Follow by Email

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ink

I slowly inked in another segment. I didn’t bother making small talk with my customer as he cringed and tried not to squirm. The needle went in and out of the soft breast tissue.
Mack reclined in his ancient convertible client chair across the room from me as he read The Evening Call in the combined glow of the overhead fluorescents and the street light shining in through the dirty plate glass window. The street light caused a darker shadow on the gray tile floor that spelled out “Mack’s Tatts” in celtic-looking letters. If you looked at the actual lettering on the window, you could see how scratched and faded the letters were, but that didn’t show on shadow on the floor. The whole place looked kind of scratched and faded, including Mack. Over the glass door was a large round clock, like you’d see in a rail station. The numbers were really large so that Mack could keep track of how much time a job took. That was probably the newest thing in the shop. Everything else, from the rickety coffee table to the stools and client chairs were left over from when Mack first opened the shop years ago. The whole place had a faded, out-dated feel, like it was caught in a time warp, which might be why I kind of liked it here.
As he read, he periodically called out tidbits of news that he found interesting. I tried to ignore him as I concentrated on my art.
“Hey!” Mack called out, surprising me after ten minutes of quiet, the only sounds having been the sharp inhales of breath my client made as he pretended the needle didn’t hurt.
“Jesus, Mack! Will you stop doing that? I don’t want to make a mistake here!” Looking down at my customer’s worried frown, I continued, “Don’t worry, no problem. It will be perfect. Completely lifelike.”
I smiled as the needle punctured skin again and his relieved smile turned into a grimace.
“What?” Mack said as he forced his bulk into a sitting position in the chair. The chair groaned in protest. I really think that one of these days that chair is just going to give it up and collapse in a heap. He shook the newspaper in my general direction. “Did you see this?”
“The paper? No, you know I never read it. It’s so full of typos, really bad writing and stories that just get cut off in the middle. And I’m not interested in the local politics and scandals that it’s filled with.”
Nodding his head, Mack agreed with me, “It is pretty bad, but the big ones, like The Journal or The Globe aren’t gonna cover any of the local stuff.” Being a local boy, Mack believed that if it didn’t happen here in town, well, then, it just didn’t matter.
Lost in thought, probably thinking of the wonders of this tiny burg, Mack shut his bristled mouth for a minute. Then he shook his head, and as if that had gotten his brain working again, he said, “Anyway, they found a body in an apartment over on Elm!” He stopped and watched for my reaction, his bushy eyebrows dancing up and down as he waited.
I quirked my own eyebrow and looked back down at my work, “Yeah, so? Bodies are a dime a dozen.”
“Yeah, yeah. But I recognize this guy.”
That caught my attention, I paused with the needle in my hand and I noticed my customer had turned his head to look at Mack, too. “Oh? Did you know him?” I asked.
“Nope. But you did.”
“Me? I don’t know nobody here but you, my landlord and the guy who sells me butts at the Maxi Mart, and I don’t even know his name.” I stopped for a moment as I tried to think who else I knew. I had only been here in town a couple months and I wasn’t big on making friends. It didn’t seem to be worth the effort when I knew I’d only be around two, three months, six at the most.
I never stay long in one place. Most of these little towns I pass through don’t have much to offer me. And if there isn’t at least one tattoo parlor, me and my ink keep on moving. I travel mostly by foot or by thumb, though most people won’t give me a ride—scared of the scars on my face and the tats on my body. Or maybe it’s the long gray hair held back in a leather band or my none-too-clean jeans. I don’t know, but the bottom line is that very few people pull over to give me a ride and some that do, take off after getting a good look at me. Sometimes when I had made good money in the town I’m leaving, I travel by bus, but I prefer the open road. Because when I’m walking I know when to stop—I get a feeling, like a tingle, in my fingertips and I know that this is a place where I have to stop for a little while. It’s funny, I get the tingle and sure enough I find a tat shop in town. Never fails.
“Well, I’m not saying you were buddies. He was a customer,” Mack said.
“Yeah? Who was it?”
“I don’t know his name, but his picture’s here in the paper.” Mack struggled out of the protesting chair, which was designed to convert for a client’s comfort, depending on what part of the body was being worked on, but it wasn’t designed for someone Mack’s size to use as a recliner. He lumbered his way over to me, his arm extended and his pudgy, yet remarkably skilled, fingers holding the newspaper out to me to see the face in the center of the page.
Of course I remembered the face, not his name. None of their names are important to me, just the ink and the art. I had used my special ink. The guy was a weight lifter, or so he said, and kept bragging that he could bench press 500 pounds. What a pompous little snot! He wanted a set of realistic barbells on his chest, with each weight showing “250 lb” in bright red. For one thing, I didn’t believe him—he had some muscle, but not that much. He had the muscle of someone who had just started lifting and was bulking up with some anabolic help. Then his bragging! One thing I can’t stand is a braggart. Once he opened his trap and started mouthing off, I knew he was someone who deserved my special ink.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I remember working on him. Don’t remember much else about him though.”
“You don’t? I sure do!” Mack said. “He was a real pain in the ass. Bragging and complaining the whole time.”
“Oh yeah?”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember him. He was a total wuss and a liar! Telling us he could lift all kinds of weight.” Mack shook his head in disgust and his jowls bounced like fuzzy Jell-O. “And then he complained about your artwork!” He shook the paper for emphasis and continued, “And we both know that your artwork was perfect. So realistic that you felt you could reach out and pull those barbells right off his chest!” With a huff, he turned and went back to his chair, settling back with a grunt as he shook out the paper and concentrated on the rest of the article.
I looked down at the tattoo I was creating on my current customer. Giving him what was meant to be a reassuring smile, I told him, “Yours will be every bit as realistic as the one Mack was talking about. So realistic that you’ll expect to get stung.”
Instead of looking reassured, he just looked alarmed. I don’t know if it was my smile—granted I am out of practice and it was probably more of a grimace—or the idea of being stung by his tattoo. Or maybe it was just that a customer of mine had died. I opened my mouth to reassure him, but then changed my mind. Did I really care if he felt reassured? Not really. I only care about the ink.
So I ignored his face and concentrated on what I was creating. I completed another segment and started work on the tail. It was very detailed and was taking a long time to complete. I’m glad I charged the $750.00. I probably should have charged more, seeing I had to split it with Mack; he gets 40% of everything I take in, but even so, it would be a pretty good pay day for me.
I’m actually starting to feel pretty happy here. Not a lot of reasons to use my special ink. The money is good and there’s a steady stream of customers, not so many that I feel rushed, but enough so that I don’t worry about how I’m gonna buy my next meal or pack of butts. Maybe I’ll hang around here longer than usual. I don’t even mind that Mack talks a lot at me, at least he doesn’t seem to need me to respond. He’s happy just to hear his own voice.
He and the regulars don’t seem to mind my scars. Though some of the wannabes freak out when they see me. The scars are unusual. Most people probably think that they were caused by having tattoos removed. But that’s not what caused them. The truth is too strange to explain, even if I cared enough to try. Most people just kind of stare and then look away; few are rude enough or brave enough to ask me how I got them. But even if they assume they are left from having tattoos removed, they must still wonder why I had tattoos on my face. I would never offer an explanation and if someone were to ask me questions, well, there are ways to deal with them.
I think what startles people the most is that the shapes of the scars are so recognizable, they’re not like a burn scar—all irregular shapes and random bumps. In these scars can be seen what used to be there. One is in the shape of a bird—like a pheasant—on my right cheek and on my left cheek is one in the shape of an Egyptian cat—like the ones on the walls of the pyramids. On my forehead is a series of small images and symbols. But these scars were not left after having tattoos removed; they are something else entirely. I am so used to them that when I look in the mirror, not that I do that very often, I don’t see the scars. I see the past and what was there. I see what I was like when I apprenticed. I see the shiny blue-black tones of the cat and its bright yellow eyes. I see the pheasant with brightly colored feathers fanned out as if attracting a mate. The small images and symbols which spell out my name in an ancient hieroglyphic language still glow in my mind with the bright primary—red, blue and yellow—colors that were there originally.
I remember when my teacher put those designs on my face and explained what the ink would do. When I questioned why they had to be on my face, he explained that ordinary tattoos belonged on the body and that these tattoos and the scars they would leave on my face would show my standing in the ancient art. Only those of his line—the high priests he called us—would have these exact marks. Only we would know and be able to use the power of the ink. Only we would know what receiving one of these tattoos would mean. In all my years of travel from shop to shop I had never seen another marked as he and I were, and I have come to believe that I am the last of the line. The secrets of the ink would die with me.
My teacher taught me what ingredients went into this special ink, ink that made me an artist like few before me. I learned how to activate the ink and how to control it: sometimes the ink kills and sometimes it only leaves scars. He shared this knowledge with me. Why he chose to share his secrets with me I never knew. I don’t know if it was my skill or something else—something he saw in my soul—that made him choose me as his final student. But he explained that there could only be one per generation with the skill and the ink and he chose me as he felt his own powers fading; the occasional tremors that shook his body told him and me that his time was nearly over. In the end, he died before my apprenticeship with him was done. I had received all the training, but he had not yet released me. Then he died and I was free to move on.
Sometimes I wonder if he would be disappointed in how I’ve used his gift. I have not shared the secret of the ink and I have used its power—sparingly—but to my own ends. When I am gone where will be no one who can use the ink and witness its power.
Not that I really “witness” its power. I just use the ink and know what will happen when the ink is cured. Sometimes I read about it in the paper or hear about it from someone like Mack. But I get my satisfaction from knowing the power of the ink; I don’t have to see its power because I see the proof of the ink’s power every time I do look in the mirror.
These thoughts flowed through my mind as my eyes and my hands focused on my work. Mack’s voice penetrated my mind again. I noticed his tone was odd; he sounded puzzled and strangely frightened, as he said, “This guy’s chest was crushed as he lay in bed. But they have no idea what crushed him. And there’s no mention of his tattoo.”
“Oh yeah? Maybe it’s not the same guy then.”
“You saw his face. That was definitely him. You would think they’d mention those brand new tattoos. The colors were so bright…” his voice faded out as he continued reading. I went back to my work, while still keeping a half an eye on Mack.
He sat up so suddenly that the sheer momentum of moving all that bulk forced him into a standing position. Surprised, both my customer and I looked at him as he stood there, the paper held limply in his hands, his eyes opened very wide and staring blindly at me, and his mouth working, lips opening and closing as if forming words, but without any sound except a faint whistling noise.
“Mack! What’s up? You okay?” I asked, hoping he wasn’t having a fit of some kind. I weighed in my mind just what that would mean for me: on the one hand, if he got rushed to the hospital I could probably keep the whole $750.00 that this guy was paying me. But on the other hand, I didn’t really want the hassle of calling an ambulance—and what if he collapsed and needed mouth-to-mouth or something? I looked at that round face, the sparse beard that didn’t hide his jowls, his lips pursing and his cheeks pushing out, looking like nothing so much as a hairy blowfish. I didn’t want any part of that.
“Mack!” I repeated. “What’s the problem? What’s going on?”
Slowly, he shook his head and then stared very hard at me, “there’s no mention of the tattoo you gave that guy. But there is a scar on the guy’s chest.”
“Well, then, it can’t be my customer,” I said. “He just got the tattoo and you know that having one removed is a long process. So those scars are on someone else’s chest.” I watched Mack as I spoke. Mack returned my look, and I didn’t like what I saw on his face. He was adding two and two, and even though he didn’t know how it was done, he was coming up with four.
Mack continued, “From the description in the paper, the scar is the size and shape of that tattoo…” his voice faded and I swear I could see the wheels turning in his head.
I turned my attention back to my customer so I could finish up and get him out of here. I was making good progress and was on the final details of the tail, when I had that eerie feeling of being watched. I looked up, and sure enough, Mack was still standing just a few feet from me and was staring at me with a look of horrified amazement. I could tell that he had realized that I was responsible, even though he had no idea how.
He started babbling, “There was that girl…”
“What girl?” I asked interrupting him as I put the final touch on the tail. I wiped the blood away from the tattoo, grabbed the hand mirror and gave it to my customer so he could admire my work. It was a beauty, if I do say so myself. It was a little larger than found in nature and seemed to be crawling up the left breast with the tail curled around the nipple there. While he was preening in front of the mirror—turning it one way and then the other to see the tattoo at every possible angle—and smiling inanely, I turned back to Mack, whose babbling had petered out.
He noticed that I was looking at him and the words exploded from him, “There was that girl! When you first got here. I remember she was real young and kind of freaked out about getting a tattoo, about your looks, everything.”
“Really, Mack? I don’t remember any girl.”
“Yeah, I didn’t make the connection, but she died, too.”
This caught my customer’s attention. Two of my clients had died. Not that it really mattered if my customer knew. It’s not as if his knowledge would change the chain of events that I had set in motion. His die was cast when I decided which ink to use. And, to be honest, that was just because I didn’t like his face. He was a “pretty boy,” which he might have been trying to do something about by getting a tough, kind of scary, tattoo. But I can’t stand pretty boys.
Like that silly girl a month ago, shortly after I got to town. The look of disgust in her pretty blue eyes as she stared at my face made me burn—how dare she be disgusted by me? But her attitude changed when she saw how the tattoo turned out. She had come in with only a vague idea of six fish—she was a Pisces and six was her lucky number. I created a circle of blue-green water with foaming white waves that crested and came to six points around the circle. And each crested wave was ridden by a golden fish with blue eyes. She loved the design I had come up with on the spot—she raved about the whole circle of life theme, life and death, blah, blah. But her compliments were too late. I had already used my ink.
Mack’s voice continued softly, he was looking at me, but seemed to be talking to himself, “I remember reading it in the paper, she drowned in bed. It was quite a mystery, along with the round scar on her stomach. It was described like a circular saw blade; the reporter even suggested that it was caused by a fiery hot blade being pressed into her. But no one could figure out exactly what could have caused such a scar, it was just one more little mystery on top of the big mystery—how did she drown in a perfectly dry bed?”
“Mack, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said as I bustled around, cleaning up my station and carefully rolling up my special ink into its ancient suede wrapping and tying it with the leather strap, just as it was when my teacher gave it to me years ago.
My customer was ready to go. I walked over to collect my pay.
“Thanks, man. It’s awesome,” he said as he handed me my fee plus an extra $50. He reached over to grab his shirt and the tattoo shimmered in the overhead fluorescents. “Totally like it’s real,” he said softly as he took one last look at it in the wall mirror, before putting on his shirt and leaving the shop.
I realized that in a couple weeks Mack would know for sure that my tattoos had something to do with these deaths, though he’d never be able to explain it, let alone prove it. I knew that my time was done in this town. I packed my tools and my ink into my duffle, which already held all my clothes and my butts—I was always ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I counted out Mack’s share of tonight’s fee.
Holding his money out to him, I said, “Here’s your share of that one.” I looked over at the large round clock hanging above the glass door. Then I took a last look around the shop at the four client chairs, left over from when the shop was busier and had more artists, the sample books stacked on the rickety coffee table surrounded by three hard black plastic chairs, the hanging fluorescent lights and the scuffed gray plastic floor tiles. Dumpy as it was, it was as much like home as any place I’d been for the past twenty years. I was going to miss it. But it was definitely time to go. Turning back to Mack, I said, “Well, it’s time for me to move on.”
Mack looked up from counting the money I had handed him, “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, sorry about the no notice, but I need to be moving on.”
Mack looked at me, opened his mouth, and then closed it with a snap. He just nodded his head, once, sharply, slid the money into his shirt pocket and walked away.
I watched him for a moment and then picked up the duffle bag. Slinging the strap across my chest, I straightened the bag until it rested comfortably enough on my back to start walking. I pushed open the glass door and walked out onto the sidewalk. As the door swung closed, I turned back for one last look, something I had done hundreds of times at hundreds of different shops over the past twenty years. Mack still had his back to me. I turned back to the street, looking first north and then south; with a shrug I turned north and started walking. I smiled as I thought about that last tattoo. I think that scorpion was my best work yet.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Penance

Scott stood in the living room, staring out the front windows at the rain coming down in sheets and thinking how quiet it was in the house. The kids were away at college, Sally was curled up on the sofa quietly reading and the only sound was the rain as it pounded against the roof. The waterlogged leaves on the trees, some turning yellow and orange, hung limply from the limbs. He took a sip of coffee and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much rain come down at one time.”
“Well, that’s the way it is in the fall sometimes.”
“Yeah, I know. But this is crazy. Three offshore hurricanes in a row. A week of rain. We’re never going to dry out.” He shook his head, just grateful that their basement was still dry. Suddenly through the sheets of water, he saw something in the street. He wasn’t sure, but it looked like someone riding a bicycle. “Oh my God, that old guy from up the street somewhere is riding his bike in this. What is he, crazy?”
Sally put down the book she had been reading, unfolded her legs, and walked over to stand next to Scott. She looked out the window and said, “Yeah, I saw him go down the road a little earlier, when there was a lull in the storm. He must have been heading to Grocery Mart or maybe the pharmacy.”
“I know he goes down the road every day. Rain or shine. But this is crazy; it’s almost as bad as a hurricane. Doesn’t he know enough to stay home where it’s dry?” Scott watched as the old man slowly pedaled his bike up the slight incline, a bulging plastic grocery bag dangling from the fingers gripping the handlebars.
A car drove by the old man, going much too fast, and barely swerved around him. A huge wave of water flew up from the tires and engulfed the old man. The car drove on and the old man wobbled unsteadily on the bike. In horror Scott and Sally watched as the bike fell, in what seemed to be slow motion, into the middle of the road, taking the old man with it. He landed in the middle of the traffic lane and didn’t move, not right away.
Scott handed his coffee cup to Sally, walked quickly to the door and grabbed the rain slicker that was drying on a hook nearby. “Somebody’s going to run him over,” he said. “I’ll see if I can give him a hand.”
“Offer him a ride in the truck,” said Sally.
“I will,” he said as he ran out of the door.

He didn’t bother with the hood and the rain ran down his neck onto his shirt collar; he was drenched before he was halfway down the driveway, running at top speed, praying he would reach the old man before another car came up the street. The man was just beginning to get up, but he was tangled in his bicycle, his long, dark coat wrapped around his legs like a cocoon. Scott reached him and stood between him and the traffic lane, his yellow slicker more visible to any passing vehicles than the old man’s dark coat.
The old man seemed unable to figure out how to get untangled from the bike. He crouched over the bicycle; the rain plastered his sparse gray hair to his head, and poured down his cheeks, emphasizing his gauntness.
Grabbing the man’s arms and helping him to stand, Scott asked, “Sir, are you all right? Sir? Are you injured?” Not getting an answer, he repeated the questions a few times as the man stood there, unresponsive but cooperative, not resisting as Scott lifted first one foot and then the other away from the bicycle.
Leading the man over to the stone wall Scott said again, “Are you hurt?”
Seeming to revive a little, the man answered, “Yeah, um, I think…yeah, I’m all right.”
“Okay. You had me worried,” Scott replied. “You wait right here, sir. I’ll get my truck and drive you home.”
“No. No, don’t have to, I’m fine,” the old man said answered slowly, like a man not used to conversation.
“I want to. You had an awful fall. And I’m sure you don’t live far up the road.”
“No, not far. But don’t go to any trouble,” the old man shook his head and stood up, but the two motions together were too much for him and he started to fall over.
Scott grabbed him and sat him back on the stone wall. “Look, either I’m driving you home or I’m calling an ambulance…”
The old man looked up at him quickly, “No, no ambulance. Must get home.”
“Fine then, I’ll take you. My truck’s right there,” he said pointing up the driveway. “Wait. I’ll be right back.” Scott trotted up the driveway, and climbed in his ten year old Ford Ranger. It started and he pulled into the street. Parking near the old man Scott put the truck’s hazard lights on before jumping out and running back to the old man. Scott helped him into the passenger street and was about to shut the door.
“Wait! My bike. And my groceries.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll put the bike in the back and gather up your groceries. I’ll be back.” Scott ran to the bike and lifting it over his head, carried it to the bed of the truck and laid it gently on top of an old tarp that was bunched up, like a cushion put there just for that purpose. Then he dashed back to the front of the truck and searched the road for the grocery bag. After a couple minutes he found the brown plastic bag, which was crinkled and shiny, looking like a pile of wet mud. There were a few cans in it and he took the bag and ran back to the truck. “There you go. There only seems to be cans in there, I hope that’s all you had,” Scott said as he climbed in and handed the bag to the old man.
“Nope, nothing else. Just some cans,” the old man replied. “Baked beans, peas and chicken soup.”
“Oh, well that’s good,” Scott said. “My name is Scott, by the way. Scott Anson.”
“Joseph Brickler.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Brickler.”
“Joe,” he corrected. “Call me Joe.”
“If that’s what you want, sir,” Scott said, unsure about calling a man of his age by his first name.
“What’s this for?” Joe asked, leaning forward and tapping a small red bubble light on the dash board.
“I’m a Call Firefighter,” Scott answered. But Joe just looked at him, not understanding. “A volunteer fireman. I use the light in case of a fire in town, so I can get there faster.” Joe nodded his understanding, leaned back in the seat, and waited silently. But after a few moments of silence, Scott said, “Well then, Joe, I don’t know exactly where you live. Can you give me directions?”
“Yup, go up the street. You know where the turn for Green Street is?”
“I know where Green Street is.”
“Well, take that turn. I live about a mile down on the left.”
“Wow, that’s quite a ride by bike to get to Grocery Mart,” Scott replied. “You don’t drive? A car, I mean.”
“Nope. No car.” He fell into silence.
Scott continued to look at him, but he said nothing else, so Scott started the truck and drove slowly toward Green Street.
Scott’s few attempts at conversation were met with silence, so the drive was quiet except for the howling wind and the rush of the rain, until old Joe leaned forward and pointed, “that’s it, that left by the big maple tree.”
Peering through the wipers that were ineffectually smearing the rain across his windshield Scott answered, “Left? What left? I don’t see any turn…”
“Now,” the old man shouted. “Turn now!”
Scott stomped on his break pedal, coming to a complete stop in the middle of the road. “I tell you, Joe, I don’t see a turn here at all.” He rolled down the window and stuck his head out. Through the gloom and the sheets of rain he thought he could make out a darker area next to the maple tree and he noticed there was a mail box there. Hoping the old man knew what he was talking about, Scott turned into the dark hole.
It was a driveway, of sorts; it was gravel and there were two deep ruts with a grass berm in the middle. No car had driven down this driveway in a very long time. It was lined on both sides by maple trees, so that it would be in shadow even on the brightest day at noon. Scott put on his high beams in an attempt to pierce the gloom. They helped a little, but not much. The truck lurched from deep rut to shallow rut and back again.
“You ride your bike on this?” he asked.
“Yup, you learn where the holes are,” Joe answered.
The driveway seemed to go on and on. “How long is this driveway?” Scott didn’t dare take his eyes off the road to look at Joe.
“Don’t know. Quarter mile, half mile maybe.”
After a few more minutes of slowly driving from rut to rut, they finally pulled out into a large grassy area in front of an old fashioned New England farmhouse. The house wasn’t large and had a rickety porch across the front of it.
“Pull up here,” Joe said, pointing to a side door facing the grassy yard. There was a lean-to shed near the door, a chicken coop next to that and an old wire fence behind it.
“Okay,” Scott said as he looked around. This had clearly been a true farm at one time, but now there might be a few chickens hiding in the coop, but not much else. Peering through the rain and past the fence, he thought he saw new houses, big McMansions. “Are there houses back there?”
“Yup,” he answered. “Kept the fencing up. This one and one a little further back.”
“Did you?”
“Keep the kids out.”
“Oh. I see,” Scott really didn’t see, but wasn’t going to ask any questions. “Do you keep the bike in the lean-to?”
“Yup,” old Joe answered, reaching for the door handle.
“No, you stay here. I’ll put the bike in the lean-to and come back and give you a hand,” Scott said.
“Don’t need a hand.”
“Maybe not, but I want to make sure,” Scott answered. Seeing the stubborn look on Joe’s face, he smiled, “C’mon humor me.”
The old man looked taken aback at Scott’s smile and slowly he began to smile, too, “all right.” He leaned back in the seat and waited.
Scott jumped out and dashed to the back of the truck, grabbed the bike and ran to the lean-to. There was a cleared spot that was obviously where Joe kept the bike, it fit perfectly. Then Scott trotted back to the truck and opened the passenger door for Joe.
“Here, I’ll carry the bag,” Scott said, taking it out of the old man’s hands. He leaned in and put his hand on Joe’s arm to help him out, but Joe shook it off and climbed out of the truck.
As old Joe slowly walked towards the door, Scott walked beside him, his arm out, prepared to catch him if he fell. But he didn’t fall, he moved slowly but steadily towards the door. He reached the door which had a small overhang sheltering it from the worst of the rain. He turned to Scott, who was right behind him and reached for the grocery bag. He opened the door and stepped into his kitchen. Then he turned back to Scott, said, “Thank you much,” and shut the door.
Scott stood for a moment under the overhang, staring at the closed door. Then he shook his head, laughed and ran for the truck. He started the engine and slowly headed back home.
###
Two days later the rain finally stopped, at least for a while. Scott, wearing a flannel jacket against the chill, walked out to his mailbox, taking a circuitous route around his yard, checking for damage from the storms. There were lots of sticks down, a few broken branches, and leaves completely covered the grass. Scott nodded and said to himself, “Not bad. Could’ve been way worse.” He grabbed his mail and turned to walk up the driveway, but noticed something shiny in the street in front of his stone wall. He walked over and picked up a can of peas. Looking around Scott saw a can of soup that had rolled down the street a little ways. He picked that up, too.
Walking in the house, he called to Sally, “Hey, Sal, I found two cans that must have fallen out of old Joe’s bag the other day.”
She came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a white dishtowel, “Really? You gonna to take them over to him?”
“I guess.”
“Maybe he’ll let you inside this time,” she said laughing.
“Not likely, but I’ll drop them off anyway. Might as well do it now. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Okay. Dinner won’t be ready for an hour or so anyway.”
“I’ll definitely be back in time for that. The smell of that pot roast has been making my mouth water every time I come inside,” he laughed, sniffing the air. “Though I don’t know why you keep making these big meals for just the two of us.”
“I don’t know, habit maybe,” Sally answered, shrugging.
“You should save these big dinners for when the kids come home to visit,” Scott said. “Not that I don’t appreciate your pot roast, Sal.” He walked over to her, gave her a kiss and laughed saying, “Just don’t overcook it, like you always do.”
Sally laughed back at him and said, “Brat! Get out of here and go do your Good Samaritan thing.”
Still laughing, Scott walked back out, climbed into his truck, and headed to Joe’s place.
###
Scott turned into the dark hole between the trees that was slightly more visible without rain. He held on tight to the steering wheel as the truck bounced its way down the rutted track. Parking the truck where he had parked two days before, Scott got out and walked up to the house. He knocked on the door and waited. Leaning to the side a little, Scott looked in the lean-to and saw Joe’s bike. After a few moments, he knocked again, harder this time and the door popped open.
He could hear a loud metallic growl and whine, the sound of a very old vacuum cleaner. “No wonder he can’t hear me knock,” Scott said to himself. “Joe! Hey Joe! I found some cans you dropped!” Scott stopped shouting. “What am I doing? There’s no way he can hear me. I can’t hear me. I’ll just leave the cans.”
Scott walked toward the unpainted kitchen table; it had been wiped down so many times the finish was gone on the top, but the legs still showed the maple stain it had when it was young. He walked across the old fashioned linoleum that was gray and speckled with red, black and white dots, and set the cans down on the table. Looking around, Scott noticed details about the kitchen. The counters were linoleum, too, with metal strapping around the edges; there was a huge porcelain sink with a built in drain board and the cabinets were pine. If the walls were once painted, the paint had faded to drab beige gray. But the room was scrupulously clean, not a speck of dirt on the counter or the floors, and the sink sparkled as if polished. Scott turned to the door to leave.
Suddenly the noise stopped. The silence was deafening, Scott’s ears rang with a hum that echoed the previous noise. Then there was a sound, another growl, but this one wasn’t metallic. It was human. The growl was followed by a cawing sound, like a crow makes, but again, this was human. Scott stopped in his tracks and turned back towards the center of the house, he wondered if Joe was all right. Scott walked towards the sound, a doorway on the other side of the kitchen.
He walked into a parlor, old fashioned with hardwood floors covered by faded oriental carpets and lace curtains at the windows. There were doilies on the tops of the tapestry upholstered chairs and doilies on the tables. In the center of the room was Joe, the vacuum waiting behind him as he knelt in front of a wheel chair. In the chair sat an elderly woman with gleaming snow white hair. A pink shawl rested on her shoulders and lace peeked out from the shawl at her neck. From what Scott could see her skin was pink and almost wrinkle-free, as if belonging to a much younger woman. She opened her mouth and made that cawing sound again as Joe gently patted her cheek. Scott must have made a sound because Joe started and looked away from the woman.
“What are you doing here?” Joe asked, frowning as he stood, placing himself between Scott and the woman. Even in faded trousers and an old brown sweater vest with a torn pocket, he looked like a warrior, a knight in tarnished armor, whose duty was to protect the princess.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean to intrude. I found some cans you dropped the other day. I knocked but you didn’t hear me. I was going to just leave them, but I heard a noise and worried that you might be hurt or something.” Scott spoke fast, running the words together as he backed towards the doorway.
“I’m fine,” Joe said still standing in a defensive posture, blocking Scott’s view of the woman.
“Yes, I can see that,” Scott felt awkward. He had intruded on something private and didn’t know what to say. “Anyway, I left them on the table for you,” and he turned back towards the kitchen.
Joe followed him. “Thank you,” he said as he picked up the two cans from the table and set them on the counter.
Scott turned to answer him and saw that the woman had turned her face to follow Joe’s movements. He was startled to see a jagged scar that stretched from her right temple down her cheek to her throat, disappearing into her lace collar. It missed her eye but pulled the skin on her cheek, forcing that side of her face into an awkward, crooked grin. Joe stepped between him and the woman again.
“Good bye,” he said.
“Good bye, Joe,” Scott reached for the door knob, but turned back to look at Joe. “Are you sure everything’s all right?”
“I’m fine,” he answered. “We’re fine. We don’t need anything or anyone. Good bye.” He reached for the edge of the door, opening it wider, encouraging Scott to leave.
Scott had no choice, he walked out the door and Joe shut it behind him.
###
On Saturday, Scott walked into the Cozy Break coffee shop, as he did every Saturday. He waved to the other regulars and sat down at his usual place at the counter. Jeanine bustled over with a cup in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.
“Your usual, Scott?” she asked, setting down the cup and filling it with coffee.
“Yeah, Jeanine. Thanks.” She bustled away to toast his bagel. “Hey Frank, Jim, how’re you doing?” he asked the two men sitting across the U-shaped counter from him.
“Good, Scott. How ’bout you?” Frank answered.
“You know how it is with me,” Jim said. “So busy. Barely get a day off. More and more new houses to inspect. Can’t believe how many folks are moving here.”
Scott nodded at the two men to indicate he was fine and in the hope that Jim wouldn’t feel the need to give a blow-by-blow account of just how busy he was. Jim loved to play up his importance in town as the lone electrical inspector and exaggerated just about everything he did. But he was right about all the new people in town, they were moving out from the city in droves.
Jim opened his mouth to continue but was distracted when Bob Robinson came in. Bob was a fireman in town, on the job for twenty-five years. He’d lived in town his entire life, as did both Jim and Frank, but as a fireman with EMT training, he knew everyone’s secrets in town. He knew which husbands beat their wives and which people were secret addicts of prescription medicine. If the police, fire, or ambulance had ever been called to someone’s house, Bob knew the story behind it, and the history behind that.
Scott, as a newbie with only fifteen years residence in town, wondered if Bob knew Joe’s story, and was trying to figure out how to word his question when Frank looked out the front window and said, “Hey, look, there goes old Joe. Man, does he get around!”
“He sure does. More than once I’ve met up with him on the other side of town, when he got stuck cuz of flat tire or a change in weather. I’ve given him a lift home a number of times,” Bob answered, nodding at Jeanine as she poured his coffee.
“Me too,” said Frank.
Jim opened his mouth to claim good heartedness, also, but Bob beat him to it, “Don’t even try to tell us you’ve ever given him a lift, Jim. You’re too cheap to use the gas to drive him across town.”
Jim closed his mouth and glared at them, unable to deny the accusation as the others, including Jeanine, laughed at him.
When the laughter died down, Scott said, “I gave him a lift home during that awful rain last week.”
“You did?” asked Bob. “Did he let you in the house?”
Scott answered, “No, he sure didn’t. Said ‘thank you much’ and closed the door in my face.” Scott didn’t feel he should say anything about his second trip to Joe’s house. He had seen things he wasn’t supposed to see, and somehow felt as if he had done something wrong. He was afraid to reveal something about Joe that no one was supposed to know; Scott didn’t understand how, but it would be a betrayal of some kind.
The others all laughed.
“Same here,” said Bob.
“Me, too,” said Frank. “He doesn’t let anybody in. Of course, he doesn’t ask for help either.”
“True, you almost have to force it on him,” said Bob. “He’s proud.”
“I had to threaten to call an ambulance before he’d get in my truck,” said Scott. “What’s his story, anyway?”
“Well, there was an accident maybe twenty, no, must be twenty-five years ago,” said Bob. “I don’t know all the details, it happened in the city. Joe and his wife, Abby I think her name was, had gone into the city for dinner or a show, or something. Anyway, it was winter, the roads were icy, and maybe Joe had a few drinks. He lost control of the car, it flipped and was totaled.”
“Yeah, I heard it was a miracle that Joe wasn’t killed, too,” said Frank.
“His wife was killed?” asked Scott, turning his head to look first at Frank, then at Bob.
“Must have been,” answered Bob. “There was a small write up in the city paper, but back in those days, the local paper was a bi-weekly and no one saw it until it was too late to try to visit or anything.”
“Yeah, no one saw Joe for weeks, and then one day he was back and riding that bicycle around town. No one saw her again,” said Frank.
“Shortly after the accident, he stopped working his farm and a few years after that he sold off most of the land,” Bob continued.
“Yeah, he put up a double row of fences to keep the neighbors out,” said Frank.
“He mentioned the fences to me,” said Scott. “Told me they were to keep the kids out. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Yeah, he’s a man who likes his privacy, he always did,” Bob said. “Even before the accident he wasn’t very friendly with folks in town. And afterward, well…he just shut everyone out completely. Doesn’t like to accept help and won’t answer any questions.”
“At the time, people asked him about what happened, but he refused to talk about it,” said Jim. “I noticed she wasn’t buried in either cemetery in town, so I asked where she was buried.” At their surprised faces he blustered, “I wanted to send flowers…”
“Right. You wanted to send flowers,” said Frank frowning at Jim and shaking his head. “No, you didn’t. You were just being nosy.”
“I was not. I…”
“Jesus, Jim, I can’t believe you did that,” said Bob, a disgusted expression on his face. “Nobody else asked him questions, beyond asking how he was. One look and you could see he was a broken man.”
“Really Jim, you’re something else,” Frank added. “Everyone knew how close Joe and Abby were, all those years together, just the two of them.”
Scott let the argument flow over him as he thought about Joe’s story and what he had seen with his own eyes. He knew something these old timers, the coffee shop coots as Sally called them, didn’t know. He could straighten them out if he wanted. Abby wasn’t dead. He could tell them that she was alive, physically anyway. But somehow that didn’t feel right. It’s funny, he didn’t know Joe; before that rainy day he’d never even spoken to him, but now he felt a kind of loyalty to him. Thinking about Joe and his life taking care of Abby, Scott wondered how he did it. How he devoted his life to Abby, and closed everyone else out. Scott tried to think what he would do in the same situation, but of course his life was different, he had his kids, too. But still, he had been thinking how quiet his house was with the kids grown up and gone. He wondered about himself and Sally, their life together. He loved her, of course he did, but could he do what Joe had done and give up all outside life for her? Scott wasn’t sure he had the same strength that Joe did; he had to respect Joe for that strength. So he would keep his mouth shut, Joe didn’t want the world to know, and the world wasn’t going to find out from Scott Anson.
###
Scott woke to a pounding on the front door. The glowing numbers on the clock showed it was 2:30 in the morning. He crawled out of the covers and felt his way to the blanket chest at the foot of the bed. He forced his feet into the flannel pajama bottoms he found there and felt around some more but couldn’t find his tee shirt. Stumbling over to his work boots by the closet, he stuffed his bare feet into them and grabbed a flannel shirt from the closet. As he forced his arms through the sleeves he fast-shuffled out of the room, his laces clacking on the floor and the tongues of the boots slapping his shins.
Once he got out of the bedroom he closed the door so the noise wouldn’t wake Sally and put the hall light on. He walked down the hall and into the living room, putting lights on as he went. The pounding never stopped. He snapped the front light on and unlocked the door. Swinging the door wide he was confronted by Joe.
“Help me!” Joe practically shouted. It was raining again. Joe’s raincoat was buttoned all askew. He wore pajama bottoms and slippers, no socks. He was pale and his eyes were opened wide. He grabbed the door frame and stood there, panting.
“Joe, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t wake her,” he shuddered as he spoke and looked up at Scott.
“What do you mean you can’t wake her? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Something woke me. A noise, I don’t know. I got up and checked her. She didn’t look like she was breathing. I tried to wake her but couldn’t,” he paused and stared at Scott. “You can help, can’t you? You’re a fireman.”
“Joe, you should’ve called an ambulance.”
“No. No ambulance, you help me. No one else knows,” he grabbed Scott’s arm in a surprisingly strong grip and tugged.
“Okay. Okay, Joe, let me grab my keys and a jacket,” leaving Joe in the doorway he ran back to the bedroom, tying his boots on the fly. He fumbled in the dark for his truck keys and his cell phone. He came back out, grabbed a jacket off the hook and followed Joe back out into the rain. He unlocked the truck with the remote and grabbed Joe’s bike, which was laying on its side in the drive. “You get in the truck, Joe. I’ll put your bike in the back.”
Joe didn’t need to be told twice; he climbed in and slammed the door. He leaned forward in the seat, as if by sheer force of will he could make the truck start moving.
Scott got in, started the truck, and headed for Joe’s house. Except for the sound of the rain and the wind, the ride was completed in silence. Scott glanced over at Joe a few times and saw Joe’s face, pale and set with fear; he still leaned forward, silently urging Scott and the truck to go faster.
After the short ride, Scott turned down Joe’s rutted driveway. “Sorry, but I have to slow down, Joe, if I don’t want to rip up my undercarriage,” he said.
Joe barely glanced at him, nodded, and continued to stare through the windshield.
Another few minutes and they pulled up beside the house. Joe jumped out and ran for the open door. He hadn’t even shut it when he’d rushed out. Turning, he waited impatiently for Scott to catch up.
“Hurry! She’s been alone too long,” he whispered in a sharp voice, as if afraid to disturb her sleep.
“Okay, Joe. Where is she?”
“Here in the bedroom,” he tore his coat off, dropping it on the floor, as he led Scott across the darkened parlor, through a door on the far side and into a large bedroom that spanned the house front to back.
At one time, it was probably two small rooms and the dividing wall had been removed making one huge bedroom, which was a good thing because the room was jammed with furniture. There was a huge four poster bed in the center of the far wall, and at the foot of the bed was a small cot, with the covers jumbled in the center. Spaced around the walls there were three bureaus, a bookcase and an armoire. A recliner stood in the corner near the bed with a pole lamp beside it. Two nightstands, both covered by stacks of books, and a blanket chest rounded out the jumble of furniture. The furniture was large, over-sized pieces, old fashioned and ornate in design, with curlicues and cherubs carved into the wood. Her wheelchair stood waiting next to the bed. Scott noticed all of this with half his mind as he walked up to the bed, and pushed the wheelchair out of the way.
Abby lay on her back, eyes closed, snow white hair a halo around her head. Her face was relaxed, making the ugly scar less noticeable. Her hands lay outside the covers, one by her side, the other touching the lace at her throat. Scott reached out to find a pulse in her neck. There was none. He felt the other side, and then her wrist. Still nothing. Not wanting to say it, he turned to Joe. Joe’s face told him that he already knew, but Scott had to say the words.
“I’m sorry, Joe. She’s gone.”
“No! No, she can’t be. She’s just sleeping.”
“I’m sorry Joe, but she’s not sleeping. She’s gone.”
Joe believed him this time. Slowly, he walked over to the bed and sat on the edge, facing her. He reached over and started smoothing her hair.
“I’ll call it in to the police, Joe.”
Joe didn’t hear him, or didn’t care. Scott stepped out of the room and called the police on his cell phone. As he spoke, he looked over his shoulder at Joe and Abby. Joe held her hand and gently patted her cheek as he spoke quietly to her.
Scott went into the kitchen to give Joe privacy to say goodbye to Abby. As he waited for the police and ambulance he again wondered if he would be able to do what Joe had done and devote himself to a wife who couldn’t even communicate with him or respond in the most basic way. He couldn’t imagine the silence in the house. The more he thought about it, the more confused he became. He loved Sally, but sometimes he wondered what their life would be like without the noise and activity of the kids. What would they talk about for the next thirty or forty years? But if she was injured, disabled in some way, he would never leave her. He owed her loyalty. No, not loyalty, something more, more than love, even. Something that he saw in Joe’s face when he looked at Abby.
###
They came and very efficiently verified that she was dead. Joe seemed unable to speak, so Scott explained what had happened. When they tried to put her body on a stretcher, Joe silently protested as if he would stop them, but Scott and the police officer stood in front of him.
“They’ll take good care of her, Joe,” said Scott. “She has to go to the hospital, for now. They’ll call you to find out what funeral home to use.”
“No phone,” said Joe.
“Somebody will come and talk to you tomorrow,” said the young police officer, a recent transplant to the town. He had all the information he needed for now and wanted to get going. He followed the EMT’s and the body out the door, leaving Scott alone with Joe.
Scott didn’t know what to say or do. For all intents and purposes, Joe was a stranger, but somehow he felt responsible for him.
“Are you going to be all right here, Joe?” Scott asked standing awkwardly in the kitchen.
“I’ve never been alone,” Joe answered as he looked around the kitchen and into the darkened parlor.
“Well, um, I know you’ll be um, lonely without her to talk to…”
“Lonely? That’s not it. I don’t know what to do now.”
“I know, Joe. You’ve taken very good care of her for a long time. You should be proud of that.”
“Proud! No. For twenty four years I’ve watched over her. She was my life. It wasn’t a job or a duty, something to be proud of. It was just what I had to do,” Joe slumped into a kitchen chair and stared out the still open door.
“Had to do?” Scott asked, frowning in puzzlement. In Joe he saw a man who had given up everything to take care of his disabled wife. He seemed admirable. He certainly hadn’t had to do it.
“Because I should have protected her. I couldn’t save her, so I prayed, ‘please just let her live and I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to her.’ And she lived.”
“Yes, Joe, she lived. And you took good care of her,” Scott answered.
“But I’m not ready! I wasn’t allowed to finish!”
“Finish! Finish what?”
“Taking care of her. She’s gone and I’m still here,” Joe took a large shuddering breath and stared up at Scott. “I don’t know what to do now.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Not Ozzie and Harriet's Family

Bill nodded off as he watched television. He wasn’t completely asleep, just too drowsy to change the channel from the old episode of Ozzie and Harriet that his surfing fingers had landed on. Through the haze he heard Ozzie’s voice as he reasoned with David and Ricky and explained why they couldn’t do something they wanted to do.
Somehow Ozzie’s calm voice changed to his own father’s voice.

“Bill! What the hell are you doing? Shirley! Don’t you ever watch these boys?” Big Bill’s voice rumbled through the small tract home. The windows rattled and the floor shook as Big Bill took the three large steps needed to get to the kitchen.
Bill tried to hunker down closer to the floor as he gathered up the Lincoln Logs and stuffed them into the tall round container, dropping as many on the floor as he did into their home. He grabbed the green plastic lid and started scooping little round logs and triangle roofs.
“Bobby! Help me! Before dad comes back!” Bill shouted in a whisper.
Bobby, who had squeezed himself between the end table and the gold flowered chair in front of the multi-paned picture window, wriggled his way out of the corner. He sidled down the wall, heading for their bedroom.
Their father’s shouting voice was a backdrop for Bill’s outraged whisper, “Bobby! Come back here!”
His eyes wide as saucers, four year old Bobby just shook his head and continued his crab-like sidle across the wall.
“I only dumped these out for you!”
Bobby’s head continued its shaking as he stared towards the kitchen door.
Big Bill’s voice continued its blustering noise. Bill couldn’t tell the words, but he heard cabinet doors slam, a chair tip over and the sound of something glass shattering on the linoleum floor. He heard another sound, the stinging sound of a hand slapping skin and a sharp intake of breath, not quite a scream, from his mother.
He worked even faster stuffing the logs into the carton. He jammed the lid on top and ran for the bedroom. No sidling for him. He knew that if could put the Lincoln Logs away his father would forget what had made him angry.
Bobby ran into the bedroom right behind him. Bill quickly shut the door, softly. Then he climbed onto the bottom bunk, pulling Bobby with him. Bill grabbed Bobby’s favorite picture book and started showing the pictures of quacking ducks and mooing cows to his brother.

With a snort Bill sat up, disoriented. He reached up to rub his eyes and clunked himself in the forehead with the remote that he still held in his right hand. Dropping the remote, he rubbed his forehead and stood up. Shaking his head he headed for bed, shutting off the buzzing of the television as he walked by.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Memoriam

“Woo Hoo! A hole in one!”
“Woo hoo? Since when do you say woo hoo?” he asked as he sunk his ball on his second shot.
“Hey, I got a hole in one. That deserves a little celebration. I never could do cartwheels. So, woo hoo it is,” she answered, her blue eyes glaring happily at him. She bent, pulled his ball out of the hole and tossed it to him. She headed for the next hole.
He fell into step behind her, but stopped at her words. He leaned on his club as a bark of laughter exploded from him. His blue eyes, so similar to hers, sparkled at her.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, adding a frown to her glare as she looked at him over her shoulder, the slight May breeze ruffling her short, reddish-brown hair.
“Nothing. Nothing at all, sis. Just the idea of my sister, the clutziest woman on the face of the earth doing a cartwheel…”
“Exactly! That’s why the Woo Hoo,” she said stopping at the next hole. “It’s your turn you know.”
“Yeah, yeah, Miss I-got-a-hole-in-one.”
“You’re just jealous, ‘cuz I’ve gotten one and you, Mr. I-golf-twice-a-week-and-my-handicap-is-so-low, haven’t got one yet.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” he asked as he took his shot on the fifteenth hole. The ball sailed smoothly underneath the pirate’s legs and stopped a foot from the hole that perched on the edge of the miniature beach. “Have you been practicing?”
“Yeah, I’ve been practicing,” she answered as she lined up her ball on the miniature green and took her swing. It flew under the pirate’s legs and rolled to a stop inches from the hole. “I got sick of you kicking my butt every year. What’s the matter, Frank? Don’t like the competition?” She smirked at him as she easily sunk the ball.
He took a tiny putt and got the ball inches from the hole. “I like competition just fine,” he said sinking the ball with a tiny tap.
“Sure you do,” she laughed. “Remember, I grew up with you. I know very well how much you like to win.” She started walking to the next hole.
“I’ve mellowed with age,” he said, falling into step beside her. A gust of wind blew his comb-over about, leaving his brown hair a mess and his small bald spot showing.
“Mellow, shmellow. I don’t think so. Mum always said you’d go to any lengths to win. I don’t expect that’ll ever change.”
He chuckled. “Well at least I don’t have to pretend with you. I can be myself.”
“Pretending wouldn’t do any good anyway,” she said. “You never were any good at it. Take your turn.” She reached over and fixed his hair, so the comb-over covered the bald spot.
He swatted her hand away and walked over to the tee on the green, muttering under his breath, “I don’t know what she means, I can pretend.”
Hearing him, she laughed as his ball sailed over the galleon sunk in the mini-lagoon, hit the rim of the hole and bounced out, hit a mini-mountain and rolled back to land inches from the hole.
“Well, that was exciting,” she said, lining up her own shot. Then she straightened up and said, “Do you remember the last time we came here with mum?”
“Of course I do,” he answered. “Boy, she could kick both our butts. Dad’s, too.”
“Yeah, she could,” Karen answered with a soft smile. She lined up her shot again and swung. Her ball landed slightly farther away from the hole than his. “Though Dad’s game was really bowling.”
“True,” Frank took his turn, easily sinking his ball, “I think she’d approve of us doing this, don’t you?”
“Absolutely! Remember how when we were kids and would fight about something…”
“Yeah, usually because of you tattling on me…”
“Or you bossing me around. Anyway, she always said that no matter how much we fought then, when we grew up we’d be best friends, because no one else in the whole world would have the same history as us. No one else could understand us like we could understand each other.”
“Yeah, she kept on saying it, too. She said something similar to me that last time I was up to see her.”
“Me, too. When I went to visit her two days before, she made me promise to not let you drift away from me.”
“I wonder why she thought I would drift away?”
“I don’t know. She was old fashioned in some ways. Maybe she felt that women were naturally the family keepers.”
“Yeah, I think that’s it. She was always surprised when I wanted to spend the holidays with her and dad instead of Cindy’s family.”
“It’s funny; she always expected different things from me than she did from you. Sometimes that made me crazy,” Karen shook her head. “And you would take advantage of that.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, frowning at her. “I never took advantage of mum.”
“Oh, don’t get on your high horse. I don’t mean that you stole her grocery money or anything like that. You just took advantage of the lesser expectations she had of you when it came time to spending time with her or doing things around her house. You know.”
“Well, I am busy. And I did live more than an hour away from her. And…”
“Okay, okay. Let’s just drop it. I don’t want to fight with you about mum on the day we honor her. I apologize for what I said.”
As they argued, they moved on to the next hole. He placed his pink ball on the tee and prepared to shoot. “Well, if I’m honest, you have a point. I could probably have done more for her. And you took up the slack,” he grinned at her with the same sheepish look he used to charm their mother with.
She shook her head at him. “Yeah, yeah, Mr. Charming, you’re forgiven,” she paused a moment. “You know, mum was pretty smart. She knew you’d make me crazy and that I couldn’t stay mad at you. I think that’s the real reason why she told me not to let you drift away from me.” She grinned at him.
He grinned back at her and said, “She was smart, but this rule she made up about switching balls is stupid.”
“What’s the matter? Don’t like pink?”
“That’s right! I don’t like pink. I like blue, or green, or even yellow.”
“I don’t understand the issue. I love pink.”
“I know. Year after year you pick the pink ball and then we have to switch and I get stuck with it. It was different when there was four of us playing, or even three; I didn’t always get stuck with the pink one.”
“Yes, perfect, isn’t it? Something you can’t control” she answered, grinning at him. “You gonna take your turn, or what?”
“I’ll take my turn,” he answered. Addressing the ball he said under his breath, “Maybe next year, I’ll pick the pink ball first. That’ll fix you, won’t it?” He swung and the ball flew into the pirate’s cave. They could hear the ball bouncing around and falling through one of the hidden holes inside. As he walked down the four steps to the lower level of the hole he leaned over the little railing to see which hole it would pop out of. “Where’d it come out?” she asked, placing her ball on the green.
“Near the stairs and away from the cup, of course,” he replied. “Why?”
“I want to know which tee on the mat to use,” she answered.
“That only helps if you know which one I used,” he laughed, shaking his head at her.
“Oh, I know,” she said nodding her head. “I’ve been paying attention.” At his puzzled look, she continued, “I told you I’m sick of getting my butt kicked. I want to, if not win, at least not lose so badly.”
She placed the ball on the far left tee, swung, and before the ball had started bouncing around in the cave, raced over to the steps and down them to see where the ball came out.
The ball flew out of the center hole and gracefully plunked down in the cup with a satisfactory “clink.”
“Woo Hoo! Another hole in one!” She danced her way to the cup and picked up her yellow ball.
“There you go with the woo hooing again,” he said, shaking his head as he took his shot. The ball landed in the cup and he picked it up.
They walked companionably towards the eighteenth hole.
“You know I’m still going to win, don’t you, sis?”
“Oh, I know. I don’t need to win. I just wanted to give you a run for your money.”
“Well, you have,” he said. Suddenly, he stopped. “Wait a minute; have you been practicing your bowling, too?”
She smirked at him and said, “Just take your turn, you control freak.”
“Okay, if you won’t say, I’ll just have to assume you have been and take appropriate action.” He place the ball on the tee and hit it hard so it would fly off the plank and land beyond the water hazard – a miniature ocean filled with pirate ships doing battle with British warships. It did, and landed safely a few inches from the cup.
“Nice shot,” she said placing her ball on the tee.
“Remember, hit it hard.”
“I know. I know.”
“I know you know, but every year your ball rolls off the plank and into the ocean,” he said laughing.
“Well, not this year,” she answered, sounding determined. She bent, twisted away from the ball, and swung. A sharp crack rang out and the ball sailed through the air. It missed the plank altogether and bounced to a stop in the middle of the green on the far side of the ocean.
“Great shot, sis!” He took his turn, sunk his pink ball and picked it up out of the cup in one smooth motion. Turning to look at her he asked, “Aren’t you going to woo hoo?”
“Nope, I save woo hoos for holes in one.” Under her breath she added, “and strikes.” It was her turn and it took her two tries to sink the ball. “Okay, tell me the damage,” she said watching him as he totaled up their scores.
“Well, I won.”
“No, duh…by how much?”
“You really have gotten pretty good. I only beat you by seven points.”
They walked towards the nineteenth hole and took turns shooting their balls into the treasure chest ball return.
He took her club from her, and put his arm around her shoulders, and gave her a little squeeze as he dropped the clubs on the shelf in the pirate shack. They headed for the parking lot walking side by side.
“Are John and the kids taking you out for dinner tonight?” he asked.
“No, we decided to do breakfast instead this year.”
“Really? Mum always liked going out for breakfast on Mother’s Day.”
“Me, too. I don’t know why we changed it to dinner after she died,” she was silent for a moment as they walked and then said, “It just seemed wrong for awhile, but after a couple years, I missed the old habit.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “But the kids and I are taking Cindy out tonight.”
“Well, she never did care much about breakfast.”
“True, her favorite treat would be a champagne luncheon,” they looked at each other and laughed. “Well that has to wait until the kids are older, if ever,” he said shaking his head.
They had reached her car, and they turned to face each other.
“Tell Cindy, ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ for me,” she said. “And give the kids my love.”
“I will. Say hi to John and the girls for me.”
“Well, I have an hour long drive ahead of me, Frank. I better get going.”
“Yeah, mine’s even longer.”
“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Competitive, you win the competition for the longest drive to get here. So you need to get going, too,” she said grinning and wagging her finger at him.
“Well, my ride is longer,” he said. “It’ll take me an hour fifteen or hour and a half, so I really need to get a move on if I’m going to get home in time for our reservation at six.” He shook his head as if shaking out those competitive urges, grinned, put his arms around her and gave her a hug. “Happy Mother’s Day, kiddo.”
“Thanks, Frank,” she said, hugging him back. She wiped away a little tear as she turned to open the car door.
“See you next month at Mid-Town Lanes. What day is it?”
“It’s your day, you’d think you’d remember it,” she said laughing. “The third Sunday. I think it’s the fifteenth this year.” She climbed in the car and he started to walk towards his car a few spaces away.
She leaned out and called to him “Be prepared!”
Turning back to her, he grinned at her, “Oh yeah? Be prepared for what?”
“To get your butt kicked!”
“Brat! We’ll see whose butt gets kicked and who does the kicking!” he called back laughing.
“That’s right. Love you!”
“You too. See you next month!” he called back to her.
She closed her door, started the car and with a beep backed out of the space.
He waved as she drove away, turned, and continued on to his car.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Coffee With Milk

“You don’t have to walk in with me,” she said, as she climbed out of the car and closed the door with a sharp click. She smoothed the travel wrinkles from her tailored slacks and straightened her jacket, setting her purse strap snugly on her right shoulder.
“I know. I know. I want to,” he said as he walked quickly to the trunk and grabbed the suitcase waiting there. “Maybe if we talk some more…”
“It’s not going to make a difference, Walt. My mind’s made up. And you promised not to nag me.” She walked toward the entrance to the train station.
“I won’t nag,” he said as he caught up to her. He grabbed her arm and forced her to face him, “I just want to talk some more. I love you, Anna.”
She shook her arm free and walked toward the glass doors. “You keep saying it, Walt; maybe you should have remembered it before you…” She glanced at him as he caught up with her; his face was gray and his eyes were dark above the purple stained half-moons under them. “All right, Walt, wait with me for my train.” She smiled softly and looped her arm through his free arm.
He smiled and said, “Great! I’ll buy you a coffee in the coffee shop.” He let go of her arm and opened the big glass doors leading into the train station.
She walked through and he followed her into the pandemonium of the station. They walked by a woman seated on a bench near the doors, who one-handedly pushed a stroller back and forth as she tried to sooth a crying baby. With her other hand she held a toddler on her lap, who was also loudly crying. They walked past a group of young Brownies and Daisies, all in uniform, running around, screaming and screeching. Near the security gate there was a large family surrounding a man in uniform, all hugging and talking at once.
Anna paused in front of the lighted board that listed all the trains scheduled for the day. Her train to D.C. was running on time, and should be in within the hour. She had time for a quick coffee before heading to the security gate. She glanced at Walt, looped her arm through his again and started toward the coffee shop.
They walked into a relative oasis of calm inside the coffee shop. “Here, you pick out a table and I’ll get the coffees,” Walt said as he turned to hand the suitcase to her.
“All right,” she said, taking the small suitcase from him. She walked to a fairly clean table and set the suitcase on the floor. She grabbed a couple napkins from the dispenser and wiped away some crumbs. She sat facing the doorway, positioning herself so she could watch the large clock on the wall above the departures schedule and all of the people rushing to and fro.
“Here you go,” he said. He put a paper coffee cup in front of her and sat opposite her at the small table.
She opened the lid and took a small exploratory sip. With a grimace, she put it down.
“What’s the matter?”
“It has cream in it.”
“Yeah, regular. That’s how you take it.”
“With milk.”
“What?”
“Milk, not cream.”
“Since when?”
“Always.”
“No, you always have it regular.”
With a sigh she answered, “Regular, but with milk, Walt. All these years, regular with milk.” She shook her head and stared over his shoulder at the clock.
“Anna, why are we talking about coffee? I want to talk about…”
“You know what, Walt? It really isn’t about what you want anymore.”
“What, you want to talk about coffee?” he said.
“I don’t want to talk at all. I’m all talked out. Everything that needs to be said has been said.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? I swear it’ll never happen again. It was a one time thing and totally unimportant.”
“Maybe to you. It was important to me, though—helpful even.” She stared out over his head into the train station.
“Helpful?” He tilted his head and frowned.
She glanced back at him and said, “Yes, it helped me make up my mind. Or really helped me change my mind.”
“I promise it will never happen again,” he reached across the table and grabbed her hand.
Pulling her hand back and laying it in her lap she said as she looked down at her hands, “Walt, promises don’t matter. Actions matter and if I mattered to you, you wouldn’t have done it.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to get back at me.”
Looking at him again, she shook her head and said, “That’s not what this is. This is a well thought out decision.”
“Thought out?” He tipped his head to the side again as he looked at her, his expression quizzical.
“Yes, calculated, determined, and thought out. For years I really wanted to do this, I even had dreams about it, but I was willing to…oh, never mind. We’ve been through this.”
“But I still don’t understand,” he said as his expression changed from puzzled to something else, something closer to hopeless.
“You don’t want to. I’ve explained it and explained it. I’m not going through it again,” she said as she stood and reached for her suitcase.
He started to get up, too. She rested her hand on his shoulder. “No, you stay here and finish your coffee.”
His face looked desperate as he pointed to her still full coffee cup. “You didn’t drink yours,” he said.
She glanced at the coffee cup and then at him before she bent to wrap her fingers around the suitcase handle, “I don’t know whose coffee that is; I drink my coffee with milk, not cream.”
She picked up her suitcase and walked out of the coffee shop.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lines

Standing next to a modest floral basket, Bill looked down into the coffin at the face that was so similar to his own and felt nothing. He saw the same light olive skin, brown hair, and squarish face with that same jaw that he saw every day in the mirror. But his father’s face, even in death, was permanently lined with dissatisfaction. Seeing those angry lines brought back memories of arguments and violence, though even now, he blocked out the emotions those memories brought forth. He had loved his father as a young child, but that love had dissolved years ago, and now even the hatred had died. He felt only surprise at his lack of emotion. He felt a hand on his back and turned to look down at his wife.
“You ready to go to dinner, honey?” Lisa asked. “Bobby’s kids are getting antsy and ours are bored. David’s tugging on his tie and has already untucked his shirt. We should get going before he starts shedding his clothes,” she said with a shake of her head and a half grin.
Bill smiled back, “Yeah, that kid can’t stand anything but jeans and a T-shirt. What’s he gonna do when he finishes college in a few years and gets out in the real world?” He wrapped his arm around her waist, gave her a light hug and they walked together out of the dimly lighted viewing room out to the cold marble and dark wood of the funeral home’s lobby.
His brother, Bobby, and his wife, Karen, had located the coat closet in an alcove under the imposing dark oak stairs and were trying to hustle their three pre-teen children into their coats. Bobby turned to Bill, “I’m not sure where the restaurant is, can we follow you?”
“Sure,” Bill answered. “It’s only a mile or so away, so we should have plenty of time between the calling hours. We don’t have to be back until six o’clock.”
“Okay, Karen and I will get the kids in the car and wait for you guys.”
“We’ll be right behind you,” Bill answered and turned back to his own family, “Well, let’s get going.” He helped Lisa on with her coat and saw that Julie already had her coat on and was standing next to the door. As usual, his daughter was organized and ready to go before anyone else, looking at her he felt pride growing in his chest. She was something he could be proud of, she reflected well on him and Lisa. Bill turned to look at David, standing there with his shirt untucked, tie askew, and his suit coat a jumbled mess in his arms.
“Jesus Christ, David. Shake out that jacket, it’s going to be a mass of wrinkles,” his voice starting to rise at the end.
“Bill, it’s fine,” Lisa jumped in, grabbing the jacket from David and shaking it out. “Look, it isn’t wrinkled at all.”
“What are you talking about, Lisa? It’s a mess.” His voice continued to become louder, until he was almost shouting.
Lisa peered around the hallway to see if any of the funeral home employees were nearby, “Shh. Bill, don’t make a scene. Please.” She held the jacket out for David to put his arms through the sleeves.
David’s face had turned bright red and he had opened his mouth, but Lisa tugged on his arm and he looked at her and saw something in her face. He closed his mouth and let her help him put the jacket on. She patted his shoulders, smoothing the material as she patted.
Bill frowned, having caught that look between Lisa and David; she always sided with David when he acted irresponsibly. Bill didn’t understand it, she should have supported him when he reprimanded David, but instead her only concern was that someone might hear them arguing. He turned to walk out the door, but stopped short when he saw his brother staring at him.
Bobby raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything and with a head shake followed his wife and kids out the door.
Bill wondered what that raised eyebrow meant. It distracted him from his anger. Still wondering about that raised eyebrow, he walked over to stand next to Julie. He turned back to Lisa and David, “Well, let’s get some dinner.”
Julie smiled and winked at her younger brother.
David grinned back at Julie.
Smiling, Lisa said, “I think that’s a great idea.”


It was only four thirty and the restaurant was quiet, there were some men in dusty T-shirts and jeans watching a baseball game on the flat screen TV hanging over the bar and there were a few elderly people scattered through the dining room, taking advantage of the early bird specials. Most of the servers were lounging around the hostess desk waiting for customers, so the nine of them were able to get a table quickly.
The five kids sat at one end of the long table, the two older kids, aged seventeen and twenty, really didn’t have anything in common with their much younger cousins. They couldn’t even discuss their dead grandfather because their fathers had cut off all contact with him twelve years earlier when their grandmother died. So the five kids didn’t talk much, but mostly watched the action at the other end of the table.
As they were waiting for their food to be served, Bobby leaned across the table and asked Bill when the funeral service was scheduled the next day.
“The service is at ten. It should be just us. I put ‘private service’ in the paper as we agreed, so I don’t think anyone else will show up.”
“Who would, anyway?” Bobby said with a grimace.
“True, who would?” Bill agreed, but then he remembered his father’s work friends and a few couples his parents used to play cards with, and realized that there might be people who cared about his father’s death and want to pay their respects. Maybe he shouldn’t have listed the service as private. He continued, “Though a few people who worked with him in the past might show up tonight. But most people he was friendly with moved south when they retired.” Bill grabbed a roll and buttered it as they talked.
Karen and Lisa sat quietly while the two brothers discussed their father and their childhood. It was such a touchy topic that the two women always kept out of it until it appeared to be time to change the subject.
“Like the aunts and uncles did,” Bobby responded shaking his head. “You’re right, some might show up tonight. You know, I was always surprised by how many friends he did have.”
“Well, that’s easy to understand. He had one face for family and a totally different one for outsiders. None of them knew him the way we did. They only knew his public face. I don’t know how many people have asked me over the years if I was related to him and when I admitted it, told me what a great guy he was.” Bill took an angry bite of his roll and had to take a quick drink of water to wash it down.
“True. Even his brothers and sisters never knew him. I mean they knew he was brutal to us. But they never tried to stop him or do anything about it.” Bobby shook his head. “Maybe if someone held him accountable, he would have changed.”
“I doubt it. Mom’s sisters made it clear how they felt. They never forgave him for the way he treated her. He just didn’t care.” Bill slowly chewed his roll as he thought about the family members his father had alienated and those members of the family that Bill had never forgiven for not protecting him, Bobby, and their mother.
“I know. I don’t think he even cared that we couldn’t forgive him,” answered Bobby.
The two men grew silent for a few minutes remembering the past. Bill remembered the tears and anger of their mother’s funeral a dozen years earlier. That was the night Bill turned his father out of his life. He blamed the years of abuse his mother had suffered at his father’s hands for her early death. Even though Bill and Bobby had tried to protect her, the years had faded his mother until she was a living ghost, just passing time until burial.
“I don’t know about you, Bill, but I made it my life’s ambition to be nothing like the old…man,” Bobby said with a quick glance at the children’s end of the table.
“What do you mean, you don’t know about me? I’m nothing like him either,” Bill wasn’t sure, but he felt an accusation beneath the surface of Bobby’s words.
“Oh yeah, in most ways you’re not.”
“What do you mean, most ways? I’m not like him,” Bill’s voice was rising. The kids got even quieter. Karen was shaking her head at Bobby and Lisa was looking from one brother to the other.
“No, of course you’re not, Bill. Hey, I’m not accusing you of anything. I think the important thing is that we have both worked really hard to not be like him,” Bobby’s voice was soft, conciliatory. “Who knows, I’m probably like him in some ways I’m not aware of.”
Bill just got angrier, but he lowered his voice in response to Bobby’s lowered tones, “What are you talking about?” He wasn’t shouting, but his voice was emphatic, demanding an explanation. He asked himself what the hell Bobby was talking about, he was not like that bastard.
“Look, Bill, don’t get angry. You were always the one who protected me from him. You took beatings so I wouldn’t have to. So I know you’re not like him in that way.”
“You better believe it. I have never, I mean never, laid a hand on my kids or Lisa.”
“Of course you haven’t. I didn’t mean that at all,” Bobby spread his hands out in a gesture meant to calm his brother down.
“Just spit it out, Bobby,” Bill wasn’t getting any calmer.
“Okay, well, it’s the way you are with David.”
Bill glanced quickly down the table and saw David staring at his uncle, white-faced. He turned back to his brother, “What do you mean?”
“You don’t see it, Bill?”
Bill sat there shaking his head, unable to figure out what Bobby meant, so Bobby continued, “You’re hyper-critical of David. Just like dad was of you. Don’t you remember? Whatever you did wasn’t good enough, quick enough or bright enough. For some reason he always knocked you down—physically and verbally—way more than he did me. Maybe he just had lower expectations for me, but he was never satisfied with anything you did.”
Bill had stopped shaking his head, but stared at Bobby, “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re right about him being critical of everything I did, my grades weren’t high enough, I should have worked more hours, I should have been in more sports, and on and on. No way am I like that with David.”
Bobby looked at him. He opened his mouth and then closed it without saying anything. Bill opened his mouth to speak.
Then Lisa said, “Oh, look. Here comes our food.”
The table seemed to let out an audible sigh in relief and everyone sat back for the waitress to serve their food.


That evening, after calling hours at the funeral home had ended, Bill and Lisa watched television at home for a couple hours until Lisa yawned for about the fifth time.
“You go on to bed,” Bill said. For some reason he didn’t feel at all tired. “I know it’s late, but I’m too wound up for bed. I’m just going to watch some more TV for a little while.”
“Okay, honey. It has been a really long day. Don’t stay up too late,” Lisa got up from her chair, leaned over to give him a kiss, said good night and then went up the stairs to their bedroom.
Bill stretched out on the sofa and turned to the television with the remote in his hand, looking for something that would relax him enough for sleep. He surfed the channels for a while, watched a little news, then a cooking show, finally settling on a channel that played old sit-coms.
Those old comedies did the trick and Bill started to nod off. He wasn’t completely asleep, just too drowsy to change the channel from the old episode of Ozzie and Harriet that his surfing fingers had landed on. Through the haze he heard Ozzie’s voice as he reasoned with David and Ricky and explained why they couldn’t do something they wanted to do.
Ozzie’s calm voice changed to his own father’s much more abrasive voice. Bill pictured the room in detail, the gold flowered chair that Bobby hid behind when his father started yelling, the pile of Lincoln Logs on the floor and the sun shining through the multi-paned picture window. He heard his father yelling about the mess in the living room and then the tell-tale sound of a slap. Bill, only seven, was very familiar with that sound. He remembered running with Bobby to their room, putting away their toys and hoping their father would forget what had made him angry.
With a snort Bill sat up, disoriented. He reached up to rub his eyes and clunked himself in the forehead with the remote that he still held in his right hand. Dropping the remote, he rubbed his forehead and stood up. Shaking his head he headed for the stairs, shutting off the buzzing of the television as he walked by.
Upstairs, Bill blearily looked into the bathroom mirror as he brushed his teeth. He stopped brushing and peered into the glass, seeing something he never noticed before. Maybe it’s just the toothbrush stuck in his mouth, he thought. So he did a final spit, rinsed and put the toothbrush away. Almost afraid, he looked in the mirror again. Yup, there they were: those same lines that he had just seen on his father’s face. He didn’t remember ever seeing them before. Where did they come from? He wasn’t dissatisfied with his life. Was he? He certainly wasn’t the same angry and bitter man that his father had been.
Was he?
He thought to himself that he was just upset about Bobby’s words at dinner and seeing things that weren’t there. Bobby was clearly not thinking right, because there was no way he was like his old man in any way.
All he wanted was for David to be the best he could be. Why be satisfied with Cs when he could so easily get a B or an A. David was smart, smarter than Bill ever was. There was no limit to what he could accomplish. If only he could be made to work harder and think through the consequences of his actions. If only he had ever been interested in team sports, he would have learned a lot from playing on a team.
That’s why he had to ride David so hard. If he wasn’t pushing him, David wouldn’t get anywhere.
For the first time that explanation didn’t feel right to him. He stood there and as he stared at those angry vertical lines he remembered a conversation he had had last summer with Lisa. After one of his huge fights with David she had accused him of the very things Bobby had said. He couldn’t see it at the time; she was just taking David’s side, jumping into the middle of the fight, protecting her little boy. She was wrong.
Was she wrong? Or was he like his father?
He stumbled his way into the darkened bedroom, lit only by the greenish glow of the alarm clock and the filtered moonlight coming through the blinds. Sitting down on the edge of Lisa’s side of the bed, Bill watched her sleep for a few minutes; could a woman like Lisa have stayed with him all these years if he was the same bastard his father was? He answered his own question—of course she could, his mother had.
“Lisa. Lisa, wake up,” he reached over and gently shook her shoulder. “Honey, wake up.”
Rolling over, she brushed the hair out of her eyes and struggled to a semi-seated position, leaning on her elbows, “Wha…Bill, what is it?”
“Am I the same as my father?”
Lisa seemed to wake up at that question, “Bill, what are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”
“I know. I’m sorry, but I can’t go to sleep without your answer. Am I like him?”
“No, of course you’re not,” she answered, peering at him through the gloom.
“Bobby said that I was at dinner.”
“Well…a wake…the emotions of the…” she stammered.
“And you said the same to me last summer. That when it came to David, I was just like him. Don’t you remember?” Bill could tell that she was stalling. She didn’t want to answer his question, which in a way did answer it. If she was afraid to tell the truth, then the truth couldn’t be what he wanted to hear. He could feel a tear trace its way down his face, followed by another, and another. He didn’t care. All he cared about was her answer; she had to say the words.
“I remember that day. Honey, I was really angry. You can’t…”
“But was it true?”
Lisa reached up and tried to wipe away the tears running down his face, “Are you sure you want to do this now?” She watched him closely for his answer. He nodded. She pushed herself up to lean against the headboard, took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”
Bill reached for Lisa and held her close as the tears traveled down the lines in his face.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tijuana Souvenir

Getting up from under the motorcycle, I stood and stretched as I looked at the setting sun. Unthinking, I scratched my left side. It didn’t help, so I scratched some more. But I knew it was pointless. Sometimes that damn scar down my side itches; no matter how I scratch, it don’t stop. The only thing that works is beer—cheap Mexican beer, any brand—the cheaper, the better.

Tonight it itched like hell, so I was heading to Frankie’s Place; he has the cheapest beer around. I rolled the bike off the kick stand and into the canvas garage. I grabbed my tools and locked them in my tool box, even though I knew they’d be safe if I left them lying on the ground; no one would steal from me.

I went into my trailer to check the calendar hanging on the wall to see if three months had gone by and I could go back to Frankie’s. He had banned me for three months because of the huge fight the last time I was there. I don’t know why, but every time there’s a fight, if I’m there, I’m blamed. Well, to be honest, it probably was my fault.

Hanging on the wall next to the calendar was my machete and tacked above the calendar was the faded Polaroid picture. Carla. Every time I look at that picture, it all comes back to me.

I had rolled into Tijuana to see the sights, drink some beer, get lucky and smoke some weed, not necessarily in that order. Nobody bothered me as I cruised into town, whether it was the Harley or the fresh tattoos on my arms and shoulder, or just the fact that I would have liked it if they did bother me, I don’t know. I walked into the bar—its name had long ago faded from my memory—expecting to meet a guy to buy enough weed to take back home. While I waited I had a beer, then another, and another, as the afternoon faded into evening. The guy never showed, but Carla did. She came in to work her shift waiting tables.

She was short and petite, but very rounded, and even though she was dressed to get tips, I could tell she was something special. She wore a ruffled skirt striped in bright blue, green, yellow and red. Her blouse was white, with short puffy sleeves; one had slid down her arm, revealing her shoulder. She had a thick leather belt with a fancy carved silver buckle that cinched the blouse in tight around her tiny waist. In her ears were big silver hoops and a row of silver bangles jingled on her left arm. Carla’s face was a heart surrounded by a cloud of wavy black hair, smooth and shiny, and when she smiled at me, her eyes flashed black fire. Her toenails were painted a pretty pink and her skin glowed copper under the dingy bar lights; I couldn’t wait to see her in natural light.

She came over to my table to see if I needed a refill. The place was quiet and we started talking. Somehow I got up the courage to ask her to meet me the next day. She was so far out of my league, but she smiled and said, “Si, I’ll meet you.”

Shaking my head to force the memories away, I walked over to the sink to wash the grease from my hands. As I rhythmically scrubbed my fingers with a brush loaded with Boraxo I looked into the shaving mirror that hung on a hook between the two tiny casement windows over the sink. My graying reddish brown hair was falling out of its ponytail and I had sprouted a red, three-day beard. Maybe I’ll shave sometime tomorrow. I examined my face, didn’t find any big globs of grease and decided I was good to go. As I dried my hands on the stiff towel I noticed the tattoo that said “Carla” on my forearm; it was less faded than all the rest. I checked my torn and stained jeans, again no major patches of grease. I grabbed a leather jacket and slammed the door on my way out.

The chains on my boots jangled in rhythm with my footsteps as I started walking down the road. I felt in my pockets, yeah I still had half a pack to get through the night; but I’d have stop at the 7-11 on my way home to pick up another pack for tomorrow. The sun finished setting and the moon rose as I walked the two miles to Frankie’s Place. As the sky grew darker the country road was lit only by the moon, at least until the neon glow of the lights across the roof of Frankie’s Place flashed “F AN E S LA E” in alternating blue and red. The cheap bastard still hadn’t fixed the lights.

I pushed past the heavy, knock-off saloon door. The crappy music hit me as I walked through the door. Frankie won’t pay for decent bands, so they always suck.

Even though it was early, the place was busy. But it was always busy at Frankie’s. The beer was cheap and all the peanuts you could eat. The tables were wiped regularly and the glasses were clean, couldn’t ask for much more as far as I was concerned.

I sat on a stool at the bar between two other guys. One looked like he just got off work; he wore Dickies and a dirty T-shirt. The other guy wore a pale green polo shirt and ironed jeans. I smiled at each guy and asked polo guy to pass the peanuts that were on the other side of him. He gave me a kind of funny smile, passed the peanuts, nodded and moved to a table on the other side of the room. I turned to say to Dickies guy, “Did you see that?” and saw that he had moved to the other end of the bar.

Frankie walked up and leaned across the bar, “Mick. Back, huh? Has it been three months?”

“Two days ago by my calendar, Frankie.”

“Okay,” he said as he walked over to get me a beer, I didn’t have to tell him which one I wanted, he knew what I started with, what I drank in the middle, and what I finished up with at the end of the night. He placed the bottle on the bar, but kept his hand on it, “Remember, no trouble, Mick.”

“Hey man, no trouble. My scar’s just itching.”

Shaking his head, Frankie walked away saying, “Funny how it didn’t itch for the three months you couldn’t come here.”

I laughed and took a big swig of my beer. The itching started to fade. Five or six of these, and it should go away completely. I picked up a handful of peanuts and tipping my head back poured them into my mouth. I put my head down and looked around the bar as I chewed. I signaled for another beer. The band was dressed like a typical country band in jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy hats and boots. They still sucked.

I finished my beer, got another and then another. I lost track of how many. I noticed that Dickies guy and polo guy both very carefully didn’t look my way. I chuckled under my breath and looked at the dance floor. It was mostly empty, but there were a few couples line dancing to the music. I watched a waitress weave her way through the tables to deliver a tray of beers; I could watch the sway of her hips all night long. She turned and I choked on my beer. It was Carla.

The same cloud of black hair, copper skin and sparkling eyes. She laughed and flirted with the table of construction workers, earning her tips. Her heart face smiled at them as she spun around to head back to the bar, and knowing their eyes followed her, her hips gave an extra swivel. She knew it worked from their ‘woo hoos’ and ‘hey babies’ as they slapped the table and whistled. Her smiled showed that she knew she had earned a big fat tip.

She couldn’t be more than twenty two, so my brain told me she couldn’t be Carla, but my heart pounded and said, “Yes, she is!”

I remembered the last time I saw Carla. She and I had left the bar; it was late, maybe two in the morning. We had spent all her time off together for the past week, and while she worked I sat on a stool and watched her work.

We walked down the street, arm in arm, and suddenly this short guy, a Mexican, leaped out of an alley waving a machete.

“Gringo!” he shouted. “Go home! Leave our women alone!” He lunged at me and swung the machete at my throat.

I grabbed Carla and pushed her behind me.

“Ernesto!” she cried out. “What are you doing?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her peering around my shoulder at the lunatic.

“Carla, you know this guy?” I shouted, not looking at her. I didn’t dare take my eyes off him as he swung wildly at me, screaming at me in Spanish the whole time. I ducked and weaved to avoid the machete while trying to find an opportunity grab him.

“He’s my husband,” she whispered.

I was so stunned I forgot to weave as I turned to her, “Husband?”

“I left him and came to the city. He must have followed…”

That was all I heard. I felt a searing pain down my left side and I hit the sidewalk. While I was down there, Ernesto kicked me in the head a couple times. I heard voices, then footsteps and I saw her pink toenails running away from me.

I lay on the ground and the blood fanned out around me. Something important must have been cut, because there was a lot of blood. The next thing I knew, some guy was standing over me, “Amigo. Amigo, you okay?”

I couldn’t answer, but I think I shook my head.

Somehow he got me up, draped my arm over his shoulder and half dragged me up the street, opposite from the way that Carla’s toenails had gone.

I don’t know how he did it, but he dragged me a block and a half, down a back alley to a guy. I won’t say to a doctor, because one look at my scar will tell anyone that no doctor stitched me up. The scar zigs and zags up my side, and rises up like mountain ridges alternated with deep valleys. But the guy did stop the bleeding and prevented any infection. He saved my life.

My amigo went back and got the machete that Ernesto had dropped. I guess he thought I would like a souvenir. I was laid up at the “doctor’s” house for weeks. I paid him the money I had brought to buy weed. He was very grateful; a lot of his patients didn’t pay him, at least not in cash.

Once I could get around on my own, I went back to the bar, but nobody knew where Carla had gone and none of them had ever heard of Ernesto. I spent a few weeks searching the streets, but eventually I had to give up and come back home. I had run out of money. So I got on my Harley and drove north. The only reminders of my time in Tijuana were a scar, a machete and a Polaroid of Carla.

For a long time I went back to Tijuana every year, one year I even went to the town Carla had told me she was from. But I never saw her again and about ten years ago, I stopped going back to Mexico. I parked my travel trailer on the little piece of land that my grandfather had left me, sold the truck that hauled it to pay the taxes and stopped traveling. When I have a license I drive my Harley to Frankie’s, the 7-11 or the Super Walmart that they built on the main drag; and when I don’t, I walk. Right now I’m walking. But I’ve never forgotten Carla or stopped dreaming about her. And there she was.

I don’t remember getting up, but I found myself standing in the middle of the dance floor and stopping her from heading to the next table with a tray of drinks.

“Excuse me, sir. Can I get by?” she asked in a sweet tone, smiling at me.

“Carla,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“Uh, my name’s not Carla, mister,” she said trying to get around me, but she was blocked by the line dancers tapping their way across the dance floor.

“Carla, I know it’s been a long time, but…” I reached for her arms, but she backed away.

“Buddy, my name’s not Carla!” her voice rose and people started to notice us. The dancers kept dancing, concentrating on their steps, but the tables near the floor all turned toward us and I noticed Frankie heading down the bar.

In desperation I reached for her again, this time I grabbed her right arm, she pulled away and the tray of drinks flew through the air. Beer and tequila showered the dancers and the drinkers. Some guys jumped up, fists started flying, people were screaming and swearing, dancers plowed into each other and ended up in a jumble on the floor, somebody dumped beer over somebody’ else’s head, someone got slapped, and a bunch of people tripped over the pile-up on the floor. But Carla and I stood in the center of this human hurricane, my large hand gripping her tiny arm.

“Look, buddy, I’m not Carla!” she screamed at me over the ruckus. “My name is Pauline and I’ve never seen you before in my life!” Then she swung her foot—I never expected her to be wearing cowboy boots—and kicked me right in the soft spot below my kneecap.

Man, did that hurt! Frankie reached us by that time. I felt this jolting vibration that seemed to go on forever and I hit the floor. He stood over me, shaking his head.

I couldn’t talk yet, but I was wondering when Frankie had invested in a stun gun. He didn’t have one the last time I was here.

“Mick, you’re the whole reason I bought this damn thing. I’m really sick of you breaking up the joint. I know you’re a little drunk, but Carla doesn’t work here. She never worked here,” he turned to look at Carla—Pauline—and said, “at least she’s a brunette like your Carla. Unlike Sarah who was blonde and Kathy who was a red head. To be honest, Mick, if Carla walked in I probably wouldn’t hire her, she’d be too old and you probably wouldn’t even recognize her.”

I was starting to get the feeling back in my arms and legs. I felt sober, too. I looked at the girl again, and realized that he was right, she’s not Carla—her eyes were brown, not black and her face wasn’t really a heart. I lumbered up to my feet and looked at Pauline, “I’m sorry, miss,” I said and hung my head.

She still looked pretty angry; she just turned and walked away. I noticed people helping other people off the floor and picking up overturned tables and chairs. I guess my electric flailing had distracted everyone else from fighting.

“Mick, you do it every time. Don’t come back for a long time,” Frankie said.

“How long?” I asked, afraid of his answer.

“I don’t know, Mick. I’m sick of this. I won’t call the cops this time; you made a mess but nothing got broken and nobody got hurt. But next time, I am calling the cops and I’ll press charges.” Frankie looked pretty angry, so I just nodded my head. “And you’re paying for all the spilled drinks!”

“Okay, Frankie,” I handed over the money and headed out the door. I stepped out into the cold and before the door closed behind me I heard that crappy western band start up, the sound of laughter and the clinking of glasses. I turned and looked over my shoulder at Frankie’s Place for a minute and then started walking.