RETURN TO CURRENT ISSUE OF THE LEGENDARY
They lived together now, an arrangement that was more a product of his eviction from his former place of residence than it was an affirmative decision to cohabit. When he moved in, he had brought with him nothing but a duffel bag of clothes and the collapsible easel that held his oil paints, brushes, and other supplies. He liked that his worldly possessions could fit comfortably beside him on the seat of a Greyhound bus. She liked that she lived with an artist.
She was a practicing Buddhist, and she proved it by displaying Tibetan-themed artwork and statuettes of the Buddha in various poses on every available surface of the apartment. She had one larger statue that formed the centerpiece of her living-room altar – a heavy bronze affair – a smiling Buddha half-reclined on a large rectangular base. It had a secret to it. You could lift the Buddha off the base to reveal a small basin for cones of incense. When lit, the smoke from the incense would accumulate inside the statue’s hollow center until it was forced out of two small holes at the corners of the Buddha’s mouth. Didn’t he also think that was clever? He did, or so he said, and it was true that it bothered him less than the other figurines and trinkets that littered the living space. This one, at least, had a use.
Further evidence of her self-proclaimed eccentricity were the chameleons that lived in a terrarium in the kitchen. They liked to eat house flies, something the apartment had in abundance, thanks to the compost bucket that she insisted on keeping next to the sink. He had become something of an expert at the art of flycatching. He would wait for one to land on a door frame or a piece of furniture, then come as close as he dared before becoming completely still. He would then begin to move his cupped hand, in small, barely-perceptible increments, closer and closer to the fly until, at last, he would sweep his hand across and close his fist in one quick motion, tightly enough to trap, but not kill, his diminutive prey. Sometimes he couldn’t tell whether he had caught the fly or not, so he would shake his fist to see if he could feel the fly’s wings tickle the sensitive skin of his palm.
To her, the moment of stillness that preceded each capture was a testament to their compatibility, his nod to meditation. He viewed it as an efficient compromise. She had made it clear that she would not allow flypaper in the apartment, as it was forbidden to kill one’s fellow creatures for the sake of human comfort. But she agreed that transferring the live flies to the terrarium for the chameleons to kill and eat seemed both natural and good, not to mention, he added, it saved them from having to buy food from the pet store.
Once, staring motionless at a fly that was perched on the edge of the coffee table, he could swear that he managed to slow his heartbeat to a complete standstill, and it occurred to him that he had missed his calling as a long-range sniper for some elite division of the military. The thought pleased him as much as it would have shocked her had he said it aloud.
Jessica V. Barnett lives in the Boston area, where she writes, parents, dances, and practices law, not necessarily in that order. Her debut novel, Freak Camp: Posts From a Previously Normal Girl, was a runner-up for a 2014 Rainbow Award.
"Miracles happen every day," he said. He was the guy who walked around the office with a large wooden cross necklace over his shirt and tie, not someone I would normally be having discussions with. A guy who probably would have tied on his back and dragged around the office a human-size cross if he could get away with it. But it was probably against company protocol and, at least, the company casual dress code. (Sandals were, for instance, specifically excluded in that code).
"They do?" I sipped my machine poured coffee in a paper cup at our table in the company "cafeteria," the one out of which they had taken any real food and left us with day-old sandwiches and pudding cups in vending machines. "Do you have any examples?"
"Of course I do," he said, fingering his cup filled with a hot chocolate-like substance, but without a quick response, looking around the large, mostly vacant room filled with empty tables, as if looking for an answer in that vast emptiness.
"Miracles," he said, still searching the room. "There was that girl, just the other day, on the news. In a coma for months, she was. They had no hope at all for her. Then, just like that, woke up."
"Hmmm," I said, choking on another sip of the insipid cooling drink in my cup.
He was smiling at me, like I should take that as proof.
I smiled back at him. "What about the people dying horrible deaths in all these wars our country is involved in every day, the innocent women and children, the AIDs and Ebola victims, the people in Africa with their arms chopped off, the terrorist beheadings, domestic violence, the abuse of innocent women and children . . . the Holocaust, for Godsakes! Where were your miracles then, where are they now?"
His smile didn't fade. He answered calmly, confidently, almost cockily, "God has His reasons, His plans for everything that happens and for everyone."
"The Holocaust? There was a plan for that?"
"Ours is not to question," he said, still smiling.
"Of course not. How can you question what seems to have no answer?"
"Ahh, but you're wrong there. There's no way we, with our limited scope, can know what His plan entails. We, in our mortal lives. We just to have faith."
"Ha! Faith! Okay." I was getting angry, crumpling my now empty cup, and standing up to leave. "Damn, John, some people will buy just about anything. I guess you're one of those."
He was still smiling at me, shaking his head, as I turned around and walked away.
It stuck in my craw what he said that day, and through the evening, as I sat down to dinner with my wife, Dena. I told her about our conversation.
"You can't talk to some people, people like that," she said. "There's no telling them anything." She smiled at me, put her hand on mine across the table, as I continued to fume.
A week later I heard the news at work. John had gotten hit by a car after work in a crosswalk by the parking garage and had had both legs broken. The driver had gotten away, just drove off without a trace, no license plate noted by the few people who were present, no description of the car given. Nor had John gotten a look—he'd been hit from behind.
What had been God's unspoken plan for this? I wondered.
A couple days later a few of us – Darrell, Pete, Joe, and I – drove to the hospital to see him. The bottom half of John's body was in a full cast. He was sitting up in bed on top of the blankets, watching television when we got there. He didn't look at us when we walked into the room.
"Hey," Darrell said. "Sup, John?"
He looked down from the television propped to the wall then, and slowly focused on us. He wasn't smiling, had a blank look on his face. A vase with some bright flowers and a couple of greeting cards set on the rolling table at his bedside. No bible, though and, gone was the everpresent wooden cross on his chest. There was no sign of it anywhere.
And…I was just itching to ask…
"So, how you doin', buddy?" Joe said. "That was a bad break…."
I looked at Joe, catching the poor pun.
"Bad two," I said, under my breath.
"Who let you in here?" John said, staring bullets at us.
We didn't move, stopped speaking.
"Who?" Then he started screaming "Nurse! Nurse!"
After the nurse arrived – a large black woman dressed in white with a shock of pink hair—we were escorted out of John's room for getting him agitated.
Another week later word went around that he'd quit the company, and we didn't see him back on the premises again. And that would be the end of the story. Not really sure what happened to John, but for….
A year later I see him in front of a bus stop with a bible in his hand. He is talking loudly to the crowd, quoting lines from the book, dressed all in black, threatening everyone that passes, that scoffs and laughs, with "You sinners are all going to hell if you don't heed His Word!" He is pacing back and forth, bible opened in front of him, his hair shaggy, his beard shaggier, but otherwise seemingly fully recovered, physically, at least, from the accident. I stop in front of him, a foot away maybe. There is an awful reek coming off him, like he hasn’t bathed in a week. I wait until he turns around to look at me, waiting for that glimmer of recognition, but, when he does turn, he looks past me, through me, his eyes sort of glazed over, not a hint that he knows who I am anymore. "Hell," he says in almost a whisper, his eyes wide. "You're going to hell." I'm stunned for a moment, don't know what to say, then, hand shaking slightly, reach for my wallet and pull out a dollar, place it in the red Folger's coffee can on the ground next to him. "Bless you, brother," he says. I smile, don't say a thing, then move on, head back to my sanctuary – the safe anonymity of my office, my desk, the closed door – where I can hide behind my bright glowing computer screen.
Mitchell Waldman is the author of the story collection, PETTY OFFENSES AND CRIMES OF THE HEART (Wind Publications, August 2011), and the novel, A FACE IN THE MOON (Writers Club Press, 2000).
She remembers the slamming door. The smell of alcohol. The cold that rushed through the house, seeping into the darkest places, settling beneath her skin, chilling her to the bone. She remembers his yelling. His anger shaking the house. She remembers how her mother’s shoulders sagged, pushed down by the weight of exhaustion and defeat. She remembers the words: I can’t, I can’t do this anymore. You can’t leave, you can’t take her away. Can’t can’t can’t. Drifting through the air, hiding in the corners, sinking beneath the floorboards, plugging up her ears, clouding her vision, lazy with it’s cruel meaning. Can’t.
Isabel Shade has a cat who won't share the dryer with the socks, an immortal balloon, and an unfortunate tendency to be a bit of a hypochondriac. She strongly believes that Go-Gurt is holy and Bojangle's biscuits are not of this world (whether they're satanic or alien she isn't sure). Finally, she would like it stated here and officially that: "Shannon, you owe me five bucks."
A week later they return. The gate hinge squeaks and footsteps on the cold stone steps bring them down to my bedsit. The blinds part, just slightly. I see them and they me. Knuckles rap the window. I mouth “Go Away!” and return my stare to the television: a documentary about barn owls - how they soundlessly hunt through the moonlight. During the ads I deign to glance sideways. Out of the corner of my eye. Perched. Watchful. Smiling. Literally hopping mad, I spring up to my good leg; drag the blinds until they overlap and thus obliterate all that is outside of this dank little hovel of mine.
When the Barn Owls swooped for a third time, I was so impressed by their persistence that I listened, from my doorstep: with every ounce of good-natured indifference I could muster. Naturally they wanted me to attend a prayer evening, which they described at great length. There was a shoulder waiting: all I had to do was start crying. Surely, I thought, my complete and utter disregard for what they are saying registers with these two straight-laced men from nowhere in particular? But, no, it did not – for they returned a week later. We repeated the exercise all over again - with the same outcome.
I suppose you could say that I have only myself to blame, in so far as I listened to them. No doubt you would continue to admonish me with: don’t give these people a glimmer of hope - that’s what they feed on; politeness, decency, niceness. I would then shut you up, by gently reminding you that I had already tried, and failed with that approach. The only alternative was to criticise, to verbally abuse: repeatedly calling into question their faith and beliefs, but whatever the brand of brainwash these two were using had rendered them perfectly impervious to self-doubt of any kind. Not so much as a facial twitch or lip quiver registered, just a shared blank expression with non-judgemental nod of cowlick.
Subsequent weeks passed slowly and without incident. I retreated deeper inside my lair until at my lowest I was reduced to eating sultanas on an almost continuous basis as my sole means of nourishment. Where did the sultanas come from? I don’t know. The circle was of course vicious: lacking the energy to go up the steps and outside to get food I sunk further into the folds of the couch and wallowed in an oddly satisfying pool of self-pity. Nobody in the line of friend or family member, made any attempt whatsoever, to contact or coerce me into anything. I spent a lot of time imagining and re-imagining my funeral. The indifference of the handful of fictional mourners who had bothered to turn up really beggared belief.
When the Barn Owls called again after a three week hiatus I will freely admit that my bearings were in a state of some disarray. ‘We were off on retreat’ said the shorter of the two, the one with the faint suggestion of a moustache above his enormous slug-like lips. I barely had the energy to slam the door in their faces. But before I did, those concerned expressions promised to return and true to their word, they came back that same evening with a bag full of all kinds of food. It didn’t take much convincing for me to accept their offering. What was exasperating was that no matter how hard I tried to force them to accept payment (my skeletal arms pestering and pawing) they refused. Their sword of charity slid to the hilt; I gorged my way towards a severe stomach ache.
Next morning they landed at my door and we happily exchanged pleasantries across the doorstep. They mentioned something about a prayer meeting on Sunday evenings. Of course there was no obligation – a point they took great strains to stress. No obligation. Nevertheless they managed to slip it discretely into our conversation on any number of occasions. To the stark revelation that I no longer believed - in anything at all - they merely sympathised. Everyone goes through a similar kind of thing they said, and a shorter version of the story I heard on the first visit was once again retold. For the nth time. Until Sunday then. In a flurry of feathers they ascended the steps and were gone.
When Sunday inevitably arrived I was ferried to the prayer meeting by taxi. It was my first time outside in many months. The rain had abated just long enough to allow a dying sliver of sun to filter through my window and illuminate the side of the taxi driver’s face with an elliptical shape that opened and closed like an evil eye. I felt very ill at ease as we crawled through the streets; not knowing where we were going or what to expect when we got there. Everything looked different than I remembered, especially the way people walked; as if being dragged forward by the diabolical puppetry of some enigmatic overlord towards their ultimate demise. Yes, I am aware of how that sounds.
The taxi stopped at a community college of modest proportions constructed in the usual fashion to withstand the comings and goings of the thousands of loutish students enslaved within its heavy double-doors from nine until four-thirty. ‘Matthew’ helped me from the car and handed me my crutches before the taxi engine revved and took off into the night, trying to get as far away from its three disgorged passengers as possible. I was hurriedly ushered inside where it was cold, bitterly cold; the fetid odour of sweaty teenagers hung in the air and I could still hear the echoes of their horse-play; bullying; name-calling; and mocking laughter. Or was I just remembering my own school-days?
Suddenly the doors to the gymnasium were folded back like an accordion and I was shepherded inside to wait among intersecting floor markings of basketball courts, football pitches and badminton courts, all in different colours and all of them scuffed and faded by inappropriate footwear, while a very old man unloaded chairs from enormous stacks and positioned them in rows. In this gymnasium I felt myself become even more distant and gloomy than I had been in the car, if that were possible. It was ridiculous my being here. Nonsensical. And now that they had me where they wanted; that is, limping aimlessly in ever-widening circles, I realized that the expectation was that I would chat to the people arriving, or chat with them, whichever it is. Instead, I continued as before to totter - but now around the periphery of the room - to try and avoid everyone else as best I could.
A pleasant-enough man; ‘Joe’, heavy, waxen-faced, red bristly beard and meagre collection of hair on his dome; introduced himself. In the heat of an apology and flustered introduction his surname got lost in the great word-search of an indecipherable accent. After initial requests to repeat what he said, my ear grew accustomed to interpreting his words. Ignoring the foulness of his breath I was treated to a round-trip of all the reasons it made sense to re-introduce hanging. When he had decided to shut his trap, pun intended, we stood in silence. He left me alone to bring his peculiar brand of reasoning to some other hapless soul in the by now noisy gymnasium.
As the congregation filed into the arteries between the rows of plastic chairs, removing their coats and talking noisily with their neighbours, I began to have doubts about my whereabouts. Was I really there? In body yes, undeniably, but my mind was somewhere else altogether; the reason for it was that I felt so itchy, so uncomfortably itchy around these people. They were no better or worse than other people; ones I had met and shook hands with before, except I didn’t want to be among them; I didn’t want to be one of them. I was there, but I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be on my own. A feeling of monumental disdain spread throughout my body in a disagreeable fashion until I was positively straining at the leash, ‘misanthropically drooling’, I suppose you might call it.
Finally, unable to control myself, I began to criticise their shortcomings on a case by case basis. I couldn’t help it! Every individual possessed something physically repulsive to my eyes; a large red nose of burst blood vessels; two piggish legs barely restrained by tights; skinny legs combined with an overarching paunch; meek-headed middle-aged bachelors; emasculated married men on leashes held by quick-tempered women; sinister-eyed old people with nothing better to do with their time than pray for a quick death; a collection of Holy Joes in other words, with me in the middle of them and not a good-looking woman within an ass’s roar of the place.
The seething congregation was disturbed by an elderly woman who introduced herself as ‘Mary’. She was gaunt, bow-legged and looked like she had been dragged backwards through a ditch. Without the crutches and the broken leg I don’t know what we would have said to each other; having once fractured her heel she knew exactly what I was going through. While we talked, the people around us accumulated into a noisy mob; and a strangely palpable expectancy joined the room. My cock-and-bull story in relation to the leg-break failed to convince her. She then guessed correctly that I would probably like to go to the toilet, before things started. In advance of an offer to bring me and open my fly for me I grasped for my crutches and levering desperately I escaped her clutches.
To get to the toilet through the crowd of people with their backs turned to me I had to tap with my crutch on their calves and ankles. Unhesitatingly they twirled around and apologised for blocking my way. The end of each crutch though covered in a durable rubber stopper was not a nice thing to have come down on your toe as one mild mannered gentleman discovered when he did not move out of my way fast enough. It wasn’t done on purpose, but I might have been more careful; or at least that was what his agonised wince full of silent rage spelt out for me as I hopped, planted the crutch either side of me, and swung like a pendulum past him.
By the time I had made it to the closest cubicle and locked it behind me I was sweating hard. Fanning myself by tugging on the midriff of my shirt I remembered something I had with me that might help matters. Carefully removing a small mound from the folded envelope I snorted two lines of the off-white powder, blinked, made a face, and licked the remainder from my wet finger. Soon my thoughts were perfectly aligned and that awful feeling of awkwardness, while not completely eradicated, had its edges smoothed. At least, I reasoned, I have given myself a fighting chance of enduring the rest of the evening.
I returned to the gymnasium to find the congregation in their seats. My jacket marked out the place for me – middle of the front row- about two feet from the microphone. No sooner had I lowered myself onto the seat than it began with ‘Matthew’ striding confidently to the top of the room, casually pouring himself a glass of water from a little plastic bottle; swallowing; covering his mouth with his hand and then saying softly into the microphone: ‘The response to the Psalm is: Lord hear us.’
The dullness of the rote reply: ‘Lord hear us’ and then with delicious inevitability: ‘Lord graciously hear us,’ that I automatically mumbled along with, stamped the proceedings with a solemn resonance. Between these responses he read a series of prayers but I did not follow them. All I wanted was to listen and mumble with an unfamiliar but agreeable feeling of limp-willed surrender. This feeling was interrupted when a man walked up through the aisles and took the microphone from Matthew. Overcome by nerves, his voice quavered; reading from a folded piece of paper that took an eternity to unfold, he told how Jesus had come into his life only three months prior to this meeting, in a profound way. He was boring; I drifted off into an altogether pleasant slumber.
Such was the immersion in my own thoughts that I was taken by surprise when the clapping of hands around me started in earnest. All of a sudden people were up on their feet crying out to Jesus and thanking him in flamboyant praise-filled voices in every format of gibberish you could hope to imagine; heads tilted backwards, arms out-stretched, invoking the spirit of something. It only occurred to me that they were speaking in tongues when that open-mouthed, stunned feeling finally wore off and I was still there sitting-down amongst grown adults wailing nonsense at the top of their lungs.
The man beside me was shaking so much that his coin-filled pockets jangled along in a merry fashion to match the crazed juxtaposition of words and word-like jingles spilling out of his mouth. It sounded like the type of thing that escapes your mouth on the downward slope of a rollercoaster, travelling at incredible speed, when, scared out of your mind, you start screaming any old guff. I could not comprehend what it was that made these people so exhilarated. It was beyond me; pulled up to my feet by arms reaching under my armpits, hoisting me up onto one shaky leg, where bewildered by all that was going on around me, a sudden firm prod in the back had me joining with them.
Look, it was pathetic at first: “Jesus you are great – Jesus you are really great!” and so forth, but then I warmed to the task. The trick was to let go completely and without thinking about it - say anything at all; disconnect the mind entirely from the mouth. I found that closing my eyes and raising my hands in adoration also helped matters enormously. ‘Is that my voice, above everyone else’s?’ pondered the remaining specs of self-conscious thought in that by now too-warm gymnasium. I thought vaguely of my parents and of the many friends and acquaintances I had systematically estranged over the years, and as I continued to shout my head off a delicious breeze wafted through the room, from an emergency exit door, jammed open by a folded-up piece of cardboard. The breeze is the last thing I remember before I blacked out. Blank film strip.
Then a sudden return; prompting a series of questions and answers: Why am I in a gymnasium? Oh, Yes. Why am I turned so as to face the congregation? Because I’m the Messiah. Why are my knuckles bleeding? I don’t know. The microphone, lies stretched-out on the ground, squealing in pained feedback. As for the barn owls; a small trickle of blood from the nose of one; the other with his shirt torn open, buttons missing. While the congregation tramples over itself to get out of the gymnasium I begin again to deliver my sermon amid the whine of feedback; how wicked they are; how un-sanitary they are; how pitiful and un-worthy of my love they are. The barn owls corner me like an escaped and highly dangerous animal. I thrust my crutches in their direction. “Back, Back, I say” and they know to back off. Not that I really need these crutches, to walk I mean - but they serve as an indispensable prop for an ongoing undiagnosed condition.
Brian Coughlan has a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from NUIG. He has published work with The Bohemyth, The Galway Review and LitroNY. In 2014 he was shortlisted for the Industry Insider TV Pilot Contest as a co-creator of the drama series Panacea. He is a member of the Galway Scriptwriters Group since 2013.
My seven year old son didn’t want me to cut his hair anymore. He curled his body around the doorframe of the living room and, in what my wife and I called his “Grown-Up Voice,” said, Dad, I want someone else to cut my hair. I had cut his since he was two, with the same pair of clippers I used on myself. It was our monthly tradition and I looked forward to it.
Now, I rocked forward in my chair to face him and this skip in the record, this brazen presumption of choice, this pale-skinned, baby-wrinkled middle finger to tradition. I knew he wouldn’t want me to be his barber forever but this came too soon for me. I’d have to convince him to stick around a little longer. Then my thoughts fell onto the only logical end a man comes to when his seven year old son, the heir to a working class, La-Z-Boy throne, decides he wants to go his own way. I thought, who the hell does this kid think he is?
“Well, Corin,” I leaned forward until my eyes were just above level with his, “would you like your mother to cut it for you instead?” My father had his father cut his hair until he moved out at nineteen. And my grandfather lived down the road from his father and had him cut his hair every month for thirty years. My wife wasn’t one of the McMillan men, clearly, but if I were going to be the last tie in this railroad, then maybe my ancestors could forgive me if, at least, I could keep this whole haircutting ordeal under a McMillan roof.
“Mom,” he said, “is a girl. She doesn’t know how to take care of my hair.” I went back to the time I let Em cut my hair. I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub in my boxers and told her, Now remember, if you screw up, it WILL grow back, saying it more for myself. I love my wife, I do, but I don’t think she’s ever seen a straight line in her life. I went to work every day for a month looking like I was constantly tilting my head to the left. There’s nothing worse than having a bad haircut but hearing, It looks good. I blamed my wife at first. Now I blame Midwest politeness.
But my son was seven and didn’t have to worry about office workers. My wife could easily slap a bowl on his head and have at it. People still did that, right? He squared himself in the doorframe, arms folded. There was no justification in letting my son go to school looking like Jim Carrey from Dumb and Dumber. Most kids haven’t grown into that Midwestern politeness at that age, and he was small for his age, they’d eat him alive.
“Maybe you’re right, son.” I felt a buzz fly up my spine and imagined Grandpa and his dad and his dad’s dad poking me with a cattle prod from the spirit world and I felt a sudden urge to call my own dad and beg for his forgiveness. “Do you know how much a haircut costs?” It was one of those questions a dad asks that makes them question themselves. I had heard my own dad ask questions like that before: Do you know how to use that ratchet? Do you know how much work goes into building a treehouse? Do you know what it takes to get a car up and running? and at the time I didn’t know the answers. Now, I realize that my father banked on my ignorance when he asked me those things because I never did see him use a ratchet himself and we never did rebuild a car and I never did get that treehouse when I was ten. And now I had no idea how much a haircut cost.
“Ten dollars,” he said. He slipped his hands into his pockets and leaned onto the doorjamb.
“And how do you know that?”
“Internet,” he said. I bought a tablet last Christmas and wrote, TO: The McMillan’s FROM: Santa, on the tag. My wife and I let Corin open it and when you let a child open anything on Christmas it becomes, by childhood law, theirs. You could slap their names on a set of snow tires and they’d throw a fit the day you “borrowed” them before the year’s first snowstorm. I think I used that tablet once.
“How do you plan on getting ten dollars?” I asked. He slid a hand from his pocket and held out a palmful of balled-up bills and a few coins.
“I have twelve dollars and fifty cents,” he said.
“And how did you get that?” My wife and I didn’t pay him an allowance, we didn’t feel that, at seven and still trying to master his multiplication tables, he should equate helping around the house with earning a paycheck; he’d spend his entire adulthood running that race, anyway.
“Grandpa.” He said. “For helping him clean out his attic.”
I felt like I had just swallowed a mouthful of coffee grinds; my father, the man who had cut my hair until I was twenty-five, had aided in the demise of one of the McMillan’s longest-standing, albeit trivial, traditions. I looked at my son smiling back at me. He had an answer for everything and I had lost this conversation. Ancestors, have mercy on me.
Corin weighed fifty pounds on a good day and still used a booster seat. He didn’t skip a beat climbing into it before we headed for the only barbershop I’d seen around town. Gary’s Traditional Styles sat in a strip mall wedged between a Dollar Tree and a store that sold international calling cards. I ignored it every day on my way to work. Pulling in with my son felt like another misstep from the way things were.
I held his hand as we walked through the cracked parking lot. At the barber’s door, my son planted himself into the pavement. I turned to him and saw him stare through the front window of the barbershop at the men sitting in the stools. Strangers in wingtips reading Outdoor Life, getting shaves, jawing, pointing, laughing. “Corin, come on.” I tugged at his hand but something buried him.
“I can’t,” he said. He kept his eyes on the men, his eyes pulling into his head as the men shook hands, waved, and pointed.
“I,” he said, “I forgot my money.” He was lying but I let him. I saw him from the rearview mirror counting singles while I drove. I knelt down to him. He started to cry.
“Do you want to go home?” I asked.
“Do you want to go in and pay me back later?”
“No.” He stared at me, his cheeks two tomatoes in the rain.
I looked to the men behind the glass then to my son and saw myself sitting in my underwear in my dad’s kitchen at twenty-five years old. At sixteen. At seven. I let my son stare into adulthood for those moments that swirl right before they crash into one another, right before a person is faced with the insurmountable knowledge that they are only one person. I wanted my son to keep crying at that moment. For the entire world, I wanted that. I wanted him to keep reminding me that I was his father and that we were there stuck outside that barbershop together. I felt that record skip to its beginning and the music I heard when I was seven start all over again and I thought, I want us to do this for the rest of our lives.
RS Deeren’s fiction and nonfiction appears in BartlebySnopes, Cardinal Sins, the National Day on Writing, and forthcoming in CCLaP’s The View from Here Anthology. His short story, “Apres Moi le Deluge,” won the 2012 Tyner Award for Writing Excellence. Before attending Columbia College Chicago’s MFA Fiction program, he worked in the rural Thumb Region of Michigan as a line cook, a landscaper, a banker, and a lumberjack. He is currently writing a novel in stories about the mundane and meth addiction in backwoods Michigan.
"You know what would be great?" Spector spread a smile over his face. "If we took this here," he held up the severed foot. "And put it here," he pointed at where the man's hand used to be. "I think that would be great."
Clark frowned. "You want to put his foot where his hand was?"
Spector rolled his eyes. "I don't want to just put it there. I want to sew it there. Like, with surgery."
"You want to put a foot where a hand's supposed to go?"
"Sew. I want to sew it there."
"Where a hand's supposed to go."
"Yeah. With surgery."
"So you want to take this severed foot," Clark took the foot from Spector and held it up, little chunks of ice dripping. "And put it here," he pointed at where the man's hand used to be. "Where the man's hand used to be?"
"That's exactly what I just said. You literally said the exact same thing I just said, like, five seconds ago."
"That's because you literally want to sew a foot where--"
"It would be great! Lets go get Wilhelmina!"
"Are you drunk?"
"He's already got no foot. We don't do this, he got no hand."
"How did you become a doctor talking that way?"
"Wilhelmina," Spector said. "This is doctoring not talkering."
She looked at Clark. "Is he drunk?"
"Maybe so, maybe no."
"And you're a doctor too?" Wilhelmina frowned, looking down at the foot. "What even happened here?"
"Lawnmower. Mangled his hand. Cut off his foot." Spector shrugged. "It happens."
Wilhelmina nodded. "And you want to do what to this man?"
"Only everything awesome! Come on people," Spector looked at Clark now. "Don't you wanna' be somebodies?"
"I am somebody."
Wilhelmina's frown deepened. "So am I."
"But you will be more than just Clark, Clark." Spector held up his hands and spread them, tracing a movie marquee.
"People will call you an innovator, a pioneer, a trailblazer. A vanguard, a groundbreaker, a trendsetter. A man who knows a thing or two about somethin.' "
"That's a lot of words."
"Yep, and they'll say every one of 'em!"
Clark blinked once. "If I put a foot where a guy's hand was, they'll say every one of 'em?"
"Sure. Because it will all be true! Who would ever think of doing it?"
"Maybe we need to focus a little more on that, " Wilhelmina said.
"Just you Clark. Only you."
Clark blinked twice. "Only me?"
"You will be an innovator, a pioneer, a trailblazer, a vanguard--"
"That's enough," Wilhelmina said.
"A groundbreaker, a trendsetter. A man who knows a thing or two about somethin' !"
Clark looked into the distance at nothing in particular. "They will say 'em, won't they."
"No one will say any of those things," Wilhelmina shook her head. "Not one."
"An innovator," Clark repeated.
"A pioneer," Spector said.
"A man who knows a thing or two about somethin' !" They yelled in unison.
"Dear Lord," Wilhelmina breathed in and out. "I do not like where this is going."
"I love it!" Spector slapped Clark across the face. "Lets jump in this rocket ship and ride it to the moon!"
Spector slapped Clark across the face with the foot. "Make this foot into a hand!"
Wilhelmina sighed and walked out of the operating room.
"It doesn't look quite like I was expecting."
"It looks exactly like I was expecting."
"Yeah?" Clark looked at Spector.
"Yeah. It looks like you turned a foot upside down and sewed it onto this dude's wrist."
"Well. That's what I did."
"I know. I was here the whole time."
"That's what you told me to do. Turn it upside down so it looks more like a hand."
"The whole time," Spector reminded.
"It doesn't look like a hand."
"No, it does not."
"It looks like a foot."
"It was your idea, Spector."
"I say all kinds of things all the time, Clark."
"But you said I was an innovator. A pioneer. A trailblazer."
"I will refer you to my previous statement."
"A vanguard. A groundbreaker. A trendsetter." He grabbed Spector by the collar. "A man who knows a thing or two about somethin' !"
"All kinds of things all the time."
Clark shook Spector back and forth. "I got on your rocket ship."
"And rode it to the moon," Spector looked down at the hand/foot. "Or at least in the general vicinity."
"This is all your doing!"
"Be a lot more comfortable if you'd stop shaking me, Clark. And the yelling. Be a lot more comfortable if you'd stop yelling at me, Clark."
"What have we done?! What in God's name have we done?!"
"Be a lot more comfortable if you'd stop using the collective we."
"Not only does this man have no foot, he's got no hand!"
Spector pointed. "Does so."
"One. He has one hand!"
"One and a half, I'd say. This hybrid hand/foot mutant monstrosity of an appendage you sewed on him counts as at least half a hand. If not half a foot."
"You are a horrible person!"
"I am only a man."
"Not even half of one!"
Spector gasped. "You go too far."
"What's everyone yelling about?"
Clark stopped mid-shake. Spector looked towards the recovery room bed. They both looked at the patient looking back at them.
Spector said, after a pause, "Hey, buddy."
"Hey," the patient's eyes opened and closed woozily. "Why are you yelling?"
"I'm not yelling. Nobody's yelling." Spector removed his collar from Clark's hands. "Not a single person is yelling here, bud. Everybody's happy in this room. We're all doin' just fine."
"I thought I heard yelling."
"Just talkin' 'bout you and how great you are. Just talkin' 'bout that."
"Am I great?"
"Don't look at your hand," Clark said.
"Hey," Spector smacked Clark on the arm.
"Don't look at my hand?" The patient repeated.
"I wouldn't," Clark said.
"What's wrong with my hand?"
"Not a thing, not a thing, Mr.--" Spector looked at the clipboard on the bed. "Charlemagne. Not a thing, Mr. Charlemagne. Your hand is a hand and is exactly where a hand should be."
"Don't look at your foot either."
"Clark, I swear to God."
"Don't look at my foot either?"
"Because there's nothing to see, Charlemagne," Spector said. "There's nothing to see there, buddy."
"You got that right."
"Clark, I mean it--"
"What are you--" Charlemagne's eyes squinted down at the empty space of sheet below his ankle. "Where's my foot?"
"Where your hand's supposed to be."
"Clark, as God is my witness--"
"What are you talking about?"
Clark looked at Spector. Spector looked at Clark. Spector shook his head. Clark bit his lip. Spector shook his head again. Clark looked at Charlemagne. "We sewed your severed foot where your hand's supposed to be! You cut it off with a lawnmower and then we sewed it where your hand used to be before you cut it off with a lawnmower! Your foot is now your hand!"
"My foot is now--"
"Your hand! We flipped your foot upside down and sewed it where your hand was! Now you have to use your foot as your hand! And it looks nothing like a hand! It looks like a foot!" Clark's breath came in bursts, hands clenched at his sides. Spector rubbed his temples and looked at the ceiling.
Charlemagne was still. He blinked his eyes once, twice. Thrice. He wobbled his leg back and forth. He looked at his bandaged hand. He looked at Spector. He looked at Clark. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
"Didn't think it was necessary."
"You looked pretty tired," Spector added.
"You didn't think it was necessary to wake me up and ask me if I wanted you to glue my severed foot where my severed hand used to be?"
"We didn't glue it."
"You didn't think it was necessary?"
"It didn't seem so."
"It didn't seem so?"
Spector shrugged. "At the time."
"It didn't seem so. It didn't seem necessary. You know what? You know what?" Charlemagne hit the bed with his remaining hand. "It wasn't necessary! It wasn't necessary at all! What kind of a crazy person would say 'yes' ? If you woke up any sane individual in this whole entire world and asked them 'Hey, you want we should glue your foot where your hand's supposed to be, you know what they'd say?"
Clark looked down. Spector shrugged.
"No! They would say no! They would say 'Of course not now leave me alone and let me go back to sleep and not another inane question out of you! Not one! That's what they would say."
"We didn't glue it."
"What did you say to me?"
"Spector," Clark whispered.
"We didn't glue it."
Charlemagne narrowed his eyes. "Oh, no?"
"We did doctor things. We did doctor things and now you have a perfectly okay foo-- hand. Hand."
"Did you just say foot?"
Spector paused. "No."
"You did! You said foot!"
"Spector, just stop," Clark said.
"But he has a hand now. Two. In a way. And that's something."
"That's something?" Charlemagne said.
"It's not nothin'."
Charlemagne grimaced as he picked up his bandage. "What am I supposed to do with this?"
Charlemagne grimaced again. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
"Wear two. Wear two to match." Spector nodded. "If you wear two socks no one will much wonder."
"No one will much wonder why I'm wearing socks on my hands? Is this what you are trying to convince me of?"
"If you saw a guy wearing one sock wouldn't you wonder where the other sock was?"
"If the sock was on his foot, maybe."
"One sock is a mistake, two looks like a statement."
"I'm fairly sure your reasoning is unsound."
"No one likes asking crazy people things. You walk around with socks on your hands, everybody looks away on general principle."
"Because they think I'm crazy."
"I would think you were crazy," Clark said. "But I would rather you be a crazy man with socks on his hands than a sane man with that foot where your hand's supposed to be."
"You put this foot where my hand's supposed to be!"
"View remains the same."
"What on earth has happened here?" Dr. Jefferson suddenly walked in, Wilhelmina trailing behind. "Let me see that!" He grabbed at Charlemagne's bandage, unwrapping it. "Good God in heaven above! Why is this on this man's hand?"
"This is this man's hand," Clark said.
Spector shrugged. "It was his foot. Now it's his hand."
"We just thought," Spector said. "Since he didn't have a foot it would be too bad if he didn't have a hand either. Since we still had the foot, I mean…" Spector cocked his head.
"I mean what?"
"Lemonade out of lemons."
"Lemonade out of lemons?"
"And, for the record," Spector looked pointedly at Charlemagne. "I would like to say that we did not glue this man's foot to his wrist. We sewed it. Like a doctor."
"I think they were drunk," Wilhelmina whispered.
"I hope they were!" Charlemagne yelled. "How else do you explain it?"
"Genius. Absolute genius."
Everyone stopped and stared at Dr. Jefferson.
"Genius?" Wilhelmina said.
"Genius?" Clark said.
"Genius?!" Charlemagne yelled.
Dr. Jefferson turned the un-bandaged hand over, bending it at the wrist. "So you just flipped it upside down?"
"Sure thing my man," Spector smiled. "Flipped it like a pancake."
"And this was your idea?"
Spector looked at Clark. "Yep. My idea."
"Genius. I never would have thought of it!"
Charlemagne sighed, leaning back in his bed. "You're telling' me."
"You know what this is," Dr. Jefferson narrowed his eyes at Spector. "I'm sorry, what's your --?"
"You know what this is, Spector?"
"Innovating, pioneering, trailblazing." Dr. Jefferson clapped him on the back. "You are a vanguard, a groundbreaker, a trendsetter, Spector. A man who knows a thing or two about somethin'! "
"I've always thought so," Spector said, and shrugged.
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. In other words, she starves.
Mrs Crisp hated making her little boy’s sandwiches in the morning. Every slice of tomato became something like a slice of her life sloughed away by motherhood. She peeled a beige square of cheese from its plastic, palmed it into his bread. Today, he had a spelling bee.
“You shouldn’t expect to do very well in this. Spelling’s tough at the best of times, for the best of students and you aren’t one of those I’m afraid.”
Ivan stopped with his rice bubbles, the spoon hanging in his hand. He eyed his mother and for a moment he saw right through her, or at least, that’s how it seemed to her.
“Don’t tarry with your cereal, Ivan. Eat up. Tarry,” she said after he didn’t heed her instructions, “means to delay in acting.”
Her husband sat across from the boy, a reedy wisp of a man, tall and undernourished-looking. There were cuts on his jaw from his buckled razor, which would have to last at least another week. His hand shook as he drank his coffee, careful not to slurp it. Careful not to smack his lips or breathe in a way that might be audible to his wife. His tie was grey. His suit was grey – purchased grey and now faded grey from wear. There was one hair left on his head. Presently it stood on end from the static his wife’s discontent diffused upon her kitchen and its sorry male duo.
“Not many people know that word. When you’re at school, it might be an idea to use it. Show Mrs Crawley you’re not such a…”
Mr Crisp didn’t normally interrupt. He preferred to go about his routines in quiet, if he could swing it like that, and mostly, he could. This morning, he had to ask a favour.
“Darling, I’m not sure if you’re aware but I was talking to our son and you interrupted me. I don’t think that’s the right message to send to a little boy, is it?”
“If you didn’t look so utterly close to the end of your life,” – she had her fist pressed into the top of Ivan’s sandwich – “I’d have a good go at you Bern, a good hack.”
When she started like this, fisting items of food, she became angrier, more despondent, with every heave of her chest. There had been episodes during which he’d feared for the boy’s safety. She’d have never touched him in malice - in her heart she loved him and Mr Crisp knew this. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t anything as awful as that. It was just that she had a careless way with sharp utensils. Knives, meat cleavers, serving forks. This morning it was all bread and cheese, the stub of a tomato, a glistening slice of ham, rainbow-flecked in the daylight weakly sloping through the window. He figured the dangerous items were well enough away. And so he gathered the few threads of strength he had left inside him and asked her, if she didn’t terribly mind, if it wasn’t terribly too much to request, for a spot of help with his insulin injection.
“Dr Speck said I haven’t been doing it right. And as you’ve done this type of thing before… given how deft you can be with your hands… and because it’s so nice when you…”
Mrs Crisp left the room. Her husband raised his head to the ceiling and closed his eyes. They burned beneath the lids. And burned. He listened to her bang about in the bathroom, each thump and thwack of the medicine cabinet door, a rebuke against him. Little Ivan’s spoon still hung frozen in his hand.
The trees on the way to school that lined Patch Street and Grand Drive, all the way to the overpass, stood crouched in haggard defeat. It was winter. The bark was wet. The leaves had long fallen to the earth. Ivan saw in their mournful stance his father and resolved that morning never to become one himself.
“I was a great speller, Ivan. Did you know? I wrote poems for the school magazine.”
He considered the noise his dad had made when she drove the needle into his buttock. She forced it in so deep it must’ve struck bone, for he’d not before heard another living thing whimper the way his dad had.
“Do you think he’ll be OK?”
“Your father’s an idiot. He’ll be fine. Now, you would like to hear one of my poems, wouldn’t you? I can still remember.”
“It’s just that he was bleeding, when we left.”
“Your father’s a weak man. I told him to sit still and he moved. That’s why it became messy. Take note, Ivan. A man must be strong.”
“But he was white all over.”
“Sallow maybe. The colour of weakness.”
Unable to look upon the trees for a second longer - they made him sick with compassion – Ivan raised his gaze and there noticed the lonely spire of his school chapel against the clouds.
“I would like you to treat him better,” said Ivan.
He had tears in his eyes. They were tears of love. Any normal mother would’ve pulled the car over and died from affect. Mrs Crisp drove on, under the overpass and down Chief Street. She drove to the gates and sat gazing through the windshield as he clambered out and up the drive to school. She sat there gazing for a long time. Water shivered down the glass and split into little limbs which split again. She sat there gazing, and then she drove away, outraged that she’d now have to go to a supermarket, somewhere, and buy more ham.
Dominic Carew is a lawyer and writer form Sydney, Australia. His fiction’s appeared in Seizure, Verity La, the UTS Writers’ Anthology and is forthcoming in Bide. He has previously been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has practised law in Sydney, London, Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands.
The boy had resolved to offer Simone his forever before she had even offered him her name. Although they were strangers, and he had yet to carve a cubby in her memories, he had already begun to love her. He had begun to love Simone despite the fact that he had yet to speak to her or center his eyes before hers. Because even with all this being so, there was still the prospect that her spirits might be as lively as her looks. And even if they were not, he figured he could then devote himself to exploring her deepest surprises.
He’d commit to peeling down a peek of her tulip walls each day; to undressing her until the bulb of her heart was revealed; and to unrolling the petals around her essence until its full aroma unfurled about his nose. For he was ready to absorb all aspects of whatever demeanor she had. And he was willing to learn to adore them for the fact that they would be solely hers, and in private moments of tepid households and tickles, solely his as well.
He saw her in May when they were both 15. She was small and young. And she seemed so happy to him in that moment, standing on a little mound of moss that gently sloped down into the pond.
It dipped right where the shade of the forest ended and the glimmering sunshine on the water began. In a lavender sundress and sandals, she bowed her head as she smiled at tadpoles beneath the surface. Behind her right heel the left set of toes balanced on their tips as a ballerina’s do. And she was picking apart a sycamore leaf that she held in front of where her heart was.
As she did, bluebirds in the woods twittered noontime melodies. And he could see that her chestnut hair was pinned up in a corsage with little curls falling from the center of its blossom. A couple of tresses near her temples hung beside cheekbones like coils of ivy. And since she wasn’t facing him, the only other thing he knew was that her lashes were long, and that her ringlet edged grin birthed dimples.
But he wondered, What else? about Simone.
He wondered how she was and what she might bring to the rest of his days. She was pretty indeed. But if he sang songs on their rooftop would she climb over the gutters to join? When she did would it last all night? Or would it be better, and only go until sunset when she tired of singing and rolled over to be on top of him against an orange sky? He wondered what they’d do in strange hours. If he woke her in the midnight would she truly wake? Would a touch on the foot be enough to spark her out of slumber? Would it keep her up for all the moments leading to dawn? Would it incite nocturnal games of wrestling and panting in the moonlight that broke through their window?
He wondered, if it was this way, would it be so for decades. And if he ever grew sad and asked for her opinion on red, would she have something to say, or simply give empty words like all the rest?
This was what he thought when he saw her near the pond. So he walked along the banks until he was close enough to speak, and entwine the yarns of his life with hers.
“What would you do if all those tadpoles were yours?” he asked.
She looked up to give him the sheen of her maple eyes. A breeze rustled the treetops above. And the wind lifted little threads of her hair in its sigh. Her smile was like one half of the moon. Then, as if waiting 15 years for someone to ask, she began to share with him her ideas of how to keep tadpoles, and what to do when they became frogs.
Man O'Neal is a young man who likes to write. He likes to make music and draw and laugh with friends, but after these things, he sits down to write. He doesn't do much else besides these aforementioned things, for they are all that's ever interested him. Others tell him to do this and do that, but he never pays it much mind. And after they've finished speaking he sits down to write.
Sam sounds so calm and in control. When did you last see it? What were you doing right before? I remember that same ring of assurance in my own voice when Sam was a little boy and he’d misplace his baseball mitt or his Lou Gehrig baseball card. I remember prompting him with the same questions he’s now plying me with. I know he’s trying to be helpful but it feels futile. Okay Ma, just don’t panic. Where were you when you last used it? Just retrace your steps, Ma. He makes it sound easy, like it should just all come miraculously bounding back to me.
I try to retrace. I’ve got my nighty on and my slippers ... must have come from the bedroom. Was I in bed, sleeping? Where did you last see it, Ma? I wish I knew what “it” was. Did I come in here for an “it” ... or was there something else? I’m not sure. I glance around the room hoping for the spark. There’s at least a week’s worth of dirty dishes piled up in the sink. You’d never know I was actually a good housekeeper. I remember Mother always said clean up your kitchen before you go to bed so you don’t wake up to a mess. And the curtains ... they’re filthy. When was the last time I washed those? They’re white lace and look so nice when they’re clean and fresh. I must write myself a note to do the dishes and wash the curtains ... get back on track. I’ll worry about it later. My brain feels fuzzy, blanketed in cobwebs as I stand here searching. I eventually give up, and shuffle back to my bedroom.
Saturday night dinner for Sam and his wife. Saturday night ... for goodness sake, write it down and put it in the right pile. I have two, one for things that need immediate attention and another for things that can wait. I jot down a note to myself and set it in the “wait” pile. What to serve. Something easy, something I’ve made a hundred times. Come on, think .... pot roast! Yes, pot roast ... that’s easy. I can do that. I’ve made that before. Write it down. Put pot roast down now ... don’t forget. I scribble another note and add it to the pile. There, good. Okay, is there anything else? Do I have all the ingredients? Check now and find out ... before you forget. Sam and Barbara might come over for dinner sometime and I need to be ready. I notice the dishes piled up in the sink. My, there are a lot of dirty dishes. I really must wash those. I open the refrigerator and stand peering in for a minute. I push my hand to the back, find the orange juice and pour myself a glass. I add the empty glass to the week’s worth of dirty dishes in the sink and drag myself back to bed. Must to remember to do those dishes.
A ringing pulls me from my sleep. I reach over to turn off the alarm clock ... need to get the boys up and ready for school. The ringing doesn’t stop; it isn’t the clock. My brain feels mired in sludge. I try to hear where the ring is coming from. Is it the phone ... where’s the phone? I walk into the living room, listening. The couch. I bet it’s in between the cushions. Sometimes it slips down there. The phone stops ringing. Is that Sam’s voice in the kitchen? I run my hand around the cushions. There’s a bobby pin, an emery board, some loose change. I wondered where that emery board was ... I should put this change with the rest. Write yourself a note so you don’t forget.
The light on the answering machine blinks. I wonder who called and push the button to hear.
“Hi Mom! It’s Sam here. Barbara and I wanted to confirm dinner on Saturday. If I don’t hear back, we’ll assume it’s still on. We’re looking forward to it! Talk to you later, Mom ... love you!”
Saturday? Dinner? I check my notes. Ah, here it is and right next to it ... pot roast. Good. What day am I on now? Where’s the paper? That will say. No, that’s yesterday’s paper ... here’s the day before that. I should be able to figure out what today is. Let’s see, yesterday was the ... the 13th. Wednesday the 13th. Was that someone’s birthday? Why do I think it was? Oh, I hope I didn’t forget another one. Ah, here is, today’s. Let’s see.... it’s Thursday. Okay, dinner day after tomorrow ... pot roast. Write it down now before you forget. I really must wash those curtains. They’re so dingy.
It looks like a small army standing on the counter top, each piece of paper folded in half and standing at attention like little soldiers, vigilant in their duties. My goodness, there are a lot of them. Do I need all these? Lunch with Marge. Didn’t I already do that? I don’t think I need that one anymore. Clean stove ... I did that one I think. I can throw that one out. Dinner Saturday. That hasn’t happened yet ... has it? Better keep that one. Pot roast. What’s this for? Pot roast? Pot roast is easy. I’ve made it a hundred times. Not sure but shouldn’t throw it out yet... might be important. Have to remember to hide these before Sam and Barbara come ... don’t want him to see them. He’ll think I’ve lost it. Maybe I should make a note.
“Oh Marge, you can’t be serious! Bob really said that?” I try to tuck my feet up under me while cradling the phone on my shoulder. “Ow! ... oh, it’s nothing. Just not as limber as I used to be.” We chuckle.
“Well, of course I remember when he mentioned it. I thought he’d probably forget though by now.” I feel sharp. Memory firing on all cylinders!
“Well, just don’t say anything more. Maybe he’ll forget. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?” What a lovely conversation, I’m thinking. No fuzz.
“Okay Marge, I need to get going anyway. Sam and Barbara are coming over for dinner tomorrow and I need to pick up a few things at the store. Keep me posted.”
I gather up my purse, keys and coat. Okay, good, I have everything.
I walk down to the corner grocery store, find a cart and rummage through my purse for my shopping list. Now, what did I do with that?
“Mom? Mom, are you awake?” Sam and Barbara hover over the side of my bed.
I pry my eyes open. I feel groggy. “Oh! What a nice surprise!” I love it when Sam and Barbara pop in for a visit.
“Mom, it’s Saturday. Dinner ... did you forget?”
Saturday? Dinner? Oh dear, did I? “Umm, well no, of course I didn’t forget.” I force myself up. Thank goodness I’m dressed and not in my nighty. “Why don’t you two have a seat in the living room. Dinner will be on in a few minutes.”
What to make. What to make. Pasta? No, I don’t have any. Chicken? Pork chops? I can’t, nothing’s thawed. I look around the kitchen hoping a meal will magically appear. What do I do? They’ll know I forgot.
Sam is leaning against the kitchen door. “How about if we take you out for dinner? You shouldn’t have to cook.” He glances at the soldiers.
“I didn’t forget. Really I didn’t.”
“I know you didn’t Ma. Come on, grab your purse. Let’s let someone else do the cooking for a change.”
I remembered to make the coffee. The soldier on the coffee pot reminded me. Sam is stopping in to chat on his way home from work. He sits across from me at the kitchen table. He looks serious – concerned, as he stirs his spoon around in his cup.
“Ma, I’m worried about you.”
“Worried? About me?
“Yeah. You seem kind of forgetful lately.”
I glance at the two soldiers I’d forgotten to hide. “I’m no more forgetful than anyone else my age.”
“What’s with all the notes? ... and dinner last Saturday?”
“I told you I didn’t forget! I was just a little side tracked is all.”
“Ma, there were at least twenty little notes on the counter Saturday! Doesn’t that tell you something?” There’s disbelief in his tone.
I peek over at the counter.
“A few reminders ... that’s all.”
“A few? Ma, you don’t have to try to hide anything from me.” His voice grows softer. “I’m your son. I’m on your side, remember?” He sounds as though he’s talking to a child, like he’s trying to make me feel better and that I’m not alone in this, even though I am.
I shift my weight, trying to untangle my legs from the chair.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
“We can see a doctor, Ma.”
“No. Absolutely not. You know how I feel about doctors. They’re all charlatans.”
No! I said no and that’s the end of it.”
“Then maybe you should move.”
“Move? Move where?”
“I don’t know. Maybe an assisted living place ... or a nursing home.” He pauses for a second and adds, “Some of them are really nice, Ma.”
“I’d rather be dead than live in any of those places! The people there are just waiting to die. I can do that here in my own home.” I take a sip of my coffee. My hand trembles. “I don’t want to be one of those people drooling on themselves in a nursing home, unable to recognize my own children.” Those people ...
Sam glances up. “You won’t be, Ma. Trust me.”
“How do you know?”
Sam is silent.
“I don’t want to be here two per cent of the time. What kind of life is that?” I mindlessly swish my spoon around in my cup. “I watched both my parents die, Sam. Neither of them had any reason to go on. Not a shred of joy existed for them at the end. Is that what you want for me?”
“I just want you to be safe. You still have a lot to live for. You’ve got Barbara and me, the kids ... your rose garden.” Sam hesitates and if I hadn’t been looking, I might not have noticed the wince or the way he shifted in his chair. He immediately looks away, out the window. “Barbara and I have been thinking of putting in our own rose garden. You could help us. We’d like that. And don’t forget you’ve got your friends ... Marge.” And then he adds in a soothing tone, “I just want what’s best for you, Ma.”
My eyes drift from the little whirlpool I swirl around in my cup, to his eyes. Something has changed, something in how he’s looking at me. His look of care – compassion suddenly seems fearful.
“Do I really have all that if the day comes when I can’t remember any of it?” I look at the pile of dishes in the sink, the yellowed lace curtains and the two soldiers standing at attention. “Is that really what’s best for me, Sam? I’m not so sure anymore.”
Thank goodness I saw the pot roast and dinner Saturday notes. Let’s see now. The pot roast is in the oven. I’ve got the vegetables started. Put the rolls in the toaster oven to warm them up. Do it now so you don’t forget. Sam and Barbara will be here soon. I glance out the kitchen window and see the Riley girls getting off the school bus. Sam took that same bus when he was little. I remember waiting for him each day. I hear the dryer buzzer go off in the basement. I know it’s the dryer because I know what the buzzer sounds like. I go downstairs to get the clothes out ... don’t want wrinkles. From upstairs, I hear a beep-beep-beep, over and over. What’s that sound? I don’t recognize it. My brain feels muddled. I finish getting the clothes out of the dryer and plod back upstairs. I try to find where that beeping noise is coming from. I walk into the kitchen.
A swath of black hovers just below the ceiling. What is this? The air feels thick. I look over at the soldiers sitting on the toaster oven. They’re surrounded by smoke. It pours out from below them. This doesn’t seem right. I’m not alarmed. It actually looks pretty. The smoke drifts around the soldiers, like in a dream, not real, and I stand there for a moment, entranced.
The soldiers burst into flames.
I feel my heartrate spike. What do I do? Call Sam? Run next door? No ... stay calm now and think. Call Sam! Yes, call Sam now... quick. Where’s his number? What did I do with it? I paw through the drawer where I think my address book is. It’s not here. Maybe I wrote it down. I check the soldiers on the counter. Buy bread. Pay bills. Call Marge. Pot roast. No phone number. The flames grow. They flare out under the overhead cabinet. I search for an answer, my eyes darting from object to object. I know ... don’t I have a fire extinguisher? Where is it? Come on ... think! I look in the back hall. Not there. Maybe it’s below the sink. Not there either. I can’t find it. What do I do? Open a window. Yes! ... get rid of the smoke. Do it now. I open the window over the sink. The air fuels the fire and it flares up. It’s getting worse. I notice a kitchen towel. I know ... hit the fire with a rag. I saw that somewhere ... I know I did. I grab the kitchen towel and whack the flames. Ashes fly up, and then land, igniting the soldiers on the counter. The soldiers... I have to save them ... can’t let them burn. The fire spreads. My chest is pounding. What to do. Come on, think. Water! Yes, water. Throw water on it ... quick! Hurry, do it now. I turn the faucet on full and pull the sprayer out. I aim at the toaster oven and press the lever. Water sprays everywhere. Black smoke billows out into the room. I start coughing. I spray more. I spray the soldiers on the counter. I spray the wall behind the toaster oven. I spray the cabinets above. I keep spraying. Everything is soaked.
I cup my hands under one of the blackened soldiers. I try to read it but the writing is smeared. The paper, like mush, falls apart. It slips through my fingers and splats onto the counter.
Sam pulls into the driveway as the last few firemen exit the house. They say the fire is out and remark that my dinner is ruined. It’s safe to go back inside.
“My god, what happened?”
We stand in the middle of the kitchen looking at charred walls, a melted toaster oven and water dripping from cabinets and counters. The pot roast is still in the oven. It’s crusted black. Smoke drifts out through the open window.
“I guess I accidently left the toaster oven on.”
“Thank god you had the sense to call the fire department.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t the one who called the fire department. It must have been that nosey Mrs. Burke across the street who called.
“Well, you sure can’t stay here tonight. You’ll stay with Barbara and me. I’ll call tomorrow and find someone to clean this up ... repaint.”
That evening, I hear Sam and Barbara talking. They must think I’m asleep.
“I feel bad but she can’t stay there alone anymore, that’s for sure. You should have seen the place!”
“Where is she going to go?
“We don’t have the room here.” Sam pauses. “As much as she’ll balk, she’ll have to go into assisted living or something. I don’t see any other choice.”
I shuffle back into their guest bedroom and sit on the bed. I think about the dinner I forgot, the soldiers standing at attention for me, and the fire I set to my kitchen. I think about waiting to die in a nursing home.
What a pleasant evening I think as the scenery slides by. I sit half way back on an empty bus. The driver was friendly enough when I got on, but I can tell he’s wondering about me. He keeps glancing back at me in the rear view mirror. “Last stop,” he calls.
“You sure you want to get off lady? The next bus isn’t till morning.” I wait for him to open the door.
“Yes, I’m sure.” I sound convinced.
I stand looking out over the river. The lights reflecting off the water are beautiful. I wish I’d come here more often, but it doesn’t matter now. I see someone turn a light out on the other side ... then another and another. People ending their day.
There’s only a half moon tonight. It appears and disappears above me. There’s enough of a breeze to make it feel clean ... crisp but not too cold. I’m thinking I could have worn a warmer coat.
I grip the railing, pulling myself forward. It’s steeper than I thought. My feet hurt. Half way up, I stop and button the top button of my coat. The wind is whipping up more. I think it must be the elevation. I catch my breath and continue on.
I’m out of breath by the time I reach the top. Except for the whirling of the wind, it’s silent. No traffic. No activity. I slip my shoes off ... too much pressure. The cold soothes my feet. My hands are freezing ... must be the metal railing. I look out over the river ... the sky, the lights reflecting off the water, the breeze. A good choice.
I slip between the second and third railing. For a second, I reconsider - pause, but I am sure. There are no more buses.
James Krehbiel is a professional musician (violinist) and was a member of the Syracuse Symphony. In addition, he served on the faculty of the School of Music at Syracuse University. Mr. Krehbiel received his Bachelors of Music degree and his Performers Certificate from the Eastman School of Music. Having enjoyed an active career as a musician, Mr. Krehbiel has turned his attention to writing. As a “new” writer, he has joined the Central New York Creative Writers group. Mr. Krehbiel has had work accepted for publication by Through the Gaps, Foliate Oak, The Legendary, The Roundup Writer’s Zine and Down in the Dirt literary journals. In his spare time, he is an advocate of the creative arts, enjoys biking, golf and is an avid reader. He also enjoys spending time with his bloodhound-beagle mix and is thankful for her unconditional love and support.
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