Red Feather Lake 228

“Slaughtered 20 yesterday. Brutal.”

“Think it’s their right.”

“Is it really now? Thought there was some sort of fucking requirement…”

Sharon set the vanilla dishes down enough a muted clatter fell between each plate but not enough for anybody within earshot, James or the slow walkers who took to the sidewalk most days admiring bluebirds. Today was a frostbite-inducing exception for it was only city workers, casually getting ready for completion, each face fogged by their own breath, dark facial hair contrasting frost.

Setting aside the dishes on the counter, she went for the flatware. She liked to put the flatware away first. It made the most noise and she remembered when her mother would do it in the middle of the night after a row with her father. The more stressful the battle had been, the louder the flatware got shoveled back into the drawer.

Sharon put the large chrome spoons away softly as if handling a softheaded baby. “I wish you wouldn’t … say … use that kind of language.”

“Fucking is what they do to us. Lure us in with promises and fuck us after. No matter who it is – corporations, government, this … housing cluster or whatever you want to call it. False fucking promises. Aspen Copse. How in the hell did they ever come by that name? Sharon, do you know any cops living in this neighborhood? I sure as hell don’t.”

“It’s a grove.”

“A grove? Uh huh. Right. We don’t have Aspen in …”

“The corner, James. Northwest. A grove of Aspen … a copse.”

James stood at the faded kitchen table, a muted version of its former honey pine. Sitting slowly, he took a deep breath, held it for a moment before his tailing exhale. He stared at the daily placed just so by Sharon.

Flatware lightly clinked as Sharon set each grouping into the divider’s proper place in the kitchen drawer next to the stove. Another breath from James accompanied by a sigh, he picked up the daily while stating, “Ought to look into your damn snoring.”

Sharon answered by moving her stack of dishes into the upper cabinet. James opened the newspaper and looked at the grocery store insert. Per custom, the insert’s front page was dominated by meat specials. He set the insert to the side with an audible “hmm.”

“James, you know I could maybe get one of those machines.”

“Can’t now, Sharon.” James softened for her, “It’s not so bad. I sleep, most times.”

She had felt his resignation as he set the insert on the table. Keeping on her toes was one of her best traits. Sharon the Intuitive is what he called her, and he had liked that in her. Two weeks and 21 years ago after Valentine’s Day they had married on a day so cold the frost crept up the narthex window’s glass in an scratchy pattern as if the devil was desperately trying to claw his way into the church for sanctuary’s warmth. He had wanted to be married on Valentine’s Day, but she thought it too much plus, she fondly recalled, she wanted to have two celebrations in one month every year.

Sharon had stayed home at 228 Feather Lake waiting for the children who never came, tending the house, making everything fit in an orderly fashion because she knew. She’d place daily pieces systematically in the kitchen, mostly on the table, for James to begin and end his day.

Sharon willed a few stubborn matching vanilla bowls into their positions in the upper cabinet alongside the salad plates they rarely used for salads. “James, there’s a new place I hear…”

“With fresh faces.”

“Experience never hurts, James.”

“The greatest teacher. Yeah.” He paused for a moment, looking out at the city workers donning their bright orange vests lest anyone blinder than a bat couldn’t make out the huge truck to avoid in the first place. A quick glance back down at the grocery store insert, his eyes came back up to carefully watch their activity.

“So chatty.”

“Well, they’ve got a lot of work to do James, maybe they…”

“Not them. Her.”

“Emma.”

“Who else. So goddamn chatty.”

“Not sure she was so chatty.”

James turned in his chair to look at Sharon. He glowered and spat out, “Really? Were you there every day? No. Her cheeriness. It’s goddamn hard work and here she was, five foot four, 110 pounds soaking wet in sweat trying to move sides of beef. Shit she can’t do it by herself. Ridiculous.”

And so it had gone for nearly a year before he got called into the manager’s office. James reluctantly taught her how to be a proper butcher in spite of her own father being one who obviously was not paying attention to anything for James had to do it. James would come home; complain to Sharon about the unfairness of it all. But she was right for the most part for some things were better left alone, including trying to keep the girl from talking so much. His pay was significantly more, as it should be for he was seasoned, she a fresh cut straight out of high school with plans for college at some point if her father would cut her loose.  

The manager’s office sat above the meat locker so it was always appropriately cold for anyone having to be called in regardless for what occasion. The general manager, a man a good half-decade younger than James, had waved his hand for James to sit then leaned forward from his grey fabric desk chair.

“Gotta let you go. You’re getting to be too much.”

“Too much pay you mean.”

“Well, too much. You’ll get a good recommendation.”

“Fuck your recommendation.”

“Not the best way to go out after what? Five years, Jim?”

“James.”

The general manager had propped his elbows onto his desk, clasped his hands together, and stated, “I won’t hold your crassness against you.”

“Fucking her?”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard what I said.”

“How quickly do you want me to show you the door?”

“It’s the only reason. That and money. She comes from money too, but you know that.”

James got up and the general manager rose with him. Arms simultaneously folded across their respective chests.

“So that’s it.”

“As far as this conversation and your employment, yes.”

James had thought of himself as a damn good butcher. He had a tender ego but most of the customers liked him. For short bits of time he could charm and dispense advice. Long chunks of time he could cauterize, unless someone was willing to have the soft patience he never could muster.

To him, there was no reason whatsoever to have Emma in meat. She was young, pretty and slow. Not mentally slow for she could chat up a customer on how to prepare any cut and upsell them too depending upon the meal. She was, how did Sharon describe Emma upon first meeting her? Bubbly. Sharon liked her. They weren’t close friends for there was a large age gap, but friends. She always looked at Emmy through her hazy aged eyes as the girl stared back with youth’s wonder.

Youth, or age, wasn’t the issue. Sharon knew it. She knew him better than he knew him. She had watched her husband’s career ascend the hill of success in sputters, two years here, three there, an astounding five at this last one. It was a car taking a steep hill with two flats and a dying alternator, but it had moved forward. This job he was fired for ‘being too damn expensive and not pretty enough for the job’ as James had put it, had been number seven without much of the superstitious luck associated with the number.

“I was chopped down, Sharon. Hacked. Like the 20 goddamn… did get that severance, Sharon. Didn’t I? Yep. Whoop do dang fucking diddly do.”

James quickly got up from the kitchen table. He grabbed his deep red coat, whipped it around and shoved his arms into the sleeves, followed by a hasty donning of his thick wool ski cap and set of matching gloves so generously given to him by the union.

“I’m going out.”

In this brittle morning everything was red, all red, as the chipper ground away: his coat; raw hamburger; the blood he poured into every single day; his face seething in anger as his cheeks fought the breath-snapping cold. He watched, red, raw and angry, and yelled. No use, the young pink asses with their bright orange vests couldn’t hear a thing as they thrilled themselves taking down an old tree. Big stout Maple number 21. No longer than a day ago the tree provided over 20 years of consistent housing, shade and protection.

He kept shouting, but no one was listening and his ears returned to ringing with his wife’s careless sleeping staccato.

 

Gerrold Vandershuuck had a Plan

Gerrold Vandershuuk had a plan.

He was a young man whose career had been sent asunder when he corrected his boss at the HVAC Company by stating, “No sir, ammonia cools with single drops sucking heat out of everything inside a refrigerator thereby cooling the items.”

Exacting, Gerrold had said it with such definitive precision. Human Resources, aka the wife of his boss, simply put down insubordination on his dismissal form.

He felt he had to escape both the earth’s oppressiveness in both heat and people. Gerrold, armed with his associates degree in HVAC maintenance and a head full of how every household appliance functioned, figured the heat of the day on earth was going to take him eventually.

Why not take it first? Use it.

The air in the atmosphere, even at a mere 5,000 feet, was cooler. A given, pure scientific evidence. Gerrold could use science, and his penchant for solitude, to his advantage.

There was a hot air balloon, deflated, sweating dirt, sitting in a junkyard full of broken cars and hope. Every day Gerrold had spied it, the balloon’s colors attempting to peek out from under its dirt. He bought this used forgotten treasure and in no time had fixed the basket plus covered the balloon with advertisements for income. His former employer even chipped in, buying an ad that spread along two lower sections to give the HVAC business a ‘sight advantage.’ It wouldn’t work well given their desired location, but Gerrold accepted their charity, coolly ignoring his own desire to correct them. He was done with that. He got the balloon to run on refrigerant coolant to fire up the tanks, thereby enabling him to keep a good stock of perishable items at hand so he could spend weeks in the air without having to land and deal with people.

The ammonia did the trick. He was able to keep the balloon aloft at a desired 5,000 feet, avoiding the rusty outdated electric wires and keep away from potential theft. It wasn’t as if the entire state of North Carolina, where Gerrold lived from inception, was blanketed with nefarious people, but there were those who’d like to have his creation.

The state was a stunning sight from the ground. Aloft, it was really something to behold. The ever-cool Gerrold beamed at how he had effectively mastered a way to live, including having a smart septic system, without having to deal with any heat whatsoever. He dreamt of a time when there would be thousands of residences in the air avoiding all sorts of heat. He dreamed a lot for there was not much else to do but to gather his thoughts amongst a crowded sky of emptiness.

One April morning his alarm, AKA the sun, was clouded over a bit. It couldn’t roust him from his thermal-charged blanket, his sole option to stay warm at night.

He heard a pop. Then another. In his semi-dream state he thought it might be his bones, perhaps a hipbone buried in weight during his long sleep. But here came another pop along with a very loud, “Well, hell’s afire! How in damnation…”

He peeked over the edge. He had lowered to less than 1,000 feet overnight. That was common. What wasn’t was a man with a rifle upset with himself for missing.

Or so he thought.

He had hit the balloon in the middle quadrant. Gerrold could see the material flapping about as if a spastic swan. He sunk back into the basket to think. He had to land but not near this ‘hunter.’ Gerrold pumped up the refrigerant to keep sailing for as long as he could. There was much struggle as the balloon was bleeding, but he landed in a field of bleating a half-horizon away from the armed man. For a good fifteen minutes Gerrold debated how to properly mend his flagging creation as a herd of goats talked amongst themselves. Buried in his basket, he barely heard the farmer come along, walking the goat gauntlet while yelling toward Gerrold, “Seems you got yourself a bit of a leak.”

Gerrold stood up in his basket, as the farmer, getting closer, added, “Been watching you for a bit now. Figured you’d hit the ground somewhere’s close. You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Didn’t land on one of my goats, so that’s good. Well, looky here, gotta hole. Welp, you’re in luck, the wife is a fine seamstress. Course this here balloon’s not gonna fit under her sewing machine. She’ll get ‘er done though. Fine woman.

The farmer held out his hand as he finished, “I go by Jonesy by the by.”

Gerrold accepted Jonesy’s hand and climbed out of the basket, answering, “Gerrold.”

They took the short walk to the farmhouse as the goatherd followed along in an order deigned by the goats. Once there, after a good lecture to the goats to go back to their pasture, Jonesy talked to his wife. Off she went, taking their three boys with her. Gerrold sat with the farmer for quite a bit of time, telling him about how he had been shot down.

Jonesy exclaimed, “Crazy ass cracker over yonder. Harmless as a three-legged goat.”

Gerrold went through the whole process – his plan, life in the balloon and how his balloon functioned. Before his third cup of coffee got too cold and the offered coffee cake was reduced to crumbs, the balloon was ready to go.

Jonesy inspected his wife’s stitch work, gave her an approving nod as he asked Gerrold, “Got to ask you a favor. Never been up in one of these. None of us have, fact told.”

“We’ll fly a little low due to weight.”

“Long as we can clear wires.”

Balloon fired up. Ammonia did its cooling without a hitch. Stitches held. Airborne, Jonesy did all the talking as his wife and boys looked over the edge.

“Up here alone?”

“Yessir.”

“Long life you know.”

“I hope.”

“You do? Huh. Welp, The world, in both temperature and temperament, may soon, if not nowadays, be getting hotter.”

He fished out his wallet and flipped it open.

“See here?”

One of the flaps held a faded four leaf clover.

“Found it one day. Bout yer age, I ‘spect. Things changed. Found that girl. She came with the clover. She, and it – the four-leaf clover – were just sitting in her daddy’s field surrounded by goats. Actually fished that clover right out of a goat’s jaw before he et it. Goats’ll et anything you know. Before long we were hitched… me with the girl, not the goat. Farm came along. Boys came along. More goats came along.”

Jonesy peered over the edge. From this perspective, he could see how far they had floated along with the breeze.

“Good five miles, Gerrold, give or take. You can turn around now.”

Gerrold deftly maneuvered the balloon back. He found a suitable spot closer to the farmhouse than where he had his emergency landing.

Jonesy climbed out. As he helped his wife and boys, he stated, “Quite a contraption here. Being above it all in a hot air balloon? Interesting for sure. For sure. Does it gain you, anyone really, some sort of better perspective? Something to think about, I ‘spect. Like to give you my four-leaf clover, but not entirely convinced of its magic. Overall? Think it’s the wife.”

Gerrold Vandershuuk had a plan.

Surface

Her clothes were placed on the velvet red couch in the dank basement as if she were in them. Blouse, a brilliant yellow although with her lack of seeing any color but grey these days may have been something entirely different, was neatly atop the pillows, sleeves spread out, neckline on the edge as if her blouse was exhausted. Pants, a smart pair of dark jeans with machine-made tears on both thigh areas in an unidentifiable pattern, lay directly below the blouse. From there sported a gap of three inches or so between blouse and jeans to expose the red cushion - or a belly-button if one desired to broaden their imagination. Panties and brassiere had been pushed under the jeans with only a strap exposed to see where the unmatched pair was located. Shoes, practical dark brown flats, pigeon-toed right under the jean’s hemline.

She was in the middle, on a basement-dirtied woven rug, surrounded by nothing but paper with nothing on at all.

He had tried to sneak down the stairs, but basement stairs, old and wooden, were not meant for stealthy undertaking. As such, he ever-so-carefully crept. He did not want to disturb her. Ever.

“I can hear you breathing,” she flatly stated.

“I guess the stairs wouldn’t have given me away.”

“It’s fine.”

“Progress?”

“Just look around you.”

The paper, standard white 8.5 x 11, was surrounding her, all piled up in an arc around her legs that were forming a triangle with her lavender-painted toenails serving as two of the triangle’s corners.

“Impressive, Sheila.”

“All sorted by section, then by chapter.”

After a good look at her paper mesas, he responded, “There’s a lot in the middle.”

“It’s the middle. There’s always a lot in the middle. Beginnings and endings need not, ever – I repeat – ever be lengthy. As such, shorter stacks.”

“Can I sit?”

She gestured toward the couch, pointing at a spot directly across from her, right next to her clothes. He took his seat, carefully settling in to allow the couch to envelope him while taking care not to disturb her clothes. Disturbance of her semblance of order had, for a while now, been a delicate matter.

“Are you cold?”

“Why would I be cold?”

“You’re in a basement… and you’re naked.”

She scoffed at his response, stared at him and growled, “You. Dressed in a sweater.”

“It’s November.”

“You’re such a pussy.”

Sheila went on ordering her papers, dropping small stacks in particular spots.

“Hungry?”

Without looking up, she quickly answered, “No” before looking right at him and stating, “Why would I be hungry? Hunger is for those famished for truth.”

“You’ve been down her for four days. I haven’t seen you.”

“No one needs too. I am writing my novel.”

“I know that. There’s…”

She dragon-stared back at him. “There’s what?”

“Concern.”

“Fuck concern. I’m creating here.”

Sheila went back to sorting. He leaned forward just a bit, mostly to get his back at more of an angle so the soft couch wouldn’t be so uncomfortable.

Noting his movement, she spat out, “Why did you move?”

“Comfort.”

“Comfort. Writers don’t need comfort. Writers need hardness. Inspiration never comes from comfort.”

“Shower?”

“I have one down here.”

“Not what I asked.”

She took a small pile of paper and threw it at him, yelling, “DO NOT question my motivations!” Quickly calming down, she haltingly added, “Now. Since YOU made the mess, YOU can re-stack that section and hand it to me. Let me know when you are ready. DO NOT just casually hand it to me. I may have to re-order it you know!”

He picked up the strewn paper, some if it had landed atop the clothes. Taking care not to disturb the clothes, he slid sheet upon sheet, re-aligned them, finishing with a quick neatening with a couple hits of the paper’s edge onto his right thigh.

“Did I ask you to that?”

He paused, waiting for her eyes to slow their fire. He calmly stated, “You said to re-stack.”

“Give them to me. Jesus Christ, I have to do EVERYTHING myself.”

Stack gently handed over, he slowly moved his body to the couch’s back.

“I knew it.”

“What is it, Sheila?”

“The papers are completely out of order. Thanks a lot. Now quiet.”

“Okay.”

Lips tight, dolled up with a shimmery pink gloss, she glared at him, staring through him as she carefully moved single sheets of paper from one place in the stack to another.

“I showered.”

“When, Sheila.”

“Inconsequential. Move along.”

“Want me to go?”

“Do you want to go?”

Deliberately, he answered, “Not so much.”

“Seen enough of me? Want to see more?

“No Sheila, I don’t.”

“Because you’re a pussy.”

Sheila laughed. There was a coarseness to her laughter, but it died down quickly as she muttered, “pussy” while keeping her attention to her stacks.

He leaned forward a bit more. She didn’t look up as he softly talked to her like they were in a tightly packed café with thin walls.

“Remember Sheila? When we were kids?”

“Of course I do. Remember what?”

“The water.”

“Jesus fuck, what water? There’s water everywhere.”

“The big muddy. St. Louis. We went swimming in it. No care in the world.”

“I’m sure there was care.”

“Not to me.”

“Me either. Your parents…”

“They had concerns. Yes. Big river.”

“We were naked right?”

“No.”

“No? Surely you’d remember?”

“I do. No.”

“Your parents weren’t going to allow us to swim naked. No way. And mine? Too bad. It’s the only way for proper swimming… or proper thinking; doing; living.”

“It was the swimming Sheila, that I remember so much.”

Sheila scoffed, “We didn’t do anything else.”

“No. No we didn’t.”

Sheila went back to sorting. She was very careful, making sure each stack was in a spot and juxtaposed to another section so she could easily identify it later. He watched her for a few minutes, marveling at her efficiency. Her diligence and concentration reminded him of the kids at school. A math teacher at an elementary school, he’d watch the kids in gym class during their cup-stacking segment, collective eyes lasered onto their cups, eyebrows furled, lips shaped in seriousness as the quick ones sped through the process. Gym class. Funny place for cup-stacking, but it was understood not every kid was destined to be a sports kid and this activity played into the hands of most of them.

He returned to Sheila. She had broken his process with the smallest of glances.

Sheila asked, “Want to do something now? It? Want to do it?”

“No Sheila.”

Her stacking was evidently completed. She stared at him, asking, “What’s your purpose?”

“It was warm in the water.”

“It was July.”

“Under the water, Sheila. Remember under the water?”

There was no answer save for her stare. It shook him, this whole ordeal, but he remained calm as he continued, “The hiss. All that hissing.”

No response given after his hesitation, he kept going, purposefully slow.

“We’d go under and we’d hear very audible hissing, right?”

Movement, but just Sheila’s lips cinching tight like her drawstring purse when she was alittle girl and his next-door neighbor. He had watched her grow up, watched her move in with his family, watched her become a teenager and now watched over her, now a woman of 34.

“But on the surface? There was nothing, just the sound of water slowly making its way to the gulf. We’d go under Sheila, way under, swim in the muddy water Sheila, hear the Mississippi’s constant hiss until our lungs would nearly burst, then we ‘d surface. Nothing. There was nothing but us gasping air, the world, our world and the calmness of water lapping river banks.”

She was still with the exception of her eyes. They could never look right at him for more than a second unless they were trying to stare him down. Once softness fell in, her pupils wandered. She’d capture his eyes in miniscule moments, then go about searching the rest of the basement as if looking for answers in its dark corners.

She wasn’t about to cry. Sheila never cried, at least not in front of someone. He suspected in times of clarity, those fleeting moments where her own reality came bobbing up, she did cry. However, no one was ever around to witness. If there were anyone, it’d be him. He was the only one remaining from her frenzy of friends and family.

She rolled her eyes up, pushing her pupils toward the stairs. He stared down at the paper, lined up, crisscross to separate sections or chapters or whatever. Whatever was the reality for anyone who’d have the chance to view her stacks for there were as many words on the paper as there were clothes on her back.

“I have to finish my novel.”

“I know, Sheila. I understand. I’m going to go now.”

He stood up, brushed off his pants as if he could brush off anything ever sticking to her or him. Sheila watched as he took care to make sure her clothes were still set in the same position on the velvet red couch as when he sat down.

“I’m going to go cook something. You’re welcome to…”

“I have to finish my novel.”

His walk to the stairs was no more than ten feet. Tennis shoes, picked to be purposely quiet, squeaked as he stopped at the edge of the steps. He turned to look at her surrounded in her own emptiness and stated, “I wish, more often than not, you’d return to the surface.”

Snake and Blonde

She reminded me of the snake. Not in the sense of slithering. Snakes, maybe due to their perspective, always seem to be crafty, quietly winding their way through existence. She never did that, or perhaps simply couldn’t.

Deep, dark, cold, temperatures hovered where midnight’s fog crept off the bog, overlapping creaky concrete posing as sidewalk before disappearing into the wet asphalt. It had been a moment on this weakly wet night where a storm had come and gone between main course and dessert, a split instant thinly spread with what combined with a bit of how and a glob of why.

Blonde wavy locks cascaded off the back of her head, floating in space as they fell upon an ebony overcoat. If it weren’t for her legs sashaying forward just enough to indicate movement, her head may have been all anyone within sight may have seen. Any push into my mind of such a vision would’ve caused me to re-consider red wine. I silently blessed her legs for their movement.

The bog was passed just over midnight. This thick water ooze was not on a lonely stretch of road where no one dared to consider that time of night. A main thoroughfare, asphalt’s ribbon pushed north out of the city spottily covered with police from different districts and towns trying to keep the street safe as well as fill respective city coffers with fines from those too distracted to stay within posted limits or too inebriated to keep in the middle of their respective right lane on this two-lane road.

It took very little of both to focus on the lights; quite a bit more to see her. This section of sidewalk, a poor attempt to cross bog’s muck, undulated as it bumped along at a rattler’s pace, uncaring enough to rapidly streamline forward. Chunks of cement disguised as safe passage dared those brave enough to use it. Daytime it presented a challenge. At night it was nearly impossible to navigate without crushing one’s knees onto cement. Here she was though, floating along, a blonde specter whose feet ballerina’d the walkway without sense of skip or flight.

A simple ‘huh’ escaped from me about 30 seconds after passing her. This expelling of random thought was all I could process without causing a scene. In my mind, isolation was the only reason for her to be out at this time in this place. As such, no ‘what the hell’ ‘good lord’ or ‘damn that’s crazy’ was going to be emitted for anyone’s sake. For one, it was respect for an individual’s peace whether it was for seeking solitude or a final exit. For another, well it could be quite another.

This stretch of road was not being taken solo. My passenger, a young lady whose overdeveloped sense of self would not take any utterance without questioning, stood tall in the passenger seat to expel her own opinion of my simple utterance. She countered with a snippy “What?”

“Just… odd.”

“What?”

“The girl.”

“What girl?”

“You didn’t see her?”

“Who?”

“The one on the walkway.”

“When?”

“Just now.”

“Now? From the car? In the café?”

“Now. From the car. Now.”

“Crossing the tracks? Trains run until one in the morning. It’s no shock someone, even a woman alone, would be… is that it? A woman, God forbid, alone? Jesus, sometimes you…”

“No, the bog’s walkway.”

She squirmed. At first her squirming had been considered precious as she shifted her waif body side-to-side. Her squirm soon had become merely a precursor to correct whatever she felt wrong. She dully spilled, “We have no bog. It’s a swamp. There’s too much to be a bog…”

“Perhaps it’s a fen.”

“Perhaps it’s not. Swamp. A fen? Water level’s too shallow for a fen.”

Once into the residential section, the road became lined with lampposts broken up by streetlights. We passed a streetlight, then another, prior to her breathing returning to form conversation. Pursed lips blew a strand of her dyed black hair before she uttered in half-interest, “What was she wearing?”

“The woman crossing by the bog… swamp?”

Provoked, she sharply retorted, “No, the woman you flirted with in the café. I saw.”

“She was our waitress. It’s common.”

“For some.”

There was a request within my lungs for a small cough, but I worked hard to hold it. Small coughs, to one so demanding of others’ time, were admissions of guilt. Instead my exhale continued the conversation, “For me anyway. Waitresses, bartenders and the like, they accept it.”

“Only because you tip so well. Noticed that too.”

A retort would cause dialogue to drift into places where a u-turn, followed by a swim in the swamp, would be welcome. Silence held sway for a long red light at the intersection of hope and escape. Finally I broke it.

“She wore black.”

“Of course she did.”

“She had blonde hair.”

“What kind?”

“Wavy and… cornstalk color.”

“Spring or Fall?”

A bolt of lightning tossing brilliance onto a farrowed field at midnight sprung to mind. Spring? Spring stalks are green. However, this was not a moment, as if there ever had been, where clarity would produce positivity. As such, I flattened my response with a quiet, “Fall. Cornstalks waiting for threshing.”

“Bottle blonde. Definitely. Clothing all black?”

“Yes.”

“No color?”

“No.”

“None at all?”

“None I could see.”

“Imagined?”

Never been a fan of others judging what was fact and what was fantasy. Generally, this is something I do quite well on my own. Acid tongue firmly held in check, I responded with a lilting, “None imagined.”

“Black coat?”

“Yes.”

“Black pants?”

“Surmised as such. It was as if her head was floating, Shari.”

“So you did imagine. Figures.”

The road was not straight. It forced its way out of the city proper through a maze of fields both plowed and pastured. Once again, it returned to be swallowed by darkness where bright lights begged for use. I loathe oncoming autos’ brights as well as my own. Any being, man or animal, sidling the asphalt on an inky black night, this one or any other, were preferred by me to slither using surprise.

“Reminded me of the snake.”

“What?”

“The girl.”

“She would be a girl and not a woman.”

“She’s only a girl, Shari, because, in my mind, a woman does not go out this late to walk along a relatively dangerous section of sidewalk through a bog.”

“Swamp. It’s sexist.”

“The swamp?”

“God, you’re an idiot.”

Shari spelled her name the way one would spell ‘sharing’ without the ‘n’ and ‘g.’ To her, it was unique. To me, it was ironic.

“Still reminded me of the snake. You know, the one when I was a kid, probably nine years old, definitely less than ten…”

What in mind’s eye causes one image to recall another is something only psychiatrists can conference over, but for me I think it was buried in pure isolation. I had shared this story before, but to go over it again was cathartic. The snake story took its own shape as the car took another rest at a stoplight.

“As a child, my family had a ranch. The ranch was operational well into my adult life, held together by sweat and barbed wire by my uncle until I was somewhere in my 40’s. The house had been built by my grandfather with the aid of many sometime in the mid ‘40s. Walls were adobe thick, as such the house held warmth well in winter and remained oddly cool during summer. It was, and had been forever, tremendously inviting to all sorts of animals. What caused my unceasing curiosity about the ranch, especially the house, was not merely my grandfather’s premature death at the age of 61, but the snake.

There was not a time where the snake was remembered as alive. It never haunted my dreams to cause inordinate sweat or worry; my grandfather’s sudden death had done enough of that as his soul drifted around the half-dozen pines on the house’s north side, his image moving within the misty shroud of midnight.

The snake was just there, a hood ornament for everyone to see and wonder. Small, somehow it had wriggled its way into the attic and, upon discovery of attic’s never-ending darkness, could not find its way back from where it came. Least that was my supposition. Cornered, the northwest corner of the attic to be exact, it had attempted an escape during a particularly cold stretch of winter.”

Too much audio from a single source caused Shari, as per usual, to interrupt. She interjected, “Winter? Early or late?”

“Deep. Deep winter or the snake would have never stiffened.”

She remained quiet as I wriggled my way through the rest of the story. The snake got stuck. The snake froze. Riga mortise set in quickly. Frozen, the snake stuck out from the corner of the house, its smallish frame rising above the open gutters, clearing them my a few inches. Water, whether by rain or snow’s runoff, was not going to cause quick erosion.

It remained there for years. I would visit; sit in the small side yard on the western side of the house, looking in a northeasterly direction to stare at its open mouth and hollow eyes. Of course the eyes went first, they were jellied substance whose primary function was to look forward and propel movement toward food or shelter.

One day, I showed up at the ranch and the snake was gone. It was the day I came to visit after a tornado had touched down. The tornado, so aptly described by my uncle as chocolate syrup casually poured out of the sky, had destroyed one of the barns to the east where most of the major farm equipment rested after their annual use. Didn’t touch the house but the winds off the swirling dervish wrapped corrugated metal siding around what remained of a line of Cottonwood trees flanking the property astride the gravel road, twisting the sheet metal as if the siding had been mere foil.

The tornado and its breezy minions took the snake too.

Shari was quiet, eerily so as I wound through the snake story’s finality. Last light before the road slipped into midnight’s grasp, I took a right to roll along toward home. A moment; a breath two or twenty passed before her lips deigned to part.

“Oh, that story. Yeah. I remember your mother never believed in the snake; never even took your story seriously. Because, according to her, it didn’t exist.”

 

Lemons

A quiet crash, but nonetheless a crash, had amounted to nothing more than jostled lemons, their bright yellow skins withstanding force to prevent flesh from damage.
Lemons, innocuous victims placed in a cage not by their own choosing, had slammed into the cage’s wiry edge, thrown forward by an action of two parties who preferred to look up and around rather than straightforward.
Forward was nowhere to look. He had self-acknowledged, or more so self-diagnosed, there was no forward. Lemons weren’t going to jump out and try to kill him, but that message ran counter to his thoughts. Thoughts produced action as the crash had sent him scurrying for cover, propelling him into a frenzied flight. He took off, running zigzag down the back aisle to void further conflict. First came the meat. Red pulsed, running rivulets through his head where three decades prior blood broke his bandage. 
He passed the second section unencumbered, the deli where stood a delightful strategic order of processed meats and cheeses. Security caught up to him before he got too deep into produce. 

One never knew what was around the corner. Ever. Could be complicated procedures where one would need to perform duties in an expedient manner in order to save the union, freedom for somethings or someones or merely to save oneself. Could be anything and anything was everything; everything was nothing for which he could feel. 
Tight quarters lead to open spaces and open spaces had him running for tight quarters, those where he could feel the most comfort where each movement could be seen by him as he threw himself into a corner. He was cornered and had been for fifty years, each year going by after honorable discharge becoming more and more constricting in his movement. Every movement after war had to be carefully orchestrated for there was no maneuver unplanned that could ever go well again. 

The tunnels had done him in.

He had been, at the time, five foot four. Perfect for twisting his boy body into a hole to ferret out the enemy from their labyrinth of underground tunnels, tunnels running this way and that with no definable explanation given to him by anyone above ground be it commander or Commandments.
Tunnels, twisted narrow passageways dug under damp jungle floor, had been built for their size – his size – created to hide; created to skirt around and under enemy camps; infiltrate enemy lines. Tunnels, a soppy social morass of wartime, ran the gamut of functionality – meeting rooms, training centers, triages, hospitals. 
Every slip and twist entering a tight spot at age nineteen brought forth a pandora’s box of perils. Spiders, scorpions, bats, poisonous snakes, non-poisonous snakes used as live bombs, their lithe slippery bodies planted with explosives. Everything could be potential harmful, but humans were the main thrust of concern. The enemy was not one to be taken lightly. They would surprise around corners or stay in thinly-veiled niches off main tunnel’s expressway in order to attempt an impaling.
His sole duty was to wreak temporary havoc, create chaos to get the tunnel vacated whether by killing, taking prisoners or collapsing without Viet Cong collapsing him. Running created chaos. Crawling created vulnerability. He learned via exposure and experience to pace it; eyes peeled; breathe shortened, heart rate stable.
Narrower went the tunnels; slogging through water and dirt, caked in dust and mud. Narrower they would run, some to an enclosed point as if someone took a pencil, bored it into the earth and reversed it out. Sharp U-bends, those chicanes of hell, were often flooded. He had heard fellow soldiers being sucked into the swamp desperately flailing for survival. Rarely did they make it for once they had announced they were struggling, enemy soldier calmly finished flooding the sharp corner with poison gas. 
He had a requisitioned gas mask but never wore it. Too constricting. Their utility was limited for while creating salvation from one danger, their limited visibility and difficulty of breath created a far more dangerous situation. 
You took your chances. 
You took your chances. 
You. 
Took.
Your. 
Chances. 
Rare occasions, when timing persevered, had one been able to discover an ending point without resulting in their own. His timing, the one solitary motion where he had found himself in such a perilous point, was impeccable. Enemy, a forged moniker supposedly meant to incense, had taken a right to escape. He took a left.
What silenced him was the bang. Crashing metal, a shock, created little ring, but the ringing would return with vengeance. A solitary filed shot from his government-issued 45-caliber pistol rang through his skull. He had fired one off once, but once was plenty. Deafening, disorienting, the single shot sent him quietly sweating, profusely in panic he had rushed back to where he slipped underground. A bayonet, slid out from the wall, scraped blade across the right backside of his helmet, reached underneath to catch his neck muscle enough, taking a sideways chunk from the back of his head. His screams, heard from above, were never heard within his own head. 
The shot has been his sole wartime miscalculation. Coming home, back to farm and family, miscalculations had rushed forth. Soon after his return, miscalculation took his youngest brother. Surviving two tours without incident, his brother had taken a job at a brewery only to have a beer keg jump the rails and kill him. The baby was gone.
Miscalculation. Older brother took the role of military lifer, bruising his way from ship to ship, rank through rank, only to be felled by a heart attack soon after retirement. 
Miscalculation. Was size one? Could height, or lack thereof, be something he could commit to miscalculation? Genetics? Did genetics create his lot?

He combined the mess, reasoning that by taking his chances he was stepping high into other miscalculations. It’s how he entered any opening after the age of twenty – Laundromats; grocery stores; convenient stores soon to become inconvenient due to their tight-fitted aisles. Where did entering anything get him? Where was he? Where was his end point? Where was the mysticism so perpetrated by family and country to the point where there were zero movements not dictated by the church as movement necessary for one’s soul; one’s survival?
The past thirty, forty, now going on fifty years, his purported salvation had been buried in a book of complexities and overriding rules, regulations and innuendo. Those who buried themselves within it fought to the death over interpretation. Interpretation is what tunnel rats did best. 
In order to achieve appeasement, he had pushed through mountains of paperwork after unwillingly pushing his body through ordered underground jungle work. Despite a spate of professionals with names long forgotten, doctors in numbingly too many niches, there was no answer; or none had been given. 
The ever-constricting life so built for him by him through experiences no one could fathom had pushed within so deep any shallow movement was considered a threat. Store runs never dared to be Saturdays, morning afternoon or evening. They began after his tour as weekday evenings and the occasional Sunday evening before he had to seek out the 24-7s. Once found, his forays went deeper and deeper into the night; earlier and earlier in the morning. Laundromats, for him, became extinct. Washing machines rolling to spin echoed off cement block walls as if hovering helicopters without a signal to land, floating in air, wide open for target practice.

The crash sent him back further than he had ever dared to consider. Home, once inside corner-glued to keep a watchful eye out on the front door, barely contained enough memory of the final time he would ever go out in public. Two parties without concern for one another sent him retreating to the finality of a studio apartment where sustenance would now be delivered by those who he felt intimate enough to regard as trusted allies. In the beginning there were a few women, night sweat companions there long enough to attain their own sense of self before tunneling out. In the end nothing but close family had been welcome.
Whether it was a miniscule half-hour after the crash or two decades later, he barely remembered the shrink-wrapped meat oozing blood. The neat rows of processed meats didn’t show; the dank dyed yellow of deli cheddar never materialized. What did were the lemons. They toggled there, a pair of caged young yellow dimpled beings as two grocery carts casually pushed perpendicular into one another, t-boning at 2 a.m., an innocent meeting of metal between strangers who waved it off without issue as he took flight from the fury of nothing.
Xenophobia.
Sociophobia.
Ochlophobia.
Claustrophobia.
Agoraphobia.
Achluophobia.
Kenophobia.
The lot of them, a cocktail of psychosis described by a mixed bag of professionals, stirred by the poisoned swizzle-stick of what was now simply tossed about in casual peacetime party conversation with four easily-recalled letters: PTSD.
He never knew what was around the next bend. No one did. Dark. Light. Didn’t matter. It’s the not knowing. Anticipation of some God-forsaken horror, a tiny innocent hilt-strapped with explosives or a young child holding their arms outstretched begging to be lifted up; held for comfort; for safety. 
But there wasn’t any. Ever.

Camel

The first was the fifth was the seventeenth, a cacophony of monotony boring only for those who ignored anything unusual.

My name is Bill. I’m an alcoholic.

Hi Bill.

My name is Cheri. I’m an alcoholic’s wife.

Hi Cheri.

My Cheri amour. Pretty little thing that I adore. I had to admit, she was smoking hot, a tired, tattered double-wide trailer smoking hot. She was the kind of woman you’d find at a Laundromat, looking sexy in an oversized Ivy League sweatshirt, gloss black hair up in curlers, an unlit cig dangling between her ruby reds. I fought against her vision, narrowly escaping my head before another introduction burst.

My name is Doris. I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.

Hi Doris.

Her concubine shifted in his seat. Constantly shifty, I swore Bengal tigers on his Cincinnati jacket were going jump off as he offered up his confession as an over 50 autograph stalker. 

Hi I’m Greg. Remember Bob Trumpy? Tight End in the early ‘80s? I once followed Bob Trumpy through a very large suburban mall an Esiason deep ball west of Cincy into a Hardee’s bathroom before convincing him I really needed his autograph. Thought he was going to give me a swirly. Guess he was a bit put off.

Hi I’m Greg. I’m an alcoholic and drug addict’s lover.

Hi Greg.

Damn. Monotony is an idle mind’s sweaty whore’s den of malicious thinking.

Hi I’m Joseph. I wear a suit to this crap-ass meeting to try to throw out my superiority but am actually a toll collector. If you notice, my slate grey suit doesn’t fit, it’s worn at the pants pockets but what the fuck does it matter anyway since were all anonymous here and you’ll never have a clue what I do… or don’t.

Perhaps it was best for me to allow him to go as planned as well. Most of them, a majority of the time, were docile unless provoked by a simple movement contrary to theirs. A supposed incorrect maneuver produced spitting.

Hi I’m Joseph. I’m a drug addict.

Hi Joseph.

The gum-cracker next to me leaning into Joseph the Elder was new. Three weeks new, fresh as a day-old donut. What this old man had over her must be something truly heinous… or she was getting paid. Dime store blonde, her deadly bazookas currently choking a perfectly good red cotton sweater adorned with her name in sparkling yellow cursive, stretching it to its limits, there was no doubt she was the reigning queen of the smoke-choked Spare Time Lanes on Maplewood. Poor kid, she had proven herself to be a turkey away from breaking a hundred.

Hi.  I’m Cindi “with an i.” 

She pointed to her sweater where the dot for her final “I” coincidently highlighted her left nipple like it was the north star guiding us out of everyone’s personal darkness. I thought of three Wisemen, following not the Star of Bethlehem, but the Glinting Nipple of Cindi.

Look, Bartholomew. There it is. Our sign. The Glinting Nipple. Look how the “I” beckons.

Which one, my wise friend, as there are two.

Nipples?

Yes. But “I’s” as well.

The one on the right riding the crest of her left bosom. Let us find the newborn king, bringing the child gold, incense and myrrh.

Yes, and gain a closer look at those bazookas. My goodness.

I’m the fiancée of a drug addict.

Hi Cindi.

With an i.

My verbiage toward Cindi, sent along with a bit of cynical flirtation, created a vaccous split with Amie. She was not amused, her eyelashes tiny arrows burrowing into my forehead, drawing blood. But at least at made me fit into the group’s mantra of terrifying consistency.

Sorry everyone. Slipped out. I’ll try to reform.

Amie’s arrows exploded, hollow-point fragmentation, digging in layers deeper.

Hi. I’m Francine. I’m an alcoholic… and a drug addict.

And an abuser of convenient terrets, killer of a reasonably sound mind and extreme lover of mirrors, as I fully knew. I could go on, but in this meeting there was enough negativity already.

My turn. I really wanted to have a different name. I did. Norman just didn’t seem to work so well. Norman was too normal. But under pressure, Amie had told me to make something up right as we were walking down a red and yellow maple leaf covered sidewalk for our first time a baker’s dozen meetings ago.

I’m Francine.

Francine? Where the hell did that come from? Francine? Old family name from across treacherous Atlantic waters?

Shut up.

Jesus Amie.  Amie seems to be much more exotic than Francine. Amie is more French. You know how I love French.

Robert, just do it. It’s “anonymous,” remember?

But it’s “anonymous” as no confessions should… oh fine. Should I be Francois? Francis?

Don’t be an ass.

That might actually be a good one. I’ll say it with an Iranian accent “Illo. Me noh-ma iz Anoss.” Christ Amie, we’re spending more time with this than fixing…

Do it.

Amie’s eyes log-rolled when I said Norman. Unfortunate for her this meeting was on a Thursday when our cable college football game of the week was Kansas versus Oklahoma at the home of the Sooners, Norman. Could’ve been worse.  Manhattan. Friends call me Man. You can call me Manhattan. And you. You too.  You, mon Cheri, can call me Man.

Hi. I’m Norman. Husband and secret super hero of Francine here.

I patted her on the back of her loose aquamarine and deep purple blouse, sheer enough to let everyone know she was a Victoria’s Secret Flesh-colored B cup with no pretense. She reciprocated with a faux-love smile above our pull-out cafeteria table and a quick tight squeeze on my sac underneath. Eventually she’d let go. Eventually.

I couldn’t help myself as I tried to help her. Best as I could, I tried, but accountability wasn’t within most of their reach. All of it was complete bullshit, so I half-ass tried as my ass was tired of being dragged up and down Central, in and out of court on a perpetually moving revolving door. Security knew me by name, as did the court reporter, bailiff and Judge Roy Bean aka Jim Beam, scruffy as Andrew Jackson on a worn twenty, his hair shorn into buzz cut. Probably ex-Marine. For his sake, with drivel he dealt with daily, I hoped ex-Marine.

On cue this thirteenth evening came the Camels, alarmingly on cue after all introductions prior to sordid stories, straight out of a Busby Burkeley production.  Seventy-five percent, or 6 out of 8 preferred Camels. Two went Light, others straight up, and one, my “Francine” went filtered. The two abstainers were myself and inexplicably fighting-upstream against her stereotype, Cindi. Not that it mattered. With a room just big enough to hold a ten-person cafeteria table, small table for coffee and a 12 inch black & white TV plus a freestanding rotating fan kicking all smoke back into this room before it drifted out of main door, second hand smoke was a given. A swirling dust devil of death, if their second hand swirl didn’t get you, third hand would.

I thought no one could smoke in a hospital.

Had to point it out, so I said it. Once. Week 2. First came a series of “how dare you” stares, second explanation. As this was hosptial’s lower level next to electrical rooms, they had been cleared to smoke in this room as long as they kept all smoke out of the hall and left this room acrid smoke-smell free every other week after they met. Or, as “Francine” so delicately put it the time I spoke up

How can you be so stupid? It’s a hospital. Hospitals are here to help people get better…

Or kill them, I thought.

Having us meet here gives us confidence to move forward getting better. That’s what everybody, including the staff at the hospital, wants. Right?

I am sure altruism clearly fell onto hospital support staff’s side. No one goes into a profession as strenuous as nursing without having a feeling for all humanity thick as a defensive end’s thighs. However, I self-mused, thinking of more than one person who had gone into a hospital and come out with more than the day they arrived. My stepfather lost his appendix but gained a scalpel. A former crazy glue-snorting acquaintance claimed to harbor a fugitive glove near his stitched esophagus. It was plausible, but coming from a guy dark as an Amazon Brazilian claiming to be a distant relative of Rasputin, his tale was a bit hard to choke down.

Tonight Joseph started. Like fourteen of the last seventeen, according to Doris and twelve of our thirteen. He had missed three, claiming out of town business at Columbia. Right. Probably in Colombian up to his deviated septum.

I did okay this week.

Good, Joseph.

Nice. I’m sitting in a room full of narcissism up to my eyeballs, he gets a pat on the back, I get a squeeze in the sac.

I had a small slip-up this Monday night.

I try to remain stoic. It’s only a 90-minute meeting. I’ve been in worse. Once I was talked into going to a keen high school play. Turned out to be a not-so-keen born-again ploy to talk about the revival of Jesus in everyone’s lives. They weren’t so keen with me leading a discussion about having to have a vival before a revival as Jesus hadn’t exactly turned up for me for a first time. Yet I remained positive, realistically positive. 

Joseph was about to roll another red-carpeted lie off his tongue. Oh no, I hope it’s not another Monday Night Football drunken orgy. Please let us have all farcical details. Lay it on lowly us, as sand pebbles of life trod upon daily.

Thank the Lord there was no alcohol involved.

I choked it down, acid courtesy of a plate of pickled Jalapenos. Joseph, open up door number two, the Colombian. Colombian. Colombian. Come ON JOSEPH.  Grant us a bowl of fresh-powder skiing, Joseph!

Choking down the tears, he started up again.

It was a fight within me desperately seeking a drop of alcohol. No cough syrup or vanilla extract to be found.

A bit of acidic bile came up, but disappeared as I swallowed laughter. Best to recycle it for later, if needed. Did he just say Vanilla Extract? What the hell?

I found solace in a can of Kingsford lighter fluid.

Not a shock to anyone, but Cindi, who remained dumbfounded after spilling out a question on its knees begging to be asked

You snorted lighter fluid?

I drank it down.

As Norman, I was stereotypically expected to fold my hands and listen as if I was a counselor. If I had a camel’s hair smoking jacket I could play the role, not an Oscar-worthy performance, but good enough for daytime television. Alas, naming my character “Norman” was a tactical error. I should have named myself Chester or something more in tune with my character’s emboldened personality. I stepped up with a simple fact, announcing

There’s no alcohol in lighter fluid.

Sure there is.

It’s a petroleum product made from long-time, centuries-old, dead plants and animals. Remember those old commercials for some gas company when the green dinosaur turned into a big drop of oil?

Silence.

Anyone?

It’s fun to get “are you crazy” looks from a group of people who truly are crazy.  Makes you feel like a member of an exclusive club where you pay your dues not at, but out the door. I am confident every one of these fine upstanding people, the –icts in the room, have ictdar, working like “gaydar” does for the gay community. They can read it as accurately as Superman could the last line of an eye chart from three football fields away.

It’s a petroleum product. Can’t make alcohol without a plant – a formerly live plant.

Are you calling me a liar?

Slow down there Technicolor dreamcoat. Not a liar. A master of delusion maybe, but not a liar.

It’s people like you that make me want to start drinking again.

It’s OK, Joseph. He doesn’t mean anything by it.  Do you “Norman?”

No.  I shouldn’t judge, “Francine.” We all have our issues.

Joseph, a man who often mistook confusion for plain old disturbing reality, tried to corner me. But, he was acting as a little kid who knew next to nothing about this cornered strange banditoed animal wringing its hands, waiting for his next move. Joseph, as calmly as a sugared-up second grader, blurted out.

Like you do?

This isn’t my gathering. Here for support.

C’mon. What’s your problem?

I’m a compulsive gambler.

Football?

I hesitated, drawing in some sympathy and smoke from puffing mixed nuts. I had their rapt attention and as such, my narcissism (yes I had a good dose for I couldn’t be in this meeting without any) arose. Closing my eyes for effect only, I drew in a deep breath before expelling

Dog races.

Bill, our quiet one, was also a compulsive gambler. No one knew it but I. One evening a month or so ago when delusional brittle brown maple leaves clung to their branches long after others gave in to nature’s silent choke, I caught Bill outside on his cell arguing an over on the Michigan vs. Notre Dame game Saturday prior. Bill was losing the battle as I walked briskly by on his right. 

But as Bill was a gambler, he had a quasi-informed opinion on the topic. As brashly as Bashful Bill could blurt, he popped in with a rapid firing of

Thoroughbreds? Trotters? Greyhounds?

Basset Hounds. I always seem to end up putting my coin down on the one that steps on its ears. 

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

Coffee’s ready!

 

Saved by an incessant buzz consistently going off every 25 to 30 minutes during this meeting. Coffee… and cigarettes. An addict’s poor substitutes to feed a mind hungry for chemicals it fooled its owner into thinking it so desperately lacked.  They were Corn Flakes to their desired Frosted Flakes. These people sucked up coffee like a dromedary does water at an oasis. They held it in like the dromedary would, proudly carrying enough water to fill Glen Canyon, except they wouldn’t let any of it go until it spilled over all available sides, flooding lives of everyone near them.

Packets of aspartame torn, powdered creamer porn, wooden stirring sticks tornadoed otherwise placid brown water nearly as weak as most talking heads in this continually-shrinking room. I thought a comment about not sharing your stirring sticks might be appropriate, but not well received. Best to save some of my better material for another meeting.

Not my intention to be the antagonist, but as “Norman” I couldn’t help pointing out the absurd. Absurd may seem normal in this room, but on the outside looking in as I was, nothing was normal. Normal meant dragging surrounding innocents by their ankles through muddy sludge all the while complaining their own worn shoes were getting mud on them.

Doris double-humped her way into addiction, although this baggage her humps carried did not seem to be burdening her staid beast. Holding her Camel by its toes between her right index and f-off finger, she took a long draw before beginning her weekly speech.

Hey everyone. Guess it was a somewhat normal 13 days. I have the nine kids, as you all know, starting at 16 as most of you know. Three husbands, three, four and two in that order. The beatings started after a couple years – from all of them. Alcohol numbed it for the first few years. Couldn’t stomach the hard stuff.  Ever. Wine was the thing, cheaper the better.

She drew in more smoke. It exited Bacall-style, swirling around her silver flippy Mary Tyler Moore ‘do stubbornly held onto since glory days of Ted Baxter and Rhoda Morgenstern.

But wine was not going to cut it.  After Billy, my middle baby, was born with all his challenges, the beatings took more out of me. At first pot was good. Real good.

A few laughed at this. It was okay. She was smiling. They all knew what was coming.

But pot settles in you, taking more and more for the shit to make the mellow.  Went straight to eightballs. Shoot for the moon, you know? 

It’s okay, Doris. 

You’re good, Doris. 

Go ahead and cry Doris. Let it out.

Joseph always said “go ahead and cry.” Typical addict. If he does it, then everybody must. Except Doris. Doris never cried. Ever. Joseph would cry over a bad pedicure. Doris wouldn’t cry if someone shoved her foot into a garbage disposal.

The beatings don’t stop.  Mentally, physically, they don’t ever stop.  But I’m fine.  I take care of the kids. I work the two jobs. I’m alone, kind of, but I’m OK I guess.

Lots of quiet clapping for Doris. Justifiably. Doris always slightly smiled at me, and I knew she felt for me. She felt for me. What a state of malfunctioned abnormality, but she was the one who got it. She had discovered her hole, and more importantly, recognized it as such.

Doris’ “I’m alone, kind of” comment, set a torqued Greg’s hair-brain afire.  Looking at me as if I was the blood-and-bones representative of the outside world, Greg menaced

What is your real problem because it ain’t alcohol or drugs. You’re psycho.

I looked behind me to see if either some apparition had appeared from the smoke or if Tony Perkins had shown up. The apparition would be more likely, although for me, Tony Perkins, even a dead Tony, would be more of a welcome.  I spoke up, pitching an pinch of sarcasm.

You’re not talking to Doris, are you?

What business is it of yours?

Correct me if I’m wrong here mister coming-out-of-the-closet-soon-or-exploding, but this is an open meeting with these people discussing their problems without remorse or embarrassment, right?

Asshole. You embarrassed Joseph.

Joseph embarrassed Joseph.

Cindi laughed. Cindi snorted. Loud. Naturally. She was drunk. Perhaps that was the reason Joseph had lured her into coming. Hey sweetheart, you can drink the booze I can’t. Have at it, I’ll have at you after your eyes roll in the back of your head and you land on my tartan-decorated couch in my basement.

Amie’s grip, once released, returned. My balls were either going to be purple by morning, or dead from lack of blood, found shriveled the color and size of dried Brussel Sprouts weeks later in our fitted red rose-patterned sheet.

Norman…

Francine Lowfruit-a-squeezi, my Italian muffin. Hon. My apology.

The grip relaxed.

Bill the Bashful coughed twice, hacked once. His cue to the crew he was ready to spill his guts, possibly literally.

As per my custom, I am concentrating putting one foot in front of the other.

Bill got a few laughs from that one. The first time he said it.  Now, the thirteenth time I’ve heard it, his crack got as much mileage as a used Fiat. Not completely without some support, Cindi laughed.

The quiet ones were the ones I never trusted. Norman might, but I didn’t. Amie and I had discussed Bashful Bill more than once. The last time, three nights prior to tonight as we finished off a Baker’s Square French Apple pie in our tiny apartment kitchen, she went off with a cabinet-quaking

For God’s sake, Robert, what is wrong with you?

I’m just saying…

He’s a fucking podiatrist. He fixes people’s feet.

Uh-huh. I’m sure old Billy does, but I’m a-thinkin’ he’s got another fix for himself.

That’s disgusting and frankly, I am embarrassed you would even think it, perv.

What? You think this is a “takes one to know one?” issue? I’m no perv.

Cheri?

At least 40.

Yeah, well where there’s smoke…

There’s a truckload of Camels. I’m just saying something’s up with him. He’s not Bill the Bashful all the time. 

He’s a Podiatrist!!

And a Pederast. Or, I guess, at least a Feeterist.

Robert… drop it.

Rubbing young girl’s feet?

DROP IT!

 

I smiled thinking of “feeterist” as Greg shifted an inch or so to peel some pressure off his hemorrhoid before Bill re-upped the story ante.  Greg may have been suffering from hemorrhoids. It was not something I knew for fact. Bill was definitely suffering from memorrhoids, painful open lesions festering in his memory aching to come out but too painful to burst. In his customary arms-crossed-so-I-can-pretend-I-am-alpha-dog, Bill re-loosened phlegm coating his chords.

I had finished an old woman’s feet. Bunions the size of pinballs and just as hard, I massaged to loosen up ligaments around them. It was going to be a long process before I would be able to surgically repair her feet.

A long process. How apropos for addiction. I kept this in my own cranium. Bill re-ignited his vocal chords, bringing his voice down a couple octaves for his last sentence, sounding like an uneasy combination of Batman and The Grinch. Others, the addicts, in our room, acted as if they were all very well aware of this poor old woman’s feet, murmuring

Uh-huh.

So right.

Yes. Yes. Go on.

I thought about her aged feet. What they have been through. Where they had walked. It got to me. The time. Amount of time. The distance.

The verbal vomit. My throat ached. Last night’s nachos, coated with so many Jalapenos you had to dig to find a chip, desired passage back up my chow channel to marry their current Jalapeno brethren. Bill’s monologue, as sincere as a senior on prom night professing his love for his virgin sophomore date, was not bringing out the best in my gastro-intestinal system.

The blankie hankie came out. Bill always had his hankie on hand. Somehow it felt comforting to him so tears wouldn’t streak his clothing. Imagining Bill putting his hands on the germ-glistening rag before someone’s bunions did not bring any solace in my mind.

Bill blew into his rag, stuffing it into the front waist of his tea green slacks so it hung out as if he was the man placing his hands into the crotch of a bent-over center on Sunday.

After she left, I had an encounter with a young woman.

I looked at Amie, holding fast to an “I told you” gaze.

At first, a young woman’s feet are so tender, virginal. But you’d be surprised how many young women’s feet I see on a weekly basis… for a massage.

I knew it!

I thought I thought. Pulling acupuncture needles smart-bombed into my retinae through the laser-beamed stares of 15 angry eyes (due to a shotgun mishap, Greg has a glass eye a green hue lighter than the seeing orb), I knew I thought wrong.

Did I say that out loud? Oh. OH. OH. So sorry. It’s… it’s… it’s the game.  Tonight’s game. On my phone. Not now. The odds. I told my friend. Told him. Oklahoma should be two-touchdown favorites. How could they not be? They’re playing a beaten-up, poorly coached Jayhawk squad. You remember, Francine?

Amie was ready to kill me.

Uh. No. You know how I hate your gambling problem… Norman. I don’t pay attention. But then again, you don’t either.

Amie had me. I don’t. I tried, but now I don’t. All of these people at one point had been on the right track. Not one had been pushed off, they purposefully walked off their right track into deliberately slow, heavy path of the freight train of addiction. Despite their conventional group-think it was their brain deciding the need for them, they had done it on their own. No one else was to blame. Not their mother, father, abusive Uncle Jake, Aunt Kerra the trollop, Grandpa Albert with his chew and fungus-ridden spittoon. No one. Despite known facts, it was always someone else’s fault. Hell, I knew what I had done. My faux pas thinking out loud was my fault. Nonetheless, when faced with a group of social diverters, I can divert right along with them.

Anyone up for Stan’s Steak Smorgasbord?

Stan’s Steak Smorgasbord was re-dubbed, by me, Stan’s Misteak Smorgasbord.  To celebrate the pre-holiday season, our group had unanimously decided to meet at Stan’s for a celebratory buffet meal the prior Sunday.

Getting together inside a hospital meeting room a floor under an isolated wing was one thing. Meeting in public was quite another. They only had one thing in common and not one of them was going to bring up addiction in public. And they were anonymous. Meeting in public destroyed their anonymity. Once in the chow line to snag a tenderized-with-a-sledge-hammer fried steak, it dawned on them.  They were to gather but not together. Instead of taking over one of Stan’s long communal tables, each couple selected their own booth. Aside from addiction, there was nothing for them to talk about. Not one knew anything else about the other.

You’re an asshole.

What? Stan’s wasn’t satisfactory? How aboutchange to Chinese Chicken Chow Chow?

Francine, forehead planted in her palms, spoke to the coffee ring stains on the deep brown faux wood-grain table, laminate held from chipping by a ring of rubber.

How about you shut the hell up, Norman. God-dammit! Jesus! Are you ever going to understand?!

I held this table, palms pressed in, keeping it from going anti-gravitational.  Rising, my right hand instinctively went through my hair, clearing my brown strings off my forehead. I grabbed my Milky Way creamed coffee.

Am I ever going to understand. Hmm.

Going counter-clockwise towards main door, I semi-circled the table.

Am I ever going to understand. Let me see. Here’s what I understand, to the best of my knowledge. Every one of you, with the possible exception of Doris, are suns. Not S-O-N-S, either. All of you think you are the sun, source of all life.  Without you, the rest of us would surely wither. The rest of us are required by you and-you-and-you-and-you to orbit around your narcissism. You are flawed. You all know that. But every one of you – again Doris I think you may be the lone exception – can always come up with someone or something else to be at fault. Not as if I have written all of it down, but it has fused to my memory.

My parents ignored me.

The kids when I was in elementary school were mean.

There’s too much pressure to pay property taxes.

The judge is out to get me.

Strangers are out to get me.

I’m out to get me. But that’s because of my mother-boyfriend-counselor-sponsor-whomever. Perhaps Slash. Yes, when in doubt blame it on Slash. Don’t look at each other trying to figure out who Slash is because you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not one fucking bit.

You’re not the sun. What you are, cosmically-speaking, is a black hole. People in your life are not orbiting you, as you see it. We’re circling in your cosmic dust devil, desperately trying not to get sucked into your shit, trying not to get lost with you, trying to make sure any innocents around you don’t go down with you. That, “Francine” is what I understand. If I’ve gotten it wrong, please blow some of your blessed sunshine right up my ass.

Amie pulled her eyes off the table.

You Son-of-a-…

How about I go out for a drag? You discuss it amongst yourselves.

Years of contained breath stuck to my nostrils, freezing before completion of exit. Ice crunched under my waffled hiking boots, snapping like sizzling rice noodles. Snow arrived once, dumping six inches six weeks ago. Two remained. The rest had turned most of Chicago into a series of black ice patches. 

No Camels in my winter bus carbon-tinged sunburst yellow down coat pocket, I headed to my car. Boots fell heavy, as did my heart, but conscience? Conscience was clean, uplifted.

My Malibu’s door moaned as it always did during these dark months, not willing to let what little interior warmth remained to escape. My oxidized blue baby was an appliance, an Amana on wheels. She started up with nary a whine. I grabbed glove box door, popping it open to expose its corral containing herds of Camels.  Formerly. They had escaped, leaving nary a single Camel.

Lips wetted, salivating for nicotine salvation. My Malibu, oxidized blue vainly attempting twinkling star reflection, wheeled out of hospital’s back lot, cranking a right heading south. 

I wanted a fresh pack, freshest I could get.