Happy New Year

The light came in soft and buttery, slicing through the bent blinds. It was after noon, certainly, but the sun stayed low-skirting the hilltop across the river and bleeding through the mill smoke. The crash and rumble of a coal train starting to crawl must have been what woke him. He felt better than he had when he’d awakened earlier and left her in the dark. Sleeping in the chair was good, he could keep his feet up. But still his knees ached. And his hands. The fucker was going to rain, or snow for that matter. His joints always let him know. 

She must have been watching from the other room-for him to stir or his eyes to open-because she was suddenly there, sitting on the arm of the couch. Her hair was down, wrapping her face and she was wearing the same striped top from last night but had thrown his vest over it. Her jeans were gone in favor of dark sweats and her feet were bare. 

She looked none the worse for wear but for the little mouse under her left eye which he would have remembered had he done it. Plus her gray eyes wouldn’t have been so soft and caressing had he hit her. She perched lightly-on her toes more than her butt-the air between them twitchy and alight. He didn’t feel tired as much  as empty, though he wished he was still asleep.

She cleared her throat then asked quietly, “You okay?” 

He shifted so the recliner would pop him up a little. Christ, everything hurt. He could manage no more than a phlegmy “Yeah”, before he had to close his mouth against the pain. He didn’t quite remember getting hit in the jaw, but he knew this particular ache too well. Wasn’t too bad, he thought as he moved his mouth around. Nothing broken, loose or bleeding. 

She watched him for a few moments then stood, rubbing her hands on her thighs. “Alright. Now you’re up. I’m going in the bedroom. To get ready.”

“For what?” he asked. 

She was already out of the room and he could only see her from the waist up as she passed behind the couch. “You said you were going to whip my ass in the morning. Remember?”

He let his eyes drift back toward the window as he kept working his jaw. He felt her eyes, so he said, “It’s afternoon…”

“It’s not my fault you slept through”, she answered. Then, “I’m going to go get ready…”

“You really think that’ll help anything?”, he asked the window.

“Trust me”, she said. “It will be worse if you don’t.”

She padded away down the hall. The bedroom door creaked open then, after a long rustling moment, the bedsprings squeaked and settled. He tried to remember what his old man had told him about younger women, but couldn’t. Truth be told, he had a helluva time conjuring up the old man’s voice anymore. He could see him on a stool next to him, even see his mouth moving around the bouncing cigarette, but couldn’t come up with his voice.  One more glowing coal of sadness that he didn’t need right now.

The Wolf

She wandered her way back to the parlor. It wasn’t a long wander, the house was a sprawling manse only in a child’s memory. And she always remembered it as a child, a young girl dwarfed by oversized furniture and looming windows, though she’d lived here up until ten years ago. Two years before he’d died.

They called it the parlor to tell it from the living room which was off the kitchen and where everyone would converge on holidays and birthdays. It was the living room that held the Christmas tree and the train sets with their glittering little buildings and soap flake snow, glowing in front of the french doors with the view of the back porch swing, the mulberry trees, and beyond the yard, the real railroad tracks and finally the river. A long sectional against the wall and a small curled sofa opposite the windows with a few wingback chairs could hold the whole clan as long as some stayed in the kitchen, or filtered through in shifts. 

She only remembered once or twice as a very young girl, the house being at capacity with all the uncles, aunts and cousins seemingly pushing the whole place outward-causing the house to breathe and squall in concert with the crowd inside. Those screeching times became fewer and fewer as everyone grew and factionalized; each claiming their own turf which seemingly could not be done without cutting ties to the ones that claimed their own.  

As she had so many times, she slunk through the archway dragging her fingers across the chilled smoothness of the layers of paint that did as much to reveal the imperfections in the walls as to mask them. Past the staircase bathed in the rainbows from the stained glass window on the landing, past the piano that hadn’t been played in decades, until finally stepping through the open door. As an adult, she always felt a little off balance when she first stepped into the parlor, like a child walking across a bed. It was darker than it should have been and it took her a moment to realize that the rhododendron, untrimmed outside the window, had grown enough to block the morning sun. 

Other than that, nothing had changed back here. Nothing. It was clean enough. Dusted and polished, but it was set up as it always had been-a museum display or something from a doll house brought to life-size. In years past the old man had taken pains to give this place the look of a hunting camp though the only “hunting story” of her life was when he, in his wingtips and tie, had shot an eight-point on the road coming home from work one December evening. As she got older she even doubted that story and wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t hit it with his T-Bird and tossed it in the trunk.

And there he still was, that ratty little deer head still over the mantel complete with the peeling red machine paint on the deer’s nose which  he’d done that one Christmas and laughing drunk told all the kids that he’d shot Rudolph. There were a couple of hunting related gee-gaws around like the ceramic smiling buck driving a car with two hunters strapped to the front fenders. 

Opposite the fireplace sat the well-used olive green sofa with the strategically placed white lace doilies still seeming out of place and above it the framed lithograph of the lone wolf. She stepped closer and, tall enough to not have to stand on the sofa anymore, still rose on tiptoes to get a better look. Squinted. She always saw the print in her mind’s eye as blue, and it was, as a winter night bathed by the moon might be. Warm yet cold at the same time.

The wolf was standing on a snowy hillside overlooking a little village lit only by the golden firelight leaking from the hovels that was quickly consumed by the surrounding ocean of darkness. She had invented families that lived there-their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and later, their fears. Childish things. 

Her idea of the wolf had evolved. As a child she was sure he was the village’s protector, breathing steam and keeping a watchful eye for things that could be even worse than he out in the unseen darkness. But then, over the years, as she spent more time back here, in the parlor, in the company of the man, she grew into the idea that the wolf was a predator, waiting for someone, probably the little blonde girl she’d invented,  to stray too far from the warmth and safety of her lighted doorway, seduced by a false sense of security.  

Or maybe he was both. 

Prayer Cards

The snow fell straight in thick, white ribbons from a sky so low and gray he felt he should stoop. In front of him fanned the prayer cards-a final legacy from his mother. Arranged in tight phalanxes of friends and family, as in life, the favorites closer. Mother, Father, the Grands, all the progenitors, then out to close friends, friends, acquaintances then finally tangential hangers on. 

When there wasn’t a card, or she hadn’t been able to get to the funeral home, she made her own by taping the newspaper obituary onto an index card and cutting it in half making it the same size as the others. She’d draw a cross or a sunrise on the front of it with colored pencils that were, to him, prettier than all the Jesuses and Marys on the printed cards. He moved his glass to the side and studied the array like a nervous chess player, recalling, ranking, touching them all, then finally switching a friend of his father’s (an officious prick that the old man never really liked but worked with for ten years) to the back and promoting the druggist who was good to his grandma back in the days when pills were easier. 

He didn’t get a paper himself, so he made his own prayer cards with the same stack of index cards she had in her desk. The one he just finished he put in the fourth row. “Jack “Bones” Kerklo” it said, in his crimped hand. “Age 72. Good guy. Fell drunk down 4th Street steps. Died AT HOME three days later.” He underlined “AT HOME” with a purpose and grinned. Not having his mother’s artistic talent he relied on his cheeky wit. 

The kids had made noises about him coming out for Christmas but he didn’t see how that could work. That had always been their mother’s time with them. He’d be fine just where he was-feeling more like a presence than a person. In front of him was a blank card with his name printed at the top. 

“Kindness Was His Key to Heaven”

…reads the inscription on Joseph Page’s headstone who passed in 1915 at the ripe old age of 78. I like reading stones, for the tales they tell. Old Joe had missed dying in a war, which was notable here where there were dead from every conflict since the Whiskey Rebellion. And dying in ‘15 spared him the last great pandemic which is represented down around the bend where the hillside falls away to the woods and the many small, numbered but nameless stones lay scattered like cockeyed baby teeth in the unkempt weeds. Those are the Spanish Flu dead, buried quickly enough to be anonymous-whole families gone in days leaving the undertaker to rifle through drawers in infected bedrooms for enough coin to put them in even the most undesirable part of the cemetery. Happily, I know no one who’s died this time around. Mom went two years ago and my mother-in-law last year. It was a blessing. But now we’re all being careful. Even at Shirley’s where I stopped last weekend, all the girls wore masks which was sort of comical especially when we got back to the rooms and they wore nothing else. Especially with Cheri, my regular, who always takes me on knees and elbows so it’s not even like we’re facing each other. Since we’re friends I’ve told her she doesn’t have to fake it with me, which I thought was being nice, but probably shouldn’t have because now she never quits talking through the whole thing. It was about the gifts other girls were getting from their regulars for the Holidays. Small refrigerators, microwaves, coffee makers, big screen TV’s which, she assured me-just as I was letting loose, no less-aren’t as expensive as they used to be. I have a wife and two daughters; enough gifts to shop for. I don’t need to add anything. If I’d tell Shirley how Cheri was trolling for gifts the girl would get a board busted over her ass. I know she’s incorrigible. I’ve seen the bruises. It was easier for me to give her an extra hundo that Shirley didn’t need to know about. Only after getting her to promise she wouldn’t put it up her nose and after checking her arms and between her toes for tracks, pricks or bruises. I promised to see her next week and wanted to do some back-door work. She was fine with that-just wanted to know ahead of time. Plus I pay extra for it.