The Jump, Chapter 4 — Walking Through

I made a decision today. Awhile back I had thought I would take this story into hibernation with the idea I’d finish it and go from there. But writing it continues to be like pulling teeth with a rusty pair of pliers, an ice pick, and no painkiller. And I’m working on something else now anyway.

My decision is this. Whenever I manage to pull a tooth and get through another chapter of this, I’ll post it here and we’ll see what happens as I go along.  This should be considered a rough draft and if you have any thoughts as you read, feel free to share.  So, rather than linking to the prior chapters as posted here, below are the first four chapters of The Jump — a short story that clicked in my head one weekend and then I realized there was more story to tell.

-1-

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. 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. It was small and still smelled of old men telling tall tales. 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. Yards were dead, brown, withered in a world where water wasn’t the only thing rationed. 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. A normal Omaha summer. 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 spaces 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 gone in the past few months. Our mother, just walked off one of those bridges and plummeted into the river never to be seen again. And our dad? We didn’t know. Some 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. Actually, it was more than a hope. I had an idea because a day or two before Mom walked off the bridge, he took me down into their basement and showed me a hiding place he was building. A place where he was storing stuff he said “we might need.” So I thought there was that. Maybe he was 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. If that’s what he did, wouldn’t he have told us?

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. 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 hide from it though. There were five broken bodies in the middle and a few others that had been pushed to the sides. I scanned the circle 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 Bell 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, Cam. 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 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 paid a visit to our old family home. It was empty still. I showed Nicole the hiding place. The backpacks and supplies. We geared up and crossed one of the bridges to the outskirts of our city, where we had lived our entire lives, and 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.

 

-2-

The President’s Men

They came in the dark of the night. They always did. In their crimson blazers and starched white shirts. Black slacks and Chuck Taylor high tops with their tartan pattern. The only variation in their uniforms was in those shoes. Some were the traditional red and green, like the old Scottish kilts. Some were yellow and blue, or combinations of other colors. Their shoes were the one place the President’s Men could be different. The one place where conformity was not the end all of things.

The knock on the door came just when I was about to turn in. Ceci had long ago gone to bed. A habit I had noticed was getting earlier and earlier. While she slept in more and more. I didn’t know what to do about it. I understood what she was doing. She was giving up.

The knock came again and I rose from my chair. I looked around to make sure things were right.

Out on the street, the lights were out, having been shut off years earlier due to yet another energy crisis. Porch lights were off and windows blackened as well, all by edict from the government to “lessen the risk” we would be targeted in our own homes by the Rebels. We knew though that the Rebels only targeted government buildings and military bases. None of their crudely designed bombs and rockets ever landed in residential areas. We followed the orders so we wouldn’t draw attention to ourselves, not from the Rebels, but from those who now stood just outside our front door.

As I walked to the door, the knock came again. Louder and faster. It was joined by a voice. “Mr. Bell. Open the door.”

I did.

On the porch, dimly lit from the interior light that leaked out through the open door were three men. In the uniforms of the President’s Men. I couldn’t help but look at their shoes. Two wore the traditional red and green patterned Chuck Taylor’s. The third, who stood slightly behind the others, had a black and white pattern. And a matching tam o’shanter on his head. I knew then that he was the captain of the crew. It would be his decision how things would go.

“Mr. Bell,” he said now, “we’ve received a report that you have contraband.” His voice was quiet. His eyes piercing.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We follow the rules.”

“A neighbor reported that you were handing out fresh tomatoes. Like this.” He pulled his hand out of a pocket and held it out. In the palm was a cherry tomato, just like one I had given to Mrs. Geraghty earlier that day. Sweet ol’ Mrs. Geraghty who wouldn’t have stood a chance if they came to her house. And why would they?

Because they were the President’s Men and that’s what they did. I said a silent prayer for her and hoped I would find out in the morning that she had survived the night.

I stepped aside and allowed them to enter my home. “My wife is sleeping. I’d … I’d appreciate it if we didn’t have to wake her.”

The captain looked at the others and back at me, sneering. “That’s pretty much up to you, Mr. Bell.”

“I’ll do whatever you need, Mr. …”

“I know you will,” he said, tossing the tomato into his mouth and then holding his hand out to shake mine. His hand was warm and damp, but his grip was firm. “It’s Tim. No need for titles. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. Right, boys?”

The other two nodded their heads and smirked. “You betcha, cap’n,” one said, while the other began leafing through a stack of magazines on the table behind our sofa. Every one of them with the Old Man on the cover.

“Let’s have a look around, shall we?”

They fanned out. One went into the kitchen. Tim stayed in the family room by the front door. The third went down the hall towards the first floor bedroom. I couldn’t keep track of all of them. I stuck with Tim.

“Nice painting,” he said, motioning at the only painting in the room.

dogs-playing-poker

“Thanks. I kinda like it, too.” Truth is that I did. When I was a kid, back in the 90’s a couple of the pictures hung on our garage wall. When the Old Man put one up behind his desk in the Oval Office, it was one time I didn’t mind the thoughtless impulse forced on Americans to do as he did. I happily went out and got a painting. It reminded me of the smell of grease and the ticking of a cooling car engine and the pop of a can of Oly as I took it to my dad, sitting in a lawn chair and watching his street.

I placed it above the fireplace, where the family portrait used to be. Ceci was none too happy with that, but I put the portrait on the wall in our bedroom. Maybe that was why she spent so much time there now. My girl couldn’t stand the things that had happened, were happening. She couldn’t stand the painting, but I knew what would happen if we didn’t have one. I’d heard enough stories. I had no choice and now that they were in my house, I was glad I had done it.

“Eh. I never liked them,” Tim admitted. “Seems kind of silly to me.” It was all I could do to not agree and point out that there was a whole lot of silly going on. While I pondered that, he began walking towards the back of the house. “Boys, you finding anything?” I took a quick look back at the painting before I followed him. I wondered if I’d need somebody slipping me an ace before the night was over.

“No, boss,” said the one from the back of the house. “Nothing sir,” replied the other.

Tim approached the sliding glass door that led to the yard. It had been barely an hour since I had turned the lights off and stored them. It was so dark, you couldn’t even see any shadows. Without turning to me, he asked. “Why don’t you show me your tomato plants?”

“I don’t have any …”

He held up his hand. “Please, Mr. Bell. None of that. The tomatoes.”

“Sir, we don’t have any lights.”

“I understand.” He drew a flashlight from his pocket. “We’re good.”

Outside, I took him to the two tomato plants. His crew members joined us. While Tim inspected the plants, they wandered about, going as far as they could in the glow cast off by Tim’s flashlight. I could only hope one of them might fall in the pool, long dried up, but still a deadly hole that might surprise them. I also hoped they wouldn’t find what was behind the pile of trash that had accumulated on the other side of that pool. Where the rose bushes were, and the tomato plants I fertilized, and a few other things I’d prefer they not find.

There wasn’t much for Tim to inspect. “Tsk, tsk. Mr. Bell, what am I going to do about this?” He wagged his finger at me. “I wanna honor your request regarding your wife, but we’ve got a problem here.”

“I understand.”

“These plants are illegal. Been illegal for years know. You know that, right?”

“Yes, but …”

“Yet you have them anyway.”

I felt beat. “Yes.” My face burned in the dark. Humiliated by two measly little tomato plants. At risk, because I tried to give Ceci something good and helped out old Mrs. Geraghty every now and then since her husband passed.

“Hey, boys, why don’t you go on and check upstairs.” I caught his wink in the dark. “You know they say where there’s smoke there also is fire.”

“Please, sir … Tim … there’s nothing up there … just my wife …,” the words spilled out like diarrhea and wouldn’t stop, “she’s sleeping … not feeling well … I’ll do anything … here … I’ll rip them out.” And I started to, in my desperation I reached for one of the plants and began pulling and yanking. It ripped out, the dirt clodding in the roots. “Here … I’ll never plant them again … ever … please … just let Ceci alone … there’s nothing up there … I promise.” I began pulling the ripe tomatoes off and tried to hand them to the man.

“Honey, what’s going on down there?” came the drowsy voice of my Ceci.

* * * * *

Oh Ceci, if I had only known, I would have done something. If I had known that was the hidden ace. The hole card. I would have never sat down to play the hand. Or I would have folded long before. But I thought there was a way, that I could work it out and Tim and his men would leave, maybe taking a patch of me with them. A little loss of pride, maybe a piece of skin, or a few bruises here and there. I would have taken that and bore it for you.

I had heard the stories, but I didn’t want to believe them. That our President was capable of such a thing. Of employing men who could do such things. This happened in the Third World, in lesser civilizations, where war raged and evil reigned. America was not that place, was it?

Turns out it was. I’ll never stop crying, never stop bearing the damage done.

The other thing. Old Mrs. Geraghty didn’t survive the night. She never had a chance.

* * * * *

A week later, I began to make my plans. In the basement, where Tim and his crew never went, I began to build a wall. Behind the wall, I stored a few things. If I were to run, there were things I wanted. Things that might see me down the road a bit. Maybe Ceci would join me. And the kids, Nicole and Cameron. We’d leave together. Find the rebels. Join the fight. Enough was enough.

A week after that, while the wall was only half built, but the supplies were in place, I let Cameron know. He came over. I showed him the backpacks and told him there were things in them he would need. I wasn’t yet ready to tell him my plan. I wasn’t ready to even acknowledge it was my plan. Maybe I was still crazed by the events of that night and I’d come to my senses. I’d stock our shelves with marshmallow fluff and Fritos when they showed up on the Old Man’s desk. When orders came out that we could no longer have pets, I’d hand over the cat and bury the hamster in the backyard.

I might, just might, find a way to get through this. Just in case, though, I wanted Cameron to know.

Another month and Ceci walked out one day.

“Honey?” I said as she made her way to the front door. “Where are you going?”

She barely paused, only slightly, and turned to me. “Oh, out for a walk, I guess.” Her eyes were vacant, empty husks. Her voice barely above a whisper. I should have suspected something. I should have known, but I thought the idea that she was finally willing to go out, to get out of the house, was progress.

Ceci walked off the bridge that day.

And several weeks later, I cracked and took a backpack and walked off myself. I don’t know why I didn’t gather Cameron and Nicole with me. I wasn’t thinking straight. I … don’t know. I needed to get out of Omaha and find a reason to hope again. I crossed a bridge and made my way through the ruins of Council Bluffs.

I wanted revenge and I thought I knew where to find it.

 

-3-

Council Bluffs

Before we left Omaha, I took Nicole back to our parents’ home and down to the basement. “This is why I think he’s out there somewhere.” I pointed out the backpacks. Piled up, along with canned goods, sleeping bags, and everything else he had stored away. Some of it I had no idea how he managed to get, but I was glad he did.

“He showed me this just before Mom disappeared.” I stopped and put my arm around Nicole. “There were four backpacks then. You see, there are only three now.”

Nicole stepped back and began to twist a strand of her hair around a finger. I could see the wheels spinning in her head as she processed this information. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know for sure. Until now.”

“Did he tell you where he was going to go?”

“No. I don’t even know if he knew he was going to leave.” I knelt down and started filling one of the packs. “And he made it sound like we’d leave together. That this was going to be for all of us to get out of here if we needed to.” I stopped packing and turned back to Nicole. “I don’t know, maybe … what Mom did changed all that. Maybe …” I couldn’t really go any further. I was so far out of my depth I couldn’t say what I was thinking. Maybe he cracked. Our father was out there somewhere, sunburned to the red of one of his prized tomatoes, crying for his Cecil. “Help me pack up.”

One of the things he left behind for us, that I had no idea how he had it, was a gun. I stowed it at the bottom of my pack. With a box of bullets. Besides that and everything else we could fit into the packs, I had a bag of other stuff that wasn’t going to make it far.

We crossed the river into Council Bluffs on Council Bluffs Memorial Overcrossing. At the middle of the bridge, I started to empty the bag. Over the side and into the river, went an old Jack-in-the-Box. A fish bowl and a ping pong ball. Nicole had the painting of the poker-playing dogs under an arm, wrapped in old newspaper. She leaned against the railing, wriggled out of her backpack. I did the same. We picked up the painting, each holding an end.

“One.”

“Two.” I started to laugh. Nicole giggled in a way that reminded me of her as a little girl. It almost stopped my momentum as we swung the painting back and forth.

“Three!”

We flung the painting out and over the railing and leaned over to watch its splash. I hurried back to the bag and picked out the stack of magazines with the Old Man on the cover. I split the stack in two. “Here,” I said, thrusting half into Nicole’s hands. We each tossed them into the air one at a time, watching the pages flutter as they dropped.

There was the copy of The Da Vinci Code. Over the side. The amount of back room and dark corner psychoanalyzing that had gone into the Old Man’s reading of that book could have filled a library.

Nicole reached into the bag and pulled out the last item. It was a box of Lego’s. Sponge-Bob themed. Just like the ones he got for his grandson for Christmas one year. Our parents dutifully bought the set even though we had long outgrown the toy and grandkids were nowhere on the horizon. “Shall you or shall I?” Nicole asked, a mischievous gleam in her eye.

I knew what she was thinking. “Both?”

Nicole opened the box and one by one we threw the Lego bricks into the Missouri River. As we did, we sang the Sponge Bob theme song.  “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Old Man Weston!!!!” we shouted.

We didn’t care who saw or what might happen. My sister and me had made a decision and we were giddy with the freedom of the thing.

The bridge was more or less abandoned. There was a time when it was known as the Gerald R. Ford Expressway, a four-lane river crossing carrying heavy traffic between Council Bluffs and Omaha along the 480 Interstate. That was then. After he was elected President and what he did to the people of Council Bluffs, the Old Man directed that the bridge be closed to automobile traffic and renamed to honor “the patriotic citizens of Council Bluffs.”

We didn’t think we had anything to worry about.

* * * * *

“What happened?” Nicole asked.

“You didn’t pay much attention in history class, did you?”

She laughed. “I barely went.”

I knew that.

“You haven’t heard the stories?”

“What stories?”

And I knew that too. There were people who wanted to know the truth, who sought out the videos and old articles and the tales that were passed from one to another in dark corners bathed with the smell of fear. And there were those who didn’t, who seemed just fine with the way things were in the Old Man’s America.

When President Weston got a jack-in-the-box toy for his grandson, they raced out and got one of their own and happily turned the crank over and over until Jack was all worn out. Nicole was one of those for a long time. It almost drew her to The Jump. Like a lamb to the slaughter.

I was in the former group, desperately searching for how things used to be and wondering how I could resist. But I was just one unmotivated 26-year-old punk who drifted from job to job who did nothing with those stories except search for more.

There was the official story, taught in school every year. The videos that were shown on TV every now and then, typically aired along with an annual speech from the Old Man. Every speech began the same way. “Citizens and patriots. We were a people who had turned from our principles and our God. We had forgotten who we were. But, glory be to our Lord, we have turned away from greed and hate.” There would also come a moment where he would pause, take off his glasses, and stare into the camera, his eyes dark little spots of coal. “Don’t ever forget what we could become.” The screen would fill with pictures of the citizens of Council Bluffs at war with each other and in the shadowy corners of the scenes splashed across the screen, groups of men in red blazers.

There were other things that got passed around in the shadows. Bootleg things. Pictures of the bodies. Scattered on the streets. Some of them burned beyond recognition. Others hanging from light poles. Pictures of buildings on fire. Cars exploding. People running, their faces to the camera, rigid in fright.

And one time, a guy I knew gave me a videotape and told me I should watch it. I did in my parents’ basement where they had an old video player tucked away. The video was a collection of clips spliced together. Shaky footage from the phones people used to walk around with. They showed the President’s Men. Not barely visible in the shadows like in the official version we had to watch each year. No. They were front and center. Slaughtering people, destroying anything and everything in their wake.

The Old Man destroyed Council Bluffs. Not him personally. But he did it nonetheless. At the time, people still called him by his name. The President. Or President Weston. Or “that fuckin’ Weston.” This is what I’ve heard, in whispered conversations, that there was a time when people could say what they thought. Around the water cooler, at the corner coffee shop, on news talk shows. They could be critical of their leaders. He wasn’t the Old Man. Yet. And that was kind of the point of his Council Bluffs and all that came after it.

Twenty years later, the rubble spoke just as loudly as those images. For years, we could see the destruction across the rolling waters that was the Missouri River. It was a wholly different experience to walk through the destruction.

Nicole and I were walking down Broadway, one of the main roads that bisected Council Bluffs. All around us were bombed buildings and the rusted hulks of cars long ago abandoned. The city looked devastated as though war had come to its residents. Which it had.

I motioned to Nicole to stop.  In the deathly quiet of the empty city, I could hear something.  “Quick, Nicole.”  I looked around.  “We need to hide.”

“What?  Why?” She whipped her head around.

“In here,” I whispered.  I could hear the growing growl of the rotors.  I pulled Nicole into an abandoned storefront. It looked like once upon a time it was a bookstore.  Seconds later, two helicopters swept low and fast across the sky.

We slung our backpacks off and sat down against one of the walls. Across the street was a fire station. Its rolling doors were gone. The flag on its pole was just a tatter or two, although the rope still wiggled in the wind and the clasp occasionally struck the pole, sending out an irregular chime that marked nothing.

“A few months after he was elected, the Old Man sent a secret letter to the Mayor,” I began. “It didn’t stay secret for long though.”

“Why?”

“The Mayor went on the news and read the letter.”

“What did it say?”

* * * * *

April 12, 2031

 

The Honorable Mayor James Schmidt

City of Council Bluffs

City Hall

209 Pearl Street

Council Bluff, IA 51503

 

Dear James:

Considering you were one of my biggest supporters in my recent election, I wanted to give you a heads up about a decision I have made. As you know, our great country is sliding into an abyss. We are fractured and at war with each other. We seem to have lost our way. I intend now to take action to demonstrate to the citizens of America how much they need to unify and that they cannot do it alone.

In three days’ time, on April 15, I will use the powers vested in me as President of the United States to issue an executive order that all government services be withdrawn from Council Bluffs. At all levels of government. What I expect is that the American people will come to understand how much they need to get behind my policies — the ones you so wholeheartedly supported during the campaign. What I expect is that America will shortly see how much they need my leadership to steer a path forward. It is time that we unite behind my leadership, behind God, and show America what we can achieve as a united people.

I will expect you to assist in carrying this order out and upon issuing your own orders to your staff and to the residents of your fine city you will absent yourself from the scene. To do otherwise would not be good for your political career. To be utterly candid with you, I anticipate a few unplanned vacancies on the Supreme Court in the coming months. You may be just the person for one of those leather chairs.

I am sure I can count on your support. May God once again bless America.

Yours,

President Alisdair Weston

* * * * *

I shuddered and kicked at an old book laying on the ground.  It disintegrated into dust when I did. “President Weston was going to destroy Council Bluffs to “save” America. The mayor was the first victim. The morning after the newscast, Council Bluffs woke to his body hanging from a light pole in front of City Hall. By the end of the week, government offices were padlocked and boarded up, the police disbanded and shipped out of town.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“I’ve seen the videos. I listen.” I stood up and looked around. I peered into the corners and between the aisles of shelves to see if there were any shadows lurking. “It got worse. A lot worse. The President’s Men made their first appearance. In their starched collars. Those damn Chuck Taylors on their feet.”

“Wh-what did they do?”

I jerked my finger towards the shattered windows that gave us an unfiltered view of the street outside.  “That.”

Council Bluffs was a desolated city whose inhabitants were set one against another, its buildings destroyed by bombs and fires, and where now it seemed that even though the bodies had long ago decomposed into dust scattered by the winds that howled through the city’s streets, the smell of death lingered on every street corner and on every door step. I could feel the presence of the slaughtered in my spine and in my gut.

“My God,” Nicole whispered.

“Yeah. Maybe. But, you know, this was all part of Weston’s plan to turn himself into a God-like being. And it worked. The Old Man? Pfffft. I’d like to see him hanging from a light pole some day.”

“Sssssshhhhh.”

“There’s nobody here, Nicole. This city is a wasteland. Empty.” I got up and began to sling my pack onto my back. “The sooner we get through it, the better.”

One of the remaining street signs told us we were walking down West Broadway, the numbered streets crossing ours counting down. 25th. 19th. 12th. And on and on until the numbers ended and more and more streets, empty of everything, stretched out in the distance.

* * * * *

We walked long that day. In hours, if not in miles. New to lugging packs with 50 pounds of supplies and gear and suffering from the heat of summer, we only made it so far. Out past where Broadway turned into Kanesville Road. Just before it crossed under the Weston Interstate, the one that crossed the nation from the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco to Maryland and the Atlantic Ocean, we stopped for the day. We were past the desolation and into the countryside. In every direction, the dried brown of the Iowa prairie stretched as far as the eye could see.

Before we turned our backs on Omaha and Council Bluffs for the last time, I turned and looked back. “Dad had a brother.”

“He did? I don’t remember meeting him.”

“Yeah.” I blinked into the setting sun. I couldn’t help myself. I wiped at my eyes. “He lived in Council Bluffs.”

“Oooh.” Nicole reached out and put her arm around me and rested her head on my shoulder. We remained that way for a few more minutes. The sun was nearing the horizon. Blue was shifting to yellow and orange. I took a deep breath and slipped out of her embrace.

“Let’s go,” I whispered, turning my back on the destruction and looking towards the vastness of the fields that spread out in all other directions. “Let’s see if we can find Dad in all of this.” That night, I opened the atlas. It said Rand McNally on the front. The date on the inside said it was published in 1989. Nicole and me found the pages for Iowa and scanned them trying to figure out the best path forward. We went to sleep without a clue.

 

-4-

Walking Through

“Joey, cut it out,” I shouted at my brother.  He was flicking my ear. I loved my big brother, idolized him, wanted to be just like him.  But he could be a massive pain in the ass when he wanted to be and something about sitting next to each other in the back seat of our old SUV on long trips brought out his inner punk.

“You two knock it off or I’m pulling this car over.” Our dad looked over his shoulder at us. It was a threat he had made before, far too many times to count. A threat he had never carried out, but Joey was 12, I was 10. We were both young enough to believe one day he just might pull the car over. And do what? Kick us out of the car? Turn around and wallop us both? What exactly? We didn’t know for sure, but we still feared him.

For the next five or ten minutes, Joey left me alone. I looked out the window. Endless cornfields stretched out to the horizon. Red barns here and there. Dirt roads and two-lane country roads stretched out from the freeway like the strands of a spider web.

“How long will it take to get there?” I asked.

“You know the schedule. It’ll be five days,” my dad laughed. “You excited?”

I was and he knew that. We were headed to Gettysburg. I had learned about the Civil War just a few months before so I was eager to see the great battlefield. And from there, we were going to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. In my little boy mind, it seemed like such a magical place, filled with monuments and history and important people. Maybe I’d meet President Bush.

The year was 1991 and we were doing what our family did every summer. Hitching a trailer to the car and roaming America. Joey and I would get on each other’s nerves sitting in the back seat, but then spill out of the car when we got to a campground at the end of the day and run together with the pent-up energy of hours on the road. We were best friends when we could roam, not so much when we were cooped up.

One of the things I wanted to do when Nicole and Cameron came along was to take the same kind of trips. Just the four of us on the road, seeing America. President Weston, the Old Man, put a stop to anything like that before Ceci and I got to where we could afford a trailer. We never got out there with our kids. I never got to threaten them with pulling the car over. Or take them to the Pacific Ocean. Or Disney World. None of that. For more than 20 years none of us left Omaha. It was too dangerous out there. Or so we thought.

Now I hiked on my own in the hot summer sun following the same general course we took all those years ago.  Towards Washington, D.C., and my own battleground.

It wasn’t just Council Bluffs and what happened to Joey there. In moments as the years passed, I would go to the river and stand on one of the bridges that crossed into Council Bluffs and peer at the destruction, wondering where his body was. Whether he suffered. I tried to remember him as a boy, freckled cheeks, smiling. Always smiling. As the years went on, it became harder and harder. When I walked through Council Bluffs that hot June day as I took my leave of living in a paralyzed world, I looked neither right nor left. I was afraid of seeing his body, no matter how ridiculous that might be all those years after the city was destroyed. I didn’t want to see his shadow. I was afraid of his ghost.

It wasn’t just what the President’s Men tore from Ceci. The next day she went into one of the downstairs bedrooms and closed the door. I knocked on the door. She wouldn’t let me in and stayed behind the door for the day. And for the next day. And the next. Ceci never returned to our bedroom. She never let me touch her again. How could I blame her? I failed her. I did not protect my wife when she most needed my protection. I was hardly a man anymore.

It wasn’t just the vacant stare I saw in Nicole’s eyes and so many others. Or Cam’s constant pushing and questioning about how things got this way. How could I answer his questions? I failed my kids. I could not provide for them the things they deserved, the opportunities they should have had. Instead, I could only watch as they made their way in a lost time, with no motivation other than to see the next day.

I hate to say it and I’ve never told Nicole or Cam – I voted for him. Alisdair Weston. I thought he would bring the change we needed as a country. I felt there was this gigantic hole forming in our nation’s soul and I thought he could plug it.

Ceci knew but she had given up berating me for my vote years before. I would have taken her screams and anger in the end if it had helped. I would have taken anything for her if I only had another chance. And maybe that was the thing. This was my chance for redemption.

They say that revenge is for suckers. I didn’t care. It was all I could think about as I trudged through Iowa, my feet kicking up clouds of dust, my eyes squinting into the distance. Somewhere beyond the horizon was the Old Man and I had a date with him. Only he didn’t know it.

As the sun beat down and the distance from home grew, I realized it wasn’t just my own losses that drove me forward. There was so much more to the story of what had happened after Weston was elected.  He plugged the hole. Most definitely. With death and destruction and a country that was once great turned into a shell of its former self.

While the Boise State Legislature debated a resolution condemning the destruction of Council Bluffs, the state capitol in Boise was blown to bits by a bomb or two dropped from an American warplane. President Weston appeared on television afterwards and claimed it was terrorism. But we knew.  The one thing the mayor of Council Bluffs did before his body was strung up was to alert us to the chameleon we had elected. We knew but what could we do?

A few weeks later, it was dynamite planted at strategic places of Folsom Dam. Releasing flood waters that inundated Sacramento down river, displacing hundreds of thousands, maybe a million or more, people. The federal government denied California’s request for emergency aid. What was happening when this happened, you might ask? The Governor of California had only the day before issued an executive order directing all state agencies to ignore any orders coming from the federal government.

It was the passenger jet commandeered by one of the President’s Men and flown into the heart of Disneyland. The plane crashed into the Happiest Place on Earth as the throngs awaited the nightly fireworks show. They got one.

It was many other actions. Some great. Some small. A bomb here. A governor disappeared there. Or two. Businesses shut down by edict. President Weston declared martial law and suspended the Constitution only six months into his … reign. Shortly after, the Old Man was born with the publication of The Old Man’s Wisdom.  It became required reading and any home without a copy would not stand for long. And we remained under martial law all these years later. That’s the official name. The Old Man called it democracy and freedom and God’s will. I called it tyranny.

* * * * *

That first day I didn’t get as far as I thought I would. It was the blisters that started to form after only a few miles. And my back. Maybe I should have trained a little bit. Only I didn’t want to draw attention to my plans. Walking the neighborhood with a full backpack might have done that. You never knew who might talk.

I did a lot of walking though. It’s how most of us got around. Maybe I should have done that walking in the new hiking boots instead of stowing them and only bringing them out the day I left. Maybe I should have done a lot of things.

Like pack sun block. The next day my face burned, the hat pulled low over my eyes could only do so much to protect against the relentless summer sun. I was beyond Council Bluffs out into what was once America’s great farm land, now fried dead and brown by the sun. The cornfields I remembered from my youth were no more.

The third day a Midwest specialty slowed me down. A day that started off warm and sunny ended with wind whipping across the prairie and thunder clouds stacking the horizon and then spilling across the sky. In three days, I hadn’t seen a soul. Maybe it was because I avoided the main routes and the interstates and stayed on back roads that filled the spaces in between and where a few small farms still existed, hidden away in bends of a river or behind a grove of trees.

When the thunder boomed and the lightning struck, I holed up in a shack that had seen better days to wait out the storm. I was about to doze off when a noise interrupted my efforts to sleep. It wasn’t thunder. It wasn’t the sound of rain pitter-pattering on the roof. It was the sound of another human being. Before I could get the gun out from the bottom of my backpack – I cursed myself for not having it at the ready – a man burst into the shack.

He was wetter than a drowned rat and dressed entirely in black. He looked to be about thirty and carried nothing with him. The stranger took a step back when he saw me in the corner of the shack.

“Who are you?” he asked. I fumbled around in my pack trying to get a grip on the gun before giving up.

“Who are you?!” I responded.

He swept his wet hair away from his face and looked at me. Eventually, he sighed and sank down to rest on his haunches. “I’m Evan.”

I considered his answer and chose to lie.  “Steve.”

We eyed each other some more. I waited. “You walking through?” he finally asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Ah, a newbie.” Evan took another pass at his hair, which went past his shoulders. His eyes glittered even in the gloom of the shack. “Walking through. You know. From here to there.”

“Sure. I guess that’s me.”

“You don’t look the type though. You’re too clean and,” he waved his hand at my backpack, “if you were walking through, you wouldn’t need that. You don’t look quite so desperate. Or depressed.”

A bolt of lightning lit up the shack. By habit I started to count the seconds and only got to one before the thunder roared. I was beginning to understand what Evan was telling me, but he was wrong. I was desperate and depressed. I just had a different objective, a different idea about what to do about it. “No, I guess I’m not. Walking through, that is.”

“Then what’s your plan, old man?”

I blanched at his reference to me as ‘old man’ and wanted to object, but then what. Evan did not appear to be a threat to me, or to be on side of the real Old Man, but how could I tell. For all I knew, he was testing me and if I objected to the name, I’d reveal myself.

And what was my plan? “I’m just walking.” Another bolt of lightning split through the air. I counted again and got to two before the thunder rolled.

“Nobody just walks these days. You get caught out here, you’re a dead man.” He got up, his knees cracking, and slid the door open a bit. “Looks like the rain is letting up a bit.”

I wanted to trust him, but I couldn’t even trust anymore my neighbors I had lived next to for years. Just a couple of days out on the road and I was going to spill my guts to the first stranger I met? I didn’t bother replying. I wasn’t going to tell Evan anything more.

Outside, the rain did lighten its assault on the shack. I thought of leaving, of getting away from this man I didn’t know. But he beat me to it. Evan turned back to me, “I hope you figure it out, dude. Take care of yourself.” As he stepped through the doorway, another bolt of lightning crackled and lit up the shack. Before the thunder could roll, his final words to me filled the silence, “See you.” And he was gone.

I had just met my first Rebel. Only I would not learn of that fact until much later.

Before I left the shack, I pulled the gun out and put it in one of the side pockets of the backpack. I left the zipper open halfway. I tried it out a bit with the pack on my shoulders, reaching back to see how easily, how quickly I could get to the weapon. Who knew if it would really matter.

***** END (for now) *****

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Danger

The world’s most dangerous animal ….

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The Jump, Chapter 3 — Council Bluffs

It’s been awhile. More than a year ago, I wrote a short story. At least I thought it was a short story. The story is called The Jump. It’s somewhat hard to believe it has been 15 months since I first wrote that piece. Ever since, the story has intrigued me and mystified me. A few months later, I wrote and posted The President’s Men, chapter two in what I envision could be a novel.

What follows is the third chapter.

The last couple of months I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I’m not really sure why I’ve stuck with it, but I have. Today I finished the sixth book of the seven book series. Towards the end, King inserts himself as a character into the tale and as he’s conversing with Roland and Eddie, he says this about why he stopped writing a particular story:

I don’t know, one day you just start having less fun while you’re sitting there, tapping the keys. Seeing less clearly. Getting less of a buzz from telling yourself the story. And then, to make things worse, you get a new idea, one that’s all bright and shiny, fresh off the showroom floor, not a scratch on her. Completely unfucked-up by you, at least as of yet. And … well …

I know how he feels. The months in between the writing of these three chapters have been all about not getting much of a buzz from telling myself the story. It’s odd. I’m excited about this piece, as I am about most of my unfinished novels (of which I now think I need more than one hand to count). I’m really excited about the possibilities with each of them. But I get no buzz from telling myself the story. And if I get no buzz, how can I expect the reader to get that buzz?

And then there’s the fear that the story that needs to be told, wants to be told, will be fucked up by yours truly. So, why bother writing. My internal editor pretty hates everything I write these days.

The problem with The Jump is that I know how it will end, but there’s a lot of dark space between here and then. I’m not sure how I will get to the end. Except that it will be a road trip. That uncertainty is great fuel for a hypercritical Internal Editor.

The other problem is that I just could not figure out how to write this chapter without fucking it up. I had an idea to go here or go there or zig zag between here and there. Or just blow the whole thing up and come up with something completely different.

In the end, I decided to go with what I had done up to this point. I filled in some details, tried to organize the thing. It needs editing. But here it is. Chapter 3 of The Jump. And I at least know how I’ll start Chapter 4. Wish me luck and let me know what you think.

 

-3-

Council Bluffs

Before we left Omaha, I took Nicole back to our parents’ home and down to the basement. “This is why I think he’s out there somewhere.” I pointed out the backpacks. Piled up, along with canned goods, sleeping bags, and everything else he had stored away. Some of it I had no idea how he managed to get, but I was glad he did.

“He showed me this just before Mom disappeared.” I stopped and put my arm around Nicole. “There were four backpacks then. You see, there are only three now.”

Nicole pulled away and began to twist a strand of her hair around a finger. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know for sure. Until now.”

“Did he tell you where he was going to go?”

“No. I don’t even know if he knew he was going to leave.” I knelt down and started putting stuff into one of the packs. “And he made it sound like we’d leave together. That this was going to be for all of us to get out of here if we needed to.” I stopped packing and turned back to Nicole. “I don’t know, maybe … what Mom did changed all that. Maybe …” I couldn’t really go any further. I was so far out of my depth. “Help me pack up.”

One of the things he left behind for us, that I had no idea how he had it, was a gun. I stowed it at the bottom of my pack. With a box of bullets. Besides that and everything else we could fit into the packs, I had a bag of other stuff that wasn’t going to make it far.

We crossed the river into Council Bluffs on Council Bluffs Memorial Overcrossing. At the middle of the bridge, I started to empty the bag. Over the side and into the river, went an old Jack-in-the-Box. A fish bowl and a ping pong ball. Nicole had the painting of the poker-playing dogs under an arm, wrapped in old newspaper. She leaned against the railing, wriggled out of her backpack. I did the same. We picked up the painting, each holding an end.

“One.”

“Two.” I started to laugh. Nicole giggled in a way that reminded me of her as a little girl. It almost stopped my momentum as we swung the painting back and forth.

“Three!”

We flung the painting out and over the railing and leaned over to watch its splash. I hurried back to the bag and picked out the stack of magazines with the Old Man on the cover. I split the stack in two. “Here,” I said, thrusting half into Nicole’s hands. We each tossed them into the air one at a time, watching the pages flutter as they dropped.

There was the copy of The Da Vinci Code. Over the side. The amount of back room and dark corner psychoanalyzing that had gone into the Old Man’s reading of that book could have filled a library.

Nicole reached into the bag and pulled out the last item. It was a box of Lego’s. Sponge-Bob themed. Just like the ones he got for his grandson for Christmas one year. “Shall you or shall I?” Nicole asked, a mischievous gleam in her eye.

I knew what she was thinking. “Both?”

Nicole opened the box and one by one we threw the Lego bricks into the Missouri River. As we did, we sang the Sponge Bob theme song.  “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Old Man Weston!!!!” we shouted.

We didn’t care who saw or what might happen. My sister and me had made a decision and we were giddy with the freedom of the thing.

There really wasn’t anything to worry about. The bridge was more or less abandoned. There was a time when it was known as the Gerald R. Ford Expressway, a four-lane river crossing carrying heavy traffic between Council Bluffs and Omaha along the 480 Interstate. That was then. After he was elected President and what he did to the people of Council Bluffs, the Old Man directed that the bridge be closed to automobile traffic and renamed to honor “the patriotic citizens of Council Bluffs.”

* * * * *

“What happened?” Nicole asked.

“You didn’t pay much attention in history class, did you?”

She laughed. “I barely went.”

I knew that.

“You haven’t heard the stories?”

“What stories?”

And I knew that too. There were people who wanted to know the truth, who sought out the videos and old articles and the tales that were passed from one to another in dark corners bathed with the smell of fear. And there were those who didn’t, who seemed just fine with the way things were in the Old Man’s America.

When President Weston got a jack-in-the-box toy for his grandson, they raced out and got one of their own and happily turned the crank over and over until Jack was all worn out. Nicole was one of those for a long time. It almost drew her to The Jump. Like a sheep.

I was in the former group, desperately searching for how things used to be and wondering how I could resist. But I was just one unmotivated 26-year-old punk who drifted from job to job who did nothing with those stories except search for more.

There was the official story, taught in school every year. The videos that were shown on TV every now and then, typically aired along with an annual speech from the Old Man. Every speech began the same way. “Citizens and patriots. We were a people who had turned from our principles and our God. We had forgotten who we were. But, glory be to our Lord, we have turned away from greed and hate.” There would also come a moment where he would pause, take off his glasses, and stare into the camera, his eyes dark little spots of coal. “Don’t ever forget what we could become.” The screen would fill with pictures of the citizens of Council Bluffs at war with each other and in the shadowy corners of the scenes splashed across the screen, groups of men in red blazers.

There were other things that got passed around in the shadows. Bootleg things. Pictures of the bodies. Scattered on the streets. Some of them burned beyond recognition. Others hanging from light poles. Pictures of buildings on fire. Cars exploding. People running, their faces to the camera, rigid in fright.

And one time, a guy I knew gave me a videotape and told me I should watch it. I did in my parents’ basement where they had an old video player tucked away. The video was a collection of clips spliced together. Shaky footage from the phones people used to walk around with. They showed the President’s Men. Not barely visible in the shadows like in the official version we had to watch each year. No. They were front and center. Slaughtering people, destroying anything and everything in their wake.

The Old Man destroyed Council Bluffs. Not him personally. But he did it nonetheless. At the time, people still called him by his name. The President. Or President Weston. Or “that fuckin’ Weston.” This is what I’ve heard, in whispered conversations, that there was a time when people could say what they thought. Around the water cooler, at the corner coffee shop, on news talk shows. They could be critical of their leaders. He wasn’t the Old Man. Yet. And that was kind of the point of his Council Bluffs and all that came after it.

Twenty years later, the rubble spoke just as loudly as those images. For years, we could see the destruction across the rolling waters that was the Missouri River. It was a wholly different experience to walk through the empty city.

Nicole and I were walking down Broadway, one of the main roads that bisected Council Bluffs. All around us were bombed buildings and the rusted hulks of cars long ago abandoned. The city looked devastated as though war had come to its residents. Which it had.

I motioned to Nicole to stop. We slung our backpacks off and sat on the curb. Across the street was a fire station. It’s rolling doors were gone. The flag on its pole was just a tatter or two, although the rope still wiggled in the wind and the clasp occasionally struck the pole, sending out an irregular chime that marked nothing.

“A few months after he was elected, the Old Man sent a secret letter to the Mayor,” I began. “It didn’t stay secret for long though.”

“Why?”

“The Mayor went on the news and read the letter.”

“What did it say?”

* * * * *

April 12, 2031

 

The Honorable Mayor James Schmidt

City of Council Bluffs

City Hall

209 Pearl Street

Council Bluff, IA 51503

 

Dear James:

Considering you were one of my biggest supporters in my recent election, I wanted to give you a heads up about a decision I have made. As you know, our great country is sliding into an abyss. We are fractured and at war with each other. We seem to have lost our way. I intend now to take action to demonstrate to the citizens of America how much they need to unify and that they cannot do it alone.

In three days’ time, on April 15, I will use the powers vested in me as President of the United States to issue an executive order that all government services be withdrawn from Council Bluffs. At all levels of government. What I expect is that the American people will come to understand how much they need to get behind my policies — the ones you so wholeheartedly supported during the campaign. What I expect is that America will shortly see how much they need my leadership to steer a path forward. It is time that we unite behind my leadership, behind God, and show America what we can achieve as a united people.

I will expect you to assist in carrying this order out and upon issuing your own orders to your staff and to the residents of your fine city you will absent yourself from the scene. To do otherwise would not be good for your political career. To be utterly candid with you, I anticipate a few unplanned vacancies on the Supreme Court in the coming months. You may be just the person for one of those leather chairs.

I am sure I can count on your support. May God once again bless America.

Yours,

 

President Alisdair Weston

* * * * *

I shuddered and kicked at some rocks, scattering them into the empty road. “President Weston was going to destroy Council Bluffs to save America. The mayor was the first victim. The morning after the newscast, Council Bluffs woke to his body hanging from a light pole in front of City Hall. By the end of the week, government offices were padlocked and boarded up, the police disbanded and shipped out of town.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“I’ve seen the videos. I listen.” I looked east and west down Broadway. I peered over both shoulders at the building behind us to see if there were any shadows lurking. “It got worse. A lot worse. The President’s Men made their first appearance. In their starched collars. Those damn Chuck Taylors on their feet.”

“Wh-what did they do?”

I held out my hand and swept it in front of us. “This.”

Council Bluffs was a desolated city whose inhabitants were set one against another, its buildings destroyed by bombs and fires, and where now it seemed that even though the bodies had long ago decomposed into dust scattered by the winds that howled through the city’s streets, it seemed as though the smell of death lingered on every street corner and on every door step. I could feel their presence in my spine and in my gut.

“My God,” Nicole whispered.

“Yeah. Maybe. But, you know, this was all part of Weston’s plan to turn himself into a God-like being. And it worked. The Old Man. Pfffft. I’d like to see him hanging from a light pole some day.”

“Sssssshhhhh.”

“There’s nobody here, Nicole. This city is a wasteland. Empty.” I got up and began to sling my pack onto my back. “The sooner we get through it, the better.”

One of the remaining street signs told us we were walking down West Broadway, the numbered streets crossing us counting down. 25th. 19th. 12th. And on and on until the numbers ended and more and more streets, empty of everything, stretched out in the distance.

* * * * *

We walked long that day. In hours, if not in miles. New to lugging packs with 50 pounds of supplies and gear and suffering from the heat of summer, we only made it so far. Out past where Broadway turned into Kanesville Road. Just before it crossed under the Weston Interstate, the one that crossed the nation from the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco to Maryland and the Atlantic Ocean, we stopped for the day. We were past the desolation and into the countryside. In every direction, the dried brown of the Iowa prairie stretched as far as the eye could see.

Before we turned our backs on Omaha and Council Bluffs for the last time, I turned and looked back. “Dad had a brother.”

“He did? I don’t remember meeting him.”

“Yeah.” I blinked into the setting sun. I couldn’t help myself. I wiped at my eyes. “He lived in Council Bluffs.”

“Oooh.” Nicole reached out and put her arm around me and rested her head on my shoulder. We remained that way for a few more minutes. The sun was nearing the horizon. Blue was shifting to yellow and orange. I took a deep breath and slipped out of her embrace.

“Let’s go,” I whispered, turning my back on the destruction and looking towards the vastness of the fields that spread out in all other directions. “Let’s see if we can find Dad in all of this.” That night, I opened the atlas. It said Rand McNally on the front. The date on the inside said it was published in 1989. Nicole and me found the pages for Iowa and scanned them trying to figure out the best path forward. We went to sleep without a clue.

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An Obituary

His name was Sebastian Cole.

His friends called him Bas ‘cause that’s what his brother Wilson called him.  The three syllables were too much for his little brother.  Bas was all he could handle.  It stuck.

Others called him Sebastard ‘cause that’s what kids do.

His Mama called him Baby, but she called all her kids that.  It was nothing special.  The neighborhood kids who filtered in and out.  The foster kids who showed up for a month or a year.  They were all Baby.  ‘Cause everybody was her baby, her love tending them and protecting them.

His Papa called him nothing.  He wasn’t there.

He played little league for a year or two.  Basketball in the 8th grade.  Nothing after that.  His Mama told him schooling was what mattered.

It started to unravel for Bas just before he graduated.  Something happened.  A girl maybe.  A poor score on a test.  It coulda been anything.  But he had a funk.  Missed school for a couple of weeks, barely got back in time for the ceremony.

It aint nothin’ his Mama told him.  You’ll be just fine.  College’ll be in a few months.  You’ll get right with yourself.

Sure Mama, he replied.  And he thought that.  Really thought that.  He signed up for classes at the community college.  Got a job at McDs.

Bas lost the job a few months later when he was found muttering to himself.  Back by the sink.  Staring at the wall.  When his manager asked him what was up, he spun around and spat at him.  Bas told him he wasn’t no monkey.

Truth is, after no more than a handful of weeks, he stopped going to class.  It wasn’t for him.  He began to wonder if anything was for him.

He was arrested for the first time when he was nineteen.  Bas jaywalked and talked back to the officer who wrote him up.  White boys jaywalked there all the time he said, never got no citations.  The officer said, Boy, you gotta problem.  Bas didn’t back down.  He spent the night in a jail cell.

The voices started shortly after that.  Telling him to do this.  Do that.  Some days he never got out of bed.  Some weeks he never left the house.

His Mama kept asking, Baby, you okay?  He had nothing for her.  Just leave me alone, he’d say.

She did until she couldn’t anymore.

You need to get on outta here, Sebastian Cole, she yelled one day.

So he got on outta there.

Found a spot under an overpass.  Found a ragged blanket.  Got a shopping cart from the market.  Scrounged for things.  This and that.

Bas spent his days going from soup kitchen to soup kitchen.  Or just sitting in the park, letting the sun warm him while his mind went to war.

Come.  Stay for a bit.  We’ll have a room for you tonight, they’d say to him at the kitchens.

Bas would smile some times and say, no thank you.  Other times, he might growl, maybe even raising a fist before stomping away, cart in tow.

He got arrested again.  Kicked out of a spot for illegal camping, he raged at the officer, pushed him back.  Cuffs slapped on, he showed up at county jail with some bruises that weren’t there moments before.

A few years went by.  The voices got louder.  The streets harder.  Sometimes he thought he saw his Mama on the street.  Bas would approach her, asking for help.  She’d turn away saying, I can’t help you.  I’m sorry.  Sometimes, she’d give him a dollar or two.

One day, Bas found a gun behind a trash bin.  He released the clip.  Saw there were two bullets.

The gun went buried in the middle of his cart.  Beneath the old blanket and the bag of recycling.

Sebastian Cole found one of his favorite spots that night.  Where a vent spread warm air and he could curl up against it and stay warm.  In the middle of the night the voices rose to a crescendo and woke him.  Get the gun, they wailed in his head.  Get the gun.

He did.  Holding it in his hand.  Looking at the glimmer of the street lights reflecting off its cold, black steel.

Sebastian Cole’s final moments were spent sitting on a concrete ledge, under pine trees that had stood guard over the old state building for almost one hundred years.  His Mama wasn’t there to protect her Baby.  The voices told him he had no choice.  He held the gun to his mouth.

***END***

This morning when I got to work, there was police tape cordoning off the west end of our building.  There was a body there.  A man who appears to have committed suicide.  What else could it be with a shot to the head and a gun by his side.  When I was walking to my car at the end of the day, I decided to give him a story.  It’s the least I could do.  I actually hope that this is not his story.  I hope that somewhere along the way he had more happiness than this story suggests, but it’s hard to imagine if he really was a suicide victim.

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Shady Acres — The End

Chapters 1 and 2 are here.

Chapters 3 and 4 are here.

Chapters 5 and 6 are here.

Chapters 7 and 8 are here.

 

Chapter 9.  The End

“Come on, gentlemen.  They’re just about done serving lunch.”

“Eh.” Mike stopped and looked up at Mackenzie.  A look of confusion clouded his face.  “We’re tied.  Two games to two.  One more game.  Okay, Elisa?  I’ll skunk him quick.”

Oh know. Mackenzie though.  Not Mike.  Before she could respond, Mike winked at her and began dealing the cards out for one last game of gin rummy.  The wink threw Mackenzie for a moment, but she knew that something had changed in her friend.  He had ever confused her with somebody else.  Nor had he ever confused other people.  It was an absolute certainty at Shady Acres.  Mike was on a first name basis with every resident and employee and never got it wrong.

While the two men played their final hand, Mackenzie sat and waited.  When they were done, she stood up.  “Let’s go.”

Mike looked at her, that cloud of confusion crossing his face again.  “Where we going, Mackenzie?”

“To lunch, Mike.  Come on,” Mackenzie sighed.

“Oh.  Okay.  Why didn’t you say something?”  Mike slipped the deck of cards in his pants pocket.  “You heard the lady, Gene, let’s go to lunch.”

Could it happen that quick?  Mackenzie catalogued the events of the last few days.  The exertions Mike forced on himself the day he turned 100.  The late morning the next day.  And, then the fall, and a bump on his head.  Could it?  Mackenzie trailed behind the two old men as they made their way to the dining room.

After lunch, Mike asked Mackenzie to help him back to his room where he planned on taking a nap.  When they arrived, he first opened a drawer in the nightstand next to his bed.  After ruffling around in the drawer, he drew out a folder stuffed with papers and handed it to Mackenzie.  “Here, I want you to have this,” he mumbled to her.

“What is it?”

“Aah,” Mike paused while he leaned back to sit on the edge of the bed.  “Nothing, really.”

“Mike?”

“Mackenzie, just do me a favor.  Don’t look in the folder until something happens to me.”

“Mike.”  Mackenzie sat next to Mike and placed her hand lightly on his arm.  “Nothing’s going to happen to you.  What are you talking about?”

He looked at her with glistening eyes.  “I think you’re wrong.  It’s starting to happen.”  He snuffled a bit as his voice weakened.  “Do you think I don’t realize what happened earlier?  I mistook you for my wife.”

“Oh, Mike, that was nothing,” Mackenzie responded, knowing though that she had already had the same thoughts.

“It’s not just that.  I can feel it in my bones.  The ache is deeper.”

“Mike, that’s just because you fell the other day.”

“No, honey, it’s not.  It’s something more.”  He began to lean over and back.  Mackenzie got up and helped lift his legs up on the bed.  With his head resting on the pillow and his hands laced together on his stomach, he looked up at Mackenzie.  “Please, put the folder away somewhere and take it out after I die.  I think you’ll know what to do with it, once you take a look.  But, promise me you won’t look until something happens.”

Mike closed his eyes as Mackenzie replied, “Okay, Mike.”  He was asleep before the door closed behind her.

It wasn’t long after that.  A few more days of growing confusion.  An afternoon when Mike was found wandering a hallway on the opposite end of the nursing home from his own room.  When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Going home.”  In the incident report, Mike was described as disheveled, confused, and resistant to direction.  He even yelled at another resident, telling him to “get off his damn lawn.”

One afternoon, less than a week later, Mackenzie entered Mike’s room one morning and knew that Mike had known what he was talking about.  The smell in the room was different.  Deeper than the usual old man smell.  She looked at him and in the soft morning light saw that his chest did not rise or fall.  His mouth hung open and his eyes stared vacantly at her.

“Oh, Mike,” Mackenzie whispered into the room.  She could go no further than the doorway.  Tears streamed down her cheeks as she brought a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.  She had seen plenty of death before working in Shady Acres, but this was one death that was too much for her.

Mackenzie turned from the room and began to run down the hall.  “Get Antoinette,” she began to yell.  “Antoinette,” she yelled and then slumped to the floor against the wall.

Mackenzie came to a stop just outside of Gene’s door.  Attracted by the racket, Gene opened his door and looked out.  “Mackenzie.  What is it?”  He looked at her and didn’t need an answer.  As fast as his old legs could carry him, he scurried down the hall towards the next group of units.  Mackenzie peeked down at Gene as he turned into the little entry way from which three doors led to three different units.  From the other end of the hall, came Sylvia, one of the newer attendants.  When she saw Mackenzie curled into a ball, her shoulders heaving, Sylvia stopped.

Seconds later, Gene returned to the hallway.  His head weaving back and forth from Sylvia to Mackenzie and back to Sylvia, he shrugged.  “He’s gone.”

Gene walked back to his room.  Before entering, he stopped and placed his hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder for a few seconds.  She looked up at him with tears streaming down her cheeks.

“He was such a good man,” she sniffed.

“I know.”

“It was too soon.  He told me he was going to live another 100 years.  He wasn’t ready to die.”  Mackenzie stood up and looked at Gene.

“Come here,” Gene said to her, barely loud enough for Mackenzie to hear.  She stepped in his arms as he wrapped them around her.  “It’s okay.  It’s okay.”

Abruptly, she stepped out of his embrace.  “My God.  He wanted to meet my son.  He told me to bring him in.  And, I didn’t get to.  Spencer would have loved him.  Damn!”  Mackenzie began to pound her fist against the wall.  “Damn,” she repeated with each strike.   Down the hall, more staff arrived and entered Mike’s room.  Soon, it was business as usual.  A nursing home, after all, is used to death.

It wasn’t until three days after the funeral that Mackenzie remembered the folder Mike had handed to her and obtained her promise that she wouldn’t look at it unless something happened to him.  Something had certainly happened to him.  That evening, after Spencer went to bed, curled up under his blanket with his stuffed penguin in his arms and a lock of hair curled into a C on his forehead, Mackenzie returned to her kitchen table and opened the folder.

Hours later, Mackenzie had waded through more than seventy-five simple poems Mike had written during his years at Shady Acres.  The poems were stacked in the order he had written them.  The first, in the crooked, slanted cursive of an old man, was titled Anger and Fear and written two days after he arrived at the nursing home.

 

Red with fury

A hole ripped

I’m burning

Anger

 

Filled with doubt

My life at an end

I’m shaking

Fear

 

Anger and Fear

Consume me

Eat me inside

Will I survive?

 

The tone of the poems quickly changed as Mike learned to live at Shady Acres.  Some of the poems were written about other residents, staff, members of Mike’s family.  Others were written about the smallest of things.  A bird landing on a chair and watching as Mike and a friend played a hand of cribbage.  Dust motes drifting in the sunlight filtering into his room early in the morning when the place was at its quietest.  Scattered amongst the poems was an occasional letter.  One was written to each of Mike’s children.  Another letter was written to Wilma three years ago.  Mike had even written a letter to Antoinette when she first met him.

Just before midnight, Mackenzie reached the final document.  Dearest Mackenzie, it began in printed block letters.  The letter was written two days after Mike’s 100th birthday.  Mackenzie caught her breath and read on.

You will probably never know what you do for an old man.  Your smile begins my day with hope.  You have provided me with a daily reminder of my wife.  In so many ways, you remind me of her.  Not just in how you look, but in who you are.

I owe you for everything you have done for me since you came to Shady Acres.  But I have nothing to give you other than this.  Advice. 

Raise your son to love his mother.  Teach him not just the basics, but also how to howl at the moon.  Teach him not just how to drive a car, but also that a car is just something gets him from point A to point B—more important than the drive is the points from which he leaves and to which he arrives.  Teach your son that there is value in money, but also value in the most basic of human relationships. Teach your son that without you, without friends, without love, he will not be happy.  The rest is icing.

I am sorry that I didn’t get to meet your son, but I have no doubt that you will do a fine job in raising him.  Neither should you.

Forgive your former husband, but do not forget what he did.  Release the pain and move on.  You won’t find peace until you do.

Know this about yourself.  You are a beautiful, compassionate, and talented young woman.  Stay confident and sure.  Move forward.  Never step back.

Most of all.  Do not be sad that I have died.  Mike Robertson lived more than 100 years.  I have seen and done everything a man could ask for.  Even copped a feel of your glorious ass and felt the curve of your hip!  I have left this world without complaint and now move on to the next.  I have no idea what is next for me, if anything, but if I should run into Elisa again, I will tell her of you and we will watch over you together.

Your friend,

Mike

 

In the days and weeks ahead, Mackenzie delivered Mike’s poems and letters to the subjects of his words.  Mackenzie chuckled at the thought of Wilma’s daughter sitting down and reading the odes Mike had written to Wilma.  They were somewhat more than PG-13.  Julie’s erotic writings had certainly inspired something in Mike.

The poems that were about the simple things she saved for new residents.  She made copies of them and would leave a copy of one of those poems in each new resident’s room.  Maybe Mike’s words could help the newly arrived recognize that there was a way to find happiness and peace in a place where they had sent to die.

Her own letter, she kept folded up in a pocket of her uniform.  When she needed it, Mike’s words were always there.  Mike may have passed away well short of his goal of a second century.  His words and his spirit?  Mackenzie did what she could to ensure that they lived on.

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Shady Acres, Chapters 7 and 8

Chapters 1 and 2 are here.

Chapters 3 and 4 are here.

Chapters 5 and 6 are here.

 

Chapter 7.  Gene

If he opened his eyes, the sun would hurt, and he would be reminded of where he was.  He kept his eyes shut.  If only he could go back to sleep.  That’s all he really wanted.  To sleep.  This is what Jerry, Bob, and Sherri had done to him.  Daniel, years ago had entered the safe haven of drugs and homelessness, thereby checking out from the responsibilities of taking care of their aging father.  The other three, though, didn’t hesitate when they reached a meeting of the minds.

“Dad, it’s time for you to sell the house.”  Jerry was the spokesperson.  He sat across the dining table covered by a white cloth.  The sun filtered through the gauzy drapes that covered the windows.  Particles of dust floated lazily through the air, twirling, rising and falling in the drafts that made their way through the dining room.  “Sherri found a nice place just a couple of miles away.  Shady Acres …”

“That’s where old people go to die,” Gene said to his oldest son.  “You think I’m ready to die?  I’m just fine here.”

“No, Dad, you aren’t.  Bob’s kids come over and take care of your yard.  Sherri does your laundry for you.  You live on frozen food and Twinkies.  Ever since Mom died, you just sit in this gloomy house, watching old reruns.  You don’t have any friends anymore.  You hardly ever go out.  None of us think that’s ‘just fine.’  We don’t want you to go to Shady Acres to die.  We want you to go there to be with other people and start to live again.”

“You’re just tired of taking care of an old man.  You’re ready for somebody else to take over.  So you can get on with your lives.  That’s what this is about.  I like my life just fine.”

“Dad?  Come on.  There’s nothing wrong with admitting you can’t live on your own anymore.  Shady Acres is a nice place.  We visited it last week.  There are a lot of people there.  Younger than you.  Older than you.  They have a lot of activities and go on trips together.  Once a month, there’s a bus that takes them to the Indian Casino.  You’ll like it.”

“Dammit, son.  I’ve lived in this house for more than fifty years.  I practically built it with my own hands.  Your mother and I raised you and your brothers and sister here.”  Gene looked away from his son and stopped for a moment.  His hand fiddled with the coffee cup in front of him.  A long, shaky sigh escaped from him.  “Jerry, all of my memories are here, inside the walls of this house.”  He turned back and looked at him with sad eyes.  “It’s my home.  Please don’t take me away from it.”

Jerry left a short time later, promising his father that they would talk again, while also obtaining a promise that his father would at least think about it.  The two men exchanged an awkward hug.  Gene stood on his porch after Jerry pulled away from the curb.  Spring flowers were beginning to bloom as the trees filled with new foliage.  A breeze swept down the street, carrying the scent of the season along with it.  Years ago, at the first sign of warmer temperatures, the children would ride their bikes along the side walk.  Up to the corner where the Symington’s lived and back.  Over and over.  For hours.  Gene sat on the porch with a beer in hand.  The laughter and shouts of joy echoed even now, years later.

That night, when Gene went to bed, he lay staring into the darkness.  More than three years after Abigail passed away, he felt the weight and warmth of her in the space next to him.  As he drifted off to sleep, he could hear her rhymthic breathing.

A few weeks later, after a brief rain, Gene fell on the porch steps and broke a hip.  The promised conversation took place in the hospital.  This time, Jerry, Bob and Sherri were all there to present a united front.  Gene put up a fight, but in the end they insisted.

“Dad, it’s for your own good,” Sherri said as he weakened.  “Do you think we’d want you to go there if it wasn’t?”

“Honey, do you remember the swing in the back?”

“Of course, I do.  How could I forget it?  I fell off it and broke my arm.  Never went back on it after that.”

“And, Jerry, what about the vegetable garden?  You always planted the tomatoes.”

“Dad, I have my own vegetable garden now.”

“Bob?  We used to sit in the family room and watch the Three Stooges together.  You loved that.”  Gene’s long sigh wavered a bit.  “Kids, that’s my home.  Please let me die there.  I see each of you in every room.  Your mother is with me wherever I go.  Please,” he begged.

“Oh, Dad.”  Sherry began to cry.  Both Bob and Jerry found themselves looking out the window, at their feet, at the white, unadorned walls.  Anywhere but at their father.  “It just isn’t that easy anymore,” Sherry said.

Gene looked at each of them and saw that his two sons could not make eye contact with him.  “I give up.  You kids do what you have to do.”

* * *

Gene lay there.  Eyes shut.  Curled into as much of a fetal position as his old body could bear.  Lost in his thoughts, memories of home, he didn’t hear the door open and close.  “Good morning, Gene.”  His eyes popped open.  Standing by the side of his bed was an old man, stooped over and holding onto the arm of a young woman in nurses’ whites.

“Who are you,” he grunted.

With Wilma’s passing, Mike had decided to take on a new role for his second century of life.  It was Wilma, in her role as the informal welcoming committee, who eased Mike out of his own depression when he first arrived at Shady Acres.  She helped open his eyes to the many reasons to continue to live.  It was now his turn to pay it forward.

“I’m Mike.  Mike Robertson.”  He reached out a hand to Gene.  To shake it, Gene had to sit up and perch on the edge of the bed.  “This is Mackenzie,” Mike continued, “She’s a nurse here.  I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of her.”  Mike winked at Gene.

“What do you want?”

“Well, you missed breakfast.  So, that’s out, but I wanted to introduce myself and see if I could take you on a tour of the place.  Maybe we could play some cards.”

Gene looked at Mike and wondered what he could possibly offer him to replace what he had lost.  “Nah.  That’s okay.”

Mike turned towards the door and looked back at Gene.  “Okay.  It’s your call.  But I’ll be back tomorrow.”  He and Mackenzie walked out of the room, leaving Gene alone.  In the minutes and hours that followed, Gene sat.  Lunch was brought to him.  He sat.  Dinner was delivered.  He sat.  As night fell, he laid back down and feel into a deep sleep.

The next morning, when the door opened quietly and Mike walked in, this time alone and pushing a walker in front of him, Gene was dressed and waiting.  “Mike, do you play spades?”

“Gene, my man, you name it, I play it.  And, I’ll beat you at it, too.”

 

Chapter 8.  A Different Life

Dana knocked even though the door was open.  A habit built on six years of working under the prior director, Stanley Garibaldi, who insisted in so many ways on form over function.  With Stan, well, you never actually called him Stan.  He was always Mr. Garibaldi.  Even if the door was open, he expected his staff to wait for an invitation.  To any office.  To any room in the place.  “They expect it.  I expect it,” Mr. Garibaldi frequently reminded the staff.  “Your generation may be comfortable with a bunch of ‘Hey ya’s’ and ‘aiights.’  But the folks here still believe in a little bit of decorum and respect.”

Things changed two years ago when Stanley Garibaldi left Shady Acres in a cloud of controversy.  Dana never learned the real story, but the rumor she believed the most was that there was something a little untoward going on between him and one of the younger residents of the place.  Given all of the man’s officiousness and the fact that, by the time he left, he was older than a handful of those who called Shady Acres home, it wouldn’t have surprised Dana that his attitude hid something lurking below.

“Come in,” Antoinette Chambliss said, turning from her computer.  “Oh.  Hey, Dana.  Whatcha got for me?”

“Yesterday’s incident reports.”  Dana held the folder out in front of her.  “Where do you want me to put them?”  Without realizing it, she covered a yawn with her free hand.

“Oh, just set them down anywhere.  It’s not really going to matter.”  Antoinette laughed and waved her hand over her desk.  In a different life, her desk would have been polished and clear of clutter.  But, in this life, the desktop was almost invisible under stacks of papers, manila folders, incident reports, books and magazines about aging, and the other detritus of her work life.  The only spot where the antique surface of the desk was bare was the spot where her coffee cup went.  The years of condensation from the cup had left behind a permanent ring, a scar in the surface of the wood.

In a different life, in a corner of her polished desk, there might be a picture of her with her husband.  For a time, she had a picture from their wedding day, which was replaced by a picture of the two of them in Hawaii, sitting on a beach, their toes buried in the warm sand, the sun setting in shades or orange and purple behind them.  That picture was eventually replaced by a picture of the two of them, with their newborn daughter.

In a different life, her polished desk and family picture would have been in a corporate office.  She would be a millionaire several times over, at least on paper, because of the value of her stock options.  She just might be approaching the top of the corporate ladder, poking her head above the glass ceiling.

Instead, Antoinette Chambliss, in this life, after the bubble burst on the internet tech boom and her paper fortune became worth less than the paper it was recorded on, and a couple of years of unemployment, sits behind a desk in the director’s office of Shady Acres.  It’s a job she took out of desperation and as a result of time she spent on the nursing home’s board of directors when she was making her way through the corporate world.   Rather than living in the center of Silicon Valley, making deals and watching companies grow, she now spends her day in a leafy residential neighborhood, notifying the next of kin, dealing with randy old men and hornier old women whose dementia and Alzheimer’s leave them unable to control their impulses, and making sure her staff doesn’t sleep too much on the job.

And, in this life, the family picture that includes a husband is no more.  That last picture fell to the floor and shattered when the rat left her for a 24-year-old bimbo named Azalia.  Antoinette still hadn’t figured out what offended her more — Azalia’s age or that he had left her for a girl with a pierced tongue.

The picture on the corner of her desk, with a layer of dust and hidden behind one of the stacks, is of her and Chelsea, her daughter.  They’re in the snow, holding snowboards and smiling at the camera.  Antoinette’s smile is forced.  When the picture was taken, she’d completed her first morning of snowboarding.  Her tailbone had hurt.  Her head had hurt.  It was the last time she had held a snowboard in her hands, other than when she had to tote Chelsea’s around.

“Anything in here I should know about?” she asked Dana, tapping the folder at the top of the mess on her desk.

“Ummm,” Dana hesitated.

“Dana?”

“It’s Mike.  Mike Robertson.”  Dana hesitated again, before continuing.  “He fell yesterday.”

“Oh dear …”

“He’s fine.  He didn’t break anything, but I think it scared him out of his little demonstration.  He used a wheelchair the rest of the day.  He’s using a walker this morning.”

“Well, that’s probably better for him anyway.”  Antoinette sighed in relief.  “Anything else?”

“I don’t think so.  Just the usual.”

“Okay.  Thanks, Dana.”  Antoinette picked up the folder and began to leaf through the reports.  Even though Dana kept the database up to date and sent Antoinette an email summarizing the prior day’s incidents, Antoinette still read each incident report.  Antoinette didn’t know if it was the handwritten words, the extra little detail, or just her imagination, but she got something from reading the reports that she didn’t get from the database or the sterile summaries Dana prepared.  “You done for the day?” she asked Dana.

“Yes.”

“Well, get on home.  Thank you.”

With another yawn, and a slight wave, Dana turned and walked out.

In this life, today, after reviewing the incident reports,  Antoinette sat at her desk and looked out her window.  Shady Acres is a large square building.  One story.  In the center is a large open area the residents call the quad.  Paths of crushed stone wander aimlessly through gradually sloping patches of grass.  There are flower beds and benches with an occasional trellis covered by bougainvilleas.  Along the northern edge, there are several fruit trees.  Orange, apple, cherry, and of all things, a couple of pluot trees.  In the center of the quad, there are tables and chairs.  The window behind Antoinette’s desk provides her with a view to the life that goes by in the center of Shady Acres.

There are moments when Antoinette wishes for that other life.  When the bills are due and the numbers don’t quite add up.  When it’s the middle of the night and she rolls over into bed and feels the cold spot where her husband used to be.  When a resident dies and the family cries.  Living in a world where lunch is delivered, there’s a fully-equipped gym in the basement, the nanny takes care of the baby, and the not-yet-a-rat in her life appears to love her looks so much better.

But, then there were moments when she really didn’t mind at all.  A few minutes after she turned her attention to the quad, the oldest resident walked out into the late morning sun.  Mike Robertson placed his walker in front of him carefully and took a couple of shuffling steps to catch up with it before moving the walker ahead again.  Next to him walked Gene Howard, Shady Acres’ newest resident.

Antoinette leaned over to slide her window open.  Through the narrow opening, a soft breeze blew, ruffling the papers on her desk and bringing with it the last hint of a chill in the air.  The breeze also carried the voices of the two old men into her office.

“Let’s sit in the sun.  My old bones need the heat,” Mike said to Gene, pointing to a table in the center of the quad.  Mike had a bruise on his left arm and a cut high up on his forehead.  Antoinette could see Mike grimacing with almost each step.  She made a mental note to check the incident report for his fall to make sure everything was done as it should be.

“Sure, Mike.  That’ll be fine with me,” Gene replied.  Antoinette had yet to introduce herself to the man so she watched him carefully.  She had heard that Gene’s first couple of days at Shady Acres had not gone well.  It was her policy to let new residents an opportunity to settle in and adjust to the surroundings.  Not so much for the residents, but for herself.  Antoinette struggled enough with seeing the old and infirm go through the process of dying, because that was what it was no matter how much family members talked about the “life” of Shady Acres.  All the activities, all the “fun,” were really about nothing more than making the dying easier.

What Antoinette really didn’t like to see was those first few days or weeks or, in some cases, months, when somebody first arrived at Shady Acres.  When she first took the job, Antoinette made a point of greeting each resident their first day there.  But after a couple of months of hearing “I want to go home,” “I why can’t I go home?” and “This isn’t my home, why am I here?” over and over again, and watching sons and daughters walk away with tears in their eyes, Antoinette decided those first couple of days weren’t for her.

Seeing Gene walk through the quad, coming out of his shell, was enough to tell Antoinette that Gene was doing better.  She would make a point of introducing herself to him later that day.  She continued to watch the two men as they settled carefully into a couple of chairs.  Their words faded in and out as the wind ebbed and flowed through her window.

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Shady Acres, Chapters 5 and 6

Chapters 1 and 2 are here.

Chapters 3 and 4 are here.

 

Chapter 5.  A Quiet Night

As darkness descends on Shady Acres, there’s one more stop to make before we shut this down for the day and see what the dawn has in store for Mr. Robertson’s neighborhood.  The hallways are quiet now, except for the random sounds of a residential care home winding down.

At the reception desk at the entrance, the clacking of the keyboard as Dana flips between her Facebook page, her email, and entering information from the day’s incident reports mixes in with the swish of pages turning.  Next to Dana, Ethan is reading the first of three magazines that will get him through the long night.  Every once in awhile, Ethan will chuckle and share a tidbit from an article, but for the most part, Ethan and Dana enjoy the quiet of the long night.

Down the hallway, a mix of noises, none of which register much on the decibel scale individually, combine to create a quiet din.  The random beep of a machine and the less random deep-throated snore comes through closed doors.  In the darkened hallway, the wet slosh of a mop pushed back and forth by the janitor who whistles softly to himself.  Depending on the time of year, the rush of air when the air conditioner or heater turns on.  And, every once in awhile, the squeak of a nurse’s white shoes as a need arises that requires attention.

These are the sounds that carry us to our last stop.  In the corner of Shady Acres reserved for the medically fragile in need of skilled nursing, machinery that whirs and beeps, breathes and measures. We zoom in on Unit 2.

Slide the door open quietly so you aren’t noticed.  It won’t be difficult.  The door opens and closes without a sound.  Settle into the chair by the door and watch.  In a bed with one railing up and one down, an old man sleeps.  He is propped up on pillows and his legs create tiny, twin mountain ridges under a thin blanket.  The man’s sleep is not that of a man tired from the day.  It is the sleep of a man cursed by his age for he has slept like this for more than a year now.  One day, shortly after lunch, the old man, who we’ll call Charlie, complained of a headache and lay down to take a nap.  It must have been quite the headache for he sleeps still.

There are no machines keeping him alive.  There is, however, always a pitcher of water on the table by his bed, just in case, he should happen to wake and request a drink.  On the table on the opposite side there is a vase with plastic flowers.  Along the wall, there are two short dressers.  One is filled with Charlie’s clothes, and on top, a stack of books.  There are a lot of “just in cases” in the room.

Ever since his nap began, Charlie has breathed in and out on his own 6-8 times per minute, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.  If you lean closely enough, you can hear the air passing through his slightly opened mouth.  His vitals have stayed the same.  There has been no emergency, no urgency, other than that created by an old man who does not wake.

In a chair pulled up to the side of the bed, a younger man, let’s call him Andy, sits with his back to the door.  Truth is that Andy is no longer a young man.  He hit the big 5-0 a few years ago.  He has had his own health scares to remind him that one’s life is not much more than a blip in the eternity of history.  Chest pains drove him to a cardiologist.  It was nothing.  His heart was healthy.  A couple of years later, he found a lump.  It was nothing.  It was always nothing, but each time, Andy swore that he would change his life.  He had been scared into living his life right.

Yeah, right.  Nothing changed.  His wife left him long ago.  His kids moved far away.  He spends his weekends in front of the TV, a bag of chips between his legs, and a beer leaving rings on the coffee table.  The yard is a tangle of weeds and rose bushes gone wild.  He may or may not shave before Monday morning when he resumes his work week.  Yep, nothing has changed.  Except for this.

When his father began his nap, Andy began to leave work a couple of evenings a week and visit his old man.  For hours, as the sun disappears beyond the horizon’s edge, Andy sits by the side of the bed.  One moment sitting back, eyeing his father through hooded eyes.  The next, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands.  Always, he keeps his eyes on the old man.  When it gets dark enough, a nurse comes in and turns on a small light above the bed.  It casts an eerie shadow on Charlie’s face.

If the nurse is Nancy, she stops and places her hand on Andy’s shoulder and whispers to him.  “Can I get you anything, Andy?”

For a few seconds, he fails to respond.  He is still lost in the wrinkles that create a road map on his father’s face.  He is still trying to worm his way into his father’s brain to figure out what made his father the man he was.  When the weight of Nancy’s hand on his shoulder finally penetrates his own brain, Andy replies, “No.  Nothing.  Thanks.”

On this night that we pay a visit, Nancy stays by his side for another minute or two.  In all the nights she has come in here, Andy has always been in the same position.  He has showed no emotion and asked no questions.  “You’re a good son.”

Andy scoffs.  “Yeah, right.”

He must be.  Nancy thinks to herself when she walks out the door.  Only a son who loves his father could sit by his side as Andy does.  Is that the only possibility, though?  With Nancy out of the room, let’s take a look.  It’s the Charlie and Andy show.  Considering their current state, it’s really just the Andy show.

The quiet of the room is broken soon enough.  “Where did you go?” Andy asks in a whisper, leaning forward and placing his arms on the bed and resting his head there.   “I have no memory of you.  Did we play catch?  Did you tell me about your day when you came home from work?  What about a ride in the car?  Did we ever get in the car on a late summer evening and drive down the river road with the windows open and the wind whistling around us?”

“Where did you go?” Andy repeats again.  You see Andy has no memory of his father, other than of his father lurking in the shadows.  Here’s an image of his father driving the family here and there, but there are no words from his father in the image.

Here’s a memory.  The dinner table, that paragon of family togetherness, particularly for a white, middle class family of a certain time.  On one side, Andy and brother Joe.  On the other, mom and sister Sue.  At one end, their father sat.  Quietly, oh so quietly.  The family dinner, a place for families to bond and share their days, to discuss plans for the weeks ahead, and to open up a little piece of themselves.

As the years progressed, the black hole of the old man’s silence sucked the life out of those dinners.  The first girl Andy ever brought home, after sitting through one of the family meals, asked him, “Does your family talk to each other?”  Andy had no answer.  He thought it was normal.  To sit at dinner and eat.  Talk?  Why?

There is something fundamental missing from Andy’s memory of his father.  Conversation.  Interaction.  His father showing any interest at all in who and what his son was.  Or, alternatively, revealing anything of himself – of what made him tick.  Somewhere along the line, Charlie disappeared.  He went back into his office, not just literally, but figuratively as well.  Charlie never abused his children, physically, mentally, or emotionally, but is it possible to be harmed by a parent who is always there, but never … really … is?

After years without communication, after Andy grew up and left home, there were baby steps attempted towards something.  Providing his parents with grandchildren helped open things a bit, but no matter what, Andy never learned how to talk to his father.  Yes, they could talk about the trivial aspects of their day-to-day existences.  “Hey, dad, you want a beer?”

“Already got one.”

“Well, where’s mine then?”

“In the fridge, right next to where this one was.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”  Andy would get his own beer and in the next few minutes the two would sit and drink.  Finally, one of them would break it.  “Hey, did you see what [fill in the name of any right wing whacko you want] said today?”

“Oh yeah.  They just get more and more stupid.”

But, their conversation never went deeper and, more often than not, huge silences filled the time they spent together.  The silences filled the void, from one edge of the black hole to the other.  While words were exchanged, after all the years, Andy still didn’t know who his father really was.

Andy developed his own black hole that helped contribute to the void.  It was a need to ask his father a simple question.  He never did get up the nerve to ask the question until it was too late.  Fear drove him from the question.  Fear of the answer.  That fear drove Andy away from Charlie.  Its presence whenever they were together helped the silence grow.  Now, a year into Charlie’s long nap, Andy asks him over and over, a couple of nights a week, “Where did you go?”

It’s time to leave Unit 2 now, to leave Andy and Charlie to their conversation, which it appears will be no more or less productive for Andy than the years of insignificant talk that have led to this night.  Close the door quietly when you leave.  Shady Acres at night is a place of peace, of sleep, of old people dreaming their dreams.  Tomorrow will be another day.

 

Chapter 6.  A Random Conversation

Mike’s protests of the day before – wait a sec, that’s way too negative, how about celebrations of life, 100 years of it — had apparently been too much.  For the first time in years, Mike wasn’t awake when Mackenzie entered his room.  His internal alarm clock had worked for years, waking him by 6:00 whether he wanted it or not.

Accustomed to seeing Mike sitting at the edge of his bed, waiting for her to help him get dressed, Mackenzie’s first thought was of concern.  When she saw the slight rise and fall of his chest, Mackenzie breathed a little easier.  “Rise and shine, Mr. Robertson.”  She put her hand on his shoulder and shook him gently.  “Come on, sleepyhead.”

“I thought we agreed you were my friend,” Mike said through the fog of waking up.  Opening his eyes, he looked at Mackenzie.  “It’s Mike.”

“Yes, Mike,” she sighed.  “Let’s get you up.  Breakfast will be starting soon and I know how much you like to get there early.”

“Gotta have my breakfast hot and fresh.  I can’t stand when it gets cold.  I ate too much crap in the Army, I don’t need any more of it.”  The look of distaste on his face made Mackenzie laugh.  Seeing the quirks and foibles the old folks bore with them were one of the things she liked about her job.

Mike insisted that his food be hot when he sat down.  Mackenzie had witnessed him plenty of times taking a bite or two of cold eggs, or a sip or two of soup that was no longer steaming, and then push his plate away from him.

His neighbor in 17B, Kevin McFarlane, even at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, insisted on laying the next day’s clothes out before he went to bed for the night.  “My mama always did it when I was a kid.  I’ve never stopped.  She’s been gone a long time now.  I feel her just a bit every night when I select what I’m going to wear the next day,” Kevin told her one time when she asked about it.

Across the hall in 17A, Eloise, each and every day, dabbed a spot of perfume behind each ear and on her wrists.  “I started using perfume when I was sixteen, against my father’s wishes.  Other than the day my own daughter was born, I haven’t missed a day since,” she once explained.  “You think that I’m going to let the fact that stuck in this place with a bunch of old people stop me from looking and feeling my best?  Well, this is part of how I pretend that I’m still young.”

And, that was what fascinated Mackenzie the most.  Each little quirk that somebody from the outside looking in might think was odd had an explanation, a link to something in their past.  When given the opportunity the oldsters who populated Shady Acres didn’t hesitate to tell her why they did the things they did.  Mike’s hatred of army food.  Kevin’s memories of his mother.  Eloise’s connection to something helping her feel young, no matter how old she got.  Every resident Mackenzie got to know had their own.  None of them were the same since none of them shared the same memories.

“Mackenzie, a little help please.”  Mike brought her back from her reverie.  He was sitting up now and held his arm out.  She pulled the sleeve of his pajama top off and then slid it off his other arm.  “Where were you just now?” he asked.

“Oh, just thinking.  Did you want to take a shower this morning, Mike?”

“No,” he growled.  “We’re already late.  I guess I really am old.  Cripes.  I can’t walk around a little bit without getting worn out.”

“Well, not too many people get to 100 and you did quite a bit yesterday,” Mackenzie laughed again.  “Anything hurt?”

“Anything hurt?  Just my feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips and butt.  Even my shoulders hurt.”

“Maybe you should take it easy today.  You want me to get a wheelchair for you today?”

“Ha!  Not a chance.  Get me my clothes.  I’m walking again today.”

“Are you going to let me talk you out of it?”

“Ha again!”

“Okay.”  Mackenzie helped him get dressed, lifting his legs carefully to help him with his pajama bottoms and then again with his slacks.

When Mike was dressed, Mackenzie stepped back.  “Well, let’s go.”

Mike didn’t move.  He just stood there looking at her.  “What?” she asked.

“Ah, it’s nothing.”

“No, what is it?  You were somewhere else just now, weren’t you?”

Mike looked at her sheepishly.  “I’m sorry about the pinch yesterday.”

“Don’t be.  I took it as a compliment.”

“No, I’m sorry.  It wasn’t right of me to do that.  It’s just that …”  He stopped and looked down at his hands, the veins on the backs popping out in purple ribbons running in random patterns between the age spots that cluttered up the same space.

“Mike?”

“Eh, it’s nothing.  Just an old man whose mind runs away every once in awhile.”

Mackenzie sat down next to Mike, close enough that her shoulder brushed against his.  “Mike?” she asked again.

Mike Robertson looked over at her and sighed.  “You remind me of Elisa, my wife.  Same skin.  Same eyes.”  He looked at her deep blue eyes.

“Same jet black hair.”  Mike wanted to reach out and run his hand down the length of the hair that cascaded in a straight sheet of black almost down to the small of her back.

“When you laugh, even, you sound like her.”  He shrugged and looked back at his hands.  “You remind me of my wife,” he said again.

Mike sighed as a single tear leaked out of the corner of his eye and began its course through the cracks and crevasses of his cheek.  “Yesterday,” he said, drawing in a breath, “when you helped me up, for a moment I wanted to forget that I was a hundred years old and that Elisa left me behind too long ago.  For just that moment, I wanted to feel like a man again.  To … aw hell, Mackenzie, I just wanted to pinch your ass to see what it felt like again.  When, Elisa and I were young, she loved things like that.  Those gestures that were nothing but told her what I was thinking.”

With a final shrug, he looked at Mackenzie again, the track of that single tear glistening in the morning sunlight coming through the window.  “I’m sorry.”

“Shhh.  Stop apologizing.  I know how much you loved Elisa.  I think you’ve just paid me the biggest compliment you could.  Now,” Mackenzie paused and leaned over, kissing him quickly on the cheek, her soft lips brushing against the dry, papery skin there, “let’s get you to breakfast or your eggs will be cold.”

Mackenzie and Mike began the walk down the hall.  This time, although Mike refused the wheelchair and the walker, he didn’t resist when Mackenzie placed her hand under his elbow at his first stumble.  He also didn’t hesitate to slide his hand along the wall, feeling its firm support should he find himself leaning too far in that direction.  At a speed that barely approached actual movement, they made their way.

“Mackenzie, you’ve never told me much about yourself.  You come in every morning and talk to me about my life, but what about yours?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  I’ve noticed that you don’t have a wedding ring on, so I’m guessing you’re not married.”

“Yes,” Mackenzie said, a little more firmly than she meant.  “I was.”

“Oh.”

“He was an ass.  I kicked him out after a couple of years …”

“I’m sorry.”

“… And one kid.”

“You have a child?”  Mike stopped and looked at her, a smile brightening his face.  “Boy or girl?”

“Boy.  His name is Spencer.  He’s three.  Just had his birthday last week.”

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“That’s not my job.  I’m here to help you, not to tell you about my life.”

“Please, Mackenzie.  What did we agree to yesterday?  That we’re friends, right?”

“Actually, I think you decided that,” Mackenzie chuckled.  “I don’t recall having a vote.”

“Well, what else could we be?  You dress me, you help me bathe, you know more about me than most any woman who has been in my life, except for Elisa.  Are we not friends?”

Mackenzie stopped walking while Mike took one or two more steps before stopping as well and looking back at her.  “Yes, Mike.  You’re right.  We are friends.”  She took a step forward and placed her hand back on his arm.  “Let’s go have breakfast.”  Together they walked to the end of the hall, turned right and made their way through the quad.  “Sit here.  I’ll get your breakfast.”  Mackenzie directed Mike to the closest open table.

She returned, carrying two trays.  One for him, with a pile of scrambled eggs with steam curling up from the yellow mass, a couple of slices of bacon, and a wedge of melon.  One for her, with a bowl of fruit, and a glass of skim milk.

“I was a little hard on my ex-husband a few minutes ago.  It wasn’t really his fault.”

“Uh-huh.”

* * *

She was nineteen when she met Joel Hairston at an end of the year frat party.  He was twenty-one.  By the end of the night, they were outside, sitting with each other, away from the drunks.  By the time summer started a week later, they were together.

A year later, Joel got down on one knee.  For exactly two and a half seconds, Mackenzie considered his request and then said, “Yes.”  In that briefest of exchanges, Mackenzie was happy.  Two minutes later, he broke her heart.

“There’s something else you need to know,” he said, sitting down next to her with her newly adorned left hand covered by his own hands.  “I’ve decided to enlist.  I want to serve my country and help end these stupid wars.  I want to drive those idiots back into their caves.”

Joel had mentioned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan every once in awhile.  He had talked admiringly of the soldiers who were “over there” putting their lives on the line.  But Mackenzie never thought he seriously considered joining up and fighting himself.  Until now.

“You can’t,” she cried.  “How can you propose to me and then turn around and tell me you’re going to join the military?  How can you do that to me?”  Mackenzie took her hand away from his and started twisting the ring off her finger.

“Please, Mackenzie, don’t do that.  Keep it on.”

In the end, he got his wish.  He enlisted and went to basic training.  The wedding took place a few months later, a week before he shipped off to Afghanistan.  A week of tears.

He came back a changed man.  Gone was the easy-going, fun-loving goofball Mackenzie met at the frat party.  Gone was the man who had cried with her and never let go of her during that tough week two years earlier.  Now, he never cried except at 3:00 in the morning when he woke up.  Screaming and thrashing in sweat-soaked sheets.  In the morning, Joel would look at her with eyes that were miles away, and shrug, “Another night in Kabul.”  He never touched her except rarely, he grabbed her and held on to her, fiercely, as though he were afraid she was about to melt away.

This was their life for a few weeks until Joel started drinking.  The drinking had one advantage.  Most nights, he was knocked cold, and he stopped making middle of the night visits to the streets of Kabul.  But there was a huge disadvantage.  He became useless, sleeping through the day and doing nothing.  No job.  No help.  They began to fight.  About nothing usually, which made it all the harder to tell Joel about the something.

His first night home, they made love.  It was the last tender moment Mackenzie remembered.  Six weeks later, she woke him up at 4:00 in the afternoon after she got home from a day at Shady Acres.  “Hey, baby, wake up.  There’s something I need to tell you.”  Mackenzie opened the blinds in the room, letting the first rays of sun the room had seen in quite awhile.

“Close those damn things!  What are you doing?”  Joel shoved his head under a pillow.

Mackenzie sat on the edge of the bed and tried to remember the Joel she had married instead of the shell of a man the Army had sent back to her.  She lifted the pillow off his head and leaned over to kiss his cheek.  The three day stubble chafed her lips and the stench of stale beer caused her to wrinkle her nose.  “Joel, I’m pregnant.  I think.”

Joel opened one eye and looked at her.  “Pregnant?”

“Yeah.”  She smiled and rubbed his arm.  “That’s great.  Isn’t it?”

He closed his one eye and lay there for a few seconds before repeating himself.  “Pregnant?”  Mackenzie didn’t say a word.  Instead, she continued to rub his shoulder.  She needed something more than that indifferent question from him.  And needed it soon.

After a couple of moments of silence, Joel sighed and sat up.  He reached out to her and hugged her.  “It is great news.”

“Will you come to the doctor with me tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

For a month afterwards, Joel cleaned up his act, barely drinking.  Rising in the morning with her, he made her breakfast.  He went to each of those doctor’s appointments early in a pregnancy.  Soon enough, however, it began to unravel again and only got worse.  The cheap beer throughout the day was joined by a joint or two each evening.  By the time Spencer was born, Mackenzie was done with him.

“I will not have a pot-smoking, alcoholic in the same house as our son.  Either you get help and stop this or you need to get out.”

“You don’t understand,” he screamed back at her.  “I need this.  It makes the pain go away.  You didn’t see what I saw.  You didn’t do the things I did.  I have to live with my memories every day for the rest of my life.”

“Get counseling.”

“The VA has a waiting list a mile long.”

“That’s an excuse.  If you want counseling, you’d get it.  Either get help.  Stop all the crap.  Or get out.”

The Joel she once knew would have made the right choice.  The Joel she now knew just looked at her quietly for a moment and then rose from his seat and left.  Mackenzie had not heard from him since.

In the three years that followed, Mackenzie raised her little boy, whose laugh developed into something that reminded her of fun-loving Joel, but every once in awhile, she would catch him staring off into space, with a look that reminded her of the other Joel.  There was something in Spencer’s eyes that sent a shiver down her spine.  He seemed miles away.

* * *

“So, what else do you want to know?” Mackenzie sighed.

His eggs, mostly uneaten, were now cold.  “I’m sorry.  You were wrong, you know?”

“Huh?”

Mike looked at her, absentmindedly pushing her fruit around in the bowl.  He wanted to tell her about coming home from Germany after V-E day and how Elisa held him every night for months while he cried.  In all the years since, Mike had never told anybody other than Elisa about what he saw on the beaches of Normandy and in the trenches they dug as he hopscotched his way across Europe.  Mike  wanted to tell Mackenzie about war.

“You weren’t too hard on him.”  Mike waited until Mackenzie looked up at him from the glass of milk she was staring at while she swirled the milk around.  “You know that I served, right?”

“Yes, Mike.”

“I saw things during the war that I still haven’t told anybody about.   There are some things that I never even told Elisa.  I still wake up at night sometimes convinced that I’m back in the trenches.  I can hear the mortars whistling in, I can smell the smoke, and hear the screams.  I haven’t been ‘normal,’ whatever that may be, for a single day since I got back.  It’s always been a fight to stop those dreams from taking over.  I understand why your ex-husband struggles, but I cannot, and you should not, forgive him for what he did to you.  And to your little boy.”

“Mike.  Thank you.”

They sat and ate quietly for a few minutes until Mike pushed his plate away.  “I think I’m done with breakfast.”

“Okay.  Let’s go.”  Mackenzie picked up their plates.  “What’s on the schedule for today?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe some cards with Gene.”

“Let’s go find him.  You still walking?”

“Yes.”

Ambling down the hallway once again, they were silent for a few minutes.  “Mackenzie, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure.  What is it?”

“Bring your little boy in.  I’d like to meet him.”

“Of course.”

“Soon.”

 

 

 

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