September Snow

Billy Ragg hurried up the street both hands shoved deeply into the pockets of his unlined leather coat. Back in June, when he’d stolen it, the coat had been real sharp-worth about two hundred bucks. Wasn’t worth a shit today what with winter deciding to blow in a couple of months early. Moving kept him warm. He only slowed to adjust the pistol in the belt at the small of his back. It seemed like a good way to carry it-nobody could see it-but it was uncomfortable as hell. Felt like it was going to fall down his pants. 

He was going to have to get himself a new coat. Something for winter. It was easy enough. Dress nice, go into some happy hour bar, order a beer or two and scope the place like you wanted to hit on somebody but just keep on the lookout for a coat or jacket tossed over a chair or some such. That nobody was keeping tabs on. Hang out long enough you can usually find one that almost fit. Wait for the guy to take a piss to try to chase down a lady and walk off with it. Just walk. Smooth and cool, like it was yours. Plenty of time to run, if you had to, when you hit the street. That was the kind of small-time shit he wanted to put behind him. After today he’d be able to buy anything he wanted. 

He stopped at the corner of Van Braam and Wharton and looked up the street toward the Showboat. It was a little after noon and the matinee crowd was probably just getting settled. A bracer would help. Not much, it’s not like he wanted to sit in there and drink the day away. Not today. Just something sweet to push this friggin’ cold out and a couple of beers to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth. It would settle him for what was coming. For a moment he actually leaned in the Boat’s direction then remembered that his hands were the only things in his pockets. He grudgingly turned away then hustled shivering, down toward the river. 

He didn’t see anyone he knew. Seemed that the population down here on the ward turned completely every couple of months. Here and there was somebody familiar, but only because he’d seen them hanging around the last time he came down. Not because he knew their names or ever spoke to them. If it was a little warmer he would probably have had to nod to someone that knew him in passing but the cold front had moved most of the derelicts under cover for awhile. That was fine with him. He liked the anonymity of this end of town. It wasn’t like the old days, scoring down on Walnut Street when he was the only white guy for blocks. 

He stepped into a doorway across from Geezer’s building and tightened his belt a notch wincing at the .38 dug into his spine. He was looking up at the fourth floor winder where geezer lived and not paying attention to the street so he missed the blue Chevy that stopped about a half block away. 

“What’s he doing down here, ya think?”

Connie didn’t answer right off, his eyes on his quarry, trying to get a handle on what he was up to.  Ragg was a real gem. Connie had played high school football with him twelve , fifteen years ago. One helluva lineback with no more brains that a side of beef. After a couple of junior colleges gave up on him he came home to settle into the life of a small town hustler. Mostly petty stuff, some strong arm work. Nothing major. Ragg got into the kinds of shit that Connie wouldn’t mess with except for slow days when there was nothing else to do. Like today.

“Doesn’t that guy…big spook…Geezer something or other, live down here somewhere?” 

Jimmy Proffo took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed across the street. “Fourth floor, corner apartment. Busted him for grass coupla years ago. Deals some. Mostly grass, some coke. You think that’s what your friend’s after?”

“Dunno. Why don’t you let me get in the backseat then pull up. Have a talk with him.”

He rolled down the window as Proffo pulled the car up to where Billy was standing in a doorway. “Hey Sunshine”, he called out, “You’re outta your neighborhood, ain’t you?”

Billy Ragg was never known for his quick wit but immediately upon realizing he had let the cops walk right up on him,his brain pounded out a chorus of “For Christ’s sake! How in hell could this happen? What the fuck does that pinhead Connie Rucker want with me? Since he busted me he thinks he’s my caseworker! Not now! I don’t want to talk about no old football games or shit like that now. Son of a BITCH!”

That was what he thought. All he could think to say was “Hey Connie.”

“What the hell brings you down here?”

“Just a change of scene, Con man. Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after awhile, you know?”

“Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after ten minutes. But here? What’s here?”

“Don’t know yet. Just starting to know the place, you know? New scene. Used to be a pool hall down here. Little this and that.”

Connie gave him The Face. Like a doctor needs a bedside manner all cops need a Face. He’d perfected his years ago where everything above his neck goes frozen-dead-just like gray stone while his eyes burn with something that he thought approached menace. The first couple of years when he was putting it together it didn’t always work. It took alot of practice-in the mirror, on chicks, other cops, juevies-until it became something he could throw out and actually use to some effect. Let people know he meant business. 

Jesus Christ, thought Ragg, now he’s throwin’ that stupid fuckin’ look at me. Why can’t cops just look at you and talk like normal people without all the mysterious faces and questions? Anyway, he didn’t like the way this was going. Not one bit. Ok. So he stopped and did his cop thing. Let him know he was always watching, small talk bullshit that was just trying to trip him up. So that was done. Alright. Message received. Now just say so long and take off. Almost unconsciously  he was leaning away as Connie opened the back door. “Why don’t you get in out of the cold”, he asked. “Let’s talk.”  

Suddenly that little .38-that tiny gun with a two inch barrel jammed tightly into the back of his pants-felt like a cannon. He could almost feel the barrel growing down between the cheeks of his ass. What the fuck did he put the gun there for? Anybody on the street could see it! Shit man, even a dense like Rucker saw it. That’s what this was all about. SHIT!

Without hesitating Ragg moved toward the car. He knew enough about cops to know that whatever they wanted you to do out on the street: stand on your head, eat dog shit with a plastic spoon had better be the best idea you’d heard in years. Especially with Rucker. 

The detective slid across the seat and Ragg got in gently, careful not to let his jacket ride up in back. He pulled the door shut behind him.

“I’m a motherFUCKER!”

“What’s the matter Geez?”

Geezer was standing at the window looking down into the street. “That sonuvabitch just got in the car!”

“You sure they’re cops?”

“Sure I’m sure. I don’t know the one riding shotgun, but that big Dago driving busted me two years ago. Fuck!”

“Whattaya think they want with him?”

Geezer turned slowly, away from the window. Giving himself over to his thoughts, he moved mechanically, long head first, like a swinging crane, not wanting to get ahead of himself. Judy was sitting on the daybed in just her panties, taking a stab at brushing her hair which always did what it wanted anyway. She was a looker, there never was any denying that. Tits, legs, the tightest rounded ass a guy could want-the whole package. And she knew how to use it all, sixteen years old or not. In fact, being so young, without the cautioning stains and scars of a lifetime, gave her a more singular focus on getting what she wanted in the moment. But someday, he was going to have to just pitch it all and get him a smart chick. One that could look around and see things. Know things the way that he did. One that he didn’t have to explain everything to. 

“Look”, he said, trying to be patient as he pulled on his shirt. “I don’ see the asshole for a year right? Then  one day he pops up on my doorstep to buy a quarter gram. Outta nowhere. Right? What is it? A week ago? Sell him some blow, he goes away. Now-BAM!-he’s across the street with the cops.”

“You think he’s a snitch?”

“Jesus Christ! Sure. Come on, you don’t see that?” She looked at him blankly, still brushing her hair as if nothing he’d said affected her at all. Patience was a wonderful thing, but anger’s hard edge was scraping it away. Anger at himself. How could he have been so stupid?

“Here”, he tossed her jeans into her lap. “Get dressed.”

“I thought you said the cops knew about you. That you had friends and they wouldn’t hassle you.”

“Maybe they got bored, I don’t know. Needed something to do. Probably sent that guy up here last week. To check me out. See what I was dealin’. Set it up, you know?” Not a deep thinker, Geezer didn’t bother to wonder why they would go to all the trouble to set him up when they could walk in any old time and bust him for the butts in his ashtrays. Or pat him down anytime on the street and find something. “We gotta clean this place up a little”, he said.

It was quiet inside the car. It wasn’t Ragg’s dance; he wasn’t about to lead. Proffo sat in the front seat staring straight ahead through tinted shades. All he wanted was to get through this fucking day and get to work on another hangover. Make him forget the one he was carrying now. Connie got tired of the silence first. 

“I like this weather, you know? The first blast of winter coming in always takes people by surprise. Leave ‘em bitching and moaning about the cold…not me though. Opens my head-makes me want to breathe deep in big gulps.” He swallowed a deep breath and slapped his chest. “You know what it reminds me of?”

Here it comes, thought Ragg. “What?”

“Come on man! Football! Doesn’t it get you?” 

“Sometimes…”

“Oh yeah…especially in the evening. Like when we would be practicin’ and sweatin’ but the sweat would dry and you’d chill down every time you hadda stand around awhile, you know?” He leaned, wanting a reply.

“Sure were some times…”

“Sure were. Just think. Then you were the cock of the walk, huh, boy? Big shit. Superstar with all the girls and all the fun huh? That was you. Hmph! Sure was something. Now you’re just a punk-hanging out on the streets looking to score drugs from some nigger.”

The detective sat back waiting. He wanted to get a rise out of him-prod him into something. But there was nothing. Ragg just sat there, eyes on the lives passing on the sidewalk. It’s not like Connie needed any information or anything. He just couldn’t resist digging into Billy Ragg whenever he got the chance. 

“I mean, that’s all you’re doing down here ain’t it? Superstar? There was a pause, then Connie said, “wait a minute. I’ve got something to show you.”

Proffo glanced into the rearview in time to see his partner lean away from Ragg, as if he were reaching for something, then twist his body back hard, driving his right elbow deep into the man’s ribs. He followed that blow immediately by rising in the seat and delivering a left hook solidly into the solar plexus. Shit, thought Proffo, if the big sonofabitch fights back we’ll have to shoot him and I won’t get out of the office till midnight. 

Proffo wasn’t the only one thinking about shooting just ten. Bent nearly double by the punch Ragg tried to recover his breathing. He was conscious of the pistol. He could straighten quickly and have it out before either of them knew what was going on. Shove the barrel into Rucker’s eye and wait just long enough to say “Surprise!” before blasting him. Then put a hole in the back of the Dago’s head before he knew what was what. 

Maybe he would have done it had he not been distracted by Ruker’s voice . Close up. The cop was right in his ear hissing through his teeth. He sai things like, you were always a piece of shit, go on-make a move-I’d love to break your legs, stay the fuck offa my streets, big shot, you see me coming you better cross the street, tough-shit cop stuff like that. It wasn’t the words that froze Ragg as much as the tone. The venom. What I ever do to him?

Connie reached across and opened the door. He was dismissed. Without a thought or word, Ragged stepped out and straightened, trying hard to look unhurt. His breath was coming in little puffs. The door slammed and the Chevy pulled away. 

“What was that all about?” asked Proffo as he drove away. 

“Fuck him. Let’s go get a coffee.”

Geezer was back at the window. “He’s coming up.”

“By himself?” she asked from the bathroom.

“So far. I don’t see anybody else. It looks like they drove away. Just stay put and remember what I told you.”

Judy was sitting on the tub, right beside the toilet. She held a tray on her lap that was piled high with, what Geezer said, was uncut cocaine. Once he stepped on it a bit and put it on the streets he could nurse it for about ten grand, not counting what he’d keep for personal use. Truth be told, it was more than he could afford to lose-all his ready cash had gone into that coke. But it was only money, he wasn’t about to take a fall for it. No way! This was one man who would trade in some cash to avoid the time. She was sitting in there waiting for his signal to flush the whole shooting match if it came to that. 

Ragg took the steps slowly, catching his breath. Even alone inside the building he wouldn’t rub his ribs or his gut. No way was he about to give in. Not to that psycho cop. He would deal with him sometime later. He didn’t know how, but you can be goddam sure he would. For now, he would use his anger constructively. 

On the fourth floor landing he sighed with relief as he pulled the pistol from his belt. He’d have to get a holster or something. He hefted it, felt its weight, turning it over in his hand and almost shrugged. Some guys got excited about a gun, like it was a piece of ass or something. They’d hold a gun and get all tingly and short of breath like the secret of the world was sitting in their mitt. Ragg looked at the gun and saw a tool. Nothing more. You want to do a job, you need the correct tool. 

The job for today was that stack of bills he had seen in Geezer’s apartment last week. A wad that wouldn’t even roll it was so big. A few grand at least. That’s all he needed. Just a stake of some kind. Buy himself a warm jacket, maybe deal some dope, Get a car. He knocked on Geezer’s door. 

Ragg was surprised when the door just swung open. Last time he was here there were alot of questions and the door opened a crack against the chain while he talked his way in, but today it just swung open as if he was expected. He even thought Geezer was about to say something in greeting but his face froze when he found himself eyeball to barrel with the .38. Yessir, this gun was the right tool alright. 

Ragg backed the dealer into his apartment and pushed the door closed with his foot. The place looked the same and Geezer was alone. Without a word he backed the man onto the daybed where he sat while Ragg went over to the dresser and opened the top drawer. Aside from some underwear and socks, it was empty. “Where is it?” he asked. 

“What?” asked Geezer.

“The money, motherfucker!”

 Geezer’s eyes widened and for an instant it looked like he was about to laugh. “Money? There ain’t no money. Is that what this is? A holdup? You in the wrong place, my man. I got no cash. “

“Don’t shit me. I saw it last week.”

“Last week I had it. I’m in business, man. I get cash, I invest it. You oughta know that. Shit! Come in here thinkin’ I got cash…” The asshole cracker was tryin’ to stick him up. Unbelievable. Stupid shit thinks he can just waltz in here and take from me…

Geezer felt the .45 digging into his bony ass through the thin daybed cushion. Asshole trying to hold me up…Now, he was going through the other drawers. He reached between his legs and actually had the gun in his grip when Ragg, seeing the movement, turned. He held his tiny gun outstretched, pointed at the man’s chest. He was careful to hold it straight and squeeze the trigger smoothly. Not like shooters in the movies, always jerking the gun as they fired. 

The crash of the report startled Ragg. The only time he had fired the piece was in the alley behind the Showboat where the noise could disappear into the night sky. Here the sound was like a roar slamming loudly off the walls of the cramped apartment. Geezer sat back looking surprised as a red blotch bloomed then grew on the front of his shirt. Neither of them heard the startled cry from the bathroom as Judy jerked herself standing, spilling the tray and coke across the floor. 

It wasn’t happening as quickly as Ragg thought it would. He had shot him-that should have been the end of it-but there he was, bleeding but still lifting the gun toward him. Looks like a fucking cannon, he thought as he began to squeeze the trigger again. This time it wasn’t smooth at all. He was panicking and the blast popped a hole in the bottom of Geezer’s shirt down in the belly. 

He tried to fire again. Honest to God tried by couldn’t for the life of him make his hand do what he wanted it to. It was like one of those damn chase dreams when, no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere. That was the last thought Billy Ragg had as he actually watched the nigger’s hand tighten around the trigger. 

Judy would later tell Detective Rucker that she came out of the bathroom door right then, in time to see both men frozen, like some kind of painting. Geezer was sitting sort of sideways-bent, like with one hand over his stomach-this huge gun pointed and the white guy standing there with his gun pointed and she didn’t know for a moment who was shooting. 

Suddenly, the .45 roared with a flash of fire and a concussion that hurt her ears. Billy Ragg’s head exploded in clumps of red and a pink spray spattering the wall and dresser behind him. His body sailed backward and hit the floor hard. As the darkness settled around him, Geezer could hear Judy screaming. The last thing he ever saw was her disappearing out the door, her screams becoming faint. 

Two blocks over, Jimmy Proffo was nursing a second cup of burned black coffee when he heard screaming in the distance and instinctively began to rise. Rucker stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Relax”, he said. “She’s coming this way.”

There’s a Light On…

There’s a light on in my mother’s house that I had nothing to do with. In the year plus since we found her on the kitchen floor having taken one last fall into the hereafter, anything that happened in that house had been my doing. The same could be said of the previous two decades when I pretty much took over for the old man who checked out in a rented hospital bed in the front parlor. 

The emptying of three generations of stuff from matriarchs and patriarchs who threw nothing away. Who keeps six pizzelle irons that don’t work? A stone saw from a bricklaying business that thrived during the Eisenhower years. A garage under the back apartment that once held a work truck and a Hudson Hornet now held…what the hell is all this stuff?

Then, walking the empty newly white rooms, which could recently only be navigated sideways my memories meld with theirs. Here was my great grandpa’s room (where I had Marci that night after the game) this was your Uncle Nick’s room (I hear in my grandmother’s voice, since Nick was dead before I was born). It was also later my grandfather’s then my brother’s and where Cindy and I had a memorable couple of evenings when the parents were out. The back bedroom was Amy. Jesus, she was a one and Roxanne too-who never cared that I’d been roofing all day. 

Even the basement wasn’t safe as I’d set that up with a throwaway couch that had long ago been thrown away. Down there was Marie and Colleen-God bless her, she’s dead now. Most of the people who’d crossed these thresholds are dead now-which is natural enough-but it would be nice if they’d leave and didn’t crowd me so in a house that hasn’t been this empty in seventy  years.

“I’m surprised you don’t want to hang onto this property”, said  the new owner when I met her at the inspection. Hang onto it? I’d no more be able to shed this place than a tortorice could doff it’s shell. I’ll be lumbering the rest of my life under the weight of this place, trying to avoid stopping by to trim the hedges, have a smoke on the porch or otherwise lurk. I still have a set of keys hanging by the door in case…of..what exactly? 

Maybe I’ll drive by tonight, to see if any bedroom lights are on. I could tell them about Uncle Nick’s room where one night I was sleeping with my grandfather and awoke to the sound of a nightmare’s machine guns only to find it was him snoring. 

I’m sure they wouldn’t give a shit. And to be honest, I don’t either. Just can’t get out from under any of it.

The Bird Watcher

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

Why Bud’s a Boob Man

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

Who has that kind of time?

He leaned out of the doorway toward me, just far enough for the reflected muddy glow of the streetlight to hit his hands and up his chest, leaving everything above the cigarette in shadows. By the tilt of his hat, his gaze seemed off-as if he were looking over my head, off into the distance. Where there was more nothing but stacked higher.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, voice dry and dusty.

“I’d like to be high”, I told him.

“We got you. Lotta people in your shoes.”

“Yeah, but only for a half hour or so…”

“Wait. What?”

“I need to be high for a half hour.”

“Half hour. Like thirty minutes?”

“Maybe forty-five tops. Got some things to do that a buzz would definitely help with. I don’t need to tell you how long it’s been! But then, I’d like to be straight again.”

“Straight again.”

“Yeah I got shit to do later that would definitely require…a level of straightness. Like I have now.”

“Whyn’t you go do that shit now? Then come back?”

“Too early. And I doubt my ability to hold on till then without…”

“Getting high…”

“Being high.”

“Being high.”

“Yeah. I need it to hit me real fast.”

“Then, like that…”, he tries to snap his fingers, but instead his pointer finger snaps off at the top knuckle with a small pop. He pauses to follow the track of the top of his digit disappearing among the detritus along the curb. “…be straight again. That what you mean?”

“Yeah. Something that snaps on and off. Well not like….” I looked down to where his finger had fallen to watch the roiling under the rags and sodden papers as the vermin vied for the prize. Something must have won out as a skittering of tiny claws rattled away. “You got anything like that?” I asked, looking back up.  “With switches?”

“Switches.”

“On and off.”

“Neh, man. Our ride takes a while to get to cruising speed. And once there it lasts…a good long while. Then it takes some time to come back down. Four-hour minimum commitment. Results may vary.”

“Thought so.”

“Come back when you have a couple of seconds”, he said leaning back into the shadows. “A day…a weekend maybe. And I’ll fix you up.”

“Thanks”, I said hustling away. Who has that kind of time?

Morpheus

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She was still telling the story about the time Laurence Fishburne tried to pick her up in the Village. How she rebuffed his savage suavity, not realizing she was dating herself when she called him Morpheus. The Village wasn’t the Village anymore and Laurence was no longer Morpheus.

It wasn’t a story she should tell everyone, but it was one she told me too often. And when she told it, she stood too close and let her hand linger on my arm just a beat too long. We were working long hours on her project and I’d fly in from headquarters for a few days at a time.

She knew I was married which probably made me safe for her fantasies but trying for mine. There was the time she had taken me to a bar for drinks, somewhere out on the Island, then for a walk down a quaint sandy street. She was working through one of her divorces. “That bar is my husband’s favorite”, she said nodding across the street. “He’s probably in there now. But I don’t see his truck.” She smiled sweetly, careful not to catch my eye.

It was the same trip, or the one after, when she came to my hotel room to use the bathroom after passing on the one in the lobby. This was after an evening of dancing and dinner. I had the knees for it then.

She was wearing a fashionable for the time letterman’s jacket that bloused at the waist. It had faux leather sleeves that she rubbed against me as I held the door ushering her from the bathroom right into the hall.

The twinge of her leaving was nowhere near the nightmare of her staying.

I was no longer Morpheus either.

In the Permian Hills

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I watched him kill sparrows once, in the field behind his old farmhouse. This was years after Kate died, but you’d never know it because her stuff was still everywhere. He blamed sparrows for the for the loss of songbirds and his beloved finches and titmice. The trap was a box like contraption of heavy metal screen wrapped around a wooden frame. At one end of the box was a hole and just inside the hole a cantilevered arm with a screened cover. The birds would hop onto the arm which would simultaneously drop them into the box and cover the hole-trapping them inside.

This was back in the Permian Hills, which he called the place where they-he-lived. Soft hills that rolled and undulated between the horizons like waves in a washtub. He loved saying it, planting his flag in the region as if naming it made him something more than a short time caretaker. Remember the place as brown. It wasn’t, of course. Not always. It could be beautiful in the summer when everything was planted and the high sky was deep blue swept with wispy high clouds. But my memories allow it no more than the sickly greenish tinge of a catfish’s belly.

He would bait the device with millet and rough grain, not the thistle or black oil sunflower seeds that he fed the songbirds. He’d set it on the stump of an old oak out back while we went about our business. Later we’d find any number of birds milling about inside contentedly nibbling until we walked up on them and they thrashed against the screen trying to get away. He’d reach into the box and gently grab anything with color that had been trapped and toss them into the air to flit furiously away. The sputzies, as he called them, he’d drop them into an old work sock. Then he’d spin the sock over his head-said it would put them to sleep-before bashing it into the stump.

He’d toss the tiny downy carcasses into the field, food for owls or kestrels, foxes or coons. His face never changed from the lifeless and dull chore-look, the same as if he was changing a tire on the tractor. I still wonder if he did this when Kate was alive. Somehow doubt it.

Girls

The kiosk to order custom cakes was all the way at the back of the store, which really was a warehouse. Enter through the garage doors and past the computers, televisions and other electronics, past outerwear (seasons change, hoodies gone), past books, furniture (again, seasons, so it’s patio tables and pergolas), batteries, then the produce, then the packaged cookies and bread, then finally, after a half mile of smooth concrete, the kiosk.

Typically deserted, today a young woman in an apron was bent slightly digging with a pair of scissors in the slot that should have held the order forms. Her round bottom challenged her jeans and threatened to squeeze her phone out of her pocket like a watermelon seed.

“That’s where all the pens go”, I said looking over her shoulder. She smelled of icing.

“They tear them off of this”, she indicated the squiggly cord that usually held a pen, “And toss them in here or walk off with them…I mean, really…then people come looking for me, I have to find a pen…” Through all this she kept digging.

I proudly held out my pen. “I bring one with me-just in case.”

Having fished out three pens and a quarter she paused and smiled. “Well done! You here a lot?”

“Every month.”

A little light went off. “Oh, you’re the five-cake guy.”

“Yep. That’s my mob name, ‘Tommy Five Cakes’ “.

She laughed, flashing a tiny dab of lipstick on her front tooth. “Let me know if you need anything”, she said walking away.

“I’m fine…”

Next stop was the liquor store two blocks down for a couple of bottles and a box. She liked box red as our “maintenance” wine-what we drank instead of killing all the good stuff too quickly. They never had my favorite bourbon so I substituted another that would do the trick. And a bottle of cold Chardonnay for the ride home.

Sliding carefully by, I tried to avoid the pretty girl at the near register. Purple lipstick, same color nails and upswept blonde hair. I imagined a nose stud but wouldn’t look. Nothing but trouble this one. She caught my eye.

“I’ll take you over here”, she said.  I stood in front of her register avoiding eye contact waiting for the total so I could insert my card.

“You want your box in a bag?” she asked.

“No”, I said looking up but only slightly. “Nor do I want my bag in a box.”

She froze a moment, then continued with a slight uptick to the corner of her mouth. “You had me for a second.”

“But only for a second”, I said. “You’re too quick for that.”

“Maybe.” It was a real smile when she slid the box and bag my way.

“Have a day”, she said.

“You too.”

This is me flirting now.

A Ghost Story

His phone pinged with a text. It was his problem tenant. She was living in the garage apartment that he had shared with his parents when he was a baby. Until age eight or so. His dad and grandfather, both long ago memories, had built it.

“Have an odd question”, the text said. “Do you know if your dad had a sibling that died around the age of 6-9?”

What? After reading it again, he texted, “My dad was an only child.”

“Hmmm…Odd…” came the reply. “What about your mom or grandma, did they lose a sibling young? I know it’s an odd question but I’ll explain here in a second.”

Christ, he thought, don’t answer. He put on his glasses and clicked the lamp brighter. She wasn’t his tenant, really. His mother had rented to her husband with the express instruction to keep his wife under control. It worked for a little while, then all hell broke loose. In the last six months, she had sworn out a PFA against the husband-so he was gone-and she was squatting there with her ten-year-old. Then his mother had finally died, so he had inherited it all. The good with the bad. And he wished there was more of the former.

After a few minutes he texted, “Nope.”

The bubbles appeared on the screen and hung there pulsing. He waited. Then, “Right around when your mom passed, I was awakened by a child in Olga’s room. She was still sleeping right beside me. Heard a dresser drawer slam and this kid had blonde hair with a blanket wrapped around the shoulders so I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl and I watched it dissipate slowly from its head then down to the feet and it always bugged me that whoever was trying to tell me to go to your mom…to help her.”

He read it again. He hated it when she talked about his mother. She did it often-no doubt thinking it would put her in his good graces, but his mother couldn’t stand her and had spent the last two months of her life complaining that she never should have rented to them.

His phone pinged again, “No, I’m not a witch…little hexes here and there LOL but I do get visions and this one is killing me.”

He remembered a story his mother had told him from when they had lived in that apartment. She was in bed, probably in the same room as this one slept in, and she heard a cat screeching outside in the alley. The windows back there are high, so she had to stand on the bed to look out. The cat was easy enough to find; it was on a cracked fence post just outside the yellow glow of the street lamp. The cat called and howled until she saw others coming in from the darkness to join it. They all sat or lay on the alley in front of the main cat who began to meow and chirp as if speaking to them. They were attentive for a moment, no stretching, no grooming, no ass sniffing. Then, when the lecture was over, or the instructions given, the cats all scattered back into the darkness whence they’d come.

His mother told this story often. Especially when someone suggested she get a cat.

He put the phone on airplane mode and switched off the lamp.

Shadows

(Continued from Night Lights)

Outside, half-naked, the midnight chill braced her. The clear moonless sky was dark enough that she cast a shadow in the glow from the top of the mountain. The grass was damp on her bare feet as she followed her shadow around the birdbath to the mountain laurel just short of the tree line.

The coyotes were quiet or running over the next ridge. When she was little her Pap kept chickens in a pen behind the house. Back then coyotes were worthy adversaries to be battled and beaten at every turn. Now, with no livestock to guard – not even a scruffy mutt or cat – the coyotes were no more than texture. Wonder how they would feel about that? Being relegated to deep background; being off the main stage where capable men plotted against them with guns, traps and poisons? Whatever. Times gone by. Either way, the whippoorwills’ incessant call and response were the only accompaniment to the quiet swish of her feet in the tall grass.

Choosing a spot, she turned toward the house and lifted her T-shirt. Squatting widely, she relaxed and allowed the stream to flow into the grass between her feet gently, not to splash. Her yoga practice wasn’t what it was, but she was still able to hold a squat level and clean without a shake or quiver letting the burn in her thighs build. She dipped a little deeper to feel the pleasant pull in her hip flexors. She should get back to yoga-she could sit in on classes up at the Hideaway anytime. Finished, Lori stood easily, leaving a steaming wet spot on the grass.

Pissing in the yard had started as a joke when she and Uncle Red were watching TV one night. She complained that he was lucky because all he had to do was go out on the porch when he needed to pee but she had to go to the bathroom, take down her pants, miss half the program, yadda-yadda…

“Knock yourself out girlie”, he’d said, a little drunk. “You got a whole hillside right out your door. We’re mountain people. We piss where we want.”

He didn’t look at her but had that cock-eyed smile he got when he was drinking beer. She had taken the dare and scampered off the porch and behind the fat sycamore. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him seeing anything-they were beyond that. It was just what she did. She was wearing tight jeans then and had to wriggle them down and lean in such a way that she wouldn’t wet herself. She remembered giggling as she spattered.

She put the time at between three and four. Closer to four. She tried to add the hours of uninterrupted solid sleep she had gotten all week. No more than three tonight. She couldn’t go on like this, grinding her teeth and digging her fingernails into her palms, forever. Just one cigarette, she thought. Just one, to give her that kick of nicotine that she remembered. If she’d had any, she might have broken, but she didn’t. Back at the porch Lori leaned against the rail digging the feel of the rough wood pressing into her bare thighs.

The resort which butted up against her property on the high side, glistened. Thank you Uncle Red, she said under her breath for about the billionth time. It was the house that her Mom and Red had grown up in.  After her Mom died, she stayed in the house with Red, thinking it would be temporary. It was. It only lasted ten years until he died. Well after she was old enough to move out, had she wanted to. She had stayed with him as her mother had wished and now she owned the house and seven acres.

When what would become the Hideaway Resort began buying properties years ago, her Pap – Mom and Red’s mother – wouldn’t sell. Even when the money was ridiculous for the time. Now it was hers with a standing offer of a million on the table whenever she wanted to sell. She didn’t.