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Out of the Eternal Sea

“He who was wounded by the sword and yet lived…whose fatal wound had been healed.”
– The Revelation

A stranger knocked on the front door. The little boy of almost eight could see him in the porch light.

“Well, open the door, Stephen,” Mother said as she came to the front door from the kitchen.

The boy pulled open the door, and Mother asked, “Can I help you?”

“I have to stay at your house tonight,” the man answered.

Mother started to laugh and shut the door. She was almost scared. Then she hesitated, and looked at the man again. “Come in,” she heard herself say.

“Your husband will not mind,” the stranger assured her.

“You know my husband?” Mother asked, a little relieved.

But the stranger didn’t answer. Instead, he stepped into the house. The entry light fell on his straight black hair and his chiseled features, deepened in the shadow. The little boy shied away, and then ran. “Will you show me where I can prepare for the night?” was all the stranger said.

“Of course,” Mother said. “You can stay outside in the game room. Follow me.”
She led the stranger through the kitchen to the back door. “My husband is at the church, at a committee meeting,” she said. “He should be home soon, though,” she added quickly.

“This used to be the garage,” Mother explained as she opened the door to the game room and switched on the lights, “but there was a fire and we rebuilt. The sofa over there makes into a bed. I’ll get my husband to bring you some blankets.”

She looked at the man for a response or even for a question, but got no answer. He just crossed the room and sat at the table. “If there is anything you need, come to the back,” Mother said as she closed the door behind her.

“What are you getting so upset about?” Mother asked Father after she told him about the stranger. “I thought you knew him.”

“Well I don’t know him,” Father answered. “I can’t believe you let some strange man come in and stay in the game room. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Mother confessed. “I just couldn’t tell him no. I felt like we would know what to do. Anyway, I’ve already done it.”

“I know exactly what to do,” Father started.

“Don’t,” Mother chided him. “Here are the blankets for his bed. You’re late, so he might already be asleep. And please don’t make a fuss. I’ll go ahead and put Stephen to bed.” Mother turned rapidly away from her husband and picked their son up from in front of the TV. The boy was already falling asleep as she carried him to his room.

“Don’t make a fuss,” Father mumbled, folding the blankets under his arm. “He might be asleep she says. Too bad.”

When Father was outside, he could see a light in the game room. He’s up, Father thought. I’ll give him money for a hotel or something and get him out of here.

He looked in through the window of the game room.

The stranger was kneeling in the middle of the room. The light was a dark presence around him. It was a malevolent light, one that welled up from his body. A body of blackness, radiating a dark aura. What sounded like thunder roared through the night and grew louder before subsiding altogether. The stranger convulsed violently as he struggled to answer.

“They accepted me,” he spat out in a voice that grew from everywhere like the thunder. “They cannot refuse me,” he finished as his lips writhed in pain with the words that echoed into silence.

Father dropped the blankets and stepped back, staring at the stranger. He moved with purpose then, back into the house. He clutched for a knife inside a kitchen drawer and stumbled back through the house and outside. The light was still shimmering from the game room, casting shadows with the movements of its creator. Suddenly fear grabbed Father by the throat; his resolution was crushed by it. He fell back against the door, gasping for breath.

“Let me do this thing,” he moaned.

His hand tightened on the knife. His steps strengthened as he crossed to the game room. He did not look inside. He put his shoulder against the door and the lock gave. Father could see only the stranger’s demon face. He drove the knife through the darkness of its body, the blood running blacker than the darkness. The dying presence forced Father back out of the room. Father staggered into the house to find his wife charging into the den. The knife was still clutched in his hand.

“Oh my God!” Mother screamed. Father fell to his knees. “What have you done?”

Stephen came from out of the dark hall, rubbing his eyes. “I have killed the Beast,” he heard Father say.

“You did what?” Mother couldn’t believe it. She fled past Father, drawing him and her son in her wake. Outside the blankets blew towards them in the wind.

There was still a light on in the game room. Mother rushed on, Father groaned, and Stephen hurried to catch up. They reached the door together and looked in on the stranger, who returned their stares with the distant rumble of a laugh.

© 2010 Wasted Space Publishing

Lie Like a Dog

The damn phone was ringing again. Sometimes Fallon wished he didn’t have a phone; he wouldn’t have to decide whether to answer it then. It depended on who it was, whether or not he answered it, but this time he knew who it was. He let the phone ring while he put ice in his drink.

The answering machine cut into the line on the fourth ring. “Hello caller,” the message droned, “this is Fallon. Leave a message and I’ll call you back.” Dial tone, so he checked the caller ID and shook his head.

Before he had time to settle down on the couch and take a taste of his soda, the phone rang. Fallon tensed, making the motions of getting up, but waited, instead, for the answering machine to answer for him. It was probably only Lynne again anyway. Ever since he and his wife had separated, Lynne wouldn’t quit calling. It was his own fault, he knew. After Nikki left, Fallon had allowed Lynne to ease the rancor of his loneliness. It didn’t help that Lynne was having troubles in her own marriage. Now she held on to the affection Fallon had showed her. She called him in the middle of the night when her husband was asleep, and knocked on his door unannounced when she was supposed to be out grocery shopping.

Fallon dragged himself off the couch and crossed the room when he heard the machine beep to see if Lynne would leave a message this time, but the call was from his wife. “Are you there?” she said. “I’m bringing Jessie over. Pick up the phone if you’re there. I’m calling your cell.”

“Hi, Nikki,” Fallon picked up the phone and answered.

“Are you screening your calls?” his wife asked.

“No, I’ve just got the ringer on the phone turned down,” he lied, “so you can’t hear until the machine comes on.”

“Well what time do you want me to come over?” Nikki asked. Her voice was vibrant even in such mundane conversation.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Fallon answered. “Do you want me to order pizza or something so we can eat when you get here?” he asked.

“Are you still trying to fatten me up?” Nikki said playfully. She was five foot ten, superbly proportioned with long blond hair and Mad Men curves, but still never spent a waking moment without worrying about what she saw in the mirror. Apparently it wasn’t the same thing Fallon saw. “Besides, I can’t. My first history homework is due tomorrow. I was going to go to the library to work on it and I want to go work out, too.”

“Okay,” Fallon said. He hadn’t really expected she would stay. He tried not to see some sort of gesture or symbolism in everything she said, but it was hard. He was always careful of what he said or did because he didn’t want to give her a false impression. He expected her to do the same, but he knew she didn’t. “I’ll be here all afternoon,” he said.

Nikki opened the door to Fallon’s apartment about an hour later without knocking. Jessie preceded her mother into the room. Jessie’s baby pictures looked just like Fallon’s, but every time he saw her now she looked more and more like her mother, except for the straight, black hair.

Fallon was stretched out on the couch watching television. He looked like a slide-rule “suit” from the fifties with his close-cropped hair and dark, horn-rimmed glasses with half wire frames. Only the baggy basketball shorts and Nike t-shirt betrayed a modern era.

“Daddy!” Jessie squealed when she saw him on the couch. Her smile was a sparkling star. Fallon smiled, too, and held out his arms. Her hug had all the purity of a two-and-a-half-year-old’s love. “I want to hold you, Daddy,” she said, and Fallon sat her on his lap.

“Well it doesn’t look like I’m going to get to go to the library,” Nikki started as she closed the door behind her and headed for the kitchen. “The library at Quad-C isn’t open. Can you believe that?”

Fallon didn’t say anything. He wondered what she expected at six o’clock on a Sunday evening in the middle of the summer. But Nikki always had to be doing something, like going to the library when she could study at home, working out, going out to eat or to the mall, anything. Even the whole going back to college thing was just something for her to be doing.

“Do you have anything to drink?” she asked with the refrigerator door open. “Anything diet,” she corrected herself.

“Juice,” Jessie said as she watched Nikki rummage through the refrigerator.

Fallon got up to get Jessie some juice and his daughter ran in front of him in anticipation.

“Do you want me to order pizza, and you can do your homework here?” he asked Nikki again when he got to the kitchen.

“I’ve got to work out,” she said.

“I’ve got a coupon for two medium two-topping pizzas for ten bucks,” Fallon tried to entice her. “Half price.”

“I can’t eat pizza,” Nikki protested, but then she hedged. “Do you know who Confucius was?” she asked.

“Confucius say,” Fallon answered in his best oriental accent, “pizza good for figure, Grasshopper.”

“What’s Daddy doin’?” Jessie asked with a laugh at the Jerry Lewis’ Japanese face Fallon made.

“Daddy’s being silly,” Nikki said. “Well maybe you know who some of these people are. At least we can look them up, I guess” she gave in. “Let me go to the car and get my cards.”

She left and came back a couple of minutes later with her school books and a question, “Doesn’t your old boss drive a silver Ford?” Fallon nodded even though his heart had stopped. “I think I saw her parked out in the parking lot.”

“Lynne?” Fallon feigned nonchalance, but even he knew the look he gave Nikki was shaky. “She doesn’t even live in Plano. She’s in Grapevine or Arlington or somewhere.”

“Look,” Nikki said, and went to show Fallon Lynne’s car. “Are you having an affair with your old boss?” Nikki said in a teasing voice as Fallon came to the window.

A sarcastic, “Right,” was all Fallon could manage as Nikki pulled apart two of the mini-blind’s slats to show him the car.

“It’s not there anymore,” Nikki said.

“Are you sure it was her?” Fallon asked, seeing his chance to downplay the situation.

“Pretty sure,” Nikki answered and looked out the window again. “Do you know any of these people?” she asked, handing Fallon a stack of index cards out of one of her books.

Fallon looked through the stack of cards. About half of the names were familiar. “I know some of them,” he told Nikki, “the rest we can look up online.”

“Dr. Wright said we couldn’t just use Wikipedia, we have to have some other source, too.” Nikki said. “That’s why I wanted to go to the library.”

“We can look them up in the encyclopedia,” Fallon said, glancing out the window again as he handed the cards back to Nikki. He knew the danger was still out there, but surely Lynne had seen Nikki, too.

“I forgot you had that encyclopedia,” Nikki said as she followed his glance. “Do you see her?” she asked.

“No,” Fallon said, but his nerves jumped as he heard someone walking through the breezeway outside, sure it was Lynne coming to knock on the door. “Maybe she came to meet John. Him and Lance were supposed to come over here earlier.”

“Why would she want to see John?” Nikki questioned.

“I don’t know, but John said she called him and came over to his house the other night,” Fallon explained.

“That’s weird,” was all Nikki said as she sat down at the desk in the corner next to the window. The encyclopedia ran across the back between two globe bookends, behind the computer.

“Give me the first name and I’ll look it up,” Fallon said. He had just found Confucius when the phone rang. Fallon had four rings to decide. After the first ring he decided to let the answering machine answer, but what if Lynne didn’t hang up this time and left a message instead? He didn’t want Nikki to hear that message.

“I thought you said the ringer was off,” Nikki said.

“I turned it back on after you called,” Fallon said, setting down volume 7, COLO-DECI, of the encyclopedia on the desk next to Nikki. “I thought you might call again to tell me you were on your way.”

“Answer it Daddy,” Jessie said. Fallon picked up the phone after the third ring.

It was Lynne. “Is Nikki still there?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Fallon answered cryptically. His voice was flat, full of a suppressed emotion that forced him to talk in almost a monotone.

“How long is she going to be there?” Lynne asked. Her voice didn’t suppress any of her emotion, it spilled out with every word she uttered. “I want to see you.”

“Nikki’s over. I’m helping her with some homework,” was Fallon’s answer. He could tell Nikki was listening to what he said as she transferred the facts of Confucius’ life to the index card.

“So I guess I should say goodbye.” Lynne said.

“That’s fine,” Fallon answered and hung up the phone.

“Who was that?” Nikki asked before the phone was nestled back in the receiver.

“Lance,” Fallon answered. He had anticipated the question. “He said some chick called his house for John and that John left, so they’re not coming over.”

“I bet it was Lynne,” Nikki surmised.

“That’s weird, isn’t it?” Fallon said. “Lance said he might come over later,” he continued as he went to where Nikki was sitting. He reached over her shoulder for the volume with the name of the next person on her index cards.

“What kind of pizza do you want?” he asked. “I thought I’d get one with sausage and mushroom and one with pepperoni and extra cheese.”

“That’s the kind I like,” Nikki said, taking the book from Fallon’s hand.

“Pizza,” Jessie said with her broadest of smiles.

© 2012 Wasted Space Publishing

In the Mirror

[ This is the first in a trilogy of stories. They are not bound by character or place or time, but by how searching for self in this world leads to corruption by this world. We live in a place where everything good is being corrupted by its evil twin. For everything good God has given us, Satan has corrupted in the hearts of men. Beauty becomes lust, truth becomes subjective, death becomes the end of the story instead of the beginning. And when we look in the mirror we do not see what God sees when He looks into our wounded hearts. ]

The arch of her body was like the crescent moon as she dived naked into the bay. The water was dark and cold and she was alone. She broke back through the surface for a breath, and the pale light of the moon played off the ripples of her wake and glistened across her face. She tried to forget her body most of the time but as she swam back to the dock where her clothes lay in a bundle, she remembered it. She felt the muscles of her thighs, taut against the resistance of the water. She felt her breasts push up towards the surface. She felt the water stream down her face and sting her eyes. Her tongue played over her lips to taste the salt. It was one of those times when she liked her body, when she couldn’t see it but she could feel it.

She swung up onto the three-step ladder hanging from the dock into the water. She pulled herself out of the blackness of the bay and stood in the darkened shadows of the night. Rivulets of salt water ran down her back and made a stain on the wooden two-by-fours of the dock. Her t-shirt stuck in patches to her shoulders and stomach as she wrestled with it. She wriggled into her shorts next and they were wet clear through by the time she got them up her legs and buttoned. The bra and panties went straight into her pocket, and she crept off the dock and into the yard with her shoes in her hand.

She made it through the back yard, past the house and onto the street before she flopped her shoes down on the sidewalk and slid her feet into them one at a time. The streetlights lit her walk as she moved under the palms toward the marina. Her little yellow convertible Volkswagen was parked on the street with the top down. She leaned into the car and exchanged the bra and panties in her pocket for the pieced-leather handbag in the front seat. Across the street, facing the Gulf was the Hurricane – the bar where she worked as a waitress. Walking alongside the bar to the front she hesitated and swayed to the music floating down from the band playing on the rooftop. It was a friendly reggae beat, telling her body how to move until she caught her reflection in the windows of the bar.

Her hair was loose around her shoulders and the salty breeze off the Gulf had dried her clothes, except around the nipples of her breasts and between her legs. It looked like she was wearing a stripper’s g-string and falsies under her clothes, and she smiled a self-conscious smile as she tied her hair in a ponytail before she stepped inside.

“I thought you got off a long time ago, Helen,” Tim said from behind the bar. “Where’d you go, out swimming in the Gulf?”

“Nope,” Helen answered, sliding onto a barstool, “skinny dipping in the bay. I sneak through the yard of that first big house that backs up to the bay and I swim off the dock in their back yard.”

“Skinny dipping, aye?” Tim said with heightened interest as he pulled her a beer from the tap.

“Yeah, it’s so peaceful out there, and dark,” Helen mused. “Quiet, you know. I can do what I want to out there alone.”

“All alone?” Tim echoed with a suggestion in his voice as he brought Helen her beer.

Helen smiled mischievously, but didn’t answer. She was used to such veiled advances and knew how to deflect them harmlessly.

“Manny’s still here,” she replied instead. Manny was a regular at the bar, with a W.C. Fields nose and pouty Cupid’s lips. He was no more than five foot three or four, probably close to thirty years old, and his hair sat on his head like a skullcap. The staff at the bar compared him to Barney Rubble from the old Flintstones cartoon. Still, he was the bar’s resident flirt and grabbed the waitresses around the waist whenever he got the chance and told them how beautiful they were.

“Yeah, Manny’s still here,” Tim answered reluctantly, not wanting to give up his image of being alone with Helen. “He’s the only one left who’s not up on the roof listening to the band. He just sits there drinking beer and looking at himself in the mirror.”

“What do you mean, looking at himself in the mirror?” Helen asked with a laugh.

“There, look,” Tim said, and Helen swung around to spy on Manny in his booth across from the far end of the bar. Sure enough, Manny was looking at the mirror behind the bar and fixing his hair. Then he glanced sidelong into the mirror to catch a glimpse of his profile.

Helen laughed out loud and Manny turned quickly towards her, but she had already turned back to Tim with a twist of her hips. “He really is looking at himself,” she leaned over the bar to whisper. “How funny!”

“He’s always looking at himself like that,” Tim whispered back. “Can you believe it?”

“And you don’t?” Helen said suddenly out loud, pushing back from the bar and slouching in her chair with her arms folded across her chest.

“No,” Tim answered defensively.

“Uh huh,” Helen mouthed, her sarcasm apparent.

“Well, not all the time like Manny,” Tim hedged.

Helen laughed out loud again and reached for her beer. She drank it down with expertise and slid it back to Tim for a refill.

“So you don’t ever look at yourself, is that it?” Tim said, annoyed with the smug look on Helen’s face.

“I avoid looking at myself in the mirror,” she answered Tim directly. “I’m not very satisfied with what I see.”

“You must be the only one that doesn’t like what they see,” Manny said from over her shoulder. He had come from his booth with an empty beer mug in his hand. He pressed against Helen’s back as he leaned to put the mug on the bar. “Get me another one,” he told Tim and Tim took the glass and went to the tap. Manny drew his hand back from the bar and brushed it lightly through Helen’s hair. “You’re wet, honey,” he said as he sat in the stool next to hers. “You been swimming?”

“No, Manny,” Helen teased breathlessly, “you make me wet.”

“She was skinny dipping in the bay,” Tim interrupted before Manny could answer.

“It’s the intercoastal,” Manny told Tim, but his eyes were on Helen. A Cupid-lips leer spread over his face as he brought a full beer to his mouth for a taste. “Girls who don’t like to look at themselves shouldn’t be skinny dipping in the intercoastal,” he said.

“I can’t see myself in the dark,” Helen answered without hesitation. “What do you see when you look in the mirror, Manny?”

“I see myself making love to beautiful women,” Manny leered even wider. “What do you see?”

“When I look at myself?” Helen clarified and Manny nodded. “I see all the things that are wrong with me,” she said.

Manny nodded again and turned to Tim. “What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror?” he asked.

“I just see me I guess,” Tim shrugged, “good and bad.”

“And what do you see when you look at Helen?” Manny pursued.

Tim looked at Helen and then furtively away. “Well look at her, man,” he said to Manny. “She’s gorgeous.”

“She has full breasts,” Manny embellished, “and soft hips and long legs and riveting eyes.” Manny looked squarely at Tim and Tim nodded his agreement without once looking at Helen.

Manny turned quickly then to Helen and captured her gaze. “I wonder why she doesn’t see that?” he asked Tim.

It was suddenly quiet in the bar. The rhythms of the reggae band that had pervaded their conversation at the bar were gone. The dull sound of claps wafted down the stairwell from the roof in an untrue echo of the bass beat that had thumped through the foundations when the band was playing. Tim stammered something about, “Maybe she does see that,” but Manny kept his eyes on Helen.

“Because what I look like is not all I see,” she said softly.

Manny grinned widely and watched Helen drink down another beer and slide the empty to Tim for another refill.

Tim took the mug and said to Manny from the tap, “It must not be all you see either, Manny, if you see yourself making love to beautiful women.”

“Maybe not,” Manny agreed.

Sound swelled up again as the crowd made its way down from the roof. People came through the bar in ones and twos at first and then in larger groups. Helen and Manny sat at the bar and watched them all pass by. Some of the people stayed and ordered drinks from Tim, but most of them went out into the night and the ocean breeze. Helen quietly finished her beer and followed the stragglers outside. Manny stayed to watch the ones who sat at the booths or on the stools at the bar.

The wind blew in strong from the Gulf. Helen untied her ponytail and got into the Volkswagen. She wanted the wind to pull her hair back as she drove up the Gulf Boulevard. She wanted to smell the salt and sea in the pregnant breeze. She wanted to revel in the giddiness of the beers. It was like diving into the black water and forgetting what defined her reflection when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.

© 2011 Wasted Space Publishing

Cast the First Stone

MURDER, YOU WRITE: How about taking a stab at thrilling and chilling the masses in our Mystery/Suspense Short Story Contest? Winners will be based on overall originality of plot and character development, with the plot hinging on at least three of the following clues: a murdered relative, red dress, piece of jewelry, pool of blood, magazine subscription, painting, abandoned car, clergyman, fax machine, golf bag, fire drill, heat wave and a partridge in a pear tree. (Got a little carried away there. Ix-nay on the partridge.) First Prize $3,000; second prize, $1,000.

The car had been sitting in the Park and Ride parking lot for at least a week. It was a dark blue Ford Taurus, brand new, the sales sticker still on the window. Mr. Seizler had parked next to the car for the past three days.

“Is that your car parked next to me?” he asked the lot attendant.

“Naw sir,” the attendant answered after Mr. Seizler pointed out which car he was talking about. “That ain’t my car. That car’s been here awhile though.”

The attendant was a wiry little black man with white hair. He wore a light blue jacket with the city’s Park and Ride logo on the lapel, and he didn’t seem to miss much that went on from his booth by the lot entrance.

“I remember that car,” he said. “A lady in a red dress left that car early one morning last week. It weren’t no going to work dress either. It was a going out on the town type dress. Low cut in the front and slit up the side so you could see what she had to offer, you know what I mean? But she was wearing it though, and she got on the bus downtown like she was going to work.”

“Shouldn’t you call the police or something and report it?” Mr. Seizler asked.

“What for?” the attendant asked back. “That car ain’t breaking no laws. It’s just taking up space on my lot. I ought to call a tow truck, that’s what I ought to do.”

Mr. Seizler didn’t think about it much the rest of the day, but when he got back from work the car was gone. He rolled down his window and stopped his car at the attendant’s booth.

“Where’s the car?” he asked.

“The police, just like you said,” answered the attendant. “I called for a tow truck and police came instead with their own tow truck.”

Detective Lou Lewis followed the police truck to the impound. There was an APB out on the car and the owner, a fifty-two year old priest from Sainte-Julienne in Canada. The bulletin came from the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal and went out all across southern Quebec and upstate New York, and to Pinellas County in Florida. No one had seen the car or the priest for two weeks. The owner of the towing company matched the license number the parking lot attendant called in with the APB. He even called the police before towing the truck and charging his fee. Would wonders never cease? Now all Lou had to do was get the car to tell him where the driver was.

“Hey LuLu,” said the uniformed officer driving the tow truck when Lou got out of his car at the impound.

“What?” Lou answered sharply. LuLu was a nickname he was none too fond of, and which stuck for that very reason.

“What do you think, you’ll find the body in the trunk?” the cop smarted off.

“Just be careful, will ya,” Lou answered without a smile. “Maybe I’ll find something. If you don’t mess it up first.”

There wasn’t much to find, but there was enough to get started. There was an earring stuck between the cushions in the back seat, a golf bag in the trunk, and a copy of GOLF Magazine from the lobby of a motel on Gulf Boulevard. The earring helped corroborate the parking lot attendant’s story about the woman. The magazine gave him a place to start looking.

The mailing label on the magazine said Sea Breeze Motel with an address near the Gulf Beaches. It was hard to tell about the motels on Gulf Boulevard; some were nice, most were tourist traps, and some were just sleazy with hourly rates. Lou didn’t know what kind of motel he’d find until he got there. The Sea Breeze Motel was sleazy. Not quite hourly rate sleazy, but definitely not the kind of place you would expect a priest to be staying. Detective Lewis showed a picture of the priest to the clerk at the front desk.

“Yeah, I seen him,” the clerk said, “but he weren’t wearing no collar when I seen him.”

“When was the last time you saw him?” Detective Lewis asked.

“A week, ten days ago maybe,” the clerk answered. “He had a room here for about a week. Had a girl over a couple of times.”

“The same girl?” Lewis asked.

“Yeah, the same girl,” the clerk confirmed.

“What’s her name?” pursued the detective.

“I don’t know. Cookie or Candy or something. Something you eat I’m pretty sure though. She’s just some of the local talent around here.”

“She’s a prostitute?” Lewis clarified.

“Well, yeah,” the clerk shrugged.

And Lou believed him. The clerk was a big, fat guy with greasy hair and a scraggly beard. His Hawaiian shirt wasn’t big enough to cover his whale white belly hanging over his trousers with the top button undone. He probably knew a lot of the local talent himself, but he had no reason to lie to the police. In fact, he probably had more reason to tell the truth since it wasn’t him that was in trouble, and that was why Lou believed him.

Still, believing and understanding didn’t follow each other this time. At least he had a little more police work to do. He had to find the girl in the red dress. He had to find out what the priest was doing with the girl. Even the abandoned Ford not being reported for over a week was an untidy detail. But he began by contacting the Sainte-Julienne police department that initiated the Missing Persons report.

“This is Detective Lewis of the Pinellas County P.D.,” he told the duty officer in Sainte-Julienne. “I’m calling about the bulletin your department put out down here on Father Robert Hebert and his Ford sedan, license number 83C 492.”

Lou could hear the officer shuffling papers looking for the report and heard him saying, “Do you have something for us?”

“I’ve got the car,” Lou answered. “I’m still looking for the priest.”

“Let me get the sergeant,” the duty officer said, “you better talk to him about this. I can’t believe you really found the car down in Florida.” The bulletin told the officer Pinellas County was in Florida, and he knew he needed to get someone in charge.

“Detective Sergeant LeClerq,” said the new voice on the phone. “What do you have for us Lewis?”

“Not much,” Lou responded. “I really need to know what you can give me. I told the duty officer we’ve found the car, but not the priest. The priest has been seen with a local prostitute. We haven’t found the girl yet, either.”

“A prostitute?” the Canadian detective questioned.

“That’s what I said,” answered Lewis. “What can you tell me about this Father Hebert?”

“Most popular man in the parish,” LeClerq answered, disbelief still in his voice. “Started a halfway house for runaways at the rectory. They make there way up here sometimes out of Montreal. The only reason we forwarded the APB to you guys was the other priest down at the church told us Father Hebert has a brother in St. Petersburg.”

“You got an address on this brother?” Lou knew a lead when he heard one.

“Yeah, hold on,” answered LeClerq, and then said, “The brother’s name is Francis Hebert.”

Lou Lewis took the address and got to work. He was beginning to have something to work with now. The priest’s brother lived in a pretty nice neighborhood north of downtown St. Pete. It was an old wood and brick house, probably built in the twenties, but kept nice with flowers and palms in the yard. Francis Hebert answered the door and invited Detective Lewis into the house. They sat in the Florida room with the rattan rocking chairs and the TV in the corner.

“I haven’t talked to Robert since I told him Candace left,” Mr. Hebert told Detective Lewis. “It was the same time I reported her missing to you guys. I haven’t seen her for more than three weeks now. She’s just turned eighteen.”

“I don’t know anything about Candace, Mr. Hebert. It’s your brother I’m here about,” Lewis explained. “Did you know your brother was in town?”

“He said he was going to come find Candace for me,” Mr. Hebert answered. “Probably just came down to play golf, if he came at all,” he continued with a hint of anger, well hidden. “Always too damn cold to play up there where he lives. But it’s Candace I’m concerned about, mister. Robert can take care of himself. I never talked to him since I called him up in Canada.”

“What did you tell him about your daughter?” Lewis continued.

“Robert has always had a special place in his heart for Candace,” was Mr. Hebert’s answer, “ever since her mother died when she was about twelve, even before that, really. She is a beautiful girl, you know. I told Robert I thought she was still in town. And I told him,” and Lou saw something like pain, or guilt perhaps, wash over the father’s face, “and I told him I thought Candace had been making money selling herself.”

“Is that why she left?” Lewis asked, “because you found out what she was doing?”

“I’ve known about Candace for a long time,” Mr. Hebert answered flatly.

“Do you have a picture of your daughter?” Lou asked quietly. Mr. Hebert left the room and brought back a picture with the fresh face of a Catholic high school girl in her crisp white school uniform and plaid skirt.

Lou took the photograph and didn’t ask any more questions. There was something beyond what Mr. Hebert told him, but it wasn’t his job to assign guilt to people he questioned. Lou just had to gather what information he could and put the pieces of the case together. That was the job.

When he got back to the station, there was another piece of the puzzle waiting for him. The bloated body of Father Robert Hebert had washed up on the inter-coastal near John’s Pass, wearing his civilian clothes and priest’s collar. The coroner’s report wasn’t in yet, but the cop on the scene said it didn’t look like he’d drowned, not enough water in his lungs. But the body had been in the water for several days.

John’s Pass wasn’t far from the Sea Breeze Motel and that was where Detective Lewis went next, with the photograph of Candace in his jacket pocket. The clerk was still there, a regular fixture, and Lou asked him if he recognized the girl.

“Yeah, that’s Candy,” the clerk said. “It’s Candy, right? Knew it was something you eat. She was in here earlier, but she wasn’t working.”

“This is the girl that was with the priest?” Lou confirmed. The clerk nodded. “Did you tell her I was in here asking about her?”

“No way,” the clerk answered. “She’ll be back here tonight for sure.”

“I want you to set me up with her,” the detective said.

“That ain’t my job,” the clerk said, throwing up his hands.

“It is tonight,” Lou told him and looked hard at the clerk. “Give me the room the priest had.”

The room was small with just a dresser and a bed and bathroom with a shower. There was no place to sit except the bed. Lou sat there with his feet up, waiting for Candace. The knock on the door didn’t come until almost ten. Lou opened the door and Candace was wearing the red dress, low cut like the Park and Ride attendant said. She came right in and sat on the bed.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Have you seen your uncle lately?” Lou skipped the formalities.

“No,” Candace froze, but it was a thin lie. She got up from the bed nervously and she looked like a young girl to Lou for the first time.

“I’m Detective Lou Lewis with the Pinellas County Police Department,” he said and showed his badge. “We found your uncle today in the inter-coastal. Why don’t you tell me about it?”

Candace collapsed back on the bed. “I didn’t do anything to Uncle Robbie,” she said. “The first time I came here, he tried to get me to go back home, but I don’t want to go back home.”

It was all spilling out now. “Then I came back again. I knew he was still here, his car was still outside, and I didn’t want him to tell Daddy where I was. I started, you know, trying to get him excited. I always thought he liked me, you know, not like a priest should. He never did anything like Daddy, but I could still tell he liked me. So I started undressing, and he let me at first. All I had left on was my panties and then he just sort of keeled over. He grabbed his collar off the dresser and he put it on. Then he got up on his knees and looked at me like he was praying or something.

“He said something like ‘You’re just a little girl, Candace,’ but I didn’t say anything. I just stared down at him like Daddy used to look down at me. Uncle Robbie sort of stared back at me for a second and then he just fell right into me. He was, like, sprawled there on the floor after I pushed him away.”

“What did you do then, Candace?” Lou asked, sitting down by her on the bed.

“I tried to get him out of here,” she said as she got up slowly and went to the closet by the bathroom. “I dragged him out with his arm around my shoulder like he was drunk and put him in the back seat of his car. Then I came back and got the bag he had sitting at the end of the bed. I’ve still got it where I’m staying.”

Lou watched her in the mirror over the dresser as she pulled a windbreaker jacket out of the closet. Candace looked at the jacket, and looked back at Lou in the mirror. “I’m not a little girl, you know,” she said. Her eyes sparkled with tears, and Lou saw the same wave of pain or guilt that had washed through her father’s eyes. “I don’t want to go home,” Candace continued with determination. “I knew if they found Uncle Robbie here, Daddy would find out where I was for sure. So I took him to the bridge at John’s Pass, around to the back of that parking lot by the beach, and pulled him out of the car. I didn’t throw him in the water, he just kind of rolled in when I couldn’t hold him anymore. After that I took the car to a Park and Ride somewhere over in St. Pete.”

She came back to the bed then, bringing the jacket with her. “It was his,” she said as she dropped the jacket in Lou’s lap. “It’s been in there ever since. Nobody’s stole it, can you believe it?”

Candace looked down at him, the tears pooling in her eyes finally overflowing and washing away her painted face. Lou nodded without expression and went methodically through the priest’s pockets. There was nothing there, just the picture of a Catholic school girl stuffed in the inside pocket.

© 2012 Wasted Space Publishing

Kim’s Bike

“We’ve got to go over to Lynn’s this weekend,” Kim told me as we lay in bed watching TV. The lights were out and the traffic passed outside with its uneven ebb. Kim’s head rested on my chest as I stroked her tangled hair. The glow of another bad cable movie lighted her placid features, like a child’s before they drift into sleep. Her tiny, perfect hands scratched lightly across my chest and made the supple muscles of her naked back move smoothly.

“Saturday or Sunday?” I asked softly. Kim was moving back to Arkansas in four days time. Neither one of us wanted to talk about it. Maybe we thought the reality of her leaving wasn’t real unless we did talk about it. But every time I came home from work and there were more boxes packed, the reality was in them. Even going to Lynn’s was to pack up things she was taking with her.

“I don’t care,” Kim said lazily, “but I want to go to the beach one of those days, too.”

“Lets go to the beach on Saturday,” I said and pulled her up to me and kissed her again and ran my hand down to the swell of her hips and bathed in her embrace.

On Saturday the sun was up and hot by breakfast. Kim wanted an omelet before we got ready for the beach. I wanted a cigarette and a cold beer, which I got while I started Kim’s coffee and scrounged in the refrigerator for something to put in the eggs. She liked sausage and cheese, and I folded them into the omelet and poured salsa over the top.

Kim was still in bed smoking one of her skinny, designer cigarettes. I brought her the omelet and coffee with amaretto cream.

“Ooh, you made my coffee,” she said. “I was just about to get up.”

“Sure you were,” I answered, handing her the plate and putting the coffee on the nightstand. I turned on the TV and found my swim trunks in the chest-of-drawers and slipped them on.

“Don’t you want some?” Kim asked me with a full mouth.

“I’ll eat a bite of yours,” I said. I sat on the bed and flicked through the channels as she cut me a bite. “Is it any good?”

She nodded as I took the bite off her fork. When she was finished eating, she sipped her coffee for a while and finally got out of bed to find her suit.

She picked the blue t-back bikini. It was in one of the piles of clothes on the floor along with her cutoffs. She pulled those on, too, and found one of my tank tops in another pile. There was a kind of Bohemian elegance to the way Kim lived. I found myself straightening up after her until I began to understand the lazy rhythm of her lifestyle. It wasn’t long before I was living to the same rhythm. Looking good when looking good mattered. Wearing the same shirt for three days when it didn’t.

I found myself a t-shirt in the clothes on the floor and slid my feet into my flip-flops.

“Are you ready to go?” Kim asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Where’s the beach bag?”

“I don’t know,” Kim answered absently. I found it on a hook by the back door. Kim was right behind me, putting on her Birkenstocks.

“Let’s go,” she said.

My sunscreen was in the bag and her oil, and the radio was there. “Do you have towels?” I said. Kim shook her head and went to get them. “And I need more cigarettes,” I said to myself.

“Do you have your cigarettes?” I asked Kim when she came back with the towels.

“Goddamnit,” she spat out and threw the towels at me.

“Hey,” I called after her, “don’t forget your sunglasses.”

“Where are they?” she called back.

“On the bookshelf by the light switch,” I said. “Do you want to take the cooler?” I asked when Kim came into the kitchen again. I had already filled it with ice and set it by the back door.

Kim stopped dead in her tracks, thinking. A look of annoyance came over her face. “We don’t have any beer, do we?” she said.

“We can stop and get some on the way to the beach,” I said in my most patronizing tone.

Kim threw her hip out and stared at me. Then she pulled the freezer open to get ice. “Where’s the cooler?” she asked with a playful touch of venom in her voice.

“I’ve got it right here,” I answered, holding up the cooler and shaking it so she could hear the ice.

She stared at me again with her jaw out in reproach. I just grinned back, wagging my head and shaking the cooler. Kim slammed the freezer door and strolled towards me, a grin of her own curling out from behind her scowl. I grabbed her around the waist and pressed her to me, and together we took the gear out to the car.

I stopped at the Mobil station on the corner to get beer. “Get me a trash mag, too,” Kim told me. I bought the twelve-pack of Busch Light, and a copy of the Star for Kim and a pack of cigarettes for myself. Kim put eight of the beers into the cooler with the ice and we each opened one for the road. I took the freeway to Tierra Verde and paid the toll to cross the intercostal to Pass-A-Grille. We opened the last two beers that hadn’t fit in the cooler as we turned down the two-lane street towards our favorite beach. There was a little church across from the Gulf where we always parked. Kim carried the beach bag and the cooler, and I pulled the lounge chairs out of the trunk. We walked out to the beach and set up shop in our usual spot.

“Do you remember the first time we met out here?” Kim asked after we got comfortable.

“Yeah,” I said. “You were wearing that red bathing suit. I was glad I had on sunglasses so you couldn’t see how much I was staring at you. I just knew you were going to take one look at me in the light of day and start thinking of ways to get out of there.”

“No,” Kim answered with an honest smile, “I was the one staring.”

“Sure you were,” I said. “I was just glad you showed up. You stood me up the time before.”

Kim laughed with me then. She was used to my teasing. “Do you want to go out in the water with me?” she asked. “I’ve got to pee.”

“Sure, baby,” I said. “I’ve got to pee, too,” and we trudged through the sand, weaving among the senior citizen sunbathers, to the water.

It was late spring and the water was cold, so we held each other and swayed in the gentle surf.

“This is just like that first time,” Kim said, “the way we kissed out in the water. I think that’s when I fell in love with you.”

“You know what I remember?” I said. “I remember making love out in Lynn’s car before you left.”

“You can make love to me now,” she said, and reached her hand under the water. We made love slowly to the rhythm of the swells as the old people floated unsuspecting in the shallows.

Languidly we made our way back to the beach. “Will you put oil on my back?” Kim asked when we got back to our chairs, and then she grabbed me and whispered, “I can’t believe how unbelievable you are,” in my ear.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving me,” I whispered back. We both fell silent then. I rubbed the oil over her shoulders and up the backs of her legs while we lost ourselves in our own memories.

The next morning Kim woke up early and called Lynn. “She wants us to come over for lunch,” Kim told me as I lay in bed next to her, still more asleep than awake. I had drifted close to consciousness when she stretched over the bed to get the phone off the nightstand. She roused me again when she leaned across to put the phone back, and when she pulled the covers off me as she tumbled out of my side of the bed. I watched her, naked in the half-light of the morning, while she looked for a shirt on the floor. I found the remote swaddled in the covers at the foot of the bed and turned on the TV to fill the empty room as she headed down the hall to the kitchen. I fell asleep again to the drone of a Sunday morning news show and the gurgle of Kim’s coffee brewing in the automatic coffeemaker.

“You have to wake up, honey,” was the next thing I heard. Kim was sitting cross legged on the bed with a cup of coffee in her hand. She was still wearing the tank top she had retrieved from the floor, but her hair was wet from the shower and the tight ringlets dripped dark patches over her breasts.

“You have to wake up,” she repeated, “or we’ll be late.”

“We’re always late,” I mumbled back.

“You mean I’m always late,” Kim grinned.

“Yeah,” I said, sleep overtaking me again.

But Kim kept after me. “You’re the one that makes me late,” she said as she moved on the bed and straddled me. The cold, wet curls of her hair were nothing like the warmth of her soft lips as she nuzzled into my neck and whispered into my ear, “If you go back to sleep, I’ve got hot coffee in my hand.”

I pushed myself up on my elbows and looked at the clock I couldn’t see without my contacts. “What time is it?” I asked.

“Ten thirty,” Kim answered, still astride me.

“We’ve got plenty of time then,” I said. The TV was still on, but a movie had replaced the news. “What are you watching?” I asked as I fumbled on the nightstand for my glasses.

“I don’t know,” Kim answered. “I was watching you sleep.”

I pulled her down to me, this time expecting the delicious coolness of her hair. I added my lips to the warmth of hers, and made us late.

It took half an hour to cross the bridge into Tampa. Lynn lived north of the freeway, just past the Hillsborough River. We pulled up to her house a bit after noon. Some of Lynn’s cats met us on the steps up to the porch. There was Buster and BG and Smoke, the other three or four were either inside or still roaming around the neighborhood. I could never get an accurate count of the cats Lynn kept, with all the kittens being born and the strays that stayed, but I knew the regulars. The dogs were probably out back, except maybe Charlie the Shar-Pei Lynn let into the house more than the other three.

Lynn met us at the door. Her hands were covered in dirt, but she kissed Kim on the lips and me on the cheek as we came in.

“What have you been doing?” Kim asked.

“Burying Darby,” Lynn answered, looking up at Kim with swollen eyes. I knew the stricken look that came across Kim’s face, and with it the emotion spilled out and she grabbed Lynn for support.

“What happened?” Kim wept.

“He got hit by a car, I guess,” Lynn answered. “He was in the driveway.”

“Why didn’t you call me and tell me?” Kim implored. They were still standing in the doorway, and I stood off a bit and let them grieve. Lynn was crying again now with Kim. She was a tough little strip of a woman, close to forty and not even five feet tall, and it wasn’t usual to see her cry.

“I didn’t want to wait,” Lynn said, looking at the dirt on her hands. “I know how you get.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t wait and let me help you,” Kim snuffled. “Darby was my lover cat. Where did you bury him?”

“Under the orange tree out in the back,” Lynn said. She and Kim had pampered Darby more than most of the other cats. He had been a big orange tom with a long neck and face that looked like E.T. They said he sang instead of purred, but I never did really understand what they meant.

“I want to see where he is,” Kim said.

“I ain’t going out there again. It was a pain in the ass digging the hole,” Lynn said.

Kim gave Lynn a vicious look and said, “You aren’t going to show me?”

“There’s a pile of fresh dirt under the tree. How can you not find it?” Lynn shot back.

“Johnny will go with me then,” Kim said and stalked off toward the kitchen and back door.

I gave Lynn a look now, too, but not a vicious one. “I guess I better go with her or this will be a long day for both of us,” I said and Lynn smiled with me.

I caught up with Kim on the back steps. The dogs had stopped her there. All four were jockeying for her attention and Kim was petting them each in turn. When I came out the back, the dogs had someone else to elicit attention from and Kim broke through them and into the yard. I went after her without paying the dogs much mind.

We found the mound where Darby was buried near the trunk of the tree. The citrus smell was strong. Small shards of light filtered through the branches to the ground. Tears came again to Kim’s eyes and she leaned her head on my chest.

“Poor Darby,” she said softly. Then, “Everything’s getting so screwed up.” I knew just what she meant. I took her face between my hands and wiped the tears off her cheeks with my thumbs.

“It’ll be all right,” I told her.

“No it won’t,” Kim pouted. She looked at me, her eyes soft with emotion, and asked me for the thousandth time, “Why won’t you come with me?”

“I can’t, honey,” I said.

“You won’t,” Kim responded with anger. She pulled her face out of my hands and wiped her own tears away.

“Let’s go back inside,” I said in a defeated tone.

“No,” Kim answered, “you go ahead. I want to stay out here a little while.”

I didn’t say anything. I just waded through the dogs, back up the steps and into the house. There was no use saying anything else. We had said the same things over and over again since Kim decided she was moving back to Arkansas. What it boiled down to was that Kim wouldn’t be happy until she was back with her son. I wouldn’t be happy in Little Rock, Arkansas, even if Kim was there. And neither one of us could understand why the other one was leaving them. So we were both unhappy, until she left anyway, perhaps longer.

I found Lynn in the kitchen. “Do you want a beer?” she asked. I nodded and got one out of the refrigerator myself.

“You know, I don’t want her to go,” I said to Lynn, “but the way it’s been lately, I’m glad she’s going soon.”

“I know,” Lynn said while she poured herself a rum and coke. “What’s she been like?”

“Mostly she goes out drinking. When it’s just me and her, everything’s okay. Like almost normal. But it hasn’t been much just me and her the last couple of months,” I started, but there was more to it. “I never know what’s going on until she doesn’t show up from work when she’s supposed to. Then I get to look forward to her coming home drunk as shit at two in the morning. And she wants to know why I’m pissed off. I guess it doesn’t help that she works in a bar.”

“Believe me,” Lynn said, “it worries you more than it does her.”

Lynn knew. Kim had lived with her for two years or more before I met Kim. I came to realize it had been almost the same for Lynn when Kim moved out of her house and into mine.

“I just hope these last couple of months aren’t all I remember,” I said.

“You won’t remember the same things after she leaves,” Lynn told me.

The back door opened and Kim came back into the kitchen with Charlie. “Do you have any more beers?” she asked.

“Sure, honey,” Lynn said, and I got Kim a beer and opened it before I gave it to her.

“What did you make for lunch?” Kim asked after her first swig of beer. She seemed okay again.

“I didn’t make anything,” Lynn said with a bit of edge to her voice. “I’ve been taking care of something else.”

“Well let’s get the stuff out of the garage then,” Kim said nonchalantly. “Then we’ll get something to eat.”

We didn’t waste any time. I grabbed another beer and followed Kim and Lynn out to the garage.

“Okay, what goes?” I asked when I got there. There were boxes everywhere, and stuff piled on top of the boxes and on the ground. You couldn’t have gotten a car in there with a crowbar. In fact, there was hardly enough room for the three of us.

“All those go,” Kim said, pointing to a stack of boxes in the farthest corner. “They’re all full of clothes, all of Jake’s clothes I get him when he comes here. And all my Christmas stuff, where are those boxes, Lynn?”

“Up in the rafters,” Lynn pointed them out. The slat rafters were full of junk, too.

“Oh, and my bike,” Kim added. It was up in the rafters with the Christmas boxes.

“That’s a nice bike,” I commented. “Why didn’t you bring that over to the house?”

“It needs air in the tires,” Kim answered.

“Oh, yeah,” I said sarcastically, “I don’t see how we could have done anything about that.”

“Don’t you start, too,” Kim warned, but smiled.

“Yes, ma’am,” I saluted. “I’ll just go get the gate open and pull the car in. It’s going to be real fun getting those boxes out of the back corner.”

I moved the car up the driveway to the garage, let the back seat down and opened the hatchback. When I got through, the clothes boxes were already out of the back corner and stacked neatly in the garage door.

“We didn’t want you whining anymore,” Lynn explained.

“But you have to get the stuff out of the ceiling,” Kim laughed.

“Well, I’ll whine about that then,” I said. “Do you have a ladder, Lynn?” but she was already dragging it over to me.

Kim started loading the boxes into the car while I got the ones out of the rafters and handed them down to Lynn. The bike was the last thing down, but there wasn’t any room for it in the back of the car.

“We can tie it to the bumper, I guess,” Kim suggested.

“Or, we can put it in the front seat and strap you to the car,” I suggested back.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Kim answered.

“Yeah, if I’d known I would have brought the ropes off the bedpost,” I quipped.

“Well I wish you would have,” Lynn chimed in. “Those are probably the same ropes Kim took from my bedpost, and I don’t think I have anything else to tie it down with.”

“No big deal,” I said. “Let’s go order a pizza or something and worry about it later.”

After lunch we went back out to the garage and rummaged around. Lynn actually did find some nylon cord we could use to tie the bike down.

“There’s no telling what you’d find in here if you cleaned it out,” Kim said.

“Well, honey,” Lynn shot back, “if people would stop bringing their crap over here and leaving it.”

Kim threw out her hip and answered right back, “Like I’m the only one.”

“Not at all,” Lynn admitted, “not at all. There’s probably something in here from everybody I know.”

“Look, Johnny,” Kim pointed out, “there’s Christina’s car seat.”

“See what I mean,” Lynn said with a nod of vindication.

When we got home Kim called the U-Haul place to see if they were open on Sundays. I untied the bike and unloaded the boxes from the car and stacked everything in the back yard. The rest of Kim’s stuff was already piled up in boxes in the dining room, ready to be packed in the truck.

“Let’s go,” Kim said when got off the phone. “They’re open until six.”

We drove with the radio filling up the silence, each of us contemplating the final steps that were bringing us closer to Kim’s leaving. We went in together to the rental counter, without holding hands. It was another manifestation of the separation.

The U-Haul guy asked, “Do you need a trailer to pull your car?” He was a small little guy with a Popeye face. His words smacked out like he’d forgotten to put his teeth in.

“No,” Kim said. “I sold my car,” she explained needlessly.

The old man just looked at us blankly. He pulled the bill off a printer and explained it to us. Kim paid him and he limped around the counter with a funny walk, like he had a false leg. He led us through the stacks of boxes you could buy and pointed out which truck was ours.

“Make sure you keep it locked if you put anything in it,” he smacked as he handed me the keys. “We’re not responsible for anything you put in it.”

“Oh, I need to get a lock,” Kim said. “I’m glad you said that,” she said to the old guy.

I bought a cheap padlock from the display on the wall behind the counter. Kim waited for me and we went out to the truck.

“Here,” I said, handing her my keys. “You take the car and I’ll follow you in the truck.”

Kim took the keys and led the way. She stopped at the Mobil before we got home. I pulled into the back of the station with the truck and Kim walked over to me from the car.

“Do you have any money?” she asked through the window of the cab. “We don’t have much beer left at home,” she explained.

I took a twenty out of my wallet and watched her as she walked up to the store and then back to the car with a twelve-pack under her arm.

We spent the rest of the afternoon loading the truck. I started dismantling Jake’s swing set and putting it into the truck first. Then Kim helped me load her bed and dining set and wicker rocking chairs. We finished with the boxes in the house and all of Kim’s odds and ends, then the boxes from Lynn’s house and Kim’s bike. When we were through, the truck was packed full.

“All we have left is the washer and dryer,” Kim said. “I hope there’s room in there.”

“We’ll worry about that tomorrow,” I said, grabbing my shirt off the back fence and wiping the sweat off my face. “You can go over to Harry’s tomorrow and see if he’ll help us after I get home from work.”

“That reminds me. I still need to go get my last check from Ruby’s,” Kim said. “I’ll go do that tonight. Do you want to go with me?”

“Not right now,” I said. I wanted to relax.

“I need another beer anyway,” Kim said. She had been drinking while we moved. There were probably only three or fours beers left. “You haven’t been drinking with me today,” she said when we got into the house.

“I didn’t want to while we were working,” I said. “I’ll take one now, though.”

“Well, I’m going to go get my check,” Kim decided. “I’m not even going to take a shower first. I’m just going to change and go.”

“I’ll wait, too,” I said, sipping the cold beer and drying the sweat off the back of my neck with my shirt. “We can take a shower together when you get home.”

“I’ll be right back then,” Kim smiled. I followed her into the bedroom. “I’ll probably stay a little while and have a beer or something if Kristin or Terry or John are there,” she explained as she changed. I planted myself in front of the TV, on the bed. There was a playoff game on a little later. “But I’ll be home early,” she finished.

“Okay,” I agreed and she kissed me quickly. “I’ll be watching the basketball game,” I said to her back as she hurried out.

After she left I moved the truck out of the alley and into the street. The Rockets had the ball and the lead when I got back inside. They were trying to force the series with Seattle to a seventh game. They ended up winning by twelve. I took a shower at halftime when I knew Kim wasn’t coming home anytime soon. I didn’t even call to check up on her, and she didn’t call to tell me where she was. I switched to a movie after the game was over and drifted off to sleep around midnight with the TV still on.

Kim woke me up sometime later, crashing around in the bedroom, and she turned on the light.

“What are you doing?” I asked angrily.

“You took a shower,” Kim slurred.

“Turn off the light,” was my answer.

“Well I’m taking one, too, then,” she said with an exaggerated nod that made her hair fall into her face. I turned back over until I heard the shower start and Kim was gone and the light still on. I didn’t even bother to get up and turn it off. I tried to go back to sleep, but was really waiting for Kim to come back.

“Why didn’t you come in the shower with me?” Kim asked. Her slur hadn’t gotten any better. She was standing in the doorway to the bathroom, naked. Water still glistened on her body. Her eyes were vague and she squinted to focus on me.

“I already took a shower,” I told her like she was a child.

“Are you going to make love to me?” she said.

“Just come to bed,” I said, and finally she turned off the light.

She came through the dark to the bed and grabbed me with her wet hands. I grew to her touch, but I didn’t respond further.

“Don’t you want to make love to me?” she whispered in her best bedroom voice. I did want to make love to her, but this wasn’t Kim. This was the ghost of her that only came in the middle of the night to torment me. Not to love me.

“Let’s just go to sleep,” I said with sadness.

Her sultry bedroom voice turned to anger. “Are you mad at me?” she asked sharply.

“No, I’m not mad at you,” I lied. “I’m just tired. I’ve got to go to work in the morning.”

Her voice got quiet again, with emotion now, not with sex. “You don’t know how much I’m going to miss you,” she whispered. But I did know, and I wanted to be angry with her for the way she was showing it. Instead, I gave in to her. I loved her more than my anger. We made love wildly with her intoxication, but, for all its energy, the act was hollow. I knew she wouldn’t remember in the morning.

I woke her up before I left for work with a kiss on her forehead. She roused groggily, her eyes not quite focused.

“Don’t forget to see if Harry can help us move the washer and dryer tonight,” I told her flatly.

“You sound mad,” she mumbled.

“No, honey,” I said.

“Will you make love to me tonight?” she asked, her eyes finally focused on me in the doorway.

“We made love last night,” I reminded her.

“We did?” she mused, like she could only imagine how it had been. “I’m sorry. Call me today and tell me what I said.”

“Okay,” I agreed and left for work.

When I got home Kim was still in bed, an array of half-eaten bags of chips and dirty dishes strewn around her.

“Did you talk to Harry?” I asked her. I knew she wasn’t going to when I left in the morning.

“You didn’t call and remind me,” Kim whined. I also knew it would be my fault she hadn’t talked to Harry.

“Let me change, and I’ll go see if Harry can help,” I said and started pulling off my tie.

“You better get over here and give me a kiss first,” Kim said, sitting up in bed and putting her arms out for a hug.

“You haven’t made it to the bathroom to brush you teeth today either, have you?” I teased her after we kissed.

“Nope,” she said with a mischievous grin. “I’ll take a shower and brush my teeth while you get changed.”

When Kim got through in the bathroom, Harry was already helping me disconnect the dryer.

“I moved the truck into the alley,” I told her when I heard her come into the kitchen. “Would you get the bike and some of that other stuff out of there so we can get these in.”

“You better put some clothes on first, before you do,” Harry said. I looked up and Kim was wearing a bra and a pair of my boxer shorts. It was one of her C-cup bras. She wouldn’t wear the D-cups I had gone out and bought her. She said she wasn’t a D, but the bra she wore made it abundantly clear she was.

“Oops,” Kim giggled, but she didn’t turn to run out of the room. Instead, she calmly said, “I didn’t know you were going to be here,” to Harry.

“That all right, darling,” Harry said. “I’m just glad I’ve got you to remind me I ain’t too old yet.” Kim smiled and left to find a t-shirt.

“She didn’t seem to mind,” Harry said to me. “Me being here, I mean.”

“You got to like that,” I answered back.

Harry was a retired construction worker. He lived across the alley from us with his wife. She was about fifteen years younger than Harry and tended to tune him out when he started in on his tall tales about running numbers for the mob in Chicago when he was a kid or living on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma after he ran away from his parents. And when his wife quit listening, Harry came over to our house with his stories. I knew I was going to get one of his first wife stories now. He always told me about his first wife after he saw Kim in her bikini or one of her short skirts she wore as a waitress uniform.

“I remember when my first wife would run around naked in the house,” Harry started. “She didn’t know how to close a window either,” he continued as Kim came back into the kitchen. “Every kid in the neighborhood got a peep.”

“I don’t close the windows either, Harry,” Kim said as she squeezed past us in the laundry room. “But the only one who can see me is Kevin, next door. And Kevin would be more interested in seeing Johnny naked than me,” she explained before she closed the back door and went out to make room in the truck.

“She’s right about that,” Harry said to me. “I’ve known Kevin for a lot of years. His old man still ain’t used to him being a homosexual. Kevin takes a little getting used to anyway.”

I went on listening and Harry went on telling me about Kevin. I didn’t have to be too attentive; I just nodded my head occasionally. It was worth it. Harry had every tool known to man in his garage, and he knew how to use them. He’d help me get the washer and dryer in the truck without either one of us killing ourselves.

Just as we finished loading the washer and dryer in the space Kim had made for us in the truck, Harry’s wife came out to their back fence. “Come on home and eat,” she said through the chain link.

“Well, I got to help them finish,” Harry stalled.

“They’re tired of listening to you,” she answered him.

“Don’t worry about it, Harry,” I said. “We’ll load the rest of the stuff back up.”

“All right, I’m coming,” Harry grumbled to his wife and wheeled the dolly and tow straps down the truck ramp.

Kim and I found places for the last few boxes. There was only the bike left. Kim started to put it up in the truck, but I pulled it back from her and sat on it. The air squashed out of the tires from my weight.

“The tires are flat,” I said.

“What are you doing?” Kim asked with her hands on her hips. “Do you want to keep it?”

“No,” I explained. “It’s just the last thing left. If I pack it on the truck it means you’re really leaving.”

Kim’s posture changed in the twilight. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see into her heart. She didn’t really want to leave, and I didn’t really want her to go. But it didn’t make any difference. I got off the bike and rolled it up the ramp onto the truck. I pulled the back down and locked it. Then I started the truck and moved it into the street. Kim had gone silently inside.

When I came into the house, Kim was already in bed. We stayed there all night without even the TV on to distract us.

“Was I really wild last night?” Kim asked me in the darkness.

“You sure were you old drunk,” I teased her to let her know it didn’t matter. Because tonight we made love slow and tried to make it last beyond tomorrow.

The next morning I didn’t go to work until Kim was ready to leave. I kissed her as she got into the cab of the truck, and she started to cry.

“Be careful,” I said.

“I will,” she answered softly through her tears.

I closed the door and stood on the curb as she drove slowly away. She couldn’t see that I was crying, too.

© 2012 Wasted Space Publishing

Sunrise Morning

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest  Hemingway
Collier Books, 127 pages, $4.95

Book Review

Ernest Hemingway had a way of getting right at the heart of a story. His brutally American directness changed the voice of 20th century fiction. And in “The Old Man and the Sea” the heart Hemingway targets is his own.

In the first sentence Hemingway lays out the story. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” And in the following pages, Hemingway expresses his own view of life in the voice of the old fisherman, Santiago.

“He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”

“It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

As Santiago speaks these words the bond is made between him and the writer. Santiago’s dreams of the lions coming out to the beach at dusk and his veneration of the great DiMaggio remind us, somehow, of Hemingway’s real-life adventure at the bull fights in Spain and hunting lions in the jungles of Africa. And we begin to feel that the old man’s quest is Hemingway’s also.

Hemingway had not written an important novel in more than a decade before “The Old Man and the Sea” was published in 1952. Perhaps he faced those years with Santiago’s same resolve. “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.”

To write is certainly what Ernest Hemingway was born for. And in these few short pages is the crystallization of his work. In crisp sentences Hemingway gets to the heart of his story. To the heart of an old fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. In that heart there is no bitterness or thoughts of failure, because “My big fish must be somewhere.”

For the old man, though, the fish is too far out. Even as he lashes the great marling to the side of his boat, the prize is set upon by the sharks. But for Hemingway the act of courage is enough, even if the bare bones of the fish are all the evidence there is when Santiago returns from three days at sea.

I always think of Hemingway as an existentialist, of how he created his own idea of himself and lived by that idea. It is hard to equate existential reality with the rugged code of manhood he established for himself and lived by in his writing and his life. But when he felt he could no longer live by that self-imposed code Hemingway ceased to exist, committing suicide just seven years after receiving a writer’s greatest honor -  the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

At the end of “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The old man was dreaming about the lions.” I wonder what Papa was dreaming on that sunrise morning in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961?

I was dreaming of death. I dream of death every night. Every night since the doctor.

The doctor brought death to me. He brought it in an e-ray picture. He delivered it in a syringe full of blood. My blood. Dead blood. As dead as the hollow x-ray picture of me inside.

The doctor put the x-ray up on a clipboard with a light built into it mounted on the wall. He pointed with his pen to the tiny shadows. I could see the shadows clearly through the ribs in my chest in the x-ray picture. But I could not feel the shadows as I filled my lungs with air to prove the shadows were not there. But the shadows stayed there, tiny, between my ribs in the x-ray picture. And the doctor pointed to them with his pen and told me what they were.

They were death.

By myself now, I face death. I have faced death before, many times, and I have never been afraid of it.

But always that was the chance of death. In war. When the lion charges. With the sea the hurricane brings up over the barricades.

Never have I faced the certainty of death. Death coming without a chance to fight against it and win. Death that you cannot see coming; that is only tiny shadows on an x-ray picture.

How do you fight such a thing? The doctor told me how. He began with how the cancer conquered the cells of my lungs. He told me the armies of cells my blood raised, and that the armies of my blood could not win. He handed the syringe to me as if it were a map of an enemy’s battle plan, as if I could see the advance of the cancer’s offensive.

And in the face of the cancer’s onslaught, the doctor prescribed weakness. Retreat. Radiation. Like the Russians that fled before Napoleon and left nothing but their burning homes and the dead of winter. Perhaps, like Napoleon, the cancer would find nothing left to conquer.

Then the doctor gave me medicines in brown bottles for the pain that would come as the war was lost. Like the pain of all lost wars.

That was three days ago. Now, as in that small story of the fisherman, I must decide, like the old man, how to fight the sharks. And even if the radiation destroys the sharks that menace the oceans of my blood, I will return to the shore with only the empty carcass of my great fish.

Will I dream of the lions then, too, like the old man? Or will I still dream of death?

It is only my life, though, that I will lose. I have already lost much more that that. I have lost my manhood to age. Age does not always take that away, but it has for me. It has taken my courage. Within me now I am a coward. I will not let anyone see my cowardice, but it is there. Waiting.

I don’t know what has taken my writing, but it is gone also. Perhaps my cowardice has taken that as well.

What was that I was writing before the doctor? “If you cannot respect the way you handle your life then certainly respect your trade. You know about your trade at least. But it was a rather awful story really. By God it was.” It has always been that way. I have always known when the story was bad. Now all the stories are awful, and no one will say it but me.

There were good stories before, though. But they were many years ago now. I like the story of the American that fought in Spain with the guerrillas. He lost his war, too, but he kept his bravery. I would have kept my bravery if death had come to me so long ago.

He spoke to himself of his father’s cowardice, remember? Like I speak of mine. “He would be acutely embarrassed by the presence of his father. Anyone has a right to do it, he thought. But it isn’t a good thing to do. I understand it, but I do not approve of it. Lache was the word. But you do understand it? Sure, I understand it but. Yes, but you have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do something like that.”

I like that American that fought with the guerrillas. “Dying is only bad when it takes a long time and hurts so much that it humiliates you,” he said. “It would be all right to do it now. Really, I’m telling you that it would be all right.” I can kill death, or it kills me. It is the same thing.

Last night I dreamed of the lions. My rifle jammed and they took me. It was a noble death.

Better than this.

© 2010 Wasted Space Publishing

A Loss of Memory

“Watch now, Paul,” Grandpa told me. We were on a winding bit of highway outside Texarkana. Grandpa was showing me how to drive for the first time, and I watched intently so I wouldn’t crack up when I got my chance behind the wheel. We were in Grandpa’s old ’64 Ford Fairlane. The old car didn’t have air conditioning and Grandpa hadn’t put in the new automatic engine yet. So he showed me how to change gears on the 3-speed transmission with the clutch in the floorboard and the gearshift on the steering column.

“First gear is down here,” Grandpa said, demonstrating. “Like this.”

My eyes were so wide, he didn’t have to ask if I was listening now and trying to understand so I could do it just the way he was doing it.

“When you want to change gears, you push in the clutch down here by the brake. You bring the shift up to neutral. See neutral, here, where it’s kind of loose. And all the way up to the top into second gear.”

I was itching to get behind the wheel, but I knew Grandpa wouldn’t let me until he told me how to handle everything the right way. I was sweating bullets even though the windows were down. It was late August and everything was brown, except for the pine trees on both sides of the highway. There was a pony drinking water from a bird bath on the small farm across the road. The colt had to stretch its head through the fence rails to get to the water. I had seen the mare do the same thing when I came down this road the year before, when Grandpa took me shooting for the first time. Now the mother stood in the shade along the fence and watched the colt. If Grandpa would only let me drive soon, we could get the 4/40 A.C. going – four windows down at forty miles per hour.

“At about thirty miles an hour you need to change it to third gear. You just push the clutch in again and pull the shift back down into neutral and on into third. Don’t try to force it. Just pull it the way it wants to go and you don’t have to worry about going back into first.

“You ready to give it a try, Boy?”

Grandpa slid over to the middle of the seat and I crawled over him. I was almost twelve years old: I thought I was a big boy, but I had to sit on the edge of the seat to reach the pedals on the floor and I had to look between the steering wheel and the dashboard to see the road.

“Push the clutch all the way in with your left foot and put your right foot on the brake. Now make sure the car’s in neutral.”

Grandpa handed me the keys and I started the car.

“Pull it down into gear and take your foot off the brake. Let the clutch out slow and when the car starts to fall forward, give it a little gas.”

I tried to do everything just the way Grandpa showed me. I started lifting my foot off the clutch and the car rolled forward, and I stepped on the gas and we lurched ahead. “Push in the clutch and move it up to second gear, and let the clutch back out.” I did what Grandpa said without looking at my hands or feet, and I kept my eyes on the road. I was scared to death that someone might drive up behind me or pass me coming the other way. The car started to strain a bit in second gear. “Bring it back down to third the same way you shifted to second.” I went into third gear as we hit the first curve in the road. The turn made it feel as if we were really picking up speed. The 4/40 A.C. was going full blast. “I told you there weren’t nothing’ to it.” Grandpa was right. He was sitting right next to me, but this time I was driving.

A few years later, when I was in high school, Grandpa would give me the old Ford. It was the same ’64 Fairlane, but it had changed. Grandpa had put in an air conditioning unit, one of those old jobs that went under the dash. Grandpa also put an automatic engine in the car. It was a rebuilt 1965 Mustang engine, a 289 V-8. The best engine Ford ever made. That was the best car I would ever have.

“Pull over to the side here. Push in the clutch and put it into neutral. Start using the brake a little.”

I stopped in a patch of gravel that was the beginning edge of the only other farm on that stretch of the highway. I would get to drive again when we got through hunting. Now Grandpa drove across the highway down a dirt road where we always went shooting. I didn’t want to drive down that narrow road anyway. It snaked through the woods and crossed the creek on bridges that were only two precarious boards, spaced so cars could cross.

“I could never make it across those bridges,” I said.

“Sure you could,” Grandpa answered. “Put the left wheel on the left board and the rest of the car follows right along.”

We finally pulled over in a wide space in the road and got out. Grandpa reached over the seat and got the .22 rifle. I opened the glove compartment and got a box of shells. I was an old pro at this. Last year Grandpa had taught me how to shoot the way he taught me how to drive this year. He showed me the right way to hold the gun and to aim, even how to load the shells. Then he handed me the rifle and a handful of bullets, knowing there was nothing he hadn’t told me. Before we went into the woods, we went to a place where people dumped trash. There were hundreds of bottles. We each picked up three or four unbroken ones for shooting practice. We carried the bottles to a bluff that overlooked the creek. Grandpa handed me the rifle and tossed several of the bottles into the current. I loaded the gun and started shooting at the half-submerged bottles as they meandered with the current down the creek. Most of the shooting we did at bottles like that, either the ones Grandpa threw in the creek or the ones he saved to put on the broken ends of tree branches to shoot at. If I saw a bird or squirrel I’d shoot at it, but I’d rarely hit it.

Later, when I was sixteen, Grandpa would bring the shotgun, a double-barreled 20-gauge. We looked for rabbits and squirrels when we took that gun. They were easier to hit then, the cartridge spraying a pattern of shot that engulfed them. I can still remember how fire leapt out of the barrel and how the helpless animal slid through the underbrush.

“It’s getting late, Paul. We better start heading back before Nanny gets through fixing dinner, or she might not let us in the house.”

I never missed a meal when I went to my grandparents. Nanny thought eating was one of the principle pleasures of life. Even many years later, when Nanny couldn’t do her own cooking anymore because of a respiratory disease that made her short of breath after any kind of activity, mealtime was the foundation on which the day was built. Breakfast was always early. We usually had thick slices of homemade bread, thickly buttered and lightly toasted, with coffee for them and milk for me. During breakfast, Nanny would discuss our options for lunch. At lunch, the decision of what was for dinner was made. When I drove up from Houston to Texarkana with my parents, we would always guess what Nanny would have cooked for us when we got there. I would guess fried chicken, and more often than not I was right. The chicken was always a deep brown and delicious. From the garden Grandpa cultivated every summer, we would have fresh green beans or corn on the cob, and homemade cherry pie for dessert, from Nanny’s oven. If I stayed with Nanny and Grandpa during the summer, I helped with the garden. We’d pick the tomatoes and the beans and the black-eyed peas, and shuck the ears of corn, and pull the carrots and beets and potatoes from the cool earth under the burning summer sun. After I had helped Grandpa with the picking, Nanny would start to work shelling the peas and canning everything for the year. There was so much the fresh vegetable never ran out, at least until the next summer when I could revel again in the rich, dark earth and the smell of boiling vegetables or fresh baked pies.

The pattern of my grandparents’ life was timeless. Nanny and Grandpa had settled on a standard that was right in its enduring homespun ritual and its endless preference for things that upheld man’s belief in himself. Even when they neared the end of life they understood that doing things the right way was the only way. Grandpa had a heart attack, but he did not wither under life’s cruel, burning caprice. He had to quit eating Nanny’s fried chicken or anything that could cause his heart to rebel again, but he continued to cultivate his garden where he felt life was full. He did the right things to cheat inexorable death, the way inequitable fortune had tried to cheat him. Nanny, too, was dealt cruel cards. Time spotted her lungs with disease and she could no longer prepare the meals she planned. So Grandpa cut the thick slices of homemade bread for their toast and Nanny taught him to make the meals they decided on for lunch and dinner. I stayed with them for two months after Nanny fell and broke a hip because couldn’t keep enough air in her lungs to hold her up. It was during that stay I realized how enduring their devotion to the right things was. Grandpa still took me hunting when Nanny got stronger, and Nanny still decided whether we would have fresh corn on the cob or if Grandpa should make a cherry cobbler. They were devoted to a way of life that endured even when their lives were narrowed by time, and they demanded that time yield the best things even when life had tried to cripple their belief in the best things.

How clearly my memories invade this present purgatory. What I held on to was much less than a memory. It was a mania for doing things the right way. And as time marches men to death, I realize I had only learned half the lesson I remembered now. I planned the whole thing right, but my memory had forsaken me. I showed my friend Frankie the right way to do the wrong thing. Instead of embracing the goodness I had grown up with, I was encompassed by the half-truth of my confusion. The purity I expected from life was not there for me any more than for Nanny and Grandpa, but I lashed out against impurity with fear, the mother of violence.

“Remember everything,” I told Frankie. We were parked in the street along a dark row of houses, trading shots of Ezra Brooks from a pint bottle. It was the night before Thanksgiving and my parents had gone to Texarkana. I didn’t go with them anymore. I stayed in Houston and laughed with Frankie about how silly my grandparents were. Frankie was scared now though, so he listened really close. I was scared, too, but the fear only steeled my resolve to plunge on.

“I’ll park the car at the far end of the store and we’ll go in together.”

There was a liquor store a couple of blocks away in a poorly lit strip shopping center, and we were going to rob the place.

“When we get in, you go behind the counter and get the money. Make the guy get down on his knees and keep your gun pressed to his head. He’ll be so scared he won’t do anything but pray. I’ll look for anybody coming at the door. Tell me when you have the money and I’ll get the car and we’re gone.”

I had wanted to do something like this since soon after I left my parent’s house. Things had been bad when I moved out. In high school I started smoking pot and I snorted cocaine if I could get the money to buy it. By some miracle my grades didn’t fail, I was a good student, but my life started to crumble around the edges. I tried to hide my abuse but my parents found out, of course, and they didn’t know how to deal with it. After graduating from school, I would have gone to the college where my father was financial officer, if I hadn’t ruined my own chances. Mom was behind it, and she was right. I couldn’t go to college where everyone knew my father if I didn’t break my cycle of abuse before it became addiction. That was when I started to laugh about how silly everyone else was. I left home, laughing. Then things got worse. The job I scraped up landed me in an apartment house that was a barrio filled with Mexicans and Orientals and barely provided enough money to eat and buy weed. I still laughed at everyone else, but my own hardship was deathly serious and someone else’s fault. My thoughts twisted until taking the money from that liquor store became justified by what everybody else had done to me.

“I’ll leave the car running when we go in, Frankie. Don’t worry about anyone coming in while we’re doing it, everyone in this neighborhood is out of town or somewhere starting their holiday. Just do everything as quick as you can and we don’t have to worry about anything going wrong.

“You ready to go, Bud?”

Frankie nodded that he was ready and I started the car. I still had the dark blue ’64 Fairlane I had learned to drive in. It was the only thing I cared about much. I turned out the lights as we pulled to the far end of the liquor store. Nothing else on the strip was open, closed early for Thanksgiving, and it was dark.

“Remember everything and don’t get jumpy or you’ll forget what to do.”

We got out of the car and I could tell Frankie was more scared than I was.

“Calm down. We’ve gone over everything a thousand times. Just do it and you won’t have time to forget.”

Frankie pulled the black barreled .45 out of his belt as soon as he got in the store and pointed it at the guy behind the counter. I got the sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun from under my coat while Frankie went behind the counter. “Do it quick; push no sale and the drawer will pop open.” Frankie didn’t make the guy kneel down but he shoved the barrel of his gun into the back of the man’s neck. When he reached his other hand to get the money, the store owner grabbed for something under the counter. “Watch out!” Frankie pulled the trigger without even turning back to look, but the guy had already dropped to the floor. The next shot came from behind the counter and Frankie’s face became a mask of blood. I unloaded both barrels through the thick wall of the counter. I saw fire leap out of the barrel and the store owner reeled backwards into the bottles behind him. The pattern of blood engulfed his head and chest. “Jesus,” I whispered, and the image of the helpless rabbit skidding across the dried leaves invaded my nightmare. I struggled to get Frankie, but the store owner was slumped over him and neither one of them would move. I ran out to the car; it was still running. I jumped in, threw the gun into the back and took off. I could already hear sirens. I didn’t know where to go. I started toward the barrio where I lived, down a narrow two-way road with a deep ditch running along either side. Then a cop car flashed out from the neighborhood into the street with its sirens wailing. I must have been doing sixty-five per and I slammed into the passenger side of the cop’s car. The impact sent me careening into the ditch on my right and flipped the car into a culvert where I was pinned. I didn’t know if the cops were after me or just heading to the scene, but I panicked. There was about of foot of water standing in the ditch and it was flowing through the shattered windshield and filling the ceiling. The shotgun was half-submerged. I tried to reach the gun, but the frame of the driver’s side window had shot into my shoulder and the pain shocked me and stopped me from reaching the gun. One of the cops was wading through the water in the ditch toward the car. I could see his black boots pass by the empty bottle of Ezra Brooks bobbling in the current he created. The other officer was either hurt in the crash or calling in. When the first cop got closer he could see me reaching around. At the same time his flashlight found the gun. He pulled the revolver from his holster and told me to freeze, pointing the gun at me all the time. The cop left in the car must have been calling in because it didn’t take long for an ambulance to get there.

They pried me out of the car and wrapped my shoulder in a gauze sling. They hoisted me into the back of the ambulance. The cop followed me in, water dripping from his boots like my blood onto the floor. As we rushed toward the hospital I remembered a winding stretch of highway outside Texarkana where I had learned to drive, listening hard to every word my Grandpa told me.

© 2010 Wasted Space Publishing

When Nanny Died

April Fool’s was dressed as Death. It came in silently, past midnight, into the hospital room where Nanny was dying. Joyce was catching catnaps on the vinyl hospital chair and didn’t hear the night steal Nanny’s soul away. She startled awake when she no longer heard her mother’s breathing through the layers of her sleep.

“Mother,” she whispered groggily. Her eyes were suddenly wide and she got out of the chair she was using as a bed. Death brought tears to her eyes with its finality. She gasped, “Oh, Momma. I was asleep.” The tears streamed down Joyce’s face and her chin quivered like a child’s.

Nanny had been in the hospital for only two days, but her illness had steadily progressed for more than three years. At first the doctors didn’t know why she couldn’t catch her breath. There was something wrong with her lungs, they knew, but the doctors in Texarkana were still country doctors really. They weren’t equipped to handle the technology of modern medicine. They were better at bedside manner and comforting the sick. When what Nanny had couldn’t be easily diagnosed, the doctor sent her to Little Rock for a biopsy. But the doctors in Little Rock weren’t much better than the doctors in Texarkana. The young intern who did the biopsy, still learning the ins and outs of being a country doctor himself, cut between the ribs of Nanny’s chest and found that the lungs were indeed damaged. Instead of taking a part of the lung that had just started to deteriorate, the intern took a piece that was already badly damaged. So when the specialists in Little Rock looked at the damaged bit of lung, they never could say for sure what had caused it to get that way.

Back to Texarkana and the little frame house on Fielden, Tyson took his wife. He had once been a strapping lion of a man, the product of a farm boy upbringing. He was more of a caged lion now, aging to uncomfortable paces. Tamed by the ever-presence of death that Nanny brought into the house.

As it became harder and harder for Nanny to fill up less and less of her lungs, Tyson took the necessary steps for her slow descent toward death.

He brought the big iron oxygen tank into the bedroom. It was big and silver and hissed quietly, all day long and all night long, as a reminder. The thin, clear tube that followed Nanny around the house connected her to the life of the iron tank’s oxygen and also to the ultimate end its appearance in the house prophesied.

Every week Tyson went to the pharmacy at the Skaggs to get Nanny’s medicine. The pills made her pudgy all over. Her face took on the look of the wise old owl in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons, her sagging flesh filling in for the bushy feathers. Her slim-waisted body, sculpted in the Depression, thickened. Every day when she took the pills she raised the water glass to her mouth, but not too high to interfere with the oxygen that flowed into her nose through the divided clear plastic tube. Every day she gritted her teeth and fought back. It was a Texans-at-the-Alamo fight against the inevitable march of time, but still she was fighting.

While Nanny fought her private war, the summer sun came to dry out the earth in East Texas. The grass turned brown and you could almost see the heat attacking the defenseless ground in waves. The pine trees stood in clusters, evergreen, among the thirsting oaks and pecan trees. Neighbors came out onto their porches with fans and ice tea and sat in rocking chairs in the evening hours. But not Nanny, she was tethered to an oxygen tank by a plastic tube.

“I wish’t I would go ahead and die,” she told her husband.

But Tyson could do nothing. He stalked back and forth through the house, and died a little bit every day, just like Nanny. He longed to get outside and lay claim to his territory again. No. Tyson wanted Nanny to come with him so they could roam together. Instead, through the debilitating summer months and the relative cold of a Texarkana winter, the pair tried to form a new territory. It would be a limited landscape, but lush with love. Affection came closer to the surface than it had ever been between them. But as sure as death’s eminence, even the small portion of territory they had left, the house where they had lived and raised their daughter, was taken away from them.

“I can’t hardly get a breath at all,” Nanny told Tyson on a day when spring had finally broken through winter completely in the last week of March.

Tyson fixed Nanny up to a portable tank that she carried with her on the way to the hospital. From the hospital Tyson called their daughter. “Do you think y’all could come up here for awhile?” he asked Joyce. “I’m here at the hospital with Nanny.”

Joyce and her husband Arnie drove up the next day from Houston. The sun was setting on March 31st as they pulled into the driveway of the frame house, painted white, where Joyce had grown up. Her father was there waiting for them, standing behind the screen door.

“Her sister’s sitting up with her at the hospital,” Tyson told them, pushing open the screen door as Joyce and Arnie came up the porch steps.

“Evening, Tyson,” Arnie said.

“Let me fix you two something to eat and then I’m going to go sit with Mother up at the hospital, too,” Joyce said, coming inside.

“I done fixed something to eat,” her father said.

They sat in the kitchen and ate the fresh green beans and the chicken fried steaks, fried without batter in the big cast-iron skillet that was still sitting on the stove. Tyson munched slowly on the food, taking huge bites that took him several minutes to swallow. He looked frail to Joyce, an old man who had been mugged. Joyce had never thought of him as frail before. He was always the great lion of a man she remembered as a child. The image of him slouched over his plate at the kitchen table, chewing his food slowly and rhythmically like a milk cow chewing its cud, scarred deeply into her memory.

“Are you all right, Papa?” she asked.

“Not really,” Tyson answered her, pausing between bites.

When they were through with supper, Joyce cleared the plates and hand-washed them in the sink. “I’m going to go see Mother now,” she said after she was finished. “Why don’t you stay here with Papa, Arnie?”

“I want to go with you,” Tyson said.

“Why don’t we all drive over there together, Honey?” Arnie suggested. “That way I can bring Tyson back home if you decide you want to stay the night.”

“Let’s go then,” Joyce agreed. Her husband knew she would want to spend the night with Nanny. That was why she had planned on going over to the hospital alone.

The doctors were at their best when Joyce and Arnie and Tyson got to the hospital. There was nothing they could do for Nanny now except bedside banter and consoling the sick. Nanny was propped up with pillows and the life thread still connected her to the oxygen being pumped out of a gadget on the wall by the bed. Nanny’s sister was sitting on one of the two chairs in the room, leafing through a copy of McCall’s.

“How are you feeling, Momma?” Joyce asked as she came into the room.

“I just can’t get a breath,” Nanny said softly.

Nanny’s sister put down her magazine and said, “I’m going home now, I think. I’ll come back up in the morning,” she told Nanny.

“I’ll walk out with you,” Arnie said. “I want to find me a Diet Coke. Can I get y’all anything?” he asked the others.

They each shook their heads ‘no’, and Arnie walked out of the room with Nanny’s sister. When Arnie got back, he heard Nanny say, “You need to get home and get yourself some rest, Tyson,” as he opened the door. “Joyce can stay up here and sit with me awhile.”

Tyson kissed Nanny tenderly on her parted lips. “I’ll be back early in the morning,” he told his wife, and left slowly then with Arnie.

“He’s been worrying hisself sick about me,” Nanny told Joyce after the two men had left.

“Everybody’s worried about you,” Joyce said.

“I don’t see why,” Nanny answered with a bit of her old fire. “I’m dying and there ain’t nothing nobody can do about it. What’s the use of worrying about something like that?”

As they talked, Nanny’s breath grew shorter and she got tired. The nurse came and gave her the last medicine of the night around ten o’clock. Joyce turned out the lights and made herself as comfortable as she could be in one of the vinyl chairs. She watched Nanny silently for more than an hour, listening to her raspy, halting breaths and marking the severe changes in her mother.

As Joyce drifted into that lonely valley between asleep and awake, she saw herself playing with Rudy, her old hound dog, in the back yard of the house on Fielden. Across the half-acre garden a cat was harassing the birds that lived in the birdhouse attached on a pole to one of the posts of the back fence. Nanny came out on the back steps and said, “Rudy, go keep that cat away from them birds.” Rudy left Joyce and ran around the edge of the garden, straight toward the stray cat. But the cat was out of reach on top of the fence post and Rudy had to settle for barking before he came back to play. “That cat just won’t leave them poor birds alone,” Nanny said. She went back into the house and came out with Papa’s .22 rifle. She drew a bead on the cat and killed it with one shot clean through the head. Joyce startled awake and she couldn’t hear Nanny breathing anymore.

At Nanny’s funeral, Joyce thought her father had seemed to shrink. His shoulders were stooped and his chest looked caved in, like someone you couldn’t see had him in a bear hug. Throughout the funeral at the big Baptist church downtown, she kept watching her father and waiting for him to be released from the hug.

Then the preacher started talking about Nanny. Joyce hardly heard the words. Instead her mind saw a picture of Nanny in the kitchen. She stood, slim-waisted again in one of her simple homemade dresses without the oxygen cord, looking through the kitchen window above the sink at her husband out in the garden. Tyson was in his undershirt, his strong arms bigger than Joyce had ever seen, plowing the rows for the corn.

© 2010 Wasted Space Publishing


It was hard to spot a dead animal by the side of the road after it snowed. They looked like a little white mound, like a corpse buried in white dirt, and Farley couldn’t tell if it was a road kill or just garbage or what. That was why he started early in the fall. It didn’t usually snow in Ft. Worth, but it had the last two years and Farley needed to be finished in case it snowed again this year.

Every morning Farley woke up from his summer place around the back of a convenience store on Lancaster. He’d walk across the street to the mission and see what they were passing out for breakfast. Most times it was just a cup of black coffee and maybe a doughnut. Sometimes they had powdered eggs or biscuits with a thin gravy to go with the coffee, though. He knew most of the guys that showed up at the mission every morning. They tried to include him in their joking around, but Farley spent as little time at the mission as possible. He drank his coffee and left to look for road kills. He knew the other bums thought he was crazy, to go along with being homeless, but he didn’t care. It got cold in the winter and there wasn’t nothing in the world Farley hated worse than being cold.

He walked up Lancaster to the first street that would take him to the freeway. There were always road kills on the freeway. If they were on the side of the road, he scooped them into the brown 30-gallon trash bag he carried with him. If they were in the middle of the road, he left them. No use getting hit by a car over a dead animal. When he got to Beach Street, he got off the freeway and headed north. There was a nice little road about two miles up Beach that was almost like a country road. It was two lanes with no center stripe, and a lot of trees and open fields on both sides. Somebody around there even kept a bunch of horses and they were out loose in the fields sometimes. To boot, cars travelled the road pretty heavy and there were always road kills there, too.

Farley walked up his little country road just a short ways, to where a gully with a narrow creek ran through the trees to the north. He used to go all the way up to where the fork of the Trinity ran under the road, but the water rose too fast down there when it rained so he stayed away from there now so he wouldn’t get caught in a flood. Instead, he lugged his trash bag down into the gully off the road. He dumped the dead animals under a tree and sat down there with them on a stump that fit him perfectly. The creek ran by when there was water in in, and the sun shone through the trees, too, but he sat in the shade.

He had a knife he couldn’t remember where he’d got, and he kept it sharp by rubbing it on the curb every night, like a whetstone, outside the convenience store where he slept. He skinned the animals with the knife – a small dog, two cats, and an opossum he found down by the Trinity River – and buried their entrails in the soft mud of the creek bed. Sometimes, when his trash bag started getting tattered and the little varmints’ paws and legs would poke out of the holes in the bag while he carried them to his place on the country road, he would put the entrails back in the bag and double it over before he carried it down to the landfill on the other side of the Trinity. He wouldn’t go up the main road to the landfill, but skirted around the edge of the site so no one would spot him while he looked for another bag in better condition to replace his old one filled with road kill innards.

After he skinned the animals, he laid the pieces of pelts that were usable, fur side down, over branches of the tree he sat under. They would dry out enough to use in a day if it was sunny. He stored the dried pelts in a cache on the other side of the creek in the woods in a fallen tree with its insides rotted out.

It only took Farley a couple of weeks, since sometime around the middle of September he estimated, to collect what he thought was enough skins. He made another trip to the landfill and searched around most of the afternoon for something to sew together the pieces. He found all kinds of pieces of string of different lengths. Finally he found a rusted fishhook with a good thirty feet or more of line attached. He straightened out the hook and used the fishing line for thread. It was at least eighteen or twenty pound line and wouldn’t wear out as fast as the string he had.

The sewing used up more time than finding the road kills. First of all, there was a lot of unsewing and tearing apart as Farley leaned how to construct a coat. He took off his shirt to see how it was sewed together before he started. Then, without any further ado, he just started sewing the furs together. In a jumble of black cats and striped cats and furry dogs and squirrels and whatever else there was, he tried to match up straight edges to sew together as the side seams. That worked pretty well, but he had trouble with the arms and sewing the side under the arms. Three times he sewed the seam for one of the arms, but the hole was too small and he couldn’t get his arm through it so he had to tear the seam apart and add more pelts. Also, he discovered the string he had wouldn’t work at all to hold the pelts together and he had to go back to the landfill to scrounge around for more nylon fishing line.

He would have finished in time, but he ran out of pelts sometime in October. He knew it was late October because the bums at the mission had quit talking about trying to get out to the State Fair in Dallas, and because it was getting cold at night and he was already thinking about moving closer into the city where he could find better places to get out of the wind and where it seemed to stay a little warmer somehow.

But the coat was almost finished, really. The sleeves were finished. The front was finished and the shoulders and part of the back, even the short stand up collar. There was just a huge hole that left the back gaping open. Still, Farley wore the coat everywhere now, and the bums were quite sure he was crazy now when they saw him in it. He resigned himself to that and the fact he would have to spend a few more days skinning road kills if he didn’t want the wind whipping up his backside all winter.

When the coat was finished he would move into the city. It was too far from downtown to where he sewed his road kills to walk every day. He could wait into November to move downtown. It didn’t really get cold until after that anyway. Most of the bums around the mission on Lancaster were beginning to move, at least the ones that didn’t stay around the mission year-round, but he could wait.

He made his usual trek down the freeway to Beach Street, but he only found one dead he-couldn’t-tell-what-it-was. All the way down his country road, past the Trinity and the landfill, he didn’t find anything else. He walked farther down the road than he ever had before, to where it forked off. Down the left fork he stopped dead in his tracks as he turned into the first bend in the road. A big, black Doberman pinscher swung its head around and looked mournfully at Farley. The dog must have weighed close to one hundred pounds. He was sitting in the middle of the road, and at his feet was another Doberman almost as big, a red one. Farley could see the blood that spotted the pavement around the red one’s head.

At first, Farley just stood there, still, and surveyed the scene. It took him a minute to decide what it meant. The red one must be a female, he finally figured. A car must have got hit it while the two dogs were loose. Now the black male was standing over its mate, waiting for her to get up so they could go home. Farley moved toward the pair then and squatted about an arm’s length from the black male. The dog growled softly, but not menacingly, somehow. Farley slowly reached out his hand and stroked the red female to try to see if it was only injured or really dead. The growl grew in the black dog’s chest, but it didn’t make any move to stop Farley. Farley scooted on his haunches closer to the female and stroked her sleek, still warm body. She didn’t move, and Farley couldn’t feel any breath moving her chest. He bent down closer over her and looked at her head. The side of her head that rested on the street was matted in blood and the bulky muscles of her neck were lax.

Farley felt the warm breath of the black male across his shoulder as he was hunched over the red Doberman. He felt its cold nose in the crook of his neck and a tender lick along the point of his jaw line. Farley stood up slowly and the black Doberman stood up, too. A car whizzed around the corner and by them. The driver looked at them but didn’t slow down. Farley went to the side of the road and dumped the dead animal out of his trash bag. He came back and wrapped the red female’s head carefully in the bag. The black male watched expectantly, looking like a husband in the waiting room of a hospital; he must have thought Farley was going to do something to help his mate.

The red dog was heavy, at least seventy or eighty pounds Farley guessed as he picked it up over his shoulder, and dead weight, too, like a sack of dirt. He walked with the dog slung over his shoulder like that, back toward his place by the creek. He had to stop every so often to rest, and pretty soon his shoulders started to ache as he switched the load from side to side. The black male followed along with him faithfully, standing protectively by when Farley rested.

Back at the creek, Farley laid the dead dog down and got out his knife. He started skinning it with the expertise he had gained skinning all the other road kills during the last weeks. The black male lay down with his belly in the cool mud by the creek. He whimpered off and on in lament, but resigned, it seemed, to the fate of his companion. The red pelt Farley got from the female Doberman was easily large enough to cover the hole in the back of the coat. He set the skin out in the sun to dry. It was still warm during the middle of the day and the skin would dry out faster if it was directly in the sun rather than in the indirect light, slung over one of the branches of the tree he sat under. The black male got up and sniffed at the skin of its mate. He plopped down on his haunches and sat by in the sun as it dried.

Farley took up the front paws of the dead female while the last piece of his road kill coat dried out. He used his knife to dig out the two longest claws on each paw. They were all more or less two inches long and almost as big around as a pencil. He took off his coat and made four slits about an inch long, spaced evenly down one side of the front of the coat. He sat there quietly sewing the claws on the other side of the front of the coat as buttons. The day passed at a steady pace and Farley’s black friend eventually moved back to his more comfortable place in the mud of the creek bed. When the sun started falling behind the trees Farley got the red pelt and started sewing it into place. The black male moved closer and sat at Farley’s feet so he could see exactly what was happening to his mate.

It took Farley late into the night, sewing the coat. He finished with the light of the moon aiding his eyes through the branches of the trees. He got up from the stump when he was finished, a little stiff and his shoulders sore from carrying the dead Doberman earlier in the day. He put on the coat and buttoned the claw buttons and smiled to himself. The black Doberman followed him at first as he began walking back toward the mission on Lancaster, but when Farley got to Beach Street, the black dog put his head down and moved partways back down the country road. He watched Farley walking up Beach towards the freeway awhile before he disappeared into the night, probably to go home, too.

There were no bums outside the mission when Farley got there. That meant it was at least midnight. He went to his place behind the convenience store, and it wasn’t long before the morning sun woke him up. He went to the mission for his coffee, warm in his coat. He didn’t hang around with the bums at all that morning. He headed downtown instead, to find his home for the winter. He staked himself out a place behind a tire store not far from the stockyards. During the days he would walk out to the stockyards, or into the city where the hotels were, and see if any of the people around were feeling the Christmas spirit yet. He got enough money to eat at Burger King at least once every day, usually.

He was attracting more attention than he normally did because of his new coat. The other bums wanted to know how long it took him to make it. The other folks gave him a long look even when they didn’t give him any money. It was on one of his hotel days; he was standing around outside the Worthington Hotel and none of the bell boys had told him to get out of there yet. A woman came out of the front of the hotel and walked straight across the street, straight at him. She smiled a big smile at him and he smiled back, sort of. She reached in her purse and handed him a ten-dollar bill.

“Did you make that coat?” she asked him.

Farley nodded.

“Did you make it from dead animals you found or something?” she said as she put her hand on his shoulder and made him turn around. “Is that a Doberman pinscher?” she asked, her voice incredulous.

Farley nodded again.

“I have never seen anything like this in all my life, not even in New York,” the woman rattled on. “I’m here for market this week, you see. Would you mind if I tell some of my friends about this extraordinary coat?” she asked as she stroked the different textures of the furs and fingered the claw buttons.

Farley shook his head and smiled to himself.

“Just extraordinary,” the woman smiled, too, and walked off up the street. Farley found a bit of shade and sat down. The smile grew on his face as he thought about it. He could just image, some high roller making fur coats out of road kill for high class ladies. What are the animal lovers going to say about something like that? After all, it’s just finding a use for the little critters in their misfortune. Yep, it sure could be big business.

“But I won’t see no more out of it than this ten dollar bill,” Farley said out loud, and the warmth of the road kill coat when the winters come.

© 2012 Wasted Space Publishing


[Pieces is the third and final in this series of stories. Together they are a discussion of how lust tries to crowd out love. Ultimately it is the attempt to replace the eternal with the temporary, never a good idea for us mere mortals. Great, momentary pleasures can not replace what God is – love. And love between a man and woman here on earth should be a mirror of God’s love for us. Great, momentary pleasures are part of that love, but the bonds of love surpass those pleasures. They are an eternal bond.]

…there was given to me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
– 2 Corinthians 12:7b

Scene I : Take 1

Get a clear picture of this. A woman’s butt, exposed. Black lace panties pulled up between the cheeks. The firm, round curve of her ass. A hand slapping her ass, feeling the give of the flesh and the excitement of the tightness. Pan up to a face that looks a little used. The body is probably a little used, too, but tight. Tight as a spiral. Tight. Tight. Tight.

Scene XII

Milton really did love her, he supposed, that diva of his dreams, that Phoebe of his daytime lust, that Helen of his reality. He masturbated at night when she danced topless in her black panties. He grew hard when she grabbed him by the crotch at the Glass Slipper during the gentleman’s lunch. He wept at the soft swell of her belly when he asked how it had gone at the doctor’s.

“Three girls,” Helen said with anxiety in her voice and almost bitterness behind it.

Scene X

“She’s pregnant!” Harry said when Helen came out of the bedroom.

“Can you really tell?” Helen asked self consciously, fussing with her blouse.

“That’s it Harry, make that good first impression,” Milton called out from the kitchen, over the refrigerator door. It was the first time Harry and Helen had met. Leave it to Harry to hone his game of foot in mouth disease when Helen was growing unsure about how she looked anyway.

“No, I just didn’t know,” Harry tried to recover. “Milton never told me, that’s all. You look great, really.”

“Thanks,” Helen accepted the compliment, still self consciously. She walked through the living room and into the kitchen where Milton was.

“Are you ashamed to tell anybody about me?” she whispered to Milton.

Definitely a no win situation. Milton shook his head pathetically, but said, loud enough for Harry to hear, “Where do you want to go?”

“What about the Glass Slipper?” Harry said, getting up from his place on the couch in the living room. He had that sly, sleazy look in his eye that Milton hated, feared a little even. Guess Harry figured he already had his foot in his mouth, might as well leave it there.

“No,” Milton said flatly.

“What’s the Glass Slipper?” Helen asked.

“A titty bar we go to at lunch,” Harry answered.

Scene VII

He couldn’t take it. He wanted to be with Helen all the time. Seeing her after work on the outside terrace of the restaurant where they liked to eat was only a taste of what he wanted. Kissing her moistened lips and feeling her body only increased the ache of sleeping alone. Each ring heightened the anguish when he called her from the phone in his office and she didn’t answer.

And with love was the growing lust and the humiliation of wanting so bad you can’t, both in and out of the bedchamber.

“Time for lunch,” Harry told him.

Why did Milton let Harry lead him around by the balls every afternoon? “In a minute,” Milton said.

“She’s waiting,” Harry teased. And she was.

Scene VIII

“How bad do you want it? Not bad enough,” Don Henley’s voice sang.

There she was on the runway, dancing to the voice. Her face was in shadow, her body in stark light. Milton had a hard-on before he sat down.

She saw him, too. She finished her dance and came to the table where Milton and Harry were sitting. She sat down right on Milton’s lap. “What are you having today?” she asked.

“Whatever the special is,” Milton mumbled.

“But you’d rather have me, I can tell,” the woman said. She raised up from her spot and stuck her hand through her legs and grabbed Milton’s hard-on through his pants. “See,” she looked back over her shoulder and smiled. “How about a table dance before your food gets here? That’s all I can do here,” she added tauntingly.

“Sure,” Harry grinned. Milton nodded and his butt muscles tightened, lifting him slightly from his seat as she slid her hand slowly off his crotch.

Scene VI

Milton had been meeting Helen for more than a month. He saw her every day after work. He squirmed in his chair with desire when he thought of her. He even started leaving the office at lunch on the off chance he might see her. He wandered aimlessly around downtown for an hour and came back to the office, still hoping to see her for an extra second.

Five or six blocks east of the high rise office building where he worked was the erotica district. Massage parlors and topless clubs, and trashy hookers everywhere. On one of his lunchtime strolls he strayed too far. Hungry for the tangible results of what the dream promised, he stepped into one of the topless bars.

The Glass Slipper
Gentlemen’s Lunch
Specials Daily

Inside, a busty blonde was dancing on the little stage and naked women moved freely among the tables. Milton found a booth along the wall by the door and sat down.

“Milton Jahnsan?” a voice questioned out of the dark.

Milton looked up and out of the darkness came the face and body of a man he had seen around work. The guy stuck out his hand for Milton to shake and sat down across from him at the booth. “I’m Harry Fontenot,” the guy said. “I work on the same floor as you do.”

Milton nodded without knowing how to respond. He was a little embarrassed to see anybody who knew him, although he had never actually met this guy. He had only seen him in the elevator or walking in the corridors of the office. But the guy sat down like he was right at home, like nothing could be more natural than going to a topless bar for lunch.

Harry was a regular at The Glass Slipper. He was telling Milton he knew all the girls as Milton’s eyes kept wandering back to the blonde dancing on the stage.

“Who’s that?” Milton finally asked, if this Harry guy really did know all the girls.

“The one on stage?” Harry asked. Milton looked at Harry and nodded and looked back up at the girl. “Do you like her?” Harry asked, a sleazy grin oozing like saliva at the corners of his mouth. “That’s Phoebe, she’s great.” He stopped one of the waitresses as she walked by and told her something in her ear that Milton couldn’t hear over the music. Then Harry turned to Milton and asked, “What do you want to drink?”

Milton ordered a beer and Harry convinced him to get the special. Phoebe had finished dancing and she was the one who brought the drinks. She slid into the booth beside Milton with a brief, knowing smile at Harry. “Do you like the way I dance?” she asked Milton with a smile for him. Her hair was straight and blonde and black at the roots. She wasn’t very old, but her face had a weathered look, like she had been out in the sun too long. Her body was tan, her whole body. Milton just nodded agreement to her question without saying a word.

“Would you like me to dance just for you?” she asked. Milton shot a glance over at Harry who was grinning stupidly at him.

“Go ahead,” Harry said. “It’s on me,” pulling a twenty dollar bill out of his pants pockets.

The girl got up and faced Milton. “Come,” she whispered slowly, “closer,” and pulled Milton by his thighs to the edge of the booth. She straddled his legs and rubbed her naked breasts up his chest and left them for a forever second in his face. He wanted to reach out and grab her, but he couldn’t move. She swayed languidly away from him and turned and grinded to the rhythm of the music.

“In your eyes, the light, the heat.”

Scene III

Milton met her at the bar and grill where he had first seen her. They sat on the terrace, out in the sun, as the sun set. He ordered a pitcher of margaritas. They weren’t good margaritas, but they were strong. She talked to him while they drank and drew him out of his shy shell. Milton couldn’t believe his luck. He thought Helen was more beautiful every time he saw her. There was a hunger in his eyes, behind the fumbling words he tried to articulate, that Helen saw straight away. He looked smart, too, in his business suit and dark frame glasses, not the sophomoric type he saw himself as at all.

They ordered more margaritas. Helen said she wanted boiled shrimp. “I love seafood,” she said. “I come here to get shrimp because it’s close, but there’s a restaurant near where I live that has really great seafood.”

“We’ll have to go check it out sometime,” Milton said. That was almost what Helen wanted.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“I live inside the loop, about twenty minutes away from work,” Milton answered.

“I live outside the loop,” Helen said, “way outside the loop. It takes me forever to get to work with all the traffic. Maybe I should just start staying with you,” she added.

Scene IV

Milton walked out of the bar with his arm around Helen. They walked close together, steadying each other, up the street to the downtown parking garage by their offices.

Milton stood by her and she fished in her purse for her keys. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.

Helen looked up at him with a slight frown on her face. Her eyes sparkled a little drunkenly. She reached her hand up, car keys jangling loosely between her fingers, and brought him down to her by the back of his neck. She kissed him, a long slow kiss.

“Can I follow you?” she asked.

Scene V

Milton waited for Helen in the parking lot of the apartments where he lived. She was right behind him. She got out her car and came straight over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck again for another kiss.

They learned each other slowly and Helen grew tired. She got up from the couch and said, “Where’s the bedroom?” Her skirt was pushed up over her hips and Milton could see the black lace panties she wore.

Milton got up off the couch, too, his tie loosened and his shirttail pulled up out of his pants. “You’ve got to go home pretty soon,” he said. “You don’t have any clothes here to wear tomorrow.”

Helen grabbed his hand and drew it to the soft, firm flesh of her ass as she kissed him hungrily on the neck. She kept hold of his hand and led him by it to the bedroom.

That was the first night he had the dream. It startled him awake in the middle of the night, and he could see the dream’s subtlety lying next to him on the bed. He still had his clothes on and so did Helen, her panties were just pulled up high over her hips like her skirt. He roused her gently with kisses. The alcohol had left them and Helen smiled faintly, remembering. She left in the early morning hours, after a shower in Milton’s shower, for home.

Scene II

She walked up to where he was sitting. Milton’s eyes stayed on the sway of her hips from way across the restaurant. He had never seen her before. She was wearing a denim minidress and she was tall, taller, very tall like a model. Her legs reached forever toward the floor and the dress moved like it was alive over her hips, up her long, slim torso. Her soft, brown hair fell down in ringlets to the graceful curve of her neck and framed perfectly the dark features of her face.

“I know you,” she said when she got to his table. He was sitting alone on the terrace, enjoying the last of the sun and a hamburger and fries.

“You do?” Milton said, a little startled.

“Sure,” the girl answered as she sat down at the chair next to Milton. “You work at the same building I do,” taking a French fry out of Milton’s basket. “I hated to see you sitting out here all by yourself.”

“I don’t mind,” Milton said, embarrassed, looking down at his food.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “I just thought I’d say hi since we work so close to each other. I’m the receptionist on the third floor. What floor do you work on?”

“On the ninth floor,” Milton answered, drawn into the conversation.

“That’s the floor with the big accounting firm, isn’t it? Is that where you work?” she asked.

“Yes,” Milton answered.

“Are you an accountant?” Milton nodded. “You sure don’t look like an accountant,” she added.

“I don’t?” Milton laughed a little.

“You sure don’t,” the girl said matter-of-factly. “What are you drinking?” she asked, pulling the short brown bangles of hair away from her face and turning the bottle of Dos Equis so she could see the label. “I hate beer,” she said. “Order me a margarita when the waiter comes around again, won’t you?”

“I’m Helen, by the way,” the girl added as she put another French fry in her mouth. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Milton,” Milton answered.

“Maybe we can go out sometime after work, Milton.”

Scene IX

Helen had been living at Milton’s apartment for nearly six months, ever since the lease had run out on her old place. They had become lovers in time. Phoebe had made that much more possible for Milton. Somehow he felt familiar with Helen’s body before he had ever really known it. But in the months it took him to summon the will to expose the rawness of his love for Helen, he had time to become aware of her from the inside out.

There was a natural healthiness about Helen; it was almost a faint scent. There was her long, head turning body and brooding features. But most of all there was her fragile image of herself. Milton kidded her that when she looked in the mirror she didn’t see what everybody else saw.

“What do you see?” she would ask him.

“My incredible luck,” Milton would answer.

On the day he found out Helen was pregnant, it wasn’t Helen’s doubts about herself that told him something was wrong when he walked through the door. Helen was sitting on the couch staring at the TV, but the TV wasn’t on. Her eyes were red. She had been crying. Milton laid his jacket down on the arm of the sofa and sat beside her. She leaned her head silently on his shoulder.

But it was Milton’s understanding of Helen that helped him see the image staring back at her from the mirror when she told him she was pregnant.

“You’ll hate me when I’m fat and ugly,” she cried. “You’ll start looking at other girls and wanting to go out with them.”

“No,” Milton whispered, “no.” The joy he felt was beyond bounds, outside the fence of fear where Helen was stuck.

“Do you promise you’ll love me when I’m pregnant?” she said with her head still on his shoulder.

Scene XI

Harry stepped out of the sun and into the Glass Slipper. Phoebe was there. He didn’t see her, but she came to his table after he sat down.

“Miltie never comes with you anymore,” she said.

“Sorry, honey,” Harry said, pulling a ten out of his pocket. “Miltie’s got a girl.”

“I though I was his girl,” Phoebe said with a pout as she picked up the money off the table and stuck it half in and half out of the tiny triangle of her g-string.

“I met her the other day,” Harry said, looking at nothing but the loose end of the ten dollar bill moving up and down to the rhythm of U2. “She’s pregnant,” he laughed and looked up as the bill stopped moving.

“In the name of love,” Bono reminded them.

Scene I : Take 2

In the dream she presses up from a position crouched on her knees. She runs her hands up her legs, pulling the black lace panties up high above her hips and deep between the perfect curve of her ass. Follow her hands up, up past her tiny breasts with small pink nipples like a boy’s, up, up through her lank blonde hair moussed stiff. It’s like being in a titty bar, and then the face of a man, of Milton Jahnsan, his eyes a slit open and with a pillow behind his head. Follow his hand down, down under the crisp white sheet, down between his legs.

© 2011 Wasted Space Publishing

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