He could see her down the alley, heading home. She was moving so slowly through the shadows that it occurred to him she wanted to be stopped, to be called back. In fact, as he watched, she slowed her pace to the point that she was hardly moving. She seemed to be not walking anymore, just languidly floating like algae in a light current.
Then, in the darkest spot in her path, behind the hulking void of the American Legion hall, she turned and he saw a glint on her cheek. It struck him later as uncanny that he was able to see tears on his girl’s cheek from that far away in that darkness. The simple truth was had he not seen that tear-that simple trick of reflected light-he never would have called her back.
He stepped away from the garage to be seen and raised his right arm and with a flap of the elbow and a flick of the wrist, beckoned her back. Seeing him she froze then, hurried no more, began to retrace her path, her pace quickening with every step. By the time she cleared the Legion’s shadow she was in full stride, long legs covering broken asphalt and her wet cheeks shining. He opened his arms ready to catch her. The slaps of her sneakers got louder before they stopped when she launched. He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face where her neck should have been and squeezed his own chest hard, his hands wrapped around his own arms.
Having braced for an impact that never came, he stumbled backward and spun to his right, dropping a hand to the ground to steady himself. Realizing that his eyes were closed he opened them and found himself alone in the middle of the alley. He looked around quickly. Nothing. His heart thumped. He started in the direction from where she’d come, scrambling, jogging and calling her name. He saw her, didn’t he? She saw him. She had been there. Hadn’t she?
Spinning his head, he noticed a faint light in one of the bedrooms of the apartment above the garage. He raced between the buildings and thumped heavily up the wooden steps two and three at a time. The door was open. He burst into the space that he knew so well calling her name. He crossed the kitchen in two strides, Then down the hallway where the dull yellow light oozed from under the door.
He grabbed the knob and tried to twist but it was frozen. Locked. The door yielded easily with a loud crack to a single thrust of his thick shoulder.and there she sat on the end of the stripped bed, elbows on knees, face in hands weeping. The ferocity that brought him crashing through the locked door vanished in the face of her sorrow. He slid to his knees between hers and gently and finally wrapped his arms around her.
“What?” he asked.
“I know how this ends.” she said bleakly.
Enveloped by him, her sobbing ebbed somewhat.
“No you don’t”, he said. “WE say how it ends. Not you, not me but WE. It’s us, it’s always been us.”
“NO” she sad emphatically but without anger. “You won’t change. You may think you will, but you won’t. What you were is too strong, it will pull you back. And for that person, I am just a sidekick-the kid down the alley.”
“True. Is true, Was true. Will be true.”
She was wrong, he thought. How could she be so wrong? He knew how he felt and everything he’d done had been for them. She didn’t believe him anymore. It wasn’t her fault. Without realizing, they had begun to speak different languages. His was the only one they’d heard for years. He had to learn to speak her’s.
He sat back on his haunches and untied her left shoe. He slipped it off and set it aside. Then rolled off her short ankle sock and placed it in the shoe. He repeated the steps with the other shoe. Straightening on his knees he grasped the bottom of her T-shirt and lifted it up over her head where she took over and pulled it all the way off shaking out her hair in a way that seemed triumphant. She never wore a bra and her small breasts, like orange halves, were at eye level. He again wrapped his arms around her bare back and snuggled his face between them. She shivered for the first of many times that evening.
She watched him, eyes clear and alert, as he unsnapped her jeans. Then lifted so he could peel them down and off. When he kissed the tops of her long thighs and moved his tongue inside of them, she moaned softly. Her panties were white with tiny red roses spattered over them. Little girl panties. She had others she would have worn if she knew this was going to happen. She yielded to his touch when he pushed her back onto the bed. She scootched backward to lay instead of sit.
He put his mouth on her soft mound where it pushed against the cotten and breathed his hot breath onto her there. When he looked up, she was watching him wearing an expression he’d never seen before but having seen in, never wanted to do without it.
“We say how this ends”, he said firmly.
“I might be starting to believe you”, she said, her hand touching his cheek.
The two young women regarded each other carefully., as one would study a reflection in a full length mirror. One turned out her ankle and the other did the same and watched how the calf flexed. They were both wearing shorts, but not the same kind-one had jean shorts cut high enough that the pockets showed below the ragged hem. The other wore nylon athletic shorts that were similarly short.
He suddenly remembered his mother in a bra and panties (he had to have been six or seven because they still lived in the apartment) twisting and turning to catch all views of herself in the long mirror on the back of her bedroom door. As she modeled, he lay on her bed pretending to read a book about the Confederate general Jeb Stuart. The book was over his head by a good couple of years but he was drawn to it in the library by the painting on the cover of a dashing figure on a horse riding through gunfire. But all he could think about was the crack of his mother’s butt which he could see as a dark line through her sheer panties.
The two women were remarkably similar in build at least from the waist down and they studied one another’s legs carefully, each twisting and turning.
“We’re not the same person,” said the one in the athletic shorts.
“Who said we were?” answered the other.
“Your breasts are bigger than mine”, said athletic shorts having turned to profile to better evaluate.
Both were braless in T-shirts, one gray, one black.
“Your breasts are fine”, said jean shorts with a sweet smile.
“Easy for you to say,” athletic shorts answered, her gaze squarely on the other’s breasts.
“Anything more than a mouthful is wasted, right?” jean shorts said with the same-maybe even wider- smile.
“Where’d you hear that?” athletic shorts asked quickly.
“Frankie says it all the time…”
“He does”, she answered.
“Any luck on that front?” she asked, still smiling with a bit of concern.
“He’s coming around”, she answered in a tone that conveyed the opposite.
“Frankie’s a stubborn one.” jeans short said.
Hearing his name mentioned aloud in what had to be a dream caused Frank to stir. And when he did the slight pain in his shoulder from having fallen asleep on the couch was enough to bring him fully awake. He was in the garage, the flickering fluorescent above the workbench casting a dim blue that didn’t cut much of the darkness. He had no idea what time it was, but he could still smell Teena. She couldn’t have been gone long.
He sighed and sat up, dropping his feet onto the concrete floor, only then realizing he had an erection. He reflected on his tent pole sullenly hoping it was from the two women in his dream and not of the memory of his mother in her underwear.
“Oh well”, he sighed, rising. “Nothing to be done…”. He pushed himself down the leg of his jeans and picked his way through the clutter toward the door.
I didn’t set the whole thing up. Parts of it, sure. Not the whole thing. Not the way it played out. Not in my wildest imagination could I have…well, that’s a lie. I could have imagined it. I spend much of my waking hours imagining just such things. But in the beginning, I had nothing but the best of intentions.
It was close to ten on a slow Thursday night when the buzzer alerted me that the back door had been opened. The only keys out were mine and…Diana’s, who walked through the swinging doors from the back room. A six foot tall redhead who wore her hair short and was partial to leather jackets and tight jeans. Tonight the jacket was short and brown and the crew neck silk jersey under it inky black. Diana had owned The Oaks for a decade and had hired me to manage it eight years ago. Help being what it is these days, I’m also the night bartender during the week.
Bars in the valley had a lifespan. We were well beyond being the new kids on the block but nowhere near being yesterday’s news. The clientele was mostly familiar, which was not bad exactly, but less than good. It was a good crowd, dependable and predictable but there was something to be said for new blood. Not necessarily for me, I’d gotten to where predicable and dependable were positives. But you could feel it in the folks around the bar. There was a sameness to the place and crowd. For every person who bellied up to our bar for the familiarity of it all, there were two who might be interested in something different. And who would go someplace that offered a change from routine.
“Welp”, said Diana, stepping behind the bar and helping herself to a heavy Tito’s rocks, “We need a bartender.”
“Tell me about it.” I said.
“No, really now. Jolene is having ankle surgery in a couple of weeks and will be out of commision for a while.”
Jolene was our daytime bartender during the week and handled the heavy load of weekend nights. Which she didn’t mind because that’s where the money is. I jumped in to help if it got too busy. Diane would help out too. It was a secret-not a secret-that Diane and Jolene were a couple.
“If he could make a decent Negroni, I’d hire him.”
Desperation made me ask, “You know Jennie Angelo?”
Jennie had played basketball with my daughter in junior high. Having played a bit in high school myself, I was roped in to help coach. We weren’t very good but we had fun. I had heard she was a bartender and had run into her a few months ago, behind the bar at a little roadside place across the lake. It was busy and she was handling the crowd well. As a kid, she was alway high energy and now at twenty nine or thirty, she hadn’t lost that. Plus she’d picked up a good six inches which would have been helpful back in the day.
“Hey Coach!” she said when I squeezed in at the end of the bar. Still a great smile which she tossed at everyone. In this business, you need to be on the lookout for talent all the time, so I made a mental note. Drank two beers, caught up a little and left her a ten dollar tip.
“You think she’s happy there?” asked Diane after hearing my pitch.
“Long hours, beer mostly, shots…crowd is coming and going: kids and old men.” Which meant shitty tips, even for someone who looked like Jennie.
“Think you can bring her in?”
It wasn’t hard. A few days later Jennie was behind the bar sharing an audition shift with Jolene. Jo had a very chill persona which fit her ice queen good looks and flowed behind the bar in a way that never seemed rushed or hurried but always got her to where she needed to be. She heard and saw everything. Jennie was her polar opposite. It was fun watching her effervescent energy bouncing around back there.
My concerns that she might bowl over the waif-like Jolene were allayed as they worked well together, each complimenting the other. At the end of the shift, even with splitting tips Jennie made more than any night at the other place. She was more than thrilled and gave me a hug and cheek kiss on her way out after closing. Jolene, used to working alone and possessive of her place, gave my girl (as she and Di referred to Jennie) a thumbs up and she was brought aboard.
After that first shift, she was plug-and-play. I would be with her late in the evenings to help if needed which was seldom and act as her barback-filling ice, running for liquor, whatever. Basically, I enjoyed sipping a bourbon at the end of the bar and watching her work. When I say it like that , it doesn’t seem like I was checking her out. But I was, and as time went on, I felt less and less skeevy about it. She was a woman now, not a pre-teen. Since I’m as subtle as a sledgehammer, she’d catch me eyeing her and wink or smile or stick out her tongue between her teeth which made me feel a way that I didn’t know if I was comfortable with. I got used to it, though.
She was touchy-feely, would lay hands on me in passing and if we were side by side, I could count on a hand rubbing my back. “Hellos” and “Goodnights” usually came with a quick hug. “I’m glad you looked me up”, she told me once. “I am too”, I answered pretty sure we were talking about the bartending gig. Some of her crew from the other place had followed her to The Oaks and livened the place up a little, giving us all a quick shot of energy.
It was a couple of weeks later, in the back room near the ice machine, that she first gave me a kiss that wasn’t a peck on the cheek. Her lips, full and wet, opened to allow her tongue to slip into my mouth and explore. She tasted faintly of gin; a surprise as I hadn’t seen her nipping. I told myself it could have been peppermint. I wasn’t into doing a whole forensic analysis as her tongue seemed to be engaged in counting my teeth. My embrace was less reluctant than previous quick hugs we’d shared. I explored her back intending for all I was worth to stop at the beltline. Seems I wasn’t worth much. My resolve lasted as long as a snowflake on a windshield as my hands slipped over her hips and cupped her bottom. She was solid back there and did a little clenching as if I needed more stimulation. For a moment a matchbook couldn’t have slipped between us. Just as my arousal was becoming manifest, I released my hold and she withdrew her tongue with a finishing kiss on my closing mouth.
Her eyes were shining and her cheeks were flushed and she gave me a happy smile that warmed me as much if not more than the embrace had. “Finally!” she said.
“I didn’t know this was a race”, I said, feeling both spent and energized.
“I’m not a kid anymore.”
“I’m starting to get that…”
“You never were quick on the uptake”, she said, her smile turning sly and crooked. She either remembered or intuited that smart-assery in a woman is a desired feature and not a bug.
“Timmie knows I’m working here”,she said unbidden, referring to my daughter-her erstwhile teammate and school chum.
“Uhh…” I stammered a bit, that skeeviness trying to bubble up again. “I didn’t know you guys were still in touch.”
“Online” She shrugged, “I’m a bartender, I follow everybody. I posted that I was working here and she reached out.” She must have seen the cloud scud across my face. “Don’t worry, Coach, there will be no posting about you tonguing my tonsils.”
Her tone was so bright and her smile so wide that I couldn’t resist laughing. Neither could I resist grabbing her arm and turning her half way round. I telegraphed the smack to her bottom well enough that she could have easily blocked it or turned away. She did neither and in fact stuck her bum out a bit to provide a better target. It was a moderate slap, somewhere between a pat and a solid smack.
I released her arm and she rubbed her targeted cheek, more for effect than anything.
“Finally”, she said again. “Thought I was gonna have to draw you a map.”
“Go wait on some customers why dontcha…pushing her toward the swinging doors. She disappeared, trailing a laugh. I reached into the ice machine and pulled out a few little moons and held them to my eyes, then the back of my neck. I felt like I had just stuck my finger in a light socket and actually felt a little lightheaded. A cigarette would be good. It was a shame I’d quit. But I knew DIana slipped out back now and again to burn one, so maybe in her office?
Her office door was always locked but there was a trick-not much of one-but a trick. The molding around the door was poorly attached and could be pushed aside. Then a finger, even one as fat as mine, could be slipped behind the strike plate and release the latch. The switch above the copy machine turned on the overhead fluorescent which was too much for the small room, There was a couch, an old refinished desk, steel locking cabinets a few well positioned lamps and a safe so big and old the it would have been there from the beginning. Place was neat enough to see no cigarettes on first scan. I went around the desk and sat in the chair-nothing in the middle drawer, nor in any of the three left ones. Stapler, broken stapler, old Blackberry, and how many paperclips does one woman need? I had almost given up when I pulled the bottom right drawer and there was the slightly crumpled green and white soft pack. I sntached it up and was relieved to see there was at least a half pack, so she wouldn’t miss one. Also a couple of lighters, one of which I borrowed.. I must have wanted that smoke pretty badly because I almost missed what else was in the drawer.
The pack had been sitting atop a ping-pong paddle. An older one, with the sandpaper on one side and hard green rubber nubs on the other.. My buddy had a table when we were kids and we played a lot. There wasn’t and never had been a ping pong table at The Oaks. My chest lightened as I held the paddle and thought of Diana, then of Jolene, then of Jolene and Diana and tried to remember if I’d ever heard or seen anything….My mind reeled and my hand wanted to shake as I replaced the paddle and took a second cigarette. I did my best to put everything exactly as I found it, shut the lights, locked the door and left the office.
Outside on the loading dock I leaned against the cool block wall, filled my lungs with the sweet menthol smoke and felt the nicotine firing synapses in my brain that had been long asleep. Things suddenly looked brighter and the traffic sounds wafting from up the hill were sharper. I looked at the burning end of the cigarette and took a second drag. Maybe it wasn’t the nicotine…I tossed the butt into the parking lot where it landed in a shower of red sparks. Damn! Even that looked pretty. I let myself back in and took my seat at the end of the bar.
There were those that said Junior was never the same once he got back from Korea. Just as many said he wasn’t the same before he left.
Junior lived a few short blocks from Buck Wilson who left town after high school at his country’s behest to walk point in Vietnamese jungles for two years. It was a job with severely limited prospects. Now, some years later, Buck was a big, gentle guy who delivered appliances for Sears. He’d catch himself crying at the coffee shop now and again-Buck never drank-but that was about it. Except for he hated trees or any place where he couldn’t see everything within a hundred meters all round. Among his favorite spots were the parking lot at Sears before it opened and drive-in theaters before any cars got there.
One time a lady friend asked him for a ride to visit her daughter out near Frick Park in Pittsburgh, with its towering oaks and sycamores. He sweated in the cooling shade then, to be accommodating, took a walk with the ladies and the daughter’s dog along the park. He hesitated but a moment when the women veered down a path into the woods, the dog nosing a squirrel. He followed, dragging his feet as through sand. The humid Pittsburgh summer had raised a riot of thick green on both sides of the trail: rhododendrons, laurel, sumac and jagger bushes that closed, reached and grasped. The women stopped when they realized they were alone and back tracked to find Buck frozen in place vibrating like a tuning fork. They gently turned him and let the dog lead them back to the road.
Afterward with the women in the kitchen, Buck took his coffee to the porch and never once took his eyes off the treeline.
Bob knew enough people with enough history. Christ Almighty, his own Uncle Nick had been a prisoner of the Germans in World War Two. So he really didn’t care how many Junior had killed in Korea, somewhere between none and a hundred depending on how high he was when he was telling the story and who was listening.. Bob’s concern was who Junior might kill now. Or had killed recently and how to keep it from blowing back on him and his.
I learned Sylvie had died from her niece Naomi who felt obligated to make the call though we’d been estranged for years. She knew the old woman had loved me and thought I should know though she didn’t call until Sylvie was in the ground.
It was the latest volley in an imaginary battle for a woman’s limitless affections. Sylvie had enough for everyone, something truly limited people could not fathom. She had hired me back in the day-when the neighborhood turned and she wanted someone more substantial than her niece behind the bar. A sin I didn’t commit but was never forgiven.
I graduated from the bar to the kitchen, where Sylie taught me everything I needed to know, which was nowhere near everything she knew. Her chicken cacciatore became my specialty and her sauce was indistinguishable from mine. Naomi stayed jealous though she had no real interest in cooking.
She stayed as a waitress and in the beginning our battles were waged sotto voce in hisses and snarls and stares. Then grabs and pushes, unseen slaps, until our area of operations moved out of sight into the storage room after hours where an old couch had been reclaimed for late night crashing. Actual fighting would have been less damning and damaging. That came later, after Naomi had heard that I was selling coke across the bar and threatened to tell her aunt. It was an old story and a one-time mistake borne of poverty and the need of a quick score, but my embarrassment at being found out and fear of the loss of Sylvie’s trust brought a collapsing wave of desperation that sucked all reason out of my head. .
Later I would remember hitting her. It would come to me in flashes like one of those old timey crank kinetoscope viewers they had in arcades back then. First she is standing there with her arms straight down at her sides, fists clenched, defiant and perhaps a little afraid. Then my right fist lashes out and connects with her jaw. At the last moment, realizing what was happening, I pulled the punch hitting her just hard enough to drop her solidly on her bottom. She sat on the floor blinking and wagging her head from side to side like a confused puppy.
Almost as stunned as Naomi, I quickly extended my now open right hand. She took it and rose unsteadily to her feet. A cursory glance showed no blood nor outward evidence of damage. Pulling the punch had saved us both. Assuming, of course, that our regular angry coupling was off for the evening I tried to fashion some words of apology and mortification. Before I could open my mouth she said, “I’m sorry”, her eyes dulled and full.
She withdrew her threat to expose me to Sylvie-such a breach of confidence, that a punch to the jaw was not just warranted but desired. The tears overfilled and ran down her cheeks in two glistening streams, one of which I thumbed, leaving the other to drip off her chin before she wiped at it with the back of her hand.
I was moving toward the door when she said, “You can’t just leave.” I didn’t know what was left to do until she turned and lowered her jeans and rolled her panties after them. She bent over a stack of beer cases. “I don’t want the last touch from you today to be a punch.” It was the only sex in our roughly six month tryst that could be even remotely described as tender. Or as tender as banging one out in a storeroom over a stack of beer cases can be.
The next day she showed up wearing more makeup than usual to cover the bruise that had bloomed on her jaw overnight. She leaned in. “Never hit me again where others can see”, she said firmly, writing the script for our time together.
When Sylvie stepped away in her eighties, she rightly sold the place to Naomi, who seemed well suited to be an owner; maybe only because she was no more than marginal at most other things. I stayed on, cooking, refining the dishes, tweaking the menu, tending bar, doing the necessary things to keep Sylvie’s Bar and Lounge moving forward. Our affair, such as it was, cooled, then over a short time, disappeared. Burned out, more likely.
Not too long after I stepped into the kitchen on a Thursday morning ready to make my orders for the weekend and prep for the lunch trade. The lights were on and coffee was brewing. A woman was standing, her back to the door. She was slender and rangy wearing snug black jeans and a white T-shirt. Her red hair was thick and short, brushed straight back and as she turned revealed a full sleeve tattoo on her left arm. She extended her right hand and went to introduce herself.
“I know who you are”, I said, taking her hand firmly. Monica Perez was a chef at Tim’s Hideout, a steak joint out on the highway. She was until very recently it seemed. I looked around the kitchen where I’d spent so much time and it suddenly looked foreign to me. That’s how I knew I’d been replaced. I had splurged on my own set of knives which I gathered and wrapped in their canvas.
“Chef…” She began.
“Tony”, I answered. “You’re a chef. I’m a cook.”
“I’ve eaten here.” She said, trying.
“The food?” I asked, having none of it. She winced slightly leaving me surprised and embarrassed, And surprised that i was embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. My bad. Getting fucked before coffee makes me grumpy.” I said, heading for the door.
“Wait” She said. “You know Katie’s Corner uptown? “They need a che…”she stopped herself. “A cook of your experience. Talk to Kate. Katie Sole. If you’re going I’ll call her.”
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?”
“Yeah. Helen. She was a bit of one back in the day. Word was, she liked it in the back door.”
“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.
“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.
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?”
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.
Alice picked desultorily at her salad, moving pieces of shrimp under the romaine as if they embarrassed her. She only ordered it because having already had one date with Ron, she knew she would need a distraction, something to fiddle with while he droned on.. She also, not yet in a comfort zone with Ron or Ronnie-Carole referred to him both ways, she had gone with the Arnold Palmer instead of her desired and probably necessary double Blue Sapphire Martini with three olives.
He had surprised her, she’d give him that. She said nothing right off, just kept that quizzical smile that she thought was equal parts cute and perturbed. She cut her eyes left and right to assure he hadn’t been overheard. And that she had heard correctly. Her thoughts were split between, “What the actual fuck?” and “Was Carole pranking her with this guy?”
She used to think it was her, but not anymore. She had learned from a tender age to assume that men were broken beings. She imagined that there were all manner of maladies and catastrophes that befell men and assumed that it was inevitable-the nature of things-and happened at an early age. More than that she was unhappily certain she would find out on her life’s journey.
She had just turned fourteen when her friend Chrissie’s step dad was driving her home after she’d had dinner with them. It was not uncommon as that was the year of the sleepover when it seemed nobody could spend a whole week at home without breaking it up with a night or two at a friend’s house. There to read magazines, listen to music, sometimes sneak liquor and play spin the bottle which she wasn’t sure she would have enjoyed as much had there been boys. Kissing games had led to other games that had winnowed the numbers of girls who would come to the sleepovers.
But this one time, when Jim, which is what Chrissie’s step dad insisted all the kids call him-”Mr. Cooper was my father”-he’d say, had pulled off into the parking lot of Beto’s Lounge which had burned to the ground years before and only existed in memories and as a weathered sign on a rusty pole in a broken asphalt parking lot. It was dark back here and people would swing in to pee in the tall grass if they couldn’t make it home. Alice had assumed that was why they stopped. But Jim didn’t get out, didn’t even move, just stared straight ahead so intently that Alice followed his gaze to see if there was anything in the scrub woods that had overtaken the collapsed foundation. Then Alice noticed how he was squeezing and rubbing his hands on the steering wheel. Not exactly nervous, but something.
She knew that older kids with cars would also pull in here to neck. Suddenly she had a thought that he might kiss her. She wouldn’t have minded that probably. He was cool and she’d kissed boys of course, but not men. That would be new. Then, just when she was getting ready to feel his arm across the back of her shoulders to pull her close he said, “I’d like you to do me a favor.”
“Sure.” she said. She had spent enough time with him and his family to have no qualms.
“Don’t do it if you don’t want to and-this is important-it has to be a secret, just between us.”
Only then did she feel a little flutter in her stomach. A tightening in her chest. “Sure,” she repeated. “What should I do?” He told her to get in the back seat. She’d been in the back seat with a boy before and hadn’t liked it much but she trusted Jim. She got out and opened the back door and slid in. He stayed in the front seat behind the wheel. He was looking at her in the rear view mirror. “Lay on the seat”, he told her. She did. “On your belly”, he said. She flipped over.
When she looked back over her shoulder he was adjusting the mirror downward.
“Now Alice”, he said slowly, as though he was having trouble speaking. “I don’t want you to be afraid.”
“I’m not”, she said, not lying.
“And don’t do anything you don’t want to.”
“OK”, she said. “What do you want me to do?”she asked, already knowing.
“Push down your jeans” By the time he said it she already had her hands at work, unsnapping and unzipping. He was watching in the mirror. Maybe she would have felt more uncomfortable if she hadn’t done this once already this evening.
Those are cute panties”, he said as if talking to a child. “Are those hearts?” he asked.
“Roses”, she answered.
“Oh. I couldn’t make them out in the mirror.”
“You can turn around and look. I don’t mind.” She certainly wouldn’t tell him that she wore these panties tonight because Chrissie liked them. “Would you push them down for me?” She hesitated for a moment as if considering, but could not imagine why she would not. Though the air in the car was thick and seemed to press, it was calm. There was no movement, no sound except the stray car hissing by out of sight, the only illumination from the rear dome light shining directly down on her. There was no way she wasn’t going to do what he asked. So he wanted to see her butt. So what? She lifted and wriggled until her panties were down her thighs with her jeans.
It must have gotten very quiet then, because she could hear Jim’s breathing. “Roll up on your side,” he said, “facing the back.” She took a moment to translate for herself what he was wanting. Simple enough. She rolled her face into the backseat, her bottom facing the front. Again, silence filled the car, broken only by his breathing. Alice brought her arm up under her head, making herself a little more comfortable. Then she heard a quickening and a rustling as if mice were running loose up front. Then a cough and moan and the air filled with the spunky smell of warm bread dough. Which is the only way she could describe it-but she knew what it was. He groaned a bit more, then there was more rustling and Alice remembered the wadded paper bag on the front seat, left over from a burger and fries.
“You can pull your pants up.” His voice was thick and phlegmy. He had started to weep as she pulled her panties up. By the time she was sitting and snapping her jeans, he was full on sobbing. Jesus, Alice thought. Not this. Her own father was a crier and she found it highly disturbing. As she saw it, it was her job, as a young woman, to cry her way through things she didn’t like or understand. She didn’t, of course but it was her prerogative. He should be the steady one, hand on the wheel, helping her to navigate. That was the only fair division of labor in adult-child relationships. And he wasn’t stopping, nor even slowing. He apologized again and again and tried to explain himself. There was something about his wife in there and sleeping in different rooms. Jesus! Enough, already. Alice would have happily gotten naked and sat in his lap if he would stop blubbering.
Finally, he ebbed, then subsided altogether as this time she was the one watching in the rear view. He said, “Well”, matter of factly then wiped his eyes roughly with the heels of his hands in a way she thought manly. Then he rolled the window part way down and killed the dome light. “You want a cigarette?” He asked.
“I don’t smoke”, she said.
“Good”, he answered. “I think Chrissie is starting.”
She was, but Alice said nothing.
She heard the scratch and pop of a match then saw the flare as he inhaled deeply and blew a stream of smoke out of the window.
“You can come back up front”, he said.
Thinking of the sad stained burger bag wadded somewhere up there, she said she was fine where she was. “That’s cool, too”, he said and started the car. He adjusted the mirror yet again and she saw his red wet eyes in the glow of the dash. “Our secret, right?”
“Our secret”, she repeated.”
“Seriously,” he said, “this is my life, we’re talking about.”
“Mine too Mr. Cooper.. You think I would want to tell anyone about this?”
“Right”, he said. “Sorry, I just…”
“Enough”, she said, suddenly tired and opting to get angry instead of sad. “Just take me home.”
They drove in silence for the fifteen minutes it took to pull up in front of Alice’s house. Before he could say anything, she yelped a quick “g’night” and was out the door and up the walk. Like a responsible Dad he waited there until she opened the door then, like a good girl, waved before stepping through and closing it behind her.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.