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 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.
The Robin’s call learned as a child:
Cheer-up, Cheer-up, Cheer-up
Sounds so right; so sweet heralding the mud and shoots of spring
Today sounds nervous and confused as it falls bleakly over the frozen river.
They flit and perch in the trees jabbering in concerned confusion as the ice works inexorably from both banks-soon to overtake the small sliver of green in the middle.
Cheer-up, Cheer-up, Cheer-up
Bright red breasts ornament the bare branches
Weeks after the decorations have been put away
None will brave the snow on the ground.
Hopefully they are not waiting-they can’t wait it out can they?
It’s 14 degrees up from 11 heading to five
Hopefully they are moving on-but to where and from where?
Cheer-up, Cheer-up, Cheer-up
Perhaps tomorrow they’ll all be dead
Ragged and black like spent shell casings
Or singed shelter halves
Frozen and tossed in the snow.
Cheer-up, Cheer-up, Cheer-up
Yesterday morning in the gray dawn
A dove tried to fly from a line in the yard.
As it rose a Cooper’s Hawk-from nowhere
Blasted it in a puff of dark feathers.
Later the snow fell,
Covering the scattered feathers and tiny crimson splat that fell to earth
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.
My cup is empty
she snarled, rattling it
upside down to show me.
Her coffee gone,
she’d forgotten she drank it.
I refilled it,
thick and bitter,
from the back burner.
You think it’s a party
taking care of you?
Fuck you! she said
reading my mind.
Then called me by
as she spooned sugar
into the cup.
© TDR – 2019
Anna Yanni was born 22 days after my father in 1931.
She never had a Christmas morning where-as the only child
The room would be full of gifts for the gift.
She never played in the yard or worked in her grandfather’s garden.
She didn’t go to school.
Never acted in the high school production of Best Foot Forward,
Never went to art school-never drew a thing.
Didn’t spend 18 years in the Army Reserves
Pushing and being pushed.
Never laid a brick.
Didn’t marry, raise children,
Worry, love, be paralyzed by fear.
Be proud, prideful or exult.
Work, play, fish
Have friends, have family,
Watch the Steelers,
Live, love, laugh, drink,
Die at home.
Maybe that last. Probably.
For 16 days why even leave Heaven?
Who booked her on that cruise?
Who was little Anna sent to serve
Or to save?
(Continued from Jake – 1)
The air in the room was a coppery stew of blood, meat, burnt hair, gunpowder and shit. He had to hit the window frame hard with the heel of his hand a few times before it surrendered to his tugging and slid up a few inches.
“You fuckin’ idiot”, he said aloud.
No running his car into an abutment yanking to the left at the last second to deal only a glancing, but totaling, blow. No standing at the bridge rail with an audience waiting to be talked back. No taking a bottle of pills then calling 911. He’s just crying out, they said. Trying to make Mel crazy. This wasn’t that. He wondered what his last thought had been in the nanosecond between clicking the trigger and ending up on the wall. Better off not knowing.
Jake sat on the bloody ruin of the bed and felt it soaking through his jeans, his legs already sticky. He leaned forward and, with his finger, traced a line through the crimson spatter on the yellow wall feeling pieces that were bloody, but more than that. What was in this blood? Were there still traces of the first joint they shared in ninth grade? A taste of the cheap wine they’d shared at the prom a million years before? A whiff of every bottle they’d drained, beer they’d drunk, Quaalude they’d swallowed?
No, those were memories which would now become the reveries of ghosts. This was waste. Jake knew he’d live with one the rest of his life. This other, he needed to get rid of.
You couldn’t call me one more time? When have I not showed up when you called? Or the old man? He could get tiresome, sure, sitting through another story of walking point in the jungle and knowing he wouldn’t die but sure of who would. Did he have this one? Jesus, Bull. Again, he wondered about his last thought: was it a relieved “finally” or a regretful “fuck!”. Better off not…
He got up and headed through the house that he knew as well as his own. He’d been here alone many times, but it was never as empty as it was now. He gathered what he needed and decided this would be it for him. There would be no vigil, no sitting beside a closed casket with Melissa and the kids remembering better times. None of that. This was it. This was his closure, this was his vigil, this was his Song of Bull: Lysol, two buckets, sponges and a mop.
The task was simple. Numbing. On his popping knees, dipping the rag in the clean bucket and rinsing in the foul one. When they were both the same shade of red he’d dump and start again. The smell of the cleaner began to win out as the window fogged. He was half way though, still on his knees in that fouled room, when he heard the heavy, halting tread on the steps. Mel’s brother stepped up to the doorway but not into the room.
“What did you say to her?”
“Not now, Tom…”
“She got the three kids at my house now and she gonna half to…”
Jake pulled himself up in sections to his full height, stretching his back, before pivoting slowly, mechanically, his spine clicking like a rusty weather vane. His eyes were a sick animal’s, too exhausted and pained to attack but too unpredictable to offer any comfort. Tom shied from the baleful stare, but held his chin firm.
“Wasn’t right”, he said.
“Not. Now”, Jake answered and slowly turned back to the wall, almost clean now.
“Put the mattress in the garage. Git it out of here. I’ll burn it at work.” Jake didn’t respond. “It’s good you’re doin’ this”, Tom said sliding toward the stairs, “But you’re still a fuckin’ prick.”
Jake, content to hear but not listen, wiped at the wall-now shiny yellow with only a few wisps of pink.
The mattress, older than the man who’d slept on it, rolled easily. The blood was drying now-gummy-not running down his back but staining him just the same as he shouldered the burden and leaned his way down the stairs, across the yard and into the garage. The bulb on the wire cast a wavering yellow light as it swung above the oil-stained spot where the Caddy usually was. Melissa took it, he knew. Which Bull would have hated.
He dropped the mattress against the wall then stripped off his soiled jeans and underwear, tossing them and his shirt onto the same pile. Burn them all, he thought. He yanked off the light and lumbered haltingly back across the dark yard ignoring the stares that he knew were falling on him from those who would always stare at car wrecks, death houses and accidents, hoping for a sign, a vision, an echo or reverb from beyond.
Back in the room, he opened the dresser drawers and pulled out a pair of jeans. They would be big, but there were belts. A non-descript work shirt from the closet; stained but clean. Then, on a hunch, he pulled open the top drawer and reached under the sweat socks to find a thin plastic bag rolled tight and licked to seal. The weed was mostly thick oily buds and smelled amazing fresh. OK buddy, he thought. Paid in full.
The keys were still in the ignition, his wallet still on the seat. He had locked the house but left all the lights on, so it shined brighter than any other on the street where the living hid in darkness. He drove back to the Porter, watching the streets carefully for changes. He figured without Bull on this block or this earth that something should look somehow different.
The bar was quiet when he walked in, the juke muted, whispering some Jim Croce lost love song. Bad news burns through a small town like a fire in a rowhouse. Bull’s stool at the end was empty, as was the one on either side. There was a shot and a flattening beer on the bar in front of it. Jake sat on the stool he’d left earlier and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bottles. He dropped his eyes.
Dee set the same shot and beer in front of him.
She squeezed his hand. He tossed the shot and remembered. “Shit!” he took the phone out of his pocket and dialed home. Dee refilled the shot. The old man answered on the first ring.
“Pop”, he said.
“I heard” was all he answered. Jake had hoped he had, what with the scanner and Aunt Cil and her sisters all radars for distress and disasters. He didn’t want to break the news though the old man would say he saw it coming. He woulda been right too. They all did.
“Ok. You alright?”
“What else am I gonna be? How ‘bout you?” His answer was silence, Jake again caught staring at the wraith in the mirror. “…You should come home” the old man said.
“I will Pop. I will…I just gotta…”
“I’ll leave the door open. Just come home when you’re done…”
He closed the phone and put it back in his pocket pulling out the bag of weed and tossing it on the bar. “Pipe Up”, he said intoning their collective call to unconsciousness, born a decade earlier when an oldster, long gone now, had told their crew to “Pipe Down!” when they were laughing over his daytime programs.
Dee reached behind the Crown Royal bottle for the stone pipe. Gus, at the end of the bar, got up haltingly and locked the front door then deliberately switched off the sidewalk lights. They were closed for a while.
“I just sold him this last week,” Dee said shaking the bag.
“A wonder there’s any left” Jake said and smiled for the first time in hours. She packed the pipe and handed it over, lighting it. He inhaled deeply, taking the sweet smoke deep into his lungs; closing his eyes from the prying gaze of the ghost in the mirror.
“What you say?” Dee asked as he exhaled.
He didn’t realize he had spoken out loud. “I said,” he repeated, “Fuck tomorrow.”
“That’s up to you”, she said taking a small toke before passing the pipe down the bar. “But whether you do or don’t, tomorrow’s gonna fuck you sure.”
(To be eventually continued…)
“He did it!” was all he heard screeching from the phone as he held it hard against his ear.
“What Mel?! What he do?” He felt he had to yell to be heard over the noise on his end banging against the screaming on hers. Even with a finger in his off ear and turned away from the juke, it was damn near impossible. “DID WHAT MELISSA?” Filling in the blanks of her answer was tough, but it sounded along the lines of “He’s your fuckin’ friend, best git here!” Then it went dead. He flipped his phone closed.
There was a fresh shot and a beer on the bar in from of him. He threw back the one and gulped half of the other. “Gotta run”, he told the bartender. “Somethin’s up at Bull’s.”
“Don’t get between ‘em two, Jakey”, she yelled after him as he pushed out the door.
He jumped in his truck and headed the four blocks down the main drag, desolate even this early except for the bars, then a right up the hill, then the left at the old school and two more blocks. His heart sagged when he saw the black and whites and ambulance in the middle of the block. “What the fuck did you do…” he mumbled. He got as close as he could then just shut off the truck in the middle of the street and got out.
Bull’s house was glowing with a light in every room and a seeming houseful of people. Sean Mason, in his white police lieutenant’s outfit, was on the porch. “Sean”, Jake nodded taking the two steps up as one. He wasn’t close with the lieutenant but had known him forever. Even when they played ball together they weren’t particularly chummy but still they had been hip to hip for those four years. They were circling planets in the same small system, nothing more.
Sean wouldn’t meet his eyes. Just shook his head. Jake froze when he saw a thicket of legs up on the stairs struggling with a gurney. “Where the kids?” he asked.
“Her mom’s. It was just Melissa and him here.”
They paused and stepped aside for the guys-all known to Jake-carrying the gurney. The white sheet covering the bulk was riotously stained red at one end. Jake reached out for a corner of it.
“Don’t”, said Sean quietly. “You don’t want to see that.”
Naw, he guessed he didn’t. He stepped back and allowed them to pass. Melissa came after; for the moment dry, but wild-eyed. She fixed on him, hard and flinty as she would lately. Jake wanted to reach out to her; to somehow recapture for a moment the vibe the three had together before marriage, kids and Bull’s off-ness snuffed it. He really wanted to find something to say that would ease them both through what was shaping up to be a very shitty week, but instead he said, “What you say to him?”
“WHAT? What did I…you BASTARD!” Then, just like in the movies, she started pounding on his chest with both fists and slapping at his face. He made no move to protect himself but, unlike in the movies, neither did he grab her and hug her or comfort her. “I DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING YOU FUCKER” He stood quietly until Sean took her by the arm and pulled her away. “Why don’t you kill yourself too you COCKSUCKER!”
Having handed her off to one of the EMS techs Sean turned to Jake and simply said, “Really?”
©TDR – 2017
What are you even doing here? The Love of my life? Hardly. She’s in Houston with her kids, And his. When I dream of her I wake a rock- Head full of all the soft, wet places. You? Gravel and jagged edges- Broken glass Desolate highways with no lights, No guiderails. You took my heart; never given. Smashed it, killed it, left it lie. Didn’t wish you dead, but now that you are, Stay there. I’m cauterized- Like a drunk needing a bottle when once a cocktail would do- I must dig deeper and deeper to feel the Pain you used to visit so cavalierly With a word. A gesture. I’ll stab at my skin with a sharp spoon, Drive nails between my toes, Tear my hair and rend my guts to wear As braids. I always feared I would see you in hell To again be choked on your leash. But I’d hoped to die first. Go back to poling the River Styx Ferrying the damned from sulfurous shore To sulfurous shore And leave me be. I’ll see you soon enough. Fuck you Fuck you And fuck me. I’d give my left nut for the sunrise.
It doesn’t matter, he said sounding a tad strained. I just wish I could straighten up a little, that’s all. He tried for the millionth time to pick up one of the scattered cards or a stack of loose papers. They passed right through his hand.
See? Said the other. Why bother?
If I had some new file folders I’m sure I could make some sense of this. He continued to try to keep the desperation out of his voice.
It just doesn’t matter.
Listen, he said hearing footsteps on the gravel outside. Here they come again.
He turned to face the broken window and smiled a wide gap-toothed grimace.
What the hell are you doing?
Smiling for their picture.
You know they can’t see you, right? You won’t show up. Look at the floor. You don’t even leave tracks.
I wish Miss Baxter was here-she could put this mess to right.
She’s long gone. Forget it-
Why are we still here again?
The other sniffed and slowly diffused into a limp, spreading cloud of glimmering tendrils that rose toward the rafters.
Sighing but afraid to be alone, he allowed himself slip likewise apart and followed, trying to remember why he wouldn’t show up on film. He’d make him tell next time.
I don’t think I’ll live through this,
He told his friend as they watched the cold rain
Glisten under the oversized fluorescents outside the window.
A car pulled up to the service island dinging the bell.
His friend pulled on gloves and headed for the door.
May there never come a time when you say that with relief
Instead of dread, he said with a wink as he ducked out into the weather.