Monthly Archives: October 2013
Here you are, dear. Thanks for coming to see me. And thanks for setting up this video setup.
When you said you wanted a “permanent record” of my presence and my voice, it made me think of the “permanent record” I got in school. A pretty bad one. Do they still keep those? You wouldn’t know, I know.
Damn I did a lot of crap back then. A lot of it, maybe most of it, I didn’t mean to.
SInglehandedly turning my father from a maintenance-drinker stumble-bum into a full-bore rage machine? Just a side effect of my childhood devotion to me-myself-and-I and maybe my buds but nobody else. I didn’t even notice him gradually turning from a detached but essentially carefree dude into a guy with a beef against the whole universe for allowing someone like me into his life. A guy who’d rather work late than come home to find out the latest thing I’d stolen, trashed, or almost OD’d on. Either that, or I just assumed that’s what happened to all dads as they got older. Just like the heart attack, and the nasty divorce.
Getting engaged to Janice, and then knocking up Sue Ellen? Sure didn’t mean to do THAT. Janice was supposed to be the Forever Girl; Sue Ellen was just this momentary thing, you know? I was a slave to my dick, I’ll admit it. And how was my dick to know that Sue Ellen wanted to take away anything that Janice had, even if Sue Ellen only wanted to take it (me), use it (me), and throw it (me) away in the trash?
Mind you, I sure felt like trash.
I deserved to be with Sue Ellen, the two timing schemer. She had the same name as a character on a TV show that was full of two timing schemers, and I must say that turned out to be very appropriate indeed.
I sure didn’t deserve to be with Janice. But, as if the gods weren’t through tormenting me enough, they had her take me back.
Of course, I fucked it up that time too. It just took a little longer. But eventually I drank and drugged and idled myself out of that episode of my life.
At least I sobered up, five years and one divorce too late.
But not before I got the letter from Sue Ellen’s lawyers. The baby she wouldn’t tell me a thing about, she was now telling me about. And now she wanted full retroactive child support, and she wanted it the day before yesterday.
What she got was a hearty belly laugh and a spot down toward the bottom of my creditors’ list.
At least that was something I meant to do.
And so was finally getting to be a part of your life, daughter. Even if the part I’ve been playing was that of “example of everything not to do.”
I must say you’ve done a hell of a job of not being like me. Here you are in these fancy clothes of yours, with your nice car and your beautiful girlfriend.
I’ll tell you one thing: the first thing I thought of when you said you had a girlfriend was how I used to jack off to girl-on-girl pornos. I was probably thinking about one of them when I conceived you. Maybe that’s how come you turned out that way. Something else I didn’t mean to do, but here you both are. Now don’t pretend to get embarrassed. You’ve been an adult for a few years now. You’ve heard worse things I’m sure.
Hey, we’ve got matching colored gowns on, almost. Yours of the evening kind and mine of the hospital kind. You’re probably the best dressed daughter of a terminal liver patient in this whole place.
I sure as fuck didn’t mean to end my sorry existence this way.
Or maybe, on some level, I meant to all along.
Of course, I don’t remember it, but I’m told that on my second birthday, as my parents were getting my younger brother settled into the backseat of the Volkswagen, in preparation for a weekend trip to the seashore, I ate an entire bottle of Bayer aspirin. They found me with the cap in my mouth and the empty bottle on the floor. This necessitated a trip to the hospital, to have my stomach pumped, and an overnight stay.
Many years later, as I languished in a college lecture hall on a warm summer afternoon, I got to thinking about that incident and how it might have inspired my only recurring childhood nightmare. I had lots of nightmares – in one, a big green monster snatched me from my bed and carried me off in its teeth down the hall past the bathroom where my mother blithely continued to apply her eye makeup without looking away from the mirror and I thought, “Can I get some help here?” But only one dream recurred.
This nightmare was in black and white and set in a grim nineteenth century industrial zone of huge brick buildings with no windows or doors. Tall stacks billowed voluminous clouds of steam and dark smoke above wide gray unmarked streets each stretching in one-point perspective towards distant horizons beneath a vast white sky with no sun. There were no shadows and no trees or vegetation of any kind. Squares and rectangles divided every centimeter of the ground into patches of asphalt, concrete, cinders and gravel. The twilight atmosphere was loud with the hum and grind of machinery and ventilation.
My head and my limbs were huge and heavy, yet my body felt small as I lay on my back in the middle of long table with pneumatic rubber wheels being whisked by unseen phantoms down the street past smooth sidewalks and tall chain-link fences towards a big ominous building that I feared to enter. I looked to my left into the face of a sad six year old girl in a wet white dress as she offered me a wilted white flower. I reached out my hand, but a cold shudder went through me and I shook my head. The gurney cornered onto a long ramp and I moaned as I passed into a dark gaping hole and I was in the building rolling down endless hallways the ceilings of which were all I saw before I was gone. I’d always wake up in the night with the little girl’s face in my mind. I think I was nineteen with a fever the last time I dreamed that. I still remember what she looked like. I’m glad I didn’t take the flower.
One time, when I’d gone to bed early, my wife came into the room and I sat up and yelled, “Quick! Get a bowl!” I’d dreamed that I’d been stabbed in the stomach and I wanted to catch the blood.
Recently, I was wandering through a large one story house with big rooms when I looked out a sliding glass door and spotted my Mother trying to bury my Dad in the side yard. He was laid out on the grass, wrapped in a black wool blanket, but otherwise naked. I told Mom she was doing it wrong. She had already put most of the dirt back in the grave. I dragged him over and grabbed a shovel. I had him mostly covered over when he started coughing. “Dad! Dad! It’s great to see you again, man.” I led him inside and sat him on the edge of a bed and went to get him something to drink. When I got back he was dancing with my brother in the living room.
Probably the worst one I remember was about twenty years ago. I dreamt we arrived back home with groceries and, as is so often the case, this was a house we’d never lived in, in a neighborhood I’d never seen. It was a little green one story house with a chimney coming straight out the middle of the roof. Like a house a kid would draw with crayons. There were four same size rooms each with its own staircase going down to each of the four rooms in the basement. We’re happy and chattering away as we reach the little kitchen when a baby starts screaming bloody murder. It’s loud and coming from everywhere and nowhere. We split up and start going through the rooms. And the screaming. I go down to the basement and come up a different stairway and now I can’t find Lesley so I start calling her name and going up and down the stairs and from room to room. The baby keeps screaming but now a strange voice is mimicking me saying, “Lesley, Les-ley, Leees – leeey.” I fling open the front door and on the sidewalk see a father and son holding long guns and dressed in plaid hunting clothes with hats with ear flaps and they are in the midst of a bad argument and I say, “Excuse me…” and they turn and glare at me and in unison say, “We’re in the middle of something here!” And that scares me worse than anything.
Sometimes I just jump out of bed and wonder what the hell is wrong with me. And middle of the night TV is almost as bad.
Karen pulled up to the modest ranch house and parked her Prius in the driveway. It was hot, the sun shone bright on the rolling hills. She sighed, closed her eyes, and took a couple of deep breaths. She wasn’t looking forward to this weekend, but it had to be done. She took another deep breath and got out of the car.
Her sister’s neighbor Mrs. Larson immediately materialized at the front door. “I’m so sorry Karen,” she said. “I still can’t believe it myself. It was so sudden. How old was she? What did the police say it was?” Karen fought back annoyance. “Sixty,” she said, as politely as she could manage. “Linda turned 60 this year. And nobody’s established what happened exactly.”
Mrs. Larson blinked back tears. “And to think, both of them within two years. Who’d believe it?” She shook her head and looked at Karen. “You know, the kids flew in for the funeral and left next day. Who did they think would take care of the house?” She stared at Karen eagerly. “I heard they all hated their dad, that’s why they never visited or came home for the holidays.”
“They have their own lives now” Karen said, ignoring that last statement. “It’s been several years since I’ve been here too. And I only live a couple of hours away.” She rummaged through her purse for the key, found it, and patted Mrs. Larson’s shoulder. “Thanks for stopping by. I’ll drop by later, maybe we can talk some more. I think this will take all weekend, so I’m here for the next few days. I’m going to lie down for a while, I’m tired from the drive.” She finally got the unfamiliar key to work, and stepped inside.
Karen blinked her eyes a few times in the dim light. She took another breath and went to the kitchen. It looked like Linda had left suddenly to run an errand and would be right back. Her wine glass was half-empty, the bottle still on the table. The remains of her dinner were scattered on a small plate. But other signs were there too; the the blood stains on the counter and the cupboards, and the taped outline in the shape of her sister on the kitchen floor.
The police told Karen they found Linda dead in the kitchen. They had been contacted by a UPS delivery driver, concerned that a package he delivered sat on Linda’s front porch for five days. Her car was in the driveway and there was no response to his knock. So he called the police, and told them he worried she hadn’t taken that package inside.
The police went to Linda’s house. It wasn’t the first time they had been summoned there. The UPS driver was right, there was a big problem. Linda was dead. Based on the decomposition of Linda’s body, the driver’s timeline was fairly accurate. There were no signs of foul play, and the autopsy found no physical cause that led to her fall. The police assumed she slipped, hit her head, and never regained consciousness.
Karen methodically pulled up the tape and washed away the bloodstains on the counter and the floor. She washed her sister’s dishes, dried them, and put everything away. She swept the floor. The kitchen looked the way it did when Linda was alive; tidy, everything put in its place.
She opened the front door, looked around for Mrs. Larson, darted to her car and grabbed her suitcase from the trunk. She wasn’t in the mood for another interrogation session just yet; she wanted to get started boxing up Linda’s things. She supposed Ukiah hadn’t changed much since she left for college. Except for the random car accident or new religious cult, there wasn’t that much to talk about. Linda’s death would give the town fodder for gossip for the next several years.
Karen walked down the hall, trying to decide which room to sleep in. The hall was lined with school photos of the kids at various ages and several staged family photos. The kids grew up in the pictures, but except for a thickening around the middle, Linda’s husband Jim stayed the same. Karen assumed the photographers directed the family to smile on cue, a direction that apparently exempted Jim. His expression remained constant, mocking and cruel.
Karen unpacked her things in one of the kid’s bedrooms. She didn’t want to stay in Linda and Jim’s room, and now that she was here, she realized she didn’t really want to stay in the house at all. But it was too late now. She sat on the bed and called her boyfriend.
He picked up on the second ring. “Hey sweetie, you made it,” Neal said. “How was the drive?”
“Beautiful,” Karen said. “It’s still so beautiful here. It was foggy until I crossed the Golden Gate, but it was sunny all the way up 101. Driving to Ukiah is like going back in time, except for the Costco and the new Walmart. Mrs. Larson is still nosy as hell, in case you were wondering.”
Neal laughed. “That will never change either. There’s no place like home.”
“I wish I could click my ruby slippers and be back in Pacific Heights,” Karen said. “I’m driving back Sunday afternoon. I have a client meeting first thing Monday and I want to be prepared. So if I don’t finish I’ll just pay a moving company to do it. I just want to grab a few of Linda’s personal things for me and for her kids if they want them some day.”
“Well call me if you need to talk,” Neal said. “I’m going to Mitchell’s opening tonight, but I’ll have my cell with me. I love you. See you Sunday.”
Karen was never really close to Linda after she married Jim. The difference between being born in 1956 and 1963 was vast, not so much in years but in culture. Linda did everything a girl from the 50s was expected to do; she married early, had three kids, and was a devoted wife and mother. Karen, on the other hand, wanted to get out and have a career in the city. She thought Linda’s choices and values were as dated as those in black and white “Leave It To Beaver” reruns. At least the Beaver, unlike Linda’s docile children, had a little spunk.
By the time Karen was eleven, Linda had married Jim Hamilton, the son of local pear farmers who went to their church. The sixties and seventies did not make a significant impression in Jim and Linda’s life. San Francisco was only two hours away, but as far as Jim was concerned the pot-smoking, bra-burning, war-protesting freaks could have the entire city to themselves. He saw no reason to ever leave Ukiah and his family’s pear orchard. So Linda and the kids stayed put.
Karen walked around the house, looking at Linda’s things. Apparently Linda was still a devoted Catholic. The coffee table was strewn with weekly church letters, a large statue of the Virgin Mother presided over the fireplace mantel, and a large cross with the bloody, exhausted Son of God nailed to it hung on the wall over the flat-screen TV. “Jesus,” Karen muttered.
She spent the rest of the afternoon going through Linda’s bedroom. She looked through her ruffled pastel dresses, her high-waisted slacks, and sensible shoes and decided it would be best if she sent everything to Goodwill. After mentally consigning everything in the closet to charity, Karen turned to Linda’s dresser.
There was gold-embossed jewelry box on top. Karen popped open the lid. “Lara’s Song” tinkled out weakly. She rummaged through the assorted plastic bangles, earrings, and rosaries and saw something she recognized. Karen pulled it out from beneath the tangled rosaries. It was Linda’s wedding ring, with Jim’s mother’s large emerald-cut diamond.
Karen was surprised to see the ring hidden away. It had only been a couple of years since Jim’s last heart attack. She assumed Linda would wear her wedding ring until the proverbial death do you part. But no, here it was under a pile of rosaries and junk trinkets. She looked at it for a few minutes, then slipped it into her pocket. She would email Linda’s daughter Shelley to see if she wanted it. Shelley’s visits home were infrequent; Linda talked to Karen about this a lot. But Karen understood Shelley wanting to put as much distance between herself and her parents as possible.
Karen pulled the first dresser drawer open. It was full of Linda’s bras and underwear. Karen quickly slammed it shut. She wasn’t ready to get that personal with her sister’s undergarments. She dropped to her knees, and pulled open the bottom drawer instead.
There were scarves neatly folded in piles, separated by color and texture. Karen smiled, Linda was always so organized. The drawer smelled faintly of lavender and another odor, stale and unpleasant that Karen didn’t recognize. She pulled out the scarves and laughed. Beneath the bright cotton and polyester chiffon was an old game, the one their parents forbade them to play.
She pulled out the box, and smiled. “OUIJA: Mystifying Oracle Talking Board Set,” it read in a groovy, distinctly seventies font. It was Parker Brothers nod to the increased popularity of counter-culture spiritualism. Karen laughed. “I’m taking this with me,” she thought. Her friends would get a kick out of it, it would be a hit at her next dinner party. Neal, lover of all things seventies, would display it on their coffee table.
Karen was surprised to find the Ouija board in the house. Jim and Linda were the strictest of Catholics, as were her parents and most of their friends growing up. All of Linda’s friends growing up went to their church. When their parents said she could have her friends over, Linda typically invited her Sunday school friends. Fellow sufferers, Karen thought. She couldn’t imagine Jim letting the kids play with a Ouija board.
When she was a teen, Karen remembered that Linda had a lot of girlfriends. Her parents would frequently allow her to invite her friends over for slumber parties, all the girls staying in the big basement with their sleeping bags. Sometimes, Linda and her friends would let Karen join them in various party activities; putting on makeup, playing Truth or Dare, and talking about boys.
At one slumber party, a friend of Linda’s smuggled in a Ouija board. The girls turned off the lights in the basement, lit a forbidden candle, and all placed their fingers on the flimsy planchette. When it was her turn, Linda asked “Is there a ghost here with us?” The planchette jerked to the left, to the bottom of the board and landed on “HELLO.” The girls squealed. Karen was a little scared, but she figured the older girls knew what they were doing.
Linda said in a low whisper, “Ouija board, give us a message from the ghost.” It was absolutely quiet in the room, the only movement was five sets of index and middle fingers quivering with anticipation on the planchette. Suddenly the planchette moved. “G E T O U T,” it spelled, “Y O U W I L D I E.” The girls, including Karen all shrieked with terror. The basement lights switched on. Now the scariest thing in the room was the look on their dad’s face.
“What are you doing down here?,” he demanded, looking at the burning candle. “What’s all the racket?”
“Playing with a Ouija board, Dad,” Linda said. “We were just playing around and got kinda scared.” Their dad stomped down the stairs, and grabbed the board and planchette. “You’re in trouble Linda, Karen you too.” He looked around at Linda’s three friends. “I’m telling your parents. Now go to bed, all of you. Karen, get back upstairs to your room.”
Linda and Karen stayed in their rooms the next day, until their dad summoned them to the kitchen. “I’m disappointed with you girls,” their dad said. “You know better than that. You aren’t supposed to be playing those kind of games.”
Their mom pulled out one of Linda’s Sunday school lessons. “Weren’t you paying attention in Catechism?,” she asked. “You know darn well you aren’t supposed to be playing with Ouija boards. Listen this time” She read to them out loud from the pamphlet.
“CCC 2116: All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to conjure up the dead or ‘unveil’ the future.” Their mom paused. “That means tarot cards, palm reading, and this also means the Ouija board. We’re throwing it in the garbage.”
“This also means you are both grounded for a week,” their dad said. “Linda, I’m surprised at you. I think you should provide a better example for your younger sister.” That was the last time Karen used or even thought about the Ouija board. But here one was, hidden in Linda’s dresser.
Karen looked out the window and noticed it was dark. The sun was setting, she had lost track of time. She was hungry, but didn’t feel like cooking in that kitchen. She thought she’d pick up some food from the North State Cafe, her favorite place to eat in Ukiah. Karen hopped in her Prius and headed to the North State. She ordered mushroom pasta to go, sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of wine while she waited.
“Karen Dwyer?’ said the bartender. She looked up. He looked familiar but she couldn’t immediately place him. “Mike Dunn” he said. “From high school. Don’t tell me you forgot the mighty Wildcats.” He grinned, and suddenly she recognized the boy she knew in 1979.
“Of course I remember you,” Karen said. “I can’t believe you remember me. How have you been?”
“My family’s good, thanks. Seems your family’s been in the news lately,” he said. “Sorry to hear about your sister. We were really upset. It hasn’t been that great for Linda since she found Jim dead in the back yard from a heart attack.” He stopped and looked at at her face. “I guess you must taking care of your sister’s house and other stuff. Sorry, I hope I’m not being rude.”
“You aren’t,” Karen said. “It just happened, it’s still a shock.” She sipped her wine. “Had you seen much of Linda lately?”
“Not really,” he said. “She quit going to church right after Jim died. We were surprised, they used to be there every Sunday. I guess she didn’t want everybody to keep asking her how she was. I’d see her now and then at the Walmart, but we never talked. Everybody know she was a saint to stay with Jim; he was probably the biggest creep in Mendocino County. No offense.”
“None taken,” Karen said. “We all knew what he was. I’m just sorry Linda married him in the first place. I don’t have to hide it from you. Everybody in town knew he beat the hell out of her.” Karen looked at Mike. “I know your folks tried to help her out,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
“If there’s anything I can do for you,” he said, “let me know. Your sister was a good lady who married a piece of shit. I’m sorry about what happened.”
A waitress appeared with her order in a plastic bag. “Thanks Mike,” she said. “It was nice to see you. Say hi to your folks for me.” She paid the waitress, grabbed a handful of paper napkins and left.
Karen stopped at a little grocery store and bought a bottle of white wine. She drove back to Linda’s place, still thinking about Mike Dunn. She could go for weeks in San Francisco and never run into anyone she knew. In Ukiah, people from her past popped up with alarming regularity. She liked her home town, but she couldn’t wait to get back to the anonymity of the city.
Karen wasn’t about to eat in the kitchen, so she sat down on the living room sofa. She ate her pasta and drank a glass of wine in silence. The cable was disconnected, so watching TV wasn’t an option. Jesus stared at her sadly from his perch on the cross, in plastic eternal pain. INRI indeed. She looked at the Ouija board on the coffee table, popped open the lid and started reading the directions.
“Ah, yes,” Karen read on the box, “the Ouija board will reveal all.” She read the instructions on the underside of the lid. They were fairly short; apparently communicating with the spirit world was simple. Remove the felt from the planchette feet, check. Use the Ouija board in a dark room, check. Be open and respectful to the spirit world, check. Never use the Ouija board alone. Now there was a obstacle. She laughed, and decided she could manage.
Karen put the planchette on the board. She looked around, found a candle next to the Virgin Mary on the mantel, and lit it. Shadows flickered in the dusty room. She put both her index and middle fingers on the planchette, and stared through the little glass hole on the top. “Is there anyone here?” she asked, giggling. She felt like she was nine again, playing with Linda and her friends.
“Is there anyone here from the beyond?” she demanded in a sterner voice, drawing on years of watching cheesy horror films with Neal. “Speak to me spirit. Is anyone here?” The planchette jerked to the top of the board, and hovered over the YES. Karen pulled her hands away in surprise. She poured herself another glass of wine. Her subconscious must be working overtime tonight.
She took a sip of wine and stared at the board. Karen positioned her fingers again on the planchette, lightly this time. “Spirit, make your presence known,” she said out loud. “Are you a friendly spirit?
There was no waiting.. The planchette immediately lurched to the right and stopped at NO. “Why are you here?” Karen asked. “Are you someone I know?” YES the planchette responded. “Who are you?” she demanded, “I want you to reveal yourself.” The planchette was still. She waited for a few minutes, got up and poured herself another glass of wine.
Karen thought a few minutes about Linda. She wondered what it would have been like if Linda had left both Ukiah and Jim behind. In late night conversations, Linda explained to Karen that this wasn’t an option because of the kids. Linda never went to college, and she would insist she had no practical job skills. Maybe she felt trapped, with no alternatives but the life she chose for herself at nineteen.
There were a lot of late night phone conversations when Karen talked to Linda about leaving Jim. Linda would agree at first, but then would insist he was a good father and a good provider. Karen would insist he was an abuser, the kind who would never change. Linda always told Karen, at the end of those calls, that she would give Jim one more chance. If he ever hit her again, she would leave. And he always hit her again.
One by one their kids left home, never to return. Except for those late night calls, Linda was on her own. Karen knew she should have tried harder with Linda, had Neal help her move out of that house. But Karen never could convince her to leave.
“Oh God,” she said, her face in her hands. “I never meant to abandon Linda, to leave her alone with that asshole.” Jesus stared down at her silently, acrylic blood dripping down from his plastic crown of thorns.
She sat back down in front of the board. Her subconscious mind was far more active then she realized. “Spirit, are you my sister Linda?,” she asked, smiling. NO revealed the planchette. “Well then, who are you?,” Linda demanded. The planchette jerked back and forth around the board. G E T O U T.
“Did Linda use this Ouija board,” she asked. YES. “Did Linda use this board on the night she died?” YES. “Do you know how she died?” YES. Karen took her fingers off the planchette. She obviously drank too much wine on an empty stomach. The planchette flew off the coffee table and skittered across the living room floor. “This is getting ridiculous,” Karen said out loud. Her voice sounded strange and hollow in the empty living room.
She was angry at herself now. She grabbed the Ouija board and the planchette and set it on the kitchen table. “Who are you,” she asked. “Did you hurt my sister.” YES. “Why,” she asked grimly, “Why the hell would you do that?” G E T O U T.
Karen thought a couple of minutes. All logic was abandoned at this point. She poured the last of the wine into her glass. “Are you Jim,” she asked. The planchette jerked to the left. YES.
“Didn’t you hurt her enough before you died,” she said furiously. “Didn’t you ruin her life and your kids lives too? They all hated you.” She took a deep breath, and realized she was talking to a game from the seventies. Whatever. She was dealing with her grief in full California mode, and decided to run with it. She made a mental note to call her therapist for an emergency appointment the minute she got back to San Francisco.
“What happened,” she asked the board angrily. “What happened to Linda?” I K N O C K E D H E R O U T F O R G O O D.
Karen shoved the board and her wine glass off the table. The old plastic planchette and the glass shattered on the kitchen floor. Karen wasn’t about to pick up this new mess. It wasn’t her fault. Maybe she should have tried harder, but she was no avenging angel and maybe Linda didn’t want to be saved. She guessed Linda stared at plastic suffering Jesus on his cross every night and figured he had it worse than she ever did.
Karen grabbed her things and ran to the house next door. She rang Mrs. Larson’s bell. The porch light turned on and the door opened as far as the chain would permit.
“Mrs. Larson,” she asked. “Can I spend the night here? I’m too tired to drive back.”
“Of course you can dear, ” Mrs. Larson said, her eyes searching Karen’s face. “Why didn’t you stay at Linda’s? Did something spook you? You’ll have to tell me all about it.” Karen took a deep breath and walked inside.
What have I gotten myself into – by Dalmatia Fleming
Ellen made the long trip from Grandma and Grandpa’s house back to her family. It was good to see them again, she had missed them but she couldn’t help but feel like a failure for not being strong enough to leave the cult for good.
Her parents seemed happy to see her but they were guarded. Everyone in the cult acted that way towards her. No mention was made of her having left and returned whatsoever. Not even to rub it in. Ellen half expected that. It was as though she never left. Only her sisters and a few others secretly ask her what it was like out there: where did she stay, how did she earn money, did she make friends easily, what were the people like; questions like these.
Leaving the cult seemed impossible while in it. Everyone knew that few had the connections or skills required to survive “out there”. After all, English was spoken in the cult, they were never taught the first language of the country where they lived. They picked up a little here and there, but integration into the local culture was not part of the cult’s plan. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The only time the cult interacted with the locals was to ask them for handouts.
Ellen immediately began to plan her next escape.
One year later Ellen left again, but this time she didn’t venture quite so far geographically. She simply left the cult and moved to the big city. Here she again landed a job as a hostess, but this time in a club frequented by successful businessmen. Her tall height, slender build and strawberry blond hair were considered quite exotic in this locale and surely played a part in securing this sought after position.
Ellen quickly picked up the language. Soon she had a good rapport with the regulars and was working all they busy nights. She also became quite a draw in her own right; the regulars would bring their friends to see the beautiful and exotic young foreigner.
Business was good and Ellen earned a lot in tips. She shared a tiny two bedroom apartment with a young local woman, Yasuko, who worked first shift as a nurse. Yasuko was trying to make it on her own as well and had her own challenges to overcome. They could relate to each other and became fast friends. Most days they had about two hours between each of their respective work shifts when they would hang out in the apartment together, talk about their dreams and obstacles and always have a few good laughs.
“Yasuko, I don’t know what I said or did, but I get the feeling this guy wants me to perform sexual favors for him. Maybe for his friends too. It really creeps me out.”
“What’s he doing, why do you say that?”
“Well, he keeps running his hand up and down my back and sort of pats me. It’s just creepy. I have to be nice to him, he’s a customer. And he has started to give me bigger tips as well. I think he wants something.”
”It does sound that way, doesn’t it.”
“Then, he keeps bringing in new friends of his, different men all the time. He makes a point of introducing them to me. I don’t like the way they’re looking at me.”
“I’m sorry about that Ellen. Can you think of anything… ANYTHING that you did differently or said before this started.”
“…Well… I remember that I complemented him on his new suit one day. He always wore a black suit, white shirt and dark colored tie. Then one day he came in wearing this really cool sort of mossy green, khaki green suit with a black turtleneck. He looked so much more hip than usual. I told him so …oh no… he thinks I’m interested in him?”
“Yes, that’s it! Single women NEVER tell ANY men they look attractive. It’s just not done.”
“…oh… well, I didn’t tell him he looked attractive… I think…”
“It doesn’t matter, you’ve said too much. He thinks you’re waving him in.”
“Oh my God! Why did I say that…Ellen… when will you learn to think before you open your mouth!”
…one week later…
“Yasuko, Mr. Yamaguchi tried to corner me right by the elevator. I think he was trying to get me in there. I managed to squirm away by saying I had to attend to the group of people who just walked through the door. I’m starting to run out of excuses to get away from him. I think I’m going to have to tell my manager.”
“No, don’t do that!”
“Why not? He’s starting to scare me.”
“You can’t do that. You have no rights to do that. You’ll lose your job.”
…another week later…
“Yasuko, Mr. Yamaguchi invited me to some filming set that some movie-guy friend of his owns. It’s next Saturday.”
“Well, of course I’m not going.”
“What’s this movie-guy’s name anyway?”
“…um… something like Shimogawa .”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“That’s the mafia! DO NOT GO!”
“I’m not, I’m not! … Holy crap! … What have I gotten myself into?!”
…two days later…
“Yasuko, I’m going back to the US. I checked my bank account and I’ve saved a ton of money. I’ve gotta get out of here. Got my ticket, I’m leaving tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m calling in sick. The creepy thing is that Mr. Yamaguchi knows where I live, so that means Shimojima probably does as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they showed up here. So please keep all the blinds closed until I’m outta here.”
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“Well, I can’t leave tomorrow, but maybe I can meet up with you soon.”
The fog covered the city for days. Where it came from no one knew. Meteorologists on the radio speculated about air inversions and arctic marine layers and jet-stream irregularities. On the lower frequency channels, radical environmentalists called the event the manifestation of global climate change. Some even suggested it was a delayed environmental response to the radioactive seawater that had escaped Fukushima during the Japanese disaster and was now coursing against the Northwest, pushed by the Pacific Ocean currents. But Geiger counters on campus detected nothing beyond “normal” radiation levels, so no radiation alarms were sounded. None of the scientists could explain the thickest, densest, fog that had ever been seen in Seattle (if it could be said to be “seen,” so thick and nullifying was its presence, that those who ventured out into it seemed to become befuddled and had to be dragged back indoors. Many simply disappeared into the fog, never to be seen or heard from again). The fog draped over them all like a malignant curse, causing calamity and confusion and bringing an end to normal life.
The city succumbed to the shroud quickly and in many ways. All flights were cancelled in short order due to the lack of visibility. The instruments normally used in such extreme conditions were no match for the heavy particles that sat on the airfield. Planes were diverted to Portland and Vancouver, after pilots coming in for landings found their instruments, both digital and traditional altimeters, all became erratic within ½ mile of SeaTac. Atmospheric pressure gauges showed a density of atmosphere that defied logic. The other cities were completely unaffected by the foul vapors that enveloped Seattle. On Puget Sound, ferries and other boats futilely blew foghorns, the honking blasts echoing across the bay but never seeming to arrive at shore. Water transport was abandoned for fear of the vessels careening into one another, for the density of the fog was so intense, even the radar equipment failed. Scientists speculated that fine grains of mercury were suspended in the vaporized water, wreaking havoc on the instrument readings. But no one could capture any of the gaseous air for analysis. It simply defied the normal properties of a vapor. Nothing and no one was a match against the white substance, as Al found out on his way to the store.
Al Harsten’s was home in West Seattle watching the Monday Night football game when the fog rolled in. He saw the newsflash crawl across the bottom of the screen just before the television went dark. It read, “A dense marine layer is approaching Seattle. DOL asks that drivers stay off the roads and to exercise extreme caution if driving can not be avoided.” Then the screen went black.
“Shit!” Al exclaimed to the blank screen. The Hawks had been kicking a field goal that would put them up 3-0 over the San Francisco 49ers, when the ball seemed to just disappear into the fog that was creeping up the goal stanchions. Then the warning message had rolled and now the screen was blank.
“This blows.” Al said to the dog, who was stretched out on his side in front of the blank television screen. The dog briefly thumped his tail on the floor, mistaking Al’s comments as an invitation to go for a walk. But sensing the disgruntled tone of his master’s voice the dog quieted his tail, and slumped back onto his side with a sigh.
Getting up from his lazy-boy recliner, Al glanced out the window. The incandescent porch- light cast a yellowish tint on the incoming fog. He saw the white cloud hugging close to the ground and coming towards his house. It began oozing over the 5’ hedge and swirling into his front yard, like a noxious fume.
“That can’t be good!” Al proclaimed to no one in particular. He opened the door to the mists and smelled the air for any signs of what it might be. The dog came up behind him and sniffed the air as well. But the fog was odorless and gave no clues as to its source. Feeling the need to do something, Al grabbed his Seahawks ball cap and keys off the hook by the door and headed out towards the truck he parked alongside the house. “C’mon Charlie,” he called to the dog. Charlie hesitated at the door but then hopped down the steps towards Al. It was almost impossible to see the truck even at such a close distance. Al reached out his hands to prevent himself from running head first into any unseen objects and was relieved when he felt the cold metal of the truck. Sitting behind the wheel Al considered where they might go. He turned the key and the truck sluggishly chugged to life. “Sounds like the carb needs some more tuning” Al informed Charlie, who sat stoically alongside him in the truck. Al turned the headlights on, flicking between high beams and low beams, to see if either offered more visibility through the dense wall of white. Neither did much of anything other that throw a white glare back. “We’ll just have to go by feel then,” Al said.
Backing out of the driveway, Al turned slowly onto the street in front of his house. He could barely see the bluish glow of the streetlight, which normally blazed like a 10,000 watt star since they’d put in the new LED lights. He’d been meaning to complain to someone about the new lights, but now he sort of admired that they were the only light source able to penetrate the fog. “Maybe we should try the hardware store for some of those new fancy bulbs!” Al declared. With a new sense of purpose he pushed on the accelerator and felt the truck shudder to a stop. They’d barely made it to the end of the block. Charlie looked at him dejectedly.
“Well buddy, looks like we’re going to have to find our way back home in this pea soup.” They both climbed out of the truck and into the cold mist. Al felt the fog against his skin like a cold and clammy hand that was trying to reach down the collar of his jacket. He tugged at the zipper trying to seal out the icy fingers but the fog was unstoppable and quickly engulfed Al in its smoky embrace. Choking on the baleful air, Al turned back to the truck opening the door for Charlie to hop in first. The dog turned to look at his master as he sank to his knees with his hands clawing at the collar of his jacket. Al felt Charlie’s warm tongue lick his nose. Summoning his last bit of strength Al pushed the dog into the cab of the truck and pushed the door closed behind him.
When the fog lifted many were surprised to find a lone dog, waiting in a pick-up truck parked in the middle of the street. His owner was never located and Charlie went on to live a long happy life with a family at the end of the block, although he never would go outside on foggy NW mornings.
Foggy Morning with Larry by Tom Gaffney
He remembered the blood spot where her head had hit the edge of the tub when she fell. The water in the shower sounded like rain, steady, impervious. He wrapped her in towels and a robe as they waited for the ambulance and the paramedics. The lights swirling around the darkened street: the neighborhood reflected something he had not seen before, unmasked, frail and sad where it had once been comforting and warm. A place he loved.
This morning it was pretty, in a gray way. He remembered when it was easy to love the fog, its damp blanket and gray stillness evoking some other place or mood. A place to hide or a place to solve mysteries. Now though, it just seemed a thin blanket keeping him from the world at large. A soiled blanket of stagnant air at that. Like many things this fall, his mood wavered. But today, or this morning at least, he was glad of the fog, it was allowing for a slow wakefulness, an extended end to dream time where you wanted to sip your coffee slowly: be awake, but not too awake.
He and Larry wandered, off leash, down through the meadow towards the lake. It was preferable to a summer morning: no one was around. Felt like the whole neighborhood was still asleep. He and the dog would be wet by the time they got home, wandering through the tall grass. Until last week, Larry had been the only one whose aging he had been overly concerned with. The rotten mutt, named against gender by a kid who was now a burgeoning adult, who had now been his morning companion for a dozen years, was getting old. She no longer liked walks at night and if it was raining could be tempted no further from the house than completion of her business. Then it was back to the couch she had long since seized with her relentless pursuit of a comfortable snooze spot.
She seemed spry this morning though, enjoying the cool air. Her hips did not seem to be bothering her today. Her hair was no longer black really; it was gray with black flecks. They had talked about what they were going to do when she got too old to move. They had even talked about replacing her, laughing as they remembered the pledges, next time: obedience school. We’ll never let a dog run the house again. He dreaded her being gone.
He had originally been against the dog, fought it for a long time. It was not long before Larry had won his heart and he could not imagine life without her. On occasion he resented how the duties around her care had become mainly his, or how they had been right about him falling in love with the creature. Nowadays though he worried, never more so than when she would not go out.
Determined to savor this morning’s easy pace, in light of recent mornings and mornings to come he put it out of his mind. He remembered birds that were not there this morning – herons and swallows. He listened to the crows yelling at each other. This morning was really quiet and as they turned right at the lake the blanket of fog became more distinct. Across the bay he could see the park and the fog edging in near the tree tops. He could see the trees in their orange and green, and the water rippled in the slight breeze. Down here at the water the air was colder. Pleasingly, it justified the extra layer he had put on. The fog, the chill, the fleece were all extra blankets he could relax under.
It is just what happens, to everyone, he thought: to me, to Larry, to Sheila. It is what happens if we are lucky and get a chance to live long enough to contemplate what’s happening. To love it, and hate it, and sometimes wish it had never happened. Then one day you will not be here, but the meadow and the lake and the birds will all still be here. Hopefully, the people and the dogs will carry on as if you never happened.
Like a wave collapsing he had not gotten upset until he had reached out to keep everyone up to date. Their daughter, Sheila’s mom, their neighbors and friends. It amazed him how his responsibility was to make so many phone calls at a time of calamity. To talk to so many people. Most of them were perfunctory, but as soon as he had heard his daughter’s voice the tide seemed to knock him, and it was soon apparent who was propping who up. He had soon realized the calls weren’t his duty, but his need.
Everyone had been so nice. Straight up, no nonsense, helpful: firemen, hospital staff, the doctors. He remembered the nice young guy telling him they were going to take good care of his wife. He had this sculpted unshaved look, handsome but looked like a kid, really. He showed him to the waiting room, told him he would be the anesthesiologist during his wife’s procedure. At that moment he felt like he had withered into an old man in an instant.
She might even be alright. Still don’t know why it happened, though there is still plenty of time to be spent at the hospital waiting for appointments and test results. She was kind to him as well, helping him not to worry. The fact that that was not a surprise, he savored that. But they had both been scared, and he realized that was something they would have to get used to.
Meanwhile, there was work to be done, routines to be returned to.
He watched Larry nosing through the grass, stopping here and there. Checking her mail. He looked out towards the island and noticed patches appearing in gray cover. The fog was beginning to lift. Time to get back to it, wishing there was a breath of wind.
Here comes the sun.
“Come on Larry. Let’s go.”
He and the aging dog reluctantly turned their backs to the water and headed home.
“My god,” cried Rachel, “I never meant to walk out of the store without paying, it just happened!”
The security guard stared at her. “It just happened,” he parroted. “How do you just happen to forget to pay for a $4000 purse?”
“I don’t know! But I wasn’t trying to steal anything.”
Rachel gulped. She knew she was serious trouble. She looked around the room, its plain white walls and tacky posters seemed to crowd in on her. She looked down at the folding table in front of her and saw the purse that had started it all. How did this happen, she thought. How could she have gotten caught?
It had started out so easy, shoplifting. A lipstick hidden in her hand, a nail polish stuffed deep into her pocket. No one ever saw her nick anything when she was in stores. Soon, shoplifting small items had escalated to taking clothes and food and even one time, a bike.
Rachel enjoyed the thrill that shoplifting gave her. It made her feel special and like she had a secret that no one knew. She loved the adrenaline rush of doing something bad and whenever she felt a little down, she knew that it could be quickly remedied by the thrill of the steal.
Lately though, she had been feeling a bit low and it seemed as though nothing would help. The rushes were getting smaller and smaller and Rachel knew that the only way to combat her wretched state was by stealing a big ticket item. And she knew just what it was going to be.
She had had her eye on the purse for some now. It sat in the store window, calling out to her every time she passed. She knew that the buttery leather would be oh so soft to the touch and that the buckles would sparkle like bright stars. The beautiful grey color would match everything in her wardrobe and she would use it every day. This purse was the purse to end all purses and Rachel had to have it.
It had taken Rachel a little while to scope out the logistics of the store and to figure out the sensors and antitheft devices. She grimaced as she thought of all the tea and coffee she drank sitting in the cafe across the street from the store, watching. By the time she was ready she had figured out that there were always two security guards in the store, one by the door and one that roamed the floor. The sensors were regular sensors, nothing fancy or high-tech, and Rachel knew that a sensor could get up to five feet from the door before the alarm went off. She watched the women, and sometimes men, that patronized the store. She studied how they browsed and walked around the store and interacted with the sales people. She timed how long the average customer shopped and she took note of their mannerisms and demeanors.
Rachel learned all of this and the day finally came when she was prepared to make her move. She dressed in her nicest clothes (stolen, of course) and brushed her hair until it shined. She applied her makeup sparingly, as she had observed that the women who frequented the store had a classic, but stylish, look. Rachel had learned a long time ago that one of the best skills to have, when shoplifting, was the ability to blend in with the other customers.
Her heart was pounding as she walked into the store. She glanced around, eyeing the security officers subtlety. Just as she had planned, one was standing by the entrance, watching everyone enter and exit. The other was standing on the right side of the store, near to where Rachel’s soon to be purse was stationed. Rachel took a deep breath and slowly began walking around the store, stopping every few minutes to lift up a purse and admire it. She would pick up the purse, hold it up to her eyesight, and twist it around to see the front and back. She made a display of looking inside the purses, to see how much room there was and to check if it would hold all her things. A couple of the purses, she would try them on, and put them over her shoulder. She walked over to the mirror and turned this way and that way, to see how the purse looked when she was carrying it. She carried it over her shoulder, she held it down by her side in one hand, and she carried it in both hands in front of her body. Occasionally she would backtrack and pick up a purse that she had already tried on, and hold both purses out in front of herself, as if she couldn’t decide which one she liked more.
As Rachel made her way around the store closer to the purse in question, she squealed inside when she noticed that the security guard had wandered to a different section of the store. She waved off the sales associate that had popped up in front of her and told her that she was just looking. And then, Rachel arrived at the purse.
It looked even better up close in person, Rachel thought. She picked it up from the shelf and her fingers melted into the leather sides. She caressed the handles and placed the purse reverently over her shoulder. Looking in the mirror, Rachel was stunned at how perfect the purse looked tucked in close to her body and shivered in anticipation. She looked up and realized that the floor security guard was talking to the sales associated\ and the one at the door was looking in the other direction. This is it, she thought. She carefully slid the magnet out from her jacket pocket, enclosing it in her hand, and lightly skimmed the magnet along the metal sensor hanging from the tab.
Rachel was sure it had worked and now, the only thing left was to make her way out of the store. She continued walking along the aisles, stopping to pick up and admire more purses along the way. Rachel knew that the worst thing to do while shoplifting was to act like you were guilty, which is why she never rushed out of a store. She tried on another purse, this time on her opposite shoulder and smiled at her reflection in the mirror.
Rachel knew it was time to leave and she made her way to the exit of the store, the pilfered purse still hanging on her shoulder. She thought her plan was foolproof and stepped out onto the sidewalk and had just begun to celebrate her success when suddenly everything went to hell and the next thing Rachel knew she had been manhandled by the security guard into the back office where he and the store manager began to interrogate her.
Rachel had tried everything to get them to let her go. She had played the ditzy blonde, the haughty socialite, she had even cried and looked at the security guard and manager with her big blue eyes. But they just stared at her, unmoved.
What was going wrong, she thought. Tears had always gotten her out of fixes before.
“Can’t you just let me go?” asked Rachel. “You have your purse so technically I didn’t steal anything.”
The security guard crossed his arms. “Technically you walked out of the store without paying. We have you on tape demagnetizing the sensor,” he said. “Now you either fess up or we’re going to have to call the police.”
Rachel sighed in defeat. She was sure that she had been so sneaky, but she guessed she wasn’t.
LOCKHEED-VEGA – Daphne Bellflower
Helen sat quietly at the bar nursing her whiskey. Her glass was almost empty. She would have to order another or the bartender would glare at her, shaming her for sitting at the bar without a drink. She sighed and looked around at the small, dark room.
There were only a few people in Little Joy Cocktails this afternoon. She checked her watch and saw it was only 3:30. She had another hour to wait. At least the Little Joy, as the regulars all called it, was several degrees cooler than her apartment.
Business at the bar wouldn’t pick up until the workday was over. Then a steady stream of tired men and women would wander in, talk and drink for a few hours before staggering home. Helen was envious. She missed having something to do during the day.
“Mr. Lee,” she asked the unsmiling bartender, “could I get another Four Roses? On the rocks?”
The door swung open. For a moment the bright Los Angeles sun slashed the bar’s dim interior.
A wiry man ambled in and walked up to the bar. “Hey you,” he said to Mr. Lee, “I want a beer. Make it a Schlitz.” He tossed a few coins on the bar and looked around. He fixed his gaze on Helen, looked at her slim legs in their mended stockings, her full lips and her dark blonde hair.
“Are you dancing?” he asked her. Helen looked up, startled. She looked at the empty floor in front of the Wurlitzer. “Are you asking?” she said. She stared at him curiously. He was a stranger, she hadn’t seen him at the Little Joy before.
He grabbed his beer, and pulled a stool up next to her at the bar. He was glad to be inside, away from the glaring sun. He loved the weather here in Los Angeles, there was never snow and not much rain. But he had been outside for the past few days and wanted a break. He supposed Echo Park was a nice place for families, but the cops weren’t too accommodating to the men drinking and sleeping on park benches.
Today was different. He had a little money from doing odd jobs, the sort of things other people didn’t want to do. He usually made just enough to keep from going hungry and to buy cheap booze when he didn’t steal it from one of the vagrants at the park. Today he didn’t want to drink out of a brown paper bag, and he wanted to fuck a woman. The order this happened in didn’t much matter to him.
“Charlie Slocum,” he said, extending his hand. “Happy to meet you. What’s your name.?”
“Helen,” she said slowly, glancing at Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee avoided her gaze as he usually did, and continued polishing highball glasses with his grimy bar towel.
She tentatively shook his outstretched hand. He was about 30 she guessed, maybe a few years older than she was. He was tall and slim, with a smile so big it was almost a leer. He was sort of handsome, except for his left eye. His left eyelid drooped down, making it look like he was about to fall asleep.
“Why is such a pretty girl here by herself?’ he asked. He took a big gulp of beer, and used the back of his hand to wipe the foam off his upper lip. He looked at her left hand and saw the wedding ring with its pear-shaped diamond. “Aren’t you a married lady?” he asked, gesturing toward her ring.
“I’m guess I’m not married anymore” she said quietly, taking a sip of her whiskey. “My husband was killed in the war. I guess that makes me a widow.”
“Oh hey, I’m sorry.” he said, “I was in the war too. I was in the Army. Where did your husband serve? In Germany or France? England?” He took another drink of his beer.
Helen shook her head. “None of those places. He was in the Pacific. He was fighting in some islands I guess, but I don’t remember where. I don’t really care. His plane was shot down in 1944.”
“Now that’s a lucky coincidence,” he said excitedly, “I was in the Pacific too. I fought in Okinawa.”
She stared at him. “Why the heck do you think that’s lucky?,” she asked, taking another sip of her drink. “It sure wasn’t lucky for Bob.”
Helen tried not to say his name too often, or think about anything that came before 1942. It made her miss him too much. She’d known Bob since they were kids. They went together in high school, and got married as soon as they graduated. But then Pearl Harbor happened, and he went away and didn’t come back. Not even his body. That was somewhere in the Pacific, or so they told her.
Charlie looked at her carefully. She wasn’t the type he usually went for when he wanted to get laid. Helen seemed a little too ladylike for his tastes. Still, she was drinking cheap whiskey. In his experience, whiskey eventually triumphed over good manners. It was always a matter of time.
“Sorry Helen,” he said, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m a stranger here and it’s hard for a guy like me to meet people. Los Angeles is a big city.” He finished his beer. “Another beer over here,” he said sliding his glass down the bar like a cowboy in a western movie. Mr. Lee glared.
“Where are you from?” she asked, forcing herself to take a small sip. She didn’t want to drink too fast because she didn’t want to spend too much money. Bob’s Air Force benefit check was almost gone this month. Helen had just enough for a couple days worth of food, drinks and her rent.
“Idaho,” he said, “Wallace, Idaho. It’s way up north. Little tiny town. That’s where everybody in my family lives.”
“Why don’t you live Wallace, Idaho?” Helen asked. “You wouldn’t be a stranger then. You probably know everybody who lives there, right?” She smoothed her skirt over her legs. He had scooted his bar stool a little closer to hers. She wasn’t sure she liked it.
He laughed. “I bet you never been to Wallace, Idaho.” he said. “Sure, I guess it’s all right. But there’s nothing to do there but work in the silver mines. Everybody I know works in the mines from sunup to sundown. My dad and my brothers too. That’s no kind of life for a man. You never see the daylight.”
He shook his head and laughed. “I was actually happy when the war started,” he said. “It gave me an excuse to get myself the hell out of Wallace.” He watched her eyes widen. “Beg your pardon ma’am. Sometimes I forget my language when I’m around a lady.” She blushed. “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re prettier than the girls I knew back in Wallace.”
Helen stared at her whiskey glass, almost empty now. She remembered her afternoons during the war. She sure wasn’t sitting in a bar. After most of the men left Los Angeles to fight, the factories needed extra help making bombs and the planes to drop them out of. Because labor was scarce, women started going to work.
Her mom was the one who convinced Helen to apply at the factory. A lot of her old high school friends already worked at the Burbank plant. She could take the bus there. Her mom said she’d watch Andy and Jane so she didn’t have to worry about them. She thought a lot about those days. She missed working and she missed making her own money.
“Hey,” he said, pulling her sleeve. “You aren’t listening to me. I asked you how long you’ve lived in Los Angeles.” Helen swallowed the last of her whiskey. “I was born here,” she said. “I grew up in Glendale. Bob and his family lived across the street from us. We knew each other when we were kids.” She paused. “My mom still lives in Glendale. Dad died right after the war ended.”
“Another drink for the lady,” he said, motioning grandly to Mr. Lee. “And I’ll get another beer. Keep ’em coming.” He leaned over and whispered in Helen’s ear, “I thought Los Angeles got rid of all the Japs when the war started.”
She shook her head. “I think Mr. Lee is Chinese,” she whispered back. “That’s why he’s still here.”
“Japs, chinks, I could care less,” he said. “They should all get out of here. Mexicans too. One thing I miss about Idaho, well only whites live there. They’d run this guy out of town.”
Mr. Lee set the drinks down in front of them. “No tab,” he said, “you pay now. ” Mr. Lee waited, arms crossed until he handed him a dollar. “No change,” Mr. Lee said, and walked off.
“Let’s toast,” he said, turning to face her. “Here’s a toast to pretty Helen and sunny Los Angeles.” He took a big drink of beer and smiled.
Helen sipped her third whiskey. She was less nervous of him now. He seemed friendly, just looking for someone to talk to. Los Angeles was pretty big to somebody from Idaho she supposed. Also he had been in the war, in the Pacific just like Bob. Except he had come back.
“What’s your name again,” she asked, her words slightly slurred. “Charlie Slocum,” he said, grinning. “Private Charlie Slocum at your service.”
“Well Charlie,” she said, “What kind of work do you do? Why are you here in the middle of the day?”
“I’m between jobs,” he said. “I do a little bit here, a little bit there. You know, janitor work, warehouse work, odd jobs.” He finished his beer and signaled for another. “Just trying to figure out how to make a living here.”
“Don’t you get money for being in the war?” she asked. “I get a check every month for Bob. I thought all the veterans got GI benefits.” He had scooted his bar stool even closer. She could feel his leg touching hers.
“I’m still working that out” he said. “Only the big war heroes like your husband get money right away. It’s always that way.” He shook his head in mock disgust, his left eye drooping lower with each beer. This distracted Helen, but she tried not to stare. Maybe it had happened in the war.
“What time is it,” she asked him abruptly. She hadn’t noticed people wandering into the bar. He was distracting her. She could still feel his leg against hers. Helen wasn’t sure she liked it, but she hadn’t moved it away.
He looked at his watch. “5:15,” he said. “Do you have to go somewhere?” He looked at her face, flushed now with whiskey.
“I have to meet my building super,” Helen said. “There’s something wrong with my kitchen sink. The water won’t drain. But now I’m late.” She shook her head, frustrated. “I was supposed to meet him at my place at 4:30. Now I’ve got another night with no sink. He never fixes anything.”
“Well,” he said, “your’e in luck. I can fix a sink just as well as your super. And you won’t have to wait anymore. Let me do it.” He searched her face. She looked away, shaking her head no.
“Why not?,” he insisted. “I fix your sink, you don’t have to call your super, and we can grab a bottle of Four Roses on the way to your place.” He grinned again.
Helen didn’t respond. She suddenly felt old and tired. She was 27-year-old woman with two kids. At least he was being nice to her, telling her she was pretty. She knew she had too much too drink, that the whiskey was letting her trust a stranger. But she had a sink full of greasy water and only the radio to keep her company. Charlie talked a lot, but at least he seemed nice.
“All right,” she said, “you can fix my sink, we can have one drink, then you have to leave.” Helen looked him in the eyes, attempting to ignore that left eyelid. “Agreed?” She eased herself off her bar stool, straightened her skirt, and weaved toward the door in her high heels.
Charlie opened the door for her. She took a deep breath to clear her head. It was a beautiful evening. It had cooled down, and the sky was turning a soft purple-green as the sun set over Chavez Ravine. She turned to him. “There’s a liquor store on Sunset. I live around the corner on Quintero.”
“Hey, you live really close to this bar,” he said. LITTLE JOY COCKTAILS blinked on and off, on and off in neon perpetuity. “Why do you think I come here,” she asked. “For the clientele?”
He went into the liquor store and returned with a pint of Four Roses sticking out of a paper bag. “Let’s fix that sink.”
They walked silently to her apartment. She lived in a little courtyard complex, a U-shaped stucco building with laundry lines criss-crossing the walkway. Helen unlocked her door and they stepped in.
“Sorry about the smell,” she said. “The sink’s been this way for a couple of days.” She felt woozy from the whiskey and the hot apartment. She wondered if she had made a mistake.
“That’s all right, I can fix it.” He ducked beneath the sink and worked for a few minutes, jiggling this, shaking that. After about 3 minutes he stopped. “I can’t fix it,” he said. “Something’s stuck in there pretty good. I think your super needs to take care of it.”
Her face fell. “Hey, hey, hey, let’s take our mind off of this. Get us a couple of glasses.” He looked at her pale face. In the kitchen light she looked tired. She was not as young as he first thought. But he was inside her apartment. Things were proceeding the way they always did. He was lucky that way.
He poured them each a stiff drink. “Let’s toast,” he said. “This is great. Two toasts in one day. To Helen.” He clinked her glass and they both drank.
He looked around her dim apartment, and saw a framed photo on the mantel. He picked it up. “Who are these girls?” he asked. “Is this you in the overalls?”
Helen looked at the photo and smiled. It was her and the other girls posing for a photo on the wing of a big plane. They all worked at the Lockheed-Vega airplane factory in Burbank. It was exciting for enough for Helen to work, let alone work in a place like that.
She was thrilled that the factory’s real purpose was completely secret. From the air, even from surrounding hillsides, the factory looked like a regular neighborhood. The government had hired people from the movie studios to disguise Lockheed-Vega with huge painted burlap tarps, little houses, rubber cars, and real bushes and trees. If the enemy flew over, they wouldn’t know it was a massive factory. When Helen first saw the what was beneath the tarps, she couldn’t believe it.
“That’s me and my friends at the plant,” Helen said. “We helped make airplanes at the Lockheed-Vega factory. I loved working there. I had my own money and a lot of girlfriends. It was a top-secret place to work, I had to pass a security check just to walk in.” She paused. “Bob was still alive when we took that picture.”
He glanced around the apartment. He didn’t know she had kids, and he wouldn’t be here if he he did. He had no interest in wasting time on people or things that didn’t benefit him. He had no use for children, he preferred dogs. He always threw his food scraps to stray dogs first, angering the other vagrants at Echo Park.
She watched his eyes searching the apartment. “They aren’t here,” Helen said. “They live with my Mom. She took care of them when I worked at the plant. She helped me when Bob died .” She blinked away tears. “I think it’s better if they stay with Mom for a while. I can’t take care of much these days.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
That was it, he thought, there’s my chance. He grabbed her glass, put it on the table, and kissed her, hard. She jerked away, but he pulled her back. “You’ve had your drink, now go away,” she said. “You didn’t even try to fix the sink. Go away, I don’t want you here anymore.”
But he didn’t go away. He jerked her skirt up and shoved his hand down her panties. She tried to scream, but he clamped his hand over her mouth. He backed her up against the kitchen wall and fumbled with his belt. She hadn’t eaten all day and was drunk from the whiskey. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, but it had never been awful like this. She kept her eyes closed tight.
He finished, and pulled up his pants. She ran into her bedroom and slammed the door. He heard her sobbing. Gradually it got quiet. He lit a cigarette and drained the last of the whiskey from the bottle. He smiled and looked around. All in all, it had a good day.
He saw Helen’s purse on the sofa. Helen had finally stopped sobbing, the only sounds coming from the bedroom were gentle snores. He pulled Helen’s wallet out, took all the carefully folded bills, and stuffed them in his back pocket.
“Helen,” he said softly. “Are you awake?” He listed intently through the closed door. The gentle snoring continued, uninterrupted. He slowly turned the knob and opened the door. She was sprawled across the bed, asleep or passed out. He didn’t care which.
“Helen,” he whispered. He shook her a little but she didn’t stir. He looked around her bedroom. It was sparsely furnished, only a bed and shabby chest of drawers. He looked at the single framed photo on her dresser. Helen sat smiling next to a dark-haired man with a boy on his lap. She held a baby in her arms.
He looked at Helen’s wedding ring, the diamond glinting in the dim light. He tip-toed to the bed, slipped the ring off her finger, and backed out of the bedroom. With the money from her wallet and the ring, he wouldn’t have to scramble for at least two weeks. Maybe he’d get a room tonight. He smiled and walked out of her apartment.
He laughed to himself as he strolled down Quintero. Women were so easy to fool. “Okinawa”, he said, and laughed. The most action he saw during the war was at boot camp in Alabama. He didn’t even make it through basic training. The Army kicked him out after he held a knife to a recruit’s throat during a poker game that wasn’t going his way. He was glad he missed the war. But a dishonorable discharge translated into zero benefits.
But tonight that was all right. He turned and walked east on Sunset. Maybe he’d go back to Little Joy Cocktails. It was still early. He looked at his watch. It was 9:30. He had plenty of money and plenty of time. At least he wasn’t in Idaho.
“What’s the matter darling, you seem so quiet this morning?” Chris rolled into the middle of the bed and reached over lightly touching Kris’ shoulder.
Kris pulled away without turning. “Oh shit after last night I sometimes wonder just who the fuck are you? I mean, lately you’ve been so different and strange when you’re high. It’s like I don’t even know you. And last night you were really high, let me tell you.”
“Well, that’s a mean thing to say, who the fuck am I indeed. Please. You are the one who always has to get high in the first place telling me to chill out. You know me, you’ve always known me.”
“You don’t have to remind me. Last night was rough. Everything was so crazy. To tell you the truth, I was still drunk from the night before. You know I can’t drink Tequila and I drank way too many Mojito’s.”
“Last night was all your idea. Do you remember? You were the one who told Jerry to meet us at the club. You were the one who told him to bring us some really good shit. You were the one who wanted to be on a triple high. You know I have a problem with coke. What were you trying to do to me?”
“Well, you didn’t have to embarrass me like that.” The images of Chris’ wild and crazy on the dance floor flooded her memory. They got to the Odyssey late, right around midnight. The music was thumping. They found a booth and Jerry found them. He sold Kris a fat gram of coke, two ecstasy tabs, some skunk weed in pre-packed vapes, a couple of valiums and two old-fashioned cris-cross speed tablets. They both promised each other that they would be good girls and just take a little of this and a little of that.
Chris had said, “Baby girl, we’ll go home early tonight. We can get high, dance a bit and be home by three.”
“Yeah I’m sorry girl. Why did I have to be the one to mess everything up?” Chris spooned Kris, holding her tight. “It’s just that I got a bit drunk and smoked one of the vapes. Someone dragged me into the bathroom and we snorted some coke and then I just got out of control.”
“Well, damn, out of control was a lightweight term for what you were doing. What do you remember anyway?” Kris pulled away and turned to face Chris so that she could look at her face. She touched her cheek and reminded herself of how much she still loved her.
“I remember a lot, I remember the music was thumping and that girl Margaret kept on at me. Plus you, you were busy all night with that butch dyke, Lori. I hate her. She’s such a bitch to me. She’s been trying to get in your panties for a while now.”
Chris and Kris, Double Chris, had been together since they were best friends in high school. For years, their relatives and friends thought they were just best friends who happened to share a house, hang out together, and go on vacations together. Their Facebook page had photos of the two of them posing together on the beach, or hiking in the mountains. Chris and Kris in family holiday pictures were always together and when they officially came out no one lifted an eyebrow.
“Jeeze, I have feelings, you know. That Lori just bores me. She’s always bragging about how much money she makes and how important she thinks she is. Plus you were dancing and I didn’t have anyone else to talk to. I was busy getting high. Lori had some edibles and I took both tabs of E.”
“You must have been high. I could barely get you in the cab when we went home.”
“How can you remember anything? No, I’ll show you what you were doing to that girl.” Kris rolled all the way over on top of Chris her small body in stark contrast to Chris’ big fleshy body. She pulled up her tee shirt and started squeezing and pinching Chris’ nipples, grinding hard against her making Chris groan with pleasure and pain.
Kris rolled off of Chris and said, “Do you remember that time we took LSD when we were just teeny-boppers? That’s when I realized that I was in love with you.”
“ Of course I remember. What fun times we had. Remember. I kept shouting, Who am I, Who am I Who am I? I couldn’t get a grip. Actually, that’s funny you said that. This morning I kinda felt the same, like I couldn’t get a grip on life. I guess last night I did get too high.”
Kris pressed her body back into Chris’ loving the softness and the familiar yielding of her body. “I wonder if you’re tired of me after so many years. You looked like you were having a good time with that Margaret girl. You were getting off on her. You looked like the girl so many years ago who had finally found out who she was.”
Chris slid from underneath Kris’ body, sat up on the side of the bed and pulled her tee shirt back down over her enormous breasts. “I wish you wouldn’t say things like that. You make me feel so ashamed of hurting you. Just how bad was I? The last thing I remember is going to the bathroom for another hit of coke and Margaret following me into the stall. Did I keep my clothes on? Did anyone any anything? I had my clothes on didn’t I?”
“Clothes on yes but you ended up on the dance floor having sex with that girl with a crowd around you watching and chanting obscenely and then that dude jumped on your back and… I’d rather forget the whole thing.”
“Why didn’t you stop me? What’d you do just sit there and watch the whole thing? Who the fuck are you? You are supposed to be my girl. You are supposed to protect me you are suppose to save me.”
“Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you? You were the one out of control. Maybe you were putting on a show for me or showing everyone that I am nothing to you anymore.”
“That’s not true, that’s not true. I was just too high. I must need help. I don’t want to hurt you but I realize I must have gone way over the top last night.”
“You’re right we can’t go on like this we’re just ignoring the inevitable. Truthfully, I have been worried about us for a while now. This wasn’t the first time you have cheated on me.”
“What do you mean this isn’t the first time?”
“You’ve blacked out before. I’ve always pretended that you were ok but this was the first time you fucked another girl in public, in public for god’s sake. I can’t forgive you this time.”
“What can I say? I don’t blame you for being so disappointed in me. I guess I need help. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, you know, with the blackouts and all. I’ll go into treatment if you’ll wait for me. I’ll go and hopefully I’ll find out just who the fuck I am, again.”
Can I ask you a question?
MAY I ask you a question?
What is the question?
Why is the sky blue?
Do you want a scientific or a philosophical answer?
Is there a difference?
Do you mean a practical difference, or an aesthetic difference?
Is there really such a difference?
Shouldn’t you instead ask, does such a difference matter?
Well, does such a difference matter?
Shouldn’t you know that answer by now?
Doesn’t such an answer depend on the specific circumstances?
Well, DOES it?
Why would it not?
Why would it?
In a police crime scene photo, what’s more important: the artistic quality of the image, or the visual information about the crime and its aftermath?
And will you then ask, would the same answer be true in an art photographer’s imitation of a crime scene photo?
Would you be more disappointed if I said that or if I didn’t?
Would you please get back to the original point?
Do you even remember what the original point was?
If I said it didn’t matter, would you believe me?
If you said it didn’t matter, would it be because you’ve forgotten it yourself?
Are you trying to further confuse the issue?
Why, what with all YOUR digressions, would you charge ME with further confusing the issue?
Does that mean you’re denying trying to confuse me?
Does that mean you won’t answer the question?
Why won’t you answer the question “why is the sky blue”?
Do you really want to know?
Are you really capable of telling me?
What kind of answer do you want?
What have you got?
Do you want a physics-related explanation about the refraction of sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere, or….
What is my next choice?
Or do you want an optics-related explanation about how the eye and the brain process parts of the light spectrum into colors, or….
Have you got another option?
Or do you want an aesthetics-related explanation about how the mind perceives different shades of different colors, alone and in combination with other colors, or….
You mean you’ve got one more choice?
Or do you want a psychology-based explanation about how people, at least westerners, treat “sunny” as something positive but “blue” as something negative?
You want to know my REAL question?
What’s your REAL question?
Did I do a good job this time, daddy?
Oh Roxy, can any dad ever hope for a smarter daughter than you?