Shitbird

“Yummy!” was the first thing that came to mind. He didn’t say it except maybe under his breath, but it was there, frontmost in his head. Then he was embarrassed. 

She was younger than he was-as was everyone it seemed-but way younger. Not as young as his daughter gratefully, but young. And well put together. A girl in a woman’s body.

She had come to him after the reading and asked about the mystical reverence that the Appalachian peoples, predominantly Cherokee she thought, had for turtles. He was a turtle guy and could happily spend an evening in that conversation, plus she was wearing a washed out university v-neck that put up a valiant struggle but was ultimately no match for her cleavage. 

Others came and went, he signed some books, stood for pictures and as the lights dimmed, she remained. It wasn’t until she was helping him gather his stuff that he allowed that she was interested in more than turtles and Cherokees. They went to a bar she knew and sat in the back. He bummed a smoke and wished he could draw to capture the way her lips pursed as she inhaled then popped perfect smoke rings into the air between them. Ultimately it was to his hotel room since she had roommates. 

Not until morning, when the rising sun washed through the gauzy curtains and ignited a bright blaze of reflection across the downy blonde fur on her bottom, presented to him as she faced away snoring lightly, top leg slightly bent, offering herself in a dream, and he thought, “Yummy!” did he feel the least bit embarrassed. 

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, he thought, looking away from her bum, but Eliot had beaten him to it. Instead he remembered his Grammy Nubs calling him a “shitbird” when he did something she considered off in any way. 

He slipped out of bed and pulled a sheet up covering her, grabbed her cigarettes and headed for the balcony.

The Stray

Olive didn’t wear a mask which was fine with Clay because she was uncommonly pretty for a woman in The Stray. Woman, hell, she was more a girl, and decidedly misnamed, pale to the point of luminescence, with only one chipped tooth in a bright smile that held up freckles, a button nose with only the hint of a bump and eyes the color of a summer sky. Her alabaster skin glowed brighter, accented by the dark T-shirts she always wore-even on the coldest of days which this one certainly was. “I run hot”, she’d say. 

The short sleeves did nothing to hide the scars on her wrists and the wispy gossamer of old track marks up and down her arms that probably explained, at least in large part, what she was doing astride a stool at Strays, which everyone called the place, on a snowy Saturday evening. No longer a death wish and clean, if not dry, she felt comfortable among “her people” whatever the fuck that meant. 

She pushed her empty glass just enough so Robin would see it and refill. Again, playing against type, she drank thick stouts and porters exclusively which everyone figured was a good thing since she barely ate. “Gotta pee”, she chirped and hopped off the stool and headed toward the back. She left her cigarettes so she would be back. Olive lived in a couple of rooms above the bar and was known to slip away from time to time.

Robin pulled a beer from the tap and placed it in front of the empty stool, glancing at Clay’s Manhattan. It was his third and now that he was settled with a soft glow in his cheeks and the glint in his eye dulled, they would go down slower. She was thick and rangy wearing seasonal flannel over a dark camisole. Not a beauty, she had an androgynous look that some women would call handsome and kept her thick brown hair in a ducktail that would have shamed Elvis. She followed his gaze out the window where a snow squall had wrapped the world in a dirty gray blanket. “Hey”, she patted his hand to draw his attention from outside. “You going back to work next week?”

He was. She prodded for more. Sometimes, when they were alone or it was slow, she’d get him talking about work. She didn’t understand most of what he did, but it stopped him from thinking. Tonight his mind was clearly elsewhere so all she knew was he’d have a day in the office, then downstate for a day or two tops, on the new install. “Book my reservation for right here next Friday happy hour,” he said, tipping his glass. 

“Done”, she said. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“You mean liking bending me over a chair and having your way with me?”

She gave him the tight smile reserved for friends who keep repeating a joke that had long ceased being funny. “Well”, she said, “Seeing I don’t get off till ten and I don’t think Sweet Martini Olive”, she nodded toward the girl coming back from the bathroom, “will wait that long,” she pinched the back of his hand before sliding away. “I’ll make a note of it though.”

From her spot leaning against the back bar, she could see that the squall had subsided and fretted that Olive wasn’t distracting him. She knew he could see now, not only the bridge but the exact spot at the railing where his wife Merin, was last alive. Thing was, she was a decent swimmer and the bridge isn’t all that high. His fantasy was that she would have survived the jump, the water would have revived her-snapped her out of what he couldn’t-and she would have swum over to the marina and come home to him, wet but renewed. 

But she hadn’t seen the line of empty coal barges coming upstream from behind her. You’d think she would have heard the tow boat, but their sound is more of a powerful low thrum than the whine of an outboard. The lead barge poked out from under the bridge just as she leapt. He imagined her hitting with a loud metallic clang like the cartoon sound effect when the mouse hit the cat over the head with a skillet. Sad truth was, nobody had seen or heard a thing and her body wasn’t discovered until the barges settled into dock in Weirton days later. 

“You wanna go upstairs?” Olive asked quietly not looking at him but at her half empty glass. Wouldn’t be his first trip, counting her ribs or tracing the outlines of her hip joints on her tumescent skin. Or maybe she’d stay dressed and just take care of him. Whichever. He left two twenties on the bar-twice what he owed-and they headed for the back steps. 

Robin did not turn around but watched them leave in the mirror behind the bar. 

The Long Game

The mail lady usually just brushes past behind where I sit and read with a smiling hello. She delivers to the back porch – a shorter trip for her from the neighbor’s- where I take my midday wine. I couldn’t swear which came first, me sitting back there or her delivering back there. She had delivered my mom’s place too and when she was ahead on her route, she’d sit and have a cigarette with her. So I kept an ashtray back there though I’d long given it up.

Today was coupon day and I heard her rustling the papers as she came through the side yard. I tried not to look for fear she’d catch me eyeing her knobby knees and thin calves.  For whatever reason, she paused and lay a hand on my shoulder as a cool, warning breeze rattled the dahlias. “Some days”, she said, I just want to give you a hug.” We had held each other tightly that morning we found my mother on the floor. 

“Feel free”, I told her, covering her warm hand with mine and imagining the pony tail flowing through the back of her cap. “Strawberry blonde is my favorite flavor.”

“Don’t you mean color?” she asked.

“That too.”

Instead of a hug she squeezed and twisted my earlobe leaving it burning and cold at the same time.

“You’re bad”, she said, continuing on her appointed rounds. 

“Who doesn’t know that?” I asked, going back to my book. 

Rabbit

Back when they were separated, Dot lived in a house out in Pangburn Hollow. It was a smallish place with a stream out back, but big enough for her and the girls. Thelma and Denise were Irish twins, born-generously-eleven months apart. Let’s just say they were the same age 42 days out of the year. So, when they went off to the state university at the same time Dot was left alone in that little hollow house. Which was fine with her. More than fine actually. She had never lived alone in her life and it was a pleasant change to only have herself to look after. She had her cashier’s job down at Maracinni’s, which was five days a week, then she had card club on Tuesdays and of course, she had church, which wasn’t just a Sunday thing, what with choir practice and bible school and all. But then, before too long, she started to having Bud back again usually on Saturday nights. He first said he was “in the neighborhood” but that didn’t hold water because Pangburn Hollow wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. She just accepted that he’d be showing up on the odd Saturday night when he was done cattin’ around, as she called it. He was still her husband after all and his railroad job paid for the girl’s school, so it was a small price to pay. He’d smell of liquor and cigarettes and she kept a bottle in the house for when he showed up. Sometimes they’d just set on the couch and watch the late movie and sometimes he’d fall asleep in the chair and she’d cover him before going up to bed. But sometimes he wanted what a man wanted, and she’d give him that too. But never in bed. It being Saturday night, her hair would be done up for church in the morning and she didn’t want to ruin it by laying in bed with Bud. So she would bend over the couch and he’d take her standing up from behind. He grouched about it at first, but he was getting what he wanted after all, so he shut up. Dot would never come like that, but she seldom did with Bud anyway. He was too quick. When girls used to call him Rabbit behind his back it wasn’t because he liked carrots.

Tangles

Standing there in front of the open garage I thought of Joe for some reason. He was in his seventies when I took over managing the bar for him and he was tied up with Sherry who was a good thirty years younger. I knew Sherry for having a kid with my buddy Bull a couple of years before he killed himself. It wasn’t his only kid, just his only with Sherry and they are all still knocking around town, fun house mirror images of him. Even the girls, which is a shame. Don’t know what happened to Sherry but back then I’d find Joe’s Viagra everywhere; in the register, on the bar, the desk in the office, the floor…He couldn’t see too well but was too vain for glasses. I’d sweep them up into a small bank envelope and leave them in a drawer. I wished I’d have kept them. We buried Joe two years ago when the second fall cast a shadow over his brain. At ninety-six he wouldn’t have survived any surgery which was fine as he was pissed to have outlived everyone. Holly, the tenant in 703, was talking to me but I really wasn’t focused. Since the library was closed for this pandemic shit she was out of work and couldn’t make rent which I’d inferred. It was fine. Ma had really liked her, so she had a pass, which she didn’t know about. She was a nervous type who I’d once described as looking like a dark little man with long sideburns. Which was unfair but today she was dressed like a pile of dirty clothes left behind at the laundromat. I’d seen her out and about though, when we could go out. I’d seen her on the outside of a few vodka and crans. She cleans up well and, me being me, I’d watched her walk away a time or two or lean over a bar. I knew what she was bringing to the table. She was saying something about unemployment, and she’d have some of the rent next month for this month then when she got her big check…and on and on. She was squinting or smiling, I couldn’t tell. But then I heard her say something about making it up to me. That she could do that. That was it. That’s what made me think of Joe. And his pills. I wished I’d have kept some of those. I bummed a cigarette off her. She tossed me the pack. “I didn’t know you smoked”, she said. “I don’t”, I told her.

Who has that kind of time?

He leaned out of the doorway toward me, just far enough for the reflected muddy glow of the streetlight to hit his hands and up his chest, leaving everything above the cigarette in shadows. By the tilt of his hat, his gaze seemed off-as if he were looking over my head, off into the distance. Where there was more nothing but stacked higher.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, voice dry and dusty.

“I’d like to be high”, I told him.

“We got you. Lotta people in your shoes.”

“Yeah, but only for a half hour or so…”

“Wait. What?”

“I need to be high for a half hour.”

“Half hour. Like thirty minutes?”

“Maybe forty-five tops. Got some things to do that a buzz would definitely help with. I don’t need to tell you how long it’s been! But then, I’d like to be straight again.”

“Straight again.”

“Yeah I got shit to do later that would definitely require…a level of straightness. Like I have now.”

“Whyn’t you go do that shit now? Then come back?”

“Too early. And I doubt my ability to hold on till then without…”

“Getting high…”

“Being high.”

“Being high.”

“Yeah. I need it to hit me real fast.”

“Then, like that…”, he tries to snap his fingers, but instead his pointer finger snaps off at the top knuckle with a small pop. He pauses to follow the track of the top of his digit disappearing among the detritus along the curb. “…be straight again. That what you mean?”

“Yeah. Something that snaps on and off. Well not like….” I looked down to where his finger had fallen to watch the roiling under the rags and sodden papers as the vermin vied for the prize. Something must have won out as a skittering of tiny claws rattled away. “You got anything like that?” I asked, looking back up.  “With switches?”

“Switches.”

“On and off.”

“Neh, man. Our ride takes a while to get to cruising speed. And once there it lasts…a good long while. Then it takes some time to come back down. Four-hour minimum commitment. Results may vary.”

“Thought so.”

“Come back when you have a couple of seconds”, he said leaning back into the shadows. “A day…a weekend maybe. And I’ll fix you up.”

“Thanks”, I said hustling away. Who has that kind of time?

Blue Bird in the Barn

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He was careful on the path down to the barn. The first snowfall-not yet finished-had made it slick and he had somehow forgotten his cane back on the porch.

Inside, the cows milled about desultorily eating the hay he had pulled down from the loft earlier. He loosened his collar a bit to suck in some of the damp warmth from their breath when he heard the unmistakable song of a blue bird. He scanned the rafters and immediately picked him out from the stray, gray sparrows and wrens that flitted about the place.

“What you do, little guy?” he asked aloud. “Miss the last train south?”

Up at the house he left his boots inside the door and peeled off his old coat. The glow of the television leaked out of the living room in back. There his wife sat in the chair that the medical company had sent over-the one that would help her get up and down.

“Saw a bluebird in the barn”, he told her speaking loudly.

“Oh?” she answered. “He shouldn’t be here now, should he?”

“Guess the weather had him confused. Now he’s stuck I guess.”

“Bluebird in the barn”, she said almost to herself in a sing-song childish way. Then, “I wisht I could see him.”

He glanced at the mute aluminum frame of her walker. “You’ll see him and plenty more in the spring. We’ll have them all over the place…”

She said nothing more, just looked out the window where the snow still fell and it was night-dark at suppertime.

The next day dawned bright and cold. He made his way unsteadily down the hill relying overmuch, he thought, on the cane he clutched firmly. He was kicking away snow from the sweep of the barn door when he saw the small splash of blue over by the trough. He walked over and scooped up the dead bird and a little puff of snow besides. It wasn’t cat-mauled or damaged at all. Just dead.

He didn’t realize he was crying until a heavy tear spattered on the tiny blue head.

“Fuck.” he whispered, chilled at using a word that hadn’t passed his lips since Korea.

 

 

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.

Communion

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“Did ye eat the body?”

“Ye saw me walk up. Of course I et the body.”

“Did ye drink the blood?” he asked with an accusing tilt of his head.

“Ye saw me up there!”

“Yeah, but. Did you actually drink it or jest swish it around in the cup?”

Ah, fer Crissakes, he thought. Then blessed himself. Sorry, he thought, but it’s flu season. “I drank some”, he settled.

“Ye barely put yer lips to it!”

“Fer Gawd’s sake…”

“Don’t ye dare!”

“Did ye not hear all the hackin’ and coughin’ and snottin’ goin’ on all aroun’ us?”

“Say what you will. You dint have a proper communion is all I’m sayin’. Not proper.”

“I didn’t see YOU drinkin’ it!”

“Ye low bastard! Ye know I can’t drink of the blood since I took the cure.”

“Wait a bloody minit! By the time it gets to yer lips it’s not wine anymore, is it? It’s the blood of the Divine.”

“Ya betchyer ass it is. And there’s enough alcohol innit to kill off all the germs yer so fraid of.”

“Wait…what? If it’s blood how can there be alcohol…?”

“Shhh…here comes Father…”

They nodded without really looking up from the nothings they were kicking about.

“Father.”

“Fadder…”

“Boys”, he said and walked on.

“I don’t know if I liked the way he said that.”

“Nor the way he looked just now…”

“Don’t be a mutt-you dint even look up. Why dint ye look a’ him.” He said nothing, just worried the ground with the toe of his shoe. “It’s a ringing indictment it is. Yer feckin’ silence.”

“You got a extra cig?”

“Why would I give you one? You don’ even inhale! Ye jest roll the smoke aroun’ in yer mouth.”

“I don’! I do so inhale!”

“You suck a cig the same way you mouth the Lord’s blood. I’m not wasting a cig on you. Hey! Where you goin?”

“Pub”, he said wandering off down the cobbles.

“Ye know I can’t go in there.”

Thank Christ, he thought raising the back of his hand in farewell.

“Satan has a plan for you, buddy boy…” he said, inhaling deeply. “You’ll see.”

Five Bucks a Pill

“You think living this long, I’d know all there was to know about myself”, I said not expecting an answer.

“What are these?” she asked, fingering the thin white caplets only half-listening.

“Tramadol”, I told her. “Five bucks a pill.”

“They any good?”

I shrugged but she didn’t see it.

“No oxy?”

“No oxy, no hydro…that’s dry. Maybe some perc’s end of the week.”

“Huh”, she said knocking the pills around with a blood red fingernail that matched her lipstick.

“So whatta you think”, I asked after a moment. “Am I frightening?” She looked up with a crinkle around her green eyes that could have presaged either a smile or a wince. “Do you think I’m frightening? Am I scary?”

She wriggled her ass deeper into the chair and crossed her legs; a bit of stage-business while she fashioned an answer. “You do tend to lean in a bit”, she said finally. “But you always did that.”

“Huh”, was all I could come up with. “But I never saw myself as scary.”

“We’re all used to you, sweetie. You get to be a particular way, we leave you be.”

Fuck, I thought, taking a turn at spinning the pills across the dark Formica tabletop.

“Poor Tommy”, she said reaching across the table and patting my cheek.

“Don’t say that”, I said more sharply than intended. “My mother always says that.”

“How is she?”

“Same. She’ll never die. Too busy killing me.”

“Christ, boyo…” she pulled back a little and reached for her purse. “You wanna get high?”

“Naw. I might get all scary and shit.”

She smiled and took it as a joke, which is probably not how I meant it. “This is bugging you bad, isn’t it? Who said you were scary?”

“I was at a party last weekend up in Mifflin and a girl said…”

She sniffed. “Mifflin? Shit. You have to stop trying to mix with new folks. They don’t know you like we know you. Play in your own sandbox.”

She pulled a crumpled pack of Pall Mall greens out of her purse and squeezed it open to peek. She’d need a new pack soon. “Five bucks a pill seems steep for something I never tried.”

“You should get out more”, I grinned. “Three for you.” She was thinking-counting how many were on the table. I’d go down to two.

“Do you…?”, she asked haltingly, then stopped.

I let the silence ride a little. She was waiting for me. It was my turn to say something. But I wasn’t. I saw how this whole fucker was going to play out. I had the high hand. I didn’t have to do anything to win. All I had to do was sit there and shut up, collect a few bucks and she’d be out of the picture until she was dry again. But I didn’t. Instead I said, “…What?”

“You interested in doing a deal like we used to do?” she asked. “It’s been awhile.” Fuck! It had always been my idea. My suggestion. My task to pull her in. Of course I wanted to, but… “Cause, I’m fine with it, if you are. I’m ready. “

I closed my eyes and leaned back in the creaking chair. For whatever reason, it was Joe Pesci’s voice in my head saying ‘Don’t do it! You better not do it!” When I opened them the first thing I saw was the smattering of faded freckles across the bridge of her nose. And the lines around her eyes were gone, the skin unetched by time. I knew I was seeing memories; not what was in front of me. But I was seeing it that way.

If she only hadn’t smiled just then, I’d a’ been fine. But of course, she did.

“Sure”, I said. “Why not?” Playing it like it had been my plan all along.