“I went to shoot Johnny, but he was already dead.”
Without even the hint of a cracker this caged canary was singing his heart out. Un-coerced information just isn’t supposed to come this easy, but his predisposition to song intrigued me, like a chili-dog with extra cheese and onions lies in wait for a man with irritable-bowel syndrome.
After serving a stint up-state, Johnny Smirconich resurfaced in my beat. His arrival was as welcomed as a turd floating in the east river. Not that my beat was squeaky clean but I prided myself on progress made. I intended to cut off the source of raw sewage spilling onto my streets by squeezing Johnny to roll over on his boss, ‘one-eyed’ Don. My efforts would be severely hampered by this inconvenient dirt nap. Fresh leads were becoming scarce and I hoped lighting a fire under Mark Kimball would provide something.
“Kinda ironic don’t you think? You go to a man’s house to kill him and presto, he’s already taken two rounds to the melon.”
The young man simply shrugged, “Just a matter of time, really—you piss enough people off they’re gonna come looking for ya.”
As much as I hated to admit it Mark was right. The line of those wishing to exact revenge on Johnny Smirconich produced more slobbering, wild-eyed onlookers than a Chippendale dancer at a nunnery. Only the fear of retribution kept the angry mob at bay. ‘One-eyed’ Don was known for brutally defending his own, even a lackey like Johnny. The killer was either extremely stupid or very well connected.
I was a man of proven techniques, pacing seemed to produce a decided advantage in fraying my quarry’s nerves. As I moved from view, I retrieved a cigar and offered it to him.
“I hear congratulations are in order. Is your wife expecting a boy or a girl?”
Wide eyes telegraphed his disbelief; that I had actually done some homework, but as quickly as he had taken to song; my canary suddenly lost his willingness to warble. He ripped the cigar from my hand and adopted a defensive tone.
“Neither Patty nor her pregnancy have anything to do with this. Is it too much to ask that you stay on topic—flatfoot?”
I stood flabbergasted; never in the history of man has a fine celebratory cigar met with such harsh greetings. The probe had obviously exposed a vein of sensitivity. With the care and compassion a Doberman shows a T-bone I gripped the vein between my teeth, anxiously wishing to discover the source of discomfort.
“Word has it pretty Patty likes to put out and she has a penchant for bad-boys. Honesty Mark, how long did you think she’d settle for bumper cars before looking for a wilder ride? Is that why you went to whack Johnny?”
A vindictive grin graced my lips. In one fell swoop I had accosted his manhood, the integrity of his wife, and at least to my satisfaction addressed the flatfoot accusation. The rage boiled in his eyes and I was certain only a few seconds separated me from information vital to busting this case wide open.
“She didn’t ask for it—that no-good bastard raped her!”
One juicy tidbit is all he provided, a measly hors d'oeuvre tossed to a man expecting prime-rib. He refused to comment any further without representation.
Not surprisingly his lawyer dodged my calls. For three days I left messages with his secretary trying to arrange the meeting. Perhaps some of the sympathy in my voice had been lost in the shorthand translation. I simply suggested the counsel had misplaced his conscience beneath a pile of law books and for the sake of his client I hoped his weakened spine would allow for the unearthing of such.
On Wednesday morning at 4:03 am my phone rang. It was the illusive counselor advising me we would have to delay the meeting further. Mark allegedly awakened to find Patty taking advantage of an early morning swim—facedown in the pool and fully clothed.
A small caliber round lodged in Patty’s brain had significantly lessoned her ability to recall the front crawl. There was a mound of evidence piling up and I was about to unleash an avalanche of justice on a very unsuspecting suspect. Call me twisted, but I was as giddy as a homely schoolgirl standing by the punchbowl at her first dance. With lust-filled eyes she spots the geek in the corner. He fiddles with his pocket-protector while sixteen years of unfulfilled passion boil in her loins. This case hadn’t dragged on that long, but before the night was through I also aimed to get a piece of someone.
An uncomfortable air fell about the place as I paced in front of Mark and his representation. Each of us sensed an eerie explosion was about to take place. The small interrogation room would provide little refuge from shrapnel and I suspected we’d all emerge bloody.
“I suppose the only question remaining is how do you feel about a shiny new set of bracelets, Mark?”
His lawyer smirked, “Don’t waste our time with your conjecture—let’s get down to business.”
“As you wish, counselor—Johnny Smirconich was not a model citizen, and for that matter neither was Patty Kimball, but an unfortunate set of circumstances led to their murders. Due to Patty’s promiscuous ways she found herself pregnant and in desperate need of a father, so she claimed Johnny had raped her. There’s one serious flaw with her choice. Johnny had just finished serving time for a child-molestation charge. A bit of jail-house justice saw to it that Johnny’s offending member was severed with a shank. They eventually stopped the bleeding, but shall we say ‘little Johnny’ was unsalvageable.
Believing his wife’s accusation, in a fit of rage, Mark went to settle the score. After releasing an errant shot he panicked and ran, evidenced by the coroner report stating the round in Johnny’s upper thigh was inflicted at least a half-hour prior to the deadly rounds.
Once Patty learned Johnny had only been wounded she went back to close the deal. Patty Kimball was loose, but she wasn’t stupid. She realized once word got out, and word always gets out; ‘one-eyed’ Don would be coming for Mark. She must have presented some convincing argument.”
His lawyer laughed out loud, but I knew from Mark’s pained expression that my supposition was not far from the truth.
“Both of the victims were dispatched with a .22 caliber pistol.”
“Yeah—the most common weapon on the planet”, his lawyer quipped.
“Ballistic test show these rounds came from no ordinary .22, each fired from a top of the line Pardini, costing upwards of three grand. I must admit the weapon choice seemed a bit strange at first. A search through appropriate records showed twenty-three sold in the New York area during the time frame we’re considering, but most notably only one in a left hand model.”
My information seemed to ruffle Mark’s feathers as the canary regained his voice.
“What makes you think Patty knew how to handle a gun? Besides she was right handed.”
“You purchased the gun, Mark. You snatched the cigar from me with your left hand and the paperwork signed for the weapon has already been analyzed. As far as Patty is concerned, this little piece of evidence should remove any doubt.”
I took the opportunity to back up my assertions with a yellowed news article. The title was ‘Patty’s Pardini Wins Gold’. No one could deny she was a crack shot, but two days before the Olympic finals a cruel twist of fate saw her right hand crushed by a car door. Patty insisted on competing and despite shooting left handed she managed to blow the competition away and glided on to gold.
The sober expressions indicated I had their full attention. I seized the moment by closing to within inches of Mark’s face.
“Isn’t it true that Patty refused to get an abortion which you insisted upon? When she flatly denied your pleas you decided that if you couldn’t kill the baby you would take her life!”
Mark shot out of his chair and bolted for the door. Expecting such desperation I intercepted him midway. The subsequent rustling of chairs summoned two other officers which assisted in subduing the confused man. Before Mark was escorted from the room he turned to me and posed one last question.
“If Patty wasn’t raped—do you think there’s a possibility the baby was mine?”
I carefully considered my response, “Sure, son, it’s possible.”
Mark obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, but who says detectives don’t have a heart. Just yesterday I had confirmed with medical officials that Patty had been informed of the sonogram results; those revealing a genetic defect in the baby. The affliction is called Anophthalmos; a condition whereby none of the tissue for the eye develops. The baby she was carrying was ‘one-eyed Don’s.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
“I went to shoot Johnny, but he was already dead.”
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Still panting from the five block sprint, Teddy pulled the ski-mask off and immediately emptied the bag onto the table. He began stacking the bills neatly, a pile for each denomination. As his mother entered the room she recognized the gleam in his eye and could not ignore the recklessness with which he spoke.
“Now that’s a haul—almost six hundred and fifty bucks! Did you see the way the shopkeeper’s hands were shakin’? He couldn’t get that register open fast enough!”
More than an hour had passed since she and Teddy had reached the safety of the apartment, but even now Mimi Jones preferred the secrecy of disguise. She searched her heart for words that might turn a sixteen year old boy’s perception, but those she found were distinctly a mother’s.
“Listen to you talk—like a regular thug. This ain’t no haul—it’s next month’s rent, a new pair of shoes for you, and a warm coat for your sister.”
The boy grimaced as she moved closer and took his face in her hands. She spoke slowly, as if delaying important words might allow them to linger long enough to be absorbed.
“Theodore Jamal Jones, this ain’t who we are!”
Even the sincerity in her words couldn’t change the fact it was who they had become. She never imagined times this difficult—this desperate; when cash from pawned family heirlooms would not be enough. Not a day passed when she didn’t dwell on the catalyst that spawned this downward spiral. In her view, her husband had become a poor influence on the children and eventually she asked him to leave. Quite possibly his reluctance to go had not been selfish in nature, but only that he saw a clearer vision regarding the hardships that lie before them.
Worry saddled with hypocrisy made for a heavy burden. A dark shadow had swallowed her soul and Mimi struggled to break the invisible grip. Where was the change that politicians peddled so freely? Change, they touted, had the power to transform, an opportunity that knocked upon doors. Perhaps she was busy surviving when promise came rapping, but it had left no card, not even a sign it had made an attempt. Maybe this illusive ideal was colorblind as so many things seemed to be; avoiding dark neighborhoods such as theirs.
Even the young boys next door, those she had mothered years ago, had soured in this environment. She cried while watching future businessmen, doctors, and lawyers as they played the roles of thugs, dealers, and thieves. Choosing to cast aside each ideal and moral as their eyes became colder, their faces harder, and the possibility of turning back became slimmer. This loathsome beast bearing the name of poverty had a veracious appetite and where she lived, there were many much too willing to oblige. Mimi refused to facilitate the slow decay of her own children. No longer would she merely fatten them for the kill.
“That’s it, Teddy—no more of this! I’ve slid far enough down this slope, it’s time I dig in my heels and start crawling upward.”
“But Momma, the doctor says you’ll die without the heart medicine. Just one more time—I’ll go alone.”
“Teddy, can’t you see? Part of me died tonight as I watched how readily you took to crime and I don’t need no doctor to tell me that. Promise me, son, no matter what, there’ll be no more.”
Teddy turned away as he felt his eyes burning. Bitter tears carved his cheeks and emotions welled inside.
“I’m the man of the house now and there ain’t nothin’ a man should back down from when it comes to protecting his family. Please, Momma, ask me anything else but I can’t make you that promise.”
So the conversation ended in a stalemate. Mimi knew she could not refute his words as they were her own spewed back at her. Within some circumstances there existed no line between black and white, fine or otherwise, only a void filled with gray.
As the days passed her weakened heart confined her to more days in a worn chair that she would have liked, but Mimi found comfort there. With a ragged throw knitted by her mother around her shoulders, she dozed a good part of the day and welcomed the dreams that infiltrated her rest. She embraced a foreign world so overfilled with joy and love there were no cracks for such demons as worry to slither in. For these small things young Teddy was thankful.
He tucked his sister into bed, covering her with an extra blanket. He also checked to see that his mother was resting peacefully before leaving them that Christmas Eve night. He glanced to an empty corner where a Christmas tree stood in years past and then moved to the thermostat again. The apartment had grown chilly since the heat had been turned off. Teddy pressed an open hand against the thin pane of glass separating his world from theirs. Although the divider appeared translucent it may as well been made of stone, with a large no trespassing sign hanging from it. Many believed the time had come when an affluent white society welcomed the poor black man, but he knew they were liars. Even the aid they provided came at a heavy price. As long as a man was willing to check his dignity and pride at the door they would allow him to beg for a check. How charitable of them; monthly installments to ensure their neighborhoods, churches, and clubs remained snow-white and void of impurities. He would not stand by while they killed his mother. As a naïve and cruel world slept Teddy prepared to provide for his family in the only way he knew.
As easily as he had tucked his young sister in bed, he placed the .45 into his waistband. The cold steel against the small of his back signaled the finality that accompanied such weapons. He didn’t intend upon firing, but his intentions would remain secret as he brandished the weapon boldly.
At some moment during her son’s absence Mimi’s heart simply failed to beat and she exhaled one last breath. Her body was not racked with pain, she quietly slipped away. This eternal state of sleep spared her soul the tortuous details of Teddy’s last battle.
The second time the shop owner’s hand shook with rage instead of fear as he refused to open the register. Teddy leapt over the counter and clubbed the man with the butt of his pistol. In a fit of rage he shook the box open and emptied the contents. As the proprietor began to stir Teddy hurdled the counter and found the door, but as he reached the curb an unexpected hail of gunfire shattered the still night air. He felt the scorching rounds ripping through his flesh seconds before he heard the sound. Teddy stumbled, but the screeching voice of the store owner stoked his adrenaline and carried him as far as the next street light, but at 42nd and Broadway his weakened legs could carry him no further and he fell to the sidewalk.
Teddy had no idea his mother had passed, just as she was unaware he lay on the street dying. A light snow started to trickle from the sky and with a strange urgency he wiped at the flakes that settled on his shivering body. He wanted to ensure that whoever discovered him would see the skin color God had given him. As consciousness began to fade and his breathing became labored he could hear the voice of carolers in the distance. They were joyfully singing ‘White Christmas’. Teddy knew his mother would have been disappointed in his pettiness, but he could not allow those words to haunt him forever. Through a concerted effort he burned his last bit of energy to smile and brush at the snow again. His chest rose and fell one last time as a baritone voice began Silent Night.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
My name is Miranda Magee. I’m a third year psychology major and tending bar seemed the perfect opportunity to hone my skills. My patrons openly describe me as well-endowed and wildly popular, I’m certain no correlation. Part of me should be offended by that, but emptying the tip jar at evening’s end has soothed my over-sensitive nature and eventually I accepted the concept that a plunging neck-line seems to prompt mutually beneficial results. However, in my presence, I do insist that customers refrain from the use of my nickname, “Miranda, double D, bit-tit, Magee”.
Tim Wyman is one of the regulars I’ve taken a special interest in. Certainly not in the way he would like, but I’m confident my repeated rejections have not dampened his highly regarded view of himself. Although I believe he has given up any chance of bagging me, he still insists on asking provocative questions. “How slim are the odds that a psychology major should be blessed with such marvelous breasts?” To which I responded, “No less likely that an otherwise attractive man would allow his abrasive comments to ruin any chance he might once have garnered.”
He strolled through the door of “The Plaid Cactus” as if it was any other Wednesday quarter beer night. It turned out to be anything but ordinary. He found his usual empty stool and perched himself there, but the uniqueness of the evening began by his constant scanning of the barroom, almost as if he was seeking someone he couldn’t find.
“Miller draught, Tim?”
Without a hint of hesitation in his voice he promptly ordered a double shot of whiskey. After placing the glass carefully in front of him I began probing. I truly did feel badly for his wife and wanted to see if I could inflict some guilt upon him.
“Your wife must have finally come to her senses and left you.”
Tim grinned nervously and I noticed a slight trembling in his hand as he reached for the drink.
“What—what make you say something crazy like that?”
“Simple—beer indicates you have no specific destination in mind and certainly are in no hurry to get there. Whiskey, on the other hand, tells me you’ve been there before and find the scenery a waste of time.”
Before he could consider my words an attractive blonde in her middle thirties chose the stool next to him. Many a young vixen had fallen victim to Tim’s charm while sitting on that very stool, but she looked capable of fending for herself. After a concerted effort the lighter produced flame and her cigarette began to glow. The smoky haze softened her bleached-blonde hair and hard blue eyes until they almost seemed attractive. Normally Tim would have pounced on her by now, but his mind was obviously elsewhere.
In a perky voice I took the stranger’s order.
“I’ll have a double shot of Crown—easy on the rocks.”
I shot a glance Tim’s way, “Well, there you go…you’ve got a passenger now.”
After retrieving her drink I tossed in a bit of advice.
“Better buckle-up, no time for foreplay, Tim’s in a hurry tonight.”
With a puzzled look on her face the stranger leaned close to him and whispered, “Tim Wyman?”
The smug expression that crossed his face was classic Tim. It didn’t take a roadmap to know he took great satisfaction in discovering a strange doable woman was already familiar with his name. I was certain the surly Tim I knew was on the verge of emerging.
She forced a smile, “I think I’m the one you’re waiting on.”
His furrowed brows indicated disbelief. With a devilish grin his eyes lingered on her sculpted calves and the dress that covered only a third of her upper thigh.
“Darling, on any other night you definitely would be the one I was waiting on, but tonight business comes first.”
It was very out of character for Tim to leave a warm carcass for the occasional scavenger to move in on, but even I could sense the heaviness in the air.
Insistent upon her previous assumption she attempted to convince him. Nodding at her sequin-covered hand bag she tried again.
“I have something for you and I believe you have something for me in return.”
Without saying a word Tim left the stool and made his way toward a vacant table. She gathering both of their drinks and followed him. The table he selected was near enough the hallway leading to the kitchen so without a pang of guilt I posted myself there.
“What is that you have for me?” Tim asked.
She produced a wallet, which he thumbed through quickly before continuing.
“So, you’re telling me she’s dead?”
“Four rounds in the head from a 9mm, just as you specifically requested and now you act surprised by the results.”
I covered my mouth in an effort to mute the gasp. I had long know Tim Wyman’s womanizing ways, but never figured him for murder.
“You watched someone do this, right?”
She smiled convincingly, “Yeah, I watched each of the bullets leave the gun as I looked down the barrel.”
While maintaining eye contact and with practiced precision her hand found his knee and inched upward along his inner thigh, massaging as she went. Her words took on a sultry tone.
“Does it surprise you a woman could be so cold and calculating?”
Tim did seem surprised by her aggression and recoiled until the back of chair abruptly ended his retreat. He reached for the inner pocket of his sport coat, but she placed her hand over his.
“You silly boy, let’s not do this here; someone might be watching, but before we go outside I’d like to know why you had your wife killed.”
Tim tossed a crumpled lottery ticket on the table.
“Over the years my wife and I have grown apart. I’ve recently come into to a large amount of cash and simply didn’t feel like spreading the wealth.”
She removed a pen from his pocket and scrawled something on a napkin before placing both in his hand. She leaned close and twirled his tie slowly with her index finger.
“Tim you are a very naughty boy. Give me a call sometime; I hear Cancun is wonderful this time of year and just in case you’re wondering, I do look smashing in a bikini.”
My eavesdropping had yielded far more than I bargained for. Realizing the urgency of the situation I dialed 911 immediately, but the couple was already headed for the door. The police did arrive in time to find Tim Wyman’s cold body lying just feet from the door of the bar, but it was months before the murderer could be apprehended and tried. Despite what I knew from the inside conversation, reading the details in the newspaper left me with chills.
Mrs. Wyman was not nearly as innocent and naïve as Tim or I believed. She had known about his extramarital follies, the lottery ticket, and the attempt on her life. In fact her murder had not taken place at all. Tim had placed the phone call to have her done in, but the blonde stranger had only used the story to bait her true victim, Tim. She poisoned him in the Plaid Cactus that very evening. Mrs. Wyman had orchestrated the entire thing. For years she questioned his integrity and suspected he was capable of murder. The ticket Tim had purchased was not worth the paper it was printed on, not until Mrs. Wyman replaced it with a forged ticket containing the winning numbers.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Perhaps my arrival comes too late. It is quite possible there may be no reconciliation for such things; no chance for peace, but I’ve journeyed across the years prepared to deal with a relationship of neglect. There are some things the mountains of West Virginia cannot hide. My childhood is like an illness gone untreated. I’ve long know the cancerous poison should be cut from my heart. How much should remain—will there be enough to survive?
In the dusty corner of a familiar room my shadow has grown long. Tonight I will ask fear to step aside and embrace the dim flicker of candlelight that watches over me. These tired pictures, dog-eared and yellow, speak loudly of dysfunction. Only one portrait bears saving and I rescue it from the pile, still clinging to the hope it represents.
Tears filled my eyes as my mother’s casket emerged cold and gray, mirroring the low hanging sky. Like giant lumps of charcoal the clouds swallowed the ground in stifling shades of murkiness. The pastor’s eloquently designed words of comfort fell at my feet with no hope of penetrating my wall of protection. His feeble attempts to describe the life of a woman he barely knew offended me deeply, on my mother’s behalf. How could he have failed to praise her adhesive nature? She was a peacemaker, a capable liaison stuck between two polar-opposite slices of humanity, as were my father and I.
Cole Deavers was a hard man, by even the most lenient definition. Proper etiquette required me to address him as, ‘sir’. Earning respect never occurred to him; he simply extracted it by use of his heavy hand. Neither I nor my mother could escape the terrible wrath of those hands. No room in the shack provided a corner dark or deep enough. It was those hands forged from years of toil in the coal mines that struck fear in me. With each alcohol-fueled blow came the erasure of any admiration I ever had for the man.
Mother, I believe out of desperation, made excuses for his Neanderthal-like behavior. Only on one occasion did she confront him directly, and pitifully she wore the markings of that challenge for some weeks. The beating should have been mine. I would have preferred it that way, but regretfully it was for my cause that my mother suffered so greatly.
Her only offense was caring for her son too much. She continued to squirrel away coins, placing them in a Mason jar tucked high atop a pantry shelf; saving to buy a guitar. Only mother was aware of the love I possessed for music and performing, something a third-generation coal miner refused to wrap his mind around. She was shocked to find the jar empty. My father never admitted his culpability, expecting us to believe the week-long binge was purely coincidental. A man can forgive a great many things, but the larceny of another man’s dreams shall never be forgiven wholly.
Upon graduation my bags were packed for Nashville. I approached my father, who despite the rising sun remained comatose in his easy chair. More than a dozen of his closest friends, disguised in the form of ‘Old Style’ cans, steadfastly by his side. In good conscience I cannot relay the ensuing blue streak that flew so freely from my father’s lips. Also I cannot find words to accurately describe the rage that distorted his face as he demanded I address him as ‘Sir’.
With both fists doubled I prepared to defend my decision. I fought hard to keep my voice calm, but my mind gave way to the repressed emotions of seventeen years of hell.
“‘Sir’, is an indicator of respect, perhaps had I know the wonderful man my mother fell in love with, I could do that, but that was before you climbed into the bottle! The empty man you’ve become has not earned my respect!”
Briefly he struggled with equilibrium before finding his feet, but one well-placed punch on that protruding square jaw sent him back to the comfort of his chair. He gripped the chair arm, his knuckles white and ready to dispense justice, but before he could respond or react I spewed my final words to my father.
“You go ahead and double up, but I ain’t no boy or defenseless woman to beat on as you please! I’ve got seventeen years of hurt and disappointment you never saw fit to deal with and if you make a move towards me you’re going to carry some of my pain with you for a long time!”
In retrospect my hasty actions and vengeful words brought me little comfort, yet they did allow me to make my necessary escape from these mountains. Insincere apologies during brief moments of sobriety couldn’t heal the open wounds, nor could ten years of separation and a successful music career in Nashville. Sadly I must confess I had no intension of leaving the bright city lights to return to this dark place I sit tonight; not until I received a letter from a nurse that was caring for my father. As I read it aloud once again, this particular setting seems more appropriate than I imagined.
You don’t know me personally, but I’m a nurse caring for your father. He expressed a desire to set things straight before moving on and begged me to transfer his words from a hand-scratched note. I’m sure you’re unaware he was involved in an accident recently. He and four other miners were trapped in a collapse. Although they were rescued after several days, your father’s sustained life threatening injures and will probably pass before you read this:
Walker, I now find myself a prisoner in a world of dark, much the same as I held hostage your mother and yourself. There are so many things I need to apologize for. I’m sorry for the empty Mason jar in the pantry—so many containers filled with hope I raided, but I’m proud of you son. Occasionally I hear you singing on the radio which makes me smile.
The air is getting scarce, but I’d like to make one last request. ‘Sir’, if you can find it in your heart, please visit my grave and sing me a song. For I don’t believe my destination will be the same as you and your mother. I fear I’m only trading one dark lonely place for another.
Striking the match, I watch its temporary flash illuminate the room; its healing flare igniting the letter placed beneath the photos. Ever-widening flames creep up the curtain and engulf the walls. Satisfaction consumes me as I watch my past burn in the embers.
The squeaky screen door wishes me farewell as I take refuge on the rotting porch and strum my guitar in honor of my father's last request. The chords' lament leaves me to contemplate one nagging thought. Perhaps some day I’ll be the bigger man, but for now I suppose my father and I are much alike.
“Tonight I’m lettin’ go
of all the painful dreams.
They’ve eaten through my soul;
moved on to tender things.
I’ve laid out all the wrongs
upon this wooden floor.
Tonight I’m burnin’ dreams
Slamming shut the open door.
I’ll burn the past tonight
that holds me back today.
My soul’s atakin’ flight
It’s time I fly away.
I’ll burn the past tonight
that holds me back no more
my soul atakin’ flight
from a past that haunts no more.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Village Carpenter by Edward Henry Potthast
Julia placed the glass of lemonade on the corner of the bench. He stopped working only long enough to flash a quick wink and smile. She didn’t linger for she knew her husband well. The distraction of chatting while working was counterproductive, particularly on a project as special as this.
Beads of sweat gathered in the creases of his brow. Their idle threat became real as the stream of perspiration reached the corner of his eye. With a heavy sigh Gerald Lyons laid down his mallet and chisel. He brushed at the front of his apron and with the aid of his good eye located a relatively dust free spot. Now was the perfect time to enjoy the glass of lemonade, while he could still scoop the layer of oak chips that floated on the surface.
He watched her thin form disappear behind the door of the shack, much thinner than when they had married. The wages of a carpenter were scant and he regretted that as much as anything, but she never failed to smile even when the groaning of her stomach threatened to drown out her small voice. Gerald was born into poverty, but for Julia this existence was chosen.
Julia Rothchild had come from money and privilege. Being the sole heir to untold fortunes she could have had any man in the village she desired. Her parents made no attempt to disguise their disdain for her poor selection; a village carpenter. Horace Rothchild III agreed to the union, but under terms that would benefit him. The marriage would be allowed only if his daughter signed paperwork stating she surrendered all financial ties to the family, including the forfeiture of a dowry.
Gerald cared nothing about the dowry, but in good conscience could not ask Julia to make such a permanent and unwise decision for her future. He quickly rescinded his offer for her hand and made himself scarce. Yet such a woman of strength and commitment would not be so easily deterred.
“Father, would you have your threat of financial ruin control the decision in my heart? A carpenter is not worthy in your eyes, but was Jesus himself not a carpenter? Make no mistake, I am prepared to give up all that I know to become Julia-Rothchild-Lyons. I shall much prefer to die a pauper with a song in my heart, than a princess upon a throne having lived a life of regret.”
With that she promptly signed the papers and left the ballroom never to return.
Some in the village believed Julia suffered from a fever and the women on the street often told her so, but she responded quickly as if she knew their words.
“Just as Gerald can glance at a standing tree and envision a finished product, I have the same gift for people. You should search the world over and if you find a man with half the heart of mine, claim him as your own. His passion is rarer than diamonds and his love of humanity more precious than gold.”
Gerald sat the glass down and returned to his work. He remained unconvinced. Although her words of praise were crafted from conviction beyond his comprehension, he could not deny their power. In her presence he became more than a man whittling at wood. She saw potential in him than he could not imagine for himself.
Julia arrived back at the shop as he finished wiping down the wood.
“Is it complete?” She asked.
With a wide smile he said “It is done.”
The walk to their destination passed within viewing distance of her parent’s home. He watched carefully her reactions, but she only kicked at a stone in the path.
“My Julia, do you ever wish to go back in time, where a life of excess filled the voids of poverty? At this very moment your father’s servants are preparing a feast and I offer you only bread crumbs.”
“Despite the great many room in my father’s house he could not find space for his own daughter and thus that house will never be a home to me. For now he chooses to remain blind rather than see the full extent of his wickedness.”
The sun sank low in the sky as they knocked upon the door for which they came. The small shack belonged to a downtrodden woman and three starving children. She and the two older boys did their best to maintain the crops, but the labors of the field more suited a man. A farming accident had claimed her husband and as the horses careened out of control one of the plow’s shears found the youngest boy’s ankle. A crude severing of his right foot left him lame. Gerald knew of hardship, but not of this magnitude.
In her hunched back Libby Childress carried a heavy burden. Lines of worry etched themselves prematurely in her face, but stubbornly she found her feet more times than the world had knocked her down. By example she taught her boys all that she could. It only seemed right that someone lend a hand in providing the things she could not.
Julia removed two large loaves of bread from beneath a towel and a dozen small eggs. The aroma of fresh bread brought the youngest hopping to the table. Gerald knelt on the dirt floor so that he might speak to the boy.
“Sir William, you are adapting well to your misfortune. You come from fine stock, but even in your youth surely you must know this.”
William’s eyes were fixed on the steaming loaves that sat just beyond his reach. Gerald placed his hand on his head and ruffled his dark hair before standing.
“Momma, may I please have a slab of bread?”
“I should think you might give a word of thanks before you go nibbling at them like a mouse without manners, young man.”
Young William promptly folded his miniature hands and bowed his head. Although tiny his sincere words filled the small space.
“Thankee Lord for this fine smellin’ bread and Mr. and Mrs. Lyons that brung me—eer us I should say, these vittles.”
Libby tore off a corner and William hopped away smiling. She turned towards the visitors and stood as straight as her back would allow.
“I too must thank you for your charity.”
Gerald quickly took exception to her remark.
“No Libby, do not mistake this for charity. Do you recall the harsh winter following your husband’s death? Julia and I would have frozen to death, had you not allowed me to fall the large oak tree on your property. We were able to spare a small portion of the trunk.”
Gerald moved to the door and reached just beyond the threshold to retrieve his work.
Libby’s eyes clouded and she was moved to tears. She ran her fingers along the edge and moved closer to the fire that she might read the inscription. She cradled the two small oak crutches in her arms as if they represented such hope as a newborn babe.
Her trembling voice read aloud so that all might here.
“One glorious day we shall all be made whole; the blind should see and the lame shall walk.”
So goes the story that my grandfather told me when I sat upon his knee. As for the existence of such a village and carpenter I have no proof. True or purely myth makes no difference. It is a story for all generations and as a tribute to my deceased grandfather I will wrap it up with his very predictable but profound words.
“Kindness will come full circle, but also shall evil. Examine the contents of your own hearts and choose your paths wisely.”
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Massaging the stub, where prosthetic met living flesh, no longer brought relief. The prescription for pain medication doled out by the VA hospital had become inadequate, even when combined with whiskey. The RPG that ripped through his transport claimed three friend’s lives and more of Mark than he realized. Physically he lost his mangled left leg somewhere in Iraq, but the poison in his mind grew daily and exponentially.
The difference between Mark and the young man in the Hyundai could not be measured in years, for the span could be no more than three. He couldn’t help but wonder; was this snot-nosed kid the kind that his fellow soldiers died for? No doubt the young man found himself in a hurry to attend a protest where they burned flags instead of saluting them; chanted words of hatred directed at their country rather than picking arms to defend it. He represented the most recent example of what this generation of complacency and entitlement had bred. America had become a place where youth were recruited and encouraged to dissent, where protestors spat upon those who served, and the only semblance of patriotism had to be scraped from the boot-heel of activism. Mark found it ironic that these renegades spent their days cursing the actions and motives of those that stood watch over them as they slept securely at night. In retrospect perhaps a night spent incarcerated did have some merit?
Mark reached the city limits and continued down the dark country road. Only one home lay between the city and his secluded trailer. The peeling paint and plastic-covered windows of an old shack was where Mr. Eldred had chosen to settle after his return. Karl Eldred, a Vietnam vet, had earned Mark’s respect with each tour he had served; three in all. Karl rarely ventured outside the boundaries of his forty acres except for Sunday church service and the annual Veteran’s Day parade. His first and last duties of the day were to raise and lower an oversized flag that stood proudly for all to see. Perhaps if there were more Karl Eldred’s weaved into the fabric of this country it would not be unraveling today.
In the distance an exceedingly bright light drew Mark’s attention. The glow sat just beyond the bare trees and cast eerie and strange shadows that danced upon the road. Mark soon came to realize the source of light was coming from Mr. Eldred’s porch. Certainly had he observed the light previously, it had never shone as brightly as it did tonight.
He made the hard right turn into the driveway. His headlights revealed nothing unusual. A rusty old Massey Ferguson tractor sat next to the wood shed, precisely where it had sputtered and come to a halt decades ago. A late seventies Chevy pick-up truck sat near enough the tractor so that neither looked out of place. Much like the decaying antiques around the farm, her exterior had been eaten away with time. The only sign of life came from a startled rabbit that abandoned his nest behind the rear tire for the safety of the woods.
After a series of raps on the screen door Karl appeared. The aging man answered in his overhauls, clutching a vintage double-barrel shotgun across his chest. His snarl soon gave way to a grin as he recognized the visitor.
“Mark…Mark Jennings, come on in, Son.”
Karl led the way to the living room, weaving carefully between the stacks of clutter.
“I apologize for the mess. Martha used to care for the house. So what brings you by my place, Mark?”
“Well, Sir, I thought I might check in on you. Truthfully, that bright porch light caught my eye.”
Karl’s brows narrowed. His weather-cracked fingers worked against the stubble on his chin, like the sound of sandpaper tasting fresh wood.
“Son, you must be mistaken. That light ain’t worked since the day we placed Martha to rest and I ain’t as steady on a ladder as I used to be. Anyhow—glad you come. I been meanin’ to have a chat with ya, since you moved in up the road.”
“Mr. Eldred, I sure was sorry to hear about Martha. You were a lucky man. Ain’t no finer woman in Crawford County; everyone said so.”
Karl sat silently for a few moments and when he spoke again his tone was changed. Like that of a swirling breeze, confused as to which direction it should choose.
“She put up with more than she deserved. Martha would be the first to tell ya I come back from Vietnam a changed man—and not for the better. These things you’re doin’, Mark; they’ve been done before. Movin’ way out in the country, hittin’ the bottle more often than not—just plain hidin’ from folks.
“Me and you felt a callin’ that some folks don’t never feel, but it don’t make neither of us better than them. We seen things so they didn’t have to. Make no mistake, despite the outcome, war’s a thief—takes valuable things away, things you never imagined.”
The old man stared at Mark’s left leg.
“Mark your time’s been served. She already claimed your leg—don’t let her have your mind.”
Karl pulled the curtain back and wiped the frost from the window. Without saying a word he moved toward the front door leaving his shotgun leaning in the corner.
Mark heard the screen door slam and the enthusiasm of a young voice as well as Karl’s.
“Mark, I’d like you to meet my grandson. He’ll be headed for California in a couple days—gonna make a Marine out of him they say.”
Karl’s eyes became troubled and the words trailed off into silence, “Then ship him off to Afghanistan or Iraq, I suppose.”
Mark stood and shook his hand firmly. The young man’s name did not stick with him, but the nose-ring and long hair were very familiar.
Karl sensed the uncomfortable air and glanced out the window again.
“Damned if I didn’t forget to take old glory down again. Don’t suppose you two might wanna help out an old man, would ya?”
As they exited the shack, Karl made a point to flip the light switch on and off again. It came as little surprise there was not even a flicker. Mark had been mistaken about a great many things.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
As his soon to be former psychiatrist, I continue to stand by my original diagnosis. Charlie Spangenburg teeters on the edge of neurosis. Despite such an affliction he is one of the most intelligent patients I’ve encountered in twenty years of practice. Yet his refusal to cooperate outweighs any intrigue I once held for Charlie and how his mind works. I am heeding his request for a referral. Please see the enclosed documentation and audio tapes of our previous sessions. Charlie believes he might benefit from a ‘more competent doctor’, perhaps he will.
PhD Myran Masters
Several years back when this letter was penned I truly believed I had seen the last of Charlie Spangenburg, but last week he wandered back into my life. My receptionist stood her ground for a short time, but eventually she proved no match for him. Despite his issues Charlie possesses a stubborn tenacity. Perhaps this is the one characteristic that will see him through. Just as he insisted we resumed the sessions. I found his sudden change of heart curious.
His appearance, goals, and future were narrowly defined by obsession. Each facet of his life fit neatly in a slot, contained and easily managed. Few were aware of the egg-timer that sat upon his dresser or the specific purpose it served. He never exceeded the allotted nine minutes set aside for grooming. The middle-aged New Yorker shuddered at the thought of even accidentally being labeled metro-sexual.
Breakfast consisted of two Grade ‘A’ brown eggs, never white. Three strips of bacon laid diagonally near the eggs, but not close enough to touch. A saucer placed to right of the plate, in the two o’clock position, was reserved for toast; stone-ground wheat exclusively, toasted for precisely sixty-three seconds—sixty-three of course being divisible by three.
During our first meeting Charlie clutched to a worn leather planner. My inquiry about the contents of the binder was met with resistance. I was asked by my patient if he might be allowed to rifle through my desk, simply to satisfy the curiosity of a stranger. This was not the first time Charlie turned the tables on me. Many days it seemed I rested on the preverbal couch, subjected to a battery of questions designed to determine the purity of my motives. Only now on his second round of visits was he prepared to allow me into his world.
It was a journey of despair; painful, daily musing from a broken man who longed to be a part of a normal world which presently found no use for him. The first several pages were barely legible, letters overlapping and sporadic spacing between lines. It seems Charlie began his journal under the bleakest of circumstances. He allowed his emotions to flow, isolated in total darkness behind a locked closet door. Even a mother’s love could not overcome misunderstanding. He could not recall the length of his punishment or even the crime, if indeed there had been one. I sensed the tenderness of thirty-year-old wounds and moved forward quickly.
Hidden in the back I discovered a very detailed chart for his life’s course. Charlie explained that all plans begin in pencil, only when an item was determined as likely, would it be traced over in pen. Curiously I asked about the entry under the heading ‘girlfriend’. Despite the ink, permanent and irreversible, the name had been marked through completely.
Instead of prescribing to the failed model of modification, Suzanne accepted his idiosyncrasies and loved him despite them. Her sudden departure introduced unwanted variables into an otherwise orderly life. Variables in the form of difficult emotions which Charlie had no clue how to deal with.
As I thumbed through the pages it occurred to me the mind is a powerful thing, some believe capable of influencing if not controlling our physical health. Charlie’s experience causes me to question my neutrality on the subject.
March 3: I awakened with chaos all around. Despite turning the apartment inside out I could not find Suzanne anywhere. After a thorough scouring of the kitchen produced no note I knew wherever she had gone Suzanne did not intend to be found.
With trembling fingers I withdrew a Camel Light from the pack. Smoking it with purpose—I only wished to see the thin paper meet the filter as quickly as possible. Although Suzanne was no longer here I felt a strange compulsion to respect her rules. Smoking was only allowed on the balcony.
Thirty stories of air between me and the pavement did nothing for my frazzled nerves. A painful thirty seconds was all I could endure. Retreating to the safety of the apartment, hand over hand I maintained contact with the rail. As I prepared to release my grip and lunge for the open door a faint whimper reached my ear. Looking to my left, thirty feet away huddled on the ledge, was the object of my search. Still in her nightgown Suzanne crouched there biting her lip in an effort to remain silent. This was the day I realized Suzanne was an imposter also. She too had only been a visitor to the world of acceptance.
Upon being discovered Suzanne quickly found freedom in her leap. I still cannot conceive the power of the voices in her head. I had been aware of their presence, but had underestimated the sweetness of their words.
March 21: I fiddle with my breakfast out of obligation. This morning routine has always been more about preparation rather than hunger. I move from the table to the balcony door, only to find watching the traffic below makes me dizzy. The door remains locked as it will forever. I reach for the lever, actuating it open and closed three times. As far back I can remember three had been my lucky number, but finally this fog has lifted and I can see them for what they are; detestable prompts used to feed my repetitive obsessions. Yet out of all of the numbers that churn in my head, three remains particularly loathsome. Even as I speak of it now, I know that three can no longer be part of my life.
Charlie’s knees began to buckle even as he contemplated breaking the cycle. He grimaced as he opened and closed the lock the fourth time. The clicking of mechanism instantly sent his heart into an uncontrollable frenzy. A bolt of pain stretched across his chest and exploded through his right shoulder blade. His breath came in accelerated bursts and Charlie fell to his knees. The objects in the apartment lifted from their resting places and began to dance in a circular motion. With a muted thud the back his head made contact with the carpeted floor. During what he believed were his last moments Charlie watched the ceiling fan rotate, unable to resist counting the revolutions. Within the glass orb that surrounded the bulbs he saw Suzanne’s face. As bittersweet as their encounter had been, within her soft eyes lie the beauty of acceptance.
Now that he has left my office I’m left to ponder many questions. Charlie had not suffered a heart attack as he was convinced, only a severe panic attack induced by the stressful situation his mind perceived. It’s a shame the unique workings of a genius are often his curses. I still hold a sliver of hope that a boy resilient enough to emerge from a dark closet might eventually find acceptance. My office manager tells me we are in need of an accountant. Perhaps Charlie’s mind for numbers may be just what the doctor ordered.
How do we live in a world where our capacity to expand our definition of normalcy is bound by our level of comfort, and hence it becomes far easier to continue the charade? The illusion that we are part of that narrow band of mediocrity eases our conscience as we cast those considered different aside. Charlie Spangenburg lingered at the door of acceptance for years, but never received his invitation. Perhaps someone is knocking at your door tonight—someone very much like Charlie. Will you turn out the lights and pretend the house is empty, facilitating another ascent to the ledge; or will you open your door and ask them in?
Monday, November 17, 2008
Fanned out by Charles Dana Gibson
The roar of the Boston crowd was deafening. Those who could afford tickets to the final game had certainly gotten their money’s worth. Game seven of the World Series between the Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals had been nip and tuck throughout. Now with men on second and third, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the home team down by one; ‘Rip’ Jones strolled to the plate. He tipped his cap to the fans with a confidence that the game was already in the bag.
As long he did what they agreed to, the game was all but over. Jack Stallings smiled at the pure salesmanship with which ‘Rip’ sold the sham. The Bean-town faithful would watch in horror as their hero took each pitch straight down the middle without even offering a swipe at it.
Jack had no misgivings about being in the middle of throwing a game. Fans were merely miserable riffraff; those too naïve to believe something as sacred as baseball could go to the highest bidder. Soon they would learn everything and everyone has a price. ‘Rip’ would be instant millionaire while Mr. Stallings stood to make substantially more. A quick tally in his head calculated each of three strikes to be worth approximately fifty-three million a piece.
“Not a bad night’s work he mumbled”, as he gnawed off the end of his cigar and settled back in his seat.
The Cardinals’ ace nodded to his catcher and fired a fast ball down the middle. An anxious crowd grew silent as the umpire raised his right hand confirming a strike. Jack simply nodded in contentment. Two consecutive curve balls missed just outside and the crowd came to life again. Jack rode the edge of his front row seat and cursed the pitcher for his inability to throw a strike. ‘Rip’ didn’t flinch as the umpire rung up strike two, but Jack nearly came unhinged as the closer threw the next pitch in the dirt.
“You son-of-a-bitch, throw a fast ball down the middle will ya!”
‘Rip’ called time and stepped out the batter’s box. With each practice swing the roar of the crowd intensified ten fold. The umpire motioned for the batter to return to the box and he did, but not before holding his bat in one hand extending it to centerfield.
Jack laughed out loud, “With skills like that, this boy will make me billions.”
The pitcher shook of the sign twice then went into his windup, delivering a scorcher headed straight for the heart of the plate. In the blink of an eye, ‘Rip’ turned on the ball and sent a line drive twenty rows deep into the center field seats.
Millions upon millions of baseball fans the world over scratched their heads as they listened to the post game interview. ‘Rip’ insisted on dedicating his game winning home run to Jack Stallings, but why?
The next morning each of the major newswires carried an audio taped phone conversation. The incriminating words undeniably belonged to the owner of the Yankees, Mr. Jack Stallings III. The Sox had crushed the Yankees in the American League Playoffs three years running.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
He turned and waved a defiant middle finger in their direction. The response to his rebellious gesture came in the form of an angry growl. Gus Childers’ voice rose from the distance and sliced the autumn air. Although the threat in no way carried the fear of a face to face confrontation, his sentiment rang clear.
“Go ahead you chicken-shit, hang out with the hobos! They’re the only one’s that will have you, but you better believe I’ll be waiting for you again tomorrow!”
The scamper had carried him to the old train yard. Perhaps a poor choice of escape routes considering the ample supply of ammunition within arms reach, but fear rarely consults with logic. Truly did it matter, rocks or fists?
Tommy recognized the wisps of smoke rising from an old burn barrel. Despite their differences, the heat like a magnet drew the wanderers into a tight circle. Tommy searched for one in particular. Carl had never given a last name. With no mortgage papers, bank accounts, or auto loans to sign for, a career hobo had little need for one. Yet he had seen thousands of places; moving about as his heart guided him and controlling his own destiny. Tommy admired the freedom of his lifestyle, but also appreciated his words. Carl looked past the acne of a teenager and spoke to him as if he were already one of them.
Tommy made his way into the circle and opened his pack. Only a room full of kindergarten children could have been more appreciative of a bagful of Gummi Worms.
“Let’s here it for Mr. Carver. I slipped in and out of there before the half-blind old man saw me lift a thing.”
The smallest of the group wasted no time. With the enthusiasm of an attack dog on an intruder’s leg he chomped at the generous gift. Dwarf, aptly nicknamed, was second in command behind Carl. He laid claim to being the oldest of the wanderers, but forty plus years on the run had taken their toll. The hunch in his back required him to noticeably lift his bald head in order to keep from speaking to the ground. He stared a moment at Tommy’s ripped jeans before speaking.
“Looks like you run into trouble this mornin’, Tommy.”
“Same old, same old—turns out Gus Childers and his goons wanted my lunch money more than I wanted my ass beat.”
The miniature man stroked his chin for a moment. In a move that revealed hours of practice he withdrew a knife from his boot and ran his thumb across the blade.
“Big, red-headed kid ain’t he? For another bag of them goodies ole Dwarf might see to it Gus Childers don’t come around no more. Bet he’s as rotten inside as he his out!”
“Dwarf, you better put that knife away. I’ll take care of Gus one day and you’ll be the first to hear about it.”
Each of the outstretched hands had been satisfied except for one; one which lacked three fingers and half of a thumb. Carl had slipped trying to board a train outside of Boston. Tommy never tired of hearing about learning to pick his nose with a pinky finger or the nasty visual represented by wiping one’s backside with an inexperienced hand. No matter the circumstance Carl took what the world was willing to give and made the best of it.
Tommy held up a giant bag of worms reserved for his favorite, “So where’s Carl?”
Dwarf tilted his head to the left. “Ain’t sure you wanna talk to him this morning—crabbier than usual I’d say!”
“This’ll put a smile on his face,” Tommy beamed with confidence.
Carl stared at the bag Tommy tossed at his side as if it were poison.
“Ain’t this a school day?”
“You’re starting to sound like my parents. Why should I spend another boring day in school—when I can hang out with you guys learning about the real world?”
Carl’s voice took on a serious tone, one that Tommy was unfamiliar with.
“Sit down here for a minute, Tommy. Let me tell you about the ‘real world’.”
“What do you plan on doing once you graduate?”
Tommy smiled, “Not sure I will—graduate I mean; thinkin’ about droppin’ out. I thought I’d hang out with you guys—you know, see the world.”
In a commanding voice Carl asserted himself.
“First thing you need to do is take the stolen stuff back and then you need to stop coming here—forever!”
Tommy cowered in response to the harsh tone. The only one he considered a true friend was asking him to leave and never return. Suddenly the friendly surrounding had become cold and demanding. He started to stand and leave, but Carl grabbed his arm.
“Look—it ain’t that I don’t like you, but you got potential. This ain’t about stolen candy, but that’s where it starts. Tommy some day you’ll have to look in a mirror and the stranger staring back at you will ask questions—hard questions.”
Carl fished around in the pocket of his soiled flannel shirt until he produced and envelope and handed it Tommy. Inside was a picture of a young women holding the hand of a little girl; no one he recognized.
“That’s my mirror, Tommy—and I hate what I see staring back at me.”
Carl’s eyes softened considerably and his voice wavered as he continued.
“That used to be my wife and daughter before I made the decision to leave. We were so young and I was scared to be a daddy—scared to fail the woman I loved. Chelsea was only three when I hopped my first train. Last week my little girl got married and in my absence some other man walked her down the aisle. Those you abandon and hurt will eventually grow cold and indifferent to you. This shell of a man rides a train because that’s all he knows. Believe me, there comes a day when there are no more trains—when you can’t run any farther from yourself. When it’s too late you finally realize the problem was not the world, but how you chose to deal with it. It will literally break my heart in two if I ever meet up with you in a boxcar. Don’t throw away your future, don’t be a wanderer, Tommy.”
Fueled by Carl’s words Tommy graduated from a community college some years later. He walked the familiar path to the train yard, wishing to check on the wanders, more specifically to thank Carl for his advice. In one had held his diploma proudly and in the other a jumbo size bag of Gummi Worms; one that he had purchased this time.
As he stared at those that circled the fire Dwarf’s was the only face he recognized. He didn’t attempt to lift his head as he explained the circumstances surrounding Carl’s sickness and eventual death. Before turning and melting into the darkness he handed Tommy an envelope. The scribbling was difficult to read with only the dancing flames’ intermittent light. Tommy BRAXTON; the last name was capitalized and underlined.
The very first day you came to the train yard I knew you were different, but in my selfish desire for company I allowed you to stay. For that I apologize; for the harsh words I spoke to you I cannot. When you walked away from here I celebrated inside.
I know you’re a thinker—yes; the small amounts of cash I mailed to you each month were earned honestly. Once you enrolled in college I found a reason to work. I lost something very valuable in a boxcar back in Omaha and spent twenty six years searching for it.
I’ve included the adress of my wife and daughter. Can you go there and explain I died with a smile on my face. I finally did do something I’m proud of—and you’re it, Tommy Braxton. You represent hope for the future.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
white markers of strife aligned in straight rows.
Voices of past relive each bloody quest
yet honor and duty speak louder than those.
If wounds were assessed in years left behind
many expired only miles from home.
Battles were waged and heroes defined;
assuming these wars not of their own
For a lapse in time and it involved me
each would do well to shake one of their hands.
Blessed by these warriors and leaders-to-be
bravely and boldly defending our lands
Our flag waves today in part by their deaths;
those fallen shall be remembered upright.
From sacrificed souls and ragged last breaths
a mighty eagle finds purpose for flight.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Unaware that several sets of eyes were anxiously awaiting her departure, Martha Jones grabbed her purse to head off to her day job. Finally the door closed and the house was empty, conducive to such a ceremony. Rolland sighed in relief and wiggled from his perch, clutching his lower back as he hobbled along. He wasn’t as spry as he had once been, but for a rolling pin that had seen two World Wars and delivered enough pastries to fill the Albert Hall, he couldn’t complain. He smiled and nodded as he passed his culinary cohorts that gathered for this sobering event. Forming a semi-circle, as close to the edge of the slippery counter as anyone dared, they joined hands. Rolland cleared his throat.
“Spatulas, measuring cups, ladles, and silver; we gather here today to mark the passing of a dear friend.”
A hush fell over those that stared at the near unrecognizable mass of plastic that lay in the bottom of the trash can. Choking back his emotions Rolland continued.
“Neither human nor utensil could have anticipated such an untimely demise. Spending only a few short years upon this counter, Patty the pancake-turner never met a stranger. Certainly she had a few dings and dents, but don’t we all. My only regret was that had she had been stainless perhaps we would not be here today, but such things remain beyond our control. Patty jumped at the opportunity to serve, but sadly she has flipped her last stack of flapjacks. Through selfless sacrifice she allows each of us standing in reverence today to serve another meal. It was fate that Mrs. Jones selected her to beat back the flames of an angry grease fire, but mind you it could have been any one of us. Although the charred flesh of her remains lies among the coffee grounds and eggshells of this morning’s breakfast, her spirit lives on. She now joins countless others in the great kitchen in the sky. As surely as I stand before you there will be another pancake-turner that tries to take her place. I implore you to resist such shallowness; her act of bravery should linger in our hearts and minds for years to come. Bless her perforated soul and serrated edges—and God speed.”
Rolland had performed far too many services during his lifetime. He considered himself extremely fortunate to have been passed down from generation to generation. Certainly there had been some downtime in moving from home to home, but the Jones family treated him well. Only once had he had been placed too close to the edge of counter and left unattended, but all in all the nasty spill produced no broken bones or concussions, merely a few migraines.
He took these few moments to reminisce. Rolland did not come from a distinguished linage as did the silver set from France, which to this day still spoke with an irritating accent. Perhaps he was oversensitive to such things. He too had taken his share of ribbing about his southern drawl. Rolland came from the heart of a hard maple in the hills of West Virginia. He possessed no grand pedigree, but nonetheless took great pride in his work. He was fortunate to have never fallen into the hands of an inexperienced cook. The many awards and ribbons lining the small country kitchen stood testament to his and Martha’s abilities. He was particularly proud of the 1973 Warsaw County Best of show. Poor Mrs. Hartwigger, Martha’s nemesis, never saw it coming. Blindly she believed her apple pie would ensure her ten year reign. Rolland smiled as he recalled receiving word that the light flakey crust had won the judges hearts. Just as Mrs. Hartwigger found, all things must come to an end.
In the big city cooking had become a cutthroat business, where many simple utensils had been replaced with machines. Rolland shuddered as he thought of such things. Perhaps someday he too would bow to progress, but for now he was content to live out his days in the solitude of the country, where folks still chose ‘biscuits made from scratch’ over the expediency of Bisquick.
Some days were lonely as Rolland had outlasted many of his closest friends. Cathy the three-legged colander had given up the ghost. For years she performed her duties flawlessly, only with a slight tilt. Those closest to her pretended not to notice her handicap. As long as Rolland could remember the divide between electrical devices and those of manual labor had been great. Stan, the electric skillet, had made an exception and crossed the line, a fine example of kitchen-aids he was. With his cooking surface and heating element still intact, he had fallen victim to a frayed controller cord.
Suddenly it came to him like a bolt of lightening. Rolland would use his wisdom gained through the years to bring unity to all of those who graced the kitchen. If those comprising the culinary arts expected to live on in this imperfect and ever-changing world, all aids must stand united!
In the background Rolland imagined a rally with the rhythmic thumping of Mike the meat tenderizer keeping time as the Thompson tea-kettle family whistled harmoniously the tune of God Bless America.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Yesterday at work, the day following a historic election, I heard some things that troubled me. My desk put me within earshot of a conversation regarding the Presidential race. It began very amiably, as they were discussing work, but quickly evolved from there. The participants were two ladies, one white and in her middle twenties and one African-American in her early sixties. Having worked with them both I suspected the two outspoken personalities would eventually butt heads. Collide they did, in spectacular fashion, like the clashing of horns between two hormone enraged white-tail bucks.
The younger of the two had written a message on the white-board in her cubicle, “Sorry America….Barack won the election!!” It took only a few seconds before the elder voiced her opposition to the message.
“Why would you write something like that?” She asked in an obviously elevated tone.
“Because that’s how I feel.” When pressed for a more complete answer, rather convincingly she laid out her opposition to every major plan of President Obama’s, also her differing views on abortion and her reservations about his questionable associations. As any good debater would, the younger of the two turned the table and asked the elder what philosophies of Obama’s she supported? After a short pause she replied in an outburst loud of enough for the entire office to hear.
“I don’t have to support his philosophies or plans, and you’re obviously a racist!”
As I contemplated the conversation I wondered whether President Obama can really bring us closer to gray, the melding of black and white. I felt badly for them both. I truly believe the elder didn’t care to know Barack Obama’s philosophies or plans, voting for him because of the color of his skin. I also could relate to the young girl who had been unjustly lumped into the ‘racist pile’ simply because she did not vote for Obama.
When talking about the election and I reveal that I also did not vote for Obama the reactions are telling, not so much the words but the tone. “Oh, I see.” As if there is no other reason to have voted otherwise except for bigotry. Usually the conversation ends there, which doesn’t bother me that much. Most people will continue to believe what they want to believe. Actually, only a single person has ever flat out asked me if I would vote for a female or non-white president. With great certainty I smiled and crushed both his assumptions—“Condoleezza Rice, my friend!”
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Pigs by Pablo Picasso
Beyond the fence
I watch them play
within their dirty domicile.
cakes their backs
yet seems to make them smile
My mother chides
from yonder window
“Son, you best stay upwind!”
But as she tends to dinner
I cross the stile
to join my oinking friends.
With corkscrew tails
and flattened snouts
they fritter the day away.
How shall a boy of only ten
possess such will
his mother to obey?
The soiled bibs
display my guilt
as I face a mother’s wrath.
Returning with a willow switch,
the stoutest I can find.
Just in case a needed bath
is not all that’s on my mother’s mind.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
The wild graffiti depicting goblins, ghouls, and skulls personified the spirits that supposedly roamed the Olsen Mansion. Newspaper articles had detailed the original crimes committed there and the vigilante justice that followed. When the mob came for him, they found Manfred Olsen standing on the front porch, still in possession of the hatchet that dripped the blood of his own family. Manfred found justice dangling at the end of a noose, while the mutilated bodies of his wife and his infant son were still warm.
Over the following decades there were many claims of mysterious happenings, but none could be substantiated. There was no disputing the horrific things that had happened here, but those murders had been almost a hundred years ago; long since forgotten Jack supposed. Jack’s friend Michael was not completely convinced and this Halloween night Jack intended to prove to him the foolishness of such tales.
The breaking of windows in the mansion seemed to stir the restless spirits that lingered within the decaying walls. Michael reached in his pocket, retrieved three smooth stones and handed them over to Jack. A young boy had to have pretty good aim these days as few windows remained. Jack carefully took aim at the third story and with a grunt released the rock. The projectile entered one of the bare openings and hit the floor with a thud.
“Dang it, I missed.”
Michael handed him another and this time Jack’s efforts were rewarded with the shattering sound of glass as it broke from the pane and fell inside the home.
“I told you those stories were a bunch of crap!” Jack exclaimed. “Did you see anyone at a window; the door swing open and close; Manfred standing on the porch with a noose around his neck? I didn’t think so!”
Michael handed his friend the last rock. “Try one more time—unless you’re chicken, of course.”
Jack ripped the stone from his friend’s hand and whirled it at the third story. Again shattering glass broke the silence of the still night. Jack watched intently for any sign of life for approximately two seconds. That was how long the four inch shard of glass took to fall from the third story and pierce his brain.
Unsure of what had caused him to drop so quickly Michael rushed to his dying friend’s side. Jack’s eyes were wide with terror as he pointed towards the window. Michael looked to third story window where he saw a man casually tossing and catching the rock Jack had thrown. Michael would never forget the man’s satisfied smile or the rope hanging from his neck.
Friday, October 24, 2008
yet only empty chairs.
explain my dark despair.
What use is a fist-full of todays
if tomorrow never comes?
Uninfluenced by the sway
of a distant setting sun.
like a feast in the heat.
Nutrition turns to poison
on the heels of timid feet
Words remain unspoken
deeds mere infant thought.
Alone I bear the burdens
of this lesson time has taught.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Bobby inhaled so deeply the cool air burned his lungs, but he insisted on being heard.
“Are you deaf? Did you hear that!?”
He was satisfied with the terrific splash it made, sufficient enough to chase a Mallard hen and her ducklings from the cat-tails. After all of these years he supposed the bottom of the pond looked like a rock quarry. The stones were used to get God’s attention, before praying for something they really needed. His father explained, “The larger the rock the more urgent the need.” A five-year old boy’s mind is always grinding and the first question was why God lived underwater. Randy Miller explained to his young son that nature was God’s back yard and he could be found in the willows, the water, and the wildlife, practically anywhere. Back then Bobby’s father had all of the answers, but not so much any longer—not in the last year.
Since the day his father sincerely knelt on this very shore and begged God to spare his wife’s life. It was as though his father’s words and sobbing disappeared into thin air. Maybe God had gone fishing that day too, but either way Bobby’s mother died less than a week later.
Bobby ran his finger along the stainless barrel of the revolver. He didn’t feel the urge to pray, not even once, as he dropped each round into the cylinder. If God was truly there, he knew what he intended to do. He could conceal the torment no longer; the hopelessness he wrestled with each day had finally gotten him in a stranglehold. He was tapping out—giving up. How could an all-knowing being be oblivious to such things?
He rocked the pistol to the right and the cylinder locked firmly in place. Bobby rehearsed the scenario countless times on an empty chamber, but now battled against the quickened pace of his heart. Logic dictated he wouldn’t even hear the blast and at super sonic speed there would be no chance to flinch, as long as he remained steady through the pull of the trigger. The coldness of the barrel against his right temple caused his body to shudder.
“One last chance, God. If you have even a remote plan for my future you better speak up load and clear!”
Even as the words came Bobby felt awkward in his demand. He had extended his last bit hope and waited for something—anything. In the absence of such, he commanded the muscles in his trembling index finger. Halfway through the quarter-inch pull that lay between life and death he heard faint giggling.
He tossed the revolver in his backpack and turned to locate the source. On the path leading toward the pond he could see blonde curls bobbing just above the weeds and a bright red and white fishing bobber leading the way. As the young girl entered the clearing she stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him for a moment.
“Who are you?” she asked inquisitively in a tiny voice.
“I’m Bobby, what’s your name—and do your parents know you’re down here alone?”
Her curly head tilted downward and she kicked at the dirt for a moment.
“Daddy’s up in heaven now—but I’m very lucky to still have Momma. She’s parking the car.”
Bobby understood the difficulty of such a loss and could see the discomfort in her reaction.
“That’s a mighty pretty dress you’re wearing—just to go fishing.”
Her tiny hand stroked the red velvet cloth and then she twirled the ribbons holding her pigtails.
“It’s a very special day. The first time Momma could leave the hospital in a long, long time. I wanted to show her the place me and Gramps came and prayed for her.”
Bobby fought valiantly to control his frustration, but tiny, young ears should not be subjected to such things.
“So you’ve been here before?”
“Lots and lots of times. Me and Gramps catch fish here, but there’s lots of rocks to get snagged on. Sometimes Gramps cusses when the hook gets caught, ‘Damned if he knows how there came to be so many rocks.’”
She took a deep breath before continuing and her blue eyes grew wide in anticipation of her words.
“While we prayed an angel touched my Momma.”
“An angel…really? It’s my understanding angels are quite rare.”
“Yeah—and they’re hard to find too.”
Miranda’s mother joined her along the shore. She appeared to be early thirties, consistent with what Bobby had expected, but strikingly vivacious, which he had not.
She extended her hand towards him and smiled warmly.
“Sorry if Miranda has been talking you to death. She’s never met a stranger, and the excitement of being here—well, has put her over the edge.”
Bobby barely heard any of the words she spoke and continued to cling to her hand. She was younger than his mother, but reminded him so much of her; the bubbly reception and the quick unnecessary apology.
“Sorry about the handshake, it was very out of place. I really should be going now.”
Bobby gathered his backpack and as he started up the path he heard the pitter-patting of tiny steps behind him. He turned and knelt in order to come to her level.
“It was very good to meet you Miranda and I hope you catch lots of fish.”
The curls above her forehead wagged as she nodded and spoke again.
“Mom says her angel’s name was Katherine Miller. Kinda of a funny name for an angel ain’t it? She couldn’t use her heart no more, but it still had beats left in it, so she gave it to my Mommy as a gift. If you ever see the angel down by the pond, because all angels really like water, please thank her for saving my Mommy.”
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Soft lines of an innocent face seemed to contrast a body that knew much more. Those full lips had surely experienced more than daddy’s cheek. Perhaps the white hat was selected to add a touch of sophisticated elegance or was it merely a feeble attempt to tame her ferocious bedroom eyes? Was this the beginning of an endless day spent under searing lamps and clicking camera shutters, or had she slinked from an alley after a lust-filled night serving the perverted needs of a community?
No one knew for certain from which side of town she came, but she had unquestionably arrived and stirred passionate reactions. There was no doubt the mannequin in Neiman Marcus’ window had never looked finer.
Monday, October 13, 2008
(Painting by by Edouard Manet--Bar at the Folies-Bergere-1882)
Sweet Molly, with recent knowledge
I regret this awkward retraction.
Perhaps it best you forget my face
and continue your life of distraction.
Drunken patrons and friendly breasts
I believe shall make for discontent.
Only a fool would offer to buy
the goods so many cheaply rent
My dear Charles, you are but a fool
with these haughty words you speak.
At the risk of sounding semi-cruel
your offer is my third this week.
Spirits and breasts; a smashing combination
that fill my coffers right proper.
Perhaps it comes as stark revelation
I’ve no use for a snob or a pauper.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
In our relentless pursuit of an uncertain tomorrow we often trample the blessings of today
Frank listened with horror as the closing bell rang and the Dow tumbled six-hundred fifty seven points again today. His stomach was in knots; the overpowering urge to vomit did not pass quickly. He reminded himself of the foolish thinking; losses had only occurred on paper. As someone who scraped for a lifetime in anticipation of a few good years it felt more like a hatchet buried in his skull.
His financial adviser 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; sage advice for the thirty year old executive with a 401K or parents saving for a toddler’s college fund. For Frank and Maggie Wilhelm, time was the enemy. An impatient visitor had arrived unexpectedly, easily crushing every defense mounted against it. In his heart, Frank knew there would be no negotiations, and little delay. The evil marauder would only depart if he possessed what he came for.
Frank waited for the teller’s return to the window. Apparently a witness was required for such a transaction. A short, rotund man in a white suit accompanied her return. The fluorescent lighting did little to prevent the glare of his polished scalp as he waddled to the counter. The obligatory handshake was nearly 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 graciously willing to forego the thanks you owe me, as I’ve allowed you to profit from the use of my money long enough. As your pathetic sign indicates, I am one of your valued customers, and would appreciate your prompt cooperation in retrieving my funds!”
With eyes the size of flapjacks the man muttered under his breath about pre-notification for such large transactions, but nonetheless retrieved a pen and added his signature to the withdrawal paperwork. The bank officer flinched nervously as Frank’s hand reached across the counter again, but this time in an effort to smooth the wrinkles he had 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 he traveled and the receipt he gripped in his hand, which reflected an account balance of $0.00. The strangeness of the moment can only be explained as an epiphany. Within arms reach lay what remained of fifty years of obsessive behavior. Every extra penny had been squirreled away, and now precisely for what? For a half-century he had cursed himself for even briefly considering tapping the funds, while precious needs had gone unmet.
Maggie’s eyes were closed as she rested peacefully upon the couch. Frank realized in her weakened state just how valuable a few moments of rest had become. He placed the box gently alongside her and quietly slipped from the room.
For several days following a chemotherapy session, Maggie showed no interest in food, even the smell of such things caused violent reactions; upheavals of epic proportion and duration that were painful even to listen to. For the last several months Frank remained content subsisting on takeout, eaten in the car, or a cold sandwich that created minimal odor.
He tried to remain neutral and supportive in the very personal choice of treatment. Had it been him, he would have allowed nature to take its course, but perhaps that was the easier way out. Maggie wanted to experience each phase of life in its entirety. He recalled her words with admiration; ‘Without raw, excruciating pain how will one realize the value of inner-strength? Dark thunderheads that spawn raging, tumultuous seas would have no purpose except to give a deeper appreciation for the sun that overlooks placid waters and provides warmth to the very core of our souls.’ Maggie’s words were often profound and thought provoking, even to a simplistic man such as Frank.
“What’s the special occasion?” Maggie asked curiously, as she smiled from the doorway.
“Just an extremely belated gift, my dear—open it up.”
Maggie eyes brightened as the wrapping fell to the floor in shreds. She flipped open the velvet case and recognized them instantly. She held them to the light; the pair of marquee cut diamond earrings she had long given up on. She swallowed determinedly against the obstruction forming in her throat.
“But, you always said they were too expens…….”
Frank wrapped his arms around her and with his thumb gently brushed aside a tear.
“Forget everything I’ve said in the past, Maggie. I’ve been a damn fool! Far too long I’ve been a dark cloud in your life, and if it’s not too late, I want to be a ray of sunshine.”
Against her wishes, for more than two weeks Frank showered her with a gift each day, many of which she had forgotten she ever desired. Yet the final presentation, she had waited a lifetime for. Even as young girl dreams of such fantastic places filled her head.
The beauty of Italy and France transcended all expectations. A soothing violin melted the cares of the world from her mind and carried them away on the notes of a sweet melody. Fine Italian wine felt like velvet to her tongue. A simple crescent moon held a particular fascination when viewed from beneath the Eiffel Tower. While marveling at the dome of the Sistine chapel, they foolishly considered Michael Angelo’s possible inspiration for such perfection.
But memories of Vienna, above all other, would stand eternal. As they floated effortlessly down one of the many canals, the dark blanket of night came to life with lunar expression. The orb surrounded itself perfectly with shattered fragments of sparkling brilliance.
Frank took her hand firmly in his, and with renewed conviction repeated his forty-three year old wedding vows; none of the words more meaningful and heartfelt than on this particular night. In an anonymous gondola, with the moon shimmering softly against their silhouettes and souls undeniably entwined as they had been forever, they shared one final passionate kiss.