Saturday, August 2, 2014

Madam Butterfly

The mere thought of viewing the photo made my palms greasy. I supposed even a lion tamer beats back the fear of entering the cage through repetition so I vowed to study if often, until I either understood the intricacies contained within or it lost its power over me. My two older brothers stood on either side of me like bookends—much too well-groomed and handsome for lions. Both of them surely settled now with respectable wives, customary jobs, and promising offspring. One would think sufficient enough new memories to have crowed out the old. Cold as it seemed I would have preferred such an arrangement as expectations of others creates a heavy burden for a traveling man.  

My brothers were born better men than most — the type whom after all this time still couldn’t completely enjoy an after dinner drink without the liquor turning bitter against their tongues as an obligatory thought of their younger brother’s whereabouts and latest misadventures danced through their heads. I’m certain the marauding thought prompted a different set of questions as I believe the human mind is comprised of a unique labyrinth of dusty paths, but just as every winding river finds its way to a greater body of water I fear each in their own time arrived at the same destination, the corner of Misunderstanding Lane and Bewilderment Boulevard, completely perplexed and heartbroken as to how their younger brother continued to roam like a tumble-weed.       

Momma said from the onset of pregnancy she knew I was different—said she felt it rumbling in her belly like thunder. With each passing birthday I became more aware of this restless thing that churned inside of me—an insatiable appetite for adventure; a wolf that feasts and moves on quickly, afraid that if he  settles in one spot for more than a night the desire of pursuit might escape in a dream. He has glimpsed the nightmare before; another warrior too deflated and weak to stand. Even the arrival of dawn cannot stir him; instead she weeps bitterly knowing the power to revive and restore such things lies outside the realm of a rising sun. I fear the warmth of ten-thousand suns cannot loosen the icy grip of a crippling frost; descended under the cover of night, settling heavy on his coat, layer upon layer until it seeps into the marrow of his bones—poisoning from the inside out.  

For a man inexplicably drawn to the road the options seemed few; the answer deceptively simple. Unless a man carve out his insides completely or invite the deadly frost (either prospect more appalling than appealing); he must trudge onward, maintain a steady pace, and never look back.

If you consider such an illogical and poorly conceived manner of plotting a man’s course for life a philosophy, it served me well for nearly a decade. I suspect the freedom from being obliged to anyone for anything is what initially draws a man to a nomadic life-style, but it’s the acquired taste of adrenaline that keeps him chained there. Cast into a sea of drowning rats I learned to hold my breath and float to the top. I became skilled in the art of deception, playing the role of whatever would benefit me at the expense of those around me. In my travels I discovered North or South, city or burg; the world is overrun with liars and frauds. A full ninety-nine in one-hundred men would rather spend a week’s time apologizing for, rather than a minute embracing whom it is they truly are and will likely never be. And I have a sneaking suspicion the lone exception nothing more than a figment of an eternal optimist’s imagination. Conservatively I had re-created myself a hundred times over without anyone who could dispute even the smallest detail. Today would be no different.

Perhaps someday gambling would become an acceptable use of one’s spare time and earnings, but for now the God-fearing folks along the Mississippi would sooner invite Beelzebub himself to Sunday dinner. In such matters of deep disagreement and antiquated thinking it is commonplace to assume you are born belonging to one extreme or the other. One party believing that giving an inch to the opposition earns you a one-way ticket to a place of burning damnation, and the other side unable to conceive a haven of eternal rest worth the cost of such closed-minded company. For now the gambling houses peppering the hillsides were boarded up or had been burned to the ground forcing those struck with the ‘illness’ to open water where as of yet no restrictions existed.

The shadowy likeness of chandeliers hung above each table; the sparkle of crystal stifled by a layer of dust produced by a coal-burning engine; gangly fixtures producing enough light to distinguish the ball room from a root-cellar but not enough to discourage the gathering of rodents. Like paper dolls cut from the same flawed stock, each of them saddled with elongated faces; pasty and gaunt—too far removed from a good night’s rest. Their movements were slow and mechanical, feeding on the last fumes of alcohol boiling in their bellies. As I moved throughout the space I discovered a reoccurring theme; it appeared to me everything and everyone had given up the better parts of themselves to come here. Overall, an eclectic collection of zombies, but then I spotted a gentleman of substance with an attractive female dangling from his arm and I smelled opportunity.       

From the instant we locked eyes I believe we both recognized the danger in staring too long at another like us. I understood being the first to break the steely exchange constituted a perceived weakness, but I calculated it a better option than allowing him to prove it completely. He flashed a wry grin, pleased that I would surrender a first round so quickly. Despite his genteel disguise the man standing before me was as dangerous and poisonous a creature I’d encountered.

A naïve moment longer and I would have fallen under his spell completely. Disengaged from this silent brand of warfare I observed my adversary in a completely different light. Suit, shoes, and top hat, white as driven snow; a telegraphing of innocence, designed to delay the discovery of a blackened-heart beating beneath. I determined the monocle over his left eye less an ocular necessity than an instrument of war as I could still feel the scorching effects of it like a noon-day sun. Although his movements seemed random, his repositioning about the table was efficient and purposeful designed purely to gain advantage over another; like a boa constrictor ratcheting his grip. A mere three feet separating us suddenly seemed risky.  

“I find it quite stuffy down here. Think I’ll go topside for a smoke.”

Over the years I learned self-preservation comes instinctively. I didn’t recall commanding the words that left my lips, only the actions that kept me a man of my word.    

I discovered a measure of peace nestled in the muted sounds of a river-boat’s paddle slapping against the current. Without demanding any sort of attention the sun drooped into the shadows of the hickories lining the shore. I toyed with aligning the lit end of my cigarette and drawing hard enough to match her hue. Burrowing deeper into the safety of branches she appeared to smile—perhaps at such foolishness that any man would dabble at reproducing nature. Along with an occasional chuckle was the din of several quiet private conversations melting together, proving to me this place and those who loitered here were in complete contrast of those below. The topsiders were like my brothers. Perhaps by month’s end I would return home. It was always with good conscience I made such plans, perhaps a dozen times or more, never to act upon them. I wondered quietly if I’d reached such a level of decay that my own thoughts could not be trusted.    

During a brief exchange with a topsider I ascertained the name of the well-dressed gambler. The stranger hinted that Mr. Cleary came from old money, enough that he felt comfortable wagering a good percentage of it nightly on cards. I had yet to inquire about the female accompanying Mr. Cleary when a disturbance sent the topsiders scattering like mice. I turned to my new acquaintance to find the space on the bench as barren as a winter’s field. I recognized the flashy female slinking across the deck as the very same hanging from the arm of Mr. Cleary only moments earlier. I supposed it under his direction and part of a bigger plan that she approached me now unescorted.

“Is the seat next to you taken?”

Her voice arrived much softer than expected. I wished to respond cleverly and normally weaving a web of words, whether a small smattering of the truth or a complete fabrication, flowed as freely from my lips as water welling from a spring, but it took every ounce of concentration I could summon to ignore the intoxicating aroma of butterflies. I supposed it a costly perfume but the essence rather completely captured what I imagined such an elegant creature of the sky to smell like. Despite the waning light of day the beauty of her classic facial features sparked an aura of radiance, but the manner in which the purple cloth clung to her exquisite frame was perhaps her most disarming feature.        

“Feel free to sit, Madam Butterfly.”

She stared at me as if I had two heads. Upon realizing my response I now wished for two—one that might be assigned to stay on point and responsibly carry on a civil and productive conversation, leaving the other glassy-eyed and drooling to shamelessly record her every detail. And when she had left and the three of us settled down for the night we would gladly allow the foolish head to talk us to sleep.

“My sincerest apologies for the foolish speech that follows the consumption of too many drinks. The seat is open and you are welcome to it.”

Unlike others where laughter erupts in choppy and awkward bursts, it flowed from her like a sonnet begging to be written down. Still standing she bent gracefully at the waist and drew within striking distance. No stranger to being slapped sharply across the cheek, I braced myself.    

“What would say if I told you that I had my eye on you from the moment you entered the ballroom and not once did I see you order a drink?”

“What if I told you, good lady, that I carry a flask of fine Irish Whisky and it is nearly empty?”

She folded like cotton on the bench next to me, much softer and nearer than expected, then in a sultry manner she drew her lower lip between her teeth and smiled.  

“If not for shattering your expectation of an innocent doe I might simply reach inside your jacket and check for myself. But to save us both the discomfort of gossiping mouths I will instead inform you that I’m well within proximity to smell alcohol on your breath, and the absence of such makes you a professional liar!”

I don’t imagine the look of surprise on my face significantly removed from that of Goliath’s expression when struck in the forehead with David’s stone. This woman was either an exceedingly good judge of character or a hound sent to flush a nervous quail from the brambles. I suspected and hoped the latter.

“At the risk of sounding pointed, did your husband send you out here?”

She laughed again, nearly as gracefully as before.

“Yes and no, I suppose. First, Mr. Cleary is definitely not my husband and yes, daddy sent me up to extend an invitation to you.”

Without warning and disclosing a single word more she twirled around on the bench, stretched out on her back, and laid her head in my lap.  

I nervously swiveled in both directions. “So much for the gossiping mouths”, I laughed.

“My name is Miranda Cleary. Question of the night—if the world caught fire and you could keep only one would you save the fabulously starry skies along the river or rescue Michael Angelo’s greatest works?”
The warmth of such an attractive woman’s head seeping through the fabric caused my mind to run in circles. The thought of using my fingers to smooth the fabric of her dress flashed through. Only after flushing it completely could I give sufficient answer.  

“I’m Henry Carter, pleased to meet you Miranda. Well, ma’am, I suppose that since I know the beauty of one first hand and have only heard tell of the other it would be improper that my vote should count at all. Perhaps you ought to sit upright again; I’d hate for your father to come up and jump to wrong conclusions seeing your head buried in my britches. You said something about extending an invitation did you?”

“What would say if I asked you to kiss me right now?” Miranda probed.

I did my best to brush the question aside.

“I’d inform you that I haven’t been that limber since I was a boy of twelve.”

Undeterred, she popped upright and asked again. Certainly the daughter of a gambler she upped the ante.

“No bending involved. I’m not telling you what daddy sent me for until you kiss me.”

The light of a harvest moon played with the river and then my mind. Striking the surface she then leapt into the abundance of Miranda’s chestnut hair until every strand appeared to emit a tiny stream of light. Miranda’s eye sparkled with anticipation and truth be known I could fill a notepad ten times over with shadier things I’d done or been an accomplice to than simply kissing a woman who asked. As I brushed back her hair to expose the apple of her cheek my breathing picked up pace. Leaning towards my target Miranda pivoted quickly and caught me full on the mouth. Before I could protest, her electric lips devoured mine, transmitting a jolt of energy that caused every hair on my body to stand at attention. I can only assume the tingle extended into the cortex of my brain when my field of vision filled with spindles of colored light splintering from a central point in all directions toward outer space.

Suddenly Miranda pulled away and blurted so quickly I felt the sweetness of her breath in my face.

“You definitely piqued my father’s interest and that occurs on very rare occasions. Daddy noticed your hesitation at the table earlier but would still like the opportunity to get acquainted. He’d be delighted if you’d come to his suite; dinner at 7:30pm sharp—and a private game of cards I’m certain to follow. Oh Henry, won’t you please, please say you’ll come. Don’t think it to forward of me, but already I’ve grown rather fond of your company.”

At first I stared blankly into the darkness seeking answer where there were none to be found. Then I paced about the deck aimlessly for nearly half an hour, attempting to reason with my unreasonable self, exhaling more cigarette smoke than the old vessel belched out the stacks running full-bore upstream. I couldn’t shake the feeling that an innocent nod of acceptance had sealed my fate. ‘Where was you head?’ I scolded audibly before taking notice of the crossways glances and outright glares I was garnering. I shifted to a whisper but kept moving, ‘How could you have put yourself in harm’s way simply to avoid disappointing a woman you barely knew? You used to have a beautifully crafty mind, is it suddenly rendered completely useless as quickly as some woman beyond your reach inadvertently brushes again your heart-strings? Have you forget how intuitive Mr. Cleary had been during your first encounter. Beyond a shadow of a doubt he will know you’ve kissed his daughter. Hell, he probably knows you briefly considered caressing her under the guise of smoothing her dress. You may as well avoid the issue entirely by throwing yourself overboard now. The odds of being fit enough to swim to shore are better than surviving the viper you’ll face below deck.’

I immediately regretted working myself into such a frenzy as a brief glance at my timepiece revealed only five full minutes remained. The only thing more frightening than facing Mr. Cleary in his own surroundings would be the insult of arriving late. I drew an extraordinarily deep breath of fresh air and before descending down the stairs prayed it would not be my last.   

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Instinct Part 1

I saw plenty of cops come and go, but none more interesting and engaging than Dexter Hanley. The grizzly veteran was the oldest guy on the force by a good decade and most of the surface dwellers in the precinct didn’t bother digging any further than a first impression. Based on first encounters Dexter was an odd bird, but I’ve always believed there is a certain percentage of genius even in those labeled bat-shit crazy. More than anything I suppose a bad left eye and a few ticks spooked most people off, but if you weren’t afraid to ask a few questions and took time to listen to the answers you’d discover a loving and dedicated husband, grandfather, and exemplary officer. I’m not saying Dexter couldn’t have done more to bolster his image among his peers, but he didn’t seem to care much about what others thought and said of him. Like water off a duck’s back most days with the exception of one occasion that’s as fresh in my mind as yesterday.

Dexter arrived back at headquarters and as he strolled past the break-room caught a glimpse of the new rookie doing a bad impression of him. The kid was pretty buff, but definitely full of himself; the kind that poses in front of a mirror and honestly believes he’s doing the mirror a favor. The boy’s whole demeanor changed the moment Dexter hoisted him up like an empty milk jug, pinning him against the wall, leaving his feet to dangle like a paper-doll on a windy day.

While I can only assume Dexter’s insides were on the brink of boiling in their own juices he never lost his composure; his voice as smooth and rich as any high-paid news anchor that ever lived.

“There’s a difference between gym-tough and street-tough.” Dexter began. “I’ve yet to have a criminal challenge me to a curlin’ or bench-press contest, so probably best if you save that shit for your puffy-chested cronies at the gym—you know, the one’s starin’ at your ass in the mirror when you ain’t lookin’!”

The room erupted into a chorus of laughter and jeers as Dexter dropped the boy like a hot-rock. The punk folded into a pile at the baseboard like a dirty pair of socks and boxers at a bachelor pad, and was still quiverin’ like a bowl of half-set Jello as Dexter leaned down to offer some parting advice.

“Two rounds from a .45 in a dark alley will change your life—one in the back and one in the skull, so all things considered I’m mighty blessed to walk away with just a lazy eye. Son, I was walkin’ a beat in the nastiest part of Philly when you was still nuzzlin’ your momma’s teet and fillin’ yer diapers with green puddin’. That don’t make me better than you…just smarter, more experience of knowin’ when to keep my yap shut!”   

Dexter’s outburst put an end to the jokes around the station and as I look back marked the beginning of our friendship. Neither of us were the type to make friends easily but I suppose we each saw something in the other we identified with. On the surface we were night and day. Dexter was African-American, thirty years my senior, and grew up in the projects of a large city. I couldn’t imagine quitting school in the fourth grade and going to work to help your mother support your seven brothers and sisters. Despite experiencing the harsh reality of a cold and cruel world at such a young age Dexter navigated the choppy waters and not only emerged on the other side, but arrived there a much tougher and smarter breed than most. Quite admirably he appeared to harbor no animosity towards anyone. On the flip-side I came from an upper-middle-class exclusively white neighborhood and breezed through private school on my parent’s dime. They wanted me to pursue a psychology degree, but all the money in the world can’t make a square peg fit a round hole and that’s how it had been for me socially since grade school.  Out of respect I began working towards a psychology degree but silently resigned myself to a life of misery. Midway through my sophomore year I was walking home drunk from a party and had the fortunate experience of getting mugged and severely beaten; fortunate because I used the recovery time to formulate a plan for escape. Eventually I convinced my parent’s the world would not suddenly quit spinning if one kid changed his degree to criminal justice.          

I likened Dexter and his beautiful brain to a tightly wound ball of yarn. Locating the loose end proved difficult, but once identified, tugging on the fray unraveled an avalanche of knowledge that often flooded my brain to the point of overload. I can honestly say I continued to absorb information right up until the night he was killed in the line of duty.

Dexter failed to respond to a radio call and the search began. We found his squad car in an empty parking lot, driver’s side door riddled with bullet holes, and the front seat drenched in blood. The only thing missing was Dexter, no body and not a trace of it being removed from the vehicle. I knew he had been working an angle on something, but despite my inquiries he remained tight-lipped about the details. Like an older brother to me, I took the loss personal and worked on the mystery for more than a month. With little evidence and no leads, the higher-ups ‘encouraged’ me to quit chasing ghosts and let the past pass. Threatened with the loss of my job the case went cold, but I could never quite shake the feeling I’d let my friend down. More than anything I hated it for his family. Navigating the grief process is nearly impossible when you can’t even lay your hands on a body to bury.    

Nothing about Dexter could be remotely classified as conventional. Some of his techniques fell a good distance outside the lines, but the damndest thing was they always worked. I remember laughing out loud when he suggested I could essentially train myself to have a photographic memory, turn it on and off like a light switch. At the time I wasn’t even sure such things existed, but certainly if they did I figured you were wired that way or you weren’t. Turns out the old man couldn’t have been more spot on.   

Despite the distraction of a world moving at full speed, I took a deep breath and forced my mind into a state where everything crept like cold molasses over a frozen rock. I focused hard on the cigarette, able to make out the Phillip Morris label during each revolution until it covered the length of the interrogation room table. I followed it up with a lighter skidding along the same path until it dropped into the suspect’s hands.

“You got the smoke you asked for, let’s get down to business.”

“Knock yourself out—it’s your story, you tell it.”

Right out of the gate I didn’t like the guy’s attitude, but I supposed he had his agenda and I had mine, so I forged forward with my rendition of what I believed took place that night.

“I’m guessing it was around midnight when a pretty, little, brunette rounded the corner and started up the alley. You were probably pretty stoked to see a working girl that either wasn’t afraid to take the shortcut, or maybe she was too high to care. Don’t suppose it mattered to you either way as long as she moved away from the streetlights and into the shadows. That’s kinda where guys like you do their best work, isn’t it Rodney, under the cover of dark?”

I didn’t expect an answer, but paused on the off chance he might tip his hand. Instead, Rodney leaned back in the chair, sparked the lighter, and took a long drag. Veiled by a cloud of smoke I could still see that smug expression. If this punk wanted to play games I was definitely willing to turn up the heat.  

“Some women run around in primer, best suited for tooling around town and running errands. Not this shiny vixen; she was built for speed and lived for the thrill of the open road. It was those stiletto heels that set everything in perfect motion; banana curls dancing against the apples of her cheeks, tender breasts licking against the delicate lace of a thin teddy. Each step sent them heaving against their restraint, flirting with the brink of spilling over. All that visual temptation put to the sweet music produced by the rhythmic swishing of a leather skirt rustling against her thighs. Suddenly it didn’t matter that she wouldn’t give you the time of day because with each delicious step she unknowingly moved closer to the lion’s den. Then she’d have no say in anything. You’d bring her down, satisfy your own desires, and take what you wanted. Isn’t that what you were thinkin’, Rodney!”

The boy didn’t have to say a word; his pasty white complexion and the line of sweat-beads across his brow told me my rendition hit dangerously close to home. Just when I was set to take another bite out of this punk the Lieutenant nearly busted the door off the hinges.

“You damn renegade! Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?”

After leveling the accusation of wrong-doing in my direction, the Lieutenant addressed my suspect.

“Rodney, gather your things and get back out on your beat, your partner’s waiting on ya!”

With the arrival of unexpected company the pressure in the room skyrocketed. I felt like I was trapped in a sauna with a broken thermostat running wide open. Calculated risk was a part of the gig but I had determined getting to know Rodney outweighed the potential repercussions of getting caught doing it. Now that my plan had fallen apart I hoped a cool down period would benefit my cause. I attempted to sneak out of the room on Rodney’s heels when the Lieutenant caught me by the collar.

“You crazy, unethical, son-of-a-bitch, that’s a fellow officer you’re interrogating like he’s Charlie Manson’s brother. You do understand if he has an ounce of sense he’ll make a phone call and in a flash the D.A. will be so far up my ass I’ll have trouble breathin’. Thank you for brining a fresh pile of shit to my doorstep, Officer Tanner. It’s like a bad infomercial…but wait there’s more. As if this steamy pile wasn’t enough, you placed a bright, shiny turd on top. Not only is Rodney a fellow officer, but more importantly my wife’s nephew! Hand me your weapon and badge. You earned yourself a month off without pay, starting now!”

After a few moments of silence the idea of being suspended unjustly boiled in my gut until it spilled over into angry words.

“You’re making a big mistake, Lieutenant. I understand you’re worried about the bad press associated with exposing a rotten apple from within. But for my own curiosity—is there a particular number of mutilated, young girls before you start losing sleep? Obviously three isn’t enough. And just how brutal do you think the press is going to be when they suspect more blood was spilled by your attempt to protect your reputation and family instead of doing your job?”

I thought my bosses head was going to spin off before he sputtered his next words.

“That’s an extra week of suspension for gross disrespect!”

I moved into his personal space until I was certain I could feel the pulsing of the bulging vein in his forehead.   
“That’s a physical impossibility, Lieutenant. By its very nature disrespect would indicate a prior level of respect, and the only thing gross in this whole situation is your level of negligence!”

Perhaps the most important single lesson Dexter taught me was that the loneliness associated with operating and thinking outside the lines is not a bad thing. We were working together one night, sitting at a stop light when it turned green. As I pulled through the intersection Dexter said he was going to ask me a couple questions. He stated there may or may not be correct answers, but the most important thing was to refrain from analyzing my replies and just respond instinctively. I suspected it was another of his tests so I laughed and agreed. 

“What was the model and make of the car following us that turned North on Culvert Ave?”

“Rust colored 69 Impala, black hardtop, looked to have a good sized dent in the driver’s front quarter.”

“Damn, I missed the dent completely.” He exclaimed. “You’re warmed up now, boy. Let’s go for broke.”

 “How many steps across the cross-walk, one curb to the other?”

“Size ten and a half, six foot male, normal stride, sixteen steps”

Dexter giggled like a school girl at her first dance, completely unable to suppress the excitement in his voice.

“Ok…OK, how many LED’s were in that green stop lamp?

“283”

The old man slapped the dash, “Nice try, but I gotcha—there’s 285.” He exclaimed proudly.

I turned at the next block and we circled back the original intersection.

“Check it out, Dexter, third ring from the center on the left side two are burned out, so makes 283.”

“Damn, boy, you’re unbelievable! But that’s what I’m talking about—most people don’t see things in that kind of detail, and even if they did their minds don’t process quickly enough to make it useful. You and I, we got a special gift and an obligation.”

The tone of his voice changed decidedly, “Son, you gotta promise me you’ll never move to the dark side.”


It was those words that haunted me ever so slightly, but I hoped Dexter could see in this case there was a thick, murky band of gray rather than a distinct fine line separating the two. Dexter was right about the keen insight we shared. While the majority of the officers appreciated Rodney’s sense of humor, I’d always had the ability to read people and was certain a rotten core lurked beneath the goofy exterior of Rodney Allen Kelly, and I aimed to prove it, with or without the backing of a badge and a legal weapon.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Seven-Hundred-Twenty

I’ve always believed my D.N.A. to be comprised of one primary component—if someone probed the bowels of my anatomical structure they would soon discover a single strand connecting all others; a wide and sweeping streak of stubbornness. Blaming genetic predisposition seemed as good a reason as any for insisting upon a second opinion before digesting the first, but I assure you that even the most steadfast refusal to accept the truth will not make it less true.
    
“There’s nothing we can do, Mr. Langdon. I’m sorry.”

Under the right circumstance certain words have exponentially more power than was ever intended the stringing together of a few syllables. They will steal a man’s breath, freeze everything around him, and cast him into a world of isolation where what transpires between splintered seconds is an alter-reality known only to him. During that frozen slice of limbo a lightning bolt charged down through the ceiling. In a fiery show of wrath it struck the floor, ripping open a chasm that separated me from all other living creatures. Suddenly I was sitting alone in a forgotten corner, silently choking on the poisonous shades of reality.

It is unclear how long I lingered in this private desert of suffering before a sound or perhaps something more subtle drew my attention to the clock. The second-hand fluttered in a state of ambiguity, seemingly paralyzed by an equal dread of glancing back or the prospect of forging forward. For some the mention of coincidence explains a great many mysteries, but I could not convince myself the battle being waged by the keeper of time was not eerily my own. As entwined as I understood us to be, a wave of relief washed over me when the ticker began to sweep predictably again. As it marched onward the numbness of my mind subsided and once again I began to hear and process spoken words. 
     
“Due to the aggressive nature the cancer has gained an irreversible foothold on all vital organs. None of the treatments currently available will be effective. I truly am sorry, Mr. Langdon.”

The offering of a month seemed hardly enough time to complete the remodeling of a small room. Yet in the midst of awkward silence I came to realize that sometimes, suddenly and inexplicably, the road runs out. My lease on life was seven-hundred twenty hours and counting.

It was my grandfather’s belief that if a man is to be any man at all he must discover purpose for himself, especially during times when the world tries to convince him he has nothing to contribute. By all accounts it was late in the game, but I supposed recording my days in a journal might bare some semblance to purpose. And if boys were made of slugs, and snails, and puppy-dog tails I could relay an uplifting tale of how a man being assigned a number results in a spectacular transformation; how he dedicates himself to a great cause for humanity or even that he simply lives out his remaining days checking off items on a bucket list. The ugly truth of the matter is it was exceedingly easy to squander the first of my last hours floundering in a sea of self-pity.

Day1:
Upon arriving home from the hospital I voluntarily quarantined myself to the study as I was unfit company. After pouring a generous glass of cognac and lighting a fire I burrowed deeper into the recliner than I could ever recall. Surrounding myself with physical comforts seemed a subtle means of defense against the icy claws of reality scratching to get in.

Ironic such news be delivered in the dead of winter; the brutality of which was both symbolic and tangible as a Canadian cold front stalled over our region. As I poured a second glass of spirits I indentified the sound of icy claws to be the bare limbs of an overgrown Elm brushing against the bay window. One of a bushel-basket full of things I had yet found time for, but now I supposed the weight of such burdens would fall to someone else. I wondered aloud what he might look like—this mysterious trimmer of trees. How long before he drove my car, dined regularly at the dinner table, and eventually lay on my side of the bed loving my wife better and more completely. A respectable man should want that for his wife—for his children, but the images were too bitter.

Drink after drink one hour rolled into another as I wrestled with answerless questions and faceless demons, pursuing each doubt vigorously and without remorse. A young hound cut loose on a fresh trail for the first time, naiveté would carry him deep into the woods before discovering the illusive and intangible are always faster and more cunning than you imagine, multiplying and melting into the creases of shadows until such time as you pass too closely. Then in an irreversible moment hunter becomes hunted and like a band of thirsty demons they descend upon you, ripping flesh from bone, smiling as they dissect, never retreating fully, providing only enough separation that you might relive the terror of their approach over and over. Fangs designed for grizzly deeds, blackened hearts fueled by the notion that work is unfinished until they have dismantled everything that defines you. Finally, the distinct smell of death settles heavy in the nostrils of the alpha male and on his lead they pour back into the shadows each of them carrying a sliver of your soul in their steely-jowls. 
         
Deep in my bones I felt the steady plodding of pursuit, as if I had escaped from the gallows and the hooves of steeds ridden by heartless henchman were bearing down upon me. I anticipate the lead man’s fingers gripping my collar, sweeping me off my feet, and the defining moment when he holds my face to the dim flicker of a lantern. I expend my final breath on the last laugh as the case of mistaken identity is revealed to all. Henchmen, reduced to fools, having wasted such resources on the pursuit of a hollow man. 
      
The whirling in my head slowed to a waltz as I dove headlong into a deep and penetrating stare. Just beyond the frosty panes of glass a north-eastern gale sweeps up the fallen snow into a blinding fury, blocking out what remains of the sun. Subtle shades of evening gobble up the last remnants of day and for the first time in my life I experienced a reverent fear of what lays on the other side of a sunset.

Dealing with my own thoughts had become too cumbersome. With vision grown cloudy and head bobbing I welcomed the steely approach of a blissful state of unconsciousness. Just as I moved toward the threshold I heard a voice that rattled me.

“Congratulations, you’ve spent decades in the relentless pursuit of nothingness. How does it feel to be like me?”

I recognized the gravelly voice as that of my estranged brother—always the renegade, even now in the afterlife. A portion of me questioned whether I possessed the coordination to turn and face him and the remainder was too defiant to grant him the courtesy. Headstrong, my words dribbled into the empty corner in front of the chair.
   
“For the love of God, can’t an ailing man simply die in peace?”

“Is that what you think you’ll find—peace? You always fancied yourself so different than me—better somehow. Tell me dear brother, am I the only one that finds amusement that in a single drunken sitting you’ve reached the end of you?”

After a concerted effort I managed to turn and face him. He needed to see the fire in my eyes.

“You selfish little bastard! Running around trying to find yourself; tattooed from head to foot, hopping on your motorcycle coming and going as you pleased. The only thing you left behind was your share of the chores and a young boy searching for the words to comfort our mother! Died at nineteen, bottle of whiskey in one hand, throttle rolled back with the other. Don’t you lecture me about reaching the end of myself when you never bore an ounce of responsibility for anything. You took the coward’s way out—too scared to even scratch the surface of what you might have become!”

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thought of the Day

All days are not created equal. While considering the trappings of the day, decent is the best I can come up with. I pause to glance over my shoulder at the setting sun, awed by the way it nestles into place among the bank of clouds on the horizon. Taking a deep breath, I tuck decent in the hip pocket of my jeans and walk steadily and confidently toward tomorrow.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thought of the Day

Time is a curious thing—referred to as marching on, slipping away, or standing still. How can something as omnipresent do any of the above without our notice? I am convinced more today than yesterday that the deciding factor is perceptually based. Good or bad circumstances tend to deliver us to opposing states. During bad circumstances we become aware of an ugly excess and during joyful times we cannot grasp a single fleeting second for preservation. It is my observation we cannot fully comprehend and appreciate the expanse of such things as time, and my supposition that we are broken internally, whereby naturally we only have the capacity to operate within the outside bands of the spectrum, whittling away at a daunting pile of unwanted measures or wistfully pining for those blurry moments past. Perhaps true living begins when we become resistant to the corrosive outside influence of circumstance, i.e. the world spinning around us. That we neither wish away nor ask for a single moment back, that no matter how they bend or break us that we remain resolute in diligently searching until we find value and purpose in all of them.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Thought of the Day

Neglect is neither purposeful nor rooted in malice when it comes to pursuing your own course in life, but also there exists no lesser degree of negligence for when old friendships get left behind.   

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Second Thought of the Day

A rainbow is perfectly bent with just enough arc that each color finds a voice and the hues travel harmoniously from one side of the sky to the other. A feeling of awe washes over me…that I will never comprehend the breaking point of something as precise as the bending a rainbow. That despite an artist’s abilities he or she will never create an exact replica of the sky. That the capabilities of our creator are endless and questioning his means of accomplishing things should always be something I run from.

Thought of the Day

So is the beauty of dreams...more than choosing a destination, the destination chooses us.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thought of the Day

At night when the air is still and sound carries further than it should, I hear the cry of hope drowning and the empty thud of crumbled dreams. HE reminds me, apart from Him, this world knows nothing of faith, hope, and love, and without those there is nothing to separate birth from death.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thought of the Day

Every moment in our lives appears only once, never to return. Those spent lamenting the past will only consume the present

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Creed's Cave (Part 1)


As a kid certain things are just about impossible to remember, like math homework or taking trash to the curb on Wednesdays. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the things you can never completely forget. I’m not talking about the night you decide to investigate the strange sounds coming from your parent’s bedroom. Those kinds of natural disasters may set a new free-style record on the ‘gross-out meter’ and speaking from experience you’ll feel a mild discomfort as you explain to your literature teacher that you need an alternate assignment when the rest of the class has no problem with the title, Call of the Wild, but in most cases no permanent damage is done.


I’m talking about the serious stuff—the kind that changes the way you think and who you are forever. It’s like something weird happens where every last detail gets permanently etched in your brain. I supposed it was like that for Rodney and Clutch too, but never bothered asking. We swore under oath to never breathe a word about what happened that day to anyone. The pinky-swear didn’t specifically prohibit talking about it amongst ourselves. I figure we were too busy trying to sort things out in our own heads. I don’t know, maybe some things are just too traumatic to relive.

I sensed we were about to embark on a journey that would take us places no neighborhood kid had ever seen and lived to tell about it. The two-story tree house we built in Clutch’s backyard three summers ago was impressive, but I had a gut feeling we were on the precipice of something way cooler. Precipice—edge, steep cliff, or drop off. I remembered the word from a spelling-bee. From that point forward I was into new words and their meanings. This thirst for knowledge certainly wasn’t anything I could share with Clutch and Rodney—couldn’t needlessly risk the loss of ‘cool points’. Good friends are hard to find and even harder to hold on to.

Although he refused to acknowledge it, his real name was Reginald Clemons. We called him Clutch because no matter the odds he always came through. The last person to call him by his real name was Rocky Ford and ain’t no one seen him since. Some kids say he changed schools—reckon he had to after the beatdown Clutch gave him. Clutch was outgunned by close to a hundred pounds and gave up at least two feet in height. Witnesses said it was funny to see Clutch eye-level with the waistband of Rocky’s jock-strap, but I think my buddy saw it as a challenge. Clutch chased him out of the locker room and took him down at center-court, right in the middle of the jump circle. Before it was done Clutch blacked both his eyes and during the melee removed and was using Rocky’s own jock-strap for leverage in a rear-naked choke. That’s when Mr. Livingston broke things up and sent the gathering on their way. I would have died on the spot from embarrassment, but rumor had it that the whimpering coming from the janitor’s broom closet a half-hour after last bell was the broken spirit of a 275lb nose guard. And ain’t nobody even thought of calling him Reginald since.

I figured Clutch was born tougher than most. Kind of like dogs I guess, some are named FeFe or Felix—made of fluff, perfect size for your lap, and perform tricks for miniature treats. Others command names like Moses or Zeus—shoulders wide as a wheelbarrow, go for the jugular every time, and for fun kicks they hunt dogs named FeFe or Felix. Maybe he was born regular, but livin’ on the wrong side of the tracks changed that. Rodney and I couldn’t imagine walking to school every day with thugs hidin’ around every corner—looking to take something from you. I suppose Clutch’s dad took the most from him though. Seemed like he was always beating him with a belt for no reason at all other than he drank too much and he could. If Clutch liked ya he was the kind of guy you wanted to have around and he like me and Rodney plenty. Probably ‘cause we were different from everyone else—me and Rodney tried not to ask him much about what went on at home. A couple punk kids couldn’t do nothin’ to change it and it seemed altogether easier to image the bruises, cuts, and welts came from thugs on the street than a guy he called dad.

Rodney was just plain old Rodney except when he ate fried food. I personally think he had some kind of undiagnosed enzyme imbalance. If he so much as looked at a French fry, within an hour he became a walking, talking, bag of flatulence. That’s when we called him ‘Rotney’, which didn’t seem to bother him much at all. Rodney was the kind of kid that played the smallest detail up—forever coming up with a story to embellish his ‘rare talent’. He told us the Army had secret agents posted outside of his house. Said they were trying to bottle his funk to be used as a chemical weapon in Afghanistan. Every kid’s gotta find something he’s good at—sometimes it don’t matter what it is.

Like Clutch I was saddled with a name that was useless. Why do parents insist on giving kids names that only get used on birth certificates, school registration, and other useless stuff? So Sydney Lyle II became Sid. A three letter name saves on school-supply outlay when you factor in the cost of pencils and writer’s cramp as well. Alphabetically speaking it moved me up a couple of notches in lunch line. There were two other kids in my class with the last name of Smith. Tyler going by Ty didn’t really buy him anything. And Sidon—well, he wasn’t really smart enough to play the game. Sidon was the kind of kid you suspected ate too much play-dough in Kindergarten, or maybe fell off the monkey-bars at a bad angle.

We found the boat weeks earlier, but waited that long to make sure it didn’t belong to anyone, or if it did they wouldn’t miss it for a day. If my calculations were correct and the legend was true we could reach Creed’s Cave, camp for the night, and make the return trip within a twenty-four hour window.

The evening prior to our departure the three of us met for a final inspection. Rodney had a mind for detail so I trusted him when he said the number of cobwebs, in the corners of the boat and from the craft to the surrounding weeds had increased. I verified the lack of footprints in the flour we sprinkled on top of the mud around the bow of the boat. Clutch was busy doing a visual inspection of the craft. Maybe he was testing the side of the boat for integrity, but I think Clutch just bored. That happened on a pretty regular basis. Anyhow, Rodney and I were too busy with our own assignments to see Clutch draw back his right foot and kick the side of boat. Hard enough that echo reached the trees and came back in a matter of milliseconds. Rodney and I both hit the deck and rolled into the weeds. I thought we’d been shot at and was thankful the owner had the decency to fire a warning lob.



I scanned the weeds until I found a monster-set of eyes staring at me. Rodney had worn thick glasses since first grade, but when he got scared the gap between his eyes and the frame got swallowed up completely.

“Sounded like a 12 guage, Sid. You see Clutch anywhere?”

If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Clutch was auditioning for the role of a mad scientist. The scene was that creepy moment when he’s combining test tubes and finally gets the formula right. The laughter rolling from him came in volleys.

Sometimes Clutch played too much. I hadn’t decided whether I was pissed off enough to scold him or not, but trying to wipe away the muck from my tee-shirt was pushing me in that direction.

“You should have seen you two duffus’ hit the deck—it was like a fire drill, stop, drop, and roll. Hey Rodney, look it’s the Army, they’re here to capture that funk of yours, bend over and take one for your country!”

Good sense left me completely, as I walked straight over to Clutch and chest-bumped him.

“Look, Clutch, I know you like to goof on us, and that’s OK most of the time, but we got serious business to tend to. Come tomorrow morning the three of us are going to be starring into the steely jaws of the unknown. If we can’t stick together and know without a doubt each of us has the other’s back—well, well, maybe we all just get swallowed whole!”

Only after I’d acted in frustration did I think about Clutch deciding to use his fist on the top of my head to pound me into the soft marshy ground, and the silence screaming from him did nothing but bolster the vision. I turned to Rodney for support and got a nod of agreement and an almost inaudible accompaniment.

“ Yeah—what Sid said.”

The anger in Clutch’s eyes faded and his facial expressions rolled back in time.

“Sorry guys, you know you can count on me. Some jaggedy, old tooth monster grabs one of you, he better be ready to have his tonsils removed—the hard way. You know I ain’t afraid of nothin’!”

Clutch grabbed a handful of me and Rodney’s shirts, and after bumping us together like bookends, he called for the secret handshake.

The sun had almost vanished by the time we reached the edge of town and split up to head to our respective homes.

“OK, meet back here at 6:30am sharp and we’re doin’ this thing. Rodney, you got the tent, sleeping bags, and lanterns covered, right? I’m bringing cooking stuff, matches, flashlights, canteens, a hatchet, and a bag full of dad’s camping stuff.”

I glanced at Clutch. He had his head down. The shadows were getting long, but not enough that I couldn’t make out an expression I’d never seen before. I searched quickly for the right words.

“And Clutch, you’re bringing a big set of hairy balls and enough ass to steam-roll anything that gets in our way, right?”

Clutch grinned and our fists met.

“Yep…already got it covered”, Clutch giggled.

“Alright, let’s get some sleep men. 6:30am…set your alarms, and don’t forget to tell your parents you’re spending the night with someone other than one of us. We don’t want them checking up.”

As I finished my walk home I sorted through my thoughts. The three of us had always been tight, but tonight the dynamics changed a bit. Two things happened I thought I’d never see. For the first time in his life Clutch backed down. I think I represented the first person in his life he could trust completely and therefore respect. I never considered myself a leader at all. That was a risky proposition; screw up and you got a coop on your hands. But it felt pretty good having stepped up tonight. I’d never be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but half of the battle is recognizing and admitting that. I was however savvy enough to know the leadership road was rocky and filled with potholes. A quality leader needed to be measured and careful in their approach. Those that weren’t became dictators. My decisions had to be for the betterment of the group as a whole. I had a gut feeling that the swirling, ugly water leading up to entrance of Creed’s Cave would demand everything we had—if not more. We needed a competent leader to guide. These weren’t subordinates at work, they were life-long friends and I wouldn’t let anything jeopardize that. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Thought of the Day

We are all but single stones in a raging river called life. Moved, shaped, and carried by forces beyond our control. For some it is a frightening and desolate journey, whereby dysfunction has displaced hope, and betrayal has mired the beauty of the river to such an extent they no longer believe it will carry them to a greater connecting body of water. While withdrawing to a stagnant pool may save immediate discomfort, it is only a cruel suffocation in disguise. Some will tell you they are too jaded to be moved by the river. But I say, that in the end, we will have failed if we cannot convince those within our reach that we believe more today than yesterday that the ebb and flow of the river has purpose.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Thought of the Day

A man cannot effectively change his future without first reconciling his past

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Investments


In our relentless pursuit of an uncertain tomorrow we often trample the blessing of today



Frank listened in horror as the closing bell sounded and the Dow tumbled six-hundred fifty seven points. In four days a shade over twelve-hundred points completely vanished from the marketplace. His stomach was in knots and the overpowering urge to vomit would not pass quickly. In moments Frank sailed well beyond the point of finding comfort in what he called ‘advisor speak’. Larry Saunders had been wrong in prematurely predicting the market’s bottom, but in all fairness, so had many others. “You have to ride this thing out, give it some time,” he would say; pretty sage advice for a thirty year old executive sitting on a fat 401K or hopeful parents saving for a toddler’s college fund. But for a senior who scraped a lifetime in anticipation of a few good years the loss felt like a hatchet buried in his skull.

In the case of Frank and Margaret Wilhelm, time was the enemy. A nasty visitor arrived uninvited, swooping in and gobbling up everything good in their lives. The doctors were hopeful, but so far it crushed every defense mounted against it. In the back of Frank’s mind he knew there would be no negotiations, and little delay. This kind of marauder only departed when he had taken what he came for.

Frank tapped his foot against the floor as he waited for the teller’s return to the window. Such a transaction required a witness and it came in the form of a short, rotund man in a white suit. The fluorescent lighting did little to prevent the glare of his polished scalp as he waddled to the counter. An obligatory handshake was as ineffective as his explanation of bank policies. In an effort to make his position crystal clear, Frank grasped the knot of the little man’s tie and drew him close.

“Look, Boss Hog! I’ve just about reached my limit of cartoon-like characters in my life. I’m willing to forego the thanks you owe me for profiting from the use of my money. As your pathetic little sign with tiny print indicates, I am one of your valued customers. As such I would appreciate your prompt cooperation in retrieving my funds!”

With eyes the size of flapjacks the man muttered under his breath about regulatory safeguards and pre-notification concerning large transactions. Nonetheless he retrieved a pen and added his signature to the paperwork. The bank officer flinched as Frank reached across the counter again, but this time in an effort to smooth the wrinkles he created.

“I apologize for the rash behavior. If Mrs. Hog would be so kind as to forward the cleaning bill I’ll gladly compensate you for it.”

Frank shared equal glances between the busy road and the receipt he gripped in his hand. It took everything he had to keep from fainting dead away to see an account balance of all 0’s. Within arm’s reach lay the results of fifty years of obsessive behavior. Every extra penny squirreled away, but he had to ask himself—precisely for what? For a half-century he’d break into a cold sweat when considering tapping the funds while precious needs went unmet.

Margaret’s eyes were closed as she rested peacefully upon the couch. Her cheek-bones were high and prominent again; her entire frame thinner than when they married. Frank used his index finger to gently trace the veins in her hand. They were still full of life but different now. A lonely tear crossed the threshold and rolled down his cheek as he thought back to careless comments about her weight. He frowned at the foolishness of youth—believing that their time together would be endless. Now he often woke in the middle of the night just to hold her in his arms or watch the rise and fall of her chest. For decades the grandfather clock sitting in the corner of their bedroom did nothing but annoy him, but now every tick meant something. Each swing of the pendulum ushered another memory. Both sweet and bitter were welcome, for that’s what life was. Frank placed the box next to her side and quietly slipped from the room.

These were post chemo days where Margaret showed no interest in food. Even the smell of such things caused violent reactions. The upheavals were of epic proportion and of durations that were painful to listen to. During these times Frank subsisted on takeout eaten in the car, or a cold sandwich that created minimal odor.

Throughout this ugly slice of life he tried to remain neutral and supportive in the very personal choice of treatment. Frank determined that had it been him diagnosed he would have allowed nature to take its course, but perhaps that was the cowardice rising to the surface—the easy way out. Margaret had always been the stronger of them. She talked about the four seasons and wanting to experience each phase of life in its entirety. He recalled her words with admiration. ‘Without raw, excruciating pain how will one discover the value of inner-strength? If not for dark thunderheads that spawn tumultuous seas, how will we have a deeper appreciation for the sun that overlooks placid waters and provides warmth to the very core of our souls?’ Frank didn’t need to understand completely to know Margaret’s words and thoughts had always been more profound than his.

“What’s the special occasion?” Margaret asked curiously as she smiled from the doorway.

“An extremely belated gift, my dear. Open it up.”

The wrapping fell to the floor in shreds. Flipping open the velvet case the gleam in her eye told him she still recognized them. Margaret had long ago given up on the pair of marquee cut diamond earrings. She swallowed hard against the obstruction forming in her throat.

“But, you always said they were too expens…….”

Frank wrapped his arms around her and pressed his finger to her lips.

“You’d do well to forget everything I’ve said in the past, Margaret. You married a damn fool! Far too long I’ve been a dark cloud in your life. I want to be a ray of sunshine.”

Each day for the next two weeks Frank showered his wife with a different gift, many of which she had forgotten she ever desired. Yet the final package was something that waited a lifetime. Even as a young girl she allowed dreams of such fantastic places to fill her head.

Margaret made peace with the idea of expiring somewhere in a distant land—as much as one can wrap their minds around expiring at all. What did it matter, really? She would wake one day and continue her journey, walking down another dusty road, only this time there would be no fretting over choosing a direction; the road would just run out. She found a measure of peace and comfort in that. Margret booked the flight. She supposed a great many people spent their final days in a hospital bed only reading about exciting places. It seemed to her a very hollow and empty proposition. That if she did such an unthinkable thing a part of her soul would be restless for all eternity.

She mentally prepared herself for the rigors of travel and still portions of the fourteen hour plane ride were brutal and unforgiving, but Margaret reminded herself she had been uncomfortable in her own home. More than once she caught herself grimacing from the pain, but Margaret made a conscious decision to deal with each setback by remembering that if you boiled life down to its simplest form every moment revolved around perspective. As they walked from site to breathtaking site she needed to make frequent stops to rest. Most times they were able to locate a park bench or a step, and the few times they couldn’t Frank suggested leaning against him long enough to catch her breath, and wasn’t that the way marriage was supposed to be.

Quaint, street-side café’s were as plentiful as gas stations in America. Had time allowed she would have sat a moment at each of them. She didn’t recall the name specifically, but one marvelous evening stood out from the others. In mid-sentence she suddenly forgot how to speak, everything became awkward and new as she stared at Frank across a candlelit table and saw that twinkle in his eye. Like so many others, over the years theirs had become a comfortable love, but encapsulated in that very moment there was no mistaking the spark when he reached for hand and the uneasiness in her stomach when she felt his touch. She was falling for him all over again.

The soothing musing from a violin melted away the cares of the world. Fine Italian wine felt like velvet to her tongue and a simple crescent moon held a particular fascination when viewed from beneath the Eiffel Tower. In an attempt to appreciate Michael Angelo’s original perspective they laid flat on their backs against a cold marble floor and marveled at the dome of the Sistine chapel. They laughed with the abandon of young children, and wasn’t that how marriage was supposed to be.

Memories of Vienna, above all other, would remain eternal. As they floated further down the canal, a dark blanket of night gave over its will to lunar expression. The cosmos unfolded before them—where shattered fragments of brilliance disguised as stars, danced in delight around their master, for it was he that breathed them into existence. The harmony of the heavens was undeniable as the vessel fell under its command and the world spinning around them took on a vague hue of insignificance.

As if the third act of a play had been announced earlier, Frank sensed the curtain sweeping closed. He cupped his wife’s hand in his, and with renewed conviction repeated the forty-three year old wedding vow. Margaret never heard the wavering of his voice, because she had decided years earlier it was perfect. More than anything she felt his heart speaking directly to hers, inscribing a message of love that time could not erase. In a non-descript gondola with the moon shimmering softly against their silhouettes, they shared one final passionate kiss. The sweetness of which would linger on her lips forever.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Promises



Charlie plopped his seven-year old frame on the side of the bed to tie his shoes. The bows weren’t as even as when mom tied them, but the baby kept her busy now. He gave each pant leg a tug at the bottom. Mom said he was between sizes right now, but Charlie had never owned a pair of pants that reached the top of his shoes. He didn’t mind the color—earthworms, mud, and the stuff grasshoppers spit in your hand were all brown. On the way to straightening up he ran his fingers across the ridges. Charlie had no idea what corduroy was, but the older boys at school did and it seemed they didn’t like it much. The third graders in Mrs. Keen’s class didn’t like anything Charlie wore, or the way he looked for that matter. He used to enjoy spending time shopping at the thrift shops with his mother until the boys told him that only hobos and queers shopped at places like that. Some days he had to count to ten twice to avoid punching them in the nose for the things they said and the way it made him feel, but Charlie wasn’t a fighter and besides there was no one to teach him.

Charlie ambled down the steps, dragging his fingers against the wall as he went. He withdrew his hand quickly when he remembered that grubby fingerprints made mom crazy. Sometimes she sat him on her knee and spoke softly about little boys having trouble remembering, but when she had dark circles around her eyes she screamed his full name loud enough to make the neighbor’s dogs bark. Charles Allen Whitaker was the same name as his dad’s. Charlie didn’t want to be anything like his father. He did want to meet him someday just to see if he looked as much like him as mom said. When he turned sixteen, that’s when he’d visit. By then he would have forgotten most of the anger over his father’s leaving.

The television played to an empty living room. Saturday morning cartoons weren’t the same without mom sitting by his side on the couch, both eating Life cereal and slurping the milk from the bowl. Charlie didn’t know exactly why, but walked out of his way to kick his baby sister’s toy across the room. He tried not to think too hard about Ashley because it made him feel things he shouldn’t. Sometimes the yucky feelings went away if he thought about tickling her belly and the silly giggles she made, or the way her tiny hands felt on his face, and how good her skin smelled after a bath. Charlie wasn’t at all certain how he felt about Ashley having a different daddy than him—just plain weird he guessed.

Charlie walked across the kitchen and curled his arm around his mother’s leg.

“Can we have cereal for breakfast?”

When she looked down at him Charlie notices the black circles and knew the answer wasn’t going to be what he wanted to hear.

“I’d love to have cereal with you this morning, but I’m making bottles for your sister right now. Then the grass needs mowed and I have a million other things to get done today.”

“It’s OK, mom. I understand.”

The dejected tone of his voice meant a million things, but not one of them understanding.

“Tell you what…there’s a couple dollars in change on the counter. Why don’t you run to the gas station and buy yourself a doughnut?”

His eyes lit up instantly, “A cream-filled one?” He asked.

She patted the top of his curly, blonde head.

“Yes, Charlie, whatever kind you want.”

Charlie grabbed the money and barely opened the screen door wide enough to clear. In fact, it shut on the back of his shoe and he tumbled headlong down the steps. He did two complete summersaults and landed on his feet, but the rough concrete took a bite out of his forehead and one of his knees.

A neighbor working outside heard the commotion and rushed across the street. As the gentlemen rounded the corner he did not find exactly what he expected.

Charlie brushed his knees and used his shirt-tail to dab the corner of his eyes. He bent over and began collecting the change.

“Son-of-a-biscuit-bitin’ door. That stupid, stinkin’, change-stealin’, somethin’ or another!”

The neighbor choked back a giggle. Charlie had no idea anyone had seen or heard anything.

“Hey there, Sparky, looks like you took a spill. You OK?”

Charlie lifted his head to acknowledge the presence of the intruder, greeting him with eye-brows narrowed, and a scowl serious enough to wrinkle his nose.

“My name ain’t Sparky, and I’ll be fine as soon as I find my last quarter.”

The gentlemen stooped to help but didn’t see any sign of the missing money. He moved toward the edge of the grass. When the boy wasn’t looking he slipped his hand in his pocket and pretended to lift something from the lawn and took it over to him.

“I know your name’s not Sparky, I apologize. It’s just kind of a general term. Anyhow I’m Mark and here’s your quarter, Charlie.”

He snatched the coin from his hand.

“How do you know my name? You some kinda creeper or somethin’?

By this time Charlie’s mother was standing at the door watching.

The neighbor moved to the door and whispered to her through the screen.

“Good morning, Lisa. If you don’t have plans for him today I’d like to spend the afternoon with Charlie. Thought we might go fishing.”

The offer brought a smile to Lisa’s face.

“I think it’s definitely time for that. Hey Charlie, would you want to spend the afternoon with Mark? He might take you fishing.”

Charlie looked across the street at the black and silver bass boat. Ever since it appeared he’d been captivated by it, especially when the sun danced and moved across the surface. He turned back to his mother with an expression that indicated she was feeding him to the wolves.

“I don’t know this guy. Remember what you taught me about strangers.”

Charlie gave Mark a good head-to-toe scrutinizing before voicing a final assessment.

“Looks kind of creepy, if you ask me.”

His mother frowned.

“Charlie stop being angry. I do know Mark and he’s a great guy.”

A heavy sigh nearly folded the boy in half. He kicked at the driveway knowing what his mother expected, but not wanting to give in.

“Whatever—you’ll be busy anyway.”

Mark knelt to take a closer look at the scrapes.

“Let’s get those wounds cleaned up. I have a first-aid kit in the boat. We’ll get you taken care of and be on the lake before the pleasure-boat rush.”

Charlie asserted himself.

“It’s not your job to take care of me.”

Mark made eye contact with Lisa and winked.

“Charlie and I will be just fine.”

The duo walked across the street and Mark lifted Charlie and sat him on the deck of the boat. He opened the kit and removed a bottle.

“This is peroxide…it’s gonna chase the germs out but will sting a little.”

Mark figured a little diversionary tactic wouldn’t hurt.

“What you said a minute ago is true, Charlie. It’s not my job to take of care of you, but sometimes you do things for people if you have the ability to do so.”

Charlie looked perplexed.

“Even for strangers?”

Mark placed a bandage over his knee. Rubbing the corners he looked Charlie in the eye.

“Yes, for people we don’t even know sometimes.”

Charlie picked up the metal case and looked at his reflection, turning his head from side to side.

“You think I got big ears?” He asked.

Mark leaned in close so that the reflections of their faces were side by side.

“Nah, they’re no bigger than mine.”

Charlie giggled.

“Yeah but you’re a grown up.”

Mark lifted him over the rail and placed him on the drive.

“Yeah, but I grew into my ears though. When I was a kid the other boys used to tease me. They called me Dumbo and all kinds of mean things.”

Charlie raised his eyebrows in disbelief.

“They did. Did you want to punch ‘em in the face?”

“Sure they made fun of me, and yeah I wanted to hurt them at first—until I figured it all out.”

Charlie had made a connection with Mark. He followed him like a puppy to the driver’s side of the truck, hopped over the console, and settled into the passenger seat.

“What do you mean until you figured it out?”

“Well, I mean I was angry and hurt. No kid wants to be made fun of, but my daddy told me it’s the meanest kids that are hurting the most. Making others feel badly is the only way they know how to feel better about themselves. After that I just felt sorry for them and didn’t want to hurt them anymore than they were already hurting on the inside. Do you understand?”

Mark watched the boy’s expression turn gloomy. He supposed he’d failed at bridging the gap in explaining something in seven-year-old terms.

“Kinda. I just wish I had a dad to tell me those kinds of things—but I don’t. He left me.”

Mark pulled into the gas station to fuel up. Charlie peered up over the dash and his eyes brightened when he saw where they were.

“Can I get a doughnut? I have my own money.”

“Of course you can, son, but your money’s no good with me. How about I buy us both one?”

Charlie shrugged his miniature shoulders and grinned.

The weather could not have been better suited for fishing. It was warm, but not too warm, and with the overcast skies Mark couldn’t wait to get a spinner-bait right along the edge of the rip-rap. He fastened the buckles and cinched the straps on Charlie’s life vest. Mark threw the boat into reverse and they moved away from the dock.

“You ever been fishing in a boat before, Charlie?”

Although it was a pretty simple question, Mark waited for a response long enough that the words were forming on his lips to ask again when the answer came back as another question.

“How come you don’t take your own boy fishing?”

Mark smiled at remembering how a young boy’s mind works and the sheer number of question.

“That’s a very difficult question. The circumstances are complicated and I’m not sure you would understand completely.”

Charlie opened one of the hatches. He stuck his head in and after a few moments seemed satisfied. He closed the lid and fastened it shut. Mark prepared a rod with a bobber and small plastic tub jig hoping for a late crappie or bluegill bite. After several failed attempts to cast Charlie became frustrated.

“Here Charlie, let’s try this.

Mark placed his hands over Charlie’s and the bobber sailed out into the choppy water.

Charlie turned to him and smiled. He stared hard at Mark, before lobbing another question.

“So you like my mom don’t you? I mean, why else would you take me fishing?”

Mark finished his retrieve and Charlie to wind in his line. He stowed the gear in the rod box. After closing the hatch Mark went to the casting deck, sat down Indian-style, and motioned for Charlie to join him. Charlie came but sat down some distance away. It was crystal clear he had no interest in fishing at this time. He was struggling with how to react to the uneasiness of a new-friendship. He fiddled with his shoe laces and picked at the carpet flicking the fuzz into the breeze.

“It’s a great day to be alive isn’t Charlie?”

The boy nodded in affirmation, but his full attention was obviously focused on a boat cruising up the opposite shoreline.

“You’ve asked some very good questions today, and I’m going to do my best to answer them. I need you to scoot closer and do your best to pay attention.”

Charlie closed the distance.

“I never answered your question about liking your mother and you feeling that I must or I wouldn’t be spending time with you. First, I’m spending time with you because I think you’re a great little guy and I’d like to get to know you better. I do care about your mother, and I know that must feel strange to hear. How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and then giggled.

“My dad probably wouldn’t like it.”

Mark nodded, “I understand completely why you would think that. What if I told you that I knew your dad very well? What would you want to ask about him?”

There was not a moment’s hesitation.

“Does he look like me at all?”

Mark nodded. “Very much so, Charlie, and so far from getting to know you I think your personality is much like his. You talked earlier about wishing he was here to tell you those kind of things, but he left you. You know that he didn’t choose to leave you, right?”

Charlie shrugged and opened up a little.

“Yeah, Mom told me that he got in trouble with the law. Sometimes I wonder if she’s just trying to protect my feelings—mom’s do that you know.”

Mark nodded.

“That’s because she loves you so much that she never wants you to hurt, but what she’s telling you is true. Young people sometimes make poor choices. They get mixed up with bad people and do stupid things. Sometimes they hurt people, not on purpose, but because of silly choices. Charlie, you must remember even small choices have lasting consequences, and almost always reach further and deeper into the future than we intend.”

Mark’s words trailed off into silence and he stared off into the distance. Wet, shiny eyes gave way to the first tear that wandered down his cheek. The frequency between drops became less and less until they formed a steady stream.

Charlie turned away started playing with the carpet fuzz again, but the confusion and frustration boiled into words.

“Why are you saying bad things about my daddy? I don’t like you very much. I want you to take me home.”

Mark composed himself. He reached for Charlie’s shoulder’s and squared him.

“Charlie, I’m telling you the truth, and the truth is not always easy to say or hear, but you’re old enough hear it now. You’re mom and I talked and decided that it’s time for you to know who I am.”

__________________________



Charlie did as instructed, stepping beyond the first set of steel doors waiting at the next. The chamber between the two was empty and cold, a doorway to nothingness. Something died inside when the clank of the steel bolts slid into place. The sound spoke of permanence and isolation and as much as air symbolizes life, little of either existed here. Charlie thought he would suffocate before the officer signaled for the opening of the second set of doors. The doors slid apart but Charlie’s feet were frozen. The officer’s firm grip on his arm prompted his steps.

“This is it, big boy, cell block B in all its glory. Notice the lines—don’t want the crazies reaching through the bars.”

Charlie stared through the glass and imagined an existence there—if you could call it that.

“You understand I’m doing this as a huge favor—visitors aren’t allowed here.”

The guard’s boots fell heavy against the tile as he moved down the hallway, Charlie’s barely made a sound. He supposed intimidation was a major component in this line of work, and this gentleman studied hard.

“Here you go, Son, have a seat and they’ll bring him out in a minute.”

The man the officer ushered to the window was only a shell, what remains after his insides are scooped out. He observed a vague resemblance, but nothing he wanted to wrap his mind around right now. Charlie spoke more into the glass than the man on the other side.

“Hey” was all that came out when he opened his mouth. He intended more.

His father studied him for a moment.

“Stand up, please. I want to see the man you’ve grown into.”

The hair on the back of Charlie’s neck stood on end. What right did he have to demand anything from a son he didn’t know? Charlie swallowed hard and found his feet.

His dad shook his head from side to side and smiled for the first time in years.

“Charlie, I would like to say I’m proud of you, but that would indicate that I some positive influence on the results. You should be proud.”

Charlie settled back in the chair and their eyes met directly for the very first time.

“How’s your mom doin’?”

“Abandoned and lonely most days…just like me, but we’re used to it.”

His father’s eyes went to the floor and scanned from side to side before returning with a fire beneath them.

“Look, Charlie, if you came to punish me you arrived twenty-two years too late…that’s eight thousand and thirty brutal days and nights racking my brain trying to find a way to right wrongs. Broken as it is life’s a one-way street…there ain’t no replay button.”

His father’s words rang true, but Charlie’s mind raced with thoughts and images of missed ballgames and birthdays, trips to the lake, his first date, and billion other blow opportunities. Charlie stood up again.

“This whole thing was a bad idea—raking open the wounds again. I think I should leave now.”

His dad smiled as if he recognized the fire in his boy.

“You have all the power here Charlie, but just in case this is your only visit I need to tell the story. Believe me when I say spilling your guts twenty-four, seven to a concrete wall ain’t the answer either. I know you don’t owe me, but five minutes is all I’m asking. Your choice entirely.”

Charlie battled against natural inclinations and raw emotion, turning to walk more than once. He drew a deep breath and melted back into the chair.

“OK…five minutes no more.”

“Fair enough, son. I’d be lyin’ if I told you I hadn’t rehearsed this a million times, but practicing life don’t work either. I was three years younger than you are now, July 16th, 1982. I went to a birthday party for a friend alone. Your mom stayed home because you were only two weeks old. I was born a hellion and your momma had ideas of savin’ me. Didn’t expect her to, but didn’t stop her from tryin’ either. This many years later it’s still hard for me to say, but I don’t remember putting the keys in the ignition or my truck crossing the center-line. I only recall flashes and slivers of the ugly hours that followed; the crunching of metal, a woman and a young boy lying in the middle road, drowning in pools of their own blood. I remember her body being mangled, but she never stopped calling his name and crawling around to lay her hands on that boy one last time.”

The recollection became too much. He choked and sputtered until the words stopped altogether. All Charlie knew to do was shake his head from side to side.

“They died, Charlie, both of them. The only piece that keeps me sane is knowing they went to be with the Lord. So here I sit, paying a penance that can never be paid. You’re mom never looked at me the same…figure that when she gave up on me. She came for a couple of weeks out of obligation, but it was too much; I asked her to stop coming. Six months or so later they told me I had a visitor waiting. Thought he might have been someone from the past, but all of those ‘party friends’ evaporated like a dirty puddle exposed to the light. The man asked me how I was doing. If I was healing—told me he was worried about my soul. I knew then he was with some local church trying to win a wayward soul over to God. I was starved for conversation with anyone. We talked a lot and laughed some too. When he got ready to go he put his hand against the glass and asked me to do the same. He prayed for me and about the accident…that I knew in my heart that God had forgiven me and that I also knew he too had found forgiveness after meeting the man that had taken his wife and boy too soon.”

Both Charlie and his father were moved to tears—the kind that wash the old away.

“That ain’t natural. A man that can forgive like that has Jesus living in him. I knew that precise moment Mark was the man I wanted to raise my boy. He promised me he would and today I see what a fine job he’s done.”

Charlie felt a familiar hand on his shoulder and turned.

“Your mom said you were coming down so I wanted to make sure you were OK.”

Charlie put his hand around Mark’s waist and gave his father a thumbs-up.

Mark pressed his palm against the glass, Charlie placed his hand beside, and his father’s met from the other side.

His dad leaned to the microphone.

“You’re a man of your word and live what you believe. I brought hell right to your doorstep and Mark, you rose above it. And if that wasn’t enough you raised my son to be twice the man I ever hoped to be. Here’s to promises. God bless you, my brother.”