Mulberries

The mulberries stained hard-deep purple bruises across the back of my shirts. Ma never minded though. They were her Dad’s trees and we only saw them when we visited the old place. She kept a few of the stained shirts, clean otherwise, in a drawer and would have me wear them around the apartment where we lived in town. She’d hug me and run her hands over the splotches which I couldn’t feel but she could. She’d whisper “Daddy” and sometimes cry.

I climbed one of those trees once. Not too high-I was a little kid-but high enough that the inevitable fall left me splatted and dazed, flat on my back. Lying there, the sun leaking through the purple flecked leaves, a man took shape. A man I wouldn’t meet for years.

He was big and dark, up from the Islands to live with his daughter next door for the summer. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt that stretched sorely across his bulk. The sun glistened off his head as he picked mulberries into a dented pot from a tree in the park across the street.

“Daddy!”, his daughter cried her accent only revealed when she was agitated. “Don’ pick the berries! People up here will tink you too country!” She said this running in her bare feet. His smiling eyes caught mine.

“She say dat til she taste da pie…” he said. Then he laughed a rolling rumble that I couldn’t help but join.

Morpheus

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She was still telling the story about the time Laurence Fishburne tried to pick her up in the Village. How she rebuffed his savage suavity, not realizing she was dating herself when she called him Morpheus. The Village wasn’t the Village anymore and Laurence was no longer Morpheus.

It wasn’t a story she should tell everyone, but it was one she told me too often. And when she told it, she stood too close and let her hand linger on my arm just a beat too long. We were working long hours on her project and I’d fly in from headquarters for a few days at a time.

She knew I was married which probably made me safe for her fantasies but trying for mine. There was the time she had taken me to a bar for drinks, somewhere out on the Island, then for a walk down a quaint sandy street. She was working through one of her divorces. “That bar is my husband’s favorite”, she said nodding across the street. “He’s probably in there now. But I don’t see his truck.” She smiled sweetly, careful not to catch my eye.

It was the same trip, or the one after, when she came to my hotel room to use the bathroom after passing on the one in the lobby. This was after an evening of dancing and dinner. I had the knees for it then.

She was wearing a fashionable for the time letterman’s jacket that bloused at the waist. It had faux leather sleeves that she rubbed against me as I held the door ushering her from the bathroom right into the hall.

The twinge of her leaving was nowhere near the nightmare of her staying.

I was no longer Morpheus either.

In the Permian Hills

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I watched him kill sparrows once, in the field behind his old farmhouse. This was years after Kate died, but you’d never know it because her stuff was still everywhere. He blamed sparrows for the for the loss of songbirds and his beloved finches and titmice. The trap was a box like contraption of heavy metal screen wrapped around a wooden frame. At one end of the box was a hole and just inside the hole a cantilevered arm with a screened cover. The birds would hop onto the arm which would simultaneously drop them into the box and cover the hole-trapping them inside.

This was back in the Permian Hills, which he called the place where they-he-lived. Soft hills that rolled and undulated between the horizons like waves in a washtub. He loved saying it, planting his flag in the region as if naming it made him something more than a short time caretaker. Remember the place as brown. It wasn’t, of course. Not always. It could be beautiful in the summer when everything was planted and the high sky was deep blue swept with wispy high clouds. But my memories allow it no more than the sickly greenish tinge of a catfish’s belly.

He would bait the device with millet and rough grain, not the thistle or black oil sunflower seeds that he fed the songbirds. He’d set it on the stump of an old oak out back while we went about our business. Later we’d find any number of birds milling about inside contentedly nibbling until we walked up on them and they thrashed against the screen trying to get away. He’d reach into the box and gently grab anything with color that had been trapped and toss them into the air to flit furiously away. The sputzies, as he called them, he’d drop them into an old work sock. Then he’d spin the sock over his head-said it would put them to sleep-before bashing it into the stump.

He’d toss the tiny downy carcasses into the field, food for owls or kestrels, foxes or coons. His face never changed from the lifeless and dull chore-look, the same as if he was changing a tire on the tractor. I still wonder if he did this when Kate was alive. Somehow doubt it.

Girls

The kiosk to order custom cakes was all the way at the back of the store, which really was a warehouse. Enter through the garage doors and past the computers, televisions and other electronics, past outerwear (seasons change, hoodies gone), past books, furniture (again, seasons, so it’s patio tables and pergolas), batteries, then the produce, then the packaged cookies and bread, then finally, after a half mile of smooth concrete, the kiosk.

Typically deserted, today a young woman in an apron was bent slightly digging with a pair of scissors in the slot that should have held the order forms. Her round bottom challenged her jeans and threatened to squeeze her phone out of her pocket like a watermelon seed.

“That’s where all the pens go”, I said looking over her shoulder. She smelled of icing.

“They tear them off of this”, she indicated the squiggly cord that usually held a pen, “And toss them in here or walk off with them…I mean, really…then people come looking for me, I have to find a pen…” Through all this she kept digging.

I proudly held out my pen. “I bring one with me-just in case.”

Having fished out three pens and a quarter she paused and smiled. “Well done! You here a lot?”

“Every month.”

A little light went off. “Oh, you’re the five-cake guy.”

“Yep. That’s my mob name, ‘Tommy Five Cakes’ “.

She laughed, flashing a tiny dab of lipstick on her front tooth. “Let me know if you need anything”, she said walking away.

“I’m fine…”

Next stop was the liquor store two blocks down for a couple of bottles and a box. She liked box red as our “maintenance” wine-what we drank instead of killing all the good stuff too quickly. They never had my favorite bourbon so I substituted another that would do the trick. And a bottle of cold Chardonnay for the ride home.

Sliding carefully by, I tried to avoid the pretty girl at the near register. Purple lipstick, same color nails and upswept blonde hair. I imagined a nose stud but wouldn’t look. Nothing but trouble this one. She caught my eye.

“I’ll take you over here”, she said.  I stood in front of her register avoiding eye contact waiting for the total so I could insert my card.

“You want your box in a bag?” she asked.

“No”, I said looking up but only slightly. “Nor do I want my bag in a box.”

She froze a moment, then continued with a slight uptick to the corner of her mouth. “You had me for a second.”

“But only for a second”, I said. “You’re too quick for that.”

“Maybe.” It was a real smile when she slid the box and bag my way.

“Have a day”, she said.

“You too.”

This is me flirting now.

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

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(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.