Epiphany Magazine - epiphmag.com
An unpretentious publication where Art, Poetry and Prose come together
A Visually and Creatively Stimulating Experience
Lori Van Pelt
Richard Cameron parked the Scout on the narrow path in front of the log cabin. He stepped from the vehicle into the crisp mountain morning, inhaling deeply of the pine-scented air as he walked around to help his father, who already opened the passenger door.
"It's like coming to see an old friend, isn't it?" his father said.
"And like riding along with one, I hope," Richard said.
"You've taken good care of Grandpa's Scout," his father told him. "He'd be glad for that." Richard's grandfather purchased the red 1973 International with white top when he was 80, about five years before he died. Richard enjoyed driving it, and his father let him keep the vehicle.
Richard held the small blue canvas backpack carrying the portable oxygen tank while his dad stood and got his bearings. This would likely be their last trip to the old cabin. Kenneth couldn't stand to be at this elevation for long. He got winded more quickly now, even at lower elevations.
"Got it?" he asked, and when his father replied, "Yup," Richard walked ahead and onto the low step of the porch. He put the key in the lock, but couldn't make it work. He jiggled the door knob.
"Needs a little graphite, does it?" His father joined him on the porch and turned to gaze out at the mountain ridges and the river valley below them while Richard struggled with the uncooperative lock. "I can see all of Saratoga," he said, "and a bunch of the ranches. I'd forgotten how far a person can see from here. And in every direction."
Richard longed to take in the view, but concentrated on his task. "This'll just take a minute." His father's remark about directions hit home, even though he probably didn't realize the importance of what he said. For the first time in his life, Richard felt like he had lost his direction. Not lost, exactly, but without direction, in a holding pattern of some sort. Always before, his goals carried him through. Always before, there had been guidance: school requirements, then career requirements, marriage necessities. And now, while the career seemed to be in place, he felt his most important relationships falling away. It was as if he stood in the center of a compass, with all directions available to him, and yet, none of them containing a path he wished to take.
He tugged on the door knob and turned the key. "Success," he said, opening the door and gesturing to his father to go ahead. As he did so, he slid his hand down the door frame, getting a sliver in his index finger. "Ouch!" He put his finger to his lips.
"I picked up a sliver. I never get those. Here, let's get you settled, and I'll take care of it in a minute." He placed the thin foam pad his father brought on the seat of a creaky wooden rocking chair and helped him sit down.
"I've got a kit out in the Scout."
"Do you have anything in here?"
Richard looked in the bathroom. He couldn't remember if he'd left any first aid supplies here or not. His father probably thought he still came up here by himself to write. The past year, though, Richard's teaching schedule plus the traveling required to promote his book, Just Tell the Damn Story!, an instruction manual for people who yearned to write, left him little time for such luxuries. The medicine cabinet held only a stack of warped emery boards, and an unopened package of dental floss. "Let me get a fire going first," he said, but his father interrupted, saying, "I'm all right. Tend yourself."
"Sometimes, they work themselves out, anyway."
"Don't let it fester. They can get infected, you know."
Outside, he fared a bit better. He carried antibacterial ointment and an assortment of Band-aids in the glove compartment. Because he arrived at his father's house late the night before, he had tossed his carry-on bag in the back. He rummaged through to find the small sewing kit he always kept with him and pricked the sliver from his finger with the needle.
When he re-entered the cabin, his father said, "Your mother always kept tweezers with her. She carried everything in her purse. I used to tease her about it. Better prepared than a Boy Scout."
"I know," Richard said. "I should see to it that this cabinet is better stocked. But she also taught me never to travel without a sewing kit, so she saved the day anyway."
His mother died of a sudden heart attack two years ago. They hadn't talked much about her death. Richard had never fully forgiven his father for not moving to town earlier to make her life easier. But Kenneth Cameron was a man of the land. Ranching and farming was his life, one he would not give up for anyone. Richard hated watching his mother deteriorate slowly, like so many other ranch wives he had seen through the years. The ones whose husbands retired and moved into town did better because they weren't so isolated. Town life, with its amenities of restaurants and housecleaners and bridge games, eased their way. But some ranchers, like his father, resisted retirement. They saw moving to town as a weakness, a form of giving up. In some ways, his mother's heart attack had been a blessing. She could rest now.
He hurried to get a fire going in the cool dark room. The crackle and light of the burning logs always made him feel at home.
The business card fell out of the plaid pocket of Richard's cotton shirt when he leaned over to adjust his father's oxygen tank.
"Someone special?" his father asked, handing him the card as he adjusted the seat pad again.
"Someone different," Richard said. He returned Carrie Twingle's card to its place. He had taken the card from his blazer pocket last night, intending to move it to his wallet, but a phone call interrupted him, and he'd stuck it in his shirt pocket rather than chance dropping it and losing it. "I'll see to the sandwiches."
In the kitchen, he prepared the picnic lunch of ham and Swiss, chips, celery and carrot sticks. He hummed the tune of I've Got the World on a String, an old Mel Torme song. He poured steaming coffee from the thermal jug into paper cups. He liked jazz, but he hadn't thought about Mel for a long, long time.
"You collect 'em, don'cha?" His father took one of the plates and snagged a chip. "All the kooky ones come to you. Draw 'em like a magnet." The oxygen cannula puffed at measured intervals as he ate.
Richard sighed. It was true. He couldn't argue. This school year, he fended off advances by one of his female students. She hung on his every word, stayed after class to talk for what seemed like hours. He finally resorted to turning off the lights in his office, accompanying her to the elevators, and returning to his work in the evenings. She was a good kid, just needed to develop some confidence. But they always seemed to gravitate toward him. He didn't know why.
"You liked her, didn'cha?"
His father pointed at Richard's shirt. "Her."
"Oh." He smiled. "I met her at the convention. I'll probably never see her again."
His father grunted. "I can always tell when you like them."
"Oh, Dad. I'm not looking. But--" The card listed her telephone number. He kept it with him. She lived in Riverside, a town not far from here. "She wrote me a letter once. To tell me she liked my books."
He kept the letter. It meant something to him. He wasn't publishing as often as he used to, and he began to feel like a fraud, offering writing advice to others. The letter buoyed his spirit.
"Texted you, you mean? I keep up on these things, you know."
Richard shook his head. "No, a real letter. Used a postage stamp."
"Well, I'll be switched." His father thought for a minute. "She must be old."
"No, she's quite a bit younger than I am, I think."
He smiled and nodded. It was something in her eyes, he decided. They weren't adoring like his students', but intelligent, as if she were searching for direction, for guidance. She didn't strike him as someone he'd have to lead like a bridled horse, but maybe his trail and experience could help her find her own way. Perhaps, though, he was simply letting his imagination get the best of him once again.
"Well, Dad, you know that poem. 'Two roads diverged in a wood.'"
"Robert Frost. One of your mother's favorites."
"Me, too," Richard said, surprised his father remembered that. "Mountain air making you hungry? How about another sandwich?"
"You're just scared because it's too soon."
"You still love Nancy?"
Richard sighed. "That was over long ago."
"Don't think so." His father leveled the "don't-play-games-with-me" stare at him.
"A little bit, maybe. When you've been married for eighteen years, it's kind of tough to let go." As hard as divorcing had been, he knew it was right for him to go. The worst was sharing the information with his father. Richard expected his dad to rage at him, to urge him to try harder, but instead, Kenneth shrugged and said, "Sometimes you just have to leave."
Now, he said, "You outgrew her. She wasn't going anywhere, but you - you are."
"It happens," Richard said. "You know what amazes me, though, are the people who are so bound and determined to get married again. Why would anyone bother? But I've known people who can't wait to plunge into another relationship, and they do. It seems like such a waste of time and energy."
Kenneth was silent for a moment. "Don't think it's easy for anyone."
Kenneth wiped his hands on one of the folded paper towels they used for napkins. "This one must be pretty smart, too, son, if she likes your work. I do."
Richard found it difficult to swallow the bite of ham and cheese in his mouth. "Dad," he said. "I'm - I'm glad." He stopped to try to get his bearings. "I've been - I've felt I've been a disappointment to you," he said, when he could finally speak.
"I know it, Dad," he said quietly. "You've wanted someone to stay and work the ranch - "
A neighbor, Ted Franklin, tended the ranch now, sharing in the crops and livestock raised.
"But you wanted me to be - to carry it on, didn't you?" He didn't have children to keep the family ranch going, a dream his grandfather passed to his father. Richard ruined that lineage. He reasoned he was carrying on the Cameron name through his books. Not at all the way his grandfather would have wished, though. Sometimes, Richard wondered if his father insisted on staying on the ranch as subtle punishment of his mother for producing a son whose abilities and aptitudes were more suited to artistic pursuits than ranching.
Kenneth stayed quiet for a moment. And then he said, "I always wanted to be a veterinarian."
"I didn't know that."
"Yes. I wanted to go to college in the worst way. But tuition cost seven-hundred dollars. We didn't have it. It was the Depression back then. And your grandfather needed me on the ranch. The land. That was the most important thing, that we keep the land. It was all his family had to give to him."
Richard let the silence linger. A log popped and split and crashed against the others, spreading sparks and making the flames leap. "You couldn't have gone later on, after the times got better?"
Kenneth looked at him. "By then, I had my own family."
Richard stood, eyes burning, and stirred the logs unnecessarily. "I sure didn't turn out the way you wanted me to, Dad."
"You've done right well."
He turned back to his father, who nodded. "You've not done what I thought you might, but you've done right well, son. I'm proud of you. And your mother--." He looked away. His voice was quiet. "She was always proud of you. She told me you'd make something of yourself if I'd only let you do it."
Richard blinked. "But you gave up your dream for the ranch. I left the ranch to pursue my dreams."
"You didn't let me go just because of what Mom thought." Richard struggled to understand. All these years, he believed his mother championed his dreams against the will of his father. All along, his father yearned for his success, too.
"No. We both wanted you to go. Watching you do so well in college, well, that helped me, you see?" He took a red kerchief from his pocket and dabbed his nose. "I'd not have been too good a vet anyhow. They have to get up and out in at all times of the day and night in all types of weather." He shook his head. "I wouldn't have liked it, after all, I don't think."
Richard stirred the logs again. He stepped back to replace the iron poker in its stand. As he did so, he bumped his calf against something hard, nearly losing his balance. It was a round wooden planter.
"Oh, I'd forgotten about these," he said, carrying it over to his father.
"Grandpa was good with his hands, wasn't he?" Kenneth laid a palm against the wood. "Lord knows, I never got that. But that, he did pass on to you."
"You were good at other things, Dad. You were good with the animals. Still are."
Kenneth gave Richard his grandfather's tools long ago. Richard was good at building things like his grandfather was, but apparently, he was not good at building relationships. His grandfather worked with his hands, and he showed Richard how to work with wood. He built this planter for his daughter-in-law, Richard's mother, who loved plants.
"Measure twice, cut once," Richard said aloud, the oft-repeated phrase his grandfather spoke when they were working together. Oh, how much easier human relationships would be if that simple woodworking principle could be applied to them. But people were not made of wood. They could not always be hewn and sanded to certain specifications. In some ways, Richard thought, people had grains just like different woods. If you rubbed wood against its grain, you got slivers under your skin. Rub people against their grains, and they got under your skin with piercing remarks and hurtful actions. Like Nancy, who grew bitter and berated him for not providing her with the elegant, more sophisticated lifestyle she felt she deserved. Like editors who rejected his best work by giving "helpful feedback" that felt like scathing criticism instead. One person even went so far as to suggest that Richard's writing career would be ruined by the publication of his latest collection of short fiction. Wood was straightforward. It didn't inflict emotional pain.
"That's the way to do it," his father said. "But not everyone does." He rubbed the dust from the varnished pine. "Your mother loved this," he said. He took a deep breath. The oxygen cannula puffed. "Let's take it back with us."
"Sounds good," Richard said.
"What is it you're working on yourself these days? Some sexy bestseller, is it?"
Richard laughed again, grateful that his father tried to lighten the mood. "Oh, I wish." He shook his head. "But no. I'm not the type who writes those."
"Not yet, maybe."
"I can't see myself writing those kinds of things. But the writing instruction book is doing pretty well."
"And you always have your teaching. You're doing okay, then?"
Richard did not want to admit to his father that he felt increasingly trapped by his teaching position. The writing instruction book, with its consistently strong royalties, smoothed the path for him to leave. Yet, he couldn't do it. He loved helping students grow but the time required took away from the time he needed to write a novel, something he longed to do. He seemed to be pretty good at short pieces, like the plant containers he made with his grandfather. His first short story collection, published several years ago, gained him some critical acclaim, very little money, and the opportunity to teach because an old friend with ties to the university recommended him. Even so, he couldn't seem to build the bigger fiction pieces - the novels that he knew were inside him. "Guess I'd better clean up," he said.
The time with his father passed faster than he thought possible. Richard hoped to give him a pleasant day at the cabin where they had such fun in the past. He hadn't expected his father to admit his feelings of pride, but he was grateful for the conversation. As always, much was left unsaid. This was due, in part, to his father's declining health, because Richard didn't want to tire him excessively by rehashing the past, but his father never had been one to talk much.
The tall lodgepole pines were already casting lengthy shadows when they went outside after tending the fire and bagging the remnants of their lunch. In the distance, Richard heard the soughing of Match Creek.
"Remember, Dad, when we used to go fishing? You were good at that. You caught lots of them."
Kenneth eased himself down the steps. "You caught your share as I recall." He ambled on toward the Scout, leaving behind a shoe. He apparently didn't realize it because he continued forward across the gravel and pine needles sock-footed.
"Wait a minute, Dad."
"What's the matter?"
"You've lost your shoe. Didn't you feel it?"
"Oh, blast it. Those darn loafers. I walk out of them all the time. They're a big nuisance." He clambered into the vehicle.
"I'll go get it," Richard said. "You just relax." He grabbed the porch railing to keep his balance as he leaned over to retrieve the lost loafer. "Ouch."
"What is it?"
"I've gotten another sliver," Richard said.
"Two in one day? It's a record."
"For me, yes," he said, rubbing the dirt off his father's sock with his uninjured hand and then helping him slide his foot into the loafer. He remembered how Carrie Twingle stepped out of her shoe at the writing conference when they met. She tried so hard to cover her embarrassment by attempting humor. He wished he could do the same. "Wait a minute, and I'll get my trusty sewing kit." He closed the door and went around to the rear to get his backpack. He nicked his finger with the needle. The sliver popped out easily.
"Hope I don't make a habit of that," he said, as he got back into the driver's seat. He showed his father his two bandaged fingers.
"Butterfingers. That's what your mother would have called you."
Richard started the Scout. "No, that was for when a person dropped things."
"That's right. Fiddlesticks?"
"Possibly. That was a stock word for her." He shifted into drive.
They were five miles down the road at the sign marking the turnoff before either of them spoke. The road split, allowing drivers to choose either traveling on around the mountain or following the creek toward Saratoga.
Richard tried the old joke. "Wanna go on over to Baggs, then?" The tiny town on the other side of the mountain was noted for having once been the hideout for Butch Cassidy.
"Oh, not tonight, thanks. Think I'd rather go on back by Match Creek."
At the mention of the name of the creek, Richard thought again of Carrie Twingle and wondered briefly what road led her way. But they came to a place where large rocks jutted from the surface at odd angles, forcing Richard to concentrate on the road ahead, not the one left behind.
My short fiction won the Western Writers of America Spur Award in 2006 and
received finalist recognition in 2008 from that group. Recent publications include short
stories in the new anthologies Another Wild West and How the West Was Wicked
published by Pill Hill Press and Ghost Towns (Pinnacle Books) as well as online in
Daily Love. My biography, Amelia Earhart: The Sky's No Limit (American Heroes series,
Forge, 2009), was named to the New York Public Library's "Best Books for the Teen Age" list.
Recent short nonfiction publications include WyoHistory.org and The Wyoming Woman.
Additional pieces are forthcoming in each of those periodicals. I'm currently
the assistant editor of WyoHistory.org.
Lori Van Pelt
Artwork by Dan Williams
The dry clicking noise was so different from the rain's constant thud. At first I took it for the alarm clock. I was in a small cabin tucked into the ponderosa pines on a piece of forest land that Nick leased for a dollar a year. I looked down from the floor of the loft and peered through the darkness to the room below. There was an old couch, a rough table, a steel barrel converted into a wood stove. It was dark with only the phosphorous eyes of the clock looking back at me.
There was a restless movement below me. I listened for the scurry of tiny feet but couldn't hear the mice or lizards. I needed sleep and I couldn't be late for work. I needed this new job and I needed to be there by seven. The clock focused on three a.m. Too early, but I couldn't get back to sleep. The mattress was damp, the roof leaked, and the liner of my sleeping bag was wet. I got up because of that noise.
A wild timber railed the loft. I held to the rail, ducked beneath the low roof and listened through the darkness until I found it, then focused on the florescence until the numbers revealed a white sheet.
The couch was empty when I had gone to bed, but now, as the darkness slowly opened, the sheet seemed to move on its own. There was no body, no outline, no heave of breath. Then, a slim foot emerged and pushed the sheet away to reveal a slender leg. There was a subtle motion to the sheet that both excited and scared me. I couldn't remain there watching. Slowly, I backed down the wooden ladder to the room below.
Close in the darkness, the room seemed to shrink as though tiny fingers of rain pushed against the flimsy walls. Then, I was next to a woman. I could hear her breathe. Not sleep, too much intention in her calm breath, then her voice soft and seductive.
"Couldn't sleep," she said. Whether question or admission, I couldn't tell. But her tone was easy and her skin pale. Her knee wandered up and formed an arrow that slipped from its sheath. Her thigh pointed away from the sheets and just made me all the more aware of this impossibility. Where did she come from? We were miles from town, surrounded by a hard landscape of rock and forest.
"Who are you?"
"Chu'a, Nick's sister," she explained.
"How did you? I mean it's crazy wet out there."
"It is, but I'm good in water and I'd rather be in the storm than cramped into Nick's tiny hut ." Then she added, "I like it."
I followed her voice, found her close enough to touch, was listening to her words, but there was this other conversation between us, something invisible, electric.
"The rain." She brought me back. "Not the hut. It's miserable over there." Her voice was a whisper.
Her tone was invitation enough and she was beautiful. Long black hair that even in that feeble light seemed to glimmer as though dusted with metal, her eyes shone wide and almond. I drifted into those eyes and her long silken neck. She slid the sheet aside and I was with her, or so I thought.
The alarm rang. I popped up thinking I was still in the loft and that I had been dreaming, but I could see the slick surface of a pine beam above me. Not dawn, but lighter in the slow shift of darkness. I felt the smooth fabric, too thin for a sheet, 'What is it?' I wondered. There was no weight, but the sheet was warm and comforting. My hands moved beneath it searching for her strong slim body, but there was only the damp couch and the sheet and the shrill noise from the clock; I couldn't be late.
I found my clothes, put on the khaki work shirt with N.A.U. stitched above the pocket, slid into the matching pants. Slipping into the maintenance uniform was like sliding through time, and it reminded me of the two years of camouflage and army green. I was apprehensive about this new routine. Yet, the pants were creased and new and smelled like the clothing aisle at Sears. I pulled on my boots and smelled the pine and chainsaw fuel left from a long summer of killing trees. For a second, I wished my life could still be as simple as sweat and saw oil, but that was over. I had a real job now. There was no time for breakfast, no time to think about it. I needed to be in Flagstaff by seven. It was a thirty minute drive on a good day, and with all this rain, it could take an hour.
My chevy pickup growled through the curves of a Forest Service road until the Static finally cleared from the radio and tires hit pavement on I-89 heading south to Flagstaff. KHLS played the national anthem. Six thirty, right on time, and that was good. It was Friday, the end of week one. My effort to get there early every day was paying off; the boss seemed friendlier, and I hoped I could work this job into a permanent position.
That morning dragged on forever. Though I was trying to focus on my job, trying to look at each detail, to coat the drywall mud evenly over each seam, I could feel the smooth feel of her limbs as I softened my hold on the wooden handle. I couldn't concentrate. All I could think about was her skin. The night before was like a dream; I couldn't tell if Chu'a was real. I just wanted to make it through the day and get back to the cabin.
"Hey wake up." Honi nudged me. "You stoned again?"
We were on coffee break. Honi was describing his ride into work, but I hadn't been listening.
"The Rez is like one big puddle of blood. It's a damn good thing I got a Power Wagon. If I had one of them cheap Navajo pickups, one of them Chevies like you drive, I would still be up to my ass in mud."
He looked me over like he had just cut me and wanted to see the wound. We called him Honi, because his Hopi name was unpronounceable. He didn't live in Oraibi, but up on no man's land: a disputed section of baked clay that both Navajo and Hopi had been fighting over for generations. He was short and wiry, in his late thirties, with black hair that spiked into a dark bush. He always wore white painter's pants and a white t-shirt.
"I'm the one that made it to work on time," I told him.
"Rain keep you up? That why you so dazed? That tipi's not so good in rain, is it?"
"I'm not in the tipi." I reminded him.
"This rain is all your fault, White Butt. When you put that cheap Navajo tipi up, you pissed off the Kachinas, and now we're all getting pissed on."
He chuckled, but his eyes weren't laughing. I had no idea what he thought of me. I just knew that the rest of the crew ignored me. I could tell they didn't like the intensity of my work ethic. I finished my assignments way too fast.
"A woman showed up at my cabin last night." I told him.
"So you're all fucked out is that it?"
"It's like a dream, man. The rain was pounding. I get up and there's this woman sleeping on the couch."
"Lucky you. I wake up and there's a rug rat kneeing me in the balls. The last time I had sex was-- let's see, how old is that kid-- must have been two years. Hopi women! Everything is about the kids." He reached over and grabbed what was left of my cheese danish. There were lots of benefits working for the "U": two coffee breaks with donuts and danish, free lunch at the main chow hall. "You mind?"
"Knock yourself out."
"She one of those hippy bitches?"
"Chu'a. She said her name was Chu'a," I told him.
He stopped mid- bite and just looked at me. I could see frosting on his lip. Soft black hair, not whiskers, shadow. His eyes opened: brown and deep. He focused like he had just noticed me, and I was suddenly important. "Chu'a?" He finished the roll. "Chu'a is a Hopi name," he said, "Showed up on the couch. Wow, that's mysterious."
"She didn't look indian. She was white."
"Indians aren't born brown, you idiot. If they never go in the sun, they stay just as white as your white butt."
"She was way whiter than me. It's like her skin was so white it glowed."
"Yeah, well, any hippie chick could steal a Hopi name. No Chu'a would be with you. Chu'a is Snake Woman: numero uno of Hopi lore: mother of Snake Clan, bringer of rain, protector of crops, the center of our most sacred ceremony. You should see it man: the snake dance. Oh! sorry, we don't let white butts in there. It would freak you out."
"She has this sheet. It shined way more than what a reflection could do, and it was super thin and warm."
"Maybe Snake Woman shed her skin," he joked.
My everyday clothes were dark with fuel and saw oil. Now that there was a woman in my life, it was time to clean up my act, so I stopped at Duds & Suds on the way home.
Whoever thought of the bar/laundry idea was a genius. I shoved everything into a wash machine then went over for a beer. There were two Indian women laughing and talking loudly. I sat at the other end and ordered a Bud. The place seemed worn out for such a novel idea; the bar was formica, and the plastic skin on the stool was blistered. Wash machines chugged in the background. I was reading the instructions on a small box of fabric softener when one of the woman walked by.
" Figure it out, Blue eyes?" she asked.
"I just want to get it right," I told her as I set the small box down and looked at her. She was Navajo. Not old style; there was no thick turquoise clasp holding her long black hair. Her hair was short: a dark curtain pulled to her shoulders. There was a heavy silver buckle on her tight jeans.
"You just have to put it in," she said as she walked unsteadily toward the wash machines. She lifted the lid and poured her beer into one of the washers.
"Does that work?" I asked as she passed me on her way back.
"How would I know," she said. "I never do laundry."
I hesitated at the dryer. My clothes still smelled like gasoline and I worried about that initial spark setting them off. 'What if my jeans explode?' I thought, but there wasn't time to wash them twice. Two beers pushed against my bladder, so I threw the clothes into the dryer, fed the thing a handful of quarters, and made sure there were no flames as I watched my old life roll.
The place was eerily quiet when I returned from the Men's room, and I was surprised that my dryer had already stopped. The only person left was the gray-haired attendant, folding shirts. The Navajo women were gone and so was my laundry.
When I told Honi about it, he said they were witches. He said they didn't care about my worn out clothes. They just needed a bit of my skin or a fingernail or a piece of my hair to hex me. They could turn me into a coyote or a slave, and he wouldn't be surprised if I ended up chained to a K-mart mattress in a hogan up some isolated wash deep in the Rez. He said I would wake up one morning with a two hundred pound squaw sitting on my face.
Of course, I didn't know anything about witches. I actually felt liberated by the loss of my clothes. Walking out of Duds & Suds half-lit, I embraced that soaking sky, let the rain wash into my NAU shirt and felt the Sears drip out of it. I felt brand new and hoped for a miracle as the starter cranked; I hoped the rusty truck wouldn't fail me, that there would be no more flat tires or broken head gaskets.
Rain washed pine needles over the windshield, and I hoped I'd seen the last of killing trees. I wanted to settle into this new job. My brain was working overtime. I imagined a new life with Chu'a in the space between rain drops.
Wipers clacked to a Jackson Brown song as I drove out of town. One that wants to own me, played over in my mind and I wondered if Chu'a was the one. I didn't know anything about her. We hadn't talked at all. I couldn't tell how old she was, nor did I care. Her skin was strangely cool, and her touch had become an obsession. I have never seen a woman with eyes so wide and focused. The way they held me was disconcerting, yet at the same time hypnotic.
I needed to find out more, and hoped to stop at Nick's on my way back to the cabin, but the rain wasn't cooperating. The night swelled shut, and I could feel the forest squeezing in on me. The steering wheel pushed against my chest. My face was two inches from the windshield, trying to see, but somehow I missed Nick's place. In fact, the entire drive seemed oddly foreign. The road should have been familiar, but a cold feeling pierced me, and I feared that I had missed my turn, and was heading up smaller and smaller tributaries until finally I would run out of gas someplace high on the mountain and die alone and cold. The road was too narrow to turn around, and I was looking for a pullout when I saw the cabin in my headlights and realized I was home.
There was no light in the window, no smell of supper when I opened the door. Damp and dreary, all my expectations drowned on entering that room. I struck my lighter and stumbled in the flickering light until I found a kerosene lamp. Once lit, it glowed over the table, the chair, the ice chest, but no Chu'a. My heart sank; I was ready to move out, to drive back to Flagstaff. I could check into the Du beau Motel, and leave it all behind. Then I saw the sheet spread over the couch. Chu'a was not here, but at least there was proof that I hadn't imagined her.
That got me going, and before long a fire crackled in the barrel stove. I straightened the place up like I was expecting a date. I drank one of the cheap beers from the ice chest and polished off most of the lunch meat. I got out of my wet clothes, found a good book, and slipped naked under the fabric with the hope that she would arrive.
My head propped on the arm rest, I pretended to read a Joseph Conrad novel, but the smell and feel of her engulfed me. I counted every breath , each rain drop, the leaky drip, the constant ticking of the clock.
Who was I kidding? No one could find their way in this rain. She was probably fast asleep at Nick's. Hope faded into a paralytic slumber that bound me to the timeless dark until the strange noise became familiar, closer now, like the rustling of small seeds within a dry husk, leaves scratching across a window pane, then further still, a distant sound from childhood, and I was lost in the comfort of memories. There was a soft rattle and a woman's voice, but it was not my mother's. I was no longer a child for I could feel the cool touch of her hand as she caressed me.
" It's been so long," she said.
"Have you been at Nick's?" I asked. My heart was bursting. "Is that where you stay? What do you..."
"Shhh." Her finger touched my lips. Her legs wrapped me strong and sure, and I gave her everything I had for I wanted to please her, for her to know that I needed her. After everything was gone, after that last heaving breath, I fell deeply into sleep dreaming of coyote, wolves, and buffalo.
When morning broke, the door creaked, and my eyes opened. Sunrise stretched into the dark room and the low sun washed over the rough table, set fire to the chair, tasted the damp floor boards then engulfed everything in its burning pool. Beyond the door, a bright light reflected off the black metallic pattern of a timber rattler as it slithered away. The opaque husk of its rattle shook ever so softly.
My short fiction has been published in: Riverbanks to Mountaintops,
and Pine Knots. I have published poetry in: A Blackberry Sun, and
DAWN INTO THE DAY
The soap melts itself to the holder. On it sits the tarantula of hair, thicker than any hair has a right to be, kinked and curled like a black question mark.
Maybe it's an omen. Maybe being on the wrong side of the conjugal line makes Dawn think that way. She showers without soap, shakes her head under the spray, presses her fingers against the tiles, rehearses the lies she will tell Rick.
Lashing her wet hair back, she resolves to enjoy these last hours under the Tropicana sun. City of lights and glitz. Tony, in the outer room, sings a tune from last night's show. Tony with the games of passion and lies.
Tony is who Rick used to be. Barely house-broken and wild and wonderful, a spark to her suburban life. In a dozen years, Tony will wear the checked shorts, his bleached legs marching back and forth behind a mower, drinking beer from a can, tying trout flies Saturday nights.
Last night brings a smile: the tacky wallpaper, the heart-shaped bed, the art that comes with the frame. A town where no one tells, where the signs are bigger than the venues, where withered ladies tote pails of pennies, where losers pretend to win.
Dawn flicks at the hair, dislodging it, blowing it down the tiles to the floor, nudging it to the drain with a toe. Turning off the spray, she steps out and reaches for the towel.
Tony still sings in the outer room. Probably dancing naked to the swaying palms out the window. She pulls on the khakis, the turtleneck that covers the marks. Checking her watch, she opens the door.
BIO:Dietrich Kalteis is a writer living in West Vancouver, Canada.
Twenty-six of his short stories have been published over the past two
years. His screenplay MILKIN' DILLARD has been optioned to Bella Fe
Films/Los Angeles, and a collection of his short stories entitled BIG
FAT LOVE is being published by Cantarabooks.
Artwork by Dan Williams
Nathan Emmett Watson
A boy is scraped. A small cloth Band-Aid sticks to his right knee. His scratched bicycle lies in the grass. This time, the front wheel is bent. His left knee is gooey with blood. He cups a hand over it, so the blood doesn't get on the carpet. A black-and-white horror movie plays on the TV. A girl in a dirt-smudged sun dress stands on a wicker kitchen chair. She's on her tippy toes. The chair creaks. Its vinyl cushion stretches and pops. She reaches into the cabinet, stretching for a little box with a red plus sign. She walks into the living room empty-handed. The boy is crying. The girl looks at his gummed up knee. Her finger moves along the pink edges of the wound. She looks at the finger and wipes it on the hem of her dress. She blows on the scrape. She tells him it needs covered. She tells him to trust her because she is a nurse. She has a plastic stethoscope and a chocolate stain on her dress. He slides a dirty fingernail underneath the Band-Aid to peel the edge back. He mashes his teeth together and slowly works the adhesive cloth away from his skin. The girl says he is taking too long, that longer he waits, the more it will hurt. She takes over. She pulls fast, but the bandage snags at the gauze. It is brownish-pink and wet. He says it won't stick to the other knee. He tells her it stings. She asks which. He says both. She tells him it's almost over, that the bloody knee needs covered. She says she wants to help him. She grabs the bandage, harder this time. He tells her no and smoothes it back down over the scab. Both knees still hurt. She covers the wound with a pretend Band-Aid and gives him an invisible lollipop.
The boy is sitting on the floor watching TV, when his mother Julia comes home. It is past five o'clock. His left knee is red and crusty. On the screen, Lon Chaney Jr. has transformed from Lawrence Talbot into the wolf man. Julia leaves the room and comes back with a brown plastic bottle and some cotton. She pulls Sean up from the floor. They sit together in the blue recliner.
"Sean, are you okay?" She blots at him with a pinch of wet cotton. "I've told you time and again, you have to be careful, especially when I'm gone. What would happen if you had really hurt yourself? I can't always watch you like a hawk, you know."
"It's not my fault. I was playing rocket bikes in the yard. By the time I got to the doghouse, my tire was wobbly." His knee bubbles from the peroxide. He sucks air in through his teeth.
"What?" Julia looks up from his knee.
"Rocket bikes," Sean says. "The tree is base. The old doghouse's the launch pad. Once I reach the launch pad, then the rocket jets kick in and shoot me out into space. That's when I have to fight off the space goblins."
One of Julia's eyebrows is higher than the other. "You know my rule about being outside. And where was Ellen?"
"She was with me. She was my space dog."
"Your space dog?"
"Yeah, a rocket biker doesn't go anywhere without his space dog. Everyone knows that."
"You turned your sister into a dog?"
"Well, after that, she was a nurse."
Julia tells him how important it is for him to look after Ellen. She tells him that his sister looks up to him. She scolds him. Then she lets him have an ice cream sandwich from the freezer. She tells him she will try to fix his bike. She tries to fix
After dinner, he rewinds the old tape and plays Wolf Man again.
"You are going to wear that tape out," Julia says.
"You want to watch it with me?" He slides over in the recliner.
"Maybe next time."
Sean finishes his chicken nuggets and watches the laundry spin on and on. He wipes his barbecue-covered fingers on the pages of a cover-less US Weekly. Ellen wears a knit cap and plays with her new Barbie. The man sits at another table - the chair back between his legs - and, with a fingernail, scratches the silver dust from a lotto ticket. Later, Sean and Ellen decide to play underwater explorer and take turns putting each other inside the dryers while the man leans over the counter to talk to the lady who changes dollar bills and sells detergent singles. Now it's Sean's turn in the dryer. He pushes his hands on the warm glass door and pretends he is peering out of a submarine porthole, staring at the empty ocean floor.
Once the clothes are dry, the man puts his kids in his Oldsmobile. Sean sits between Ellen and the man on the vinyl bench seat. He tells the man to drive faster. The tires yelp a few times and the engine screams. He pretends they are rushing to the other end of town so the man can save the world by beating up some bad guys with guns. The windows are down. Sean likes the way the warm air turns cold when the man drives fast. He leans against the man and buries his cheek into the man's flannel arm. It smells of Brut cologne. Sean asks him to come inside and watch Wolf Man, like he used to. The man asks Sean to tell his mother that there is no check this time. He drops them off at the end of their road, and Sean goes into the house to rewind the tape.
A few days later, Sean finally talks his mother into watching it with him. They both sit in the blue recliner and drink root beer, but his mother is too thin. She isn't like his father, who took up the entire chair. She doesn't smell like Brut, the stuff in the green bottle, the stuff Sean misses seeing in the medicine cabinet. He remembers falling asleep on his father's chest, every single time. He remembers his father would always put his hands under his ribs whenever the film would build up to a scary part or a wolf would howl at the moon. Julia sends text messages during the movie. Sean doesn't fall asleep. Julia gets up and rewinds the tape as soon as it is over.
"So," he says. "It's awesome, isn't it?"
Julia taps her phone and puts it in her pocket. "Yeah, it's okay. That stuff is more of your father's thing than mine, though."
"Oh." He stares at the floor. "Well, maybe you would like it if you really watched it and didn't text through the whole thing."
"I watched it. I just didn't get into it."
"Yeah, well maybe you would if you weren't too busy talking to one of your boyfriends."
She crosses her arms at her chest. "That sounds like something your father would say."
The next morning, Julia's car doesn't start. She calls in sick. The kids stay inside and play all day.
Ellen dances around the living room floor with a pair of orange scissors in her hand. Piles of her brown hair lie at her feet. Sean describes her head as patchy. He sits at the coffee table and rolls balls of red and white Play-doh. Ellen scoops up the hair and piles it onto the table. Lon Chaney Jr. is on the television screen, buying a cane with a silver handle.
Ellen brings in Julia's makeup. Sean gets the super glue. Then, he smooshes the ball of red Play-doh and pinches up the edges. He asks Ellen if it looks like gums. She wobbles her hand from side to side. He works with it more. Ellen starts making teeth from the white Play-doh. Sean makes the last two teeth. His fingers roll across the tip, making a point. Together, they press the teeth into the gums.
She puts the makeup all over his face. Then, she covers it in superglue. The hair goes on easily at first. Then, the glue starts to dry. She adds more. Things get gummy, but the hair goes on. Ellen asks what she is going to be. Sean hangs a pillowcase from her head and tells her that she is a gypsy. She takes his palm. She says he has a curvy life line. Then, she tells him that he will turn into a werewolf and makes hocus pocus with her fingers. He laughs and shoves the Play-doh teeth in his mouth.
Sean heads out the back door. He slumps low to the ground and creeps towards the front of the house. He rounds the corner and looks at his mother in the driveway. She lies beneath their Toyota. He only sees her feet. The wrenches sound cold as they clank against the metal. He slinks towards her, moving his haunches.
Then, he howls and sinks his Play-doh teeth into her ankle.
She kicks him in the mouth. He tries to scream through the mashed up Play-doh.
She pulls herself out from under the car. "Sean, my god! Are you okay?" She takes him inside. She pulls the wet Play-doh out of him and rinses his mouth under the faucet. She wipes off most of the makeup, except for what's left under the glued hair. She pulls two chunks of hair off. He cries and makes her stop. She lets him have an ice cream sandwich and goes back to the car.
Sean still has the hair on his face when the man picks him up again in the Oldsmobile. Ellen stays at home. Sean still sits in the middle. This time they go to the McDonald's, then to a tire shop. There is more laundry. Then, the Oldsmobile speeds back towards Sean's house. This time they go faster. The wind is colder. Sean digs deeper into the man's shirt. This time they have to save people from a ticking bomb. The tires screech around the corners because they have to. There isn't much time. The Oldsmobile only has a few seconds to get there before the bomb goes off, but it stops in front of his house.
"You want to come in?" Sean rubs his cheek against the man's breast pocket. He tries to soak up all of the Brut. "We can watch Wolf Man."
"Listen, we need to have a little talk." The man nudges Sean up and puts his hands on the boy's shoulders. "Don't you think you are taking this whole werewolf thing too far? Your mom sent me a text about Ellen's hair. She's not very happy with you."
"You should watch the movie. It won't take too long. Just once." He has the corner of the man's shirt in his hand. He tugs. "We can sit in your old chair."
"You have to put that stuff behind you. Grow up a little." His hands wring the steering wheel. "Get some reality. The wolf man isn't real."
"What's so damn great about the wolf man, anyway? He's just a dog. You know what dogs do, really? They chase your goddam tires. That's all."
Sean pulls harder on the shirt. "I'm not getting out of the car unless you say you'll come inside. I just want to watch it with you. One time. That's all."
The man's chest falls. He looks at his watch. "It won't be too long?"+
"Nope." Sean smiles.
"Alright. Give me a minute, though. I have to call and cancel some plans. Go ahead and start the tape. If you don't fast forward through the previews, I will be in before the movie actually starts."
Sean slides across the vinyl seat and opens the door. The sun is gone. The wind blows hard. He looks back at the Oldsmobile and smiles. The headlights come on and it jumps to life. The tires screech. The front door to the house flies open. It's Ellen. The Olds screams and leaves a comet's tail of red light behind it. Sean jumps from the porch and runs after the car, not the trail of light, but what is in front of it. His animal heart bangs against his ribs as he chases the car, chases the tires, with Ellen running behind him, grasping for his hairless hand.
MAKING AMENDS IN THE SUMMERTIME
Ben Palmer sat on the concrete step at the edge of the walk leading up to Mrs. Fry's front lawn. It was hot. Blistering hot. And humid. Sweat poured down his neck, running over his back and arms. It wasn't even noon; he'd be exhausted and ready for a nap before lunch. He might be too exhausted to eat lunch. He didn't think it was fair. He unscrewed the top from the bottled water Mrs. Fry gave him when he knocked on her front door, announcing he was here to cut her grass.
"Well," she said, with her school teacher expression, "it's awfully hot out there this morning. How about some water?"
"Sure." She'd been retired since his mother had her in school and that had to be over thirty years ago. His mother made a point of telling him about Mrs. Fry every chance she got.
"Mrs. Fry is one of the reasons I majored in education." She made it sound like it was an earth changing moment when the light bulb went off over her head and she found what she wanted to do the rest of her life. The rest of her life which would probably change once he was finished with college.
"I'm not sure I even want to go to college," he told her when the subject came up.
"What do you plan on doing?"
He'd shrug his shoulders, implying there was plenty he could do without an education.
He closed the bottle and stretched before starting up the mower and finishing the lawn. He caught movement at the lace curtains from the corner of his eye as he made his way back and forth over the zoysia. When the grass was mowed, he put the mower back in the garage and began edging and trimming. He'd finished the job in under an hour and was soaking wet.
"Well, it certainly looks nice," Mrs. Fry told him when he rang the doorbell to collect payment.
"Thanks." He pocketed the cash and handed her the bottle for recycling.
"See you next week," she called as he headed down the walk. He nodded and waved, walking away thinking not if he could find a way out of coming back.
He'd been cutting grass since the beginning of June. After Ben and his parents sat at the round kitchen table where they were supposed to be equals and discussed ways Ben could earn money over the summer.
"How about working at Fortino's?" They needed help at the video store, an idea suggested by his best friend Mike and quickly vetoed. Mike was one of the reasons he was in his current predicament -- the totaled car now at the junkyard.
"You need something that doesn't involve commuting in a motor vehicle." He hated the way his mother said "motor vehicle" like it was a four letter word.
His shirt was sticking to his skin and he thought he might stop by the house and change shirts before his next job.
"The nice thing about cutting grass," his father said, "is you can stay in the neighborhood." There were plenty of old people like Mrs. Fry who couldn't or wouldn't cut their own lawns any more -- "Those days are over" she told him when he first approached her about the job. And, young couples who worked and didn't want to cut the grass when they got home. Especially, when it was this hot.
"Ben will do a good job and the cost will be reasonable," his mother told prospective customers. Walking door to door with her when they'd first settled on the best way to pay them back had been more humiliating than anything else in the whole horror his life was becoming this summer.
"And," his mother smiled, "everyone has their own equipment." Otherwise, he'd need a truck to carry the mower from house to house.
The back door was open and he could hear the television in the kitchen. His mother was scrubbing the floor and looked up as he stood on the threshold. "Don't walk on my clean floor," she ordered. Her hair was flying out from beneath the red bandana meant to keep stray strands out of her face. "You're not finished already are you?" She stuck her brush back in the soapy water and then dropped it on the floor where she continued to scour the surface. He felt sorry for any dirt that stood in her way.
"No." He watched her for a moment wondering why she had the door open when it was so hot outside. "Isn't the air conditioning on?"
"I turned it off till I finish." She worked her way towards the door from the kitchen to the hallway. "This place needs airing out." She was big on airing out the house, sometimes leaving the door open in the middle of winter if she'd been cooking something with an odor that would cling to every surface for days.
Ben thought his mother would have been a good pioneer woman, forging ahead in the bleak reality of life, happy to sweep out the dirt floor of her sod house and burning cow chips for fuel.
"Did you finish Mrs. Fry's lawn?"
"Yes." She worried a lot about Mrs. Fry.
"Well, that's good. I'd hate for you to disappoint her." She dropped the brush in the bucket designated for rinsing out the soapy brush. Pressing her hands into the small of her back as she stretched, she said, "What's next?"
"The Hamiltons." The young couple across the alley.
"Good. Come home for lunch after that." It wasn't an invitation, more of an order..
He didn't move and she looked at him while she gathered up her cleaning equipment, preparing to move to the next chore. "Well?"
"I came home for a clean shirt."
"Wait right there. I'll run up and get one for you."
"Okay." He was tempted to pull off his shoes and socks and grab a soda from the refrigerator, but knew she'd hear him even though she was on another floor. She had incredible hearing when it came to his escapades.
"There," she tossed the shirt across the length of the room and he caught it.
"Thanks." He slipped out of the dirty shirt and into the clean one.
"Leave that on the rail, I'll pick it up when the floor's dry. And, don't be late for lunch."
"I won't," he called, dropping the shirt. Maybe he should go in the army.
Ben stood at the side door of the Hamlitons' garage. He jiggled the doorknob a couple of times. Andy Hamilton always left the door unlocked on Tuesday, his lawn day. He stood there for a moment, trying to decide what to do next, the sun beating down on his shoulders. He kept trying the door. He peered inside the window. Both cars were gone. Maybe Mrs. Hamilton had locked the door accidentally when she left for work.
He was about to go back home and dig their mower out of the garage when he heard someone calling. At first, he couldn't tell where the voice was coming from or what they were saying, it was high pitched and shaky.
"Hey, you, boy, what are you doing there?" Now, someone was next to him, someone with the stale smell that clung to old people's clothes.
Turning around, frustrated at the thought he'd be cutting grass until late in the afternoon, he saw old man Mauer. He was holding a large branch, raised like he meant to strike whoever the intruder might be.
"Hi, Mr. Mauer, it's me Ben," he pointed in the direction of his house. "Your next door neighbor."
Mr. Mauer moved closer, adjusting his glasses. After close examination, certain Ben was who he claimed to be, he lowered the branch.
"Ben," he dropped his weapon, "I hardly recognized you."
"Yeah." Ben nodded.
"So, what're you doing?"
"I'm supposed to cut the grass, but the garage door's locked, so I have to go home to get our mower."
"You could use mine."
He started to steer Ben in the direction of his garage, telling Ben there'd been some break-ins in garages this summer and he was keeping an eye out. "I thought you might be a crook," he laughed at the remark and Ben smiled.
"You can't be too careful," Ben said mimicking his mother.
"Yeah, yeah," Mr. Mauer fumbled with his keys trying to unlock his own door. "People are too trusting. They leave doors unlocked when it isn't safe. Lucky for Andy and Marie I'm home during the day." The lock finally gave and Mr. Mauer pushed the button on the side wall raising the overhead door. "I like to keep an eye on things."
"Sure." Ben's eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside the garage. Yard tools were organized and hanging in racks along two walls. His mother would appreciate the layout. She was constantly trying to get his father to straighten out their garage. She'd hinted he might want to take on that project next to help pay them back. Parked next to the east wall was the red Mustang Mr. Mauer had owned since it was new. Ben couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Mr. Mauer driving it. "Nice car," he said, standing next to it, wanting to rub his hand along the polished metal.
"My pride and joy." Mr. Mauer was maneuvering the mower towards the alley. He stopped for a moment, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a large hanky.
"Don't you drive it any more?" Ben asked.
Mr. Mauer was at the driver's side, next to Ben. "No." He shook his head forlornly. "My daughter made me promise not to."
"Why?" Ben knew Mr. Mauer was old, but he looked like he would still be able to drive. He'd been the one neighbor who wasn't interested in employing Ben to cut his grass.
"I think I'm still able to do some things," had been his answer when Ben approached him at the beginning of the summer. And, he did. The hottest part of the day, Mr. Mauer was in the yard, pulling the mower back and forth. It took longer than if Ben were doing it, but he didn't have anything else to do.
"It's too bad Edie's gone," Ben's mother lamented watching the elderly neighbor labor in the sun. "She'd make him cut it earlier in the day."
Evenings, Mr. Mauer sat on the patio, usually with one of buddies drinking beer. Ben's mother supposed one of his friends brought it, since she doubted Marcia would bring it along on her weekly visit with groceries. Sometimes, she took her father along with her to the store and sometimes, she took him out for a junket or dinner.
"Poor Victor," was how Ben's mother characterized him. "He'd be better off in some sort of retirement community."
"My daughter doesn't think I'm capable of driving any more. She wouldn't go with me to renew my license last year." He stood, stunned by the memory. "Takes a little part away."
"Huh?" Ben didn't understand what Mr. Mauer said.
"Takes a little part of who you are away." He looked at Ben like he was seeing him for the first time. "Of course, you don't understand. You're way too young. Your whole life's ahead of you." He wiped his forehead again and stuck the hanky in his pocket. Ben noticed the marks along the pocket welting; oil from Mr. Mauer's hands pressing against the fabric. Left there from not being pretreated in the laundry or not having been washed for a while. He hated that he knew about pre treating stains. His mother wanted him to learn how to do laundry.
"Someday, you'll be on your own. I won't always be around to clean up after you. It's good to know these things." Then, she'd add, "I'm making some girl very happy."
"Let's go for a ride," Mr. Mauer's face lit up, as he made the suggestion, the mower and grass cutting at the Hamiltons forgotten. "You can drive." His hand was on the chrome handle, keys jangling. "We'll put the top down."
"I don't know," Ben hesitated. It was too tempting. They could pull out of the garage without his mother ever knowing. He doubted she was still in the kitchen. Her routine was kitchen, downstairs bathroom and then upstairs bathroom. He calculated by now, she was close to starting on the upstairs bathroom and with that window facing the street, she'd never know. He wouldn't drive down their street.
"Mr. Mauer?" Ben was turning the key in the ignition, his heart pounding, expecting to be caught behind the wheel at any moment. His mother had a sixth sense about everything he did that was against her rules. He'd never been able to get away with anything. Even when she didn't know, she knew. Beads of sweat popped on his forehead and he was having second thoughts about taking the car for a spin in spite of the fact Mr. Mauer kept assuring him Ben was doing him a favor.
"It needs to be driven," he kept repeating while Ben tried to get it started.
"Yes, Ben." He was adjusting the visor on the passenger side.
"The plates are good aren't they?" He hadn't bothered to check that when he'd accepted the offer to drive the car.
"Sure, sure. You need to back out slow," Mr. Mauer's left arm rested on the back of the white bucket seat, looking out into the alley. "You never know when some kid will come running through the alley or dart out of some yard. Always worried about that."
"Yeah." Ben's mother had lectured him enough times on that subject when he was one of the kids playing in the alley and when he first started to drive.
"You can never be too careful," the words that came to haunt him.
"Insurance?" He'd eased out of the shade of the garage and the sun was beating down on them.
Mr. Mauer lowered the top and pushed the button on the garage door opener, closing the overhead door. "Of course. The only thing not legal to drive is me." Then they were at the end of the alley, Ben's eyes darting left and right to make sure his mother didn't see him.
The car seemed a little stiff, at first, but once they drove a couple blocks, Ben began to settle into the feel of driving the car. "It's beautiful," he told Mr. Mauer over the road noise.
"What?" Mr. Mauer held his hand up to his ear. He was wearing a baseball cap to cover the balding spot on the top of his head and had fished out a pair of aviator sunglasses from the glove box.
"The car's beautiful," Ben repeated at the red light.
Mr. Mauer was grinning. "She sure is." The light changed and he suggested they take the car on the highway.
"Are you sure?" Mr. Mauer nodded his head and Ben turned left. They drove a few miles and then turned around, heading for home. Ben temporarily forgetting about the restrictions placed on him for the summer and the obligations he had to complete before supper.
Supper. He hadn't had lunch. He checked his watch. It was close to twelve. His mother would start looking for him. "We'd better get back," he told Mr. Mauer at the highway exit, waiting for the green light.
"I guess." Mr. Mauer looked dejected. "Do you want to stop for a burger some place?"
Ben liked the idea of pulling up some place in the car. Driving along city streets, people stopped and stared at the red car tooling down the road. It would be a waste not to take advantage of the situation.
"Not today, Mr. Mauer, but maybe another time." He had no idea what he'd tell his mother when he got home and didn't look hot and sweaty from mowing the Hamiltons' lawn. He didn't want to lie. He wasn't very good at it and the truth usually came out.
He wanted to scoot down in the seat as they came to the alley. "Can you pull it in the garage?" Ben asked. He'd had some problems with his family's garage.
"Sure." Ben waited till they were directly behind Mr. Mauer's and then hopped out while Mr. Mauer took his place in the driver's seat.
"You know, Ben," he rubbed his hands gently over the steering wheel, "when I bought this car, Edie said it was my mid life crises. It was more than that. I've had it over forty years and don't plan on getting rid of it."
"I can understand that," Ben smiled. He didn't understand the mid-life crises thing, but he could understand loving the machine.
"My daughter wants me to give it to my grandson. She says it's pointless to keep something I can't drive anymore. But as long as everything's current on it, I don't see why not."
"Yeah." The backyard of his house was noticeably quiet which made him ansty.
"Maybe we can do this again soon," Mr. Mauer smiled. "Stop for burgers."
"Maybe," Ben said and stood at the gate while Mr. Mauer maneuvered the car back in the garage. Ben cringed a couple times when he got a little too close to the walls of the Hamiltons' garage.
"Oh, Mr. Mauer," Ben rushed into the garage just before the overhead door came back down.
"Yes, Ben?" He had his regular glasses on again and the top was going up.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't say anything to my parents about this."
"Sure, sure, Ben, not a problem."
"I guess I'd better get back to work."
"Do you want my mower?"
"No, thanks. I'll get ours."
Then Ben opened the side door to his family's garage, grabbed their mower and slipped back to the Hamiltons' to mow the lawn. He completed the work in record time, wiping sweat from his eyes. His mother would start looking for him soon.
When he finished the edging and trimming, he rolled the mower back home and was cleaning up the edger and trimmer. His mother stuck her head out the back door. "Where have you been?"
"At the Hamiltons'."
She gave him a funny look and then told him lunch was ready and to come inside. "You can finish that up afterwards."
"Okay." He leaned the lawn tools against the fence and made sure the gate was closed. He sprinkled his hands with water from the hose and then went inside.
"Take off your shoes," his mother called to him on the back porch.
"Yes, maam," he called back, careful to brush the grass from the bottom of his shorts.
"What took you so long?" his mother asked, setting his plate in front of him.
"Mrs. Hamilton forgot to unlock her garage, so I had to come home to get our mower. Mr. Mauer offered to lend me his and then we started talking."
"Poor Victor," his mother shook her head as she sat down across from him. She was still wearing her bandana which meant there was more scrubbing and cleaning to do. "He gets so lonely. That was nice of you to spend some time with him." She smiled and he smiled back.
BIO: Janet Yung lives and writes in St. Louis, MO. Short fiction has appeared in several on-line publications including, "Sparkbright", "Milk Sugar", and "Record Magazine".
Artwork by Dan Williams
YOU CAN BE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO BE
I was napping underneath Tina's dangling feet - she was the smallest of my two-legger family - while she sat on the old red leather couch between her dad and granddad. Every now and then she brushed her toes against the fur on the top of my head. It woke me with a tickle, but I didn't mind. Tina was my favorite being in the whole world and could do nothing that would bother me. I just lay there dozing and listening to what the old men had to say. When Tina's dad took her to the park to play with the other two-leggers her size, he was always the oldest dad there, but the other dads seemed to look up to him as if he'd been through this many times before and was full of wisdom, as if he was the dad they'd always wanted. But he'd just gotten a late start and was in the same boat as they were, though he never mentioned this. He did look more like a granddad than a dad, and with Tina sitting between him and her mother's father, the two men looked like brothers. She sat there and giggled at the silly things they said while her feet rubbed the top of my head.
"What do you want to be when you grow up, Tina?" Granddad asked.
She pointed at me, lying on the floor. "I wanna be Charlie."
Her dad smiled at her. He was a lawyer who had wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but the chemistry classes that first year in college didn't quite take. "You want to be the dog? But you can be anything you want to be when you grow up, a doctor, a lawyer."
She shook her head. "No, Charlie."
Granddad rolled his eyes at his son-in-law. "Dan, she's six years old. What six-year-old wants to be a lawyer?"
"It's never too soon to plant the idea. I think she'll make a great lawyer."
They often went back and forth like this, not agreeing, but not really disagreeing, but letting the tension build, each finding confirmations in their opinion of the other like two old men on a park bench enjoying the possibility of a fight without running the risk of actually having it. I could sense the tension in their voices rise and every time it got too high, there would be a long silence, and then the build up would begin again. I didn't like fighting, myself, or even the chance of it. Sniff the butt, sniff the face, and then move on. They called me a people dog and they were right. Not once had another dog given me a biscuit. Tina always shared. Sometimes unintentionally, like when she left her bowl of ice cream unattended.
They never said I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. I was the family dog and nothing more was expected of me. Don't chew Tina's socks. Carrying them around the house during times of excitement, like when the family returned home, was okay, but don't put any holes in them, and definitely don't swallow them. That was bad. Not only did they get pissed when I did it, they'd get pissed all over again when they found the sock in the yard. They dressed Tina in bright oranges and yellows like she was their sunflower and it made her socks easy to find. They stood out amongst all the green of the back lawn, and even passing through me couldn't fade their colors.
I was to move when told to move, be quiet when shouted at, pretty much just do what I was told. Tina had two older brothers who were old enough to speak almost as well as their parents and they were sort of in the same boat as me. They were often told what to do and shouted at when they didn't do it. Parental barking was effective, at least in the short term. The two-leggers must've learned it from us. Her brothers were frequently told they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up, but it was followed with subtly toned phrases like, if you applied yourself, or, if you could just focus, or, if you stopped hanging out with that crowd. I didn't understand the last bit because I never saw them hanging out with any crowd, but there was a lot I didn't get, like how they could be anything they wanted in the first place. Could they metamorphose like a butterfly? If I'd wanted to be a German shepherd, I couldn't because I was born a golden retriever and it was my lot in life to feel the need to always have a bone, a ball, or one of Tina's socks in my mouth. Not that I'd want to be a German shepherd. They were too stressed from being on the job all the time, alert to any two-leggers who didn't belong, and in the eyes of a German shepherd very few did, and even those who did were often suspect.
Tina's dad cocked his head at her and glanced at her granddad. "You never know. With all the lawyer shows on television, she might want to be a lawyer."
"She's six, for Christ's sake," Granddad said. "Don't you remember what it was like to be six?"
Her dad turned his hands over in his lap and pondered their wrinkled maps of time. "I don't think I was ever six. I was on the professional track from day one. My parents made sure of that. Never waste a moment. Even the games they let me play had a purpose."
Granddad chuckled. "I bet Monopoly was one of them."
Dad nodded. "Yep, sure was."
"And I bet they always told you that you could be anything you wanted to be when you grew up."
"Yeah, they did. If I set my mind to it."
I closed my eyes with a long sigh. Just give me a ball or a sock to carry in my mouth, I thought as Tina's feet rubbed the top of my head, and all is well.
A Short Story Collection
Here he was again, late, and he could see Jean at the front window as her foot tattooed a pattern on the carpet, wondering why she ever counted on him to get her anywhere, especially the airport on the day before Thanksgiving. Ron swung off the 51 and got caught at the light at the top of the ramp. The woman in the slate-blue Volvo in front of him looked in her rearview mirror, crimper clamped on her left eyelash. The light turned green. He tapped the horn. She trained her free eye on Ron in the rearview, then on the green light, then on the crimper, and back to Ron. She hit the gas on the tail end of the yellow. Ron got caught at the red and had to wait for the green to come around.
The light turned and Ron hit the gas too hard. The Mini's back tires slipped and screeched on the concrete roadway before taking hold. He gained speed through the left turn, the cars behind left at the starting gate. The black Mustang on the right, with the twin silver stripes over the length of the car from hood to rear deck, caught and passed Ron's Mini. He throttled his speed at five over the limit. The Mustang pulled away.
He passed through the next light as it turned yellow. An Eldorado pulled a right out of the Walgreen's parking lot; long nose wide into Ron's lane. He swerved to the left and punched it, squeezed between the nose and the silver Sienna in the left turn lane, then centered back on his side of the solid line.
Ron stopped the Mini at the next intersection. The Volvo sat in front of him, driver's eyes crimped and trained on the light. The green flashed and the Volvo vaulted forward, the driver's eyes focused on the rearview. Ron sent the Mini hot on her tail. At mid-block, he turned into the center turn lane for a left onto Jean's street. A landscaper's Chevy truck approached in the near lane, tarp over the towed trailer half loose, palm branches underneath ready for flight. Ron floored it, passed behind the back of the trailer and hit the brakes hard as a faded black Continental with suicide doors that had been hidden from his sight by the truck and trailer shot by in the outside lane. He punched the gas and let the Mini coast to Jean's. Ron shut the car down and hopped out. Ten minutes late.
His finger reached for the doorbell as the door flew open.
"There was an incident."
"There's always an incident and it always involves you."
"I've had it with your excuses. It's always something. A hostage situation on your street so you couldn't leave the house; or a dead koala in the road you had to protect; or an overturned armored car that spilled nickels all over the street. It's always something outrageous."
"Those were true DOOTS except for the koala. And, it was a tortoise. A live tortoise. It was crossing the road and I didn't want it hit by cars."
"Whatever. Did you ever think of picking it up and carrying it across the street?"
"And interfere with its migration?"
"It was one turtle. Not a migration."
"It was a tortoise."
"Whatever. Turtle, tortoise. It doesn't matter. You weren't here on time."
"But a car might have run over it."
"That didn't happen, did it?"
"No. Because I diverted cars until it got across the road."
"So you say. But you were late."
"But... the tortoise."
"Whatever. You were late. That's all there is to it. And ... and you stink. You smell like a campfire. Hold on. I'm not getting in the car with you smelling like that." Jean rushed to the back room and returned seconds later.
"Don't move. Keep your eyes and mouth shut." She sprayed Ron's clothes with Febreze, then shot a final heavy mist onto the top of his head. "There. That should do it." She set the plastic bottle on the coffee table. "Let's go."
Ron coughed. The back of his damp shirt clung to him. "Okay. Okay. Let's get your bag in the car." He pulled on the handle of the bright red suitcase standing like an obelisk in the middle of the living room floor. "Ugh!"
"It's not that heavy."
"You'll be charged overweight fees for this one."
"You're such a wimp." Jean hefted the suitcase, as though it weighed nothing and headed out the door. "Are you going to unlock the car for me, or do I have to do that, too?"
Penned in for three miles behind a slow-moving 1960 Rambler with its left turn signal in perpetual motion and steady streams of traffic on both sides doing 75 in a 65, Ron felt the minutes add up. He searched for an opening. Without notice, the faded yellow Rambler swung to the right into the path of a G6. The Pontiac swerved onto the right shoulder, hit the gas and powered back into its lane ahead of the yellow car. Ron gunned the Mini and slipped past the Rambler.
"Would you stop? I'm sorry I'm late. I'm driving as fast as I can. There was a fire."
Ron floored the Mini, did a three-sixty scan for HP. No way he needed a ticket, or the delay. He got the car up to 85 for three miles, then had to shut down to 55, as he came upon a string of cars stretched side by side across all lanes of the highway.
The red Corvette in the outside lane inched ahead of the others. Ron positioned the Mini a half car length behind the red car. Slowly, they created a gap in the line. Ron slipped through the opening, hit the gas and left them behind.
"You know that house two doors down from mine? The one with the wood shingle roof that's falling apart? With the dead jacaranda in the front yard? It caught on fire this morning."
"I said, don't start."
"But that's why I'm late."
"You're late because the jacaranda caught on fire? Please."
"No, the house. The house caught on fire. I mean it was like a giant bonfire. Flames shot up in the air. The top of one of the palms by the road caught fire."
"Can't you come up with a better story than that?"
"It's true. I smelled smoke and ran outside. It was crazy. Smoke was everywhere. The Ortega's stood across the street from the house. They said the Quick's were still in there. This was before the fire trucks and things got there. There was mostly smoke, but there were flames on the roof. Those old shingles caught fire like crazy. A few seconds later the Quicks came running out the front door and we thought everything was gonna be okay. Except for the house, of course. But then, someone said, "Where's Anna?" That's the Quick's littlest girl, and she's not anywhere outside."
"Let me guess. You ran into the burning building to save the little girl."
"Yeah. That's right. Mr. Quick ran back inside and I followed him. I mean, what else could I do? There was a little girl in the fire."
"You can stop right there."
"I'm just getting to the good part." Ron pulled the Mini into the next lane, passing a WalMart semi. "I ran in the front door and the living room was filled with smoke. I couldn't see a thing, not even Mr. Quick. I heard him, though, coughing. Sounded like he was gonna cough up a lung or something. It was really bad. I remembered you're supposed to stay below the smoke, so I got down on my hands and knees and I could see Mr. Quick's legs, so I crawled over to him real fast and pulled him down out of the heavy smoke. He coughed so bad I told him to go outside and I'd find Anna."
"Let me guess, you found her and ran outside with her in your arms and the whole neighborhood cheered and carried you around on their shoulders."
"Yeah. I mean, no. They didn't carry me around. But, I found Anna on her knees in the back bedroom. I crawled over to her and said, 'Come on, let's go.' But she was crying a bunch and she didn't listen. So I pulled her toward me. Part of the ceiling in the corner fell in and Anna freaked out and screamed. So, I put my arm around her waist, crawled toward the door and pulled her along beside me."
"You realize I'm not believing any of this, don't you? This is the lamest story you've ever come up with."
"Jean, no, really, this is true. Just listen."
"Ron. Do I have a choice? I'm stuck in this Hot Wheels with you until we get to the airport. It's not like I can go anywhere."
"Just listen." Ron took a deep breath. "So, we got out to the hallway and I turned toward the living room, but the smoke's so thick I couldn't see the front door. There was smoke and fire everywhere and burning things fell out of the ceiling. Like this artificial Christmas tree and other stuff. The house creaked and popped like it was about to collapse. It was crazy.
I yelled at Anna, "Where's the back door?" But she was still busy crying, so I shook her a little and asked again. She pointed to the back of the house and said something that sounded like lingerie broom, but I figured she meant laundry room, so we crawled toward the back of the house and I looked for anything that seemed like the bottom half of a washing machine."
"Can't you speed this thing up?"
"I'm driving as fast as I can."
"Not the car. I mean your story. Get to the part where the crowd carries you on their shoulders."
"Hold on, I'm almost done. And, they don't carry me on their shoulders. Okay? So, finally, I saw a doorway to the left. It was closed and I knew you aren't supposed to open doors because it helps fire spread or something. I didn't really remember that part very well, but I remembered you're supposed to feel the door and if it's hot that means there's a fire on the other side. So, I felt it and it's a little warm, but not like hot, so I took a chance and opened it, you know, because otherwise we'd end up like crispy critters."
The Mini eased into the exit lane for the airport.
"So, anyway, it turned out it's the laundry room and I saw a door at the other end, so we crawled real fast toward it. The whole ceiling was on fire. Flaming things fell and water dripped on our backs. I had trouble with the lock because the doorknob was kind of hot, but I finally got it, and we both ran outside and around the house to the street.
"It was crazy. The fire guys were running around with their hoses shooting water on the house and palm tree and an ambulance and two cop cars were there, and a news van with Sara Song from Channel Six. You know, the babe with her hair cut shorter on one side than the other, that I like, but you don't because I do? Yeah. She was there doing interviews and everything.
Ron held out his right hand, as he pulled into the departure lane for terminal four. He scanned the signs for Southwest. "See my hand, my palm, how it's still all red from grabbing the hot doorknob?"
"Yeah. Keep your hand on the wheel. Probably burned yourself making toast. I can't believe anything you say. There's always some wild story; saving little girls in burning buildings, turtles and nickels in the middle of the road..."
"It was a tortoise."
"You know what I mean. Pull over up there. I see Southwest. It needs to stop, Ron. I can't get anywhere on time with you. You're always late. You always have a wild story. It's nothing but excuses with you. Stop here. Right here. Right here. Don't you listen?"
Ron pulled the Mini into the outside unloading lane, put the car in neutral and set the parking brake. Jean unbuckled and got out of the car first. Ron followed, ran to the back and opened the door, tugged the suitcase out and onto the asphalt. He pulled the handle up and rolled the suitcase over to Jean.
"Do you think you can be on time to pick me up when I return Tuesday?" She scrunched her eyebrows into the look she makes when the only answer to give is the one she wants.
"Sure. I'll be here on time. I promise."
"You better be."
"I'll be here."
Ron leaned forward and they kissed - more a peck than an actual kiss, but at least she hadn't turned her cheek to him.
"Have a good flight. Tell your folks I said Hi."
Jean wheeled her suitcase toward the skycaps at the curb as Ron got back in the Mini. He waved goodbye and turned out into traffic, maneuvered through the cars, trucks and buses as each jockeyed for position in the lanes. Jean looked up as she retrieved her ID and boarding pass from her purse, saw a flash of the Mini as it took the far ramp up and curved out of the airport. She glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes behind schedule, but she could still make her flight.
That afternoon, at her parent's house, Jean and her mother were in the kitchen, when her father yelled from the front room. "Come quick, everyone. Honey. Jeannie. Quick before it's over."
They ran into the room unsure what to expect.
"Look. Isn't that Ron?" he said, as they entered the room. "That's Ron, isn't it? That's him on national news with what's-her-name, that girl reporter he likes. That's him. Right? Right?"
BIO: Ray Carns resides in Phoenix, Arizona. His poetry and fiction have appeared this year in THIS Literary Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, Journal of Microliterature and Bourbon Penn.
TWO AGAINST ONE
Hilda Reinhardt flopped onto a plastic and metal chair, knocking into the office's pale green wall with a bang. Her feet planted firmly on the floor, her arms crossed over a massive chest, her broad shoulders pushed the chair's back erratically. Hilda's daughter, Hope, hunched because of scoliosis, sat next to her in an identical chair, ankles crossed, hands folded. She gazed at a picture with abstract shapes in soothing pastel colors while they waited for the doctor to finish reading Hilda's chart and give a diagnosis.
Hope was an only child. Her deceased father, Oscar, had been an electrical engineer. Hilda was a retired civil engineer. She had left a German immigrant family and begun training for her profession in the days when women didn't do such work. Oscar, also a German immigrant, and Hilda planned for their "Hope" to become, at the very least, a fine architect. They later always referred to her chosen field as "one of those 'ologies."
At Chambers Community College, Hope taught sociology, a position she loved, rationalizing that she'd never married, at soon-to-be forty, even though she'd been proposed to many times, because of devotion to her students. A longtime boyfriend, Jasper Strand, also an only child, who she saw once a week on Saturday after his chores were done around the house, was an anthropology instructor at the same school, and lived in an apartment over his widowed mother's garage. They spent time together at Hope's townhouse, away from Mrs. Strand's watchfulness.
After several minutes, Dr. Marlys DeGuise looked up from the test results, probably trying to figure out how best to broach the subjects indicated. "Your MRI and brain imaging show abnormalities compared to the tests administered five years ago."
"What kind of abnormalities?" Hilda barked.
"Now, Hildagarde, I know this is hard for you to hear. You've always been so organized, so on top of things, so in control, but I have to tell you there's been changes."
"What kind of changes?"
Hope reached over and put her hand gently on Hilda's knee.
Hilda jerked away.
Hope sighed. Personality traits often strengthen, like wine or vinegar, as a person ages.
"Vascular disease with extremely high blood pressure. You are not getting enough flow to your brain."
"I feel exactly like I've always felt."
"That's part of it. You know, this is called the Silent Killer." Dr. DeGuise paused and looked at Hope, who only gave a slight shrug. "It's imperative that alterations to your life be made sooner rather than later."
"What kind of alterations?"
"You need to stop driv..."
"Stop driving? I just bought a new car!" Hilda's Honda Accord was five years old. She had purchased it after going in the ditch and totaling her Buick - thankfully, with no injuries. A fireman and a police officer called to the scene failed to detect alcohol on her breath. This was a familiar smell to Hope, who despite Hilda's protestations of "Don't contact my daughter!" had immediately come to the accident site. Medical tests soon after showed everything to be normal, and she reasoned that her mother, after a noon drink, must have fallen asleep at the wheel. This was the first time, ever, for Hope to issue a directive to her mother: No drinking and driving!
"With blood pressure in the two hundred range, you could have a major stroke at any time," Dr. DeGuise went on. "Lose control of your car. Kill an innocent bystander."
"Hmmmpf." Hilda's pressed lips failed to soften.
"And, you need to move into a retirement ho..."
"Someplace where your meds and readings can be supervised daily."
"You mean assisted living." Then, "I do a fine job taking care of my pills. Each morning I swallow them with toast and coffee."
Hope didn't mention chauffeuring her mother to Minneapolis for the MRI and brain imaging. They started off in the early morning. Hilda forgot to eat breakfast and take medicines because of the shift in her routine. By 6:00 p.m. when Hope got her back home, Hilda's systolic pressure had shot up to two hundred and eleven.
For fifteen minutes, she and Dr. DeGuise verbally sparred. The doctor took every stance trying to convince her 85-year-old patient of what needed to be done, always focusing on blood pressure as opposed to memory loss. Hilda relentlessly insisted she was fine and fully able to take care of herself in the house where she had lived for almost fifty years. "I'm going to leave feet first and not breathing. Until that time, I will not give up my automobile."
Looking at her watch, Dr. DeGuise said, "I have another patient waiting, Hildagarde. You must make these changes as soon as possible." Then, turning to Hope, "Do you have anything to add?"
"Only that Mother's drinking seems to exaggerate her forgetfulness."
"I barely drink a drop!"
"How much is a drop?"
"One at my noon meal. Oscar and I always did this."
"A glass of wine...sometimes a martini."
"How much alcohol?" When Hilda didn't answer, Dr. DeGuise held her thumb and pointer finger up, first with a space of one inch between them. "This much?" She stretched the space into at least three inches. "This much?"
Hilda clenched her hands into fists and refused to answer again.
"I'm not going to say you cannot have a drink. A glass of wine with your main meal - four ounces - is fine. But it will be in the retirement home dining room."
"I'm not going to that place."
"It's absolutely necessary." Dr. DeGuise clapped the file shut.
"What about her forgetfulness?" Hope recalled countless missed engagements.
"Approximately thirty percent of all people who reach Hildagarde's age experience moderate memory impairment. This may turn into Alzheimer's, but I'm not concerned about that right now. The blood pressure needs to be controlled or your mother won't be around. She'll either be in a nursing home, completely disabled, or in a funeral par..."
With a grunt, Hilda lumbered to a standing position, grabbed her big black purse, and marched out of the room, purposefully neglecting to say good-bye. The automatic door clattered shut.
"You're going to have a hard time," Dr. DeGuise said.
"Tell me about it!" Hope clasped her hands tightly, as if in prayer. "I don't know how this possibly will be accomplished."
"Do you have any siblings?"
"No, I'm all alone."
"Call me if you need assistance. In the meantime, get her signed up to move into Pheasant's Nest as soon as possible."
Chambers, Minnesota had one retirement/assisted living facility. Hope put her mother on their list for an apartment immediately after the car accident. But every time availabilities came up, Hilda told Burt Anderson, the manager, that she wasn't ever going to leave her house. Hope told him, "Please keep calling. Mother possibly will have to relent. I just hope a crisis that causes this won't be too bad."
While she worried about a fall or a stroke or another car accident, the years slipped by. At last, it was the diagnosis of vascular disease with accompanying dementia that forced a decision. This also pushed Hope into a place she had never been before - arbiter of her mother's well-being.
The next day, she met with Burt and signed paperwork to rent an apartment the beginning of July. Hope had a month to prepare.
First came several visits with Hilda to see all that Pheasant's Nest offered: three nutritious meals along with snacks; a van that took residents on outings for supplies, doctor's appointments, and interesting places like Red River Valley Casino or an afternoon symphony at the Chambers Performance Hall; and, most importantly, a nurse on duty at all times to monitor her health.
Hilda stomped through the halls, bellowing things like "Pheasant's Nest. Whoever came up with that stupid name?" And, "All these cripples wobbling around on walkers." And, "This place smells like dirty old people."
Hope whispered things like "We have lots of pheasants around here. I think it's a nice name." And, "Mother, please, you'll hurt their feelings." And, "It's the disinfectant. They have laundry service provided for residents and apartment cleaning once a week."
Hilda resisted with things like "I will not live someplace that sounds like it belongs in the aviary of a zoo." And, "They're probably deaf too." And, "You act like I can't manage my own chores."
During Hope's daily phone conversation to make sure her mother was still among the living, after much useless coaxing, she realized the car would have to be taken away without consent. Late one Saturday afternoon, she made a surprise visit to her mother's house with Jasper (his assigned duties completed) tagging along for help and support.
"What are you two doing here?" Hilda, still in her old gray housecoat, seemed surprised to see Hope and sneered at Jasper. That Casper Milktoast boyfriend. No wonder my daughter won't marry him, she'd often said.
"We're taking the car." Hope held shaking hands behind her S-curved spine.
Hilda stumbled for a rack in the kitchen where she and Oscar had always hung their keys. Grabbing the set for the Honda, balance regained, she charged toward her bedroom with Hope in hot pursuit.
"I don't want to have to take them. Please give them to me, Mother."
"You can't have my car. I won't let you. I called the sheriff and he said you can't take it away from me."
With the power of attorney her mother had signed shortly after Oscar's death of brain cancer, when Hilda was still thinking rationally, Hope was almost, but not quite, certain no one would keep her from carrying out this task. While Hilda still looked as substantial as ever, arthritis had stolen the strength from her fingers. One big yank and Hope took possession of the keys, tossed them to Jasper, and the two of them made a beeline for the garage. Jasper backed the Honda out and followed Hope in her Subaru to an auto parts store, where she purchased a device called The Club #3000 to disable the steering wheel in case Hilda plodded over to the townhouse and tried to drive off in her car.
There were times when she picked up the phone and immediately hung up on Hope. There were other days when she called many times, leaving troubling messages if Hope was out: reasserting that she would not move to Pheasant's Nest, stating that the sheriff would back her up, and boasting that she still had her legs to go anywhere she wanted to go.
Hope tried to reason with her mother but, after repeatedly covering the same territory, came to the conclusion that Hilda would only hear what she wanted to hear.
On another Saturday, in the morning, leaving Jasper's mother miffed about unwashed windows, the pair arrived at the house. Hope directed which furniture to put on the truck while Hilda clumped behind, repeating her mantra, "I will not leave my house!"
The movers had serviced other clients going to Pheasant's Nest and seemed blase´ about Hilda's recalcitrance, even when she grabbed one by the arm, causing him to drop an end table. Jasper hovered next to her, distracting with comments about "downsizing." And, "living more simply." And, "how much easier life will be." Hilda shot back with "You are annoying as all hell." And, "Stop driving me crazy with your nonsense." And, "Shut up, you twerp."
Jasper, bless his heart, continued the nonstop banter, and after three hours, a loaded truck headed for the retirement home. In her Subaru, Hope, Jasper, and Hilda (fuming in the backseat about having "to retrieve my belongings") brought up the rear.
Once there, Burt kept her in the lobby with talk about an addition that soon would be started and structural problems encountered. Like a tag team, Hope hurried through instructions for each piece of furniture's placement as Jasper stood guard in the apartment's entrance.
At the all-clear sign, Burt brought Hilda to her new home. "Doesn't this look great? Your daughter did a wonderful job arranging things."
"Tell those movers to come back here this minute." Hilda glared at her Trinitron television, her bookshelf to be loaded with manuals, and her cabinet that would hold awards received from various engineering projects.
"We're leaving." Hope grabbed Jasper's arm and they bolted for the exit as Burt said, "Hilda, let's take a look at the construction site. Maybe you'll have some suggestions."
That night, Hope and Jasper toasted each other with a favorite merlot. Somehow, according to a phone call from Burt, Hilda had been settled in for her first night's sleep at Pheasant's Nest. About this time, a conclusion was reached. Jasper's 86-year-old mother, a cantankerous retired schoolteacher, had begun to constantly make the same remarks and lose her keys and forget to bathe. She would be joining Hilda at Pheasant's Nest before too much longer. Hope and Jasper's first joint effort seemed to have succeeded. Feeling positive about a similar win with Mrs. Strand, they shared another toast.
The next morning, the couple left in the Subaru for a trip to Bemidji, a town in Minnesota's far north. After a spontaneous hurry-up wedding they embarked upon a weeklong camping trip in order to decompress. However, before starting the drive into no-cell-phone country, Hope parked near the statues of Paul Bunyan with his mighty blue ox and called Pheasant's Nest. The report was not good. Hildagarde had gone missing in action, presumably to squat at her old, mostly empty, house.
Jasper said, "I know this has been brutal, but we must turn around, return her to Pheasant's Nest, secure the residence." He held Hope against his concave chest as she wept, completely dampening his buttoned-to-the neck, pale blue polo shirt.
At a pause in her tears, between hiccups, she snuffled, "There'll be more butting of heads. Her dementia's not keeping Mother from going another round."
BIO: " I have an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles; have been published in such journals as Cadillac Cicatrix, Cairn, Crucible, Lullwater Review, Marco Polo Arts, SLAB, Talon Mag, among others; was a finalist in Glimmer Train's Best Start Contest; and am managing editor of The Writer's Workshop Review."
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
Gillian Lynn Katz
"Gertrude, what's wrong, my little neshamela?" Rabbi Apfelbaum said into the phone, loosening his tie which felt like a chokehold on his throat. It was another sweltering New York summer heat wave.
"Pop, I'm coming home," he heard through his daughter's broken sobs. He looked at the family picture he kept on his desk: his wife and daughter smiled like angels. He was in the middle, surrounded by their loving arms. He put down his pen. His sermon on Gay Marriage had to wait.
"You can come home any time, but why?"
Her words tumbled out through fractured sobs, "I can't work in the firm and see Donald every day."
After he coaxed, he found out that her partner, that useless two-bit good for nothing in what he thought was a big important law firm, had dumped her and run off with a shiksa. "Let them both burn in hell," he said.
Her voice cracked, "Papa that's no way for a rabbi to talk. We don't believe in hell."
His little doll was shattered. Rabbi Apfelbaum felt his temperature rising. He had to be careful not to have another heart attack. "I hope they both go to the Christian hell with their half-breed children."
He heard her sob grow louder.
"Please Papa....I have nowhere else to go right now."
He had paid thousands of dollars for her to go to Cornell, and then to Cardozo Law School. "That big important law firm in Boston is no good?" No amount of coaxing dissuaded her. She was giving up. Something he had taught her never to do.
She was coming home in a broken heap.
He hung up the phone and picked up his pen and thought about his sermon. How could he validate gay marriage? He believed strongly in marriage, children, grandchildren; the propagation of the Jewish race. But what he was now being told to do, was to say "yes" to what his core beliefs told him to say, "definitely not."
He, who had given his daughter everything that life had to offer, and look at her! And now he had to write about something so wrong: men marrying men and raising children together; and women doing the same thing. He felt that his whole world was turning topsy turvy. Right was wrong and wrong was right. No!
Rabbi Apfelbaum had attended many conferences and the halachah (The Jewish Law) was read and debated over, time and time again. In his day faygelas didn't get married. Now, today, everyone wanted their rights: women's rights, gay rights, lesbian rights. Oy vey. What was this world coming to? He opened his Bible to the words in Leviticus 18:22. There it was in plain English, the sacred words of God. It told him that it was an abomination for a man to lie with another man. He had turned to that verse so often that his thumbprint was smudged on the page. And now, on top of this, younger rabbis were insisting he write about gay marriage. They wanted him to also write a sermon on abortion. May God forgive him. How could he write on abortion? He put the pen down and rubbed his eyes, thinking of the Jewish babies in Europe that had been wiped out. And now they wanted him to give permission to kill more Jewish babies. He wanted to cry. He took off his glasses, rubbed his tired eyes, and drummed his glasses on the table. He picked up his pen and started to write again.
* * *
He had been married to his Sadie, Gertrude's mother, for forty-five years. It hadn't all been good. No. They had wanted to have more children. The Torah commands you to "be fruitful and multiply" and as an esteemed rabbi he had wanted to ensure his lineage with many children. But his Sadie had miscarried three times. All through her pregnancies she would be so careful. She wouldn't have any wine - not even a sip at religious occasions and would never take any medicine. Not even an aspirin.
The first time she miscarried was on a Friday night Shabbas. She was doubled over on the kitchen floor of his mother's house, and they handed her the phone to the doctor. The phone was attached to the wall and the cord stretched all the way to the headset which Sadie clutched as she lay doubled over on the kitchen floor. And then the doctor told her that it was okay to take Advil because she had probably lost the baby. Sadie and Rabbi Apfelbaum were devastated. They had been lucky to have Gertrude. She was their one shining star. Now his daughter was coming home a broken woman because the man that she was supposed to marry had run off with shiksa.
Oy Veyismeer! If everyone would follow the Ten Commandments like they were supposed to, lives would be so much simpler. People could be
happy and just love each other the way he and Sadie had and still did, for forty-five years. They mostly had been happy: he, Sadie and Gertrude.
But there had been that one time when he had fallen in love with another woman. Yes, he: Moishe Apfelbaum, esteemed Rabbi, had been in love with someone besides his beloved wife, and a married woman yet: Mrs. Cheryl Bergman. But he had to squelch his feelings. A rabbi didn't commit sin with another woman. No. He stayed with his Sadie and tried to avoid Cheryl whenever he could. It hadn't been easy because she always showed up at those same out-of-town conferences, and it would have been so easy. No one would have known: half way across the country, no one would have ever known.
One time Cheryl showed up in Israel at the Tel Aviv Hilton. They were all alone on a terrace, the moon was full, and he felt young again. She was standing by the balcony looking out at the stars, and the light of the moon made her golden red hair shimmer. He started humming the song Ma Cherie Amour.... and then stopped. What was he doing? To God, the sin of adultery was the same as murder because it could never be undone. He checked out of the hotel and went to stay at the Dan Hotel: And God forgave him.
Rabbi Apfelbaum slowly put his glasses back on. He picked up his pen and tried again to see how to justify gay marriages. Shaking his head with frustration, he put his pen down. No good trying to write any more; he couldn't think. The image of Gertrude kept intruding on his thoughts: he had to be at the airport at four o'clock to pick her up.
Weeks went by and all Gertrude did was sit in her room and cry. He and Sadie talked to her until their mouths were dry and their heads spun from the effort of saying encouraging words that seemed to go nowhere. "Come to shul," Rabbi Apfelbaum said. "It's good to daven and meet people."
But Gertrude said, "No, no shul." She was too embarrassed to meet anyone and have to explain her situation.
Then he said, "Who cares? In shul you'll find God."
After he had given her all the years of Hebrew school, Bat Mitzvah and endless Torah study, his little neshamela said, "Where do I find God? Does God even care about me at all?"
She went to a psychiatrist. Did that help? How should he know? But they had to do something to get her out of her room. The heat of her misery
had melted her down into a lump on the bed. She was getting so thin. Sadie cooked for her but she pushed the plates away.
One night while they were sitting at dinner and Gertrude pushed her plate away again, her father said, "Maybe you should meet somebody." He sat up straight and smiled just like he did when he finally understood a difficult text he was trying so hard to decipher. But Gertrude ignored him and continued to sulk. The rabbi continued, "If you find another man maybe he can distract you from your heartbreak and you can find romance again."
Gertrude looked up slowly and told her father that there was no more love in the world.
Having gathered wind in his sails, the rabbi was not to be deterred. "What was the name of that boy who took you to the prom?"
Gertrude whispered, "Paul Schonstein."
Sadie stopped spooning her roasted potatoes, "He's still around, I think." Sadie's voice rose as if in prayer, "A handsome boy." She was now on the sailboat, right behind her husband. Her voice rose higher, "His father
was a doctor," she stopped, fork in the air and said with hesitation, squinting her eyes, "but I think Paul became a veterinarian."
The rabbi chimed in, "He looked like a goy with his long, straight nose and straight thick reddish hair, like an Irishman."
Gertrude kept her head down and Sadie clucked, "Yes, handsome like the Kennedy boys."
Gertrude looked up and met her father's eyes. "He was nice enough, I suppose."
She said it so quietly and without any enthusiasm at all. The Rabbi wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Nevertheless, he felt encouraged that she had given any response at all. When dinner was over they always benched grace after meals, and their voices blended in harmony that sounded like a beautiful choir.
Rabbi Apfelbaum folded his napkin, and seeing that Gertrude had left the room, he walked over to the telephone, switched on a lamp and picked up the phone book. When Mrs. Schonstein told him she was sure Paul would be delighted to take Gertrude on a date, he smiled as if his prayers had already been answered. Gertrude and Paul hadn't seen each other since
high school but the rabbi was hoping that Paul could help her to forget that schmegege fool back in Boston.
So Paul arrived back in their lives and started taking Gertrude out and for a while she seemed to cheer up a bit. When the Rabbi asked Paul why he was a veterinarian and not a doctor like his father, Paul told him it was because animals were kinder than people.
What was that? He had never heard anything such as animals being kinder than people. May God forgive him: he didn't understand this new generation of children who grew up watching Oprah.
Over the next few weeks Paul and Gertrude started dating regularly; Gertrude even started smiling again. And Paul was a nice polite boy, and Gertrude said he didn't paw her like the others had. In the Rabbi's youth he knew he had been the first lover in Sadie's life. Now, today, the children slept with anyone who came along. But Paul was a good boy, a gentleman, what Gertrude needed right now. She didn't need another sex starved groper, he thought. No, not his Gertrude.
* * *
So, time went by and one day he said, "Gertrude, are you in love with him?" And Gertrude told him that she'd never love anyone again. "But couldn't you love this Paul? Does he love you?"
And she told her father, "Yes, we love each other like friends."
So he said, "Friends is good. You start as friends and respect each other and then you can love for a lifetime. Your mother and I are not getting any younger. We need grandchildren, you being our only child and all."
The next time the Rabbi saw Mrs. Schonstein in shul she seemed radiant. "Your Gertrude is the first girl Paul has gone out with more than a few times," she said. "I so want to be a grandmother." Then Gertrude told her father that if he and Mrs. Schonstein didn't stop pressuring her, she would move out of the house.
Pressure, what was pressure? He had the whole congregation to think of: births, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and funerals every week,
sometimes several in a week. And he was forced to write endless sermons on gay rights, abortion.... who knew what else? The next thing they'd tell him was that eating pigs is kosher! Now, that was pressure. Asking your
daughter to marry a good boy: that was not pressure. The kids today were so spoiled: they didn't know how easy they had it. May God forgive them.
* * *
Ten months went by and the rabbi felt that he didn't know what was going on between Gertrude and Paul, even though they were still seeing each other. Paul took her to the movies, the symphony and even a wedding in the congregation. Gertrude got a job nearby as a paralegal. After all that money he had spent on her education, she was now a paralegal. But that was okay. When she became a mother she wouldn't have to work.
One night after dinner, Gertrude sat her parents down in the living room. "Paul proposed."
Sadie clapped her hands and the rabbi jumped up and hugged his daughter. "And what did you say?"
"I said yes, of course." Gertrude replied flatly. "Are you happy Papa?"
"Happy? I'm ecstatic!" the rabbi sang out.
Gertrude shrugged, "I'm not ecstatic, we haven't even made love yet."
"Don't worry," the rabbi said. "with the divorce rate today, it's much
better to marry a friend than someone you're ecstatic about like that schmegege." His words rushed out of him faster and faster, like a train running on full speed. "Don't worry. On the honeymoon, after marriage, there will be plenty of time for sex. A good person, a good friend: that is all a person ever needs!"
"Please, Papa..." Gertrude said.
But the rabbi would not be stopped. "And look, he loves you. I can see how he looks at you." He paused to suck in some air and Gertrude was finally able to get a word in.
"Yes, it's better than being alone," she announced.
There were rumors: the rabbi had heard something about Paul's uncle being a gonif. He heard that his uncle had even spent some time in jail. But it didn't run in the genes, being a gonif, that is, and he couldn't worry about
Paul's uncle. Who else would his Gertrude marry? She wasn't getting any
younger and neither were he and Sadie. Paul and Gertrude would be fine. Yes, he knew it.
Paul came over one day and he brought Rabbi Apfelbaum a rare edition of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, translated by Martin Abegg, who was
one of the first to translate that important text into English. Another time he brought the Sefer Zohar, "The Book of Splendor" a classic text of Jewish
Mysticism. He was quite the Jewish scholar, his future son-in-law. Rabbi Apfelbaum could see it now: Paul and Gertrude, the grandchildren, he and Sadie, for many years to come, sitting around the table having long discussions about Jewish law, the rules for living a good life.
The day of the wedding Gertrude looked beautiful as a bride, her face shone, and her hair looked magnificent with pearls wound through it. She was beautiful like her mother had been forty-seven years ago; and Paul, in his tuxedo: what a fine-looking man. Their children would be beautiful. The wedding was catered by Ernstein and Schnagel, the finest kosher caterers in Westchester County. And the photographer was none other than Mr. Pierre, who looked like a faygeleh, but who cared? As long as he could preserve this most important day in their lives, faygeleh didn't matter.
All the rabbis came that he had worked with throughout his life. International too: rabbis from England and Israel and Canada. Sadie had everything matching in plush pink and white, all the way down to the tablecloths. And Mr. Pierre did a beautiful job with the pictures and a video.
Then Paul stepped on the glass and everyone shouted: Mazel Tov. Finally, his Gertrude was a wife. Sadie patted the rabbi's tears with her new embroidered silk handkerchief. The dancing, the singing, the food: this was one of the best nights of Rabbi Apfelbaum's life. He danced with his Gertrude to the song: Sunrise, Sunset and Sadie had to use her new embroidered handkerchief again to wipe her own tears as well as her husband's. Then the newlyweds went off to Cancun for their honeymoon.
The rabbi and Sadie were so tired, but happy after their daughter's marriage. Now they could increase their lineage. But you had to understand though, it was not all that he cared about. Children and grandchildren were
Three days went by, and they didn't hear from Gertrude. He told Sadie, "It's okay. Don't worry. They are having a good time. They never
made love before: they don't have time to think of their parents. They will call us in due time. Yes."
After a week and a half went by Sadie's fingers that had been itching to dial the honeymoon suite couldn't wait anymore. The rabbi said again for maybe the fifteenth time, "Don't worry them on their honeymoon. There'll be plenty enough time to worry when they get back."
But Sadie's fingers were dialing and she got through and the desk clerk said, "Yes, there is a Mrs. Schonstein staying here, but Mr. Schonstein checked out a week ago."
And Sadie said, "There must be a mistake. It's their honeymoon." And the desk clerk said, "No. It's no mistake. Just one person was
staying in that room."
"O.K, we're not going to panic," said Rabbi Apfelbaum as he paced back and forth across the room, turned and then paced back again.
"Nothing foolish. He couldn't have done something foolish," Sadie said as she ripped up a Kleenex into tiny pieces. She took another one out of
the box and wiped the tears that were streaming down her reddening face.
"What foolish thing could he do?"
For hours the phone rang and rang in Gertrude's room, but no one was there. Sadie called again and said to the desk clerk, "Tell my daughter to call me as soon as she gets in."
When Gertrude finally called five hours later, the rabbi saw Sadie's face turning white as she dropped the phone. And he said, "What's the matter? Let me talk to her."
And Rabbi Apfelbaum heard his darling daughter's voice choke and splutter into the phone, "He couldn't touch me on our wedding night." His Gertrude told him that when she was lying naked on the bed, as beautiful as her mother had been on their wedding night, that Paul had burst into tears and said, "I can't, I can't...I'm so sorry." And then he ran from the room.
The rabbi and Sadie handed the phone back and forth between them but Sadie wanted to hear her daughter's voice all the time, so she went into
the kitchen to use the extension so that she and her husband could shout and cry into the phone together. Gertrude said, "Mama, Papa, I'm fine. Really I
am. The room is paid for and I just need to stay here for a few days to collect myself and then I'll come home."
For two days the rabbi kept pacing and Sadie kept crying and shredding the Kleenex. How could this have happened to them? Was God
punishing them for some unknown sin? Something that the rabbi in his careful daily, hour by hour observance of his faith had missed and that his whole family had to suffer?
The next day Gertrude called and told them that after Paul had left, instead of throwing herself into the sea, she felt a strange kind of peace. It was the first time she had been alone since Paul had come back into their lives, and she had had time to think. She had waded in the sea and the swirl of the waves going back and forth over her ankles as they sank into the wet sand had made her think of how everything went in cycles: the tides and the times, and that somehow this too, would pass. So, she had learned something after all, his Gertrude. She would be all right. She had to be.
* * *
Yom Kippur came, the holiest day of the year: forgiveness, repentance. By then Paul had moved in with that goyish best man of his who had been his roommate in college. And his Gertrude moved into a tiny apartment that looked like a chicken coop. She refused to stay home with her parents although they begged her to. It seemed as if there was nothing they could do for her, nothing; and no grandchildren for the Rabbi and Sadie.
On Yom Kippur he felt the usual pressure in his temples and light-headedness as he said his prayers, starving for food. Twenty-four hours of fasting to examine his soul, his sins. Maybe one of his sins was that he and Sadie coddled Gertrude too much. An only daughter: the pride of their lives. How she got into these situations all the time with the wrong men was beyond him.
After he davened the afternoon prayer, he left the bima and shook hands with the congregants as he walked slowly towards the back of the shul. Outside, he ran into Mrs. Schonstein, Paul's mother. His machenista - his in-law - at least she had been until this mess. "Good Yomtov to you, Mrs. Schonstein," he said as he took her two hands in his.
"Please call me Ruth," she said. "We're still machetetonim, no matter whatever happened between our children." And Rabbi Apfelbaum fell like a broken heap into Ruth Schonstein's arms and sobbed.
BIO: "I have a Master of Arts Degree in Writing from Manhattanville College. I have published stories in magazines such as Copperfield Review, Struggle, AIM, Tickled By Thunder, and Fling Quarterly of Sarah Lawrence College. And I won Second Place for my Poem MIDNIGHT in the Greenburgh Poetry Contest.
My chapbook Kaleidoscope will be published by Finishing Line Press In September 2012.
I also had my 5- page prose poem Chicken Run published in the Spring 1997 edition of Inkwell Magazine. This poem was later published in Across the Long Bridge sponsored by the Tom Howard Poetry Contest. Two of my poems, Egoli and Tin Cup, Tin Plate.
will be published in the 2012 edition of the Westchester Review."
My website is: http://gillianlynnkatz.net and contact info can be found on the "Purchase" page.
"Spit It Out"
Artwork by Dan Williams
At the End of the Day
The small waterfall had frozen and it hung suspended like a crystal gown, catching the last of the sunlight and casting it in thin rays over the snow and the trees. The wall of water fell in folded sheets and at the bottom the surface glinted, caught for the winter in an agitated roil, all of it solid and fluid at once, as if at any moment the entire scene would reanimate and echo its splashes deep into the woods.
The sun had already fallen behind the line of the mountains, leaving only an orange crescent to flutter on the horizon.
"Dammit," Ethan muttered. "I wanted to catch the sunset."
Kim looked off toward the mountains and the light caught her face where her cheeks were pink from the cold.
"It's too late," she said.
"I can make a fire."
Kim looked around and shook her head. "The wood's too wet. It'll never take."
"Might as well try."
He started to clear a spot in the snow with his foot, kicking a muddy circle into the snow.
"It's too wet," Kim said.
"I can start it."
"Just sit down. What did you want to talk about?"
The wood was dark and damp and Kim watched Ethan stand and fumble in his pockets for a match. He found a book and fell to his knees. He cupped his hand around the book of matches. The flame danced and diminished but held, and Ethan leaned over and held it to the kindling. It wouldn't take.
"I wanted to catch the sunset."
Kim shrugged and slid over on the stone. "Too late. Forget about it."
They sat and listened to the sound of the ice cracking. An icicle fell from the falls and shattered like a wind chime on the surface of the creek.
"I like you without your beard," Kim said. It was the first time she had looked at him.
Ethan looked at her and smirked, rubbing his naked jaw with a chapped, red hand. "Yeah? Well, my face is freezing."
Kim ran a finger along a crack in the boulder. "Everyone's excited for you. What time's your bus leave?"
Ethan looked at her. She sat with her arms pulled inside of her jacket and the empty sleeves hanging limp at her sides. The end of her nose was red and Ethan wanted to reach out and rub it but he didn't.
"Why did you say no?" he asked.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Ethan picked a stick from the pile of damp tinder. He scratched at the bark with his thumbnail. "I have to leave."
"You don't have to explain yourself to me."
"I know that, but I wanted to apologize."
Ethan dropped the stick into the snow and leaned forward. Kim wouldn't look at him.
"Why did you say no?" he asked.
"Do you know where you're going to stay when you get there?" Kim asked suddenly.
"Come on." Ethan sat back and sighed up at the dark sky. "I thought you wanted to come with me," he said.
Kim didn't say anything.
"Why won't you answer me?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I just want to know why you said no. That's all. I don't get it."
Kim sat upright and looked at him. Her face was hard. "You asked me at three o'clock in the morning, Ethan. You can't show up at my window, so drunk that you can't stand, and expect me to believe you."
"What do you mean believe me?"
Kim sighed and kicked at the snow beneath her feet. "You've done nothing but treat me like...like some sort of an anchor. For as long as I've known you. You only ever show up when you're drunk or depressed, and any time I tried to get close to you, you stopped talking to me. You're like a god-damned fifth grader."
Ethan rubbed his jaw and Kim looked at him.
"You really expect me to believe that you actually give a shit about me? If I actually thought you did, I would have said yes. That's why I said no." Ethan sat and stared at the muddy circle he'd kicked out of the snow. "You happy?" she asked.
They sat in silence for some time and the last sliver of the sun fell behind the mountains. Over the falls the moon was risen full and bright and the tapestry of ice shimmered beneath it.
"I don't know why I did all of that," Ethan finally breathed. "I'm not really like this."
He reached over and tried to take her hand and she stood up. She pushed her arms back through her sleeves and brushed the dirt and the snow off of the backs of her thighs.
"It's dark," she said. "I've got to go."
Ethan stood and stepped close to her. He touched her chin and lifted her mouth to his. He kissed her softly and she let him but pulled away when he tried to embrace her. They stood face to face. In the early dark his face looked old and tired and Kim reached a hand up and patted him softly on the cheek.
"You did it," she said, forcing a smile. "You're going."
Ethan nodded and she stepped away from him and started back into the woods. She could just see their tracks in the moonlight and she tried to step in the places where they had already been so as not to slip. The ground all around her was muddy and wet.
Ethan stood alone where she had left him. He could hear her every step squishing and crunching through the snow and he listened to each sound until they were only echoes and then nothing. He stood in the silence and felt the first bits of moisture seeping through his socks and stinging his toes. Alone, he stood and he thought of the road where he had parked and the muddy path back to it.
BIO: "I am a writer and teacher living in Chicago. My work has previously appeared in Relief and my novel COLD COMFORT was listed as honorable mention for the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize. "