There had been a light snow around midnight so now I could see the bunnies in the yard, little dark blobs against the light gray. Hadn’t seen them for a while-it never occurred to me that they were haunting the yard all night, nibbling the frozen clover invisible in the darkness. She had stayed over and even the cats were on edge. She slept soundly upstairs allowing me to slip away for a glass of ice water and a pill. Quick shower against the funk of the night sweats while waiting for the tranq to take over. Had to stay ready when she was here. Didn’t know when she would come to me strapped, needing me to roll over and bite down on the pillow. It wasn’t as painful as it had been, but not comfortable, that’s for sure. Actually, after a few times, it felt more sad than anything. She no doubt got more out of it. She forbade haircuts recently-wanted to yank at it. Probably got the idea from that bumper sticker; you know the one: ‘If you’re gonna ride my ass at least pull my hair’, or something like that. She’s gotten pretty handsy lately. We were having dinner a couple of weeks ago over on the South Side at a new place-no one knew us. Everything seemed fine and I said something, can’t even remember what, and when I looked up she slapped me-full across the face. The restaurant was a white tablecloth place, all muted and quiet like and the slap rang out like plates hitting the ceramic floor. Her eyes were not flashing, like they would when she was angry. More questioning-curious. I rubbed the sting out of my cheek and said nothing while the diners settled back into their grazing, masticating and murmuring. Later that night she caned me beforehand and the pain was a true distraction leaving no time to feel anything- which I guess was the point. Over the last four months I’d pared my book collection from over twelve hundred to eight and sent two closets of suits I never wear to the Veterans. I sold the motorcycle, still in pieces, that had been a project for years so I’m making progress. Still, when I told her once-I think it was the weekend of the slap-that I was in the mood for sex she said ‘Sure. What kind?’ I was stuck for an answer which probably led to what happened. It was fine though-she made it worth my while in the long run. But I have to have a ready answer next time.
A December warm front had filled the valley with a thick drizzling fog that turned midday to dusk. I had just left the Vet’s club heading for Tony’s Wild Irish Rose on the corner because I had a thing for the daytime bartender. Too early to tell if she was open or interested, but it seemed promising. Had to put in the time to find out but things had started to look up over the past couple of weeks.
I stopped short noticing a distinctive shadow down the block in the fog.
He was less a person from here than a dark smudge on a dirty gray sheet.
“Mark! What the fuck are you doin?”
Mark was below me through a gap where a church had burned, across the alley on the railroad track. From what I could tell, he was more than half way through Master Chen’s 60 movement tai chi form. I knew the form well enough; he’d been trying, with varying degrees of success, to teach it to me over the last two years. But that was in his dojo, two blocks up next to the bodega. Not down on the tracks.
He would do this kind of stuff when it struck him. And it was much easier to deal with him when he was drinking. Then he knew, on some level, at some lizard brain level, that what he was doing might be stupid and would allow himself to be talked out of it. He lived with the hard-wired assumption that he might be wrong because he was a drunk.
Now, four months sober, there was no reasoning with him. He could not be dissuaded from ANYTHING! Today he was frighteningly sober. The kind of aggressive-sober only drunks could get. And he was doing tai chi on the railroad tracks.
“I smell the booze coming off you”, he growled when I got close enough.
Better a shot of CC than getting hit by a train, I thought. But said nothing. His movements were crisp but flowing. Hundreds of years of meditative body mechanics brought to bear on the rocky ballast in the down side of town.
“Put me on the list”, he said.
“Your pallbearer list.“
Shit, I thought. I had forgotten I’d told him about that. It wasn’t like I’d written it down or anything. And it wasn’t final. There were ten or twelve possibles that moved in and out as the mood struck. Unless they died, then obviously, off for good.
“I said I didn’t want to do it”, he went on. “But that will be fine. I’d like to speak too. Say something about you being weak and a drunk who shoulda died years ago and saved the air for the rest of us.”
“I don’t know if that will go over. I’m sure I’ll have family there.”
“Betcha I won’t get an argument”, he said, still never looking my way.
There was a growing rumble in the tracks. The afternoon CSX, filled with coal, was winding its way down river but was slowed by the big curve and the bridge on the other side of the switching yard. Still-by the sound of the whistle-it was no more than a half mile away.
“Train’s comin’”, I said.
He ignored me and kept to his pace. He’d probably finish in time. Nothing to be done.
I walked up to The Rose and sat at the end of the bar where I could still see him through the window. Treena, following my eyes, placed a beer in front of me and poured a shot. “He was in here earlier looking for you.”
“I was at the Vet’s earlier. What time did you start?”
“Trying to get an extra couple hours”, she explained. “Hadda take tomorrow off. Headin’ down to West Virginia. My old man’s gettin’ outta jail.”
“No dipshit. My husband. Did eighteen months. Early release.”
“Didn’t know you were married.”
“Who wants to talk about their husband in prison? Went in with the meth-hope he’s coming out clean. Said they fixed his teeth.”
She smiled. Her teeth were good, except for the cracked one in front.
I pounded the shot and chased it with the beer as the train blew by a little too fast; it’s whistle, loud and bawling, rattling glasses behind the bar. Couldn’t see Mark anywhere.
I signaled for another round.
Someone once told me that Jerry Garcia died getting straight. If he had stayed an addict, he’d still be alive. I don’t know about that but Mark Krajack never woulda faced down a train drunk. He woulda joined me someplace outta the fog for a beer and tried to converse over the roar of the whistle. That’s what he woulda done.
(It’s isn’t “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “A Wonderful Life” but after posting, then reposting, this the last two Decembers, I beg your indulgence again… )
On his knees, head cocked against the smoke from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he spun the tree slowly.
“How’s this?” he asked knowing it was not so good. It had looked OK in the lot.
“It’s fine”, she said. “Better than fine. Beautiful.”
“Just like this then?”
He tightened the screws in the stand and sat back on the floor. It had been two years since she’d been cancer-free and half that since he’d had a drink. They had decided that drought would end tonight though-an exact year from when it started. One year in the desert was enough.
He’d bought a bottle for the occasion. Later though. First he had to turn two boxes of too many parts into Tony’s spaceship and Tammy’s dollhouse.
“I can see the twins have been good this year”, he nodded at the toys. “What about you?”
“Me? I’ve been good…I’m always good…” she said with a slight-almost shy- smile. “Mostly…”
“Mostly? Do you have something you want to tell me?”
“Nothing specific…just general…things…”
“Well”, he drawled, “I might have to take care of that.”
She reached for his pack and tapped one out. She held it between her fingers but made no move for the lighter.
“It’s been awhile.”
“Like you said, you’ve been mostly good…”
A light blush dusted her cheekbones. “You won’t break me, you know.”
He ground the cigarette out in the ashtray beside him and exhaled into the silence.
“What will we drink to?” he asked.
“Yeah, like what will we toast?”
She looked up at the spruce that was really too big for their living room.
“How about ‘being’.”
“Being?” he asked.
“Yeah.” She said. “Being. Sometimes that’s enough.”
He followed her eyes to the bare tree top.
“Sometimes that’s plenty.”
Wishing you Peace and All Good Things…
(Continued from Geneva – 4)
She was at the top of the hill near a beer tent still intent on watching the show as she moved sideways toward the parking area. He approached her while she was in the halo of the tent’s light.
“Hey neighbor”, he said.
It took her a short moment to register who he was.
“Oh, hey…” she said distracted but he didn’t know if it was by the music or something else.
“You OK?” He asked. “You all set?”
She shook her head and looked at her phone. “I don’t know-so much goddam drama. You saw…”
“You got a ride?”
“She’s my ride…we all came together.”
“That will be a fun ride home.”
“Right-I know.” She paused and looked toward the stage. “Do you have a cigarette?”
“No sorry…I bummed one off you earlier remember?”
She shrugged, “Right, right…”
The band on stage was winding up their set-there would be one more coming on around 10:30 then all hell would break loose in the parking lot. He’d seen enough for the day-had enjoyed the music and honestly enjoyed the company of the girls he was never with. Talk about a low pressure date!
“Hey, listen. I’m going to bolt to try to get ahead of 25,000 people in pickup trucks all jamming the same road. If you need a ride…where you going anyway-north?”
“Uh, north? East maybe? Pittsburgh.”
“That’s my direction. I gotta go through there. If you want a ride, I’ll take you where you want to go.”
He caught her look. Good-she wasn’t reckless. He had closed the space between them to be heard in the general din so he leaned away just a little to give her some space. “Honey,” he said in the first true flirt of the day, “I was sitting nose-to-cheek with your dancing booty for the last eight hours. If I was going to bite, I’d have done it way before now.”
She smiled. “I wondered about you. Hoped you were enjoying yourself.”
“The show was great”, he said. “And I liked the music too.”
She looked down the hill toward the stage and back the way they had come. Was she hoping for or dreading seeing her friends looking for her? She glanced toward the parking lots to the brake-light parade of a steady stream of early-leavers.
“Text them. Tell them you ran into a friend and he’s taking you home.”
“The amount of time we spent together today is like three dates worth.”
“But we never talked!”
“Sounds more and more like my dates.”
She grinned tightly and her eyes flickered. She reached out maybe to punch his bicep or pinch him-but lost her nerve. Ended up just pushing his forearm but he felt the touch in the back of his throat.
“Better than saying a strange older man picked you up…”
She sent a group text to everyone that was on the blanket, hit ‘send’ and slid the phone into her pocket where it almost immediately rang. She sighed and answered.
“No, Chel, I’m not getting into the car with her. Enough already. Guy I knew from college. No, we’re already gone. I’ll see you when I see you and tell Brittany not to call me because I’m turning my phone off.”
“Good job. Now I’ll get you home and you won’t have to deal with them until you want to.”
“Well, here’s the thing…”
He paused at the gapped door of the bedroom. She lay propped on pillows gazing at her phone in the yellow light of the bedside lamp. The soft pine-green cotton covered her but enough cleavage bloomed above the sheet to intimate that she was nude-at least up top.
“So, you’re opting for the open door? I warn you, the cats will be in here looking for breakfast at five-which really isn’t that far off.”
“Thought you could close it for me.”
“Has to be bolted from the inside”, he said.
Craning her neck slightly in his direction pulled the sheet slightly, exposing a bit more of her breasts. It was certainly warm enough to go without a covering so the sheet was for modesty’s sake, not comfort. Though they could be the same thing.
He stepped into the room to look down on her. She met his eyes.
“You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I know”, she said wearing the same half-smile that she had most of the day. “I think that’s probably why I want to.”
He held his ear close to the window. The blasting this spring up the top of the hollow had knocked everything in the house cattywampus and it was near to impossible to open the windows easily in normal times. Now, what with all the rain, everything was swolled so that he’d have to break it to open it.
“I can’t hear you,” he whispered, a tone of desperation creeping into his voice. “Louder! Please louder.”
He squinted through the wavy glass but even with no lights in his room he could see naught but shadows outside where the winds whipped the chestnut tree that towered over their little house. Even from the second floor bedroom-which was really a loft, no more’n a half floor- Jimmer felt he could step right down into the yard. If he could open the window-which he coont. He was feeling that pull down below that allus came with the visitations. First time he thought he had to pee-then found out not. Not that at all.
“Hey! You still there?” he croak-whispered, his breath fogging the chilled glass as he pressed his eye against it.
“Jimmer? That you? Who you talkin’ to?”
“You stay off that telephone with the storm comin’. We don’t want to get struck.”
Jesus, he thought. As if I had a phone in here. Then he noticed the strip of yellow light leakin’ in under the door. Quick as that, he tore the cover sheet off’n his bed and jammed it down there and scampered back to the window. Still nothing-except maybe a sharp “tic-tic-tic” on the glass which could just as well have been branches as fingernails.
GODDAMIT! He thought, immediately sorry for thinking the Almighty’s name in vain. He’d been doin’ that a lot and it coont be good. He kicked the sheet away and opened the door at the top of the steep steps up to his room. He felt proud of havin’ thunk to keep the hinges oiled so they made no sound opening.
For only about the hundredth time that day he wished Pap could have hung on awhile longer to help with Maw, but he knew near the end there he coonta helped hisself with his wheelchair and oxygen tank. Better this way, but Hell’s Bells this was a hard pill!
He tiptoed past the front room where she sat in the recliner that wouldn’t recline, her swole feet propped up on her walker. The TV was on to nothing but rolling snow and she listened to an old-timey gospel show on the radio. It was no challenge to sneak past and outside-lifting hard on the door because it too was off cause of the blastin’.
On the porch he whipped his head left and right looking for her. Ignoring the tilted steps, he hopped right down the ground. Was that a light over by the shed? Even in the pitch dark thrown by the blanket of storm clouds he could easily navigate out to the woodshed and around to the other side of it. Nothin!
Wait, though-not nothin’-cause he could see, if he looked off center, his shadow tossed weakly onto the rough plank wall of the shed. Prolly from the house he thought as he turned to look. But no, there she was, balanced on the eave right outside his window. “Goldarnit” he said trying not to cuss at a time like this. “I knowed you was out there.”
His voice became more urgent as did the pull down below. He bent his leg against the discomfort of his broomstick-hard erection pushing against the teeth of his zipper. “On man!” he sputtered as he yanked at his jeans. It was only his intent to let hisself out to breathe but he was so skinny-assed that once his pants were unsnapped they fell to the ground. He didn’t note the chill as he grabbed what was his fearfully engorged cock and commenced to work it while watching her above him. If he could only git that window open.
“Come down here” he hissed through gritted teeth. “Just the oncet!” But she didn’t move from her perch on the eave. Jimmer worked himself in silence, staring hard to get every glimpse he could of what he took to be the shimmering clean lines of her nakedness.
“You could do something here you know!” He was losing the whisper but kept his voice down just below the level of the winds. “I wisht you would!”
He thought she was watching-she was moving though. She was there-she was all there, turning for him, bending for him-right up till the moment when she wasn’t. When that moment came she just disappeared-melted upwards like smoke from a pissed-on fire and was gone into the starless black.
He made no more sounds but a finishing grunt as he spattered over the dry leaves, bending forward, vainly trying to keep the final spurts and spasms offn’ the pile of pants at his feet. Eyes screwed shut he drooled one single string to splash off his fist where his part-twitching-disappeared like a turtle into its shell.
He made no show of bein’ quiet when he yanked the stuck door open to reenter the house. He trudged past the front room where Maw, without looking up, told him “You shount go outside on a night like this Jimmer. I can hear the Nightwinds moving about. They take aholt of you and you’re a goner.”
A goner, thought Jimmer. That sounded fair. He’d buy that if she was sellin’.
My wife saw him first-riding ahead of me as she always did-and pulled off to wait for me. She was eyeing something on the trail that, even from a distance, I could tell was a snake. This has been a great summer for snakes and I’d caught and played with big blacksnakes, whippey little garters, a hog nosed, a couple of rat snakes and one beautiful corn snake that I wanted to keep. But didn’t. From the profile on the trail I expected a big black.
“Figured you’d want to see this one”, she said as I braked to a stop.
Getting closer, there was no mistaking. The sunlight shining off it’s head named it perfectly. She had heard the stories about all the copperheads I had caught as a boy. Climbing up the sunny rocks overlooking the river or kicking through the driftwood piles on the bends. There was no “why” to it back then but the excuse that I was sixteen or seventeen with more testosterone than brains.
There were belts, hat bands and just plain salted skins oiled and mounted on the garage walls. There were one or two still around when we got together which led to the stories. My rule then was to catch them alive and dispatch them gently, in a way that wouldn’t damage the skin.
That was as good an explanation as any but she knew better. She could hear in the stories the rush of hanging over a rocky outcropping forty feet above the water and yanking a copperhead by it’s tail from a fissure in the rock, dropping it to the ground and being quick enough to snatch it behind the head before it came back on me. To hold it thrashing in my fist-feeling the strength of it’s body and seeing the bare fangs wanting nothing more than to be inside me-got my heart racing like nothing else back then. Truth be told, that one had almost gotten me on the thumb. I had sat in the hot sun, legs dangling over the river, for a good twenty minutes until my heart regained its normal pace. I kept that skin the longest.
These days I give copperheads wide berth as much as I can. They and I share similar tastes in surroundings and terrain so they are always near. But avoidable. This guy, though, is right here. “You’re not going to pick it up, are you?” she asked noticing me moving toward the snake. She quickly repeated the words as a declaration rather than a question in case the seventeen year old me bubbled to the surface with none of the requisite reflexes or quickness.
“Naw. Just watching him move off into the tall grass. Beautiful, isn’t he…”
“You don’t kill what can’t harm you. And you shouldn’t kill what can harm you unless it’s a threat to you right there….Go around just killing stuff, it’ll eventually come back on you. It throws things out of whack.”
-from “Strange as this Weather Has Been”; a novel by Ann Pancake