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The Heritage

26 Jun

 

The Heritage

A Short Story by

L. Stewart Marsden

 

It might have begun with Alex Haley’s phenomenon “Roots,” with its fictitious tracing forward of the ancestry and heritage of Kunta Kinte. When the TV series hit the airways, the nation became obsessed with the story — even though it was historical fiction.

My dad was crazy with the idea that our family was somehow linked to an Adjutant Lieutenant who was a close aide to George Washington, and who had left the British military to fight on the right side. Oh how he sifted through yellowed letters and cracked photographs to prove that association. Notes folded and tucked into family Bibles. Photos with illegible notations, some with nothing to identify the stoned-faced subjects. Guess-work and some liberties were taken in developing a narrative of the family, how it came to be in the United States, and then in the Midwest and Minnesota.

This was long before Ancestry.com and others bought up most of the public records, foiling the best efforts of family researchers. We were’t Mormon, so that avenue wasn’t available.

And then came the pièce de résistance: DNA testing.

“Oh, you definitely do not want to submit your DNA!” warned my paranoid sister. “They’ll find something genetically wrong with you and you won’t ever be able to buy Life Insurance — or any insurance for that matter!”

Actually, I figured anyone who had any doubt as to his legitimacy might be compelled to send in a little spittle. I remember how growing up, my little brother and I sparred verbally, announcing the other had been adopted and was not a real part of the family.

That was actually the reason for my buying into the ancestry ploy: I was so different from the rest of my family, and had often wondered had I been adopted?

“No, Son. You weren’t adopted. I still bear the stretch marks on my belly. You were the largest of the three.”

Mom started having children almost immediately after marrying Dad. The first, Marylee, died as a two month old suddenly. Back then they called it Crib Death. I guess it would be called SIDS, now. But my parents were from Minnesota and the Midwest, where the mentality was infant mortality was almost a given. The solution, according to Dad, was to have another child as soon as possible. So my paranoid sister was born ten months after Marylee’s death. And then I came along two years later, and my younger brother, a year and a half later.

From the start I stuck out like a sore thumb. My sister and brother were beautiful babies and children. Fair haired and blue eyes like Mom. But I was gawky and had ears much too large — that stuck out of the side of my head like radar detection saucers. Plus I had a long, thick unibrow that ran above both of my brown eyes. Mom thought I looked like a monkey, and called me her little Monkey Man. I hated that.

But, unlike my siblings, I had two things going for me: I was extremely athletic, and I could sing. So I was in harmony with the music of my times, and the music of nature. Dad loved to sing, too, and awoke every morning singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” from the musical.

One Sunday Dad took us to the Plantation Supper Club, which served the best buffet in three counties, and featured a live band. All us kids loved going there, because sometime during the band’s performance, the conductor would ask if any kids would like to come up and perform? Nearly all chose to lead the band, waving the conductor’s baton to a rhythm that did not match the band’s tempo in the least. The reward was a huge multi-colored lollipop that would last for days. 

So we all went up, my sisters and I. Mom was pregnant with my younger brother at the time. The girls waved their arms while the band played, received their lollipops, and returned to the family table.

“Do you want to lead the band?” the conductor asked me.

“No. I want to sing.”

“And what song do you want to sing?”

“Je-sus luffs me!” I said loudly into his mic.

“Well, I — uh, I guess the band knows that one,” and handed his mic to me. The band began a rather tentative rendition of the song — musicians unsure of the beat or the notes.

“Je-sus luffs me, this I know!” I sang and continued to sing in my innocent and crystal-clear voice. The band dropped off behind me while I continued a cappella.

“Yes! Je-sus luffs me!” I could see just beyond the apron of the stage where diners sat, enrapt. Tissues were out and dabbing eyes.

“Yes! Je-sus luffs me!” The waiters stood in their tracks, not knowing whether it was okay to tend tables or not while I sang the song.

“Yesss! Je-sus luffs me! Da Bi-bull tells me so!”

Silence. Do you clap after “Jesus loves me” is sung? No one knew. Mom was blubbering into a large dinner napkin. 

Finally, Dad stood up and clapped, and the other diners followed suit.

I grabbed my lollipop from the hands of the stunned conductor and raced back to my seat. My two sisters glared at me.

And that’s pretty much why I decided to send in my DNA.

__________

The company letter came a few weeks later. Basically, it was an apology, stating that sometimes DNA samples were erroneously contaminated — either by the sender or during some part of the testing process.

“This happens very rarely. In fact, only on nine previous occasions have we ever had to send an offer to retest DNA for free, and we test thousands of samples, comparing them to our growing DNA bank for matches, every day.”

Whatever. Someone screwed up at the testing site. I was very careful to follow the instructions meticulously, and knew it wasn’t my fault! Inconvenient? Sure, but you pick your battles, and I sent in another sample.

Three weeks passed and the same letter came back to me.

So now I’m frustrated. All I want to do is disprove my younger brother’s decades-old assertion that I was adopted — something Mom and Dad had continued to deny.

“They’re lying!” my brother hissed, snakelike.

As it turns out, they weren’t lying — not exactly, at least according to the man who showed up at my door one day dressed in a black suit with black tie and fedora and sunglasses.

______

 

Before the Blues Brother showed up at my front door, I gotta be honest and say this thing about the DNA FUBAR had begun to get to me. This feeling I considered too silly to mess with had sunk into my head. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t concentrate at work. I was short-tempered with people around me — impatient to the max. I’ve never sunk into such a dark place in my life — yet, here I was.

So when I answered the doorbell early one Saturday to greet this whatever and whoever he was, there was a mixture of tension with relief! Somehow I knew this funk I was in was going to see some light of day. I knew this guy was some sort of key to getting out of my pit, and I was damn well ready to be rescued.

He identified himself so quickly I missed half what he said, still, I held the door open and he walked into my house.

“We alone?” he asked.

“Unless you count my fighting fish in the bowl over there.”

“No girl friend?”

“With these ears?”

“Yeah. No girl friend.”

He carried a locked briefcase, spun the combination dials, and it popped open. He set it on the small table in front of the couch where he sat. He pulled out a manila envelope and opened the silver clasps, then slid out photos of people.

“Would you mind looking at these and telling me if any of them are familiar?”

I picked each up and briefly studied them. Various ethnicities — Hispanic, black, Asian, a few different caucasians. Male and female. Adults and children. While I couldn’t say for sure, I was fairly certain I didn’t know any of them. And yet … there was a sense of underlying familiarity about each person. But I couldn’t put a finger on it.

“Nope. I don’t know them. Should I?”

“Unless you travel the world a lot, I doubt it.”

There were three adult males, three adult females, two male children and one girl. Nine photos in all.

Nine. I remembered the letter.

“This happens very rarely. In fact, only on nine previous occasions have we ever had to send an offer to retest DNA for free, and we test thousands of samples, comparing them to our growing DNA bank for matches, every day.”

“This about my DNA test about my ancestry?”

“It might be.” He was stone-face. I think if he smiled his head would crumble apart. “I can’t really tell you much …”

“… or you’d have to kill me, right?” 

He didn’t appreciate the quip.

“I’ve read your files.” (They have files, plural, on me?) “We’ve been waiting for this for a number of years.”

“Waiting for what?” I was getting more uneasy by the second.

“You to get your DNA tested. Of course, our operatives are the ones who messed them up.”

“Why would you do that? Why are you interested in me?”

“Same reason you wanted to get your DNA results. To find out who you are related to.”

“So I’m am adopted?”

“Not in the classical sense.”

“What other sense is there?”

“We ran your DNA years ago.”

“YEARS AGO!” I am now officially freaked out.

“It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time …”

“Actually, we don’t.”

“Tell me the short version then — skip all the boring stuff and get to the highlights. I AM an American, and have rights, you know.”

“Possibly.”

“WHA — ?!”

“Calm down, Sir. I’ll tell you this,” as he reached into his coat pocket and removed something that resembled a gun.

“SHIT!”

“Sit, Sir. Please. Take a deep breath.” 

I did.

“Those photos I showed you? The people you say you know nothing about? Those nine people are the only people on this earth — as far as we can determine — who are genetically related to you.”

And then he pulled the trigger, and I blacked out.

_____

I awoke with a clear head, and no grogginess or dizziness — which surprised me. I’ve had surgery before and have gone under the knife, so knew what coming out of an anesthetically-induced sleep was like. This was definitely not that. 

There were lights, but not blinding. Blues Brother guy was among several others seated about a stark room all about me. I was stretched out on some sort of sofa, or bed. I remember I felt completely relaxed and unafraid. Including The Blues Brother, there were nine others forming a ring around me: Three men, three women, two boys and one girl. They were of varying age and ethnic look. All were smiling.

I sat upright and swung my feet around to the floor. No one spoke. Slowly I looked about the room, studying each face. I realized after the third person there were similarities too obvious: the ears, large and prominent, as if satellite dishes, scanning for the visually undetectable; mono brows, dark and thick.

Just like me. The nine were the DNA rejects! 

“You are the others.” It was not a question on my part, but a statement of realization.

They smiled and nodded.

“Your DNA is a match to me.” Again, a statement.

Again, they smiled.

The Blues Brother stood up and walked to me.

“You asked if your were adopted. You weren’t in the usual sense. Your birth mother basically cocooned you in her womb.”

“What? There was an immaculate conception?”

“Interesting you asked — more like an immaculate switch.”

“Switch?”

“You, and your brothers and sisters, took the place of feti already growing in your ‘birth mothers’ wombs.” He couched the words birth mothers with finger quotation marks. “They were not, of course, your biological birth mothers.”

I was stunned. The news of being adopted is impactful enough, but to find that your birth mother was not your biological mother goes well beyond shocked.

“So you implanted me in my mother’s womb?”

“In a way. More simply put, we switched you out. Like replacing a carburetor in an engine, or a lightbulb.”

“And what happened to the feti that were in these mothers’ bellies?”

“We don’t speak of that.”

“Why not?”

“It is not germane to your purpose. It will do nothing for you to have that knowledge.”

“Try me!”

The other nine also turned to the Blues Brother, seeming as interested in the truth as I.

One in particular, a light-skinned, white-haired and blue-eyed middle-aged woman stared at him intently, to which Blues Brother reacted with immediate nervousness to the point he began to sweat profusely.

“Well, if you must absolutely know — we recycled them.”

“What?! What the hell does that mean?”

“They were ingested.”

——-

In the span of a little over three months, my life had turned upside down. Not only was I not my parents’ legitimate offspring, but I was no longer a part of the human species! And, my race was not of this world. And we were cannibals, apparently.

“The precise definition of cannibal is one that eats the flesh of its own kind. So, technically, the feti that were ingested was not an act of cannibalism.

Blues Man was very careful in his use of words: feti … ingested. Terms of sterility, and very little direct inference to what really happened. They ate babies, by God! He made it sound as if humans were little more than part of the Four Main Food Group’s of his — or our — planet!

I remembered the classic Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Mankind — the realization as a group of earthlings shuttled onto a space vessel that the “manual” the Alien had brought with him was actually a cookbook.

And while my nine relatives and I were not grossly obvious as outerworlders, we were still distinct in our appearance. The ears. The eyebrow. I had never had the slightest inclination to eat anyone, though.

That wasn’t all. Each of us also had special abilities. Talents, you might say … but not normal. My brother from Ecuador, Josue, had the ability to see around corners. No idea how you would use that, or how you develop it. Genetic mutation? He wasn’t sure either.

Each was different in that regard, except we did share perfect pitch, and could spontaneously break into a long strain of melodious and harmonious song. That experience was incredible! I likened it to a pack of wolves baying in the moonlit night air — their parts wrapping around each other’s, lifting the pack to unequaled heights of ecstasy! My siblings and I matched and exceeded that of the wolves — or of the whales — or of any other earthbound creature. Then I realized all earth’s creatures — with the exception of humans — spontaneously broke into choruses — from katydids and tree toads to rutting Elk. Perhaps we were more like they.

Blues Brother reminded us humans were quite capable of exquisite song — but not all. I thought of my human siblings and had to agree. Each was tone deaf. But at Christmastide the televised performance of Handel’s Messiah always sent shivers throughout my body.

“Why do we sing?” I asked.

“Two reasons,” said Blues Man. “We enter into a oneness with each other, with nature, and with the Universe; and we’re horney and want to mate.”

Once Blues Man had answered all of our various questions in various languages (we all understood each other perfectly), he addressed the one question no one had dared ask, but was paramount on our minds.

“You are probably wondering why you’re here. I would be, too. I’ve long waited for this moment. The annuls of our world will highlight this moment. Your thoughts will be heralded for millennia to come. You are here to save this planet, pure and simple.

“Not for our use. Not as a breeding farm for food. Not for resources or any other reason than its direction is perilous. Humans have so distorted this planet’s balance that it stands on the precipice of destruction. And as many countries have ironically reserved vast areas for preservation and against the total waste of precious lands, we are going to preserve this world because of its uniqueness — either with, or without humans.

“They have become the top liability, and either we will convince them to reverse that, or we will not.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked.

“Our goal remains the same. We adapt our approach to the problem.”

_____

 

Imagine that within a matter of weeks you had discovered:

  1. Your parents were not your real parents;
  2. You had been implanted into the womb of your mother (is this similar to the Virgin Birth, I wonder?);
  3. You were, in fact, alien;
  4. That you and others like you had the responsibility of saving the Earth;
  5. And, finally,  that saving the Earth might not include saving humanity.

I grew up immersed in the science fiction of my day, which demonize every flying saucer, alien, or unknowable thing that happened to be discovered by the guys with horn-rimmed glasses and who wore starched white short-sleeved shirts. Enmity, never understanding. Or hardly ever. The beast of Forbidden Planet. The three-eyed monster of The Day the World Ended. The emissary, Klaatu, from outer space who arrived in Washington with his stainless steel sidekick, Gort, to tell humans to quit nuclear proliferation. Only Klaatu had some semblance of sanity — the rest were train wrecks.

Alien equaled “bad,” regardless how the term was used. Alien, foreign, nonhuman, maliciously dangerous, deceitful, untrustworthy. Shoot when you see the slits of their eyes. And, shoot first, ask questions later, which was the military mentality in each film. 

And there I was — smack dab in the middle of a small herd of Aliens, and I was one!

“After a brief period of training, each one of you will be returned whence you came,” said Blues Brother. I think he was trying to impress us with his use of the word “whence.”

“We don’t have much time, family. Some of you will skirt the time rings and go back to small but pivotal events that steered the course of history to where we now are. Others, will skirt ahead, and provide the necessary evaluation of any changes to the good. Personally, I would prefer to go back in time, as I think those evaluating change are going to be disappointed. Were it me (again, the odd use of the verb), I would dispense with the entire efforts at redeeming humanity. Like when the God of the Bible said, “Oops! That didn’t work! Guess I’ll flood the Earth.”

I raised my hand to interrupt and challenge the assertion, but Blues Man had already guessed my intent and ignored me.

“Your training will not be very difficult. The pods being lowered are your training encasements (as he spoke, shiny black pods — almost like those of The Body Snatchers — descended from the darkness above to hover at waist level in front of each of us), and you will spend some time in hibernation.

“During that time you will be more fully informed about the mission as well as your personal backgrounds. Each of you has various — how shall I put it? — unearthly abilities. You will be acquainted with and thoroughly trained in the proper use of these abilities. 

“If there are no questions, I ask you to touch your pod to open it.”

I raised my hand. All the other pods opened. Blues Brother eyed me sternly, and I put my hand down and touched the pod in front of me. It opened along the horizontal middle.

“Please get into your pod. It doesn’t matter which end you position your head at. Your pod will make the necessary adjustments.”

We all clambered into the pods.

“Lie down on your backs — face up.”

And as we did, the interior of the pod began to expand and gently form-fit to our bodies. My experience was one of total relaxation and comfort, and I wondered it this was what it was like to lie in a coffin. 

“Touch the inside top of your pod to close, and I’ll see each of you shortly.”

I touched mine, and the lid slowly closed. A light wisp of cool air circulated about me, and though the lid was shut, it wasn’t dark. An ambient blueish-green glow radiated slowly about me, and as it did, I could hear music similar to the chorus we had participated in when we first met. It was so soothing! When they speak of utter peace? This was it.

And I fell into a deep sleep.

_____

Early morning sun rays beamed through the window blind slits onto my face. Outside I could hear the morning-tide welcome as birds joined in a wonderful chorus of praise. I felt myself beginning to join in the song fest when my birth mother knocked on my bedroom door.

“Eggs and sausage on the table!”

Eggs and sausage. Birds and pigs. The thought was now nauseating. How could I ever have thought those were edible?

I pulled myself out of my bed and shuffled into the bathroom, flicking the light on and staring at my reflection in the walled mirror above the counter sink.

“Still me,” I thought. Wait! Was that a dream?

“You will invariable have moments of doubt that any of this has taken place,” I remember Blues Brother warning us.

“Merely remember our group choruses, tilt your head back, and sing — preferably in the shower so no one thinks it odd.”

I turned the shower on and slipped out of my pajamas, then entered into the glassed closet. The warm water felt good — like soft needles pricking my face and shoulders and chest. I leaned my head back and allowed the sound to flow. And in an instant, knew it was all true.

I toweled and dressed, making my bed for the first time in millennia because it made me feel happy to do so.

In the kitchen I kissed my birth mom, which, again, was something I never did. It surprised her and she turned red in the face. I could read her mind: what’s gotten into him?

“Nothing has gotten into me,” I replied to her shock. I looked at the plate of sausage and bowl of scrambled eggs and squelched a gag reflex. Then I got up from the table.

“Not going to eat?”

“I’m not hungry, Mom.”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” she chided him.

“I know. I’ll grab something later.”

I headed for the front door and turned back to look at her, busy in the kitchen putting away the sausage and scrambled eggs. I wanted to say something, but what? She was so much a part of me before, and now seemed so very far away.

“You have a good day, Mom!”

“Go save the world, Son!”

“I’ll try.”

And I walked out into a new day.

_____

The End

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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.

“Oh, shit!”

_____

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. “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

John Farmer’s name adequately described him: solid, strong, self-confident, handsome. He was the kid every mother hoped her daughter would bring home during Spring Break from college.

He was also the kind of guy girls didn’t want their mothers to meet. They didn’t want the competition.

Dad’s always stuck out their hands, and were impressed by his firm grip and eye-to-eye contact. 

“So, John — what’re you majoring in?”

“Premed, Sir.” Two points. One for premed, one for “sir.”

“You want to be a doctor? What specialty?”

“Trauma. Probably an ER doc — though they call the ER the ED now in most hospitals. Emergency medicine has become more than the emergency room.”

“Why that specialty, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Sure. Well, a family member died from head trauma years ago.”

Awkwardly, “Oh. I’m sorry about that.”

“It was his mother, Dad.”

“Oh! Gosh —“

“It’s okay, Sir. I was a baby at the time. I never really knew her. My grandmother raised me.”

And at dinner, the conversation would drift about. John mentioned he played baseball in high school. 

“Professional scouts were looking at him!”

“Nice!”

“But that’s not my goal, and I really don’t have time to play with everything else I have on my plate.”

He worked as an EMT for Orange County.

“Helps pay my rent. My scholarship money pays the rest.”

“Morehead Scholar, Dad.” 

Six points. Two for working, two for no college debt, and two for being a Morehead. Eyes wide and big grins and pats on the back.

That was pretty much his experience whenever and wherever he was taken “to meet the folks.”

But those relationships hardly ever stuck. And he wasn’t sure why not. Maybe because his mother died tragically, and he’d never known her. Maybe because his grandmother had not died, and he did know her. Maybe because he had never known his father, nor the circumstances of his coming to be. When asked, his grandmother simply popped another beer and lit another cigarette.

“How’s knowing gonna change what is? You are who you determine yourself to be. That should suffice.”

Which, all in all, was pretty good advice — albeit a bit on the calloused side of things.

Maybe it was due to keeping his guard up all of the time. He had experienced enough tragedy, and he was finally off on his own and commander of his own vessel. His boat was just large enough for one at this point in his life, and he knew he could at least determine how he responded to all of the challenges in life. Why add another person into the mix?

_____

 

Tamara Johnson leaned over the console of the exercise bike, sweat dripping from the end of her nose, which she blew away with a forceful puff. Three more minutes to go, so she stepped up her pedaling to squeeze out every ounce of body fat she could manage.

She wasn’t a fitness junky. She had simple observed herself in a Nordstrom dressing room mirror and decided enough was enough. Average is how she described her physique on Zoosk. There should be another category, like, What the hell’s wrong with average and at least I’m not bulimic?

But she worked in a traditionally man’s world — and despite her acceptance among the other emergency medical techs, was well aware of the onus she carried on the job. Had to be stronger than normal. Had to be at the top of the skills list. Had to put up with the occasional man-talk in the break room and the kitchen. Had to overcome the stereotyping that if she was an EMT, she must be lesbian. She talked rough because the talk was rough. She wore her hair short because she thought long hair was a potential danger on the job, and she didn’t want to have to keep brushing it aside while she administered CPR or the paddles.

She also had to overcome the resentment of the Old Guard EMT’s, who in spite of declaring their support for women EMT’s, were steeped in the “way things used to be.” They were men she tolerated, knowing it unlikely they would somehow have a eureka experience about her and suddenly “see the light.” She had one thing on them, however: they were old and she was not. She could wait.

Her girl friends said she ought to take it to the top whenever issues of sexism inevitably arose (and there were so many ways those issues could surface), but she thought better of it. She was smart enough to know you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, something her dad used to say often before he passed. But, if someone did cross the physical line, she was prepared.

Now, however, there was a new potential conflict: John Farmer — the new kid on the street. At least with his hiring Tamara was no longer on the bottom rung, where she had persevered for three years. Farmer replaced her, and she was his senior in terms of experience. But this was a temporary stopover for the young guy, who had no time to stop and take a piss his schedule was so crammed. From being on call at the station to going to school, he had no time for anything else. And when he was on call, he was studying. Biology, chemistry, applied mathematics and courses she didn’t know existed.

The problem was she liked him. And so did all the other squad members. But they called him “the kid,” like he was a rookie — which he was — with potential — which he definitely had. He did his job, learned as much as he could about being an EMT and its expectations by the side of his new mentors. Their admiration was because he was their new brother in the family. Hers was a bit more.

Tamara, hoping none of the others would not notice, had begun to dress for work a little differently since Farmer’s arrival. Wear makeup. Splash on cologne — but not like her male counterparts did, which was to literally bathe in Ax aftershave. Frustrated, her attempts at small talk with Farmer were wasted on the guy. His head was always miles away — thinking about some class or test. Or crouched in a corner by himself with his laptop, pecking away at a paper, or doing required research.

She chalked up her interest to infatuation. A handsome guy — physically fit and mentally sharp. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. A real Boy Scout. She rated herself as beneath the standard Farmer was probably used to. But then, measuring up had always been a challenge she normally accepted with gusto. 

She discontentedly decided to content herself with a platonic and strictly business relationship with John Farmer. He had his life. She had hers. 

_____

 

Carlton Barks pulled into the entrance to The Red Roof Inn and found a parking space. He turned the ignition off and the truck shuddered to a stop, coughing and spewing a bit as normal. He reached down on the floorboard and grabbed the red dog lead. On cue, Sadie jumped to her feet and nosed him while he hooked the lead to her collar. They were two dogs of a kind. She, a rescue wire-haired mix he found in Texas, and he, a rescued wire-haired hombre who travelled from place to place, doing odd carpentry jobs. 

Normally he followed the spring storms from Texas up through Oklahoma and Nebraska, helping locals clean up the aftermath in the wake of an F2 or 3. Sometimes larger. Then his practice was to stay on and rebuild. He did that for years, and what some folks might say was an iffy lifestyle, he found to be all he wanted or needed.

He wasn’t a gouger nor a cheat. He knew a lot of traveling crews that bit down hard on little old ladies, promising a roof repair and requiring a down payment for materials and the work. They’d have a roll of roofing paper and lay down one or two rows, break for lunch — asking the little old ladies for the nearest diner — then disappear into the sunset, taking the down payment with them.

Not Barks. He was rough, but he had a soul, what was left of it.

At the Red Roof Inn counter he slapped a hundred-dollar bill down for a room. He never paid by credit — always cash. At the Red Roofs he and Sadie could get a few nights sleep on real beds, and he could catch up on the local happenings on TV. Plus they provided breakfast — if you could call it that. The Danish were usually stale, the apples bruised and brown, and the coffee scalding. Still, for the price it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

And when the cash was gone, he knew it was time to find work. Normally that wasn’t hard to do, following the storms and all. Occasionally he and Sadie bunked out in the cab of his truck. Gas was his main expense. He carried a prepaid flip phone for emergencies — only for 911 calls. He didn’t really know anyone else he could call if he was in a jamb.

This spring he headed east through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle; then northeast through Georgia, South Carolina, and into North Carolina. He opted for what he told Sadie was the “middle route,” I-75 to Macon, then I-20 to Columbia, then north to Charlotte. He was in no hurry, and worked some jobs along the way — a few roofs, some tree cutting, window replacements. 

Up in the hurricane states he had become well-known, and was busy from the time he crossed into twister territory. In the east — not so much. His dingy white magnetic signs, which he stuck to either door of his truck, read Good, Honest Work at Good, Honest Prices. He would ask at diners and gas stations if anyone knew anyone that needed work. That seemed to work fine. At least, when he and Sadie got down to half a tank in the truck, work always came his way.

He never asked for upfront money. “Pay me when I’ve done the job,” he’d say, and shake hands on it. Generally he had no problems getting paid. He took a check once in Albuquerque that bounced, so after that he always asked for cash. No credit cards.

His estimates were scrawled out on a yellow sheet of blue-lined pad paper — in pencil. And when it came to collecting his due, he was always right on the money. No surprises. Just good honest work at good honest prices.

Once he had been asked if he were an Irish Traveler by a Sheriff’s deputy outside Aiken. Barks knew of their reputation. They were basically con artists in the home repair trade. A smirch on the reputation of the good, honest work guys. The deputy ran a computer query while Barks leaned against the end of his truck and smoked a cigarette. Sadie found shade just underneath the truckbed. He’d been pulled many times, and knew the ropes well. Stay calm. Answer the questions politely. Tell the officer you have an unloaded revolver in the glove compartment where you also keep your gun permit. In other words, lessen the chance of some law enforcer getting nervous about you. Then you got trouble, and trouble was what Barks wanted none of. And normally, as in this case, the deputy walked back and handed back Barks license, with a polite thank you sir, you are free to go, have a nice day.

Barks hadn’t always been this way. Twenty years earlier he had walked on the wild side, and whiskey, fast cars, and loose women were far more important than good work at a fair price. 

Hence the reason for traveling east this spring. There was a gal he had a short fling with. Someone who had robbed him of his senses, and who had torn his heart out. He could see her at will by closing his eyes. Pretty brunette. Bright eyes. Cherry lips. And innocent as a new-born calf. She had run off from her home and mother — which apparently was the family curse, her mother doing the same thing at a similar age. 

Word had gotten back that she was pregnant, and she had gone home to her mother. Pregnant. She never called him nor wrote to say the baby was his, so he assumed it was not. But after he straightened out his zig-zagging life, Barks began to wonder. And twenty years later decided it was time to quit wondering and find out. 

All he knew was her name: Callie Farmer. And where she had lived with her mother — a small town outside Charlotte.

_____

 

“Hey! Batter-batter-batter!” shouted the shortstop, pounding his glove with his balled up other hand.

The pitcher touched the front bill of his ball cap, and looked around. Man on second and one on first, who dared a throw by stretching a long lead off the base.

John Farmer stepped out of the batter’s box to adjust his helmet, gripping down on the rubberized tape spiraling down the shaft of his aluminum bat. He quickly glanced at the score. The Red Raiders were down two runs in the bottom of the ninth, and the count was full. He was the winning run in this state championship game.

He stepped back into the batter’s box and took a practice swing. The chatter started up in the infield again as the pitcher and catcher came into agreement after shaking off several suggestions. Finally  nodding, and with a slight dip of his chin, the pitcher drew his glove up, masking his fingers around the ball.

Farmer closed out all noise — like his favorite scene in The Natural — and he was Roy Hobbs at the plate. He felt sweat run down his neck, and from his groin down the inside of his back leg. His bat drew tiny circles at the thick end. The pitcher leaned forward again, and began his windup. Arms and legs following precise choreography — the ball still hidden in his large leather glove. Leaning back, out popped a leg as he cocked his arm, finishing his throw with arm and fingers extended, back leg swinging around just below the rubber on the raised mound.

Farmer could see the stitches in the calfskin as the missile hurtled toward the plate: knuckleball, down and away, the pitcher’s favorite throw. But also Farmer’s favorite pitch to hit. His left leg up in his chest, his back leg drove him forward towards the ball, his bat cutting low and up with just enough speed to connect.

Ping! went the hit, just over the third baseman’s outstretched glove, slowly climbing like a lumbering passenger jet. Up, up, up — and well over the left field fence, inside the left field line. Home run! State Championship! Hero!

And as he bounce-jogged around third and into home, Farmer looked up to where his ecstatic mother and father normally sat, hugging and kissing wildly, waving and giving him the thumbs up.

Then the alarm clock would buzz and bring him back to reality, and his dream evaporated.

A Sunday, he could have slept in. But there was too much to do. This was his off-weekend as an EMT, and he needed to take advantage of it to catch up on his studies. If he pushed himself, he could make the second of a double-header between Carolina and Clemson at Bryson Field.

He showered and dressed quickly, and grabbed the leather shoulder bag that contained his life, then headed for the library, where he found a favorite nook that kept him undisturbed by classmates. He was popular on his own, without playing baseball or going the frat route. Three more semesters of hard work and grind. Then the MCATs, and then med school applications and then sweat it out.

“You’ll be a shoo-in!” his friends told him. While he appreciated their encouragement, it wasn’t their dream on the line. Not until he held his acceptance letter in hand would he dare relax.

He pushed himself until mid-afternoon, when he decided he had earned at least a break of a couple of innings, and headed for Boshamer Stadium. He grabbed a couple of slices of pizza and a coke on the way in, and found a spot where he could — again — be to himself.

The spring sun felt good on his face and arms and bare legs. A slight breeze swirled about, kicking up dust on the mound. The Heels were in the field, whipping the ball around in preparation for the start of the second game. They had dropped the first to the Tigers 5 – 2. He closed his eyes and listened, his imagination returning to his early morning dream.

A shadow fell on his face, which he first thought to be an afternoon cloud.

“Mind if I join you?” an unrecognizable voice directed at him. Farmer opened his eyes, and a shadowed man sat down on the next seat.

“Do I know you?” Farmer asked.

“I don’t think so. Heard you play ball.”

“Used to. Don’t have time.” Farmer sat up and looked at the man. He was clad in faded jeans and a plaid short-sleeved shirt, opened to his breast bone. His boots were worn, as was the straw cowboy hat perched on his head. With his sunglasses, the man reminded Farmer of Richard Petty.

The man reached out his hand. “I’m Carlton.”

“My name’s John,” he returned his hand and gripped Carlton’s.

“Nice grip!”

“You seem kinda familiar, but I don’t know why, Carlton.”

“Well, we’ve never met, John. But we do have a connection.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“It’s a who. Callie Farmer.”

“My mom?”

“Your mom.”

_____

Well that sure as shit didn’t go down good, Carlton thought as he tugged on Sadie’s leash, who was nose-sweeping the sidewalk and stopped every two or three feet to sniff.

He guessed it was all a mistake, gallivanting across the south to meet someone who might be his son after all these years. What the hell was he thinking?

***

“Are you telling me you’re my dad?” The blood had drained from John Farmer’s face, and it was as though he was plunging into shock.

“I can’t say for sure, son …”

“Please don’t call me that —”

“Sorry. Habit. I call everyone younger’n me son — not the gals, of course. Look, this was a big mistake on my part. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done this.”

“Well you did,” John replied, none too pleased. “Look, I can’t do this here. Do you mind if we go somewhere we can talk?”

“You willin’ to talk to me?”

“About my mother. I want to know about her, and Grandma wasn’t too keen on talking about her — except bad things.”

“I got my dog Sadie with me.”

“There’s a dog-friendly restaurant not far from here.”

***

They walked in awkward silence from the stadium across the campus. Dogwoods of all colors were in full bloom, and the grassy areas were covered with blankets and students taking advantage of the first good tanning rays, dressed down to nearly nothing.

“That a distraction for you?” said Carlton, nodding towards three comely coeds tossing a frisbee across one grassy lawn.

John laughed. “I’m too busy for that.”

The walk ended up on Franklin Street, and they crossed to a corner restaurant named “Sup Dogs.”

“We’re in luck — there’s an outside table vacant. You and Sadie grab a seat and I’ll go order. Burger or dogs?”

“Surprise me — whatever you think is the best. I’ll pay,” and he pulled out a $50 from his pocket.

“No — I got this. Your money’s no good here,” and disappeared into the building. A waitress came out with a bowl of water for Sadie who lapped thirstily.

Carlton sat back in his chair, listening to the sounds of various music swirl around the street, which was crowded with walkers of every age, color and gender — plus a few he had to look at to determine what they were. College town. He was a Texas Tech fan, and was glad he hadn’t worn that ball cap. All around him was a sea of light blue.

John emerged finally with a tray filled with food, which he put down on the table.

“What’s mine?”

“Whatever suits you.”

He chose a hot dog, buried with chili and relish, and fries.

“God, this is good!” Carlton mumbled after taking a bite. 

John grabbed a hamburger, layered with cheeses and lettuce, tomatoes and purple onions. He bit into the stacked treat, juice spurting out onto his chin. Carlton grabbed a paper napkin from the tray and handed it to him. They laughed as Daisy nearly jumped into John’s lap, begging shamelessly.

“So, how did you meet my mother?”

Carlton grabbed a fry, and thought a bit.

“I lived in Austin at the time. Those were my wild days. Didn’t have a job, didn’t have a truck, and no dog. And I rode a Harley.”

“A Harley?”

“Your mother had been in Waco a couple of weeks, and was working in a greasy spoon diner. I walked in, took one look, and that was it.”

“So what happened?”

“We were together constantly — except when she worked. She had a room near the diner at a two-bit motel, and I stayed with her until I began to ask myself what the hell was I doing? I knew she needed someone in her life who could care proper for her, and at the time, I didn’t think that was me.”

“And —- ?”

“And I left. I had a Mickey Mouse set of tools at the time, and headed west one morning early before she woke up. I got to Tucson when I realized I had made the worst mistake of my life, and I turned around. I made that 14-hour trip in six hours. But she was gone when I got back to the motel. I stayed there, working odd jobs in the area, thinking she might try to contact me at the motel. Just a hunch. Then I got a postcard from Six Flags, so I headed north — only ninety minutes away legally! Ninety minutes!

“I knew she’d try to find a job at Six Flags, and figured it would be with one of the park’s restaurants. She always complained Texans didn’t know the first thing about barbecue — that the only good barbecue is pulled pork. So it wasn’t to difficult to figure out which restaurant she probably worked at — JB’s Smokehouse — which is where I went.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but back then I was a looker, and it didn’t take too long to find out from one of the waitresses that Callie had gone back home, and had gone because she found out she was pregnant.”

John Farmer turned his head and avoided eye contact with Carlton.

“What then?”

“I wanted to go after her, I did. But I couldn’t. I was a kid. Young as you. And I knew myself enough to realize — if she was pregnant with my kid — that I knew nothing about being a father. Or a husband for that matter. 

“So I sold my Harley and bought a beat-up Chevy truck, and invested some money into better carpentry tools. I figured I ought to make something of myself before I chased after her so’s I had something more than just me to offer her.”

“And you never made anything of yourself — that’s why you didn’t come here and try to find her.”

“That’s not entirely true. She died before I could go.”

John paused a while, and scratched behind Sadie’s ears. He fed her a bit of his hamburger.

“So why now?”

“I don’t rightly know why now. I’ve been driftin’ for so long, traveling and working. I was so damn lonely — and angry with myself. If I had come back from Tucson earlier. Or got up to Six Flags before your mother took off. Things would be a world of different.”

“Perhaps. Do you think you’re my father?”

“Let me show you something to answer that.” He pulled out his billfold and dug behind his driver’s license. He pulled out a strip of three black and white photos. “We took these one night when a traveling carnival came through Waco.” He carefully unfolded the strip and handed it to John.

An attractive brunette, her haircut in pixy fashion, stared back at him from the past. Her eyes were round and bright, her smile contagious. She was beautiful. A young man dressed in a plaid long-sleeve shirt and a new cowboy hat was wrapped around her. John couldn’t take his eyes off his mother.

“This is the first picture I’ve  ever seen of my mother,” he said, tears streaking down the sides of his face.

“She was beautiful — outside and in. Your mother was the girl of my dreams. And who does that young man make you think of?”

“Well it’s obviously you years ago.”

“Look closer, John.”

He wiped the tears from his eyes and examined the man in the photo. Gradually, the image came into focus.”

“That’s me!” he whispered incredulously. Then he looked up at Carlton, his face racked in agony. “You fucking are my dad!”

_____

 

Miss Emma shuffled about her small wood frame house like a rodent, scurrying from one of the hundreds of stacked cardboard liquor boxes and rifling though its contents, then looking up and about, and scampering to another on the other side of the room. She had a system — one only she knew — and filed and refiled newspapers and magazines according to that unknown criteria.

Miss Emma was barely five feet tall. In fact, to say she was five feet tall was more than likely stretching the truth, but that’s what she told anyone who asked.

“I’m fife feet toll,” she said in her toothless accent. More like four and a half feet in high heels.

Her head was wrapped in a colorful scarf she had found thrown away, and she had a mismatched wool scarf about her neck. She wore a black linen button down dress that dragged the floor, and over that was a black wool sweater. Her pudgy feet were crammed into a pair of tap shoes she bought at the Goodwill, and she wore knee socks — also black.

Twice before the Department of Social Services had sent Miss Emma’s case worker out to see her. Twice before the case worker warned her the city might have to condemn her rental home.

“There’s so many boxes of newspapers and magazines, Miss Emma! All it would take is an electrical spark and this place — and you — would be gone in minutes. You need to get someone to help you clean this place out and get rid of most of this!”

And Miss Emma would tap over to a box in the corner and rummage through its contents, grabbing an old National Geographic to deposit it into another stuffed box.

“Ain’t gonna get rid o’ nuffin!” she said. It wasn’t a defiant statement, but matter-of-fact.

And twice her case worker warned she was going to contact the fire department, or the City Inspection Department, and she might find herself out on the streets.

To that Miss Emma would mumble incoherently, and increase the speed and energy of her work.

The house was the lone structure on a lot otherwise vacant. The yard was similar to the house, strewn with cast-off items Miss Emma had dragged from somewhere. Her prize possession was a rusty grocery cart she used to collect bottles and aluminum cans with. Once full, she would push the cart a mile down the road and sell it’s contents to the Salvation Army Captain, who would give her $5, and then recycle the worthless bounty to the big dumpster in the parking lot. 

Miss Emma would use the money to buy pop and a newspaper and two magazines from the gas and convenience store that was along her route home. She would drink the pop through her mustached lips, and promptly file the newspaper and magazines when she got home. She had lived alone in that house for over twenty years, and far as her neighbors, or the police, or her case worker knew, had practiced the same daily routine.

Her possessions of necessity, other than the box-filed magazines and newspapers, were a hand-operated can opener — this kind with a spike blade you leverage around the edge of the can; and an old beat-up aluminum pan, plus a hot plate. It was getting to the point opening a can of beans was difficult for her to do, as her arthritis had deformed her fingers over the last few years. So she ate every other day — though to look at her squat physique, you would think otherwise.

In one corner of the bedroom was an old cotton-batting mattress with a striped cover design. The mattress was stained in various places, but she had found it discarded on the street years ago, and other than the urine and mildew smells, functioned just fine for her. She had no bed frame, and the mattress lay on the linoleum-covered floor. It was easy for her to get in the bed at night. Just fall into place. But getting up in the morning was a chore due to her Weeble-shaped body, and her age, which most people guessed was late-sixties or older.

She had no relatives anyone knew of. No one other than her case worker ever came to visit, although there had been a few preteens who thought it would be funny to spray paint the sun-faded clapboards on the outside of her house. 

“Mole Woman!” in bright red letters adorned two of the exterior walls. The kids would have done more, except a passing police cruiser slowed down and stopped that night, and the boys disappeared into the dark, laughing.

Miss Emma didn’t care. “Fust time de house have been painted thince I live here,” she told the officer.

So, until that fateful night, Miss Emma lived a life of comparative comfort and ease — doing and living just how she pleased.

_____

 

“Who the hell stepped in your apple pie?” Tamara asked John as he slammed his locker door closed. “And why are you here? You’re not on the schedule.”

“Got nowhere else to be,” he grumbled a reply. “I relieved Jessup.” 

He grabbed a textbook and sat at the end of the table where he and his co-workers normally ate their meals. Rifling through it’s pages, he closed it and buried his face in his hands.

Tamara walked over and sat at the table.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No!”

“Sure?”

“It’s just that — goddam him!”

“What happened?”

“I met my father today.”

“Well that’s good. Father and son — you know …”

“… For the first time in my life.”

“Oh. That’s … that’s really different.”

“I know. And out-of-the-blue. I mean, if he was able to find me, you would think he’d have the decency to somehow ask me beforehand if I wanted to meet him.”

“You would think.”

“And I was so — so surprised — and mad at him! I coulda lost all control and beat the snot out of him!”

“But you didn’t, right?”

“I didn’t. We had lunch and talked. Well, I mainly listened. I wanted to know about my mom. I could care less about him.”

“You never knew your mom?”

“She died when I was a baby.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. And then this myopic, self-centered bastard-maker all of a sudden shows up!”

“What did he want?”

“Who knows? Maybe forgiveness. I don’t fucking know or care what he wanted.”

“What do you want?”

“I was fine not knowing anything about him. Now I can never un-know that he’s out there — him and his dog and his truck. I’d like to go back to the way it was — not knowing. I guess that sounds pretty harsh.”

“I can see why you feel that way. I mean, when my dad died I was a toddler, and I really never knew him — have no memories. Just photos mom had. And I found myself getting angry at him at those times growing up when I really needed him. Mothers and daughters don’t always get along well, and I hated my mom for getting remarried, then hated Dad for dying. Like he could have done anything about it.”

“Well, my dad had a choice. I’m sorry about your dad. Illness?”

“No. A freak accident. He was a toll booth operator on a main road north of Charlotte.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Some woman lost control of her car — and dad was supposed to already be off-duty. She slammed into his booth, and they were both killed.”

They were interrupted by the blaring of the station alarm, and the two hustled Into their gear and climbed into the ambulance.

House fire located at …” came the street coordinates of the emergency, along with “possible burn victim or victims” and other information. Tamara revved the engine and turned the lights and siren on as the garage door opened, and eased onto the road, then hit the accelerator.

John Farmer manned the radio mic for further information, and tried to concentrate on the moment as they raced down the streets — but his mind was on a toll booth north of Charlotte.

_____

When they arrived at the scene of the fire, Tamara stopped the ambulance in the middle of the road, far enough away from the two fire trucks that arrived shortly before. Police had cordoned off the street from both sides, and in the dark, red, blue, and white lights shot into the night, illuminating everything in stop-action.

As John and Tamara leaped from the cab and grabbed their kits, a man hovered over a short, plump figure on the lawn in front of the house, now an inferno. The firefighters hosed the flames from several directions, mainly to keep anything else from catching on fire. In fact, one hose was dedicated to washing down nearby limbs of trees, grass, and other potential fuel sources.

The man raised his arm and waved frantically to get their attention.

”Over here!” he shouted.

They ran toward the two on the lawn, gloving up quickly, then dropped to their knees at the body. Tamara immediately checked for signs of life.

“She’s alive,” Tamara said, “Check her airway, John!” and reached into her bag to grabbed an ambu bag.

John fished around the woman’s mouth. “Got her tongue.”

Tamara fit the air mask while John gently lifted the woman’s jaw into the mask.

“Grab the mask, John.” He placed his two hands around the mask to ensure a seal while Tamara slowly squeezed the plastic chamber, watching for the woman’s chest to rise.

The man stood and backed away, watching the rescue process.

“I got her. Go get the stretcher.”

There was no formality. No pleases and thank you involved in their exchange. She was the lead EMT, and he was the second. John ran back to the ambulance, opened the back, and rolled the stretcher unit out until the legs expanded to the ground.

“Officer! We need a hand!” Tamara called to a cop standing by. John rolled the stretcher parallel to the downed woman and collapsed the unit. John and the cop gently lifted the unconscious woman onto the stretcher while Tamara held the airbag in place, periodically squeezing the bag. She followed alongside as John and the officer rolled the stretcher to the back of the ambulance, and shoved it into the back area.

A fireman approached the ambulance and spoke quickly to John. 

“Her name is Emilia Simkova. People call her Miss Emma.”

John turned to the man standing by.

“Did you pull her out of the fire?”

“I did.”

John nodded his way. “Thanks.” He could hear a dog barking from the cab of an old pickup parked on the grass a distance from the now smoldering frame of the wood house.

“No problem.”

John ran to the front of the ambulance and squeezed in behind the wheel, adjusting the seat backwards. He leaned around and shouted to Tamara, who was beside the stretcher Miss Emma was on, slowly pumping the air bag.

“Ready?”

“Go for it!”

“Who was the guy?”

John hesitated. 

“My dad.”

_____

To be 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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