Life is Long

Those who sleep snugly in their beds don’t understand that night is not just day with the light off but it’s own world with it’s own sounds, characters, spirits and ghosts.

As gentle dusk gives way and fades, a viscous oozing darkness fills the inky valleys, blackens the river, squeezes down the tracks from the countryside to be held barely at bay by the dull hiss of sodium  lights and the fewer and fewer glowing windows. Night flows thickly through the alleys between house and hedge, nudged steadily by the ill winds of emboldened remembrances.

The two old girls sat at their accustomed corner of the long bar drinking their usual cheap Riesling and, as always, minding everyone’s business.

“Look at him preening,” said the tall one.

“He had a stroke, you know.” the other observed.

“I remember,” the tall one answered, her cheeks sunken, having left her teeth at home. “Can still see it in his limp.”

“No, that’s an old football injury. He’s had that for years.”

“I had forgotten he was a player.”

“Hew was something.”

“Strong boys become wounded men..”

“…then they become…

“…whatever he is.”

“You’re a caution!”

He stood beside his stool at the opposite corner of the bar-face to the ceiling-so straight he was almost leaning backward, relishing the warm pain that released along his spine from his belt line to the middle of his back. Controlled and controllable pain. He pushed a tiny bit more and it became a stab. He gasped and came back. Noticed that his glass had gone empty. He would wait for Chloe to notice. Calling out would appear desperate. And he wasn’t. Not anymore. 

The bartender, the niece of an old friend, was loading the cooler right in front of the two gossips, not eavesdropping but hearing nonetheless. Was she pointing her bottom toward him on purpose as she bent to her task? To give him a bit of a show? In case she was, he kept his eyes there, not to shun a gift sweetly given. 

There’s no fool like an old fool.

Lifting his eyes slightly,noticing the attention from the opposite corner, he raised a finger. “Evening ladies! Can I buy you a drink?” 

“Amaretto for me”, called the redhead. The bar was a large room and-even when it was empty-raised voices were necessary. “Cognac” called the other. Wonder what they were drinking on their own dime? The bartender gave them fresh glasses, so it certainly wasn’t Amaretto and Cognac.

Her task in the cooler complete, Chloe made her way to him to collect a few bills from the pile in front of him and eyed his empty glass.

“Another I take it?”

“You take it correctly.”

She filled his glass as he liked it. Bourbon. Two fingers. One small ice cube. 

“Can I buy you one?”

“Not the best practice, drinking on this side of the bar.”

“I never did when I worked here. You knew I tended bar here back before you were born.”

She gave a crooked grin. “Seems you might have mentioned that once or twice.” 

“We-the bartenders as a group-would set up a bit of a libation station in the back, he tossed his head toward the double swinging doors. So when we’d go back to grab more beer or a fresh bottle-we could have a quick nip and none would be the wiser.” 

She, as always, let the story play out and when he paused, 

“Those biddies are watching you.”

“You should have television.”

“They’re not your biggest fans. They’re  keeping track of what you’re drinking.”

He pointedly kept his head down-ear cocked. A priest in the confessional. “Can I steal one?”She pushed her pack his way. He took one, tapped it on the bar and leaned so she could light it.

He blew the smoke theatrically toward the ceiling.

“They’ll love this then.”

“They’re reporting back to your wife.”

Was she purposely leaning toward him, cleavage first? Maybe it was the bra she was wearing that made mountains out of molehills.

“I’ll be the talk of the back pew tomorrow.”

“All church ladies then?”

“Oh yeah-now anyways. Though the one down there on the left. The redhead?”

“Mrs Miller?”

“Yeah. Helen. She was a bit of one back in the day. Word was, she liked it in the back door.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Preferred it that way…so I’m told.”

“Oh, you don’t know, for certain. First hand?”

“What, me? No, I’d never bugger and tell.”

She snorted a laugh. “You never know about people.” 

“In your job, you’d better.”

“And now they all go to church together.”

 “It’s a load off my mind. A relief actually.”

“Why a relief?”

 “I’ll only have to put up with this for a few more years. Until eventually, they’ll all be in Heaven gossiping all they like but they won’t be able to get to me where I’ll be.”

She smiled and said, “It’ll be more fun where we’re going…”

“Gotta be more fun than this.”

She nodded to his empty glass.

Another?

“No, I’ll be off.” He lifted his jacket from the back of his stool and slipped it on.”Evening Ladies!” he waved at the biddies.

“Tell Milly we’ll see her in the morning.”

“Will do lovelies!” he winked at the bartender who was enjoying herself. 

“Leave through the back” she said. “You know the way.”

“Indeed I do.” that had been his point of entry and exit for years. 

“Just watch the steps!”, she warned. “And I might have left you something on the linen shelf.

He smiled, dropped a too-large tip on the bar and pushed his way through the double swinging doors. The light back there was harsh fluorescent and his eyes blinked. It was the same: ice machine, walk-in cooler, liquor cabinets. To his right, hidden when the door was propped open, a shelf with bar towels, folded neatly from the service and wrapped in paper sleeved bundles. He could see a bottle cap peeking over a pile and lifted a bundle. 

It was a bottle of brandy. Nothing that they kept behind the bar. This was good stuff, kept on the lighted shelf beside the register. Beside it was a small glass. He poured two fingers gently. Not to be greedy, then opened the ice machine.

Behind the bar Chole smiled, hearing the creak of the ice machine door. 

One small cube, he thought. Just to awaken the bouquet. Not to dilute. 

He sipped gently, savoring, gazing at the wooden door to the office with the hand lettered sign: Authorized Personnell Only. He recognized the spelling and penmanship as his father’s and raised the glass. “See you soon, Pop.”

Finished, he wiped the glass with a clean towel then secreted it back with the bottle. The tell-tale PING of the alarm system alerted the bartender that the door was open and that he was gone home.

Outside the club, across the alley, the coke train still rumbles dully on it’s way toward the western mills. It’s path is foretold by the single white eye cutting ahead and slicing the darkness. He’ll watch it pass and recall his uncle’s story of inadvertently kicking the severed head of the poor unfortunate who picked the wrong place to pass out. 

He  pulled his jacket tight around his neck-the silence suddenly crushing in the train’s wake. Was probably bullshit, he thought. Tales told to boys who played around trains. 

Across the fenced lot a tow boat’s blue lights creep upriver, pushing coal to the coke plant. The hundred year cycle. 

His left foot dragged slightly on the alley’s uneven surface. That would happen when he was tired or tipsy. He stopped. Was that his name he heard? Was someone calling to him? He turned to look back. Was that Chloe standing at the back door? He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the dim lamp above him. No, he realized. It’s not her. It’s not anyone.

Had he really seen her? He’d heard her for certain. Hadn’t he? Who among the living would be about now, calling his name? No one. It wasn’t like back in the day when he couldn’t walk ten paces without running into someone he knew.

He was still facing back toward the club and took a halting step. A rat squeaked and scurried from an upturned milk carton leaving a wake through a fetid puddle that shimmered silver and gold in the faux light. 

Ah, you’re real at least he whispered watching the slick shadow push its way through a crack in the foundation of the long defunct lamp factory. After a time, he turned again, resuming his pathway home.

No fool like an old fool.

He made his way steadily if not swiftly to the crossroad, past the empty lots of remembered row houses and friends who had lived there. This was Steve’s with the bike. Then the hardware store where his Pop had bought him a wagon. All long gone.

“G’Night Thomas”

It was Sappy, the night officer heading back to the station after a walkabout. 

“G’Night Sappy”, he raised a hand. At least it’s not just him and the rats. 

His father’s house, now his, sat darkly in the middle of the block beside a garden of thick yew trees crowding out the hedges that reach for him and scrape at his jacket as he slides by. As a boy, they came to his waist, perfect for playing cowboys or war. Now they loomed and grabbed, beckoning him deeper into the lot-a perfect venue for a rustic crucifixion. How many times had he napped unseen here-just not making it to the door? The garden was the shortcut to the back door-where the spare key hung behind the thermometer on the porch. He patted for it blindly. Would it kill her to leave a light on?

In moves practiced thousands of times, he slid the thermometer aside, snatched the key and, with only one miss, unlocked the door. 

Inside, he closed and locked the door and left his coat over a chair and headed for the stairs. The hour being what it was, he took them slowly and carefully, good leg first. At the top, he paused at his wife’s door, listening to her light snoring. 

“Milly?” he whispered with a light rap, “I’m home…”

“How does that concern me?”

Doesn’t.

He followed the hall, gliding his hand on the railing that the agency installed after. His room was at the end. He cracked the window inviting the darkness then lit a cigarette from the box he kept on the bedside table and stretched out not bothering to undress. . From his back, he saw the red dot reflection of the cigarette in the dresser mirror.

He had come to view a long life as a sort of penance but he couldn’t remember for what. 

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.

Night Watch

The chair in the garage came recently to mind;

Straight ladder back, built for utility not comfort,

Heavy enough for leaning back front legs off the floor;

Thick glossy shellac,

Chipped and yellow with age, 

Cigarette burns like smokey teardrops circle the seat.

It was the one my grandad sat in, to observe

The workings and comings and goings, when he was

Too old and infirm to work the saws and airhammers.

People still stopped to see him and commiserate as he sat, 

Shirt buttoned to his neck; hat pulled down

 Waiting patiently to be asked

A question or given a beer. 

There was talk that his father had used the same chair

To sit by the open door and take in the morning sun;

But that was well before me.

After grandad was gone, the chair stayed largely empty

But for short respites from labor or concrete floors. 

Until my dad settled into it after the first surgery. 

He had taken to wearing a hat 

and buttoning his shirt to the top. 

I’ve wondered about that chair;

If it stll exists in the building long sold

I need a place to sit now and watch the parade

That continues, but includes only my shadow. 

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. 

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.

Endeavoring



He found himself at sea;
alone, misfiled, misplaced:
a spoon among the forks trying
To understand where he fit. 

What did he know about menopause?
About what years did down there 
Turning wetlands into deserts;
Lush marshes into 
Craggy rocky places.
One adapts, he was told.
She had a plan.

Will you take off your pants
At least? he asked.
She played tennis and
knew her legs drove him wild. 
Of course, she said.
But strip now.

He did as he was told and she,
Like a mom with a recalcitrant toddler,
Took him by the ear and patted his bum
Toward the bedroom.

Am I going to regret this 
In the morning? he asked.
Of course darling, she purred.
That’s what mornings are for. 

Elephant Rock

From downstream-coming up on it-
It does look like an elephant. 
Massive head and shoulders, reclining
Leisurely almost, facing the current,
Watching for what might be floating around
The upper bend and into its patch of river.

It’s watched as my old man taught us how to
Catch bait in it’s shallows and bass in
It’s channels or off it’s weed bed. 
It has sat unperturbed as generations 
Jumped from it’s head, climbed up 
It’s back and swam around it’s bulk.

My old man tried to capture it in
Water colors, oils, pencil and chalk.
It’s been photographed from the water in
Summer and from the shore when it
Sat alone, icebound and snow swept.

It looks no different today than it did
In the fifties when my old man sat me 
Up on its head and snapped away with
His Argus. 
On videos, forty years later, my daughters 
Hop and wave from its back. 

Today, as the canoe bounces gently against it,
I reach up and rub the warm, gray shoulder.
“Hey, old man”, I say-not knowing if I’m 
Talking to the rock or the man who had
First sat me upon it. 
I pushed off, passed through its shadow
And continued on-
Making one last cast into its eddy. 

Hash Browns

IMG_7048 (1)

The figs were trimmed like hedgerows under the back terrace. 

We took our coffee there overlooking the river. 

The fruit, thick and heavy, awaited her soft hands to get there before the wasps. 

Her tarts-light, sweet and savory, garnished with purple chive flowers-were a seasonal attraction that almost rivaled the fishing.

She was Irish, who kept the place.

Ruddy and cheerful. Efficient. 

No hint in her green eyes that she’d lost two boys. 

One in the war.

One soon after, of grief.

Sorrow did not hang on her. 

Did not shroud her as it rightfully might have. 

As it could have with a lesser spirit.

Of course, no one sees her in the kitchen, 

Where a chance tear might drip into the diced potatoes,

Salting the morning’s hash browns.

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.