Jennie’s Behind the Bar

I didn’t set the whole thing up. Parts of it, sure. Not the whole thing. Not the way it played out. Not in my wildest imagination could I have…well, that’s a lie. I could have imagined it. I spend much of my waking hours imagining just such things. But in the beginning, I had nothing but the best of intentions. 

It was close to ten on a slow Thursday night when the buzzer alerted me that the back door had been opened. The only keys out were mine and…Diana’s, who walked through the swinging doors from the back room. A six foot tall redhead who wore her hair short and was partial to leather jackets and tight jeans. Tonight the jacket was short and brown and the crew neck silk jersey under it inky black. Diana had owned The Oaks for a decade and had hired me to manage it eight years ago. Help being what it is these days, I’m also the night bartender during the week. 

Bars in the valley had a lifespan. We were well beyond being the new kids on the block but nowhere near being yesterday’s news. The clientele was mostly familiar, which was good and not bad exactly, but less than good. It was a good crowd, dependable and predictable but there was something to be said for new blood. Not necessarily for me, I’d gotten to where predicable and dependable were positives. But you could feel it in the folks around the bar. There was a sameness to the place and crowd. For every person who bellied up to our bar for the familiarity of it all, there were two who might be interested in something different. And who would go someplace that offered a change from routine.

“Welp”, said Diana, stepping behind the bar and helping herself to a heavy Tito’s rocks, “We need a bartender.”

“Tell me about it.” I said. 

“No, really now. Jolene is having ankle surgery in a couple of weeks and will be out of commision for a while.”

Jolene was our daytime bartender during the week and handled the heavy load of weekend nights. Which she didn’t mind because that’s where the money is. I jumped in to help if it got too busy. Diane would help out too. It was a secret-not a secret-that Diane and Jolene were a couple. 

“Jesus…”

“If he could make a decent Negroni, I’d hire him.”

Desperation made me ask, “You know Jennie Angelo?”

“Who?”

Jennie had played basketball with my daughter in junior high. Having played a bit in high school myself, I was roped in to help coach. We weren’t very good but we had fun. I had heard she was a bartender and had run into her a few months ago, behind the bar at a little roadside place across the lake. It was busy and she was handling the crowd well. As a kid, she was alway high energy and now at twenty nine or thirty, she hadn’t lost that. Plus she’d picked up a good six inches  which would have been helpful back in the day.

“Hey Coach!” she said when I squeezed in at the end of the bar. Still a great smile which she tossed at everyone. In this business, you need to be on the lookout for talent all the time, so I made a mental note. Drank two beers, caught up a little and left her a ten dollar tip.

“You think she’s happy there?” asked Diane after hearing my pitch. 

“Long hours, beer mostly, shots…crowd is coming and going: kids and old men.” Which meant shitty tips, even for someone who looked like Jennie. 

“Think you can bring her in?”

It wasn’t hard. A few days later Jennie was behind the bar sharing an audition shift with Jolene. Jo had a very chill persona which fit her ice queen good looks and flowed behind the bar in a way that never seemed rushed or hurried but always got her to where she needed to be. She heard and saw everything. Jennie was her polar opposite. It was fun watching her effervescent energy bouncing around back there.

My concerns that she might bowl over the waif-like Jolene were allayed as they worked well together, each complimenting the other.  At the end of the shift, even with splitting tips Jennie made more than any night at the other place. She was more than thrilled and gave me a hug and cheek kiss on her way out after closing. Jolene, used to working alone and possessive of her place, gave my girl (as she and Di referred to Jennie) a thumbs up and she was brought aboard. 

After that first shift, she was plug-and-play. I would be with her late in the evenings to help if needed which was seldom and act as her barback-filling ice, running for liquor, whatever. Basically, I enjoyed sipping a bourbon at the end of the bar and watching her work. When I say it like that , it doesn’t seem like I was checking her out. But I was, and as time went on, I felt less and less skeevy about it. She was a woman now, not a pre-teen. Since I’m as subtle as a sledgehammer, she’d catch me eyeing her and wink or smile or stick out her tongue between her teeth which made me feel a way that I didn’t know if I was comfortable with. I got used to it, though.

She was touchy-feely, would lay hands on me in passing and if we were side by side, I could count on a hand rubbing my back. “Hellos” and “Goodnights” usually came with a quick hug. “I’m glad you looked me up”, she told me once. “I am too”, I answered pretty sure we were talking about the bartending gig. Some of her crew from the other place had followed her to The Oaks and livened the place up a little, giving us all a quick shot of energy.

It was a couple of weeks later, in the back room near the ice machine, that she first gave me a kiss that wasn’t a peck on the cheek. Her lips, full and wet, opened to allow her tongue to slip into my mouth and explore. She tasted faintly of gin; a surprise as I hadn’t seen her nipping. I told myself it could have been peppermint. I wasn’t into doing a whole forensic analysis as her tongue seemed to be engaged in counting my teeth. My embrace was less reluctant than previous quick hugs we’d shared. I explored her back intending for all I was worth to stop at the beltline. Seems I wasn’t worth much. My resolve lasted as long as a snowflake on a windshield as my hands slipped over her hips and cupped her bottom. She was solid back there and did a little clenching as if I needed more stimulation. For a moment a matchbook couldn’t have slipped between us. Just as my arousal was becoming manifest, I released my hold and she withdrew her tongue with a finishing kiss on my closing mouth.

Her eyes were shining and her cheeks were flushed and she gave me a happy smile that warmed me as much if not more than the embrace had. “Finally!” she said.

“I didn’t know this was a race”, I said, feeling both spent and energized. 

“I’m not a kid anymore.”

“I’m starting to get that…”

“You never were quick on the uptake”, she said, her smile turning sly and crooked. She either remembered or intuited that smart-assery in a woman is a desired feature and not a bug.

“Timmie knows I’m working here”,she said unbidden, referring to my daughter-her erstwhile teammate and school chum. 

“Uhh…” I stammered a bit, that skeeviness trying to bubble up again. “I didn’t know you guys were still in touch.” 

“Online” She shrugged, “I’m a bartender, I follow everybody. I posted that I was working here and she reached out.” She must have seen the cloud scud across my face. “Don’t worry, Coach, there will be no posting about you tonguing my tonsils.”

Her tone was so bright and her smile so wide that I couldn’t resist laughing. Neither could I resist grabbing her arm and turning her half way round. I telegraphed the smack to her bottom well enough that she could have easily blocked it or turned away. She did neither and in fact stuck her bum out a bit to provide a better target. It was a moderate slap, somewhere between a pat and a solid smack. 

I released her arm and she rubbed her targeted cheek, more for effect than anything. 

“Finally”, she said again. “Thought I was gonna have to draw you a map.”

“Go wait on some customers why dontcha…pushing her toward the swinging doors. She disappeared, trailing a laugh. I reached into the ice machine and pulled out a few little moons and held them to my eyes, then the back of my neck. I felt like I had just stuck my finger in a light socket and actually felt a little lightheaded. A cigarette would be good. It was a shame I’d quit. But I knew DIana slipped out back now and again to burn one, so maybe in her office?

Her office door was always locked but there was a trick-not much of one-but a trick. The molding around the door was poorly attached and could be pushed  aside. Then a finger, even one as fat as mine, could be slipped behind the strike plate and release the latch. The switch above the copy machine turned on the overhead fluorescent which was too much for the small room, There was a couch, an old refinished desk, steel locking cabinets a few well positioned lamps and a safe so big and old the it would have been there from the beginning. Place was neat enough to see no cigarettes on first scan. I went around the desk and sat in the chair-nothing in the middle drawer, nor in any of the three left ones. Stapler, broken stapler, old Blackberry, and how many paperclips does one woman need? I had almost given up when I pulled the bottom right drawer and there was the slightly crumpled green and white soft pack. I sntached it up and was relieved to see there was at least a half pack, so she wouldn’t miss one. Also a couple of lighters, one of which I borrowed.. I must have wanted that smoke pretty badly because I almost missed what else was in the drawer.

The pack had been sitting atop a ping-pong paddle. An older one, with the sandpaper on one side and hard green rubber nubs on the other.. My buddy had a table when we were kids and we played a lot. There wasn’t and never had been a ping pong table at The Oaks. My chest lightened as I held the paddle and thought of Diana, then of Jolene, then of Jolene and Diana and tried to remember if I’d ever heard or seen anything….My mind reeled and my hand wanted to shake  as I replaced the paddle and took a second cigarette. I did my best to put everything exactly as I found it, shut the lights, locked the door and left the office.

Outside on the loading dock I leaned against the cool block wall, filled my lungs with the sweet menthol smoke and felt the nicotine firing synapses in my brain that had been long asleep. Things suddenly looked brighter and the traffic sounds wafting from up the hill were sharper. I looked at the burning end of the cigarette and took a second drag. Maybe it wasn’t the nicotine…I tossed the butt into the parking lot where it landed in a shower of red sparks. Damn! Even that looked pretty. I let myself back in and took my seat at the end of the bar.

Continued….Jennie’s Over the Knee.

Buck

There were those that said Junior was never the same once he got back from Korea. Just as many said he wasn’t the same before he left. 

Junior lived a few short blocks from Buck Wilson who left town after high school at his country’s behest to walk point in  Vietnamese jungles for two years. It was a job with severely limited prospects. Now, some years later, Buck was a big, gentle guy who delivered appliances for Sears. He’d catch himself crying at the coffee shop now and again-Buck never drank-but that was about it. Except for he hated trees or any place where he couldn’t see everything within a hundred meters all round. Among his favorite spots were the parking lot at Sears before it opened and drive-in theaters before any cars got there. 

One time a lady friend asked him for a ride to visit her daughter out near Frick Park in Pittsburgh, with its towering oaks and sycamores. He sweated in the cooling shade then, to be accommodating, took a walk with the ladies and the daughter’s dog along the park. He hesitated but a moment when the women veered down a path into the woods, the dog nosing a squirrel. He followed, dragging his feet as through sand. The humid Pittsburgh summer had raised a riot of thick green on both sides of the trail: rhododendrons, laurel, sumac and jagger bushes that closed, reached and grasped. The women stopped when they realized they were alone and back tracked  to find Buck frozen in place vibrating like a tuning fork. They gently turned him and let the dog lead them back to the road.

Afterward with the women in the kitchen, Buck took his coffee to the porch and never once took his eyes off the treeline. 

Bob knew enough people with enough history. Christ Almighty, his own Uncle Nick had been a prisoner of the Germans in World War Two. So he really didn’t care how many Junior had killed in Korea, somewhere between none and a hundred depending on how high he was when he was telling the story and who was listening.. Bob’s concern was who Junior might kill now. Or had killed recently and how to keep it from blowing back on him and his. 

Sylvie

I learned Sylvie had died from her niece Naomi who felt obligated to make the call though we’d been estranged for years. She knew the old woman had loved me and thought I should know though she didn’t call until Sylvie was in the ground.

It was the latest volley in an imaginary battle for a woman’s limitless affections. Sylvie had enough for everyone, something truly limited people could not fathom. She had hired me back in the day-when the neighborhood turned and she wanted someone more substantial than her niece behind the bar. A sin I didn’t commit but was never forgiven.

I graduated from the bar to the kitchen, where Sylie taught me everything I needed to know, which was nowhere near everything she knew. Her chicken cacciatore became my specialty and her sauce was indistinguishable from mine. Naomi stayed jealous though she had no real interest in cooking. 

She stayed as a waitress and in the beginning our battles were waged sotto voce in hisses and snarls and stares. Then grabs and pushes, unseen slaps, until our area of operations moved out of sight into the storage room after hours where an old couch had been reclaimed for late night crashing. Actual  fighting would have been less damning and damaging. That came later, after Naomi had heard that I was selling coke across the bar and threatened to tell her aunt. It was an old story and a one-time mistake borne of poverty and the need of a quick score, but my embarrassment at being found out and fear of the loss of Sylvie’s trust brought a collapsing wave of desperation that sucked all reason out of my head. . 

Later I would remember hitting her. It would come to me in flashes like one of those old timey crank kinetoscope viewers they had in arcades back then. First she is standing there with her arms straight down at her sides, fists clenched, defiant and perhaps a little afraid. Then my right fist lashes out and connects with her jaw. At the last moment, realizing what was happening, I pulled the punch hitting her just hard enough to drop her solidly on her bottom. She sat on the floor blinking and wagging her head from side to side like a confused puppy. 

Almost as stunned as Naomi, I quickly extended my now open right hand. She took it and rose unsteadily to her feet. A cursory glance showed no blood nor outward evidence of damage. Pulling the punch had saved us both. Assuming, of course, that our regular angry coupling was off for the evening I tried to fashion some words of apology and mortification. Before I could open my mouth she said, “I’m sorry”, her eyes dulled and full. 

She withdrew her threat to expose me to Sylvie-such a breach of confidence, that a punch to the jaw was not just warranted but desired. The tears overfilled and ran down her cheeks in two glistening streams, one of which I thumbed, leaving the other to drip off her chin before she wiped at it with the back of her hand. 

I was moving toward the door when she said, “You can’t just leave.” I didn’t know what was left to do until she turned and lowered her jeans and rolled her panties after them. She bent over a stack of  beer cases. “I don’t want the last touch from you today to be a punch.” It was the only sex in our roughly six month tryst that could be even remotely described as tender. Or as tender as banging one out in a storeroom over a stack of beer cases can be.  

The next day she showed up wearing more makeup than usual to cover the bruise that had bloomed on her jaw overnight. She leaned in. “Never hit me again where others can see”, she said firmly, writing the script for our time together. 

When Sylvie stepped away in her eighties, she rightly sold the place to Naomi, who seemed well suited to be an owner; maybe only because she was no more than marginal at most other things. I stayed on, cooking, refining the dishes, tweaking  the menu, tending bar, doing the necessary things to keep Sylvie’s Bar and Lounge moving forward. Our affair, such as it was, cooled, then over a short time, disappeared. Burned out, more likely. 

Not too long after I stepped into the kitchen on a Thursday morning ready to make my orders for the weekend and prep for the lunch trade. The lights were on and coffee was brewing. A woman was standing, her back to the door. She was slender and rangy wearing snug black jeans and a white T-shirt. Her red hair was thick and short, brushed straight back and as she turned revealed a full sleeve tattoo on her left arm. She extended her right hand and went to introduce herself. 

“I know who you are”, I said, taking her hand firmly. Monica Perez was a chef at Tim’s Hideout, a steak joint out on the highway. She was until very recently it seemed. I looked around the kitchen where I’d spent so much time and it suddenly looked foreign to me. That’s how I knew I’d been replaced. I had splurged on my own set of knives which I gathered and wrapped in their canvas. 

“Chef…” She began. 

“Tony”, I answered. “You’re a chef. I’m a cook.”

“I’ve eaten here.” She said, trying. 

“The food?” I asked, having none of it. She winced slightly leaving me surprised and embarrassed, And surprised that i was embarrassed. 

“I’m sorry. My bad. Getting fucked before coffee makes me grumpy.” I said, heading for the door. 

“Wait” She said. “You know Katie’s Corner uptown? “They need a che…”she stopped herself. “A cook of your experience. Talk to Kate. Katie Sole. If you’re going I’ll call her.”

To be continued…

Alice

Alice picked desultorily at her salad, moving pieces of shrimp under the romaine as if they embarrassed her. She only ordered it because having  already had one date with Ron, she knew she would need a distraction, something to fiddle with while he droned on.. She also, not yet in a comfort zone with Ron or Ronnie-Carole referred to him both ways, she had gone with the Arnold Palmer instead of her desired and probably necessary double Blue Sapphire Martini with  three olives.  

He had surprised her, she’d give him that. She said nothing right off, just kept that quizzical smile that she thought was equal parts cute and perturbed. She cut her eyes left and right to assure he hadn’t been overheard. And that she had heard correctly. Her thoughts were split between, “What the actual fuck?” and “Was Carole pranking her with this guy?”

She used to think it was her, but not anymore. She had learned from a tender age to assume that men were broken beings. She imagined that there were all manner of maladies and catastrophes that befell men and assumed that it was inevitable-the nature of things-and happened at an early age. More than that she was unhappily certain she would find out on her life’s journey.

She had just turned fourteen when her friend Chrissie’s step dad was driving her home after she’d had dinner with them. It was not uncommon as that was the year of the sleepover when it seemed nobody could spend a whole week at home without breaking it up with a night or two at a friend’s house. There to read magazines, listen to music, sometimes sneak liquor and play spin the bottle which she wasn’t sure she would have enjoyed as much had there been boys. Kissing games had led to other games that had winnowed the numbers of girls who would come to the sleepovers.  

But this one time, when Jim, which is what Chrissie’s step dad insisted all the kids call him-”Mr. Cooper was my father”-he’d say, had pulled off into the parking lot of Beto’s Lounge which had burned to the ground years before and only existed in memories and as a weathered sign on a rusty pole in a broken asphalt parking lot. It was dark back here and people would swing in  to pee in the tall grass if they couldn’t make it home. Alice had assumed that was why they stopped. But Jim didn’t get out, didn’t even move, just stared straight ahead so intently that Alice followed his gaze to see if there was anything in the scrub woods that had overtaken the collapsed foundation. Then Alice noticed how he was squeezing and rubbing his hands on the steering wheel. Not exactly nervous, but something. 

She knew that older kids with cars would also pull in here to neck. Suddenly she had a thought that he might kiss her. She wouldn’t have minded that probably. He was cool and she’d kissed boys of course, but not men. That would be new. Then, just when she was getting ready to feel his arm across the back of her shoulders to pull her close he said, “I’d like you to do me a favor.” 

“Sure.” she said. She had spent enough time with him and his family to have no qualms. 

“Don’t do it if you don’t want to and-this is important-it has to be a secret, just between us.”

Only then did she feel a little flutter in her stomach. A tightening in her chest. “Sure,” she repeated. “What should I do?” He told her to get in the back seat. She’d been in the back seat with a boy before and hadn’t liked it much but she trusted Jim.  She  got out and opened the back door and slid in. He stayed in the front seat behind the wheel. He was looking at her in the rear view mirror. “Lay on the seat”, he told her. She did. “On your belly”, he said. She flipped over. 

When she looked back over her shoulder he was adjusting the mirror downward. 

“Now Alice”, he said slowly, as though he was having trouble speaking. “I don’t want you to be afraid.”

“I’m not”, she said, not lying.

“And don’t do anything you don’t want to.”

 “OK”, she said. “What do you want me to do?”she asked, already knowing. 

“Push down your jeans” By the time he said it she already had her hands at work, unsnapping and unzipping. He was watching in the mirror. Maybe she would have felt more uncomfortable if she hadn’t done this once already this evening. 

Those are cute panties”, he said as if talking to a child. “Are those hearts?” he asked.

“Roses”, she answered. 

“Oh. I couldn’t make them out in the mirror.”

“You can turn around and look. I don’t mind.” She certainly wouldn’t tell him that she wore these panties tonight because Chrissie liked them. “Would you push them down for me?” She hesitated for a moment as if considering, but could not imagine why she would not. Though the air in the car was thick and seemed to press, it was calm. There was no movement, no sound except the stray car hissing by out of sight, the only illumination from the rear dome light shining directly down on her. There was no way she wasn’t going to do what he asked. So he wanted to see her butt. So what? She lifted and wriggled until her panties were down her thighs with her jeans. 

It must have gotten very quiet then, because she could hear Jim’s breathing. “Roll up on your side,” he said, “facing the back.” She took a moment to translate for herself what he was wanting. Simple enough. She rolled her face into the backseat, her bottom facing the front. Again,  silence filled the car, broken only by his breathing. Alice brought her arm up under her head, making herself a little more comfortable. Then she heard a quickening and a rustling as if mice were running loose up front. Then a cough and moan and the air filled with the spunky smell of warm bread dough. Which is the only way she could describe it-but she knew what it was. He groaned a bit more, then there was more rustling and Alice remembered the wadded paper bag on the front seat, left over from a burger and fries. 

“You can pull your pants up.” His voice was thick and phlegmy. He had started to weep as she pulled her panties up. By the time she was sitting and snapping her jeans, he was full on sobbing. Jesus, Alice thought. Not this. Her own father was a crier and she found it highly disturbing. As she saw it, it was her job, as a young woman, to cry her way through things she didn’t like or understand. She didn’t, of course but it was her prerogative. He should be the steady one, hand on the wheel, helping her to navigate. That was the only fair division of labor in adult-child relationships. And he wasn’t stopping, nor even slowing. He apologized again and again and tried to explain himself. There was something about his wife in there and sleeping in different rooms. Jesus! Enough, already. Alice would have happily gotten naked and sat in his lap if he would stop blubbering.

Finally, he ebbed, then subsided altogether as this time she was the one watching in the rear view. He said, “Well”, matter of factly then wiped his eyes roughly with the heels of his hands in a way she thought manly. Then he rolled the window part way down and killed the dome light. “You want a cigarette?” He asked.

“I don’t smoke”, she said.

“Good”, he answered. “I think Chrissie is starting.”

She was, but Alice said nothing.

She heard the scratch and pop of a match then saw the flare as he inhaled deeply and blew a stream of smoke out of the window.

“You can come back up front”, he said.

Thinking of the sad stained burger bag wadded somewhere up there, she said she was fine where she was. “That’s cool, too”, he said and started the car. He adjusted the mirror yet again and she saw his red wet eyes in the glow of the dash. “Our secret, right?”

“Our secret”, she repeated.”

“Seriously,” he said, “this is my life, we’re talking about.”

“Mine too Mr. Cooper.. You think I would want to tell anyone about this?”

“Right”, he said. “Sorry, I just…”

“Enough”, she said, suddenly tired and opting to get angry instead of sad. “Just take me home.”

They drove in silence for the fifteen minutes it took to pull up in front of Alice’s house. Before he could say anything, she yelped a quick “g’night” and was out the door and up the walk. Like a responsible Dad he waited there until she opened the door then, like a good girl, waved before stepping through and closing it behind her.

Moonlight’s a Liar

When Lonnie Winters opened his eyes this time, the light coming in the open window over his head was no different than it had been the last time. He lay still on his back for another couple of seconds allowing his forearm to relax into Toni’s firm warm thigh. She didn’t stir. Leaving your lover’s bed is always an unhappy trip and he aimed to put it off for as long as he could. 

The barred owl they had heard earlier called from the treeline, the “who-cooks-for-you “ call an interesting variation on the little screechers that nested in the oak that shaded the deck. The Whippoorwill must have fled downstream or up into the mountain because beside the owls, it was crickets,  cicadas and the basso profundo of the bullfrogs down in the mud that were the soundtrack.

The heavy night air was as wet as it had during the afternoon, but it’s thickness was tempered by the absence of the punishing sun that had kept them to the shade of the overhanging maples and sycamores as they passed the day among the willow grass on the gravel bars. 

The moon, a blanketed faraway silver dime, cast a  gauzy flat light through the thick air. The rolling fog made it tough to gauge the moon’s position in the night sky. It could as well have been midnight, as two or four o’clock. With the 6 a.m. sunrises gone for the season, nighttime started early and stretched deep into what would have been morning a couple of months earlier.

When they had gone to bed earlier than was typical, she lay flat on her back and spread her legs so that Lonnie could kneel between them. He gently ran his tongue back to front along her slit ensuring she was as wet as his dry mouth would allow. He could smell the river water in her wiry bush as he lifted her into his mouth and worked his tongue in, out and around. Before long he wasn’t the only one providing lubrication. When her breaths quickened, he slid his hands out from under her butt and sat back on his haunches, satisfyingly solid and ready. She pulled her knees into her chest and grabbed the backs of her thighs to spread herself open, toes pointed toward the ceiling  Even in the uncertain moonlight his pathway could not be better defined had she conjured landing lights.

He moved closer and with one hand supporting himself used the other to guide himself to her eager pussy. With a single long thrust he sheathed his cock completely before pulling back to push forward again, and again, harder each time. Then while burning deep within her he leaned forward allowing his weight to rest on her chest as he dug his arms under her shoulders to squeeze her breasts flat against him as he thrust his hips  as quickly as he could trying to match her pace-wondering if she sensed the weakness he was starting to feel in his left hip. Her shudding and tight barking cries over the next few minutes told that she did not.  

Now, a few hours later, He slid stiffly out from under the sheet and trusted his left leg to hold him up, which it did with the aid of his left hand against the wall. Toni was undisturbed, snoring lightly on her back.He regarded her closely in the gray light filtering through the window. Her lean face and strong jawline created shadows on her neck and long long dark hair slashed across her cheek like bloody scars. 

The sheet had slipped to her belly revealing her small flat breasts, nipples like blackberries in the dull moonlight. He would have liked to watch her longer but the new blood thinners they had him on played hell with his guts.  He stood for a moment  to ensure that this run wasn’t going to be a false alarm. Yeah, no…gotta go. He gently pulled the sheet back over her and headed out of the room. 

Lonnie shuffled quietly out the open door and onto the screen porch. There was enough milky moonlight to navigate around table and chairs and make lights unnecessary. He doubted he would have turned them on anyway, thinking  lights crashing into the mountain darkness somehow obscene.

Eschewing the cane he had left by the door for this very trip, he limped down the four steps to the hardpacked dirt and out the flagstone walkway to the outhouse. On his left ran the river, inky black reflecting the gray trees as silver and moon shadows crossed his path. The outhouse door creaked and he took the step up into the small room. There was a little window toward the river that he could look through while doing what he came out here to do. This had been his first trip out here tonight, which wasn’t bad. 

A couple of minutes and he was stepping back out into the relative freshness of the humid night,  sunrise still hours away. His eyes wandered left toward the road and mountain beyond. He froze in mid-step, right foot just grazing the flagstone, heart hammering against his ribcage. There was a man out there-a black silhouette-dimly motionless in the fog,- standing in the road just beyond the triple strand of barbed wire that kept the grazing cattle out of his yard. Lonnie noted that the body cast a shadow as if to convince himself that what he was seeing was not an apparition. “Moonlight is a liar”, the words of his biddy aunt echoed in his head.

Lonnie exhaled deeply and completely, settling his right foot down then shifting his weight to test it. . Of course it would be him. If anything he should’ve been surprised to have not seen him yet. Still, it was damned unnerving “Evening” he said with a wave, opting to not lead with “Good Morning” which would have muted the point he wanted to make. “It’s too early”, he called out,  hinting that yes, morning was the next thing, but still next. Not now. “Come back sun up. We’ll have coffee”. 

The dark figure raised a hand as Lonnie did the same. He answered with his own small wave then kept walking as the figure turned and started back his own winding path up into the mountain.  “Jesus”, he breathed, watching until the shadow melted into the deep woods at the base of the mountain. 

The startle of the vision in the road had pushed enough adrenaline through Lonnie’s  blood that he was now awake for certain.Sour sweat having nothing to do with  humidity dribbled between his shoulder blades. Going back to bed now would only awaken Toni. He took the four steps up to the screen porch and reached in for the cane before crossing to the deck overlooking the river and the dock right below. He leaned against the railing. He had never regretted giving up cigarettes until now.

The dark water was flat, the only sounds feeding bass splashing in the weed beds along the other side. He saw a bar of soap-a glowing white wafer at the end of the dock. A dip would certainly be in order. In his younger days he would have skipped down the hill and dove in. Now it was all about preparation and consideration. He had never been a cautious man and it didn’t come easily.  

He heard the door to the porch creak open. “Lonnie?” came Toni’s urgent whisper. He turned, disappointed that she had slipped a dark T-shirt over her head, though her white panties winking at him at the hemline was definitely intriguing. 

“Were you talking to someone?” she asked staying on the top step. 

“Naw…an old song, is all.”

“What time is it?” she asked. 

“Too damn late or too damn early.”

“Come back to bed.”

“I will. I think I might take a dip first.”

“I don’t think so.”

Come on, You can stay on the dock.

She started slowly down the steps, as if she were the disabled one. 

“I’ll teach you that old song”, he said. 

She leaned against the railing beside him and he rubbed her back, then sliding downward cupped her bottom. He knew then that once a night was his positive limit and to be grateful for it. 

“Come on”, he said, “You can sit on the dock and make sure I don’t drift away.”

“You’re going regardless, right?.”

He didn’t answer.

There Were No Lights in Ft. Rox Anymore

Not bothering to look around for prying eyes because he didn’t give a shit, Junior Garland twisted the top off a tiny whiskey bottle with a small cracking sound and emptied it into his black coffee. He sat across from his only friend (stretching the definition) Bob Lincoln in the back booth of Rita’s Diner, the last stop on Bender Street before it turned into State Route 51 and headed out of what was left of town. They were two of the eight people in the joint, about average for the morning rush since the Bob Evans had opened next to Micky D’s less than four miles down 51.  He had parked his pickup in the back next to the dumpster and as out of sight as it could be. He had tied two tarps over the bed covering the cargo in the back which was adequate as long as no one was looking for it. And someone would certainly be soon. 

Mary Lou, the long time waitress and, with her husband Gary, owner of the Diner (There was no Rita) came by with the coffee pot. 

“Jesus Junior”, she said, seeing the empty beside his cup. “At least don’t advertise..” 

Without looking up, Junior covered the bottle with his wide paw and scooped it into his side pocket. Then he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out another. He tipped it toward Mary Lou, “You want a pick me up? I have more.”

“No thanks”, she said, nodding toward the kitchen where Gary worked  “Enough booze in the family with that one. I’ll stay out of it.”

“Take him one, then,” said Junior, offering.

“You think he don’t have a bottle in there?”

Junior grinned humorlessly across the table, “See? I can’t even do a good deed.” He snapped the screw top  and dumped the liquor into his newly refilled cup. 

Bob watched her walk away, especially her slim calves and snugly fit skit. She had kept her figure, he’d give her that. He and “Lou” didn’t interact much though they’d known each other since grade school. There seemed to be a mutual concern that the hunger for each other that had driven their fling so many years before had not been completely sated. It was the summer after graduation when it seemed that everybody was going into the mill down in Brownsville or to Nam. Bob had done both. Two tours, then to the mill where he was a shift foreman. He and Lou’s thing  hadn’t lasted long, just a couple of weeks when Gary, her unofficial fiancee even then, was up in Pittsburgh training for a steel mill job that would have been sweet but he ultimately didn’t keep.

With his flat expression, Junior reached for and poured a third shot into his cup. 

“Did you sleep at all?”Bob asked him.

“Who has time?” the big guy grumbled, lighting a cigarette with hands that trembled slightly. 

“My question is how did you get those tanks into your truck?”

Junior shrugged, staring blankly into the black of his coffee where a tiny gray ash floated. “Just picked them up and pushed”, he said as if they weighed thirty pounds and not 300. 

All that Bobby knew for sure was that sometime overnight, Junior had stolen two welders and three acetylene tanks from the railroad. He didn’t need them; couldn’t use them, but they were there to be had. You’d have to be a mook not to take something that was there for you. At least that was the thought process of an over muscled hopped-up sometime thief. Thing was, Junior had a good job in Brownsville, but he also had a need to stay ahead of “them”. All them that were waiting for him to go broke, lose his job, be weak in any way. He had had enough weakness when one season of college ball ensured he’d never follow so many of his friends and teammates to the jungle. Months in a walker, then on crutches left him gimpy, angry, and vengeful.  Maybe overseas he could have proven himself to himself and wouldn’ have to pull off dangerous hair-brained schemes that always were just short of blowing up and taking him and everybody around him down. 

The central concern at the moment was that Junior’s latest haul had come from the railroad. How he’d managed to break into the storage car was a story that Bob didn’t even want to know. And most of the remaining populace of dwindling Fort Rocaceau-an over named coal patch town roughly twenty miles upstream from Pittsburgh-worked for or had some connection to the railroad. They had already had the uncomfortable conversation about why Bob couldn’t store them for him. 

Sometime during the caper, Junior had gotten it in his mind that since Bob wasn’t a townie, had fifty acres and a couple of outbuildings down Hanging Rock Parkway he could stash them there till the heat died down. Who would ever know? But Bob knew, once that stuff settled onto a spot at his place-his wife’s family’s actually-Junior, once down off his larcenous high, would forget about it. And once he was straight he’d never be able to move them.  Plus, Bob’s pain-in-the dick brother in law was retired railroad and could not be counted on not to be snooping around looking for old shit of his old man’s which was still in the outbuildings. 

So no, this stuff had to go and go quick and given all the prying eyes around town, it was best to get rid of it a county or two away. So after a couple of calls from the pay phone outside of Rita’s,  the plan was to haul them as they set in Junior’s pickup down to Uniontown where an Army buddy of Bob’s would take them off their hands for a decent price. But now, the plan in motion, the big man seemed hesitant. 

“What?” asked Bob who was familiar with the ebbs and flows of Junior’s moods ranging as they did from gravel gray to asphalt black. 

“How well you know this guy?”, he asked his coffee.

“He’s solid”, Bob replied, trying to will his partner to meet his eyes.

“We get all the way down there and he tries to fuck me, I’ll burn him down”,  he rumbled, finally looking up. 

Bob made a show of sighing, demonstrating that there was no issue. Junior’s taste for violence was legendary but not many people had, like Bob, been close to it. Had seen it bloom from a small seed, like this short sentence silently nursed by constant brooding, into a conflagration that left people broken and questioning their decisions.

“Did you talk to him?” Bob asked, trying to pull him out of his darkness.

“Yeah, I did.”

“Did he give you a price?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you like the price?”

Junior shrugged, finding logic bothersome in his current mindset. 

“Did you like the price?” Bob repeated

“It’s OK”, he mumbled.

“Cause if you don’t like it, get back on the horn and save us the fucking drive. But you gotta figure out something. You hold onto that shit, the Staties will be knocking at your door within a week.”

“Fuck them too.”

“OK, good. Fuck the Staties.” Sometimes when he used his old Sergeant’s voice he could penetrate Junior’s black fogs. One day he was going to find out who sold this guy crank and would kick his ass. “What do you think, Sheila’s going to come back from Florida and take care of Denise when you go to prison?”

“Fuck her”, he grumbled.

“Who? Denise or Sheila”, asked Bob, confused but not.

“Sheila!”

“OK, but you go away, something’s gotta happen with Denise. You think about that?”

“Figured she’d live with you and Rose”, he said, back to staring into his cup. 

Bob looked at the man’s hands, scarred and broken, healed and rebroken, from a life of hard labor and fighting. Christ, he thought. He’s thought this out. He reached over and popped the big man on his beefy bicep with the side of his fist.

“You better leave behind a good wad of cash, cause two girls in the house will double Rose’s gin budget.”

Junior grinned at that. Bob never liked to talk about his wife’s drinking, something Junior used when he needed to needle a bit. “Girls coming?” he asked. 

Since they were toddlers Denise and Janie had been  tag-alongs on most of their father’s escapades. That was Bob’s word. What he had liked in the early days was the cover that little girls provided from the suspicions of cops or anyone else. What could these guys be doing with their daughters in tow?

“I brought them with me.” Bob answered. 

Where they at?, asked Junior. 

“Over the paper store playing the machine.”

“Best get ‘em, then,” said Junior, getting up. 

Bob tossed a few dollars on the table and waited to make sure Junior didn’t pocket them, then headed out. He crossed the street and opened the screen door at the paper store. 

He looked past the empty soda fountain and rows of comic books toward the back waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim inside. He heard the clack and bong of the machine before he was able to focus and see Denise leaning into the pinball machine. She was as lean and rangy as her old man was thick and stocky. 

“Time to go, girls!” he called. Denise spun away from the machine without a second thought about the game in play. She was wearing black jeans, cuffed over black boots and a flannel shirt open over a black jersey. She wore her black hair feathered over her ears and above her collar. Her face hadn’t yet grown into her overbite so she kept her mouth mostly shut giving her the look of the typical sullen teen, at least five years older than she was. Janie, Bob’s daughter was a full head shorter, looked more like a kid, honey colored and freckled like a dust storm with a thick mop of sandy brown hair parted in the middle that cascaded down to her shoulders. She wore bib jeans as so many kids did, and sneakers and bounced rather than walked.  

The problem with this caper was that Junior’s truck was a single cab with only a bench seat and a small storage area behind which even if the girls could squeeze into it the sideways sitting would result in double car sickness. It was Denise-the older of the two-who  suggested they ride in the bed with the “the goods” she called them. 

Bob realized immediately that the camouflage he hoped to gain with the girls would be offset by the riding in the bed of a pickup an hour down the highway. Junior even saw that. He opened the tailgate revealing the half of the bed not full of stolen equipment. 

“Crawl in here. There’s another tarp folded for yinz to lay on.”

With an audible sigh, Denise lifted a knee onto the open tailgate and crawled into the void under the tarp wanting to put the grownups literally behind her.  By the time Janie followed, she was already on her back, hands intertwined behind her head staring at the canvas. Janie lay beside her, mirroring. 

“Who thought this was a good idea?” said Denise.

“It’s fun. Gets me out of the house. I bet we can get them to buy us burgers in Uniontown.”

“Fries?”

“No doubt.”

They lay in silence while the truck bounced out of the parking lot then tried to guess where they were as they picked up speed then slowed at stop signs. There were no traffic lights in Fort Rox anymore. Dull sunlight leaked in around the edges of the tarp and before long they could see. Once the steady hum of the tires announced they were on the highway, Denise flipped onto her side, her hand braced by her elbow holding her head. Like her little shadow, Janie did the same, facing her. 

“You know this stuff’s all stolen right?” asked Denise. 

“No.” 

“Well, yes-he’s such a fucking asshole. When he didn’t come home last night I knew he was up to no good.” 

“Where’d he steal it?”

“Who knows, who cares?”

“Why?”

Same, same.

“Isn’t he afraid he’ll get caught?”

“He’s too dumb to be afraid.”

Dennie!” Janie had never heard a discouraging word from Denise about her father. 

“He is! He’s too dumb to be a criminal too. Just fearless and mean. What happens when he gets caught? He’ll be fine-a blockhead like him-but what will happen to me?”

Janie could see tears glinting in her friend’s eyes. She scooched a little closer. “I’ll take care of you,” she said quietly. 

Denise smiled down at her. “You’re a midget”, she said, an old taunt. “You can’t take care of yourself”.

With a huff, Janie pushed herself up and then, sitting as straight as the tarp cover would allow, slapped Denise hard on the butt.

“Ow!” the older girl barked. “What was that for?”

“I’m not a midget! You’re just a stringbean.” 

Denise was rubbing her backside. “That hurt!.

“Cause you got a skinny butt. A little slap like that wouldn’t  hurt my ass”. They were close enough that they could feel each other’s breath. Janie was watching Denise’s mouth closely and smelling the light whiff of the spearmint gum she chewed at the paper store. Then without warning and without even knowing she was going to do it though she’d often thought about the how and when of it, she stretched her neck and pressed her lips to Denise’s first lightly then harder so their teeth clicked. She pulled away testing the waters.

“Why’d you do that?” Asked Denise.

Janie shrugged, which didn’t translate laying down, “Wanted to. You mad?”

“No”, said Denise, which Janie took as permission to do it again. This time the older girl kissed back lightly and opened her mouth slightly to accommodate Janie’s prodding tongue. Denise then felt her friend’s hand trying to jam itself down the back of her jeans blocked by her wide belt. 

“What are you doing back there?”

“Just feeling around.”

Without a word, Denise flopped onto her back, undid her belt, and unsnapped her jeans. Then she came back up onto her side facing Janie. “Only my butt”, she directed “Nothing else.” The girl thrust her hand down inside her jeans and panties exploring the angles and contours of Denise’s slim backside. With her hand cupping the bottom of her bottom, Janie kissed her again, hard with an open mouth the way she’d seen in the movies. By the way Denise kissed back, she was pretty sure this wasn’t her first time. 

“You get enough?” Denise asked after the long kiss. 

“I got some, I don’t know if I’ll ever get enough.”

“Well, I like boys, you know.”

“Who?”

“Just in general.”

“Name one.” 

“James”

“Bracey? He’s a senior-you’re a child. Like me. Plus, He’s stuck up., Only dates cheerleaders.. “

“He’ll date me.”

“Only if you put out-and don’t waste yourself on him.”

“How do you know?”

We little people have our ways, she said squeezing her butt for the last time. .“You giants just wander around,  heads in the clouds having no clue” Janie said, slipping her hand out of Denise’s pants. 

“But boys, in general. 

“Name someone in our class.” 

“Paul Riley. He’s cute.”

“Peed his pants on the bus last week.”

“He did not!”

“Did. Pissy Paulie. He’s your beau now? Charming.” 

Denise flipped onto her back. “I give up!” she said laughing. 

Again, Janie mirrored and flipped onto her back. “Come over tonight?”

“So you can suck my face off?”

“We’ll listen to records too.”

I gotta see what the master criminal is up to. If he crashes for the night, maybe.”

In later years, after the after, given that they were schoolmates and playmates since preschool it might seem that they were paragons of restraint. But no, it just hadn’t occurred to them-the time wasn’t right. Later they would laugh about all their chaste childhood sleepovers as time wasted.

Bus Stop

Last night’s chill had blanketed the subdivision in a thick soup of autumnal fog. Mary Lysle, out for her morning jog, was surprised to see her best friend Jules lingering at the intersection of Spruce and Vine as the school bus disappeared around the bend toward the state road. Mary knew that Jules’ kids, Tony and Kayla, were old enough to drive themselves, at least Kayla was, so they weren’t regular bus riders anymore.

“Hey Jules”, Mary said, having come close enough to startle her. “Oh, I’m sorry,”she patted her friend’s elbow. I thought you saw me coming.”

“No, uh…in a fog this morning”

“Aren’t we all? Car in the shop?” 

“What?”

“Why the bus? I thought walking your kids to the bus was in your rear view”

No, Just Kayla. Tony has his permit, he’s driving himself later. Kayla’s being punished, She has to take the bus for a month…”

“A month?” Having no children, Mary often found herself empathetically exhausted by her friend’s strains of raising kids. “That’s getting up an hour earlier….”

“Sure is. It’s like I’m being punished too.”

“What she do?”

“You know she started smoking. I told you…”

“She’s still doing that? I thought it was a phase…”

“Teenagers”, Jules shrugged. “That wouldn’t be bad enough, but with band practice and majorettes, she had to quit her job. What’s a pack of cigarettes cost? She doesn’t have the money for that…So yesterday John gets a call at work from Mr. Rugg, down at the Village Market to tell him he caught Kayla stealing a pack of smokes.

“NO!”

Kayla gave the impression of being the well scrubbed girl next door. Her mother’s petite features and honey blond hair, her Dad’s rangy build. Nice enough-Started calling her “Mary” after the divorce when reverting to her maiden name had confused her. Or was it the transformation from a Missus, to a Miss, Maybe a MZ? Anyway, the girl was polite about it and usually only spoke when spoken to.  

“Oh yeah” So Mr. Rugg, being a vet knows John from all the VFW stuff and calls him instead of the cops.”

“Oh man” said Mary “Better for her he’d have called the cops.

John Fine was a retired Army gunnery sergeant who managed the service department at the Volvo dealership down in town. Forty-four years old, he looked ten years younger, his sandy hair kept short, his body still youthful from regular basketball games in the men’s league.

“Yeah, well…When I got home last night from Tennis, what time was that?” 

“We played till eight.”

“OK, so I got home, soon as I walked in the door I heard them…”

“Fighting?” 

Mary gave a short “tsk!” “Not hardly. Well maybe they had been, but by the time I got there, she was getting a serious spanking.”. 

“Spanking!?” Mary took a step backward and  raised a fist to her chest as if to quell the flips her heart was doing.  

“Apparently he came straight home from work and was waiting for her when she got home from practice.”

Mary was stunned but wanted details. How to prod her friend without being intrusive? 

“Did you see it?”

Mary shrugged. “They were in his office with the door open-so it wasn’t like I was spying.. He was sitting in his desk chair and Kayla was over his lap, pants and panties down to her knees.

“On the bare?”  she gasped, this time raising her fist to her open mouth.

“He had warned her before. I guess he thought it was time. Look-I’d appreciate you don’t tell anyone about this. In fact, I insist that you don’t. I shouldn’t have said anything. But, it’s a lot to hold on to.”

“I bet”. Jules was staring at the curb as Mary tried to read her silence. Mary had no kids, hell, at present she had no husband, but she remembered when she was a kid and she or one of her sisters did something to warrant a spanking or a paddling, it set the whole house askew for days. Longer for Mary. 

“DId he hurt her?” She asked gently

“He hurt her butt, I know that. He has a heavy hand.” She shrugged. “It was a spanking. A hard one.” 

“You didn’t interrupt or say anything?”

“No, he saw me, she, in her position, couldn’t. So I put my finger to my lips for him to not say anything and backed out. I didn’t want to embarrass her more than she already was plus I wanted to be able to comfort her later-be the good cop, you know? 

“Was she bruised?” 

“No,  just red and sore.  If he’d have used the hairbrush, well then she’d have been purple this morning.”

“Hairbrush?! He’s hit her with a hairbrush.”

“No! God no!”

“Tony?”

“God no, that kid is straighter than a yard stick. No trouble from him.”

“So, who gets spanked with a hairbrush?” Mary asked already knowing the answer.

“Nobody!” Snapped Jules, biting the word harder than she had meant to. 

The two friends stood in silence for a moment. Mary’s face felt hot-the warmth washing down through her chest. She tugged at the collar of her jersey and imagined steam rising from the opening.

“I really don’t want to talk about it.” said Jules, looking back toward where the bus disappeared as if hoping for some kind of intervention. 

Mary reached down and took her friend’s hand and was happy with the answering squeeze.

“How do I not know about this?”, she asked finally.

“It’s not something I want to talk about”, she repeated almost petulantly.

Mary slipped her arm playfully around her friend’s waist. “That’s too bad girlfriend. I felt weird pumping you about your daughter’s spanking-but I want all the details of your’s” 

“Oh, Jeez. I shouldn’t have said a word.”

“But you did. And I want more.”

Jules sighed. “OK, but not now. Go finish your run. Come over for lunch-I’ll order in from Minutello’s” 

OK-cool. Get me the chicken salad, no fries.

“12:30”

“Good. I’ll bring a bottle of Pinot Grigio.” Then pausing, “Will that be okay, you won’t get in trouble will you?” It was a casually curious question with no-or not much-underlying sarcasm.

“No, not as long as I’m with you. He likes you.”

“Really?” This was a revelation. Mary had no reason to think that John DIS-liked her but he was so rigid, she assumed that her flightiness somehow offended his military sensibilities. 

“He thinks you’re good for me. He thinks I’m too tight sometimes. You loosen me up.”

“That’s me, loosey goosey. OK, see you later then. And try to behave yourself-wouldn’t want you getting in trouble.”

“GRRRR-! I’m already regretting this.” She growled through a rueful smile. 

“Just teasing sweety. Toodles”, she called over her shoulder, surprised that her knees were a little weak. When her husband left her, one of his complaints was that she was too flighty. “Not a serious person” he had actually stated in the paperwork as if to codify it for all time. Now he’s remarried to a partner in a downtown law firm-and living out in Parks. Good for them, hope they are serious together working their crossword puzzles and listening to classical music. She is going to spend the afternoon drinking wine and talking spanking with her best friend. After she takes care of the tingling that gets stronger with every step. Is that flighty enough for you? Prick!

She jogged up her driveway having decided to cut her run short. The tremors and fibrillations coursing through her as she imagined Jules’ slim ass bare over her husband’s lap had to be dealt with. She hadn’t had any release in weeks. No wonder this set her off. She punched her four numbers into the key pad and the garage door rumbled open. She ducked inside before it was completely open, stepping over the light beam that would have stopped it. At the back of the garage she pressed the lighted button that dropped the door and pulled her hoodie and T-shirt over her head in one move, tossing them onto the hood of the RAV. In the kitchen she sat to remove her runners and short socks. She wanted to be naked before reaching the bedroom. 

She stood and untied her sweats, letting them fall then marching in place till she had left them a cotton puddle on the floor. Her underwear followed without ceremony, then her sports bra over her head. Liberated, she sighed deeply and stretched her arms over her head. She opened the fridge and grabbed a water and headed back toward the bedroom. 

When married, her buzzy little friend pretty much stayed on the top shelf of the bathroom closet, it so mortified her husband. Now it lay in a place of honor in the top drawer of her bedside table with her Xanax. Of course, her bed was unmade and it welcomed her as she flopped backwards, legs spread, loving the cool of the sheets and lumps of blankets rubbing her everywhere. Yes, she would wash the sheets, finally. She yanked the drawer open and took hold of the ribbed blue silicone vibrator. Now, naked in her bed, she slowed her movements from frantic to just frenzied. There was lube in the drawer as well, but a quick slippery touch confirmed it would not be necessary. 

She rolled onto her right side and pulled her knees up, the way she liked. Then, with a twitch of the knob at the end, Ol’ Blue came to buzzing life in her right hand. Her eyes closed and her mouth went slack as she slid the vibrator down her belly and between her legs while rubbing her bottom with her other hand. Her deep sigh morphed into a moan. This wouldn’t take long at all. 

The Sweet Spot

People who know about fishing but have never actually fished, except for maybe dipping a worm into a pay lake as a kid, think all fishing is the same. It is not. This fishing, that he was doing now, for trout in the mountains, is different from the kind of fishing he’d learned as a boy. Then, he and his father fished down-country rivers and lakes for bass mostly. Sometimes pike. The waters were wide and deep, unreadable to those who did not spend time out there as they had. The man and his son. Both of them named Frank, so he was Junior, which he hated.

They would rise before light and settle into the boat, he in the front, the old man in the back manning the outboard. The ride could be long or it might just be up to the bend in the river to what Big Frank had judged to be the best weed bed, gravel bar or drop off for that morning. As fishermen they were always looking for the best spot. He was right more often than not and big fish would rise to poppers as the sun broke the horizon then, later, dive for rubber worms as it burned overhead. As a boy he had learned from his old man how to lose himself in fishing. How to let it consume him so that there was nothing else for the time he was on the water.

Here, on the streams in the mountains, where Frank had fished since his war, it did no good to get there before the sun. The stream, deep in the cut valley, needed sunshine, especially in April, to awaken the mayflies and begin the hatches which in turn awakened the trout. He’d  seen them in this pool yesterday when he and Bill had scouted the stream. That’s what made the stream different from the rivers or lakes. Here he was stalking fish that he could see, not intuiting where they might be. 

And he saw them. The fish hadn’t been actively feeding when they saw them, just twitching in the current, moving a length this way or that, nosing upstream into the current but rising to nothing.  Apart from the big brown that rolled flashing his speckled side, he couldn’t name them all. But that was fine. This was a sweet spot. An uncommon sweet spot.“You fish this one, Kid”, Bill had said, ceding it to him. 

He appreciated the courtesy but knew that Bill had a bad knee from a fall out west over the winter and one walk up this mountain would be enough for him this weekend. He’d fish the flat water within easy reach of the truck.

Bill could fish where he wanted. Bill could do what he wanted. And if he wanted to call a grown man “Kid” he could do that too. Bill owned the mountain, or the thousand and some odd acres worth owning. A spot beyond compare. Mostly standing pine and hardwoods, nestling two excellent trout streams. One was fed by a small lake over the top of the mountain that Bill owned and a smaller bouncier stream that was fed by springs that he probably owned too. 

Bill got the land and all else through his father and uncle who had left this world suddenly, rich from rapaciously logging and mining anything they could lay claim to. Which was, as they said around here, a shit ton. Truth was, had they lived, this mountain would not have. Bill often said that at night he could hear them raging at him from hell, damning him for turning such a rich resource acquired for ruination and enrichment into a personal playground. He usually ended that part of the tale by raising whatever glass he was drinking from at the time and saying, “Fugg ‘em.”

Bill’s a good guy. Has his quirks, sure. Who doesn’t? Over the last few years, Frank had convinced himself that even if the forebears, that’s how Bill referred to them,  had lived they wouldn’t have been able to pull Bill into their life where money meant everything. That class of people always overreached, thinking that money could buy wisdom, insight or youth. Power though, was something different. Everyone had power, the secret is convincing someone to relinquish theirs. Everything came with a price. A tariff, Bill had called it. 

Frank had come out of a thick stand of mountain laurel to approach the stream across the thin gravel strip. Sunlight was crawling down the opposite ridge as he tied on a Blue Wing Olive and tried to cast to a riffle downstream from a rock where he knew a fish would be holding. As was typical of his first casts, he missed badly coming up short, but the fly no sooner hit the water than it was engulfed by a small splash and the line snapped straight.

“Damn!” he said, setting the hook which the fish had already done a good job of. It wasn’t a big fish, but it was a frantic one. A pink flash on the jump showed it to be a rainbow. He brought it in quickly, not wanting to tire it too badly, and pinned it against his leg with his free hand. Then, keeping it safely in the water, he grabbed the shank of the hook and twisted it out of the fish’s jaw. The trout hung there suspended in the current for a moment flaring its gills. Then, with a flick of its tail, it was off into the current and gone. Frank smiled that he botched his first cast and still landed a trout. Would be one of those days.

He worked upstream slowly, moving to keep his legs warm inside his waders. Most casts seemed to raise fish-if not to be caught, to be missed. That was fine. He was only going to keep a few for dinner so there was no pressure to catch every fish. That was never the point. As the sun crested, and the hatch changed, he switched flies. Then when he reached a shady hole where he knew some big fish would be stacked along the bottom he went with the beaded woolly bugger-something that would go deep. His actions were rhythmic and thoughtless until they weren’t. 

His mind wandered, it always did when the fishing was good, to the mornings with his old man. They were not all good, he knew. Sometimes they went out and his father was still drunk from the night before. Sometimes he carried a bottle. Sometimes the boat would arc in a long circle before he turned to see the old man sleeping against the tiller, cigarette hanging from his limp lips. He knew there were those mornings. But on days like this, when the trout were rising and the creel was filling, he remembered every morning as spectacular with great leaping fish and his father young and strong before whiskey, cigarettes and the world ground him. 

He had met Bill in a stateside airport bar, awaiting the flight for his last leg on his final home trip from Kandahar. He had signed with the Army less than two weeks after putting the old man in the ground and signing everything over to the banks who had been dogging his father during his last, failing years. 

The man in the bar had a rod case leaning against his seat and Frank asked about it. He had ditched his uniform, his boots and everything that connected him with the previous four years. At that moment, in the bar, he wanted nothing more than to talk fishing. And talk was something that the big man knew how to do. Frank took most of it as bullshit, of course. Who in their thirties owns a mountain and was building a paradise for himself?

When he left to catch his flight, Bill called Frank’s phone so he’d have his number and told him to feel free to visit him on his mountain. What a character, Frank thought as he called for another beer. Then his phone buzzed with a text from the big guy with the coordinates to his place. “Come up if you want to learn trout fishing”, read the text. 

Three weeks later, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, he stepped out of his truck in front of Bill’s private lodge on his very own mountain. When he got there that first time, the place still smelled of sawdust and he parked next to the carpenter’s trucks. They were putting the finishing touches on the back of the house and his first tour of the property wound around ladders and chop saws. It was magnificent, he had to agree. “This will be your room”, he motioned into a room larger than his whole apartment. At least he thought it was big, until Bill showed him his own. 

That night, long after the workers had packed up, Bill grilled steaks and they sat beside a snapping fire in the pit and watched a darkness as deep and any he’d seen overseas settle over the mountain. It was then, over bourbons, that Bill laid out the tariff that he would impose for complete access to the mountain and all that was on it.  Frank paused of course. Who wouldn’t? It was a perfect spot though,  and if the fishing were anything near what Bill said it was, it could be worth it. It would be worth it.  Again, having nothing to do and nowhere to be, he agreed. Even with all of everything, Frank never regretted running into the man in that bar.

The shower was better than fine. The water was cold and prickly and he let it spatter the back of his neck until it hurt. The smell of the soap made him want to eat it, and the towels were thick and soft enough to pass as blankets. He’d never felt towels like these off of this mountain. 

He stepped out of the bathroom and into his room. They were all like this: seven bedrooms, seven adjoining bathrooms. He crossed to the sliding glass door and slipped out onto the deck overlooking the valley. The stored heat of the sun radiated from the thick pine boards. He closed his eyes to the falling sun and savored the afternoon breeze caressing his body as he leaned forward, liking the railing’s warm wood against his bare skin. 

The first time he’d stood on this spot he’d flashed back to the firebase in Afghanistan. Like this, it was on a mountain with a view of the valley below but over there, the view was a narrow one with cliffs on both sides funneling vision down to the crossroad and the town beside it. It was brown, it was gray, it was dusty. Then it was gone. That was it. That one thought. A blip. That one memory. It wasn’t a particularly bad one-not ominous in any way and it never happened again. Being up here had cleansed him of those years, he was sure of it. That one obligatory memory had to pop out like some kind of boogeyman to let him know it wasn’t far away if he let his guard down. But he wouldn’t. He was in a good spot. 

He flopped on the bed without dressing. What would be the point? The books on the bedside table were all about fishing and he picked up one he remembered, opening it at random. He read easily, skimming the words one at a time but failing to find any coherent structure. It was as if the words were children’s blocks cast carelessly onto the floor. He tried again from the top. It wasn’t working and the more he tried to concentrate the more his mind scattered. He recognized the feeling even if he wouldn’t name it. He should have taken the drink when offered, but there will be time for that later. 

Facing as he was, he could see the door swing open even with his nose in the book. The man stepped in wearing only one of those plush towels wrapped around his waist. He was carrying a thick rocks glass of bourbon with a single large cube. The way he was holding it, the brown of the liquor contrasted with his white middle. 

“And there you are”, the man said.

“And here I am.”

The man set the drink on the bedside table and Frank rolled onto his stomach facing away. He didn’t have to see it. The first time the man had dropped the towel, on his first visit, he’d seen it. The first time he made the mistake of looking. Didn’t have to again. It would prod him, poke him, spread him and fill him. He didn’t have to see it. He heard the drawer open, where the lotions and rubbers were. He hadn’t looked in there either.  He knew what was in there. 

“You OK?” the man asked.

“Oh sure. I’m fine.”

“Good, good…”

The bed moved as the man maneuvered himself between Frank’s legs. “Those fish are perfect,” he said. “Stuffed  them with thyme and lemons. They’ll grill beautifully.”

“They are perfect”, Frank agreed as he heard the packet tear.

The man’s hands were on him then, pulling and positioning, touching as he liked to. His skin felt cauterized. He could feel the hands rubbing and moving, but not the touch. Even when the fingers moved lower and inside, the feeling was dulled. Then he felt the cool of the oil right there and hissed a breath. 

Then there was the stillness. Then the roll of the bed as the man loomed and covered him. Then the pressure at his bottom. Slow and burning at first but inexorable. He winced as the weight of the man settled on him and squeezed fistfuls of blankets. His mouth opened silently as he was penetrated. 

It had occurred to him before, that this is something, for comfort’s sake, that one should do more often or not at all. But it was such a sweet spot up here he didn’t want to bring it up.  

Of Dogs and Bones

A winking bit of flash under the dead leaves that still littered the walking path through the old cemetery caught Aleson’s eye. She stepped off the trail, kicked at the leaves, her toe daintily avoiding a small pile of deer pellets, and bent over to pick up the gum wrapper. “People”, she huffed, slipping it into her pocket. 

Straightening, she noticed a new deep pink headstone standing out from all the dull weathered gray ones just before the hillock. She didn’t remember ever seeing it before. She ventured further from the path and carefully made her way closer to read the inscription. It was for Larry Jollie, apparently a local man, who back in the 50’s spent four years in the Air Force and enjoyed it so much that, according to the stone, he was interred at Jefferson Barracks Military Cemetery in St. Louis.

Huh, she thought. That seemed somehow inappropriate; taking up two plots in two separate cemeteries for what was probably by now a box of bones. Unless he’d been cremated which would have made it worse. Probably not though-back then they wouldn’t have. Not as readily as now anyway. Seems she can’t hardly go into someone’s apartment for a visit or a cup of coffee these days without being joined by an urn or a box on a shelf or some other place of prominence. She paced off the space of the plot feeling less queasy about marching around on top of a hole that wasn’t and held nothing. It was the same size of the others, which bothered her even more. 

She remembered her Granny Akers saying that when she went, they should “shove a bone up my ass and let the dogs drag me away.” Aleson had been six or seven when she first heard that and wondered how such a thing might work. Her neighbor at the time, Dottie was her name, had a dog. A big romping mutt named Randy that would run into the woods after balls that they threw. They could never throw them far enough for the dog to lose. She wondered if he could drag her Granny away by the ass bone. But then, would he drag her back like a game? The things kids thought!

It didn’t work out that way for Granny though. She was over in Hayes Memorial Park with a handsome if flat plaque-no upright stones in Hayes-laying next to her husband, Pap Akers. His plaque mentions that they had been together for 59 years which was true if you didn’t count the seven years they weren’t and he lived with Phyluria over in Mon City. 

After her dalliance with Pap, Phyluria took up with Old Man Watson who lived on the edge of town and kept a pack of beagles that had fascinated her as a child. All kept in cages along with cages of rabbits! He had a fenced area in the back of his property that looked like an old field with bushes and such. He would release the rabbits into that fake field then train the dogs in the art of finding them rabbits. Which, looking back, Aleson thought was pretty simple. Didn’t beagles do that naturally? He must have been good at it though because the one time she’d been in their trailer she took note of all the ribbons and trophies lining the shelves he had probably built there just to hold them. 

Phy beat them all into the dirt having gotten real sick with cancer and dementia, to the point that her husband took pity and shot her with his hunting rifle, which he then turned on himself. Which would have been fine but somewhere in there he’d shot his dog too. Which everybody damned him for. Phyluria, sure, bless her. Himself, definitely. But not the dog! “People”, she huffed. 

Separation

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.