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.

Creative Commons License
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!

Creative Commons License
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.
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To The Telling

I was looking at my newsfeed and I saw this embedded video of a television advertisement for vitamins. In short, it showed a couple of couples playing strip poker; glowing young folks, fully developed and semi-clad. One voluptuous female loses the hand and begins unclasping her radiant red brassiere, but is frozen mid reach by an older janitor-type in white scrubs – is it worth noting that the guy is stereotypically black and grisly? – he snaps on the lights and says, “Go back to bed!”

When we pan back to the mostly naked poker people, they are all in their seventies. The voice-over says: “Feel young again. Take bla bla bla.” It was cute. The first person I thought of was you, nothing strange about that. We’d often claimed that sharing was the cement that glued us in our long marriage. And Facebook makes this sharing act very simple; there are just so many ways to share! I selected the proper link-button, typed your name in the “Write Something” space and clicked “post.” I could have made it private to you, but I want My Friends to see my stuff. There was nothing private or too risqué about this message.

Knowing where my mind will next go, I scramble to avoid thinking about it. But the well-traveled neuron connections are too ingrained and the next step sends a shock through my head and heart. I guess that’s the way we remember to mourn. We surprise ourselves into grief. Repeatedly.

After two years I am cored in the same cold way. Isense the approach, like the smell of a distant storm, and try to sidestep the dread epiphany, it still surprises. I have almost found a way to live with it. At first I tried to talk myself out of it. Then I went through a period of wallowing – you know, where you try to squeeze all the pain out of your heart like a fat, oil saturated sponge. As if there is a bottom to that bitter well.

Even in the beginning the surprise of your absence burst upon me when my attention drifted– even though really, I thought of nothing but you. Somewhere around one year, I fell into a long mediocre stretch punctuated by these occasional gut dropping shocks. As the time between them grew, I actually began to feel normal – or at least as normal as I’ve been since you vanished – well, maybe normal isn’t the proper word – neither is vanished, exactly. Maybe it would be better to say I became accustomed to the new muted color of life.

Then, in this blur of non-descript exhaustion, something happens and I think (without thinking at all I realize after the fact,) geez, I bet you’d really get a kick out of… and ping! There you would be. I wondered if I was just so tired of the shock, the shock of your loss, the shock of what being really alone was, my brain, in an attempt to save me, was masking the area around your memory like a segment in a tape recording that’s cut out and spliced with scotch tape. Not a very good splice either, the kind that alerts the listener that something was removed – something about a change in atmosphere. Or maybe a stray bit of the expunged sound got left behind, enough to alert the ear that a part was skipped, but not enough to tell what it was. And of course that detection would connect to the whole memory, big and garish and red, just as inflamed and sore as when the wound was made.

I got mad at the phenomenon for a bit. But I know anger is one of the stages, so I worked to let go fast, transmuting the threat of violence into more sustainable emotions. Numbness won out, slow to morph into what your non-being has now become, dull and jaded, yet unexpectedly bothersome as a steel wire splinter in the fingertip.

In addition to experiencing the re-shock of your loss every time I get excited about something, I often find myself waking up from immersive reminiscences. I am not aware of entering into these states, only leaving them, when I realize, again, in less of a balance-robbing way, that oh, yes, we are no longer making new memories together. Though reliving them is a convenient refuge, I am at my core a realist; I see the futility of growing accustomed to escape.

pumping stickyWhen you still breathed, we had an ongoing argument about life. I always thought of it as a disagreement about gusto, but I never mentioned that title to you. And truth be known, I agree with your point. I was taking the side of the devil in order to tease out the details – and I think you knew that. I based my position on a quasi-Hemingway stance, though I have not closely studied his work. From what I have read and pondered, (and why shouldn’t I wonder on Papa’s life and times? He was A Great by many standards, even as the lifetime chairman of the Dead White Guy’s Cannon.) I’ve formulated a simplified philosophy.

Take life by the horns, Hemingway’s carefully crafted image implores, experience all she has to offer with gouged-open, suicidal glee. We are at end, food for worms, and once gone only the echoes of our shrieking in abandonment will remain. Even then, not for long.

But you had a different read on the question. For you, the idea that the physical life was the end-all of reality was a ludicrous notion. Sure, you were an earth mother woman, and lived as close to the center of your power as possible. You’d tell anyone who seemed vaguely receptive that, “Woman is most feminine when she is pushing a fresh lanugo-coated human between hips made oxytocin flexible, expelling her from the largest muscle in the human body, past stretched, slippery vulva lips, grunting radiant into this drafty world.” I have witnessed this, I agree.

It doesn’t get more physical than that, friends. And yet, for you the inner spaces of life offered a more worthy challenge for a cartography of your stature to decipher. You argued that my Hemingway-esk model of standing tall in the rarefied natural world, battling death in the form of big game with big guns, was an illusion.

To be fair, you recognized that an aerial view of the heart, the architecture of human emotion and the fair lands of thought and logic, were all just as imaginary. The main rub, you maintained, was these inner workings supplied the real power. Invisible to the fleshy eye, they are the actual animator of our love, pumping life’s sticky fluid deep into the capillaries of our bodies. For you, recognition of that unlimited world was what powered the true machine.

You would say, “It isn’t important to quantify your worth. It is proof enough to understand your value.” And we would go around and around, playfully: you like a mama tiger circling her den, me poking fun at your nebulous concept of reality, all the while admiring your strength of heart.

Hey, even Hemingway chose the typewriter ribbon over of the thirty-aught-six to tell his story. We are not talking about how he signed the last page of the manuscript, because that is best left to others knowing him and his demons better than I. All writers know that they birth life from imagination. Even attempting the task calls foul on the physical world. The writer casts hopes and dreams out for a depth-sounding in this, our shared solid reality.

We creative types are a conundrum, stumbling through this metaphoric world. Dabbling in the ethereal, we grind pigments from flesh and bone to paint an invisible canvas before an audience of ghosts. Who can say what is actually real?

Probably you, my dear.

From your bodiless vantage, I imagine you have a clearer view this soupy mess. I wonder if you told me, would I understand? And maybe you are telling me, dictating your vision though our unbreakable silver cord, what remains of our bond, in a language only love can decode. As I dip deep into the shimmering void, trolling the currents of the unformed, behind a curtain that only death presumably strips away, maybe I am syphoning your wisdom. Fashioning it into literary sculpture, polished. Lovingly precise, still only revealing the barest essence of the powerful nectar you have become.

I wanted to explain how it feels. Why I post videos on my dead wife’s wall. Maybe I will understand it myself someday; my excitement at discovering a twist or beauty, some new logic that I know would touch your spark. Without a hint or whisper of that familiar precipice, the bottom drops out. And I am shocked again to realize why you will no longer respond.

###

For Karen.

NOTE: Karen asked that I publish this for Valentine’s Day 2014 – It is still very fresh and will probably be revised. This is an early draft. But I think the sentiment comes through. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

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To The Telling by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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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.


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writing better stories by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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Thanks to George Booth for the detail of his amazingly appropriate cartoon: Write About Dogs.

Hey, This Is It. I’m Going to Die

key I heard a story once that explains how I know. There was this missionary visiting some African tribe who observed a native mother. Children out there were carried around by their moms all the time. Every so often, with no verbal clues, this tribeswoman holds her diaperless little boy out at arm’s length over a bush. The little wiener relieves himself, just like that.

After a day of following them around, the missionary can’t keep her mouth shut. She asks, “How do you know when your baby has to pee?” The native mom looks at her, surprised for a second, and then bursts out laughing; perfect teeth flashing, her eyes squeezed shut. She doubles over and can’t breathe; finally wiping her eyes and says, “How do you know when you have to pee?”

That’s kind of how it is here. I just know. I’m dead, and that’s that.

Now, how I got here? That’s a horse of different color.

I drive, or, drove a cab in Manhattan. I was rushing this fare to Idlewild– that’s Kennedy International to all you kids – up the B-Q-E when traffic, for no apparent reason, comes to a complete standstill. This happens with nauseating regularity on most of the chuck-hole-riddled, major arteries in the Rotten Apple. We’re sitting there with our thumbs up our butts. Horns are blaring, temperature gauges begin creeping up. After a moment I spot the cause of our detainment – about a hundred feet up on the opposite side of the guard rail there’s a three-car pile-up.

No one seemed to be hurt, yet. The drivers of all three cars are standing in the middle of the West bound lane screaming at each other. Face to face. One guy looked like he’s a boil about ready to pop. His face was so constricted by his once-white collar that the veins and arteries are backing up blood into his sweaty, sausage-like face. The smaller guy had on an absurd checkered jacket. The sleeves were way too short, and his bare forearms were sticking out of the cuffs, waving in the air like antennae, stretched out by his ears. There was a cigarette butt pinched up in the crook between the index and middle fingers of his right hand.

The third driver was a short, old, white-haired woman. She was screaming so loud I could hear her shrill obscenities even with my windows closed, above the horns. A gray poodle was squished up under her right arm and she was poking the black-leather gloved index finger of her left hand in the boil-man’s face. She was so out of control spittle hung from her bony chin; I heard something about how they were all cocksucker sons of whores. The dog barked nonstop. Every so often she gave it a squeeze like some clogged up, mangy bagpipe and yelled “shut-the-fuck-up, Trixie.” This caused the poodle to gag, and wheeze for a beat before it started up again.

Usually I wait it out and watch the show, – it’s not my dime, ya know? But that day my fare was itchy, and he had cash. He shoved a crisp fin under the Plexiglas wall separating us and told me to go around. I grabbed the bill, and saw my chance – I knew I could get around the rubberneckers; we were only a few cars back. I gassed it into the shoulder and plowed through some garbage, my right wheels ran up on the cement curb. I only just kissed the iron fence, and the concrete wall off the shoulder, went up four or five cars, and back onto clear road. I wouldn’t even have to make out a report on that little scratch.

It’s a strange thing to see an eighteen-wheeler fly. This one crashed through the guard rail of the overpass ahead of us. It seemed to fall out of the sky. All the sound and heat and dirt around me just seemed to suck away somewhere. Silence. All I could see was the graceful arc in midair of the cab and trailer, all of its wheels still turning. I could read the side of the trailer: GOD – Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, lettered in fire-engine red. I opened my mouth to speak to my fare. I was going to say, “Hey, would you look at that.” Then everything slid into slow motion. The mouths of the three drivers gaped open, their necks twisted, heads following the spectacle of a flying semi. Even the yapping dog watched.

I thought, hey, this is it. I’m going to die.

The plummeting big rig veered toward us and fell right into my lap. My windshield imploded and the grillwork of the Peterbilt rushed in to greet me. When that truck hit the hood of my cab the silence broke. Time resumed normal speed. Glass sprayed like a garden hose. My fare screamed like he was being burned alive. Maybe he was.

All I could do was watch. I felt nothing. I was awake with my eyes open; like watching a movie. The carnage just unfolded around me with each event separate and clear, although occurring simultaneously. I saw colors and lights. I smelled diesel fuel and hot macadam. I even smelled the vinyl of my cab seats. I heard the metal tear like a tortured tin shack being blown apart around my head. The radio played American Pie.

The last thing I saw was this little girl, standing on the patio of a building adjacent to the roadway eating an ice-cream cone. It looked too big for her. She was wearing a white summer jumper with big blue and green flowers on it. Her hair was braided in two blond pigtails. I was concerned the chocolate would stain her dress.

###

NOTE: THis story was previously published at the amazing journal, Cease, Cows under the name of Inarguably Dead. PLEASE check them out and if you are the writerly type, submit. Very cool people. Say hi to Heather for me.

Creative Commons License
Hey this is it. I’m going to die by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-Q.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Marsha Griggs

keyAsher 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 –

“Dr. Todd…STAT.”

“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.

“Hello?”

Echo and silence.

Louder: “Hel-lo.”

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.š I encourage you to follow them and submit if you are so inclined.

Creative Commons License
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.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Sharp’s Rifle

sharps rifleI 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 slept at all.

In late June the sun comes up before 5 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. The lazy mutts usually will not even come down stairs 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 yipe.

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-age boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach a of a long barreled rifle open, apparently attempting to reload. 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, “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; the jacket buttons 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 with its green grass, blue boy and 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 lets 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 1000 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 Sharp, come on now, you’ll be better soon.”

Loki trotted along at his heal, 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, 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 2 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 3 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 the boy, nicknamed Sharps by his company for his prowess as a sniper, 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, 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.

›šNOTE: THis story was previously published (in a slightly earlier form) in Papertape Magazine under the name, The Gun.

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Sharp’s Rifle by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://ronheacock.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/sharps-rifle/.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhosuewriters.com.

Abraham’s Absolution

 “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.

callout“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.

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whippedStory 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.

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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 ron@hillhousewriters.com.