“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.