Duran Duran Poster Goes Here

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Part 1

 

The soapy smell of clean filled the air as she sat down. Her hair, a grown out pixie, was chestnut.  I buried my half-finished poem with my pen.  Under its ink-scorched funeral I wrote the word Luxurious.  It was the day, Freshman year, and insecurity followed me like parenthetical notation.  The tardy bell slept for two more minutes when she turned suddenly.

“Did she hand out a syllabus?”

“What?”

“It’s a list of assignments for the year and.”

“I know what it is.  No.”

“I’m Allie.  We just moved from Ohio.”

“I’m Lance.”

“Are you Lance, alot or just on weekends?”

I’d written the same joke in a journal when I was ten-years-old.  This is not real.  She can’t be real.  She turned.  Another soap envelope. Luxurious.

 

A mask of freckles covered her face ending abruptly at an equine jawline.  She flicked her hair. A constellation of faint pimples peeked from beneath shimmering chestnut.  She was not real.  She walked deliberately.  As if too much speed would cause her to fall, too little, the same.  Pale yet radiant flesh wrapped her small frame.  Allie had me from day one.

 

An incisor rested too high on one side of her smile as she said,

“You like to read?”

I sat in the library, driving away talk with absence.  No one bothered you in a library.  Great for napping or catching a National Geographic induced dream when no one noticed.  She was standing above me as I sat indian-style.  Her wrists covered with bracelets I’d never noticed.

“Nice bracelets.”

She looked away. “My Dad bought them.”

“You guys moved into the house over by the old Stadium, yeah?”

“How did you know that?”  Supernumerary smile that drove me wild.

“I walked by and saw your Dad’s car.  Figured that’s where you lived or something.”

“Yeah, he bought it at an auction.”

“My grandfather built that house.”

“Really?  That’s cool.”

“Yep.  We used to break-in.”

“When?”

“Middle School.  We didn’t do much.  Just sort of walked around.  Found some old bottles in the basement.”

“Who is we?”

“Dave and me.  He was my best friend.  Moved away at the end of last year.”

“Sorry to hear that.  We move so much I don’t really have a best friend.”

“You got one if you want one.”  (Where did that come from?  She doesn’t like you. Loser. Been here you’re whole life and not one…)

“Sounds great.  We’re not in the book.  Here’s my number.”

She pulled a paper from her book.

“What chu readin?” I said.

“Stranger in a Strange Land.  You like sci-fi?”

“Asimov.  Never read anything by that guy.”

“I’ll loan you this when I’m done. Call me.  It’s an awesome book.”

She drifted away delicately.  Her flat behind trying to twitch, her legs suddenly skinnier than I thought earlier.  Was that the same sweater she wore Monday?  I had a girl’s number. I liked metal but could tell by the pins on her jacket, she didn’t.  Certainly she had no interest in the bread bag-wrapped Playboys stealthed away in the woods.  That left books and how from the moment I smelled her she was all that mattered; how that second day when she asked me again for a syllabus with that quirky forgetfulness I instantly treasured; how I loved her that day at lunch when she sat silent then began to cry and ask for forgiveness; how my every waking thought resembles the softness of her voice.  From those moments until now as she walked away, I loved her.  I could tell her I loved her every day from now til death and never say it enough or right or in a way that makes her see it.  How do you say “Listening to you breathe is better than breathing alone.”?    

 

Deep in our basement was a box labeled Scouts.  I hated Boy Scouts but Dad had loved it so I was there, back in the day. He bailed and all that Be Prepared Scout Law loyalty got boxed and hidden.  I found the binoculars.

 

She would never want me.  My crooked mug was jeweled with black, badger eyes, perpetual acne.  A sheen of stupid reflected off my face as I looked in the mirror.  

“She said call her.  She gave you the number for a reason dumbass.  Call her. And say what?  Talk about books.  Asimov. She likes sci-fi, probably reads alot.  She cried at lunch.  What was that? She’s bonkers dude.  Bonkers.  Freakin’ gorgeous and never talks to anyone. Except you.  You.  She talks to you.”

I wiped the mirror as the steam from the shower kicked in.

“Call her after your shower.  Promise.  Promise?  Promise.  Okay, I promise.”

I took another shower.  It seemed wrong to call a girl without a shower.

She didn’t answer.

 

Her house sat on a corner in the southern part of town.  I walked through the woods behind the stadium.  The wall was nine feet all around but there was a part where the trees allowed a parkour ascent.  I topped the wall.  The moon was low on the horizon causing the wall to blend with swaying shadows. I balanced around the wall careful to stop whenever headlights commanded.  No way, I thought, anyone can see me from this distance at night without looking for me.  Hey Gladys, let’s go see if some kid is walking the stadium wall at night!  Such things didn’t happen.  I reached a point near the locker rooms where I could see her house.  Without the binoculars I could make out the downstairs lights.  Through the louvres of a half-opened venetian I could see her Dad.  He had a sawhorse in the living room.  Plywood stacked in the corner.

 

What the hell are you doing? I whispered.  Why use a manual saw?

 

I lifted the binoculars and began looking around the house for glimpses of Allie.  Her Dad looked up and I could tell by his veins and gaping mouth he shouted something.  He smiled and picked up the plywood.

 

“I called you last night.”  (So?)

“Really? Sorry.  I wasn’t home, able to answer. Home.  I wasn’t home.” Super numerated and sad. (You’re just seeing things.  Douche)  

“That’s cool.  I found this at the dime store up town.  Heinlein wrote short stories too.  It’s six of them in one book. Thought you’d dig it.”

“Dig it?  Hippy. Hell yeah, thank you.”  She skipped and kissed my cheek.  “Thank you.”

I’d never kissed a girl and she never said whether I did it right.  But we kissed for what seemed an hour.  I heard people laughing in the hallway.  Her mouth was small, wet and slow moving.  I hardened against her then pulled back.

“Sorry about that.”

She smiled, then suddenly looked sad. The same sadness she showed just before crying.

“Call me later.  I might be home tonight.  I don’t really know.”

“Okay.”  She walked away.  

“And thank you.” I said.  (Such an idiot)

She twisted quickly into the girl’s bathroom.

 

I wanted to invite her over.  Play Robin Williams records just to listen to the echo of her laugh.  Shake up the kerosene stinking walls a bit and see what dust falls.  I loved Iron Maiden but somehow came across this Tom Waits album that made me think romantic sad thoughts.  I wanted to play it for her.  Would she cry when he wailed his love?  Would she figure out I meant her and me and one day when we were old and drank coffee? Even if she were gone daddy gone I wanted to be there for her.  Pain, in her name, was pain rewarded.  But I sat there by myself listening to Martha knowing none of this would work out.

 

I called.  Her Dad picked up.

What?

Is Allie there?

A silence of unsettling length.

Naw.  Not really.  She’s over ’ter mom’s house.

Thank you sir.

He hung up before I said sir.

 

The path cut through the heart of the woods.  It led back to the low wall which rose like a dirty, discarded fingernail from the dark skin of earth.  I pulled the binoculars up while leaning on the locker room roof.  He was downstairs moving around in panicked motion.  He’d touch the railing at the bottom of the stairs, then bolted back to the living room. Stand in the kitchen for a few minutes his lips moving like an auctioneer.  Boxes sat near the door.  His veins bulged in volume.  On the night air I barely made out the reverb.  His yell blended with air and distance, coming off as remnant of a song or radio program from the day.  My heart thumped like a flat tire slapping a hundred miles an hour.   I watched him go upstairs.  No lights came on. I looked at the windows tighter.  The plywood.  It was covering every upstairs window.  A sudden flash came from the lower right corner of a window.  A quick flash with jerky shadows, then bright light.  Another shadow.  No light.  Echoes of a radio program yelling come across the field.  I pull the binoculars down as if I can see better.  The house sits quiet from this distance.  An empty lot separating it from the nearest neighbor.  Lights on at every house around.  Must-see TV splintering open screen windows.  My god.  What?

 

He comes down alone.  I whisper to myself with a dry mouth.

She’s not home fucker.  Why are you going upstairs?

 

He picks up the phone, speaks briefly and then hangs up.

 

I sat in third period the next morning looking at her empty chair.  The teacher glanced that way when saying her name but moved on after. She wasn’t here.  No one noticed.  It was Okay.  Surely.  The classes came and went.  Back on the wall staring at the house.  He was downstairs smoking.  No lights upstairs.

 

The third day the teacher seemed irritated.

 

Any know what’s going on with Allie Watson?

 

She looked at me.  I shrugged silently.  Heart sinking down a pit of black.  I need to go by during the day.  Take a route that put me close to the house without being obvious.  Her Dad knew me and deep down I knew I had to avoid her Dad like you avoid unknown, barking dogs.

 

The next morning I woke up knowing she wouldn’t be at school.  I showered and left for the bus stop.  From my house at the time it was a two block walk, hop the creek and up a slight rise to the bus stop.  If you took a left at the creek, you’d end up down by my Grandparents’ house and the woods where we’d play War as kids.  If you took a right at the creek, you’d end up headed uptown near the police station, arcade and old lady beauty shops.  I moved slow, pacing myself so as to avoid the other kids.  They’d long stop talking to me.  It was winter and my entire fall had been Allie Watson and reading.  I stooped at the creek as if the bus driver would care.  I waited and waited.  It was cold.  I heard the kids talking at the top of the hill.  The distant laughter or sudden burst included in many stories.  I waited until the diesel engine revved up and moved away.

 

I came up near Allie’s.  I didn’t top the wall.  I just walked as casual as possible down the alley behind her house.  I took a left at an abandoned house three doors up.  It was a two-story with a brick face and peeling-paint siding.  I knelt by the oil tank in the back and watched her house across the backyards.  Nothing.  His car was gone.  

 

I missed Dave just then.   Months back he would’ve been there.  Saying?  Well, one of two scenarios.

Why are you talking to that crazy-ass girl with the weird bracelets and pop princess pins and the crying at lunch?

Or.

When are we breaking-in that house and uncover whatever Stephen King shit is happening?

The butterflies in my stomach lamented Dave’s absence because of the former.

I smiled at the latter and restarted my casual descent down the alley.

The sounds of our town were music to those aware of such a melody. Trains connecting.  Cars rushing through on the highway.  Crickets and cicadas battling at night for silent applause.  The cackle of laugh tracks through screen windows as a curtain of humidity dropped at summer’s dusk.  These sounds taught me, even then, the value of hearing a heartbeat when all else seems dead. I listened for cars around the corner.  Cars up on the main road two blocks up.  The sound of AC units indicating at home Moms or retirees.  Allie’s neighborhood was quiet except for the quarter notes of my scuffling feet.  Their house stood basking in the early morning light.

Dave would’ve been proud of the quick work I made of the basement screen window.  It was as I remembered.  A dark, cool place with the aroma of moldy dirt and rotting wood floating invisible to the eye, disturbing to the nose.  Light dropped in from what were now high windows, here and there covered with grey wood.  Fragments of water pipe insulation cowered a corner.   The low ceiling kissed my spiked hair as I climbed the narrow steps.  They led into the kitchen. The door was locked from the other side with a wooden block dropped into a homemade catch.  I looked around as my eyes adjusted.  A cardboard nail box sat dusty on a framing timber.  I twisted off a piece and slide it into the sliver of light between door and jamb.  I clicked the wooden block up and felt the door’s tension soften. I didn’t move. I tried to hear any creak or turn or opening or closing of any door or closet that might indicate I needed to run like my ass was on fire.  I held my breath for one minute. Slowly I exhaled, hearing no sound for the full sixty.  I entered the kitchen.

The kitchen was empty except for a few scraps of paper on the kitchen counter.  I flipped through the cabinets like a Price Is Right girl and found nothing.  There was no table, no pots and no utensils in any drawer.  The living room, empty.  What the old folks called the sitting room, vacant.  There were still curtains on the windows and from the outside I knew there was still plywood blocking an outside in view upstairs.  Nothing was left.  I walked upstairs, moving faster and with more confidence as it settled that I was actually alone.

A bathroom was across the hall from me. Door ajar.  From this angle I could tell it was empty.  There were four bedrooms upstairs.  To my immediate left was the first one.  It’s floor was flavored with sawdust and crushed beer cans. I looked at it from the hall.  I remembered the night when a light came and went in the corner of a plywood covered window.  It was the next room.  Second on the left.  I walked towards the room.  The door was brown.  One foot above the factory-issued knob was a padlock.  I pushed the door open.

The plywood was doubled against the window.  I walked into the room slowly.  It was hot and dark.  Wires from a ceiling light hung down, taped off.  Electrical outlets were covered with wood screwed pieces of cut plywood.  The floor, hardwood and dusty, showed no sign of a bed or a dresser.   There was no indication anywhere that this room had been used for anything more than storage.  A refuge for unneeded items.  I turned to walk away when a flash of language caught my eye.  I looked carefully at one of the plywood curtains.  I found the language again.  It was scratched into the corner.  The letters were jerky.  More scraped with narrow metal than carved.  After a moment I deciphered them:

Duran Duran poster goes here.

I turned to the right and saw the closet.  It was a double-door closet left partially open.  It was the only sign of life left in the house.  Something shiny was peeking out at me through the louvres.  I walked over and opened the doors wide.

There, attached to the wall with four bolts, were two chains.  They hung down about two feet and the paint behind them showed signs of the chains moving back and forth repeatedly.  My stomach turned, my mouth dried.  I shivered as my eyes moved down the chains to the shackles at the end of each.  They were the perfect size for a fifteen year old girl.   I saw her bracelets and face as she turned and told me her Dad bought them for her.  

Son of a bitch. I said.

I wanted to touch them.  Check to see if they were real but felt that, somehow, I would be as guilty as he if I dared.  As if this was about what I believed or didn’t. What I knew and what I didn’t.

Useless piece of shit bastard.  I said.

The closet smelled of urine and iron and in that moment I began to feel nauseous.   I stormed to the bathroom and threw up.  I came out moments later.  In the room across from Allie’s were hooks hanging on the wall.  As if he had things hanging up on the wall.  I looked around the room and on the floor saw the imprint of four feet.  Like a sawhorse but wider.  I walked around this room confused, wondering what was sitting there in the middle of the room. The walls (except where the hooks were) and plywood were covered with a foamy material I would learn later was soundproofing.  In the corner I found a small black piece of material.  I looked at it in my fingers.  It was an inch long, less than an inch thick.  It was familiar but not at the same time.  I smelled it for reasons unclear.  It was leather.  A strip of black leather like the ones used in whips.  

I yelled her name as the lump in my throat gave out

Allie! Allie!

I began to ran down the steps.  

You fuckin’ son of a bitch.  Useless piece of shit. I need to tell the cops.  Find somebody.

Where are you!? I screamed.  You fucking shitbag!

I’ve got to find the police.  I ran to the front door.  It was locked.  I pulled and pulled, forgetting I’d broken in.  As if I’d stop by for lunch and realized that Allie Watson had been her Dad’s…and how he… I couldn’t stop pulling on the door.  

Let me out you fucker!  Let me out!

 

Part 2

I was two blocks away when I stopped running.  The police station was near the three-blocks of abandoned stores we called downtown.  I paced myself, building the story.

I thought I saw something weird so I broke in. (but the house is empty, son)

I heard a voice call out. (but the house is empty, son)

I think something’s happened to Allie Watson. (didn’t you and that Myers boy break into some houses a few months back, son?)

An older kid, with a supped up Fairlane, pulled up next to me.

Hey kid, you need a ride, it’s about to rain.

I turned and it all came out quick and ugly.  How I loved her and the smell of her shampoo and the walls and the binoculars and how I broke in and how I really think she’s in trouble but no one will listen because I broke the law finding out and how man I just don’t know.

 

The older kid, his name was Mike Richardson but everyone called him Mighty Mouse, listened from his idling Fairlane.

Get in kid.  We need to go to the police.  

They won’t believe me.

You can’t help your friend being a little bitch.  Quit being a little bitch and come on.

 

He was right.  I got in the car.  It smelled of Marlboros and too much cologne.  Freebird was on the radio. Later he went to UVA and then dropped out.  He joined the Army and got a medal for performing CPR on another soldier.  After the initial fame of such an act, he disappeared from my view.  I think of Mighty Mouse whenever I hear Freebird or someone references Skynyrd.  

The dispatcher called the on-duty officer to come back.

There’s a kid name of Lance with Mighty Mouse.  Kid says there’s something going on at the house by the Stadium.

Henry Turner’s house?

I think so.  The big yellow one.  Some new folks moved in a few months ago.  This kid says they’re gone now and (dispatcher looks over at me)  you should come back and hear what’s what for yerself. We were sitting in the officer’s office when I retold the story slower this time with Mighty Mouse adding his two-cents whenever he felt my credibility was going south.

 

I know it sounds messed up, Might Mouse said, but you should’ve seen this kid when I picked him up.  Just a wreck, falling apart, crying, screaming at me.  That can’t be an act sir.  It just can’t be.

I didn’t remember crying or screaming at him at all.

We’ll look into it.  I went by on the way in.  The plywood is damn odd, I’ll give you that.  You say he was doing renovations.

Yes sir.  But the renovations were just plywood over the windows so nobody could see what he was doing.  I said. The words sounded foreign now. As if I were reading a section of a play out loud in school.  No emotion.  No passion.  Just words.

We’ll look into it.

Mighty Mouse dropped me off at my house.  He put the car in park and said, Ya’ know I got an Uncle my Dad says is always running up bills and disappearing.  Say nobody can ever find him but the Post Office.  Somehow the post office finds everybody, eventually.  Maybe you should write your friend a letter.  

She doesn’t live there anymore.  I don’t have her address.

That’s the deal-eeoh kid.  The post office will find them for you.  They forward letters to the address the Dad left behind.  He’s got to get mail, right?  Bills and letters and stuff.  Try it.

The next day the teacher called Allie Watson’s name. I looked straight ahead hoping no one would notice me at all.  

I knew what happened to her.  I knew what had been happening to her.  The police knew (or believed me, I hoped).  And Mighty Mouse believed me.  But I couldn’t tell the kids around me.  This wasn’t locker room gossip and Man-Did-We-Get-Wasted conversation.  The gravity of her pain followed me like a crippled but loyal dog.  I started a letter to her every day for a week.  I didn’t know what to say or how to say anything to her.  If it ever got to her, that is.  If her Dad didn’t open it first.

A month later it was bitter cold.  Snow fell and fell.  I was watching it fall, looking at a Polaroid of Allie walking down the hall in school.  She wore the bracelets I now hated and acid wash jeans.  Her smile was beautiful but knowledge changes our eyes.  When I saw this picture months ago I saw my future wife.  I saw the girl who would become the woman I would die for in any romantic way possible.  I would live for her, then die for her.  As is right.  But now I saw the sadness in her eyes.  I understood what it means when the smile never reaches the eyes.  She was sad in this picture.  Alone but brave enough to hide it.  Strong enough, maybe, is what I mean. I didn’t see it then.  I saw what I wanted, not what she needed.

We were out of school due to snow for two days when the police officer showed up at the house.  I heard Mom talking with him briefly then she called me out of my room.

Hello Lance.  He said.  I’m Officer Merton, remember me from a few weeks ago?

Yes sir.

I need you to come with me to the station.

What did he do?  For God’s sake Lance!  Mom yelled.

No ma’am.  Because of the cold, the pipes burst at Henry Turner’s old house.  Water was pouring out so a neighbor called the utility company.  Utility man called us when he got in the house.  Your son is a witness.

 

Witness?  Lance what the hell?  Mom said.

Officer Merton said,  I need you to come to the station and tell the investigators from Richmond what you told me son.  Can you do that?

Yes sir.

When we arrived I saw Mighty Mouse’s Fairlane outside.  He was talking with two men in suits when we walked in.  I told them the story that by now you’ve known for too long.

When I got back home I started a letter and finished it.  It was simple.

Dear Allie,

 

I miss you.  Please reply to this letter.  I hope you’re Okay.  Reading any good books lately?  I bought you a Duran Duran poster. I just need to know where to mail it.

 

Your friend always,

Lance-alot.

 

I never received a reply.  It was months before Officer Merton said there was even a lead.  It fizzled out. Eventually I saw contractors in Henry Turner’s house making renovations. I watched from the wall.  I spent lots of time on the wall after she left.  As if I could change things by watching it. The chains were probably thrown away along with sheet rock and old toilets.  The teacher stopped calling her name.  I framed the Duran Duran poster I bought Allie Watson.  I read everything Heinlein ever wrote before I graduated high school.  By then, my depression had won completely.  I skipped the stage walking..  

Part 3

I live in the projects now.  Well, what Richmond calls the projects.  Mostly poor black people, single moms, and old bastards like me who just never lived righteous.  I get a small disability check and when Mom passed there was a little life insurance.  If you don’t mind Deviled Ham sandwiches and water for most of your meals, it’s not a bad life.  The Stoics would be proud of my spartan existence even if it’s not of a philosophical bend.  Lately, I’ve been working under the table for a Man who tears down houses.  It’s fun some days.  Swinging a sledgehammer, ripping things apart for pay.  He gives me 60 dollars a day.  This morning it was raining so I called out (texted, technically) of work.  I just wanted a decent cup of coffee.

If America is a melting pot, convenience stores are the ladles with which we are scooped and then poured into the streets.  Homelessness stands silent as khaki wearing managers, pant sagging teens, and soccer moms jockey for the pricey speed of modernity’s promise. There is no black, white or indifference here.  Gimme what I want-NOW! Or I’m calling the 1-800 number.  IMPATIENCE UNITES! should be printed on money as the trustworthy deity loses to the crushing need for instant gratification.  This is not a rant chastising my countrymen.  Just an acknowledgement of my frailty as I walked in the pouring rain to avoid the trouble of brewing my own coffee.

The store was busy.  A nice smelling woman held the door for me as my arm played umbrella.  I poured my black gold into its paper cup and took extra napkins for the bathroom.  The clerk knows me.  When my change was lacking he just nodded his head towards the door and I, in acknowledgement of his kindness, walked out without looking at him again.  I stood under the awning a while watching the rain for signs of weakness.  The ice cooler to my left stuck out just far enough to have rain tapping its forehead in syncopation with the swish-whoosh-swish of passing cars of Broadrock Boulevard.  At the intersection of cooler and store sat a woman who, at first glance, seemed a pile of forgotten dirty clothes. .

I watched her long enough for me to jump a bit when she moved.  A yawn with intermittent teeth opened from underneath the stocking cap.  She moved side to side then began to stand like an elephant finding its feet.  Finger-less gloves pushed the grungy stocking cap up. There I saw a mask of freckles buried beneath years of sun and sorrow.  Her double chin, skin, not fat, rounded her face, hiding her equine jawline.  My mind danced more than my heart as I tried to tell if it was really Allie Watson, all grown up and defeated, or my Fifty-year-old mind trying to find meaning.  I looked away.

Hey, she said.

I looked further in the opposite direction.

Hey.  You hear me sir?  You have some change to spare?

I looked at her hoping she’d recognize me. (Like she’d remember you?)  I stared for just a second, confirming my belief that Allie was there. (You didn’t do shit, remember?  You forgot all about me!)

I could barely swing this coffee.  Guy in there might give you a cup.  Seems a decent sort compared to the rest of these…Black Hats.

She grunted and surveyed the parking lot.  

Shitty day, she said.

Yep.  Looks like it might clear up though.  Things change with time, ya’ know.

Another grunt.

You married? She said.

What?  I said.

Are you married?

I laughed.  No.  Not at all.  I don’t even have a pet.

Another grunt.

I don’t like the married ones. She said.  Feels dirtier.  You want some comp’nee for ‘bout half an hour?

My stomach did somersaults.  If this was Allie Watson, and the more I glanced at her the more convinced I became, if this was her, what do I do about this?   Here’s a chance to save her.  Or use her.  Or just ignore her.  Am I making amends in my head or hoping to rekindle a love? I knew the answer.  The love.  I had missed her over the years.  When I still had the lust of a younger man, it was her I dreamed of.  Her I imagined in my bed.  Only her.  My mind had tried to age her appropriately but it was often useless.  This, blended with a strain of morality left from a forced baptism led to my ending even my imagined exploits with Allie.  But now.  Here she is.  Grown and willing!  Ragged, dirty and chubby as well.  I began to imagine taking her home and letting her realize who I am and who she is, again, and then we begin our life.  I blurted out,

Sure.  I’ve got some money tucked away at the house.  I save it up for when the McRib comes back out. (What.The.Hell?)

She grunted.  How far away?  How much?

I live over in the apartments across from that other store, near the carwash.  I’ve got about twenty.  But really.  I know it’s not much.  But really all I want you to do is look at something.

I’ve done stuff like that.

No.  I mean look at something at my house.  Look at if for a few minutes and leave.  

My plan was unfolding as I spoke.

Over by the wash?

Yes.

Twenty bucks?

Yes.

And all I have to do is look at your thing you want me to see?

Yes.

Let the rain clear some.  

The years treated neither of us generously.  I glanced at her as we watched for the weakening rain.  Her lips were parched, despite the weather.  Rutted crow’s feet around her eyes seemed more tire tracks in the brown mud of her face.  But here she was.  Allie Watson.  As the time passed after school she became part of my youth’s mythology.  Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that never seem real to ourselves.  On occasion I’d see a classmate years after graduation and ponder, Who Is This Person?  The image of them I carried like a faded hieroglyph conflicts with the Mom or Dad before me.  They were shadows of their youth.  And if they were, what was I to them but a cracked picture.  A worn Polaroid they spotted on the sidewalk outside a gas station.  

Hey buddy, you got some change?  My hands shaking from not enough booze.

Lance?  Is that you?

Perhaps they shared stories about seeing me out there with a cardboard sign.  Shaking their middle-brow heads at my fate.  These people I once saw as friends, as the homecoming court as the popular or ignored, these people were ghosts from my youth. Dancing here and there in my head still hoping for the new pair of shoes Daddy promised them for a straight A report card.

But we know, don’t we, how ghosts can jump.  We can see in our lives how the hieroglyph gets worn down until it just wants to be remembered even if misunderstood.  All who wake up dreaming fall asleep with disappointment.  Me.  Allie. The hieroglyphic ghosts I escaped from years before.  This is not self-pity anymore than it is sorrowful to realize we only have two legs.  It is universal and thereby more factual observation than emotional outburst.  But we also see, can we not, how the ghosts can jump?  How they can pop up with their edges worn complete revealing only their current, true state for all to see.  As I stood there, and the rain slackened, and Allie turned her burnished face to mine, I saw a jumping ghost and laughed.

What’s so funny?  She said.

Nothing.  I was thinking of an old joke.

I like jokes.

Well, the joke is like this:  A boy introduces himself to a girl one day in class.  They were school kids then, see?  And he says his name is Lance.  And then she asks…

I looked at her hoping time would stop long enough for her to remember.

She asks what?  She said.

Are you lance-alot or just on weekends?

The wind carried the words away just before they hit the sidewalk.

I don’t get it.  Twenty bucks you said?  Rain’s stopped.

Yep.  Rain’s stopped.

 

We walked in silence to my apartment.  I tried to engage her in small talk but realized the futility immediately.  What small talk is there to engage in?  She lives on the street, I assume, or perhaps some dingy pay-by-the-week motel.  I pictured garbage bags of her belongings sitting on a stained, brown carpet.  A bathroom where the faucet gurgles randomly as she tries to sleep.  

Read any good books lately?

She grunted then replied.  Don’t read much.  Never got the hang of it.

Perhaps I was her knight, finally.  I thought of my own ghostly youth and remember feeling regret at not doing more.  As if, maybe, somehow, I could’ve saved her. I should’ve taken the humorous hint and wrestled the honor of my molested Dulcinea from the Devil’s grip. But I wrote a dead letter that landed in a postal trash pile.  I tried to figure out where she was by watching her old house with binoculars and ignoring everything else.  Self-pity was my heroism.  Ignorance my shield.  But now I pictured myself as savior.  Pulling her, at last, from the clutches of sorrow and pain.  Turning the ghost into a flower again through pure love, unadulterated servitude and the repentance that comes from fulfilling destiny.

It did cross my mind, either during the walk or years prior, that my love for Allie was a small ‘L’ type of love and not a capital L type.  It was love for its own name, not hers.   A fleeting love designed to bolster my life not save hers.  My ghost was jumping inside me.  I dismissed this idea feeling as I did that it was a capital letter Love for one reason.  I had only felt it twice in my life.  When I met Allie Watson.  And when I met her again.

This is me. I said.  Third floor.

It’s gonna be Thirty bucks now.

Okay. I said.  Why?

Too far to walk.  Lot further than you said.  Car Wash is two blocks back.  You said right next to, not two blocks from.  Ten more or I don’t go up these damn steps.

Forty.

Forty?  Ain’t gonna say no and ain’t gonna say sorry.

We walked up the steps.  She grunted here and there.  It was hard to tell her body size and shape under her clothes.  They were a big woman’s clothes hanging from a small woman’s shoulders.  I briefly wondered if she got them too large or shrunk accordingly over time.  As if the burden of size was too much to bear.

I opened the door.  My apartment is smaller than advertised, I’ll admit.   The complex people tell me it’s 900 square feet but with the book chimneys in every corner, the bags of recycled cans (I need to turn those in, I know) and other debris, it hardly seems the size of a patio.

I moved an overgrown plant from the wall and turned to look at Allie.

Here.  I said as I pointed to the sun-faded but still framed Duran Duran poster.

What?

It’s a Duran Duran poster.  Just like I said.

She looked at the poster then back at me. A smile came to her face. It reached her eyes slowly.

Duran  Duran.  You mean the music group?

Yes.  I bought you a  Duran Duran poster.

Me?  She looked confused.  I don’t know about you buddy.  Where’s my forty bucks.  You promised me forty bucks!  Her voice was loud but muffled by all my junk.

I went to a wooden box in my bedroom and retrieved the money.  When I returned she was standing near the poster as if studying it.

This is just a picture in a frame, ain’t it?  I handed her the money.   Thanks.  Why would you want me to look at this?

Because you’re Allie Watson.  I bought it for you when we were kids.  I broke into your house after y’all left.  I found your carving in the plywood and bought you this poster.  It all sounds so silly now, I know.  But I kept it ever since.  So I wouldn’t forget you.  And how you made me feel.  And how I let you down.

I was overwhelmed with the desire to cry. I felt the lump in my throat and that nose tickle that precedes sorrow.  The moisture filled my eyes.

 

She watched me as I wept.  She didn’t move.  I didn’t move.  I just stood there sobbing.

Okay.  She said.

Please don’t leave!  I called as she opened the door.

I got my forty bucks.  I looked at your picture.  We’re square.

The door closed.  I ran to it like child and leaned against it.  Her stench lingered around the door.

 

Through the door I heard her speak.  Her voice was soft but clear like a gently touched piano key.

 

Lancealot.  She said.

I pressed my ear harder to the door.

Lancealot.  She said.

I pulled the door open.

She wasn’t there.  I looked up and down the hall.  Nothing.  Even the stench of her faded in the hall.

I could make out the faint echo of what sounded like a woman crying on the second floor landing.  Maybe it was the first floor.  Convinced that it was merely a desire for a long gone ghost, I closed the door.  

 

 

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Luke the Drifter, a comeuppance and Tom Robbins calls it quits…

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Art is subjective and the first subject is the soul of the artist.

I recently watched I Saw The Light, a Hank Williams biopic starring Loki and the Red Witch.  Old Hank was a lyrical genius with more than his share of inspiration and damnation.  He put it out there and out there and still it wasn’t enough to allow him the thing all artists crave.

Connection.

Connection with others.  Connection with the world at large.  Connection with an understanding of their own psyche.  When filled with the emptiness of lonesome, any connection will do; alcohol, drugs, sex, food, money, power, fame, failure.  Connection.

I spent time in Alabama this week.  Hank’s home state.  I had connection on the brain when I pulled in Sunday night and kept it there all week.

He wrote from the heart.  Quickly, without much editing and without much regret.  His alter ego, Luke The Drifter, carried the weight of his more soul-searching work, but Hank was the canvas of Luke’s art.  He was a tormented soul yearning to break out and be free.

Let’s regroup….

I pulled into Alabama thinking of Hank and my writing and the unspoken reality that connecting with others has never been easy for me.  Does it look easy?  Sure.  I learned to use humor years ago to impress, deflect, entertain, flirt and distract as I saw fit.  A manipulative skill but one that leaves them laughing and wanting more…

My own art is suffering from a plague of mediocrity that only I will openly admit.  Others won’t for fear of hurting my feelings or disrupting a friendship etc.  Craig S. stands out on this topic for his brutal honesty.  But, as a Man dealing in reality, he is as honest with Me about Me as he is about Himself.  This makes his criticisms constructive, reasonable and easy to swallow.

I started this years ago because I had this Tom Robbins inspired notion of writing 500 words per day, no matter what.  Broadcasting to the world seemed to satisfy two criteria:  Engage an audience, receive feedback.

Both failed.

So now is the time to rethink this entire pile and focus on turning mediocrity into something that is not mediocrity.

I hit Alabama by reaching out to writer friends about editors/publishers and the writing community at large.  I never really considered myself a writing group type of guy.  I don’t even know what genre is fitting for my writing.  I just write the words in my head and let them go.  Full disclosure:  I’ve never edited any story on this page.  100% of what is presented was written directly into the blog and only after the fact was it saved.  Including the Romeos stories.

You deserve better.

I deserve better.

My characters deserve better.

My soul deserves better.

To that end, no more stories will appear here.  I’m engaging an editor and moving in the direction of publication and becoming a serious, if underrated, underpaid and unknown, writer.

My last story, Purpose, was written in the San Antonio airport after reading three pages of Notes from the Underground.  What if the people we think of as having Special Needs were able to think clearly, perhaps more clearly than us, and were using our ignorance and compassion to fulfill their goals.  Be they good, evil or indifferent.

++++++++++++++++++++

Back to ranting then.

I could rant for hours about a limitless number of topics.  The desire to express one’s self, so necessary for artist, makes me a boorish snob at dinner parties, a know-it-all ass successful in self-aggrandizement others can only envy.  I’m fun to drink with, tough to get close to and unforgettable for reasons I forget.  I admire Bukowski because he shuns admiration and love Kerouac because he needs it.  Palaniuk is my favorite modern writer.  His writing, satire, wit and intelligence is unrivaled in this Stephanie Myers world.

I often think I should disappear to a remote island.  Indulge in my alcoholic dreams, consume Rum and write a memoir no one will read.  But the truth is I would end up sunburned, arrested and my memoir would consist of two paragraphs about railroads, midgets and the smell of Schlitz.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Trump and Hillary are symptoms of the same disease.  We’ve spent decades accepting the lesser of two evils.  Now we have nothing but evil to choose from and, ye gods, we double-down on this fact.

We have to take sides.  If you’re Liberal, you’re a Libtard.  If you’re Conservative, you’re a KKKonservative.  If you’re pro-Black, you’re anti-White.  If you’re pro-Cop, you’re anti-Black.  If you’re pro-White, you’re the KKK.  The Hispanics show up in here somewhere but seem to have the sense to recuse themselves for the most part.  You’re either pro-Gun or a Socialist.  You’re either a Socialist or bible thumping gay-hater stuck in an all-White past.  If you disagree with Me, you’re a Communist.  If I disagree with you, I’m a Fox News watching Zombie who should be mocked.  You’re either forever Rich or forever Poor.  Pick a side God-Damn you!  If you don’t repost that video about a Black kid getting killed, you’re a bigot and part of the problem.  If you don’t repost that video about a Cop being killed by a Black kid, then you’re not American.  You must fly Old Glory just above your Don’t Tread On Me Banner or you’re some sort of commie-fucker and probably love Obama.

We…that means YOU and I…encourage, support, promote, reblog, repost, share, LIKE, Retweet, Comment and otherwise ENDORSE the very DIVISION we lament…

We the people, have created a less perfect Union which divides us along superficial, political borders…

We ask our kids to pick sides and then wonder why our country is divided.  Being Conservative doesn’t make you anti-Gay anymore than being Liberal makes you anti-White.  Plug in any names/agendas/topics  you wish in that sentence and it makes just as little as sense as the original.

We’ve let our Politics decide our Principles instead of our Principles deciding our Politics.

I think most people view their own lives as a Conservative and the lives of their neighbors as a Liberal.  I know I do.  I don’t care what you do, at all.  Just don’t ask me to pay for it.  I’ll stay out of your bedroom and take my wallet when I leave.   The Ten Commandments at a courthouse don’t bother me because I don’t feel as if my government is forcing me into Christianity anymore than their Speed Limit sign tricks me into going 55…

I believe that most people are Libertarians.  They just don’t understand Libertarians-so they naturally are apprehensive-and the media/education system has convinced them it is some sort of no holds barred Anarchy.  The Sheep count themselves to sleep…

Think of it this way.  Fiscally conservative, socially liberal.  That sounds like most everyone I know…

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I’ve been reading Seneca, Letters from a Stoic.

Try it.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As always,

John.

 

 

Commuter tag.

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When I came off 85 south, I just missed the car turning into the Shell station, pushed SCAN on the radio, and then let my inner drone breathe easy. Each day for ten years I’d had corporate radio jockeys impaling the power drive at five into my skull, or hours of tire humming as my mind slept at the wheel. CDs of Buffett, buddhism, jihad, blues, math, Spanish, writing, and Zappa went tap-tap in a milk crate hunkered down in the backseat of my blue Taurus. They didn’t help but they didn’t hurt. State route 460 is a gray drone zone peppered with brick ranchers, trailers, gas stations, and crumbling farmhouses that once fulfilled a dream. For two hours roundtrip every weekday: it’s home.

The stoplight down by Fas-mart turned green as the Red Truck man smiled at me. White car lady came up on my left as Red Truck man took off. Each day. Ten years. We played. Passing then slowing down. Ignoring one another. White Car lady passed me, fiddling with her radio. I looked at my odometer to keep from meeting her gaze. Red Truck man slowed down. She passed him as I went into the left lane, no signal. When I blew passed Red Truck man he was lighting a cigarette. I didn’t know he smoked. Normally he would put on his sunglasses (take them off) or just suddenly take a call. Rule One: Never look at each other when passing.

White Car lady slowed down after we passed Wal-Mart distribution. I adjusted my mirror as I passed her. I sensed her looking over at me. The mirror was perfect. No time to look. Far behind us, a small black car approached like a furious spider. It bobbed around other commuters and made short work of Red Truck man. I slipped over into the right lane. Its whiny, fat exhaust pipe nearly kissed the pavement. His windows were tinted. An unwilling player in commuter tag.

Red Truck man came out into the left lane. He sped up and then slowed down. In the mirror I could see him taking a call. Probably a real one this time. I waited to see what White Car lady was gonna do. Some days she quits early and pulls into a gas station. We’re too far down the road by the time she gets out. From her face I figure she’s a little pudgy, maybe fifty, with a fake tan and blonde streaks. She’s got a sticker on her Honda that states, “Redneck Bitch”.

I pulled ahead a bit. Letting my family sedan purr under the love of the cheapest gas available, I hit cruise control. It’s Red Truck man’s turn. White Car lady settles into her spot. We move along in formation. A while back I thought I saw Red Truck man in the Fas-Mart. He was buying a Corn Dog and a Mountain Dew one Friday afternoon. He was tall, thin, and wore a plaid shirt that was tucked into his iron-creased blue jeans. His boots were scuffed around their golden toes. When he paid for his stuff, he turned and caught my eye.
“Hey Blue.” He said.
“Red.” I nodded my head down like an old man.

Red Truck man blew by me while I was thinking about a new washing machine.
“Bastard.” I said.
White Car lady passed me quick. I sped up to keep speed. Red Truck’s muffler coughed white smoke, the rear-end dropped a bit and he pulled away. White Car lady kept pace, I followed. Red Truck kept accelerating until only the blurred image of his vehicle remained. I passed White Car lady quickly. She put on her sunglasses. I checked my cell phone for invisible text messages.

I took the sweeping curve just outside the Nottoway line. Black smoke billowed into the air to my right. In the distance I saw Fire engines on the roadside as County cops directed traffic. Red Truck man had stopped this side of the scene. I saw him standing by his truck. I pulled in slowly behind him. White Car lady pulled in to my rear.

The leftovers of a double wide were burning off atop a hill. An ambulance was backed up the driveway. Nearby we saw a white sheet, draped across a body that was no more than three feet tall. A woman was wailing as a volunteer firemen held her tight, but softly. White Car lady gasped and began to weep. Red Truck man said,
“Probably a kerosene heater. Those things is dangerous.”
I shivered in the cold.
The wailing woman wouldn’t let them close the ambulance door.
She wanted to ride along. We could hear her screaming,
“My baby. My baby. I’m not leaving my baby…” Her words echoed against the trees, against our vehicles.
“My name’s Julius.” Red Truck man said. He extended his hand.
“I’m John.”
White Car lady stifled her tears some.
“It’s just horrible. Just horrible.”
Julius went over and hugged her.
“It’ll be Ok.”
“My name is Angela.” White Car lady said.
“I’m Julius. This is John.”

We stood in silence. I felt morbid staring at the scene. As if I were death’s voyeur, and like a voyeur, received some perverted satisfaction for my efforts. Volunteers and professionals worked the scene while we stood by helpless to move, or to look away. They let the woman into the ambulance. Her screams were muffled by the door’s closing. A deputy shook his head and put his hands up to his eyes. A State Trooper patted him on the back. The firemen were walking around the trailer, checking for smoldering embers when Julius spoke.
“I need to get home now.”
“Me too.” I said.
“Thank you.” Angela said looking at Julius.
He waved and got into his red truck.

The next day I came off 85 south and barely missed a car turning into the Shell station. I dreaded riding by the remnants of that trailer. I heard a horn and turned to my left.
Julius was next to me. He looked me in the eye and waved.

Waiting.

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Hank woke up when the tobacco juice swam down his throat. He coughed, jumped from the recliner, and wiped brown drool from his chin.
“Aw shit jesus.” he said.
He’s slept through the game but what did it matter.
Damn Skins suck, he thought. Probably lost anyway. Josie looked up at him and barked.
“Shut up, Josie” he said. “We’ll go out in a minute, promise.”
Josie twitched her tail as she ran into Elise’s old room.

It had been six months since the fight. But still, the room smelled of Elise’s perfume, her hair on the pillowcases.
Josie hopped on Elise’s bed, circled twice, and hunkered down next to the pillow. Hank spit his wad of Red Man in the overflowing trashcan. The black, wet leaves bounced off a whiskey bottle and fell to the floor.
“Shit Jesus” he said.

Rain clouds smothered the light, suffocating the room with a sudden darkness. Once, months before, Hank would’ve wondered about his Harley, or the windows of his truck. But now, he stared out the kitchen window hoping it would rain. And rain. And rain.

He felt his hand twitching as the first few drops hit the window. It was one of the replacement windows he’d bought, that she’d wanted… Whenever he looked out of them he saw her face. Her smile. Her tears. Her fears. After the fight, he’d seen her outlined by the new patio door. She was wearing a red sweater with tight jeans. Her hair was in a ponytail but covered with dirt and leaves.
“Turn off the light.” she said.
Hank had gotten up, spit tobacco on the floor, and turned off the light.
She was gone with the light.

The green leaves turned white in the wind as the rains picked up. He pulled back the patio curtains and watched the door. He could picture the river’s edge. The earth melting into the rushing water, twigs and leaves resisting, then giving in… Hank twisted the bottle open. He took a big pull from it and wondered how long it’s been since whiskey made him wince. His mind wandered back to the patio door.

Josie slept on the pillow until the crashing thunder pulled a yelp from her. She scurried down the hall, back into the living room. Hank was on his fifth pull by then. She sat next to Hank and watched the patio door.

Water pelted against the patio. It was the only sound in the room. Each heavy rain, Hank waited this way. Sitting. Drinking. Watching the patio door. One day, he knew, something would happen. The why of her leaving, the how of her leaving would all be discovered during a heavy rain. Until then, he waited.

He heard her voice.
“Don’t forget the cheese.”
The words of his memory never lined up. Never made sense. The fight was over a big thing. One of those big things that makes or breaks a couple. Something big that changes your life while your busy screaming, crying, and arguing. Hank couldn’t remember why they were fighting.
“Honey, open this jar for me, please.”

She had walked in and then it was raining.
“We should get new windows Hank.”
And something was on her face.
“Do you want burgers or steak?”
A mark.
“I called your Dad. He’s feeling better.”
She stood in the kitchen. Her voice echoing in the scarcely furnished home.
He stood up. He knew that. To the bathroom? Or the bedroom? He couldn’t remember. Even now. Six months of asking and not knowing.

Lightening cracked, knocking out the one working lightbulb. Hank and Josie sat in darkness. Josie began to bark.
“Shut up Josie.” Hank said. “We can’t go out now.”
Josie went to the kitchen and peed.

She was missing for a while. He knew that. People called and came by and offered help and prayed and… He remembers seeing her face on TV and the police asking him, “What did she have on last time you saw her Mr. Burke?” He thought it was funny. Them calling him Mr. Burke.

“Burgers” he said. “Burgers will be fine.”
“Cool” Elise said.
Was that it? He thought. Did we fight about fucking burgers?
“How did your job interview go?”
“I skipped it, wasn’t feeling good, you know.” Hank said.

Hank watched the rain twinkle against the black woods behind their house. The safety light made it seem as if the rain began at the top of the pole. He looked down into the woods and waited.
“She’ll come back.” he said.

Then his picture was on the TV set. No one would say for sure, but he knew it. They all thought he had killed her. He told them they had a fight but he couldn’t remember about what.
“Have you seen my car keys?”
A detective who squinted when he spoke visited.
“Mr. Burke. Tell me exactly what happened the day you say your wife disappeared.”
“She came home. We decided to have burgers. We got in a fight. Then she was gone. I haven’t seen her since.” Hank didn’t cry.
“What did you, better yet, how did you two fight?”
“Well.” Hank said.

They found a security video in Richmond that showed Elise at an ATM two hours after Hank said they fought. She was crying and withdrew two-hundred dollars. The cops laid off Hank but kept asking him where she might have gone.
“I can’t remember what we fought about.” he said. When the paper hit with a still frame of her at the ATM, everyone left Hank and Josie alone. The store let Hank have the video.
“We figured you might want it.” the young manager said.
He threw it in the trash.

Hank watched the rain and thought about that video.
“Honey, you want to rent a movie?”
Maybe it was the burgers. He didn’t know. Hank remembered the rain though. The windshield wipers thumped as he watched Elise take the two hundred dollars. He watched her jump back into her car. He knew he followed. He knew he was mad.
Why? He couldn’t remember. Something in her face? On her face?

Hank and Josie watched the night pass by. Hank waited for the earth to give way completely. One day she’ll be back.
“Why the hell did you follow me you nutcase?”
Somebody would notice her there, after the rain.
“Hank!”
Sometimes he could feel her wet face against his hard hand.
Something about burgers, maybe.
“Hank, stop! I’m sorry.”
He couldn’t remember what they fought about.
Hank pulled some tobacco out.
And waited.

Allison’s dancing again.

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There was a time when it was easy. Back when all she had to do was shower, throw on a little make up, and head out with a Screwdriver and that man-melting grin of hers. She’d get in her beat-up car and fish for the cover charge on the floorboard. A few crumpled bills in the clean ashtray. Scattered tip money from the night before. Music would pulsate through the brick walls of Joe B’s. It was a warehouse converted nightclub full of soldiers and rich kids from the local private college. Looking this way–casual, perfect hair and perfumed pressure points sending out waves of ‘you want me’–she belonged. Soldiers would stare at her as she entered the dark club. Cute, broad-shouldered boys with high-n-tights, clean hard faces, and stamina. She loved their shoulders and respected their service. But more than anything, it was the stamina. Lots of stamina.

She met Dave there. He was sitting at the end of the bar, bobbing his head and looking around. She smiled at him. He came over and cracked the dumbest jokes she’d ever heard.
“You aren’t good at this are you?” she said.
“Lots of folks say I make an ass of myself real good actually.” His smile was crooked and something about his face told her he’d never grow a beard. But still she laughed at him.
“Let’s go dance, come on.” she said.
Dave shrugged it off. “I got more left feet than a centipede!”
She leaned in to hear him talk. To let him smell the perfume and make his move.
“We could dance slow. Nobody’d notice if you held onto me tight.”
“Let me request a song.”
He took off into the crowd. She ordered them two more drinks.
When he came back, she asked,
“What song did you request?”
The DJ let the hip-hop song die down.
“We’ve got a request from Dave to Allison.”
She smiled. He took her hand.
Steel guitars began to play as the dance floor cleared. A twangy singer she didn’t know sang about meeting a girl and falling in love.
She and Dave were the only two on the floor. He held her tight.
“Everyone will notice us now.” She said with a grin.
“When a man like me dances with a woman like you, we want everyone to know it.”

Dave got out of the Army and started working at Coleman Trucking. A dedicated job running loads to Nashville and back four times a day. Allison stayed on waitressing until their first child arrived. She stayed with the baby in a two-room efficiency. Dave came home each night, held the baby, drank beer, and watched the news. Allison walked down to the phone booth to call her mother.
“Something’s wrong Mama.” She’d say.
“What honey?”
“I don’t know. I just thought it was gonna be different.”
“We all did.”

Dave was laid off four weeks before their third Christmas. Coleman went out of business. He played with they baby in the complex’s courtyard. Dave crushed beer cans on his head. The baby would laugh. Allison sold cars downtown for a while. She’d drive by Joe B’s sometimes. It had been converted into self-storage. She thought maybe there was symbolism in that. She smoked in secret. Never knew what would make Dave angry.

Dave talked about reenlisting while she made dinner.
“I’d still be an E-3 I bet. That’s about a thousand a month.”
“Who’d watch the baby when you went to basic. I’d still have to work.”
“So, you wouldn’t miss me?”
“Sure.”
“But you’re not telling me not to go. You’d know we’d be separated a lot. Maybe a year or two at a time.”
“We have to do something.”
“I couldn’t pass the PT test to get back in anyway. My back is fucked up.”
She stirred the Hamburger Helper.
“I didn’t know your back was hurt.”
“What?” he turned down the TV.
“I said dinner is done.”
“Great.” He opened another beer.

She stood in the gym beneath a banner that said, “Welcome Back Alumni!” Everyone from ten years ago hugged and shook hands like old people.
“Allison, you look so good! What’s your secret?”
“Sixty hours a week of mind numbing labor.”
Laughter.
“You always were the funny one. Somebody told me you married a soldier. That’s gotta be exciting!”
“He got kicked out the month we got married. He hit an officer. Broke his jaw in two places.”
Laughter.
“Oh, I’m sure. You’re so funny.”
“Anybody spike the punch yet?” Allison asked.

He was drunk when she got home.
“Anybody ask about me?” he said.
“None of them knew you Dave.”
“Damn baby needs a change. Little fucker, shit all over the place.”
“Just now?” she said going over to the crib.
“A couple of hours ago I guess. Is the store still open?”
She began to change the baby’s diaper. Feces stuck to the girl’s folds, dried up on her thighs.
Dave put on his shoes.
“You got any money? I’m walking up the street.”
“Honey, I’ll go up for you. You want a 12-pack? Maybe some chips?”
“You’re the greatest.” Dave said letting his shoes fall back to the floor.
Allison picked up the baby.
“I’ll take her to give you some peace. You deserve it.”
“Hurry back.” he said.
“I will honey. I love you.” she said.
“What?”
“Nothing. Be back in a bit.”

The store was closed so she drove passed it. The baby fussed some. Allison found a 24 hour store and bought some formula, one bottle, and small pack of nipples.
“You guys sell Grain?” she said.
“Yeah.” the clerk said looking at the clock. “For about five more minutes.”
“Great.”

The baby was asleep. Allison drove around town listening to music on the one working speaker. She drove by Joe B’s. It was being converted back into a nightclub.
A sign advertised. “Coming Soon: GRINDERS!”
“Grinders.” she said to herself.
She took a sip of the grain alcohol. She grimaced.

The baby didn’t wake up when the driver’s door closed. Allison walked up to the door of Joe B’s/Grinders. It was quiet and dark. She broke out the glass on the door and worked the lock open. The building smelled of drying varnish and fresh-cut pine. Moonlight came in through a high window, brushing the dance floor a gray-white hue. She remembered the music. The shoulders. She saw herself out there again. Laughing.

Allison began to weep. She took another sip then threw the bottle into the air. The glass shattered four feet in front of her. She pulled out her lighter and bent down.

When she exited the building the flames were spreading faster than expected. Fire licked the blackness leading to the second floor. It spread like wings to the walls. Allison turned back to look at the building. The baby still asleep.
She got in the car and drove away slowly.
She stopped to fill up at a station near the interstate. Allison read the big green signs. Knoxville. Charlotte. Richmond. She bought two packs of diapers. When they pulled on I-24 East, Allison glanced at the rearview mirror several times but knew they’d never be followed.

Sheik Joey Kahleeb’s Revival.

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It’s probably because I’m fat.
Yeah, I’ve got broad shoulders and enough suppressed anger towards life that my face can contort into a “Piss Off!” billboard in a flash, but truthfully…I think it’s because I’m fat.

My company sends me out to collect bad checks, in person, because they know I cast a wide shadow through any door and that may cause the rubber check crowd to second-guess giving me an excuse. My boss did once admit to such thinking, albeit vaguely.
“Well, Duffy, you do have a way of letting people know you don’t give a shit, much…”

I said, “Thanks, make sure that’s on my quarterly evaluation eh?”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I’m sitting outside the store reading a Raymond Carver story, listening to The Beatles and hoping Bubba the Wonder Bum doesn’t hit me up for a dollar. I’ve been there about ten minutes waiting for the owner, Joey, to show up. When I’d first gone in two Middle Eastern guys were yelling back and forth. The little bell rang as I entered.
They stopped yelling. One sat down on a stool covered in lottery stickers and opened a book from the wrong end.
The other guy looked at me,
“How you doing buddy?”
“Are you the owner or manager?”
He shook his head no and looked down.
“I’m John from Golden Teat Dairy. I need to talk to the owner.”
“He’s not here now. Is it about a check coming back or something like that?” The guy looked over at the reader.
They both looked disgusted and embarrassed.
“Yeah. We gotta check back.”

He picked up the phone and dialed some numbers. I looked around at the Malt Liquor posters, lottery ads, and the limitless varieties of flavored, but cheap, cigars. The place was long with two large plate-glass show windows on either side of the door. At one time, it was probably a shoe store, or dress shop. Back when this part of Richmond was booming and thriving. Now it was run-down and smelled of incense and cooked grease.
The guy was talking on the phone, swinging his hands at Allah knows what, when he suddenly slammed it down. He pointed at the reader guy, spoke and then pointed at me.

“Joey will be here in ten minutes.” he told me. “You can wait outside.”
“I was going to get a drink…”
He nodded no.
“Joey said to wait outside.”

A red minivan pulled up and a chubby little Arab cat gets out. I turn my car off, put the book down, and get out.
Chubby gets in the store before I do. When I walk in, all three of them are yelling back and forth swinging their hands around and rolling their eyes. It’s like a pentecostal revival starring Muslim convenience store clerks. I think for a second someone’s gonna start fanning themselves or roll around on the floor hollering, “Wildfire! Wildfire! Wildfire!”

Chubby walks around the counter and then spots me.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m John from Golden Teat Dairy. I need to speak–”
“Me! You need to speak to me. I’m Kahleeb, but everyone calls me Joey.”
I stick out my hand. He looks at it with disdain.
“I’ll have you money next week. You need to come by on Thursday at 1 pm to get your money. I’ll have it then.”
“Sir, we’ve tried to collect this check for two weeks now. Each time I call no one knows where you are. We’ve had the driver stop by three times and each time he’s told to come back later…I need to pick up that money today.”
“What will you do? Burn down my store like your KKK?”
I laughed.
“No, sir. I’m just trying to collect the money owed my company.”
“You have no company. You are just a manager. No owner. No owner of nothing. I come here two years ago and make more money than you Americans friends.”
“But, you can’t get a check to clear, or pay me the money owed today?”
“What?” He face bloated up.
“I asked if you are so much richer than me and everyone else why can’t you pay me now, or better yet, not have your checks bouncing everywhere?”
“Get out of my store. You. YOU! You are the terrorists, not me!”
“Next time someone asks about this check, it’ll be the Richmond City Police Mr. Kahleeb.”
“You call me Joey. You don’t call me by my real name!”
“No problem.”
I walked out as the three of them resumed shouting.

I got to the car when the Reader comes out. He’s running at me.
“Mr. Golden Teat Dairy! Mr. Golden Teat Dairy!”
I stopped.
He came up next to my car and reached in his pocket.
I thought he was pulling a knife. I opened the car door.
He reaches me in time to grab the door.
He speaks, “I’m sorry sir. My boss, Kahleeb. His business is failing quickly. These people in this neighborhood, they have no money for nothing but beer and lottery and drugs. I’m sorry sir.”
“It’s not you buddy. Your boss is–” I said.
“Look” he said. “Here’s some money. How much is the check?”

I looked down. In his hands was a wad of hundreds and fifties.
He flipped off several hundreds.
“The check is $351.15 with the fee.”
He hands me the money, pulling some change and a One out of another pocket.
“Buddy, I have to ask. Why do you have all that money when you work for a broke man?”
“Where do you think they get the drugs?”
He smiles and walks away. He waved at a congregation of people on the opposite corner.
None of them waved back.
When I got back to the office I pulled up the account and closed it.

Blood Brothers.

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He walked into the funeral home wearing a trucker’s hat and smelling of Bourbon. An old lady sat on a bench nearby. She stood.
“Hello sir. Would you like to sign the registry?”
“I don’t reckon they gonna won’t a record that I was here do you?”
“It’s for the family. For Mildred.” The lady scowled from behind a heavy, powdered face.
“Sure then.” He wrote his name–Meanus Hale.
She looked over the registry as he moved away. His eyes ran over the crowd from a distance; black suits, gray hair, a few kids in khaki pants milling around, looking bored. Someone smiled at him. He didn’t know them. Didn’t want to.
“Are you Betty Hale’s son?” the lady asked.
“I was. She died years ago. I ain’t exactly her son anymore.”
The lady pursed her lips.
“Well, I reckon you still are…least to her.”
“Ok” he said. Balancing on his cane, Meanus walked into the large service room of the funeral home. He saw the casket against the back wall. It was half-opened with an American flag draped across the lower part. Meanus wished he’d taken a few more shots.

He saw Richard’s Mom, Mildred, from across the room.
What’s it been? he thought. Fifteen years?
He avoided her glance. Last time he’d seen her was the night before Richard went off to Basic. He and Richard had been friends since they knew the word. They went to bible school back when their parents considered Church important. They played baseball, spent hours talking about the ‘what-ifs?’ of life, and learned how to get in trouble as a pair. When Richard’s Dad left the boys grew closer. They were inseparable. When they both turned 14 they went down to the creek behind Boswell Stadium to try weed for the first time. Meanus pulled out his knife half-way through the first joint.
“Blood brothers.”
Richard smiled.
“Sure.”
Meanus sliced his hand open then handed the knife to Richard. He did the same. They shook hands while they looked each other in the eye. Neither spoke.

Meanus stole a bottle of liquor from his Mom. By the time he got to Richard’s, Mildred was three sheets gone and talking about her son dying in some goddamned war. Richard was sitting in a corner of the kitchen, looking at the floor.
“Mom, just be quiet with all that stuff. I ain’t gonna die. Tell her Meanus.”
“He ain’t gonna die Mildred. Might catch the clap from some girl, but it won’t kill him.”
Mildred laughed. Richard told Meanus to shut up. Meanus took another sip.
“He won’t do something like that Meanus. He’s his Momma’s boy, he won’t do no bad shit like that.”
Richard walked out of the room. Meanus pulled out his bottle and set it down.
“Wanna few pulls?” he asked Mildred.
“You know it!” Mildred poured some in her glass and downed it. Meanus sat down next to her. He was young then, full of strength and gumption. Mildred always had a soft spot for Meanus. Quietly she sometimes had wondered what he would be like as a Man. His shoulders were broad and his tan stomach was rippled. Since he had turned eighteen, Mildred had wondered more often…and less quietly.
“So what are we gonna do once Richard’s gone?” Mildred asked. Her smile offered an answer.
Meanus took a shot of liquor.
“Well, I guess most anything we want Mildred.”

Richard called from the other room.
“Meanus come here for a second.”
Meanus looked at Mildred’s blue eyes and let his gaze wander to her ample chest.
“Most anything.” he said. She smiled and patted his arm.

Richard was sitting on the couch in the living room, his lap holding a box full of pictures. He had one in his hands. It was a Polaroid of he and Meanus on two bicycles. They both wore Redskins coats and straddled their bikes in a front yard filled with snow.
“You remember this?” Richard said.
“Yep” Meanus smiled.
“I want you to have it. In case something goes wrong somewhere down the line.”
“I ain’t taken no picture if it means you might die.”
“That ain’t what it means dumbass. It just means that you and I will always be blood brothers. No matter what.”
“No matter what.” Meanus repeated, wishing he’d made it sound like a question. He continued.
“I ain’t taken no pictures of us Richard. You ain’t signed up for…but what? Four years? Nothing gonna happen in four years.”
Richard put the picture in Meanus’s hand.
“Take the picture. Just for when. For me.”
Meanus stared at him. He knew when Richard’s brown eyes went all black and serious it won’t no use arguing.
“Ok Richard.”
“Ok Brother.” Richard said.
“Ok Brother.”

Sheriff Burke lost his somber, respectful air when he saw Meanus standing alone. He walked over.
“Nobody wants no trouble here today Meanus. Why did you even come by? Wait. You been drinking? It’s a Tuesday son.”
“My condolences to you to Sheriff.”
“Shut up Meanus.” the Sheriff hushed his voice.
“Everybody knows what you tried to do back then. You think you deserve to be here now?”
Meanus looked ahead at the casket.
“I got more rights than you think Sheriff.”
“I’ll be watching you. You upset one hair on Mildred’s head and I’ll throw you out of here. You hear me Meanus.”
“You know Sheriff, they say the Richard got killed trying to pull some Arab kid out of a building before an airstrike hit it.”
“Yeah. He was a hero. No doubt.”
“Well, the way I see it, I got a little of his blood in me so I ought to be just as brave.”
“Meanus Hale I never thought I’d hear you talk sense in your life!” Sheriff Burke patted Meanus on the back.
“Yep, I ought to be brave enough to say what I need to say.”
“Well, I guess so–”
“Fuck off Sheriff. Just fuck off.”

Richard went upstairs to finish packing. Meanus sat down next to Mildred. She slammed an empty shot glass down.
“Where we were?” she said.
They both laughed.
“I think you’ve had about enough.” Meanus said.
Mildred leaned over to Meanus’s ear.
“I’ll scream your name when I’ve had enough.”
“Mildred, look, joking is one thing but that’s…”
Midred rubbed Meanus’s leg.
“I’m not joking anymore Meanus. You’re a grown up. I’m a grown up. He’s a grown up. I got things I want in life too.”
Meanus stood up and went back to the living room.
Mildred hoisted herself up and followed him.
He sat down on the couch and reached for the remote control. Mildred jumped on top of him, straddling his lap and burying her face in his neck.
“Just a little dry run until he’s gone.”
Meanus lifted her, but the woman pushed back down.
Richard walked in.

A middle-aged woman dressed in dark blue came over to Meanus. She looked like she’d cried for days and days.
“Mildred wants to see you. She wants to walk with you over to see Richard.”
“I’m here to see Richard, not Mildred.”
The woman smiled.
“She said you’d say that. She said to ask you nicely. For a Mother whose lost both of her sons. I thought she only had one though.”
“She had two. Sort of. Ok I’ll come over.”

Meanus called to get Richard’s address two weeks later. Mildred gave it to him and asked why he didn’t come over anymore.
“Richard said he never wanted to see me for trying to screw you. Don’t you remember that you damn drunk?”
“I told him we had feelings for one another and it was none of his business…”
“Feelings?” Meanus said. “The only feeling you have is for booze and young boys.” He hung up.
Meanus wrote, as best he could, as often as he could. Richard never replied. Meanus would call wondering when Richard was coming home, how he was doing, or if there was a number to reach him. Mildred would go through her spiel about feelings, and love, and lust, and needing one another during this “time of crisis.” It was always a crisis for Mildred to be alone. And sober.
Meanus stopped calling long after Richard decided to keep his word.
They would never see each other again.

Meanus walked over to Mildred.
“Hello Mildred.”
She smiled.
“I can’t stand it. He’s gone Meanus.”
“I know. He was a hero for doing what he done.” Meanus looked over at the casket.
“Have you been over to see him yet?” Mildred asked.
“No. I was waiting for some reason. I don’t know.”
“That man over there in the uniform, he was part of Richard’s unit. He was the one to find Richard…” Mildred wiped her nose. “He gave me this when he came over to the house yesterday. He said it was in Richard’s pocket when the shrapnel killed him. The little boy lived though. Ain’t that something? I thought you might want it.”

Mildred handed Meanus the picture of two boys trying to ride their bikes in the snow. They were smiling wide.
Blood stained the bottom of the Polaroid.
Meanus began to weep for the first time since he’d heard the news.
He rubbed his hand across the photo.
He walked over to the casket and looked at his blood brother’s body.
Meanus cried softly and laid the photo on Richard’s chest.

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