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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 . . .

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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, 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 …

The Womanless Man, Continued, 2

31 Jan

 

The Womanless Man

L. Stewart Marsden

Continued, 2

Go to previous installment

Go to story beginning . . . 

* * * * *

The blind had obviously been there for years. Brent found it one day on another hunting trip, and took some time to make small repairs. 

“Now you take the fox pee and spread it around the place — sparingly though — it doesn’t take much.” Brent talked in a loud whisper.

Stew obeyed. As he circled the blind, he noticed deer corn strewn about in the woods. 

The two sat with their backs against one of the rickety walls of the blind, their breaths steaming from their noses and mouths. Brent’s fu Manchu had already begun to ice up, as had his eyebrows. His head was well insulated with a wool toboggan and fleece hood, both a bright orange.

Brent showed Stew how to load his rifle and site through the scope. He pointed out a feature than enabled low-light vision.

“God, man, with all this high-powered technology, it’s a wonder there are any deer anywhere.”

“No shit. But if you follow the rules, like hunting in season, and hunting fairly …”

“Which is an oxymoron,” Stew chided.

“… hunting fairly,” Brent repeated, “the deer population is actually on the increase. Hell, I saw one eating my hostas the other day and thought ‘Damn! If I’d only had my gun or my bow!’”

The day passed quietly. Every so often Brent would chuckle to himself, then tell Stew an off-colored joke. Stew wondered if Brent ever had anything on his mind other than boobs and pussy.

“So the guy my first wife left me for, after about a year — we become buddies. And he says to me, he says ‘You never told me she was like this!’ And I say, ‘You never asked!’

Brent wore everything on his sleeve, and especially after a couple of swigs from his silver flask. Stew was more circumspect, but gradually, between the boredom, the cold, and the bourbon, began to open up. He told him about his Starter Wife’s indiscretions.

“Shit, man! I’da got my gun and blown the nuts off those guys.”

“Good for them it was me and not you, then. Plus we wouldn’t be out here in the freezing cold if you had cause you’d be serving three life sentences.”

“Well, once you’ve got your first kill, it begins to run in your veins.”

“You talking about men or deers?”

“Deer, dammit! Get your fucking hearing checked! Anyway, I swear to god, there’s no meat like deer meat, Stubie. Pure lean. Very little fat at all. And … no additives! I brought along some deer chili for supper and you will think you’ve died and gone to heaven!”

“I ate deer once on a camping trip with my Scout troop. Some guy fried up chunks of deer in butter. It was really good!”

“You wait. You fire off a round and get a buck or doe, and all this misery will be worth it, I swear.”

Then, as if on cue, Brent thumped Stew’s chest with his gloved hand and gave a loud “Shhhhh!”, then pointed out to a small clearing they’d been watching. Stew’s heart began to beat rapidly as a large amber-colored deer nosed cautiously through the trees and into the clearing. 

“A buck!” Brent whispered excitedly.

The male stepped with practiced motion, as though choreographed, toward deer corn piled high by Brent earlier. Sniffing the air, looking about nervously, the animal seemed to check off a mental list of precautions before exposing his full body in the clearing. He shivered along his flank against the cold, and dipped his nose toward the corn.

While Stew watched, mesmerized, Brent had carefully picked up a rifle and checked to see it was ready to fire. He nudged Stew out of his daze, and slowly handed him the weapon, nodding toward the buck. Brent’s face was aglow with excitement, his eyes wide, as he kept nodding and grinning at Stew. 

Slowly, Stew lay down on his stomach, and put the rifle stock against his shoulder, his cheek feeling the cold wood. Clicking the safety off, he leaned into the gun and positioned his eye against the scope, then moved the barrel until the crosshairs found the spot on the deer, just behind the front shoulder, that Brent had instructed him to aim at.

The buck dipped to nibble at the corn, bobbing his head back up and rechecking his surroundings. Stew slowly, carefully found the trigger with his right index finger, which he initially stroked up and down along its curve.

He remembered Brent’s instructions: deep breath, hold, and slowly exhale while squeezing the trigger.

In a flash he was a kid with the Daisy air rifle, sighting down a much cruder barrel at a robin in the snow. As if that child, he suddenly aimed higher and fired.

And like that childhood day, he watched the slug erupt from the barrel straight toward the buck, striking it just between the shoulder and the neck.

* * *

Continued . . .

 

 

The Womanless Man

29 Jan


The Womanless Man

L. Stewart Marsden

The alarm clock pierced his early-morning dreams. It was four AM. The nagging beep-beep-beep continued until he swung his arm over to fumble with the various buttons and press the alarm stop. The alarm died in mid-beep, and it was silent. The morning air was crisp and clear. His tinnitus hadn’t kicked in — yet. It was normally worse in the quiet of the mornings, and at night, when he lay down on his bed. As aggravating as it was at times, at least it made it difficult for his mind to begin the uncontrolled whirring and spinning, bouncing around his memories haphazardly, like one of those robot vacuums advertised on television in late-night infomercials. Thank God for small miracles.

He willed himself into an upright sitting position on the edge of his bed. His calves burned slightly as his blood coursed through them. Each leg was marked with scratches and thin lines of clotted blood from scratching madly at his eczema. The itching was particularly bad last night, and he had dug into his skin several times on the edge of rage. The plight was sporadic, but tended to flare up badly during the winter months due to the dry heat of his fireplace. He had resolved to pick up a cheap humidifier for his bedroom, thinking that might help, but always forgot whenever he happened to be in the RiteAid.

He stood slowly, and lumbered to his bathroom, where he methodically repeated his morning toilet rituals: brush teeth; trim beard; urinate; shower; towel dry; pull hair back into the nub of a ponytail and tie it with a hair band. He shuffled back into the bedroom to re-don the clothing he shed the night before, smelling each article first to determine whether he needed something cleaner.

Dressed, he descended the stairway to the main floor of his condo. It was pitch dark, but the sky behind the mountains was dimly illumined by the nearby town of Boone. Years ago, his morning skyline was comprised of shafts of skyscrapers, and the ants of the world were already busy dashing for cabs or buses or subways — even at 4. Noisy and confusing there and then, quiet and serene here and now.

He flipped on the coffeemaker, prepared the night before to brew his necessary morning tonic. Years earlier he would have grabbed the newspaper from in front of his apartment door, poured his coffee, and sauntered into the living room while scanning the headlines. Then he would flick on the early morning news and sit in his favorite chair, awaiting a call from the doorman that the office limousine had arrived. Now, he lightened his coffee with half and half and sat down on his favorite recliner and quickly scanned through email and messages on his phone, deftly marking and deleting most. Now he avoided the news. It was always the same, and had long ago ceased to be of any significant relevance in his daily life. Here in the mountains, the only impactful bit of information was whether a winter snow was going to come through the area, and did he need to go stock up on anything before potentially being stranded for a day or so. Not a prepper, he nonetheless kept his condo storage room well supplied with jugs of water and cans of soup — as well as toilet paper, of course.

He flicked the gas log remote and the flames popped up with a slight whoosh, the blower fan kicking on automatically. The heat radiated throughout the room, and he glanced out the large two-floor windows as the sun crested. 

His phone vibrated.

“Hello?” he said, even though the caller’s name popped up on his phone screen.

“Stewbie!” crackled the voice. “We still on for today?”

He feigned ignorance.

”On for what?”

”Goddammit, you forget we’re going hunting?”

“Oh, yeah Brent. I didn’t forget. Just messing with you. What do I need to bring?”

“I got everything. You got warm clothing? ‘Cause it’s gonna be colder than a witch’s titty!”

“I guess. Jeans and flannel shirt. An old wool sweater and corduroy jacket.”

“Layers are good. Boots?”

“I got boots.”

“Not new ones, I hope. Cause you’ll get all blistered up if they’re new and I sure as hell don’t want to carry you back to the Jeep.”

“No, they’re not new. And I have those socks that wick up the moisture.”

“Perfect!”

“When?”

“Be by in about 40 minutes.”

“Do I need to bring bottled water?”

“I got all that, don’t worry. Plus I have camo overalls I’ll lend you. And urine.”

“Urine?”

“Fox and deer urine. Gotta have the right smells for those does. Oh, I made a rhyme!” he laughed. “See you soon!” 

Stew clicked the disconnect call button. He liked Brent. The two were not at all alike. Oil and vinegar, he often described their friendship.

Brent was a man’s man — in his own mind. In his seventies, his second wife died of cancer several years earlier. He had recently been diagnosed himself — with leukemia — which Stew knew enough about to cause worry about his friend.

But Brent could care less. “Carpe diem” was his mantra. And seize it he did. Hunting, skiing, weight-lifting, and women … He had made his fortune installing and maintaining swimming pools and hot tubs in central Florida — just at the early edge of the trend. He sold it a decade ago and still reaped profits as a silent partner. 

“I’m telling you, the babes I met putting in pools and hot tubs would blow your mind! And everything else, too!”

Brent looked like a combination of Mr. Clean, Charlie Chan, and Buddy Hackett.  Bald, he had let his Fu Manchu grow long, and his girlfriend wove several colorful beads into it. All he needed was a peg leg to complete the pirate look.

“Arghhh! Look alive, me matey!” he growled at the condo front door, his Jeep puffing white clouds of exhaust in the dark cold air.

They drove more than an hour into what Brent called dueling banjo territory. Stew was already lost after the first five minutes, and Brent turned onto backroad after backroad, finally veering down what looked like little more than a rutted path, causing the Jeep to toss and bounce. Stew was glad he had skipped breakfast.

“I figure these little roads are what the bootleggers use,” said Brent.

“Don’t you mean marijuana growers?”

“Nah. I think they still make hooch around here. You ever try it?”

“Uh, no. You go blind drinking that stuff.”

They slowed to a crawl, and Brent rolled down his window, peering off into the thick underbrush, then suddenly swung his wheel left and motored down what was little more than a creek bed. The bed finally emptied into a clearing, where grasses were waist-high. He stopped the Jeep and cut off the engine.

“We’re here! Well, almost. A few miles walking yet.”

“Define ‘few miles’,” said Stew.

“Six … more or less. We’re gonna hike in with our gear.”

ƒƒƒƒƒ

 

Continued …

The Old Boar

11 Nov

 

The Old Boar

By L. Stewart Marsden

The old boar padded his way slowly down the thin rivulet that had served as his pathway for decades. Younger, he was more energetic, huffing and snorting along the trail, sending out audible warnings to trespassers on what he considered his domain. His self-coronation was the result of many battles with would-be contenders, and back then he was sinewy and strong. Now, more massive, he carried a repute that served him well, as many younger bears were simply too in awe of his renown to challenge his rule.

From the top of Beech Mountain, down into the valley, coursing up and over Sugar Mountain, and along the ridge of Grandfather, he knew the way by rote. That inner map served him well in dark moonless night, or when pursued during season by hunters.

As more humans invaded and built homes and stores and complexes, he tried to block out the inevitable from his mind. Now his great head was misted over white along his brow and under his chin. Like hoar-frost in early winter. Now his massive shoulders felt each plod more sharply, as years of winter sleep and foraging from spring through fall caused bone to grate upon great bone.

The sun poured over the ridge to the east, and the old boar squinted to see — but to no avail. He stumbled in his blindness, and slowly righted himself. Squatting, he lifted his head to the air, sniffing for any scent of danger, but his old cracked nose failed to discern anything that mattered. He headed for his rubbing tree, and shoved his back along its now barkless trunk, scratching the one place under his brittle fur that chronically itched. He let out a sigh of relief and pleasure. 

For the old boar, pleasures were fewer now. He was disinterested in mating as he had enough progeny to push the resources of the area beyond capacity. Plus, they tended to be ungrateful heirs and were obviously merely biding time.

He dined on tiny voles he scratched from the earth near the humans’ homes. The creeks were virtually troutless, and offered up the occasional crayfish or newt. The wild blackberry bushes were normally stripped by the oddly-skinned humans before he could lumber up the slopes for a meal. Roots and fungi had grown tasteless to him.

Sometimes, although not often, he considered what one of those humans might taste like, and imagined hiding in the brush near the blackberries and picking one off. A human, that is. But his great uncle warned him. “There will be dire retribution dealt by the humans.” He should know. He went a bit crazy one spring and ravaged one of the humans on a trail at Roan Mountain. He was never seen again.

The trail forked. The old boar couldn’t remember which way to go for a moment. He tried to remember his mother’s words. Was it “In the spring, right is wrong; in the fall, take either or all.” Or was it the other way around? His stomach growled loudly. Was it spring? Had he just aroused himself from his leaf-bedded burrow? Or was if fall, and he was headed to that sanctuary? A sudden panic gripped him as he tried to remember. He finally chose to go right, and leave the other path for another day.

The trail descended down and across a small creek, where he refreshed himself. Then back up and over a knoll. The trees thinned out, and the old boar could see an open area of tall, dry grass ahead. The sun warmed the colors of the opening. He stopped at the edge of the clearing and sniffed and looked and listened, as his mother always told him to do before entering a clearing. “Stop. Sniff. Look and listen,” he heard her gruff but kind grunt.

A choke cherry, bare of its leaves, leaned precariously in the line of trees across the field, its limbs filled with large black crows. Suddenly the murder took flight, cawing and winging in a uniform arch across the deep blue sky. 

The old boar peered more intensely about.

Nothing. 

He heard a strange click off to the right as he stretched out his front leg and entered the clearing. Turning his great head toward the noise, he knew instantly — he should have gone left at the fork. He sighed. He was too tired, too old, to run.

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