has a problem unrelated to incipient emphysema and pervasive arthritis. Someone in the rooming house is stealing from him.
The first time it’s a little pile of nickels and dimes he hadn’t wanted weighing his pocket. Under two dollar’s worth. He comes back from his morning health walk which the doctors claim will fight the arthritis and also keeps his lungs functioning. Breathing heavily from the walk and the stairs, leg weary, he hangs his jacket in the closet, sets his fedora on the shelf above, sits for half an hour, reads one of his paperback mysteries, smokes, then starts a canned spaghetti lunch on the hot plate.
He moves slowly around the square room with the wood grain linoleum, a couple of rag throw rugs, pictureless beige walls, laying fork and knife, plate and bowl, two slices of white bread, the butter dish, a paper napkin on his table’s red Formica top, pulls out the single chrome kitchen chair. Occasionally he stops and stares out the window that looks on the modern condos in back of the rooming house, with the sense that he’s missing something, or forgetting something; but at seventy-six he has this feeling more often than he’d like.
It’s while he’s washing his dishes in the bathroom sized sink that Mr. Breen glances over at the top of the bureau and sees the spot where the change isn’t. He turns off the water, leaves the bowl in the sink, wipes his hands on the dish towel, digs into his pocket in case after all he’d only thought of leaving the coins on the bureau, touches the three quarters he’d left there. He circles the room checking other places he might have put the money: the two small top drawers of the bureau, the drawer of the end table at the head of the single bed against the wall, the end table next to his easy chair, the top of the oak cabinet with the defunct TV and built-in functioning radio, the cupboard above the sink. Finally he even checks under the bed and the bureau, slowly lowering himself onto his knees and one hand while restraining his big, sliding bifocals with the other.
No collection of nickels and dimes anywhere. Holding onto the bureau, he slowly stands, turns a slow circle in place, not pleasant for hips and knees, but the pain on his face, not exceptionally lined for his age, with its prominent nose and straight thin mouth – he still has all his teeth – comes from the conclusion he’s reached. Someone has taken them. He’s sure he locked the door when he went out this morning, but he knows from the mysteries he reads that a snap lock like his can be easily “loided”.
Mr. Breen feels sick at his stomach. If someone has broken into his room and stolen the change – less than two dollars, sure, but even that much means something to him – it has to be someone living in the rooming house. This frightens him, not as much because it shows him vulnerable, unprotected in his room, but because it means a possible run-in with one of the other residents. Which one he couldn’t begin to guess. There are too many candidates, and they’re all a rough bunch or damaged.
A dozen or so live in the rooming house, including him and the three others on his floor with whom he shares the bathroom at the end of the hall. As far as he knows, he’s the oldest in the place, though QB the boozer cabbie is along in years himself. His own age earns him nothing of respect. Some of them call him “Pops” when they bump into him. The youngest punk, who couldn’t be more than eighteen, skinny with an outsized shaved head and earrings, calls him “Gramps”, as he had last week when Mr. Breen had gone down the front stairs between a little group on the stoop, and the youngest punk had said, “You look like crap, Gramps. You need to get laid. I know just the chick for you.”
“Shut up, Billy,” said one of the others, the heavyset guy in the motorcycle jacket, with the snake tattoo rising up his neck. Mr. Breen had heard someone call him Rasp. “Ignore him, Pops. He’s just a loudmouth.” But his sympathy was belied by a smirk, and he added, “If he knew a chick, he’d do her himself.” The punk had gone red in the face, embarrassment or anger, but he seemed afraid to respond in kind. A little smile escaped Mr. Breen.
The others in the rooming house are either of the same type, or of the type that is slowly destroying himself drinking or drugging. One tall, gawky, lethargic guy always half-asleep on his feet. A middle aged guy with the coppery skin of a lifetime alcoholic. A guy in his twenties with wild hair and wild eyes who gives the impression of being perpetually high on something and just holding himself back from doing something crazy. Not always these, because there’s a turnover among the residents, but the types remain the same, with an occasional ordinary subdued, worried individual who looks like he should be in suburbs with a wife, two kids and a dog.
It could be any one of them. The time of day doesn’t matter either. There’s always a bunch in the place. Some don’t work, some work nights, some are between jobs, some have come back for lunch or to pick something up. If Mr. Breen were absolutely forced to make a choice he’d name the Billy punk, or the wild eyed druggie.
But it doesn’t make any difference. Mr. Breen doesn’t want to know because he doesn’t want to have to confront anyone. Mr. Breen had once confronted people, and they had shot back at him. That was Korea. Too young for World War II, he volunteered for that war. He’d done what he was supposed to and what he had to, but he’d been cold – cold and exhausted, cold and terrified, cold and horrified. He’d seen men exploded around him, seen men dead of the cold, seen men go crazy from fear, seen men zipped up in body bags, the black rubber closing over the mouth, nose, and eyes. Even now certain notes from a trumpet – the crazy instrument of the attacking Chinese along with their gongs and drums – make him shudder, as if death were coming at him from an angle just out of his vision.
After Korea, he decided that he would keep his mouth shut, mind his own business, live and let live, do what he had to, forget what he’d learned about death, act as if he’d live forever, make a safe, contained, ordinary life for himself. He’d never expected to end up in a rooming house.
But then many things had happened in Mr. Breen’s life that he hadn’t expected. He hadn’t expected that he and his wife would be childless, or that his wife would die in her fifties, or that after thirty years working at a storage warehouse that rented steel rooms for personal goods, the building would be sold and turned into condos, or that the cost of living increases for his pensions couldn’t keep up with the cost of living in Carbury, or even his apartment rent. It’s a mystery to him how his life has turned out this way, with this theft is just the latest of things he hadn’t expected. But he hopes it’s just a one time event.
It isn’t. His wife’s stopped watch with the silver expansion bracelet, never worth much, goes missing. Then one of his flannel shirts, though it’s late spring. A half-full box of cereal. A stick of butter from the waist high frig. One day the pocket of a pair of pants in the narrow closet is left turned out, as if someone has gone through searching for forgotten money, as if he’s too old to remember to take all he has. Then a dried up old fountain pen, and after that one of his dish towels. Nothing of value, because he owns nothing of value, just pieces of his life taken, Mr. Breen decides, because they can, to show him his helplessness, to torment him, to make his existence miserable.
They succeed. He’s taken to checking all the time that he has all his money – fortunately his pension checks go straight to the bank. He pockets his arthritis pills, then makes a survey of all his other possessions each time he goes out, as if by looking he can nail them in their spots. He thinks that he should change his routine such as it is, coming and going at different times so the thief can’t count on him not being there when it’s convenient to break in, but he’s afraid that if he does that, he might unexpectedly encounter the thief in his room. He thinks of minimizing the number of times he goes out, but he has to walk, he has to shop, and though his room isn’t tiny, he has to escape its limits sometime. He continually eyes the other residents to see if one of them is looking at him with any special attitude that says, “I’m stealing from you.”
He suspects them all, except QB the cabbie, and that quiet depressed guy on his floor who wears an old dark suit and goes out every day carrying an old black leather briefcase, perhaps looking for work or peddling religion. And probably the motorcycle guy, Rasp, who Mr. Breen guesses if he wanted to hurt you, would just punch you around, not bother to sneak and pin-prick with petty theft.
But all the rest, including the other two on his floor – lanky, long eared Lutz, who seems to live on cases of lite beer, but never acts drunk; squat, fat Con who works at the laundromat around the corner. Conversations with these two are limited to, “Who’s got the bathroom next?” “When’s Rollins going change the light bulb in the hall?” “Got a cigarette?” “Got a light?” “What time is it?” “What’s up, Pops?” “Nothing. What’s up with you?” “Not much.”
Mr. Breen suspects them, not because he believes they’ve got anything against him, but because he doesn’t know enough about either to eliminate them. The one he really suspects is the Billy punk, with his shaved head and earrings and muscles and tee shirts. If there’s anyone looking at him as if to say, ‘I’m the one’, it’s him. Mr. Breen thinks he smiles meanly every time they pass, but he’s not sure Billy didn’t always do that. “I don’t know,” Mr. Breen mutters to himself. “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”
Mr. Breen thinks of getting out of the rooming house, moving elsewhere. “I don’t need this,” he mutters. But there are few rooming houses in gentrified Carbury, and this is the only one in his old neighborhood. There’s Riverbend, the old folks’ home run by the city. It’s got a good reputation, but Mr. Breen knows that every month, or week, or day someone dies there. “That’s the way things are,” he says to himself, but he’s aware enough of death’s lurking possibility without the need for regular reminders.
He begins to suffer a vertigo of suspicion when he passes one of the others, as if each time something bad is being done behind him, so that as he continues ahead his mind is whirling backward. He returns to his room afraid to see if anything has been taken this time, going from corner to corner, bureau to closet, end table to little overhead cupboard, checking, counting, detailing what, if anything, is missing. If nothing has been taken, his relief is nothing more than a sour anticipation of the next possibility. If something is gone – a loaf of bread, an ash tray – a poisonous weakness runs through his muscles, and he collapses onto the bed or into his chair, breathing hard. “This is killing me,” he says. “Killing me.”
Many days, Mr. Breen spends an hour, sometimes two, at Melba’s Coffee shop. There’s a varying half-dozen of retirees who drink coffee, eat donuts, play the lottery, scratch instant tickets, talk about current events. He’s known some of them for years, but only as acquaintances. The gathering never talks about anything serious. Problems are brought up only to be joked about. If someone has died, they recall all the humorous things about him they can. It’s a get-together for pretending that everything is OK, that if you’re really lucky you’ll get a big hit in the lottery and you’ll live long enough to spend it all. If he were to bring up the thefts and how he feels about them, everyone will be uncomfortable. They’ll ask questions they don’t want answers to, make suggestions meant to finish off the subject. It would be like when someone asks how you’re feeling, and you tell them in detail about your bowel problems.
But Mr. Breen does have one friend left whom he can confide in. Tommy Roof. They were in high school together, though Tommy didn’t go to Korea. Tommy owned a clothing store, still owns his house, still has his wife, though she’s coming apart at the mental seams. Tommy is short and soft as biscuits in a bright red sweater, with a round ruddy face that betrays nothing of his heart bypass surgery. He has always been a joker, and he retains the self-confidence of a man with a solid retirement income and his own home.
“Who’s this, Tommy?” asks Maura. She was once ruggedly built, Mr. Breen knows, played field hockey as a girl, but now her square body is as collapsed and sagging as her mind.
“It’s Breen, Maura.”
But a little while later she says, “Breen! How are you? We haven’t seen you in ages.”
Tommy’s house is small but well kept, with furniture that was new thirty years ago, but still doesn’t show wear, though the blue wall to wall carpet has deep indentations which mean the furniture hasn’t been moved in ages, and it’s lost the rich color Mr. Breen remembers from when it was first laid. The house is peaceful, clean, bright, with a sense of space larger than its actual size, and recently, even before these troubles started up, Mr. Breen has had a thought he’s ashamed of: if Tommy would put his wife in a nursing home, he, Mr. Breen, could move in with him, be housemates, share expenses and chores. It would be better for Tommy who now has to do everything, as well as take care of Maura. Mr. Breen has seen how frustrated Tommy get with her, how he’s sometimes short and angry with her confused demands and meaningless responses, how upset and unhappy he gets. The change would be perfect for both of them. Except for the fact that the pair has been married almost fifty years, Tommy still loves Maura, Maura would be lost and miserable, their children, and even their grandchildren, would be furious with Tommy; and that it’s pure selfishness on his own part. Anyway, Tommy has never acted as though he’s thought of it.
Maura falls asleep in her chair. Mr. Breen and Tommy talk.
“I’ve got a hell of a problem,” Mr. Breen says.
“What is it?” Tommy’s voice is naturally loud. Mr. Breen glances at the slumped and sleeping Maura, but she doesn’t stir. Tommy’s voice is probably just part of the atmosphere for her.
“Someone’s stealing stuff from my room.” Mr. Breen details the thefts and how long they’ve been going on.
“You should get out of there, Breen. I told you when you moved in there that they were a bad bunch. Not the Wild Bunch, just a bad bunch.”
“No use going over that again. Where would I go? Not the Riverbend. I’m not going there. So you tell me.”
“Marry a rich widow. You still have all your teeth. Rich widows are suckers for a man with all his teeth.”
“Funny. Funny. What am I going to about this crapola?”
“No use calling the police for a loaf of bread and a flannel shirt. Though they could do a room to room search if they wanted. That might turn up the stuff. Would you know your loaf of bread again, if you saw it?”
The trouble with Tommy, Mr. Breen thinks, is that the habit of being jokey is so ingrained that he doesn’t know when it’s just plain irritating.
Tommy goes on, “Why don’t you ask what’s his name, the landlord?”
“Rollins to change the lock? Put on a deadbolt. That would slow the bastard down.”
Mr. Breen hasn’t thought of this solution, but after a minute he says, “Rollins would want to know why. Then everyone in the place would find out. I don’t want that.”
He doesn’t elaborate, but what he sees in that case is himself as a wide open joke, a helpless old man. It would be an invitation for everyone to make fun of him and to take their shot at breaking into his room, steal his slippers and his cereal bowl.
“Then you better try and catch the guy at it. That’ll show him.”
“You know the business about the dog chasing the car?”
“What about it?”
“There’s always the problem what the dog’ll do with it if he catches it.”
“The problem with you, Breen, is that you always just let things go. You’ve never taken the bull by the horns and stood up for yourself. You could have applied to the Army for disability for your arthritis as well as your pension, because it was the result of the cold in Korea. You could’ve used the extra money, kept your apartment. But you wouldn’t do it.”
They’d argued this particular issue before, Mr. Breen’s position being that, old people get arthritis, Korea or no Korea, so he didn’t have a leg to stand on – his own small unappreciated joke. “No use going back over that either,” he says now without resentment. He’s used to being nagged at by Tommy. There’s even a certain comfort in its familiarity. Mr. Breen thinks that, arthritis aside, Tommy might not be entirely wrong about his way of dealing with things. “Aw, let it go,” he says. “Something’ll happen. Let’s play some cribbage, so I can beat your fat old ass.”
“That’ll happen the same day you marry the rich widow,” says Tommy as the two slowly stand and move off to the dining room table where the board waits for them.
After the peace of Tommy’s place, re-entering the rooming house, anticipating another possible theft, upsets Mr. Breen’s stomach, dizzies him. On the slow stairs, he passes another of the residents who’s hopping down two at a time, a thin young guy, with a flat face and one of those little patches of beard under his lip, dressed to go out in a light jacket and a Red Sox cap. Mr. Breen has heard him called Follo or Frollo. “Hey, Pops,” he says, and is down six more steps before Mr. Breen can respond.
Mr. Breen looks after him, wondering if this Follo or Frollo has just been in his room stealing something that’s now in that jacket pocket, is running out to throw it away or show it to someone as a stupid trophy. Mr. Breen wants to yell after him, doesn’t dare, climbs the stairs, reaches his room, dread in his stomach. He doesn’t even take off his jacket or fedora before he checks everywhere, closet, bureau, end tables, cupboard. Nothing’s missing that he can see, but he’s trembling. He sits on the bed, still wearing his jacket. He takes off his hat, is about to set it next to him when he remembers that putting your hat on the bed is bad luck, means you may be injured or killed. “That’s all I need,’ he says. “Anyway, I didn’t do it.”
Two days later, though, he comes back from Melba’s and finds that the paperback mystery he’s reading, 25 cents at the Goodwill, is gone. He’s halfway through, now he’ll never know how it ends or who did it or why. Mr. Breen thinks this is the meanest thing yet. He almost wants to cry, something he hasn’t done in years.
That night he can’t sleep, and when he has to pee, he doesn’t want to trudge down the hall in the small light of the replaced bulb because it’s come into his head that he’ll be mugged. He does what he’s vowed never to do because it’s disgusting and degraded, pees in his sink. Goes back to bed, eyes open to the dark. “It can’t go on this way,” he says. “It’s going to kill me.” Either from a heart attack, or a stroke; or the stress on his stomach will give him cancer. Tommy is right. He can’t let it go any more, he’s got to take the bull by the horns.
The following morning, Mr. Breen leaves the rooming house at his usual hour as if going for his usual walk. The Billy punk and some other guy Mr. Breen has never seen before, maybe a new resident, are on the stoop. “Yeah, Grampaaw,” Billy says.
Mr. Breen nods politely, makes his slow way down the block, turns the corner, but instead of continuing on, stumbles over the tussocky grass behind the condos to the back door of the rooming house. He climbs the back stairs which are narrow and much steeper than the front, harder on the knees, tougher on his lungs, so that he’s breathing heavily by the time he reaches his floor, sees the hallway empty. He enters his room, locks the door behind him, opens the closet door, steps into the closet, and shuts himself in.
Mr. Breen waits.
In the narrow dark he’s aware of the rasp of his breath, smells the aged odor of his clothes, feels the rapid beating of his heart. The darkness seems to move around him. He closes his eyes, opens them There’s no difference in how black it is. His knees and hips hurt with that constant arthritic ache. He sweats from the closeness, from nerves, from lack of circulating air.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” he mutters. He has already lost his sense of how time passes, how long he’s been in here. He listens. He thinks he hears a sound. He doesn’t hear a sound. He listens. He thinks he hears a sound. He hears another one. It’s his door opening. The door closing. Footsteps. The closet squeezes him, the darkness moves around him. Now is the moment to catch the thief.
The footsteps are louder, as if the thief, unconcerned, is moving around the room freely, looking for the perfect thing to steal which will torment him just the right amount more. But Mr. Breen doesn’t move. He thinks now that this is a really bad idea. People beat up and kill old people for two dollars. He doesn’t have much life left, why risk it and his remaining pleasures – cribbage with Tommy, coffee at Melba’s, listening to a ball game, reading a mystery, making his neat meals – for such little things?
The footsteps stop, as though the thief has come across something he wants to take. A drawer slides out. “Just let it go,” he whispers and prepares to wait until he’s heard the drawer slide shut, the footsteps recede, the door of his room open and close. But in the floating dark, the walls of the narrow closet seem to bend and flap and settle down against his face. His lungs are full of something that doesn’t seem to be air. “What’s the difference,” Mr. Breen asks himself, “between this and a body bag,” and pushes open the closet door, steps out into the daylight of his room, taking hard breaths. Blinded by the glare, he hears someone say,
“Holy fuck, Gramps, you scared the shit out of me. What the fuck were you doing in there?” before he’s see that it is the Billy punk, big shaved head, earrings, attitude and all standing by an open drawer of his bureau.
“Waiting for you,” Mr. Breen growls, the effect of shortness of breath, rather than intended menace.
The punk says. “Hey, I was just screwing with you, Gramps. Just playing a game. No harm, no foul, right?”
Mr. Breen can’t imagine a response to the kid’s careless stupidity; he just stares, and the punk says, “You’re not going to say anything about this, right?”
It does Mr. Breen’s heart good to see that the punk is scared, or at least worried. “I want my book back,” he ventures.
“That crappy paperback? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve got it somewhere. Maybe I’ll drop it off here sometimes when you’re out. So we’re cool?”
Mr. Breen stares, and after a minute gives a small nod, and the kid says, “All right, then I’m out of here.” He slams the drawer shut rocking the bureau, crosses the room, and just like that, he leaves, though not without a middle finger farewell as he goes through the doorway.
Mr. Breen can’t tell whether he’s faint from relief or giddy from success. But there it is. Old and falling apart as he is, he faced down the punk kid and put an end to the torment. Maybe he can even stop being afraid of dying for a while. He seems to have some future left after all.
Norman Waksler has published fiction in a number of journals, most recently Prick of the Spindle, The Yalobusha Review, Step Away, and TheWriting Disorder. His two story collections are the Book of Regrets (Main Street Rag Press) and Signs of Life (Black Lawrence Press). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His website is NormanWakslerFiction.com. Nice dog pictures on that site.
Julie never fell in love too much. She kept her heart guarded with loss and heartbreak. The office job was killing her. The mundane shit adults pretend to enjoy to keep the battle with legal tender and all the shit it can buy but happiness. She had gotten lonely since the divorce and with both the kids off to college the days flew by. It was work then home. Work then home. Work then home. Many of her friends had moved on and rarely had time to socialize anymore and Julie wondered if they had even been friends to begin with. She thought about the old adage 'if you want to know who your friends are throw a party' or 'if you want to see who your friends are call them to get you out of jail.' This brought a fake smile to her face but it didn't last long. The morning came just like the one before and Julie did her toilet followed by coffee and a bagel with a smear of cream cheese. She checked her messages on the phone and her daughter had texted asking for money she said, 'mom I need money' and that was it. There was no salutation, no 'how are you doing?' no "I love you mom' only a cold distant text showing her own daughter's true motivation. That's the way adults turned out to be, things they never wanted to become just hollow shells of their youth. The truth being Julie barely had enough to make ends meet, after the bills, there was little left to enjoy things she wanted to. The occasional movie but with a goddamn four dollar coke and saturated death bucket of popcorn plus the movie ticket it was close to thirty dollars. She budgeted that to once a month like her period which she still got and although she dreaded it 'menopause' gave her something to look forward to. The thing that hurt the most was knowing her ex-husband had found somebody new; some bimbo from the country club nearly twenty years younger than her. One thing that did help were her cats and it seemed she kept taking in strays from around the neighborhood. They kept her company on the nights in front of the television watching re-runs of the laugh track sitcoms. 'ha ha ha'. Her world became empty and pretty soon she found herself barely able to get out of bed in the morning. One morning, she didn't get up and go to work. Fuck them. Fuck it. Julie made her choice the night before. The sleeping pills were on the nightstand. The bottle of red wine. 1975. A good vintage Cabernet. That year stuck in her mind. Her schoolgirl days. Her first crush on Johnny Thompson. It didn't last. None of them do but the sadness always does. She saw their sorry faces as she told them goodbye. It was easy. A deep sleep. The angels trumpet swoon. They found the body a week later. It was barely recognizable. The cats are only loyal to their stomachs. What could have been is wasted; beauty those left behind don't understand. They only think of themselves and the fight for legal tender. The mad world keeps spinning out of control like its always done. Spin. Spin. Spin.
Thom Young is a writer from Texas. His work has been in The Commonline Journal, 3am magazine, Crack the Spine, Word Riot, 48th Street Press, and many other places. A 2008 Million Writers Award nominee for his story Perico. He is one of Amazon's most popular poets hitting #1 in Poetry Anthologies and Short Stories and his latest A Little Black Dress Called Madness hit #1 Poetry in Germany. He's written 4 novels including his best seller Bloodsouth.
Erin stopped going to school after her mother left. She said it was just so weird, like a hole had been put into the world. It was impossible to concentrate on anything or to pretend interest. “Still,” she said, “It’s not like I made a decision not to go back, one day turned into the next and all of a sudden it was three months and to sit in a classroom was impossible. It’s been over a year at this stage and no-one gives a damn.”
They were in her bedroom. She’d locked the door. The silver key was kept under her pillow. In the room next door, Erin’s father had started a racking, phlegm filled cough that lasted minutes. The sound settled under Andre skin and made him restless. Once the coughing stopped, Andre smelt cigarette smoke wafting towards him. Andre had brought the hash and cigarettes, but he had no rizzla papers. “I didn’t think of that,” he said once they’d settled on the bed and Erin asked for the works. Erin told him not to worry. She knew ways around that. She was sitting on the bed and had pulled up a small table. In the day light, the bedroom’s yellow walls looked like they could use a paint, but she kept the room clean and neat. On her dresser, there were some photos that Andre did not look at. He was sure her mother was in one of them and felt uneasy with the idea of putting a face onto this missing woman, as if her absence would become more solid then. Already it was enough to fill the house.
“Where did you learn that?” Andre asked when Erin started to rub the cigarette between her fingers to empty it of tobacco. Erin shrugged and said around. Andre sat on the bed close to her and watched the tobacco rain from the tip of the cigarette. Erin kept some of tobacco. The rest she scattered onto the floor so it blended with her light blue carpet. The hash hardly needed to be lit. It was crumply and soft. She smiled at Andre and said, “This is good stuff.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“Might as well make a strong one,” she said and her dexterous fingers kept breaking off small crumbs. Once she was satisfied, she mixed the hash and tobacco together and began to put the goods back into the empty cigarette paper, pushing it down with a match. Her father’s coughing had stopped. The silence was worse because Andre expected a knock on the door and he cringed with the thought of her father’s narrow face and the smell of sweat. Andre didn’t know how Erin handled living in this place where the silence was only an overture to trouble. Andre was used to being alone and wandering, but not this, not the ignorance of not knowing what would happen next, the constant waiting for someone to do something.
“And anyway,” Erin said, when she had nearly finished putting the hash laced tobacco back into the cigarette, as if there had been no lull in the conversation. “I couldn’t leave Da alone. He was so drunk he knocked on neighbors doors and stopped people in the street asking where his wife was.”
She glanced at him before taking the cigarette filter between her teeth and pulling out the white bit that looked like cotton. She was beautiful, Andre thought, with her short hair and pale skin and those large dark eyes. She spit the filter out and made her own filter with some cardboard from Andre’s cigarette box. Then shuffled backwards on the bed and sat with her back against the wall.
“What’s he doing?” Andre said. It sounded as if her father was stamping around the room and a strange low keening noise was coming from him. Erin lit the make-shift joint and exhaled before telling him that he was probably crying. “Some days he cries for hours. He never comes near me when he cries.”
Andre watched Erin’s mouth settle around the joint. She took another drag. The low keening noise continued and she passed the joint to him. The filter was slightly wet and he didn’t mind coming from her. He smoked and felt the warming heat on his chest. His eyes watered and he managed not to cough and splutter. It was strong, already his fingers tingled a bit and the heaviness had started in his head. He didn’t know if he liked the sensation, but he took another hit because she was watching him with a smile. Her eyes were ablaze with mischief and he didn’t want to let her down. He wished he had some water when he passed the joint back to her.
“Do you have any music?” he asked and she shook her head and said no. She had no money for music and it would probably bring her father to them if they made noise.
“Better to keep quiet so he can forget about us,” she said and Andre nodded, though her father started to call her name seconds later. His low voice seemed to suggest more chant than command and made Andre think of the Pooka’s he’d read about, the most feared of all the Faeries, who were known to stop in front of certain houses and call the names of those they wanted to take with them. Andre had an image of her father dragging Erin away from the room with his cruel bony hands.
“What does he want?” Andre said and took the joint. Although he wished he was more clear- headed now, he still smoked. Erin shook her head and he saw a change in her face that was like a shadow crossing over it. Dullness came to her eyes that made the man’s voice next door sound grotesque. “Erin, do you hear me?” her father said. Then he stopped calling to her and started to shuffle around the room next door, so Andre thought of an old man he’d seen once in his mother’s home-town walking up and down in front of the supermarket shaking his head and muttering to himself. Andre wanted to stop hearing the movements of the man next door. It seemed slightly perverse to him, like listening to someone use a toilet, but when he took out his Walkman to share with Erin, she brushed it away and said she didn’t want to listen to music. His hand tingled with feel of her fingers. She’d put out the joint in a dirty ashtray she kept under the bed. Outside it was getting dark and gloomy. Street lights were starting to come on and her father was outside her door. Andre felt heavy and useless on her bed. He had an urge to lie down and pull her with him when her father started pulling at door handle.
“Why the hell are you locking your door?” He said and started banging it. “Open up Erin,” The voice was petulant now, a hint of tears held, and before Andre could think he was standing. Erin grabbed onto his pants. “What are you doing?”
His head was light from standing so quick. The walls of the room had a tendency to move in and out and he hated how aware he was of every part of his body. He wanted to get out of his head. “I’ll just answer the door,” he wanted to say, “I’ll tell him to leave you alone. It’ll be okay.” But instead he shook his head and pulled away and she jumped and grabbed his arm. In a low voice told him, “Don’t, please.”
Her fear worried him.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” she shouted to her father.
His knock was hard and steady. She said, “Please Da.”
There was an uneasy silence before he said, “Be quick about it.”
They listened to his unsteady steps before Erin asked Andre, “What would you do if you were me?”
He was thrown off by the question. “I don’t know,” he said, “Probably go downstairs.”
She sighed, “I didn’t mean that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Never mind,” she said.
He hated her father then, for the screaming and the knocks and making Erin do things she didn’t want to, but mostly for making him look like a stupid kid.
Lorna Brown has a Masters in creative writing from Emerson College. Her stories have appeared in several magazines. One was nominated for The Pushcart Prize. ‘Keep Quiet’ is an extract from her novel ‘Debris’. She grew up in Ireland but lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three daughters and their dog.
“You coming with us—to see her?”
“Don’t think so.” Molly stirred her coffee, took a sip, added cream.
“How come? She ain’t got much time.”
Molly shoved the chair out of the way, turned to the window. She grasped the sill, pressed her forehead against the glass. The blue spruce next to the garage was lopsided under a soggy white blanket of snow.
Jason laid his hand on her shoulder, squeezed. “It don’t matter, it’s all past.”
Molly shook her head. “I seen it in her eyes last time.”
“That was two years ago.”
She picked up the cup, touched the rim to her lips.
“Put on your coat, come with us. You don’t hafta go in, just sit in the car.”
“It’ll be cold in the car.”
“There’s a waiting room.”
Yeah, she thought, I could do that. Don’t have to see her, think about that day.
Jason handed her the heavy woolen coat she loved. She put it on, buttoned up, pulled leather gloves out of the pocket.
“OK. I’ll just sit there. In the waiting room.”
Andrew Miller recently retired from teaching biology and environmental science in a small university; before that he conducted research on endangered species and habitat creation for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Andrew has over 40 refereed publications in technical journals on aquatic ecology, environmental impacts, and endangered species, and is now directing his attention to creative writing.
Rachel got to the big skylight studio early, before anyone else, a rare benefit of barely sleeping. Morning light was filtering down, soft and cloudy but getting darker fast. She could feel a high-pressure system weighing down on her cheekbones and eyes.
Hail started falling, pinging the glass. She was afraid to flip on the fluorescent lights so she continued to paint in the darkened space, brushing on indigo and cerulean, yellow ochre and zinc white, her hand almost moving by itself, forming shapes into circular compositions, each leading your eye to the next, round and round but never out, glowing at the center like light through a glass cylinder. She picked up a round bristle brush, touched it dry to the white on her palette, scumbled it in and made the center glow even more, which gave her a thrill. She wiped off the brush, dropped it in turpentine, and stepped back.
It was just what she needed: an antibody to anxiety.
The hail on the skylight turned to heavy rain, loud then louder, echoing off the walls, just letting go. She sat down in front of her painting on one of the molded plastic chairs, brought her knees up, and hugged them tight.
Sheila Martin was born in 1946 and grew up in Brooklyn. Even before her first finger painting she knew she wanted to be a painter. In 1971 she graduated from New York University, where she earned a B.A. in fine art. ?From 1971 to 1979 she worked in graphic design in New York City. In 1979 she moved to Ithaca, New York with her husband Jim Blythe. Here she started a successful graphic design business which specialized in not-for-profit organizations. In 1992, Sheila and Jim moved to Memphis, TN, where Jim landed a job as a medieval history professor. Here she phased out her graphic design business and started painting full time. Shortly thereafter she developed an intense interest in writing and has been writing ever since. In 2006 she started working closely with master fiction editor, Renni Browne, coauthor of the classic, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers who helped her write her first book, The Coney Island Book of the Dead, An Illustrated Novel which she independently published December 1, 2016. An excerpt of it will appear in issue 19 of Ginosko Literary Journal, summer 2017. She has also written a second novel, The Time Artist, for which she is seeking an agent. She also writes short stories and paints.
He never realized how dirty the bathroom mirror was until he wiped it clean. It was the home of toothpaste flecks, dried spittle and mouth fauna and flora that had been projected onto the reflective surface during rigorous bouts of flossing. What he saw in the mirror was a man without purpose and joy. He saw a loser. Not a dramatic loser who had been thwarted at the death but a mundane loser; someone who had been thoroughly outclassed during the early stages of qualifying. The malaise he felt had crept up on him around the time he had been denied his dream career in the States by his wife’s failed visa application and settled in like a well worn baseball mitt. For the most part he didn’t even realise he was doing it; carrying pessimism around him like a magnetic field, infecting and affecting all those it touched. Today, however, was the day it would stop. This was his watershed moment.
Downstairs in the kitchen his wife and two children were already making breakfast. The radio was on.
Ashford & Simpson there with Solid. A track that never fails to improve my mood. Now isn’t this lovely? John from Stockport has been on and says can he have a shout out to his beautiful wife Sarah-
He entered the kitchen and hugged his wife’s back. “Not as beautiful as my wife,” he said, and he felt her smile.
-a superb mother and the rock his life needs. He also wanted to say a big hello to his two wonderful and gorgeous children, Eli and Ellen, who are a constant source of motivation and joy-
He bent down and kissed his son and daughter. “Not as wonderful or gorgeous as my two children.”
-and have helped make his dream a reality. John would like to thank them for their unwavering support as they all make their way to Manchester airport to start a new life in California.
His jaw clenched and he felt something familiar. His old buddy, Envy. Not to worry. He still had time. And his health. But what use were time and health if you were met with defeat at every turn? What use was living in the Now if it reminded him of past failures? He poured hot water on his tea bag and watched the colour change. He tried to get a spoon but something was stopping the cutlery drawer from sliding open. He tugged harder. No joy. He felt a tightness in the back of his neck. He placed his foot against the cupboard and pulled as hard as he could. He fell hard onto his back. The drawer was still closed and in his upturned palm was the handle.
Another cracking song on the way to make you feel good for the rest of the day. It’s Allen Toussaint with Happiness.
He stood up as the song started, leant over to the radio and turned it off at the plug.
Samuel Palmer introduced himself as a writer on two occasions but has since reverted back to a fabricated story that has him as a retired adult entertainer because it feels less awkward.
Friday, February 19, 1982. Berdan Daily Tribune. The Ninnescah County Sheriff’s Department reported a Roads and Bridges employee discovered a nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan. Her name has been withheld pending investigation. The preliminary report stated the cause of death as hypothermia.
Two days after Walter T. Andrews received his prognosis, he sat with his second wife, Shirley, and detailed for the first time both his lymphatic cancer and the extent of his estate.
“Here’s what I set-up for you,” he said, then listed her imminent ownership of his large four-bedroom house with its three-car garage, surrounded by an expansive open area, grassed pastures with healthy oak and cottonwood trees. It exuded the feel of a gentleman’s farm on the outskirts of Berdan, a town named after a Civil War Colonel all but forgotten except for reenactors. His remote lakeside cabin, several life insurance policies, proceeds from a healthy buy-out agreement from his business partners, and a fully paid life insurance policy on her life accompanied the house and land she would inherit. As did a new 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. She sat with her hands in her lap and uttered not a word.
Three weeks after their dinner, Shirley, twenty-six years of age, tall, erect, well-coiffed, her lithe body sheathed in custom-tailored clothing, walked into the mortuary and the mourners saw precisely why Walter T. Andrews, dead at age fifty-seven, divorced his wife of more than a quarter of a century to marry Shirley.
She walked behind Walter’s coffin as it was carried from the wood-framed church Walter’s grandfather helped build. The dust from the wheat fields hit her face, and worked into her nose and throat. She coughed, and the smell of wool mixed with funeral incense merged with the stale hay in the fields and clung to her hair and clothes.
At graveside, Shirley knelt to kiss Walter’s coffin. When she stood, she looked into the freshly dug six-foot hole with its deep parallel walls, and recoiled as if punched in the chest.
She lived as a widow a few months, then without notice, married Seán Tyler, a five-foot, eight-inch seasonal carpenter whose youth, eyes, and strong hands attracted her.
“Why do you do it then?” She asked one evening, after he was laid-off from his seasonal carpentry job.
“It’s what I know,” Seán said.
“You need a better job. I could get you a job at Walter’s factory,” she said, referring to her deceased husband’s old company.
Before her father had died, Shirley was taken on shopping trips to the largest city in the state; she received royal attention from the dressmakers of Henry’s Clothing Store with its polished brass elevators and raised marbled fitting rooms set amid multi-mirrored alcoves, which enhanced her sense of being a princess. After shopping, Shirley and her mother crossed the street to the Innes Tea Room – for ladies only – and ladies with shopping bags from Henry’s were especially welcome.
Seán was from a more diminished world with days of macaroni and cheese, followed by days of goulash, followed by days of spaghetti. His clothing came from south of town at Farmers Service and Supply with bare cement floors and dusty parking lot. The walls of his family home displayed no photos or prized drawings from school, whereas Shirley’s family home resembled a shrine to her development.
Their arguments continued. About his taste in clothes, “I could get you an appointment with Walter’s tailor.” About his table manners, “Here’s what Walter showed me.” His diet, “Don’t eat that. It’s full of saturated fat.” His truck, “I could buy you a new one.” His family, “Why don’t we skip going over there this Christmas. Maybe next time.”
Seán never counterpunched. When her jabs continued, he only glared; and in that glare, she recognized another person gradually emerge.
Within months of the marriage, her emotions slid from cleaving intensity deep into intense resentment.
After two years of marriage and six weeks of separation, Shirley awoke alone to a Saturday morning wind that did not blow so much as gasp, and when it gasped, sounded as if the world had been sucked through a straw, then, like a shotgun blast, scattered the detritus against the double-paned bedroom windows. She turned her head to the right toward the gray-tinted sunlight so common in that part of the state.
Drenched in perspiration, Shirley remained in bed, her eyes alert, her mind raced. The day stretched before her like a gauntlet. She reached for the clock – 7:30 a.m., almost dropped it when the alarm sounded, followed by the announcer’s shouted weather report. “The temperature will drop to twenty degrees below zero this evening due to a mass of arctic air sweeping down from Canada,” then slid into his local sports voice to read the Friday night scores.
She calculated the hours until dinner and smiled. A little cold never hurt anybody with a heavy coat and a warm car; besides that, she had a mission.
By ten that morning, Shirley was in her Pontiac Trans Am driving west. She arrived early for her appointment with Walter’s attorney. Seán watched from his truck as she walked into the building.
Shirley’s notebook pages detailed incidents of Seán secreting himself in the bedroom closet, and his attempts to tape record her activities. One evening as Shirley and her friend – whom she consistently described both in gender-free and fiction-laden terms - sat immersed in her warm bathtub among bubbles, candles, and shadows.
She heard the garage door open, pulled back, sat erect, grabbed a towel, and rushed into the hallway. Seán was at the top of the stairs. He brushed past her toward the bedroom, and shoved the wet, naked man against the wall.
“Seán, come here.” Her voice like a command.
He backed from the bedroom into the hallway.
“You and I are separated, Seán.” Her voice was precise. “You have to go.”
“I am not leaving you with him,” his right arm extended accusingly toward the bedroom. “You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“You need to leave, or I’ll have to call the police.”
“They’ll arrest you. You can’t just walk into this house at midnight.”
“You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“I can, and I will,” she turned, reached for the phone, and walked away.
Escorted from the house by the police, Seán’s words, physical feints, revengeful stares meant nothing to Shirley. She repeated to herself, “Poor guy – hallucinating – some sad male fantasy.” She no longer cared. She was young, financially independent, and bored as hell.
It was twilight when Shirley applied make-up and selected a dress. As she backed the car from the driveway, snow was on her front lawn.
The field next to the restaurant was flat - so flat and level Shirley felt that she could scan past the horizon to the corner of the earth. On her right was the remaining wheat stubble that had turned from green to gold, then to dirt gray. The wind burned as it shot past her bare legs. She sneezed, then sneezed three more times.
The restaurant’s fame rested on dinners of fried chicken served family style – meaning that the waitress placed bowls of food on the table and the customers served themselves while seated inside one of the multiple smaller rooms at one of the tables of pine or oak veneer, on chairs as varied as cane back, ladder back, or plastic Windsor. On walls of blue and white flowered wallpaper hung cast iron skillets and decorated ladles, which reminded Shirley of the chipped cup that rested beside the pump handle next to the horse trough near the windmill at her aunt and uncle’s farm.
She walked around the bar to avoid the smokers, and said to herself, “Why don’t I let the Sheriff’s Office do this? They can serve these papers. I don’t need to do this by myself.”
Then she saw Seán, so she pasted on a smile, patted her purse with the documents the lawyer prepared, and glided to the table. She noticed a light blue box with a bow rested in front of Seán. She intentionally ignored it. “This is not going to be a celebration,” she repeated silently.
Under the restaurant’s bright lights, she felt as though she could wrap herself in waves of warm air, then summoned, what Walter called, intestinal fortitude.
During dinner, Shirley aligned the serving bowls, rearranged the corn and the chicken on her plate, finally gave up, turned her fork upside down and placed it on the upper edge of the dinner plate.
She watched Seán eat while she ruminated over her prepared lines, watched as his eyes did what they always did when he had a plan. It was as if his eyes belonged to another person. She saw his jaw muscles contract, and knew his danger – early on had been attracted to it.
Seán set his fork on the plate and reached for the blue box. Shirley slapped a tri-folded sheet of paper on top of the box.
“What ‘s this?”
“Read it,” said Shirley.
Seán pointed to the top of the page. “It says it’s a waiver of service for a divorce.”
Shirley remained silent.
“Well,” he said.
She watched his eyes.
“Well,” he said once more.
“You know very well why. I’m not going over it again.”
He stared at the empty plate, then turned toward the window, “Good Lord, look at that snow. It looks like it’s rolling toward us.”
She inhaled deeply, cleared her throat, and began, “Seán, this is going to happen. I can’t live with-” She inhaled as if for courage. “-with you hiding in the closet and tape recording me in my own bedroom.”
“No. My bedroom,” she said, noticed his eyes, then his clenched fist.
“We’ll be okay if you just stop sleeping with other men.”
“You are in no position to tell me how to live my life.” She stressed the first word with a slow emphasis on the ones that followed.
“The hell I’m not,” he said in a voice that combined a growl and a whisper.
“The hell you are,” she said, then resumed her original position, “I refuse to do this. Here are the papers. Either do it, or don’t. It doesn’t matter. There will be a divorce.”
“And I’ll get alimony,” he said.
Shirley did not bother to respond; instead, she placed her hands on her lap, and said, “I need to go,” picked up her purse and scooted her chair back.
“Let’s take a ride before we say goodbye,” Seán said,
“Just tell me what you want.” She heard the exasperation in her voice.
Seán smiled, “Let me go home with you tonight. I can drive. We’ll pick up your car after breakfast tomorrow.”
She looked at him, “I’ll be right back,” and walked toward the restroom. She had decided.
“Alright,” she said when she returned, then paused for effect, “I’m leaving.”
Seán gripped the arms of his chair, started to push himself up, stopped, placed the blue box in his coat pocket, and slowly turned his head toward the windows.
Shirley walked around piles of snow toward the Trans Am. She started the engine, pushed the heater far into the red, and within moments felt the warmth.
She needed to be alone. On Highway 54, she abruptly turned onto county road 64, and then stopped at a turnoff north of the river about one-hundred yards from Walter’s hidden cabin. She had walked this path many times, and, despite the drifting piles of snow, needed the time to get rid of her anger. Inside the car, she heard the crunching sound of gravel. A hand slapped the top of the car door, then pulled it open. Another hand clenched her left shoulder and pulled her.
“Out,” was all she heard, and felt a sharp sensation against her back.
“That way,” he said, and shoved her toward a ditch near the small grove of trees, sparse remnants of a 1930’s W.P.A. windbreak.
She had grabbed the top of the door with her bare hands, and her flesh stung. Within a few seconds, the capillaries of her hands constricted and sent blood deep to warm her vital organs. The palms of her hands were a painful 60 degrees
Suddenly she was pushed, pulled, and then punched. She heard what she thought were gunshots. Quickly realized the sounds were familiar – as if from an old truck. Distracted by the scratchy snow packed down her blouse, she failed to notice a thin line of blood.
She fell on her back, felt a harsh pain in her spine, followed by complete numbness in her legs. Moisture trickled, then poured down her face. She heard a voice come from a shadow, “Happy now?” She attempted to kick, but could not.
In about ten minutes, blood seeped back into her fingers, her body temperature rose; sweat trickled down her sternum, cold air bit at her. She heard the sound of leaves crackle. The brittle crunch was trailed by the fading sound of a car driving over a gravel road.
Frigid air pressed against her body and sweat-soaked clothes. The wet clothing dispelled heat into the night. As the cold crept toward her warm blood, her temperature plummeted below 98.6. Another ten minutes passed. Her hands and feet ached with cold. She tried to ignore the pain. A clammy chill started around her skin and descended deep into her body. She was unable to stop shivering, and trembled so violently her muscles contracted.
Too weary to feel any urgency, she decided to rest. “Just for a moment. Only a moment.” Her head dropped back. The snow crunched softly in her ear. Forgetfulness nibbled at her. An hour passed. Her body heat leached into the enveloping snow; her temperature fell about one degree every 30 minutes.
Her body abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Her blood was now as thick as cold crankcase oil. She watched helplessly as the snow covered her. At least she had her coat. If only she had worn lined slacks instead of a dress. If only she had worn boots instead of heels. If only she had gone home. If only.
Her breath rolled out in short frosted puffs. Within minutes her heart, hammered by chilled nerve tissues, became arrhythmic, and pumped less than two-thirds its normal amount. She thought only of a warm car filled with furry animals and a fireplace that awaited her – she could not remember where. Then she thought of saunas, warm food and wine.
When her initial hypothermic hallucination ended, there was dead silence, broken only by the pumping of blood in her ears. Her body drained, she sank into the snow. The pain of the cold pierced her ears so sharply she rooted into the snow in search of warmth and comfort. Even that little activity exhausted her.
She slept and dreamed of sun and sunflowers carrying warm, furry animals to snuggle close to her. Her night did not last long. She lifted her face from her soft, warm snow pillow, and heard the telephone ring from inside the cabin. She heard it again, but this time it sounded like sleigh bells. Gradually, she realized these were not sleigh bells, but welcoming bells hanging from the door of Walter’s cabin just through the trees. The jingling was the sound of the cabin door as it opened. She attempted to stand, collapsed. She knew could crawl. It was so close.
Hours later, or maybe minutes, the cabin still sat beyond the grove of trees. She has not crawled an inch. Exhausted, she decided to rest her head for a moment.
When she lifted her head again, she was inside the cabin in front of the woodstove. Walter held her while he spoon-fed her warm soup. Secure and safe, they watched the fire throw a red glow. Walter caressed her face and carried her closer to the fireplace. She felt warm, then warmer, then hot. She was unable to see flames, but knew her clothes were on fire. The flames seared her flesh. Her blood vessels dilated and produced a sensation of extreme heat against her skin. In an attempt to save herself, she ripped off her dress.
The winter storm continued for many days. When the wind subsided, and the temperature rose, the crews were able to clear the roads. Motels emptied of stranded travelers, eighteen-wheelers resumed their western treks, and a county maintenance worker discovered a nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither safe person nor safe net to catch them. His short stories have appeared, inter alia, in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The 3288 Review, Perceptions Magazine, and Literary Commune.
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