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If Warren Frank had spoken to anyone about his plan they would have told him it was a bad idea. Hell, even Warren, if he had thought a little, might have admitted it. But seeing as how Gilda, his wife of twenty years had been gone for months, (the number of months eluded him, as did more simple, basic data like; where his matching socks were and what was rotting in the cellar) and Warren’s only co-conspirator was an obese orange tabby named Melvin. Though Warren spoke to Melvin incessantly during the plan’s gestation, Melvin withheld his comments. Melvin’s silence should have given Warren a clue to the efficacy of his plan. It did not.
He and his captive sat hunched in a steel oil tank. Warren’s breathing was restricted by the expanse of his girth and the confining dimensions of the musty metal room. The milky yellow illumination of a $2 Eveready flashlight he’d almost forgotten to buy on his drive to the Wilcombe Estate was nearly expended already. What air was left smelled strongly of mold and diesel fumes. Though they had only been in the tank an hour the batteries in the cheap light were about spent. Warren had run the non-replaceable batteries down while he was hiding in-between the plaster walls behind the Presidential toilet.
“Ze Presidential bach-hous,” Raymondo had called it with an effeminate flourish of his right hand. He put on an accent too; some kind of French-Spanglish concoction. Ray’s name was not really Ramundo. But that is what Warren and the other contractors called him. He was the lead foreman on the Wilcombe Estate job. Warren and four other craftsmen labored on the restoration of the 18th century Tudor-style mansion for eighteen months between 04 and 05. In two thousand and four Warren was considered a Master Trim Carpenter. That was before The Black Times covered him like a blanket. Warren could not bring himself to consider that period in any more detail that to label it black.
“Fucking Black.” His voice reflected back in a close metallic echo.
“Huh?” The other man muttered.
Warren’s captive sounded as though his mouth was full of cotton. He had been sitting, hunched semi-conscious in a pair of burgundy silk paisley pajamas for nearly the whole hour that they had been imprisoned together. The Old North Dock area had been neglected after the renovation was complete. It was thought that guests would rather board the river yachts from jetties closer to the new boathouse at the front of the house. Consequentially, the Old North Docks were largely ignored by everyone except the trades’ men. The wooden docks themselves were grey and splintered. An unearthed oil tank sat obscured by shoulder high marsh weeds. After Warren dumped Pajamas through the hatch and jumped in after him the tank listed and rolled forward and back several times as it sank before coming to rest at the bottom of the lake. He had calculated that Tahoe was only fifteen feet deep at this marshy edge and left ample wire to reach. A moment after the rocking stopped the lights and heater he had rigged blinked out. Now it was getting cold.
The pajama man slurred, “Where the hell am I and who the fuck are you?”
Warren ignored him. He looked at his cell phone. No bars. He checked out of habit, but the battery was running low too. He reasoned that the wire he’d rigged as an antenna broke the same way that the electrical extension cord must have, it’s frayed end dangling in the murky water. He hadn’t figured in the depth of the mud. That’s what sunk me. He momentary imagined the lake water becoming charged with deadly voltage but quickly realized it would simply trip the breaker in the Old North Dock tool shed. The Flashlight blinked out.
“We are at the bottom of Lake Tahoe,” Warren replied quietly. This part of the plan was not going at all well. He was supposed to take control. Demand changes. Bully the bully. Actually, nothing was going as planned.
“I have kidnapped you Mr. President, but I screwed it up.” He wrapped the flashlight on the curved floor of the metal tank. It sounded a dull ringing. The time was quarter past midnight, but even if the secret service was crawling all over the dock they would find no trace of Warren or his captive.
The flashlight glowed sickly. It hardly cast enough light for Warren to see pajama man’s receding grey hairline or ashen skin.
The older man, now wearing filthy oil stained paisley pajamas, began to scuttle around trying to stand and smacking his head on the low ceiling. He cast from one end of the twelve foot tubular room to the other, coming to rest, sprawled across Warren’s numb legs.
“They will find me, you know, I’m the President of the United Fucking States of America,” he bellowed, trying to convince himself.
“No. It’s no use,” Warren said quietly. By this time he realized how truly bad his plan was. The man he had kidnapped was only just beginning to grasp the situation. He knelt next to Warren and tried to grab the lapels of his flannel shirt.
“Were cut off sir,” Warren began, but using the title felt surreal. He forced the words out trying to ignore the feeling. “See, I was gonna use my cell to explain my demands.” The useless flip phone was still open, the light blinked off. “But the tank here is sunk into the mud now and all the ‘th wires must have pulled out.”
“You have to call them. You MUST!” His captive was staring into his face. His small eyes widened. Warren figured, Yup, the truth of the matter has finally struck the bone. The President’s eyes darted like he had lost all control.
“What the hell have you done to me you bastard?” spraying spittle into Warrens’ face. It smelled like Crest toothpaste. The President’s trembling fingers were wrapped around Warren’s neck. But the grip was weak, more like an embrace than a threat. The hands were cold.
“With no ‘lecticity and no phone we’re going to die down here Mr. President. You keep thrashin’ around like that and you’ll use up what oxygen we got left.”
The older man slumped onto his side. His thin hair hung into the dirty residue at the bottom of the tank but he only rested for a moment. He sprang up and just missed hitting his head. “Help Me!” he shouted. “Anybody; I’m the President, I’m being held captive. Help me, please!”
The flashlight light faded. Silence seeped in as the light seeped out. The two men wheezed. Warren was calm, but short of breath. Not much time left, he mused.
“I guess my beef with you is kinda besides the point now huh?” Warren didn’t wait for an answer. The air was definitely running out. His captive was making short shallow sobbing sounds, muttering. Warren couldn’t make out what he was saying. He really didn’t care.
“You know you killed us both actually. You and your rush into those damn wars. First I lost my Jamie. Then I lost m’self. Before I knew what was going on my Gilda was gone.” He reached out and felt for the sobbing man’s head and stroked his greasy hair. “I had to do something, don’tcha see? You was killin’ everything I ever loved. My son, my country, my self…” He trailed off.
The President sobbed louder, whining and mumbling. He sounded to Warren like Jamie when he was a toddler. Warren continued to stroke his greasy hair. Somehow the older man had moved his head into Warrens lap. It was hard to speak. Warren slumped back against the cold curved steel wall and went over the plan in his mind, realizing where he had miscalculated, and making mental notes as though he would do better when he did it again.
“I got a call from Raymundo telling me you was taking a hiatus at the “Wilcombe Estate” up to Lake Tahoe. That was when my plan began to form. I said to m’self, ‘I knows that place like it was my own.’ I nearly rebuilt that whole building with Barney Sofjet and Harry Skillington all through two thousand four and five. We was the team, we was. I lernt about the passages behind the walls where servants could deliver hot toddy’s without nobody even knowing where they came from. They’d move between the kitchens and the bedrooms in quiet; in secret. There’s a whole shitload of staircases and dumb waiters that was never in any plans.”
The man in the soiled silk pajamas was muttering incoherently. Warren mused that it was some kind of justice that he just up and lost his mind. He wondered about how the ruler of the free world could be such a weak man. All that power, no strength.
“I knew that I would never get away with it. I just thought that if I talked to you face to face I might make you see reason. Hell, maybe I could make some kind of statement with my life, like Jamie.
“I remembered the tank and the tool shed. I set up the cords and the heater and lights and antenna days before the secret service even arrived to case the place. Then I hid in-between the plaster walls behind the commode in the Presidential suite for 4 days. I peed in a grape juice bottle and ate stale peanut butter crackers. I could hear anything anybody said throughout that big old house. I knowed when you checked in and when you ate your dinner. A’course I knowed when you took a dump and when you brushed your teeth too.
I brought an old can of ether that I found in this very house – must have been left behind by the millionaires from the last century. Some rich drug addict doctor I s’pose. It was still good though, I tried it on myself. I calculated how long it would keep you sedated by timing how long it made me sleep.
“I just stepped out of that secret door and hid in the shower while you put on your PJs. Then when you was sittin on the john readin’ that titty magazine I just stepped out and held an ether soaked rag on your face. Out like a baby. It weren’t no big deal to put you in a laundry cart, cover you with old sheets and push you to the dumb waiter.
Once I got in the cellar it was a pretty straight shot out the lower loading doors and down the cement walkway to the old north dock.
I sank that laundry cart and in a blink we were in the tank. I rocked her into the shallows, sealed the door and, well, I don’t think anyone even knowed you was gone.
“Me and Barney joked about makin’ this thing into a submarine. Played around with the sealing doors and even wielded a bunch of 55 gallon drums to the side sos it could sink. But Barney got a long term job with the state and I forgot about the whole damn thing until I heard you was coming up here to visit.”
He paused, thinking about what he expected from this man. The president, dying with his head in Warrens lap.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you mister. I never hurt nobody my whole life. I guess, what I mean to say is, I’m sorry…”
When Warren tried to take a breath he didn’t feel like he was getting any air even though his lungs filled up. Flash bulbs appeared to pop across the dark screen of his vision. He thought that he saw the news boys taking his picture – sticking microphones and cameras in his face and excitedly asking how he had done it.
“Mr. Frank, Mr. Frank, tell our viewers how you single handedly stopped the war and brought the most notorious, treasonous criminal ever elected to Justice.”
Warren Frank did not notice that the President’s sobs had ceased along with his breathing. And he did not feel the lurch or hear the clank of chain against steel as the dredging crane locked on to the sunken tank. He wore a wide grin basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd. When the Secret Service, the Nevada State Police and the FBI split the tank open with acetylene torches they found what appeared to be the former President of the United States of America dressed in dirty silk paisley pajamas sleeping peacefully in the lap of an overweight bearded man. There was no indication as to why the fat man was smiling.
I am reposting this story because my Twitter account was hacked and Twitter did not distribute this back on March 5 when I originally put it up. Forgive the copy.
Why is this man smiling? by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-1L.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is one of my favorite presentations.
Asher Todd needed coffee. Actually, he needed ten hours of oblivion in a dark room between cool cotton sheets. He did not need two more hours in a florescent lit surrealist painting. But coffee would do for now. Dr. Todd was at the end of a double shift; what he and the other interns at Vanderbilt Medical Center called a Brain Crusher, as in “Hey Ash, can you walk Rufus for me? I’ve got a Brain Crusher tonight.” Asher didn’t own a dog – he couldn’t understand why any intern would, though Rod Burbank asked him to walk Rufus occasionally. “Man,” Rod told him over a couple of pints at Dan McGinnis, “Rufus can only hold it for twelve hours, after that he shits all over my fucking bed. Do you think he’s trying to tell me something?” Ash thought about telling Rod to get a lower maintenance pet, something like a goldfish or a parakeet, but kept these critical thoughts to himself. Interns in their last year needed all the support they could get.
Tonight’s was the Brain Crusher to beat all. The ER seemed less like a hospital and more like a sterile circus; packed from eight PM, when the Predator’s game let out, until after two AM when the bars closed down. Armed robberies, car accidents, fist fights, just plain falling down drunk and one head trauma: Marsha Griggs, 42 Calliope Lane, Nashville TN 37216. Unconscious. Prognosis? Ash didn’t think she’d live through the night. There was nothing you could do but wait in cases like this, and Dr. Todd did not think they would be waiting long.
Asher asked the ER nurse, Cat Sylvan, “Hey babe, have a look through her purse, won’t you? She eye rolled and side glanced him before striding away muttering. He stood alone for a few moments replaying the fight he and Cat had that morning over breakfast. Why would it upset her so much that he brought her bagel with butter instead of cream cheese? Cat confused him, and Asher Todd was not used to being confused. To divert his mind from the decaying relationship, he surveyed the woman on the table; her chest rose and fell regularly with the cycle of the respirator. The florescent bank hummed, and the heart/blood pressure monitor beeped. The lights gave her skin a greenish cast. Dr. Todd shuddered.
Marsha Griggs traveled light. She’d been wearing a tan skirt and a blue waistcoat with a white silk blouse, powder blue “Body by Victoria” bra and a matching color thong. Her legs were shaved but she wore no hose and a pair of blue Kenneth Cole pumps.
At least the silk shirt was white and the bra was powder blue. These articles were now soaked in Marsha Griggs’ type “O” negative blood (same type as mine, a semi-aware part of Dr. Todd’s brain noted), and stuffed into the yellow bio hazard bag, having been cut from Masha’s slight body by nurse Sylvan’s merciless bandage shears. The bag would soon be tied and hauled to the basement and incinerated; all traces turned a fine grey ash.
Ms. Griggs heart rate increased to one hundred and ten beats per minute. Her blood pressure touched ninety over one sixty and continued to fall; skin cool and pale. Asher’s diagnosis was an intracerebral hemorrhage from a fall or a blunt object blow. Basically, the back of her head was skull split. Blood had leaked from her ears, but since stopped. Her pupils were dark dots extending to the sclera and unchanged by penlight. There were some scrapes on the backs of her shoulders in addition to a jagged wound on her neck beneath the left ear.
Ash lifted the sheet covering Marsha Griggs’ body to have a private viewing of her small, naked nipples, but his attention was hooked away by bruises just beneath her shoulders. Someone had pushed her forcefully. The marks were developing the signature violet of recently broken blood vessels. If she lived, which was doubtful, the subdural hematomas would mature to a deep purple highlighted by a lovely jaundiced yellow. He realized that her eventual death would be ruled suspicious. “Probably murder,” he said. The word hung in the disinfectant scented air.
The meat wagon had picked her up from an alley by the bus station. Ash said, “Ms. Griggs, you don’t look like the sort of girl who rides the Greyhounds or hangs around the mission.”
He compressed the tip of her right index finger and watched the capillaries sluggishly refill – a sure sign of blood loss and diminishing vitals. Asher held her small, cool hand for a moment and sighed. After the respirator and the IVs there was really nothing more he could do for her.
The Music City homeless shelter was next door to the bus station. The one-way street, which ran toward the river, was punctuated by strip clubs and bars. The EMT said there were no witnesses and they almost wrote her off as a Jane Doe. He spotted her Calvin Klein purse twenty feet away just as they were loading her in. Asher sensed some sort of unusual puzzle, but he did not have enough brain juice left to assemble the jigsaw.
He estimated that she was about five foot six, one hundred and five pounds. “A little thin for my tastes,” he said to nurse Sylvan when came back in. Cat snorted and shoved the blood work report at him. The sheaf of papers splashed across the tiles.
The Griggs woman had small features and olive colored skin. Asher’s old undergraduate roommate would have called her “Elvin,” but that was only because Sam had a penchant for all things Lord of the Rings; though her ears did seem slightly pointy.
Cat told Asher, “Look doctor, you can rummage through this girl’s personal effects yourself, I don’t have time for your shit.” She spun to exit and postscripted: “you’re an asshole, Asher.” He thought, the makeup sex would be great, babe, if you can just let go of it. But at hour fourteen of this sixteen hour Brain Crusher, he could not even attempt to articulate the sentiment. I’ll have to take some time to apologize later, maybe get some flowers at the gift shop. His thoughts were sluggish and disconnected. Ash folded his glasses into his shirt breast pocket and rubbed both eyes with his palm heels.
After tossing the report aside, he dumped the contents of Marsha Griggs’ tan clutch purse onto the stainless steel counter. The small pile rattled loudly. He used a plastic Bic pen to push the items around, not because he was concerned about contaminating himself, but because he was exhausted and cross-eyed and the activity gave him some perverse, if not fully recognized, pleasure.
There was a Tennessee driver’s license with a blank organ donor section, a blue DKNY compact, a yellow Universal pencil (made in China) with a broken tip and a white number ten business sized envelope.
No wallet, no keys, no cell.
The envelope had something scrawled on it in a smudgy script. It was almost illegible. Asher considered calling Metro, but they were sure to be poking around plenty later. There would be an autopsy for sure, though the cause of death looked pretty obvious. “Zee human person can’t-a live too long with a completely smashed scull und 35% blood loss,” he said aloud in a strange foreign accent. His voice made a metallic echo in the tile and stainless room. God I’m so tired I’m beginning to babble, he thought. He held the envelope up to the pulsing florescent lights and shook the contents, but could not see through the safety paper. It contained a hard nugget of an object, about an inch long, a quarter inch thick. Asher pressed the paper down around the item and felt its lumpy outline. It was a key – from a storage locker.
He squinted at the writing on the front. He could almost make out a name: Albert or Alfred. The first letter of the last name was either T or Q. It was no use – if this were written by Ms. Griggs’ dainty hands he would have been surprised. Someone else had scribbled these hieroglyphics and given it to Marsha. Or maybe she stole it…
Asher’s imagination ran on its own track now, like he was watching a late night TV mystery. The Southern Ohio freight whistle blew breathy and faint from the yard adjacent to the college along the Cumberland River. An overhead page smacked him into the present.
“Dr. Todd to the ER desk, Dr. Todd…”
“Shit,” Asher said to no one. I guess this night isn’t over yet. He used the side of his palm to sweep the contents back into the purse, but the envelope missed the small opening and fell with a muffled clink.
Asher stared at the white rectangle, and pictured the lockers at the Nashville Greyhound station. He had never seen them, but he was sure they were there. The overhead paged him again –
“Alright already,” he mumbled to the garishly lit room. “Hold your fucking polo ponies.” In his sleep deprived state, Asher Todd had become infected by an irrational desire to check the lockers. It tugged at him like the smell of sex.
He plucked the envelope from the floor, and stuffed it into his exam coat instead of putting it in the purse. Asher dreamed of dancing locker keys and seedy singing mission-district prostitutes dressed as 1940s nurses in white vinyl, but he forgot the dreams upon awakening thirty-two hours later. By that time Marsha Griggs had given up the sheet that replaced her Liz Claiborne skirt and J. Jill silk shirt. In its place she wore a manila colored tag on her right big toe and her body temperature was down to a brisk forty three degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the blood had been washed off of her face, but there was still a considerable amount of it matted and drying in her short blond hair. Though the nail beds of her fingers were cyanotic blue and the block beneath her neck created a disturbing wrinkle behind the ears – ears Asher Todd thought were pointy and kind of cute – anyone would think that Marsha Griggs had been an attractive woman. But they would have been wrong. She wasn’t a woman at all.
Asher woke in the half light of dusk. It was 8:30 PM. The inside of his mouth felt as though he’d been chewing on kitty litter. He was afraid of what his breath might smell like. After standing for what seemed like fifteen minutes in front of the toilet, his bladder finally emptied, and he shuffled off to the inadequate kitchen of his efficiency hole-in-the-wall to seek coffee.
Asher’s refrigerator was empty aside from a quart of organic whole milk, a jar of Clawson pickles and a white Styrofoam take out box, the mystery contents of which would not be solved this evening. There was little to eat or drink in his cabinets. What Dr. Todd’s kitchen did sport was a professional Mazzer burr grinder and a top of the line Ranchillio one group head espresso machine, complete with a real, professional steaming wand.
The young doctor would introduce women to his coffee maker by the name Georgiana. To the introduction he would predictably add, “Life is just too short to drink bad coffee.” He had not yet graduated to roasting his own, but that day would come. Nashville wasn’t exactly a coffee wasteland, but when he finished his internship he would be making his way to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle or Portland, where, as he would also often say: “real coffee is king, my friend; the promised land of the caffeinated.”
He bumped his exam coat, which fell off the back of a kitchen chair, and the number ten envelope slid out of the pocket. It stopped, wedged half under his refrigerator by the bulge of the key.
Asher had forgotten about Ms. Griggs until that moment. A small shudder began at the base of his spine (lumbar vertebrae six, his well-trained brain chimed in), and slowly, maddeningly clicked up each bone in his back toward his shoulders.
“Those pointy ears…” he mumbled, reaching for the envelope.
While Georgiana warmed up, Asher sat at his tiny table and tried to summon the personal ethics or moral centering that would coerce him to return the envelope. By the time the green light went from blinking to solid he had not succeeded in conjuring any feelings other than intensified curiosity. This is madness, he tried to convince himself, but he already had an erection, his body knew it was going to the bus station even if his foggy brain had not yet realized its fate.
He packed the portafilter and expertly compressed the perfectly ground beans to exactly eight pounds, slid a two ounce shot glass beneath the spout while tightening the head in place, and hit the brew switch.
While the creama collected in the crystal glass, Asher Todd tore the envelope open and poured its contents onto his countertop.
The brass key had an orange plastic ring around the shank with the number 26 embossed in white. He flipped it over, twisted the valve on the steam and foamed the three percent milk for his latte. Definitely a locker key, probably from the Greyhound station where Ms. Griggs was discovered.
Asher’s brain caught up to his body. Adrenalin zigzagged though his bloodstream. He sipped his latte imagining the locker’s contents: Money? Papers? Secrets? Without realizing it, he had committed to find the locker and open it, passing over any rational questions. He did not ask himself why, it became his vision of conquest for the evening. As the sky through his west facing windows quickly cycled through all the shades of grey to night, he drank his coffee picturing a living, breathing Marsha Griggs as though he possessed a key that would open her.
Young doctor Todd arrived at the mission on Demonbreun Street just after the thin band of light on the horizon finally gave up to dark, dressed in engineer’s boots, jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He parked and walked the two short blocks back up the street to the bus station. Even after dark the temperature had to be at least 90. On the way he handed out all of his pocket change to two grey-skinned weather beaten men and one legless, toothless woman of indiscriminate age. By the time he reached the bus station his armpits and shirt back were sweat soaked.
His glasses fogged with condensation as he walked through the second set of glass doors into a wall of frigid air-conditioning, he removed them. The lockers were directly across from a bank of broken pay phones just inside the doors.
The shudder at L-6 began scrambling around again like a caged ferret. He crossed the floor dodging an unbelievably thin woman hauling a beat-up suitcase by one hand, and two scrawny boys with crew-cuts by the other.
The building was crowded and stank of Simple Green disinfectant cleaner and stale tobacco. An overhead speaker announced arrivals and departures in a thick Nashville twang; still unintelligible as any other bus station.
Number 26 was in the second block of lockers; sixth one down from the top, which positioned it around the level of Asher Todd’s chest. He had been fingering the brass key in the right front pocket of his jeans. Metallic brass odor was so strong on his fingers that he could smell it as he brought the key out and slid it into the slot in the grey metal panel.
As he turned the key he thought he could hear the tumblers turn. A deep, suspicious part of his brain objected to this information, there are no tumblers in a keyed lock… the thought distracted him from noticing what happened next. He automatically pulled the door open and bent slightly to peer into the darkness. The locker was empty.
Well that’s depressing, he thought. Though I don’t know what I thought I was going to find.
He really believed the locker contained some clue to Marsha Griggs’ death or maybe a big brown paper bag full of crumpled one hundred dollar bills.
He filled his lungs with air and spun on his heel — plans for the rest of his evening began filling his mind — and began to exhale in a resigned sigh. It caught in his throat.
The cavernous bus station lobby was deserted. He froze, looking slowly around the room, and muttered, “What?” The word echoed. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and shook his head slightly to clear his fog filled brain.
Echo and silence.
The room went black. Red terror filled Asher’s well-disciplined mind. An icy ripple rolled across his scalp as he struggled to control his muscles. Irrationally, he turned to close the locker in a grasping hope of returning the world to normal, but immediately rejected it and turned back to the doors.
Faint light from the Nashville night glowed through the glass, guiding him out. He found himself on the sidewalk where the sharp edge of the heat had curled off slightly, and a breeze stirred candy wrappers in the gutter.
Asher’s heart was still slamming against his ribs as he looked up and down the deserted moonlit street. He willed his breathing to slow. A slight wind blew across his ears. The normal commotion of the city was absent leaving only this alien ear rustle and the ambient background whistle of his own brain.
Twenty eight year old Dr. Asher Todd, a young man who had sailed purposefully through his undergraduate and medical schooling with no physical or mental hesitation, stood in front of the Nashville Greyhound bus station with his mouth open trying to comprehend what had happened. He could not. It was as though his mind had gone through a reset. His thoughts were repeatedly derailed by fragmented images of the past few days.
I took the key, I came to the station, I opened a locker…
As soon as he realized that he was still standing alone in what appeared to be a completely empty world, his well-organized brain would begin to replay the details again, like a toy train on a small circular track. The image of a red and silver plastic Lionel Santa Fe locomotive took over his imaginings, complete with the scratchy electric train sound.
When she put her hand on his shoulder from behind, he nearly pissed his pants. “Excuse me,” she said.
Asher’s mouth was still open when he spun to her. Though she was shorter, they were nearly touching noses.
“Excuse me,” she repeated.
He recognized the barely contained terror in her eyes mirroring the confusion of his own mind. Automatically, his arms encircled her trembling shoulders and they embraced. She pressed her slight body into him and grasped him tightly; her head turned toward his neck and rested in the hollow of his shoulder. She sobbed.
They stood that way for a few moments. He thought, holding on to her feels good, right. He began to think coherently. He stroked her back watching over her shoulder as his large hand slid across the blue material of her suit jacket. He breathed in a long draft, smelled her perfume and a slight undercurrent of something else; not unpleasant but incongruent. It was a familiar smell, but one which did not belong; faintly animal and wild.
The woman broke away and gazed up into his eyes. She said, “We have to go. We can’t stay here.”
The statement didn’t leave a space for discussion. Asher realized that she was right, though the itch of a thought (somehow connected with that smell) teased his mind. Maybe because of the inexplicable disappearance of all people, or the relief of locating another human so soon after the terror of total darkness, he instinctively knew they must flee.
They walked briskly toward his car. Three long strides along she stopped and turned, pointing back at her purse on the sidewalk.
“Would you get my bag, Ash?”
He was bending down for it when he realized she had called him by name. As he stood up, the tan clutch was in his hand, and he saw the Calvin Klein logo. He opened his mouth.
The force of impact was tremendous and bone crushing. Asher had a moment to see the woman in the blue suit jacket and matching pumps spring the fifteen or so feet over the sidewalk toward him. She transformed in mid leap.
What Asher saw was a blur. If he had time to reflect (which he did not) he would have seen the slight, attractive, business clad young woman streak toward him in the dim moonlight, her form rearranging impossibly as she shot forward. The transformation looked like a reflection in the surface of water when a large stone is thrown. The complete picture splintered into ripples, and the fragmented reflections re-assembled themselves into a solid image again, but the form that she became was not at all the form she had been.
What Asher saw in the brief moments before she hit him was her narrow head followed by an elongated black body covered with oily, fluttering scales. Her tiny ultraviolet pin prick eyes lasered him from a nose-less face predominated by a wide grin filled with several rows of glinting, needle-teeth.
She slammed him into the brick wall crushing his skull. She cradled his limp body in her webbed palms, wrapping long frog-like legs around his hips. Her amphibious crotch created sticky suction against the taut skin of his belly. The needles of her teeth sliced into his rippling carotid artery. She hummed and trembled as she sucked.
Forcing herself to stop, she tore away from his neck, stood and dropped his body to the concrete. She fingered his face gently, almost lovingly, as she spoke. It sounded to Asher like his own voice garbled and underwater.
“I thank you Asher Todd,” she paused and cleaned the blood from her teeth with a flick of her reptilian tongue, “Good of you to attend my invitation.” Asher felt a violent wave roll through his broken body. When it subsided, he could see that his legs had morphed; naked now, thinner and shaved, feet ending in a pair of blue Kenneth Cole pumps. His thoughts were woozy, blurred and filled with buzzing, flashbulb spots of random colors. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
The jaundiced sodium vapor street lights above the sidewalk blinkered on one by one as she stood. Her alien body had transformed into a young man wearing black leather boots, jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He dropped a brass key into a white number ten envelope, and scribbled something on it before licking the glue and sealing it. The tongue was unnaturally long, thin and the color of a bruised plum. As the young man bent and stuffed the envelope into her tan clutch purse he looked over at Asher’s crumpled body and winked.
The last thought Asher Todd had before he lost consciousness was: Marsha Griggs.
NOTE: This story was published in LIMN Literary and Arts Journal in November 2012 as part of their special Halloween Issue. I encourage you to follow them and submit if you are so inclined.
Marsha Griggs by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-H.
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“I jus’ has to save a life, Miss Karen,” Abraham said, trembling. Sweat seeped into the collar of his starched shirt, buttoned tight against his Adam’s apple. “Lawd knows, Miss Karen, I jus’ has to!”
Karen Winton, a volunteer CPR instructor, recently relocated to Columbia, Tennessee, didn’t know which was more inappropriate; the ancient, exhausted, dark chocolate colored man kneeling in his frayed black suit, or being calling Miss Karen.
“Mister Broom,” Karen said, “You don’t have to call me Miss…” but it was no use. Abraham had begun again, hands clasped, pumping into the elastic chest of the CPR dummy and counting: “one, two, three…”
Karen slipped into to a cheerleading mode, “Make sure you use your weight and not your muscles, that’s right, 30 pumps and two assist breaths. You’re doing great…”
But the tall man, folded impossibly on the floor next to the Red Cross dummy, only reached twelve before crumpling panting. He looked to Karen, his forehead resting on the mannequin’s cloth-covered arm, as if he might be sobbing, but he was just catching his breath.
“Mister Broom.” Karen said the name louder than she intended and the rest of the class looked up at her. She blushed and covered a tiny moth-hole the Abraham’s worn shoulder pad with her hand. “Mister Broom, let’s take a little break ok? Come over here and have a drink.”
Both of Broom’s knees snapped as he struggled to stand. They walked to the edge of the room and Karen offered a Dixie cup from the cooler. The dark man wrapped his long fingers around the paper cup in and drank slowly, his eyes closed. When he finished he looked directly into Karen’s eyes and said, “Thank you kind, Miss Karen.” A broad smile spread across his face revealing perfect white teeth. Karen began, “Mister Broom…” but Abraham raised his hand and said slowly, “As a youngun I was taught respect, Miss Karen. Them’s old habits and old habits don’t never die.”
“But you have to tell me why it’s so important to learn CRP at your age. I mean, meaning no disrespect, but wouldn’t it have done you more good as a younger man?”
“Well that may be so, may be so,” Broom’s eyes lost focus. He stared at nothing for a moment and then back at her. “Miss Karen, is there someplace we could go and talk?”
Karen invited him to sit in one of the padded chairs in the office, she sat in the other. Abraham peered into the dark well of his long life, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He waited so long that Karen began to worry he was sleeping with his eyes open. Karen opened her mouth and Broom began.
“My daddy was born in Clayton Mississippi in 1860. I was born in Athens Alabama in 1905 when he was 40. My momma was 25 but she didn’t live long after I came along, she left me and my four brothers and two sisters for my daddy to raise. He died when I was 15. Our family lived in a one room cabin near the Tennessee River. It was small, but clean. As good-a life as we could ‘spect, I guess. Grew a little corn, fished the river, made our way as best we could. My brothers had itchy feet. So when they was old ‘nuf, they went they north like most black folk.
“They went straight north, ya hear?
“If you lived in South Carolina you’d go to New York. But us folk in Alabama went to Chicago. That’s jus’ the way we was taught. My daddy learned from his daddy and I learned from him. Don’t go east. Don’t go west. Taught me to follow the stars and go straight north. My sisters married local and had babies. By the time I stopped growing I was alone in that cabin. I kept the corn up, chopped wood, whatever I could do. ‘Fore long I married Della and we began havin’ babies too. I never really wanted to go too far from my home.”
Karen watched the man making his carefully measured speech. The suit, which probably fit him well 20 years before, was now easily two sizes too large. Even as the pants billowed around his stick-thin legs, Abraham Broom’s boney wrists stuck out of the jacket sleeves giving him a scarecrow appearance. The sweat had dried from his forehead leaving his skin with a waxy shine. Karen did the math, if Broom was born in 1905 that would make him 102. She had figured the man was in his 80s or 90s. She thought, this guy is a walking relic!
Karen imagined his long life stretching back before she was conceived, trying to picture Abraham Broom’s brothers and sisters. A big family, she thought. She was an only child. And here in this small southern town she was an anonymous soul who lived alone in a studio apartment two blocks from the Red Cross office. She worked days at the nearby Saturn plant in Spring Hill, and though there were professional relationships in her life she kept to herself. She was never quick to make friends and now as a middle aged woman, she claimed she preferred her solitude.
He resumed abruptly, shocking Karen, “There was moonshiners in Parley’s woods back then,” “Hell, I ‘spose there’s moonshiners there even today. But back then, them Reese boys didn’t cotton to none of us black folks. Called us nigras, they did. Ignorant sons of bitches.” He looked up at her, “‘scuse my language, Miss Karen. I have forgotten myself: now where was I?”
Before Karen could answer he continued, “I’ve known me plenty of white folk. Mistah Sneed, the man who owned my cabin—he was a fine man. But them Reese boys was nothing but trash. They spent most nights makin’ that corn mash and most days drinking it. They was ugly-mean. That’s all there was to it.”
“When my daughter Sarah was born she was a sickly child. Her lungs didn’t work right. She always had the croup. And one day my Della calls me in from chopping and tells me that little Sarah has stopped her crying, and that’s a bad sign, Miss Karen. That signals the little one’s strength has done give out. And Della, she tells me to go fetch the doctor. Normally I would take a wide detour around Parley’s. I never had no truck with them Reese boys. But Della say ‘you hurry. Run, Abraham! I don’t think she’s gonna last’ and so I runs by the river, and I tries to be quiet.”
“Mathew Reese, the oldest of the three, saw me and called for his brothers, Samuel and Robert. They was big boys. They ran me down and held my face in the water; nearly drowned me. Then they dragged me and tied my wrists up to a big twisted sugar maple limb.”
“I still remember it to this day. I was soaked to the skin and the flies was buzzin’ round our heads. Matt, he says ‘What the hell you think you doin’ nigra?’ “
“I was scared. I was worried about my little Sarah and I tried to tell them boys, but they just laughed and said they didn’t give a damn about no black dog’s child. Matt and his brothers were piss yo-self drunk. They had willow switches and my shirt was tore off.”
Abraham rose from his seat and let his jacket slip from his shoulders. With his skinny, long, trembling fingers he slowly unbuttoned his shirt and cuffs. Karen’s neck and face flushed. She thought briefly about how bad it looked for a student to be stripping down in a closed office. Instantly the thought was replaced by the realization that this man was old enough to be her grandfather. In an impossibly deft movement Abraham peeled the shirt from his shoulders and let it hang from his waist. His back was covered with a Jackson Pollack of crisscrossed thick and thin pink scars reaching from his shoulder blades extending into the waistband of his black trousers. Karen struggled to think of something to say, but the image blanked her mind.
Broom had turned away from her. She sat, unable to move. He spoke to the wall but Karen could clearly hear the tremble in his voice. “It’s been 77 years and I still cry for my baby girl. I guess a daddy never gets over the death of his daughter.” He turned and began re-buttoning his shirt.
“They left me hanging there. I was passed out in the noon sun. It is a wonder to Gawd that I didn’t die m’self. There weren’t nothing a black man could do about it. I mean, the police woulda done worse. I just buried my little girl and went back to my life. But the injustice of it burned me more than those willow sticks. It jus ate at my heart and made me mean. Della told me I needed to get right with my Maker. I wasn’t sleeping. So I would get up and wander by the river at night.
Without thinking, I wandered close enough to hear them Reese boys and I watched from a safe distance. Have you ever heard the saying ‘mad enough to make my blood boil?’ Well, Miss Karen, I was out of my mind, mad with grief and my heart was black and filled with vengeance.”
“I couldn’t think a nothing else. Next night, I came back to my hiding place but I brought my ax. I hid, hardly breathing by the hole they’d dug as a privy. It stank and the flys was thick, but I waited, still. I didn’t see which one came out first and he never saw me. I split his skull open like a ripe melon. Now you would think that the forest at night was a quiet place but that’s not quite true. The night sounds are just different from the day sounds but they are there. Crickets and katydids, owls and other night birds. Them boys were already plastered; they couldn’t a heard a thing if I was standing right next to them.”
“I picked off another later on his way to have a piss and by the time the third one recognized that his brothers were gone I snuck up behind him and kilt him where he stood calling. The katydids never skipped a beat.”
“I buried the bodies in the soft clay by the river along with all my clothes and I kicked over that still and set them woods on fire. By the time I got home the pink of sunrise had streaked the august sky. I never told no one about it. I heard stories, but I pretended ignorance. Them boys weren’t no goddamn good anyway and none too sorely missed. Asides, that fire burned up a hundred acres of dry woods that summer. There wasn’t nothin’ left for evidence. People jus’ assumed that they started the fire and burned up in it.” He looked at Karen and his bottom lip trembled. He dropped to his knees and put his hands on the arms of her chair.
Abraham’s tears had dried in the cool conditioned air. Three quarters of a century and a hundred miles away from his act of retribution he bowed before this white, middle-aged, CRP instructor from Ohio and begged: “You won’t turn me in will you, Miss Karen? You know I killed them in cold blood: I couldn’t let them live. And now, before I meet my Lord I must save a life. I jus has to Miss Karen . I jus has to!”
Karen laid her hand on the ancient man’s curly black head and silently granted the only absolution she could.
Story Notes: This is a story that was told to me by my wife, Karen. It was told to her by a CPR instructor named Dan from an experience he had a few years ago. The elderly negro man in Dan’s rendition called him massa Dan. This is not uncommon in the south. But when I submitted this story to my undergraduate advisor, he replied that it was totally unbelievable that a black man in 2009 would call a white man massa. It may be because the man that Abraham in my story is fashioned after is actually trying to say mister. It may be because my advisor lived his whole life in Seattle. In any case, it is also common to call female teachers by their first name preceded by miss, so it does not alter the tone and setting too much to have made that change. But so you know, he really called Dan massa. And old habits do linger in the south.
Abraham’s Absolution by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://ronheacock.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/abrahams-absolution/.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trigger warning: feminism, women's rights
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