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.
It was an old springhouse on a farm long forgotten, set into the center of what had been a foundation wall, now a roost for lichen, ferns and whatever slippery plant could gain purchase along the cool damp stone where the sun rarely touched. But she did, running her hands along the rough face as she slipped through the opening into the musky dim, rusted nubs of hinges the only hint of the thick doors which once hung there.
Inside, the cistern was empty as it had been the first time she’d visited save for the skittering daddy long-legs that enjoyed whatever moisture she couldn’t see. She remembered the feel of the low stone shelf which, with no cheese, cream or jugs to store, could serve as a crude bench. As it had.
They were young then and spry. It had taken no more than a single shared glance to melt the clothes from her body which glowed like a pearl in the stoney dusk. A momentary gentle man, he took the rough seat and had her mount facing him which she did easily being constantly dewy in her memory. She was first, mewling, keening and scraping her toes against the stone feeling gooseflesh wash across her back as mouth over mouth he stole her breath.
Then, sated and spent, but still feeling his pulsing strength inside her she allowed him to bend her over the cistern where he took her hard, pushing into the place she dreaded. But she took it, knowing it would take but a few minutes then be over and their lives would continue. But for that lesson, learned by every woman since the dawn of time, the species would have mercifully flickered out eons ago.
He was the kind of idiot who bought the “European Berets for $20” advertised in the glossy magazine because “one size fits all”, never accepting that nothing fit his oversized dome. He’d stubbornly wear it for days, laying atop his head like a cow pie. “See”, he’d say, “It fits fine.”
She’d smile and put up with it for as long as it took to find it sitting alone on the bench in the mudroom like a discarded black flapjack. Over the course of an hour, she cut it into small pieces, some of which she flushed, some of which she buried out beyond the fence, marking the spot with a mossy flat stone, and some she burned in the fire pit.
“No, hon”, she would answer when asked. “I haven’t seen it.” And he’d believe her.
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
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.
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.
Continued from Too Many Cooks…
His mind slipped back a couple of weeks when he was helping Darla set up for a wake in the main hall. It was just the two of them, so he was enjoying himself even if she was jittery and more than a little frazzled though everything was under control. He had known her since high school-sometimes very well-so he knew when to give her a wide berth. Easy to do-it was a big hall. Jimmy was setting up the serving line of sternos and chafing dishes when he heard a crash followed by a loud “MotherFUCKer!” out of the mouth of a woman who rarely said “Damn” without feeling guilty.
He rushed into the bar area to check the carnage but it wasn’t that bad. A tray of silverware and a few plates which they had close to a million of anyway. He was helping her pick up when she fumbled one of the surviving plates which crashed again to the floor this time it’s fate sealed. “Goddammit!” she said and actually kicked the shards scattering them.
“Yo!” He raised his voice. “What the hell’s the matter with you today?”
She sighed and straightened, her mouth a tight slash and her cheeks flushed. She stepped toward Jimmy kicking more tableware out of the way.
“Jeeze!”, he said, at a loss.
By virtue of last names they had been in home rooms together for five years, sometimes at adjoining or back to back desks. That allowed for a virtually endless stream of consciousness conversations that teenagers are incapable of censoring. They were both popular in school and ran with their own crowds-he the jock, she the majorette-but always found themselves paired off when hubbub settled.
Regardless of what everyone thought about them, sex, with a few notable exceptions, was not a part of their thing. Not to say they never did anything-it just never seemed to take. There was the time in her parent’s basement they were watching TV together on the couch. Darla’s folks were out to a movie and Darla felt relaxed in her own house that in a way she normally did not.
Darla’s mother was a bit of a martinet angrily jealous of a daughter who was taller, prettier and smarter than she was. She could see that the girl would do well by herself and soon be out of the house leaving her alone with the drunken bad choice she’d made twenty years before. Her mother’s free flowing anger and frustration manifested as frequent over the knee spankings when Darla was small and graduated to bare-bottom paddlings and strappings through high school.
It was no doubt a scandal and could very well have broken up the household had Darla not been so committed to keeping her home treatment a deep, dark secret. The idea that the head majorette regularly got her butt paddled at home was more mortification than she thought she could stand. The very secret, and her need to keep it, of course made her vulnerable when she balked at her mother’s orders and was told in no uncertain terms that she’d tell her friends that she still got spanked “if you don’t bend over right now!” Even now, ten years after leaving that house for good she still felt a pull when she saw a couch in the middle of a room like the one at home to kneel on it and bend over the back ready for her weekly thrashing.
Anyway, it was one of those relaxed times when Darla was feeling kind of hot and was trying to goad Jimmy. Which never worked when he didn’t want it to. She sat on his lap and kissed his neck. He answered every kiss but never served one up. His hands were around her waist but wouldn’t move up nor down.
She slid off his lap and sat at the end of the couch flopping her long majorette legs over his thighs hoping he’d be interested in running his hands up and down her blue-jeaned thighs. He was, but only for a minute until the zombie mayhem on the TV pulled his attention. With a huff, she unsnapped her jeans and slid them down almost kicking him in the face as she pulled them off her feet then flopped her bare legs over his lap. She had his attention then.
As she did now, standing in the splatter of the tray she had dropped to the floor. She ground her teeth hard for a moment then pushed the heel of her hand into her forehead exhaling. Trying to empty herself or at least defuse the bomb she felt inside. Jimmy watched her come back thinking this little tempest had passed. Then, her eyes snapped open and she stepped toward him, almost chest bumping him.
“Hit me.” she ordered, biting the words.
“Hit me!” she leaned closer and pushed him in the chest. Startled, he almost stumbled backwards. He’d given her a hug and kiss on the cheek at New Years and that had been the sum total of their physical contact this year. He wasn’t sure where this was coming from but from the look on her face he was pretty sure it didn’t have much to do with him.
“Come on goddammit!” She stepped closer and pushed again, but Jimmy had dropped his right foot back a step and didn’t move this time.
She was in his face closely enough that he could feel the heat rising from her cheeks. He did want to get some room between them but hadn’t seen her this wound in years and really didn’t want to lay hands on her. “Remember that time you told me how you couldn’t really get into a football game until you took the first hit? That’s what settled you down, cleared your head and got you into the flow of things?”
“No”, he said, remembering the feeling well enough but not seeing what good it would do to agree with her. He’d always been that way. Hell, he hadn’t paid close attention to Darla today until she shoved him twice. Apparently his attention had waned again because she, without warning, leaned back and swung her open right right hand, slapping him sharply across the cheek. Completely surprised, he absorbed the blow then did step back.
“Whoa!” he fairly yelled. “That was new.”
“I told you to hit…” She swallowed her words as Jimmy slip-stepped to her side and threw his left arm roughly over her back. With a quick hip check he had her bent in half facing away and tightened his arm around her waist. “HEY!”, she cried knowing what was coming before Jimmy did.
He was just reacting. His cheek was still numb from the slap and his quick flash of anger had passed given that it was Darla who slapped him and in his heart of hearts he knew she could do anything to him that she pleased. But in that flash, in the heat of the moment he’d grabbed her and bent her over. Now her blue jean clad bottom was pointing his way and not only was Darla not making any moves to cover up, she had grabbed his leg to brace herself.
“Hit me!” she said harshly.
He extended his arm fully and brought a slap down hard in the center of her right cheek. “YO!” she cried. And “WHOA!” as the second smack landed just as hard in the same place. He tightened his grip around her waist and paused to notice that she still wasn’t doing anything to avoid the blows and let fly with another to christen her untouched left cheek. She flinched with another yelp and cried out his name when another hit her squarely in the meetup spot between her legs and bottom, the deep swat sound echoing loudly through the bar.
She was concentrating on the floor and trying unsuccessfully not to cry out at every swat. They just hurt so damn much! Finally he paused and she was trying to catch her breath, gasping as much from the hot pain in her bottom as the constricting arm around her waist. She held his leg below the knee, squeezing not knowing if it was over. And really not knowing if she wanted it to be.
“You done?” he asked. She paused a moment too long and got another hard smack. Then one more.
“Ouch!” she said. “Done!…done!” though she wasn’t sure.
“Good”, he said, releasing his grip and allowing her to stand. “Cause your butt was wearing out my hand.”
She had stood bolt-upright and worked hard to regain her breath-as if she’d been running. “Poor baby”, she said pulling a pouty face while she rubbed her bottom. “Don’t expect any apologies from me.” As he watched her rub her backside he saw that the fire was gone from her cheeks and the tension around her eyes and mouth had melted away. She gave him one of those smiles that his mother would have called a “shit-eating grin.”
“Is that what you had in mind?” he asked.
“I guess it was.”
Taking advantage of their sudden intimacy he did something that was always on his mind but never acted upon. He slid his hand over her bottom moving hers aside so he could rub her a bit as well.
“Good”, he said, the rub turning into a dismissive pat. “Clean up your mess and get a move on. We’ll have fifty people here in a couple of hours.
“Aye, aye Cap’n” she joked, straightening up and flashing a three-finger boy scout salute off her right eyebrow. He saw her clear eyes glistening behind the loose bangs that had fallen over her forehead and his heart caught for an instant. This can’t be good, he thought watching her walk off looking for a broom.
To be continued…
She made the right at the light, then the left onto Peach running along the railroad tracks. Two blocks then a left up Sixth and a right into the Club’s parking lot, then around the back to the kitchen entrance. It was her third circuit of the building in the last thirty minutes. She didn’t know what time he’d get there, only that it would be early. She was glad actually to have had the time to drive around to stop crying. Jimmy didn’t need that-her crying always freaked him out-but she thought she had it under control now. Poor guy, she thought, squeezing off a sad smile which looked kind of twisted in the rear view, he didn’t know what was coming.
Who was she kidding? Even she didn’t know what was coming. No matter how many scenarios, plans, schemes ran through her head they rarely played out as she hoped in the light of day. All she did know was that she had to pull herself back from the edge, cause that’s where she felt she was-tiptoeing along the roofline. In her dreams the last couple of weeks she was always sliding away. One night she couldn’t stop sliding down the icy hill at first street, her fingernails failing to grasp anything. Another night she was sliding down the dusty hill path above the high wall up at the dump where they’d played as kids, or down the sloped floor in the funhouse at old Rainbow Gardens. The common thread in all those dreamscapes was that the end of the slide was a fall, a fall into a void that she felt was waiting for her. And in the dreams, the slopes kept getting steeper and slicker-the void darker.
Apparently the third time was the charm. Jimmy’s truck was parked in back, to the right of the door where Ben usually parked. She grinned knowing that Jimmy had planned to be gone by the time they got there but still, he liked to jab even when he didn’t know he was doing it. She turned off the car and sat, listening to the engine tick. “Gotta breathe”, she said aloud and did that, deep ins and outs until she thought she was ready.
Inside, Jimmy checked the clock above the warmers. Not yet eight. He was ahead of his schedule which was well ahead of everyone else’s. This would be the second monthly dinner at the Club since the pandemic. It was takeout only but they were all surprised by the turnout last month. They had sold almost as many dinners as BC (Before Covid) when they were doing sit-down as well as takeout. So Ben and Darla expected today to be big.
Jimmy’s job was to pre-cook fifty pounds of spaghetti; ten trays of five pounds each. Boil, drain, rinse, ice and put them in the walkin cooler. They would then finish the pasta to order throughout the day. They would. Jimmy wouldn’t be there. He would do the prep cook and be out by 10:30 when Ben and Darla showed up. He wouldn’t mind working with Darla, never minded working with Darla and would frankly like to work with her. Alone. But not with her husband. Ben was a micromanaging complete pain in the ass and Jimmy had given up trying to work with him a few months ago. He communicated with his business partner only through Darla and was frankly still here only through his loyalty to her. If he wasn’t doing the precook, she would have to.
The three huge pots were almost boiling and Jimmy’s Vicodin was starting to bubble a pleasant fuzziness up into his head. Cooking fifty pounds of pasta by yourself was less a culinary feat than an athletic one and all old athletes needed help now and again. The rising steam said it was time to throw down some spaghetti. He emptied a five pound package into the nearest pot and stirred hard with the long handled wooden spoon to keep it from sticking.
The door alarm buzzed and he looked up to check the clock again. “Shit”, he thought. “I don’t want them here yet.” By them, he meant Ben. He kept stirring and looked up when he heard someone rustle in behind him.
“What are you guys doing here this early?” he asked without turning. Darla moved swiftly through the kitchen waving him off with her right hand and headed out the other door into the dining room. “It’s just me”, she said quickly on the way through. What? , he thought. Had there been something in her voice? He looked after her noticing she was still wearing her summer attire-short shorts that she might have been just on the cusp of being too old for, but her legs didn’t follow any calendar. Nobody complained when she was waiting tables or helping in the kitchen with her apron flying behind her.
“Whatever,” thought Jimmy. The first batch was al dente-just right. He hefted the sloshing forty pound pot over to the sink and dumped it through the large colander allowing the water to fill another pot beneath. Then he put that pot on the stove to keep the hot water and, banging pots back and forth, proceeded to rinse the spaghetti with cold water over and over to keep it from sticking.. Again, he used the spoon to stir through the rinsing. It wasn’t until he finished rinsing that he noticed Darla was back in the kitchen. Her eyes were red but her cheeks were dry.
He chose to let it ride for a moment and asked her for one of the aluminum pans behind her. She handed it over and he dumped the spaghetti. “Ice?” she asked. He nodded and she was off to the ice machine rustling back with a pitcher that he spread over the top of the pasta.
“One down”, he said, then turning back to Darla, “What’s up with you?”
She waved him off again but made no move to leave. She was leaning against the stainless steel prep table in the middle of the room, arms folded, face down. He wanted to see her eyes.
“Where’s Ben?” he asked.
She didn’t change her posture except to shrug. Once.
“Jesus Dar! What are you? Fourteen? Talk to me-we got a busy day here.”
She looked up and the tears had started to run but crying registered nowhere else on her face. She wiped her cheeks with the flat of her hand and shrugged again.
“I said some things.”
“About the dinner. About the club. About him…Things!”
Jimmy cut his eyes to the clock. Now he was behind schedule. “You had to say things this morning? Couldn’t wait until tomorrow…?”
“It’ll be fine. He just won’t talk to me most of the day which will be a relief. I don’t know…”She huffed with the shrug this time. “You think this is easy for me?” Then she looked up and met his eyes and he knew exactly what she meant. “You think?”
“No”, he said, catching her eyes knowing pretty much what she was talking about. “Not for me either. But hey-if it was easy everyone would be doing it and that would be an awful shitteree”
She grinned. “It would be messy”, she said. She sighed a little too loudly for it to have been spontaneous. “You know what I need?”
“I think I’m going to find out.”
“I could use that”, she said dryly.
Jimmy saw she was looking at the wooden spoon. “Here”, he said absently reaching it toward her.
“No dummy”, she sniffed and half turned, cocking her hip his way almost presenting her backside.
Oh for the love of Mike, thought Jimmy.
His mind slipped back a couple of weeks…
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.
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.
Let's sleep in the same tent for awhile. Hold up beside a river, in a place nobody knows. Up off the gravel in the high grass We’ll tend the fire and gather strength. We’ll spend the night dancing in the starlight Making love to the light of the moon. We’ll invent a language- Secret looks, words and winks That only we understand. Then we’ll sleep and dream the same dream. We’ll share the sunrise, Pack and go on; Knowing the world will never look The same again.
Written for my brother’s wedding which took place on a dock on a glassy lake tucked between rolling green mountains and high blue skies. We were surrounded by friends, families, feasted on chicken and good wine and danced under swinging lanterns to mountain fiddlers. The marriage lasted years, through two farms, six dogs, a couple of herds of delicious small goats, countless chickens, ducks and many good dinners. But I knew from that day on the dock that she was crazier ‘n a shithouse rat and it was only a matter of time. Of course, I’m sure she would have a different perspective but this isn’t journalism. I couldn’t give two shits about her perspective.