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. 

The Bird Watcher

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There was the time that cousin Jeffy came back from a morning in the fields and breakwoods out back carrying an old cigar box full of songbird eggs that he had pilfered from nests. There were different shades of blue ones, white ones, brown speckled, black speckled…a kaleidoscope of small, some round, some oval, unborn birds. His father, a birder with a long life list positively raged at the carnage. “You must take them back immediately”, he roared. “Put them back where you found them!” Jeffy, the ever obstinate, said no. Then, to perhaps appear less confrontational said he couldn’t remember where he got them all. Uncle, not a big man, sputtered, balled his fist and punched him square in the nose. Jeffy was ten or eleven at the time and took the punch well though he sat down hard on the floor as blood flowed apace. With a stunned grin, Jeffy opened the box on his lap and picked out a sky blue egg that even I knew was a robin’s. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed it whole while Uncle, roaring, reached for the belt he wasn’t wearing because it was the weekend. Then, with both of us frozen, he picked out another-a small speckled one-and held it up between pointer and thumb. “It’s a chickadee Jeffery. Put it back!” Jeffy’s low giggle was more of a growl, coming from deep within his chest. This time, when he popped the egg into his mouth he bit down with a sickening crunch then opened his lips in a ghastly smile pushing yolk and bits of shell through his gapped teeth. His father, apoplectic, screamed and pulled the china cabinet over trying to brain the boy. He missed as dishes crashed into shards across the linoleum. His voice choked with fury, he ran into the next room looking for something to beat the boy with. Jeffy looked at me with wide, wild eyes and picked another egg, this one larger than the others. With another growl he smashed it into his forehead and laughed as the yolk and slime rolled down his face to mix with the blood. Fearing finally that whatever brand of crazy was going on might have been catching, I bolted through the backdoor, knocking it off its hinges and stumbled over the garbage can. “Not the Lark!!” I heard Uncle cry as the tea kettle came crashing through the kitchen window behind me. 

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.

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.

Lover’s Song

The lover’s song hoped to chronical the sad, continuing struggle to find someone who could make it all seem right. In the pictures all the men looked like thumbs, big and vacant, hats at a jaunty tilt. Rich girls with backyard fences, angels coupled with sailors and airmen. Dreams watch each other warily, not wanting to draw first. Soft luxuriant curs loll in the faded light. Girls and drivers tricked out to get liquor and better clothes. Half gallons of sweet wine, six packs of beer and jeans that rode low.  Jump humped, born to suffer, made to undress in the wilderness.

He threw on the businessman’s Stetson that belonged to his grandfather, a renown liar, and sang:

“I will never treat you mean,

Never start no kind of scene

I will tell you every place and every person I’ve been

I will always be true,

Never go sneaking out on you…”

It was easier to lie when he sang. But he wouldn’t let it bother him because he knew beyond doubt that she would kill him.

Eventually.

Lying April

I’m out in the back working the compost again, pulling the sweetest and darkest for the garden that still mostly slumbers. At this particular moment, the sky is a heartbreaking blue with painfully white clouds smirking down through the lie that is April. I uncovered the fig and threaded the grape vines two weeks ago when the forsythia blazed and the first groundhog of the season wandered into my trap to be ferried across the river to the church grounds where he’d cavort with the hundreds of bunnies and hedgehogs that had made the same trip over the years. I’d caught trout on Good Friday and, forgetting sunscreen, burned my nose and cheeks. Now for the past three dawns, I’ve sprayed water on the buds to ward off the frosts that have rolled through and right now, at this particular moment, wearing sunglasses makes as much sense as an aqualung. She’s yelling for me to come in before I catch my death, but snow squall or no, I’m putting lettuce in. Today. Why do I always let April do this to me?

Georgie

Georgie was sitting behind the station drinking the cheapest quart that thin money could buy. His mask was flapping, hanging from a band over one ear and showed stains of paint overspray, tobacco, blood and probably snot if I got close enough to look. Betting he found it. He was leaning to the left, away from his bottle hand, because the bleached-to-pink red resin chair he was sitting on was dumpster salvage-tossed there with a broken leg. I tried to steer clear because Georgie was always good to bum a buck or two which was okay normally but not so right now. He saw me right enough, but all he wanted was an ear in passing. “They should drop an atom bomb on all of it”, he said, looking at me but not-as his eye tended to float and wander. “Wipe out all this sickness and disease at once.” “Georgie,” I said moving on, “That would take us out too.” “That’s what I mean”, he coughed. “Start again but get it right this time. Have god not make any animal that walks on two legs. Give us enough time, we’ll just fuck everything up!” I slowed, waiting to see if he was done. He didn’t seem sure.

Sixteen

What I wouldn’t give to drink like I was sixteen again. When two six packs, a pint of peach schnapps and two joints in a Sucrets tin could last a weekend at the cabin but would not be enough to even make the drive now. To not have to spend forty dollars on high end IPA’s and brown liquor just to bend the mood enough to make me tolerable at home in the evening. Back then I’d be smiling on a half can of Stroh’s and laughing out loud by the time it was finished. Those. Those were the days.

Accommodations

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Ma still had most of her teeth at the end. At least parts of most of them and it was one of the few sources of vanity she had left. There were gaps, of course, mostly along the sides and in the back but they weren’t too obvious unless she wide smiled which she really didn’t.

With the gaps she had to chew her nicotine gum in the front where you’d see it flopping about threatening to drop out at any time which it sometimes would but never threatened a fire or left a burn mark as her Pall Malls did. She’d just pick it up off her lap or the table (if it made the floor it stayed there) and popped it back into her mouth.

Things changed the day she broke off one of her front teeth in a sandwich. “The hell?” she asked angrily looking at the small yellowish nubbin stuck crookedly like an old gravestone in the bun. Her dentist was long dead and she wasn’t interested in finding another. Just smiled less, talked into her chest and concentrated hard on chewing away front the new jagged hole in her mouth.

Eventually, for a short time, she went back to smoking. She was shaky then and needed both hands but knew enough to move the whole operation out onto the sunporch where her plastic chair and concrete floor presented less of a fire hazard.

Spring Wind

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A poem by Louis Jenkins with an afterword

“The spring wind comes through and knocks over trashcans and trees. It has something to do with warm fronts and cold fronts, I think, or with high and low pressure systems, things that I don’t really understand and that aren’t really an explanation anyway. Ultimately, the spring wind is the result of some relationship between the Earth and the Sun that may not be all that healthy after all. The wind comes in a big huff, slams doors, pushes things around and kicks up the dirt. The big bully spring wind comes through on its way nowhere and, ha ha! We love it.”

No Louis, not all of us do. For me, the winds carry at least a discomfort, sometimes-depending on the spirits- a full blown dread. Whether in the woods, where the trees groan and grind together, the leaves sweep up and fly fearfully backward torn away from the soft place where they rested, peacefully composting. Or in the yard wondering which garbage can would go rolling (not so much fun when you got to chase it), which shingles would go or is this the blow that’ll finally bring the limb from the old hickory down on the shed. Ma told a story about the spring winds, how they picked up her little cousin Jeffrey and tossed him off the escarpment where her auntie lived and into the river below, to drown in full view of the Easter revelers who couldn’t get down the hill in time to save him. It was a story that never seemed quite right to me. Ma was little herself then, hadn’t seen Jeffrey blow into the river, just heard about it. Then of course, saw him in his casket looking like a little angel in his white suit and blonde hair-his sky blue eyes closed forever. You ask me, something else happened to that boy. I’ve seen the pictures of all those people; the flinty gray eyes (of course they were black and white pictures so it would figure) but still. There was something unsettling about the way they stared unsmiling into the camera. And there were other stories Ma almost told afore biting her lip. At any rate, they’re all dead now and I’m the onliest one who even remembers that story. The shit we carry through life can be burdensome.