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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.