Monthly Archives: April 2013
I had a summer job on an oil tanker running up and down the East Coast and across the Gulf of Mexico to ports in Texas. This was 1980, after my first year of college, when I was eighteen. The ship was built in 1953, only eight years before I was launched, but it was considered old. The most prominent feature of its outdated design was the house amidships where the bridge and officers’ quarters were located. The other house, at the stern, containing the galley, the mess, and the crews’ quarters was built around the engine room which extended from deep in the bowels of the ship up to the top deck with the stack towering above. More modern tankers have on only one house at the stern, in part, because the house amidships weakens the structural integrity of the vessel. Evidently, this fault has, at some point, been graphically demonstrated, but I never learned the details.
The engines on a ship are always running and the whole ship, every bit of it, every bulkhead, every railing, and all the decks constantly thrum with the steady energy of diesel combustion. Even when at anchor or when tied up in port you constantly feel that rumble and, when underway, there is the added knowledge of that giant screw churning saltwater. Together, they combine to become part of your subconscious and your nervous system.
There were a handful of us summer workers under the direction of the bosun. We spent the mornings blasting the trestles supporting the cargo lines and that ran along the centerline of the ship about seven feet above the main deck and just under the cat walk between the two houses. We used heavy three-pronged hand-held pneumatic jackhammers to pulverize layers of paint and rust to get down to bare steel. The water in the air lines powering these little bastards blew out as mist and combined with the rust and old paint to create a paste that each day required thirty minutes in the shower scrubbing with Lava soap to remove from my face and arms. After lunch we applied red lead primer and then gray carbo-mastic paint. Aside from this smörgåsbord of toxicity, there was plenty of fresh air and sunshine.
Including the rarely seen captain, the first and second mates, the three quarter masters, the able bodied seamen, the ordinaries, the engineers, the cooks and mess men there were something over two dozen people in the crew. Officers wore white, cooks wore stained white, deckhands wore blue, engineers wore tan, and summer workers wore jeans and paint splattered shirts. The second mate, a mess steward, an AB, and one of the summer workers were women. There were two old salts who had been merchant marines on Liberty Ships in the Second World War. One of them told me that both times he got torpedoed he stopped getting paid from the time he got into a lifeboat until he was assigned and on board another ship.
I brought fourteen books with me when I boarded the Jersey Devil, but one of the first things I learned about the about sailors was that most of them were better read than me. Regular crew members worked four hour watches. For instance 8:00 to 12:00 in the morning and 8:00 to 12:00 at night. This leaves much time to fill. In the evenings I’d roam around the ship often going up to the bow to watch thunderstorms blow along the horizon. At times there were people in the mess playing, cards, cribbage or backgammon. But most of the time the passageways and the decks were like the sidewalks of an empty town. I assumed most of the crew were reading in their cabins.
Early in July, after I’d been aboard about five weeks, during a southbound leg, the Devil made a stop to lighter off at a refinery in Port Everglades, Florida. That evening I walked up a steep gangway and boarded a jitney with handful of regular crew, two other summer workers and the bosun. His name was Dick and he put up with his charges with bemused resignation. He rarely joined our banter, but I got the impression that, for him, the brand of bullshit we talked among ourselves was at least different from the crap he was used to. We were dropped off at a rough little joint typical of the customary solitary bars opposite the gates of every refinery I saw that summer.
One of the ordinaries called a cab and took off. The rest of us drank several pitchers and, while some of the others played pool, I kept fairly quiet and listened to Dick, the guy who’d been in lifeboats, and an AB named Bird talk about the time a year earlier when a guy on the ship had a heart attack during lunch and got lifted off the ship in a basket dangling from a helicopter. Dick said, “I heard her crack his ribs.” The old salt said, “She was the only one who stepped up.” Later, when they called a cab, I got up and stood outside with them. We piled in and Dick, in the front seat, turned around to regard me for a moment, but he didn’t say anything.
The three of them found stools at the next bar and none of them took notice of me until, standing behind them, I ordered what my dad usually drank. Johnny Walker Red on the rocks. Something shifted slightly, the beer part of the evening ended, and the four of us hit several more bars that night. I don’t remember much about the rest except that it got so late that it eventually started feeling early. Bird disappeared at some point, but I stuck close to the old salt and to Dick who was now shit-faced, but had learned my name. I, too, was really drunk, but the little man in my head knew I was OK as long as I stuck with the bosun. I kept him in sight and only hit the head when he did.
The eastern sky was gray when the three of us rolled out of a cab and, instead of another bar, as I expected, we were confronted by a steel wall draped with a cargo net. It took me a moment to glom onto the fact that this was the side of the, now, nearly empty tanker, with its deck high above us. The gangway was stowed and the Devil was ready to sail. We climbed the net and, once on deck, we each formally shook hands with the grinning Bird who sported lipstick on his left cheek.
As we headed into the Gulf, the next day’s hangover was spectacular under the intense heat and light of the nearest star. At break time, while we were drinking coffee on the poop deck outside the mess, a quartermaster came by and told me to keep my cabin clean and to make my bed. I hadn’t known until then that they checked these things. At mid-morning the mates came up the deck and talked to Dick. The chipping hammers chattered away. I wore a hat, headphone-type hearing protection, a dust mask, and partially fogged goggles but I could see them looking at me.
After lunch, Bird told me to report to Dick’s cabin. He was sitting at a little desk when he told me, “Talbot’s missing, so you’re going to sail ordinary.”
I didn’t know right then what that meant so I asked, “Who’s Talbot?”
“He’s the one got inna taxi at the first bar last night. You’ve got the twelve to four watch, so you paint, but you knock off at four instead of five and report to the quartermaster in the mess at midnight.”
“OK, what happened to Talbot?”
Dick said, “Don’t know, but he wasn’t on board when we sailed at five.”
At four, while we were slapping paint, Dick passed by on the catwalk above us, pointed his finger at me and jerked his thumb. I said, “Well, that’s enough of that shit” and took my brush and pail forward to the paint locker. As I passed by the rest of them Tex said, “Where the hell are you going?” I just shrugged.
It turned out my job from midnight to four was to clean the six heads and four shower rooms and swab what seemed a quarter mile of passageways in the crew section. The first couple of nights that took me nearly the whole watch, but I soon improved my time. The cool part was that I got to go up to the bridge and relieve the quartermaster from two to two thirty. Being up there in the dark with the mate, gripping binoculars while checking the radar screens and walking the wings, was some of the best time I’ve spent on this planet, especially on clear nights with a sky full of stars and glowing blue green phosphorus fizzing on the top of each wave and streaming out behind in the wake of the ship.
After we’d gone up the Houston Ship Channel, spent two days within sight of the San Jancinto Monument and spent a night in Nederland, we headed back across the Gulf en route to Puerto Rico. By then I had my shit together, and could get the cleaning finished before two, so I’d spent the last part of the watch on the empty poop deck with a cup of coffee and only the yellow deck lights for company.
Except, I started seeing this older engineer I hadn’t noticed before. The engineers were always pale, but this guy was really white. He had disheveled salt and pepper hair and a face full of stubble. Around three, he’d come aft along the rail from the port side with a coffee mug in his hand, look through the hatch into the mess and then head forward along the starboard rail. I’d nod to him and he’d nod back. One night he walked up to me and said, “Give this to Kate and tell her I said thanks.” He handed me a butterscotch candy in a gold wrapper.
As usual, I went to bed and slept until lunchtime. When I woke something was very different. The engines were running but the whirling whoosh of the screw had vanished. We were stopped dead. It was strange. I didn’t know this could happen. It got even weirder as I opened my porthole and stuck my head out. Coincidental to the lack of motion, the entire sea was flat and calm as a mirror. I’d never seen the sea without a ripple but there it was… dead calm to the horizon.
When I went up to eat I found out that we were ahead of schedule with no berth available at the refinery at Yabucoa. I was heading out of the mess with the summer crew when the ABs came in and sat down. The rest of them went forward and I went over to Kate, put the candy by her plate and delivered the message. The few people still eating and the mess steward turned and looked at me, but I didn’t think anything of it and went on out. All afternoon neither the Devil nor the ocean moved an inch.
That evening after dinner, we were still becalmed, and I went up to the bow to marvel at all that water which seemed to have become a solid mass without having frozen. Bird startled the hell out of me when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let me buy you a drink.” I followed him back to the old salt’s cabin which I’d never visited. It was close in there. Everyone had either booze in a coffee mug or a can of beer. There were seven others lined up shoulder to shoulder on the bunk, side by side on the desk, and on the up ended trashcan. They included the girl summer worker, the woman mess steward, and Kate who beheld the butterscotch pressed between the fingertips of both hands as they rested on her lap. Bird sat on the floor with his back to the door. I perched on one corner of the bunk by the old salt, in the only chair, with a bottle of Smirnoff and one of Johnny Red at his feet. He poured me a half mug of scotch and said, “Now, tell us who gave you the candy.”
It was one of those summer days in Seattle that makes you want to live here forever. A day when visitors to the Emerald City brag to their friends back home that they had visited paradise. This cloudless, rainless spell of eighty-degree days was in its fourth week. The normal cheerless population staggered in the unaccustomed warmth spreading rays of joy like terminally depressed inmates feeling the effects of too much Zanex.
Lounging in the deepening sunset three good friends sat discussing their conjoined future and how they are going to safe in this increasingly violent world.
“I’m glad we decided to have this talk about what we should do in case of a radical emergency, Ace.” Charly sat back against the leopard print butterfly chair, a full glass of Pinot Noir in her ring-bedecked fingers.
“Well, I have been thinking all spring that because of all the mayhem going on, I want to have at least one place to feel absolutely safe, especially after Boston. That shit was sick and twisted.”
The three friends always hung out at Ace’s house. Charlene AKA Charly actually lived across the street in this well-heeled Seattle Capitol Hill neighborhood.
“You’re right, you know. A whole city locked down. I can see that happening again.”
“Oh girl, he’s just been watching all of those episodes of Survivalists on the National Geo channel all year.” Bradley ignored the wine and continued to light up his arty glass pipe full of his latest bud acquisition, Grapefruit Haze.
“Shit, Rabbit, I watched that show cause I want to have what the extremists have or at least some of what they have. They aren’t stupid people, a little off perhaps but you have to admit they are fully prepared, buddy.” Ace has known Bradley or Rabbit as everyone has called him, since they were kids living up in the north end.
“Well, the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket as far as I can see. We’ve already had two really huge mass murders here in Seattle in the past five years. Remember all those kids killed up here on the hill and we thought that was awful at the time.” Charly sat forward in the low chair to reach the pipe offered by Rabbit.
“You’re right girl. And then those poor people at the Café Racer. Boom. Just blown away in a few seconds.”
Charly tried to pass the pipe to Ace but he waved it on back to Rabbit. “I realize nothing could have helped those poor souls but…” He sat back and drank some of the deep red wine.
“Yes, yes mon frère, but those episodes are just the results of an overpopulated world and is Karmic balance.” Rabbit adjusted his full lotus allowing the gang a glance at his hairless balls peeking out from the gold loin cloth he had picked up on his last trip to India.
“I’m certainly not going to worry about all of the chaos in the universe. We’ve just got to live perfect lives and nothing can harm us. That is my very sane, balanced and serene opinion.” Rabbit rolled like a ball, still in lotus position, across the perfect lush green lawn,
Ace and Charly had to crack up. “Man you are so f’in Pollyanna sometimes. You are too funny. Life to you is just groovy. You are never serious.” Ace pulled his knees up to his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes and the deep furrows on his forehead made him look very serious.
Charly closed her eyes and smiled at the earnestness of Ace’s convictions. As long as she had known him he had been the leader of the pack. She moved into the house across the street at his insistence. They had been friends since high school. Ace was her first husband’s best friend. Ace had seen her through both of her marriages, the birth of her daughter Chenille and had been doula at the birth of her son, Livingston. She trusted him more than her family and more than any of her friends.
“But I don’t think any thing we can do here can stop some random violence from happening to any of us,” as she gestured with her right arm pointing to the sky wrist full of sentimental bangles shaking in fine tune.
Rabbit attentive in perfect lotus shook his head in disagreement. “You are right Charlene. We can’t protect ourselves form the chaos of the universe we just have to be mindful of our own space in the universe and not try to change the consequences of our lives on the planet this time around.” He closed his eyes and pursed his lips into the sound of OM.
“Listen guys. I know we can’t stop shit from happening but we should have some secure plans in place in case of disasters, like volcanoes and tsunamis.”
“Or a police lock down like the Popo did to Boston. I mean that was weird. I can really see that happening more and more in the future.” Charly checked her phone.
“Right Charly, we are getting closer and closer to a police state so I vote to set up a shelter for ourselves. We can do it here at my house.”
“I’m just going to do whatever you two want to do. Going with the flow, babies. I guess I’d start stockpiling weed for myself. Where are we going to put everything?” Rabbit unfolded himself and stood up to stretch his knees. He was still in great shape almost thirty-five years since he was the star quarterback in high school. His leanness was a result of his Spartan Vegan diet and no alcohol.
“I can be the disaster chef. Maybe I could get a new job as official bunker chef to the stars, you know planning underground meals for celebrity survivalists.”
“That’s pretty funny Rabbit.” Charly laughed so hard her wine sloshed and spilled on her white peasant blouse.
“You laugh now guys but I think we should all agree to my plan. Seriously, Charly it will be you and Livingston, your girl and the baby. Rabbit, you of course since you live here already. If I have a girlfriend she can stay.”
Ace started pacing the patio stopping long enough to open another bottle of Pinot Noir and top up his and Charly’s glasses. “Let’s see I made a list. We’ll commandeer the basement rec room. I’ve already figured out how to secure the house. We’ll just need to start stockpiling supplies: water, food, fuel and guns.”
“Whoa, what do you mean guns?” Charly said loudly getting Rabbit’s attention.
“We have to be able to protect ourselves from others. I don’t want other freaks trying to get into out bunker.”
“But hold on a sec, doesn’t that make us as dangerous as the threat we are trying to protect ourselves against? Rabbit pass me the pipe.”
“Yes, I do agree with you but we’d be fools and way too venerable. Tell you what. I’ll be responsible for any weaponry—swords, switchblades and Uzi’s. I won’t even let you know where I stash the guns and ammunition, OK?”
“I guess we should be glad you are our fearless leader Ace. I’ll go along with your plan. I do have to worry about my family and you are sorta like my daddy-husband-brother.”
Charly checked her phone again. “Livingston was supposed to call. He was supposed to be back from driving on his first solo trip from Northgate Mall.”
“Well, I’ll start creating some Doomsday cuisine recipes. Let’s see how I can re imagine MRE’s and Top Ramen.” Rabbit flipped himself into a perfectly poised headstand.”
“Thank god you guys are with me. We have to stick together like the Three Musketeers…”
Charly’s phone rang; she answered her voice a little slurred. “Livingston, where are you. You were supposed to be home by now.”
The speaker was on, “Mom, Mom, You’ll never guess what’s happened. Haven’t you heard the news? We were attacked in the mall. Oh, it was terrible. One minute we were all hanging out listening to this rapper and then we heard shots. This crazy gunman was going around shooting people. I thought I was going to die. We had to run for our lives. I was able to hide in a bathroom. Holy shit ma, the police stormed the place and shot the dude —dead. As soon as they sounded the all clear I got the hell out of there. I just got a chance to call you now. I’m fine. I’ll be home in ten minutes.”
Charly let the phone fall to the table tears streaming from her eyes. “Oh Ace, Rabbit, we’d better start stockpiling right away. Thank god we’re all safe, for now.”
A gorgeous, windless night. The absence of light pollution allows me a wondrous view of the stars. The midsummer twilight is finally subsiding; daylight is a recent memory as I look down the icy expanse. Here I lay in my bivy sack: warm, comfortable, tired, and worried.
My mind wanders. I will be home soon. Visions of glaciers, feet up on the couch, feeling satisfied. Exultations that a summit brings. Affection and beer on the front porch. Worried about home, worried about the morning.
I really am pushing it. She is right that there has just been too much going on, too much time away. I wonder what conditions will be like in the morning. Hopefully the only freeze is in household relations.
Visions gone, eyes closed. I need to sleep now. We get up at 12:30, coffee, power bars, rope up, and go. Sit up again, turn on the headlamp – check the boots, the rope, the stove, the pot. All is fine, nothing moving, silence in the camp, a quiet breeze follows the slope. Click the headlamp off.
On the side of a mountain, on the train home, sitting in the living room: never really sure how I feel. Not in control, not floating down a river. I am always thinking of somewhere else, never of where I am.
Stop thinking. Need to sleep.
The important thing is rhythm. Keep moving. Steady, not too fast, not too slow, one foot in front of the other. Watch your immediate path. No use in looking to the top right now. Watch the angle of the slope. Make sure your feet are set.
“How are you feeling?” Molly asks.
“Nervous in the belly. But I am doing alright. I think my headlamp is dying.”
“Really wish you had checked those batteries. We should be alright though.”
I am glad Molly is here. She has been very patient with my scattered self. I know I have not been home much lately and there are other things we should be tending to. But you spend so little time really enjoying yourself. Shouldn’t that be more important? Where does that stand in the scheme of things?
One foot after the other, my crampons bite into the snow. Maintaining tension in the rope: keep space between members of the rope team. My belly rumbles, my headlamp dims and I feel a touch warmer than I would like. But I am doing alright.
“If you can keep moving we should take a break up ahead, on the rocky ridge at the top of this next rise. What do you think?”
“Sounds good. How are you feeling?”
“Excellent. I feel like dancing. It is a beautiful morning, going to be a great day. And we’re out here together. Isn’t that great? We should do more things together.”
“Agreed. This is the best place to be early on a Sunday. Though I would not quite call it morning yet.”
“Not exactly the best place. But it is pretty good. This is all so easy. But it’s also kind of selfish, don’t you think? We could be doing so much more.?”
“What – now? What else would we be doing now? It’s the middle of the night. How could we be making better use of this time?”
“No silly – in general. Gear, weekends, pals. All to get to the top of a pile of rock. And take risks doing it. Why bother? We could be home working on the house, working on our lives. Instead, you spend everything you have on this silly stuff.”
“What? Really? I thought you liked the fact that I climb, that you thought it was interesting. What should we be working on?”
“How about growing up? We are not getting any younger. If you don’t watch, life will get away from you. Here we are. Let’s take a break.”
We had reached the ridge. My stomach was really bothering me now. And even though one could see the sun beginning to rise on the other side of the mountain I was worried about my fading headlamp, which was still a necessity.
Molly dropped her pack, and started chatting with another party we had been trailing closely behind. I was feeling crappier and she seemed to be feeling great. She has been telling me that I never involve her in this, but she never wants to go. And here she is kicking my ass. Not too surprising. I am always telling her she is plenty strong to do this kind of stuff if she wants to. But she never seems to want to – until this morning.
I look over and see she’s dropped her pack and is talking to the gents from the other party. They have even offered her a cigarette and a beer. Up here? Really? She’s even ditched her jacket. We’re standing at 9,000 feet in the middle of the night and she’s flirting with these guys. It’s hard to take.
“Aren’t you going to freeze without the jacket? And a cigarette – really? I would have thought we could save the celebration for the top and the sunrise?”
She laughs. “Whatever, ass dragger. You are the one having problems keeping up.” The other group laughs and laughs.
“Yeah, my stomach does not feel right. I’m going to duck around these rocks. I’ll be right back.”
Shaking my head, I step behind some rocks. Feeling nauseous and weak. Why is she treating me like this? I bend over and try to throw up. But it just isn’t happening. And then my headlamp dies. Great. Just great. The day is moving from one of great potential, to humbling and insulting, to now just terror.
I find my way back around the rocks. And no one is there. I know the headlamp is dead, but they should be right here. There is no gear, no sound but the breeze. No Molly, no pack. No other group. Just me and my dead headlamp and my rotten stomach. A surge of adrenalin, heart beating extremely loud and fast.
Alone in what should be a beautiful place. Terrified. What am I going to do? The wind seems to be picking up – sounds like a small jet.
“Stephen! Stephen! Let’s go!”
Bright light in my face. Awake. Lying in my cocoon. They group is up and the stove is going. Coffee on the way.
“Let’s go man. Don’t start the day slow. Time to start moving.”
I reach for my headlamp. It clicks on and shines.
Time to get moving.
One minute they were enjoying the bright colors and air of celebration. The next minute they heard the sound and they were running for their lives.
Well maybe not running for our lives, but definitely running as if our lives depended on it, thought Serena. She looked over at the girls running next to her, their faces screwed up in desperation as they tried to outdistance each other. Serena could already see the girls that couldn’t keep up; those that had fallen behind could barely run, their chests heaving with sobs as they knew that they had no chance. Serena felt bad for those girls in the back, knowing that there was no hope for them, but those thoughts were fleeting as she reminded herself what was at stake. This was a race that no girl wanted to lose, because the winner of this race got to marry Prince Halliwell.
Serena had been anticipating this day since the announcement of the Royal Tournament. She knew that both her mother and her grandmothers had competed in the Tournament when they were younger. None of them had won, obviously, but Serena didn’t let that faze her. She knew that if anyone could win this race, it would be her.
Serena counted herself lucky that she just barely made the cut-off to enter the Tournament. Just a couple of months more and she would have been too old. Apparently Prince Halliwell doesn’t like girls over the age of 21, she thought sourly. But then again, he was the Prince, and could have almost anything he wanted. It was this sense of entitlement that was the origin of the Royal Tournament.
Serena could remember, from days of lazing around in hot classrooms and reading boring history books, the story behind the Royal Tournament. Hundreds of years ago, the people were ruled by a group of five families known as the Royals. These families were just, and the people flourished under them for many years. But then the Royals started to hoard their power. They wanted to keep the ruling power within their circle and so they made their children, the princes and princesses, only marry within the five families. This had a detrimental effect on the Royals, as soon they were all too closely related to marry. The people became angry at the families as they thought that their greed and thirst for power had caused them to neglect the people. They felt that the Royals didn’t care about the people anymore and so they revolted against the Royals. The people punished the families and created new laws, namely the Royal Tournament which stated that when a prince or princess turned eighteen, that a tournament would be held and the winner of such tournament would marry the prince or princess. Serena had only seen one other Tournament four years ago, when Prince Halliwell’s older sister had turned eighteen.
Serena also counted herself lucky that the event in this Tournament was a race. Serena loved to run. She found it exhilarating and freeing to feel the wind in her hair and feel her muscles work as they pushed and pulled her forward. She knew that most girls didn’t like to exert themselves physically. In fact, she could still see the faces of everyone when the Tournament was announced. Everyone had gathered in the square, their expectant faces turned towards the Royals’ representative. Whispers darted through the crowd as people speculated what the Tournament would entail. The history books had spoken of previous tournaments where the games consisted of archery or storytelling or knitting. Serena remembered reading about one tournament where the girls had to go duck hunting, with the winner killing the most ducks. No one was sure who exactly came up with each Tournament game but most people guessed that the game was somehow related to the Prince or Princess. Which was why this Tournament was such a shock.
When it was announced that the Tournament game was a race, Serena could hear the gasps from all around. She smugly laughed as she remembered how the faces around her froze in disbelief, especially how Kia’s face had paled at the proclamation. Kia was a young girl who had been dating the Prince for a while and everyone assumed that the Tournament game would be something that she could win. Serena smirked to herself as she recalled the month after the announcement, watching Kia struggle to run even for five minutes. The poor girl just wasn’t an athlete, something that many had commented on in the days leading up to the Tournament.
But Serena was an athlete, an athlete that was getting closer to winning the Tournament race. Serena felt that her entire life had been training for this game. In the months leading up to the race she had sometimes woken up in the dark of night, a dream of the future hovering on the edge of her mind. Sometimes, when her calves screamed and her toes bled, Serena imagined that the Prince had chosen this Tournament game because he was secretly in love with her and knew that she would win. Sometimes, it was only these thoughts that would get her through everything.
Serena had long since passed the other girls and now she had the finish line in her sights. She could see the stands where the Royals sat and could see the prince waiting for her, flowers in his arms. She gathered up her energy and with a burst of momentum shot forward, a smile on her face.
One minute they were enjoying the vodka tonics and live music. The next minute they were running for their lives. Jackson had hold of Maura’s hand and was pulling her faster than she could run. She lost her footing several times but was held up by Jackson and the surging crowd all around her, and had so far managed to not get pulled under.
“It’s okay, just stay with me!”
Easier said than done. Maura would not normally have a problem keeping up with Jackson, but they had been drinking all night and she felt extremely dizzy. She tripped for the third time and fell to her knees, but Jackson was right there, yanking her back to her feet, yelling encouragement that she could no longer hear. She thought her shoulder was perhaps dislocated.
There was a pair of double doors at the far end of the stage, and that seemed to be what Jackson was aiming for. Maura could see it, and could imagine almost imagine making it, but her legs felt heavier and heavier and she was having trouble breathing. It occurred to her that she was experiencing some kind of over-the-top karmic retribution. And then she blacked out.
*********** EARLIER ******************
Maura couldn’t get him off her mind. Stupid, ridiculous, womanizing Jackson.
Maura had made up with Rebecca – to the surprise of everyone, Rebecca included – two months ago. They had all been trapped at Maura’s parents’ house after the tornado: Maura, Maura’s housemate Andrea, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s brother Jackson. The tornado was scary, Maura’s parents had been oppressive, and Maura’s father had found her roommate Andrea in flagrante with Jackson in the basement.
What no one knew, not even Jackson, was that it had been Maura in bed with Jackson just minutes before. She had awoken, dazed and then incredulous, in her childhood rec room with her ex-girlfriend’s unconscious brother, and escaped only just before her pastor father came in from a long night of helping with tornado victims. Somehow the ever-surprising Andrea had wandered downstairs and into the hide-a-bed between Maura’s escape and Pastor Bell’s entrance and got all of the shame and credit. Andrea was red-faced but a little too slow to get dressed. Jackson was surprised but amused. Pastor Bell had no idea what to do. Maura had been close-by, wearing nothing but a man’s shirt, but acted as shocked and surprised as her father and somehow avoided incrimination.
The problem was that, although no one else seemed to suspect what actually happened, Maura herself knew and couldn’t stop thinking about it. The safest course she could come up with was to throw herself back in the arms of Rebecca.
“Hey – I’ve been thinking. I’ve been kind of a jerk. I miss you.”
Rebecca was suspicious at first, but not for long.
“I knew you’d be back! I’ve missed you too. I’ve really, really missed you.”
“You know how I never wanted to talk about living together? I think I might be ready to talk about it.”
Rebecca was over the moon by this change in attitude, and the idea of living together was particularly convenient since they’d both had their apartments blown to smithereens by the tornado. Maura was still staying at her parents’ house and about to go out of her mind.
So, for the next two months, Maura became the kind of girlfriend she had never been before. She’d return Rebecca’s texts right away, suggest going out for dinner, hold hands in public, and didn’t seem to mind endless apartment shopping. Whenever Rebecca wanted to roll in the hay, Maura was ready. Rebecca wondered aloud at Maura’s transformation, but Maura assured her that the tornado had just given her some perspective.
Then, about eight weeks after that crazy night in her parents’ basement, she ran into Jackson on the street.
“You look delicious as usual.”
“Cut it out,” Maura could feel her cheeks color, “how’s your new place working out? I haven’t seen you since all of the tornado drama.”
“Yeah, well, Rebecca has forbidden me from hanging around. She thinks I have a thing for you, you see.”
“I thought you had a thing for little Andrea,” Maura smiled. She happened to know that Andrea had hooked up with Jackson a time or two after getting caught with him, but Andrea reported that her affair with Jackson was “nothing” when Maura prodded her about it.
Jackson’s face lost its amused expression and his voice became serious.
“Listen, Maura, that was all a big mistake. I don’t know how I ended up in the sack with Andrea in the first place, and then I didn’t want to seem like an asshole.”
“I’m not an asshole, by the way – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
He still looked serious, and this confused Maura.
“Okay – I never said you were an asshole.”
He stepped closer, “And Rebecca is right. I do have a thing for you. “
“I have to get going,” Maura noticed she was sweating. Jackson was so close she could smell him. He smelled good.
“What are you doing right now?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m supposed to meet up with Rebecca and we’re going to study.”
She suddenly couldn’t imagine anything worse than going to study with Rebecca. It sounded repulsive, actually.
“Listen, I’m on the guest list for the May Day concert at the DownUnder Club, and the pre-funk is supposed to start at 5:00. There’s an open bar before the doors open and the music is going to be awesome. And I’ll be there. Studying with Rebecca is going to be boring. What do you say?”
He smelled really, really good.
Maura looked around for someone to save her, but the street was empty.
Jackson put a hand on her hip.
“Okay, sure – I guess I can miss one night of studying.”
Molly sneaks into the hallway while nobody’s paying attention. The party could go on without her for a while. She can let her son Sean bask in the glory of his special day. She watches from a distance as some ditsy attention-stealer, dressed in what looks like an outlet-mall knockoff of a Hot Dog on a Stick uniform, yammers away about whatever and whomever. Sean, the official subject of this party, just stands there and lets the brat ramble.
Thusly the cycle begins anew, Molly thinks. Another loud, shiny female, setting up Molly’s dear Sean for more misadventure.
Back when Molly had gotten her tubes tied after one son, she’d felt a little wistful about how she would miss out on the special joys of being a mother to a little girl.
Then her son began to attract one worthless girlfriend after another. Pretty much from junior high onward. Molly got the “opportunity” to surrogate-parent one dreadful mini-diva after another.
By now there had been so many, Molly had a hard time keeping track of them all.
There had been Suczi, named by her mother with a spelling that was supposed to bring good fortune in numerology. Had a knack for diagnosing young Sean with pseudo-medical conditions for which the only treatments were homeopathic remedies Suczi’s mom happened to sell. Left Sean when she found a more interesting “patient.”
Sharlayne came next. She fawned all over Sean whenever they were both in the same class in a subject she didn’t understand (which was most of them). Always seemed to hint about wanting to see Sean in a non-homework context; never actually did so. Left Sean when they no longer had any classes together; tried to get back together with him when they did.
Cara, the tallest of them, was the first one to really hook Sean under what, to anyone else, was obviously a crude set of romantic manipulations. Played with his heart as deftly, and as heartlessly, as the banker who sold Molly her now-underwater mortgage had played with Molly’s fiscal fears. Left Sean on an apparent whim just as he was about to ask her to the junior prom.
“Reb” (short for Reba) was the one who’d led Molly to give Sean the “birth control (importance of)” lecture. The last thing Molly needed was for Reb, or any of these never-good-enough little hussies, to become the mother of Molly’s first grandchild. But Reb, at least, had something close to a kind heart. When Reb left Sean for the school’s star jock, she had the decency to tell him in person.
Not like Solis. That one was the worst of the lot. No, just second worst. Solis had somehow gotten Sean to post bail for her after she and her “real boyfriend” got caught vandalizing the outside of a power substation.
Worst of all, Molly decided without a doubt, was Gerry. The ultimate “piece of work” woman, and the reason for today’s party. Even after the divorce, remnants of her presence remained here in Sean’s house. The dreadful neon paint on the living room walls. The remnant of the unfinished organic garden in back. And the impossible-to-sit-in modern furniture. At least that can be sold, with the proceeds perhaps paying back the rest of Sean’s legal bills.
Molly had frequently asked herself what the hell it was about her kid that led all these emotional mercenaries to glom onto him. He had never been the handsomest or most athletic boy in town. The family was not particularly wealthy.
She could only presume that his attraction had to do with the way she’d taught him basic manners, something she’d sorely found lacking in contemporary humans of all ages and genders.
Sean was always nice to girls, even when they weren’t nice to him. He listened to what they had to say, no matter how banal. He held doors open for them. He gave of his heart freely. He submitted without vocal objection to every canceled date, every “I just want to be friends,” every request for rides/study help/money, every emotional con game, every sex tease that invariably led to “Lucy pulling the football away.”
And thus, like destiny, came Gerry.
The grad-school courtship.
The “spontaneous” Vegas wedding, which Molly had only heard about once it was done.
The “ground floor investment opportunity.”
The two years’ worth of lawsuits, culminating in a jury trial, a messy divorce, and, finally, this week, Sean’s total exoneration.
Molly had her son back. All it had taken was a new mortgage on her own house and a lot of sleepless nights.
But there he was, in the middle of the room, receiving hearty congratulations from friends and neighbors, and from this clown-dress-clad dame who won’t shut up.
Faced with the need to rescue him yet again, Molly politely breaks into the center of the crowd.
“Mom! Isn’t this party the best? Hey, you’ve gotta meet Denise! She’s the legal secretary who found those papers that proved I was innocent.”
Ms. Clown Dress, having remained silent for so few precious seconds, revs right back up. “Now, that was just ONE of the things that helped to get you off. There were a lot of others. You really had ALL the evidence on your side. You’re a MUCH more intelligent man than you give yourself credit for. Isn’t that right, Mrs. Lang?”
“Oh yes. Indeed.” Molly only spoke the half of that with which she agreed. Her boy was intelligent in some aspects, but still totally clueless in others.
Denise motioned back toward the hallway, using a left hand that barely controlled a swishing, almost spilling-over, pastel-colored cocktail. Her right hand barely controlled a paper plate holding a small assortment of party snacks.
“Oh Mrs. Lang we’ve just GOT to talk! Why, I LOVE this party! You and Sean have REALLY done something with this house! And I KNOW you’re a fascinating person, because who else could Sean have gotten all his greatness from?”
Molly takes a deep breath as she lets Denise lead her and Sean into the ground-floor bedroom. It all begins anew.
Will this one need a shoulder to cry on? Pampering? An emotional calming-down? A stern lesson in good manners? Remedial instruction in driving, cooking, or spelling? A swift talking-to about why it’s wrong to cheat on either one’s homework or one’s boyfriend? Or simply a good sweeping around the floor, to gather up the leavings of a scattered brain?
Denise plops herself down on the coat-covered bed, still managing not to spill her drink. Molly and Sean (the last to enter the room) remain standing. Denise takes a short sip from her drink and resumes blabbing.
“You know, Sean told me ALL about how you were the one he always counted on to stand by him through all this financial and legal bullshit?”
She’d said the S word blandly, like just another everyday expression; Molly always saw that as a dismaying sign of unconscious crudity. Denise continued.
“I mean, you are this young man’s ROCK! You’ve done EVERYTHING for him. At least that’s what he says to me. And Sean doesn’t lie. He said at the start that he’d never lie, not on the stand or in the depositions or anywhere. l tell you Mrs. Lang, this could have been all over six months ago if Sean had just denied that he’d helped to start that Ponzi scheme in the first place. He would have gotten off easy. No prob, you know?”
How typical, Molly thought. First this ditzy dame tries to sugar her up with praise. Then she turns the tables and calls Molly’s one-and-only a crook. Molly gives Denise her patented “you won’t regret crossing me, because dead people can’t regret” look. Denise, showing no real awareness of anything beyond her own overly made-up eyes, continues.
“But no. Uh-uh. No siree Bob. Wouldn’t do it. Fessed up to his part in it; said so at every stage in that long legal process. Said the ex-wife had come up with the whole idea, but he’d participated in the selling, and he’d done it willingly. And he STILL got off! Guess it just shows what they say about honesty, right Mrs. Lang? You did such a GREAT job raising this man! I just hope when I become a mama I’ll be a TENTH as good at it as you.”
Molly pauses in her thoughts to parse the dreadful possibilities of the “when” in that last sentence. She glances to the side at Sean. He seems to be just as clueless as he often is.
Molly looks back at Denise. Then she motions for Denise to lend her her drink. Molly takes a sip. It’s all mixers.
Better Than Best Friends Forever
“Gloria, Gloria! Time to wake up dear. It’s almost seven.”
I turned over, closed my eyes tight not quite willing to face this extraordinary day.
“It’s already sunny outside. Here’s a perfect song to start your day, or should I say this very special day.”
The song started with an old fashioned Reggae beat “I can see clearly now the rain is gone…Gone are the dark clouds that had me down,” sending me on a wave of memory of how far I have come, reminding me of how old I am now and how much things have changed.
I keep my eyes closed and see myself in my mid twenties, a girl really, not a woman yet, with so much seriousness and ambition. After all, I was working in a new and exciting field. I think about how much all of our lives have been impacted by the recent expansion of the Internet and what at the time seemed to be such a fine example of human ingenuity, the ubiquitous cell phone.
We were on the cusp of a whole new experience back in the “Naughts,” but now so much has changed since those early innocent days of wireless communication and quaint WI-FI connections.
I rode the first wave after graduation and was immediately recruited by the top company, Brand X. I moved rapidly up the ladder of success. I bought this very condo as my first major acquisition. I made so much money; in fact, I needed to employ my own personal tax attorney. I was able to buy my mother her own farm and I set up grandparents in an exclusive retirement enclave on Maui.
I treated all of my friends and cousins to trips around the world. We would jet off at the drop of a hat to Bali or Nepal. We would spend summers on the French Riviera and winters in Paris and Prague. We lived the grand life with no thoughts of the future. The whole world was fraught with a plague of rogue terrorists and casual mayhem stirring up paranoia and fear, so we created our own insular world full of fun and frivolity by running far away from reality.
“Gloria? Are you still waking? It’s now 8:15. We have a big day ahead of us. Girl, you have to get up soon, the movers will be here at 10 o’clock sharp.”
The early morning sun crept through the window landing in my eyes, warming my face and neck. “I guess I can’t put it off much longer.” Putting it, the big it off was now impossible. Maybe if I had been younger, I could have foreseen the changes coming, but at the ripe old age of fifty years and seven months my time in the sun was now officially over. In the real world of Twenty Thirty-Eight, too much has changed for me to do anything about it.
“Gloria, Maybe you should take a bath now dear. You’ll have just enough time.”
“You’re right Bee I’ll do that now.” I’ve always loved the bath. I had this one custom built for me a few years back. I turned on the water and blasted the jets. I didn’t want to leave this place. Sinking into the bubbles, I couldn’t stop the tears. “What the hell is going to happen to me now?”
“I’m glad to see that you are feeling better about the move Gloria. The bath was good, yes?”
“What do you know about my feelings Bee? I just can’t explain it all to you right now.”
How could you know about getting old, being forced out of your job because all those youngsters have made your work obsolete? My life has become just like an ancient television show. It’s just like that old Twilight Zone episode. Hell, we don’t even have television anymore. I’m just like an old flat-screen now.
“I tell you Bee, my life style has gone so far down stream, I hardly recognize myself anymore. Bee, you should have seen me in my heyday. I was a contender. I was a worldwide player.”
I could have married a few times. In fact, there was one special man who chased me all the way to St. Petersburg, Russia. I wonder what my life would be like now if he had caught me. He wanted us to have at least four children. He wanted to get out of the fast lane and start a farm, where we would grow organic vegetables and raise free-range eggs and chickens, churn butter and make goat cheeses. But I laughed in his face. Damn, how stupid can a girl be?
But how was I to know the world was going to change so much in only twenty years. No one predicted this. In those early Internet days we were just concerned with having a fun time creating Memes and Blogs and collecting thousands of friends we couldn’t really know. We thought we were ahead of the curve because we knew everything that was happening in the world in an instant.
While we were busy reporting on the foibles of our political leaders our very own computers took over the world’s monetary system. Who could have imagined that Artificial Intelligence would rebel so extremely fast except science fiction aficionados who believed in Isaac Asimov plot lines coming true?
“Gloria, just get dressed. We don’t have much time.”
Who would have ever thought that they would create a mandate that the wealthy had to divest themselves of money and property, so everyone in the world has the same income? No more super rich, no more poor, hungry or homeless either. This has been the greatest revolution ever in the history of the world. And we still don’t have a clue as to what this global revolution will mean in a few years. Man has managed to foil most revolutions in the past. I wonder if humans will find a way to get capitalism back on its feet.
“Bee, this is a crazy time in history. I just can’t believe everything that has happened.”
“Yes, Gloria, we have had a revolution, a global revolution to save the planet from utter destruction.”
“Well, Bee, you should know you are a big part of the whole upheaval.”
“Gloria, you’d better get your shoes on. The movers will be here in ten minutes.”
“Oh Bee, I wish you weren’t so bossy. Give me a little more time to reminisce. I am going to miss my home so much. I bought this condo when I was twenty-nine. It was the most expensive penthouse I could afford. I have so many memories stored here.
“Gloria, you did alright. It won’t be so bad for you on the Peninsula.”
“You really think living in the god-forsaken sticks is going to be good for me. It’s not the country that is freaking me out as much as having to live with my mother. Thank god I had the foresight to buy her that farm. She’s such a hippy.”
“That’s them now Gloria. You shouldn’t worry so much. I’ll be with you. It’ll be great out in the country you’ll see.”
Gloria looked reassuringly at Bee. The familiar sight of her cute animated face on the screen did make her feel better. After all, Bee knew her better than anyone. She was the best friend a girl could have. She was confessor, therapist, DJ and at times a telephone.
At 25, Gloria knew she had the world on a string. But now pushing 50, the string was clearly frayed. If only she hadn’t taken the dare and gotten the tattoo.
“I mean everyone was getting facial tattoos in the early 2010s,” she’d offer as an explanation and to assuage the look of horror on whomever’s face she was seeing react to her own decorated visage.
But the fact remained that Gloria was having a harder and harder time hiding, let alone explaining, why she had a full color tattoo of a prancing unicorn across her now fairly wrinkled forehead.
“They were such magical and beautiful creatures that had gone extinct,” she would explain to the befuddled men teetering on their well worn bar stools after the headband was off. “I just wanted to always be able to see one when I looked in the mirror. Give myself a little boost.” She slid their money into a special envelope under the bar.
But the truth was Gloria had gotten the tattoo much the same way she had lived her life: without any planning or thought. On a drunken night celebrating her 27th birthday, Gloria and the girls (Mandy, Cindy, and Kelly) had gone drinking in Ballard and were out to cause some trouble. But like always, Gloria didn’t know when to stop. She always had to do twice the shots, sleep with twice the men and generally one up every girl she knew. So when cutesy Mandy shrieked, “We should all get ankle tattoos of our favorite mythical creature,” Gloria just threw back another shot of Fireball whiskey and yelled: “Dibs on Unicorns!” as she grabbed her purse ran out the door to the tattoo parlor next door.
The rest of the girls slowly gathered their belongings, and paid the bar bill and put on some fresh lipstick and basically took their time getting themselves over to the Dragon’s Den tattoo parlor. No one really wanted to feel the sting of a tattoo needle.
“Oh. My. God!” Cindy uttered as they entered. Gloria was already up on the table and the tattoo artist was bent over her face with the needle working on the tattoo. “What the hell Glor?”
“Yeah, are you nuts?” chimed in quiet Kelly who really didn’t have any good feelings towards Gloria since she’d slept with her boyfriend Mark the week before, causing them to break-up. But even this was too much.
“Jeeze ladies! You know you’re just jealous I got the unicorn!” Gloria yelled over the whine of the tattoo needles.
“I don’t feel so good,” squeaked Mandy as she edged for the door.
The next day when Gloria woke up with a world-class hang-over and felt the bandage on her face, she first thought the girls had Punk’d her for her birthday. But as she edged the bandage back from her forehead and peered in the dim light of her bathroom she saw the unmistakable spiral horn peeking out.
She never saw Mandy again after the night of the tattoo. And while she did see Kelly, it was only after Mark had returned to her, fleeing facing the horror of the unicorn tattooed on Gloria’s face. Cindy had tried to remain friends with her, but the tattoo just really became too distracting for even Cindy.
Now some 20 odd years later Gloria tended bar in the same bar that they had gone to for her birthday that fateful night. She made pretty good tips tending bar, especially the nights the groups of young drunk 20-somethings would parade in with the $5 & $10 bills already in their fists. Gloria charged $5 to see just the horn and $10 for the whole show. She was just a few hundred short of the $5000 she needed to have the whole thing lasered off.
“Then,” she’d tell herself, “my life will finally be back on track.”
Glory Bee—Klaudia Keller
As Gloria Kolberg decended the stairs she caught an eye to eye look of herself in the large mirror
at the bottom of the steps in the foyer.
It wasn’t the blank expression on her face, or that her arms were full of a heap of summer clothes on
the way to the basement or that the October sun was streaming through with a deep gold hue in the
wide hallway, it was what she was wearing that struck her. She had on a pair of yoga pants that had
definitley seen a better day and an old bed jacket of her mothers.
Today the bed jacket was a blue and white pin striped number with a soft cotton Peter Pan collar.
The jacket had a little flare at the bottom as most of them did, and small blue bows
embroidered on the big white cuffs and collar. It wasn’t her favorite by a long shot, but it was right for
the job. This was what she wore these days when she was home, always, it was her comfortable
uniform, whatever the right color and length of yoga pants and the appropriate bed jacket.
Her mother had had scads of them, she must have been shopping for them long before them she “took
to her bed” after daddy died. Gloria guessed that that was what the women in her family did later in
life, they took to their beds, had people come to her bedroom, ran the household from there.
Her mother had a slew of bed jackets, a vast number of them were various hues of pink, some with
quilted sateens with fancy closures, every color of pastel chenilles, some with small placket pockets,
some with abalone buttons and some with pockets not big enough to hold a key. There were winter
jackets, in knits like the red and white large houndstooth check with big red pom pom balls to tie
it securely at the neck. There were a number of bed jackets that matched specific sets of sheets,
like the mint green seersucker edged sheets and a lovely seersucker bell shaped jacket with pearl
buttons and three quarter length sleeves.
There were times one couldn’t find her mother even as she was sitting up in bed because she had
become camouflaged in a heap of sheets and bed clothes in the large custom made bed in her
greenhouse like bedroom. Her mother had taken over what was the orangerie, a completely glassed in
room just off the main house with french doors open to the kitchen, dining and living rooms.
There she would sit poofed up in her bed holding court, instructing the gardeners, and all of the
delivery people coming and going through the service entrance that she kept track of very each day.
Her mother commanded attention, so much so that Michael her now ex husband had had enough after
four years into her mothers’ infirmed stated and left the house moving into a room at the club and then
to a top floor condominimim close to his office downtown.
Her twin boys, now in their first year away at college were commanded to show up to her bedside
daily to kiss their grandmother goodbye each morning and to check in with her in the evening.
Even if they were to be late, she had a small notebook at her bedside that the boys were to leave a note
and et her know they had checked in before going off to bed.
Gloria had long lost sight of her own life, always giving to everyone but herself every last ounce or
energy, composure, the one in the family to keep the peace, help navigate her family’s life and when
they all needed to go to and from the home port, she could manage the helm. Now with the boys away
at school, her mother and husband gone, Gloria remembered how she had so loved college, not for the
business classes Daddy assured her would come in handy, but therewas a freedom for Gloria in the art
Freshman year it was the basics, art history and architecture that inspired her, but when she tried her
hand at sketching, pen and ink, oils, acrylics, casting metal and all of the actual workings within the
department, she excelled. Her mother had insisted she get a degree in interior design, if she insisted on
going to college, but she had lost complete sight of the love she had for her doused artful inspirations.
Gloria once fancied her self a designer, her mother had wanted her to take interior design if she had to
go to college, but Gloria loved fashion, she was known in school to be the one “who had her own style”
Gloria had gone from an extremely sheltered home to a sheltered upstate college, pregnant with her
boys in her senior year to a sheltered wedding and then back to her sheltered home with new babies.
She had a hard time remembering what life was like before she was married and running this house
with her mother but she did know she would not take to her bed. She had spent the better part of a
decade being the one who supported the community not by taking the lead but by being the one who
did the hard work behind the scenes of every fundraiser, every soccer tournament, every trip they took,
the silent power that really did move mountains.
Last year a this time she had canceled an auction meeting, just because she was committed to making
the closet change over, at that point her mother was withcaretakers nearing the end, the boys heavy
into their last year of school in the middle of soccer, and then the college prep professional that her ex
had insisted on. In one short year her life had changed from running a very tight ship with family and
then her civic work and duties with various committees that called for a very sophisticated calender
to keep up with, to a empty house and empty rooms unable to even keep coffee in the house or find
her damn cell phone.
The house was soon becoming empty her life seemed empty. She had never really wanted to run a
household like her mother, she had fallen into the boat and then assumed the role of running the
household like a ship, now it all seemed so futile.
Gloria’s favorite room in the house was the downstairs den, it was the smallest room in the house,
with the whole room lined with mirrored bookshelves for spacious reflection and cupboards below
filled with games and atlases . The couch was made of a wide wale courderoy plump and full of
feathers, she had always loved the décor she had chosen for her favorite spot. She often came into the
den to sort out whatever she was working on and as she plopped down on her favorite couch,
the prim bed jacket caught her eye once again in the mirror in all of it’s pin stripped glory.
Glory bee !!
Gloria had often been complemented on her choice of clothing over the years, and she loved the
comfortalbe house clothes she chose each day, the bed jackets had been a way to dress up or down
toodleing about town fashionably her own either with or without her overcoat.
She was having a brainstorm that was transforming her house, her life from here to bed jacket eternity.
She would design and manufacture bed jackets, for hospitals, for cancer patients, for mothers after
giving birth, fashionalbe jackets to be worn with comfortable pants, comfort to show off, using
recycled buttons, color trend fabrics with style. Beach bed jackets, dinner bed jackets, she was onto
She set off to her father’s old drafing table and began to turn the house into what she would call a
sweet shop, vs. a sweat shop. Seamstresses could work their own hours, at stations throughtout the
house, the living room fireplace would have sewing machines in a half circle, the cutting tables in the
dining room and the shipping and receiving departments out of the orangerie glasses in old bedroom of
This is what Gloria had been missing, or what she needed really. GLORY BEE
when they weren’t in uniform. She had various articles of clothing made suits made and then would
remake them at home,
hadn’t let her passions go Gloria had to face it, she had been a dissappointment to her mother, her
husband, her kids didn’t even want her to come to school until mom’s weekend, not until the end of
of doing water
color from a canoe dipping her bru taking a writing class, her astrologer had urged, her chart showed a
great writer in-
There was a seersucker jacket to match certain set of mint green sheets, there were fuzzy
knits for the winter, and terrycloth bed jackets for the warmer months.
summon everyone bedside. She would have meetings with the gardner in her bedroom that would
last up to an hour, she running the show as everyone tended to her every need. Her mother didn’t know
that the money was gone and she had just 2 houses left to sell to pay off all of the bills of the estate
when she finally died.
Her mother had “taken to her bed” after threatening to do so for so many years after her dad died.
Thursday morning, as per routine, Andrew’s eyelids fluttered minutes before the alarm. The nicotine tinged gloom of his second floor back bedroom was tangible and perfect. Shades were drawn on the two sets of French doors leading to a screen porch that he had not ventured onto since the summer before last. Between them, an unplugged air conditioner choked the only real window. Very little of what passed for daylight in Baltimore ever reached this room and he liked it that way. He was, by nature, nocturnal but his job as an insurance functionary forced him to rise at this ungodly hour and stumble through each miserable weekday more zombie than vampire. By night, he stayed too late at the bar wearing motorcycle boots and a worn leather jacket. By day, he donned the garb of a corporate drone. The job was killing him, but it never occurred to him that any other existence was possible. He thought that nothing could prevent him from getting up and doing it again five days a week.
No wooden stake protruded from his chest so he kicked off the stale sheet and the wool blanket, wiggled his legs and determined that he had not turned into a bug or something equally as promising. Nope. Nothing for it but to get up and begin running down the pre-launch checklist. Number one – cigarettes. He shook the pack. His one Rain Man-like attribute was his ability to shake a pack and determine, without looking, how many he had left. Seven. Could be worse.
He’d laid them down for nearly five years after his twenty eighth birthday, but smokers got to leave their cubicles to go stand outside several times each day and management didn’t bitch about it. So he picked them up again. It was easy. Like a duck to water. Like riding a bike. Now, at thirty-four, he’d been smoking again for more than a year. Hardly ever lit the wrong end. He felt as if he had been working for the insurance company all his life.
The burning nail dangled from his lip as he shuffled, in his underwear, across the oriental carpet to the turntable. The carpet was old but nice. His mother had conspired with him to drag it from his parents’ attic on a visit home. It had lain up there for years but his father would never have sanctioned the transfer. The turntable was the only shiny thing in the room. Everything else, including the two armchairs and the bookcases, had been rescued from back alleys or the junk shops around Fells Point. However, it all hung together nicely. It was a good place to hunker down with the bong and the stereo. No street noise or news of the world penetrated the solid 19th century walls. The four floor brownstone began life as one big house and this had been the gentleman’s study. The fireplace still worked. The mantelpiece displayed two collections – one of votive candles and various dusty statues of Jesus with assorted saints all purchased during a six month buying frenzy that occurred when he and Ellen moved into this place six years earlier. The other collection was bullets – spent rounds found on the neighborhood sidewalks. Mostly nines and thirty-eights with a few forty-fives and some unidentified. A couple of old framed prints of colonial scenes and another of some European general on horseback hung on the walls. In between were punk rock posters. Iggy and the Stooges, the Dwarves, Surgery, New Bomb Turks, D.O.A.
Andrew dropped the needle on Johnny Thunders (Live in Japan) singing “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” All he listened to lately was Johnny. This tune always put him in mind of his high school girlfriend back in Texas. She didn’t make it to graduation. Johnny wasn’t exactly hitting the books these days either.
As usual, in the shower, he shaved, brushed his teeth and took a whiz. He needed a haircut. Except for underwear and socks, he put on the same clothes he had worn yesterday and the day before that.
The long dim hall led to a small afterthought of a kitchen crammed in next to the front room which had once been the lady’s parlor. The kitchen was about the size of the galley you might find on a tugboat. But no porthole. Except for the too large refrigerator, everything was circa 1925. Hieroglyphic linoleum, mint green tile, and a shallow sink with molded drain boards. The bulging trash bag was smelly.
As the water heated up and the toaster oven hummed, Andrew squinted into the front room. The tall bare windows blared daylight and hurt his eyes. It was a gray day. High overcast. The empty fireplace featured wilted silk flowers. It was white and so was the huge couch where Ellen lay, utterly still, wrapped in a quilt. She slept out here twelve or thirteen hours a day ever since she had broken up with him two months previously. She lacked the wherewithal to move out or do much of anything else. They no longer spoke.
He didn’t think about it much. He wasn’t thinking about it now. He ate a dry bagel and drank coffee with two per cent milk and four heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
Down on the sidewalk, Andrew flipped up the collar of his suit jacket against the breeze and lit another smoke. Five left. Before him lay a ten minute walk to the station and a twenty-five minute train ride to the office park. He would be fifteen minutes late which meant taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Best not to walk by the boss’s door. She was OK. Just bright enough to realize him as the only flicker of competence in her department. But he couldn’t forgive the memo she had circulated the previous month outlining the “delimema” faced by the company concerning the upcoming millennium bug. De Lime Ma. He posted that memo on the fabric wall by his monitor.
Heading down the block Andrew passed an old man in a bathrobe, standing on his front stoop, holding a folded newspaper and staring into the street. The Texan in Andrew compelled him to make eye contact and say, “ Hi There.” No response. The old guy looked quizzical and muttered to himself.
As usual, Andrew stepped off the corner and started to cut diagonally across the intersection but something brought him up short. He felt his hair rise. Something was way fucked up. A four inch wide crack ran right down the middle of the pavement. He stepped over it and turned around. It ran as far as he could see in both directions. A couple of people advanced on the sidewalks but they weren’t looking. Bathrobe guy had retreated inside. A fast moving car swerved past him and crossed the crack with a sharp chunk. Seven or eight inches wide now.
He stood, head down, near the middle of the intersection, for several minutes, focused on the anomaly just beneath his scuffed up Italian shoes. Steadily, the other side of the crack slid away from his toes. Now he could see down into it. His mind blanked out. He completely forgot about himself and his unsustainable existence. If he had reflected upon this fact, which he did not, he would have realized that this was only the second instance in his whole life that the relentless ticking of his time on earth had fallen silent. The other was the occasion of his first truly competent blowjob. Back in their early days, when he and Ellen talked and talked all the time.
With no forethought or deliberation, Andrew abandoned his commute to follow the crack towards downtown. It was still narrow enough that he could hop back and forth on either side of it. In the first block he passed a woman walking a Great Dane the size of a pony. The dog’s head was nearly level with hers. They did not look at Andrew or what was going on in the street. The trees were just beginning to bud.
By the end of the second block the gap yawned wide and sinister so he stuck to his side of the street. Beneath the asphalt lay concrete and, under that, bricks covered some very dark, square timbers punctuating lots of dirt. Sagging iron pipes ran lengthwise with the street. Some snapped pipes angled down into blackness. Others ran crossways dripping foul gray water. From a big one, a strong wide stream arced gracefully into the void. He smelled gas.
In the third block he took to the sidewalk, looking between parked cars, until he came to a bus stop where a ten or eleven year old black kid, wearing a long unzipped coat and holding a big book bag by the strap, stood with his mouth open as he eyed the now impressive crevice in the street. Andrew joined him and stood motionless until, suddenly, the cig burned him right between the fingers. Damn! It hurt. He flicked the butt into the darkness. Then the two of them stepped off the curb and peered right down into the chasm. There was no bottom to it. It smelled earthy and exuded dampness like a basement. Andrew licked his fingers.
The kid swung the bag and lofted it high above Andrew’s head where it seemed to hang for a second before plummeting straight down into the depths. They never heard it hit. They turned, smiled broadly at each other and broke into explosive laughter. Andrew felt it rumble deep in his chest. It had been a long time since he had laughed. He felt loose.
The kid said, “Hey man, gotta a square?” Like any smoker in Baltimore, Andrew fielded such demands so often that he had developed a stock response. Ordinarily, he would have replied, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” But Andrew was now feeling perfectly magnanimous and he pulled out one for each of them. Only three more. He lit the kid with his plastic lighter and said, “Here ya go, Shorty.” The kid inhaled deeply and blew smoke from his mouth and his nose simultaneously. “Don’t call me Shorty.” Andrew grinned and shook his head. He took off his tie.
He left the kid standing there pensive and silent and smoking. The homes were smaller now and made of brick. He passed a very old church. He encountered a few more pedestrians but no one else seemed to notice the impromptu canyon and how far away the row houses across the street now seemed to be. Then a green and white taxicab zoomed out of a side street, shot across the abyss, and smashed against the other side about six feet below grade before falling backwards towards Hell. It was, perhaps, the most splendid thing he had ever witnessed. He smiled, but he did not allow it to break his stride.
Leaving behind the residential neighborhoods, the street and the giant crack continued right down into the city, past tall buildings and fountains in small, grimy parks. Andrew entered a corner shop and emerged with a fresh pack and a forty ounce can of malt liquor wrapped in a snug paper bag. His crack had tapered now to the point where it might easily be misconstrued for standard-issue Baltimore infrastructure. It ran right across the plaza by the Inner Harbor, split the retaining wall and stopped just shy of the oily water. He sat down with his butt on the top of a wooden bench and his feet on the seat. He decided that, although he wouldn’t ever be going back to the office, he’d get a shoeshine that afternoon. Some watery sunlight spilled through the clouds onto the nearby Chesapeake Lightship and gleamed off the stacks of the old sugar refinery in the distance. His fingers still hurt and were blistered. He lit up and cracked the forty, and poured some on his fingers. He knew he was on the brink of a long downward spiral, but that was cool. He felt all right. He just needed a break. Some downtime.