It doesn’t take many words to end a thing. Sometimes one. One measly word. Maybe two or four if they’re the right ones or many times, none at all. He sat on the edge of the bed thinking about putting on pants. There was plenty of time for that. The morning sun-somehow different here in the city-sliced through the rheumy window spotlighting his feet which he always hated-short and square and now with bright purple starfish bursting spidery on his ankles. She has them too! Don’t for a moment think he was the only one getting old. Had she ever seen the backs of her own knees? She’s not special-time marches on for everyone regardless of what anyone thinks. Standing, he gazed at the rooftops around him. He’d done business in this part of town back when. Just couldn’t remember with who. And it wasn’t because he was old! People forget things, that’s all. They had to-there was too much new stuff every minute of every hour of every day. Things had to be jettisoned to make room, that’s all. Were the water towers on the buildings new? Couldn’t be, they looked older than fuck, he just had never seen them that he could remember. He wished he had a cigarette. He’d given them up years ago but they would at least give him something to do with his hands. His old man wielded a cigarette as a maestro did a baton-directing, punctuating, prompting: allegro, lento-the smoke leaving whirling white trails drifting to the ceiling. He wondered if he could smoke in here. These rooms weren’t bad by the week, considering. He’d have to think about it. For now though, checkout was at ten. It would be no problem. He could leave earlier if he had anywhere to go.
It was an old springhouse on a farm long forgotten, set into the center of what had been a foundation wall, now a roost for lichen, ferns and whatever slippery plant could gain purchase along the cool damp stone where the sun rarely touched. But she did, running her hands along the rough face as she slipped through the opening into the musky dim, rusted nubs of hinges the only hint of the thick doors which once hung there.
Inside, the cistern was empty as it had been the first time she’d visited save for the skittering daddy long-legs that enjoyed whatever moisture she couldn’t see. She remembered the feel of the low stone shelf which, with no cheese, cream or jugs to store, could serve as a crude bench. As it had.
They were young then and spry. It had taken no more than a single shared glance to melt the clothes from her body which glowed like a pearl in the stoney dusk. A momentary gentle man, he took the rough seat and had her mount facing him which she did easily being constantly dewy in her memory. She was first, mewling, keening and scraping her toes against the stone feeling gooseflesh wash across her back as mouth over mouth he stole her breath.
Then, sated and spent, but still feeling his pulsing strength inside her she allowed him to bend her over the cistern where he took her hard, pushing into the place she dreaded. But she took it, knowing it would take but a few minutes then be over and their lives would continue. But for that lesson, learned by every woman since the dawn of time, the species would have mercifully flickered out eons ago.
He was the kind of idiot who bought the “European Berets for $20” advertised in the glossy magazine because “one size fits all”, never accepting that nothing fit his oversized dome. He’d stubbornly wear it for days, laying atop his head like a cow pie. “See”, he’d say, “It fits fine.”
She’d smile and put up with it for as long as it took to find it sitting alone on the bench in the mudroom like a discarded black flapjack. Over the course of an hour, she cut it into small pieces, some of which she flushed, some of which she buried out beyond the fence, marking the spot with a mossy flat stone, and some she burned in the fire pit.
“No, hon”, she would answer when asked. “I haven’t seen it.” And he’d believe her.
“We’re livin’ in some nasty times”, James said at the end of what had become a long conversation. I had run into him back in the woods where he had come up the draw to my right. Made sense, he lived out that way. We both thought we were squirrel hunting but turns out we were just walking in the woods. And it was a good day for that, even encumbered by the shotgun that got heavier every step of the way. Times being what they were, we hadn’t seen each other for quite awhile (Fact I hadn’t recognized him till I was on top of him), so I didn’t mind too much when he fell into step after a short greeting and said that he might as well walk along with me. It wasn’t a bad conversation as long as we steered clear from the obvious topics, religion, politics and his ex-wife. And his current wife who my brother had dated years ago. And drinking, since he’d stopped, and his boy who’d got hooked on pills after a boating accident and was living “across the tracks” as they said, but his girl was an ok subject. Truthfully, it was such a stressor just trying to remember what I could talk to old James about that I was relieved when he chose to double back about twenty minutes later to hunt the crest. “Nasty times…” he said he said in parting. Weren’t they all….
“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.
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.
Kinda continued in Another Stray Day
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
“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.”
“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…”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?