The Great TV War of Aught 17

“So what was it? What brand?”

“What difference does that make, Matty? It had a big ass like a Mexican chica on an all-tortilla diet. No one likes that.”

“Some do.”

Michael looked Matty over. There was no question he would, but a questioning look comes searching for a response. He waited patiently as Matty created his burger pyre, a briquette pyramid, and lit it in three different places.

“Just saying, some do. I… I wouldn’t mind.”

“You wouldn’t mind as long as they had a heartbeat, Matty. But yeah, you’re right.”

They settled into deck chairs, each in their own, both easy-on-the-eyes forest green fabric fold-ups with cupholders containing cans of Coors. Afternoon sunlight dappled the deck, creeping in between boards where rays could find space. Matty looked over at the grill. Charcoal would take a few moments to get good and grey.

“A full damn week, huh.”

“Two, Matty.”

“Two? Forgot I missed last week.”

“It’s okay.”

“Not sure it is.”

“It is, no regrets. Won’t have it, Matty, just won’t. Two full damn weeks. First week it just sat there like a grey cement squirrel.”

“People have cement squirrels?”

“They have cement geese.”

Michael nodded toward one of the neighbors’ homes facing his deck. Matty took a peek at the briquettes, glancing over at the geese as his eyes roved back to Michael.

“With clothes.”

“With clothes, Matty, clothes. Don’t that beat all.”

“And people change out the clothes?”

“All the time.” Michael took a moment to breathe. “Change. It’s the change that caused the damn thing to be out there in the first place.”

“The geese?”

“Matty, no. The TV.”

“And stupidity.”

“Well, ignorance.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“Them?”

“People who owned it.”

“Around. Seen them around. Listened to them. They were no honors students for sure.”

Rain had taken most of the day, ebbing in the late afternoon enough for Matt to coax Michael out to the deck as a double rainbow filled the sky behind the small raft of pines dotting the front yard where the pines rimmed the street. Michael spent some days on the deck, even though the sun sapped him of energy while burying him under a reddish tan glow.

“They’re kids, Matty. Young couple. Foolish to some, impetuous to others; arrogant to all. They moved into the townhouse, a rental, a few months ago. Threw a big moving party where no neighbor was informed or invited. Kids.”

“Still, even kids… two full weeks. Damn.”

“Yeah, week two? That’s when one of the neighbors got pissed, Matty. Took the big-ass TV, well it wasn’t much more than a 32-inch screen, but that ass? Wow. Took it and put it rightbehind one of their cars… along with their trash can.”

“Their trash can?”

“They didn’t pick it up, either… again. Left it out there for days after it was emptied. Ridiculous. Middle of the night comes…”

“Like midnight?”

“Actually midnight really isn’t the middle. It’s like three in the morning.”

“Three in the morning?”

“Yep. I had to look, Matty. Don’t sleep much anyways. Asshole kid, the male, got pissed and rolled the TV onto the grass then angrily dragged his can…”

“His trash can…”

“Yeah, trash can back to his place. Pretty sure that set someone off.”

“You?”

“Nah. Not so much. Not anymore, you know. And I’m across the street, Matty, not on it. That’s not my battle. These days? Just a witness to what’s happening.”

Matty rose and went to the grill. An old canister type, the grill was formerly their father’s but after his death their mother gave it to Michael. Matty never cared much for it, charcoal style. He was a gasman and had run a line under his deck at his home for a permanent hook-up. Charcoal was work, and these briquettes were no different than any other. They stubbornly held onto their blackness, barely willing to concede to their demise. He admitted to Michael charcoal was better. It was, but it was effort he’d not concede to at his place. This spot was Michael’s so he bent to Michael’s wishes without bending over so much he’d topple. Michael hated overreaching kindness and Matty respected Michael’s request.

“Cops came right after that. Next night.”

“Cops?”

“Yep. Someone, pretty sure it was the pissed-off neighbor who moved the TV to behind one of their cars, must’ve put in the call.”

“Which car?”

“The sporty one. Red. You can see it I think, Matty. Mustang.”

“You know a Mustang when you see one.”

“You’re right. I mean I get it. Take care of your own shit, right?”

“You always have down to…”

“Tell me about it. Some don’t… and some get mighty pissed about it, Matty. Sets them off. So the cops came. Two cars.”

“Two? Two cops?”

“No, well yes, two cops… but two cars. One of them parked rightbehind the red car…”

“The Mustang.”

“That’s the one. My guess is the cop did it, Matty, to block them in case they fled.”

“Fled? Over a TV on the curb?”

“There have been other issues.”

“Cops been there before?”

“Yep. Before.”

“Over?”

“Domestic shit, I guess. Not sure. Drinkers though, Matty, that I know… and possibly the world’s worst parkers.”

“Mustang parked bad?”

“Not that night. Most nights no, but on occasion? Well Matty, there’s a huge difference between being parked on the street than in the street. Three feet out is ‘in,’ if you catch me.”

“Consider yourself caught.”

Michael nodded toward the grill. Matty called off his sign by shaking his head. But what did he know? Gasman. Matty got up and took the few steps to the grill.

“I was always lousy at Hide-n-Seek, Matty. Lousy.”

“Don’t think you were, I was always suggestive on where to hide. Made it easy… for me.”

“Any suggestions now?”

Matty took the dome top off the grill and hung it on the hook attached to the grill’s rim. Finally, charcoal sat grey, spitting off peaks of brilliant orange. He took the burgers and dropped them onto the grate. As meat sizzled, Matty looked over at Michael. There was no hiding for Michael now and no reason to do so.

“So the cops…”

“Yes. The cops. One of them takes out his big flashlight, Matty. I mean it was…”

“Maglight.”

“Maglight?”

“It’s what they call them I think.”

“From experience, Matty? You know from…”

“Never been on the bad end of one… if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Didn’t think so. Would’ve known.”

“Mom was never good keeping secrets.”

“No, but good on you for that. Staying safe; healthy.”

Matty flipped the burgers. He couldn’t look at Michael for a second as he contemplated his brother’s choice of words. Michael, at this time of his life, was contemplative. Wasn’t always so, but lately he’d become more introspective.

“So the cops?”

“Right. Well one gets out his light. First takes a look at the big-ass TV carefully like it’s a bomb.”

“Never know.”

“Here? Well I guess you’re right about that anywhere, Matty. If I were a copper I’d… so after inspection he walks up the center section between the twin sets of townhouses with the other cop following. Must’ve talked to the couple for sure. They were up there for awhile. But shit, how much time would you spend on dealing with a TV on the curb? None for me.”

Ever since Michael was a kid he liked to have his burger grilled so when he bit into it he could see pink, but not taste pink. A small smile crept over Matty as he thought about Michael as a young boy, yelling his cow was still alive as their father had pulled them off the grill too soon to Michael’s liking. And cheese. Michael could be particular about cheese. American, according to Michael was ‘a crime, a cheese shortcut created by and for the ADHD.’ Michael was a cheddar person, so Matty made sure to bring over some strong Wisconsin Cheddar, enough for the burgers and enough to leave, although he second-guessed leaving any and would reluctantly take it back if pressed.

“After about fifteen minutes or so? They leave.”

“Both?”

“Yep. Both coppers. Gone.”

“Took the TV with them?”

“Why the hell would they do that, Matty? No. Probably just gave them a warning to get rid of it. Next day comes…”

“Poof. TV is gone.”

“You’d think so, big brother? You’d be wrong, Matty, plain wrong. Morning comes, and there it is.”

“Still on the lawn?”

“Oh no. Too funny? Someone, I’m guessing…”

“Pissed off neighbor.”

“Yep. Well they put that big-ass TV rightinthemiddle of the lane.”

“Where everyone…?”

“Yep. No one can move around it… unless you have a small car… which in fact our young couple does. They have two.”

“The Mustang and…”

“Something else, Matty. Hatchback. Silver like a rocket but scoots like a water bug.”

“So they can get by …”

“But no one else really can. A ton of trucks over there. Not really a good idea by…”

“Pissed-off neighbor.”

“Or…? Maybe not Matty, maybe not. What I thought was, hell Mr. PO’d has put it in a spot where someone else needs to call the cops, Matty. The cops are not going to be overjoyed coming back.”

“And…?”

“Couple moved it.”

“They did?”

“Yep. Back to the curb.”

“Same spot…”

“Same spot it had been at for 13 days at this time.”

Cheese, consistently cut thick by Michael’s request remembered from years ago, stayed thick, gelling onto the burger, bubbling at the edge. Matty took both burgers off, dropping them onto buns toasted lightly where the grill marks were evident on the bun’s edge but faint in the middle, the way Michael liked his bread. Matty took the plates and placed them on the narrow table between the two chairs where sat a small plate of garnishments – sliced red onion and tomato, leaves of Boston Bibb, squeeze bottles of yellow mustard and ketchup.

Michael thought ketchup to be an abomination, but allowed it, his mind thinking it was one of the ways to keep Matty coming over. Dumb thinking and most times he knew it, but his mind was not as sharp as it had been. He nodded toward Matty, watching Matty build his burger, turning his head away as Matty grabbed the ketchup. Once the bottle breathed back in, Michael turned back.

“This time, Matty? This time they had a sign.”

“A sign?”

“Taped right to the screen.”

“Did it say free?”

“Did.”

“So you checked.”

“Kind of had to at this point, Matty.”

“Why?”

“Tired of sitting on my deck watching the whole proceedings without knowing what was going on.”

“But you knew that…”

“I knew, but I didn’t know, you know?”

“Big letters? Free is pretty easy to see.”

“If it only said free Matty? You’d be correct.”

“But it didn’t?”

“Nope. Whole sentences.”

“Sentences? That’s a lot for an old TV.”

“Could say that.”

He had waited for his brother, but couldn’t wait any longer. Matty took his first bite before the piping heat escaped his burger. He liked his initial bite to rest between morning coffee first degree tongue burn and while the cheese was still moving like The Blob, slowly crawling over the lower bun. They must’ve spent a days worth of time watching and re-watching that movie when they were kids. That slow crawl, The Blob constantly moving forward and catching people, had been fascinatingly hysterical to them. No one escaped it.

Matty glanced at his created burger gap. Perfect faint pink. He nodded toward Michael who returned the nod.

“What’d it say?”

“Give me a minute, Matty. “

“You okay?”

“Yeah yeah yeah. Good as can be expected.”

“You got across though.”

“Well yeah, thirty yards took its toll.”

“You don’t have that much tube.”

“Took it off.”

“You took it off?”

“Took it off. Just thirty; well sixty in total. Pretty good. But I had to Matty… return.”

“Can you remember? I don’t mean anything by it, the…”

“I do, Matty. I do. It said ‘This TV could be the cause of either a divorce or a murder, depending upon who you come across. It works. Save someone’s life. Take it. It’s FREE.’ The ‘FREE’ part was capitalized.”

Michael danced out a slight smile, adding, “Now don’t that beat all. For those two? Pretty clever.”

Matty took a big bite. Michael had yet to sink his teeth into his burger. Matty could engage and display his disappointment but he didn’t do that anymore. Days of playing big brother were past. He nodded toward the burger and Michael as if the burger was going to provide some sort of answer. Burger held its secret as Michael pursed his lips and shrugged. Matty politely swallowed, clearing his mouth before questioning.

“So you got that close to it and still can’t remember the brand?”

“What difference does that make?”

“Just messing with you a bit. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. No harm done, Matty.”

It had been nearly a half-year since Matty had been coming over once a week to see his younger brother. Mostly once a week. He had missed a few, thinking perhaps Michael needed a break from him. Michael made no fuss about it, not even using what was once his trademark younger brother guilt as leverage.

Matty took another bite of his burger as Michael’s remained whole.

“I’ve done everything but hang-glide, Matty. You realize that? Pretty much everything I’ve wanted to do? I did it.”

“But hang-glide.”

“But that.”

“Next week?”

“You want to have the oxygen tank hit a rock and cause a spark and then…? I’d ruin the entire youthful geriatric hang-gliding industry. Couldn’t live with that on my head.”

“How about the girl?”

“Across the street?”

“Yeah, she’s worth looking over, right?”

“You’ve seen her, Matty?”

“I’ve seen her.”

“There’s three decades between us.”

“You know I’m just…”

“Oh I know. How can I not? Can’t live with her on my head either, Matty. She’s a slight thing, but still? Break my damn neck.”

Matty smiled at Michael’s humor as Michael picked at his burger. Not hungry, he pulled with thumb and forefinger somewhat to appease Matty, took a small chunk out of it, wedged it into his gumline as if it were chew. He had loved chew as a young man, but given the option between tobacco or hamburger between his cheek and gum, he’d opt for hamburger every time. Faint pink in the middle, Matty cooked a fine burger. Michael pushed the burger back with his tongue and wedged it in his left molar area so he could talk.

“It’s good, this Sunday. Good day.” Michael slowly chewed the chunk, thinking of his luck. Perfect burger. “I appreciate the fact you’ve come over so much. Can’t be repaid you know, Matty.”

“And for Tuesday?”

“You skipped Monday.”

“Nothing to talk about with Monday. You want I could come over.”

“No, not Monday. You’re coming Tuesday, right Matty? You are coming Tuesday?”

“That I am. I promise, Michael.”

Not much of his burger left, Matty carefully took a slighter bite, making sure his final two bites would both contained charred burger and blobbed cheddar.

“Can I ask?”

“Ask what, Matty?”

“Why Tuesday?”

“Nothing else better to do. TV war is over. There’s peace. Then Tuesday’s gone… with the wind.”

“Still got that record?”

“Skynnyrd? Sure. Can find it easy. Want it?”

“If it’s okay with you, I’d rather not talk about…”

“No need to really.’ Michael pulled off another chunk of burger and saluted his older brother. “Love you Matty.”

“Love you too, Michael.”

Michael had seen his fair share of sunsets. This one was one of the better ones. Sun threw light from the west into the eastern sky a hazy purple with a faint orange lift atop the passing rainclouds. They sat for a moment, two brothers appreciating the twilight of a soft Sunday.

“It was a Sony by the way, Matty.”

“You were always good with the details.”

 

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.”