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.

Sometimes talking gives me a headache.

“We’re livin’ in some nasty times”, James said at the end of what had become a long conversation. I had run into him back in the woods where he had come up the draw to my right. Made sense, he lived out that way. We both thought we were squirrel hunting but turns out we were just walking in the woods. And it was a good day for that, even encumbered by the shotgun that got heavier every step of the way. Times being what they were, we hadn’t seen each other for quite awhile (Fact I hadn’t recognized him till I was on top of him), so I didn’t mind too much when he fell into step after a short greeting and said that he might as well walk along with me. It wasn’t a bad conversation as long as we steered clear from the obvious topics, religion, politics and his ex-wife. And his current wife who my brother had dated years ago. And drinking, since he’d stopped, and his boy who’d got hooked on pills after a boating accident and was living “across the tracks” as they said, but his girl was an ok subject. Truthfully, it  was such a stressor just trying to remember what I could talk to old James about that I was relieved when he chose to double back about twenty minutes later to hunt the crest. “Nasty times…” he said he said in parting. Weren’t they all….

Shitbird

“Yummy!” was the first thing that came to mind. He didn’t say it except maybe under his breath, but it was there, frontmost in his head. Then he was embarrassed. 

She was younger than he was-as was everyone it seemed-but way younger. Not as young as his daughter gratefully, but young. And well put together. A girl in a woman’s body.

She had come to him after the reading and asked about the mystical reverence that the Appalachian peoples, predominantly Cherokee she thought, had for turtles. He was a turtle guy and could happily spend an evening in that conversation, plus she was wearing a washed out university v-neck that put up a valiant struggle but was ultimately no match for her cleavage. 

Others came and went, he signed some books, stood for pictures and as the lights dimmed, she remained. It wasn’t until she was helping him gather his stuff that he allowed that she was interested in more than turtles and Cherokees. They went to a bar she knew and sat in the back. He bummed a smoke and wished he could draw to capture the way her lips pursed as she inhaled then popped perfect smoke rings into the air between them. Ultimately it was to his hotel room since she had roommates. 

Not until morning, when the rising sun washed through the gauzy curtains and ignited a bright blaze of reflection across the downy blonde fur on her bottom, presented to him as she faced away snoring lightly, top leg slightly bent, offering herself in a dream, and he thought, “Yummy!” did he feel the least bit embarrassed. 

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, he thought, looking away from her bum, but Eliot had beaten him to it. Instead he remembered his Grammy Nubs calling him a “shitbird” when he did something she considered off in any way. 

He slipped out of bed and pulled a sheet up covering her, grabbed her cigarettes and headed for the balcony.

The Stray

Olive didn’t wear a mask which was fine with Clay because she was uncommonly pretty for a woman in The Stray. Woman, hell, she was more a girl, and decidedly misnamed, pale to the point of luminescence, with only one chipped tooth in a bright smile that held up freckles, a button nose with only the hint of a bump and eyes the color of a summer sky. Her alabaster skin glowed brighter, accented by the dark T-shirts she always wore-even on the coldest of days which this one certainly was. “I run hot”, she’d say. 

The short sleeves did nothing to hide the scars on her wrists and the wispy gossamer of old track marks up and down her arms that probably explained, at least in large part, what she was doing astride a stool at Strays, which everyone called the place, on a snowy Saturday evening. No longer a death wish and clean, if not dry, she felt comfortable among “her people” whatever the fuck that meant. 

She pushed her empty glass just enough so Robin would see it and refill. Again, playing against type, she drank thick stouts and porters exclusively which everyone figured was a good thing since she barely ate. “Gotta pee”, she chirped and hopped off the stool and headed toward the back. She left her cigarettes so she would be back. Olive lived in a couple of rooms above the bar and was known to slip away from time to time.

Robin pulled a beer from the tap and placed it in front of the empty stool, glancing at Clay’s Manhattan. It was his third and now that he was settled with a soft glow in his cheeks and the glint in his eye dulled, they would go down slower. She was thick and rangy wearing seasonal flannel over a dark camisole. Not a beauty, she had an androgynous look that some women would call handsome and kept her thick brown hair in a ducktail that would have shamed Elvis. She followed his gaze out the window where a snow squall had wrapped the world in a dirty gray blanket. “Hey”, she patted his hand to draw his attention from outside. “You going back to work next week?”

He was. She prodded for more. Sometimes, when they were alone or it was slow, she’d get him talking about work. She didn’t understand most of what he did, but it stopped him from thinking. Tonight his mind was clearly elsewhere so all she knew was he’d have a day in the office, then downstate for a day or two tops, on the new install. “Book my reservation for right here next Friday happy hour,” he said, tipping his glass. 

“Done”, she said. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“You mean liking bending me over a chair and having your way with me?”

She gave him the tight smile reserved for friends who keep repeating a joke that had long ceased being funny. “Well”, she said, “Seeing I don’t get off till ten and I don’t think Sweet Martini Olive”, she nodded toward the girl coming back from the bathroom, “will wait that long,” she pinched the back of his hand before sliding away. “I’ll make a note of it though.”

From her spot leaning against the back bar, she could see that the squall had subsided and fretted that Olive wasn’t distracting him. She knew he could see now, not only the bridge but the exact spot at the railing where his wife Merin, was last alive. Thing was, she was a decent swimmer and the bridge isn’t all that high. His fantasy was that she would have survived the jump, the water would have revived her-snapped her out of what he couldn’t-and she would have swum over to the marina and come home to him, wet but renewed. 

But she hadn’t seen the line of empty coal barges coming upstream from behind her. You’d think she would have heard the tow boat, but their sound is more of a powerful low thrum than the whine of an outboard. The lead barge poked out from under the bridge just as she leapt. He imagined her hitting with a loud metallic clang like the cartoon sound effect when the mouse hit the cat over the head with a skillet. Sad truth was, nobody had seen or heard a thing and her body wasn’t discovered until the barges settled into dock in Weirton days later. 

“You wanna go upstairs?” Olive asked quietly not looking at him but at her half empty glass. Wouldn’t be his first trip, counting her ribs or tracing the outlines of her hip joints on her tumescent skin. Or maybe she’d stay dressed and just take care of him. Whichever. He left two twenties on the bar-twice what he owed-and they headed for the back steps. 

Robin did not turn around but watched them leave in the mirror behind the bar. 

Kinda continued in Another Stray Day

Happy New Year

The light came in soft and buttery, slicing through the bent blinds. It was after noon, certainly, but the sun stayed low-skirting the hilltop across the river and bleeding through the mill smoke. The crash and rumble of a coal train starting to crawl must have been what woke him. He felt better than he had when he’d awakened earlier and left her in the dark. Sleeping in the chair was good, he could keep his feet up. But still his knees ached. And his hands. The fucker was going to rain, or snow for that matter. His joints always let him know. 

She must have been watching from the other room-for him to stir or his eyes to open-because she was suddenly there, sitting on the arm of the couch. Her hair was down, wrapping her face and she was wearing the same striped top from last night but had thrown his vest over it. Her jeans were gone in favor of dark sweats and her feet were bare. 

She looked none the worse for wear but for the little mouse under her left eye which he would have remembered had he done it. Plus her gray eyes wouldn’t have been so soft and caressing had he hit her. She perched lightly-on her toes more than her butt-the air between them twitchy and alight. He didn’t feel tired as much  as empty, though he wished he was still asleep.

She cleared her throat then asked quietly, “You okay?” 

He shifted so the recliner would pop him up a little. Christ, everything hurt. He could manage no more than a phlegmy “Yeah”, before he had to close his mouth against the pain. He didn’t quite remember getting hit in the jaw, but he knew this particular ache too well. Wasn’t too bad, he thought as he moved his mouth around. Nothing broken, loose or bleeding. 

She watched him for a few moments then stood, rubbing her hands on her thighs. “Alright. Now you’re up. I’m going in the bedroom. To get ready.”

“For what?” he asked. 

She was already out of the room and he could only see her from the waist up as she passed behind the couch. “You said you were going to whip my ass in the morning. Remember?”

He let his eyes drift back toward the window as he kept working his jaw. He felt her eyes, so he said, “It’s afternoon…”

“It’s not my fault you slept through”, she answered. Then, “I’m going to go get ready…”

“You really think that’ll help anything?”, he asked the window.

“Trust me”, she said. “It will be worse if you don’t.”

She padded away down the hall. The bedroom door creaked open then, after a long rustling moment, the bedsprings squeaked and settled. He tried to remember what his old man had told him about younger women, but couldn’t. Truth be told, he had a helluva time conjuring up the old man’s voice anymore. He could see him on a stool next to him, even see his mouth moving around the bouncing cigarette, but couldn’t come up with his voice.  One more glowing coal of sadness that he didn’t need right now.

The Wolf

She wandered her way back to the parlor. It wasn’t a long wander, the house was a sprawling manse only in a child’s memory. And she always remembered it as a child, a young girl dwarfed by oversized furniture and looming windows, though she’d lived here up until ten years ago. Two years before he’d died.

They called it the parlor to tell it from the living room which was off the kitchen and where everyone would converge on holidays and birthdays. It was the living room that held the Christmas tree and the train sets with their glittering little buildings and soap flake snow, glowing in front of the french doors with the view of the back porch swing, the mulberry trees, and beyond the yard, the real railroad tracks and finally the river. A long sectional against the wall and a small curled sofa opposite the windows with a few wingback chairs could hold the whole clan as long as some stayed in the kitchen, or filtered through in shifts. 

She only remembered once or twice as a very young girl, the house being at capacity with all the uncles, aunts and cousins seemingly pushing the whole place outward-causing the house to breathe and squall in concert with the crowd inside. Those screeching times became fewer and fewer as everyone grew and factionalized; each claiming their own turf which seemingly could not be done without cutting ties to the ones that claimed their own.  

As she had so many times, she slunk through the archway dragging her fingers across the chilled smoothness of the layers of paint that did as much to reveal the imperfections in the walls as to mask them. Past the staircase bathed in the rainbows from the stained glass window on the landing, past the piano that hadn’t been played in decades, until finally stepping through the open door. As an adult, she always felt a little off balance when she first stepped into the parlor, like a child walking across a bed. It was darker than it should have been and it took her a moment to realize that the rhododendron, untrimmed outside the window, had grown enough to block the morning sun. 

Other than that, nothing had changed back here. Nothing. It was clean enough. Dusted and polished, but it was set up as it always had been-a museum display or something from a doll house brought to life-size. In years past the old man had taken pains to give this place the look of a hunting camp though the only “hunting story” of her life was when he, in his wingtips and tie, had shot an eight-point on the road coming home from work one December evening. As she got older she even doubted that story and wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t hit it with his T-Bird and tossed it in the trunk.

And there he still was, that ratty little deer head still over the mantel complete with the peeling red machine paint on the deer’s nose which  he’d done that one Christmas and laughing drunk told all the kids that he’d shot Rudolph. There were a couple of hunting related gee-gaws around like the ceramic smiling buck driving a car with two hunters strapped to the front fenders. 

Opposite the fireplace sat the well-used olive green sofa with the strategically placed white lace doilies still seeming out of place and above it the framed lithograph of the lone wolf. She stepped closer and, tall enough to not have to stand on the sofa anymore, still rose on tiptoes to get a better look. Squinted. She always saw the print in her mind’s eye as blue, and it was, as a winter night bathed by the moon might be. Warm yet cold at the same time.

The wolf was standing on a snowy hillside overlooking a little village lit only by the golden firelight leaking from the hovels that was quickly consumed by the surrounding ocean of darkness. She had invented families that lived there-their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and later, their fears. Childish things. 

Her idea of the wolf had evolved. As a child she was sure he was the village’s protector, breathing steam and keeping a watchful eye for things that could be even worse than he out in the unseen darkness. But then, over the years, as she spent more time back here, in the parlor, in the company of the man, she grew into the idea that the wolf was a predator, waiting for someone, probably the little blonde girl she’d invented,  to stray too far from the warmth and safety of her lighted doorway, seduced by a false sense of security.  

Or maybe he was both. 

Prayer Cards

The snow fell straight in thick, white ribbons from a sky so low and gray he felt he should stoop. In front of him fanned the prayer cards-a final legacy from his mother. Arranged in tight phalanxes of friends and family, as in life, the favorites closer. Mother, Father, the Grands, all the progenitors, then out to close friends, friends, acquaintances then finally tangential hangers on. 

When there wasn’t a card, or she hadn’t been able to get to the funeral home, she made her own by taping the newspaper obituary onto an index card and cutting it in half making it the same size as the others. She’d draw a cross or a sunrise on the front of it with colored pencils that were, to him, prettier than all the Jesuses and Marys on the printed cards. He moved his glass to the side and studied the array like a nervous chess player, recalling, ranking, touching them all, then finally switching a friend of his father’s (an officious prick that the old man never really liked but worked with for ten years) to the back and promoting the druggist who was good to his grandma back in the days when pills were easier. 

He didn’t get a paper himself, so he made his own prayer cards with the same stack of index cards she had in her desk. The one he just finished he put in the fourth row. “Jack “Bones” Kerklo” it said, in his crimped hand. “Age 72. Good guy. Fell drunk down 4th Street steps. Died AT HOME three days later.” He underlined “AT HOME” with a purpose and grinned. Not having his mother’s artistic talent he relied on his cheeky wit. 

The kids had made noises about him coming out for Christmas but he didn’t see how that could work. That had always been their mother’s time with them. He’d be fine just where he was-feeling more like a presence than a person. In front of him was a blank card with his name printed at the top. 

“Kindness Was His Key to Heaven”

…reads the inscription on Joseph Page’s headstone who passed in 1915 at the ripe old age of 78. I like reading stones, for the tales they tell. Old Joe had missed dying in a war, which was notable here where there were dead from every conflict since the Whiskey Rebellion. And dying in ‘15 spared him the last great pandemic which is represented down around the bend where the hillside falls away to the woods and the many small, numbered but nameless stones lay scattered like cockeyed baby teeth in the unkempt weeds. Those are the Spanish Flu dead, buried quickly enough to be anonymous-whole families gone in days leaving the undertaker to rifle through drawers in infected bedrooms for enough coin to put them in even the most undesirable part of the cemetery. Happily, I know no one who’s died this time around. Mom went two years ago and my mother-in-law last year. It was a blessing. But now we’re all being careful. Even at Shirley’s where I stopped last weekend, all the girls wore masks which was sort of comical especially when we got back to the rooms and they wore nothing else. Especially with Cheri, my regular, who always takes me on knees and elbows so it’s not even like we’re facing each other. Since we’re friends I’ve told her she doesn’t have to fake it with me, which I thought was being nice, but probably shouldn’t have because now she never quits talking through the whole thing. It was about the gifts other girls were getting from their regulars for the Holidays. Small refrigerators, microwaves, coffee makers, big screen TV’s which, she assured me-just as I was letting loose, no less-aren’t as expensive as they used to be. I have a wife and two daughters; enough gifts to shop for. I don’t need to add anything. If I’d tell Shirley how Cheri was trolling for gifts the girl would get a board busted over her ass. I know she’s incorrigible. I’ve seen the bruises. It was easier for me to give her an extra hundo that Shirley didn’t need to know about. Only after getting her to promise she wouldn’t put it up her nose and after checking her arms and between her toes for tracks, pricks or bruises. I promised to see her next week and wanted to do some back-door work. She was fine with that-just wanted to know ahead of time. Plus I pay extra for it.