Dominoes

22 Apr

 

Dominoes

L. Stewart Marsden

Part One

Frank Kramer rolled over and slowly opened one eye. The lids stuck from dried rheum, and he rubbed the mucus away. His vision was blurred, then cleared as he blinked repeatedly. 

The red digital numerals of his bed stand table clock blocked to form 4:30. He had awakened an hour earlier than normal, and his brain seemed to swim loosely in his skull. 

He needed a day off. His routine of clambering out of bed and shuffling to the bathroom, turning on the light after he peed, then brushing his teeth and showering was the rote of his existence. Gulping down instant coffee, he would toast an English muffin and spread butter and a thin layer of strawberry jam on the pocked surface. That was his breakfast day-in and day-out. He would quickly make a peanut butter sandwich with sliced bananas and mayonnaise, seal it in a zip-lock sandwich bag which he tossed into his battered black lunch box. A granola bar for good measure, and a thermos of seltzer water.

The drive out to the toll booth on I-77 was the same turns and the same speeds. He would arrive, and carefully cross to his booth on Lane Three, where Lucius was waiting to be relieved — literally. Traffic through the toll booth would be increasing, headlights of hundreds of cars, trucks going in two directions signaled the beginning of another exciting day.

But today? Today he planned to stay in bed. Past his 5:30 beep-beep-beep alarm. Past his usual bathroom rituals. Past his English muffin breakfast and instant coffee. Past the zombie-like preparation of his lunch. Past the 25-minute drive of the same turns and the same speeds to the Lane Three toll booth on I-77.

Lucius could just fucking wet his pants today. 

Frank turned off his alarm clock, flipped over on his other side, fluffed his pillow, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.

_____

Lucius Mindowicz begin to stir in his seat inside the booth on Lane Three. It had been a slow night, and only a few hundred dozen cars or trucks had slowed down enough to toss the necessary change into the wide plastic coin gathering basket just below his lane window. Every now and then a car would zip through without slowing, but they had the barcode stickers on their windshields that were prepaid. Almost never did someone try to cheat the system. Once there was a high-speed chase when he thought the driver being chased would lose control at the toll booth, but that was Lane Five, and somehow the driver sped through going Lucius figured a hundred or more. The pursuing highway patrol cars did slow down — but not much.

He thought there ought to be a law that if a trooper can get the license plate number of the car, the chase should be stopped. Catch the guy later when he pulls into a combo gas and Subway station. Of course, the effing defense lawyers are the ones that would make mincemeat out of that law. 

As boring as his job was, Lucius liked the money and the company benefits. Beats working the drive-through at McDonald’s, he figured. He had his headphones, and an iPad that was one of the perks, which he could use to watch Netflix — even though he wasn’t supposed to do that on duty. But who cares? Everyone does it! Except for that perky little bitch in Lane Two who was working towards becoming a cop.

He looked at his watch. It was 6:00. Almost done with the shift. Lucius knew Frank was on his way, and so he let up a bit on pinching off the need to pee. Frank would come walking up in just a few minutes, and Lucius would put the change in the money bag and print out a total receipt, which he would toss into the bag as well. In five years he had never come up short. If he ever did, he knew he wouldn’t hear the last of it from little Miss Perky Bitch.

The Morning Drive Guys were on the radio, talking and laughing about Beyoncé, or some other celebrity — making crude jokes and guffawing. He liked their political polls. “If 45 couldn’t get around in a limo, a helicopter, or Air Force One, which of these modes of transportation would he likely use? A tricycle … a skateboard … a Segway … or a golf cart? And why?”

Lucius laughed at the call-ins and their answers — even though he was a big Trump supporter. Boy were the Democrats in for a surprise in 2020, he thought. There was a signed photo of Trump with the American flag in the background, and the words “Make America Great Again!” taped to the wall of the booth where it couldn’t be seen. It was against regulations, but even Miss Snot Nose Perky Bitch hadn’t complained.

He looked at the clock again. It was 6:20 and still no sign of Frank. Where the hell was he? By this time Lucius was shaking his legs like they were wings he had to go so bad. On the floor was an empty plastic milk carton for use in emergencies, and if he absolutely had to, he’d use it. He preferred to use the Porta John standing in the area where the toll booth operators parked. But, when you gotta go…

And he had to go.

Fuck Frank! Lucius grabbed the milk carton and unzipped, streaming his urgent flow noisily into the container. He tapped off, capped the jug, and was in the process of zipping up when bright lights on the road blinded him. He heard the screeching of tires as the car — or whatever kind of vehicle it was — shot right at him.

“Fuck!”

_____

Callie Farmer was late. It was the third time in the month, and the third strike. She had done all she could this morning not to be late, but the gods were against her. Her three-month-old had screamed in pain all night, and nothing she could do helped.

“He’s got the colic,” her mother stated matter-of-factly, a long ash bending toward the floor from her cigarette.

“That’s not helpful, Momma!”

“I used to put bourbon on my finger and let you suck it when you was a baby and had it.”

“I’m not going to do that! Just go the hell back to bed!”

“Can’t. Too much noise,” she said as she opened the refrigerator and grabbed a can of beer. “If you want, I can rock him and you can go back to bed. You can’t afford to be late to work again.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, goddamit!”

“Don’t use that attitude with me, girl.”

“Or what? What, Momma?”

“Gimme that baby, girl. I’ll get him to sleep.”

And she did. And Callie hated that she did. And hated her mother smoking around the baby, and drinking beer around the baby. And most of all, hated her mother.

“Well, I guess you can stay here,” she had told Callie who showed up on the doorstep eight months pregnant. “But you gotta show me some respect. AND you gotta go git a goddam job after the baby comes. You ain’t freeloadin’ here, girl.”

Callie had no choice. At least that she could count on. And family is family. She had thought maybe this would be a new start for her and her mother.

She thought wrong.

The Kia was on its last legs. Three of four plugs still sparked, and half the time the fuel line barely squeezed enough gas to the engine to turn over. Really cold mornings were worse, as the heater had long quit throwing out much more than lukewarm air. But it was what she had, and she had to make do.

She hated working at the Circle K. On her feet for eight hours, same Muzak piped in over the ceiling speakers — Christmas being the worst. 

Dealing with customers who grunted and never spoke, unless to complain.

“You’re out of toilet paper/hand soap/paper towels/sanitary seat covers in the bathroom. And the lock doesn’t work, either.”

“I’m well over 18.”

“Sorry, Sir, but by law I have to card you for cigarettes and beer.”

“Goddam communist country is what we’re becoming.”

People taking a penny and not leaving a penny.

And the creepy manager, who came in to check inventory and reshelve stock. She didn’t know what nationality he was, but his hair was slick with hair grease that had an unpleasant odor. Had she been pregnant, she knew she would have to rush to the bathroom to retch every time he came near her — which was too often.

“This is the second time you are late,” he scolded her. “I like you very much, Callie, and I would very much like for you to succeed at your work. But, if you are late one more time, I will have to find someone else who is more reliable than you. But, I am a reasonable man, Callie. I am not wanting to have to fire you. Perhaps we might come to an understanding?”

She understood, all right. And wanted nothing to do with her manager other than a working relationship.

“That is your choice, Callie. Never say I was anything but reasonable and businesslike with you. So … one more time late? Yes? You understand?”

Yes.

She awoke late and scrambled to take a shower — in and out of the bathroom in record time — deferring her make-up and hair until she was on the road. The drive was at least 40 minutes, and she had to clock in at 6:45. It was 6:10. As long as traffic was light …

It was not. And as she frantically applied eyeliner and lipstick, holding the wheel with her knees, she sped up I-77 towards the toll booths. She pressed the gas pedal down, the Kia shaking with effort.

Change! Did she have her purse? Ah, there on the passenger seat. She reached into her purse with her right hand and found the Tic-Tack tin where she kept loose coins.

“And what do you think the President should use for travel?” the DJ asked his next caller. 

She couldn’t open the tin with one hand — then did — and change spilled out onto the seat and car floor.

“Damn!”

“It’s The Morning Drive Guys, and we are coming up on 6:53! Next caller …”

“Damndamndamndamn!”

The lights of the toll booth appeared out of the morning fog, and Callie flipped on the ceiling light to search for coins.

CORRECT CHANGE LANE ONLY read the white-lettered blue sign as she zipped under it, headed for Lane Three. 

Suddenly someone from her left veered to the right across lanes, and Callie had to jerk her wheel to the left, stomping on what she thought was the brake pedal, but was not. Her headlights illumined the toll booth, and a surprised attendant waving his arms frantically — a plastic milk carton in one hand — his eyes filled with surprise. 

“Goddamit!” Callie screamed. “Fucking late again!”

_____

Light poured into the bedroom, and Frank Kramer could sleep no longer. The red digital numerals of his bedside table alarm clock blocked to form 8:45. He reached over and turned on the clock radio, slinging his right arm back over his face to block the morning. He wondered why no one from work had called to see where he was.

“This is The Morning Drive Guys on your favorite listening station. Let’s break for your News on the Sixes (musical ditty) … six minutes of breaking news to keep you informed, brought to you by Kia of Canton …

“Matt this is Delores with breaking news about a fatal accident that occurred earlier today when a car slammed into one of the toll booths on I-77. Highway Patrol reports at least two fatalities, and possibly a third. The driver of a car speeding north crashed into the Lane Three toll booth at around 6:55 this morning. The driver and attendant were both pronounced dead at the scene, but authorities are also concerned with an attendant who is missing and was supposed to relieve that slain attendant. More as information becomes available, Matt.”

“Thanks, Delores. Now more callers on what kind of transportation should the president …”

Frank turned the radio off and turned on his back, staring at the popcorn ceiling of his bedroom.

“Damn!”

_____

 

Part Two coming

 

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It’s Not Easy Being Green

23 Feb

 

 

It’s Not Easy Being Green

L. Stewart Marsden

Control v. the lack of control is a conflict I’ve lived with for most of my life. It’s at the heart of AA’s mantra — and gaining the wisdom to know the difference is, in my experience, a life-long pursuit. In retrospect, I’ve been far more foolish than wise.

I’m hesitant to write these thoughts, as inevitably someone will point out there are no excuses for some/many of what I struggle with. The good news — at least to me — is that I do struggle with them. In a world that seems to have become black and white on so many issues, I’m in that fifty shades of gray area, and I’m not talking about the book and its focus. 

What I absolutely cannot and did not control:

  1. When and where I was born;
  2. Who comprised my family;
  3. What level of social status I was born into;
  4. What level of income my family had;
  5. What my level of innate intelligence was;
  6. What my skill tendencies and talents were/are;
  7. When and how I will die;
  8. What levels of pain those I love will go through, and whether or not they will endure them;
  9. Who I am attracted to;
  10. What tragedies will impact my life.

No doubt there are more, but the short list should suffice.

It has taken me these many years (I’m approaching seven decades on this earth) to realize and accept the responsibility that all of the above are not excuses, and that I have either controlled or abdicated control over the effects of those things over which I had no control. In other words, allowed the uncontrollable to control me. It’s the laissez-faire tendency that has been a challenge to overcome. The “well, that’s just who I am” attitude of helpless resolution.

I’m currently watching (binging, really) the Netflix series, “Grace & Frankie.” To mark just how far and to what extent American culture has changed, the show would never have been produced back in the early days of television. That’s not what goes through my head as I watch it, though. What goes through my head are the various elements of the series that I struggle with. I’m supposed to simply be and let be, right? And if I am uncomfortable about various scenarios of the show, that’s an indication there’s something wrong with me, right?

I won’t spoil the series for you with detail, other than the basic plot is two male partners in a law firm announce to their respective wives they are gay, and are divorcing their wives so that the men can marry each other. Archie Bunker would have dropped dead. I’ve never been an Archie Bunker type, but found myself not understanding it, either. 

What does that make me, then? Homophobic? I probably am. And I could probably point to the era into which I was born as an excuse, or the implied revulsion of the Bible over people who act out their same-gender sexual orientations. Or the myriad of conclusions the rigidly straight world makes as an explanation to one recurring question, “Why did God make me this way?” I won’t belabor the responses, which are just as fantastic as dogmatic believers explaining how the world was created in six days. That particular “sin” has found its way to the top of the charts, and has remained so in the religious minds of many.

Still, I admit to being bothered by it. So I’m left with what can I control about this issue? My mouth, for one. Not out of fear of being labeled myself, but making sure whatever I say and however I react is carefully measured for its impact. 

My children are more tolerant of far more than I. I’m not sure that means they are better people than I am — whatever that means — but they are certainly more understanding. They have lived with a variety of change that really wasn’t change for them. 

I grew up when the south was segregated. Separate, but equal, ran the dogma. Bathrooms. Movie theaters. Schools. Water fountains. And my parents hired black women to do various necessary things about the house — even though my mother didn’t work outside the house. Not every white family had maids or people to do yard work. But we did. How do I reconcile that past with what is now the norm? It clearly falls under the controllable part of my life. I wasn’t born a racist. As Rogers and Hammerstein clarified in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” But I have worked sincerely on that aspect of my life in a variety of ways, yet, I suppose the term racist does apply to me at some levels. 

I grew up when “gay” didn’t refer to someone who preferred to sexually and emotionally connect with members of their own gender. Or when the other parts of LGBT where code words, and not political referendums.

I grew up when sex was not explicit — either in attire or behavior — on the scale it is today. When one-night-stands were not necessarily planned, and when females were more coy than aggressive in relationships. When married TV couples slept in single beds separated by a lamp table.

Grace & Frankie takes shots at many of these, including guns (another sacred cow). That’s probably the only controversial issue I have settled for myself: I don’t and probably won’t ever own one. It’s your right, however. What I cannot understand is how we’ve gotten to the place nearly all school children from kindergarten up have to be drilled in safety procedures to protect them from someone with a gun.

It’s a difficult transition from the world I grew up in to the world in which we now live. My pathway has been along lines that are less absolute. I wouldn’t have either thought of or predicted that when I was sixteen. But when I was eighteen? As I’ve written before, the convergence of civil rights, women’s rights, and Vietnam was the point 9 earthquake that seemed to shake things up forever. Of course, these are not excuses either.

I’ve often looked back to wistfully remember “the good old days.” I realize they weren’t good for everyone; that the agonizingly slow change for the better for them has not been as easy for me and others like me as well. We had to either change as well — or dig in. Many chose to dig in. Others of us have elected to change within. Either choice has its results and/or consequences. Neither is easy.

It’s not easy being green, said someone very wise.

The Womanless Man, Continued, 10

20 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 10

L. Stewart Marsden

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

Almost immediately after the words came out Stew regretted them. What the hell was he doing? It was his old self kicking in — the one who wanted to reach out and grab Simone’s hand for comfort. The needy man. 

What was he looking for? A friend? A lover? A companion to take that final walk with?

Whatever he was looking for, he knew how it was going to end — badly. For him, but more regretfully, her.

“Look — I, uh,” he stammered, withdrawing his hand. She looked confused, and a bit hurt.

“Did I …?”

“No! No, you didn’t do anything.” He was about to say “it’s me,” but knew how flat that would fall. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then continued.

“Simone, I haven’t been with or pursued or entertained another woman since I divorced my Ender Wife. That’s almost seven years. This is the first time I haven’t been married for any length of time in the last  — what, nearly fifty years! I’ve been married most of my adult life! Not to the same person, I’ll grant — but marriage can be habit-forming! Especially for me!

”Do you have any idea why I call her that? Ender Wife?”

“I assume because she was your last wife.”

“Partially right. I’ll give you five out of ten points for that,” he smiled. “It’s because my intent is she is the absolute last person I will fully commit to and then hurt. And I especially don’t want to hurt you!”

There was a pause as the waitress came to the table. 

“Can I get you two another?”

They both quickly nodded yes, and she scooped up their glasses and disappeared toward the bar.

“Stew, we’re just having a drink. I don’t need you to fully commit to me in order to enjoy your company. I haven’t asked you to go to Vegas with me, or even to the corner drugstore for that matter.”

“You enjoy my company?”

“Is there an echo in this room? Yes! I find you strangely attractive. You’re not a physical specimen …”

“That’s my next goal. An Arnold Schwarzenegger body.”

“I guess I meant to say I am attracted to you. I don’t know you very well, except — you know — sponge bathing you at the hospital. And I want to. I want to get to know you better. What I do know is not to rush with you. God, I don’t rush with anyone! And don’t take that to mean I’ve been on a spree up here with every eligible man. I’m like you in a way. I’ve been content to do my work, have a few laughs with friends, then go home and watch whatever I want on TV. Cook what I like, healthy or not. So I was just like you before the bear, and just like Higgins.”

“What?”

Serenely independent and content before we met,” she sang softly.

“Yes! Exactly!” he said.

The waitress brought their drinks. Simone stirred her martini during the awkward silence.

“One of my favorite quotes,” she finally said, “is ‘I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’”

 “Jane Eyre,” he said, smiling with recognition.

“Wow! I’m impressed! See? That only adds to your attractiveness.”

“Tell that to my Ender Wife.”

“You have an inward treasure, too. Apparently she quit digging for the gold. So maybe the bear did us both a favor?”

“It’s a helluva thing to go through in order to have an awakening.”

“I agree. So, Stew — here’s to awakenings,” and lifted her glass.

Skol!” he responded, lifting his glass to touch hers. “Does this mean we can be friends?”

She smiled. “I thought we already were. But, yes — as far as I’m concerned, friends is fine. In fact, friends is great!”

Still, the known and unknown mixed in Stew’s mind. Once burned, shame on you. Twice burned, shame on me. He half expected her to add “for now,” but she didn’t. Was she pursuing him? She definitely liked him. He thought of Sally Fields, “You like me!” Was he that pathetic? But Brent had nailed it.

Then he asked, “Do you happen to have five dollars?”

“What? Sure. Why?”

“I don’t carry cash. I’ll pay you back. I swear I’m good for it! I have a gambling debt,” grinning.

“You owe the mob? Guido is after you for five dollars?”

“Something like that. I made a bet with Brent and I lost.”

“I’m not going to ask. Better I don’t know.” She handed him the money.

* * * * *

To be continued . . .

The Womanless Man, Continued, 9

18 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 9

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

“A toast! Here’s to getting that cast off your leg!”

They clinked glasses. Hers was a dry martini, his a Tom Collins.

“I, for one, am going to miss having to sit on the john with my leg extended on a footstool.”

Simone smiled and sipped her martini, swizzling the pearl onion around in her glass. In the background a jazz band laid down the mood music, and their table, overlooking a vast sea of blue mountain tops at sunset set the perfect stage. Stew was nervous, but also strangely at ease at the same time. He wondered how that could be.

“That’s one thing about your work I couldn’t do,” he said.

“What?”

“You know — the bedpan thing. I would’ve quit the first day I had to do anything like that.”

“It’s just a function of the body. It’s not like some of us never go to the bathroom or anything.”

“I don’t know … I’ve met some pretty constipated people in my time on earth.”

She laughed.

“Taking care of my business is one thing — but taking care of someone else’s? Jeez!” he said.

“So when you are in a relationship and the two of you are growing older, you would object to helping your partner?”

“One, I’m not in a relationship. Two, my dad ended up doing that for my mom as her Alzheimer’s worsened. But he never let on — didn’t tell any of us kids about the strain and stress he experienced.”

“That’s sad. He couldn’t afford help?”

“Sure he could. But that would have been an admission of weakness on his part. Plus he didn’t want us kids to know how really far gone Mom was. And I think he realized how very important she was to him. Not that he didn’t love her all those years. He hadn’t appreciated her.”

“For better and worse.”

“Yeah, don’t remind me. They were married over 60 years. I know there were rough spots, but they stuck to each other through thick and thin. More than I can say for myself. Or my siblings. Of the four of us, three of us went through divorces, and my brother and I went through one more. But enough of this cheery conversation! Tell me why an attractive and bright woman like yourself has never married.”

“I’m a perfectionist.”

“No man is good enough for you?”

“Not that. No man can put up with me for long.”

“So no serious love over the years?”

“One. Someone who was so compatible with me it was scary.”

“What happened?”

“We agreed it was too much. Too much commitment, too much of an uphill battle, too many complications to have to navigate, especially in the south.”

“He was black?”

“No, she wasn’t.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. Back in the day.”

“So, you are …”

“I’m still looking. For the right person.”

“The right woman, you mean.”

“No, not necessarily. Love knows no boundaries, right? I consider myself an equal-opportunity-faller-in-love person.”

“I’m not sure I believe love conquers all. It’s not like Romeo and Juliet overcame theirs. Nor yours. Or mine, for that matter.”

“Perhaps in a strange way they did.”

“That’s an extreme solution, if you ask me.”

“What about you? What do you see down the road for yourself — relationship-wise?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve come to the point — especially after two failed marriages — maybe it isn’t for me. I mean, I never thought I’d divorce either of the women I married. Well, actually, they divorced me. But I made it expedient for them. It’s a bit nit-picky to say one or the other called it quits. We both did. Just like we both said I love you and I promise till death us do part. God, I’m rambling!

“Anyway, what I found once I was single is everyone around me tried to fix me up.  It’s like they were uncomfortable for me to be around them when I didn’t have someone hanging from my arm. I was broken and needed fixing.

“And I tried the social match sites. What a joke! Half the women posted photos from a decade or two ago, and all of the bios read the same: I want a man of God who can be strong for me! And all of them love long strolls along the beach, for chrissake! I hate the beach! It’s okay for a few days — but what the hell do you do there? Bake in the sun and treat your third-degree burn? How many shells does one need to take back home? And the sand is everywhere! In your underwear, in your bed, in your car!”

“So you’re not a beach person, I take it,” Simone grinned.

“When I moved up here my sister asked me what the hell I was doing living in the mountains? She thinks “cold” is a four-letter word! She doesn’t get it!”

“How many times has she visited you up here?”

“Zero! I’m sorry — I’m ranting again.”

“I totally understand. You know what you don’t want. Do you know what you do want?”

“That, my dear, is the question. I thought I had it all figured out until the bear attack. I had sworn off pretty much all contact with the enemy.”

“Enemy?”

“Women. I don’t mean that literally. Look, one of my dad’s favorite songs came from My Fair Lady.”

“I love that musical! Which song?”

“Remember when Higgins is incredibly frustrated with Liza?”

“That was pretty much all the way through the play.”

“But in one instance, he slams down a book and asks Pickering, ‘why can’t a woman be more like a man.’”

“Oh, yes!” She wasn’t offended. She nodded her head and laughed. “And we women say, ‘why can’t a man be more like a woman?’”

“I suppose. Where’s the fun in that, though? See, this is where you know God has an evil sense of humor. Adam is doing just fine in the Garden of Eden, tending things and naming everything. He’s content. Not a care in the world. And God says, ‘Well, Adam, how’s your sex life?’ Adam shrugs his shoulders, not knowing what sex is. God decides Adam needs a mate. Does he ask Adam? Does he give him a little foresight as to what this will eventually mean? No. He makes an executive decision. So he puts Adam under and removes one of his ribs. And from that rib — ” 

“— He fashioned Eve,” Simone joined in.

“Exactly! He now has a mate and doesn’t know why or what to do with her, plus a malformed rib cage. And do they get married? Does one of the animals in the Garden step forward to perform the ceremony? Maybe a penguin? No! They live in SIN (which God had not invented yet, by the way)! Without the ‘benefit’ (he made quotes with his fingers) of matrimony!”

Simone began to titter, restraining herself from outright guffaws. A couple at the next table were more engaged in what Stew was saying, and laughing.

“The thing is,” he continued, “there were no rules of engagement back then. Like the birds and the animals. By the way, I wrote a poem in the sixties for a poetry class. Wanna hear it?”

“I have a choice?” she laughed.

“It’s a haiku. Well, not according to the strict definition — but it goes like this — if I can remember it:

Then they simply said,
In God’s holy name we wed,
And went straight to bed!”

The couple at the next table burst out laughing.

“Thank you! Thank you, all! My next show is at 9 pm — be sure to tip your waiter well!” He bowed slightly from where he sat.

She reached across the table and put her hand on his — just a touch.

“You said you thought you had it all figured out, until the bear attack. What about the bear attack?”

Stew inhaled and exhaled, as if gathering courage.

“Well, not so much as the bear attack than what happened after the bear attack.”

“What happened after the bear attack?”

“You happened.”

* * * * *

Continued . . .

The Womanless Man, Continued, 8

16 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 8

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

“Come in! Come in, please!”

Stew was surprised and glad to see her. She stepped into the room.

“I was in the neighborhood, as they say, and thought I’d drop by to see how you’re doing. I hope you don’t mind.”

“God, no.”

She looked about for a place to sit. Stew pointed to the empty twin bed beside his.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a chair in this room.”

“I’m used to sitting on the edges of beds.”

“I suppose you are. Well! As you can see, I’m getting along.”

“I see that. And Ida has the situation well in hand, too?”

“Yes — she’s working out fine. But I hope to send her on her way soon.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t mean I’m going to fire her — because I’m better. I mean, it’s temporary, this home care situation.”

“Oh. True. But you agree it’s nice to have her here to help out.”

“Sure. Still, I’d rather be on my own as soon as possible. I like the independence. So, how are you?”

“Same old same old.”

“Brent asks about you whenever we talk.”

“I bet. He’s … one of a kind, he is.”

“Yep. But I like him. I know if he weren’t with Martha he’d be knocking on your door.”

“Martha? His wife?”

“Girlfriend. His wife died a few years ago.”

“Oh. Sad.”

“He seems to make do. Every chance he gets, if you ask him.”

“What about you?”

“What about me what?”

“Are you making do?”

“Depends what you mean. If you’re asking do I like my life, I’m very satisfied. If making do is code for something else, then all I got to say is there’s more to life.”

“You’re never lonely?”

“You know, if it was 400 years ago, that wouldn’t even be a question.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Men lived in the woods, hunted and trapped. They were gone from civilization for months. They knew how to be still, how to read the forests, how to listen.”

“A skill long-lost to most men,” she laughed.

“You know Daniel Boone moved every time he could see the smoke from a neighbor’s chimney. Thought they were too close.”

“Not sure that’s true.”

“The point is, men have lost being part of the wilderness. Take Brent.”

“You take him.”

“The man is very much into that. Guns and hunting. Sometimes he comes back from hunting with nothing, but does he care? Not a bit. It’s the experience.”

“That’s what we women do when we go shopping. It’s the experience!” she grinned.

It was a nice smile. She was pleasing to look at. Not matronly, like Mrs. McGuilicutty. Not young, either. He wondered how old Simone was. She wore her hair short, swept smartly about her face and head. Like a pixie cut. It was auburn, with a shock of white at the part. Her eyes were deep green — large and round. Her nose tipped slightly at the end, and her lips were moist and perfectly shaped.

“How old are you?” he heard himself ask. God, where did that come from?

“Just shy of sixty, if you have to know. Why?”

“No reason. You look a lot younger is all. I figured you were in your early fifties. I have a daughter who will turn fifty in a couple of years.”

“Ah. So how many children do you have?”

He gave his accustomed answer of “Five, that I know of,” as though fishing for a laugh. She laughed. “The truth is just five. And three grandchildren. And you?”

“One daughter. She’s forty-eight. And two grandchildren. They live in Colorado. Her husband is with the Air Force. He’s a career military guy. Don’t get to see them much. Every other Christmas. His folks live in California, and it’s easier for them to travel west. Plus it’s a lot closer than North Carolina. Still, you’d think with him being in the Air Force he could wrangle that more often.”

“And your husband?”

She looked down uncomfortably.

“I don’t mean to pry,” he said quickly.

“No. It isn’t like I haven’t asked you personal questions. Plus I have knowledge of your body — I’ve seen you naked!” she said in a loud whisper.

“That must have been a total shock!” he grinned.

“Truth is I wasn’t married. Alayna wasn’t part of the plan. She’s my daughter. I was young and foolish — you know, the stereotypical teenager who thought she knew what she wanted. Turns out he wasn’t so thrilled when I told him I was pregnant. He let me know fast it wasn’t his problem, and he went on his merry way. I think he became a judge out in east North Carolina somewhere. I’ve thought more than once about showing up around election time and spilling his past to the local news station.”

“But you are better than that.”

“Not much. There were times — what with a baby and kicked out of my home — I was ready to fold. So, long story short — I got my GED and then worked as a waitress while I went to community college.”

“Who kept your daughter?”

“My parents finally forgave me, and when they realized Alayna was not at fault, they helped out. In fact, I went back to live with them.”

“And here you are.”

“And here I am. Well, enough about me. How are your wounds healing? Want me to check?”

“So you are on the clock, then?”

“No! I thought you might like me to make sure everything is okay — no infections or anything. Put my nursing education to work.”

“Sure. But they’ve got me so pumped with drugs I don’t think anything could survive more than a few seconds.”

She stood and sat on the edge of his bed, and carefully lifted up his pajama top, revealing a large bandaged area. She put on a pair of latex gloves from a box on his bedstand that Mrs. McGuilicutty used when cleaning his wounds. 

“Does this hurt?” she said as she lifted the edge of the bandage. He tensed a bit — partly because of the sting of adhesive pulling away from skin, but also at her touch. He could smell her nearness.

“No. It doesn’t hurt.”

She examined the area, and gently prodded with her fingers. “How about that?”

“Still fine. No pain.”

Ida walked in to observe. “That probably needs changing. There are more bandages and antiseptic on the dresser. Do either of you want a cup of tea?”

Both nodded. Simone crossed over to the dresser and gathered what she needed to change his bandaged area.

“Looks good, Stew. Have you been able to get up and walk? I know it’s difficult, but getting up is good for you.”

“I didn’t want to bother Mrs. McGuilicutty.”

“For chrissake, Stew! That’s why she’s here!”

“I know.”

“How about I come by tomorrow and take you to the Y? I’ll help you take a couple of laps in the gym, and we can talk to the trainer there as to what kind of exercises you can do that will help.”

“Wait — Simone, don’t you have better things to do?”

“Sure I do. But in your case, I’ll make an exception.”

* * *

“The beef stew will be ready soon,” said Mrs. McGuilicutty, sticking her head through a crack in the door. “I think Simone has a thing for you,” floated through the door as she closed it, and he could hear her humming on her way back to the kitchen.

His phone rang.

“What!?” he nearly shouted, seeing Brent’s name appear on his caller ID.

Brent chortled on the other end. “I love it when you talk to me that way!” he said. “So … I see Simone came to see you!”

“How do you know that? You can’t see my condo from yours.”

“I can when I walk the dogs and have my binoculars with me,” he laughed. “So see what I told you? She definitely has it for you, Stubie! And she’s a hottie! Good looking, nice legs, nice —” 

Stew cut him off, “She just dropped by to see how I was doing is all. Being nice.”

“Yeah, but being nice for a reason. I’m telling you, Buddy. Carpe diem! You gotta strike when the iron’s hot. Get it while you can! Waste not, want not!”

“You’re full of it.”

“I know — but you love it! So when is your first date?”

“It’s not a date, but she’s gonna take me to the Y tomorrow to help me begin some rehab exercises.”

“That’s a date, Stubie.”

“No it’s not.”

“Okay then — a bet: ten dollars says after the gym she wants to take you out for a bite to eat.”

“Five.”

“Alright, you cheap bastard — five.”

“You’re on.”

“Gotta go, Stubie — me and Martha have a wild night planned. Plus I gotta go online to see what I can get for five dollars!”

* * * * *

Continued . . . 

The Womanless Man, Continued, 7

14 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 7

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

Mrs. McGuilicutty fluffed the pillows behind Stew’s back, then straightened the sheets that covered him. She reminded him of his grandmother — and even smelled of talc.

“Is that better? Do you want anything? Water? Crackers? It’s stuffy in here — I can crack the window a bit for you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. McGuilicutty, I’m fine.” 

“Oh do call me Ida, dear. Everyone calls me Ida. Ida sooner you did too!” and laughed at her well-worn pun.

Stew wasn’t sure where the home care agency had found Ida, and while he was glad to have the occasional help in recovering, a few more days of this and he might end up committing either murder or suicide.

She started for the door of the guest room, then stopped. “You’re sure there’s nothing else?”

“I’m sure — I-Ida,” he stammered.

“Alright then! I’ll go and start a stew in your crock pot that you can have for dinner tonight.”

“Thank you. Would you shut the door, please Ida?” The door closed softly behind her. 

Stew’s cellphone rang.

“Hi, Brent.”

“Stubie! How’s the new home care gal? Is she hot?”

“She’s like a grandmother.”

“That old, huh?”

“Actually, she’s younger than me . . .”

“Well there you go, Sport!”

“. . . But she feels thirty years older. You know, pink hair in tight curls and droopy hose.”

“Ah! I’m sorry, Buddy. Martha and me are going to the Peddlin’ Pig tonight. Prime rib Wednesday! Wish you could limp along.”

“Ida is making a crock pot stew for me.”

“Ida? Oh, the grandmother. Nothin’ says lovin’, I always say. We can bring you some prime rib if you like.”

“I’m fine.”

“You hear anything from Simone?”

“Why would I hear from her?”

“I think she has a crush on you. Plus she won’t answer any of my calls, so I figured she likes you better.”

“God, Brent! No! She’s a lot younger than me — and anyway, I am definitely not in the market for another failed relationship. Don’t you get that?”

“I dunno. Simone was hot.”

“Anything with a temperature is hot to you.”

“You can’t tell me she didn’t interest you any. You loved her hovering all around you.”

“She’s a nurse. Nurses hover. She was only doing her job, for chrissake, nothing more!”

“I’ve got pretty good intuition about these kinds of things. Plus you’re a bit rusty. How long’s it been again?”

“I’m not rusty. I like my life as it is. No complications. Get up in the morning, read, write, watch TV, feed and walk the dog … couldn’t be simpler. And once I’ve recuperated I’ll be my normal self again.”

“Okay. If you want to put the kibosh on the rest of your life …” his voice lifted up, as though he was mimicking a Valley Girl.

“You and Martha go have a great meal. I wouldn’t refuse leftover prime rib — but don’t go to any trouble.”

“No trouble at all, Stubie! I owe you my life, remember?”

“And that’s got to stop, too.”

“What, my gratitude? Not just me. Martha is grateful as well! Hey, gotta go! Pinch Ida on her fanny pack for me!”

Stew put his phone on the bedside table. He was mending in the guest room of his condo, which was located on the main floor. His bedroom, with more room and a larger bed and private bath, was up a flight of stairs. It was too much for him to even think about navigating the ascent — and he didn’t want his home care giver to have to climb up and down them either. It would be only until the cast came off his leg. He figured climbing the stairs would actually be therapeutic.

The guest room contained two twin beds with rustic headboards, and matching lamp table and dresser. A large Bob Timberlake of an old woman working on a quilt in her attic hung on the wall. She looked like Ida. It wasn’t one of Timberlake’s usual scenarios, nor one of his best — but it was signed and it was cheaper than most of his work.

Stew’s IPad was plugged in and on the lamp table. It was loaded with a number of manuscripts he was reading. Over the years he managed to parlay himself into editing work of others. He launched that venture in frustration over not being able to get his own work noticed by traditional publishers. So he advertised himself online as an editor and critic to the infinite number of writer wannabes in the world at a penny a word. Get your writing edited and critiqued, his self-design website advertised. And it worked.

Ironic. Charles Dickens, in order to make any money from his work, originally published in newspapers and was paid by the word. What might have ordinarily been shorter stories became drawn out newspaper series so he could maintain his household. He was deathly afraid of poverty, having grown up in it.

Similarly, Stew abhorred even the thought of poverty, but was realistic enough to know the odds of his work striking some publishing guru’s fancy were mathematically slim, and so he pursued what he called his “day job.” And with every day job comes the overwhelming sameness of the mundane. While his clients were hopeful and dedicated to the craft, most lacked one essential element: talent. Stew gritted his teeth and plowed through manuscript after manuscript, correcting spelling and grammar errors (over there, not over their) due either to spellcheck or the writer’s ignorance. 

He had to carefully balance the terrible swiftness of his iPad pencil with encouragement that the author did, indeed, have a measure of talent, which if tended to and worked at, could — possibly — end in success. The fact of the matter was he didn’t want to piss off someone who was willing to pay him up front for his edits and suggestions, even if that someone didn’t have the remotest chance in hell of getting published.

Since the bear attack, his work had piled up, and he was not only behind, but in danger of losing clients willing to pay him for his “expertise.” He figured he should make the most of being bedridden to concentrate on the several submissions that had lagged, and since Ida could cook and clean up, and was covered by his insurance (ah, Medicare), he may as well make the most of it.

He opened his iPad and tapped his way to a folder containing the various manuscripts. Which one should he work on? He chose “My Mother-in-Law, the Alien From Hell” to dig into, and was several pages into the tripe when the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” said Ida, clunking from the kitchen to the foyer in her square-toed therapeutic shoes. He heard the door open, followed by indiscernible voices speaking. Then a knock on his bedroom door. He lowered his glasses to the tip of his nose and responded.

“Yes? Come in, please.”

The door cracked open.

“Simone!” he said in surprise.

* * * * *

Continued . . .

The Womanless Man, Continued, 6

12 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 6

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment …

Go to story beginning . . . 

* * * * *

“Hey, jackass! You gonna sleep all day again?” 

He cracked open his eyes. A grinning, bald, fu Manchued Mr. Clean sat at the side of the bed, his face inches from Stew’s.

“Brent.”

“Live and in person! Damn, Stubie, you scared the shit out of me!”

“That was not my intent. What happened?”

“What happened? You saved my fucking life, that’s what happened!”

“That also was not my intent,” Stew grinned.

“Coulda fooled me. So I guess I owe you another deer hunt — after you’ve recovered, of course.”

“No more hunting. Tell me — what really happened?”

“It was the damnedest thing! There we were, both of us facing this large as shit bear. You had the flashlight in his eyes, and I had a bead on him with the rifle. He looked back and forth at us, and I honest-to-god thought he would run — but he didn’t. He charged — straight at me! So I’m thinking, shit, no pussy tonight for me, and all of a sudden you jumped between us, clubbing the bear in the head with your damn flashlight!

“Well the bear grabbed you and threw you to the ground like you were a tin can, then jumped on you with all his weight. You musta passed out right away. He was swiping at you with those huge paws, and biting into your side and arm and leg! I figured you were a goner.

“But I managed to fire my rifle at him.”

“You killed him?”

“Naw! I was afraid of hitting you — though I did think for a moment one in the head would take you out of your misery.”

“In my head?”

“So I clipped him in the ear and he stopped working on you. This all happened in a matter of seconds! I guess the pain in his ear and the sound of the gun finally got through to the bear, and he hightailed it into the woods.”

“So you didn’t kill him.”

“No, Stubie, I didn’t kill him. So I grabbed my cellphone and dialed 9-1-1. Did you know they can locate you with GPS when you call 9-1-1? Anyway, they were able to send a rescue chopper out here based on that, and about an hour later you were in one of those rescue beds and they pulled up into the chopper. That was amazing! I even got to ride in it! Goddamn best hunt I’ve ever been on! Of course I had to leave the buck there, and when I finally got back to the site, there wasn’t much left of him.

“Man, you were a mess! The bear broke your thigh, and swiped through your spleen. You had claw and teeth marks everywhere! And don’t worry, I took plenty of pics with my cellphone. God you looked like shit! As bad or worse than Shark Week! Which of course in your case is an improvement!

“And you have been all over the news — even hit the national evening news. Wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t do some special kind of news report or documentary! You’re a celebrity! And man, the girls love that sort of thing.”

“Love what sort of thing?”asked Simone as she carried in a lunch tray and set it on the bed table.

“Well — a hero! Especially one that’s been beat up like Stubie here? What’s your name again, Honey?”

“Simone.”

“You married?”

“No.”

“Got a steady?”

She looked at Stew.

“He always this brash?”

“Always.”

“I don’t apologize for wanting to make the most out of life, Simone. And since the most of my life is in my past, I don’t have much time to waste, either.”

“I am married to my work, then.”

“Poor girl. Let me give you my phone number if you ever want to do something besides change Stubie’s bed pan!”

“That’s okay.” She rolled the table close to Stew, and adjusted his table more upright. “The doctor says it’s time to try some solid food.”

“Ugh! That’s food?” said Brent.

“Actually, it doesn’t smell half bad,” said Stew.

“Which half?”

“And depending how you do over the next few days, he’s going to release you to home. You have anyone there to help you out?”

“My dog.”

“Well, I’ll have the social worker visit and get some more information. You might qualify for temporary in home care. Hope so.”

“You can come and give me in home care anytime, Simone,” blurted Bert. She ignored him, wrote something on Stew’s chart, and left the room.

“Now there’s a possibility, Stubie! She is one well put together nurse! And, she’s not married! I bet she’s not even got a boyfriend.”

“So you go after her.”

“I’ve got a girlfriend.”

“That never stopped you before.”

“Yeah, but I can’t keep this pace up forever. And I’m a generous man and don’t want to hog all the good ones. Share the wealth, I say.”

“You’re a socialist?”

“Shut up. I like you, and thought I’d take pity on you — especially since you offered yourself up to the bear to save me. The least I can do.”

“I’m underwhelmed by your gratitude.”

“How’s that breakfast?”

“It’s amazing what they can do with powdered eggs and watered-down gravy these days.”

Brent grabbed a spoon from the table and scooped up a spoonful of grits and gravy, which he slurped down, spilling some on his fu Manchu.

“Say! Not bad! I might just have to fake a coronary sos I can come see Simone and have some more of this exquisite cuisine!”

“I’m surprised you even know those words.”

“I’m telling you, Stubie — you gotta link up with Simone. I have a good feeling about her.”

“Not gonna happen … wouldn’t be prudent,” he replied in his best Bush, Sr. voice. “I’m done making the lives of women miserable. It will never happen again.”

“You know what they say, Buddy …”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Never say never!”

* * *

Continued …

 

The Womanless Man, Continued, 5

7 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 5

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . . 

* * * * *

Stew’s mind flashed as everything about him became slow and surreal. His emotions were panic, curiosity, and wry humor — in that order.

The panic was induced by what he saw in the beam of the flashlight before he dropped it, like a “gotcha!” moment in a slasher movie. Upright, swaying on its massive back legs and clawing at the head of the deer carcass, as though trying to bring the body down from its lynched position, a huge black bear had turned its head in Stew’s direction, its eyes reflecting the light with an eerie glow. Like when all the eyes in a group shot appear white, or red.

Curiosity overcame panic. What was this huge wild thing doing? More importantly, what the hell was he now going to do?

And finally, wry humor. Ah, Karma, he thought to himself. When he was a kid he had read a short story where the animals exact revenge over a trophy hunter. And this was about to become his story. Despite his age, it seemed very short.

Hunter Mauled to Death by Bear After Executing Innocent Deer and Robin

That would be the local headline. And he might even get a short mention on one of the national evening news networks. Maybe a sound byte from Brent. “Damn biggest bear I’ve seen in these parts! And I should know big!” Then a calculated wink and grin for the sake of whatever female viewers had tuned in.

“Stand UP, mother fucker!” ordered Brent, who had awakened and stood, fumbling for his rifle in the dark.

Stew stood clumsily, still encased in his sleeping bag, scanning the ground for the dropped flashlight. He knew the theory: become as big as you can so the bear will be frightened. Brent managed out of his sleeping bag and found his rifle, whooping and hollering as loudly as he could.

It seemed to work. The bear was frozen for the moment, turning his head from Stew to Brent and back again, seeming to think through a strategy rather than doing the smart thing and hightailing it into the dark woods.

Which is what both Stew and Brent wanted it to do. Brent shouldered his rifle and aimed at the bear’s head. The bear jerked its massive head towards the movement. Stew spotted the flashlight, and took advantage of the distraction to pick it up and turn it towards the bear’s eyes, hoping to blind it and scare it off. It didn’t scare off.

“Shoot him!” Stew yelled at Brent, who stood frozen.

“This is no gun for a bear! It won’t put him down! It’ll just sting him and make him mad as fuck!”

“Get the bear gun, then!”

“We’re DEER hunting — I didn’t bring a goddamn gun for bears!” The words seethed in clouds from Brent’s clenched teeth.

All the while the two bickered the bear watched, as though sizing things up. Should he charge? Wouldn’t have to go far. Less than ten yards. Would he go for the guy with the gun, or the guy with the flashlight? Flashlight looked like it would hurt less. He had seen guns before. He had lost family to guns before. But if he charged the guy with the gun, he might be able to disarm — literally — that one with a powerful swipe of his claws. He could run, and be a half mile away in no time, and he considered it. But here, hanging up as if just for him, was enough meat to keep him fat and happy for the next few days — and with hibernation coming up, he wasn’t so sure the opportunity would present itself again.

Wait! What? Stew shook his head to clear the thoughts from his mind. Bears couldn’t think like that! They had no power to reason! This was an animal, and subject to instinct, of which Stew hoped the most important one was the instinct to survive. It was certainly his own at the moment. And Brent’s, judging from the way Brent was shaking, his eyes as wide as saucers.

Perhaps what the three of them thought was, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” An impasse. A point where lines definitely do not need to be drawn. Some form of compromise. If you do this, we will do that sort of thing.

Not something well-practiced among many groups of late.

Stew thought of his Starter Wife and his Ender Wife. It wasn’t that compromise had ever been needed during the courtship of either. The drive was to please the other. In fact, there was an air of competition during the early phases. Kind of an Annie Oakley sort of thing — anything you can do to please me, I can do better.

The bear huffed, and stood up straighter, the hair on his massive shoulders bristling.

All of this had occurred in under a minute. The clock was ticking loudly. The hands approached straight up on the clock face. Eyes glanced about between the three of them, the deer’s dead eyes seeming to absorb the scene with a glazed look. Muscles tensed, skin twitched, droplets of sweat beaded on the two men’s foreheads. Stew’s tinnitus set the background music tone.

Slowly, as quietly as possible, Brent released the safety from his rifle, and very slowly cocked the gun. The bear riveted its eyes on him, his ears perking to the sound.

At that moment, a log on the fire chose to break in two,  and flamed up suddenly, spraying the air above with sparks. It was like the starter’s gun going off on a race, jettisoning runners down the track.

The bear charged.

* * *

Continued …

The Womanless Man, Continued, 4

6 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 4

L. Stewart Marsden

Go to previous installment

Go to story beginning . . . 

 

* * * * *

“How is it?”

Stew couldn’t tell any difference between regular chili and deer chili, so he chose the diplomatic response.

“Best chili I’ve ever had!”

“And no fat! Actually good for you. I don’t know what all the ruckus about hunting is about. See, you get exercise tramping about in the woods trying to find a deer, and most the time you don’t. Every part of the deer is used. The wild animals get a free meal without having to do much — kinda like wild welfare. You think that’s where we came up with the idea for the government dole?”

“Don’t know. I doubt it. You and I don’t know what it was like during the depression.”

“That’s true. You want a swig?” Brent offered his silver flask to Stew. Stew immediately thought to say “no,” not knowing where Brent’s mouth had been lately, but reconsidered. The alcohol probably killed anything growing in his killing partner. And he was still shaken over shooting the deer, and wanted to dull his thinking. He could hear the tinnitus beginning to kick in.

“So Brent … how do you deal with taking a life?”

“Shit, it’s hunting — that’s what you do. You didn’t grow up hunting, right?”

“No.”

“I did. The family owned a plantation in Florida that went back for generations. We’d go out hunting all the time. Didn’t bother with seasons or licenses back then. Shot what was on our property. Quail, deer, bear.”

“There are bears in Florida?”

“Oh yeah. And you have to be real careful with your aim with those fuckers. Miss like you did today and they might run away, or, they might charge you. And those rascals can move. You get a wounded three hundred pound black bear coming after you and there’s no where to hide. Forget climbing a tree.”

“So you are used to killing animals.”

“You have led one sheltered life, my friend — that’s obvious. But I’m not like some hunters, who use spotlights and thermal scopes. I give my game a fair chance.”

“Fair?”

“Look, conservationists will tell you thinning a deer population protects them. We’ve turned the land into highways and malls and parking lots and cities and all. We’ve destroyed their natural habitat; have reduced their food sources to practically nothing. So hunters are kinda humanitarians in a way. But with animals. So we’re animaltarians, right? Besides, being a hunter is a billion year old drive in men. We were born to hunt and bring home the bacon, among other things.”

“Man, or men? What about women?”

“Men. You and me. Of the male persuasion. Women are there to stand alongside us. Or sit on top of us,” he chuckled salaciously. “So, switching the subject, you out there again?”

“Out there?”

“Sniffing the wind. Prowling the bars. You know — dating!”

“Why do you ask?”

“‘Cause it’s not good for a man not to have a source of relief.”

“Relief for what?”

“Sexual tension,” he hissed with a snakelike hiss. “That’s just basic. Man, when my wife died it wasn’t two weeks before I had several women. At our age we owe it to the world of women! Of course, thank God for Viagra!”

Stew laughed. He was so different from Brent — but found him to be unabashed and refreshing. More like a pimply teenager who can’t concentrate on anything other than women for more than a few seconds.

“You have a one-track mind, Brent.”

“At my age, I’m lucky to still have my mind! So, are you out there?” Brent persisted.

“No.”

“Your tried these online dating sites?”

“Several. I hate them.”

“I had a romp or two with girls I met online.”

“Girls?”

“Women. God, that makes me sound like a pedophile!”

“That wouldn’t surprise me. What’s the youngest you would date?”

“Well, let’s see … she would have to be at least old enough to carry across state lines!” A big guffaw. 

“Seriously!”

“Okay. So here I am — seventy-two. Got cancer. Take heart medication along with six other prescriptions. Gonna get my knee replaced soon. But I’m sure as hell not in the ground — yet. And as far as I’m concerned, a girl is a woman when she’s making a living and no longer living with her parents. So … what, 19? That’s what Steely Dan, said. Good god, Groucho Marx had a kid when he was in his 70s. At least I got the sense to keep my baby maker wrapped up! And then there was Rockefeller, right? Banging a twenty-five year old when he went out! Now, that’s the way I want to go out!”

“So being fifty years older doesn’t bother you?”

“Well, I’ve got grandchildren that age — so, yeah. But not so much as to keep me awake at night worrying about it. Besides, these are not my grandchildren! C’mon, Stew, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t like to have a young nubile go down on you!”

Stew sighed. 

“I was ten years older than my Ender Wife. I was 42 and she was 32. It didn’t make any difference back then, and, yeah — there was a bit of the forbidden about it that was exciting. But I didn’t marry her for the sex, Brent.”

“Right.”

“No, it’s true. I never stopped to think what it was going to be like when I was 50, or 60. I was in love, which my Starter Wife said would never happen again for me. But those ten years did make a difference. She started suggesting I darken my hair to look younger. Maybe some Botox, or even a tummy tuck. Things like that. She said I needed to stay competitive in my work, you know. But I finally figured out it was because she was becoming more aware of me getting older. I was a reflection on her, and if I was getting older, she was getting older. Age and women are not a good mix — at least in a woman’s mind.”

“Well, I don’t think a man has to shut down because of age. I might be in my seventies, but I always figure the best part of me is still to come — and the pun is intended,” he laughed.

“You want more chili?” Brent stood and stretched, illumined by the campfire.

“No, thanks.”

“Well, you hardly ate any!”

“Not that hungry.”

Brent took Stew’s paper bowl and put it in a garbage bag hanging from a limb.

“So I met this incredibly good-looking gal online, okay? She wasn’t young — but she wasn’t old, either. Helluva stack! And we hit it off from the get-go. God! After a week I was so worn out I musta looked like a sailor — bowlegged and all. Anyways, everything is going fine when she suddenly asks for directions!”

“What?”

“You know, where is this relationship going?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“So I tell her ‘Look, Babe, I been married twice — and each one ended not so great. I’m in this for the fun, not the commitment.’ Wrong thing to say. Or at least the wrong time. Now I say it up front. I think women appreciate that, not confusing double-talk.”

“I take it you no longer see her?”

“Oh, not at all! We hook up from time to time.”

“While you’re with someone else?”

“Long as they know, they’re mostly okay with that.”

“Aren’t you afraid of …”

“Afraid of what? A jealous boyfriend or husband? Hell no! I got guns to take care of them.”

“No. I mean aren’t you afraid of disease?”

“The clap? Crabs? That’s why God made penicillin! And why we have Medicare! It’s a one-two punch! You afraid of getting some kind of disease?”

“It has crossed my mind to ask for a notarized medical history whenever I date someone. You know, kind of a prerequisite to sex.”

Brent laughed and took a long swig from his flask.

“You kill me, Stew! I have never met a guy so opposite of me — and still I like the hell out of you!”

“Nice to know.”

* * *

The fire and the talk finally died down. Stew pulled himself into his cocoon-like sleeping bag and rested his head on a rolled up wool sweater. Brent lay on the other side of the fire, his back to Stew, small puffs of steam rising above his head in the dim light of the embers.

Stew could not sleep for thinking about the day. Especially the shot. Each time he closed his eyes his mind drove him back to that moment where his and the buck’s eyes locked. And then the round eyes of the deer became the black eyes of the robin. A puff of smoke from the end of the rifles, and the bullet or BB emerging so slowly, arching through the air, striking the hide of the deer or the wing of the robin. 

His tinnitus kicked in — like the scratchy screaming music of the bathroom scene in Psycho; only he held the knife and approached the shower, ripping back the curtain to reveal his first wife, or second wife, or the robin, or the deer — all startled and flashing back with wide,  panicked eyes. 

He sat up and looked at his watch. Three in the morning. It was cold, and he stirred the blue-red coals with a stick, sending showers of flickering sparks up into the night air. He threw another wooden limb on the fire, and watched as it took light, and crackled. Brent was like a corpse, motionless, and if it weren’t for the low tremolo of his nasal snoring, Stew would have taken him for dead.

Every now and then the fire flared with a hiss, and he could see the carcass of the buck hanging a few yards away — like some kind of rustler who had been caught, sentenced, and executed. Stew wondered if some small herd was carefully moving through the woods in search of their father or brother. 

Then he heard a noise — a branch breaking under foot of something. He peered into the dark while he fumbled for his flashlight.

Another crack!

He looked over at Brent, who was on some far away island with naked women. Stew avoided saying anything. His tinnitus had stopped completely as he strained to pick up the slightest sound.

A rustle of leaves and a heavy plod from the direction of the hung carcass.

He took his flashlight and placed the bulb end into his hand, and turned it on carefully. His hand glowed red from the light. Holding the flashlight against his hand, he slowly lifted and pointed the flashlight in the direction of the noises. He turned the light off, removed his hand from the bulb end, then quickly turned the flashlight on again, sending a beam of light piercing the dark toward the sounds.

“Shit!”

* * *

Continued …

The Womanless Man, Continued, 3

1 Feb

The Womanless Man

L. Stewart Marsden

Continued, 3

 

Go to previous installment

Go to story beginning . . .

* * *

The rifle kicked back into his shoulder and interrupted the silence with a crack that echoed about the woods. As with the Daisy shot, Stew watched the bullet emerge from the smoking end of his gun, and saw it speed in slow motion toward the buck, who had lifted and turned his head toward the sound, the deer’s eyes meeting Stew’s.

Before it could turn and leap out of the path of the missile, it hit him. Not an immediate kill shot to the heart, but higher into its neck, knocking the stag briefly to the ground. It stumbled back on it’s legs and bound away into the thick trees and brush.

“Goddamit, Stew! He’s fucking wounded! Now we gotta go chase after him!” Brent angrily grabbed a canvas bag out of his back pack and dashed out of the blind, making a beeline to the spot where the buck had been shot.

“Well … c’mon!” he turned back and called to Stew, who was more than disoriented. Stew shook himself and grabbed his rifle, and stepped out of the blind to follow his leader.

“Leave the gun!” Stew carefully lay the gun down next to the blind, then ran to catch up.

The two swiftly navigated the trail, which Stew could not discern. 

“I got him,” Brent called, pointing ahead. Stew could see nothing but brown leaves and cold gray oaks and pines and saplings.

Heaving great clouds of breath the two staggered up an incline, and Stew finally saw the buck down on its knees, panting for life. Brent reached into the canvas bag and pulled out a handgun. Arming and readying the gun to shoot, he placed the barrel next to the deer’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun gave a slight kick, and the deer collapsed onto the ground, eyes rolling back and tongue protruding from its black lipsticked mouth.

“I use a .22 to finish them off when I have to, just in case you want to mount the head. Less damage for the taxidermist.”

“I don’t care to have the head.”

“See, this is why you want a clean kill. Boom … in the heart and the buck is dead. Doesn’t feel a thing.”

Stew wondered how Brent knew that.

“ Keeps him from running away, too. We’re lucky he went uphill ‘cause he could have gone down into a ravine or something. We’d have a helluva time pulling him out and down to the blind. Help me hang him up.”

Brent then grabbed a coil of rope from the bag and looked around for a strong branch.

“Hang him up?”

“Gotta drain him and skin him quickly. It’s cold enough, but if we don’t skin him, the meat could go bad. His skin keeps the meat warm, and you don’t want that. Ah, there’s a perfect one!”

Brent held on the end of the rope and threw the rope coil up and over a thick tree branch. He tied one end around the buck’s neck.

“Don’t just stand there, help me pull him up!”

Stew and Brent pulled the lifeless dear up until its feet were off the ground. Stew held on while Brent tied the rope off around the tree, then returned to his bag to retrieve a knife. Stew couldn’t take his eyes off the beast, swaying slightly, the rope taut and creaking against the tree limb. He thought of Clint Eastwood, hanging in the breeze.

“You can let go of the rope now, Stubie.”

Brent turned the deer to face him, then slit open its abdomen between its hind legs. Bright red blood poured out onto the ground, running in rivulets down the slope and pooling in various places.

“Takes about ten minutes for the blood to drain, then we’ll skin him and clean out the offal. I like to bring ‘em down to the carcass. Some people eat the offal — intestines and stuff — but I leave that to the critters out here. Kind of a mystical dust to dust thing.”

Brent began skinning the deer while Stew watched. It seemed like an autopsy to him, and he was the squeamish sort. Amazingly, as Brent skillfully worked, Stew didn’t gag or have to turn his head.

“I feel like we ought to say a prayer or something,” Stew offered.

“You can if you like. Won’t bother me. The Indians would do that sort of thing, I guess. You know, offer up the deer’s spirit to the Great Spirit. And the Jews do that to. Didja know they got special rabbis who work in the slaughter houses? That’s so the meat is kosher. Wonder if they do that for pickles and hot dogs?”

It seemed the deer was skinned in no time, it’s muscles and tendons bared to show how strong and lean the buck was — like in biology class, where textbooks illustrated the human body with overlays of the muscular system down to the skeletal system.

Brent then cut up the belly to the breast bone, then retrieved a small hack saw to cut through the rib cage. He pried the chest open and held it with a piece of wood, then scraped the chest cavity clean of the innards, lungs, and heart.

The bowels and innards steamed in the cold. Stew thought how surreal the process was. Just an hour ago this buck had stumbled onto the deer corn in the clearing. Now, he was denuded of his skin and fur, and gutted. Only he hooves and head remained to tell what this carcass had been. He thought of the robin, slipping down the sewer drain, perhaps dying from the BB wound, or drowning in the sludge of the sewer. 

Both fell at the twitch of his index finger. Were their deaths arbitrary? Or was it part of some universal and cosmic intent that they suffer at his whim. Did that make him a god or an executioner? Or perhaps, a murderer.

What else had he intentionally killed or brought to an end? His marriages? His relationships?

Finally, Brent pulled a reinforced blue plastic tarp and roll of duct tape from his bag. He draped the hanging carcass with the tarp and crisscrossed the outside with duct tape to hold it in place.

“Pull up on the rope a bit, will ya?” Stew pulled the rope, giving Brent enough slack to untie the rope from the tree.

“Okay, let it go.”

The once-beautiful and graceful buck collapsed to the ground in the blue body bag.

Packing and handing his bag to Stew, Brent grabbed the rope and began to drag it.

“Need help?”

“Naw, I got it. You know, I was hunting with another guy and after I got through preparing the kill, he asked if I used my tools on humans?”

“He did? And do you?”

“Only the ones that deserve it,” and laughed.

* * *

To be continued …