Ridge Runner

Ridge Runner

Trees, stumps and boulders that he knew well enough to find in the dark appeared as apparitions then faded behind as he stormed up the slim hollow away from the cabin down on the flat river bend. Boiling clouds of wet morning fog clutched at his feet and pulled at his arms as he worked to climb above them.

Halfway to the ridge he slipped around an outcropping and paused to breathe near the copse of stunted torch pine that seemed to grow right out of the rocks. Later in the day, with the sun high overhead, this was a favorite sunning spot for copperheads but now only golden tendrils of sunlight had begun to tear at the gauzy curtain around him. Through an opening shard of green, the cabin looked like a small car from here. From up top it would be a matchbox.

Flight was more an instinct than a planned strategy. No doubt when she said “GO!” she meant out of the room but by the time he yanked his jeans up and cinched his belt, “OUT!” was all he was thinking.

He heard his name, clear as a crow’s call across the valley. Once. Then again. His heart, settling back into its rhythm, pumped the blood that coursed through the welts that he knew crossed his backside. He felt the burn that had been dulled by the run up the mountain. The searing pain that had forced him to bite the pillow.

But worse than that, he felt the wet spot in the front of his pants, that small drip that came when he was hard in spite of-or because of-his humiliation and pain. How could that be right? The first time she’d laid hands on him he felt it.  Did she know that? Could she tell? Is that why she stopped taking him over her lap and made him lie across the bed?

He wasn’t hard just then, thinking about it. But he wasn’t altogether soft either. With none but the trees to see, he rubbed his hand along the back of his jeans feeling a slight charge from massaging a spot at the top of his leg. Just as he was about to loosen his belt to slip his hand inside, he heard his name again. Sharper this time. Jabbing. Then, “It’ll be twice as bad if you don’t get back here right now!”

His heart beginning to race again, he turned his back downhill and continued to climb.

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Cigarette

Clear as Spring dawn

I remember Miss Nance’s

Second grade classroom,

When she yanked me by the arm

Out of my little hardwood desk

And dragged me to the cloak room to

Beat me within earshot of all.

Tight-lipped and stoic in her labor she

Added nothing to the racket. Nor did I.

Just took it.

 

That afternoon we

Huddled under our desks,

Warned to look away from

The tall widows that opened over the

Roof tops fanned out below our hill

Toward the river.

Warned that the flash from the

Bomb that the Russians would surely

Drop on our mills

Would blind us.

 

Under the desk, still sore,

I wished they’d come.

Come and drop their damned bomb.

Catch her looking-

Blind her in front of the room

Burn her into a pillar of dust

Which they said we would all be

On that day.

Which the priest says you are now

If you listened to him.

 

I lay there and promised myself

My first cigarette after school;

Not connecting till later that I wanted to

Put it out in Miss Nance’s eye

The way my old man had done to the

Mill foreman who called him a little Dago

That time at the union picnic.

No, just then I only wanted the cigarette.

A Ghost Story

His phone pinged with a text. It was his problem tenant. She was living in the garage apartment that he had shared with his parents when he was a baby. Until age eight or so. His dad and grandfather, both long ago memories, had built it.

“Have an odd question”, the text said. “Do you know if your dad had a sibling that died around the age of 6-9?”

What? After reading it again, he texted, “My dad was an only child.”

“Hmmm…Odd…” came the reply. “What about your mom or grandma, did they lose a sibling young? I know it’s an odd question but I’ll explain here in a second.”

Christ, he thought, don’t answer. He put on his glasses and clicked the lamp brighter. She wasn’t his tenant, really. His mother had rented to her husband with the express instruction to keep his wife under control. It worked for a little while, then all hell broke loose. In the last six months, she had sworn out a PFA against the husband-so he was gone-and she was squatting there with her ten-year-old. Then his mother had finally died, so he had inherited it all. The good with the bad. And he wished there was more of the former.

After a few minutes he texted, “Nope.”

The bubbles appeared on the screen and hung there pulsing. He waited. Then, “Right around when your mom passed, I was awakened by a child in Olga’s room. She was still sleeping right beside me. Heard a dresser drawer slam and this kid had blonde hair with a blanket wrapped around the shoulders so I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl and I watched it dissipate slowly from its head then down to the feet and it always bugged me that whoever was trying to tell me to go to your mom…to help her.”

He read it again. He hated it when she talked about his mother. She did it often-no doubt thinking it would put her in his good graces, but his mother couldn’t stand her and had spent the last two months of her life complaining that she never should have rented to them.

His phone pinged again, “No, I’m not a witch…little hexes here and there LOL but I do get visions and this one is killing me.”

He remembered a story his mother had told him from when they had lived in that apartment. She was in bed, probably in the same room as this one slept in, and she heard a cat screeching outside in the alley. The windows back there are high, so she had to stand on the bed to look out. The cat was easy enough to find; it was on a cracked fence post just outside the yellow glow of the street lamp. The cat called and howled until she saw others coming in from the darkness to join it. They all sat or lay on the alley in front of the main cat who began to meow and chirp as if speaking to them. They were attentive for a moment, no stretching, no grooming, no ass sniffing. Then, when the lecture was over, or the instructions given, the cats all scattered back into the darkness whence they’d come.

His mother told this story often. Especially when someone suggested she get a cat.

He put the phone on airplane mode and switched off the lamp.

Hideaway

IMG_0231

(Continued from Shadows)

More often than not Lori would walk or bike to up to Hideaway, where she worked as a massage therapist. It was a job she had gotten almost by default. Melon, her best friend from high school, managed the spa and recommended the classes and certifications when Lori was struggling with Uncle Red late in his metamorphosis.  Which was how she took to viewing it at the time; he wasn’t dying-but changing. His rugged good looks softening-his strong arms and hands melting away…

The massage studio became her refuge. Warm stone walls, subtle sounds of tumbling water, classical music or white noise of her choosing. She took to the unencumbered physicality of massage; the intimacy with consequence. Windowless and perpetually dusk or dawn, the timelessness of the space gave her a measure of peace – the feeling that she could control the uncontrollable.  In the studio the clatter and clutter in her brain could be dulled. At least for a while.

Of course, this morning being late again added to her noise. A walk would feel good, maybe clear her head, but there was no time for that.  Melon was always there at six to open and prep for the day. Lori was supposed to be there at six thirty to set up for early appointments, but here is was, six thirty-five and she we still standing in her kitchen. Had she been on time at all this week? She headed for the car.

Melanie Patterson let her green tea sit-cooling enough that she’d have to heat it before drinking it. She was small, her hair a strawberry halo of tight ringlets surrounding a face smattered with freckles and a wide smile. To all the clients who came through the spa, Melanie’s personality was like merry go rounds and bubble gum-all fun and laughter. Those who knew her well enough to call her by her nickname, “Melon” knew there were other sides to the charming sprite.

This morning, one of those other sides was bubbling to the surface. She fairly seethed looking at the clock move languidly toward seven. It was the sixth day IN A ROW that Lori had been late. Melanie had worked hard to cover her anger in their day-to-day contacts but away from work, especially at night when she journaled and set up her checklist for the next day, the thought that Lori-one of her best friends-would be late to her job upset her. She covered for her, moved appointments, never let on that her tardiness-as well as her growing lackadaisical attitude-was becoming a chronic problem.

It was six fifty-five when the heavy stained-glass door swung open and Lori strode into the lobby to find Melanie standing in front of the reception desk.

“Finally!” Melanie spat, unable to maintain her cool façade but stopped short when seeing her friend’s face. “Holy shit girl. You OK?” She had dropped her well-lacquered spa voice and sounded like the girl from Rake Ridge Road that she was.

“Do I look that bad?” Lori asked bringing the backs of her fingers to her cheek as if feeling for a fever.

“Not if you made up your eyes to look like a racoon on purpose. If that was your intention, I gotta tell you, it works.” The anger was gone, replaced by concern. Melanie stepped toward her friend and took her hands, pausing to look at her nails. “Girl, you gnawed these down to nubs!”

“I haven’t been sleeping too well”, Lori shrugged.

“I guess not”, Melanie answered and reached up to stroke Lori’s head. “You need to tighten up the pony tail. Looks all like a squirrel’s nest.” Lori face split into a wan smile that Melanie took as a bit of a victory. She wrapped her arms around her and pulled her close. “You OK to work today? I can call Shelley in…”

“No, I’m fine”, Lori said just shy of a sniffle. She returned the hug, happy for the contact. “Just let me get back into the studio-I’ll work this out.”

Melanie stepped back slightly and grasped Lori’s arms at the biceps. “Sometimes you make me just want to shake you.”  She yanked her gently once, then back again, until pulling her close, Melanie leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “Maybe I’ll try the Uncle Red method on you”, she said quietly.

Lori recoiled slightly and felt the heat rise in her cheeks. Of course, Melon knew about Uncle Red; they’d been friends for a decade and had talked about a lot of things. She didn’t know everything of course. Lori kept some secrets-but she knew enough. Still, hearing his name coming out of Melon’s mouth set her back. And Melanie saw it-saw her friend’s eyes widen then narrow as she took a sliding step backward. Melanie settled back herself saying nothing, letting her last words echo.

On her heels, cheeks flushed a hot pink, Lori peeled the tongue from the roof of her mouth and croaked almost under her breath, “Maybe you should.”

Now it was Melon’s turn to let the silence bloom between them. But Lori wouldn’t make eye contact. They were interrupted by the phone, humming softly on the desk between them. “Duty calls”, said Melon clearing her throat. “Go, check your schedule for the morning. I moved your seven to seven-thirty.  You’re welcome. Go start the day.”

Still not making eye contact, Lori turned and walked out of her friend’s office shaken by the exchange but somehow slightly relieved. If the weight pressing her down was not completely lifted it seemed to have lessened-a bit. As she watched Lori leave the room Melanie felt a slight quiver in her chest. She picked up the phone, “Good Morning-River’s Spa…” her voice sang.

To be continued…

Shadows

(Continued from Night Lights)

Outside, half-naked, the midnight chill braced her. The clear moonless sky was dark enough that she cast a shadow in the glow from the top of the mountain. The grass was damp on her bare feet as she followed her shadow around the birdbath to the mountain laurel just short of the tree line.

The coyotes were quiet or running over the next ridge. When she was little her Pap kept chickens in a pen behind the house. Back then coyotes were worthy adversaries to be battled and beaten at every turn. Now, with no livestock to guard – not even a scruffy mutt or cat – the coyotes were no more than texture. Wonder how they would feel about that? Being relegated to deep background; being off the main stage where capable men plotted against them with guns, traps and poisons? Whatever. Times gone by. Either way, the whippoorwills’ incessant call and response were the only accompaniment to the quiet swish of her feet in the tall grass.

Choosing a spot, she turned toward the house and lifted her T-shirt. Squatting widely, she relaxed and allowed the stream to flow into the grass between her feet gently, not to splash. Her yoga practice wasn’t what it was, but she was still able to hold a squat level and clean without a shake or quiver letting the burn in her thighs build. She dipped a little deeper to feel the pleasant pull in her hip flexors. She should get back to yoga-she could sit in on classes up at the Hideaway anytime. Finished, Lori stood easily, leaving a steaming wet spot on the grass.

Pissing in the yard had started as a joke when she and Uncle Red were watching TV one night. She complained that he was lucky because all he had to do was go out on the porch when he needed to pee but she had to go to the bathroom, take down her pants, miss half the program, yadda-yadda…

“Knock yourself out girlie”, he’d said, a little drunk. “You got a whole hillside right out your door. We’re mountain people. We piss where we want.”

He didn’t look at her but had that cock-eyed smile he got when he was drinking beer. She had taken the dare and scampered off the porch and behind the fat sycamore. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him seeing anything-they were beyond that. It was just what she did. She was wearing tight jeans then and had to wriggle them down and lean in such a way that she wouldn’t wet herself. She remembered giggling as she spattered.

She put the time at between three and four. Closer to four. She tried to add the hours of uninterrupted solid sleep she had gotten all week. No more than three tonight. She couldn’t go on like this, grinding her teeth and digging her fingernails into her palms, forever. Just one cigarette, she thought. Just one, to give her that kick of nicotine that she remembered. If she’d had any, she might have broken, but she didn’t. Back at the porch Lori leaned against the rail digging the feel of the rough wood pressing into her bare thighs.

The resort which butted up against her property on the high side, glistened. Thank you Uncle Red, she said under her breath for about the billionth time. It was the house that her Mom and Red had grown up in.  After her Mom died, she stayed in the house with Red, thinking it would be temporary. It was. It only lasted ten years until he died. Well after she was old enough to move out, had she wanted to. She had stayed with him as her mother had wished and now she owned the house and seven acres.

When what would become the Hideaway Resort began buying properties years ago, her Pap – Mom and Red’s mother – wouldn’t sell. Even when the money was ridiculous for the time. Now it was hers with a standing offer of a million on the table whenever she wanted to sell. She didn’t.

Cautious

“Are the doors locked?” she asked suddenly from her corner of the passenger seat.

Jolted by the question, he caught himself feeling along the top of the door for the plunger to press to lock it. That was years ago-when he was a kid. Cars don’t have those kinds of locks anymore. Just sleek buttons and mechanisms that lock automatically at a certain speed. He knew that. Why couldn’t he tell her?

Instead he said, “What are you afraid of?”

“You don’t have to be afraid to be cautious,” she said.

Cautious. The word struck him as strange just then. He’d have said, ‘careful’ as would most people. Why ‘cautious’?

The drizzle had turned into full-on rain pinging off the roof and sheeting down the windshield. The pressing sky atop the black night made it impossible to see the woods and fields that were out there. “There’s nobody out here to be…cautious of”, he said.

“All the more reason”, she answered looking out her window as if there were something to see.

She’s too young for me, he thought. The scent of roses he thought she wore was really bubble gum-or smelled like it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t her youth. Maybe she was too smart for him. Or too dumb. Or too tall-maybe too short. Too whiny, too cold, too butch, too soft, too dark, too light. Too something, he knew that. But why worry about it now? He didn’t have to win her. Didn’t have to impress her. She was here.

His wife was right. He thought too much about everything-drove himself crazy. Last week he’d had a nosebleed right at the kitchen table. She’d said it was high blood pressure from him worrying so much over every little thing. Like she was a freaking nurse.

Back home she sat at the same table listening to hockey on the radio. She liked it better that way; watching it made her too nervous. She poured a thick toss of Sambuca into her cup – the only way she could abide decaf. Her ma had called, worried the rain was going to turn to snow. “It’s forty degrees, Ma!” she had to yell into the phone. “It won’t snow.”

He sighed and reclined the seat slightly. Fumbling, he loosened his belt and unsnapped his pants. Rising on her knees, she bent over the console and gently pulled him out of his pants; a soft crippled bird. “Ok”, she said low. “Let’s see what we can do with you.”

He closed his eyes and tried not to think about it.

Night Lights

Liking the feel of muted life in the middle of the night, Lori kept the house dimly lit with strategically placed nightlights and tiny touch lamps. She wandered into-then through-the kitchen after pausing to gaze at but not see the immaculate countertops in the shadows. Then through the small dining room dragging a finger along the dark wood table, feeling the bumps and ridges of the hand-hewn oak. She was headed to the living room in the back of the house where a camelback clock that had been her grandfather’s pulsed, whirred and dinged the hours so long as she wound it ever other day. And she didn’t miss. It was her home’s pulse.

Naked but for a T-shirt that was just long enough to reach her thighs, she peered closely at the clock seeing naught but her eyes shining back in the glare of one of her hidden luminaries. She gently opened the glass face to better see the minute hand twitch with every tiny sweep of the internal workings. She paced it and tried to steady her breathing-still not recovered from the almost forgotten nightmare.

The dream was familiar-not in the details but the feel of it and what it had left behind. It had been dark in her dream-darker than it could ever be in her house. She was on her belly and sliding down something. A hill, a tilted floor; something impossibly slippery. She heard a voice and felt a hand on her. The voice was Uncle Red’s she knew. Not him later, sick and ravaged, but him fifteen or twenty years ago-soft and clear. She didn’t know who’s hand it was, or why it was on her calf. But it had to have been his. It was trying to pull her back-keeping her from sliding into a still darker place. Maybe. Maybe it was pushing her. She had jolted awake. She breathed in time with the minute hand’s twitch; each breath deeper, less a gulp.

Her belly bothered her. Not inside, she didn’t feel sick at all. It was more the look of it. She thought it too round and puffy-she could hold it in her hands. Could rub it all over. Her reflection in the sliding door showed her no longer slender, but not fat. Tall and pale with smudges of darkness reflecting the jumble of black hair sticking out of her head and the thatch below her belly which she still rubbed and rubbed; an angst-ridden Buddha. She hadn’t always had it-the belly. When she was younger it was as flat as the girls on TV.  She wanted that belly back.

She sat on the end of the couch like she and her uncle had, facing the dark TV. Her reflection was there too. She studied it and the empty spot at the other end of the couch which was Red’s end. She glanced that way quickly as if to catch him sitting there, casting no reflection but watching her none the less. He wasn’t there. But he was everywhere.

She thought for a moment that she would lie on the couch. Just lie there on her belly for a moment and pull her shirt up. She’d done it before-lain there exposed until the jitters passed or the weight pressing down, lifted. She’d awoken that way some mornings, cold and bare-assed for anyone who could look through the door. She had decided to do it and, leaning over, felt a chill in her belly. Then she didn’t.

She watched the goosebumps rise on her thighs and pulled her T-shirt back to reveal her lap. Was it spreading? She poked at herself making tiny pink dimples which colored then filled. “Closure” was what everyone who wanted the house talked about to her. As if there was such a thing for the haunted-for those who carried the memories of past lives with them. Like moving was going to change anything. Like she wanted to change anything. The woman in the dark TV stared-giving her nothing. Not a fucking thing.