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.
He leaned out of the doorway toward me, just far enough for the reflected muddy glow of the streelight to hit his hands and up his chest, leaving everything above the cigarette in shadows. By the tilt of his hat, his gaze seemed off-as if he were looking over my head, off into the distance. Where there was more nothing but stacked higher.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, voice dry and dusty.
“I’d like to be high”, I told him.
“We got you. Lotta people in your shoes.”
“Yeah, but only for a half hour or so…”
“I need to be high for a half hour.”
“Half hour. Like thirty minutes?”
“Maybe forty-five tops. Got some things to do that a buzz would definitely help with. I don’t need to tell you how long it’s been! But then, I’d like to be straight again.”
“Yeah I got shit to do later that would definitely require…a level of straightness. Like I have now.”
“Whyn’t you go do that shit now? Then come back?”
“Too early. And I doubt my ability to hold on till then without…”
“Yeah. I need it to hit me real fast.”
“Then, like that…”, he tries to snap his fingers, but instead his pointer finger snaps off at the top knuckle with a small pop. He pauses to follow the track of the top of his digit disappearing among the detritus along the curb. “…be straight again. That what you mean?”
“Yeah. Something that snaps on and off. Well not like….” I looked down to where his finger had fallen to watch the roiling under the rags and sodden papers as the vermin vied for the prize. Something must have won out as a skittering of tiny claws rattled away. “You got anything like that?” I asked, looking back up. “With switches?”
“On and off.”
“Neh, man. Our ride takes a while to get to cruising speed. And once there it lasts…a good long while. Then it takes some time to come back down. Four-hour minimum commitment. Results may vary.”
“Come back when you have a couple of seconds”, he said leaning back into the shadows. “A day…a weekend maybe. And I’ll fix you up.”
“Thanks”, I said hustling away. Who has that kind of time?
She was still telling the story about the time Laurence Fishburne tried to pick her up in the Village. How she rebuffed his savage suavity, not realizing she was dating herself when she called him Morpheus. The Village wasn’t the Village anymore and Laurence was no longer Morpheus.
It wasn’t a story she should tell everyone, but it was one she told me too often. And when she told it, she stood too close and let her hand linger on my arm just a beat too long. We were working long hours on her project and I’d fly in from headquarters for a few days at a time.
She knew I was married which probably made me safe for her fantasies but trying for mine. There was the time she had taken me to a bar for drinks, somewhere out on the Island, then for a walk down a quaint sandy street. She was working through one of her divorces. “That bar is my husband’s favorite”, she said nodding across the street. “He’s probably in there now. But I don’t see his truck.” She smiled sweetly, careful not to catch my eye.
It was the same trip, or the one after, when she came to my hotel room to use the bathroom after passing on the one in the lobby. This was after an evening of dancing and dinner. I had the knees for it then.
She was wearing a fashionable for the time letterman’s jacket that bloused at the waist. It had faux leather sleeves that she rubbed against me as I held the door ushering her from the bathroom right into the hall.
The twinge of her leaving was nowhere near the nightmare of her staying.
I was no longer Morpheus either.
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.
It had once been a storage room but now was empty and strangely well kept. As if someone came up every week to sweep and dust. She noticed such things. The ceiling was twice as high as downstairs in the bar and windows made up almost the whole wall opposite the door. Would have been impressive had they not looked directly across the alley to the blank brick wall of a building that reached three stories above. The late afternoon sun bounced off the brick and tumbled to the alley below. The only furnishings were a chair and a desk-really a long table with a drawer-against one wall and an old leather sofa under the windows.
Her bag and clothes were arranged neatly across the end of the sofa in the order she had taken them off, red panties on top, her short, scuffed boots parked neatly in front. He had discretely turned his back and stared at the door while she undressed. But he listened. He heard it all-the clump of the boots coming off first. The zipper, then the rustle of her jeans. There was no real sound as she pulled the black t-shirt over her head, but he heard it. He would have heard butterfly wings at that point. He heard her move-her muscles twinge and stretch as she bent and arranged, then finally the padding of her bare feet as she took position in the middle of the room.
“You can turn around now”, she said.
When he did his eyes were pulled first to the blonde page-boy wig. It was atrocious but served to round a face that would have been severe in someone larger. She was not tall; would easily fit under his chin with a thick book to spare. Slim without being skinny, lines of muscle and cords of tendons traced along her shoulders and down her arms. Her breasts were firm demitasse cups riding high above the soft ridges of ribs that tapered to a flat belly. The tiny manicured dark patch could easily be overlooked. But he didn’t.
“We never set a time limit did we?” she asked.
“No…no…whenever’s comfortable I guess. Are you thinking you’re done already?”
“No, no…it’s fine.”
She didn’t look at him, rather let her eyes float over his shoulders to the room, the walls. They could use a coat of paint she thought. Something natural-like sand-to offset the brick outside.
“Thank you for this. For doing this,” he said.
“You’re welcome. But the hundred bucks was a fine incentive.”
“There are probably easier ways to make a hundred dollars.”
Her first smile of the afternoon split her face like a razor.
He went silent again and she could feel his eyes, a damp breeze over her thighs and feathering her middle.
“Do you like my wig?”
“Not at all.”
She pulled a sad face and stroked the faux hair over her ear.
“It was very expensive”, she said.
“Then you got robbed. Plus I love your hair-the color.”
“Really?” she said, pleased. “Not too mousy?”
Hmmm, she thought. “Wait a minute”, she said. “Time out.”
She looked at him then. “Turn around. Don’t look.”
He turned his back and she slipped back to the couch. A quick flip and the wig flopped atop the pile of clothes. Shaking her head, she pulled a small hairbrush out of her bag. Squinting to see herself in the window she worked her matted hair as best she could to give it a little life. There was a part, and it lay over her right ear and caressed the top of her neck. She padded back to her place in the middle of the room.
“You can look now.”
He turned and smiled. “Ah, that’s nice. Thank you.”
“Stop thanking me. It’s fine.”
He moved close and looked down where the hair was thickest. “There is a touch of auburn”, she said then let his gaze leak down over her shoulder to her nipple. Suddenly startled by her proximity he moved a step backward then slipped to his right, out of her sight line. She stayed still, letting air in through her mouth and out through her nose. That’s all she remembered from an old mediation lesson. His shoes must have been new because they squeaked as he shifted his weight behind her.
“Can I touch?”, he asked weakly-afraid of the answer.
“That wasn’t the deal.”
“Of course. I know. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay”, she said quietly but firmly. She cocked her head only a little to the side. “What do you want to touch?”
He was behind her and she well knew what he wanted to touch.
Of course. She grew up hating her bottom-she imagined it to be a boy’s backside: flat with none of the curves that her friends had. As she got older it filled out a bit, but still didn’t curve enough. The gym had made it firm and muscles gave it some shape, but she thought it rode up her back. He liked it though.
“OK”, she said. “But only the cheeks. Nothing funny.”
“No, of course not.”
As soon as his palm touched her, she pushed slightly backward trying to create a curve, or some kind of contour anyway. And she softened as best she could. He was thorough, palming the right cheek, sliding down to the thigh then across to the other side. She felt his hand lift away then touch her again, palming her fully. Then again.
“I know what you’re doing”, she said.
“You’re spanking me, aren’t you? That’s what you’re imagining. Isn’t it?”
“Maybe you’ve been bad…”
She bent imperceptibly and arched her back giving him a truer target for his pantomime.
“Bend me over and spank my ass. That’s what you really want to do, isn’t it?”
“I…” His mind, having been somewhere else, struggled to answer. His hand cupped her bottom and squeezed gently in lieu of words. She was still offering out.
“I mean, more than fuck me, right? You’d rather spank me than fuck me…”
He didn’t answer as his palm grazed across her backside.
“Well you can’t.”
He drew away, at the first negative she’d uttered.
“No…” he said.
“At least not now… What time is it?”
He coughed lightly and looked at his watch. Told her.
“My shift starts in twenty minutes. I gotta get down there.”
“Oh, sure. I know. That’s time then.”
“OK”, he said while haltingly heading for the door. “Again, thank you…”
“Wait. Don’t run off.”
He paused and turned, surprised and at a loss. She beckoned to the couch as he watched her move to her clothes.
He did, not expecting to watch her dress. He crossed a leg.
She stepped delicately into her panties. “Why’d you stop asking me out?”
“You kept saying no.”
“You weren’t very persistent.”
“I asked a thousand times.”
She pulled her panties up and slipped her arms through a red silk undershirt-all the bra she needed.
“You give up too easy.”
Her jeans went on smoothly and he lost himself in the workings of her fingers zipping, snapping and buckling. The t-shirt followed and hung loose. She held the wig and glanced at him.
“No. If you’re asking.”
She left the wig on the couch and picked up her bag. “Are you coming down for a drink?”
She smiled, opened the door and slipped through.
“See you down there”, she said over her shoulder.
He sat stiffly listening to the clippity-clop of her boots fading down the stairs.
His phone pinged with a text. It was his problem tenant. She was living in the garage apartment that he had shared with his parents when he was a baby. Until age eight or so. His dad and grandfather, both long ago memories, had built it.
“Have an odd question”, the text said. “Do you know if your dad had a sibling that died around the age of 6-9?”
What? After reading it again, he texted, “My dad was an only child.”
“Hmmm…Odd…” came the reply. “What about your mom or grandma, did they lose a sibling young? I know it’s an odd question but I’ll explain here in a second.”
Christ, he thought, don’t answer. He put on his glasses and clicked the lamp brighter. She wasn’t his tenant, really. His mother had rented to her husband with the express instruction to keep his wife under control. It worked for a little while, then all hell broke loose. In the last six months, she had sworn out a PFA against the husband-so he was gone-and she was squatting there with her ten-year-old. Then his mother had finally died, so he had inherited it all. The good with the bad. And he wished there was more of the former.
After a few minutes he texted, “Nope.”
The bubbles appeared on the screen and hung there pulsing. He waited. Then, “Right around when your mom passed, I was awakened by a child in Olga’s room. She was still sleeping right beside me. Heard a dresser drawer slam and this kid had blonde hair with a blanket wrapped around the shoulders so I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl and I watched it dissipate slowly from its head then down to the feet and it always bugged me that whoever was trying to tell me to go to your mom…to help her.”
He read it again. He hated it when she talked about his mother. She did it often-no doubt thinking it would put her in his good graces, but his mother couldn’t stand her and had spent the last two months of her life complaining that she never should have rented to them.
His phone pinged again, “No, I’m not a witch…little hexes here and there LOL but I do get visions and this one is killing me.”
He remembered a story his mother had told him from when they had lived in that apartment. She was in bed, probably in the same room as this one slept in, and she heard a cat screeching outside in the alley. The windows back there are high, so she had to stand on the bed to look out. The cat was easy enough to find; it was on a cracked fence post just outside the yellow glow of the street lamp. The cat called and howled until she saw others coming in from the darkness to join it. They all sat or lay on the alley in front of the main cat who began to meow and chirp as if speaking to them. They were attentive for a moment, no stretching, no grooming, no ass sniffing. Then, when the lecture was over, or the instructions given, the cats all scattered back into the darkness whence they’d come.
His mother told this story often. Especially when someone suggested she get a cat.
He put the phone on airplane mode and switched off the lamp.
(Continued from Night Lights)
Outside, half-naked, the midnight chill braced her. The clear moonless sky was dark enough that she cast a shadow in the glow from the top of the mountain. The grass was damp on her bare feet as she followed her shadow around the birdbath to the mountain laurel just short of the tree line.
The coyotes were quiet or running over the next ridge. When she was little her Pap kept chickens in a pen behind the house. Back then coyotes were worthy adversaries to be battled and beaten at every turn. Now, with no livestock to guard – not even a scruffy mutt or cat – the coyotes were no more than texture. Wonder how they would feel about that? Being relegated to deep background; being off the main stage where capable men plotted against them with guns, traps and poisons? Whatever. Times gone by. Either way, the whippoorwills’ incessant call and response were the only accompaniment to the quiet swish of her feet in the tall grass.
Choosing a spot, she turned toward the house and lifted her T-shirt. Squatting widely, she relaxed and allowed the stream to flow into the grass between her feet gently, not to splash. Her yoga practice wasn’t what it was, but she was still able to hold a squat level and clean without a shake or quiver letting the burn in her thighs build. She dipped a little deeper to feel the pleasant pull in her hip flexors. She should get back to yoga-she could sit in on classes up at the Hideaway anytime. Finished, Lori stood easily, leaving a steaming wet spot on the grass.
Pissing in the yard had started as a joke when she and Uncle Red were watching TV one night. She complained that he was lucky because all he had to do was go out on the porch when he needed to pee but she had to go to the bathroom, take down her pants, miss half the program, yadda-yadda…
“Knock yourself out girlie”, he’d said, a little drunk. “You got a whole hillside right out your door. We’re mountain people. We piss where we want.”
He didn’t look at her but had that cock-eyed smile he got when he was drinking beer. She had taken the dare and scampered off the porch and behind the fat sycamore. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him seeing anything-they were beyond that. It was just what she did. She was wearing tight jeans then and had to wriggle them down and lean in such a way that she wouldn’t wet herself. She remembered giggling as she spattered.
She put the time at between three and four. Closer to four. She tried to add the hours of uninterrupted solid sleep she had gotten all week. No more than three tonight. She couldn’t go on like this, grinding her teeth and digging her fingernails into her palms, forever. Just one cigarette, she thought. Just one, to give her that kick of nicotine that she remembered. If she’d had any, she might have broken, but she didn’t. Back at the porch Lori leaned against the rail digging the feel of the rough wood pressing into her bare thighs.
The resort which butted up against her property on the high side, glistened. Thank you Uncle Red, she said under her breath for about the billionth time. It was the house that her Mom and Red had grown up in. After her Mom died, she stayed in the house with Red, thinking it would be temporary. It was. It only lasted ten years until he died. Well after she was old enough to move out, had she wanted to. She had stayed with him as her mother had wished and now she owned the house and seven acres.
When what would become the Hideaway Resort began buying properties years ago, her Pap – Mom and Red’s mother – wouldn’t sell. Even when the money was ridiculous for the time. Now it was hers with a standing offer of a million on the table whenever she wanted to sell. She didn’t.