A great Editor, A wonderful writer yet an even more wonderful human being.
Lisa was looking out the window, staring at the placid gray lake, at the small boats slowly crisscrossing it.
I was focused on her every movement, or lack of it. We didn’t talk, not about what either of us thought at that moment, or of any moment preceding it or of anything to come. She was motionless except for the occasional blinking of her eyes, the sudden expansion and deflation of her chest, and the slightest shifting of a strand of her red hair, moved by a random breeze.
If she knew I even existed in those moments other than as some distant presence, like a cloud drifting far away in a sky full of clouds, she gave no indication.
When Dora opened the door, it creaking with metallic arthritis on old hinges, Lisa didn’t turn from the window and her glance didn’t avert away from the lake. I smiled at Dora who entered the room in her polished white shoes, and watched as the door closed behind her and shut with a harsh sounding melding of door and frame. I then turned my attention back to Lisa who was no different in position than before Dora’s arrival.
Dora crossed in front of me and sat down in an old wooden chair next to Lisa and she too looked out at the dull body of water, resting her freckled hands in the whiteness of the uniform that stretched across her broad lap, and then she spoke to Lisa.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?’
It was all she seemed interested to know, not how Lisa felt or thought or anything about what was going on currently in that room. Dora was a big woman, in proportions and bearing. As she waited for Lisa to respond, she didn’t look at Lisa, and Lisa didn’t look at her. They sat like two lighthouses scanning a body of water for what lay beneath its surface.
Lisa paid no attention to Dora sitting across from her, the wooden chair squeaking mildly beneath Dora’s weight.
The night before that meeting was not unlike any other night. Sleeping patients in their beds, windows with metal gates covering them closed and locked. The evening shift leaving and Lisa and I, the night shift, arriving, taking our places at the nurse’s station. After reviewing what we had already heard in the evening report, we began going through the patients’ charts and reviewing medications and nursing notes from the day and evening shift. As always, we worked and chatted, accustomed to one another in an intimate yet unromantic way.
The job, the caring for these insane patients was for me only a means to a paycheck, for Lisa it was her life’s work. I revealed nothing but my admiration for her, and she in turn treated me like a sister to a brother, rubbing the top of my head in an affectionate way when I displayed some moment of insight into a patient, or bringing me some ill-tasting sample of some dinner she had prepared for her lover, Rick, a nurse from another wing.
And so the night went, as usual.
In the middle of the night, I was alone in the medication room, checking the vials of medications, flipping from one patient medication record to the next, when the alarm went off. I rushed out of the medication room and saw Lisa standing by the door to the psychiatric unit, her hand on the red button that sounded the alarm. Her eyes were wide like the eyes of a mannequin in a storefront window, frozen in some ridiculous glaze of hopelessness.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Dora asked Lisa again.
There was the slightest edge of impatience in Dora’s voice, as if having to ask the question twice was exceeding her limit of patience. For the first time, Lisa glanced away from the lake, not at Dora, but at me, and there I saw it. The pain. I felt it too, like a sudden sharp aching from a cold drink on a raw cavity in a tooth badly in need of filling, and before I was able to speak, Dora stared at me. Her eyes thinned, a warning. There we sat, them looking at me, and me unable to speak in fear of saying the wrong thing, or saying anything at all.
Lisa turned away and faced the lake again, while Dora momentarily held her expression of caution towards me, possibly questioning if she had miscalculated how to go about uncovering what had happened that night. Dora was as unreadable as a book in a dark room. She turned back to Lisa, this time fixing her gaze on Lisa’s pale face, and she asked the same question again with renewed impatience.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Had she asked me first I would have said “I came out of the medication room and found Lisa with her hand on the alarm button as the emergency lights came on and nurses and staff from adjoining units came through the doors.” They hadn’t noticed, but I had, that the unit doors were unlocked when they entered.
And then Lisa burst into tears.“One of the patients got out.”
She explained that she had been overpowered by a patient who stole her keys and got out the door before she could stop him or alert anyone. She gave his name. I knew him by what I had read in his chart. Psychotic, suicidal, a man who had once tried to drown himself in the lake behind the hospital because God had told him it was the right thing to do.
Suddenly there were nurses and psychiatric technicians running down the hallways, looking for a patient, any patient, who was in pajamas and not where he belonged.
Left alone with Lisa, we encouraged the patients awakened by the alarm to return to their beds. She had regained her composure and was in her most professional mode, soothing to those who were upset by the commotion as she guided them back to their beds. We were at the nurses station alone a short time later, her face a mask of stone as I pulled up my chair next to her and asked.
Tall and lean and without grace, like a clumsy basketball player, Lisa’s lover Rick often stood outside the unit door staring in through the small window, tapping on it lightly with a boney finger until Lisa opened the door for him. They would sit at the nurses station while I made the rounds checking patient rooms and busily trying to ignore my irritation with his presence on the unit, or my anger at Lisa for finding him worthy of her attention.
There she would sit, her mane of hair cascading over her small shoulders, one hand being held by his, the other hand pushing back the black hair that curled around his ears and on his neck. His voice was always too loud and his manner always too forced. If he regarded me one way or another at all I never knew, but in the silence of the unit at night he was an unwelcomed guest. It was a place reserved for me and Lisa, and of course, the patients.
I imagined as Lisa sat looking out the window that he was on her mind. I accepted that while she needed me to be there, she wanted him there. But to have him in the room would have put an abrupt end to any question that Dora may have had regarding what she only knew to be rumor. One of the night shift psychiatric nurses was involved with another nurse. Not a crime of course, but frowned upon. There were concerns stated openly that it might lead to a lack of professionalism and carelessness. I watched them, one staring at the other, the other staring out at the lake, and me repressing the need to scream at them both.
Stop it and stop it now.
There at the nurse’s station, while others were looking for the patient, Lisa told me what had happened. It was rather simple and quick as was Lisa’s telling of it.
Rick had come to the unit and she let him in. She had left the keys in the door and the door unlocked and as Rick and she were seated at the nursing station the patient had made his way past them and went out the door being noticed only as he went out. Before they had even planned what to do, Lisa had taken the keys from the door and pressed them into Rick’s hand and told him to return to his unit and hide the keys and return to his work as if nothing had happened. There at the door she watched Rick walk quickly down the hall, and then she closed the unit door and waited several minutes then pushed the alarm button.
As if I were in a far off room I heard Lisa, still facing the lake, tell Dora what could have been the truth, but wasn’t.
“The patient overpowered me, took the keys from my hand just as I was about to lock the door after opening it briefly because of some noise in the hallway, and made his way out of the unit and disappeared down the hall toward the stairs leading outside.”
There was the briefest of pauses.
“Then I pushed the alarm button,” Lisa said as if she were speaking of some wistful memory.
Dora, hands still in her lap, looked out the window and then at me. Dora was a no-nonsense charge nurse, dedicated and skilled, astute and fair. Her thin lips were pursed and her eyes were half closed as if she were about to fall asleep. But there was nothing in her manner that suggested she was not fully aware of Lisa, of me, of things that didn’t sound rational.
She turned toward me.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
If ever I had looked into another person’s eyes and realized that person could see inside me, as I imagined Dora could, I couldn’t recall. I tried to think of anything but the events of the night before.
I thought back to the days before I entered nursing school, when I had no direction and seemingly little purpose to my life. I suddenly longed for those days again.
“I came out of the medication room when I heard the emergency alarm go off,” I said.
It was the truth of course, and after those few words I felt myself sigh in an unexpected way, as if I had been filled with air during the night and now it escaped quietly from deep in my throat, like a slow leak from a punctured bicycle tire. I placed my hand over my mouth and out of nervousness yawned.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m a bit tired.”
We were all tired, though no one had expressed it because it would have been a thoughtless remark given that probably in the bottom of the lake was a patient who felt his final resting place should be the cold waters outside the back doors of the hospital. He was a patient who would never again be able to complain of being a bit tired. To be tired was a privilege, a sign of being alive. Sitting on hard chairs in a cheerless room was better than being dead by a long shot.
“What next?” Dora asked.
“The others from the other units came in and Lisa told them a patient had escaped and then everyone went looking for him.”
I said this quickly, rattling it off like the rehearsed words that had played over and over in my head in preparation for this moment. I added nothing more and she asked nothing else, but turned her head to the window, to the view of the boats skimming the water. I looked at her hands still in her lap, fingers motionless, interlocked. I noticed then how red her hands were, as if she had just scrubbed them for surgery before putting on the rubber gloves. It was a small thing, her red hands, but for a moment it provided a distraction, something I could think about without feeling anything at all except curiosity. I noticed too that she wore no fingernail polish and they shone white framed in the scarlet color of her fingers. I wondered if these were the things others thought about when in the midst of a possible tragedy?
I looked up and saw that Dora was now looking at Lisa. The intentness of Dora’s stare made my stomach tighten and I pondered briefly if Dora had the power to divine the truth in a person’s profile. Then she asked Lisa the same question, worded a little differently.
“Do you now want to tell me what happened?”
Lisa turned her face slowly toward Dora and then I saw it. A tear. It was stalled on Lisa’s cheek like a single transparent jewel glued to her cheek I don’t know what alarmed me more, Lisa’s tear or Dora’s repetition of the same question. Lisa’s tear could mean the unraveling of lies and untold truths that had trapped me with Lisa in what could prove to be both of our professional downfalls. I assumed Dora repeating the question meant that she had not believed anything that had been said to her before and that she was aware that I was not telling everything I knew.
In that instant I stopped thinking about Lisa, Dora or even the missing patient, but my thoughts turned to Rick. I wondered where he had disappeared to after fleeing our unit. The sudden intensity of my dislike of him was like a fire ablaze inside my chest. No one but Lisa and I knew that he had been on the unit when the events of the night began, and now he was somewhere away from Dora’s scrutiny, out of danger of being implicated in a tragic event unless Lisa told everything.
Disliking someone immediately on first meeting is hard to describe or explain. It was the feeling I had upon meeting him even though he had given me no cause to dislike him, so I chalked it up to a strange type of jealousy regarding Lisa. He wasn’t stealing her romantic affections from me, because they never existed. But the events of the night proved what inkling of concerning I had about him. He held little regard for anyone but himself. My mind was screaming out, “How could he leave Lisa in such a predicament?” And then it struck me, how could Lisa put me in the same predicament and not show any remorse?
“The water looks so cold,” Lisa said, the word cold catching in her throat before being uttered with a stutter. She was now looking at Dora and wiped the tear from her cheek like one does to a bothersome insect perched on the skin. “I hope everyone is wrong and that he isn’t in there,” she continued, her voice quivering. She didn’t mention the patient’s name, nor had any of us in that room.
His name was Daryl.
Daryl would come to the nurse’s station late at night when everything was quiet and in his psychotropic stupor he would look at either Lisa or I and simply say, “I have no soul.”
I tried to imagine Daryl dead on the muddy bottom of the lake as his body settled there like a stone, devoid of a soul, lying there like a sea creature to decay and become part of the lake, giving nothing to heaven or hell, not even the spirit he had been born with. The thought made me shudder. Dying in the lake had been the single focus of Daryl’s existence it seemed, so often dwelling on it that we almost ignored it as time wore on.
If Daryl was dead at the bottom of the lake it was Lisa’s fault, and Rick’s. I couldn’t be blamed for the events of that night, but it didn’t matter. I felt guilty. Whatever Lisa decided to say to Dora, or not say, I was part of a conspiracy to keep the truth from being known. I could only look at Lisa with sadness, knowing her feelings for the patients were always much stronger than mine, and more real. When Daryl would say he had no soul, she would comfort him by talking to him soothingly, reassuring him that he did have soul and that if he went back to bed in the morning when the sun rose he would feel differently.
I simply told him to go back to bed.
Maybe it was Lisa’s single tear that Dora was reacting to, or the fact that Daryl was still out there somewhere, possibly alive, but she suddenly stood up and with her arms crossed over her ample bosom she looked at us both and simply said, “I’ve heard enough. Don’t leave this room”
She left but the sense of dread remained.
I changed seats, and sat where Dora had been and looked at Lisa’s bowed head and at the way she played with a single button on her uniform. I hesitated before I said anything. “Where’s Rick?” I whispered.
Her head rose and with her face in front of mine I saw a blankness, a flatness of her affect that alarmed me. “He’s safe from harm,” she answered.
The door opened and the detective entered who had talked with us in the hospital earlier in the night soon after Daryl’s escape. He was tall and thin and didn’t look like a detective, but more like an accountant, pale and stooped, inclined to spending long hours laboring over numbers in some office cubicle. He said nothing and went to the window and from behind Lisa’s chair looked out.
“If he’s in the lake his body will surface sooner or later if it’s not weighted down,” he said. “Making a mistake can’t get you in trouble in this case,” he said, “but lying about it can.”
I thought about that. If he surfaced a day or two or even later his body would be bloated with him still probably in his hospital pajamas. The medical examiner would find nothing unusual about him except the absence of a soul. Was that possible? If a person had no soul could you tell it when they were lying dead in a coffin or in a hospital bed, or when freshly retrieved from the cold water of a small body of water?
I knew nothing about souls.
If one can telepathically know what another person is going to do before they do it, then before the moment Lisa spoke up, I knew. She looked at me then turned and looked at the detective standing behind her then back at me, accusingly.
“He left the keys in the door when he had gone out earlier and that is how the patient got out. It’s his fault,” Lisa said, pointing at me and staring icily. “He threatened my life if I said anything.”
Then she paused briefly as if to decide what final nail she needed to put into my coffin. “He should never have become a nurse.”
DUCK AND COVER
Melissa wanders in the field behind the house; a large whitewashed stone house with a black slate roof and a whitewashed stone chimney. The doors and the shutters on the house are also black. The structure is a study in contrasts. Melissa wades through the tall grass, some stalks so tall they reach up to her nine year-old neck. It’s late August. The summer has turned the grass, the entire landscape, into the same shade of light beige. The field is alive with grasshoppers. Melissa learned in school that the grasshoppers produce their sound by rubbing their hind legs against their bodies. Nevertheless, it sounds like humming; the vocalizations of a chorus stuck on a single note. They jump all around her and on and off of her as if in a perpetual state of panic. She catches one in her hand, wraps her fingers around its midsection and holds it in place as she stares into its black eyes. She would like to know what the grasshopper is thinking as it stares back at her. She opens her hand. The grasshopper quickly flies off and is immediately lost in the multitude of other grasshoppers that all look alike.
Melissa looks up at the clouds above the field, above the house. They are grouped together in the bright blue sky in bunches, like grapes. Their movement southward is so slow they appear stuck, as if unable to escape the glue that holds them in place. She holds her hand above her eyes, shielding them from the glare of the sun’s rays. She learned a few years before how to protect her eyes in this way from her grandmother, Nana, by watching as Nana frequently stopped while hanging clothes on the line strung across the backyard and stared off toward the rock formations that spanned the horizon. Nana never said what she was watching for and Melissa never asked, but Melissa has learned a great many things from her grandmother during the summers she spends with her grandparents. Seen through a break between clumps of clouds, a jet crosses at an altitude so high up it’s nothing but a flashing glint of metal. Its contrails make a surgical incision across the sky.
Nana comes up to Melissa, holding an empty laundry basket. “You poor thing,” she says. “While your parents spend their summers working on their marriage you’re left here to stare up at the sky.” She starts walking away. “Lord knows what you’re looking for up there.”
Going down the driveway that leads from the house to the old highway, the tires on Paw Paw’s pickup truck kick up dirt and rocks that form a ring around the truck, like those that encircle Saturn. Squeezed in between Paw Paw and Nana, Melissa pokes at the pink flesh on her sunburned arm. The butter that Nana applied to it has formed an oily sheen, but did nothing to diminish the sting. The cab of the truck has the faint aroma reminiscent of buttered popcorn. It’s mixed with the scent of the Evening in Paris perfume Nana has sprayed on her wrists. The driveway has grooves that run through it like the canals on Mars; ruts created by the tires on Paw Paw’s tractors. Paw Paw takes his hands from the steering wheel, keeps his foot on the gas pedal, and allows the truck to be guided by the ruts most of the way down the driveway. At the mailbox that Paw Paw made in the tool shed, he stops the truck. The mailbox resembles a church, but the steeple broke off during a storm several years before. It’s badly in need of a new coat of white paint. Although there is no traffic on the old county highway – there rarely is – he makes an exerted effort to look both ways before pulling out.
Melissa tries to count the cattle lined up along the barbed wire fence that runs along one side of the highway; they stand there as if waiting to be freed from their confines, although behind them is miles of open prairie land. Losing count after thirty, she turns her attention to where bugs are being splattered on the windshield. She believes that for some of them, she is the last thing they saw. Looking for dark clouds, she leans forward to get a better view of the sky just above the truck. Nana said it was going to rain, but there’s no sign of it. She squints her eyes, trying to catch glimpse of a satellite, although she knows they can’t be seen during daylight. She learned about satellites in school, although she didn’t fully understand what they did. In class she had raised her hand and asked, “How do they stay up there?”
“They are held in an orbit by a combination of navigation, velocity and gravity. You know about gravity, don’t you?” Mrs. Worthall asked as if seeking reassurance that she hadn’t wasted her time explaining it in a prior class.
“Yes,” Melissa answered, lying. Nana would have called it a little white lie.
They pass a leaning, rusted silo that stands a hundred yards off of the highway near an abandoned farm and surrounded by yellow prairie grass. Melissa wonders what it would take to make it fall over. It has been there, almost toppling over, much longer than before she began spending her summers with her grandparents. That was three years ago. One of the first questions she asked her Paw Paw was what it was used for.
“It was used for storing food for the cattle,” he replied.
Since then she has learned that missiles are also kept in silos. All the missile silos buried deep in the ground nearby are no longer used, but whenever Paw Paw passes one he points it out as if it’s a geographical feature. Melissa glances warily at the top of the silo’s conical roof, expecting it to open up, or pop off, or simply vanish, as a missile launches from inside its rusted shell, the way she saw missiles blast from the silos in the films she watched at school. She puts her hands over her eyes and rides that way for several miles before peeking through her fingers and seeing dark storm clouds hovering above the town of Scenic.
The white and blue Comet Gas Station sign is shaped like a golf tee with a round comet-like ball in its cup. It’s the tallest thing in Scenic and probably the tallest thing for miles around. It’s made of hard plastic and is so tall that standing at its base Melissa has to lean far back to see the picture of the comet painted on the ball. Streaks of white paint that trail behind the comet indicate it is hurdling through space, the same as meteors, asteroids, shooting stars and rockets. Melissa has learned about those things in school. With her hand held over her eyes to deflect the glare of the bright afternoon sunlight she stares up at the comet while holding on to Nana’s hand. When it catches her attention peripherally, Melissa turns her head and watches a tumbleweed roll across the gas station lot, blown by the hot wind that carries the scent of the rain-drenched prairie, a mixture of earthy aromas: soil, grass, and animal droppings. The downpour that Nana had predicted was brief. The dry earth thirstily soaked it up, leaving behind humidity that lay on the landscape like a thick blanket.
Nana’s hand is damp with sweat.
The town of Scenic is very small with less than a hundred residents. It sets in the middle of a wide swath of plains, the definition of being in the middle of nowhere. It has the Comet station, a small grocery store, post office and saloon. Paw Paw has gone to the saloon. Jerry Two Ponies is sitting on a rickety stool outside the door of the Comet station. He’s part Sioux. His skin is dark brown, deeply tanned, and lined with wrinkles that make him appear much older than he is, although he is already elderly.
“I’m thirsty.” Melissa says as she tugs Nana to where Jerry is sitting.
“Hi Jerry, can we get two Coca Colas?” Nana asks him.
He looks at Melissa and with a toothless grin, says, “You look more and more like your mother every summer that I see you.”
“You said that last summer,” Melissa replies.
He chortles, rises from the stool and goes into the station. He returns a few minutes later carrying two cans of Coke and hands one to Nana and one to Melissa.
Melissa opens the can and drinks the soda in large gulps, taking brief gasps of air between each gulp. Her eyes are fixed on the comet on the sign. “How do you stop a comet?” she blurts out to no one in particular. Coke dribbles down her chin. “Could one fall on us?”
Nana giggles nervously. “The things you say!” she says to Melissa.
“Things like that burn up when they enter our atmosphere,” Jerry says as he sits down on the stool.
“Not all things,” Melissa says. “Not missiles.”
Nana takes Melissa’s empty Coke can from her and tosses it into a tin trash can. “My goodness, what they teach you in that expensive school your parents have you enrolled in aren’t things children should be concerned with.” She hands Jerry the money for the Cokes, takes Melissa’s hand and begins to walk away.
“I’ll see you next summer,” Jerry says as he waves to Melissa.
Melissa waves back, glances up at the comet, certain she saw it move.
The windows in the truck are down. Wind blows in filling the cab with hot, moist air that circulates the smell of beer and cigarettes that emanates from Paw Paw’s hands and clothes. Melissa’s eyes follow the windshield wipers as they sweep dead bugs from the glass. She can feel the anger and tension in the stillness of Nana’s body. Her grandparents had a loud argument before leaving Scenic about Paw Paw having too much to drink. Whenever they go to Scenic he drinks too much and Nana always gets angry about it. Paw Paw is gripping the steering tightly with both hands, his knuckles white, as he pours all of his concentration into staying on the right side of the road, although the truck swerves a little now and then. Melissa thinks of him as a “loose cannon,” a term she heard from Nana. She’s not entirely sure what it means, but she knows that many years ago, long before she was born, cannons shot round balls. In school the teacher showed a video of a war where cannonballs were fired from cannons. If a cannonball hit you directly in the head, it killed you. Melissa leans forward and looks up at the darkening sky and wonders if a person could see a cannonball about to land on their head if it was nighttime. At that moment the back left tire of the truck, punctured by some object in the road, gives off a loud pop. The truck shakes and bumps until Paw Paw pulls the truck to the side of the road. He gets out but Nana remains sitting as if frozen in place, but mumbles discontentedly under her breath.
While Paw Paw changes the tire, Melissa watches the first stars begin to crowd the night sky. She turns to Nana and asks, “Do stars ever smash into each other?”
As if she has been doused with ice water, Nana snaps her head in Melissa’s direction. “Why on Earth do you even think of such things?”
It’s nearly ten o:clock when Paw Paw drives the truck into the driveway, catching a coyote in the beams of the headlights. The coyote freezes for a moment before rushing into the tall prairie grass and out of sight. When they reach the house, Melissa’s mother is leaning against her car, her arms crossed. In the beams of the truck’s headlights she glows as if irradiated.
“Why is your mother here?” Nana asks aloud, the first words, other than three, she has spoken since Paw Paw got back into the truck after changing the tire. He smashed his left thumb doing it and when he complained about how it hurt she said, “Serves you right.”
“Where’s Dad?” Melissa asks.
The three climb out of the truck, with only Melissa rushing to her mother. As Melissa throws her arms around her mother’s waist, Nana says from a few feet away, “I thought you weren’t coming for another week to pick up Melissa.”
“Tom and I have decided to get a divorce,” Melissa’s mother says. “We’re going to place Melissa in a boarding school until we get everything settled.”
Melissa drops her arms, stares up at her mother, mouth agape. Tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She looks up at the sky and sees a shooting star, one aimed at where she’s standing. It turns into a comet and then a missile, just like the ones she saw in the films in school. She knew what to do if a nuclear bomb was heading toward her. She ducks down and covers her head with her hands. And then she screams.
From the back porch of Ted Hasting’s farmhouse, looking out across the broad expanse of golden prairie grass, the Badlands formations rose up from the dry earth like a slain leviathan, stretched out across the horizon, decaying under the intensity of a late summer sun. As clouds drifted across the early morning sky, they cast slowly creeping shadows on the formations, altering the colors of the rocks, turning them from brown to yellow to purple and back to brown again. Since his childhood some fifty years before, Ted had often stood at that very spot, leaning against the railing, observing the same scene. The view had lost none of its power; it overwhelmed him, taking his breath away, smothering him with its grandeur. Lost in thought, it was Jigger’s barking that aroused him from being mesmerized. The loud chorus of humming grasshoppers washed over him as if they had just arrived on the scene en masse. He brushed one from the sleeve of his shirt and then scanned the nearby prairie in search of the dog.
Behind him, Karla, his wife, pushed open the screen door and stood looking at his back – bowed as if carrying an immense weight on his shoulders – for several moments before saying anything. “The funeral service is in an hour. You better get ready,” she intoned.
“I’m not going,” he replied. His voice was raspy, the result of several days of saying little at all.
Jigger bounded out of the tall grass that bordered the dirt of the back yard and ran to the porch, carrying a squirming rabbit in its gently clenched jaws. It hunted the animals that inhabited the prairie, but never intentionally killed them. The dog stood at the bottom of the stairs for a few moments, and after not getting any attention, let the rabbit go, but kept an eye on it as it returned to the grass. The dog then plopped onto its stomach and whined softly, its tongue lolling from its mouth as it stared up at Ted.
“Don’t be difficult, Ted,” Karla said. “Not today. Not today of all days.”
Ted straightened up, as if suddenly discovering his skeleton wasn’t made of jelly. The grasshoppers roared in his ears. The sweat that had run in rivulets down his spine and sides turned to ice water. He had every intention of being difficult, and then he turned about and looked at Karla. Her frailty, the paleness of her face, the way her brushed hair was still slightly disheveled, alarmed him.
“Are you going to be okay?” He wanted her to say “yes” even if she didn’t mean it.
“No, I’m not. I’ll never be okay ever again.” She turned and went back into the house letting the screen door slam behind her.
It was then he had another vision of his son, Cooper, just as he had several visions of the boy in the preceding days. This time Cooper was around age twelve and standing at the screen door, looking out. He was wearing a Superman costume, the costume he wore to a friend’s birthday party.
The morning of that birthday party Ted stepped through the tall grass with his hunting rifle cradled in his arms. The air was crisp, cool and damp and clung to his face like chilled cellophane. In the distance inside the borders of the Badlands National Park a small herd of buffalo kicked up a small cloud of dust as they thundered across the plain in a rare display of excitement. Spooked by his approaching footsteps, two quail flew up from the grass a few feet ahead of him. He raised his gun, aimed and shot, but missed. The birds alighted back into the grass, disappearing from sight. He turned and looked over his shoulder at Cooper who was following several yards behind. He had the red cape from the Superman costume tied around his neck. He pulled his newly acquired Golden Retriever puppy, Jigger, along on a leash. The pup tugged at the leash, more intent on playing than obediently following the boy.
Ted stopped and waited for Cooper to catch up. His love for his son was sometimes unbearably intense; it made him want to weep. The boy’s nose and cheek were rosy, reddened by the frosty weather. He wore a ballcap that he had painted on the bill in bright red poster paint the letter “S.” Mufflers hung from both sides of the cap, covering his ears.
When Cooper reached his father, he looked up at him. “You missed,” he said, nodding toward where the quail had flown to.
“I do that a lot,” Ted replied. “I’ve never been good a good shot.”
“Do you think it hurts?”
Ted glanced the direction where he had seen the buffalo. They were out of sight. “I suppose it does,” he answered.
Jigger ran around the boy’s legs, winding the leash around them. Cooper bent down, unwound the leash, and picked up the puppy. He looked at his father who was staring at him in that way he did sometimes, as if he were about to cry. “Superman is invincible,” he said. “Being shot wouldn’t hurt him.”
“He’s lucky,” Ted replied.
The boy kicked at the ground with the tip of his left cowboy boot. Without looking at his father, he asked, “Do you think Superman’s feelings ever get hurt? Is he invincible in that way too?”
“I don’t know,” Ted replied. “Feelings are complicated.” He glanced the direction of the farm, only its red barn partly discernible. “We should start back. Your mother didn’t want me to tire you out. You have that party you’re going to later.”
Cooper nuzzled the puppy’s neck. “Dad, is it okay that I have feelings about other boys?”
“What kind of feelings?”
Cooper shrugged. “Just feelings.”
Ted’s pickup truck bounced up and down on the dirt road leading from his farm to the paved road that led to the town of Wall. Jigger sat between Ted and Karla, his paws resting on the dashboard, his nose pressed against the windshield. Ted’s window was rolled down and hot air filled with the scent of prairie – dry earth and grass – blew in, tugging at his freshly ironed white shirt. Karla sat with her head resting against her window. Her eyes were closed and had been from the moment they left the driveway of their house. Ted couldn’t look at Karla; her retreats into despair frightened him in a way nothing else had ever done.
Within minutes after pulling on to the paved road there was a loud popping noise from the back left side of the truck and then the entire truck began to shake. Ted smacked the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. “A damned flat,” he muttered. He pulled the truck to the side of the road and waited for several moments, staring at the long stretch of road ahead, before getting out. Jigger followed, jumping out behind Ted, running around the truck and dashing into the field alongside the road.
He removed his tie – the one Cooper had given him years before with the Superman logo on it – and hung it over the driver side mirror and then went to the back of the truck, kicking the flattened tire with his boot along the way, lowered the tailgate and then jumped up into the truck bed to get the spare tire secured behind the back window. Between the brackets of the gun rack affixed to the window behind the seat he watched as Karla opened her white leather purse, the one she used only for special occasions, and took out a small bundle wrapped in white tissue paper. She slowly peeled back the paper and laid in her lap the neatly folded red cape of Cooper’s Superman costume. He let the freed tire drop to the floor, and unable to hold it back, leaned over the side of the truck bed, and threw up.
Jigger hopped out of the grass, and with his tail wagging, sat on his haunches and displayed the young, wriggling groundhog he held in his mouth.
Ted set the tire on its treads and rolled it to the end of the truck bed. He then pushed it off the tailgate and watched as it bounced several times in the gravel and then came to rest in a shallow ditch. He sat on the lowered gate and watched the white contrails of a jet scar the bright blue sky as it went from east to west. He had given up smoking years before, nagged into doing so by Cooper, but he suddenly wanted a cigarette as badly as if his life depended on it.
“You’re my Superman, Dad,” Cooper told him when he said he didn’t think he could stop smoking. “You’re invincible. You can do anything.”
“I, a Superman?” he had responded with a chuckle.
At eighteen and fresh out of high school, Cooper enlisted for three years in the Marines. He had two days before he would leave for boot camp.
“You’re as bad a shot as I am,” Ted told him when he found out. “You’ll get your fool head blown off.”
“I plan on being a clerk of some kind,” Cooper replied.
“Why the military?” Ted asked.
“To see a bit of the world and after I get out I can go to school on the G.I. Bill.”
It was late in the evening and they were seated at the kitchen table. Cooper tossed pieces of bologna to Jigger who sat by Cooper’s chair. The dog gobbled down each piece, his tail repeatedly slapped the linoleum, giving off firecracker-like snapping sounds.
Karla busied herself on her laptop putting the church newsletter together. “You won’t get beat up by the other Marines, will you?” she asked without looking up from the computer screen.
“Why should I get beat up?”
“Well, you know . . .” Her voice trailed off as she returned her attention to the obituary announcements.
Cooper rose from the table and kissed his mother and father on their cheeks. “See you early in the morning to go hunting just as we planned, Dad,” he said as he left the kitchen, followed by Jigger.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Ted said to Karla. “He’ll return to us safe and sound.”
“Will he?” she replied as she pounded forcefully on the keyboard.
The next morning, Ted and Cooper headed off on foot across the prairie with Jigger running circles around them with frequent forays into the tall grass in search of game. Ted held his rifle in readiness for quail and pheasant, while Cooper carried his rifle resting on his shoulder. It had rained during the night and as the rainwater evaporated in the early morning sunlight it created a thin veil of humid fog. Flocks of terns swooped and swirled in the sky, appearing and disappearing, as if by magic. The staccato warbling of meadowlark pierced the morning quietude.
Descending into the usually dry creek beds made somewhat muddy by the rainfall, the two men stopped, stooped down and silently examined each foot and hoof imprint left by deer and coyotes. They had walked west, away from the Badlands formations, on an unmarked course they had taken numerous times over the years. At an old abandoned one-room house built of stone with a slate roof, they sat on the dirt floor inside and ate the lunches Karla had made for them. Jigger had disappeared from sight about a half hour earlier. When he showed up at the door, he let drop on the floor the limp, lifeless body of a rabbit. He poked at its body with his front paw, barked at it several times, and then began to whine.
The parking lot at the side of the church was almost full by the time Ted pulled his truck into a parking spot. He left the truck idling for several moments as he gripped onto the wheel, his hands still smudged with dirt from changing the tire, his knuckles white with strain. Karla sat in stony silence, clutching her purse tight against her chest. As if sensing the tension inside the cab, Jigger was curled up into a ball on the floor at Karla’s feet.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Ted said at last, like exhaling a breath he had held in deep in his lungs nestled among the remains of old cigarette smoke and nicotine.
“You said he’d return to us safe and sound,” Karla said, her voice hushed but the words as sharp as if she had said it loudly and laced with acid and cruelty.
Ted felt he had been shot. He wanted to clasp his hand over the imagined wound that bore all the way to his heart. He turned off the engine. “He survived two tours to Afghanistan without a scratch,” he replied softly, defensively. He opened the door and saw his tie still hanging on the mirror realizing for the first time he had forgotten to put it back on. He climbed out of the cab, put the tie around his neck and slowly tied it as Karla got out of the truck.
Jigger remained on the floor, whimpering and whining.
They closed the truck doors and walked to the church steps and climbed them, meeting Reverend Stark at the doors.
“Be brave, God is with you,” he said to them as he opened the church doors. A flood of floral fragrances poured out.
Ted pulled Karla’s left hand from her purse, grasped it tightly, and walked into the church. The pews were filled all the way to the front. Large vases filled with bouquets of lilies, carnations and wildflowers lined the aisle. The closed coffin with Cooper’s body inside sat on two white silk covered sawhorses in front of the podium. At the front pew where their seats awaited them, Ted turned and placed his hand on Reverend Stark’s chest, stopping him from going up the three steps to the altar. He kissed Karla on the cheek, gently placed her in the pew, and then walked up to the altar.
Looking out at the hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him, he took a sheet of folded paper from his pocket and slowly opened it. He stared down at the words he had scribbled on it and cleared his throat. “Nine days ago my boy . . .” He felt a sob well up in this throat, fought it back, and then began again. “Nine days ago my boy who I loved more than life itself, who had only been out of the Marines for four days and was on his way home to us, was gunned down along with fourteen other young men and women in a gay bar by a madman carrying an Ak47 assault rifle.” He looked up at the congregation. “My wife and I were told that Cooper used his own body to block others from being killed.” He paused, and then said, “and Cooper said that I was the one who was Superman.”
LUCIA ON THE BEACH
Lucia La Rosa came from a Sicilian family with a long, storied past. She lived alone in a house near the beach at the southernmost end of the island. She had inherited the house when she was only sixteen from a favorite aunt who died from a heart attack while seated at the dining room table. The table remained in the same place it stood with the six chairs seated around it just as they were when the aunt died six years before. A handmade light blue Sicilian burrato embroidered lace tablecloth passed down through generations of La Rosa women covered the table, held in place by a stone mask that lay in the center of the table. The mask was recovered from one of the island’s ancient Roman ruins; its value incalculable. The shutters to the dining room were always kept open, allowing the breezes that carried the salt air from the Mediterranean Sea to blow in night and day, in fair and foul weather. Lucia’s orange tabby cat, La Tigre, a mouser who had been the deceased aunt’s cat and turned his nose up at man-made cat food, spent most of his time lounging in the chair next to the window, being shooed from it only when Lucia sat there to write poetry in one of her journals while staring out at the beach and ocean.
On the eve of her twenty-third birthday, as the sun set, Lucia stepped out of her house and onto the marble tiles of the portico of the house and watched as plumes of black smoke rose from the top of Mt. Etna. She shoved her long hair that had fallen over her ears back onto the top of her head and adjusted the gold hair comb studded with emerald chips, one of the many pieces of jewelry left to her by her aunt, so that it held her bundle of hair in place. The front of her house, where she stood, faced a road that ran between the villas that lined the beach or were perched on small hills on the opposite side of the road. The sweet, yet spicy scent of the ubiquitous white plumeria hung in the air. While gazing at the whitewashed stone villa on the other side of the road owned by an American couple that she had seen but never met lived in it during the winter months, she inhaled the fragrance of the flowers and wondered what it was like to live anywhere else but in Sicily.
The slight tremble beneath her bare feet that vibrated through her entire body brought her attention back to the volcano. All her life she had expected it to erupt. As the moments passed and it continued to exhale clouds of black smoke into the air and do nothing else other than make the ground shake a little, she turned and went back into her house. Her friends were throwing a Birthday party for her at Carladina’s Restaurant that was located on the beach a few miles away. She thought it was time to preserve this moment, the time spent awaiting the moment when she would put on her new dress to go to the last Birthday party of hers she ever intended to attend, and write a poem about it in her journal. She pushed La Tigre from the chair, picked up her pen and journal, gazed out at the darkening sky and sea, and then began to write.
Like electrified ivy, miniature white lights were wrapped around the poles that held up the red and white awning of Carladina’s Restaurant. Lucia walked under the awning just as a smattering of volcanic ash began to rain down from the night sky. Carrying a faded and slightly worn small bright blue clutch purse that her aunt carried for many years, she opened the door, walked in, and searched for her friends inside the small restaurant before seeing them sitting at a table under a large beach umbrella striped with the colors of the rainbow out on the back patio.
Accursio, the head waiter who never attempted to hide the crush he had on her said to her cheerfully in emphatic Italian as she walked past him,“Buon compleanno.”
“What’s happy about it?” she replied before going through the doors out to the patio. There, her nine friends circled around the table, stood, raised their glasses of wine and began singing “Happy Birthday to You.”
For the next hour as the group ate, drank, sang and chatted noisily and happily, Lucia stared out at the water and watched the white sails of a small boat gleaming in the ambient light of a star lit sky as it crossed the water not far from the shoreline. Unable to rouse herself from the ennui that had overtaken her, she kissed her friends on their cheeks, thanked them, and left her party early. She climbed onto her scooter and then remembered she had left the clutch purse at the table where she had been sitting. She went back inside, and after she and her friends searched the patio, and Accursio looked about the entire restaurant, she left the restaurant without it, with promises from Accursio that he would find it or if it wasn’t found, “Throw himself into the volcano from shame.”
She entered the house, kicked off her shoes, walked into the dining room and flicked on the lights. La Tigre was sitting on the chair with a dead mouse dangling from his teeth by its tail. The balmy ocean breeze ruffled the cat’s fur and made the edges of the tablecloth that hung over the sides of the table flutter. She then went into the kitchen, put a tea kettle filled with water on the stove, and turned on the flame beneath it. While waiting for the water to boil she removed her dress and laid it over the back of a chair. In her bra and panties she opened the back door and realized that the sailboat she had seen while at the restaurant was the same one she now saw riding the waves not far from the beach behind her house. Seeing it puzzled and frightened her although she reasoned that it was merely coincidence that it had reappeared so near to where she lived. The floor beneath her feet trembled almost imperceptively from a tremor caused by Mt. Etna just as the kettle’s whistle began to shriek. She closed the door, turned off the flame beneath the kettle, and filled a cup with the hot water and dropped a tea bag into the water.
Returning to the dining room she saw that the mouse no longer hung from La Tigre’s mouth. She pushed the cat from the chair and sat down and sipped the tea while watching the sailboat appear and then resappear over and over as the waves around it rose and fell.
At age eight after her parents were lost in the Mediterranean waters in a boating accident, their bodies never recovered from the depths, the orphaned Lucia came to live with her aunt and uncle in the house where she now lived. It took her months to adjust to living with them and in a house where everything was old and were rarely moved from one spot to another. The pictures that hung on the walls had always hung in the same place. The pendulum that never swung from side to side as it was designed to do in the lower cabinet of the grandfather clock had never budged an inch. Uncle Marco, who had once been a hitman for the Sicilian mafia, sat in the overstuffed chair in the living room, slowly aging just like the radio he always listened to that he could only get one station on. It played American swing music from the 1940s. Aunt Gianna replaced only one thing, the hair that fell from her head after chemotherapy with a wig that was a few sizes too large and sat askew on her bald head.
Lucia spent most of the time on the beach, building sand castles and searching for seashells that she kept in old purses given to her by her aunt. She kept an eye on the ebb and flow of the tides, watching for her parents to wash ashore. While friends came and went, coming into her life and leaving it depending on her level of enthusiasm in being with them, which was as inconsistent as Mt. Etna’s subdued eruptions. It was the volcano that anchored her to Sicily and the thing that filled her with constant terror.
“If it blows, it blows,” her aunt would tell her.
“Won’t it kill us all?” Lucia asked.
“Maybe yes, maybe no.”
Her uncle died a few years before the death of her aunt. She forgot him soon afrer he died except for the time he spent in his chair. The memories of her aunt who never recoverd spiritually or emotionally from the cancer – it sapped her of any zest for life – were like apparitions that constantly hovered in her thoughts.
Early the next morning, Lucia opened the front door to her house to see a taxi pull up in front of the villa owned by the Americans. She watched as the taxi driver opened the trunk to his car, took out several large pieces of expensive-looking luggage, and carried each one up the long path to the villa while the couple stood by and watched. The couple were younger than Lucia remembered. She looked on with a mixture of surprise and envy as the taxi left and the husband took his wife in his arms and kissed her passionately. She wondered if they were always so loving together or just happy to have returned to Sicily. In her entire time with her aunt and uncle, she had never seen them do even as much as hug. As the couple turned and walked hand in hand to their villa, Lucia looked down at her feet. Lying on the marbled floor was the clutch purse she had left at the restuarant. On top of it was a brightly colored envelope with the words “Happy Birthday” written across it. She picked up the purse and the card and carried them into the house, closing the door behind her. In the dining room she tossed the unopened envevlope onto the table and then opened the purse expecting to find her identifcation and the money that had been in it. She looked inside it and then turned it upside down, spilling seashells into her hand. She quickly dropped them onto the floor as if they were pieces of volcanic ash that had burned her skin, stepped back and stared down at them. In that moment Mt. Etna rumbled loudly. La Tigre jumped down from the chair where he had been eating the remains of a mouse and ran under the table. Moments later when nothing else happened, Lucia went into the kitchen and fixed a cup of coffee. She then opened the back door and sipped on the coffee as she watched the sailboat glide across the calm waters of the Mediterranean.
A large number of the La Rosa extended family had attended Aunt Gianna’s funeral. In the Catholic church Lucia sat in the front pew only a few feet away from her aunt’s open casket. Before the priest quietened them, the women mourners, all dressed in black, cried and wailed loudly enough to rival the noise being created by a minor eruption of Mt. Etna. Lucia wore a floral print skirt and sandals, shocking the rest of the attendees who had paid no attention to her from the day her parents disappeared. The rumors spread by the La Rosa women that Lucia’s mother and father had sailed off to enjoy a life of leisure in a foreign country got back to Lucia through her aunt who decried the gossip, but never refuted the claim. Sitting in the pew, the last words that her aunt said to her before she died echoed through her mind. “A woman’s sexuality is like a volcano, ready to erupt at any time.”
Once her aunt was buried, she returned alone to the house that had been left to her, shed her clothes and spent several hours sitting nude on the beach staring out at the sea. It was then that she decided she would end her life on her twenty-third birthday. It was an arbitrary number with no significance other than Aunt Gianna was twenty-two when she lost her virginity to Uncle Marco and secretely claimed to Lucia, “Life was a pile of stinking manure from that day on.”
Lucia put La Tigre out on the portico and closed the front door and locked it. She then went from room to room to get one last glimpse at every piece of furniture and the painting and pictures on the walls that seemed frozen in another time, long past. In the dining room she tore open the envelope and despite feeling nothing, smiled at the picture of a balloons shaped like hearts on the front of the card and inside it a note from Accursio wishing her a Happy Birthday. She placed the card on the Roman mask and went into the kitchen. There she opened the back door, stripped off her clothes and walked out to the beach. Her footprints in the sand disappeared within seconds after she made them. At the edge of the water, as small waves of warm ocean water washed over her feet, Mt. Etna erupted.
THE CITRUS THIEF
Rain fell on the tin roof sending metallic pings inside the garage where Rosa lived with her four-year-old son, Manuel. She sat on a plastic lawn chair and peeled a navel orange with her teeth, sucking on the exposed juicy pulp as she tore away each section of peeling. Juice dribbled down her chin and dripped onto her floral-patterned cotton shift. The juice of the orange was sweet and Rosa closed her eyes in delight savoring the flavor.
She shuffled the right foot back and forth on the floor. Her left foot she barely moved at all, it being turned outward at the ankle, a deformity since birth. She could walk, but preferred to sit, especially when in the garage, a one room shack she rented from Mr. Travers who owned the trailer park where the garage was located.
There was one lamp that lit the entire room. It was late at night and the lamp was on. Manuel was sound asleep on the twin bed he shared with his mother under a quilt that Rosa had sewn together. Other than the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof, there was silence.
Rosa was from Magdalena de Kino in Sonora, Mexico. Though work was plentiful in Magdalena de Kino, she couldn’t find or keep a job because of her foot and crossed into the United States illegally through Nogales, Arizona with her husband, Elias, who also couldn’t find work in Mexico.
“We will have more opportunity in America,” he had told her.
She was pregnant with Manuel and they had enough money to get to Florida by bus where Elias planned to pick oranges. Elias disappeared shortly after Manuel was born in the emergency room at the local hospital and Rosa had not heard from him since.
Rosa wondered what effect the rainfall would have on the local citrus groves. Oranges and grapefruit shaken from the trees by the rain or wind would not lie on the ground for long, being picked up by the migrant fruit pickers as soon as the rain stopped, or sometimes even as the rain fell.
When she first went to find work picking fruit as soon as the manager or owner of the groves saw her foot they wouldn’t hire her.
“A woman with a lame foot isn’t what we’re looking for,” they would say.
Rain was sliding down the pane of window glass and glistened in the lamp light. Rosa stood up dropping the orange peels that had fallen into her lap onto the floor and went to the bed and pulled the quilt up over Manuel’s thin shoulders and slipped her feet into her sandals. At the door she put on the poncho and a straw hat she had brought from Mexico, grabbed a burlap sack from a hook on the wall, then grabbed the handle of a rusty Radio Flyer wagon, then looked around the room and saw that everything was as it always was, then opened the door and went out into the rain pulling the wagon.
Stopping at the trailer where Mr. Travers lived, she knocked on the door and waited under the small awning momentarily shielded from the rain. When he opened the door he was in a terrycloth bathrobe and wearing knee high white sports socks.
“Rosa, what is it?” he said.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, Mr. Travers, but I have to go out and I wondered if you could keep an eye out on the garage since Manuel is alone?” She asked. “He’s asleep,” she added quickly.
“Yes, I can do that, but Rosa you need to find a regular babysitter,” he said.
“I will try Mr. Travers, but they will not do it for free. It’s why I am going out again tonight. The more fruit I sell the better I can take care of Manuel.”
“I understand,” he said. “I’ll look after Manuel again tonight, but this is the last time.”
“I understand also,” Rosa said as she turned and walked down the dirt road pulling the wagon behind her. The wagon had a shaky rear left wheel that squeaked with every turn. Other than the sound of the wheel squeaking and bumping along on the road and rain hitting its metal, it was eerily quiet. The cloud cover hid the stars and moon and in the darkness Rosa had difficulty seeing the fences and signs that let her know she had reached the citrus groves she usually got the oranges and grapefruits from; oranges on the right side of the road, grapefruit on the left.
It was the large no trespassing sign with the bullet holes in it that was nailed on a post alongside the fence separating the road from the orange groves that let her know she had arrived where she intended to be. She pulled the wagon up to the fence and let the handle drop onto the ground, then took off the poncho and threw it over the barbed wire, then climbed over the fence, pulling her deformed foot over last, and in the darkness searched the ground under the trees nearest the fence for any fallen oranges. With her straw hat drooping overhead and her clothes soaked from the rain, she filled the burlap bag with about a hundred oranges before carrying the bag back to the wagon and reaching over the fence and dropping the bag into the wagon. She had already calculated that she could make about fifty dollars from the oranges, a portion of which would pay for someone to watch Manuel while she was selling the fruit, and another portion set aside to pay Mr. Travers the two hundred dollars in rent that she paid monthly. The earnings from the grapefruits would be added to that of the earnings from the oranges. She crawled back over the fence, pulled her poncho from the wire and was crossing the road when the beam of a flashlight shone in her face.
“It’s that woman with the weird foot,” a man’s voice said.
“What are you doing here?” Another man, the one with the flashlight asked.
“Getting some fruit,” Rosa said, feeling less afraid than she should. The mens voices had the accents of men from her native country and she considered speaking to them in Spanish, but decided against it. “I sell the fruit to take care of my child,” she said.
“Where is your man?” The man not holding the flashlight asked.
Rosa hesitated before answering. “I don’t know,” she said at last.
“You could get shot out here stealing this fruit,” the man with the flashlight said. “The guards who patrol these groves carry guns and shoot trespassers.”
“They wouldn’t shoot a woman,” Rosa said.
“They shoot anyone,” he said. “Besides when you steal from the owner of this land you are stealing from us. This is where we come to get fruit.”
“There is plenty for everyone,” Rosa said defiantly.
The man not holding the flashlight whispered into the ear of the other one, then said to Rosa, “You can continue to steal from here but you will have to give us half of everything you pick up.”
“I need the money from the fruit I steal and sell to take care of my child,” Rosa said.
“You can always earn money spreading your legs for the migrant workers,” he said.
Rosa spat in his direction. “Vete a la mierda, cabrón.”
The two men laughed.
“You have a vulgar mouth for a woman out alone on a night like this one,” the man without a flashlight said.
Flashing the beam of light back and forth across Rosa’s face, the one with the flashlight said, “Take what you have in the bag but go home now and don’t come back to this place or we will shoot you ourselves.” He directed the light to the handle of a pistol sticking up from the waist band of his pants.
Wordlessly, Rosa turned and pulled her wagon with the bag of oranges home. When she reached the garage she opened the door and was startled to see Mr. Travers sitting in the plastic chair with Manuel asleep on his lap.
“I heard him crying and came over to see what was wrong,” Mr. Travers said. “He was crying for you.”
“I am here now,” she said pulling the wagon into the garage and throwing the straw hat onto a small table. She lifted Manuel from Mr. Travers’ lap and carried him to the bed and laid him down on the quilt and kissed him on the forehead.
“It doesn’t look like you did very well” Mr. Travers said, looking at the wagon with just the sack in it.
“I will do better tomorrow night,” Rosa said.
“Remember what I said, Rosa,” Mr. Travers said as he went to the door. “I’m not going to watch Manuel again. The boy needs his mother or father or another woman to look after him, not an old widower like me.” He went out the door, closing it behind him.
Rosa removed the wet poncho and her wet shoes and clothes and hung them on nails on the wall of the garage, then put on the only store-bought robe she owned, one that Elias had gotten for her on their honeymoon, and laid down next to Manuel, draping her arm over his frail body, and went to sleep.
By noon the sun had turned the rain from the night before into thick humidity that was like being in a hothouse. Rosa sat on a fruit crate on the sidewalk in the shade of the large bank building, the oranges neatly stacked into a pyramid inside the wagon. Manuel was sitting on the concrete tethered to her by a thin rope that she had tied around her waist and his. Sweat ran in rivulets down her back and between her cleavage, soaking the thin cotton material of her dress. She fanned her face with her straw hat as passersby hurriedly passed her, few looking at her or the oranges. She had given Manuel one of the oranges and he was rolling it back and forth on the sidewalk like a ball. She knew this spot, and was waiting for lunch time when bank employees would be coming out. The ankle of her deformed foot ached as it had from birth, and the last two Tylenol she had and taken that morning did not dull the aching. She repositioned it several times but nothing helped. She was rubbing her ankle when a security guard, Paul, from the bank came out of the building and walked up to her.
“Good morning, Rosa,” he said. “It sure is a hot one today,” he said, taking his hat off and running his hand over his graying black curly hair.
“Good morning, Paul,” Rosa said. “Yes, it’s very hot. I have some juicy oranges here that might cool you off if you would care to buy one.”
Paul shuffled about nervously, “that’s why I’m out here, Rosa. You can’t sell your fruit out in front of this building anymore. The management has gotten too many complaints.”
“I have been selling oranges and grapefruits from this spot for two years and no one has complained before,” Rosa said.
“I know, Rosa and believe me I’m sorry, but it’s the climate of things right now,” he said.
“The climate of things? I do not understand,” Rosa said.
“The political climate. Illegal immigration and all that,” Paul said self-consciously in almost a whisper. “The management doesn’t want to be seen as supporting what you do.”
Rosa stood up, reaching down and pulling Manuel to his feet. “They do not support me,” Rosa said. “I support myself.” She handed Paul an orange. “You have been very kind to me, Paul. I will not make trouble for you anymore.” She picked up the handle of the wagon and with it and Manuel in tow she slowly walked home, her foot aching more with every step.
At nightfall she put Manuel in the wagon and left the garage and pulled him up the road leading to the groves where she always went. The moon was full and the night sky was crowded with winking white stars. Near the trespassing sign she pulled the wagon into the grass and sat down on the edge of the wagon next to Manuel softly singing the lullaby “ma cochi pitentzin” to him as she lay him down in the wagon and covered him with the burlap sack and sat running her fingers through his hair and over his cheeks. When two men appeared at the end of the road and coming her way, she knew it was the same two she had met the night before. The one was still carrying a flashlight and waving it about. She stood up and went out into the middle of the road.
“What are you doing back here?” The one without the flashlight asked as they stopped a few feet in front of her, the other one waving the light across her face.
Before she could answer a shot rang out and the man with the flashlight fell to his knees. Rosa was at first too stunned to react.
“Run,” the other man said as he began to sprint down the road leaving his friend on his knees, bleeding in the dirt. Then another shot rang out and the man who was running fell face first onto the road.
Rosa ran to the wagon and scooped Manuel up wrapped in the burlap sack and with him in her arms ran the same direction as the man lying on the road, dragging her foot behind her.
“Stop, thief,” a man’s voice yelled at her from down the road.
Rosa turned, “I am not stealing,” Rosa shouted. “This is my son,” she said holding her son up in the sack to be seen.
There was another shot. Rosa felt Manuel’s blood trickle from the bag onto her fingers. She collapsed to her knees in the dirt and laid him on the road. She quickly pulled the burlap from his face, lifted his shirt and saw the entry point of the bullet in the middle of his chest. He was not breathing. As the man came up to her and carrying a rifle and a badge pinned on his shirt, she looked up at him.
“He was the fruit of my womb, not the fruit of your trees,” she said, “and now you have stolen him from me.”
The Island of Women
Sitting beside Rita’s bed Cecilia takes a red bead from the bowl of beads on the stand next to the wicker rocking chair she is rocking back and forth in and guides the thin piece of leather through the hole in the bead. Deformed by years of crippling rheumatoid arthritis, that her misshapen fingers and hands can string the beads at all surprises me. Making the strings of beads and selling them at a shop in the El Centro and another shop in Cancun to tourists is how she makes what little extra she can to survive. She refuses money or any financial assistance from me even though I have been married to her daughter Rita for thirty years.
As she slides one bead after another onto the string of beads she is making she doesn’t look up at me or talk to me. She hates me for marrying her only daughter and taking her to America so many years ago and now for bringing her back to this island to spend her final days.
Cecilia can speak English, but when she does speak to me, which isn’t often, she speaks only in Spanish which is not my native language. I have difficulty understanding when it is spoken quickly, something Cecilia knows and exploits as a way of showing her disdain for me. But for now Cecilia is silent, threading the leather through the beads. I want to tell Cecilia that I am sorry; sorry that her daughter has been brought back to die on this island, but I have already told her it was Rita’s wish to return here to her place of birth.
There is a warm, fragrant sea breeze coming in through the open window that pushes the white lace curtains inward into the room. They flutter, the sound of it like the whisperings of children heard from afar. Through the open window I can see but not hear the gentle waves washing slowly over the huge rocks along the nearby shore; a shoreline of thin strips of private beaches and rocky crags below a line of homes owned by mostly American expats and seasonal residents. I can also see the outline of Cancun’s shore miles away across the stretch of bright turquoise Caribbean waters separating it from this island, Isla Mujeres. I have rented this house for the final weeks of Rita’s life, and aside from Cecilia, and Amelia who assists in caring for Rita and occasionally cooks for us, no one comes here.
Looking at Rita asleep on the snow-white linens dressed in her favorite baby blue night gown, she looks much younger than her age. Her body has become small, thin and frail. The few strands of gray hair among the black stand out almost as a cosmetic fashion statement, not as a sign of her age. Her face is free of wrinkles and Amelia has put some light pink lipstick on her lips; this done before Cecilia’s arrival this morning, not for Rita’s benefit, but for mine.
“She always want to look pretty for you,” Amelia said in broken English as she applied the lipstick while I sat by the bed holding Rita’s hand.
“Gracias, Amelia,” I said, “Muchas gracias.”
“The time is near, yes?” she asked.
“Yes it is,” I told her. “Si,” I added, uncertain what to say next.
Now, standing at the window, looking at my dying wife, at the head of her anger-filled mother looking down at the beads she is stringing on the leather strip, I feel the need to escape. “I’m going for a walk,” I say.
Above me and to the east, thick white clouds fill the horizon of dark blue sky. It is September, the time of year for battering storms and ferocious hurricanes. I haven’t listened to the radio and Amelia said nothing about an incoming storm. Even if she had known, Cecilia wouldn’t have said anything even if a hurricane was about to blow me out to sea. I adjust the white ball cap on my balding head and walk the road headed toward the southern tip of the island. In the open air the breeze is much stronger and warmer then felt through the window in the bedroom where Rita lay. The ever-present aromas of fish, salt water and the scents from the palm trees and ferns that surround the nearby swampy lagoon assault my sense of smell. They are rich and exotic smells, like walking into a tropical hothouse. What few insects there are buzz briefly around my head, then are carried away by the breeze. Within a few yards of one another large green iguanas sit in the middle of the road bathing in the sunlight, then scurry into the lush grass along the road as I near them. At the roadside entrance to El Garrafon Park I walk along a line of parked taxis and mopeds.
“Ride, Senor?” A driver asks lazily from inside his taxi.
“No, gracias,” I say, walking faster.
From the road I can see the tourist-filled water along a small stretch of the park at the bottom of a hill. Brought there by ferries to scuba dive and see the bright colored coral on the seabed, a hundred or so tourists are standing in the water, each wearing goggles, bobbing their heads in and out of the water like strange sea birds to view the coral and whatever aquatic life they can see around their feet. I had once did this same thing with Rita, but that was years ago and long before hordes of tourists were brought to the island by ferry from Cancun. In those days, Rita and I didn’t just stand in the water near the shore, but swam and scuba dived as far out and as deep as we could. She had swam here, seeing the coral and the sea life from the time she was just a toddler.
When the tourists came en masse she no longer wanted to swim at this part of the island. During our visit five years previously, we found a private alcove with a very small sandy beach on the eastern side of the island, a place she knew also from her childhood, nearer to the southernmost part of the island, Punta Sur. There in the water a few feet out I was dashed against the rocks by a very rough wave and climbed out of the water, scratched and bruised, and found Rita sitting on her towel, her head in her hands.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
“Just another headache,” she said, looking up and seeing my injured side. “I told you the undertow and waves were rough here. You could have drowned.”
Going past the park and entering Punta Sur I am glad to put those things out of my mind; the early days of her illness as well as the tourists here now. Only a few of the tourists are walking among the paths that wind their way all the way to the narrow rocky tip of the island. I take one of the paths stopping only to look at the recently carved statues placed along the way, including one of Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of Childbirth and Medicine. The statue’s black painted eyes do little to ease my concern for Rita. Standing on the very tip of Punta Sur looking from high up out over the vast bright blue waters I know the days of simply being concerned about her are over.
On the way back to the house a small light brown mongrel with a stomach bloated from starving or disease or carrying a litter follows close behind me. There are small packs of these dogs, abandoned yet harmless, that roam the island being fed and kept barely alive by well-meaning tourists. This one gets no nearer then a few feet from me and stands cautiously outside the door watching me as I close the door. Inside the house it is very quiet.
“You have been out walking,” Amelia says with the mixed inflection of it being a statement and question at the same time as she comes out of Rita’s room with an arm full of linens.
“Yes I have. How is my wife?” I take off my ball cap and toss it onto the sofa.
“She is sleeping. Cecilia has gone home until tomorrow.”
I want to say “good” but only nod.
“Your wife’s mother she not understand why you are here,” Amelia says in a hushed tone as if she will be overheard.
“This is where Rita wanted to be,” I say. “She wants to die here.”
“Her mother only interested in her daughter living here. To live is what makes difference to her, not the dying.” Amelia looks over her shoulder, at the closed door to Rita’s room. “Rita and I played together when young girls.” Then Amelia smiles broadly. “That mother not agree with any man ever, so you are in good company.”
“Thank you for that,” I say, heading into my wife’s room. “I think there is a storm coming, Amelia. You can go home. I can take care of my wife.”
“Si,” Amelia says. “A storm is coming.”
Inoperable seemed at the time like a word a person used when talking about a car they couldn’t get to run, not the inability to remove the tumor from Rita’s brain. After all the tests, the scans, the MRIs, the countless neurological exams, it was the final word every doctor, surgeon and brain specialist used: inoperable. Rita took the news much calmer than I did, thanking them all for giving her some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it wasn’t light at all. She saw the prognosis of eventual death as the eventual ending of the medicated headaches and nausea, periods of confusion and increasing lack of coordination. Three weeks before, when coming to Isla Mujeres, she needed my help and the help of a flight attendant to make it down the plane’s aisle and into her seat. She said very little the entire flight from Virginia, but stared out the window almost the entire time.
“Home again at last,” she said as Cancun and Isla Mujeres came into view as the plane began its descent.
I took her hand in mine. “Are you sorry you left the island?”
“No, because the island never left me,” she said.
Those first days upon our return went by fast, too fast, and Rita wanted to see as much of the island as possible. At only about 5 miles from one end to the other and much less than that from the east side to the west, in the past we had easily walked it from end to end. This time we didn’t venture far beyond the ubiquitous taxis to return us quickly home when she became quickly exhausted or was confused about where we were or what we were doing. The throngs of tourists in the narrow streets in the El Centro shopping district overwhelmed her and led to our quickly retreating to a bar along the waterfront just to find an escape until I could get a taxi to take us home.
The first visit with her mother also didn’t go well. When we arrived by taxi Cecilia was standing in the open door of her small house on a side street leaving El Centro heading south as if she were guarding it from would-be robbers. Although she took her daughter in her arms and hugged her tightly, she said nothing to me. Sitting in her small living room I realized that nothing had changed or even been moved since our previous visit five years before. She and Rita spoke to each other in rapid-fire Spanish, little of it that I understood, while I looked at all the photographs on the walls of her and Rita. I was reminded once again that there were none of me, or of me and Rita, or of Rita’s father.
Within a week Rita suffered a seizure and became confined to her bed. Most of the time when she was awake she knew where she was and what was happening around her, but she slept a lot, as if preparing for eternal sleep by taking frequent naps. On several occasions she awoke very confused and in a state of panic until either I or Amelia or Cecilia could calm her by gently rubbing her hand and talking to her in gentle, reassuring, soothing tones. More than once during the night as I lay beside her she would awake, grab my hand and ask, “Am I on my island?”
On this night with only a single lamp on, nearing midnight the room is full of shadows. With the curtains tied against the frame of the window I can feel the strong warm winds of the storm as it crosses the island on its way to the entirety of the Yucatan. Rain falls in vertical sheets. It is a storm, but not a hurricane, but the lamp light flickers on and off occasionally. Standing at the window in the darkness it’s almost impossible to see where the beach along this house and the waters of the Caribbean begin. In the distance I can barely make out the lights from homes and hotels along the shore in Cancun.
“I want to go home,” Rita says to me from behind me. I turn and see her trying to sit up. “I want to go home,” she repeats.
I go to the side of her bed and try to gently urge her back against the pillow. “You’re home sweetheart. I brought you home.”
She is looking straight at me, her face half illuminated in the light of the lamp, the other half hidden in shadow. In her look there is an awareness. She knows what she is saying and as if suddenly punched in the stomach I now know it also. “Are you sure?” I ask her.
She covers my hand with hers and squeezes it gently. “Yes, my love, I’m sure.”
Ending her life for her had not crossed my mind until this moment. This room, this house, was not her home. Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women, was. I had brought her back to it, but it was not enough. I slide my arm around her back and slip my other arm under her knees and lift her from the bed. She’s so light. It’s as if the life that was leaving her was carrying with it her weight. I carry her out into the hall and to the back door and then out onto the small wooden deck overlooking a small flight of stairs and beyond that the beach and the sea. At the bottom of the stairs I see in the darkness the dog from earlier that day, its eyes gleaming like shiny marbles from its small head.
The force of the rain even in the first couple of steps drenches us. Rita’s long hair hangs like dark dripping moss from a dying tree. Before the final step I hear a creaking of wood beneath my shoe, then the wood gives out and my right foot and leg up to my calf goes through it almost throwing me off balance completely. Holding tightly onto Rita I squirm to pull my foot and leg up through the hole. It is the feeling of the dog’s sharp teeth sinking into my flesh just above my sock that propels me out of the hole and sends me lurching forward with Rita in my arms. We land in the soft sand as the rain batters us. I feel the place on my leg where I was bitten and feel the thickness of blood. The dog is nowhere to be seen. I pick Rita up and carry her to the water and pause only momentarily until walking into the waves with her.
“Thank you,” she says to me as I lay her body on the water where she floats for several minutes before disappearing beneath the surface.
TWICE BAKED RANDALL
Driving home from a date late at night in a rainstorm, as the windshield wipers swished from side to side, unable to keep up with the torrential rain that cascaded down the windshield, Randall didn’t see the headlights of the truck that crossed the yellow line and veered into his lane until it was too late. It hit him head on.
He awoke to the sound of a steady, rhythmic beeping and the hushed and hurried sounds of the doctors and nurses who circled his bed taking turns examining his broken body, inserting needles into his skin, and running lines of tubing from his body to bags of plasma, blood and clear liquids that hung on stands alongside the bed. He had a hard time understanding what they were saying to one another, although he understood clearly the nurse standing near his head who kept repeating in his left ear, “hang in there.”
He wanted to tell her, to tell all of them, not to worry. He tried to say, “I’m back on the diamond,” but his mouth couldn’t form the words. He felt alternately euphoric and in intense pain. He couldn’t raise his head and his entire body felt weighed down.
“Okay, you’re going to go to sleep for a while. We’re going to take you into surgery and get you all patched up,” the nurse said into his ear. Then a chill that began in his right arm where a tube had been inserted coursed through his entire body. “
The game’s not over, he thought.
For six months afterward, Randall recovered from two broken legs, a broken pelvis, a fractured arm, six broken ribs, a crushed sternum and a fractured skill, first in the hospital, and then in rehab where he had to re-learn how to walk and speak. The only thing that wasn’t repaired during that time was his inability to adjust to returning back to the land of the living after dying during the crash. The paramedics at the crash scene reported that Randall had been dead for as long as five minutes before suddenly taking an inhalation of breath as his heartbeat returned – several minutes after they assumed Randall was a goner and had already pronounced him dead.
“How does anyone explain something like that?” Randall asked every doctor and nurse who cared for him during the months of recovery. “I’m certain I was dead. Is there a name for it?”
It was his psychoanalyst, Dr. Kirkland, who told him it’s called a life after death experience.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning and the East Jessup Hammers had two outs, a man on first base and one on third. Randall was certain he saw flames shooting out of Jerry Pfizer’s nostrils as the hulking ball player walked from the dugout to home plate and took his stance with his bat readied for the first pitch. Jerry was the most badass ball player in the entire East Jessup league, a star player, first baseman of The Rockets. The crack of the ball as it collided with Jerry’s bat sent off visible shock waves – at least visible to Randall. The liner hurled past the pitcher and past the second baseman of Randall’s team, the Starlings, and spun at rocket speed toward Randall in the center outfield as if drawn to his glove by a powerful magnet. The smacking of the ball against the leather of his glove knocked him back a few inches and stung like hell. He emitted an audible gasp and then opened his eyes to the cheers of the Starlings fans in the bleachers and whooping and hollering of his teammates. It meant the Starlings won the game, seven to six. Jerry Pfizer stomped off the field eyeing Randall with the same glaring malice a cat shows a rat as Randall raised his hand and gave Jerry the finger.
After the game, the Starlings met at Ziggy’s Bar and Grill. Jerry sat at the bar flanked on both sides by his closest friends who paid for the mugs of beer set before him one after another by Karl, the bartender.
“It’s great to have you back out there on the field you old son-of-a-gun,” Pete Newberry said as he punched Randall in the arm. “You sure showed that a-hole Jerry Pfizer what’s what.”
In a state of euphoria, assuming having once been dead had given him new powers on the ball field, Randall downed a mouthful of beer, swallowed it in one gulp, and then slammed his mug on the counter. “Another one barkeep,” he said to Karl who was busily filling other mugs. The entire Starlings team was as surprised as Randall that he had caught the ball and they had actually won the game. Before dying, Randall never caught a ball hit like that before, and they had never won a game before.
When the bar closed, Randall’s friends carried him to his car and laid him in the back seat where he spent the night sleeping it off.
Randall awoke to the sound of church bells. He sat up, momentarily confused, then quickly gathered that he was in the back seat of his car, and looked out the back window to see parishioners entering a church down the street. He hadn’t been inside a church since he was really young.
“I’m not a religious person and stopped believing in all that stuff a long time ago” he had told Dr. Kirkland. “Is that why I never saw God or any angels when I died?”
“You play baseball, and believe in it more religiously than anything else you talk about, but you didn’t see a ball field when you died either,” she replied.
“I think I was listening to a ball game when I had the crash.”
The psychoanalyst scribbled something in her notepad and then looked into Randall’s eyes. “That’s new. In the three months I’ve been seeing you, you never mentioned that before.”
It was the only memory he ever recalled of the crash during any of the sessions.
He opened the door, hung his head out, and puked on the curb. He wiped a stream of dribbled vomit from his chin and stepped over the pool of puke, noticing that he was still wearing his cleats although he was no longer in his uniform. He looked at his watch, saw that it was 11:15, and uttered “shit” under his breath.
Penned to the front door of his house was a note from Jerry Pfizer. “You’re dead meat,” it said. He took it down and stuffed it into his back pocket.
When he opened the door, Mickey was sitting at the door with his leash clenched in his teeth. His full name, Mickey Mantle, etched into the silver plate on his collar glinted in the morning sunlight. The Irish Setter’s head was bowed and its tail was curled between its back legs. A puddle of urine lay on the floor next to the entryway rug.
“I’m so sorry, boy,” Randall said as he rubbed Mickey’s head. “It’s not your fault.”
The dog’s ears perked up and its tail shot out and began to wag.
Randall attached the leash to the collar and led the dog from the house and across the street to the neighborhood park. Walking leisurely along the narrow paths, Randall stopped at intervals and stood patiently by while Mickey sniffed under the bushes and scratched in the dirt. When they reached the Little League ball field formed in the middle of an open field, Randall climbed up on the small set of bleachers built on the edge of the field and sat down with Mickey lying at his feet.
“This is where it all began for me, on a field just like that one,” he said aloud.
Carried by a hot breeze, an eddy of dirt blew across the field. Randall closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and let the sun cook his tanned cheeks.
You’re out, a voice screamed in his head.
His eyes flew open in time to see the headlights of the truck shining through the downpour.
Then he passed out.
Randall awoke sprawled out on the bench. Mickey was licking his face. He sat up and saw that three boys were on the ball field tossing baseballs to one another. He slowly climbed off of the bleachers and strolled across the middle of the field. “You boys want some pointers on playing baseball?”
The boys eyed him suspiciously.
“You play in the big leagues?” one of them said.
“Just an intramural team, The Starlings.”
“Aw, you ain’t anybody. My dad is first baseman on The Rockets and his team kicks your team’s ass all the time.”
“First baseman? What’s your last name?” Randall said.
Randall chuckled, turned, and slowly walked out of the park with Mickey at his heels. Inside his house he detached the leash from the dog’s collar and hung it up. He cleaned up the puddle of urine, fixed a sandwich, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and went into the living room. He sat on the sofa and turned the television onto a sports channel. The San Francisco Giants were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a rerun of a game that had been played during the previous season. He then recalled it was the game that was playing when the truck slammed into his car.
As if a light had suddenly been turned on, he then remembered being dead; those moments between being pulled from the wreckage and awaking to see the paramedics kneeling beside him. He wondered for the thousandth time, why did I come back?
He picked up his cell phone and called the number of Dr. Kirkland. He had stopped the sessions with her the month before, declaring, “I no longer need analysis. I was given a second chance to live. I was reborn, rebaked like a cake requiring a second baking when I was in that accident. Nothing about that needs analysis.”
“This is Dr. Kirkland. I’ll be out of town until the end of the month. Please leave a message or contact Dr. Jersey if you need to schedule an appointment with him or call 9-1-1 if this is an emergency,” the voice recording on the phone said.
He threw his cellphone across the room knocking over his only baseball trophy, earned when he was in high school and named best liked player by his teammates. He turned off the television, rose from the sofa, picked up his keys, and left the house.
In the lot of Ziggy’s Bar and Grill, Randall sat in his car for several minutes listening to radio static before he got out. The gravel beneath his cleats crunched noisily as he walked to the door. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light inside the bar when he opened the door. He glanced up at the white light of early afternoon sunlight before going inside. The bar was mostly empty with only two booths occupied and a man he didn’t know sitting at the bar. He sat on a stool a few seats away from the stranger.
“Where’s the rest of the team?” Karl asked when he appeared at the other side of the bar.
“Where most guys who play baseball are on Sunday afternoons, either playing it somewhere or watching it on television,” Randall said. “Give me a draft, dark, and keep ‘em coming.”
“Right-o,” Karl said and then turned to the row of taps for the beers.
It was then that Jerry Pfizer roughly jabbed Randall in the back. “You get my note?” he said, gruffly.
Randall pivoted around on the stool. “I’ve already been dead meat,” he said. “What else you got?”
Jerry curled his fist and held it in front of Randall’s face. “I got this.”
Randall stretched out his arms and closed his eyes. “Go ahead. Do your worst. Let’s see how many innings I got in me.” A few moments later he opened his eyes as tears streamed down his face. Jerry had lowered his fist and was just staring at him, a look of concern on his face.
“Hey man, do you need to talk about it?” Jerry said.
In the moment of his death, as life left his body, leaving behind a shattered shell, Randall had one thought: it was the end of playing baseball or ever seeing it played again for the rest of eternity. The light he fought to return to from an unknowable darkness that was swallowing him was that of the lights that surrounded the ball fields during night games, the same lights that shone from stadiums, and from the glow of television sets while baseball games played. What brought him back wasn’t the hands of the paramedics, or just the will to live, it was the cheers and hollers of the crowds in the bleachers wherever baseball was played.
EVERY DAY IS SATURDAY
I slowly push aside the curtains and let the white morning sunlight wash over me. The room is flooded with the light, erasing all the shadows that inhabited it during the night. I raise the window just a few inches, allowing the breeze filled with the fragrances of honeysuckle and freshly mowed grass to rush in. It toys with the edges of the doilies on the dresser and the gold fringe on the lamp on the stand next to the bed. The ticking of the clock set in a wooden, carved seahorse that hangs above the dresser gently echoes, like the whispering of a clicking tongue. The bundle of bright yellow dandelions have wilted and droop over the lip of the crystal rose vase on the antique stand in the corner. Before I wake my father I take the flowers from the vase and throw them in the waste basket by his bed. The basket is filled with crumpled tissues and cellophane peppermint candy wrappers.
He sleeps on his side, curled in a fetal position. He rests his face on his hands that are pressed together prayer-like between his head and the pillow. His face is lined with hairline wrinkles and his hair is the color of milk. From his breathing I know that he’s awake, but he hasn’t opened his eyes. I place my hand on his shoulder and gently shake him.
“Dad, it’s time to get up,” I say.
Without opening his eyes he unfurls his thin body and rolls onto his back. With his long, arthritic fingers he grasps onto the pale green comforter that covers him. He holds onto it for a moment as I pull it away. Uncovered, he lets his trembling hands rest on his chest like wounded butterflies. His pajamas have tiny prints of cowboys spinning lassos above their heads.
“Open your eyes, Dad,” I say.
He opens one, and as if giving me a wink, it’s a moment before he opens the other.
“Did you sleep okay?” I say.
“I had a dream I turned into a duck,” he says.
I toss aside his covers and help him sit up on the edge of the bed. “Wait there while I get your wheelchair in place,” I say.
“Quack, quack,” he says.
I position the wheelchair by the bed and watch as he transfers into it. His body is frail and every movement he makes is done tentatively, as if he’s made of twigs that could easily snap.
When he’s seated in the wheelchair, I say, “Do you know what day it is?”
“It’s Saturday,” he says.
Looking out the window above the kitchen sink, I watch the neighbor’s cat climbing on the tool shed roof in our back yard. It’s a bright orange tabby cat. Its fur shimmers in the sunlight. Three gray squirrels in the tree by the shed scramble from branch to branch, their tails raised and quivering, challenging the cat. The yard is carpeted in bright yellow and pale red leaves, but the tree is thick with multicolored foliage.
“I think fall has started early this year,” I say.
Jan is seated at the table. She bites into a piece of dry toast. It crunching between her teeth sounds like muffled gun shots. Her cup of coffee has gotten cold.
“I have to go to the funeral home today to make sure everything is ready for tomorrow,” she says. “Can you come along?”
I dip my hands in the sudsy water in the sink and wiggle my fingers creating ripples that push clouds of suds over the edge of the dishpan. A small brown cricket that fell into the basin struggles to extricate itself from the suds that circle the drain. I put my hand down next to it and let it crawl into my palm. My hands dripping, I take the cricket to the screen door, open it, and toss the cricket into the grass and then close the door. I’ve left a trail of suds and water from the sink to the door.
“You’ve done nothing to help,” Jan says, and then takes another bite of toast. Another gun shot.
Through the screen door I watch as the cat balances itself on the top ridge of the roof.
I hear the sound of the neighbor’s lawn mower being started. He mowed his front yard yesterday. His lawn mowing routine has always been a two-day exercise, with constant touch-ups where he runs the mower over small patches of grass. He has the best manicured lawn in the neighborhood.
I turn and say to my dad who is sitting at the table across from Jan, “Would you like to spend some time at the river this afternoon?”
Jan throws the toast down on the table, stands and then walks out of the room.
“Okay,” Dad says.
The river is swollen and overflows the banks. It’s muddy and small trees and other debris are carried along in its strong currents. I toss a stick into the water and watch as it’s quickly carried away. Hearing them honking, I look up and see a flock of geese flying in V formation in the pale blue sky. Here, the air is almost balmy.
“Trent likes the river,” Dad says. “We shoulda brought him along.”
He shifts in his wheelchair and then leans on one of the arm rests. His hands grip the blanket lying over his lap and legs. The back of his hands are lined in bulging blue veins and raised brown and purple spots; they’re like topographical maps.
“This is the spot we used to fish from when I was a kid,” I say.
Dad stares at the water and says, “Did you bring the fishing poles?”
A brown and black mutt come up to us and stands a few feet away, its head lowered, its tail wagging. It has no collar and its hair is matted and dirty. It’s emaciated.
I approach it slowly and let it sniff the back of my hand. It licks it. Its tongue feels like wet sandpaper on my skin. Its entire body shakes back and forth with excitement as I pat its head.
“Look, Dad, I’ve made a friend,” I say.
“Come here, Ranger,” he says.
“This isn’t Ranger,” I say.
Dad searches the pockets in his windbreaker, than says, “I don’t have a biscuit for Ranger.”
“This isn’t Ranger,” I say, again.”
“Come here, Ranger,” he says to the dog.
“This isn’t Ranger,” I scream.
Trent’s bicycle, skis and surf board are held onto one wall of the tool shed with bungee cords. A box with his football, basketball, soccer ball and a can of tennis balls is on the floor in a corner.
I empty dog food into a large bowl and sit it on the floor. Ravenously, the dog quickly eats it and then pushes the empty bowl around with his nose before he begins lapping the water in another bowl. I put the collar around his neck, fasten it and attach the leash. He resists only slightly as I lead him away from the bowls and out of the shed.
Beneath a late afternoon dull blue sky I turn on the hose, pour shampoo on the dog, and begin to wash him. He stands perfectly still except for his continuously wagging tail.
Jan comes opens the screen door and stands in the doorway for a moment watching what I’m doing before she comes out. She lets the screen door bang shut as she comes down the steps.
“What are you doing?” she says as she crosses her arms.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I say as I lather suds into the dog’s fur.
“Who’s dog is that?” she asks.
I pull clumps of dirt and hair from the dog as I rub the shampoo into his skin. “He’s a stray. He was down at the river and he seemed so alone I couldn’t leave him. Dad thinks he’s Ranger.”
“Who’s Ranger?” she says.
“A dog I had when I was Trent’s age.”
Jan brushes back with her fingers a strand of hair that had fallen over her forehead. “Is this the time to be bringing a dog into the house?”
I nod toward the shed. “He can stay in there for the next few days. I stopped at the pet store on the way home and picked up everything needed to take care of him. I’ll take him to the vet and dog groomer after the funeral and then he can be brought into the house.”
“Does that mean you’re coming to the funeral?”
“It’ll be a beautiful service and the cemetery plot is in a beautiful location,” she says.
“I’m still not going.”
Jan turns around and goes back into the house.
My neighbor turns on his lawn mower. It startles the dog who cowers against my legs.
I pet his head and say, “It’s okay, Ranger.”
Dad fumbles with the wrapping on a piece of peppermint candy for several minutes, but unable to unwrap it, flings the candy across the living room. I pick it up and take off the cellophane and start to hand the candy to him.
“I’m not a baby,” he says, smacking my hand away.
“I know, Dad. I know.”
I hold the candy out for him and he takes it from my fingers and puts it in his mouth. As he sucks on it he turns his attention to the television. A western is showing. Westerns are the only thing he watches.
Jan is in the kitchen washing dishes. She has the radio on. Latin music is playing. It’s rhythm pulsates through the wall.
I go to the front door, open it, and stand in the doorway looking at the twilight sky. Rays of purple, red and gold are fanned out across the sky. Several large crows are on the lawn, strutting about as if they own it. The street is quiet and none of the neighbors are outside.
The neighbor’s cat suddenly appears, bounding across the yard, scaring off the crows. It sits in the grass and licks its paws.
I miss Trent so badly, my heart aches.
In the light cast by a crescent moon I sit on the back steps and watch as Ranger explores the yard. Clean, he looks like a different dog, although his thin frame has become more obvious. He’s sniffing under the leaves, frequently returning to the same spot. I walk to where he has his nose buried under some bright yellow leaves, push him away, and shove aside the leaves with my foot. The carcass of a squirrel lays in the grass, its body torn and parts missing.
Jan is sitting in front of the vanity dresser mirror brushing her hair. She’s not looking at her reflection, but has her eyes closed and is quietly humming some tune I don’t recognize.
I stand at the open window and stare up at the star-cluttered sky. A warm, moist breeze is flowing in. In the distance the siren of a police car shrieks.
I turn from the window. “For a moment, when I was putting Dad in his bed, he didn’t know who I was,” I say.
Jan opens her eyes, places the hairbrush on the dresser, and looks at me. “That’s never happened before,” she says.
“No, it hasn’t,” I say. “It kinda gave me an unpleasant jolt.”
“You knew it was going to happen eventually,” she said.
“I’m not prepared for what will happen to him.”
“We weren’t prepared for what happened to Trent, either,” she says.
“I don’t want to talk about Trent.”
“He was your son. He took his own life. You can’t be mad at him forever about that,” Jan said.
“Yes I can.”
I awake in the darkness, in the middle of the night. I say his name aloud. “Trent.”
Sunlight bathes Dad’s face. His skin glows. I straighten my tie and place my hand on his shoulder and gently shake him.
He rolls onto his back and sneezes. I pull a tissue from the box and hold it to his nose.
“Blow,” I say.
He opens his eyes and blows into the tissue. I wad it up and toss it into the waste basket.
“We have to get you ready for Trent’s funeral,” I say, the words choking in my throat.
“Trent is gone?” he says.
I look into his eyes, seeing the confusion in his gaze. “Do you know what day it is?” I say.
“It’s Saturday,” he says.
SEA FOAM LULLABY
The infant who washed ashore cradled in an open clamshell and swaddled by sea foam had not yet formed an impression about anything other than feeling protected and cared for nestled between the two halves of the shell. The roar of the ocean waves crashing against the shoreline of the white sandy beach had a rhythm that lulled the child gently to sleep and also woke it up a short time later. The smell of fresh air had the same scent as the watery depths where the infant was born. Unable to see, the newborn stared almost blindly at the bright blue sky as tufts of silvery-white clouds floating gently and slowly by.
The beachcomber went by the name, Beachcomber. Being one for so many years he had forgotten his real name, or if he had ever had one. Few people other than Eddie at the Junk In and Junk Out shop and Suzy at the 24 Hour Shop-N-Mart talked to him, so having another name didn’t matter. Eddie and Suzy didn’t know his birth name either. They said he showed up one day, and they liked him, and so he stuck around. Dressed in his faded orange shirt decorated with white ferns Hawaiian-style, jeans cut off just below his knees, a pair of sandals made from the soles of a pair of men’s dress shoes and tied onto his feet with rope, and wearing a floppy straw hat that Suzy had given him from her trip to Disney World – the Mickey Mouse ears had fallen off some time back – he trudged along the beach searching for whatever the morning tides had brought in. He carried by a strap around his left shoulder a green canvas bag. That morning he had found and placed in it a toy plastic flute, an unopened can of Japanese smoked oysters, a woman’s blue shower cap, a laminated menu from a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship and an empty water bottle.
When he happened upon the baby in the clamshell at first he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. The sunlight glaring in his eyes did that sometimes. Once he thought he saw a mermaid sliding back into the water. He rubbed his eyes, blinked several times, and opened them just as a spit bubble formed on the infant’s lips. He looked around and then knelt down by the clamshell.
“Hello little one. I’m Beachcomber. What are you doing here all by yourself?”
He thought the baby was too small to answer, just like all babies, but he waited for a moment just in case. Who was he to say a baby wrapped in sea foam and lying in a clamshell couldn’t talk?
Not getting a response, he stuck his hand inside the shell and with one finger gently tickled the child’s belly. It gurgled and with one hand wrapped its fingers around his.
“Aw, aren’t you a sweet one,” Beachcomber said.
With his free hand he began to brush aside the sea foam that covered the infants mid-section, but as soon as he uncovered the baby’s rotund stomach a wave splashed onto shore, sending sea foam into the clamshell covering the area that the beachcomber had just wiped away.
Beachcomber rocked back on his heels and let out a low whistle, “Well, ain’t that something?”
The infant brought the beachcomber’s finger to his mouth and began to suck.
“You’re hungry, are you?” Beachcomber said. He gently pulled his finger from the infant’s fingers and stood up. “You wait right here, little one. Suzy’s working this morning. She’ll have some baby’s milk somewhere in that store she works at.”
He turned and began to trot down the beach from the direction he had come.
The baby had felt the presence – an awareness – that something new was nearby. Unable to form coherent thoughts, with no experience to rely on, or ability, to interpret what it was sensing, it waited. Then suddenly a new sound entered its ears. It wasn’t a sea sound – the infant knew those. It was something like the bubbles that arose from the clamshell as it opened up. The sound he was hearing was like the bubbles, but not them.
Then suddenly there had been heat. A warmth. Not sunlight warmth, a different type of heat. The child reached out and took hold of the warmth. Unaware of what it was grasping, the child felt calm, safe. The child brought the warm thing to its mouth.
And then it was gone. The new warmth was gone.
And then the presence was no longer there.
Then the infant did something it had never done. It cried. The child found it had the ability to make a noise, it’s own noise, not noise like the ocean, or the noise of the thing that offered warmth, but a noise that the infant felt rising from inside its body and sent out of itself through that part of its body that also had learned to seek food.
“A baby in a clamshell?”
“I know it sounds crazy,” Beachcomber replied to Suzy who was looking at him as if he had just turned into a turnip that could talk. The old woman had seen a lot in her life, but never a baby in a clamshell. She had never even heard of such a thing.
“It is crazy, sweetie. You haven’t taken up drinking have you?”
“I couldn’t afford getting drunk even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I’m telling you I found a baby in a clamshell down the beach near Sandblaster’s Cove.”
“Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe it’s finally getting to you.”
He took his canvas bag from his shoulder and dumped the contents on the counter.
“This is some new stuff, fresh from the sea. What can I trade you for some milk for the baby?”
Suzy rolled her eyes and slowly picked up each item and examined it carefully. “This looks like a can of oysters. I can’t sell it here, but if it looks and smells alright, me and my Henry can have ’em tonight while watching the news.” She pointed to a refrigerator case in the back. “I keep a few bottles of ready-made formula in the back for tourists and travelers who stop in. Help yourself to one.”
“Thanks, Suzy.” He scooped his beach junk back into his bag and headed toward the refrigerator case.
He didn’t see the man with a shark’s tooth in his left pierced earlobe standing in a nearby aisle who had been surreptitiously listening to their conversation.
The shark stuck its head out of the water and peered around and then disappeared beneath the surface. A few minutes later the man with the shark’s tooth in his ear walked out of the water and onto the beach at Miller’s Cove. He shook his entire body, flailing water in all directions until his clothes were no longer dripping wet. He tilted his head back and sniffed the air, and finding the scent he was looking for, smoothed back his silvery-gray hair, and began walking up the beach.
When he was only a few yards from where the infant in the clamshell lay sound asleep, the man
looked up to see hundreds of seagulls circling in the sky above him. The usually screeching noisy birds were silent, only the tornadic whooshing sound of their spread, soaring wings reverberated in the morning air.
He slowly approached the clamshell, then circled it, peering in at the infant, hungrily licking his lips. He knelt down beside it and reached in, excitedly flicking his fingers, clicking his pointed, sharp fingernails.
He leaned in, hovered over the baby, opened his mouth, displaying jagged teeth, and . . .
Beachcomber left the Shop-N-Mart with a bottle of baby formula, and the water bottle filled with water, both placed inside his canvas bag with the other items. Suzy sent him off with a “take care of that baby,” said in a way that bordered on sarcasm. He walked down the side of the coastal highway, backtracking from the Shop-N-Mart to Eddie’s Junk In and Junk Out Shop to the direction of where he had left the infant. He entered the junk shop thinking that the flute, shower cap and cruise ship menu wouldn’t be of much interest to Eddie but he hoped for the best.
Eddie was very picky about the junk he bought and sold.
Beachcomber entered the shop and walked in front of the loosely defined aisles of assorted junk looking for Eddie. There was order to the shop that only Eddie could make sense. There were aisles of t disordered shelves of everything imaginable that could fit onto them, and in between the shelves, piles of boxes, crates, rugs and a few pieces of questionably antique furniture. As often as Beachcomber had been in the shop, he still hadn’t figured out what made Eddie choose the items he did to sell. But Eddie seemed to have a thriving business although there were no customers in the shop at that time.
He walked over to the stack of empty wood crates that Eddie used as a counter, reached into his bag and took out the flute, shower cap and menu and placed them on the top crate. He then grabbed the flute and shoved it back into the bag.
He then found a piece of paper and broken pencil and wrote a note to Eddie.
Edee cen yu givin me a babe blankut for ths junk? B.
He placed the note on top of the cap and menu, weighed it down with a stapler and walked out the door with the bag slung over his shoulder. A few steps out he ran into Eddie.
“Where ya been, boy?” Eddie said as he sucked on the stub of an unlit cigar. “Something’s going on down the beach a ways.” He turned and pointed at the seagulls circling in the sky.
“The baby!” Beachcomber cried out and then took off running screaming the entire way. He reached the clamshell to find it closed tight and in the sand only the markings of the underbelly of a shark leading to the sea.
Beachcomber put his ear to the clamshell listening for the baby. He knocked on it several times. “Baby, I’ll never you leave you all alone ever again,” he said. “He took out the flute and played a few notes. “If you’re still in there and haven’t been eaten by the shark, I’ll play the flute for you night and day and one day teach you how to play it.”
The clamshell slowly opened.
Thirty years later, long after Eddie’s junk shop had been sold and turned into a surf board shop, and Suzy had died of food poisoning at the counter of the Shop-N-Mart, the elderly Beachcomber hugged the younger one. “Something’s calling me from the sea,” he said. “I don’t remember hearing it before, but I know I have to go to it.”
“But you taught me everything I know about being a beachcomber,” the younger beachcomber said. “What will I do without you?”
“Comb the beach as you’ve always done.” He slapped the younger beachcomber on the shoulder and as sea foam wrapped around his body, encasing him, he walked into the water.
The younger beachcomber instantly forgot about the old man. All he knew was that his name was Beachcomber, and that was what he did: comb the beaches. Oh, and he knew how to play the flute, and as he turned away, that is what he did as he strode down the beach.
With a bag that contained a plastic soup strainer, a boy’s ball cap, an embossed map of Hawaii, and one man’s leather shoe, Beachcomber came upon a baby in a clamshell. The baby was lying in a bed of sea foam.
One thought on “Steve Carr”
Such a touching tribute to an incredible writer and supportive friend of so many writers. We miss you Steve. We miss your amazing abilities as a storyteller, but also your friendship, your encouragement, your guidance. Gone too soon…
LikeLiked by 1 person