Thursday, November 30, 2017

“H”
            H is an intergalactic entity, an alien on earth if we were to impose on him our human-centered labels.  In actuality, he does not have a name or a gender.  We ascribe these concepts to more easily understand his story.  We are unable to describe him physically because he is not composed of anything our human senses can detect. The closest we can get to describing him is that he is a form of conscious and sentient energy that sees though all time.  It is the human conceit that keeps us from understanding that extra-terrestrials are among us.  Not only do we insist that aliens should be elongated, advanced and brainy hominids, we also believe that they can exist only if we can detect them with our meager senses.  In fact, aliens similar to H have been around us through all human existence, passing through our bodies and our lives on a regular basis: we just don’t know they are there.
            H is a special entity, though.  He is a student of life and he loves it in all its forms and because of his obsession with the beauty of life he is especially consumed with the planet Earth.  It is fact, not human conceit, that Earth is by far the most spectacular planet when it comes to organic life—the only type of life of which our limited brains can perceive.  The few places in the universe that support organic life do so only in short spurts and it rarely advances past unicellular organisms.  Earth, though, is a rich and complicated anomaly that H has watched with fascination for eons.
            Because he can see (again in terms with which we can relate) through all time, his experience with life on Earth is like a bourgeoning symphony.  Proliferations of colors like blossoming wildflowers flare and fade, organic life surging and swirling in churning mists in eternal beauty.
            He enjoys cycling life and doesn’t shrink from the brutality of existence and survival.  With neither the voyeurism of a sadist nor the self-indulgence of a masochist, he watches the dynamic of predator and prey with platonic clarity and comprehends the necessity of these relationships without the affliction of sentiment.  Unburdened with the human instinct to protect the large-eyed and soft he is unaffected by the snake striking the fox pup, the hummingbird stuck in the eager spider’s web.  Death and pain are ubiquitous as is birth and pleasure and H revels in the beauty of all, but he does have a sense of fairness and although he is a passive observer and student of life here on earth he finds himself at issue with, you guessed it, human beings.  H has no issue with the power of a lion over the calf of a gazelle, nor is he bothered by piranha devouring en masse an injured caiman 100 times the size of an individual fish.  If humans were to catch baby rabbits, snap their necks and devour them whole he would be fine with that too.
H’s issues with humans begin with whales and end with elephants.  He witnesses humans developing into creatures like no other with the capacity to kill creatures they shouldn’t be able to even approach.  Why should a creature with dull sight, terrible hearing, no real sense of smell, antennae, a creature that is slow, weak, with no sharp teeth, claws or even fins or wings for that matter hunt and slaughter a forty foot 130,000 pound creature that lives in the middle of the ocean, making the multitudinous seas incarnadine?  Humans can’t even swim for more than a few minutes at a time, yet they are able to destroy these magnificent behemoths.  They slice and powder the horns of dangerous ungulates with impunity.  Nowhere else in the natural world does this hold true.  Ants may gang up en masse on a larger creature, but they are built for it.  They have incredible strength and severe mandibles.  Bacteria multiply and destroy their host but that is their purpose.  But take as many men as you can find and have them, naked, with no weapons or tools, attempt to take down African elephant?  Good luck.  These clever buggers somehow found a way to do such things and for no other reason than for their entertainment.  Destruction of the environment and loss of animal life was acceptable for H.  He knew of the beauty that would rise from the ashes of mankind.  It was really just that humans shouldn’t have been able to do what they did to animals better than them.  That was what bothered H to the point where he broke his code of observation and took action.
He pinpointed a time in Earth to influence the course of events.  In what is currently Africa, Australopithecus were beginning to get cocky.  They were using tools, coming down from the trees, walking upright to see over the grasslands.  They were forming tightly-knit groups and advancing their forms of communication almost to the point of abstraction.  They were beginning to be a threat to the larger animals around them even though physically they were a joke. 
H intervened in the least intrusive way possible.  He found a moment when a matriarchal pachyderm had been startled by a lone, baby Australopithecus.  In this moment the large beast reacted aggressively, as they often did, and stepped on the young creature squishing it to death.  At that very moment H “passed through” her.  As I said before, H is a form of incomprehensible energy that cannot be detected by organic creatures’ senses.  But if he or one of any similar entities in the universe hesitates while passing through a creature, it can stimulate the electrical impulses in a brain and trigger physical reactions.  If you have ever randomly forgotten what you were about to say or do, you were probably “passed through” briefly. It happens all the time.  Other reactions include sneezing, hiccoughs, yawns, and epileptic fits.  And all it took was one pass through this matriarchal beast to change the course of human evolution.
H passed through and aligned himself in a way that produced an intense orgasmic reaction in the animal’s brain at the moment she stepped on that stupid little monkey.  The result was an epiphany.  From then on the giant pachyderm would step on small hominids every opportunity she had, reveling in the feeling it gave her to crush that warm, hairy mass between her toes.  She loved to hear the twig-like bones crunch and the snap and pop of spines and skulls squishing into the terrain.  Frankly, she hadn’t felt that good since early adolescence.  She did it with such glee and enthusiasm that the other deinotheriidae took notice.  Being the sentient and socially imitative creatures they were, others in her herd tried it and felt the surge of excitement and energy that comes with stomping on a little creature, just like kindergarteners with June bugs.  Soon, across the grasslands and in forests one could see elephants in ecstasy twisting a foreleg into the earth and letting out a joyous bellow.  Of course they couldn’t catch all the little monkeys they saw and they didn’t want to.  They still had their own pachydermic lives and concerns: feeding, drinking, protecting their calves from lions and such, as well as maintaining their complicated social lives.  But if one of those little monkeys strayed too far from a tree or was bold or stupid enough to ambulate challengingly across the plain, then that was another story.

The monkeys, for their part, soon realized the dangers in the deinotheriidae and stuck to the trees.  They were more on guard and less bold.  They couldn’t cover as much territory which meant less interaction with other groups, which meant a shallower gene pool, as they say.  They never developed any tools worth more than ones used to dislodge termites.  They never developed tools to injure themselves.  They never developed agriculture or had societies or churches or whaling ships.  They lived in trees, mated and sometimes successfully raised young and died at a decent age.  They spent their spare time eating lice and masturbating and throwing feces at each other.  And they were content.   

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Old man Ody

Old man Ody
            Old man Ody adjusted himself in his chair, grimacing from the pain of moving but more from the pain of angry thinking that had dominated his life.  Ten years before, he turned his chair away from the window towards the television.  The twenty-four hour news channel played without sound, but Old man Ody watched the attractive brunette newscaster and the scrolling news feed below her.  Mass shootings in churches.  Celebrity overdoses.  People blown up in sand.  He had been angry and miserable enough in his younger days but now he was alone with cancer with his eyes ingesting more malignancy each day, anger scrolling in unintelligible script through his brain.
            He had been looking for his cat all morning and had given up for the moment figuring it had gotten outside.  It was strictly an indoor cat and he was worried it escaped while he was putting out the garbage.  That mangy thing had been darting out the door into the breezeway the past few weeks and he had grab it and put it back inside a few times already.  He sat and breathed and watched television until a mortgage commercial came on.
            It was almost lunch time and at any moment the mailman would knock once and then let himself inside the house.  They would lunch together for twenty minutes with a bottle of Canadian Club.  Old man Ody only drank at lunch and only drank with the mailman.  They had two glasses each and spoke to each other but not with each other.  Jim the mailman would expatiate on fishing although he hadn’t been out fishing himself in years.  Old man Ody would usually complain about minorities even though his community was profoundly homogenous and he rarely left his home or spoke to anyone but the mailman.  Their conversations usually went like the one the day before:
--Mark’s got himself a fine walleye last week…twelve pounder.  Worm on the bottom, he said.  Worm on the bottom, I said.  Worm on the bottom, twelve pounds?  I never seen a twelve pounder on a worm.  Large shiners’ how ya do it.  Worm on the bottom…
--I’m telling you they need a checkpoint on Altamont Avenue.  The blacks are coming in from there.  In droves.  Nah, a checkpoint with machine guns and all.  That’ll do it.
--Getting a twelve pounder with worms on the bottom?  More like to get a pike than that.  Nah, Marcus’s full of it.  Shiners or suckers.  Twelve pounder.  You know why pikes’ so big in Europe and Germany?  Cause they don’t have finny fish, only soft fish and the pikes gobble’em up an get fat.
--Some black kid showed up at my door with a badge trying to sell me some power or natural gas or something.  Badge looked fake to me.  And I says unless you got a warrant get the fuck off my porch.  And he says ‘Warrant?’  And I said yes, to be arrested or to search my house.  Otherwise, get the fuck off my porch.
            These dueling diatribes would last twenty minutes and Jim the mailman would drain the last bit of flavor from his ice and say, “See ya tomorrow, Ody,” and continue on his route.  Old man Ody would watch the news and nod off for a few hours.
            He opened his back door and yelled, “Fucknose!  Fucknose cat!” and scanned the catless back yard.  He went back and slumped in his chair and looked back at the television.  California was on fire again.  He paused and got up and looked out the window, searching again for the cat.
            “Fucknose,” he mumbled. 
He turned his chair from the television toward the window to the position it was in ten years before when he had a bird feeder.  That did not go well.  His daughter moved out when she was fifteen and when she was twenty and pregnant she came back to visit and thought she might make a connection with her father.  She was mistaken.  She found his irritability and stubbornness impossible and gave up after three visits.  His loneliness vexed her, though, so she bought him a bird feeder and wild bird feed and set it up in the crabapple tree out in his side yard.  “Why can’t you be happy that I’m happy?” is the last thing she said to him.  He enjoyed the feeder but didn’t like the way his cat would jump on the windowsill so he drilled sheet rock crews through the bottom of the sill as needle-sharp stalagmites.  The cat only jumped on the sill once after that. 
            He really liked the cardinals.  He had been retired for three years after thirty working as a custodian at the local high school.  Although he didn’t miss work, he was bored and the feeder was active with life.  Unfortunately squirrels found and dominated the feeder and that he could not abide.  He relieved the feeder of the squirrels with his air rifle.  After a week there was an accumulation of fourteen dead squirrels tossed over his shed into the neighbor’s corn field.  When the squirrels were gone he found the blue jays to be bullies.  They were harder to shoot so he removed the sheet rock screws from the sill to steady his elbows. When he was rid of the blue jays, starlings and house sparrows arrived in droves and he focused much of his day on them.  He stopped using pellets and moved on to BB’s to save time and money.  By the time the feeder was clear of these pests, Fucknose arrived at the back door mewing plaintively with the male cardinal dead in his jaws.
He removed the feeder, dumped it in the garbage, made Fucknose an indoor cat and turned his chair from the window toward the television.
Fifteen was a portentous number for Old man Ody.  Fucknose had been around for fifteen years until that day, both his son and daughter moved out of his house when they turned fifteen, and he moved out of his father’s house when he turned fifteen.  Ody left his father’s house rather than his parents’ house because his mother was killed in Italy during World War II when he was seven years old.  His parents met in the emergency room when she was a nursing intern and his father arrived with a foot he badly mangled after setting a bear trap.  His foot became as useless to him as he was to the armed services.  His mother left father and son for the war effort and was blown to pieces by an Italian shell while dismantling a field hospital.
Old man Ody’s old man worked in a carpet mill and arrived home from work at 7 pm, and that’s when Ody was allowed to enter the house.  He’d spend afternoons with a friend or two and then wait at the picnic table in his backyard until his father arrived.  Rarely, a friend’s mother would realize his situation and invite him in at dinner time, but Ody would always decline, knowing his father’s wrath at potential embarrassment.  When he was finally allowed in the house, he had to wash up, comb his hair and put on formal clothing for dinner as his dad sat at the table, grimy and smelling of benzene and toluene as he forked chunks of butter fried liver and onions into his mouth.  His father controlled a lot.  He controlled the food with a locked cabinet, he controlled the use of hot water with a timer, he controlled the climate of Ody’s bedroom with sealed windows, and even controlled the distribution of toilet paper by allotting three squares for each trip to the bathroom.  Old man Ody’s old man was so intolerable Ody started working at the age of nine and moved out by fifteen. 
He carried on his father’s parenting tradition after his own wife died giving birth to his daughter.  While the doctor was performing a cesaerian an artery was nicked and that was it:  Ody became Old man Ody.  He began with his son who was ten.  The boy needed structure with no mother and he needed to grow up fast and help with his family.  The boy moved out five years later, the girl ten years after that.
Still no Fucknose.  He boiled some egg noodles, drained them and dumped in a can of Hormel chili.  He hunched over his bowl at the kitchen table and munched in silence.  When he sat upright too quickly the pain pierced in his back again and he gasped.
He’d been to the doctor a few weeks prior because the pain was something worth discussing and his urine clouded the toilet water with red.  In the outpatient clinic which fit snugly between a Chinese restaurant and a Payless shoe store, he sat snugly between a coughing woman in a large coat and a heavy man with a soiled white captain’s hat, the television on the wall garish with a morning show.  Captain hat was sharing loudly his history of back pain to the receptionist as she was assisting someone else on the phone, although he said he was really there because of the diabetic sores on his forearms and calves.  The woman coughed violently into a paper towel, rattling the phlegm on her lung walls.  The perky hostess seated at a coffee table rolled her eyes in an exaggerated gesture as her cohost and the studio audience burst out in amplified laughter.  When he was called to the examination room, he stood eagerly.  He hated being examined in any way, but he would have been just as eager to leave that scene if he were going to a proctologist.  The doctor’s fingers were soft and cold like his stethoscope, but his manner was soft and warm.  After some questions during the examination, the doctor seemed not concerned but serious.  He wanted an X-ray and they brought Old man Ody to a back room for imaging.  He returned to the waiting room, but the two other patients were gone and he sat in the corner next to a dusty ficus and under studio laughter.  Back in the examination room a half-hour later, the doctor showed him a mass on his kidney and had the receptionist make an appointment for tests and a meeting with a specialist at the hospital.  When he stepped out into the strip mall parking lot the air was cold and the sun was glaringly noon-bright.  He never went back to that doctor and never met with the specialist.  He disconnected his phone a week later after getting too many follow up calls from the clinic.  He rarely made any calls on his phone anyway and only used it to tell telemarketers to “Fuck off.”
Still no Fucknose.  He sat in his chair.  The television did not change, in fact, it never will he thought.  California will always be on fire and people will always die in sand the same way those in Louisiana will fret over pederasts and floods.  There will always be sinkholes in Florida that swallow chlorine pools and Volkswagens.  Alligators will eat Jack Russell Terriers and mountain towns in Vermont will become islands in need of food drops.
Old man Ody took out the Canadian Club and the ice tray and quickly drank the bottle dry.  He fell asleep in his chair as the television glared silently in front of him and he dreamed he was a boy again but living in his present house.  He heard whining, a dog’s whine, and pushed open the back door and stepped from the breezeway into a bleak back yard.  The whining became louder and more acute as he tried to locate it.  The sound did not hurt his ears but rather the whole of his being.  He was in a panic when he realized it was coming from behind the shed and it was a puppy.  Although he couldn’t see it, he knew it was a yellow lab with brown eyes, a big nose and little puppy teeth.  He went behind his shed and found not a neighbor’s cornfield but an immense cement wall.  In the space between the wall and the back of his shed was a pile of blue dock barrels stacked high.  The whining from underneath the barrels turned to yelping as he desperately tried to lift them and the sharp edges of the rounded ends of the barrels cut into his soft young hands.  The cries grew louder and felt like they were coming from himself as he pulled uselessly and realized they were all bolted together in a complicated pattern, the bottom barrels lag bolted hopelessly in the concrete below.  He woke vomiting onto the front of his shirt.  He trudged into the bathroom, bumping against the door jamb and colored the toilet water and spattered the toilet seat and linoleum floor with crimson urine.  He was in a blur and would not remember anything past dinner.  “Fucknose cat,” he mumbled and stumbled out the back door into the open yard. 
The grass was a light blue from the moon and a 3 am stillness and quiet prevailed, not just an absence of noise but a vacuum of sound with the stillness of eternity.  The barren branches of the black crabapple tree posed cracks in the starless sky, the bright moon cancelling all other light.  He plodded to his shed and leaned his forehead against the splintery cedar shakes, staying in that position half asleep for several minutes, his bare feet insensitive to the frozen grass.  He wheeled around with his eyes wide looking back at his house, light glaring from the open back door.  He thought maybe the cat went in the house, but instead of checking he stumbled towards the back of his shed.  The line of staghorn sumac that delineated the space behind his shed was as empty as the cornfield.  He pushed through the branches and fell onto the frozen earth.  The field was barren, endless dirt furrows like a lesson in perspective, frozen clods with chopped cornstalk poking out like rebar.  Raising himself he stumbled towards the middle of the openness, the moon lighting a disconsolate blue his breath and useless hands that palsied in front of his useless eyes as he began his useless screams in that vacuum of silence and the farther he stumbled from his house into the middle distance, the farther he was from the distant invisible tree line as his screams became immense jabberings lost in the skin of atmosphere and the coldness and immensity of all.

Draft December 2016

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Skaters

The Skaters
            They stepped out from the warmth of their home and into the bitter cold of the street, he holding the canvas bag containing their ice skates and she locking their heavy oaken door.  The sun was already behind the trees and the other houses but its strength was in the undersides of the empty branches as the couple started down the slate plates of the walkway.  It wasn’t late enough yet, but soon the gas lights would illuminate the avenue when the sun was gone completely.  Clear wood smoke heat wavered above chimneys and dark coal smoke issued from others.  As they walked towards the river arm in arm, a motor car rattled down the cobblestones.
“Ghastly,” he said.  “Knowlton idles that beast continually in front of our home and poisons us with that exhaust.  I’m going to have a talk with him the next time he does it.”
“I don’t notice it, dear.  Our windows are sealed for winter.  Besides,” she kidded shaking his arm lightly, “you just don’t like it because it’s not electric.”
“They will be I can guarantee you that.  And these will be before you know it,” he said motioning to the streetlights.  “We’re already in major negotiations in the city…”
“I know, dear.  We saw them in Manhattan and you already told me and we’re not talking about work tonight.  You promised.”
“Are you sure you want to skate?  It’s terribly cold tonight and windy.”
“I just needed to get out of the house and move around a little.  Not for long.  It’ll be dark soon anyway.”
She stopped for a moment to adjust her fox boa snugly under her chin and gave her husband a smile.  He was so serious all the time, a naval man just like her father:  Serious, strong, successful and kind.  He already had a formation of ice in the top of his moustache below his nostrils but she said nothing about it because he would become distracted.  She took his dense woolen arm and they continued down to the river. 
At the base of the iron suspension span that crossed the river was a small shed provided by the river club.  In its shelter from the wind and glaring sun, they laced up their skates quickly with exposed and aching fingers, crisp puffs of exhalation quickly dissipating.  Fastidiously slipping on their gloves with excited yet forced laughter they patted their hands together to remove the chill saying, “Ooh,” ”Oh,” and “Wow!”
They navigated the boards of the small ramp down to the ice carefully and awkwardly and then slid out on to the ice quickly gaining their balance once moving.  It was a dry but cold winter and the ice was ideal for skating, smooth, clear, and eighteen inches thick at least. The sun was now in the trees that bordered the river but still glaringly strong and she loved sun like this before it disappeared in one last “Huzzah” as it were. The wind gusts were strong enough to wobble them, both competent and competitive with their skates, but they glided along gaining speed and holding hands and laughing when one cut to the left or right to surprise the other in a game they had played for years without tire.
There were other groups of skaters, black forms in the waning rays of the sun, single skaters and couples languidly arm in arm.  Two groups of boys at the base of the span were sliding a heavy rock as far as they could between them, yelling and gesticulating at a strong throw as they parted and then chased it down the ice, groaning and gesticulating when the return slide fell short of the other group.  Short but potent gusts of wind challenged all on the ice including the raucous and immense flock of crows downriver calling and flying between trees and ice, black dots peppering the blue and white.
They stopped skating and turned back upwind when they reached the railroad span about a quarter mile downriver by the ice cutter’s office with its distinct trail of wood smoke from the stove inside.  She remembered this spot the previous June afternoon when she expressed how she liked the yellow river lilies on the river’s edge, they were so tall and dense and wild and she would love to get some bulbs to plant in their yard.  She thought if she soaked them enough and put them in the sunny corner of their yard they might take.  Her husband took a trowel and a metal pail and scrambled down through the brambles trying not to grunt as she said, “It’s okay, dear.  I don’t need them…be careful.”  With the pail filled with an appropriate amount of river mud for the bulbs, he clambered back up the slope protecting the protruding stalks and flowers as best he could when he upset a nest of hornets.  He yelled at her to back away but they only had interest in him.  How swollen his face and hands became!  And he never grieved her for it, not once, no matter how she apologized and she really hoped the lilies would take to their yard, wild river lilies so stalwart and vibrant.
“How’re you feeling, dear?” he asked.
“I feel comfortable now we’re moving.  I did need time out of the house tonight.  No matter how I feel it has to be better than when we were here last June.  The lilies?”
“Look up there,” he said pointing up the ice past the metal span.  A small herd of deer were trotting deftly and briskly across the ice from the river’s edge to the island followed by the slouching gait of a coyote.  The sun had now set completely behind the trees and the sky was a brilliant purple and red, the kind of color nature produces only in the sky and in the organs of animals.  She watched the deer disappear into the bronchial trees of the island and then the coyote as well.  There was still considerable light left and some more time to skate as they reached the span and the skating shed when she thought about using a skating sail.  There were two for use in the shed and when she asked her husband he agreed a run or two may be nice.
As they approached the shed the groups of boys were breaking up, some heading to the north shore and some to the south exiting past the shed.  As they entered the ice with a sail one of the boys about eleven years old stopped and regarded them.  He had no skates but boots, black woolen trousers and a dark blue pea coat.  His hair was sweaty and frozen in chunks at the ends, his cheeks were bright red and he had an ample amount of mucus streaming from both his nostrils.  He stared at them with eyes of an almost caustic blue. 
“Hello, young man. Did you have enough of the cold today?”
“Yes, sir” replied the boy as he continued staring at the two.  “Are you taking that out, sir?”
“Why, yes we are.  Just for a breeze or two before dark.”
“Well sir, just be aware they’s thin ice on the far side down there,” he said pointing to the north end of the railroad span.  “Thems ice cutters been taking blocks out but you can’t see because of the thin ice over it.”
“Well thank you, young man.  We are very much aware and that’s why we’ve stayed on this side of the river.  But you can see they have it properly marked.”  He chuckled, “And here I wanted to warn you about the dangers of playing so close to the span because the ice here can be quite unsettled.  Thank you again.  And what is your name?”
“Alex J. Thompson, Jr., sir,”
“You be careful getting home, Alex Thompson.”
“What a fine young man,” he said to his wife when the boy walked up the boards of the ramp.
The river was fairly empty at this point since the boys were gone.  There was a pair skating on the north bank and one person for whom they wanted to wait in case the sail took them too quickly and they should disturb him or collide with him.  After a minute or two, the skater turned left towards the north bank and they had a wide open stretch of river to use the sail.  They positioned themselves and each took hold with one hand an end the sail and with the other the middle support bar.  “Are you ready?” she looked to her husband with a bright excited smile.  Before he responded they were in position and a strong gust took hold of them and they began to hurtle down the ice. 
She felt the power in her own legs and arms as she arched herself to gain speed, her husband doing the same as they glided over the ice faster and faster.  They worked perfectly as a pair controlling their direction as one, reading and adjusting to the other to keep straight much as they had always done in life.  They hadn’t the problems of others of which she heard so often in the gossip of her social groups.  Two weeks prior he did arrive home in the middle of the night senseless with alcohol but that was the only time in the seven years since they moved here that it ever happened.  He had to entertain some colleagues from New Jersey and told her he would be late, but he arrived home at 4 am and knocked over a table lamp in the foyer.  She had to help him into the bedroom and he was mumbling insensibly.  She remembered being glad they hadn’t any children yet.  He smelled fruitfully pungent with whiskey but she did not smell any women on him.  She knew all too well that many of his other colleagues at General Electric frequented the brothels by the lower canal and really believed he wouldn’t have accompanied them there.
When she got him comfortably into bed, she fell asleep beside him and then awoke with him on top of her.  He didn’t speak and she wasn’t afraid but she felt his strength but not his touch.  When he collapsed and began to snore next to her she lay for some time with the blankets off her to cool her skin.  When she woke in the morning he was already cleaned, shaved and dressed in his collar and coat.  He was sitting at a table in the kitchen drinking tea and reading some documents.  When she was in the doorway in her bed gown with her hair tumbled down her back and she stood watching him, he said without looking up, “I apologize terribly that I let the alcohol ruin my judgment and it will never happen again.  I promise.”
“Alright, you let go!” he shouted and she released her end of the sail and they continued to glide quickly, but slowed themselves into a U-turn by the ice cutter’s shack.
“That was exhilarating!” she proclaimed breathing heavily, her teeth bright white and her cheeks reddened.  “One more before we go.”
“Alright, dear.  But just one because it’ll be too dark soon.”
By the time they skated back up to the shed to begin their last run, the river was essentially empty.  The pair of skaters had merged with the single skater to become a trio heading home on the north bank far upriver.  There was still good visibility but soon gaslights would be burning amid the low tree branches above the quiet cobbled streets.  “Okay, one more,” he huffed as they turned the sail into the steady breeze.  They started off slowly and steadily and were trying to arch themselves to gain speed but the wind was not cooperating so when they hit a decent but uneventful speed they began their game of changing direction suddenly to offset the other.  They were about halfway down the river when an exhilaratingly powerful gust took them by surprise and hurtled them at a speed which soon became uncontrollable.  Before they could even communicate with each other they were speeding into the thin ice on the north bank where the ice cutters had been working.

One cold night a few weeks prior the couple was seated in their respective chairs watching the fire in their hearth and listening to the phonograph when her husband admitted to her that he did not believe in God.  She was honestly surprised because they were active at St. George’s, regular attendees and volunteers.  He never showed any indication that he felt this way and she asked him why hadn’t he said anything and also why did he attend so much if he didn’t believe?
“Simply, I don’t want to bother other people with my own thoughts.  I also like the church itself quite a bit.  So it’s really not an issue but that’s how I feel.  I simply see it as impossible, just stories made up by men, and to devote your life, your soul to it?  I don’t mind it, I just don’t believe it.”
“But why haven’t you told me?” she asked turning herself towards him.
“I don’t want to bother you with my thoughts either.  I see how you enjoy it, the comfort it brings you, the good it does for people.  All I’m saying is that I don’t think any of it is true.  Just stories made up by men.”
“Of course they’re stories made up by men but that doesn’t mean they’re not true.  They’re beautiful.  That’s what makes them real.  Or true for that matter,” she insisted.  “I mean it’s like what Keats said about truth and beauty being one in the same.”
“Oh, you and your poetry,” he chuckled.
“But it’s true.  When we are there in that gorgeous stone church you don’t get a feeling?  It’s where everyone is equal and when we sing, I believe it, in it.”
“But really that feeling is just communion and it doesn’t have to do with God’s existence.  Once again, I don’t want to upset anyone and I enjoy it there.  I just don’t believe in the stories made up by men.”
“Those stories are beautiful though and that’s what makes them true.  There may not have been a real Adam and Eve or a Moses but the stories are true.  Last week in our poetry club…”
“Poetry club,” he said
“Yes, poetry club,” she laughed.  “We discussed The Lady of Shallott and it is such a beautiful poem and it is so true.  There was no ‘lady’ and it doesn’t matter if there was.  For all I know there may not have even been a Tennyson because it doesn’t matter.  He wrote in a way the story has a life of its own, it’s remote.  Just like the bible, remote and beautiful and true.”  She gave him a sidelong glance and smiled, “And I didn’t study at Elmira for nothing…”
“Well, I certainly know you are true,” he said leaning back.

When they crashed through the ice she experienced a searing mix of panic and pain.  She was surprised at how low she was in the water, struggling to get her head above the surface amid frantic splashing.  Amid the turmoil she heard her husband exhale low and powerful grunts that rose in pitch.  She felt him push her up against the edge of ice and try to lift her up but it was impossible.  All sensation was burning and she felt her muscles recoil into cramps but she managed to get one arm up on the ice.  She felt him kicking and attempting to heave her up onto the ice but it was futile as all he was doing was crushing her breast and ribcage against the edge of ice.  “Get up!” he screamed as he jostled her desperately, but she was too waterlogged and cramped and no matter how she struggled she kept slipping down.  He kept pushing and trying to power her up on the ice, his breathing painful to hear and his eyes wild in panic and desperation in a way she knew was possible deep in her self, but wished she never had seen it in this life.  She realized he felt the same pain and panic but now he had exhausted himself and must be cramping up as much as she.  She could barely breathe.  She started to scream for help.  She screamed loudly and repeatedly through the pain and panic, through the burning.  And when she started screaming she saw her husband look at her as he slid beneath the water and felt his touch for the last time.
“I’m telling you they was planning to put in a street right here behind us down to the water.  They was planning on it and now they will soon’s there’s thaw,” the ice man was explaining to his son.  They were sitting in the shack with the burning wood stove.
“You hear that?” the son sat up alert.
The father sat up quickly and quietly and listened and they both distinctly heard a woman’s scream.  The son began to scrape the frost from the window to peer out at the river while the father slipped his feet into boots and broke open the door to the shack and stumbled into the frigid evening.  “Get the pikes,” the father yelled.  The two ran out onto the ice towards the figure clinging to its edge and realized they needed a boat to rescue this woman and ran back to the shore, got one and dragged it across the ice.  (The rescue would not be successful.)
Her screams for help became screams of “no” as his body disappeared below hers.  The wool of her sleeve and her fox boa had become frozen on top of the ice. She could barely move at all so she started to sink with him but was tethered by her neck and arm to the surface.  Then she felt pressure below her skates that raised her slightly to keep her from drowning.  “No, no,” she sobbed.  “Don’t.  No.” 
He had braced himself on the bottom and held her by her skates just enough to keep her head above water.  She felt his strength but not his touch.  The wind howled in her ears, her body flexed and cramped without her control and she thought how strange it is that life can simply end.  Like this. She heard shouting but couldn’t respond.  She felt his strength but all she wanted was to feel his touch again, to die with his touch and not his strength.  The railway span loomed above her as she was eye level with the water like some duck.  She looked below and saw the crescent of his forehead and his hair waving like sea grass in the dark water.  She heard yelling and saw figures moving but she couldn’t move herself, her arm frozen to the surface of the ice, she could barely think.  The wind blew strong again as the night grew darker and she began  murmuring, “They come for me with pikes and poles, my love, pikes and poles, they come for me, I feel your strength but not your touch, my love, pikes and poles for me, my love, poles and pikes.”

Draft  September 2016 

Monday, August 15, 2016

La Rata No Es Bueno

La Rata No Es Bueno
Beyond the hanging Spanish moss a wobbly splintered dock ran out into the tidal flat rife with small crabs.  A methodical flock of white ibis combed slowly through the mud, probing with red decurved bills fanning along and other than a few stragglers eventually disappeared behind a stand of saw palmetto.  The morning sun was gathering its strength and radiated through the marshland and channels with a light haze around the distant islands as a ship moved soundlessly through the Intracoastal Waterway.  A few lean deer with twitching, delicate ears moved soundlessly as well as cautiously around the edge of the salt marsh.  As Maureen sipped her morning tea, she noticed a little tree frog sticking to the picture window behind her.  When it noticed her interest, it edged sideways along the glass and flattened itself against the door jamb. 
Maureen had been living here for more than a year and she still had trouble believing it was real.  She and her husband Albert had retired a few years prior and they decided to sell out their home in Long Island and purchase this home in Beaufort, South Carolina.  They bought their first home in 1979 for forty thousand dollars and thirty two years later sold it for nine times as much.  It was a tidy ranch house that was fit to raise their daughter who moved on her own twelve years ago to San Francisco.  Over the years they maintained and remodeled portions of the house as needed and in the end it was their greatest investment.  When Maureen’s father had finally passed away two years ago, they could finally ask themselves what they would want to do with the rest of their own lives.  They had visited their daughter in San Francisco several times and thought of moving out there because of its beauty and their grandchildren, but property was so expensive it would be a step backwards for them.  But Maureen had a friend from high school that lived in Charleston and they had a wonderful time visiting there.  The people were so friendly, the seafood so fresh, the weather so not freezing that they started to ask about real estate opportunities and when they compared the housing prices and the tax rates, they decided on moving.  All they had were a few adult cousins left on Long Island and both Maureen and Al realized they could live without barbeque birthday parties around an above ground pool.  So with Albert’s pension from Con Edison, and Maureen’s retirement from thirty years at the Department of Motor Vehicles, they sold their Long Island ranch home and bought this house on the water south of Charleston.  It was secluded but part of a gated golf club community.  They would joke to each other that their life had become a never ending vacation.
They spent mornings golfing, afternoons on the boat and evenings enjoying Al’s new love of healthy cooking.  After dinners of oysters, shrimp or fish and vegetables, they would relax on the back deck with a glass of white wine both content with a life deserved.  They both discovered joys and interests they hadn’t known before.  Aside from maintaining his boat and working on his short golf game, Al started to collect and repair old radios in his garage workshop.  Maureen discovered birds.
Al convinced her to let him put up a hummingbird feeder on their deck when she saw them buzzing around the large live oak on the corner of their property.
“But how much is nectar and where do you get it?”
“It’s just water and sugar,” he said.
“But won’t that attract bees and flies?”
“I doubt it.  Besides I think it attracts butterflies.  Remember that big black and yellow one on the seventh green?”
Within twenty minutes of putting up the feeder little ruby throats were zipping around their deck.  One hovered above her glass of iced tea on the table and another lighted on the deck rail before shooting up into the trees and she loved them instantly.  But she never loved birds before.
When she was young, like many women from her generation, she had seen the Hitchcock movie The Birds and developed a mild phobia of the fluttering and the beaks and the expressionless but knowing reptilian look in their eyes.  When she was ten, at a friend’s house for a birthday party, someone loosed the blue and yellow budgerigar from his cage and he flew around the living room until he became winded and entangled in Maureen’s hair.  Also, it didn’t help that her younger brother developed an unreasonable and inexplicable obsession with birds when he was ten and she was fifteen in 1970.  She loved Michael.  When he was born and brought home from the hospital she got her little pillow and blanket and slept underneath his crib for two weeks until her parents interceded, but there were many mornings she was caught sleeping underneath him again because after she crept into his room she drifted off looking up at the wire web of his crib.  He died young.
He began his obsession with birds after a blue jay swooped and clipped their father’s head requiring three stitches.  A young jay had fallen out of its nest in the bushy blue spruce that bordered their property and their dog was barking at it.  When Dad came out to investigate and grabbed the dog’s collar the jay dove and hit him.  When he returned from the doctor, he forbade anyone from leaving the house and put on his WWII helmet from his tour in Germany and France.  He also donned sunglasses lest he lose an eye.  He got out his wooden stepladder and a rake and ripped out the nest and crushed the remaining two nestlings.  Michael watched from the garage window as the jays, five adults, screamed and fretted in the trees.  They were so blue and animated, black and white and passionate.  He began to notice other birds and his obsession had begun.
She never knew another kid who had such a love of being outdoors.  He was always in trouble for riding his bicycle farther than he was allowed, riding to the brackish river and salt marsh a few miles from their home.  He would return after curfew in the summer, scratched, bleeding and reeking of sulfurous mud from stalking water birds or covered in boils from poison ivy for stalking woodland birds.  She still loved him those years when he became older and tolerated his silliness with a maternal constancy, but she was nearing the end of high school and had her own interests.  She would be married to Albert by 1975.  The only real problems arose when his boyish devil took hold and he left one of the expired birds he was always trying to rehabilitate under her pillow or in her dresser drawers.
He died at 23.  Through high school he worked in the restaurant at the country club on Bread and Cheese Hollow Road and became quite a cook.  He also became quite a drinker and used both those talents in Martha’s Vineyard, Cape May and Santa Fe working seasonally at country clubs and restaurants using his pay for partying and travelling and Maureen supposed still looking for birds.  He was with them the Christmas week of ’83, staying with her and Albert because their parents didn’t have the patience for him.  They would be civil on the holidays, but not beyond that point because he dismissed the idea of college and they thought he had so much promise.  At 5:35 am on December 27th, he was killed in a drunk driving accident, but the irony was that he wasn’t drunk.  He woke up early to drive out to Shinnecock Inlet to look for eider when someone fell asleep at the wheel, went through a red light and destroyed Michael and his Jeep Cherokee.
One morning when Maureen was watering her rosemary and basil on the back deck she noticed a burst of color in the palmettos.  She descended the steps to her lawn and walked slowly towards a small bird of red, indigo and green.  She had never seen a bird of such exotic color in the wild, and it was so small and beautiful.  Much like the hummingbirds, this little creature enamored her.  Such a gorgeous and delicate little thing out here in the wild!  She went inside and grabbed from the book case A Guide to the Birds of South Carolina which someone had given her as a housewarming gift and found the bird almost immediately: Painted Bunting.  She was fascinated and flipped through the pages looking at all the other bird photographs in color plates.  Within a few days, she and Al put a bird feeder that was shaped like a small gazebo in the middle of the table on their bedroom deck.  Soon she recognized with ease chickadees and nuthatches, Carolina wrens and orioles.  It was a while before the painted buntings found the feeder, as well as others. 
They had been living in the new house for more than a year and were finally settled in and still joking about being on an eternal vacation, but a form of loneliness started to seep into Maureen’s being.  She had no friends around and really no interest in joining the social circles of the golf club as the women to her were older and foreign.  Her friend from Charleston and her husband would come visit every month or so because they loved Beaufort, but well-spaced weekends don’t consist of companionship.  She and Al would go to Charleston as well to see a Judy Collins concert or check out the Spoleto Festival.  Her grandchildren were on the other side of the country and her daughter had her own life, so they’d see them once a year and have to deal with her tedious and insufferable husband while doing so.  She and Al had each other and that was all.  She noticed sometimes his well-concealed exasperation at her clinginess since they were always together and sometimes felt jealous of his ability to get along with everyone.  He knew several of the neighbors, was cozy with the golf club manager and even began to run a bobcat and backhoe helping drainage on the course for free driving range balls.  So she found herself concentrating on improving her swing and really starting to enjoy the wildlife and birds around her. 
She loved the deer that crept along her property line, the bold and careless cottontail rabbit who grazed on her lawn, the white ibis in the marsh.  And she began to notice the birds beyond her feeder, the ones around the golf course.  She brought her guide book onto the course and identified brilliant red-headed woodpeckers and yellow-shafted flickers, snowy egrets and Louisiana herons, cormorants and the strange anhinga, or snake-bird, whose odd swimming habits had her captivated.  She saw two, necks twisting at strangle angles, almost form a heart shape before disappearing below the surface.  She only made the connection to her brother when she saw the spoonbills.
They were on the sixth hole and she looked back at Al who was in the middle of the fairway, but behind her.  On his right was the main pond of the course, on his left was a wide salt marsh with circuitous channels, and overhead were a couple jets from Parris Island performing their touch-and-go exercises with a deafening roar.  Even the few inconveniences of this life were beautiful in their own way.  As she watched him line up to swing, a group of long necked pink birds flew above him towards the salt marsh and they looked exactly like flamingoes.  According to her guide there were no flamingoes native to South Carolina, let alone any long necked pink birds.  She and Al reasoned that they were escapees from someone’s private estate.  When they were leaving Al had his usual lengthy conversation with the course manager and brought up the flamingoes.  The manager told him they were roseate spoonbills and they had been nesting on the property for two years and that they used to be only found in the Everglades in Florida.  When she got home to her computer, she found only references to the birds inhabiting Texas, Louisiana and Florida.  They were hunted almost to extinction in the 1800’s and there were 30-40 pairs left in existence until hunting them was banned. 
That evening after a salad and Al’s oyster bisque, they rode their bicycles with binoculars to the private road that ran through the course and edged the main pond where numbers of wading birds roosted, clamoring in the trees at night time.  As they scanned the trees amid the wood stork, the egrets, the ibis, the heron, there were the spoonbill, dozens of them unmistakable with a strange grey leathery bill that ended in a spoon shape.  Al said, “They must be moving up north now,” and she suddenly remembered her brother.  It would be difficult to remember all of his ramblings, especially about birds, but for some reason, she immediately connected Al’s statement to one night at the dinner table when her brother was fifteen and he was raving about bird species shifting north in their range.  He was eating the fat from the edge of his sirloin and pushing the lima beans to the side of his plate and talking like a madman about birds that were new to Long Island.  (He was talking about the red-bellied woodpecker.)  This time was long before people argued over global warming and thinking of the prescience and enthusiasm of her baby brother gave her a comfort she hadn’t known since his death.  From that point on, she looked at her birds as more than pretty things; she had more respect for them.  It also made her sad.
Albert was a kind and loving husband and he knew his wife well.  She never liked animals; they never had any pets because most of her life she was concerned with
“the mess they make.”  He was fine with whatever would make her happy and remembered with much pain the death of his own childhood dog when he was eighteen, two years before he and Maureen were married.  So when his wife took such an interest in birds especially he understood it was more than a distraction of retirement.  She was lonely and missed her friends from Long Island although she never really socialized much. She needed companionship more than he could offer but she refused to try to meet people from the course club.  He even encouraged her to get a part time job to get out of the house.  He knew her brother and was there for his death.  Birds of all things.  He didn’t need a degree in psychoanalysis to figure that one out.
Maureen had expressed concern that the squirrels might discover the bird feeder on their bedroom deck and make a mess of the seed.  They eventually did but before them they had another visitor.  Al was typically an earlier riser than his wife and one morning while he was out getting coffee and the newspaper from Adnan the owner of the nearest convenience store, Maureen woke and stretched.  She slipped out of bed and moved slowly to the glass doors of her bedroom that led to the deck eager to see if the buntings were back.  She had seen a wood thrush the previous morning.  She saw no birds but instead a squirrel at the feeder busy stuffing its cheeks with bird food.  Annoyed, she knocked hard three times on the glass hoping to send it leaping off the table without avail.  She opened the door briskly thinking it would send the critter forth but still it continued to eat as if she weren’t there.  She stepped out on the deck and realized that this squirrel did not have a bushy tail but rather a bald one.
Al was speaking with the clerk about the techniques of catching shrimp with a cast net when his phone rang.
“Al, there’s a rat at our bird feeder.  A rat!”
“A rat? Not a squirrel? Are you sure it’s not a squirrel?”
“It’s a rat!  Where are you?  It’s a rat!”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
When he got home she described how she watched it as it left the table, crawled down the side of the chair and disappeared below the deck. 
            Al went out and inspected the deck, the area below the deck, the garbage cans, the garage and the edge of the property and all he found was the startled but bold rabbit that grazed on their lawn.  They both decided it would be wise to hang the feeder from a tree limb reachable from the deck to discourage the rat.  They didn’t climb trees did they?  This rat did not and the birds quickly adjusted and after a few days, they thought it was a freak occurrence, some lone rat which saw an opportunity.  But then the squirrels discovered the feeder and although they shook the feeder and wasted a lot of seed it was far better than a rat to them.
            Another morning Maureen awoke to find nuthatches and chickadees taking turns at the feeder and took her tea on her bedroom deck rather than the main back deck because now that the birds didn’t feed at her table, they weren’t afraid of her and she could watch them feed from the tree closely.  As she sat in her robe, a female bunting alighted nearby and then dropped below the feeder to take advantage of the dropped and scattered seeds from the squirrels.  Maureen leaned forward slowly so as not to disturb it and saw the rat foraging next to the bunting.  It was grazing methodically using its forepaws to fill its cheeks with spilled seed and didn’t seem to notice the bunting hopping back and forth near it.  Maureen tossed the tea from her cup at it scaring away the bunting.  The rat paused and then turned and walked to the edge of the house and hugged it until in turned the corner towards the driveway. 
Two mornings later it was back and Maureen watched it closely.  It almost seemed benign filling its cheeks, chipmunk like, uncaring as she took a few steps down the stairs towards it.  When she got to the fourth step it halted abruptly, paused and this time ran humpbacked and wobbly to the edge of the house and cornered towards the driveway.
“We need to do something about this rat,” they both agreed.
“Well, should I trap it?”
“Not with one of those snap traps.  Can’t you get one that doesn’t kill it?”
“I’m sure I can.”
Albert entered Grayco Hardware & Home relieved by the strength of its air conditioning and with a little help found the section for pest control.  Above the roach baits, the heavy-springed rat traps and poisons, he found several metal Havahart traps of varying sizes.  The smallest seemed much too small and the next largest seemed too large but he went with that one because there was no way the rat would get through the small squares of wire and it seemed likely the rat was large enough to trip the door.  He looked around before he took it off the shelf thinking that if he had moved here ten years earlier he could have had an extensive conversation with the store owner about the pros and cons of certain rat traps.
He and Maureen researched the best bait for rats and it turned out to be bacon, gummy bears and peanut butter.  Al joked he may end up in the trap if he sleepwalks and Maureen laughed.  Since they were eating healthier he had to go out and buy the ingredients and when he fried the bacon, he had three pieces himself and secreted the bacon grease in a small container in the back of the dairy drawer in their refrigerator for future use.  They tested the trap’s effectiveness with a stick, made an appealing pastry with a bacon crust and peanut butter filling with gummy bear garnish and set it out that night.
“You’ll let him go in a safe place?”
“Yes, sweetie.  Down at the boat launch.  Lots of space in the rocks, no gators and people leave dead fish down there all the time.  He’ll be fine.”
“Alright, I just feel bad because he’s not doing anything.  He’s actually kind of cute in a way.  But we can’t have rats.”
“I know, sweetie.”
“We can’t have rats.”
Al woke with the first light of the next day.  He put on a shirt, shorts and sandals and went out back to check the trap.  Sure enough, it had been sprung and there was the rat sitting peacefully in it.  “”Hey, little guy,” Al said as he cautiously approached.  The rat’s whiskers twitched as it seemed to regard Al, but when he reached down towards the cage to pick it up, the rat lunged savagely at him and made a deep growling noise.  Al jumped back, surprised at the sudden change in the rat’s demeanor.  The rat seemed to grow in size as it growled loudly striking periodically at the side of the cage.  The growling was growing louder and turning into a scream so Al needed to act quickly because he did not want Maureen to wake and see this situation.  He went to his boat in the driveway and pulled out a long gaff pole that came with the boat when he bought it.  He hooked the end of the gaff under the trap handle and lifted the cage of turmoil from the ground.  The handle slipped so the cage was hanging at a 45 degree angle with the rat screaming and clawing savagely as Al used all his energy to hold it out straight from him and walk it to the back of his pickup truck.  Bathed in sweat, he took a moment to get his breath and walked to the side of the house to see if Maureen had been awoken.  The house was quiet, but the rat was continuing its horrible growl, a combination of anger and anguish.
The air conditioning of his truck was welcome to cool him down as well as drown out the noise of the rat.  Leaving his neighborhood and passing the entrance to the golf course he worried that someone may hear the noise coming from the back of his truck.  Al, what was all that racket in your truck yesterday?  That sure would be a good story to tell later, he thought.  The road past the course passed through a salt marsh with winding channels and a pool where he had seen a man using a cast net to catch shrimp a few days prior.  He really wanted to give that a try.
He turned left onto the main road that led to the boat launch.  He looked in his rearview mirror at the rat, hot in the sun in the back of the pickup.  It was breathing heavily and Al could still hear the growling noise which persisted as if the thing was possessed.  The road was straight and narrowed as he moved along, the live oaks crowding in.  Except for an occasional bright plot of fresh construction the shade of the woods grew darker and Al was happy because that rat must’ve been overheating in the sun.  What would he tell Maureen?  Yes, the rat was angry.  It was sure aggressive, but he’s fine now and far from us.  It was needed for sure and we have the trap if there are others.
As the road closed in even more he began to pass some of the Gullah houses, descendants of freed slaves who had lived there for generations.  He wanted to try some of the Gullah restaurants around but Maureen was so health conscious these days and they heard the cooks used a lot of grease.  Finally, the road ended at an expansive channel, the Intracoastal Waterway.  The grass and dirt parking lot was empty as he had hoped and as he got out of the truck he heard the spouting exhale of a pod of passing dolphins.  The sun was beginning to heat the land and the cicadas began to buzz, and when the rat saw Al its growling intensified again.  When he hooked the cage with his gaff and lifted it out of the truck, the rat started to make that screaming noise again and savagely attack the cage as if it were animate itself.  When he placed the cage on the ground, unhooked the gaff and moved back he said out loud, “Jesus.  How the hell am I going to get him out of there?”
All he had to do was lift the sliding door and run if it came bolting out of the cage like a greyhound.  It shouldn’t be a problem, he reasoned, but when he approached the cage the rat’s anger became exponential.  He leaned down at a safe enough distance to regard the rat as it lunged, snarling and screeching that terrible noise.  It looked at him with such rage and hate in its eyes he was stunned.  He said, “Alright.  Enough is enough,” and forced himself to grab the top of the sliding door.  When he did the rat lunged at his hand and he jerked it back quickly.  Growling the rat latched on the cage bars and bit so hard he saw some of its teeth break off with a terrible cracking sound.  He backed away while the rat still chewed at the cage, it’s mouth bloody with foamy saliva, its eyes wild, its ribcage heaving and pathetic, a keening now in its growls. 
“If Maureen saw this,” he thought.  He remembered how she was when her brother died, four days in a dark bedroom and then the months afterward when he worried most about their little daughter. 
He wished he had gloves, but even then…
Albert Jorgenson hooked the handle of  of the cage with his gaff as the rat continued his assault.  He held the long pole in front of him with the shaking cage hanging at an angle and walked down the boat ramp without looking forward.  When the water was up to his knees he was glistening with sweat and still looking away as he lowered the cage into the water.  He heard brief splashing and a keening gurgle as the cage submerged.  He unhooked the gaff and went back to the air conditioning in his car and sat for fifteen minutes.
“Did you just let the rat go?  Did we catch him last night?” she asked eagerly.
“Oh yeah.  Yup,” he said removing his sandals before stepping into the house.
“Where did you let him go?  The boat launch?  Was he okay?”
“He’s far from here and won’t be back.  I didn’t think he’d ever leave he cage, but he did and then ran out and disappeared into the rocks.  I bet he was hoping for another bacon pastry,” he kidded.
“Well, maybe we can bring one down to him once in a while.  As long as you don’t eat it on the way there,” she kidded back and gave his arm a squeeze.
“Good idea,” he lied successfully for the first time that he could remember.
That night, after a delicious crab gumbo and green salad, they rode again with their binoculars to the roosting site of  so many beautiful birds, yellow crowned night herons, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets while below in the duckweed, the tiniest flowering plant in the world, alligators waited silently for the clumsy young to fall.

Draft     August 2016

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Grape Jelly

Grape Jelly
Bob Partner closed his locker with more force than usual, which was more force than barely necessary.  On most days he would shut his locker, start away, and then turn back to push it and make sure it was closed completely. But that slight difference between slamming and absently shutting gave him the satisfaction he needed with the abrupt finality of the clicking lock and the knowledge he needn’t look back.  His head bobbed among other heads heading to classrooms, checked cotton shoulders and dresses of aquamarine, yellow and black, the boys’ hair cropped tight and the girls’ shoulder length and bobbed, headbands and bangs. 
Arriving at his first class, Chemistry, he was stalled in the doorway by a wall of red and white Wichita North football jackets, with one head a little taller than the others and unfortunately turned slightly toward Bob.  Karl Kendall’s head had the dimensions of a marshmallow with a haircut that matched Johnny Unitas.  He had wide set bulgy eyes, fleshy lips and had been shaving since the seventh grade.  But the only similarity between Kendall and Unitas was that each had once held a football in his hands.  Karl was manhandling two of his associates when he turned and saw Bob.  “Fartner!” he yelled.  He went back to pulling on his teammates’ jackets, one in each hand as the period bell sounded.  He held fast onto his two friends and pulled them slightly toward the doorway, then stopping and barking into the hallway, “Stop making us late to class!  You’re blocking the doorway!”  Bob and a few other kids sighed, looked at each other and waited.  Karl Kendall looked back to see his teacher standing, looking downward and absently scribbling on paper.  He continued blocking the way and looking back until he saw his teacher exhale, throw down his pencil, turn himself toward the doorway and take a stride.  That’s when Kendall let them loose turned to go in the class and said, “God, you guys are so annoying.  Hi, Mr. Beedo.  What’re we doing today?”
“Moribito.  You’ll see in a minute, Mr. Kendall,” the teacher said looking away from him.
Bob was happy to finally get to his seat and take notes.  Thank God this day was lecture and demonstration since the last thing he wanted to do was lab.  He could simply listen and take notes and relax.  On these days, the Karl Kendalls of the world were inclined toward hibernation, a torpor that was not quite sleep, but a form of listlessness that got them through lean periods.  Instead of the winter seasons, in these cases it was a forty-five minute class.  It was too exhausting for them to interrupt a teacher lecturing because then they would be asked pointed questions on the material and be put on the spot.  But on laboratory days they could stand, lumber about, grope each other and pour sulfur in your flask while you stood there mouth agape.
As his teacher droned on about mole calculations, Bob took productive notes but found enough time to draw in the margins of his paper because he had read the chapter assigned for homework the night before.  He was tired from a late night washing dishes at Maureen’s Kitchen.  He only worked at Maureen’s two nights a week because her cousin was the full time dishwasher and was only off on Thursdays and Fridays, but Bob worked raking leaves after school and before he went to Maureen’s last night.  He had made a lot of money that fall raking leaves, but now it was the end of November and this job was probably his last.  His grandmother’s friends had gotten wind of his efficiency and low price so he and his cousin Bucky found themselves with a lot of work and were forming a teenage boy’s version of a business.  They talked about shoveling the same clients’ walkways and drives when the snow was to come.  So far that fall he had saved $134.  After being called on, he correctly answered a question on a mole formula so he was able to go back to his drawing of a mole squinting at a page where he had written 1+2=?.   The lecture ended five minutes early, so the kids in his class got to chat for a few minutes before the bell rang. 
“No. It’s true.  Mr. Ed talks because they put peanut butter in his mouth.”
“Nah.  My dad says they shock him with some kind of like electrodes.  Not ones that hurt him, but they just like make his lips jerk around.”
“That’s terrible…”
“Nah…It doesn’t hurt him.  They’re the kind of shocks that don’t hurt.”
“No.  I heard he’s got a trainer right off stage who shows him carrots and he gets the carrots when he’s done with a scene.  That’s why he makes all those funny faces and jerks his head around.  That’s what I heard.”
“Wow.  If he really does that then he is one smart horse.”
“I love Mr. Ed,” he said chuckling and shaking his head back and forth.
Mr. Ed was Bob’s favorite show, but he also really liked The Avengers and The Dick Van Dyke ShowThe Avengers was exciting and Dick Van Dyke was funny, but he most enjoyed Emma Peel and Mary Tyler Moore.  They were the most beautiful women he had ever seen, even prettier than Elizabeth Taylor in the Cleopatra poster in front of The Crawford movie theater.  They both had beautiful brown hair and eyes and they both looked like Sally Thornton.  Sally lived a few streets over from Bob and they met in his third grade class.  For Valentine’s Day, their teacher Mrs. Restive sent a letter home that asked kids to bring in Valentine’s cards for each other.  They should bring one card for each of the girls in the class if they were boys and one card for each of the boys in the class if they were girls.  Although they were mostly vague and innocuous proclamations, when third-grade Bob was filling them out in his awkward print the night before V-Day, he agonized over which one to pick for Sally and chose one with a duck in a sailor suit and a heart that said, “Watch this Duck-Cling to You.”  It seemed the most forward out of the others.  He was eager and excited to give her his card, but when the time came for the kids to leave their seats and place their cards on their classmates’ labeled desks he was stricken with terror.  He thought his card for Sally was too forward and he was afraid she would know how he really felt, so when he got to her desk, he paused, withheld the card and moved on.  The only girl he wanted to give a card to was the only one to which he did not.  When all the kids were finished passing out cards and he got back to his desk, he had eleven cards waiting for him.  When he got off the bus that afternoon, he rushed into his house and tore open each card looking only for the signed name until he found Sally’s.  He saved that card and the envelope and threw the rest in the trashcan to the consternation of his mother.
On a later occasion when they were in seventh grade, he met her at a skating pond.  He was there with his grandfather and was learning to ice skate.  He took to it pretty quickly and began to enjoy the feeling of self-propulsion and then making a hard turn.  There was a lot of activity on the frozen pond, a hockey game with older boys took over a sizable section, while the rest of the people, boys, girls, parents, skated in a lazy perimeter.  He noticed the strength and skill of the hockey players, their confidence in their abrupt turns and stops and was a little jealous.  But he was having fun and getting better and better at his own accelerations and turns.  He returned to his grandfather who was gracefully moving along with his hands behind his back.  His grandfather was a slight man but had the amiable features of Gary Cooper.
“How’re ya doing, my boy?”
“Great, sir,” he said, sweaty and happy.  “I think I’m getting the hang of this now.” 
And at that point, Sally skated up to them.  He noticed there were some pretty girls on the ice, but at first he was nervous about the ice breaking and then he was busy with learning to skate.  After that he was enjoying it too much to take notice of anything, but now all he could see was her.  She was wearing a navy blue sweater and black snow pants with white gloves, scarf and headband.  Her almond eyes, like a gypsy woman’s eyes, were as bright as her smile, her lips and cheeks rouged from the cold air. 
“Hello, young lady!”
“Hello sir,” she said cheerily.  “Bob, right?  You live on Park?”
“Yeah.  Sally…”
“Thornton.  We were in Mrs. Restive’s together.”
“Yeah.  Yeah, we were.”
“Those are some nice skates you’ve got there,” his grandfather interjected and began a conversation that lasted while they skated the circumference of all the activity in the middle of the ice.  His grandfather was really good with people.  While she was chatting with his grandfather, she would frequently look to Bob and try to include him in the conversation, but mostly he could only stammer out a “Yeah” in agreement.  She was so pretty on the ice beneath the blue sky talking with his grandfather like they were old friends, if any boy can fall in love in an instant, it happened to Bob.  But in an instant a boy can destroy his own fantasies like a dropped pile of dishes.  One of the older hockey players slid up to Sally and started to speak with her enthusiastically.  He had ice shavings on his back across his broad shoulders and she turned him around so she could brush them off and just as quickly as he arrived, he dashed back for the game.  “So much for that,”  Bob thought.
Nothing had changed for Sally and his grandfather, so they all continued to skate together, but Bob avoided eye contact with her and ventured on some laps on his own before returning to their leisurely pace.  When it was time to leave Sally said to Bob directly, “So do you come here to skate a lot?”
“No.  Just this time.”
“Oh,” she said, “Hey, you know in the springtime my girlfriends and I play tennis in the park by your house.  Maybe I’ll see you there sometime?”
“Yeah.  Probably.”
“Okay then.  It was nice meeting you Mr. Partner.  Bye Bob,” she said smiling and then skated away. 
When they were in the car his grandfather said while driving, “Well, that Sally was a nice girl.”
“Yeah,” Bob replied watching the passing mailboxes.
“And she certainly seemed interested in you,” said his grandfather looking away from the road and directly at Bob.
“Yeah.  Well, she had a boyfriend there.”
“She did?”
“Yeah.  That hockey kid.”
Oooh !  That hockey kid was her cousin from Salina visiting.  You didn’t hear us talking about that?” chuckled his grandfather.  Bob turned from the mailboxes and looked at his grandfather.
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Rats.”
When they got to high school, they had several classes together, English three years straight.  Now, Sally was his friend and they often walked home together.  Sometimes they were alone, but not often, though those days alone were his favorite.    Mostly they walked with her friend Katherine, a mousy but pleasant girl who always walked with her arms crossed, Bucky who was always clamoring for attention by acting goofy and putting boxes on his head, and Emmie.  Emmie was a girl who lived a few doors down from Bob and took the special education class in a separate wing.  Her mother and Bob’s were close and Bob had known Emmie since they were young.  Emmie’s mother asked Mrs. Partner if it would be okay that fall if her daughter could walk home with Bob, now that she was getting older and getting along well in school now.  Bob’s mother considerately asked him about it.
“Well, yeah, mom…but she’ll try to hold my hand.”
“I’ll talk to Ellen about that.  You’ve always been so good with her.  And she really likes you.”
“That’s the problem.”
Emmie’s mother wrote a letter to the school asking permission for her daughter to walk home with a chaperone, one named Robert Partner, instead of taking her bus and after a meeting with Principal Strange, Mr. Robert Partner and Miss Emmie and Mrs. Ellen Boyle that discussed the responsibilities of a chaperone, permission was granted.  Emmie said several times on each of their first walks home, “I’m not going to hold hands with you, Bob.”  And at some time in October Bob noticed that when she became ebullient and started to swing her arms back and forth, she would stop herself and then walk quietly with her arms crossed.
“Hey Fartner.  Fartner,” Kendall insisted, tearing him from his thoughts.  He had come over to Bob’s table while the kids were killing time before the bell to end Chemistry.  “I’m making bets.  Bet you 10 cents I can fit my whole fist in my mouth.”  This was Kendall’s way of gathering money so he could eat extra servings at lunch.
“I’ve already seen you do it a hundred times.”
“C’mon Fartner.  You love it.”
“I’d give a nickel to see it,” said wiry wild-eyed Willy Sokol with delight.
Karl Kendall demanded the money be put on the desk, then put on a serious countenance, shook out his shoulders in preparation and brought his closed fist slowly to his mouth like a sword swallower.  He opened his mouth wide bearing large uniformly flat teeth and pale gums.  As he expertly turned his knuckles to the proper angle like professional movers can maneuver a couch through a doorway, his eyes bulged slightly and his forehead and cheeks were strained with red and white creases.  His hand was then gone to the wrist.  It reminded Bob of a film he saw in Biology the year before when a snake unhinged his jaw and swallowed an egg.  When Kendall popped his fist out of his mouth and wiry wild-eyed Willy Sokol was leaning back in peals of laughter slapping his thighs with his palms, Bob began to chuckle because he realized that even though everyone thought Willy was weird, Sokol was probably the smartest kid he knew.
“C’mon Fartner.  Now you.”
“I’m not trying that.”
“No. A bet.  25 cents says I go up and fart right in front of old Beedo.”
“I’m not betting that.  You’ll just get in trouble and you don’t care.”
“How about I do it and I don’t get in trouble you owe me and if I do get in trouble I owe you.”
Bob contemplated the situation.  He had fifty cents in his pocket and lunch was usually 35 cents, but he had another two quarters in his jacket pocket in his locker.  There was no way Mr. Moribito would put up with that and this way he would see Kendall get in trouble and win 25 cents. 
“You’re on,” said Bob.
“Money on the table first.”
“Okay, but you too.”
Kendall slammed a quarter down and Bob took out his own two from his pocket, only one was a nickel. “Oh,” he paused.
“What’s the problem, Fartner?  I didn’t know you was a Welsh man.”
Bob remembered quickly about the money in his jacket and slammed down his own quarter.  Kendall squared his shoulders back and adjusted his varsity football jacket and approached his teacher who was at his desk grading papers.  He did not look up when his student asked to use the restroom and simply said, “I’m not giving you a pass to leave when we have thirty seconds before the bell.”
“But I really have to go,” whined Kendall pretending to squirm his face reddening.  Then he let a loud one go.
Mr. Moribito sighed and said loudly, “If I wanted to work with sweating hogs, Mr. Kendall, I would have become a farmer.”  A success-filled Karl Kendall sauntered over and collected his winnings.  Bob didn’t care about losing the money since it was really Kendall that was losing, but then he thought and said, “Hey, what are they serving for lunch today?”
“Chicken and biscuits.  Oh, and peanut butter sandwiches with grape jelly,” replied Sokol.
“Grape jelly?” 
Every fall, Mrs. Clemence, one of the lunch ladies would make grape jelly from the vines on her home.  The jelly wouldn’t last two weeks and it would only be served on a few school days.  And on those days, they sold out if you weren’t in front of the line because she only made twenty or so of the sandwiches.  Grape jelly was his favorite and his mom would never buy it even when he asked her because she claimed she was allergic to grapes when she was young.  Grapes and crabmeat.  He was ecstatic.  All he needed to do was get the money from his locker early and then go straight from English to the lunch line.
During Latin his mind wandered as the teacher droned through declensions.  He almost asked Sally to go to the movies with him the day before when they were walking home.  He waited too long while cousin Bucky was distracting everyone by taking a framed still-life painting that was in someone’s garbage and smashing his head through its center.  Before he knew it she and Katherine peeled off from them with a wave and a smile when they got to her corner.   She had mentioned that she wanted to see the Hitchcock birds movie but was afraid to because she was so “creeped out by birds to begin with.”  He thought he could ask her to go with him alone and she would get the idea how he felt, even though he wasn’t exactly sure of what that was himself.  He was also getting to be really hungry.  He was distracted but mollified by the thought of a grape jelly sandwich and milk in his future.  He skipped breakfast that morning since he was tired from working the night before and he wished he didn’t.
Gym class was good because they were still outside and played soccer.  He scored two goals.  It was good too because he didn’t have the chance to get nervous about asking Sally or think of food.  But in the locker room, Kendall was telling his cronies about the girls he claimed to have stuck some part of his body into and listing the ones he planned on violating in the future.  When Bob heard him mention Sally as someone in his future plans he felt an uncontrollable anger, but then mild relief when Kendall didn’t say anything profane about her and then started talking about the new female English teacher. 
Through Study Hall Bob could only feel hunger and nervousness.  English was the next period and then lunch.  He couldn’t understand why he was so worried about asking Sally since she was practically asking him to go with her just a few days before.  He just had to figure out a way to make sure they were to go alone.  He wanted to kiss her and hold her hand.  He wanted her to be his girlfriend. 
He was also really, really hungry.
During English they had a substitute who was in fact 93 years old.  She was four feet tall, had hunched shoulders and used a cane.  She didn’t take notice of the seating plan so the students sat where they wanted and when Sally came in she sat next to Bob as he had hoped.  They were to silently read and answer questions on an O’ Henry story. The ancient substitute may not have enforced the assigned seats but she was certain on the silence.  When Eric Glover tried to whisper to Tim McGuire for a piece of gum, the substitute bolted upright from her chair, glowered at him with a confusing stare and emitted a phlegmy grumble.  Bob figured he’d delay while gathering his books at the end of class and she would wait for him.  Then he would say, “Hey, we should go see The Birds tomorrow.  The Saturday show is at 2.  I was thinking too that if it is kind of scary we should go with just us.”  He had it down perfectly.
He thought the story was okay.  It was  about some guy who drowned trying to get back a love letter in a bottle that he threw in the sea.  He had a hard time concentrating though because Sally looked so pretty and he was finally going to ask her.  Her face looked like it even smelled good.  It would be so nice in the theater and when she got scared she would grab his hand or maybe lean into him with his arm around her.  And he was also really hungry.  But it was only a half hour to lunch.  “Oh no!” he thought. The money in his locker.  He panicked because if he didn’t rush straight to the lunch line, there was a strong chance the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would be gone.  He couldn’t dally with Sally and his locker was on the opposite side of the school from the lunch room.  He would ask her during lunch instead, but he still needed to get to his locker somehow.  Principal Strange had announced last week that substitutes were no longer allowed to issue corridor passes because too many kids were taking advantage of them and some kids were smoking in the bathroom and set the garbage can on fire.
He waited until three minutes before the end of class hoping this woman would give him a pass to the bathroom.  It was his only chance.  If he left his books at his desk, he could get them after he finished lunch and it would look like a true emergency if he were to ask right before the bell.  He got out of his desk and Sally gave him a quizzical look as he approached the teacher’s desk.  She was putting a cap on a pen with great difficulty when she looked up at him with bulgy, glaucous eyes.  Her face did not look like it smelled good.
“Ma’am?  May I have a pass to use the restroom?  It’s a bit of an emergency.”
Her head shook with a slight palsy and she said, “What’s your name?” as she lifted the blue passbook from the desktop.  Walking swiftly he made it halfway to his locker, to the main atrium of the school, when Principal Strange stepped out from a restroom door.
“Excuse me, young man,” he boomed, “May I see your corridor pass?”  Bob’s heart rate quickened as he handed over his pass.  “Who wrote this?  It’s barely legible.”  The radio on the pricipal’s hip crackled and the voice of the main office secretary asked the principal to please come at once to the office.  It was an emergency.  Bob thought it sounded like she was sobbing.  “No shenanigans from you, young man,” Principal Strange said as he handed back Bob’s pass and turned quickly in the direction of the main office.  He bolted to his locker, fished the two quarters from his jacket pocket and slammed it shut.  The bell rang.
After a few quick and long strides, he was surrounded by kids pouring from classrooms into the hallway.  He kept a quick pace, not quite running but taking advantage of open lanes to pass those in his way.  He made excellent time to the cafeteria and there were only about ten kids in line.  “Everything worked out perfectly,” he thought and smiled as he looked at the pile of sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.  He was going to buy two of those sandwiches.  He noticed the line wasn’t moving and saw the lunch lady fumbling with register tape.  The cafeteria was filling up with the bustle and noise of teenagers and the line behind him was growing.  Four kids ahead of him, he saw Karl Kendall walk up and butt in line.  The woman closed the hood of the register and began to accept money again.  He controlled his eagerness knowing that there was no way they would sell out the sandwiches by the time he got to the register.  Karl Kendall left the register after paying holding two trays of food, each with a wrapped sandwich placed on top of the chicken and biscuits.  The woman behind the counter, Mrs. Clemence herself, asked him what he wanted.  “Two PBJ’s and two milks, please.”
The kid in front of him paid and walked away with his tray.  Suddenly, Principal Strange’s voice came over the loudspeaker.  “All students report to the gymnasium immediately for an assembly.  I repeat:  All students to the gymnasium immediately.”
Bob was stunned and looked at the cashier in panic.  A girl came rushing into the cafeteria crying and yelled out, “The president was shot!  The president is dead!”  The entire cafeteria went silent as the students looked around in bewilderment. 
Karl Kendall said loudly, “John Kennedy is dead?”
“It’s true!” yelled a young man from the crowd.
There was more stunned silence which graduated from murmuring to sobbing and panic.  Bob looked to the cashier whose netted head was beginning to hang.  Her blue eyes through her glasses were starting to cloud.  Quickly, he thrust out his arm with the two quarters in his open palm.  “Please?” he implored.  She took his two quarters and gave him a dime.
He started from the register and saw the line behind him disperse as all the students began to head to the gymnasium.  He went quickly to a table and sat down amidst the sobbing and stunned.  He looked to the entryway of the cafeteria and saw Sally crying.  Standing next to her was Karl Kendall crying as well.  Then, very naturally, they joined in a consoling embrace and cried together, eventually moving with all the other kids and lunch ladies and staff members towards the gymnasium leaving Bob alone with the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich he ever had in his life.

August 2016   Draft