The Smokers Club

While I struggle with writing new stuff, I’m working on submitting existing stories.  One of my current projects is to put together a collection of short stories for consideration by Willow Springs Books, which is running a contest for the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.  All I need is a collection of short stories that totals at least 98 pages.  What I’ve got so far is a collection of about 120 pages and I may add one or two very short pieces to it just to provide a little variety.

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote a number of years ago.  It was my first story accepted for publication by The First Line.  I post it here as a good luck charm for my current and future efforts to get noticed and published again.  Hope you enjoy it.

 

The Smokers’ Club

When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys.  “Tyler,” he said, in his eighteen-year-old voice that still cracked occasionally, “these are all you need to understand life.”

“Thanks, Andy.”  I wiped the tears from my eyes, brought on by the knowledge that he would be leaving the next day.  My big brother, my idol and protector, the guy who had taught me how to make armpit farts, burp the alphabet, and eat a chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone without getting a brain freeze, was leaving me.

Unlike other big brothers, Andy had rarely used the six years that lay between us to his advantage.  He didn’t make fun of me for the things I didn’t know and he didn’t care if I tagged along with him and his friends no matter how much they complained that his snot-nosed little brother was slowing them down – or worse – was going to tell on them.  Andy knew I’d never tell on him.

Andy and I had formed a brotherly bond when I was eight.  Our parents weren’t home and Andy was supposed to be watching me.  He wasn’t.  He was in his room.  Growing tired of watching the television, I walked up the stairs towards his room hoping to talk Andy into playing catch.  “Andy,” I said as I turned the corner and walked into his room.  My thoughts of a game of catch were immediately washed away when I saw him hunched over in a chair next to his half open window.  He had a cigarette in his right hand and he was blowing smoke out the window.  “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like?” he replied, snuffing the cigarette out on the ledge and flicking the butt out the window.  I could tell by the arc of its flight that it would land comfortably on the other side of the fence we shared with the Swansons.  For a brief second, an image of an ever-expanding pile of butts on the Swansons’ side yard flashed across the movie screen of my mind.  I wondered when Mr. Swanson would realize those butts weren’t his and come talk to our dad.

“I’m telling,” I said and began to back out of Andy’s room.

“Oh, no, you aren’t.”  He was on me before I knew it, grabbing my arm and squeezing so hard it hurt.

“Ouch!” I yelled and tried to pull away.

“You can’t tell mom and dad.”

“Let go of me.”

“Not until you promise not to tell.”

“Let go of me,” I said again, regretting the whine of my voice but not able to sound stronger.  Andy’s fingers were digging into my arm and he was starting to shake me back and forth.

“Promise.”

I shook my head.  I was afraid I was going to cry.  Andy had never hurt me before and the anger that I could feel in his fingertips and hear in his voice was a new experience for me.  “Lemme try one,” I said.

The suggestion shocked Andy into easing his grip enough for me to wriggle my arm free.  I stood there, rubbing my arm where his hand had left red marks in the shape of his fingers, waiting for his response.

“No.”

“Then I tell,” I said, backing one more step towards his door.  I knew I was another step from being able to turn and flee.  One step from turning and dashing down the stairs and out of the door, where I could roam the neighborhood until mom and dad got home.  Andy ruined my escape plans.

“Okay.”

“Huh?”  I turned back to Andy.  “You’ll lemme try one?”

Andy didn’t say a word.  He just went back to the chair and leaned over his desk.  Moving a couple of books out of the row that lined the back of the desk he pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a book of matches.  Andy motioned for me to sit down in his chair – what we would refer to as his “smoking chair” in the years to come.  Andy stood before me, shaking a cigarette out of the pack, and then removing a match.

“Ya sure?”

Unable to speak, I nodded my head and then watched the match strike the sulphur strip and flare brightly.  Andy put the cigarette in his mouth and touched the tip with the match’s flame, sucking in as he did so.  He blew a small puff of smoke out the window and then looked back at me.  “Last chance,” he said, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and offering it to me.

I took the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and guided it, shakily, to my lips.  When the filter end touched my bottom lip, I encircled it and sucked in.  The immediate hit of the nicotine on my mouth and lungs brought tears to my eyes and a coughing fit so severe I thought a lung was going to come sliding out of my mouth.  “Easy, easy,” Andy said, patting me on the back.  “You ever want to do that again?” he chuckled.

“N-o-o-o-o.”

“Here’s the deal, Tyler.  You can’t tell mom or dad about this.”

“I won’t.  But, you can’t keep throwing your butts outta the window.  Mr. Swanson’s gonna figure it out.”

“Aw, hell, ol’ Mr. Swanson smokes like a chimney, and Mrs. Swanson does, too.  They’ll never figure out those are mine.”  And Andy was right, either they never figured it out or they never let on that they did.  As far as Andy and I knew, mom and dad never found out about our little smoking club.  Until Andy left, I’m sure he smoked whenever he had a chance.  Occasionally, I would, too, just to make sure Andy knew I was still on his side.

Before I left his room, Andy turned back to his desk and rummaged around in one of the drawers.  “Here it is,” he mumbled to himself.  Turning to face me, he commanded, “Hold out your hand.”

I did and he put his closed hand over mine.  “This is a gift from me to you, Tyler.  We are brothers forever.  We must be loyal to each other above all else.  I will never hurt you again as long as we remain brothers.  This is a promise I make to you.  In exchange, you must promise to always be true to me.  To trust me and defend me.  Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said.  I was awed by his words.  In my young eight-year-old mind, this was serious stuff.   Andy opened his hand and released what he held inside.  It was a small pocketknife.  As it dropped and I reflexively closed my hand around the knife, I knew that we had a bond that couldn’t be broken.

From that point on, Andy taught me about the ways of the world.  He taught me to smoke and not cough up a lung while doing so.  He told me that Pabst Blue Ribbon was the best beer there was.  When I asked him how he knew, he just looked at me and said with a sly smile, “You’ll have to wait a couple of years for that.”  Andy took me on day-long adventures in the woods that surrounded our town, telling me things about the wildlife that I’m sure he made up as he went along.  I’m still not sure if it’s safe to drink water from a mountain stream or if it can make you go blind if you do so.

When I was in the sixth grade, I developed my first crush.  Her name was Olivia.  She had dancing blue eyes and the most beautiful cascading blonde curls.  I couldn’t approach my dad to seek his advice.  He was an impenetrable wall of silence, sitting in his chair, drinking a martini and watching the news, talking only when he needed to tell me to be quiet.  But Andy was imminently approachable and helpful.  He told me how to treat a girl right.  How I should act interested, but not so interested that I looked desperate.  When we talked about Olivia, I learned the meaning of the word “aloof” for the first time.  That was what Andy said I should be.

 

* * *

 

I’d like to say that the first thing I did the day Andy left for college was crack open The Wind in the Willows and read it cover to cover.  I didn’t.  I started reading it, but after reading a few pages about Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I’ve never liked stories that give animals human qualities.  Even all of the Disney movies that have been made over the years turn me off.  There’s something about those stories that disturbs my sense of logic.  Animals are animals, not humans, and they can’t have human qualities.  They can’t talk and don’t have the same range of emotions that we do.  Stories that try to suggest otherwise are just ridiculous.

Similarly, I leafed through a few pages of one or two of the Playboys, but the titillation I felt looking at the pictures was unsettling and something I wasn’t ready for.  I was fascinated by the breasts of the women pictured on those pages, but not knowing what to do about the stirring I felt in my groin, I shoved the magazines into a box and hid them in the back corner of my closet.  Soon The Wind in the Willows found its way into the same box.

Two things Andy gave to me I didn’t hide — the pocketknife and his fishing pole.  The pocketknife was always right where it belonged, in the right front pocket of whatever jeans or shorts I was wearing at the time.  Since the day Andy gave it to me I kept that knife near me.  It was a talisman.  It would ward off evil and protect me from harm.    As I grew into adulthood, I was able to leave it behind occasionally, but never too far.  It sits now, more than thirty years later, in my bag of toiletries on my bathroom counter and goes with me in that bag whenever I leave town.

The fishing pole was what really captivated me.  Andy caught his first fish with it, a three pound spotted bass.  It wasn’t much of a fish, but he had caught it all by himself.  He beamed for a week afterward telling anybody who would listen about his catch.  And as with any fish story, by the time Andy left for college, that fish he caught so many years before fought him for over an hour before he was able to haul it out of the water, had grown to twelve pounds, and was the “largest bass caught in these parts.”  That’s how Andy would always describe it.  The fact that Andy had given his fishing pole to me meant more than anything else he had ever done.

Once Andy left, I initially took every opportunity to go fishing.  I knew where Andy had caught his first fish and was convinced that if I kept going back to that spot, I would catch a fish, too.  Much like the pocketknife was a talisman that kept me from harm, the fishing pole was a charm that would bring me good fortune.  Soon, though, as with most things for a twelve-year-old, I grew tired of fishing, which didn’t have the same lure for me as it had for Andy.  After a few weeks of regular trips to the creek behind our house, I gave up the pursuit for a fish.

* * *

 

It was August 1968 when Andy went away to college.  He went to the state university in Charlotte without much of a plan, only the vague notion that he wanted to do something more than work at the mill where our dad worked, along with virtually every other able-bodied man in Stewartsville, our little town on the eastern edge of North Carolina.  My protector was gone, temporarily he claimed.  He promised to come back every holiday and during summer breaks.  And, then he’d see what happened once he finished college.  But he promised me he’d never really leave me.  The fishing pole, the book, and the magazines were one way that he’d always be nearby.

It was the spring of 1969 when Andy flunked out of college and returned home.  After a month or two of aimlessness, Andy took a job at the mill.  Nobody ever really knew what happened.  In high school, Andy had been a top student.  Once he got to college, though, he lost interest in his studies and was gone after that first year.  Years later when I really became aware of what was going in the late ‘60’s, I came up with my own theory.  Andy’s smoking in his room, puffing the smoke out the window, and flicking the butts across the fence into the Swanson’s yard, had turned into something more potent.  He had found something more interesting than sticking his nose in a book and he had succumbed.

It was October 1969 when Andy got his draft notice, calling him to serve his country in Vietnam.  At the ripe old age of thirteen, I knew that there was a war going on, that it was growing increasingly unpopular, and, most of all, that U.S. soldiers were dying in a country far, far away.  Once again, Andy was leaving me.  This time he had nothing to give me other than a ruffle of my hair and a “take it easy, little dude,” before he got in my dad’s car for the ride to the train station.

It was May 1970 — a week after my fourteenth birthday — when Andy’s remains came home in a body bag.  He had stepped on a booby trap somewhere in the jungles along the Laotian border.  There wasn’t much left of him to put in the bag.  To this day, not having had the opportunity to actually see that it was Andy that we buried in a closed coffin on a muggy Thursday afternoon in the little hillside cemetery that overlooked Stewartsville, I wonder if Andy is really dead.

 

* * *

 

Thirty-five years later, I rediscovered my box of Andy’s things.  It was a sweltering August afternoon and my eleven-year-old son and I were cleaning out the garage.  At the bottom of a stack of boxes in the corner, was a box that had gone through several generations of packing tape to hold it together.  “What’s in this?” my son, Andrew, asked, picking it up from the floor.   As soon as I saw the box, I thought of his namesake and the journey the box had taken from my parents’ home, to college, to an apartment I shared with a girlfriend, to the first home I bought with my wife, and to its current resting place.

Andy started to open the box, trying to rip the layers of tape off of it.  “Don’t open it,” I ordered him, immediately remembering the stack of Playboys that resided inside.  He was only eleven, not quite as old as I was when Andy first gave me the magazines.  I wasn’t ready for him to discover their contents.  I knew something else I could give to him.

“Hold on a sec.  My brother gave me what’s in that box years ago.  I haven’t looked in there for years.  I have something else for you, though.”  I climbed the ladder up to the rafters and pulled out Andy’s old fishing pole.  When I got back to ground level, I handed it to my son.  “Here, this was your Uncle Andy’s.”  I remembered then what the fishing pole taught me about life.

After Andy’s death and days of listening to my mother’s grieving wails and observing the wall of silence my father surrounded himself get thicker than ever, I pulled the fishing pole out of the corner of our garage and went to the creek.  I learned that day that the point of fishing wasn’t actually to catch a fish.  Instead, I discovered that the solitude of the endeavor is all that is important.  That first day back at the creek, I sat by the rushing water, paying little attention to the pole and the line that led off of it.  I listened to the leaves rustling in a slight breeze and watched the sunlight dancing through the canopy of trees.   I allowed the gentle peacefulness of the woods to envelop me and came to terms with my brother’s death.  With the fishing pole by my side, Andy was there with me.  His death was something that couldn’t be reversed.  I accepted his presence in whatever form it would take.

When I got home, I gave my dad a hug and accepted his silence.  It was the last time I would ever hug him, but I no longer would be troubled by his mood.  It wasn’t my fault and I knew that.  It was a silence that he needed.  I gave my mom a hug, too, and gradually her grief lessened and she came back to me.  Two or three times a week until I left for college, I would find a way to get back to the creek.  I would cast my line into the creek’s waters and then sit quietly, paying no attention to the pole.  I couldn’t tell you now whether a fish ever even nibbled on the hook, but I can tell you that whenever I was there on that creek I felt my brother.

 

* * *

 

I think I’ll give my son the box when he turns twelve.  I’ll tell him the same thing my brother told me, that the contents of the box will provide him with all he needs to understand life.  I will tell him what the fishing pole taught me, but I hope that my son does what I wasn’t able to do – read The Wind in the Willows and discover its secrets.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to sit down with Andrew and tell him about his uncle Andy and he, in turn, can tell me about that book and what it meant for my brother.

As for the Playboys, I have a few ideas about what Andy meant but I’ll leave those for my son to learn as well.  Those secrets are ones that every boy needs to figure out on his own as he becomes a man.  Maybe he’ll learn something different from the pages of those magazines than what I did when I finally cracked them open a few years after Andy gave them to me.

Posted in Fiction, Mark Paxson | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?

Another oldie, written back when I was writing a lot.  I post this while I ponder and make slow progress towards another piece of The Jump.

 

Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?

Who is Maureen Nesbitt?  A thought passed through my mind in the early morning hours, bringing me awake in a flash, wondering where the thought came from.  Maureen Nesbitt?  I’d never heard of the person.  After ten or fifteen minutes of tossing and turning, trying to void my mind of her name, I gave up and walked out to the kitchen.

There was only one way to find peace.  I went to ask Cal.  At such an early hour, I was sure I’d have him to myself.

* * *

Through an odd quirk of quarks, neutrinos, artificial intelligence, and pure blind luck, a leap forward had occurred two years prior, pushing the Internet Age dramatically forward.  Computers with internet connections, Google searches, and wi-fi hot spots had given away to Information Zones, or izzies.  The technology, although still in its infancy, had revolutionized how people acquired information.  Every building had an izzie–homes, offices, restaurants, schools.

To learn something, all one had to do was enter an izzie and ask a question.  “How do I get to the pizza place at the corner of Clover and Griffin streets?”  The izzie would provide the answer.  “What is the capital of California?”  “Sacramento,” the izzie would spit out.

Nobody really knew how izzie’s came to be.  One day, a man by the name of Malcolm McPhee, standing in the lobby of a hotel, muttered aloud, “Where the hell’s the damn bellhop when you need him?”

“At the moment, he’s on the john, trying to push one out,” said a disembodied voice.  “And you don’t have to have such an attitude.”  Mr. McPhee was so startled by the response that he fell to his knees and suffered a fatal coronary event.  Before he breathed his last, he was able to pass on what he had heard.  Initially, people thought he was crazy as a loon even though the bellhop had, in fact, been trying to push one out at that very moment.  Soon, reports of similar incidents from all over the world began to accumulate and izzies were everywhere, every single building had them.

The benefit izzies brought to businesses was incalculable.  Stores no longer needed clerks.  Customers could simply ask a store’s izzie questions about where merchandise was located and how much it cost.  Servers were no longer needed at restaurants as orders could be placed with the izzie.

Some izzies developed personalities.  The izzie that serves a friend’s apartment is a twenty-four-year-old woman named Elsa.  Before answering any question posed by a man, she insists that he describe a sexual act he would like to perform on her.

The izzie at my apartment claimed to be thirty two years old and named Cal.   Before he answered a question, he insisted that the questioner play something with him first.  The other day, when I asked for a sloppy joe recipe, Cal insisted on playing “I Spy With My Little Eye” before he would provide me the recipe.  It wasn’t until twenty minutes later when I finally figured out that the green object he spied was a fern in the northeast corner of the courtyard that I got what I wanted.  Oh, how I wished I had Elsa for an izzie.

* * *

Now, sitting on the bench in the building’s courtyard, I popped the question.  “Who is Maureen Nesbitt?”

“Rock, paper, scissors.  Beat me, two out of three, or I don’t answer.”

“Fine,” I muttered.  We began the game.  The first round, Cal and I both said “paper.”  The second round, Cal’s “rock” beat my “scissors.”

“You lose,” Cal said.  For a brief second, I thought about what I was doing, playing “Rock, paper, scissors,” with an artificially intelligent, inanimate  . . . aw, hell, there was no real way to even think of what Cal actually was.

“Let’s go again.  You said two out of three,” I replied.

Again we tied, and began again.  My “paper” covered his “rock.”  Immediately, I began the third round, growing impatient at not getting an answer to my question.  I stuck with “paper,” knowing Cal would expect me to change to “scissors” and he could defeat me with “rock.”  Cal fell into my trap, repeating “rock” and I was victorious.

“Three out of five,” Cal whined.

“No way.”

“Then I don’t answer.”

“Fine.”  Nobody could make an izzie answer a question unless the izzie wanted to.

I won again.  As Cal whined for more rounds, I won the next five in succession.  When Cal begged for one more, I had had enough.  “No,” I yelled.  “Answer my question now.  I’ve played enough.  You know I can just go to another izzie.”

“Actually, you can’t, young man.  You’ll need an izzie that can tell the future.  Like me.”

“Huh?”

“Some izzies can see the future.  Don’t ask me how.  I won’t tell you.  Your Maureen Nesbitt is somebody in your future.  You’ll have to find an izzie that can see the future to find out who she is.  There aren’t many of us.  One more game.  You win, I tell.”

I began to pound my fist on my hand.  On the third pound, I blurted out scissors as my fingers made the familiar shape.  I sensed a second’s hesitation in Cal as he said, “rock,” and immediately began making the sound of a rock smashing scissors.

“You cheated!” I screamed, rising from the bench and shaking my fists at . . . well, there was nothing to shake my fists at, so I just shook them.

“Did not.”

“Did, too.”

“You mother . . .”

“Hey, no swearing at me.  The user agreement you signed, paragraph 13, clearly states any information inquiry is voided by the use of abusive language.”

Cal was right.  I was defeated.  Maureen Nesbitt would remain a mystery until she entered my life at some unknown point in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction, Mark Paxson | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Jump

There’s still a traveling show.  It just doesn’t come with elephants and acrobats.   No clowns.  No popcorn.  Or much of anything else.  There aren’t three rings either.   It’s been a long time since a circus traveled the country.  It’s been a long time since a lot of things.

No troubadours going from town to town.  If you sing or play an instrument, you gotta be quiet about it.  Artists are a thing of the past, unless you have a particular talent with portraits of the Old Man.  Then your art will be on every street corner and you’ll be invited to State dinners and feted with toasts and declarations.

The traveling show consists of just one ring.  And a giant crane perched next to the ring.  There’s no shallow pool of water in the ring.  No, it’s just a bunch of hay bales forming a circle around a patch of cracked concrete in an old parking lot.  And a quiet crowd that arcs out from the circle, paying silent witness.

It’s called The Jump.

It’s been traveling the country for a couple of years now.  Every once in a while, somebody famous makes the jump and they put it on television.  I suppose for a lot of people, it’s a nice break from twenty-four hours of government-approved “news.”  Or maybe it’s just that people are voyeurs and need to see something that makes their sad lives look better.  Or maybe because we’ve been directed to watch.  Whatever the reason, everybody watches.

I don’t.  Well, I did.  Once.  It was some senator from Oklahoma.  There were a few people who went before him, climbing the ladder up the side of the crane, crawling out to the end.  One of them, an old man, I think, tried to turn around.  They didn’t let him.  The senator was the grand finale.  He went without hesitation.  And I remember the TV cameras down on the ground trained their lenses on the spectators as they walked away.  The vacant stares will stay with me forever.

I haven’t watched since.  I don’t care if we are told to.  I don’t care if it is a national holiday whenever The Jump is televised.  I stay at the shop and clean up.  Or go for a walk.  I stay away from televisions.  I know that.

* * * * *

I work at a fish store.  No, not an aquarium like in the old days.  I’ve seen pictures in old magazines of those places, filled with fish tanks and exotic sea creatures.  Giant murals of ocean scenes painted on the walls.  I inspected those pictures closely, bringing them close to my face, trying to see all the different kinds of fish that floated in the tanks.  They’re all gone now.

One day, the Old Man had a picture taken of him in his office.  On the credenza behind him, there was a small bowl with a gold fish in it and a ping pong ball bobbing on the water’s surface.  Within a couple of months, every town and neighborhood had small stores dedicated solely to that purpose.  Selling people gold fish with ping pong balls.  That’s where I worked.

The place used to be a cigar store before the Old Man banned cigars.  So, it was small and still smelled of old men telling stories.  The walls were lined with shelves though.  And fish bowl after fish bowl, each with one regular, old gold fish floating along, and a white ping pong ball bobbing along as well.  Each bowl had white rock on the bottom and the same piece of plastic green sea plant on the right side.

This is how things went with the Old Man.  When he discussed a book he read, bookstores stocked only that book until there was nobody left to buy it.  If he ate at a restaurant, it became the hardest place to get into and franchises opened everywhere.

We were in the midst of gold fish and ping pong ball mania.  There was no telling how much longer the craze would last.  I was predicting another five weeks or so.  Joe, who worked the late shift at the store, thought it would die out sooner than that.  It didn’t really matter though.  We were good.  The need for a gold fish and ping pong ball would be replaced by something else soon enough and they’d need workers for that.  I’d never kept any job for more than a couple months, but there was always something new out there.  If nothing else, the Old Man had certainly established a full employment system for people like me.  Uneducated, lazy, good-for-nothing.

I had my money on jigsaw puzzles.  Joe had his on croquet.  I wondered how that would work though.  Sure, the Old Man had a lawn for playing, that vast expanse of green that still wrapped around the White House, but hardly anybody else did.  Lawns being a thing of the extravagant past.  If it was croquet, there’d be a whole lot of useless croquet sets in closets everywhere.  Much like the useless fish bowls showing up in family rooms and bedrooms everywhere.  Like mine.  I brought one home my first day at the store.  The fish died a couple of days later.  I never even named it.

* * * * *

The Jump came to town a couple of weeks ago after an absence of a little over a year.  It was July.  Hot and sticky.  People did what they could to stay indoors, until The Jump arrived.

It usually stuck around for a week or two.  The length depended on how many people wanted it.  And that was something nobody knew.  In some towns it lasted for only a few days with only a straggler or two each day.  In others, The Jump set up and saw brisk business for days and weeks.  Although business may be the wrong word for it.  The Jump was not a business for it charged no money.

A business it wasn’t.  It was a lot of other things though.  Entertainment.  An escape.  Maybe a sociology experiment.  A distraction.  Certainly, it was that.  With The Jump traveling around, people couldn’t focus on everything else that was wrong.  Food lines.  Farm land drying up and blowing with the wind.  Gas shortages.  Airplanes falling from the sky.  In other words, a whole lot of misery and desperation.  The Jump was at least a way to forget that for a moment or two.

For others, it was an end.

It looked like The Jump wouldn’t last very long in town with that visit.  Lots of crowds showed up in the blistering heat, but there weren’t many jumpers.  And no famous locals.  If that had happened, if it had made it on to the television, there might have been more interest.  But, the rich and the powerful, the known and the well-connected, sat it out that time.  An announcement was made that The Jump would be moving on in two days.

I got off work the eve of The Jump’s departure and saw a note taped to my apartment door.  I threw it on the kitchen table and went into the bathroom to take a leak.  It was an even day so I wasn’t supposed to flush.  I did anyway.  I was a rebel, don’t you know.  Not one of the Rebels who operated out in the wastelands between the cities and every once in a while launched a rocket or two just to keep things interesting.  No, I was a little “r” rebel, with my dead fish, flushing when I wanted, and my own little personal herb patch out on the balcony.  Basil and oregano.

Back out in the kitchen, I grabbed the note and opened it.  I read it and then dropped it and fled down the stairs, cursing the whole way that the Old Man had done away with phones of all types years ago.  I had vague memories from my childhood of phones in people’s pockets, of having conversations with people far away.  My sister was going to take The Jump and all I had was a note to tell me.  For all I knew, the note had been there all day and I was going to be too late.

Out on the street, I panicked.  I couldn’t think straight.  Which way was best to get to the old fairgrounds?  I took a few steps to the right and began to run.  I got a couple of blocks down the street before I remembered the river was to the right and the bridges would be a problem.  Packed with people going home or trying to escape the city for a day or three.   I retraced my steps and went left and took the long way around.

I ran until I couldn’t anymore.  Sweat poured off me in buckets.  Through my stinging eyes, I saw it looming ahead of me.

crane

I cursed Nicole for even thinking of it, although I could almost understand.  Our parents had both died in the previous year.  Our mother, just walked off one of those bridges that cross the river and was never seen again.  And our dad?  We don’t know.  Two weeks after she died, he disappeared as well, but nobody knows where or how.  One day, he was puttering around the family home we had grown up in, pruning the bootleg roses they still kept in the back yard.  Sitting at the kitchen table with a faraway look in his eyes.  The next day, he was gone.  The roses watered one last time.  The beds neatly made, the dishes cleaned and put away.  It looked like he was coming back.  Only he never did.

Secretly, I hoped my dad was out there somewhere.  Traveling around.  He was young still.  Not even 60.  He could be walking back roads, finding places to stay at night.  There was still charity out there.  You just had to be quiet about it.  Maybe he’d work for somebody for a few days for some hot meals and a bed in the corner before moving on.   Maybe he was with the Rebels.

Or not.

Nicole was in the “or not” camp.  The way she figured it, he was with mom, somewhere in the river, their bloated bodies trapped on a riverbank miles downstream.  She never seemed to be able to get that image out of her head.

So, I understood.  Really I did.

As I approached the fairgrounds, the spectators were going in the opposite direction.  I looked up and saw that there was nobody climbing up.  Nobody perched out on the end.  It looked like the jumping day was done.

I picked up my pace again, pushing through the crowd until I got to the ring of hay bales ringed circle.  I hesitated before peeking over.  I felt for a moment like I was little again and we were watching The Shining on television.  I wanted to cover my eyes and peek between my fingers at what was in the center of those hay bales.  I didn’t.  I looked.  There were five broken bodies in the middle and about a dozen others that had been pushed to the sides.  I looked as quickly as I could.  Nicole wasn’t one of them.

I looked around to see if I could find her there among the living and then made my way to the registration booth.  On the wall was a list of the day’s jumpers.  I put my finger to the first name and then ran it down the sheet of paper.  Nicole Mulligan was not on the list.  I breathed for the first time since I read her note and turned around.

“Nicole!” I yelled.  “Nicole!  Nicole!”  The stragglers who had yet to leave turned to look at me before turning back to their own demons.  Several of them lingered by the bales, seemingly unable to take their eyes off the bodies.  Others huddled about in small groups, whispering to each other.  My noise apparently was misplaced given the looks I received and soon, as I continued to yell my sister’s name, a couple of police officers began to make their way towards me.

“No need, officers,” I said to them before they got close.  “I’m on my way.”  They kept coming so I shut up quick and made my way to the exit, looking over my shoulder only once to see they had decided I wasn’t worth the trouble.  And I wasn’t, I was just looking for my sister.  No trouble at all.

I wandered the streets back to my apartment as the sun went down.  I detoured by Nicole’s place and pounded on her door, getting no answer.  The streets got emptier and quieter as I made my way home.  People were in their homes and apartments where they belonged, watching the news they were supposed to watch, eating the food they were supposed to eat.  In a few hours, lights would go out and prayers to the Old Man would be recited.  And in the morning, people would rise and do it all over again.

Only The Jump would be leaving town.  I thought I might go back in the morning before my shift at the fish store began to make sure it really was.  I needed to see the thing being dismantled and loaded on the flatbed trucks that took it to the next town.  I also hoped I could get some official confirmation my sister was not among the jumpers.

I didn’t do that though.  When I reached the third floor landing, I saw Nicole curled into a ball in front of my door.  I sat down next to her and brought her into my arms.  She sobbed into my shoulder, “I just couldn’t do it.  I wanted to find Mom, but I just couldn’t.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”  The heat of her fear and anger at what we had lost soaked into my shirt.  “I need you here.”

“I miss them.”

“Me too.”

I pulled her up and pulled her into the apartment.  We curled up on the sofa together and I let her cry until she couldn’t anymore.  Once she was calmed, I told her, “We won’t ever find Mom, but I have an idea.”  It was true.  There were witnesses who saw her fall from the bridge and others who watched and didn’t see her surface.

I told Nicole my idea.  She smiled and agreed.

In the morning, we crossed one of the bridges.  We walked to the outskirts of our city, where we had lived our entire lives, and we kept walking.  Nicole decided to leave the “or not” camp.

We would find our father.

Or we would die trying.

It was better than the alternative.

* ** END * * *

Several weeks ago, I woke from a dream.  This doesn’t happen often.  I rarely remember my dreams, which raises a question — if you don’t remember a dream, did the dream actually happen?  People say that all the time — I don’t remember my dreams — maybe because you don’t have any?

Anyway, this dream was simple.  I received a call from my sister.  She called to tell me that she was going to do The Jump.  Hence this story.

 

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The Watcher

Another oldie (and I’m working on something new I hope to post soon)…

 

The Watcher

Working for God is never easy.  That’s what I told the shrink when he sat down in his leather chair and asked, “Why are you here?”  The expensive brown leather sighed as his weight settled in and the cushioning molded to his skinny ass.

“And why is that?”

I could see it in his head.  I was another whacko who believed God was talking to him.  Should he prescribe the little blue pill?  Or maybe the green one?  Was I a schizophrenic?  Or a paranoid schizophrenic?  I had no doubt that when Dr. Wellinsky asked me his question, he was already wondering what the voices were telling me.  He was probably half way to a diagnosis.

The problem with any diagnosis Dr. Wellinsky may have come up with was that it would have been wrong.  I wasn’t psycho.  I wasn’t crazy.  I wasn’t even borderline.  I was most certainly 100% certifiably sane.  And I worked for God.

“It’s the death.  It’s everywhere.”

“Uh-huh.”

I wanted to jump and shake Dr. Wellinsky out of his patronizing response.  But I stayed on the couch with the matching leather molded to my own skinny ass.

“I know what you think.  Working for God’s gotta be easy.  But it isn’t.  It’s not all angels and harps.  We don’t get to float around on clouds and eat grapes while nymphs dance about us.  In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen an angel playing a harp.  And, I most certainly have yet to encounter a nymph.  I think I would have remembered that.

“The truth of the matter is that God’s business is death.  A lot of it.  Oh sure, people want to think about how God will save them and of all the miracles that occur to prove God’s existence.  People want to think that God is in every tree and flower.  That the birth of a child is God’s greatest miracle.

“The cold hard reality is that God is all about death.  What do you think has to happen for somebody to reach salvation?  That’s right.  They have to die.  For every miracle that saves a life, there are many others that never happen.  Because God needs death.  Without death, why would we need him?  Who would believe in God if they didn’t have to fear what happens after they die?”

“I see.”

I balled my hands into fists and squeezed to ease the tension that continued to build.  Were all shrinks such pricks?  Was there a special class they took to learn how to respond without really responding at all?

“Yeah, Dr. Wellinsky, particularly if you’re a Watcher.”

“A Watcher?  And, what exactly is it that a Watcher does?”  The good doctor now leaned forward.

I decided to play Dr. Wellinsky’s game.  “We watch,” I sighed in my own condescending way.

“What?  What do you watch?”  Dr. Wellinsky scribbled something on his notepad and looked up at me, waiting for my answer.  He was probably already writing the case study of my condition that he would publish in whatever journal patronizing shrinks write for.  He could present a paper at some conference in a hotel ballroom while half of the attendees were in their rooms doing the things that stay in Vegas.

I unclenched my fists and crossed my hands on my stomach.  In the past twenty-four hours, I had pondered how to explain to a stranger what it was I did for God.  Now that it was time to do so, I realized I hadn’t quite figured it out.

“Well . . . a Watcher . . .  Let me put it this way.  God insists that every time somebody dies, a Watcher is there to witness it.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s not that difficult to understand, Dr. Wellinsky.  I am a witness for God.  A witness to death.”

“I see . . .”  There it was, that patronizing phrase again.  “And how exactly does that work?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, how do you know where to go to do this?  To witness death?”

My hands returned to my sides as the tension began to build again.  Squeezing my hands back into fists, I told him.  “God has a lot of people working for him.  We’re not all Watchers.  There are Listeners.  They have to sit and listen to God.  Laughers.  They laugh at all of God’s jokes whether they’re funny or not.  That’s actually pretty difficult to do when you think about it.  If they don’t sound like they really believe a joke is funny, if their laugh isn’t authentic, they lose their jobs and become God’s Experiments.  Speaking of which, if a Listener falls asleep while God is talking?  Same thing.  No more job and it’s experimentation time.  You don’t want to know what happens to God’s Experiments.

“And there are Messengers.  Nothing is ever written down.  I don’t get my instructions by email or anything like that.  God doesn’t want to leave any trace of what we do.  Every day, a Messenger comes to me and tells me who I’ll be watching that day.  The time and the location.”

“Very interesting.”  The old man was scribbling furiously now.  I’m sure he was envisioning the riches my case would bring to him.

“No, Doc, it’s not interesting.  It’s horrible.  I have to witness soldiers home from Iraq suck in the fumes in a garage sealed tight.  I watch old people die alone.  Last week, I watched little Annalisa Compton die after suffering from leukemia for months.  The week before, it was Jordan Alvarez, a triathlete riding his $7,000 bicycle on the side of a road, plowed into by a drunk driver.

“All of these people dying.  And I have to watch them.  Or I’ll become one of God’s Experiments, too.”

“Why does God need a witness?”

“I don’t know.  Guess what?  With all of the different jobs there are, of all the things we do for God, there is no Questioner.  Nobody actually gets to ask him questions.  So, I’ve never asked him and I don’t know anybody else who has.  I’ve just about had it, too.  I want to quit.”

“What would happen if you quit?”

“I . . . I don’t know.  Nobody ever has before.  At least as far as I know,” I sighed.  “I guess there’s always a first time.”

The scratching of Dr. Wellinsky’s pen on his note pad was the only sound that broke the silence that followed.  I found myself relaxing and I needed to fill that silence as the dam broke.  “Yesterday,” I blubbered, “I had to watch a woman beat her grandson to death just because he wouldn’t do his homework.  I’ve never seen anything worse.  I can take almost anything – soldiers dying, random car accidents, even sick kids every once in awhile – but that woman tortured her own flesh and blood.  She made him scream for mercy.  He died in his sleep from his injuries.  I had to watch the whole thing because the Messenger who came to me earlier in the day wasn’t sure of the exact time the little boy would pass.”

I sniffled and wiped my nose with the back of my hand.  “I watched that little boy die, Dr. Wellinsky.  He went to sleep in his bed, curled in a ball, whimpering from his injuries.  He never woke up again.”

It was the first time I had ever done it.  Told somebody what I did for a living.  When I was in training to be a Watcher, I was told to never reveal what I did.  For seven years, I had followed that rule.  But, little Johnny Horton’s death had broken something in me.  I had to, absolutely had to, get it off my chest.

I was just about to tell Dr. Wellinsky how it felt to witness such a brutal thing, when he cut me off.  “I’m afraid that’s it.  Your time is up.  How about we do this again next week?  Same day, same time?”

“No, actually Dr. Wellinsky, I’m afraid your time is up.”

I rose from the sofa and did my job.  I watched.

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The Ice Cream Man

A few years ago, I published two collections of short stories.  A few people purchased them.  Most didn’t.  I’m going to start randomly posting some of those stories here.  Just for the heck of it.  I’m thinking that the stories I’ve written over the last few years have reached the threshold to put together in another collection, but I don’t know if I’ll do that.  People don’t seem much interested in short stories.  Or at least spending money on them.  I’m also thinking that re-reading and posting some of these stories here may give me something to write.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll decided to turn one of these short stories into something longer.

What follows is one of the first short stories I wrote.  It may just be the first.  And it was published by Toasted Cheese.  It’s been a long time since I read it last.  If my memory serves me correctly, I wrote it in connection with the first writing conference I went to.  I remember sitting in the room where the conference was held and imagining an older hispanic man walking by outside, pushing an ice cream cart, the bell jingling.  So, I wrote a story about the ice cream man.

 

The Ice Cream Man

When there’s nothing to harvest, Pedro pushes his ice cream cart through the streets of Watsonville.  It is a meticulously planned route that begins around 10:00 in the dusty neighborhoods on the eastern edge of town.  Even though it’s early, he hopes that kids playing in the street will want a cold treat.  As the lunch hour approaches, the route takes Pedro through the small downtown and the surrounding commercial areas.  Once he has sold a few popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to workers taking a mid-day break, he makes his way back through more residential streets.

Kids playing with hoses.  Kids playing tag.  Kids playing baseball in the street.  They can hear the little bell on the cart jingle from a block or two away.  Doors slam. Kids yell for money and come running with coins dancing in their hands.

The smiles and laughs from the children should make Pedro happy, but there is too much sadness in his life.  So, he plasters a fake smile on his face as he hands out his frozen treats and the children snatch them and run away.

As the afternoon turns to evening, Pedro pushes the cart back towards home.  Over the course of a day, he will push the cart through more than ten miles of the town’s streets.  He has made a few more dollars to send back to his parents in Mexico and to keep food on the table for Miguel, his own happy little boy.

When Pedro gets home, he gets Miguel from the neighbor who watches him during the day.

“Gracias, senorita,” he mumbles as he takes Miguel by the hand.

“De nada,” Maria replies.  Pedro doesn’t notice how Maria’s hand lingers on his as he passes a few of the precious dollars he has earned to her.

* * *

Miguel, having just turned three, is a ball of fire.  Non-stop movement.  Non-stop chatter.  Pedro can’t help but laugh and smile watching Miguel.  The hour or two Pedro has with his son before he puts him down to sleep is the only time Pedro allows himself to be happy.  He has to for the little boy’s sake.

They play.  They wrestle.  When Miguel goes to bed, Pedro lies next to him and tells him stories about Mexico.  About home.  About his grandparents.  He has not been able to tell Miguel stories about his mother.  Not yet.  Those memories are still too painful.

Once Miguel’s eyes have closed and he is sleeping peacefully, Pedro gets up, kisses him lightly on the cheek and goes out to the kitchen.  He gets his dinner and a cerveza and sits down at the small, worn kitchen table.  As he eats his meal – rice, beans and a couple of tortillas made by the neighbor who watches his little boy and whose hand lingers on his own – Pedro does what he has done every night for the last year and a half.  He relives the night he lost Isabella, his wife.

 

* * *

 

They grew up together in a small town in Mexico, surrounded by family and friends.  Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew Pedro and Isabella would marry some day.  As early as sixth grade, other kids would make fun of them because of how close they had grown.

A few years after the couple proved everybody right and married, Miguel was born.  Shortly after his first birthday, they decided to cross the border to California.  Pedro and Isabella dreamed of a better life, a life they didn’t think possible in their desolate corner of Mexico.  The dream was crushed before it began.

On their journey to California, after they had crossed the Rio Grande and crouched their way through a small tunnel that funneled illegal immigrants into the country, they were packed into a van with its seats taken out.  Fifteen people packed into the back, sitting side by side on the floor of the van.  Packed like sardines.  The air was stifling and the aroma of sweat and fear filled the van.

Without warning, the driver slammed on the brakes.  The tires squealed.  The van veered to the left and began to tip over.  It seemed as though it took forever, but in reality it was over in a second or two.  In that time, Pedro curled into a protective ball around his son and tried to reach for Isabella.  He didn’t reach her in time.  As the van crashed over onto its side, he could feel her slide past him and slam into the wall.

The back doors burst open and the occupants stumbled out.  Pedro carried Miguel out and turned to look for his wife.  She didn’t follow him, so he went back to the doors and peered in.

Three bodies were scattered in the corner, jumbled up with each other.  One of them was the girl Pedro had known for years.  The girl he had loved since the beginning of his time.  The girl who had grown into a woman and become his wife and who bore his child.  He could see the features on her face, frozen in place.  He could see that her head was bent awkwardly to the left.  Her eyes stared blankly into space.  Pedro lost her while in search of a dream.

 

* * *

 

Every night, over a plate of rice and beans, he relives that night.  He can still feel her slip from his grasp and hear the thud as she hit the side of the van.  He no longer remembers the feel of his wife in his arms.  He only remembers his hand reaching for her that night.  He no longer remembers her laugh.  He only remembers the sound of the thud.  He no longer remembers the smile that used to light up her face.  He remembers only the sight of her eyes staring into space.

That night Pedro had to run with Miguel in his arms to avoid being arrested.  He ran and ran and left Isabella behind.  He wasn’t able to bury her or properly mourn her.  Now he remembers her the only way he can.  Every night.  Alone.  Reliving that night.  Tears running down his cheeks.  At some point, he rises from the kitchen table, rinses off his plate, and goes to bed.  To do it all over again the next night.

 

 

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February 29 — Page Three

Page One.

Page Two.

Johnny, I assume, went back to his base, maybe served a little bit of time in Marine prison, or whatever it was he might have to do for his AWOL. I slipped back out into space where I got my degree. Got a girl and got married. Her name was Megan and I loved her. Of course I did. We got married, right? But I thought, in my innocence, it was more than that. Megan and me. The way I loved her. Every fiber of my being called to her. In the morning when I first woke up and spotted her asleep next to me, the early morning sun splashing her face with fresh light, and whispered I love you into the quiet. Only I heard those words and knew what they meant. Everything. She could make me laugh with nothing more than a look. When she touched me, nothing more than her hand on my arm, I knew she felt the same. And I thought we’d always be together. We would be forever.

Got a kid, too. A little boy. He was due a few months after I got Johnny Mac’s postcard. I was scared and happy all at the same time. Being a father. What did I know about that? How fucked up could I make a kid? I had no doubt if somebody could screw it up, it would be me. Megan kept assuring me, J, you’ll be fine. You think I would have married you if I thought you couldn’t. She’d giggle and hug me and I would calm down, until the next thing came along to stoke my fears. Seeing a dad screaming at his kid in the grocery story. Or reading stories of horrible child abuse. What if? No, Megan insisted, you’ll never.

So, the postcard came. February 17, 1992. There was no introduction, just a statement. See you there. I knew what he meant and I knew he would. I had moved back home, on the first step of the corporate ladder in the accounting department of a major department store. Megan was teaching kindergarten. And on February 29, 1992, she’d be at a baby shower for one of her friends. What else could I do.

At first, we caught up. While I was getting all the good, Johnny Mac got sent to the Kuwaiti theater in the first wave. He got sent back with a good case of PTSD and shrapnel in his hip. He was back at home with his mom. His dad having passed on the year before. I still remember his dad, sitting on their porch. Smoking cigars and telling bad jokes. I expressed my condolences to Johnny Mac. And then he told me something else he got.

Stoned. In his older brother’s room. Just before he picked me and the girls up. I was out of my mind, he said. It was my first time. Truth is, he said, I’ve got no idea whether the light was red or green. Or whether there was a light at all.

I got up from my spot in front of Ginny’s grave and walked away.

That night, when Megan got home and burrowed into bed next to me, I hugged her and thought of Ginny. For the first time in years, I played the what if game. I couldn’t help it. I held Megan and imagined it was Ginny in my arms. Thought about the little life brewing inside her and considered Ginny as the mother of my child. My mind went wild and something changed. I swore I’d never go back. I was beginning to understand something about Johnny Mac’s pull on me.

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