A boy called Fate

Another back story installment. Enjoy!

Flyn Martin got his nickname the day he saved his cousin DeJohn from drowning. Flyn was fourteen. DeJohn was alright. Ever since Flyn’s dad was locked up downstate for something his grandma refused to tell him about, Flyn lived with his cousin and her up in Rogers Park, which was a big improvement over his dad’s idea of digs. When Flyn was with his dad, they moved so much their “place” got to be a ripped-up nylon duffel and a couple of milk crates. Between sixth and eighth grade alone they moved seventeen times, but who’s counting. His dad’s dad’s over by Cermak, a stint all the way out in Joliet, another down Back of the Yards with Uncle Riley. They’d been all over, and everyplace sucked. They’d been in shelters twice. So yeah, Flyn liked living with DeJohn and Gram, his Mama’s mom, up in the city. Things were good with her. Dinner every night, a real bed all his even though he shared the room with DeJohn.

De was eighteen. They shared a set of bunks; DeJohn had the top. De had a job at the mall and a girlfriend, Erica, who let Flyn tag along with them cause he hadn’t made other friends yet. Flyn liked it, liked her. She was light skinned and had these braids that DeJohn always had his hands in. Flyn tried not to watch but he couldn’t help it. Was he looking at her hair or his cousin’s hands? He didn’t know. Flyn liked to draw sometimes, exaggerated unreal drawings. Out of habit more than anything.

That day Flyn saved his cousin, DeJohn and Erica were running up and down the beach, playing around. Flyn sat on the line between dry sand and water, his jeans rolled up, drawing and watching the waves so his eyes had someplace to go. The water that day has a relentless energy that Flyn found calming. Every time the water receded, it took sand with it.

“Whatchu doin’?” DeJohn leaned down to see Flyn’s paper. “Man. Man. Man. Get out. Whatchu doin drawing me? My arms don’t look like that, man.”

“Sorry,” Flyn mumbled, covering the pregnant bulges with one hand.

“It’s alright.” De seemed secretly pleased.

Erica, suddenly behind him, ran her fingers over Flyn’s head, combing through his hair. A wave crashed on his ankles, sending up a spray that wetted his page.

“Look at all his hair, De.” Gram had been on his case to get it cut, but seeing how he didn’t have a job and didn’t have a dad — not that his dad had ever much shelled out cash or nothing, but still. He didn’t have the money for a haircut and he wasn’t gonna get it. “You know, you’d look great with dreads.” Erica knelt down in front of him, her skirt getting soaked in the surf, her braids falling forward, obscuring his feet. He felt the water recede through his toes. He looked up, looked back down as she continued to rub his head, tried to vanish into his drawing. Willed the water to disappear him.

“Damn, girl,” DeJohn started back to the water. “Leave him be. He’s fourteen.”

“Seriously,” she was whispering now. Her hands felt good—really good—on his head. Flyn kept his eyes pinned to the growing divot between his feet. “You should grow it out. I can show you how to do the locks.” Her attention fed scraps to the beast growing in his heart all the years since Mama left, all the time he’d been on the run with his Dad. He nodded slightly, pulled back an inch. She let his head go, and he felt the disappointment crash over him.

“C’mon back here, Erica, baby. Come swim wid me.” DeJohn ran into the lake and back. He turned and threw a couple handfuls of sand at them, then ran back into the water. Flyn watched the muscles of his cousin’s bare back ripple into his jeans. Watch out. It was less than a voice but more than a thought. Erica’s mouth was moving but Flyn couldn’t make out what she was saying. He was staring at DeJohn in the water, waves crashing over his arms as he swam headfirst into the horizon. Watch out echoed again in his head.

DeJohn flipped onto his back and hooted, waved. “C’mon baby,” emerged among the crashing surf.

Flyn saw the bulge on the horizon and stood up, clutching his notebook.

“Going to swim?” asked Erica, smiling. She joined him, but Flyn didn’t look away from the water. The water swelled toward DeJohn like it had something to prove. Flyn cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered.

“Watch out, De!” The vicious surf scarfed up his warning. DeJohn was pounding the water, heading straight for the bulge. Flyn held still, watching. Go get him. Somehow he knew better than to hesitate. He tossed his pad up on the beach and ran hard toward his cousin, the still freezing early spring water soaking his jeans and t-shirt. Flyn wasn’t much of a swimmer. He gulped water and fought to keep his eyes open in the water. Erica called out from the shore as he struggled to reach DeJohn. From the water, the bulging on the horizon looked even more threatening. Flyn gulped air and pummeled his arms against the water, struggling to stay afloat as he watched the wave congeal above De, a momentarily solid arc, more beautiful than dangerous but unmistakably both. It paused above his cousin as if it could sense him below. Even still, DeJohn didn’t break his stride. Erica screamed from the shore. The wave crashed on his cousin’s now tiny form and he vanished.

Flyn’s stroke was groping, but it got him there. When he finally reached his cousin, everything slowed down. De was floating face down, gently bobbing on the surface, the angry wave dispersing in slow motion. A form, a figure, took shape above his cousin’s limp body, an evanescent gloom reflected against the sky. Flyn blinked. When he opened his eyes, the glob had darkened like a gathering raincloud. Quick he closed his hand around his cousin’s arm, cold and heavy as soaked driftwood. Flyn felt the chill as the glob entered his body. Colder even than the water. He started the slow crawl back to shore. “De! DeJohn!” he called between gulps of water. Flyn wasn’t the strongest swimmer, and the iciness didn’t help any. Erica joined him halfway back and took DeJohn’s other arm. She was crying. Together they pulled him out of the water and she slapped his cheeks to wake him up and did mouth to mouth on him. Flyn had never seen it done up close before. Now the horizon was nothing but a flatline. Shivering, he held De’s head until he came to and coughed up the water with a terrified glare.

“Jesus,” Erica cried, laying her head on DeJohn’s chest. DeJohn coughed some more and struggled to sit up. “Take it easy, baby,” Erica told him, wiping her eyes. She looked at Flyn. “How did you do that?”
“Do what?” He wrapped his arms around his dripping wet body but even the hot sun did nothing to calm his shivers.

“Save him. You know, you called it, when we were sitting there before. ‘Watch out’? How did you know?”

“I dunno.” Flynn looked at the ground, his teeth chattering. How did he know? Was he losing it?

“You saved him.” She smiled at him, hugged DeJohn, wiped more tears. “You’re Fate.”

Flyn hunched down on the warm sand, smiling and rubbing the water from his shaggy hair. His discarded notebook rustled in the lake breeze.

“You alright?” Erica wrapped her arms around him. Soft, easy waves slurped the shore, almost apologetic.

He shrugged. He could feel the glob lurking inside him, and he wondered what it was and how he was going to get it out.

“I’m gonna call you that.” She showed her teeth when she smiled. “Fate.”

Flyn smiled into the sand.

Small pleasures

Cain has a fondness for Mondays. His eggs arrive on Monday, delivered to his door by a farmer on his way to town. On any given Monday, he receives two dozen fertilized eggs, sometimes as many as three. He welcomes his eggs, greets them warmly, carries them to the cellar door and locks it behind him. Cain’s wife and daughter chalk the egg keeping up to a new hobby; he’s always been sort of an all-rounder. They permit him his eccentricities, as well as full use of the cellar. For this he is grateful. A man needs his space.

He keeps his eggs in an incubator he’s fashioned himself from a clear plastic bin, foam, and an electric warmer, soft overhead lights, real incandescent, not the horrid LCD lighting so popular these days. Cain is generous with his new eggs. By their side in his armchair, he reads to them from his books, tells them jokes. Buoys them through the day-to-day of their becoming. He keeps it lighthearted, all the best to cull their burgeoning spirits. He wants only to please his new darlings. When dusk falls, he pets each one on its lovely ecru apex with his index finger before shutting off the light and heading up to bed.

Tuesday mornings bright and early he checks his babies for cracks. Often he must wait until Wednesday for the first. Oh! He finds a single hairline fracture, a hesitant gap just beginning, and he smiles. Cain’s smile is large, momentous. This can be the hardest stretch, the interminable hours of Tuesday, Wednesday’s early anxiety, through which he perseveres in his armchair in the gloom, waiting and watching for the fissures he knows will form. There may be three or four by the time he turns in Tuesday evening, wishing for dawn, for openings.

Wednesdays are busy days. Cain wakes at the first gray light, peering over his half-born babies, and he finds them disheveled. Fissures have given way to chasms, and he hazards another grin. He’s happy now that hatch day is here. He prepares the cage, gives it one last preparatory wipe, and fills it with soft straw for his newborn chicks. He watches over the eggs closely, not wanting to interfere – nature knows best, and he knows better than to rush his hatchlings. Cain’s hot breath fogs the incubator and he wipes that too, settles into his armchair to watch the rest of the birthing process. He clucks to them, his chicklings, as he finds ways to busy his hands.

By lunchtime they’re all born, all downy warm yellowy feathers and teensy sharp beaks. Better than the birth of his own human daughter since they’re all his. Cain doesn’t dare touch one, not yet. Instead he sits forward on the edge of his seat and strains to hear their first soft cheeps. He washes and rewashes his hands in the basin under the stairs so he’ll be ready when they are.

At dinnertime they’re chirping for real, and he knows what to do. He lifts each baby chick from the incubator by its small hot body and moves it gingerly to the cage, sets it inside. A whole new world! Twenty-four darlings, twenty-four wondrous looks. Cain sends his wife to bed and stays up late admiring his chicks. He offers water and seed, reads aloud from his books, offering a chirp now and then. Wednesdays he goes to bed happy, crawls under the covers heart full and hopeful. He looks forward to the day ahead, more of the same, enjoying his babies, watching them grow.

Thursday he spends cleaning out the incubator, readying it for next week’s new batch. Cain sings as he works, simple love songs composed of clicks, clucks, and coos. Only his lovelies can hear; he’s got the cellar door soundproofed. He watches over them to ensure they all get along, no pecking fights, nothing ugly. He likes his chicks peaceful. All together.

Friday morning, Cain cleans his boots, slung back low in his armchair. Atonement. He hums to his chickies as he scrapes out the treads with his penknife. He gives his boots a thick coat of polish and rubs them with a cloth until they gleam. He sets them on the shelf next to the cage, to expose his babies, to help them feel comfortable with his boots. This takes some time. Cain doesn’t like to inflict fear and he takes pains to avoid it.

After he’s put everything in its place, he watches over the chicks until evening falls. Friday night. His favorite time. Only then does he double check the lock at the top of the cellar steps, does he unbutton his shirt, does he permit himself to play with one of them, just one. The very best of the batch. Cain takes the smallest, fluffiest chickling from its enclosure, rubs its downy feathers on his face. He inhales its musty scent, brushes its small body against his lips. Again and again, he never tires of this. He sits back in his armchair, lays the chick on his clean-shaven chest, lets her peck him. He’s been waiting for this all week. His sine qua non. The sensations build slowly, now soft, then sharp, soft again. So soft. Soon he’s quaking and panting under her small perfect body. He feels his faults arising, presses his face down into the helpless not so helpless puck of down on his chest and feels the emission escape him, a sweet hot long release. At last. Oh, Friday is a good day.

He holds her a long time afterward, only returning her to her sisters long past midnight has rendered its blissful obscurity. He retires to his marriage bed, sleeps in Saturday. Late in the day he descends to feed his girls. He reads them a bit more from his collection. He kneels, says a quiet prayer. Then Cain rises, takes his shining boots from the shelf, slips them on, does up the laces. He’s ready now. The yang to last night’s yin.

Cain surveys his chickies, finds his prettiest, and sets her to the side. The best for last. He takes another, a bright yellow one, and lifts her out. This one he doesn’t press to his face. He sets her down firmly on the ground, on a square of plywood he’s cut and fitted just for this purpose. She cheeps, his chickie. Pecks the wood. His movement is strong, fluid yet masculine. He lifts his thigh parallel to the ground, brings his heel down hard on her small defenseless body. He can feel the infinitesimal bulge under his boot. It’s all part of the ritual to Cain. He removes his foot, checks her corpse for signs of life, finds none. He returns to the cage, selects another girlie. She cheeps at him as if in rebuke, and he gives her body a tight squeeze before he sets her on the plywood.

Five chicks in, the cellar smells of blood and the others are cheeping to save themselves. He picks up the pace, wanting to get the dirty work over with. Saturdays are unsavory. A half-hour later the stench is overpowering and the room is silent save for Cain’s heavy breathing and one plaintive cheep. Hers. He peers into the cage, can’t take the way her eyes are glistening. Somehow today feels different than all the other Saturdays. He cannot crush her. He cheeps once to show her he’s not going to hurt her. He leaves his boots by their bodies and slinks off to bed, spent.

Sunday he wakes at dawn, slips away from his still snoring wife. In the cellar, amid the lonely sound of a single lovely chirp, he slips on the rubber gloves and tall galoshes he keeps just for this purpose. He kneels by the messy plywood and prays. Their brief lives, snuffed out. Too soon, he cries, weeping. She watches him from her cage. Then, reverently, he lifts the grisly remains of each of his lovelies into one of the wooden boxes he’s built. He closes the lid with a flutter of kisses. He washes the bloody plywood with hot water and lemon, props it to dry in one corner. His boots, he sets aside for later. A memento mori. He tidies his books and straightens his armchair. He wipes the incubator again, as well as the shelf, the floor. Finally, he cleans the cage, lifting his sole chick gently into his shirt pocket. He buries the box way out in the corner of the yard where his daughter never plays and spends the afternoon building an enclosure. As he works, she serenades him with a soft song of cheeps. By evening, all is ready for the week ahead.

When the farmer arrives Monday morning, Cain asks if he can purchase a rooster. “Sure thing,” the farmer agrees, cheerfully and unknowingly rendering himself out of the weekly equation. “I’ll bring him next Monday.” Cain flashes him the rare smirk he reserves for preserving social graces as he cautiously lifts the week’s fresh case of eggs. He frowns at his daughter waving to the farmer through the front window.

boots11

Fate’s mother

More backstory for novel #2. Enjoy!

The last thing Fate remembers about his mom is waiting on the bus with her downtown. He doesn’t know how old he was — maybe three? Four? He was lying on a bench in the bus stop vestibule, the cold a shock through his coat.

“Get up off there, Flyn,” she said, mean. But her hand on his arm was gentle, as Fate recalls. He remembers her hand, its soft warmth penetrating through the nylon Thinsulate and cotton. Her vibrant rejuvenating energy. Fate knows she was mad. Her voice screamed HATE but her hand said LOVE. Like rainbows shooting through his coat, his thin cotton t-shirt. His skin.

“Come on, now.” She helped him up off the bench and lifted him into her arms. He rested his head on her shoulder as the bus shrugged to the curb. She smelled like the coconut lotion she kept on the bathroom counter. She carried him up the steps and fumbled with the money, but she didn’t put him down. She carried him down the aisle as he silently eyed the other passengers’ kind curious glimpses.

“Here you go.” He blinked as she plunked him down unceremoniously on a scratchy seat that smelled of ammonia and garbage, the indifferent backs of tired bus riders’ skulls retreating down the aisle like totems. That’s where the dream left him.

She was gone by the time Fate was five. He doesn’t know why she left, doesn’t know where she is. It came on slow, he thinks, but it’s hazy. She got a job working nights at the laundromat, and would come home in time for breakfast. Then it was lunch. Once dinner. And then she quit coming home altogether.

At times he worries about her and at times he misses her. Other kids have moms. Other kids’ moms do the things moms do. No one does these things for Fate. With his dad, he learned to microwave hot dogs and mac-n-cheese. He learned to eat apples and other fruit that didn’t need to be cut up. He learned to swipe said fruit because nobody ain’t never gonna buy him no fruit and he was always hungry for it. He always wore a sweatshirt with big pockets and there’s no telling what would end up in them. A kid needs a lot of things. A kid needs a mom.

Fate remembers the sound of his mother screaming when his dad used to beat her. he sounds of the slaps too; less as discreet sounds, more as an awareness of sound waves, of molecules being moved through time and space at the frequency of anger. Fate stores these memories in his cells.

Fate thinks of his mom whenever his dad beats him. In those times, the slaps coming faster and faster, morphing into punches, Fate thinks of her. He thinks he knows her then. At eight years old he knows well the futility of fighting it. He likes it in a way. He knows the end will come. In his cells, he knows he will get out, survive. Like her.

By nine, with two black eyes that everyone conveniently holds their tongues about, he suspects he can survive anything. He misses his mom, misses that kind hand on his back, her rainbows. Fate wants his mom back, like a malnourished child wants a meal, but at the same time he knows why she went. In those times with his dad, Fate feels he becomes his mom. Talking mad, touching love.

Today, at the library where he goes after school for the quiet, he Googles her. And he finds her. Yes, it’s her. His heart is careening, shooting rainbows. In the Facebook photo she’s holding a little girl on her lap, their twin faces pressed together, his mom’s hand on the girl’s face. Yes. The hand is hers. Fate would know it anywhere.

Why wasn’t he enough, Fate wonders. Why leave him behind, like Grandmama’s good china that Daddy smashed one night not long after mom left when it was clear she wasn’t never coming back. Like that coconut lotion she left on the bathroom shelf, like the million undone things she left behind. Then Daddy beats him and he knows again, fresh, why. The punches go deep into him like he has no center, like he is not himself, like he is not anyone. No. See, Fate is no one. He’s twelve years old and he is sure of this.

So when he sees his mother’s hand on a little girl’s cheek, it pleases him in a way he can’t name, can’t figure out because he is only twelve. No one has taught him yet about transference. He was his mother’s child once. She talked mean but touched soft and put rainbows in him. These things feel like love to him. Yet. His daddy loves him too, loves enough to beat him. His daddy talks nasty and touches worse but other times they laugh.

People are weird. Even at twelve, Fate knows this and he accepts it. Fate knows he is many things to many people. He looks at his mom’s hand for a long time and it puts him back there on that metal bench. Lying. Waiting. Fate still keeps the coconut lotion in his pillow case and he smells it at night before he falls asleep but he never uses any. He closes out of the browser without a word to his mother.

Once I loved a boy

He was cute and kind and funny. I fell for him fast.

Once I loved a boy. He was young like me, clueless like me. He had a way with words, this boy. Back then, before I knew forever was temporary, I didn’t know things like those don’t last forever. I didn’t know to shield my heart.

I loved a boy and he loved me. There were rain songs and secret stories. And adventures, lots of them.duckpond

Once I loved a boy and he loved me. We had a good time, him and me. It was not my first love, nor my biggest, but it was my deepest.

It went on for some time, then one day the boy went away. He had his reasons. He left without much explanation, with a quiet unsmiling goodbye. He left me grasping at the retreating tendrils of forever, my heart gaping.

Once I loved a boy and he left without kissing me goodbye.

It took me forever to get over him.

One thing I learned from this boy: The only cure for love is to love again. And again. Again.

Frank’s memories

Frank Gunn never liked to dwell on the shadows. He’s a romantic, is what Frank guesses you’d call it. He doesn’t talk about this with anyone but himself and, sometimes, Zelda. You can always trust a dog to keep your secrets. He can’t take too much reality, Frank. But then the reality anchors him too. Why else would he have been driving a rig stuffed with dope for the past fifteen years? Frank knows he’s a contradiction. He dreams of saving someone. It’s not a damsel in distress he’s after, not really, unless she’s inside him somewhere. Still, Frank’s always been drawn to younger women. He’s never acted on it sexually and never would save for inside the privacy of his own mind.

While he drives, Frank reminisces. It’s his joke. He’s not much for the radio except for Sunday gospel, so he keeps it off. He gets off on tangents easy as an apple crumble with pecans, and he fancies taking a pen to paper someday and writing it all down. Maybe he’ll buy one of those old-fashioned typewriters. Not that he ever really intends to. It’s just another part of his ongoing fantasy, along with the girls, and dragon slaying. He’s been through the twelve trials and he’s come out of it with a keen desire to hunt down, redeem himself, save the princess, kill the enemy. All in a manner of speaking, of course.

In reality, Frank figures he’ll be behind the wheel til he can’t see no more. He used to think about finding a woman and settling down someplace quiet, but he’s never stayed still long enough to keep anyone. He’s a nomad at heart.

Before he fell into the transportation work, he used to do odd jobs. Door-to-door salesman, but that went downhill fast when the Internet took off; self-help coach, well, assistant coach, back when he was with Amanda. He drove a school bus for a bit. That’s when he knew he liked to be on the move. He was like the tide, Frank was. He did his best thinking on the go. School bus driving didn’t end up suiting him. He was an immersive guy. He’d get into a think, wind up missing his route completely, end up on the fringes of town, his little buggers nodding off before he got them anywhere near home. When he saw the ad in the paper for a rig operator, week-long shifts plus overtime pay, he knew he wanted to give it a go. That’d been fifteen years ago. He started out on the Memphis to Vancouver route and now he did NY to Portland with stops in Chicago and Kansas City. Truthfully, he didn’t plan to ever quit. He was alright on the move.

He had two memories that he came back to often. One just about the point where he entered the PA turnpike, of lying on the grass in his yard as a kid. Pleasant enough that one. When you got past the toll turnstiles the sky opened up and by the time he crossed that path it was sunup. He’d always liked to watch the sky. Kind of like a dome, and it never failed to make Frank feel safe and small and insignificant. He observed the sky same as when he was a kid, colorless steel-gray azure, didn’t make much difference to him, it was the sense he got of being protected. The sky was really nothing if you thought about it, and Frank realized this, but he never could shake the calm it brought him.

The other memory usually came on outside of Chicago, the buildings retreating in his rearview, ugliness on all sides of him. This one wasn’t one Frank enjoyed, but he braced himself for it nonetheless. It always came, like those hideous billboards, the concrete everywhere, the obligatory trip through the hard side of town that did it for him, brought him back not to that night under the overpass, but before that, when he was in high school. Still a kid, but old enough to know better. Did it anyway.

He’d been trying to rid himself of something, Frank now knows. Around back of the Five-n-Dime where his mom worked, a wonder nobody recognized him while he was doing it. The memory is part feeling, part sound. A punch makes a cottony sound. Skin absorbs. His father George’s fist in the kid’s gut. Not his. Never his. Frank isn’t violent.

Frank could have been a goon. He accepts this. It was always in his blood, he thinks. Yeah, yeah, George was a refrigerator repairman, yes. He didn’t beat his mother or nothing, no. But there were times he near did. Things were always intense in the Gunn house. Old George had some friends and the friends had some acquaintances, and ties like that bind a kid.

Frank’d seen his father beat a man, once, in an alley. He doesn’t know why, doesn’t even know why he was there. Frank was maybe four, five. Too young to ask, to young to know anything but that George was a bad man. He wishes he knew why his dad was so bad, but his father is ninety-two and Frank’s never asked. Now George is more of a marshmallow than a goon. Now he’s wrapped up in Frank’s imaginings, this bad man, a recurring theme, the villain from whom Frank is fleeing, saving people left and right. The running is what defines him and Frank lets it. It’s not even like he can say he wants to be rid of it. The run balances him. The feel of retread humming against broken asphalt. It’s his thing, now, like the vinyl-wrapped steering wheel in his hands.

“Gimme your dough.” Frank’s voice had a lot of weight to it that day. The kid worked with his mom, shelving. It was payday. Frank remembers the kid’s hands shaking as he coughed up his money. Did he plan it? Nah. One thing led to another. Ma always wanted to get Frank a job shelving but he didn’t wanna have her breathing down his neck.

The memory of his father’s fist pummeling into the other man’s gut is his mantra. Denser, more crisp than a slap. Earthy. Menacing. No real punch could ever come close. Frank slouched in the backseat of his father’s Buick, window rolled down, peeking up over the sill even as he tried not to. The sound of that punch. Frank isn’t violent, not on the surface, no. But underneath it, well, you can’t ever escape your depths.

Frank stole eleven dollars off the kid. He needed to take something out on someone, he thinks now. The blood looked brown where it soaked the pavement.

That afternoon, he used the money to take a girl to a movie. Victory was sweet. He bought the girl and him sodas from the concession. The kid bleating, crumpled next to a pile of garbage in the alley, helpless. Frank can’t remember her name, thinks he doesn’t want to know. The movie was a Pacino flick. He’s never punched anyone again. He’s always glad to be past Chicago. He’s made his peace with it, all of it. He doesn’t enjoy thinking about it, but he doesn’t fight it either. Memory as scar tissue. Frank Gunn tries not to lie to himself.

It was the blood on his hands that made Frank snap out of it. He mumbled sorry even as he ran off. He knows not knows there was more than that one punch. But that one, that one was for George. Frank, cowering in the shadows. His father finished the job with just one perfect, silent punch. Not so Frank, says the kid seeping platelets into the tar. One punch for each year he’s been living with the memory. Could he let it go? He ran for the alley exit, crying “sorry, sorry,” over his shoulder, clutching the money like a magic pill. Poor kid. Frank held the girl’s hand during the movie.

Ma’s the one took the kid to the ER. She was always cleaning up after people. “You oughtta see his face, Georgie,” over mashed potatoes and meatloaf. Ketchup dripping. Frank didn’t dare look up. “Who’d do something like that?” George snorted noncommittally, his hand fisted around his knife.

Frank flips his headlights on, pats Zelda, and eases his rig into the middle lane to pass a slow-moving tour bus with a sunrise painted on the side.

Kitchen scene

(Scene: A spare galley kitchen with a Viking range in the center beneath a large stainless steel hood vent. White lower cabinets, dark tiles above. No microwave. A set of tract lights overhead sends pinpoints of brightness into the gloom. Catty-corner to the kitchen stands a tall bar stool, and in it sits a woman wearing a little black dress and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. She’s barefoot and reading a novel in Japanese. A glass of wine sits on the countertop next to her. At the counter next to the stove, facing away, is a man. He’s tall, thin, angular, but also delicate. He’s naked, save for a gauzy cotton eyelet half-apron, circa mid-eighteenth century, knotted around his waist. It was a gift from a previous lover. He’s preparing dinner, cooking an omelet. He’s cut up some tomatoes and they glisten in a bowl next to him. Now he’s chopping an onion, and every so often he wipes his eyes with his forearm. The woman seems engrossed in her book, but also exudes a sense of awareness, of watching over his movements.)

MAN

The children will be home–

WOMAN

We’ve still got some time.

MAN

(Wipes his eyes. The woman goes back to her book. He continues to chop the onion, methodically, thoughtfully. He sniffles loudly. The woman eyes him over her book. He crumples atop the cutting board, and the woman sets down her book.)

WOMAN

Are you crying?

MAN

(Sobs.)

WOMAN

(Kindly.) Come now. We’ve got enough time. You know there’s always long enough.

(She goes back to her book as he nods and wipes his face with his apron, exposing himself. He pours oil into a pan on the stove, sets the bottle on the counter. He picks up the knife and finishes with the onion, puts the chopped onion into a bowl, and rinses the knife under the faucet. He uses his apron to dry it. He holds up the knife and the light momentarily catches it, then he rubs it on his apron again as if to polish it. The woman gives him a slight smile over her book. He picks up a zucchini from the counter and rinses it, dries it on his apron, and holds it up to the light as if to check for bruising. Now he’s smiling. This time the woman’s smile is larger. She sets her book face-down next to her wine so as to save her page and approaches him, stands facing his back. Her dark and curvaceous body is silhouetted against his. He hands her the zucchini as she lifts the knife. A sharp glint off the edge as if in warning. She swipes the zucchini once around the inside of the pan, takes it out dripping. Her moves are somewhat obscured but the tension in her arm is sufficient for suggestion. He moans, she gasps. He shudders. She laughs gently. He turns his head and they kiss. Then the mood changes. She turns to the sink, quick and businesslike in her movements, and scrubs the knife, the zucchini before handing them back to him, dripping water. She returns to her seat, takes a sip of wine, and lifts her book. The small smile remains on her face. He wipes his eyes with his arm, repeats the drying once more before turning back to the cutting board. He chops the zucchini, which he leaves in a messy heap as he turns the heat up under the pan.)

MAN

Read to me.

WOMAN

(Reads aloud in Japanese.)

MAN

(Nods as he cracks an egg into a bowl obscured by his body. He repeats the gesture eleven more times as the woman reads. He turns around, cradling the bowl in the crook of one arm, whisking with the other. His expression is thoughtful, attentive. He turns back to the stove and spills the onions into the hot oil. The scent is hot, earthy, masculine. The sizzling drowns out the woman’s reading. He stirs, adds the tomatoes and zucchini, watches over the saute. He takes out another pan, smaller than the first, and pours in oil. When it’s hot, he adds the eggs, tilting the pan over the flame. The woman’s reading falls away — she’s still mouthing the words but the only sound is the hissing of the pan. He’s humming, the man. Also drowned out.by the cooking sounds. He adds the saute to the pan of eggs, and with a few deft and practiced movements, folds the omelet and slides it out onto a platter. He sets the plate next to the woman’s wine, kisses her deeply. Elsewhere a door slams. There’s laughter.)

WOMAN

The children–

(She puts down her book.)

MAN

I’ll change.

(He wipes his hands on the apron and exits the kitchen, vanishing into the gloom.)

WOMAN

Wait–

MAN

(Calls from beyond.) Set the table.

apron

Frank and Zelda

This is the first in a series of short stories that are backstory for my next novel, a mystery with twist of magical realism. Enjoy!

Packed to the gills with frozen crawdads bound for Canada, Frank Gunn met up with Tommy G and Big Billy under the I-40 overpass outside of town. Frank was taking his weekly hike to Vancouver from Memphis, and he needed the dope for Dr. Dre, their kingpin over the border. Frank liked the long route, got him through the week, it did. Spat him out on Sunday.

He pulled his rig all the way over to the gray-grime smeared cantilever to keep it out of sight next to an old Budget-Rent-A-Car sign missing all its vowels. The dim blue numbers on the dash read 3:23 a.m. as Frank cracked the window. Seven minutes til touchdown. Click. He flicked his Bic and lit a Marlboro. It had rained round suppertime and the puddles in the pitted gravel smelled like shit. Frank dragged on his cigarette to cover the stink and waited for his boys to show up. In the center console he had a supersize bag of Swedish fish, and between drags, he ate one. He killed the engine and listened to the plink plink plink of water droplets falling from the bridge above. Only traffic at this hour was the occasional rig grumbling by. Plink plink. Frank puffed on hot smoke and nicotine and wondered what had held up his boys. The rain had done nothing to stifle the heat, and a slick bead of sweat trailed down Frank’s back beneath his t-shirt. Plink.

Down the way Frank watched a shadow approach and his heart did a nosedive into his gut. A bum with a cart full of paper sacks began to traverse the overpass canyon. “No, no, no,” he muttered to no one. It was not the time for this. Frank slunk down low, not wanting to be seen round these parts. “No eyes, no guise,” Dre always warned. Cops knew to look for shit like sunglasses at night, ball caps outside the park, coats in summer. Frank kept his work clothes simple. A plain white tee, nice-ish jeans, black belt with the winged buckle his sister had made special for him when he got on the wagon. His studded boots. He kept his bandana on the rearview with the amethyst his old girlfriend Amanda had given him, “for your heart,” she’d told him. Best keep clear of the bling till he was outside of Memphis. Cops were the shit and Frank knew it.

The canyon was large, and the bum still had quite a bit of space to cover. Frank watched him in his side mirror, a male of indeterminate age, scraggly gray beard sweeping his emaciated belly. Frank eked out a bit of smoke, angling for the floor space, when he heard a yap. Bum had a dog in his cart. Christ.

“There, there, Zelda,” the bum said to the canine in his cart. Frank wished the bum would keep his yapper shut. He worried the duo would blow the whole shebang. And he should be on the road by now.

The bum shuffled along so slow that Frank doubted he’d ever get across at all. He could see the man’s bulging wrinkles and bulbous eyes in the horrid yellow light. He had crow’s feet, Frank noticed, and the thought of this old guy living long enough and happily enough for life to carve out laugh lines on his face, that though gave Frank pause. He scootched up a bit, silently urging the bum to please, Lord, pick up the pace and get the hell out of harm’s way before Big Billy turned up with his old bazooka-lookin self-defense mechanism and blew the guy a new one. He took a long drag and waited for the nicotine to soothe his frazzled nerves. Small favor.

The guy stopped about halfway across, alongside the rig, and started futzing with his cart. Of course just then Frank saw his boys coming down the shadowed frontage off the highway. He slunk down a little lower, a lungful of hot smoke clutched in his chest waiting for clearance to exit. Plink plink plink. The cart scraped pavement. A witness was not gonna fly with the boys. He flashed his headlights, just once, and Tommy G laid off the gas, cut the lights. Good boy. Darkness save for the dingy acid yellow glow off the highway above.

Time to flee for your life, buddy, Frank willed the bum. Okay, okay. Tommy had a heart, but Big Billy had a trigger finger the size of a football-game inflatable. Plink. Frank crushed his cigarette on the dash and tried to think of how to play this. Plink plink. The last thing he wanted was for anybody to get hurt. Like he usually did in situations like these, he visualized himself Sunday morning, hitting the Tennessee line, gospel on the radio, his windows down. Free as a breeze. Amanda was the one taught him that little trick. Visualization. Before her, Frank had been a real hothead. He’d’ve been out of the truck and on the guy like cheese on a steak trying to save him, way back when. Nowadays he could handle things better. More enlightened, Amanda used to say, sorta proud-like, before she ran off on him with John, the guru.

Frank touched the amethyst dangling from his rearview and willed the bum to safety. He punched Tommy G’s number on speed dial, and waited for the call to connect like watching an hourglass run down. Yip yip yip. He was too old for shit like this, Frank thought. When times got tough, he always thought about throwing in the towel, trading the rig in for a classic convertible and heading down to Me-hi-co. Not today, though. The call went through.

“What’s with gramps here?” Tommy G had a New York whine.

“Tell Billy to cool it, K?” Frank tried to keep his voice calm. Amanda would have been proud. “Old guy’s on his way out. Let’s not make trouble.”

“Gunn, you know I’m just the driver.” Tommy G was always the realist.

“Do what you can, Tommy.” Frank kept an eye on the bum. He was feeding the dog from a crumpled Mickey D’s bag. “He’s got a dog, for Christ sake.” Flee for your life, man, Frank silently willed the bum.

“Ten-four, captain.” Tommy clicked off. Down the frontage road, a set of headlights momentarily illuminated the van, nondescript, formerly white. Frank’s eyes went to the windshield, to the twin halos. Angels, the both of them. Plink Plink. Big Billy had his gun out, Frank could just make out the barrel through the glass. His heart leapt into his mouth as the bum stuffed a fry into his mouth. Yip. The dog barked its displeasure. Somewhere a siren sounded. The headlights passed away, plunging the cavern back into darkness.

Frank’s nerves blitzed as he saw the passenger-side door open a small silent crack. There was no sound save for the incessant plink plink plink of the dripping overpass. A spare yap the starting gun on a slow-motion unfolding, a moment by moment awareness that would have pleased Amanda if she were inside his head right now. Frank watched in horror as Billy’s barrel appeared in the jam of the door. The cock of the hammer got the bum’s attention, and he looked back over his shoulder, one lazy eye at a time, a single fry dangling from his chapped lips. No doubt he’d heard that song before.

Frank stared, watching the first bullet exit the barrel and begin to traverse the canyon, astonishing as the expedition of a falling star. The NO emerged from his throat one atom at a time, his tongue undulating from his teeth to the chasm of his windpipe, his lips traversing the gulf from loose to tight as they formed the final O. The sound sliced through all the silence and Tommy’s look cut through the dark. Still the bum continued his foolhardy glance of curiosity. Don’t look back. Never look. His hand fisted on the steering wheel, ready to pounce, Frank watched the bullet charge through the canyon. The last vestige of his self-possession flew out the cracked window, when the bum disappeared.

No. Not disappeared. Morphed. The bum lost his human form. Where a moment ago a human being stood, now there was a sagging concrete balustrade, its face pocked, its gray paint chipped. Frank’s blink took a million years.

YIP.        YIP.        YIP.        YIP.

Each bark was punctuated by a whiz and a crunch. Chunks of concrete flew as each bullet hit its mark. Frank slid all the way below the dash, though he knew he was in no danger. Big Billy was an excellent shot. He watched the balustrade crumble next to his rig, felt the rain of cement on his hood. His heart went out to the bum and his helpless pup. He bided his time, inhaling only in the silences between rounds. Big Billy fired eight shots total, then he slumped back into his seat and hooted out his window. Plink, yap yap yap whine. Plink.

Tommy G got out of the van and went around back. He flung the doors wide and emerged carrying two large gym duffels. Big Billy slid out of the passenger seat, his gun aloft like his namesake the Kid. He eyed the lump of destroyed concrete with obvious pride. Frank slowly exhaled as he slid out of the rig, pushing his door all the way open as a shield. Shards of fries laid on the ground like severed fingers. The bum’s cart was still intact, and the dog, a bridle terrier, was standing on top of the paper sacks, crying her heart out. In one swift movement, Frank grabbed her by the scruff and tossed her gently onto the floor of his cab. She went silent.

He unlocked the cubbyhole in the side of his cab, removed the tire iron and spare, and stepped aside as Tommy slid the duffels into the space behind the secret panel. He unzipped the bags to show him the shit. Ketamine and X this time. Frank knew the deal. Pick your poison. A heck of a lot of somebodies were going home happy next week. He nodded.

As Tommy pulled his head out of the hole, he met Frank’s eyes. They darted to the bullet-marked pile of rubble that moments ago had been a laughing-eyed bum.

“Real sorry, man.” Tommy was not one for overt shows of emotion, so this was huge for him. Frank slapped him hard on the shoulder, once. They had a moment, no more than a split second, but it was enough. “Tell the Doc we’s set for next week. 60 K of H, yeah, and a bundle of oxy.” Tommy G was a middle man, segueing whatever his suppliers brought up from Mehico. He stepped back and Frank shut the door and did the padlock.

“Will do,” Frank said, and they both looked past the rubble to where Billy was standing next to the van, on the lookout with his gun.

“Outta here, man,” Tommy said, and slapped the rig as a goodbye. “Safe travels. See ya next week.”

“Yep.” Frank waited for Tommy and Billy to pull off, then said a quick Hail Mary for the bum, not wanting to admit that he was giving it a minute to see if the bum returned to his human form. Nah, nothing. Afterlife was afterlife, Frank guessed. Still made him sad, though. When he hopped back in the cab, he found the dog sitting in his seat, three Swedish fish dangling from her tiny jowls. He gave her a pat and pulled his amethyst from the rearview mirror. He draped it over the balustrade, thinking that Amanda would be proud.

Frank set the dog in the passenger seat and pulled the rig back around to the frontage road, careful to avoid the mess of concrete.

“Sorry, pup. I wish I could have saved him.” The dog whimpered. The sky was just beginning to tinge gray with dawn.

I was a bird

When last I loved I was a bird
Ruffled and old-boned
Pinned between gust and thrust
Alit upon an ancient continuum

Finding a window agape
Draped in azure voile
The room within aglow
In expansive rapture

Barreling over the event horizon,
One fleeting instant of silence
Unaware the impending disruption
Oh! Love travels faster than light

Beyond the sash
Light and night transposed
In the haze, clarity
Alas! It was a mere antechamber of infinity

Husk against feather
Grist against filament
A reconstruction of the avian
That old brutality of fusion

Shut out
Flung upward, flapping
Into the laughter of a cold blue sky
Ah, how nothingness burns!

The inevitable surrender to gravity
Downy smash on new grass
Earth, my oldest friend
A reprieve

Flattened, I am new again!
The attending Silence
Broken by my tentative rustle
So reticent to fly again, since last I loved.

My sister finally died (for real)

My sister’s been dead to me for years, but last fall she decided to finally make it official. Funny, it wasn’t the decades of abusing crack and heroin that did her in after all. She slipped in the shower, broke her ribs, and came down with pneumonia in the hospital. (Like mother, like daughter, if you know the story.)

I was ready for the call; hell, I waited for it for, what — 23 years. Still, it hurt to hear my sweet niece tell me that her mom had died. The funeral was outside, graveside, underneath gnarled trees shedding fiery leaves on a glimmering fall day. It was painfully beautiful. There was a rabbi, a gaggle of old relatives, and a surprising number of more recent friends. My niece, Sarah, and her fiancé, Dan. Kim’s third child, Zack, with his adoptive family. An old black guy who sat in front, pouring his eyes out. Me, Geoff, and the kids, wide-eyed to be at their first funeral, for an aunt they barely even knew they had. A fresh hole in the family plot and a coffin on rollers.

Kim’s cousin Randi did the eulogy. She called me Chrissy. She talked about growing up with Kim in Baltimore, about the art projects she and Kim used to do with my mom. About sleepovers at their bubbie’s house, when Kim taught her to French kiss using pillows. She made us laugh, which I didn’t expect to do.

If I had done the eulogy, I’d have probably told the story of how Kim pierced my ears with a sewing needle when I was nine, overtop of her kitchen sink. I would have told how she dyed my hair blonde when I was eleven, and how it took me two agonizing years to grow it out. She was the one who taught me to shave my legs, the one who’d come get me for sister time and take me shmying at the secondhand shops, the one who’d ask me about my crushes, the one who’d always encourage me to be bold. I would have reflected on the good bits – how probably more than anyone else in my life before or since, Kim taught me to experiment with this life of mine. To try and see.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I would have talked about how heartbroken I was at sixteen, the day Kim came to tell my mom and me that she had just done heroin with her new boyfriend. The day we begged her to stay, but she left anyway. Forever. I wouldn’t have lied, like her cousin Randi did, and said that Kim was a good mom. She wasn’t. She bailed, to gradually worsening degrees, on all four of her kids. On all of us. Including herself.

I’m glad that I didn’t do the eulogy. I needed time to let myself feel, and it took me awhile. Now that I’ve had a few months, I’d like to go back and visit Kim’s grave. I’d talk to her, let her know that I’m glad to finally know where she is after all these years. I’d tell her I’m sorry that I shut her out. I’d tell her I wish we’d had the chance to turn things around while she was alive. I’d tell her I’ve missed her all this time. That I forgive her. That I love her still, despite everything.

kimily
Kim, circa 1979.