Of Meatballs and Cat Hairs

Craving, after a few weeks with no pasta, I took a Sunday, popped a bottle of Cabernet Franc and cooked up a batch of sauce and meatballs. A pound each of ground chuck, pork and venison (substituting for the veal in my mother’s recipe) yielded 34 meatballs measured precisely-within reason-with an old ice cream scoop. Lost only one to Loki, who was quite deserving having sat attentively through the whole mixing process. I had to turn my back so he thought he was getting away with something. Of course this all put me in mind of my mother, who used the same sauce and meatball recipe (excepting the veal as noted) for our Sunday dinner and to provide a takeout meal for her little sister and her disagreeable husband who we all knew finagled for the free meals but wouldn’t eat at the house because of Mom’s cats. 

I was visiting one Sunday evening and remember my mother taking the call by the sink, the coiling cord stretched across the kitchen from the wall phone near the door. She did a lot of listening and when she looked my way, rolled her eyes just enough. It seemed that her brother in law had found a cat hair in a meatball that had come from Mom’s Free Kitchen (that would have been from Sammy, a great old soul who spent his days languidly chasing the sun from window to window). Now my mother’s sister was sobbing that they couldn’t take any of my mother’s food anymore, such was her husband’s disgust. Mom cooed apologies and the fervent wish he would reconsider, but for naught. By the time she finally came to hang up the phone she had to spin a small circle to uncurl herself from the cord.

She sat, lit a Salem and exhaled the menthol smell of my childhood. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to stop cooking for that dunderhead”, she said, getting as vulgar as she would, “I just couldn’t figure out how.” We laughed, had a drink and when the time came for me to invite people over to the housewarming of my new place I “accidentally” forgot to invite my aunt and uncle until it was much too late for them to accept. It would be a full decade before my aunt stepped into any of my homes and only then after the dunderhead had died under a transmission that he wouldn’t pay a mechanic to fix. 

Thus are families broken, over meatballs and cat hairs. 

The Long Game

The mail lady usually just brushes past behind where I sit and read with a smiling hello. She delivers to the back porch – a shorter trip for her from the neighbor’s- where I take my midday wine. I couldn’t swear which came first, me sitting back there or her delivering back there. She had delivered my mom’s place too and when she was ahead on her route, she’d sit and have a cigarette with her. So I kept an ashtray back there though I’d long given it up.

Today was coupon day and I heard her rustling the papers as she came through the side yard. I tried not to look for fear she’d catch me eyeing her knobby knees and thin calves.  For whatever reason, she paused and lay a hand on my shoulder as a cool, warning breeze rattled the dahlias. “Some days”, she said, I just want to give you a hug.” We had held each other tightly that morning we found my mother on the floor. 

“Feel free”, I told her, covering her warm hand with mine and imagining the pony tail flowing through the back of her cap. “Strawberry blonde is my favorite flavor.”

“Don’t you mean color?” she asked.

“That too.”

Instead of a hug she squeezed and twisted my earlobe leaving it burning and cold at the same time.

“You’re bad”, she said, continuing on her appointed rounds. 

“Who doesn’t know that?” I asked, going back to my book. 

Wounds

She didn’t so much knock as scratch at the door. Might not have heard her had I not seen her pull up outside, two wheels crookedly over the curb. I opened the door only as far as the chain would allow. She reeked. Had been drunk recently but not presently. She held a steak, no doubt stolen from her work in the not recent past, almost wrapped in a stained paper towel. There was a shining need in her eyes that used to be for me. I opened the door and let her in.

We left her jacket and meat on the floor and shuffled toward the bathroom. She wanted me to undress her, to clean her, to anoint her with oils I never had. As the tub filled with scalding water and slippery bubbles, I pushed the shirt off her shoulders. There was a scrape on her lower neck that had been hidden by the collar.

“Who did this to you?” I asked.

She watched me sitting on the toilet, unsnapping and opening her filthy jeans. “Every mark on me is yours”, she said.

There are some mistakes that can be fixed, or at least forgiven. Wounds that can heal leaving nothing but a stain or a scar. Others though, remain open-seeping-to be carried or offered up every day, beyond lifetimes. I held her hand as she stepped carefully into the tub her spine pressing like white knuckles against her skin and put a towel behind her head when she lay back.

“You won’t leave me in here alone, will you?”

“I’ll leave the door open.”

“Stay. Please.” She was squeezing my hand.

There was an angry bruise on her left breast-just above the nipple. I wouldn’t ask where that one came from.

I already had my answer.

Rabbit

Back when they were separated, Dot lived in a house out in Pangburn Hollow. It was a smallish place with a stream out back, but big enough for her and the girls. Thelma and Denise were Irish twins, born-generously-eleven months apart. Let’s just say they were the same age 42 days out of the year. So, when they went off to the state university at the same time Dot was left alone in that little hollow house. Which was fine with her. More than fine actually. She had never lived alone in her life and it was a pleasant change to only have herself to look after. She had her cashier’s job down at Maracinni’s, which was five days a week, then she had card club on Tuesdays and of course, she had church, which wasn’t just a Sunday thing, what with choir practice and bible school and all. But then, before too long, she started to having Bud back again usually on Saturday nights. He first said he was “in the neighborhood” but that didn’t hold water because Pangburn Hollow wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. She just accepted that he’d be showing up on the odd Saturday night when he was done cattin’ around, as she called it. He was still her husband after all and his railroad job paid for the girl’s school, so it was a small price to pay. He’d smell of liquor and cigarettes and she kept a bottle in the house for when he showed up. Sometimes they’d just set on the couch and watch the late movie and sometimes he’d fall asleep in the chair and she’d cover him before going up to bed. But sometimes he wanted what a man wanted, and she’d give him that too. But never in bed. It being Saturday night, her hair would be done up for church in the morning and she didn’t want to ruin it by laying in bed with Bud. So she would bend over the couch and he’d take her standing up from behind. He grouched about it at first, but he was getting what he wanted after all, so he shut up. Dot would never come like that, but she seldom did with Bud anyway. He was too quick. When girls used to call him Rabbit behind his back it wasn’t because he liked carrots.

Why Bud’s a Boob Man

In this one, Bud tells how he became a boob man. He wasn’t telling it to me; I’d heard the story countless times already, usually like now, a couple of drinks in. I was watching the Three Stooges with the sound down at the end of the bar. The boys were plumbers and I was waiting for the part when Larry, digging under the yard sticks his head up through the sod, looks around in that haggard Larry way, and seeing where he is, pulls it back down like a startled turtle. The way his hat got stuck above ground and he reaches up and pulls it down always cracks me up. So I was waiting for it when Bud says something to Dot on the other side of him that I missed but then he goes, “…like the time I got hit in the head by that mannequin tit.” Shit, I hadn’t heard it coming.  Had to turn away from the set. “Tell the story”, Dot says leaning back to open the story way to the woman on her right.  “Tell, it. You and Prichard…” She’d heard this story a few times too.  “Jim Prichard and I were shoppin’…” he starts right in. “I was what? Twelve? Waiting for Sheryll to get her picture taken at Murphy’s…with Santa Claus. And Prichard, you remember Prichard?” It was a nice touch, but nobody ever did. I mean ever. Poor Prichard had to be the most forgettable fucker you’d ever not meet. “Anyway, Prichard and I, we were over around the counter and Prichard says, “Hey, think we can lift this up? It was a mannequin. Not the whole body thing…just from here” puts his hand to the top of Dot’s thigh like a freeze-frame karate chop, “to the top of the head.  A pretty redhead, as I recall. So me and Prichard we went over and lift it-it wasn’t that heavy-but when we set it back down…the damn mannequin was sittin’ on one of these pedestals-not too stable- and the damn thing went….Whoooop! It falls over and the tit hit me right on top of the head.” “DOINK!” Dot laughed. “Doink, my ass”, says Bud. “It knocked me flat, until I saw that floor manager runnin’ my way and I got up and took off. Dizzier n’ hell with a goozle on top of my head for days.” “He goes crazy over boobs now”, Dot says to the woman to her right. I honestly doubted the cause and effect of the whole deal, but it wasn’t my story.

Tangles

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 pandemic 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.

Who has that kind of time?

He leaned out of the doorway toward me, just far enough for the reflected muddy glow of the streetlight 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…”

“Wait. What?”

“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.”

“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…”

“Getting high…”

“Being high.”

“Being high.”

“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?”

“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.”

“Thought so.”

“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?

Blue Bird in the Barn

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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.

 

 

A Ghost Story

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.

Cautious

“Are the doors locked?” she asked suddenly from her corner of the passenger seat.

Jolted by the question, he caught himself feeling along the top of the door for the plunger to press to lock it. That was years ago-when he was a kid. Cars don’t have those kinds of locks anymore. Just sleek buttons and mechanisms that lock automatically at a certain speed. He knew that. Why couldn’t he tell her?

Instead he said, “What are you afraid of?”

“You don’t have to be afraid to be cautious,” she said.

Cautious. The word struck him as strange just then. He’d have said, ‘careful’ as would most people. Why ‘cautious’?

The drizzle had turned into full-on rain pinging off the roof and sheeting down the windshield. The pressing sky atop the black night made it impossible to see the woods and fields that were out there. “There’s nobody out here to be…cautious of”, he said.

“All the more reason”, she answered looking out her window as if there were something to see.

She’s too young for me, he thought. The scent of roses he thought she wore was really bubble gum-or smelled like it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t her youth. Maybe she was too smart for him. Or too dumb. Or too tall-maybe too short. Too whiny, too cold, too butch, too soft, too dark, too light. Too something, he knew that. But why worry about it now? He didn’t have to win her. Didn’t have to impress her. She was here.

His wife was right. He thought too much about everything-drove himself crazy. Last week he’d had a nosebleed right at the kitchen table. She’d said it was high blood pressure from him worrying so much over every little thing. Like she was a freaking nurse.

Back home she sat at the same table listening to hockey on the radio. She liked it better that way; watching it made her too nervous. She poured a thick toss of Sambuca into her cup – the only way she could abide decaf. Her ma had called, worried the rain was going to turn to snow. “It’s forty degrees, Ma!” she had to yell into the phone. “It won’t snow.”

He sighed and reclined the seat slightly. Fumbling, he loosened his belt and unsnapped his pants. Rising on her knees, she bent over the console and gently pulled him out of his pants; a soft crippled bird. “Ok”, she said low. “Let’s see what we can do with you.”

He closed his eyes and tried not to think about it.