Monthly Archives: January 2013
Stevie and Six
Justin woke before it was light right before his alarm rang at 6:06 AM. He waited, quietly naked, under the weight of his covers until the sky shimmered grey; the color it would stay throughout the short day. He put his left foot on the cold linoleum square and then the right. And so began the first of the many routines he had to perform each day. His hairless body didn’t flinch in the cool air. First thing every the morning he walked exactly six steps forward and then six steps back, lay down and repeated these steps, six times.
Once he was up he was anxious to get the apartment clean. He spent four hours every day, seven days a week, naked, scrubbing every inch of the five hundred square foot studio. His baldhead gleamed with sweat as he hummed old Motown hits to himself while getting his sheets, towels and all of his clothes from yesterday ironed, folded and put away in neat piles of six.
A breath of relief escaped his lips at getting over this first hurdle. At ten Justin headed deliberately to the shower. His morning grooming regimen took the best part of two hours. Then he dressed in his uniform: white jockeys, white tee shirt, white button down Oxford shirt, jeans, white socks and brown penny loafers. He had been up now for six hours. Six was his personal mantra and his nickname on the street.
One floor down directly underneath was the apartment of Stevie Ford who has seen this same morning sunrise for the past five days and the rest of the past five days and nights. He rolled over on the clothes strewn mattress and lit a cigarette butt that he fished from the top of the Pepsi can. “Oh hell yeah.” He said to the wall. “Stevie, old chap you need a beer and a wake-up.” His mouth was so dry the almost cold beer he got from the refrigerator gave him the shivers. He dragged himself back to the mattress and pulled the upside-down, cardboard-box, bedside table closer.
Stevie always had drugs. His doctors thought it better that he self medicate so they wouldn’t have to see him. His stutter was so bad the doctors would just renew his meds instead of having to listen to him. He had an unending supply of legal speed in the form of Adderall, an acceptable solution to boys with his problems. His parents paid his rent so they never have to see him. He had been on his own for a few years now.
He crushed four of the Adderalls and lit the glass pipe. He needed a few extra pills today to stay up as long as possible. He was going to crash really hard sooner than later. He ducked his head under the crooked dusty blinds and got spaced out looking at the action on the street. “I wonder if I will see her today.” Stevie took a drag off his beer and yesterday came back at him.
He had seen her for the past month or more going or coming from the old house on the corner. He finally decided to talk to her, “Hey girl are you new to the neighborhood?” He was only able to do this because when he was high he didn’t stutter as much. She looked right through him and kept on walking.
Stevie thought that she thought he was just a bum, a dirty bum. “Even back when I was straight girls always shunned me,” he mumbled. “She doesn’t look that hot herself. Who does she think she is? Why does she think she’s so special anyway?”
He peeked again under the shade, pulled it up about three inches, got another beer, perched on the folding chair, leaned on the windowsill and waited. He thought about her and what he would like her to do to him and the fantasy made him excited. He dropped off the chair onto his knees, reached into the front of his baggy jeans and gave himself some well-practiced strokes, the only sex he’d ever had. He remembered why he had gone out yesterday and he grinned. He rolled across the mattress and grabbed his coat from a pile of clothes and found the reason for his newfound joy.
Justin’s afternoon had as much ritual as the morning. He ate a simple meal, fruit yogurt, a banana, and a cup of instant espresso. That was all he could manage most days. If he got hungry and weak he would microwave a Meals On Wheels frozen lasagna. After his Spartan meal he slugged down the meds prescribed by the public health nurse for his various obsessions and his deepening depression.
He was lonely and feeling sorry for himself hating this prison he’d made for himself when his cell phone rang. “ Six, Six man it’s me your pa-a-a-l S-s-s-s-e-e-e-vie.”
“Yeah, it’s me doufus. What’s up? What do you want?” Six was the only person who could call Stevie names. Everyone knew that Stevie had problems.
“I just thought you might be up for a little smokelahoma.”
“Sure man. In fact I just got my delivery from the dispensary. They hooked me up with a new strain. Get this; they call it Thrift Store just like that Macklemore song on KEXP. Can you dig that? It smells all musty like old clothes and shit. Come up and I’ll fire up the pipe.”
“Great, I have something to do first and then I’ll come up.”
“Ok, man but remember our bargain.”
“Yeah, I know I have to shower and wear that kimono you gave me so I don’t contaminate your bat shit crazy house.”
“Thanks man, I know someone as kooky as you gets me.”
Stevie loved Six and Justin actually thought Stevie was funny. He didn’t seem to judge him like everyone else in the whole world did. Stevie respected Justin’s particular madness and actually respected his various obsessions. A mutual respect for their extreme behaviors bonded these two outcasts and their love of smoking weed and talking about how the world was so different for them kept these bonds tight.
Stevie took his prized new possession back to his window perch this time carefully opening the window a few inches and aiming the pistol towards the street. “Hells Yeah, now those bitches will remember me.” He put the gun down crushed four more Addralls added some crystal for an extra buzz and lit the pipe. He fell back on the mattress in the throes of the drugs and alcohol eyes wide opened he dreamed of the results of the carnage he could create.
Justin smoked another bowl of Thrift Store sitting in full lotus on his very clean linoleum floor. “I wonder what the hell happed to my little buddy Stevie. He never misses a chance to smoke a bowl. I better call him.”
Justin reached for his phone. Just as he was dialing he heard a pop like a gunshot and then a scream from what seemed like downstairs. His phone rang. “Six, Six you have to help me.”
“What the hell happened?”
“I shot myself. The fucking gun accidently went off.” Stevie started crying. “The pain is killing me. Call 911. No don’t call yet. You have to come down. Oh God, I think I’m bleeding to death. Help me Six, help me.”
Six froze. He hadn’t left his apartment for anyone these past two years. He thought about all the mayhem that would be created: the cops, the emergency guys, the questions the stares, the blood. Then he started pacing six steps forward and six steps back. He did this six times. He dialed Stevie’s number. Stevie answered. Justin said “Hold on little buddy, I’m coming down. I’ll call 911. Don’t worry. Six will save you.”
Justin stripped off all of his clothes folded each item neatly and went out the door.
Thanks to recently unearthed documents found in a Bogota archive, we know know about the first Europeans to see the village billed as El Dorado to and come back alive.
And we know that the Frenchman who wrote about this incident was wrong about so many parts of his story.
For one thing, the streets of the remote village were not “paved with gold” (and other precious metals) as a show of opulence. Far from it.
The village was blessed by its fertile yet remote location, but cursed by its status as the last standing repository of the Muisca empire’s physical “wealth.” The villagers could not barter or sell these goods, lest the Spanish army or independent conquering bandits find and destroy their precious valley. No, the bullion and metal works were melted and molded into paving stones, because that was among their few practical uses.
Similarly, the author took it as a utopian sign that this was a place “where there were no priests and the king’s jokes were always funny.”
As a surviving outpost of a pre-Columbian society, of course they didn’t follow the Catholic tradition.
Secondly, the French author seemed not to believe that this was an egalitarian society, and had been since shortly after the village was cut off from the rest of the Muisca civilization.
He repeatedly referred to the villager tasked as the visitors’ guide and interpreter as “the King of El Dorado.” In reality he was not a king but the village’s storyteller and scribe. His role in village life had led him to become a skilled raconteur, so of course he knew how to deliver a successful joke.
The guide, along with the village as a whole, treated the Spanish/Peruvian man called Cacambo as the leader of the visitors. He was tall. He was muscular. He was an expert traveler through rough terrains. He was a man of quiet wisdom. And the villagers particularly admired his mixed-blood status. More about that later.
The other visitor, the French traveler whom the French author later referred to as “Candide,” was seen by the villagers as Cacambo’s passenger and bumbling assistant. In the tropes of American adventure stories, this relationship would be that of the hero and the comic sidekick. As a son of physically weak aristocrats, he was unsuited for real work, let alone the role he’d given himself as an amateur world explorer.
The French author, of course, treated Candide as the leader and Cacambo as merely a valet. This author also claimed, in this and other writings, to be opposed to colonialism and to elitist attitudes. It just shows how some some inborn privileges and prejudices are hard to overcome.
However, if Candide really had been the leader of the duo, it would help explain why their expeditions, as described by the French author, led to such continual misfortunes. The village scribe noted that not only was Candide not very strong, he was also not very alert. He seemed to always be speaking philosophical gibberish, while he stared off into every direction except where he was going.
It was just such a stoke of bad luck that had caused Cacambo and Candide’s boat to plummet down the waterfall that led them into the obscure valley of the last Muiscas. But it was a stroke of good luck that they survived the fall alive and intact.
As I believe I mentioned, visitors there were rare. Most of them floated in on the river that led from the waterfall; those who hadn’t immediately died from the fall didn’t live long thereafter. The few who did live stayed and married into the village.
Cacambo and Candide were the first outsiders to reach the village alive in more than a decade. As such, they were celebrated and honored.
But that was not why, as the French author wrote, they were supplied with “four young women who served their every need.”
According to the Muisca scribe’s account, these women were selected by all the women of the village on the basis of their strength, health, and beauty. They were the pride of Muisca womanhood, selected to receive a prize that all the village’s gold and silver could not buy—non-inbred seed.
The scribe (who wrote in Spanish, the Muiscas not having a written language) named and described each woman:
• Esperanza, widely known as the village’s best cook. Married to a crop-tender.
• Verdada, a skilled artisan and garment maker. Betrothed since childhood to a carpenter.
• Sabiduria, the apprentice to the village seeress who had foretold the visitors’ arrival. Officially pledged to a celibate life, but that was just a formality.
• Fuerza, a medicine woman and midwife in training; had witnessed many stillbirths and short infant lives, which she concluded were the result of poor breeding stock. Betrothed since childhood to a herdsman.
The visitors, particularly the shorter one, seemed to care little about the women’s stories. Candide enjoyed the frequent sexual congress with each of them, but insisted out loud that he would only love one woman in his life, a woman he had apparently left behind somewhere along his travels.
It was for the love of this woman that Candide said he would have to leave the village and resume his adventures. Cacambo had to come along, simply to keep Candide from inadvertently killing himself along the way. The women pleaded that the only way out of the village was too treacherous and that their new lives were here, to no avail.
The villagers sent the bulk of the Muiscas’ coins, jewels, and trinkets (goods of no use to the villagers) with the visitors, laden on the backs of some aging pack sheep to travel down the pass that was the only way out of the village.
The scribe wrote that Sabiduria, the apprentice seeress, related a vision of the pack sheep either stumbling to their deaths down the mountain trail or lying down dead from their age and their burdens. As far as the scribe wrote, Sabiduria did not foresee the fates of Cacambo or Candide.
The men had been in the village only one month. Not enough time to see if their seed had taken. The scribe wrote that Verdada did give birth to a healthy daughter who had Cacambo’s features.
Nothing is known about that girl’s destiny, or those of her mother and her compatriots. A little more is known about the Muisca village’s destiny as a whole.
In 1763, four years after the book relating Candide’s journey appeared in Europe, mercenary explorers finally found and subdued the last Muiscas. Their village had outlasted the fall of the rest of their nation by two centuries. Those villagers who were not too old to work were enslaved onto plantations, to spend the rest of their days cultivating other people’s gardens.
Rick Anderson was not having a good day. He had been abruptly awoken this morning by his alarm clock screaming out the local weather forecast and interrupting a spectacular dream involving flying, Christmas lights, and that sexy, popular actress. The water pressure in his shower kept cutting out intermittently so that every time he stepped closer to the shower head he was pelted with water. When he was getting dressed he discovered that his shirt had a tear in the seam, leaving a gaping hole where everyone could see his side. Rick had looked frantically for another suitable shirt to wear to work but couldn’t find one and now he was stuck wearing a stupid blue shirt with a dinosaur emblem on the pocket.
He had looked morosely at his reflection in the mirror. He always wore the same uniform to work – long sleeved black shirt and black pants – and now he was stuck wearing this monstrosity. He only hoped it didn’t cause him any trouble. It was important in his line of business to not stand out and to blend in. And now he had this silly dinosaur on his chest. But that wasn’t the worst of his morning; his day was just beginning.
Rick stared at the entrance to the bank, watching customers enter and exit out the front door. The cab ride over to the bank seemed to have taken forever and he wandered again if he should have driven his own car today. But no, Rick never drove his car to work. He preferred to take a taxi or the public transportation. It made it easier to mix into the crowd at the end of a long day, to become just another faceless rat in the race.
Rick looked at his watch and observed as the security guard ambled outside and lit a cigarette. “Right on time,” he thought. He knew that it would take the guard approximately six minutes to smoke his cigarette and check his email on his phone. Maybe a minute or two longer if the guard had an email or text message to reply to, but Rick didn’t want to count on that. He squared his shoulders, took a breath, and stepped off the curb.
“You can do this. You’re the man. You don’t take crap from nobody,” he chanted to himself as he crossed the street and pulled open the door to the bank. He stepped inside, pulled down the brim on his hat, and stuffed his hands in his pockets as the quietness of the bank contrasted sharply with the downtown noise coming from outside. He glanced around the bank lobby as he walked in, taking notice of the few customers and smiling to himself as he realized nothing had changed since he had been at the bank last week. He scanned the bank tellers, looking for one that looked approachable, looking for the one that would help him today. And then he saw her.
She was standing at her teller window, neat and orderly behind the glass. Rick estimated that she was in her early twenties, or perhaps even late teens (if he was lucky). It was clear that she was dressed in her best business casual, trying to make a good impression on her customers at her first real job. Her nametag sparkled under the lights and Rick thought that her name was Lucy. Rick walked up to her and smiled.
“Hi!” she exclaimed. “How can I help you today?”
Rick brought his hand up and slid the note that had been in his pocket across the table to the teller. He had written the note last night, antagonizing over each word, wanting to make sure he got it right. He wanted to be firm, but polite. He wanted the bank to know that he was serious and he meant business.
The teller opened up the note and read it. Her eyes grew large as she slowly raised her head and looked at Rick. He nodded at her.
“Get to it,” he said softly.
Rick had never robbed a bank before. It was his first time, I guess you could say. He usually stuck to robbing liquor stores and gas stations; places off the beaten path but close enough that he could disappear into a crowd when the timing was right. That was Rick’s modus operandi. He would plan his heists around the crowds and what was going on outside the places he robbed. The bigger the commotion, the easier it was for Rick to get away. Ask any of Rick’s friends and they’ll tell you that his finest job was when he robbed a gas station and then snuck into the parade that was taking place a couple of streets over. Rick found it easy to blend into the crowd and had been using that trick for a while now. He hoped that it would work on a bank job as well as it did at gas stations and liquor stores.
See, the landlord had just raised the rent on his apartment and, even though the water pressure was on the fritz and Rick could probably ask for a reduction in his rent, Rick needed to make more money than what he was taking in from his regular robberies. When he took into account the increasing oil prices, which meant that people didn’t spend as much at the gas station as they used to, combined with customers using their debit or credit cards more, the cash just wasn’t there. So Rick had decided to go straight to the source – the bank. If he was lucky, he would make enough money in this one job so he wouldn’t have to work for a few months.
Rick didn’t have what you would call a real job. He considered his robberies his job. It wasn’t that he was lazy. In fact, you had to run pretty fast to get away from some of those store owners. Sometimes those guys had their own guns! So Rick ran every day to keep in physical shape and played Sudoku and Mine Sweeper to keep his mind sharp. He wasn’t lazy, it was just no one was hiring in his field of study and he only turned to thievery because he couldn’t find a legitimate job. Who would have ever guessed that there would not be a market for blacksmiths? Rick had to pay his bills somehow, which led him to his current situation.
The teller was still staring at Rick.
“I said, get to it,” he whispered. He pulled his other hand slightly out of his pocket, enough so that the teller could see the handle of his gun. “Don’t hit the panic button. Don’t look nervous. Just fill the bag with money. And none of those dye packs either.”
Rick kept an eye on the clock hanging on the wall. He needed to be done and out of the bank before the guard outside had finished his cigarette. The teller was thrusting the money in the bag, not caring that some of the bills were getting smashed and crinkled.
Rick grabbed the bag of money from the teller and walked towards the door. He wanted to run out of the bank at top speed but knew the key to pulling off this heist was to act natural, so he slowed his walk and continued on his way. The door loomed in front of him and he thought “I did it.” The guard was typing something on his phone as Rick slipped out the door and made his way down the street towards the bus stop.
The stop was crowded, which Rick knew was a good thing. He maneuvered his way into the middle of the crowd and stood with his head down, waiting for the bus. It pulled up, just a couple moments later and the crowd surged towards the open door.
Rick was jostled and pushed as the group tried to get on the bus. He felt an elbow slam into his side and he fell against the person standing to his right, causing him to lose his grip on his bag of money. The bag tumbled to the ground and fell open, money sliding across the sidewalk. Rick hastily bent down and tried to scoop up the cash, but it was too late and the other bus riders already had it in their hands, exclaiming over their good fortune. He heard the pounding of feet on the pavement and looked up, right into the sneering face of the bank security guard.
“You there! In the dinosaur shirt. Put your hands up and don’t move.”
No, Rick was not having a good day.
Muddled Memories – Tom Gaffney
“So good to be home. Finally. To finally be here with you all. It has been so long. I was afraid I’d never be back. I always loved this kitchen, so many good memories.”
Sarah stared at the clock. Again. Looking so often that it never moved. Home indeed, with you two. What fine examples we are. And this kitchen. Yellow, with linoleum that cannot be forgiven, even in the context of its early seventies installation.
“Just coming up the road. The trees shimmering in the summer heat. The racket of the cicadas. The blues skies aching for some clouds and a thunderstorm. Afternoon drinks, barbecues. All the times we had. Do you remember the first time you brought me home to meet your folks? I was so nervous. The stern looks your dad would give me. Do you remember sitting with me on the bench in the backyard? Walking with me down to the lake in the moonlight?”
Michael eyed Sarah anxiously. He was not sure how much more of this he could take, let alone her. He squirmed with agitation every time his Father opened his mouth. He stared at the clock too. Time crawled. These afternoons rarely moved quickly, but this afternoon it felt like time had stopped.
“Those were the times. The times of our lives. So sweet. The smell of the field din the summertime. The crickets at night. The heavy heat of the day still lingering as lay on the blanket down near the water. The rushes swishing in the breeze, you are lying close to me.”
“Dad, this is Sarah, your daughter in law sitting here, not Mom,” Michael admonished. “Dad, you are sitting in my kitchen, here in Seattle. This is not Minnesota in 1960, its Seattle, the 21st century.”
Dad paused, still for a moment. A cloud seemed to pass his face. He seemed to reset, if not rejoin fully, the two people he was sitting with at the table. The periods of confusion were worsening, coming more frequently. At least there was no agitation, and however far away his mind took him from where he was, at least he seemed happy. Happy, and talking to his son’s longtime girlfriend, partner really, someone he had known for years, as if she were my Mom, his wife, a woman whose heart he broke years ago and had no contact with him for the better part of two decades.
“Well, anyway, it sure is good to be home.” he said. “Any chance we could have a cocktail? Seems likes its happy hour to me,” winking at Sarah. “How about a martini?”
Sarah took her eyes from the clock. Looked at Michael, plaintively, reflecting a patience that was strong but growing weary. She longed for something to break the stillness that had settled on the room.
“Dad, you haven’t had a drink in fifteen years. You had to stop, do you remember? No more martinis.”
And he could not have sugar either. And now his meds and diet had been updated, because of his kidneys. He needs some kind of treat.
“How about some cookies Lou?” Sarah chimed. “They’re delicious. Just got them today?”
Delicious might be a little strong. But the vegan cookies at the natural foods store had been making strides.
“Well, a cookie isn’t a martini. And I am sure they aren’t as sweet as you. But that sure would be nice, honey” he replied with big moon eyes.
Lou definitely has something going on today. Perhaps they’ve got him on some hormones? He’s dreaming of getting lucky tonight – that’s obvious. I’ve gotten used to the rambling. But he does not usually talk about his memories so much. It is hard seeing his confusion. A man with his flaws, a lack of self-awareness, but no meanness, really that I know of.
At least he thinks he is in a happy place, not this disturbing kitchen that looks like a psychedelic nightmare. Perhaps the colors in here are doing something to him?
“If I can’t have a martini, how about a cup of coffee? Something to go with a cookie.”
“Sure thing, Lou.”
She rose from the table. Retrieved the cookies, started making the coffee. Lou watched her every move. She could fee his gaze. Michael was tiring, no surprise. His eyes stared out the window, or checked the clock repeatedly, hoping it would be time to return Lou to the home soon. Still a while to go.
I wonder what he thinks to himself in quiet times. When he is coherent. Does he think about how things came apart for him and Mom? All the mistakes he made? The years that he was not interested in being a part of my life? He looks at Sarah and goes back in time, but never a word about all those years that I do not know what he was doing, who he was with. None of that seems to come to the surface. Even now, the only trigger he’s got is a woman’s presence, her smile, her prettiness. Ugh, even if it is his daughter in law.
“Yep, those were some mighty fine times. No place like then. The corn in the fields. The open space instead of the country. All of these people, none of them from here – all from somewhere else, crowding us in. People not like you and me.”
“Dad, we’re in Seattle. Seattle, Dad. Do you know where you are?”
He does not seem to hear Michael. He chews the cookie deliberately, his eyes following Sarah as she grinds the beans.
“Here, let me help.”
Rising, he joins her at the counter. Michael’s gaze returns to the clock. How much longer? This afternoon has been an eternity. How many visits like this can we take?
Lou grabs the coffee pot, starts filling it with water. The memory might not be steady, but his hands still are.
“I know you remember that night at the lake. How could you not? You told me it was your first time. I know it was not the way you wanted it to be. I’m sorry I forced things. But we did alright. Didn’t we? You forgave old Lou. And look at the times we did have. So many good times. Sweet times. But that night, I’ll never forget. I know you won’t.”
Lou reaches out and pats Sarah on the behind, leans to kiss her ear.
Sarah jumps, recoils.
Michael rises from the table.
The coffee pot falls. Shards of glass and drops of water fly and spread across the tattered psychedelic linoleum.
“Time to go home Dad. You can have dinner at the retirement center.”
Andrea stepped into the circle, rubbing her sweaty palms nervously against her jeans. She was late – had miscalculated the time her bus ride would take – and was flushed and breathing hard from running up the stairs to the studio, two at a time. Glancing around the room she regretted the second-hand bowling shoes on her feet. Other women were wearing heels, some of them very fancy, probably made especially for ballroom dancing. The used bowling shoes had been Rebecca’s idea.
“You can get them at Goodwill, they’ve always got tons of them. Two bucks, tops. And perfect for dancing because they have those slick bottoms. You’ll see – everyone wears them at dance class.”
Maybe at the GRRRLS swing dance class, but here in Intro to Tango, only Andrea had bowling shoes.
“Ladies, turn to the gentleman on your left, and introduce yourself.”
Andrea turned to the guy next to her in the circle. He was short, maybe two inches shorter than Andrea, and the top three buttons of his shirt were open. Some scraggly chest hairs peeked out at her. He held out his hand.
It hadn’t occurred to Andrea when she had registered for the class that she’d have to touch strangers. At least not a stranger like this. She’d imagined a tall, handsome man who would seem immediately familiar. In her mind he’d looked quite a lot like Rebecca’s brother, Jackson. And he’d already be an excellent dancer. She’d dreamed of beautiful, effortless waltzes. In fact, she’d intended to sign up for waltzing, but there were no waltz classes, so she had ended up in tango.
“My name’s Jerry. Nice shoes.”
Andrea knew she was supposed to say her name, too, but she wasn’t sure how to take the comment about her shoes and the teacher started talking again before she could devise an appropriate response.
“Tango is all about intuiting the next movement of your partner. Being totally in synch with each other. Ladies, your gentleman is imparting all of the information you need to know with his chest. His hands, his arms, his feet and legs will give you hints, but his chest is where you must focus.”
Andrea looked at Jerry’s chest. She thought that maybe he should button up his shirt, but before she could figure out how to casually suggest it, there were more instructions.
“For this first lesson, we will not touch with our hands or our arms.”
Andrea breathed a sigh of relief.
“Our sole point of contact will be our chests.”
Jerry took an awkward step toward her.
“Keep your arms and hands out of the way, shoulders back, only chests touching. Eye contact is helpful. Gentleman, face into the circle. Ladies, face your partner. Gentleman, walk backwards, three small steps, and Ladies keep your chests glued to his. Move when he moves, stop when he stops.”
Should she leave? Could she live through this? What would be more embarrassing, pressing her chest up against Jerry’s or running out of the room? Where had she put her coat?
The music started.
Andrea couldn’t see her coat among all of the coats draped over chairs, or her purse. She swallowed. If she ran out of the room without coat or purse, she’d be frozen and have no way to get home. Jerry looked nervously at her – she could imagine the panicked expression on her face. She swallowed again and stepped up to Jerry.
“This is going to be fun, huh?” He wasn’t very convincing.
Andrea took another step forward and now her sweater was definitely touching Jerry’s unbuttoned shirt. She wondered if he might be a criminal. She closed her eyes and hoped for the best.
The music was slow, just like the tango music you hear in movies. Jerry took a step back, and Andrea followed him. He took another step. His breath smelled of garlic and cinnamon gum. Andrea tried not breathe through her nose. She dutifully kept her sweater in contact with his shirt, but just barely. She could see the couple next to them, a tall older guy with a middle-aged woman in stilettos. Staring deeply into each other’s eyes, her bosom pressed with gusto into his mid-section. Jerry took another step. Andrea followed.
“Now gentleman, take a step toward your partner. Three steps forward, back to your original position.”
Jerry moved toward her and, before she could stop herself, Andrea backed a foot away.
“Chests together, please! Ladies, intuit the movement of your gentleman, but don’t let space get between you.”
Jerry looked pained. Andrea inched back up to him. Sweater touching shirt buttons again.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“No problem,” he whispered back and grinned. Andrea decided he had a creepy smile, but she stayed with him as he stepped toward her. She could see the clock over his shoulder. Only 11 minutes into the class. 49 to go.
“Very good, very good. Alright, switch partners, please.”
Jerry made a queer little bow to Andrea, and she moved to the tall man next to her, but his partner wasn’t leaving.
“We’re a couple.”
Andrea wasn’t sure what that meant and stared dumbly at the woman in the stilettos.
“I think we’re supposed to switch partners,” Andrea finally got out, “the teacher said to switch.”
“I know, dear, but we’re a couple and we’re staying together for the whole class. Cute shoes!”
Andrea was pretty sure that was cheating, and wondered if it would be helpful to point out the considerable age difference between the two and conjecture on just how happy the middle-aged woman would be ten years from now when her old guy would most certainly be out of the tango business, but instead she shrugged and moved on around the circle.
Maybe he was about to die already and his girlfriend wanted to spend every last minute with him.
The next guy was wearing a sweatshirt that said My Native Language is C++.
“Dancers? Alright, same exercise, three steps out, three steps in. Chest-on-chest, please.”
Andrea was kind of getting the hang of this. She’d said her name, like a normal person, and had been able to ignore the dumb joke on Max’s shirt. He smelled like tic tacs. She liked tic tacs.
He looked down at the red/green green/red shoes on her feet. She pushed her breasts forward and his eyes came back up.
The music started, and she pressed her chest against his.
If she came to the next class, and she was beginning to think she might, she’d buy some better shoes.
First Christmas Away
Cylvia sat at the bar directly within eyeshot of Gate 28 in the Boeing
Corridor at the airport. She had arrived early in anticipation of leaving
the country for the first time ever and was having an eggnog spiced with the
bartenders suggestion of 151 proof rum. A bite to eat, a couple of drinks and
then a sleeping pill just prior to boarding the plane for the long flight south to
Central America. The planning was deliciously in the details.
Last year at this moment she was hosting the Christmas Eve party, as she had
every year for her family neighbors and friends. The house was decorated the
same as her mother had decorated it, she and her husband and young family
had grown up in this house, buying it from her siblings shortly after both of their
parents had passed away.
Each year her mother had put up the same holiday decorations, always
the“angel hair” on the mantel which was a wispy like dreamy soft cream fiber
that flowing across it. The amber votive candles would nestle in the softness,
glowing around the alabaster sculpted Madonna. Her mother had decorated the
tree each year with red and gold ornaments, tied only with red grosgrain ribbon.
She did the same. Everything was just the same year after year, the tree in the
same place with the same star topper, the wreaths both on the inside and
outside of both the front and back doors.
For Christ’s sake she used the same God damned three tiered poinsettia
dessert tray with the same GD holiday treats of fudge and peanut brittle.
Even the recipes were her mother’s. Enough !!
Ever since her 50th birthday, she truly didn’t feel the obligation to make this
whole Christmas facade work for everyone but her. She was the one cooking,
decorating, shopping like it was a chore, making payments to credit cards well
into the new year.
She announced to her friends and family last year that they should take a video
of the festivities on this, the last Christmas eve at her house. She would be
traveling next year at this time.
She investigated numerous websites but when she received the big glossy
magazine like brochure from The Rode Across bike company, she poured over
it. There was something about receiving it via snail mail, the hand addressed
dusty aqua and coral envelope, good looking logo, cute muscular tour guides &
van drivers. The pictures were amazing! The healthy riders having a glass of
wine at a goat cheese farm road side. Toucans in trees as the bike riders passed
the lush jungle. Poolside at the four star hotels with spas and impressive
menus. Not only were the beaches vast but the ride would take them to both
the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This was it, Costa Rica, the tour ending and
beginning in San Jose. She thought maybe she would take an extra week there
after the trip and after seeing the plane fare dip a bit she booked her first
Christmas away . Ever
She didn’t think her family believed her about being gone for the holidays until
she began taking Spanish lessons in February from Jorge.
In April she joined a cross fit gym to train for the trip and ended up joining a bike
club that had all sorts of local trips.
Cylvia worked up to a five day tour of the San Juan Islands that included riding
from Seattle to the Annacortes ferry. She logged over 270 miles and was
in the best shape ever as the summer drew to a close and to
just to keep in shape she was back to the gym. She counted down the days,
feeling a freedom she had never known at this time of year.
Finally the day had come, Christmas Eve, at the airport bar, she
ordered a chicken caesar salad, which was quite good served with crusty
Grand Central bakery bread and she ordered a glass of dry white wine.
She really had planned everything perfectly.
Just as she finished the last bit of bread the speaker mumbled much too loudly
“Flight 2223 to San Jose now boarding first class passengers and ”
parents with small children”. There were the usual frenzied people with
wrapped presents bursting out of their carry-ons, children were screaming for
sleep at this time of night.
She felt for the two sleeping pills in the side pocket of her purse and polished
them off with the last bit of her second glass of wine. She waited for the line to
dwindle and then ceremoniously strode down the gangway. Just one stop in
Dallas, refuel no need to deplane and then off to Central America.
Soon they were ready for takeoff as she settled into her seat over the wing.
She was solo in her row of three seats and when she asked the flight attendant
for a pillow and blanket both were quickly retrieved and delivered with a smile.
She felt the plane back away from the gate and roar for the impending take off
as the pilot came over the speaker talking about the maximum elevation, what
time we would land and what the weather was like in San Jose California.
by Josh Hicks
Martin Murray could not turn off the television by himself. He could inflict vicious damage upon a city official of questionable ethics, spend hours trolling the streets and internet for newsworthy information and unearth the eloquence of a panhandler abandoned by his community with the skill of a seasoned professional. But, right now, he could not move his hand to silence big Steve Wilko from expounding on punishment in the afterlife for child molesters. Even the doorbell, and Martin’s old friend David Lithgow’s finger behind it, didn’t provide the needed push. His mother’s hen-like entreaty to please get the door Maaarrrtiiin finally propelled him in a stagger from the couch, through the Christmas tree smelling living room and to the front door. He opened it and noticed David’s eyes dart quickly to his hairline, make a comparative assessment, then dart back with satisfaction.
“Hey Marty,” David smiled. Martin returned the greeting and the two embraced with violent thumps to each other’s backs.
David wove through the comforting grid of the old neighborhood. Martin sat in the passenger seat, squinting against the white, backlit clouds and the beginning of the heachache. They had not seen each other for two years. For a decade brief lunches, emails and irregular Christmas cards had been the only additions to the repository of memory that formed the basis of their friendship. Facebook provided at least the impression both wanted to leave with the world and could spur starters like “So how’s Denver?” A year ago David’s wife had used the social network to out his affair to the world. His online persona, the accomplished pastor with a beautiful family, had never quite recovered. But Martin knew David lived in Portland and David knew Martin lived in Denver and that was enough for a few minutes of comfortable conversation.
“So how long are you home?”
“Leave the second.”
“How’s the job?”
“Pretty much full of malaise right now. Don’t care about anything.”
“That bad huh?”
“Print is dead. How’s your flock?”
“They’re flocking. Most of them are very old. I think I’ve managed to make a few of them fear for my soul.”
“We’ll see. Maggie wants me to.”
“And that’s that, pretty much.”
“I’m still not in much of a position to negotiate.”
“So you got hold of Christian?”
“Hence the sword.”
“Holy shit David, you have a sword in your backseat.”
“I remember you guys both collected swords and were sort of competitive about it.”
“Yes we did and yes we were.”
“A sword competition.”
“Freud would have absolutely nothing to say about that.”
“Nothing at all.”
“Wait, is that the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword?”
“That is the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword.”
“And you’re giving it back after twenty years. Awesome. Are you worried about driving around with a weapon in your backseat?”
“Uh. Huh. Maybe. I suppose if I were paranoid I’d have it in the trunk.”
“Whatever. Surprised you actually got in touch with Christian.”
“Yeah, he’s around. Even working.”
“Wow. Been a while. Where?”
“You know, I asked and I’m still not sure. He said something about insurance, then he got really caught up in telling me about Shoghi Effendi and becoming a being of light.”
“Caught up in who and a what?”
“I really don’t know, but he was excited about it.”
Martin looked out the window at the houses of his old neighborhood. He thought how little houses seem to age. People sag and gray and recede, but neighborhoods are torn down and replaced before age has opportunity to show itself. A coat of paint, a new addition or two, then demolition. Everything changes, but nothing is allowed to change. He wasn’t sure how many years since he had seen Christian.
Appropriate to his name, Christian had been a miracle in high school. He was a brilliant student, spurring a competitive edge in David that propelled him all the way to Yale. Christian the boy inspired reactions like that. He was accomplished, buoyantly optimistic, decent of heart and exceedingly popular with adults and peers. Some of the former worried when he decided to pursue music at Berkeley: there were expectations of political office, medical or scientific discovery, a judgeship, all the things adults of middling accomplishment expect of an impressive young person they do not know at all.
Instead, there was a single semester of guitar picking, composition inspired by early Pink Floyd and subsequent drift among the bleeding hearts and artists of San Francisco. There were periods of stability, jobs in offices and music stores, some vague academic pursuits accompanied by proud announcements of “going back to school.” These would last a couple months and dissipate. There were religious fascinations and participations that came in uncomfortable waves. There were women, of course, many of them. There was a slowly emerging awareness that the libations of youth were becoming the addictions of adulthood.
Then there was silence. Years of it. A sighting on a street corner with yellow beard and vodka bottle, angrily stating to anyone who passed, “I don’t have a million dollars so I’m not going to give you a million dollars!” But recently a Facebook persona had emerged from the virtual ether and some version of Christian cautiously re-entered his old circle of friends, speaking coherently again with a gentle optimism familiar and frustratingly innocent. They took him back. Christian the man inspired reactions like that.
Martin and David drove in silence for a while, the conversational well already running low. The plan was to pick up Lucas at the bank and meet Christian at Poncho & Lefty’s. Then lunch. Then goodbye and Christmas and the plane back to Denver and that would be that, until next year, maybe. David drove through a long stretch of small storefronts, Mexican restaurants, Walgreens, pawn shops and fading community murals. Martin watched poor souls dressed as mattresses waving signs on street corners. Aluminum sided houses and chain-link fences peeked out from behind the depressed commercial zoning. Bored, Martin decided to dive in.
“So how are you and Maggie…”
“Good. I mean fine. I mean we’re working on it. We talk about everything.”
“Sounds OK I guess.”
“No. Yes. It’s good. It’s good. It’s just…we talk about everything. Something bothers her, we talk about it. Something bothers me…it’s like a constant wrestling match.”
“Well, it’s better than not.”
“Prevents shit from coming out later.”
“That’s the idea. I mean before we were storing up…I was storing up so much there wasn’t room for anything else and I was just unhappy all the time.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Yes Martin, I’m evolving.”
“Becoming one with yourself?”
“Well, yes, when I’m not getting laid.”
“Heh. Lots of growing then.”
“Yes, too, too much. Are you becoming one with yourself too Marty?”
“No, I get laid too much for that.”
They pulled into a parking lot on the momentum of regression. Lucas Price emerged from the bunker-like structure of the bank, a gut, new since David and Marty last saw him, highlighted by a Christmas tie. The remains of his hairline gave comfort to both of them.
“Hey guys,” Lucas smiled as the three friends converged in the middle of the parking lot. The wind was picking up, and the empty lot offered no shield from the chill. Someone was yelling in Spanish. Hugs, violent thumps and pleasantries were exchanged as the group piled into David’s car and drove off. A mile away, Christian was washing his hands. As reddened water rushed into the drain, he remembered the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword and smiled.
Lucas was complaining.
“So this dummy doesn’t understand why he has six overdraft fees. And I keep trying to explain he was out of money when he made the withdrawals. He was out of money. That’s it. But he didn’t want to hear that.”
“He didn’t want to hear it. This is my Christmas eve.”
“Did he leave eventually?”
“He didn’t have the money and he wants to blame everyone else for his problems. Sorry buddy.”
“Enjoying your job Lucas?”
“Sorry pal, that’s life. Holy shit, you know this song is twenty years old? Nirvana is classic rock. Fucking crazy.”
“My job’s fine.”
“How long have you been there now?”
“There? Six years. US Bank four years before that.”
“You always complained about US Bank.”
“Sterling’s not much better. I like the people I work with though. Except Mitzy. Or Ditzy as we call her. Me and my buddy Ben. He calls her a stupid bitch, which is sort of wrong. But you tell her how to do something and it just…I feel bad for her, but you tell her to do something and it’s like she doesn’t hear. I’m answering questions four times a day. I don’t know if she’s stupid or learning disability or…”
A five minute tirade against poor Ditzy and related topics followed and might have continued had David not pulled too quickly into the lot behind Pancho & Lefty’s.
“I mean not too many people actually come into the bank for services so the people who do are, well some of them are nice, but we get the loony tunes. Martin, how is it working in print?”
“Print is dead.”
“Yeah, all that stuff. But some people want the face-to-face, tangible thing because they can’t learn the online. Not that they’re stupid, but…holy shit, is that Christian?”
The others had already noticed.
Christian in a three-piece suit had not been seen in decades. But there he was. Leaning against a scuffed Chrysler suited like a secret agent, shaven, cigarette dangling, tiny glasses tinted against the white winter sun.
The familiar Cheshire grin beamed across the parking lot as the they exited the car and approached. Christian greeted each of his old friends separately, lingering with each embrace, not thumping.
They entered the restaurant and sat down at a small table. Periodically Latin Pop from a jukebox apparently operating on its own accord would invade the restaurant and their conversation would lapse for lack of effort. Only Christian competed with the music to fill the spaces. When his lunch was called and he left the table to claim it, everyone noticed but no one mentioned he had never ordered.
Lucas wanted to know about Christian’s car.
“It’s my mom’s car actually. I believe it’s a Chrysler Sebring.”
“I thought so. Those suck.”
“I would not say otherwise.”
“Those suck. My aunt had one. We had to put all her booze in the trunk because my dumbass cousin was court ordered into her custody and couldn’t be near alcohol.”
“Shitty trunk space.”
“Ah, Lucas, I believe we would say shitty “cargo capacity” on that particular model but, yes, that’s a problem.”
“Yes. Bad cargo capacity. That’s it. Shit car. So how are the kids David?””
“The kids are okay. Lindy has this vocal tic we’re a little worried about.”
“Tic, like what?”
“Like this chirping sound and a little hand movement. When I’m speaking in church I can hear this little ‘Eep. Eep.’ He’s getting some flack about it in school, which is sad.”
“That is sad. What the hell? Kid can’t help it.”
“Well, true, but the other kids can’t help being kids either. You just deal with it.”
“I guess so.”
“Oh my God man.” Christian asked about diagnostics.
“I mean tourette’s is one possibility but we don’t know.”
“Dude. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
David thanked Christian, mostly to break his intensive eye contact. Lucas and Martin followed Christian’s sentiment by nodding wordlessly. Only one of them, Lucas, had ever met Lindy. The conversation went quiet like the last drops of water emptying out of a sink. In the silence there was difference. One man reweaving the torn out strands of a damaged marriage. One distracting himself from boredom and the unlikelihood of its alleviation by drinking amounts better suited to the years when the four of them knew each other. One taking pleasure in boredom as an alternative to risk. And one with better stories than the rest, but an awareness that these were somehow inappropriate to share with people who had learned to measure and label what they had once, drunkenly, thought of as grist-for-the-mill experience. But Martin, as befitted his profession, wanted to know things.
“So do you celebrate Christmas Christian?”
For David, the question triggered anger and a list of grievances previously forgotten. He looked at Martin, who kept eye contact with Christian but sensed David’s gaze and its implicit question: why dive into that hole? You know what’s down there. Why bring it to the surface? But Martin liked questions.
Christian’s voice was calm, but the calm was defensive.
“Religious reasons? Non-religious reasons?”
“I guess for all intents and purposes religious reasons.”
“Jewish? Buddhist? Hindu? Whatever so long as it’s different from the last time we saw you?”
Lucas gave a quiet release of air that was probably the stifling of a laugh. Here was a familiar meanness. It had helped define the boundaries of their dynamic when they were young, and the reasons they all rushed in separate directions when that dynamic crumbled.
Martin had had a good deal to drink before David picked him up. Now he wanted more but couldn’t in this company without answering instead of asking questions. He wanted to tell everyone that they were older now and had grown up and apart and that this reunion need not have happened. So he asked questions. And Christian answered honestly according to his own reality. He had no capacity to do otherwise.
“No, not Jewish, not Buddhist, not Hindu. Not whatever.”
“So what are you into? Tell us who are you following? You have to have some stories.”
“You want stories?”
“You always have some crazy shit to tell us.”
“Well, I’ve taken an interest in the Bahai Faith lately.”
“What the fuck is that?”
“It’s basically the idea that God reveals His Will periodically in history through divine messengers. Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad. Most recently the Bab and Baha u llah.”
“Well, I kind of identify with Elvis as a, uh, revered but misunderstood soul, so sure.”
“That’s the scripture.”
“I know where this is going. You’re a divine messenger now, aren’t you?”
“Well, uh, maybe. Maybe I am. I mean, I’m not really part of prophecy, but I think, yeah, I feel the spark of divinity in myself.”
“That’s good.” David wanted to change the subject.
“The spark of divinity as in everybody has a spark of divinity and so do you? Or as in you’re special?” Martin didn’t.
“Well, I feel I’m special in some ways.”
“Well, the Bahai Faith teaches us that God reveals His Word progressively, through the generations, for the purpose of a collective evolution that culminates in a reunion with the Divine. In this sense we can see other religions as precursor faiths. No offence David.”
“Whatever, whatever. What ways?”
“Well, I feel like I’m spoken to.”
“No. Yes. Yes actually.”
“You get messages directly from God?”
“I feel I do, yes.”
“Why are you so lucky dude? I can’t get a call back from the Denver DOT and some homeless guy gets to talk to God?”
Another half-censored laugh from Lucas, this one less discreet. Christian didn’t answer. He looked at his hands and saw a sliver of darkening red under his thumbnail. A thin scar peeked out from under his sleeve. It was attached to a hidden explosion of identical scars teeming across his forearm like a school of fish.
“Just…” Christian’s eyes glassed with water. “…keep an open mind.”
Martin didn’t say anything. David’s eyes were hot on his temple. There was a feeling like a foot slipping from a ledge. Martin smiled.
“Hey, do you guys have Spotify? I think it’s great. It’s better than Pandora. But it slows my computer down. Do you guys get that? My computer’s a piece of shit anyway. This asshole at Best Buy was saying…” Lucas had no difficulty changing the subject.
Lunch was over. They had returned to the bank to drop off Lucas, Christian following David in the Chrysler. Now they stood in a circle in the parking lot surrounded by black crows, white clouds, wind and cement. Christian held the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword like a precious heirloom.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Some meditating. Then some work to do.”
“You’re working on Christmas? Tell me again what you’re doing exactly.”
“Insurance, like I said, whatever’s available. What about you David?”
“We’ll do the morning with the kids at our place then go over to Maggie’s dad’s.”
“Me and Terry are spending tonight at my parents. My sister and Ken are in town, so there’s all the kids. He’s a douche.”
“Probably start drinking in the morning to get ready for my sister getting depressed and the fight at dinner where she starts throwing food and knocks over the tree. Maybe not this year, but it’s a solid tradition.”
No one said anything until Christian gave a deep laugh that echoed across the parking lot and ricocheted off houses and storefronts. “Seems like another boring Christmas.”
“Seems.” Martin smirked.
Suddenly aware that he was holding a potentially lethal weapon in public, Christian moved to put the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword in his backseat. Then he paused, thought better of it. He dug a set of keys from his pocket and opened the trunk.
Larry Milfred stared up at the group. His gaze caught them at an awkward angle. His head and neck were forced into a position that would have been uncomfortable had he been alive. This positioning was necessary for his body to fit into the inconveniently small trunk of the Christian’s mother’s Chrysler Sebring. Larry’s shirt front was dark with dried blood and small brown droplets blemished his distorted face.
The forced smiles that had served as the default expression of the group’s outing that afternoon did not fade or falter. They only became more forced. Christian laid the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword over Larry as if he were the corpse of an ancient knight and slammed the trunk shut.
“Well it was awesome to see you guys.” He smiled, with genuine warmth.
Again, Martin could not move by himself. He could smile and nod and lock his knees to stand. When the group decided to move, he would probably move with them. But, right now, he could only stand lamely like a weed poking through the cement, growth stunted by bad soil. David’s head shook just slightly from side to side. His eyes said he had left already, running back to Maggie and the kids. Lucas stared at the glass doors of the bank, wanting to be inside.
Christian suddenly seemed disappointed and a little angry. Martin realized he had been expecting farewell hugs. Someone had to say something.
“Yeah Christian. Good to see you too. Maybe again next year.”
The others murmured their goodbyes and Merry Christmases. They went their separate ways. No one knew about Martin’s father’s cancer or Lucas’s planned marriage proposal or the passionate love David felt for Maggie or why Larry or anyone else had to die. In the future, in isolated moments, all of them would care to know. As the years went on, those moments would stretch in scope and depth and race against the slow demolition of their bodies and lose.
The nether world between the International District, the Central District, and the northern Rainier Valley is normally a quiet place except for the dull roar of cars and buses. It’s not so much a place as it is a place between other places. After dark, it’s lonelier. When even the cars aren’t running, it’s lonelier still. One could go into a meditative trance there, if it weren’t so cold that night; though I wouldn’t recommend it.
But that’s essentially what I did, at the bus stop in front of a way-closed Thai or FIlipino or Somali restaurant (I forget now what it was), as I waited to ride home from an alternative Christmas dinner. Or, more precisely, an alternative TO a Christmas dinner.
For the first time ever, it looked like there would be nothing for me to do on Dec. 25 except the usual hanging out alone at home stuff. I no longer had any family, at least none that wanted to spend any time with me. Of the bars and cafes I regularly patronized, only one or two would even be open part of the day. It looked like I might have to dine on bar potato chips for my “holiday feast.”
Then she emailed. She was back in town from Portland for just a few days. We’d tried to connect all week, but one thing or another had gotten in the way. Now she was free to receive me at the place where she was staying.
The family that owned the house was off on some holiday trek somewhere. So was she; here to meet her old friends and to get temporarily away from her current friends (and obligations).
I had not taken the #7 in exactly one year and two days, since the end of my last temp job. It took me past its regular attractions. It took me past the Morrison Hotel and the street hustlers hanging in front of it. It took me past the Chinese restaurants, now presumably feeding Seattle’s Jewish families this night. It dropped me off at the head of Rainier Avenue, by the Goodwill construction project.
I’d forgotten a couple of things about this house. I’d forgotten that it was up two rather steep blocks from Rainier. And I’d forgotten that, even though its back yard faces south, it’s actually on the north side of the street and behind another house.
A.M.G. was her usual kind, tender, graceful self. She apologized for being heavier than she wished she was (an attitude I’ve seen in far too many women). She introduced me to her friend Michelle who was up from Portland with her for the week. The big kitchen table was filled with A.M.G.’s artworks in progress, collages of old magazine ad images on parchment paper, slathered with successive coats of Elmer’s Glue-All.
A.M.G. insisted on making a meal for me. An organic burger baked in an artisanal bread bowl. Potato broccoli soup in a regular bowl. Gluten-free crackers. Spinach salad. Wheaten ale. Good hearty fare, and, thankfully, none of it “holiday” themed.
The three of us retired to the living room of the modernist house. Michelle (a Montissori teacher) took to the Mac, to look up antique armoires for sale. It just felt so completely utterly charming.
A.M.G., meanwhile, sat at the sofa and told me all about her plan to make sure she has a decent old age, in spite of having had no career other than making and teaching art. Her adult son was getting into a good career. She would buy him a house with a mother-in-law apartment for herself.
But for now, she said, she was living and working in an old industrial space in Northwest Portland. The way it was configured, there was a corridor to other spaces in the building that looked directly down on her space. She told me about the elaborate curtains she was going to make to prevent unwanted voyeurism.
She also talked about the man she was trying to woo, or would try to woo once she slimmed down. Either that, or he, or the desire for him, had motivated her to try to slim down. I only fully remember that it was getting late and I was getting weary.
So it was that, after several hours of their pleasant company, I bid adieu to Michelle and A.M.G.
Back at the northbound bus stop, I reflected in the cool, dark stillness about what Christmas, or at least this Christmas, was all about.
It was about connecting, commiserating.
It was about, at the darkest time of the year, being one another’s light.
And it was about Elmer’s Glue, armoires, and artisanal bread bowls.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Just the two of us. It was going to be a quiet morning, no guests, no relatives, and no kids.
There was no smoke when we left. Perhaps if I had been at home, if I had been the one to call it in.
Certainly, if I had not lost it, then I would not be looking at the kids from next door staring at me in the car.
Beth is standing there under her umbrella, looking at me, ashen. I cannot look back. Not yet.
We had not really planned on this quiet Christmas. Normally Beth’s sister comes with her family. It’s lovely. But that did not work out this year, even though we are in the new house. We had a lovely morning, quiet breakfast followed by a walk in the park. The rain is pouring down but the gray and the wet are like a relaxing blanket.
There was no hint of craziness when we left.
See, we have been in the house now for six months. It is so much better than our old place. Nicer house, good neighborhood, friends close by, close to the park. So much better except for the empty house across the street and George who is across the street and one house to the north. Not sure why he doesn’t like me. Very sensitive about his parking spot, but it’s not like he had to ask twice. I parked in front of his once. Once.
Then there he is, at the front door, yelling at me. Telling me he doesn’t like people like me. Whatever that means. He doesn’t even know me. Has barely acknowledged me or waved back on the street.
“People around here don’t take other folks parking spot,” he says.
The street was crowded that night, but not that crowded. I had not even thought about it. It isn’t like he owns the spot in front of his house. It isn’t like he came over to say hello when we moved in. We went over to say hi to him, but you could hardly say he was cordial. His mother was alright. At least she was polite.
It makes sense, I guess, that there are not latches on the inside of the rear doors of a police car. No way to unlock the door myself.
The cop indicated that I needed to calm down and then we would talk. No use in slinking down lower, every damn person on the block is looking in here at me.
As we walked home from the park we heard sirens. First came the fire, and then police. I had never noticed the difference until this morning.
All the action was at the house across the street from ours. Nobody lives there. There’s a “For Rent” sign up in the yard. You can tell nobody is working too hard on that though. It is dark. It does not look fully deserted but it is moving along in that process.
The place is kind of sketchy. The first time I saw someone there was over the summer. It looked like he was moving in. He had a van, kind of beat up, but so what? He pulled it around back. He was working there for three days or so, not long after we moved in. I went over and introduced myself one afternoon when he was cutting the grass. Offered the guy a beer and he took it. He didn’t offer much information, said he was working on cleaning the place up and that he would be back every so often until the place was rented. Fair enough I thought. We sat on the stoop and enjoyed our beers on a hot afternoon. I have not seen him since.
Well, that was the house on fire when we returned from the park. You could see flames inside and the firemen had obviously gone in, but then come back out. And there were a bunch of police. Talking to Jeff from down the street, he said that the firemen discovered a growing operation inside and that the fire seemed to be started by the fact that someone was stealing the electric: they had illegally hooked the house up to the grid.
So, we’re standing there watching the scene. “Merry Christmas” offered all around. It is quite the light show.
I see George talking to a cop. They walk up the street, and I can see George point at me and I hear him telling the cop that I know the guy who has been seen at the house. He says that we drink beer together out on the stoop.
My blood pressure begins to rise. I am so sick of this guy, this idiot who thinks he owns the neighborhood, that he owns his parking spot. And now this?
I go over and introduce myself to the cop, wish him and George a Happy Holiday.
George repeats to the cop that I am a friend of the owner of this criminal operation. The cop asks me if that is true.
I explain to the officer: yard work, summertime, a friendly offer of a beer. He seems to get it. But George, he keeps on it. My words get heated, and the next thing you know we are in each other’s face. And then George spits on me. Alright, he doesn’t spit on me, but his spit gets on me – you know what I mean. And I lose it. Push him real hard on the shoulders. George isn’t all that old, but he’s older than me. Down he goes, hits his head on a mailbox.
There you have it. Next thing I know I’m face down in the grass being handcuffed and the cop yelling at me to calm down. And Beth, and the neighbors, and the kids next door stand there and watch me lying in the grass getting wet.
For a moment I was relieved to be warm and dry in the car.
Preacher Perkins on the Mainline
The Right Reverend “Preacher” Perkins paced the short proscenium of the pulpit his swirling white robe exposing glimpses of sweat stains around the armpits and crotch of the red velvet jumpsuit. He strode purposefully, haranguing the festively dressed, Christmas morning worshipers.
Preacher Perkins channeled his heavenly Santa dressed in this seventies style tailor made suit complete with black patent leather boots and matching belt. The white cape enhanced his James Brown soul brother credibility. On cue, Deacon Brown would gather the cape from the floor where Preacher Perkins tossed it and reverently drape it around his shoulders at the end of an especially poignant exclamation.
The Reverend stopped dead in his Cuban heeled tracks as the front door of the church swung open as a young woman, blown in by a gust of frosty wind, the taste of snow cooling her path, bundled herself into the back pew. Preacher Perkins quickly brought the congregation back to attention as he swung into his main message. “Let me tell you what the Lord wanted me to share with you today.”
“Come on.” The congregation urged.
“In the club you hoot and holler but in the church you say Amen.”
“Amen,” they clapped and repeated in unison, “Amen, Amen, Amen.”
The Reverend Preacher Perkins worked them into a frenzy. “God gave me this revelation.” He high stepped to the rhythm as the corpulent drummer picked up the beat with his bass drum.
The microphone crackled. “G-O-D,” he says it again. “G-O-D,” emphasizing each letter like a song.
The congregation joined in the chant shouting encouragement to Preacher Perkins. “Come on, Come on.”
The guitar player soloed high piercing notes. The bass player thumped a fierce bass run. The choir joined in with the Curtis Mayfield refrain. “Amen. A –A- men, A-amen, Amen.”
Three church matrons dressed in matching red outfits traverse the aisles waving smoky frankincense joss sticks above their heads. The overhead lights dim and flashing Christmas lights strobe the dramatic tableau.
Preacher Perkins stops suddenly, quiets the band with a sharp wave of his hand and hushes the congregation with a series of sharp staccato claps. Everyone stops, perched on the edges of their pews breathing heavily except the girl at the back of the church who stands up slowly, dropping her coat to the floor and stares at the Right Reverend Perkins.
He whispers into the microphone “God hates the sin but loves the sinners.” He moves slowly down the center aisle towards the girl. “I said God hates the sin but loves the sinners.”
The drummer starts a slow, steady heartbeat. The girl moves towards him mesmerized. He fixes her with his eyes, holds out his arms to her and embraces her, pressing her face close to his he whispers so only she can hear, “Meet me in my office after the service.”
The band kicked into a rousing version of “Jesus on The Mainline.” The choir sang in harmony “Tell him what you want, Tell him what you want.” Preacher Perkins dismissing his flock, stood at the back of the church where he could easily see how much money each person dropped into the collection boxes, the last tithes of Christmas morning.
During the final frenzy of music and well wishes for a Merry Christmas Evealynn was able, she hoped unseen, to find her way to the Reverend’s office. She was tired and in the cozy inner sanctum dozed a while on the white leather sofa as she waited for him.
Her thoughts turned around her life these past few months of terrifying consequences. The spiral downward left her unable to control her various addictions. What was is that made her more depressed even as she took more and more of the pills prescribed by her state sanctioned doctors? She hadn’t worked in over a year now unless you count sitting in the bar until some dude paid her bar tab in exchange for a quick blowjob in the bathroom.
She woke up when she heard the Reverend tell someone in the hallway that he was going to close up and to get home before the snowstorm closed down the city.
”Well, well, who do we have here?” He sat down in the chair next to the sofa. “Did Tonya send you to me?”
“She said you could help me like you helped her and I didn’t have any other place to go and it’s Christmas and I …” The room was warm and as she sat up he reached over and helped her out of her coat and then her sweater exposing her breasts, his fingers gliding across her nipples.
“I’m going to save you, girl but first you have to help me.” He pulled her gently by the arms and pressed her face into his sweat damp crotch. She didn’t resist as he unbuckled the black patent leather belt and slid the oversized zipper down guiding her head gently into his promised land.
She expected no less. All men are the same; all men are equally guilty of wanting an easy release, especially when promising to help a poor girl down on her luck. These thoughts kept her busy during this routine excursion deepening her depression. After this I am going to need a good stiff drink. Glad I got those pills renewed. I wonder how long he will take. I hope he can put me up for the night. I’d hate to be out in that freezing mess. I don’t think I could take it. Tonya told me he would help me. Maybe I could stay here. Oh what am I going to do next? Why am I so fucked up? Thank god he’s gonna finish now. I need a drink bad.
“Well, well girl, you give mighty good head. What is your name anyway?”
“They call me Evealynn. Tonya told me to come here. She said you could help me. Where do you keep the whiskey?”
He pointed in the direction of his desk while only zipping up half way in anticipation of round two. “You’ll find some glasses and a bottle in the bottom drawer.”
She poured a couple of straight Courvoisier’s and brought it to him. She fished her bottle of pills from her coat pocket and took two Zanex as prescribed. She reached into the side pocket of her purse found a loose Vicodan and swallowed that too with a big gulp of brandy.
Preacher Perkins watched her with an amused expression. “You girls never cease to amaze me. You look so fragile but are the baddest dope addicts around. I’m always wondering how the Lord knew that you women just need a good man to tell you what to do. And this is the ministry the Lord put me in charge of, the management of wayward women.”
Evealynn waited for her own release, the dream like state of drug reduced depression. Soon she would almost feel good, almost human and soon she wouldn’t give a good goddamn what the future might bring.
“Girl, oh yes, I am going to save you. I am going to give you a place to live, food to eat and work of the Lord to do. I will be in charge of your drugs your alcohol and most importantly your body. Your body will be a temple of G-O-D, a temple to be used by men, good God-fearing men. You’ll start tonight. After I finish with you I’ll take you up to the house. Now praise God girl and get back over here we have some business to conduct, in the name of the Lord Jesus, you’re gonna take a ride on the Mainline.”