Saturday, December 25, 2010
“It was Joseph and Mary, do any of you remember them?”
The man sitting next to you speaks quickly.
“I’ve know Joseph’s father for years, what a disappointment the two of them must be; Mary, carrying a child that is not her husbands, and Joseph too blind to see the truth standing before him. Do you know each of them claim to have been visited by angels…..heavenly bodies indeed!”
The others seem to share his opinion, or perhaps they see no danger in combining too much wine with gossip. Suddenly the table is abuzz with sharp words and ugly innuendos. The inn keeper is troubled by this and excuses himself. You join him outside for a breath of fresh air. He notices he is not alone and addresses you.
“Do you know the couple, and surely you have something to say as well.”
As at the table you keep to yourself and simply point to a brilliant star overhead. You suspect there is something special about this night in Bethlehem, something that transcends the understanding of man, yet was designed specifically for his rescue. As you consider the depth of the night, a chorus of a thousand angels floats down from above; each of them proclaiming the arrival of their King. You understand little of what has transpired, but for now it is enough to know those still inside the inn are profoundly mistaken.
We all want our holiday gatherings to be perfect, like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. While such imagery warms our hearts, in reality the perfectness of it does not exist. Even the arrival of our Savior came under less than ideal conditions. Although the Bible does not speak to it, I’m certain that Joseph, Mary, and their parents endured some level of ridicule and humiliation, but their faith in God was greater.
Put aside what the world tells you Christmas should be. Rest assured in your faith that God did send his Son by way of Immaculate Conception, selecting earthly parents who were pure commoners for an unprecedented arrival…that the baby Jesus did have a resting place in a feed trough, and the only thing perfect and flawless on that night, was the one true savior of the world.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Tommy Braxton slowed to a trot. His calf muscles were in knots and the straps on his backpack were slowing sawing through the bony portion of his shoulders. A sense of injustice washed over him as he placed his hand on his front pocket. His lunch money had been there only moments earlier, but tossing it on the ground had saved another beating.
For years now, Gus Childers had been his personal nightmare. Rumors floated around school as to how someone came to power within an organization comprised of equally disgusting villains. Tommy supposed it involved some form of hand-to-hand combat or perhaps he had eaten his predecessor alive. A face to face meeting with Gus Childers never lasted long; he preferred you face down, eating dirt.
Comfortable with the distance between them, Tommy turned toward the scavengers and waved a defiant middle finger. The response to such a rebellious gesture came in the form of an angry growl. Even at 300 yards his sentiment rang clear.
“Go ahead you chicken-shit, hang out with the hobos—but you better believe I’ll be waiting again tomorrow!”
The scamper had carried him to the train yard, a poor choice of escape routes considering the ample supply of ammunition within arms reach, but rarely if ever does fear consult logic. On such a chilly morning Tommy knew to follow the sign. A trail of white smoke rolled skyward until the shelter of the roofline exposed it weakness, and the swirling wind dismantled it easily. He rounded the north-east corner of the abandoned depot and saw the familiar glow of the burn barrel. Despite their many differences, the heat was like a magnet, drawing the wanderers into a tight circle. Tommy searched for one face in particular. Carl had never given his full name, but with no mortgage papers, bank accounts, or auto loans to sign for, a career hobo had little use for a last name. Tommy admired the freedom of his lifestyle; Carl had seen a thousand places and answered to no one. He spoke to Tommy as if he understood the wildness of his heart.
Tommy made his way into the circle and emptied his pack. Large bags of Gummi Worms spilled onto the ground.
“Let’s here it for Old Man Carver—deaf and blind as he is, I slipped in and out of there before he knew I lifted a thing.”
The smallest of the group wasted no time in claiming an entire bag for himself. Dwarf, aptly nicknamed, was second in command behind Carl. He held the dubious distinction of 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 lift his bald head in order to keep from speaking to the ground. He stared a moment at Tommy’s ripped jeans.
“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 grinned as 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 we’ll see if ole Gus Childers is as rotten inside as he his out!”
“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.
Carl stared at the bag Tommy tossed at his side as if it were poison.
“Ain’t this a school day?”
“What are you…a truancy officer? Why spend another boring day in school—when I can hang out with you guys learning about the real world?”
Carl’s voice took 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 and hoppin’ cars with you.”
Carl exploded and grabbed the collar of Tommy’s shirt.
“Get it out of your head that you’re anything like me. First thing you need to do is take the stolen stuff back and then you need to stop coming here—not for a week….forever!”
Suddenly the friendly surrounding had become cold and demanding. Tommy was on the verge of tears as he stood to leave. Carl grabbed his arm.
“Look, kid—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.
“That’s my mirror, Tommy—and I hate what I see staring back at me.”
Carl’s 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. Neither will take my calls any longer, can you blame them? This shell of a man rides a train because that’s all he knows. Tommy, there comes a day when there are no more trains—when you can’t run any farther from yourself and you realize the problem never was the world, only 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 left the train yard that day beaten. It wasn’t the ‘face in the dirt’ kind of beating Gus Childer’s delivered, but stung just the same. He respected Carl and his request, finished high school respectably, and graduated from a community college some years later.
Tommy walked the familiar path with purpose; he wished to check on the wanders, more specifically to thank Carl for his advice. In one hand he carried a diploma proudly and in the other a jumbo bag of Gummi Worms.
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 must apologize; but for the harsh words I spoke to you I cannot. When you walked away from here I celebrated inside.
Since I know you’re a thinker—yes; the small amounts of cash I mailed to you each month was earned honestly. Once you enrolled in college I found a reason to work again. I lost something very valuable in a boxcar back in Omaha and spent twenty six years searching for it.
If you ever receive this letter and it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’ve included my wife and daughter’s address. Tell them I spent a lifetime regretting a decision made in haste, but that 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.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Despite settling down early I wake restless and frazzled from the hunts in my head. While the world-weary slumber, I prepare in the dark for another opening day. My mind readies itself to record the hunt, as it has for years; archiving each detail, making them available for replay. Subtle—like the grin of a possum, a smile creeps across my unshaven face as I reach past the collared shirts to the camouflage that patiently waits. Appointments, voicemails, and deadlines become tiny specs in my truck’s rearview mirror.
The moment my boot encounters the crunch of fallen leaves I’m innately aware of the fact I’ll never be more alive than in the midst of nature. Mundane tasks flushed away and replaced with data relayed from heightened senses. I am completely in tune with her and she with me, content with a smaller role on a grander scale. It is another world where communication occurs on a higher plane, spoken words become awkward and unnecessary.
A towering oak is the first to address me with a mere gentle waving of branches. She has boldly stood the test of time, but splintered limbs on her right side signify that even nature cannot sing harmoniously during every chorus and from time to time one force imposes its will upon another. A tip of my cap serves to acknowledge her fortitude, as well as my intention to scale her side. Whispered words leave a visible trail in the chilly air, “It’s good to see you again, my friend.” Through the darkest veil of night, the gnarled knot on her side winks in approval.
For another year she has held my front row seat. Nestled among her branches we shall both witness an unscripted play as if for the very first time. With the precision of an orchestrated symphony, orange and red light splashes over the horizon, dancing across the broken stalks. Inch by inch the rays bring life and death simultaneously. Cyclical beauties are the beginning and ending of a day, yet what transpires in the hours between is life; hours comprised of minutes, minutes of seconds, each appearing only once and never to be regained. Where lamenting those wasted in the past will only consume the present.
Even now as I sit in my tranquil state, the transformation from hunter to hunted looms near. Truly it began seconds after drawing my first breath, but it is only now I’m aware of its steely approach. Being prey is nothing to fear, for everything is hunted by something or someone. My prayers are only that I may face the hunter who desires me with dignity and grace.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
“Have you gone completely deaf? Did you hear that!?”
For two-thirds of his life Bobby had been coming to this pond and supposed by now the bottom of it looked like a rock quarry. Casting stones was a way to get God’s attention before praying for a specific need. “The larger the rock the more urgent the need”, his father said. Randy Miller’s belief in the unseen was unshakable, and how should a boy mistrust the instincts of a man who raises him? Even persuasive words loose their influence when stretched thin across the years. Bobby supposed a foundation built on the faith of on another was destined to crumble. The concept of stones and prayers seemed illogical now, yet a rare smile crept through his guard as his mind flashed to a more innocent time.
The mind of a five-year old grinds twenty-four hours a day, and more a matter of chance than logical deduction, he recalled with clarity the first question to boil to the surface and roll from his lips. ‘Why did God choose to live underwater, Dad?’ Randy Miller explained that God was the creator of all things, but that he took special care to pour his very essence into nature, and if Bobby looked hard enough he could see God in the weeping branches of the willow, in the stillness and churning of the water, and in every creature that roamed the meadows. For a moment in time Bobby was convinced he saw the wonders of which his father spoke, but the sightings were brief and without question the creator of all things had moved far from this place.
Presently, what stirred within was festering and ugly; it had been for some time, yet none of the fury was directed at his father, how could it be? That sunny, Sunday afternoon the two of them had cast more stones than on all other days combined. The blame lay squarely on an unresponsive and less than compassionate God. It was as if his father kneeling on the shoreline pleading for his wife’s life meant nothing. Her passing was like the sun had been ripped from the sky, and his father’s explanations sounded more like excuses. Bobby didn’t believe someone else had been waiting for answers longer, and there was no possibility that another’s hurt could be deeper than his own.
He traced the stainless barrel on the revolver with his index finger. The world has become harsh and cold and Bobby was no longer five. Never once did he feel the urge to pray as the rounds hit the bottom of the cylinder. This torment was too much; the hopelessness he wrestled with each day had finally gotten him in a stranglehold.
“One last chance, God. If you have even a remote plan for my future you better speak up load and clear!”
Bobby felt awkward in his demand, but after floating his last bit hope he waited for a sign. Like a rush of warm air tails a subway shooting through the tube, images past came in a barrage. The predictable din of thoughts colliding and careening created a buzz, but Bobby was certain he heard a faint giggle.
He quickly tossed the revolver in his backpack and turned to locate the source. He saw 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.
“Who are you?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“My name’s Bobby, what’s yours?”
“Do your parents know you’re down by the water alone?”
Her curly head tilted downward and she kicked at the dirt.
“I don’t have a Daddy—but I’m a very lucky girl to still have my Momma. She’s parking the car.”
Bobby recognized the discomfort in her reaction and changed the subject quickly.
“That’s a mighty pretty dress you’re wearing—just to go fishing.”
Her tiny hand stroked the red velvet cloth and then moved to twirl the ribbons holding her pigtails.
“It’s a very special day. The first time Momma could leave the hospital in a very long time. I wanted to show her the place me and Gramps came and prayed for her.”
Bobby fought to control his frustration. Tiny, young ears should not be subjected to the thoughts running through his mind.
“So you’ve been here before?”
“Lots and lots of times. Me and Gramps catch fish here. Sometimes he cusses when the hook gets caught, ‘Damned 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? I’m no expert, but it’s my understanding angels are quite rare.”
“Yeah—and they’re hard to find too.”
Miranda’s mother joined them along the shoreline. Instead of scolding her daughter for speaking to a stranger she extended her hand towards him and smiled warmly.
“Sorry if Miranda’s been talking you to death. She’s never met a stranger, and the excitement of being here today—well, has put her over the edge.”
Bobby barely heard any of the words she spoke and clung 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. Well—I really should be going now.”
Bobby gathered his backpack and started up the path, but the pitter-pat of tiny steps caused him to pause. 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 had a name—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, please thank her for saving my Mommy’s life.”
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Marcus Jamal Conley comes from a long line of street urchins, a reminder that even among the classless there is room for advancement. He studied under his father, and his father before him, becoming a master at discovering vulnerability and exploiting it for his own gain. Had he stuck to burglary perhaps things would be different, but Marcus crossed the line that night and dragged the rest of us into a revolving nightmare. Every morning I deal with consequences extending from a situation in which I had no control, and honestly I’ve grown weary of trying to reverse the past by simply willing it away. Marcus did his time in the eyes of the law, but I am convinced certain levels of justice are not attainable within the boundaries of our judicial system.
After twenty years in the penitentiary and less than two hours into his freedom I almost felt badly for what I had done. The sight of an empty bar was more than he could resist and I had hoped it would be. A tiny cluster of bells clanking above the door probably sounded more like cymbals crashing on either side of his head. I’m certain he expected to find an alert bartender, but instead he discovered an elderly man behind the counter, seemingly too preoccupied washing glasses to look up. A few lonely wisps of white hair and a hearing aide perched in his left ear provided the vulnerability Marcus preyed upon. Just hours before his arrival we peeled away the height chart pasted to the door frame, ensured every barstool in the place was empty, and relocated the cash register to within sprinting distance of the door.
I allowed Marcus to close half the distance between he and my father before winking at him from my hiding spot. Due to poor hearing he often speaks much louder than he realizes; which I’m certain rattled Marcus all the more.
“Kinda creepy out tonight, ain’t it—being Halloween and all? Why don’t you pull up a stool; you look like a man with a story to tell.”
Without a word from the patron dad poured a drink and slapped it onto the counter.
“Two shots of Beam in a tall glass, right, Marcus?”
Crouching in the back room I could see the look on his face and observed a slight shudder as the flesh on the back of his neck was certain to be crawling. My father knowing his drink and calling him by name caught him off guard.
“Nice guess on the drink, buddy, but I’m afraid you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
The lack of an immediate response brought a nervous smile to his face. No doubt Marcus was pleased with his bluffing abilities, but like a storm comes creeping across the plain my father’s fist against the bar was the thunder, and his radically changed tone a heat-seeking bolt from the sky.
“Look, jackass—by now both of us know it was more than a guess. Go ahead and drink up—it’s likely to be long night for a bastard like you!”
Emerging from the back room I approached with the confidence of a double-barreled shotgun and the cold steel of a trigger beneath my finder. I advanced toward him until the barrels rested comfortably between his ribs.
“You heard the man, drink up!”
After placing the empty glass on the counter I removed a handgun from his jacket, sliding it a safe distance down the bar. My father took the shotgun from me and rested the business end on the bridge of Marcus’ nose, nodding toward the entrance.
“Take care of the shades and lock door. Now that our guest has arrived, it’s time to party.”
“Look fellas, I certainly appreciate the drink, but you got the wrong dude. Why you wanna close the shades and lock the door? I’ve been in the pen for the last twenty years; what do you want from me?”
I settled in and rested my chin on the back of a barstool.
“You’re in luck Marcus, the memory game we’re about to play took place exactly twenty year ago today. Around 7:30pm you entered a bar on the other side of town looking to rob the place. When the bartender resisted, you pistol whipped him with the butt of your gun. Does the scar my father wears on his forehead look familiar? While you’re accomplice was clearing out the register, since it was Halloween, three trick-or-treaters wandered in; a chubby little red-headed guy in a clown outfit, a beautiful, curly blonde-headed princess, and the youngest of three, an adorable four-year old fairy.”
“Look man, I didn’t hurt them kids. I gagged ‘em and left ‘em tied up in the back room, I swear!”
“Marcus, those were my children and his grandchildren, and most of me wants to believe you meant them no harm.”
I reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved a pack of cigarettes.
“These are very bad news; not good for you at all.”
“What do you care—you a doctor or some shit?”
“I am indeed a surgeon—but honestly it would have been better if the smokes had gotten to you before I did. You being in possession of the cigarettes doesn’t bode well for the outcome of your evening.”
While father held Marcus at bay I began stacking tables and chairs until I was satisfied with the barricade at the front entrance. I moved to the back room and finished my work there.
“Marcus, I’ve always believed in crystal-clear communication, so let me explain the details leading up to the finale of this fascinating game.”
I offered him a cigarette, taking one for myself.
“Their names were Frankie, Melissa, and Alexandria. They never returned home that night from trick-or-treating. Although my father believes otherwise he bears no responsibility for that. He was unconscious, how could he know they were there? Once he came to there was barely enough time to save himself. The authorities were unconvinced that the fire was related to the burglary, but a friend of mine who works on the forensics side of investigation determined a discarded cigarette lying near a trashcan ignited the blaze. Whether you actually tossed the cigarette is irrelevant, because my mind is made up that you did, and tonight is all about freeing my mind from worry and regret.”
I flicked my cigarette over his head into the grain alcohol I had poured on the floor. When Marcus turned his attention to the small fire I plunged the butcher knife through his right thigh and into the chair beneath.
“I’m a fair man, Marcus. I’m leaving you with a couple of choices you denied my children. It was no mistake we named this bar Crossroads and right now you’re at a very important one. I’d prefer you suffered the same lingering death that my children did, but you may also choose the front door. As I stated earlier I am doctor and there’s about a ninety-nine percent chance the knife has severed your femoral artery. By the time you remove the barricade I estimate you’ll have no more than two minutes to make the fifteen-block run to the hospital. Marcus, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our game. On the outside chance you do survive, rest assured I’ll find you and we can pick up where we left off.”
Sunday, September 12, 2010
My opinion of his character was starkly different than any other. The townsfolk held him in high regard and I supposed by now were making plans for his sainthood. Although he spoke often of tolerance and understanding, he extended neither in my direction. On his best days he barely tolerated me and made no effort to understand my life at all. Even a young boy learns to cut his losses. Kept at arms length, I learned that caring for your father is far removed from loving him deeply or ever wanting to be like him.
“Son, you don’t know how good it is to have you back.”
“Temporarily, Dad…I’m only here temporarily.”
I remembered how Momma asked me to be understanding and patient. Dad was slow in dealing with a terrible accident involving a neighbor boy that happened some years ago, but my own hurt continued to fester. I hated the cemetery and what it had done to him. It was awkward watching my mother run out of excuses for his absence from school activities. I understood the time spent engraving stones; it was the profession he had chosen, but the non-working hours he lingered there and the inability to let go were particularly damaging. As far as I was concerned, he was as empty and hollow-eyed as any spirit roaming there. I suppose more than anything I wanted for him to admit that I had done nothing wrong; that it was his inattention to his only son that predisposed me to a life of failure.
He still moved pretty well for an old man. Hustling about the shop he gathered objects and placed them into a tired wheelbarrow; one I remembered having more red paint than rust. Most of the contents consisted of maintenance related tools, yet a few seemed out of place. He offered no explanation and I had no intention of asking; it was still like that between us. After perusing the items one last time, he gripped the worn handles, and motioned with his head for me to follow.
“Red Foster had taken care of this cemetery for years. Red was a righteous man, started cuttin’ grass here when he was in his twenties. Some say it helped pass the lonely days after losing a wife—you know they wasn’t married more than a couple years. Anyhow, Red done fine work; even the fussy widows that build their lives around findin’ fault, had nothin’ but praise for him. But in time, Red passed. He left behind a son, but he never was much count—bad seed, I guess. Old Red didn’t deserve most of what he got in life, ‘specially that boy. Roy showed up two day late for his daddy’s funeral and drunk as three-hundred Indians. He took to smashin’ bottles and cussin’ his old man for not leavin’ an inheritance. Truth was Red didn’t have nothin’ but a big heart and he give most of that away.”
The mention of Roy sparked a flurry of memories, most of them only partial recollections. During high school he and I were a couple of misfits who enjoyed more than one bender and the mischief that accompanies too many beers. Each morning before first bell we gathered under a tree across from school grounds and shared a cigarette. Memories of those Lucky Strikes triggered an urge, and I stopped long enough to light one.
“Hey, Pop. Is that how you see me—some kind of no count renegade?”
The extended amount of time he spent stroking his chin made me nervous, but on the other hand I wanted to hear him say what I always suspected.
“What makes you think something like that?”
Without saying more he lifted the handles and began moving again.
“As I was sayin’—‘cause of the commotion and since I was the caretaker now, I had to escort Roy from the property. There ain’t no merit in drivin’ a boy from his father’s grave, but I felt a sight better after me and Red had a long talk. He said I done right, ‘cept he’d a taken a chunk of his hide before he sent him packin’.”
He stopped abruptly, but said nothing; leaving me to believe the extra steps had provided time to reconsider my renegade status.
“Don’t be leavin’ your butts layin’ around, especially not by Ernie’s marker. Died of lung cancer in ’82 and he can’t stand the smell of smoke.”
I only nodded in affirmation. It was difficult knowing my father believed he spoke to the dead, and a painful reminder he preferred their company to mine.
He handed me a garden spade along with instructions.
“Make a small trench, leading away from her grave—see how the water’s building up.”
Everyone knows the vaults are sealed, what was a tiny bit of moisture going to hurt? In the short time it took to process the thought my father observed hesitation.
“Time’s a wastin’—get to it!”
The frustration in his tone turned to velvet in an instant when he turned his attention from me to the stone.
“We’ll get it taken care of—don’t you fret none.”
I began to wonder how terribly disturbed a man had to be when he found a deeper connection with those below grade than above.
“For the life of me I can’t explain why—but I still worry about you. Honest to God, Pop, tell me you don’t actually hear these corpses speak?”
It was as if kicked him in the gut.
“First of all, don’t call ‘em corpses! Sounds like one of them stupid zombie movies. Of course I hear ‘em talk and on bad days I hear ‘em cry.”
His finger traced the dates on the stone, lingering over the second.
“In the winter of seventy-eight, Mrs. Barlow hit an ice-patch on route 62. Her Plymouth went off the bridge and broke through the ice. Waiting to drown must be an awful way to go. She don’t ask much, just to keep the water away from her.”
Before I’d had time to fully consider the first story, he gripped my shoulder tightly. It was the first time I could remember feeling his touch and then I noticed the sadness welling in his eyes.
“Son, I know you deserved better, and I wished I could have give it too ya, but turned out I wasn’t strong enough. You can’t hate me any more than I already hate myself. I ain’t makin’ excuses, I’ll take full responsibility for screwin’ up your life, but what I’m askin’ for now is a little forgivness.”
He guided my steps to a plain small white stone before continuing.
“I’m sure you’re momma told you what happened. That we was watchin’ the neighbor boy when she had to run to town and left him with me. He was almost two years old and into everything. While I was cussin’ my work he wandered off. I didn’t notice he was gone for some time—long enough for curious legs to carry him over the hill and into an abandoned well. It tore me up when they pulled that little man’s lifeless body out—knowin’ what I’d done.”
Father lifted a teddy bear from the wheelbarrow and placed it gently by the stone.
“Most of what your momma told ya was right, ‘cept it wasn’t a neighbor boy. You’re older brother’s name was Billy.”
The morning heat rose from the valley restless and willing. In shimmering waves it climbed and clawed at the scrub brush. Its roost was temporary as a gentle breeze swept it away. The duo traveled a winding path of rising ground to where my father and I stood. As the gust arrived, more of it traveled through me than swirled around, and when it passed it spoke more clearly than it ever had.
“A single day can change a person’s life, but only if he is willing. He must cast aside the familiar so that his arms are free to embrace the promise of tomorrow.”
Saturday, July 24, 2010
“The paperwork shall be on my desk by day’s end.”
For the better part of two decades Professor Chad Gardner had enjoyed working at John Hopkins University. He remembered having jumped at the opportunity to head a study on accelerated climate change, but with the two-year program complete the whole matter sat crossways in his gut. The chancellor had advised it was well within his right to appeal the decision, but in the same breath warned that such proceedings often drudge on for years. Time was no longer a luxury for the professor—for any of them.
Chad realized the resignation request came as an indirect result of the climate study. He had not anticipated the barrage of bitter skepticism launched by the elite in his field and no one could have predicted the level of chaos created by media coverage. Together it was an ugly combination; one the chancellor would rather not deal with. The simple fact remained the majority of society was not ready to wrap their minds around something as intense as worldwide drought.
In geological terms, a scant five years passed, but the deterioration of the environment and subsequent unraveling of a society progressed more quickly than even his study indicated. Not a drop of rain had fallen on the earth in more than three months. In itself it was the beginning of the end; a creeping death with an affinity for suffering and little deference to the time tables of man. Lush lawns morphed into brittle graveyards of clay while rioters flooded the streets of major cities, forcibly collecting food and water. The procurement and processing of oil came to a halt as a series of explosions rocked the Middle East. Perhaps it was an appropriate final chapter as some believed, a reckoning brought on by greed. Both in scale and severity this drought dwarfed any before it, but it had not arrived without warning.
Dr. Gardner sat alone in a dimly lit room, speaking to the news anchor as if she might acknowledge him.
“A bafoon with a twisted version of reality was I—how do you like me now?”
Flipping between major news outlets incompetency seemed the common denominator; their empty slant like drills against his forehead.
“What will it take for you fools to understand? It doesn’t make a damn whether this catastrophe was caused by man’s misuse of the environment, and to be consumed by such things now is as irrelevant as a group of fireman standing before an inferno deliberating as to what might have sparked the blaze. It’s so unbecoming—this collective wringing of hands!”
He reached for the remote and the screen went dark.
On the heels of his dismissal the ex-professor immediately began to pool resources; coordinating financiers, and persuading a small team of dedicated colleagues and students to join him underground—in the most literal sense. He affectionately called them the believers, and it was those of like mind that created the ‘Den’. While those on the surface simmered in their own juices, the Den was far removed from chaos. The believers had established solar power, a functioning greenhouse, fresh air filtration systems, and a series of large water storage tanks. Some within the group suspected Professor Gardner intended to establish a new society, others believed his claim that he only wished to buy time, but considering the alternative, none of them questioned their decision to follow.
Cloud seeding had existed for decades, but was often dismissed as flimsy science. The process involved injecting silver oxide, delivered by plane or missile, into a cloud formation. Existing moisture was instantly frozen whereby other molecules could accumulate more easily. Dr. Gardner believed the immediate solution to such a complex problem could be as simple as kicking nature in the seat of the pants.
Ascending the spiral staircase he emerged aboveground and quickly set his eyes on the horizon. Dark, angry, clouds gathered and spider webs of lightning spread like gnarled fingers reaching for the ground. In a brilliant show of natural forces the swirling and churning skies delivered on promises long past due. While it was only a small scale test, nearly a half inch of rain fell in a twenty-five mile radius.
Dr. Gardner raised a toast.
“To the success of those who believed—through hard work and careful planning we are now in a position that the entire world must listen.”
As a man dictated by protocol, Dr. John Stein waited for the applause to subside before lobbing a displeased glare that narrowly cleared his glasses.
“Bravo, doctor; the results are undeniable, but I’ve grown curious about what I perceive as a troubling trend. Forgive me for not asking this morning when we met in the hallway. It was 3:00am and my mind was not fully engaged. Would you care to explain to all of us your midnight rendezvous’ with someone outside of the group?”
Dr. Gardner appeared unshaken by such a question peppered with the insinuation of wrongdoing.
“John, may I remind you I’m still fully in control of this project. Perhaps afterwards you and I can talk privately about your over-involvement in my personal time.”
The close relationship the two shared while working together at the university had grown strained and difficult when the believers moved underground and Dr. Gardner resented the public airing of what had previously been a private disagreement.
After the others had retired for the evening the two shared coffee in a secluded room.
“John, it was wrong of me not to include you, but the success of this project comes before your own reservations. I want the believers to be recognized and compensated for their contributions. Regretfully, it is against your wishes that I’ve begun shopping the market for potential buyers. Our command-and-chief remains obstinately opposed; his disdain for the free market is more deep-seated than I realized. True to character, he insists on complete government control and I’ll be damned if I turn over the operation to those who ridiculed my study. It’s time to consider other offers.”
Rattled by startling revelations, but more the brashness of his friend’s actions, Dr. Stein allowed a moment of silent processing before launching a torrent of pointed questions.
“Who gave you permission to shop the technology—and when did this suddenly become less about a dying planet and more about personal accolades? You were right all along—are you such a small man that you need to hear it from me? Let it go, Chad, just let it go.”
Dr. Gardner lunged for his friend’s collar and dragged him across the table.
“They chose to make it personal when they took my job for simply being right!”
He released his grip and began pacing around the table.
“Let me continue. As I was leaving the meeting with the president and his advisors, a limousine pulled along side. I must say that King Abdullah from Saudi Arabia is a level-headed gen…..”
“Stop right there! In a single bound you’ve leapt from a respected professor to a damned traitor!”
From behind, Dr. Gardner seized a handful of his associate’s hair and pressed his lips to his ear.
“Let’s be reasonable about this. For decades the Middle East has controlled our economy through oil, is there really any difference?”
“Do you expect me to just stand by and do nothing while you sell out our country?”
In a swift downward motion Chad responded.
“Let me save you the trouble.”
Dr. Gardner knelt over the crumpled body on the floor, the butt of his revolver shiny with blood. He dragged the larger man to a closet, secured his hands, and reached into his lab coat pocket for the syringe.
“By the time that wears off it will be too late for objections.”
Dr. Gardner glanced nervously at his watch as he stood on the tarmac. The documentation in the briefcase was all the Saudi’s would required, but he convinced the King otherwise. The professor would travel to Riyadh and oversee the program until the Saudi’s were satisfied they had purchased a working model.
A flashing blue light indicated the King’s arrival, and it was as impressive as he expected. Comparing street to air, the doctor was about to step aboard a Lamborghini. The engines were throttled to an idle and a hydraulic set of stairs glided until they kissed the pavement. A young Saudi appeared in the entry and motioned for the doctor to move forward.
As he kept a careful eye on the steps the doctor spoke to the man.
“If I’m not mistaken, this is a Bombardier Learjet Model 85, properly appointed at a price tag exceeding $18 million.”
Receiving no response the doctor lifted his head and presented the perfect angle.
Two successive rounds were followed by a voice carrying a heavy accent.
“You are mistaken about many things professor; Springfield Armory, Model 1911, $350 dollars U.S.”
A voice originating from the cockpit drifted into the midnight air.
“Make sure the briefcase sees the entire return trip, the professor as far as the ocean.”
Doctor Stein sat just outside of the Den’s entrance contemplating the downward spiral of a friendship. Almost a month had passed and no one had heard from him Chad. If he did return he didn’t know whether to greet him with a hand-shake or launch a stiff right-cross. He supposed he would make the decision when the time came.
In the distance a streaking flash of light caught his eye, far too brilliant for a falling star. Then came a second burst, followed in sequence by others. The fiery tail gave the impression of missiles; perhaps Chad had broken from the believers completely and was attempting trials from a remote location.
Over the next month a multitude of missiles lit up the sky, bringing with them torrential rains, often more than an inch an hour. Soon the ‘Den’ began to take on water and eventually became uninhabitable. Next the low-lying were submerged, then smaller hills, and eventually the tallest mountains until nothing remained.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
The commander was wrong. Ritchie made the edge of the field and collapsed in the undergrowth. An enemy round had ripped through his left knee cap and even the slightest pressure caused pain to radiate upward through his thigh and settle deep in his gut. The crawl had taken much longer than it should, but Ritchie couldn’t stomach seeing the frozen faces of friends, bloody innards worn on the outside, good men lying face down. He couldn’t allow his mind to absorb the images, not now. There was no getting past the blood trail he’d left behind. It was only a matter of time before it was discovered. Decisions were deceptively simple; do nothing and meet with a final dispatching bullet, or mount an ill-advised attack. There were honorable ways for a Marine to check out, but waiting to be shot like a dog wasn’t one of them.
Ritchie listened to the foreign chatter as ‘Charlies’ combed the field. He couldn’t understand a word, but hoped to determine the number and position of the enemy. Hacking and slashing at the greenery they attempted to unearth the wounded. He felt the weight of his combat knife heavy on his side. If death came calling he intended to face the reaper head on. Both of them were about to find out how much damage a one-legged Marine was capable of inflicting.
He knew well the awful toll of hand-to-hand combat. A significant chasm existed between simply taking a man’s life via a well-placed round, and the task of dispatching him face to face. The introduction of guns had complicated matters, made killing too easy, sparing a man unsettling details; a mouth laying agape, waiting for a last ragged breathe that never came, eyes stretched wide in disbelief, yet ironically unable to see the bullet charging towards his skull. Distance in yards, proportionately lessened the effects of taking a husband from a wife, a father from a child. Men were not designed to make such final decisions, yet here, mere boys struggled with fatal choices every day.
Ritchie waited on his back trail, eventually an unlucky soldier would pass within striking distance. Sounds associated with the clearing of vines were insufficient to mask those replaying in his head. Fear coursing through your soul, so loud you can hear it; the uncertainty of outcome regarding the struggle, the unfamiliar sound of a blade slicing cleanly through a windpipe, and the awful gurgling sounds that followed. Finally, as the lifeless weight of another man rests against you, your soul begins to weep and you pray that this will be the final time.
Chilling scenes from killings past caused his body to shiver and glisten in a cold sweat. Ritchie’s heart-rate ratcheted as he watched a single soldier veer dangerously close. Like a tiger, he leapt from his hiding spot and quickly gained control of the thrashing man. Gritting his teeth he began to draw the blade across the exposed throat; his necessary work almost complete.
“Ritchie—Ritchie, what the hell are you doin’? Let momma go. For God’s sakes you’re gonna choke her!”
Ritchie shook his head from side to side, unwilling to completely trust his ears. Fearing a trick, he loosened his grip only slightly. Slowly he became aware of his young brother’s fists beating upon his back, demanding their mother’s release.
Ritchie immediately raised his hands towards the bedroom ceiling. When she turned to face him, he grabbed his mother and kissed her forehead, tears collecting at the corner of his eyes.
“Ma, I swear I didn’t know it was you—couldn’t never hurt you, ma. Havin’ one of them, damn ole dreams again.”
Betty made use of her apron and wiped his tears. Soon after her husband’s passing, she made a vow to protect her children from all harm but some things are beyond a mother’s reach. Each horrible night her family was separated she prayed that God would bring Ritchie home safely. He had returned, but not the young boy that had left for Vietnam. His eyes had seen too much, his hand forced to perform unspeakable deeds, and now his troubled soul desperately longed for rest.
“It’s alright, baby, I knew you was havin’ a bad dream. Just hopin’ I could wake ya; keep the sufferin’ to ‘minimum. You get on downstairs and get some of ‘dat breakfast. We goin' to Birmingham ‘safternoon to see another doctor. Now go on—git.”
Ben, the youngest of the boys, sat fidgeting in the waiting room chair. Thoughts of baseball consumed his young mind. It had been more than a year since Ritchie came home and he hadn’t even shown the slightest interest for the game. Ritchie’s record of ten home-runs in a single game still stood, balls that sailed well past the chicken fence and into the tall grass that bordered the Johnson farm. The locals used to talk about Ritchie playing in the big leagues, but they didn’t talk much anymore, not about Ritchie playing baseball.
The doctor removed his stethoscope from the young man’s chest. He glanced at the chart and nodded his head in affirmation.
“Healthy as a horse, I’d say! So what seems to be the matter, young man?”
Ritchie glanced at his mother, who appeared equally anxious to hear a response. He didn’t know exactly how to put his troubles into words, especially in mother’s presence.
“Doc, I’d rather not speak in front of momma.”
The doctor lowered his black framed glasses, peered at Ritchie and then at Betty.
“Ma’am, can you give us a few minutes alone.”
Betty picked up her purse and patted her son’s shoulder on the way out.
“You tell the good doctor what’s ailin’ ya, so as we can get the old Ritchie back.”
“So son, what is it that’s bothering you?”
“Well doc, ain’t somethin’ I can put into words, ‘xactly. Just ain’t been right, since comin’ back—my head I mean. Strange thoughts ‘creepin’ round all the time, don’t seem like I fit in no more. Momma and Ben, they treat me extra good now, but with these haints and buggas haggin’ round I’m ‘fraid I might hurt one of ‘em, and I can’t live with that.”
“What do you mean, Ritchie? Do you feel like you want to hurt people sometimes?”
“No—not ‘specially momma or Ben. Done more killin’ in ‘Nam than any man shoulda been asked to do, for his country or otherwise. Don’t wanna never hurt no one again, not on purpose. Seems like it’s ok sometimes, for maybe a week, but they keep comin’ back—dreams, real as anything, doc. Can’t shake ‘em and can’t run from ‘em; seems like I can’t get nowhere they ain’t.”
“Alright son, you can go back to the waiting room now. Send your mother back in, if you will.”
Betty allowed time for the door to close completely.
“What do ya think, doc? Can ya fix him up?”
“Mrs. Barnard, I believe your son’s very ill, but I need him to take a test to confirm my suspicions.”
“What kinda test?”
“Something that would allow me to properly gauge his metal state.”
Betty faced flushed with anger.
“You think Ritchie’s some kinda nut, don’t ya? Test—fer what? So you can lock ‘em away somewhere, forgit he ever existed. My boy gave everything for his country and I’m damn proud of him. Ain’t gonna reward him by havin’ him put some place where all he got to do is watch his roommate drool. Thank you for yer time, doctor. We’ll be on our way now!”
Betty hoisted her youngest from the chair, while signaling for Ritchie to follow. No one spoke during the two-hour drive home. Betty’s mind, still consumed with anger and frustration, Ben thinking of playing in his first World Series, and Ritchie doing his best to think of nothing at all.
Betty placed a bag of groceries inside the door, and reached for another. With little warning, life had become difficult. She understood the challenges associated with being a single mother, but Ritchie’s troubles were of another kind, one that couldn’t be solved by working a double-shift.
Ben came streaking down the stairs with his baseball glove in hand.
“Headed over to the Johnsons, ma—be back around dark!”
She opened the cupboard with a smile. Young Ben had developed the same love as Ritchie. The two of them were much alike, but Betty intended to keep a tighter reign on the youngest. She feared she had already lost Ritchie. That damned war claimed many a young life, and not just one’s returning in bags, but others just as broken. Borrowed for killing in someone else’s cause; then when their usefulness determined done, turned back from where they came ill-prepared to resume a life put on hold.
A bottle slipped from her tired grip and shattered on the floor.
“Damn—can’t hardly ‘ford groceries as it is, clumsy old fool droppin’ things now.”
On her way to retrieve a towel Betty noticed an envelope on the table. Dish-towels and spills suddenly became unimportant. Betty folded into the easy-chair and opened the envelope addressed to Momma.
Been havin’ an extra bad day, decided to take the ole coon dog for a run. Ben sure loves his baseball. You make sure he practices good, some day he might just find a spot in da majors. Momma, I’m hurtin’ way deep down inside, don’t know how to fix it. I know you hurt too, I hear ya cryin’ at night, and know its cause of me and the way I am now. I feels like that sick old calf we had, couldn’t stand to look at it sufferin’, but can’t put it down neither. Kinda why I’m huntin’ today, don’t wanna be a burden to ya, don’t wanna see ya hurt like that.
That night in my bedroom, didn’t mean ya no harm; thawt the gooks was comin’ after me again. I’m so awful tired, momma, tired of fightin’ things ain’t there.
Ya took good care of me, but I’m grown now, need to fend on my own. Pop’d be proud of what ya done fer us boys. Sure will miss yer cookin’. Don’t hold supper count a me. Figurin’ I’ll be gone a good while. Don’t know ‘xactly where I’m goin’, but ‘spect it’s far, far away. Think I’ll just keep walkin’ til I find somewhere they ain’t!
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Psy.D. Myron Masters
At the time this letter was penned I truly believed I had seen the last of Charlie Spangenburg, but last week he came crashing back into my life. The patrolman on duty offered security video showing Charlie repeatedly hurling himself against the reinforced glass of my office front. Upon arrival they found a bloody and belligerent man who had taken up residence on my couch and demanded to be seen. I knew something drastic had occurred in his life, such aggressive behavior is virtually non-existent in this type of disorder. I refused to have him arrested, so at 3:53am I agreed to resume our sessions.
His appearance, goals, and future are narrowly defined by obsession. Each facet of his life fits neatly into a slot. Breakfast consists 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, in the three o’clock position, is reserved for toast; stone-ground wheat exclusively, toasted for precisely sixty-three seconds—sixty-three of course being divisible by three. Three is the number that rules Charlie’s life.
The streets of Manhattan are overrun with platoons of business men. They jockey for position at crosswalks, curse into their cell-phones, and traverse the sidewalks with a determined gait. Had our first meeting occurred there, I would have had no reason to assume Charlie was anything more than one of the clones. He arrived in my office stern and white-knuckled, clutching a worn leather planner.
It was my inquiry in regards to the contents of the binder that immediately set us at odds. He likened my request to that of allowing him to rifle through my desk simply to satisfy his own curiosity. Charlie gave me a deeper appreciation for how more patients should view their doctors. Although I must admit, our sessions often left me frustrated and exhausted, feeling as if I had been subjected to a battery of questions designed to determine the purity of my motives.
The responsibility for our first round of sessions ending badly rests squarely upon my shoulders. I had pressed Charlie too hard, too soon, and had no intention of making the same mistake a second time. Something monumental had taken place. Even before I could extend a greeting, he placed his planner in my hand.
It was a journey of despair; painful, daily musing from a boy who longed to be a part of a world which presently found no use for him. The writing was barely legible, letters overlapping and sporadic spacing between lines. Quite understandably so, when I discovered where Charlie began his journaling. His mother asked him to retrieve something from the back of the woodshed. Afterwards she claimed the wind had blown the door closed. Subsequently, she dropped the pretense of asking him to retrieve things. Charlie maintains that is he unable to recall the frequency or length of such punishments, but I am convinced he is still a young boy attempting to defend his mother’s own dysfunction.
Hidden in the back was a very detailed chart for his life’s course. Charlie explained that all plans begin in pencil, and only when an item is determined as likely can it be traced over in pen. I noticed the entry under the heading ‘girlfriend’. Despite the ink, permanent and irreversible, the name had been marked through completely.
“So Charlie, do you want to tell me about Suzanne?”
“Suzanne and me were both messed up; ‘mind-cripples’ she called us. She heard voices and I counted shit, that’s just how life is.
For a head-case like me, March 3rd was like Christmas. I had reservations at her favorite restaurant and tickets to the opera. She didn’t know it, but I had already traced her name in pen. During intermission I was going to ask her to marry me.”
“She didn’t accept your proposal?”
“I didn’t get the opportunity to ask. When I awoke that morning her side of the bed was cold and empty. She was beautiful, particularly the first thing in the morning. Part of me knew she was too good for me all along, but we’d lived together for almost two years. Her clothes were still in the dresser and her purse was on the table, but I knew she was gone. I went outside for a smoke. She only allowed smoking on the balcony, because she knew heights and the business of the street made me dizzy and nervous. I think she really did love me, Doc.”
“Does that surprise you, Charlie—that someone in this world could find you loveable?”
Charlie stared at the back of his hand that rested on the desk. We both watched the tapping sequence, thumb through pinky, pinky through thumb. He never looked up as he responded.
“Doc, after your own mother locks you out, numbers ain’t a bad place to be.”
“Charlie, neither of us could control what your mother did. I’m sorry for interrupting. Please continue—you were on the balcony.”
“Yeah I was. My head started spinning and I tried to focus on the open sliding glass door. Just as I prepared to lunge for it I heard a faint whimper. She was still in her nightgown, huddled on the ledge. Too far for me to reach, and I don’t think she wanted to be saved. Before I could do anything she looked me straight in the eye, counted to three, and jumped. All I could do is watch her fall. God, I didn’t want to, but I counted the seconds from the ledge to the street. What kind of sorry bastard does something like that?”
Charlie didn’t allow me to respond.
“Anyhow, that fucking number three ain’t so good anymore.”
That was the last thing I ever heard Charlie Spangenburg say. He didn’t show for his next appointment, and wouldn’t answer my calls. His landlord says he still sees him from time to time, but he’s become more of a recluse.
I gave up my practice, not exclusively because of Charlie. Over the years there were others I couldn’t help. I guess Charlie was right, some people hear voices, and others count shit, but that’s just the way life is.
Monday, May 31, 2010
I've begun to re-read some of my short stories and intend on re-posting a few. Some will change slightly, others more dramatically, and sadly some are beyond rescue.
Jerry Steinhower turned to look over his shoulder one last time. The journey would be easier if he carried the image with him. A make-shift shelter comprised of pine boughs served as a final resting place. Hours had passed as Jerry lingered at a crossroad, wresting with demons; his conscience torn between staying with a friend’s lifeless body, or the decision to move on. Odds of surviving the harsh Canadian elements were slim, but there was nothing he could do for Harley Crider that would bring him comfort now. The only sign of his friend existence was a mound of cold dirt and two twigs fastened with twine in the form of a crude cross.
The two had wandered severely off course, and by the time Harley realized his compass had malfunctioned the sun was but a sliver against an unforgiving sky. Under normal conditions such an error would have been recoverable, but not after the surprise attack of a northern squall. During the night the storm had dumped more than three feet of snow, transforming the five miles between them and the spike camp into an impassible nightmare. Harley made the decision to wait for rescue. From a novice’s point of view, he had done everything correctly. Giving first priority to shelter, then as the thin veil of darkness became dawn, formulating a plan for rescue. The signal fire was admittedly weak, but the best Harley could manage. Small plumes of smoke barely cleared the tree tops before being dismantled by a stiff breeze. Minutes became hours, hours became days—and still no one came. The sinking sun became an evil indicator of the onset of another unbearably cold night.
Never once had Harley lost his composure or his sense of humor. Jerry remembered balking at the proposition of holding another man so closely, but Harley knew the small amount of warmth transferred between bodies was the difference between life and death. Harley suggested he envision sharing the sleeping bag with Ann Margaret, even if she had developed a thick coat of wiry facial hair and put on an extra hundred pounds. Harley was strong enough for both of them, but now he was gone.
There had been no means of calculating the depth and darkness of the void created by the absence of his friend. They had been isolated in a wilderness, but even then there had been two. Jerry’s woods-wise friend provided an inexplicable comfort. His confident air and persuasive words extended beyond the forest. After months of needling, Jerry decided to accept the invitation to hunt. Although he had never held a gun and had absolutely no desire to kill anything, he wanted to know more about the mystical glue that held his friend’s life together. Harley Crider had survived them all; two nasty divorces, a bankruptcy, and the loss of a job. He dealt with each harsh blow by disappearing for a week into the wild, returning with a rejuvenated sense of purpose. Jerry needed that kind of liberation in his own life.
Jerry’s legs were on fire, he was only a few hundred yards from the shelter and his heart was already racing. His energy reserve was running low, but time was of the essence. Strained voices became clearer and louder as they turned in his direction. Jerry quickly ducked beneath the low hanging branches and settled with his back against a sturdy trunk. Those that searched that day came with a hundred yards of discovering him. Harley would have been proud; not with the decision to cover his own tracks, but with the execution of his plan.
With the searchers safely past and his hiding place undisclosed, an eerie fog melted the gap between earth and sky. The collective forces of exertion, hyperthermia, and guilt ushered a barrage of images past. A young boy wore a dusty baseball uniform, sporting a frown that belied the glow of a victor’s face. Jerry intended to be there for his son’s debut on the mound, but ties with the office were too strong. His wife’s lovely green eyes stared in disbelief as he offered a coerced confession in response to the damning evidence of a mistress. His face was sunken and withered; a tired man who could wait no longer. He expired in a forgotten corner of a nursing home as Jerry honored an age-old feud over his father’s last request for reconciliation. There was a large man trailing behind the others. The determined gait was unmistakably Harley Crider’s. Harley was only the latest in Jerry’s life to have had greater expectation than he could deliver.
Jerry recalled being uneasy with the weight of the .44 magnum in his hand, but it was his duty to perform watch while his friend slept. Jerry never heard the wolves approach. Only Harley’s cries had jarred him from an inappropriate slumber. He had rushed to the aid of his friend, but blood-painted muzzles smiled as they welcomed a late arrival. There was no way to determine whether intentional fangs or the inadvertent round that pierced Harley’s skull had closed the deal, but either scenario was equally sickening.
Despite his grizzly fate, Harley returned with a smile upon his face and an angel at his side. The two stood together as if they waited for Jerry to speak or to join them. If they anticipated profound words, he was incapable of them. Jerry’s transgressions were certain to be judged too great. Among a million other worthy prospects, he could not fathom his own soul worth saving. As heavy eyes and doors of opportunity tend to do, they closed. Harley Crider and his escort faded into the mist.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
As a male, I will not pretend to completely and accurately describe motherhood for I know it is something that cannot be fully appreciated without experience. Consider that when a woman chooses to give birth she sacrifices everything for nine months, and nearly everything for the rest of her life. All of this giving in order to produce a life outside of her own—to extend the existence of humankind for another generation.
The responsibility is awesome. During those nine months she must maintain her diet, her rest, and exercise, because these needs are no longer singular in purpose. She carries her young 24/7, no rest, no holidays, and often discomfort is the course of the day. She and the life carried within her are physically and emotionally connected. Her way of thinking changes dramatically whereby something unseen dictates her every thought and action. A motherly instinct is evolving. She will protect her young with a ferocity that is otherwise not in her nature. Soon, preparation of a nest begins; a nurturing environment that will satisfy and comfort the miniature life placed in her care.
When the birth is complete and the umbilical cord severed little if anything changes. The connection made is permanent. A mother will never see a child more beautiful than her own, will never let a cry or skinned knee go unattended, and will do everything in her power to shield them from the harsh ways of the world. She will answer calls in the night, scrub vomit from bed-clothes and sheets, and settle in a rocking chair with the love of her life coddled close to her bosom. With hearts in synch she will sing a sweet lullaby until the words have soothed the hurt away.
These loving actions do negate or minimize a father’s involvement. The raising of a child must involve a balanced approach, but the connection with a mother can never be replaced.
A mother’s life is full of firsts; first tooth, first word, first step, first haircut, first day of school, first date, first breakup, and on and on. A mother cannot help but wish for a child’s success in life and each of these milestones is a step in a positive direction. When they prepare to leave home and forge a life of their own, she hopes that she has prepared them well.
Have you ever considered where you might be without the influence of your mother, wife, or grandmother? It seems grossly inadequate that we should set aside a single day for the women that have so positively impacted our lives. As humans, mothers are not perfect, but I’m confident that the world would be a lesser place without the unconditional love they instill in our hearts and minds.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
On a field-road at the outskirts of town a farmer stands surveying his plot. It is a barren place where seed planted in rows laid dormant in the cold earth until decay destroyed them from the inside out. His wife is a laborer at a factory. She performs the same repetitive duties and with good reason believes the week to come will only be a miserable collection of yesterdays. Together they live in a town whose footprint hasn’t changed in twenty years. The streets are dotted with few businesses; their proprietors barely exist. The last fresh face to arrive here is now withered and worn. At night when the air is still and sound carries further than it should, I hear the cry of hope drowning and the empty thud of crumbling dreams.
This is a place that lacks faith, has no hope for tomorrow, and the promise of growth has gone unrealized. Without faith, hope, and growth there is little to separate birth from death.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
“By what authority do you keep us here—I demand my freedom!”
His defiant chorus collided against unforgiving walls until the intersecting crossfire canceled any noise at all. He and I were not alone in our suffering. Most spent the day standing with heads hung low, circled like cattle sensing a storm, but whereas bovine nervously await the first clap of thunder, in this case the igniter of awful things came in the form of a faint chuckle rising from a dark corner. Farley’s laugh was unmistakable; the old man was rife with madness. He whiled away his days reasoning out loud or sitting glassy-eyed laughing at words no one hears. Harmless really, but Roman Samuelson found a challenge in everything.
“Who is it that finds my demand entertaining? Let him speak his name, so I shall know which of you to crush!”
Roman moved to the corner with purpose in every stride. Upon arrival there was a thrashing of bodies and clashing of spirits that could not be disguised with darkness alone. As the pair transitioned from shadow to the light, Roman emerged first, dragging behind him a feeble man caught by his shirt collar. Farley’s laughter erupted in volleys, even as Roman threw him into a pile, and most oddly when his head struck the floor. Yet to have his fill, Roman seized a handful of hair and engaged the lunatic in conversation.
“Farley, you have suffered in this place longer than any other. Surely you know of a secret passage. Share it with us and I will forego the pleasure of snapping your neck!”
His body was awkwardly tangled and a trickle of blood filled the crease in his forehead, yet his laughter remained constant. There was a distinct disconnect, as the question posed swirled about before lodging squarely in his mind. When it did the laughter stopped, and for the very first time we heard coherent sentences.
“I refuse to address you as Roman; instead I shall call you Jude. You are a rebel, and here in the afterlife there is no place for an untamed spirit. There are but two means of escape, and only a fool insists on a third. My poor boy, your very existence is an illusion…a charade of sorts, and breaking my neck will do nothing to affect that. Roman Samuelson is abbreviated Roman S., but in his blackened heart he is already Jude S.”
Roman’s brows narrowed and his grip loosened. Farley slipped through his grasp, but instead of fleeing he wheeled and moved closer. From point-blank range Farley delivered his last cogent sentence. It came in bursts, the gaps filled with mad laughter.
“You see it clearly now—don’t you—don’t you, Judas!”
A faint jingling came from the hallway, followed by the sound of a lock rattling under the weight of a key. Every desperate eye fell upon the door and every heart skipped a beat. It was each of our deepest desires to be claimed by one side or the other and both had arrived.
In the time it takes for a door to swing we were in the presence of the two most powerful forces in the universe. Out of reverence each of us found our feet, with the exception of one. Farley was in a particularly tortured state, turning circles and hopping like an agitated chimp. Drool slung from either side of his mouth as he shrieked.
“The time has come for one…the time has come for one….soon we all will see, the time has come for one!”
There were many things of which Farley was unaware or clearly mistaken, but he had a thorough understanding of what was to take place. Each time they arrived, the light and the dark, one tortured soul would leave this chamber.
The fairer of them stood to right of the throne and despite our desire he could not be directly gazed upon for his light was too brilliant. However, the lesser of the two, on the left, was not without merit; he too was alluring in a primordial sense.
Just as thunder shakes the heavens, his words rattled our bones.
“Does anyone wish to speak before a decision is made?”
From the rear of the throng came more of a roar than a voice.
“There is one among us that is plotting to undermine your authority.”
Roman parted the crowd, stumbling and cursing those that stood in his way.
“Lord, it is Farley who has betrayed you.”
A murmuring of disbelief filtered from font to back.
“I do not come forward without proof. In his dark corner there is a tunnel. Can it be meant for anything other than escape? Come, and see with your own eyes.”
There was the beginning of an escape route, and Farley spent most of his time there.
The light shone upon the crowd, probing the breadth of us.
“Is there are friend of this man? Who will stand with Farley’s and speak on his behalf?”
The opportunity to acknowledge him was issued three times, yet no one moved from their place. My heart had noble thoughts, but my feet carried me deeper into the safety of the crowd.
“If there is no man willing to prove otherwise, Roman, you have won your freedom. Step forward and reach out your hand.”
With the speed of a serpent’s strike, the dark one intercepted Roman. Firmly gripping his wrist he turned to address the others.
“Inaction is good; your silent mouths bring me great hope for the future.”
Roman fell to his knees as his captor forced his hand toward the crowd.
“The dirt beneath your nails—is it from digging a tunnel, or perhaps a grave in which to bury Farley? Roman, I did not pursue you; there was no need for it. You proposed your allegiance if I would grant you rule of half my kingdom. It is unwise to bargain with the dark side. What is sown shall also be reaped. Today, Farley will leave in the presence of light, and you, Jude, have loved me forever.”
The four disappeared outside the door and a suffocating darkness fell over this tomb. It is difficult to explain to those outside the chamber, but even the most detestable destination is surely better than nothingness. For those that remain, within our chests beat pale hearts yearning for the vibrant colors of pain and suffering; too long have we been subjected to the pastel shades of purgatory. We barley exist; hopelessly wandering in circles, searching for a definable moment when we might again recognize direction. It is with great conviction that I tell you there is most assuredly a fate worse than being damned.
I believe the clarity with which I recall that day only serves as another form of punishment. Inaction is truly a friend of evil. Perhaps no longer being allowed the luxury of experiencing emotion is a blessing. Now, the only reminder that I should feel something comes in brief flashbacks of days gone by. As time grinds on they too will be taken from me. Piece by piece, thought by thought, they will dismantle everything that means anything and eventually only dust will remain.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
As I ascended the mountain my mind gave way to odd and various considerations, but none more perplexing or titillating than time dedicated to the designer of such a narrow and winding road. I found his plans for razor thin margins commendable, and the sheer depth of canyons on either side serving as punishment for miscalculation—genius indeed! I attacked this course with fervor, as I believed any lesser attempt would have deeply offended his creativity.
Yet as fire turns to ice, I briefly shared the cab with my dead mother. Her eyes were as cold and unapproachable as when living. She insisted on frittering away precious moments expounding upon what a thorough and significant disappointment I had been. She was still yammering about nothing when I dismissed her unwelcomed company in favor of a warm fuzzy haze.
When the truck rolled around the final bend one of two things occurred. At the time my condition did not allow me to readily identify which, and oddly I had no preference. After intense scrutiny I discovered it was indeed a heavy sigh and not the hissing of my ruptured spleen.
With my mental state vaguely laid bare and the introduction to my dysfunctional mother, I find no value in withholding other unsavory details of my journey. A victim of diminished capacity, I was unsuccessful in synchronizing the jerking of my eyes and the elusive hands of a watch, so estimates must suffice. After three failed attempts to negotiate the cabin door, I figure it was noontime when I crawled through the threshold and approaching sunset when I fell onto a bed fully clothed.
As morning rose my nostrils swelled with the aroma of stale earth and time. I was content eavesdropping while the rudimentary accommodations murmured of their simplicity. All in all I found the cabin and its contents quite pleasing. Never had she promised a five-star suite, only an escape from those things in heavy pursuit. Where psychiatrists are concerned Dr. Julie Martin was beyond compare. At first I was convinced she had taken me on such short notice because we shared the same office building, but perhaps it was more than book learning that provided such keen insight to my streaks of madness. Nonetheless, offering the use of her cabin for the weekend qualified her as a genuine friend with a sincere interest in my mental well being.
I suppose it is inevitable that at some point one assigned to care for another’s demons cannot help but be consumed by their own. Certainly, it was my own inability to properly defend those placed in my care that has driven me to within arms reach of the edge. Every hour on the hour I pour through the files of three deceased patients of mine who chose to end their own lives. I’ve played back our conversations searching for clues I missed, some occasion when I selected the wrong words, or failed to respond when required.
These distasteful circumstances seem much more palatable if only we adhere to the philosophy whereby we are all simply victims of circumstance. Abusers raise abusers, addicts give birth to addicts, and the poverty-stricken are destined to breed another generation of peasants. There is liberation in believing we are completely helpless to change or otherwise affect our miserable lives, but when we speak in these terms we completely undermine the capability of humankind and give ourselves a free pass to fail regularly and feel good about it.
Yet if we deny such thinking it suggests we have some control of our behavior, actions, and ultimately responsibility for outcomes we clearly did not intend. Perhaps that is too painful and far too heavy a burden for me to carry just now.
The dusty journal entry of Dr. Julie Martin provided me with inspiration. Before the weekend was done I considered others she might send here in the future and was compelled to leave an entry of my own.
Cynicism creeps in slowly, like a wolf stalking a lamb, but among these whispering pines I find refuge. Nature sucks the venom from my soul while mountain breezes sweep away the ashes and songs of birds in hiding sooth the jagged edges of my heart.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
I’ve been comin’ to the Red Rooster goin’ on forty years now. Some folk come for the food, others like the company. I suppose I fall somewhere betwixt ‘em. Bottom line is most of us just glad to have someplace to go. As with any eatery some lunches are plain more memorable than others. Last Wednesday was one of them days, and honestly it does my heart good to relay the story to ya.
Two men was sittin’ at a corner table waitin’ on lunch to arrive. While I ain’t naturally given to the abstract, seemed like the condiment carrier between ‘em symbolized a line drawn along social class, dress, and demeanor. One sported a fresh, stylish haircut and appeared at home in a gray pin-striped suit and leather shoes. The other fitted in a greasy mechanic’s shirt with a name tag sewn in the upper left-hand corner. Everything about that boy indicated he was uncomfortable in his own skin. Few if any of the regulars in the diner realized they was brothers; twins in fact. Not only did they have the same mother, they occupied her womb at the same time. Poor old Mona musta had some kind heartburn.
Thomas stared beneath the table cloth, his nimble fingers punchin’ out a text message on his shiny phone while Tim made questionable use of his fork. Even in a small town, cleanin’ the grime from beneath your nails and wipin’ the tines on a napkin ain’t gonna get you too many dinner dates. Soon as he worked the pinkey finger over good he was ready for words.
“Look at you—punchin’ shit into that phone like a little robot. You got some kind a Goliath set of balls showin’ up twenty minutes late with no apology, and not even a word for your own brother!”
Tim’s attack drew no return fire. With an enemy unwilling to engage he seized the opportunity, this time in a mocking voice.
“Thomas, you’ll have to excuse me. Even though I find your company utterly delightful, suddenly I’m struck with an overwhelming urge to take a big, hairy, rooster-shit!”
As a friend of the family, I had on occasion had the opportunity to speak with Thomas. He’s one of them kind that has trouble listen’ on account of his ratchet-jaw yackin’ most of the time. Don’t get me wrong—I ain’t at all convinced he’s completely heartless—just internally misguided. Through conversation I git the distinct impression, in an odd, detached sort of way he does feel for his brother, but like spoiled milk some things are simply too far gone.
The waitress arrived with his salad and placed a burger platter in front of the empty chair. With Tim not havin’ returned from his business, I suppose Thomas saw no harm in plucking a few fries from his brother’s plate. Fer his trouble he was welcomed with a sharp slap to the back of his head—the kind that sets your teeth to rattlin’ and produces a distinct ringin’ in the ears.
“Stand up you thievin’, no-good son-of-a bitch. In case you’re wonderin’, there’s plenty more from where that came from!”
A bewildered Thomas turned to find his brother loomin’ over him. Tim’s fists were already doubled and his eyes boilin’ with rage.
“You calling me out over a couple of greasy fries?”
“Yeah Thomas, in your mixed-up world, that’s what I’m doin’! Take an ass-whoopin’ standin’ or sittin’….it don’t matter to me; I give you fair warnin’!”
It was along about that time Thomas realized the outburst had drawn the attention of every patron in the place. As their hungry settled upon him I believe he was attemptin’ to diffuse the situation with rationale, but the way he spoke drew snickers from the crowd.
“Sit down, Tim. If you continue these shenanigans you’re most certainly going to make a fool of yourself.”
Tim grabbed his pretty, blue, silk tie and used it for leverage. Each time he wound it around his hand their eyes came closer to touchin’.
“You completely forgot you’re upbringin’, Thomas. Everyone here knows the story—that’s how it is a small town. Hell, half of ‘em in here think I’m a fool for waitin’ this long to pound ya into puddin’. You think I forgot when you stole my girlfriend in the tenth grade, just cause you could? When you nearly broke mom and pop payin’ for yer ivy-league college? How ‘bout when you left me to take care of ‘em while you was off in China? Daddy passed and you was good enough to send flowers, now Momma’s bad sick and dyin’, Thomas, and small as a man you are, you can’t manage a phone call!”
Tim said what needed said and then he reached back somewhere into last Tuesday and delivered a mule-punch that sent his brother sprawlin’. Thomas was out cold, not even a quiver. I ain’t sayin’ it was the right thing to do, but the crowd erupted into applause. Tim didn’t pay no mind to none of us, seemed he had only one thing left to accomplish. You see, when Tim made contact, Thomas’ smart-phone went to skiddin’ across the hardwood like a young pup on a frozen pond. On his way to the door Tim placed a heel on that confounded device, as if it was the cause of everything gone wrong in his life. The whole place grew deathly quiet as Tim took to sobbin’, and cussin’ and stompin’. It ain’t never a pretty sight to see a man busted up like that, but what happened next sent us all home in a better frame-o-mind.
After the first stomp an operator’s voice come on the line clear as day, “We’re sorry your call can’t completed as dialed, if you’ve reached this recording in error, please hang up and try again.”
As a courtesy to the woman on the line, Tim leaned towards the floor and spoke slowly.
“Sorry to bother ya, maa’m, but it twert no mistake; I reached just where I was aimin’!”
Friday, January 29, 2010
Take a look around....there are some fascinating folks who write there. Hmmm...now that I think of it, I'm not sure why they continue to post my work!!
Sunday, January 24, 2010
“Son, I’m sorry. Corporate rules won’t allow us to extend credit any longer. You’ll tell your mother the news won’t you?”
Without expression the youngster collected the coins as if he understood corporate rules completely. The cashier looked at me oddly as I retrieved his items and ran each across the scanner adding them to my bill. When I handed the boy his bag the expression that washed over his face was one of confusion.
“Sir, why would you do this for me?”
There was no time to explain the entire story of the Good Samaritan, or of a woman at the well. I knelt down and placed my hand on his shoulder.
“Son, you only needed a little and I have been blessed with much.”
His eyes of chocolate darted from his own clothing to mine, from the soiled change purse to the credit card I held in my hand.
“But, Sir, if my mother should ask, how will I explain?”
“Tell her truth—tell her that God arranged our meeting today and that we were both blessed by it—and most importantly tell her you love her.”
I sat in the parking lot watching the boy’s form grow smaller in the horizon. As different as we appeared to be, we were the same; the boy is me, the boy is you. No matter how successful in the eyes of the world we become we are no more able to pay our heavenly debt than a poor boy with a change purse. Earthly goods and accomplishments cannot buy our freedom. Only through the grace of God and the sacrifice of his Son can our debt be forgiven.
So if during the course of the day your mother should ask, gently kiss her on the forehead and tell her you love her. You’ll also tell her tell her the news, won’t you—that you’ve met a friend who has the power to change everything.