Putting Away Childish Things

cowsWhitey Roy mopped sweat from his forehead with a gear oil-stained red bandana. Everybody knew that the ancient gas pump at Dunnavant’s service station ran slower as the temperature climbed. Though the faded printing on the oversized disk thermometer, nailed crooked to the side of the office door, topped out at 105, its rusty red needle was pinned far beyond that. Whitey figured it was at least 110 degrees.

Across Pigeon Roost Road, Mac Murphy’s hay field wavered like smoke, as though the landscape was smoldering in the late afternoon sun. A few dun-colored cattle stood still as statues, except for the occasional fly-swatting swish of a tail. A puff of breeze raised dust on the gas station’s buckled pavement. It felt more like an open pizza oven than wind. All the while, the faded numbers on the pump rolled slowly. At this rate, he thought, it’ll take an hour to fill this five gallon can.

The pump said: “Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, DING.” From the tired sound of the thing, Whitey could definitely tell it was running down. He wanted a cigarette and a beer. If the damn gas nozzle still had the auto-clip on it he would have left it stuck in his battered red gas can and lit one up in the shade of the scraggly hackberry tree at the edge of the parking lot. Whitey Roy knew he was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but, as he repeated often, “My momma didn’t raise no dummy.” He could smell the fumes from the 97 octane like he had his face right there in the can. He mopped ineffectively at the sweat running into his eyes and squinted at the hay barely shifting in the blast furnace air. “Ker-poof,” he said, imitating the last sound he would likely hear if he lit a match near that pump.

Everything looked burned around the edges; a comic book portrayal of some rural hell where all the colors were washed out. The grinding innards of the pump slowed noticeably. It was too hot to get excited, but Whitey considered it. He could have gone to the Phillips 66 further up 31 at the end of Buford’s Station, but that would have taken another half hour and he was already behind in raking his hay. He sighed.

A shadow poured quickly like paint, spilled over the station, plunging him into shade. The relief was overwhelming. Before he could look up at the cloud that caused it, the pump squealed to a halt. The numbers stood frozen at three point three gallons. He clicked the handle twice and looked into the nozzle end, shook the thing a few times, and said, “Aw, c’mon!” That’s when he felt it.

At first the rumble seemed to be in the air around him. After a moment, he dropped the pump handle and clapped his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help much. Charley Spits’ beagles started howling and yapping next door. It got darker, and cooler, and the wind rose and threw candy wrappers, empty beer cans, and small stones around the lot in spirals.

“Mus’ be a tornada,” he murmured.

Something hard smacked him on the shoulder and the vibration in his legs felt like an earthquake. The rumble became a violent shaking.

Whitey bent forward with an unavoidable wave of nausea and projectile vomited his turkey sandwich onto the oil-stained pavement. He fell to his knees, grinding skin into the tar and shredding his jeans. The low frequency pulsing was joined by a piercing high note that descended the tonal scale so rapidly that all the glass in his truck windows, the store front, and the face of the pumps exploded, spraying shards of glass .

The pressure grew inside his head; blood leaked from his ears. He opened his mouth to scream, but the sound was drowned out. A barn-sized disc shot out of the dark above him and descended over the hay field and stopped fifty feet above the small herd who did not seem to notice the commotion.

The rumble and squeal blinked out and the wind died. The resultant silence revealed a quieter purring sound that came from the direction of the disc. Cows lowed, tails swished. Whitey Roy tried to catch his breath. He couldn’t.

He was still on his bleeding hands and knees when he realized that the pavement was scorching hot. Jumping to his feet, he wiped at his runny nose and eyes with the sleeve of his dirty denim shirt. He tried to focus on the disc hovering above the cattle. It was at least two hundred feet across. The surface was dull, dark gray, like primer paint. There was no texture or marking on its smoothness.

Whitey wanted to run, but his legs refused to obey. He fought the urge to vomit and defecate simultaneously. The part of his mind that usually held a running commentary about things was mute, struck dumb by the enormity of the thing. His heart felt like a clogged drain. Not enough blood was getting to his head.

As though a vacuum cleaner were switched on, two of the four or five cows flew up into the sky disappearing into the bottom of the disk. One more followed, tumbling head over hind and mooing once just before vanishing. The last two evaporated similarly.

Whitey mumbled, “Cows…”

Without a sound, the disk swooped off at a forty-five degree angle and paused like a hummingbird several miles away. He looked up into the darkness and realized that the clouds he thought had covered the sun actually looked like the reflection of a city in the surface of a river. The disc shot into an opening in the face of this upside-down city. After a moment it began to move away slowly, growing smaller as it receded, the low rumbling was much quieter but still present. Soon it had become small enough for the afternoon sun to shine under it, illuminating the sides of buildings and the sparkling glass of a hundred million windows. Within a minute, it shrunk to a dark smudge in the sky’s bright blue field.

Whitey stood in the glaring sun, mouth agape, for a second. The pump began to gush gasoline, soaking his boots, cuffs and calves. He reached out toward the handle, but before he got it, the pump rang one final time and the flow ceased. The wind picked up again, slightly cooler now, though the sun was just as searing as it had been moments before the darkness approached.

Whitey shivered. His mind was as blank as a flat rock. A scrap of lined notebook paper blew against his chest and stuck there like it was glued to his shirt with paper hanger’s paste. He pealed the sheet off and looked at its surface. It was a brightly colored crayon drawing done by an unsteady child. The picture clearly showed a pink, four fingered hand reaching down toward five tan cows in a field of tall green grass. Whitey Roy’s arm dropped to his side, fingers relaxing. The wind snatched the page away. It shrank to a speck, finally disappearing into Mac Murphy’s field.

›š—

This story is included in my short story collection, Hey, This is it. I’m Going to Die,
published by Libros Igni in 2014.

You can get the book direct from me, or at Powell’s in Portland, OR and if you don’t mind supporting the evil empire, it is also available as a print on demand from Amazon.

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Harry’s Thanksgiving: An Ovation of Love

In this excerpt from my first novel, Happily after Ever, Harry is remembering a Thanksgiving from his youth.

He used to play with the younger brother, Tommy, and he spent countless hours spying on and speculating the mysteries of teen-age sister Patricia, but Harry was in love with Mandy Eastman. Mandy lived next door and was in his seventh grade class, and he would go to unheard of lengths to breathe her air.

Of course, being a major lame-ass nerd, Harry could not be seen with or even look at Mandy in school. There were mysterious unwritten rules and penalties in middle school. It was a wonder that anyone learned them at all, let alone survived the breaking of one of them. Harry knew his place was at the nerd table in the cafeteria, in the corner near the poison ivy end of the dirt play yard at recess, and on Stevie Dobin’s side of a dodge-ball game in gym. (Harry was always on the side with the losers.) It didn’t matter who else was Stevie’s side. The supreme rule, however, was that Harry was never allowed anywhere near girls like Mandy Eastman. One afternoon he saw Dave Hendrickson between sixth and seventh period standing face to face with Mandy, fingering her left breast, and it nearly broke his heart. His twelve-year-old mind couldn’t articulate a feeling of that immensity, but the image stuck with him all of his life. He felt a yearning for Mandy to this day, some eighteen years later, though he had completely lost track of her.

During the summer, Harry’s little street was far away from schoolyard politics and the cliques that governed them. At home on Briar Glen Lane, he and Mandy were just neighbors. Harry would rake leaves for Mr. Eastman, go with the family to ballet recitals for Mandy’s younger sister and generally suck up to all the Eastmans in order to be near Mandy. She usually treated him with the respect reserved for lesser life forms, but during those summers Mandy and Harry were simply kids and shared a love of the trees and woods and creeks. Though not best friends, they were the next-door neighbor sort of “friends by default.”

Patricia was instructing Mandy, unbeknownst to Harry, in the subtle art of tease flirting. Mandy knew Harry had a crush on her. It was obvious to everyone but Harry. That is how Harry found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with ten of the Eastman clan. The main problem was Harry’s allergy to turkey, an allergy of which he was ignorant because he had never even tasted turkey. Harry had a deep visceral aversion to any food that was unusual in texture or possessing a strong smell. His favorite foods, what he actually lived on, were Velveeta cheese, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, and Krispy brand saltine crackers. Harry could not tolerate vinegars in either smell or acidity, and thus would not eat salad. He was suspicious of baked potatoes because his father had once used some sour cream preparing one when he was young. Sour anything caused Harry to retch involuntarily. His mom stopped coercing him to try new foods when he was five. He had ruined her dinners by vomiting in his plate too many times. She simply gave up.

To say the afternoon was a disaster is a gross understatement; like calling a rattlesnake a problematic babysitter. Afterwards Harry didn’t show his face around the Eastmans for months. He avoided using the front door of his own house because he was too embarrassed be seen by Mandy’s mom.

It began well enough, if not a little uncomfortable. Harry had not eaten any breakfast in nervous anticipation of this dinner date. In fact, he was so unnerved by the prospect of eating with so many strangers that he couldn’t tell if he was hungry. The Eastmans were not fundamentalists, but they believed in observing various Sabbaths and thanking the almighty whenever they ate. Because Harry was a guest from outside the family, he held a position of honor at the table. Marjorie Eastman, Mandy’s mom, asked Harry, “Dear, would you like to say grace?” Mandy knew Harry had never attended any church service and would have no idea how to begin, even if he could get over the terror at having all eyes upon him. Mandy and Patricia marveled at his discomfort. The older sister stifled a laugh; it sounded like a snort. The rest of the family ignored the sound, except Mandy’s Uncle Jack, a Merchant Marine cook who had already had three J & B’s.

“Straight up no ice, Marjorie. Thank you.”

He was Mrs. Eastman’s older brother, thus facilitating Family Etiquette Rule #1: The embarrassing drunk brother is always invited to family holiday meals, and no matter how obnoxious, he is never expelled. Mr. Eastman would have the right, if he were stupid enough to exercise it before bed on the eve of a day off, to whine and growl to his wife later after Jack had passed out or stumbled to his car. Paul Eastman, like most men, wanted to get laid, so he would keep his opinion of Jack to himself.

This was years before Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. At this pivotal point in American history, friends didn’t screw with their friends’ right to drive shit-faced, if friends didn’t want to get the living puke beat out of them. Cops normally let drunk drivers sleep it off and released them in the morning. Intervention in white middle class lives was regarded as a civil rights violation. Nobody talked about the many homicides committed by belligerent morons like Jack Monroe.

This Thanksgiving, however, Jack was Harry’s champion. Jack had noticed the way Patricia and Mandy treated the boy. Jack was intimately familiar with being the lame-ass nerd-boy, and he had scars to prove it.

“Christ, Marge,” he slurred. “Why not have Miss Prissy Panties invoke the blessing? And when the hell can we get to the wine, I’m thirsty!” He leered at Patricia through his thick lenses, a possible foreshadowing of abuses yet undiscovered. Harry never knew.

Mrs. Eastman covered her anger like the survivor that she was. Her father had drunk himself to death just in time to spare Marjorie’s mother the trouble of murdering him in his sleep. It would have been self-defense, though, as the old man beat her mom most nights, only beating Marge occasionally as a diversion.

After a moment’s pause to collect her wits, Marge said, “Well then, Patricia, would you?”

The teen tipped her head piously and placed her pale white hands together, fingertips pointing upward toward God. She spoke clearly in her girlish soprano, “Thank you, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive and Lord, may this food nourish our souls as our bodies, and make us truly grateful. Amen.”

She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Jack. He regarded her from beneath sleepy eyelids like an over-fed tiger slouching across the table from her.

“Amen,” he grumbled.

“Make us grateful,” Harry mumbled aloud. He momentarily rose out of the throes of his memory to the dimly lit room in his Nashville duplex.

Out in the backyard, the crows had given way to two grey squirrels, one possessing a woeful stump stuck full of mangy pin-feather-like hair, the other with a proud bush of a tail. They looked remarkably like two bantamweight boxers as they argued over a black rubber super ball. Stumpy was chattering and running around in circles. Bushy, holding the ball between his front hands, was hopping around in order to continue facing his maniacal opponent. Harry could see a small chunk missing from the inky looking globe.

Both squirrels were due to be sadly surprised when they tried to eat that nut.

Harry hardly noticed. A painful memory had his mind in a hellish tape loop. He drifted back.

Anyone who has attended a big-family Thanksgiving dinner knows the chaos that followed. In short, the promise of a civilized meal turned into a pig fest. Several conversations sprang up at once with loud drunken punctuations injected by Uncle Jack. Mrs. Eastman insisted that Harry sample everything on the table. Steaming plates paraded past: ham, turkey (white and dark meat), chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, cream corn, green beans baked with Durkee fried onion curls, sautéed pearl onions, pickled cucumbers with sour cream, boiled summer sausage with sauerkraut, and several plates and bowls containing unidentified sauces in colors ranging from bright red to slimy grey.

legs under tableHarry politely tried to eat a little bit of everything. He didn’t talk. He sat next to his sweetheart, though he could hardly look at her. He glanced once at her bare knee. She had her hand resting in her lap on top of a white linen napkin. Harry glimpsed her cream-colored thigh below her hiked up skirt. His heart raced, his stomach gurgled.

He tried the turkey and the stuffing. Though the consistency bothered him some, the taste was pleasant enough; nutty and warm, the meat not gamey or dry. He relaxed a little. When the pickled pig’s feet came around, Harry’s stomach groaned again. He mistakenly thought it was hunger. In response, he ate all of the potatoes and gravy on his plate. Up to this time, Harry liked potatoes. Mrs. Eastman, who assumed that the blank place on his plate meant he loved her cooking, responded by plopping down a half pound more, splashing brown, gelatinous gravy over the whole runny mountain. The smell of the sauerkraut assaulted him, preceding an unmistakable wave of nausea. Harry had a gas pain. He would soon learn that intestinal distress was his body’s standard reaction to turkey. He only tried to eat it once again later in his life with similar, involuntary results. He felt ill, but he did not want to excuse himself. He had an unnatural fear of stranger’s bathrooms, and the thought of being sick in one repulsed him.

He thought, I only need to fart, and his stomach lurched again. The noise in the room was deafening. The adults had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. He could tell that Mrs. Eastman, for one, was less inhibited. She was pouring gravy on her mother-in-law’s plate with abandon. The brown goo had already created a lake on the lavender tablecloth and a river was flowing toward Mandy at Harry’s end of the table. Harry could not hold back. He tried to let it slip out unnoticed, but a cramp gripped his lower intestines at that moment and forced him to push involuntarily. What came out of him was not gas. At least, that is not all that came out of him.

The clatter and bustle of the table ceased. This was no pause, no lull. It was instant silence. Diners sat staring at Harry with forks and glasses suspended in midair. Harry sat miserably in what he imagined to be a puddle of diarrhea much like the river of gravy that was pooling around Gramma Eastman’s plate. His gut wrenched again. That was when the smell reached his nose.

It apparently reached Uncle Jack’s nose, as well. He bellowed: “Christ’s balls kid, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?”

Harry hardly heard Jack. Everyone at the table was looking at him, aghast. His stomach lurched again and he looked helplessly at Mandy. He wanted to say he was sorry, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he vomited his entire undigested turkey dinner into his beloved’s lap.

Signed Copies Available

HeacockCover.inddMy short story collection from Libros Igni is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

You can also get (while my supply lasts) a signed copy.

Click on the cover image above for the direct buy page which includes all three options.

 

Veterans Day 2014: Sharps Rifle

This is a Repost from January 20, 2014

sharps rifle

I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.

There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land. You might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.

That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not been sleeping at all.

In late June the sun comes up before five and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. Usually the lazy mutts will not even come downstairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door-scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.

Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yip.

It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered. Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-aged boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach open, apparently attempting to reload a long barreled rifle. Without thinking I called out, “Hey, what the hell…”

He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard to him: “There’s no need for that son.  Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”

His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.

And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue and the jacket buttons were bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high-resolution photo: green grass, blue boy, red barn.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and, standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one. Lower your weapon and let’s you and me have a talk.”

You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees. The bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.

I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.

I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look.” He held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”

He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge. He’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.

When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out-of-phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.

Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and, replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s thousand acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half-dragged, half-walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “Mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “We need all the mercy we can get, William. Come on now, you’ll be better soon.”

Loki trotted along at his heel, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.

My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.

I could take no more.

I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself: a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.

When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open. I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear and a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and two brass hat buttons.

Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me.

The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action three-band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably, William actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts. It has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet, are new. They show no sign of age and no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.

After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children. I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.

As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.

Sharps Rifle is part of the short story collection, Hey, This is It, I’m Going to Die, due from Libros Igni on November 15, 2014. Contact me for signed copies. Pre order on Amazon:
HeacockCover.indd

Why is this man Smiling?

laketahoeIf 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.

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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 ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Where They Go

“Mom, where do they go when they die?”

She was loading bags of groceries into the trunk of the car. She did not answer. I walked over to the bird lying on the brown mulch piled up next to a skinny tree. The mulch was surrounded by a concrete curb in the FoodMart parking lot. The bird, one dull beady eye staring, was some kind of brown and grey sparrow-like thing. One wing was stretched out, and its neck bent the wrong way.

“Mom?” I repeated, looking down at the bird.

She must have thought I was going to pick it up. Because she grabbed my shoulder and pulled me toward the car. I might have already bent down. The sun glinted off the chrome bumper.

“Don’t touch dead birds, Sammy, they carry diseases.”

“Where do they carry them?” I asked.

She didn’t answer, just pushed me into the back seat and closed the car door. I could hear her through the rolled up windows, “You didn’t touch it did you? Buckle up now, you know, seat belts save lives.”

///

“It’s a sin to tell a lie,” she said.

It was a different day, the weather was cooler. We were in the garage, having just returned from the eye doctor. After she closed the garage door the sun shined through the cracks between the door panels, painting lines on the cement floor. It smelled like fertilizer, motor oil, and gasoline. I told her that I dreamed I was in the backyard, but then I woke up, and I really was in the backyard. The grass was wet. I was in my pajamas looking up at the cold, black, starry sky. I started to cry, and I wished I was back in my bed. So that’s why there were leaves and stuff on the sheets this morning; ‘cause my feet got dirty in my dream.

I asked, “What’s a sin?”

///

The water is freezing. The bathroom has blue tiles on the walls and the tub is blue too, just lighter. They must have filled it with ice cubes and then they put me in. My skin burns, all over my whole body. My hands and feet feel huge. I am fighting with strong hands. Everything in the room is tilted and wrong­­­–the toilet looks too big; the shower curtain around my dad’s face looks tiny. He is speaking, but I can’t understand the words. I can see up his nose, smell the cigarettes on his breath. I wonder: why are you killing me? I am crying, pleading for my mommy. “Mommy, get me out!” I was so cold before, and now I am on fire. When I close my eyes everything is orange with yellow at the edges.  I want to be out of the water, but I am confused and afraid. As I gasp for air, I hear someone say, “Shush, it’s okay,” And then the little tiled room fills with screams again; the screams are coming from me.

///

I am sitting on my grandfather’s rocking chair on his porch somewhere far away from home. My feet do not touch the floorboards where the grey paint is peeling. It is summer, and flies are flying around the dirty rug in front of the screen door where Chester, my grandpa’s dog, sleeps. It smells hot and dirty like old cooking grease. Chester is mean, I have been bitten, but he is nowhere around now. I want a Good Humor. I want to be home watching cartoons. I want to be anywhere but here. The flies land on me, in my face–on my hands. My mom has warned me about the germs. I am afraid to touch the grimy railing or the grimy doorknob. I squeeze my eyes shut. I remember Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of OZ. I whisper, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” I hold my breath; I strain and push and grit my teeth. Sweat runs down my forehead, into my eyes. It tickles my nose; I wipe at it with the side of my hand.

When I open my eyes I am still here. The air is so hot and still that the fence in the front yard looks like it is a reflection in the lake. I remember the lake. The water is cold and dark and deep. I think about the splintery wood on the dock, the metal boat tied up with a thick, scratchy, knotted rope, a black tire tube floating. I can hear the little waves splashing against the posts and the boat banging against the dock.

I no longer want to go anywhere. The idea of the lakeside is just like being there. I relax. I hear other kids playing nearby. When I open my eyes I am sitting on the little sandy beach by the water. A motor boat skims by out in the middle of the lake.

///

She is old. We have had her ever since I can remember. I put my face into the wiry brown fur on her heaving side and listen to her insides; breathing, panting. Like a city of noises gurgling underground. Shallow breaths, up and down–in and out.

They tell me she is dying. I know that it means she will go away.

Somewhere.

I ask, “why?” There is no answer. I ask, “Where will Brownie go?”

My dad walks away. My mom says, “Heaven dear, she is going to heaven.”

I have heard this before. I know they don’t know where that is.

I lean in near her ear, it is very soft. She is panting little pants. I say, “it’s okay now, you can go.” Her tail lifts and falls once, twice. The muscles in her shoulder tighten, and her head lifts off the floor just a little. I think for a moment that she is going to get up, and I move away to give her some space. But she drops back onto the floor and sighs–a long whistling exhale. The panting stops. Her eye is closed, like she is asleep, but I know she isn’t. She’s gone. Brownie’s body is there but not Brownie. I think, I wonder where she is?

///

Wallstone’s Black Duchess. She was the one. I could just tell. One in a jumble of black, tan, and white fur; wobbling on unsteady legs. It was hard to imagine that this little fuzzy rat would someday grow into a dog. Her brothers and sisters squeaked and growled, tumbling over one another in the open cardboard box.

Mom said, “She will be bigger than Brownie, you know. Collies are big, athletic dogs; you are going to have to walk her every day.”

I was hardly listening. I held the little puff ball with my thumbs hooked under her front legs, and raised the tiny black nose to mine. Her puppy eyes were still blue, sort-of unfocused.

My dad said, “I think we’re going to take this one. Sammy? You can call her Duchess.”

The puppy stopped squirming. Her hind legs hung limp. Her little pink tongue flicked out and kissed me. I thought: is that you?

I said, “Mom? I think she recognizes me. It’s Brownie! She’s come back home to me.”

///

My 6th period math teacher, Mr. Mulligan, was the most boring man on the planet. If I wasn’t drawing a battle between the Cylons and the Federation on the inside cover of my math notebook, I would have been asleep. While Mulligan droned on about multiplying negative fractions I saw the janitor, Joe Stern, out the window, riding around and around in circles on the Columbia Middle School lawn mower.

I thought he had to be getting dizzy, just going in circles like that. Mulligan’s voice, the low humming of the motor through the closed windows, and the hot room became too much. I watched a fly land on the windowsill and crawl around, buzzing on and off. Outside, Mr. Stern went around and around and around. My eyes began to close.

I must have fallen asleep, because when the breeze hit my face, I woke up standing in the fresh cut grass outside. The janitor turned just in time to avoid running me over. I stood there blinking. I didn’t know how I got there. I told them, but they didn’t believe me. I got three days of detention for leaving the building without a pass.

///

By the time I was in high school, it had happened enough times that I realized I might end up wherever my attention focused. I was jumpy and nervous, worrying that it would happen unexpectedly. My grades were horrible, I wasn’t sleeping.

I met Alice in the cafeteria. She sat next to me and said, “I remember you from middle school. I was in Mulligan’s class that day, and I saw you disappear.” We became pretty good friends. She told me, “You have a gift, Sammy; you should practice it to make it stronger, like a muscle.” She wanted to help.

My mom had gone back to work, so there was nobody to bother us at my house. Alice suggested I try simple moves at first, like from the den to the bathroom. I discovered that all I had to do was to clearly imagine one detail, like the pattern in the counter top or the way the chrome around the sink drain was chipped, and I would find myself sitting on the toilet or on the edge of the bathtub. A moment later Alice would call after me: “Hey Sammy, you in there?”

I wanted to teach her how I did it, but she didn’t want to try. Once I grabbed her hand just before I moved, but she yanked it back and stormed out of the house. We never talked about it, and I didn’t bring it up again. Alice was my only friend.

///

One afternoon just before Christmas my mom and dad showed up at school together. I was called down to the office; they told me to go by my locker and collect my stuff. We drove all night to a hospital in Saint Louis. My grandpa was very ill, and he might not live through the night. When we arrived in the morning the priest was just leaving. My grandpa was a big, gruff man; I used to be afraid of him. But he looked small and pale in that hospital bed. His color reminded me of an old shirt that has been washed too many times.

My mom said, “Dad? Sammy’s here, and Paul… We’re all here to say goodbye, dad. Can you hear me?” She motioned me to come closer.

I really wanted to get away from that room. If I let myself, I could be somewhere else in a moment, but it would be hard to explain. I moved up next to him, and he mumbled. I asked, “What did you say grandpa?”

I sat down in the chair next to the bed. My mom said, “Listen Sam, you stay here with him for a bit. Your dad and I are going for coffee. Do you want anything?” I shook my head.

I sat there listening to his breathing; he had those little tubes under his nose, and he would wheeze on every exhale. I looked around the room. There was a plastic bed pan; a vase of wilting flowers, the TV remote–it seemed so sad and superficial that my big strong grandfather was dying in such a cruddy little room.

He suddenly opened his eyes, but he wasn’t looking at me. He said, very clearly, “I don’t know how to do this.”

“Do what grandpa?”

“I can’t find it; I can’t find the door…”

I thought of the time in the ice bath. My mom told me that I had a 106 degree fever, and they were afraid I was going to die. It gave me an idea, I said, “Can you see an orange light, grandpa?”

“Where’s the light? I can’t find the light.” He was only taking short, little breaths.

I imagined the pulsing orange light with the yellow around the edges. I looked into the image in my mind and noticed that it was like a flame. Little blue sparks shot out of the center like ribbons. I was standing in front of an open doorway with the orange light radiating from the room on the other side. It wasn’t hot or anything. My grandpa was standing next to me looking off to the side. I took his big, soft hand, and pulled him forward.  I said, “Look Gramps, there’s the door, you want to go through it? It’s okay you know. I think that’s where you’re supposed to go.”

He didn’t look at me. He said “Oh yes.” Then he walked through and disappeared into the light.

I watched for a moment; my heart pounding, but not because I was scared. I wondered where he was going, and I wanted to follow, but I remembered my mom and dad. The next moment I was sitting in the chair. I looked over at the body on the bed. A faint smile curled the corner of his ashen lips, but my grandfather was already gone.

›š###

NOTE: This piece was graciously published in Connotation Press (and I am in pretty good company there!). Please check them out and SUBMIT!

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Where they Go by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.connotationpress.com/fiction/1757-ron-heacock-fiction.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Crossing Cali’s Wires

cig pak“The number you have reached is not in service. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” The message was followed by a series of clicks and buzzes and a final pop like the line was actually being cut. Cali imagined a black cable the thickness of her thumb severed with a long handled pair of pruning loppers.

The door slid shut; she habitually stabbed the first floor button three times. “How the hell could the intercom in an elevator be connected to a phone?” She asked.

Her ten year old Corgi, Pootin, didn’t answer. He stood by her feet, panting up at her. She had waited too long to take him out again and his self-control was clearly frayed.

Cali was interrupted from pondering at the third floor when a slobbering bull-dog-sort-of-beast entered the car towing his owner by a stretched leather leash. Pootin whined. Cali smiled toward the man, but his nose was inserted in a yellowed paperback, so she let it fade from her face. The guy was wearing a dirty pair of sweatpants and an unbuttoned paisley bath robe. Cali looked away from his thicket of chest hair. Pootin stopped panting as though the wet noises from the other dog were intimidating him. Cali knew better; her Corgi was silent and staring into the corner because it required his full attention to keep from pissing a lake right there on the rubber elevator floor.

The door opened and she squeezed between paperback face and the metal jamb. “So sorry,” she mumbled, walking fast through the lobby doors and out onto the sidewalk. Poor Pootin almost pissed on the mailman’s leg as Cali dragged him three legged to a pole near the curb. His toenails scratched the cement. She was busy lighting a Marlboro light with one of those cheap plastic lighters and did not notice if Bulldog followed her out. Eyes closed; leaning on the postered pole, she exhaled a lungful of low tar and nicotine. It was amazing that there could be any wood left under the thousands of playbills stapled there over the years.  “Must be more paper and staple than wood,” she thought. Pootin, who had already dropped a quart, looked up at her apologetically, but his urinary stream showed no sign of letting up.

Cali wrote a column named, The Smart Chick’s Guide to the City. Smoking there, she’d drifted into thinking about her latest article in progress, a comparison of the corrupt bucket of mayoral hopefuls in the upcoming election titled Neck Deep in the Snake Pit. “Follow the money and it will reveal the dark underbelly of the political process,” Cali thought. “I’m just worried it might be getting too dark.”

Grinding the cigarette with her heel, she asked Pootin, “You done bud?” He sat calmly on the sidewalk looking up at her as if to say, “Who, me?” Cali punched her door code into the entrance intercom and rode the elevator back up to her fourth floor loft. There were no calls during the return trip.

The only upside of being a smoker in the current anti-smoking world was that it forced her to go outdoors every few hours. At least she couldn’t chain smoke, and her habit gave her an excuse to punctuate her normally obsessive writing life. Pootin appreciated the breaks as well, since Cali hardly ever passed up a chance to bring him with her when she went. Sometime in the late afternoon, following a can of plain tuna fish and couple of stale Ritz crackers, Cali snapped the retractable leash onto Pootin’s collar and walked to the elevator at the end of her floor.

After the door closed and she stabbed the first floor button, a ringing sound came over the intercom. It rang once, as though she were listening to a receiver making a call. Halfway through the second ring, a male voice picked up and mumbled, “What? What do you want now?”

Cali opened her mouth to try and explain that she was in an elevator and the stupid intercom system seemed to be making random phone calls when a breathy female voice said, “You know what I want Charles, and you’ll pay it too.”

Cali closed her mouth. The male continued, “What, why are you doing this? I’ve never done anything to you.”

The woman said, “Fuck you Charley, this is about you, not me. Did you get the money?”

The elevator stopped at the first floor and the door opened. Cali rapidly stabbed the fourth floor button six times. Pootin began to exit but she snapped the lock on the spring loaded leash and gagged him to a stop as the door slid closed.

The man said, “Yes, yes I have it, but, can’t we talk about this. I can help you, you don’t need to do this…”

The woman laughed loudly, Cali hoped that the tenants on the first floor couldn’t hear, they would have thought it was her; they were always up in her shit. “Charles, you have nothing I need, but I am going to ruin you, you asshole. Bring the money to The Crow Bar at 4:55 this afternoon; it will be crowded and noisy. Put it in a gym bag – I know you have one you bastard. Remember, if you are late it’s over, if the money isn’t all there, it’s over, if you tell anyone or bring anyone, it’s over. Do you understand?”

Charles said wearily, “How many times are you going to do this?”

“Until I’m satisfied. Remember, you’re my bitch.” She disconnected and the operator’s recording began, “if you’d like to make a call…”

Cali stood in the car with the door open at the fourth floor until the door closed. The car sat stationary, waiting for someone to summon it. After a moment she pushed the open doors button and walked back to her apartment in a daze. She knew where The Crow Bar was. The time was 3:30.

To say the bar was crowded and noisy was an understatement. Cali did not realize how difficult it could be to spot a man she had never seen at exactly 4:55 PM on a Friday evening. She sat next to a blond with big-hair and a really short sequined skirt at the end of the bar, sipping a Widmer draft, watching the door.  The spicy Chex mix was addictive, the crowd prowled.

At 5:30, after three mugs of beer her mouth felt burned and dry from the salty snacks, but she had not seen a man with a gym bag. Her head was pounding in time with fat bass of the dance beat. The place was a meat market; she’d caught the big-haired blond eyeing her. Cali decided to leave. As she was paying her tab the other woman put her hand on Cali’s wrist.

“You call me sometime, huh?” she spoke into Cali’s ear, pressing a scrap of paper into her palm.

Looking at the woman’s face–heavy eye makeup, too much hair–Cali’s face grew hot; she stuffed it into her pocket and pulled away. There was nothing to say. She pushed out into the night.

As she walked to the light rail stop she thought, “Crap, what a waste of time. I can’t really believe I did this.” The trains were relatively empty at this time; she had no problem finding a seat. She scanned her fellow passengers. There was a woman dressed in blue pumps wearing a faux mink stole, a skinny guy in a checkered sport coat whose sleeves were too short revealing greying white shirt cuffs and wrists so boney they looked as though they were from an R. Crumb comic. A young mother and a toddler boy sat near the front of the car talking about the train and the dark city stuttering past the window.

She had drifted back into thinking about the Snake Pit article, and hardly noticed when the train stopped. A large boned, middle-aged man boarded the train wearing a grey silk pin striped suit carrying a blue Nike gym bag. When the train started up Cali glanced around the car casually and spotted the guy with the bag. She wished she had a newspaper to hold up in front of herself so that she could look at him inconspicuously. He sat down directly across from her and rested both hands protectively on the bag in his lap.

He was staring at her. She looked away suddenly flushed and self-conscious. After the train was up to speed and the overhead mumbled some unintelligible announcement about what Cali could only guess was the next stop, she ventured a look at him and quickly pretended that there was something of overwhelming beauty or importance embedded in the orange plastic of the seat next to her.

She built up her courage enough to glance at him again. This time she swept her gaze across the advertisements near the handles above his head before dropping her eyes slightly to see if he was still looking at her. He wasn’t really staring; just peering blankly out the window to her right. The train began to slow and the disembodied voice on the overhead intoned some more garbled nonsense.

As the train came to a stop the suited man slid over in his seat, slumped forward and fell onto the floor. The woman in pumps screamed and bolted, the mother grabbed the boy by the wrist and yanked him to the nearest opening doors, probably dislocating his elbow. The bag rolled in Cali’s direction and stopped on the toes of her Chuck Taylor high tops. Charles continued to stare under the seat. He was not moving, probably not breathing. A burgundy puddle grew from beneath him; his left cheek pressed into the grooved rubber floor mats. A fly crawled across his open eye.

The geek in the checkered jacket had disappeared. The blue gym bag, which she imagined was full of money, rested on her toes. Charley just lay there. She was alone with a dead body, and a spreading pond of blood. She looked at the blue gym bag. Just as the doors began to close, Cali grabbed the bag and sprinted from the train.

///

Her thoughts were blank. The image of Charley, his pale face pressed into the black rubber mat flickered in her memory blotting out every other sensible impulse. She opened a fresh pack and lit up, walking and smoking, trying to organize her thoughts around what she had witnessed. “What have I witnessed?” she thought. It took a full minute, when she looked up at the building she was standing in front of, to recognize it was her building. When she reached for a cigarette the pack was empty.

Once behind her locked apartment door, Cali dropped the bag on the floor and ran to the bathroom. It only took a split second of deliberation to decide to pee rather than puke. She leaned forward and laid her head on her knees with her eyes closed. The Chex mix was an insufficient dinner, especially on top of all the beer. She tried to center herself and calm her stomach. Even though there wasn’t much in there, it threatened to rise.

When she opened her eyes, the blue Nike bag sat slumped on the saddle of the bathroom door. Sweat tricked down her back like melting ice. The corner of the Nike bag had wicked up some of Charley’s blood. Cali’s gut folded over and she nearly bolted.

Her curiosity got the better of her. She splashed some water on her face, brought the bag to the stainless steel kitchen counter, and poured herself a half glass of Bulliet Bourbon. After drinking a large gulp, she ripped the zipper open like she was pulling a strip of duct tape from her hair.

The bag contained a dirty pair of sneakers and some gym shorts. It smelled ripe. The dumped out contents spilled on the counter. Sweaty gym socks, and a stained wife beater. Some coins rattled to the floor. Cali grabbed a chop stick and pushed the pile of stuff around.

There was nothing of any value there. She wasn’t a lawyer, didn’t know the jargon. It was called tampering with or removing evidence, or something. Whatever it was it had to be bad, someone had murdered Charley. She saw it. He was really dead.

One of his sneakers fell on the floor, tipped over and a wallet and keys tumbled out. “Oh fuck,” she said. Pootin was sniffing around the sneaker, she yelled at him, “Pootin! Get the hell away from that.” The shocked Corgi released a huge spreading puddle that instantly enveloped the shoe, wallet and keys. Cali shouted, “Shit!” and grabbed the billfold and the keys with one hand, spraying her shoes with piss. She lost her grip on the keys and they flew across the room landing on a terry cloth towel piled by the couch. “Oh fuck me,” she cried, but by the time she reached them the urine soaked keys had left a yellow blotter stain on the white fabric. The dog was stuck trying to wedge his fat body under the couch.

After spreading the contents of the wallet on paper towels to dry, Cali looked over the damp contents. There were only five twenties – definitely not a fortune, snap shots in the picture section of a woman in her mid-thirties with long black hair and several of children, two boys, at various ages spanning infant to toddler.

The name on the license was Albert Armstrong. His address was listed as 10010, 105th Street SE. Not Charley.

Cali dropped down on the couch and swallowed the last of the bourbon. Pootin put his head on her knee and looked up at her as if to say, “Do you forgive me? I couldn’t wait.”

She patted his head absently. She was suddenly very sleepy and closed her eyes. It was just for a moment. She had to think this through, figure how this happened and what she should do about it.

///

Cali woke up to Pootin licking her face. The sun filled the high ceilinged loft. She almost forgot about the events of the preceding day, but sitting on the toilet reminded her of the blue Nike gym bag and the memory of Charley/Albert, lying in a lagoon of dark blood overtook her.

The wallet contents spread on her counter greeted her on the way to make coffee. The day suddenly turned overcast and the apartment darkened a shade. Cali sat at her kitchen table sipping from a large mug. “If he wasn’t Charley, then why would anyone want to kill him?” She was thinking. There were coffee grounds in the bottom of her cup. “Maybe he wasn’t killed. There were probably all sorts of reasons that a man would fall dead on a light rail train and bleed all over the floor.” Cali couldn’t think of any just then, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t happen.

“And if he wasn’t murdered…”

“Oh shit,” she said to Pootin, he silently confirmed her conclusion. “I probably grabbed the only identification Albert had,” she said.  “The black haired woman in the wallet pictures; she is probably freaking out.”

///

Cali took Pootin and rode the Max eastward across the river to the 82nd Avenue stop. The sun was shining, but she could not place it in the sky. The time on her phone face read 10:30AM. She hid the blue Nike gym bag inside a grocery sack. The blood had dried to a dark brown stain, it looked like dirt. The wallet was in her pocket next to her smokes.

She walked the remaining blocks to the address on Albert Anderson’s identification trying to hold her head up and keep her back straight, but as she walked, she kept catching herself slouching, and would stiffen up again. A traffic signal stopped her at 98th and she stood rehearsing the story she would tell the dark haired woman when she answered the door. “I can’t say I stole the bag, or even begin to explain why I thought it might be full of money…”  At this point she was not even sure why she went out to The Crow Bar. Pootin whined, Cali looked down at him and then up at the light.

“That’s a long light,” she thought fingering the lighter in her pocket, considering a cigarette.

After realizing that she had stood through two cycles she spun around and started back toward the Max station, but after three steps, stopped and turned back. “No.” she thought, I am going to have to face this. Maybe I can just say I found it. Sure, I found it and looked inside for some clue to its owner.” Pootin looked up at her, panted and trembled.

Walking on, the scene played in her mind: she would arrive at the door and ring the bell, explain her story, and hold out the wallet and bag. Cali wanted to believe that the woman would appreciate the return of her husband’s things. She was nodding to herself. After a few more steps she stopped, realizing, “Oh fuck. What if she doesn’t know he’s dead yet? If the police could not find any identification,” her armpits felt damp now, “then I would be the first to tell her. The police might want to question me.”

Cali couldn’t lie to the police. She pulled the Nike bag out of the grocery sack and began looking around for a place to stash it. When she turned to a row of garbage cans lined up by a short chain link fence along the sidewalk, she read the house number: 10010. She had walked directly to 105th Street SE without even thinking about it. At least she could not remember thinking about it.

Cali fumbled the cigarettes out of her jacket pocket and dropped her lighter. She stood smoking, staring at the house with the Marlboro sticking out of her mouth. Pootin inspected the base of a trash cans. At that moment the front door opened and a woman with dark hair strode down the sidewalk and opened the gate. When she saw the Nike bag she said. “That’s my husband’s.”

Cali exhaled and opened her mouth. Her mind went blank again. She held out the wallet. The woman, looking puzzled, took the wallet and said, “Look Hun, this lady found your gym bag.” Cali turned and faced Albert Anderson, looking every bit alive as his driver’s license photo.

He said. “Oh wow, how cool, where did you find it?”

Cali’s mind ran through a hundred possibilities in a second. She did not want to tell the story of the elevator or the pool of blood. She couldn’t explain that she took it from a dead man who she thought was Charley who turned out to be Albert who turned out not to really be dead at all. She needed to sit, but there was nowhere. Her mind filled with a stream of mental chatter about the conclusions she had jumped and an old saying: to assume makes an ass out of you and me. She swallowed and dropped the cigarette on the side walk, covering it with her shoe.

Anderson’s wife noticed Pootin and bent down to pet him. She said, “Oh, he’s precious, what’s his name?”

Cali mumbled, “Pootin, like the Russian leader, only with two O’s.”

Both Anderson and his wife laughed. Cali continued, “I guess I just found it.” But both of them were petting the dog now and the Andersons did not hear her. They were muttering to Pootin, who had rolled over exposing his belly, and was making little mooking sounds.

The dark haired woman stood up and reached out to shake Cali’s hand, she said, “Well it was nice to meet you…” she paused.

“Cali,” Cali said, taking the woman’s hand.

“Cali,” she continued, smiling. “I’m Meg. Thanks you for bringing Andy’s stuff back.”

“And sorry about the clothes, I know they’re rank.” Andy added, “I was bringing them home last night and I left the bag at the Max stop. I forgot I left my wallet in there.” He was shaking his head. Cali really wanted to light a cigarette.

“I have to go pick up the kids from play practice,” Meg said. “Thanks again.”

While she walked off toward the car in the driveway, Albert opened his wallet and pulled out a twenty, stuffing it into Cali’s hand. It was damp. She opened her mouth to refuse, but closed it again. She wanted to tell him about the blood stain, but could not think of how to begin. He said, “Well then, thanks again. Have a great day,” and walked up the steps and into his house.

Cali stood on the other side of the closed gate until Pootin whined and tugged. He wanted to check out more trash cans, but Cali walked back in the direction of the Max, pulling the crumpled pack of Marlboro’s out of her pocket and lighting one. Pootin trotted a few steps behind her, tongue out and panting.

Arriving at her elevator she jabbed the up button three times. The door opened immediately as though it had been waiting for her since she had left that morning. It was about 12:30 now, Cali’s stomach grumbled. The door closed. Riding up, just past the second floor the ringer sounded on the intercom. The same man answered it before the second ring. Charley said, “Hello?”

The breathy female voice said, “Fuck you Charley, you stood me up.”

He replied, “You didn’t answer your phone, and my car battery was dead. I just didn’t have the energy to ride the Max all the way over there to that shitty bar.”

“Charley!” she sighed, her voice exaggerated like a melodramatic actor. “That was our date, baby. I didn’t wear any panties and I waited for you for an hour.”

“Oh I’m sorry snuggle bottom.” Charley was making kissing sounds into the phone. Pootin, hearing the lip smacking, began barking frantically.

The man on the phone said, “Who is that? Who’s on the line? Sheila, did you get a dog?”

Pootin just kept barking. The neighbors would surely be annoyed. Cali almost yanked on his leash and scolded him. She was tired. She wanted a cigarette. She sighed, Pootin showed no sign of letting up. “Fuck it, let him bark, who gives a shit,” she thought.

As the car reached her floor Cali thought about saying something to the people on the phone, but she realized again that there would be no way to explain her involvement in these people’s lives, her misunderstanding or the drama of the past two days. The door opened and Pootin forgot why he was barking, eager to continue in his accustomed ritual. While she walked down the hallway she looked down at the little dog prancing next to her heal, content to be with her, it made her smile. For a couple of steps she did not think about anything in particular, she was happy just walking with her dog. Before she reached her apartment door, however, the image of all that blood invaded her thoughts. She wondered, “Who was that dead guy and why was he carrying the bag?” Maybe there was something she missed. Pushing her hand into her pocket she felt the scrap of paper from Big-Hair. “Sheila?” The wheels in her mind started to turn.

###

NOTE: This piece appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Elohi Gadugi Journal Under the name of Otis’s Lament 

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Crossing Cali’s Wires by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/4fgRf.
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Falling Forward

You are walking. It is late morning. The sun has that deceptive midwinter angle to it that makes everything look as though it should be warm and inviting, but it is not. It couldn’t be more than twenty degrees. The shadows are sharp-edged, and the air is crystalline. There are no clouds; just a broad curving blue from one horizon to the other. You look at your watch, but immediately forget the time.

On a morning like this, as cold as it is, everything seems possible and unhidden. But like the blue cloudlessness; you know it’s an illusion. The thin band of atmosphere clinging to earth’s surface reflects the sun’s visible spectrum. It’s just a mask for the unimaginably desolate eternity of black space.

Even so, everything is fine on a morning like this; the truth is a comfort in its nakedness.

Your boots have worn in to the point where they do not hurt your feet. And thick wool socks give your toes a packed-in feeling – warm, dry and supported by well-crafted, handmade leatherwork. Your soles scuff the small stones in the parking lot as you stride toward the street, habitually glancing both ways.

blackbirdblueskyA raven, like a cutout in azure construction paper, arrows by above just within your vision field. An itch on the back of your neck should be a signal, but the day is so wide open, you distract yourself by scrunching up the lint inside your glove with the nail of your pointer finger.

You are not planning anything, exactly. More the feeling of falling forward into the slipstream of your life. You enjoy being pulled along into the next continuous now. Feeling content, it’s almost like floating.

As you near the middle of the street, a thought bubbles to surface about a child you once saw through the window of a small meat and three diner in town. A woman, presumably her mother, was dabbing at her young girl’s chin with a napkin. You are overwhelmed in re-witnessing this memory; the love of the gentle demonstration; the silent, insulated viewing through plate glass.

As the panel truck strikes your right side, the same side as the fingernail and glove lint scrunching, and your body is launched into the crisp space above the rough pavement, you focus on the crow, strangely, still suspended above the scene as though it were an element in a collage. Your body’s silhouette is pressed into the metal grillwork of the vehicle. The boots remain where you last stood. Your discarded watch and leather gloves lie nearby.

Though you recognize the coda, there is no pain or regret. A smile curls in anticipation of the symphony’s next movement: You are now all curiosity and wonder. It is the possibility of love’s lingering that you follow forward.

###

NOTE: This story was published by The Pitkin Review in the print issue of Fall 2012
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Falling Forward by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-18.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Writing Great Stories 1

booth-dog

I have been teaching a memoir class at Mount Hood Community College called Writing Your own True Story. I am working too hard, but I can’t help myself. The way I teach writing includes a whole lot of talking, assigning reading (usually to prove some point or introduce some concept) and then assigning short writing exercises. When the students turn these assignments in I have to read them and make constructive comments, praise parts that I really like (while proving reasons and a direction to go for growth).

Once a week I create a lesson outline with a PDF of the reading. Aside from staying organized and keeping my class update, the majority of my work is reading and deciding how to comment. I enjoy it, but it is time consuming. I only get paid for two hours a week (I currently have 8 students, but I am supposed to be able to handle 15.)

It is a simple formula. And my students are moving along. Everyone seems happy (most of the time). But if I add up all the prep work and the reading and mark up time, I am working more like twelve hours a week instead of 2.

I don’t know what sort of work you do, but if you have to work six times as much in order to get paid, burn out is not far behind you. I have a hard time doing less – I mean, I am serving the students, not the college.

I realized this morning that I am not going to be able to continue at this pace.

So I am working on alternatives.

One of the problems that I have found with many writer’s blogs is that they give great advice, but there isn’t anyway to clarify the concepts and try them out in a controlled environment. Unless you are enrolled in a class or a workshop, (or an MFA program) you have to flounder along alone until you decide that you have mastered a particular step.

I think the non-college student, aspiring writer, needs more options for professional feedback. So in between posting stories, I am proposing to build a portal through this blog where writers can try exercises and get feedback on them without investing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. As time goes on and I see if there is interest in this program I may expand the prompts, tips and assignments. But for now, each will be a simple concept followed by a 500 word test run.

There is a popular method of marketing gaining prevalence these days where you provide a basic service or product for free, but you charge a small amount for added value. I have heard it called a Freemium. This is what I am proposing. I will post a small article on writing every few days. You can read it and enjoy it, do it or not. No strings attached. But as an added value, you can post your work at our Submittable site with a nominal fee.

I will attempt a fast turnaround, but if this idea picks up I reserve the right to take up to one month to respond. As (if) the idea gains acceptance, I will develop more extensive projects with additional cost – I do not expect and assessment fee to ever exceed $20.

There will be some collateral reading, but in order to satisfy copyright issues, I will only be suggesting the texts. Later I may create a method to provide this reading as a part of the blog –

Stay tuned for updates.

Basic Elements of Fiction

Whether you are writing fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir, you will benefit from the skills a fiction writer relies upon to create engaging characters and situations as well as detailed and believable scenes and environments. Think of it as a set of tools (nod to Stephen King’s On Writing) that you can keep at the ready in your writer’s virtual toolbox.

In order to have a reasonable conversation about writing we will need to start with a language so we all know what we are talking about.

We can start off with the basic elements of fiction (as said, these are really the elements of creating living characters with engaging stories). That 7 basic ones are:

  1. –Plot – The series of occurrences which transpire
  2. –Setting – Where is the story taking place      
  3. –Tone  The tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. MOOD
  4. –Style – What unique way is the story being told – distinctive vocabulary and choices in expression
  5. –Point of view – Who is telling the story
  6. –Character – Who are the actors in the story
  7. –Theme – What is the story about.

This list can be expanded or reduced. Depending upon form (short story, flash fiction, novella, novel or epic) some of these elements may be reduced. More on that to come.

So one way to make your stories better is to be sure you are including all the important aspects of each of these elements. As always, you can get really caught up in this, so try to treat it lightly and keep it simple.

My favorite place to start is with Character. And one way to learn about what works is to try it.

Lets do some character sketches. 

The easiest character to write about is yourself. You know  (or at least you have tie chance to…) this character better than just about anyone else. But in order for it to be a creative exercise you should flex your creative muscles. So for today’s exercise, I want you to write a biography with one small difference. I want you to lie. Make up every detail. Embellish it with your creativity. And only include one true fact.

Now don’t go off the rails. This should be believeable. Coleridge coined the term Suspension of disbelief, which is a little weird because it is a double negative (which if you remember anything about math, which I often do not, means that two negatives together create a positive). What he was trying to say is that the writer’s job is to create an illusion of truth. And as long as the reader believes it, then the writer has a chance to succeed.

As soon as the reader steps back from the writing and say, “Hey, I don’t think that is possible,” then the construct of your imaginary world disappears.  It is hard to recover after that. So suspend the readers disbelief by never pushing them too far. Even if it the truth, your job will depend upon making sure it is a believable truth.

Keep you attempts to 500 words or less. Put in a lot of details. See where it gets you. and stay tuned for more about character and the elements of fiction in my next post.

###

If you would like feedback on this assignment, please visit our Submittable site. Follow the instructions. I will respond. See Conventions Here

Submit to HillHouse Writer’s

NEXT LESSON: Direct and Indirect exposition.


Creative Commons License
writing better stories by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-V.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Thanks to George Booth for the detail of his amazingly appropriate cartoon: Write About Dogs.