Render Song

If I woke up in Antarctica, would you come for me? Down there in the middle. The magnetic fields are weakest at the poles, so it’s strange that I would go to them. A bird knows not to fly over that sort of anomaly.

“I’m here for some reason, I don’t know,” that’s what you said. You wore the short green dress with a belt around your waist. Your hair was short that winter, “half the length and twice the comfort.” When we sat on the balcony and watched the boats, you also said, “we’ll never be rich, but we’ll be happy.” I would never wander too far with any intention. You knew my intention was rarely intentional.

When we danced, it was a loose shuffle. It was late by then and the songs were chosen to reinvigorate us. Our souls, maybe? Souls full of dance and booze. Your hands were the soil, your eyes the sun. I lingered in them like a pelican in a sanctuary lagoon. “Weird,” I know. Your smile was the softest moon. “Shut up.”

I woke up in Canada once, not sure if you heard. It was in Vancouver, the north bit near a ferry terminal. The radio was set to a local jazz station and my eyes were on the verge. There must have been twenty cars ahead of mine. I felt each of us straining on the edge of a continent, holding back before the drop into the sea. Our fingers pressed into the cushioned walls between us. In seven days, I would fall asleep again. You’d be gone and I’d fall into the quiet place before you.

Is it seven days in a week? What if it was a thousand? A thousand days to indulge in feathered travel. We could have gone to Barbados, or Moab. We could have seen those seven wonders. “They’re not that great,” you said, “but it’s worth seeing what the fuss is about.”

In your heart, I died. In my heart, I’m cloudless. We walked home with the air around us frigid and the air between us a river’s roar. My foot, your knee, my neck, your ribs. “It’s just a fold of skin,” you said, but I traced the space between your arm and hip looking for a miracle or two.

Gina & Brynne

“This is bullshit, this right here. It’s melancholy sad-rad bullshit.”

Brynne kept talking and Gina listened to the sound of a toilet flushing upstairs. A real whoosh. They lived on the third and highest floor of an old building near Stanford and the walls were thin enough. It sounded like jumping into the pipes to freedom.

“And this,” said Brynne, gesturing to Gina, sitting on the ground, “this doesn’t help. You need to do something. We can go for a walk, we can take an Uber to the hills. We live in the best place, surrounded by everything we need. How can you be this way?”

The floorboards were polished and new, perfectly aligned, with no creaks or cracks to offend Brynne. He wouldn’t live in a place unless it was newly remodeled. When Gina rubbed her hand on a spot next to her, it felt cold, smooth, and slightly ribbed, for her pleasure, so she smiled.

“You don’t care about you, but I do,” said Brynne. “You think it’s funny that I care so much.”

She continued to look at the window. Its glass was streaked from weeks of alternating rain and dust deposits. That was how animals and people became preserved in the ground. Layers and layers, one after another, like a cake, or pages in a book. Each layer had something to say. The oldest, if they weren’t washed away, spoke volumes.

“God! I hate this shit. We’re adults and I feel like I’m a dad yelling at his kid.” Brynne walked away and slipped into his Nikes. “I can’t be here right now,” and he left.

The door was a heavy wood, perhaps old like the building, but sanded and polished like everything in the apartment. It thudded when he emphasized his exit. There was only one lock above the door handle and Brynne had the original key for it, given to them by the building manager. Gina had a spare key that they had made at the Home Depot. They were shopping for shelves.

She stood up and walked to the window. Brynne was waiting on the sidewalk, staring down at his phone. She lingered there and watched until a car appeared and took Brynne away.

Gina pulled a tin out of the drawer chest in her closet and rolled a spliff. The window opened to a quiet street where not much happened, except people, bikes, and cars passing, and she sat on the sill for a while. The bikes were her favorite part of the street. Many students passed and they were younger than her, but not by much, really. She would throw on her own Nikes and walk downstairs later in the morning, then walk down the way, past the quiet streets, by the RVs and vans parked on the road. Sometimes she chatted with people who lived in them, but not always, only if they wanted to talk and the air smelled friendly.

Rutabaga

“It’s seven years now since he’s dead and there’s no use in trying.”

Belding was at it. Belding! He was the normal one. But none of them are normal. Not out here in the dime villages.

And besides, he’d had drinks. You know.

I was wandering a bit while he talked. I looked splendid. Sequined shorts, gold flannel shirt. My hair was gelled back. I hoped not to spend the whole night here at the bar.

I asked “What did he die of?” but I could imagine it. Some farm accident or infected animal bite.

“A heart valve stopped working. He’d been sick a while. Home sickness is the cure, something broad to focus on.”

“Home sickness cures heart valves?”

His eyes bulged. “Of course! You put your energy into that sadness. Away from the heart. Let it work.”

He ordered another martini for himself. I declined a second. My eyes were burning. I could smell a good night if I could just get Belding to spend a little more.

“Hey, do you play? A good game?”

He looked at the door and shook his head. He was clean-shaven and the sheen was bright on his cheek bones. They caught the orange glint of the bar wreaths lined with dried roots and berries.

“No, no game for me. We played game, him and me. Lots of game.”

“What about us?” I said. I placed my drink on his free wrist. “Do you think you and I could play game?”

The music just then was a crass jam. It was the sign that it was later, later than I thought. If he wasn’t in I’d have to walk home in the dark.

“We could maybe, but it wouldn’t be the same. Our game was good.”

The music intensified. I felt ready to wriggle onto the bar and kick the air. It was slow horn and my brain was going that way.

“Belding,” I said, “let’s not think about this here. Are you and I going to dance?”

He looked surprised and shifted in his seat.

“Please,” I said, and put down my drink. “Dance with me.

I took his free wrist and tugged him away. He kept his drink in the other hand.

“Dance is good,” he said. “Sadness can’t do anything about it.”

“Oh, I agree,” and I put my arms around his neck. I smiled and he took another sip. “Dance is like the river boat. It just keeps moving, twinkling on down the river.”

Belding nodded. I thought of the long boats in the dark. The way they slowed and quickened.

“The cure’s good,” he said.

There was no use in it. I closed my eyes and shuffled with him.

“Tell me,” I said.

“I bet it could help you, too. You could use it. The good it does.”

“I’m always good,” I said. “Do you think I need more?”

“Sure. Save it for later.”

I moved in closer to him. I breathed deep.

“I’m sorry you lost him.”

When you pull a string you hope it unravels something. Makes it falls apart.

He took another sip.

“I’m still home sick,” he said.

“It’s okay.”

“When you’re home sick, the rest of it draws back away from the mouth of the cave. Away from a place where anyone can see it.”

I pulled back to look at him. I said, “Who’s home, anyway?”

He finally looked at my eyes, almost into them. “Mama and papa? Baby boy and baby girl? Whoever the place, they can’t be here. They’ve got to be somewhere behind you.”

“I’m with you now. What about now?”

He tightened his arm around me.

“You’ll be my home. I’ll get very home sick over you. It’ll be a different place when you get back.”

So Far Back

Okay, okay, okay.

Ah, okay, okay.

This blue bird fainted and fell into some laundry in Poe’s living room. It was flailing around like a fish. It would’ve died, but Poe came out of his study and noticed the movement. He stopped his pacing to investigate.

“The hell?”

The blue bird said, “Help!”

Poe reached down and scooped the critter up in his hands.

“The hell are you doing in my laundry?”

“Suffocating,” it said. “What do you do? Those clothes are rancid.”

“I suffer,” said Poe.

The blue bird lifted its wing to its forehead and leaned so far back it flipped out of Poe’s hand and onto the floor.

“Shit,” said Poe. “You alright?”

“No,” said the blue bird. “Which way to the exit?”

“Well, I think—Hey, stick around, please? I’d like someone to talk to.”

The blue bird stretched its long legs. One was slightly shorter than the other, so it leaned to one side.

“You want I should listen to you talk?” it said.

“Yes,” said Poe.

“What about?”

“Oh, the things.”

“That sounds dirty-minded. I don’t go in for those chats.”

“It’s not! And anyway, what’s wrong with dirty-minded things?”

“That’s for the right company, and no offense, but it’s not you,” said the blue bird.

Poe covered his mouth. He held it there longer than he should have.

The blue bird flew up to the stove. It looked in the pan.

“I heard tell that there was once a princess who asked for one gift from her father the king. He promised it before she even said it (which you ought not do). She asked for the gift of flight. The king had his people investigate. Turns out we have light bones, light as empty twigs. That’s how we get about.”

Poe sat on the floor. His eyes were red, his lids puffy.

“The king explained the findings. Light bones, aerodynamics, all that. The princess held him to his word. A promise is a promise is bondage. The king knew it. He had them make a feather suit for her with wide flaps between the wrist and ribs. There was also a tail of sorts between the ankles. Finally, the king sucked innards from her bones. She was light but brittle, and her head was still like a rock. So he scooped out all he could, just enough.”

“He murdered her!” said Poe.

“See, now, I’m not finished. Settle down. The king took these parts of her and kept them safe in the basement where it was cold and rainy. Well, drippy. That old moisture. So she was preserved, you see. And then she was carried to the top of a ridge, held up by the wrists and ankles, and thrown to the wind.”

The blue bird nudged the meat in the pan. It was cold. The grease was congealed.

“Quail?” it asked.

“Well? Did the princess fly?”

“Uh, yeah, pretty far. As far as ducks. And the king never saw her again. That’s quail, right?”

Poe stood up. He wiped his face and looked at the pan.

“No, I um, I think it’s chicken.”

The blue bird looked up, then flew to the window.

“Do your laundry,” it said. “And clean your pan.”

“Hey, what was that story about?” asked Poe.

The blue bird held its wing to its head again and fell out through the window. It yelled “It’s about whatever!”

Stucco

The mouse was the size of my thumb. It appeared as a Southward dart while I faced West, toward the San Carlos suburbs. A fast little dust ball. I looked in the general direction and considered that it was nothing. Some figment.

I’d gone too far South on one train and waited for another that would carry me North to Belmont. No book to read. Late summer dusklight behind the clouds. I don’t know what was in my head then, though it was something. I know it because I was pacing and wild-eyed. Searching everywhere. It was standing around at the station that had me noticing things, like that mouse.

It appeared again a few minutes before my train and paused in the open space between rain gutter grates. Right in front of a stucco wall. No discernible movement. Little brown shape, a furry lump.

“Howdy,” I said. I stood several feet away, in front of a bench. One of those wrought iron and wood slat deals.

The little mouse remained in place. I sat down and turned away when it seemed appropriate. I smiled at my absurdity.

I listened for the track rattle and hiss of an oncoming train. My ear has to point toward a thing if I expect to hear it. It means turning away to look at roofs and hills, missing everything in front of me. There was no hint of a train.

The little mouse sidled up while I listened. It was there on the concrete a couple of feet from the bench when I stopped listening for the train that wouldn’t come.

“Hello,” said the mouse.

We waited minutes and I wasn’t sure that I’d heard anything. Nobody uses that word anymore.

I was scared, so I began to hum. Something sad to bring that up to the surface. I hoped my clever sadness would scare away the mouse without the need for shoos and foot stamping.

Instead, the mouse crept closer, and it sat beside me on the wood slats. Its little ears moved. They were dangly flaps of skin and fur about the size of pupils.

“Are we going to sit here?” it asked.

“Yeap.”

“Your train’s going to be here in no time.”

I looked at the station LED sign. My train to Belmont was 5 minutes late.

“Just a few more minutes.”

We remained quiet for a while. I scanned the roofs ahead, looking for crows. They were usually good for some head tracking, though not that evening. They tend to cluster around acorns in late summer.

“I think this is a rare opportunity for you,” said the mouse. I finally turned toward it. It must have been a baby, small as it was. I couldn’t possibly take it seriously.

“I made a mistake,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

The mouse brought its front paws together and rubbed its nose. “You are missing out on something that may never come again. I’m a thing far different from you, and you have nothing to discuss? You greeted me after all.”

“Impulse, that’s all.” Then I hummed the sad song again and waited.

The mouse looked ahead, as I did. “I’ll leave you to it,” said the mouse. It stepped back toward the grate on the North side of the platform. It blinked into one of the small holes. Back into its hole.

The train arrived. I was at my destination in two minutes.

Weeks later, I searched for a particular taco truck on the streets of Oakland. I skulked along an empty street and encountered a huge rat crossing from one sidewalk to the other. No Hello, no acknowledgement whatsoever.

A Corner to Sleep In

The Shepherd approached the kitchen window. He watched as she stoked the fires of the stove. She did not look at the poker in her hand, nor the stove, nor anything in the room. Her eyes turned about as if observing but her blindness was plain to him. He walked around to the door and struggled to contain a cough. Blood gathered in his mouth and he spit.

“Best announce yourself,” said the woman.

He remained silent for a moment.

“Go on, unless you plan to invade a blind woman’s home and do what it is you’ll do.”

“A sick man,” he called out. “Not meanin’ to disturb, ma’am. Merely drawn in by the light of a warm fire.”

“And your intentions?”

“A chance at that warm fire,” he said. “And a corner to sleep in, if you’ll have me.”

“So you’re meaning to disturb?”

He turned and sat with his back to wall.

“I suppose so, yes.”

He heard her silently walk to the wall beside the door and pick up an object. Not likely to be a gun. A piece of wood or knife.

“You any good at hunting?” she asked through the door.

“Best there is.”

“’Best there is’ brings me a stag once he’s feeling better.”

“Yes, ma’am, he does,” he said.

She unlocked the door. He remained sitting for a few moments and then stood when he knew she was set in a safe place. He entered and found her facing him. She held a long, rusty sword in her hand.

“You won’t be needin’ that, ma’am. I’ll be no trouble.”

“We know that’s a lie,” she said. “Long as you bring me what you said and leave quick, there’ll be no problem.” She walked to the stove and shut the steel door. “Take them boots off. And don’t go thinking I can’t hear you if you sneak around without them. Make yourself known at all times.”

“I surely will. Thank you, ma’am. Mind if I set myself next to that stove?”

“Take your time. Suspect it’s cold out there.”

“Sure is.”

He sat on the floor again, with his back to the wall. He made no motion to remove clothing, but removed the boots. Shepherd sat and said nothing more as the woman finished her chores and disappeared into her room for the night. He lowered his hat over his eyes and slept until dawn.

The Taste of Russian to a Party

Teódolo asked, “May I ask you a question?”

Melón mumbled something and nodded.

Teódolo stood and opened the blinds, avoiding Melón’s gaze. There was neither sun nor sign of calm. The street people beyond the wrought iron gates were trapped in the late afternoon march as they moved past and alongside each other politely and with great efficiency.

“I hope you will forgive me…” He stepped away from the window and faced Melón hesitantly. This was not peculiar behavior to Melón who was used to the tragedy of Teódolo’s face. The crenulations on the surface of his cheeks glistened from sunlight reflected off the surface of the glass table. “I just want to know if I may have a day off tomorrow.”

Melón spit out the wad of banana leaf he held in his mouth and eyed the old man warily. “And why do you need that?”

“My truck transmission is sticking, and I need to take a day to fix it.”

“What? Your truck transmission is bad? Well, I am sorry, Teódolo. I amsorry your miserable pile of rust is not working. You ingrate! You are already off work on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays! I pay you to take care of my daughter and that includes tomorrow. Now come here, now. Tell me about her day at school, or I’ll beat your ass.”

“Okay, sorry.” Teódolo rubbed the spot on his nose where the long white hairs grew and wondered about the Brazilian crotch wax before taking a seat on the latticework of the lawnchair and leaning forward, close to Melón’s face. He tried and failed to hide the frown.

“Well, look. Lucinda has been around with some guy who comes from Manchester. His family comes from that African money. Gold, diamonds, that shit.”

“To hell with his family,” said Melón. “What else about him? Is he fucking her?”

“No, no I did not see that. I am with her like chewing gum, boss. I never let her out of my sight.”

“I hope so because if that girl comes in here with a baby, you are the one I am going to beat before I leave you dead in the ocean.”

Teódolo swallowed and nodded obsequiously, his jowls jiggling for attention. He was nervous because he knew Melón would do far worse than what he threatened.

“Do not worry. I guard her as if she is my own daughter.”

Melón chuckled and removed a green handkerchief from the front-left pocket of his bowling shirt. He looked at his reflection in the surface of the table and wiped the banana leaf spittle from the corner of his coarse black stubble.

“You do not give me confidence, Teódolo. I want you to take care of her as if she was my daughter, not one of the bitches from your neighborhood.”

Teódolo swallowed again and nodded. “Yes, boss. With my life.”

Melón knocked on the glass table and shook his head, then stood and walked through the living room to the white door of his bedroom. He left Teódolo sitting in the lawnchair, wondering if the work was worth the price.

He appeared at the front gate of Melón’s house the next morning as he did every day except the three days at the end of the week when Melón himself would take Lucinda to school and then to the shops to make purchases. Melón called it the quality time between a father and daughter and Teódolo wondered both how buying a child more of the same things was quality time and if Lucinda’s behavior around her father was the same as her behavior around Teódolo. She did not seem very mindful of him when he walked several feet behind her in school, and she behaved unsuitably loosely. She would scream and she would cry, and under no circumstances would she show sympathy or compassion for a man such as Teódolo. Her time in class was comprised of using her mobile to type and send messages, then turning to talk to either female friends or boys who could catch her attention. When she walked from class to class, she tried her best to display her chest and rear, far ahead and far behind, respectively, and Teódolo observed that as a result of this behavior, every boy in sight would follow her, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. Her female friends would stand beside her and they would discuss the most mundane matters that Teódolo had ever heard. Only when the school day came to an end would Lucinda allow Teódolo to walk close to her as they returned to the Mercedes in the parking lot.

He waited for several minutes before Lucinda strode out of the house in a fury, her dark hair chasing to catch up to her rapidly bobbing head and school uniform, a long pleated skirt and white blouse, rumpled at all angles. Her eyes were concealed by large sunglasses and her right hand gripped a large, red leather handbag that Teódolo had never seen before. She held it so tightly that it began to shake.

“Let’s go!” she screamed, and walked past him into the back seat of the Mercedes. Teódolo nodded and held the door for her until she threw the purse into the corner of the seat and breathed out in exasperation.

“My father! He hates that I have a life!”

“Good morning,” said Teódolo. He rolled her window up as they drove up the tree-lined avenue, passing many other large, typically white, houses, and other large, typically black, cars. The situation was like that of a diplomatic convoy except the cars did not display any nation’s flag.

Teódolo glanced in the rear-view mirror and noticed Lucinda rummaging in her purse. “Did you forget something? Do we need to go back?”

“No, no. Looking for my make-up.”

“I see. Very good.”

Lucinda glanced at herself in the same mirror and proceeded to contort her face, stick out her tongue, and pull down her eyelid.

“Very good? Very good, he says! I am not good, Teódolo! My face is hideous! My father’s constant nagging forced me to leave without applying any make-up at all. I’m a damn pig, look at me.” She brought out a plastic case and began her cosmetic routine.

“You are beautiful, Lucinda. You do not need to worry.”

Lucinda chuckled as she applied the powder to her glistening morning skin. “You think I am beautiful, do you?”

“I am just saying, you do not need to put yourself down.”

Lucinda grinned and moved to the corner of the back seat. “What else do you think of me?”

The question unnerved Teódolo and he avoided speaking until he heard her move and stretch the upholstery. “Never mind. I did not say anything.”

They turned a corner where several merchants were offering roses, counterfeit DVD discs, and cotton candy mounted along long wooden poles. Teódolo was driving too quickly for any of them to approach the car and the noise from their sales pitches quickly passed.

“You know why my father chose you?” asked Lucinda while in the throes of applying mascara aboard a moving vehicle.

“No.”

“Because you’re so ugly that I’d never sleep with you.”

“I see.”

Lucinda sighed and turned to look at the side of street. “You think you’re ugly?”

“I am what I am,” said Teódolo, adding, “I am old.”

“And if I decide to sleep with you one day, what will you do?”

“Do not speak that way, Lucinda. Please, your father.”

“Yes,” she said. “A complete idiot.”

Teódolo sighed and contemplated turning the radio on, but such rudeness had the potential to anger Lucinda, and that in turn had the potential to anger Melón. If Melón was angered severely enough Teódolo would consider leaving the city altogether.

Lucinda was applying lipstick at a stop sign, a rich, carnation red, when she paused and called to Teódolo. He turned his head to the side just as Lucinda leaned forward and sloppily pressed her lips to his mouth. The lipstick smeared onto his lips and the stubble around them.

Lucinda smiled and leaned back. “It looks good on you, don’t remove it. It’s my favorite color. They call it Russian to a Party.”

Teódolo grumbled. After several clumsy wipes some of the waxy red substance found its way into his mouth, and he made a face that amused Lucinda.

“What’s the matter?”

“It tastes awful.”

“It’s not meant to be eaten, stupid.”

“I see.” He used a handkerchief to remove what his hand had not, and checked himself thoroughly in the mirror. Such impropriety was dangerous, and his heart rate climbed accordingly until he was certain that no trace of the lipstick remained on his lips or face.

“Why did you want to get out of work today?” asked Lucinda once she had completed applying her make-up and returned everything to her purse. This prompted another glance from Teódolo into the mirror where he met her smiling eyes.

“Who said that?”

“My father said. He was ranting about you and your poor, selfish ways.”

“Yes, well, it is true. I asked for a day to run simple errands when I could simply wait until the weekend.”

Lucinda smirked. “You’re a bad liar.”

“Excuse me?”

“You told my father that you were going to fix your truck’s transmission.”

Teódolo rubbed his rounded gray chin and coughed again. “I see. Well, I needed to run errands to pick up parts.”

“I didn’t mean you’re a liar because of what you said. You make it far too obvious.” She pulled a tissue from her purse and handed it to Teódolo. “You sweat and your face becomes shiny. I’m surprised my father doesn’t notice.”

Teódolo checked himself in the mirror and frowned.

“I see.”

“Just tell me the truth and my father will never hear of this.”

“Hear of what?”

“Lies,” said Lucinda. “He likes to know that he can trust people to be honest.”

Teódolo considered her statement and then nodded. “My daughter had cancer of the bones. She died. It was on this date, two years ago. I wanted to take roses to her grave.”

“You have a family?”

Teódolo swallowed and scratched his nose, using the gesture to conceal his shimmering eyes. “I had my daughter. Araceli.”

Lucinda smiled feebly and moved the hair that had come loose along the side of her face. “I’m sorry.”

They remained silent for the short remainder of the drive to the secondary school, and Teódolo scrambled to park and open the door for Lucinda so that the topic could be forgotten as quickly as possible.

Lucinda approached Teódolo, her purse hanging from her shoulder and sunglasses in hand. They stood silent, the students passing them and quickening their pace as the threat of the first bell loomed. Lucinda stepped closer and looked into his brown eyes, overlapped by the folds of his sagging lids and brows. Teódolo’s pitted cheeks began to glisten once again.

“Lucinda, if there is—”

She reached her hands up, cupping his face with her slender, brown hands, and moved her face to him, pressing her lips fully against his and parting them slightly, allowing wisps of warm breath to escape and flow over his muzzle. Teódolo remained still, unable to decide on the course of action that would not result in a beating, but was freed from making the choice when she pulled her face away.

“That’s for Araceli. Don’t eat it this time.” Lucinda turned and placed her sunglasses over her eyes as she joined the throngs of wandering students, disappearing from view in the span of time that it takes a girl to console an old and ugly man.

Jack Mongrel

“What’d you see?” Angelina leaned out over the wooden balcony in light of the afternoon, her hair ragged and breasts shimmering. Her breath slowed as the throes of romp subsided and she regained her ladylike composure. There were few people on the street below, and none that could witness her baring all of God’s creation. She would return to this very balcony in full dress later in the afternoon and evening beneath the light of a nearby lantern, offering her wares to passers-by and the occasional farm boy who looked to make the most of his visit into town. Until then she would finish her work with this one, who calls himself “Alfred” and was likely to be a different person by the time he left town.

The man beside her ignored her as he concentrated on the row of buildings across from the way. His brows furrowed, the crevices along his forehead deep and well-entrenched after years of concentrated staring. His graying hair limply cascaded around the bloated and worn skin of his face. He would not admit to being frightened nor anxious about what he may or may not have seen, but it was his way to stand and stare. The stiff fur of the long-dead bear around his waist fluttered in the breeze, as did the fur along the man’s back and legs. After a long and punctuated silence he said, “I didn’t see nothin.”

“Then why’re you lookin out like that?”

“Cause I feel like it.”

Angelina turned back to the room. “Always squintin out at nothin, you fellas. Never get why.”

“You don’t need to get nothin,” he said. “Now get yourself back in bed. I got more comin to me.”

He stopped his turn when Angelina yelled out, and only had time to utter the words “thought I smelled—” before a bullet passed through his neck and erupted out of the other end in a cloud of red. Angelina’s shrieks heightened as the man fell to his knees, then his hands and knees, then his stomach, and finally his face. Blood continued to pour out as the other man in the room, the one holding the rifle, stepped toward the balcony. His entire form appeared to be shrouded, revealing little to no detail other than the man had a penchant for black and was not likely to pause to reveal anything more than that. As he stepped to the rail he paused long enough to reveal his face, which was dark and covered in the coarse approximation of several days of beard.

Angelina’s cries subsided as the robed man grabbed the edge of the railing with his free hand. “You tell em who done this,” was all he said, and leapt down to the dirt road below. As he walked he began to break apart the rifle in his hand, the rifle that ended the life of the notorious forger Jack Mongrel, known to make acquaintance with every prostitute in every town and village between the Four Rivers and Mount Hool.

He placed the barrel and butt of the rifle beneath his robe, and adjusted the white collar around his neck. The wide-brimmed black hat shielded his eyes from the sun. He walked toward the corner of the next road where a flittery woman and her child passed alongside him.

“Morning Father,” as she and her child walked along the lane.

“Mornin Sister.”

The sound of bells and the usual alarm that occurs after a death filled the air behind him. His gait quickened, and he kept his head low so as to not arouse the attention of the old ones sitting in front of a livery on the edge of town. He made note of the town name. He would not return to Buford for several years.

Some Sort of Weather

“Don’t know why?” she asked.  “There’s no sun up in the sky!”

Ms. Potterson pointed anxiously at the clouds that had been cast over our little town of seven hundred thirty-seven for over a month now, sometimes raining down the dogs and cats and sometimes just menacing over like they were going to pick a fight but didn’t have the gall to go for the first shove.  It was getting tiresome, to be sure, but what God did with his sky was not for us to judge, and even then some people started to feeling stressed over the whole thing.  All I was asking was why she looked so down, but I should’ve known better.

“Stormy weather,” I muttered.

She turned away and gathered one of those children of hers, the rest bundled up in that car outside like they lived out of the old jalopy. She caught me looking at that sad old sight and then turned her back to me, clearly agitated, and walked out. She paused just before stepping out of the shop and into that rain.

“Since my man and I ain’t together… keeps rainin’ all the time,” then she left.

It was getting on and even though the grayness of those days made it tough to separate morning from day and day from dusk, it was clear dark was coming on. I had to start closing up soon but everyone was always waiting ‘til church was up to get out and rush into the shops before they closed. Being close to the only grocery in town made it wrong to lock up too early, and I wasn’t the depriving type.

Barry Johnson, a plumber who lived on Willow (near the old mill before it got tore down back in eighty-eight), he was watching that whole scene with Ms. Potterson and sort of shrugged, because he knew what I knew, which was that folks were allowed to be bothered these days.  It was getting tough to get by here in town and only us old people and the kids too young to leave on their own remained.  Seeing that kind of gap in a community, whole generations missing like that, well, it made me sad to think about.  It was like when there were wars and we lost so many of the young folks, only this wasn’t no war against an enemy, just the times that we were in.

Barry walked up and dropped a loaf of bread and milk on the counter.  “Life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere.  Stormy weather…” and he trailed off when he heard the cash register ding open.  He reached around in his front pockets, to pull out his cash I gathered, but wasn’t coming up with anything.  He looked sort of concentrated like he was trying to will the money into his hand.  I was worried he wasn’t going to have any cash and I’d have to have another tab on my hands (which ain’t easy to keep track of with so many as I had, try it sometime), but then his eyes lit up and he reached his right hand down into one those big side pockets that his trousers had on them.  It was the type those carpenters need for tools and nails and all, and in old Barry’s case it seems it’s where he kept his change.

He chuckled and said, “Just can’t get my poor self together.”  I smiled back as he counted the change in his hand and reached out to hand it to me, twisting his face a bit as he did.  He’d been having some wrist trouble and I should’ve known to reach over my own self so he wouldn’t strain it.

“I’m weary all the time,” said Barry, then he furrowed his brows like he was trying to remember something as I pulled out his change.  Maybe he’d finally remembered that he had my lawn mower (the Craftsman, mind you, not my old Honda that I’d had to use since he borrowed my good one).

“The time?” he asked.

I was tempted to ask about my lawn mower right then, but those kinds of things are better discussed during the week (and I made a note to myself to ask him that following Monday, believe you me).  I pointed to the clock on the far wall and he looked over and nodded, then took his change, the loaf of bread, and milk, and put them all in that sack of his.  He saluted to me (a queer sort of greeting and goodbye he’d taken to, which I thought was right respectful if anything), and headed out into the rain.  As he walked out I noticed the queue was longer than the number of people still picking out stuff, and I quickly pointed Andy over to the door to flip the sign to CLOSED.  He had been stacking empty boxes over by the door and was used to waiting for me to tell him when to close as dusk came on.

I then heard a sniffle, and “… so weary all the time.”  It was Mrs. O’Haley, mulling over those words of Barry’s.  She knew what they meant, given the time she’s had with those medical bills after her daughter, Lorrie, got the back surgery.  Poor kid had fallen off a horse.  Didn’t help any that her dad was in prison (who is not Mrs. O’Haley’s husband, another gentleman she was with before moving into town), riding out a sentence he got for selling those damn drugs near Johnny’s by the train tracks.  He was no good for her, or anyone, but she’d gone on with him probably just like she’d gone on with that old husband of hers, except this time she got saddled with a kid, good kid mind you, and all the tribulations bound to come up.

We got to talking about it once as I helped her move her groceries into her car.  “Since he went away, the blues walked in and met me,” she told me.  I guess it was more she got to talking and I just moved the bags into the back of her stationwagon, me not being the talking type and all.

“Since he stays away, old rocking chair will get me. All I do is pray the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more.”  Suppose it was sort of poetic, what she was saying then, though not being one for all that flowery nonsense I never did bother with it.  It’s just that with the weather we’d been having lately it seemed more appropriate than any thought I’d conjure up.

“Can’t go on, everything I had is gone, since my man and I ain’t together…” and she kept it up until I was done with her bags and clanged the bottom door of the stationwagon shut.  She smiled politely and stepped toward her door, sort of stopped to look back at me, maybe to apologize or explain her rambling, I don’t know, then just waved and left.  Mrs. O’Haley, young as she was, would find herself a good man.  Even if he wasn’t here in town, and if it took her a lifetime, she would.

Anyhow, Lorrie’s surgery had been done in the city.  She was sort of mobile now, using crutches and all, and Mrs. O’Haley had told me that the city doctors had told her she’d be having a tough enough time walking let alone riding horses.  Poor kid.

Mrs. O’Haley was buying some carrots, peas, noodles, a few chicken breasts, and some bouillon cubes, and as she stacked them her wet coat was dripping water all over the counter.  She looked at me exasperated and said, “stormy weather.”  I just shook my hand and brought out the old rag I kept under the counter to wipe the drops off .

“Keeps rainin’ all the time,” I told her.  “Keeps rainin’ all the time.”

She smiled again, a pretty sort of smile, in a more mature way, and paid what she owed.  I was getting her change out and she brought her hand to my arm, patted it gently, and shook her head.  We played this every time, me getting her change, and her refusing, telling me to keep it because I’ve been as kind as I have to her, helping her out when I can.  At first I was refusing every way I could, of course, but we’d been here for some time now, and I just played my part so she could play hers.

By and by we got through the remaining customers: Mabel Bernstrom (Doc Bernstrom’s wife); Lefty; little Rita Huxley (girlfriend of the captain of our high school’s football team, the Badgers, and in fact same team Andy was on); George Winston; Ms. Durand (one of the few young teachers still in town); and, surprisingly, Lola Baxter.  She lived up the block and never, ever came in herself, always asking for Andy to come by and drop off her groceries.  She was in her nineties somewhere so we were glad to do it, but now here she was, our last customer and looking as spry as any old body I’d seen in there today, especially with that weather outside.

I grinned as she brought up what she was buying: Happy Soup for the Heart and Soul.  It was something we were ordering out of a small business in Cincinnati and I liked the name of it more than anything, but I’d tried it myself more than once and it was right good, so we kept stocking it.  They’d recently started putting some kind of songs or something right on the labels, which I got a kick out of even if I wasn’t into that flowery stuff, and sometimes I’d just sit on the box and read the labels when the new shipments came in every month (not many folks bought the stuff, you see).

Lola Baxter came up with two cans, one of which she held onto so she could read: “I walk around, heavy-hearted and sad.  Night comes around and I’m still feelin’ bad.”  She chuckled and handed it to me so I could put it in the bag for her.  She wasn’t even wearing glasses when she did that.

I picked up the other can and read: “Rain pourin’ down, blindin’ every hope I had,” then just sort of scratched my ear and placed it in the bag with the other.  It’s amusing that they put this stuff on soup labels, but they ought to at least make it a bit more cheersome.  Those particular cans weren’t doing much for my soul, not much at all.  But she just shrugged, Lola Baxter did, and whistled as she handed me her coins and I gave her the change.  She seemed more cheery than I’d ever remembered, and walked back out into the rain toward her house up the block, her bag held under the big shawl she’d come in with.

Well by the time I’d finished with the customers, Andy’d finished with the rest of the shop.  We’d gotten our routine down so good that I never had to tell him anything, that kid.  Once we finished he’d usually ride his bike off after work, probably to visit Jean, his girlfriend of some odd years, but today he asked me if I’d give him a ride home.  Sure, I told him, and we got into my old Marauder (still sharp and powerful as the day I’d bought her, better believe).  Andy lived over on Woods Drive, on the other side of town, so I rightly guessed, I’m sure, that he wouldn’t want to ride a bike around in this rain.  I wondered about it as we wrestled his bike into the trunk of my car, which thankfully fit since I’d just cleaned out all the old tools and things that I’d gathered up in there.

We got going and I don’t like guessing about folks so I asked him about it, him needing a ride.

“This pitterin’ and patterin’ and beatin’ and scatterin’…” he said, and I nodded.  Some believe rain is a calmative but too much of it has just the opposite effect to my mind.  Drives one wacky in the obscene amounts.

“Drives me mad,” said Andy, almost like he was reading my thoughts.  He seemed down, more than the usual kind of down most folks were, so I figured I’d change the subject.  I asked him how he and his girlfriend were getting on, and if she was going to make it out to see Andy and the rest of the Badgers play against the Wildcats the following weekend (not here of course, but over in Fitchburg, where it wasn’t raining every day).  Andy just looked on out the window and didn’t answer right away, and I was going to ask if he’d heard me, but didn’t get a chance to.

“Love, love, love…” he said, real sarcastic.  I asked what the problem was and he got into how Jean had broken up with him.  I figured they’d had some row over something, but turns out Jean just wanted a boyfriend who had a car.  

“Love…” he said, again.  “This misery’s just too much for me.”  I patted him on the shoulder as we crossed the bridge onto Woods Drive and up to the curb.  He thanked me and apologized for being so dreary but I told him to think nothing of it, and not to worry over Jean.  He’d find himself a nice, pretty girl in no time at all, football star and good guy as he was.  He smiled lopsidedly and then got out, telling me to stay in and keep dry.  I surely would miss him when he left to college in a couple years, and probably for good.  No reason for a bright kid like that to stick around here.

For the ride home I figured I’d take the scenic route, since I was out on this side of town and all, and I drove up from Woods Drive to Middlefield, which cut through the old cranberry fields and then looped around along the ridge that overlooked the town.  From there I could see it all, from the one end of town to the other, all the lights just starting to come on as the last brightness of the day faded down to dark, feeling even darker due to those clouds blocking out any chance of moonshine getting down to us.  I hadn’t driven by the way in a while.  I remembered how Marie and I used to stop along here for picnics, back in the old days, when we were young and more put together than I was feeling, especially after she passed.  It also reminded me of why I stayed, the purpose of it.  Some people had diamonds and photographs and such, and I did, too, but I had more than that to help me remember.  I had every house and every tree, the whole town, reminding me of those days when we were happiest and the most trouble was getting ice cream off our hands after spending too long kissing out in the sun.

Eventually the road came back down and houses appeared again, until I was in the thick of the old part of town.  Houses here were more rundown, though still respectable by any right.  I was about to turn onto Randall to head back toward Main when I heard a loud explosion, least it seemed as such, and I was sure the engine had started acting up again, except immediately after I started to feel the road grinding up under my rear end and realized that I had blown a tire.  I stopped to look out and sure enough, the rear driver’s side whitewall was out for the count, flat as a pancake.  I got out then and went to the trunk to fetch the spare.  Of course my rain-addled brain had forgot that the old spare tire was one of the things I’d taken out yesterday, looking to replace it in case a thing such as this happened.

I ran back into the car and sat down then thought for a bit about what I’d do, figuring I’d have to knock on someone’s house here to get to a phone, and that’s when she appeared.  Mrs. O’Haley, in the same dress she’d been wearing earlier and an umbrella, was at my window, knocking lightly.  I rolled down the window to listen to her explain that she’d heard a loud noise and came out to check, and that the big lavender house on the corner was hers.

“Can’t go on,” I said.  “Everything I had is gone.”  I pointed out to the empty trunk and she nodded and pulled at my sleeve for me to get on out of the rain.  I locked up and followed her onto the porch where we shook off what we could, then she invited me into the hall so that I could use her phone.

“Stormy weather!” I growled, because I’d had just about enough of all this.  I didn’t mean to scare her or nothing but I was just plain angry now, angry that Andy’d been broken up with and soup labels had melancholy sayings and Barry was hurting for a proper set of jobs (which you’d think the rain would help with and not make more difficult), that Ms. Potterson and Mrs. O’Haley were alone, and that my Marauder, beautiful car I tell you, was out there getting worn down by all that damn rain.  She opened the screen door to the living room and let me in, with me apologizing all the way for being so damn ornery and stepping all over her nice rug that way I was.  She told me to forget it and showed me where the phone was.

As I dialed the number she asked if I’d had dinner, and I told her no, though it wouldn’t take me long to cook up some of yesterday’s fried chicken (which I’d bought from Johnny’s because the barbecue and fried chicken were top of the best despite it being a shady place).  I think Mrs. O’Haley was going to say something else when Mack at the gas station picked up.  I told him I needed a tow from Randall to my place because of that flat, and he said sure, though he’d just sat down to dinner with his two kids.  I wasn’t going to go rushing him out here so I told him not to worry, and to come and look for me in front of Mrs. O’Haley’s when he was ready.

I’d just put the phone down when Mrs. O’Haley asked me to stay for dinner.  I was feeling right improper just then, imposing on a single lady and all, not to mention making a mess of her nice rug, but Mrs. O’Haley, she wouldn’t have it, and took my hand in hers when she insisted I stop being ridiculous.  It was soft, her hand, but sort of foreign, like a warm blanket after it’d been warmed up by someone else.  I told her I didn’t feel right, this kind of impropriety, but again she told me not to be ridiculous and that they had more food than they could finish.

“Since my man and I ain’t together,” she said.  I sort of pursed my lips and took her hand, which she used to lead and set me at the table in her kitchen.  Lorrie came in and smiled, saying she was glad to see me, and apologizing to her mom for not being able to help set the table.  Mrs. O’Haley just shushed her and went on about finishing dinner as we sat quietly at the table.

Lorrie and me sat and didn’t speak much for a bit, just listening (least I was) to the pot in the kitchen bubble up, and Mrs. O’Haley clicking her shoes on the tiles as she walked between chopping vegetables and stirring the pot.  The sound of the rain outside was getting louder, loudest I’d heard it I think.

“Keeps rainin’ all the time…” said Lorrie, and I nodded.

“Keeps rainin’ all the time.”

The Promise of Prayer

Bert had a nice way about him in bed, but he was moving into territory reserved for years Elsa had yet to experience and at this time did not want to explore. His manners were nice, his eyes pleaded when he didn’t speak. She pleaded, too, but far more openly. There were moments when that felt wonderful.

So, needless to say, she cut him loose.

Elsa tells herself that she will never give a fuck again. She painted it in red spray paint on a wall outside the wood chip factory. She prays in the direction of the wood chip factory when she feels good again. When she drives to work or school she has to pass the wood chip factory and blesses her forehead, chest, and stomach with a light tap from her right index finger. Elsa prays that she will find the strength to be alone.

She keeps a bottle of the worst whiskey in a cabinet in her bedroom, which remains locked at all times. Her roommates, Poe and Mary, would steal her whiskey. They are in a relationship of proximity with one another and Elsa does not trust them to give each other reason, as they are like her in the way of sense. She keeps only one bottle at a time and does not purchase the next until she is done with the extant whiskey. This is a rule that must be kept.

Elsa walks to her classes in denim pants and large sweaters, regardless of season. She doesn’t know any other way. She attends her Poli. Sci. class at nine o’ clock in the mornings of Monday and Wednesday. Bert is in that class and she does say hello to him but only because it would be rude not to. Bert says hello back and seems to portray the very model of masculine stoicism. Elsa accepts this because he will not pester and she will be allowed to concentrate on classes.

In Poli. Sci. the professor’s name is Klein, and Elsa wants to fuck him. She recognizes it as attraction and considers the reasons to herself until he is done pronouncing and declaring before her and, in her imagination, for her. She does not say goodbye to Bert.

Work for Elsa is about pizza. She does not make the pizza, but she does ring up the pizza. Mexican men in the kitchen make it. One, named Alberto, thinks she would be a nice girl for his nephew, whom he calls Humberto. Elsa does not show interest but wonders what he might be like as the nephew of a pizza man.

Elsa goes to work for four hours on Mondays and Wednesdays. She gets asked about the tattoo on her neck frequently, and always by boys. She tells them it’s a dove. She neglects the most interesting part of the story, which is that she got the tattoo to impress the tattoo artist.

Now you know things about Elsa.

She speaks to her manager like he’s the prince of thieves. Respect, but no trust.

-I’m not going to be able to close next Monday.

-Why?

-I have an appointment at the doctor’s after class. I’m sorry.

-One week’s notice? You know to give me two weeks, Elsa.

-Yes. It just came up suddenly.

Her manager shakes his head and brings out a worksheet in triplicate held down by a clipboard.

-You’ll have to ask Allyson to work a double.

-I do?

-It’s your problem to resolve.

Elsa nods and walks out to resume closing the register. She counts the twenties, the tens, the fives, the ones, the fifty cent pieces, the quarters, the dimes, the nickles, and the pennies. Her register is good.

She calls Allyson to ask her if she will please cover her shift the following Monday.

-Yes. I know. I can’t change the appointment. I understand that I owe you. Okay. Bye.

Elsa drives home and opens the cabinet. She sits in bed with her headphones over her scalp and falls asleep when all the whiskey is vanished.

You don’t know this, but Elsa dreams. She dreams that she is running from people and animals. She is always running somewhere and they follow her everywhere so she runs on. She runs from one side of the country to the other and always with different people behind her. She is sometimes wearing a red robe and sometimes nothing at all, except not naked but a floating head, still running ahead of her pursuers. When she stops dreaming, Elsa goes back to sleep.

She rises in her bed with her lips dry and acrid. She removes the headphones before she sees that it is noon and she missed her morning English class. With little time to shower and drive to school she forgoes school and drives to the liquor store for one more bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey and drives away with two more. She returns to find Poe on the living room couch, playing a video game.

-What is that?

Poe’s eyes remain fixed on the screen as he explains that this is a new game from Japan in which he must successfully date a girl and win her heart.

-Do you have sex with her in the game?

-Yea, but it’s about getting her to love you. Then you have sex.

-What if you just want to have sex?

-That’s not how the game works. If you do the wrong things you fail and start over.

Elsa walks into her room and places one bottle in the cabinet. She takes a towel from her closet and enters the bathroom to run a bath. When the foam is well above the top of the tub she removes her clothes, holds the other bottle of whiskey in her hand, and slides in. The water envelops her. She rests and rubs her free hand over her belly until she dreams again.