In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders says this:
“If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, ‘Given how generally sweet people are, why is the world so messed up*?’ Gogol has an answer: we each have an energetic and unique skaz loop running in our heads, one we believe in fully, not as ‘merely my opinion’ but ‘the way things actually are, for sure’.
The entire drama of life on earth is Skaz-Headed Person #1 steps outside, where he encounters Skaz-Headed Person #2. Both, seeing themselves as the center of the universe, thinking highly of themselves, immediately misunderstand everything. They try to communicate but aren’t any good at it.
Saunders is explaining Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Nose. The story is absurd. It’s a form of Russian story-telling called skaz, where the narrator of the story becomes part of the story because of his own inept story-telling. Google it. Or better yet, read Saunders’ book.
I came across the passage and thought, yep, that’s how we are in real life. We’re all just skazzes. I find it funny because it’s true.
*Saunders used a description a little cruder than “messed up.” I took editorial liberty to clean it up a tad, though I personally am not offended by the cruder language. They’re just words, after all.
In The Darling, Chekhov tells the story of a woman who is somewhat of a serial lover, losing herself to whomever she loves. When we first meet Olenko, we admire her utter devotion to the man she loves. When he dies, she repeats the pattern with her new love. And when he dies, she repeats it again with her new love, and we begin to have questions about her. We begin to see the flaws in her character. And yet, her biggest sin is loving too much and too easily.
In his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders offers this about Olenka:
“I feel about Olenko the way I think God might. I know so much about her. Nothing has been hidden from me. It’s rare, in the real world, that I get to know someone so completely. I’ve known her in so many modes: a happy young newlywed and a lonely old lady; a rosy beloved darling and an overlooked, neglected piece of furniture, nearly a local joke; a nurturing wife and an overbearing false mother.
And look at that: the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment. Some essential mercy in me has been switched on. What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He’s able to, supposedly, love us so much.”
And it’s running down my arm, dripping onto the dirty concrete, pooling like cherry jello next to the steps where I’m sitting, hoping someone has called for a wagon, but then I realize the closest ambulance sits idle at the hospital twenty miles away. It’s a long, deep cut and it’s all I can do to keep the pressure on.
Apologies to Dylan. He wrote that song, what, fifty years ago? Sixty, maybe?
Ma’s been gone a while.
Nothing good happens after midnight, she used to tell me. It’s 1:37 and all self-respecting people in this godforsaken town are fast asleep. Truth is, there’s not too many of them left.
There’s this photograph, a grainy black and white, probably taken about the same time Dylan wrote that song. I would have been about eight. Ma sitting at table with her sister-in-law, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Looks like they had been working, or maybe getting ready to work. They all look tired. They’re all at rest now.
It seems to be slowing down a little. Maybe if knot my shirt around the cut. Kind of hard to do with just one arm, but if I can take one end with my teeth and pull tight. It’s cool out here but it was muggy in that closed-up building and I was starting to sweat before I went through the window so taking off my shirt feels pretty good. And there’s nobody around to see my soft, pasty flesh.
Ok. That’s better. But it’s hurting now. Not just stinging from the cut but real pain. The muscle’s been cut. I’m probably going to need surgery. I can’t stay on this stoop.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.
Ma and her sister-in-law were young women with their glorious lives ahead of them. Later I would see the color photographs they were proud to show, their hair just right, their smiles beaming. But in this old black-and-white they looked tired. Just beat.
Kennedy was assassinated around that time. Then Martin Luther King. Then the other Kennedy. Death was all around. So when I came home one day after a nasty fall in the creek, blood streaming down my leg, ma looked at me like I was going to die.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding, I told her back then.
Dylan had nothing on me. If I could have just come up with the other existential verses and the complex rhythms and rhyming patterns and a hundred other songs I could have been another Dylan.
I’m walking now. Not to the hospital. I couldn’t do that under the best circumstances. And not home.
Just about every storefront I walk by is empty. More than a few with the glass busted out. So when Decker tossed me through the plate glass window of the old hardware store, it was kind of like if tree fell in the forest and nobody was there to hear it, would it still make a noise? If anybody heard, nobody would care. That’s how it is here.
And I can’t blame Decker. He had to do it.
I’ve always been an under-achiever. Ma had more faith in me than I deserved. Maybe it was just hope. My sisters were something else. Intelligent, outgoing. Honor roll. And my cousins, the kids of the sister-in-law in that photograph, they were the best at everything. And then there was me.
I don’t know. I tried. Sometimes. Most of the time I just didn’t care that much. Went to the university after high school but didn’t last a semester. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I had fun.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.
He never even sings that line in the song but in my head he does and I’m singing it over and over because that’s the only line I know and the rest of the song is beyond my comprehension.
I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Not since ma’s funeral. I don’t know if I was ever an alcoholic. I drank a lot, but never on the job. But there was a lot of stress and the drink softened the edges.
Been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long enough to build a family. First one was peer pressure. Everyone was getting married and it seemed like the reasonable thing to do, but we were way too young. Didn’t know who we were. Second marriage I blame to an out-of-control libido. And when the flame died down there was nothing else.
My dad died when I was thirty. Hardly ever see my sisters. They’ve lived out of state most of their lives. They’ve got family. And their families got families.
There’s a safe house about five miles away. Little cabin about a mile off the hard road back in the woods. I’ll stay there and call Decker in a couple of hours. Have him run me over the mountain before dawn.
I shouldn’t be doing this. Not at my age. I should be at a desk. There’s younger guys that could have taken the assignment. It didn’t have to be me. Didn’t have to be good old Joey.
But Joey, he’s got no kids. No grandkids. No wife. Not even a regular girl. Evenings are bad. Weekends worse. I got to find something to fill the time. And so here I am out here after midnight, when nothing good happens. Right, ma?
I had to talk the captain into letting me do it. He didn’t come right out and say what I already knew, that I’m too old to be chasing bad guys and getting thrown threw a window. He’s right.
But I’ve seen what the pills do. And if it was just killing the ones who used it, I might be ok with that. But I’ve seen the kids, the ones I never had, and they end up being raised by their grandma. Or maybe their great-grandma. And I think of that photograph. And I’m glad ma lived in simpler times and I’m glad that those ladies in that simple kitchen never had to see what things have come to. And maybe I can save a family. Maybe I can do some good.
So Decker’s the middle man. He sets up the meeting between the docs and pharmacist. That’s me. At least that’s my role. We talk to the docs and convince them that it’s all safe. They can write the scripts and I’ll fill them at the pharmacy, no questions asked. Then we get a some of our younger plain clothes to pose as patients and when the doc rights the scripts, we start building the case. They wear wires and everything. Once things are set up, we move on to the next county. It’s usually low risk with meet-ups in a diner or sometimes at the doc’s house. But his was different. Should have known better.
The docs are usually forty-something. Maybe they realized they’re never going to be the hot-shot surgeon they thought they’d be in med school. Maybe they see they’re not going to have that big house on the hill, or the condo in Florida, so they see the chance for easy money and what they felt was their destiny. Or maybe it’s just simple greed.
But Doc Varney was different. He’s in his seventies. Everyone in the county knows him and there’s a cloud of fear that overcomes folks when you talk about him. He’s been involved in the drug business since before the opiates took over. So he’s a prime target.
He wanted to meet after hours at the hardware building. Bad move by me and Decker to agree to it. Should have been neutral turf. Supposed to meet at ten, but he called and put it off till midnight. Then one. Nothing good, I told Decker. Nothing good.
Varney shows up and he’s not alone. There’s another guy, body guard or some such thug. Varney’s probably around five-eight and his thumb-breaker, a neanderthal for sure, is maybe six-two and probably weights two-fifty, hair cut close to the scalp, belly puffed out beyond his windbreaker jacket. He looks at me. Eying me.
Decker’s talking to Varney, the usual patter. I hear my name mentioned. Joey will take care of everything he says. Plenty of money for everyone. And best of all, it’s legal. Well, that’s a lie. And if it was legal, it’s completely immoral. I see Varney smiling.
And then neanderthal pulls a gun. He points it at me.
He’s a cop, he says to Varney.
Decker looks surprised. No way, he says. He runs the pharmacy over in Herndon.
Neanderthal knows me for sure. He tells Varney and Decker that I was in the task force that took him and Gilley down. He calls me by name. What was it Joey, six years ago?
Yeah, I’m thinking. He’s right. Six years ago.
You’re a cop? It’s Decker. He gives me a backhand across the chops.
Varney’s left the building and is sitting in his car. That’s when Decker takes me by the collar and heaves me through the window. I hear a gun shot and see a puff of concrete dust where the bullet hit beside me.
Varney yells something and the goon gets in with Varney and they take off. Decker does, too. He’s staying in character. Too much invested in all of this just to give it up. Besides, I just crashed through the window. How bad could it be?
It’s alright ma. I’m only bleeding.
Another mile and I’ll be off the hard road. Feeling tired and thirsty but there’s food and drink at the cabin. And a real bandage.
I don’t hear the car and it surprises me as it came around the curve. I try to step back into the edge of the woods but I’m too slow. The car throws gravel off the shoulder as the wheels lock up.
I reach for my Glock but I’m too late. He’s leaning out the window, firing. I take a shot in the shoulder, then my stomach, then my chest.
I’m on the ground, looking up at the stars. I can’t move. I hear the car throwing gravel again.
I can’t move. I’m gurgling blood. I know what that means.
I’ll be dead afore the ground thaws in spring. So be it and amen.
The house is full of people come to tell me goodbye. And I’m laying in bed, alone in this dark room. Oh, they been here, said their hellos and moved on to the kitchen, I reckon. I smell a roast or something. Doubt that Mom cooked anything. She can still do eggs in the morning and maybe some beans and cornbread of the evenings, but she can’t cook for a whole mess of people like has come here today. She ain’t that much better off than me. She ain’t my mom, you know. She’s my wife, my help meet, as the good book says. All these years.
I can hear them in the back room, too, watching that danged television. Football, football, football. Ever now and again they let out a whoop.
They didn’t have football in my day. Well, maybe they did, but it wasn’t like it is now. Sure fire didn’t have no television. They don’t live like we used to. Now days they watch other people live. We did things. Went out on the river. If I could get out this bed I’d take them down to my museum one last time. Show them that alligator I got down in the bayou. Got that on the second trip down the Mississippi. That was back when you made your own boats. Flat boats. No motors like they got now. Just float down the river with the current. We’d hunt all the way down and when we got to the bayou, we’d sell the boat and send our haul back by rail. Except on that second trip, the Eugene – that was the name of the boat – got caught up in the trees and rocks and such and sank in the shallows. We tried to pull it out but we lost ever thing. Saved just enough to get a train ride home.
Those were good days.
One of them rug rats came in. Red-haired kid. Cute little thing, wearing a girly white dress. She stayed out in the hall at first, peeking in through the doorway. I told her come on in. She stood next to the bed, didn’t say nothing.
What’s your name?
How old are you?
I’m ninety two.
She had nothing to say to that. Kind of tickled me.
Did you get you something to eat?
She looked around the room. The wallpaper had started peeling off the walls. Been that way for a while. Plaster on the ceiling is brown from water stains and ever few weeks a chunk will fall to the maple floor and Blanche or Hubert will come in and pick it up. If they’re feeling special industrious one of them might bring a broom and a dustpan. I think Hubert drinks. I know Blanche does. But they do enough round the house to keep me and Mom from doing harm to ourselves.
The house was built by my daddy. He was fairly well off and kept the place pretty good, but if I’m being honest, my hunting and trapping didn’t bring in enough money to keep up the house proper. I refinished the floors once. Probably fifty year ago. You can’t tell it now. Worn down to bare wood between the bed and the door. Hubert put tape on the cracked window glass. No sense in doing any more than that. My time is short and Mom will be close behind. When she’s gone, the power company will finish the job that time and mother nature started and take the house to the ground. I hate it that it has to end that way, but no one else cares much.
So be it and amen.
Is this your home?
The red-haired girl. Guess I drifted off. Happens like that when your last breath could come any time. Forgot she was in the room. I opened my eyes and took in a deep breath and let it go in a long, slow whistle.
She didn’t mean nothing bout the question, she just wanted to know if I was the one who lived in that shamble of a house. Just a rug rat asking a question. But I pondered on it a spell.
Home? Maybe once. When I could get around. I’d hunt, and Mom would cook up whatever I brought home. Pheasant. Squirrel. Turkey. Deer. We’d have a feast. And family would come in on Sundays. My regular family. Brothers and their kin. And we’d tell stories and plan our next trip. We’d share a bottle or two in those days and my brother Aaron would have too much and start to bragging about his shooting skills and before the day was out we’d be back behind the kitchen shooting bottles off the fence post.
We hadn’t used that cabin in the back as a kitchen for as long as I can remember. I used it to cure pelts. And tobacco, them few years I tried my hand at farming. Hard tell what’s back there now.
Yeah, honey. This is my home. For a spell longer, anyways.
I laughed a little at that, which started me coughing and wheezing and I couldn’t stop. Blanche heard me and came in and pulled me up in the bed. Nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket. She pulled my pillows up then pushed my head back down and flattened my hair to my head. She yanked the covers up over my shoulders, not even asking me if I was cold. She sure treats an old man rough.
Red stood there watching and Blanche gave her the stink eye, and when Blanche headed for the door, I managed to give Red a wink.
She kindly smiled.
Don’t get old, honey.
I laughed again but seems my coughing spell was over.
I used to keep gumdrops in a glass bowl on my nightstand but the jar was empty. Sugar stuck to the sides of the bowl. On the dresser is a picture of Mom, all young and pretty in her red dress, cepting the picture is black and white. Maybe more brown. But I remember that dress. Beside her picture is one of my daddy. Not as mean as he looks. He was a good man. Died when he was forty-two. Consumption.
She looked at me, not getting my meaning. I reached for my cane. Always keep my cane with me, even in bed. I picked it up, the worn oak so familiar in my hands. Oak maybe as old as me. I told Mom to make sure they put it in the ground with me.
I picked it up, held it up to my eye like I was sighting a rifle, and aimed at the dresser.
She knew what I meant but she wasn’t sure.
She walked to the dresser.
Open it up.
It stuck at first but she gave it a strong pull and it squeaked as it opened.
She looked inside, then back at me.
Look under the handkerchiefs.
She pulled them back.
The wood box. Bring it to me.
I thought she would hesitate but she didn’t. She picked up the box and walked straightway to me. She stood next to the bed and held the box out.
I took it and she stared at my hands, gnarled and bent out of shape by age and ever thing I had done in my life. Can’t remember how many times I broke one of my fingers. Life on the flat boat ain’t for the faint. And when you skin an animal, you’re just as likely to skin yourself. Then there’s my fingernails. Blanche aint’ cut them in a while.
I gave Red a smile and a wink and she smiled back.
I lifted the lid, half expecting the box to be empty. Figured Hubert would have found the box by now. Maybe he had. Wasn’t really worth that much. Ten dollars. Ten silver dollars.
I picked up a few and hefted them in my hand. I love the way silver dollars clink against each other. Kind of heavy and muted. Makes you feel like you have something worthwhile.
I looked through them, trying to find the newest, shiniest dollar. Not that they were new. Like ever thing else in this old house, they were at least fifty years old. But I found one in pretty good shape. I picked it out from the others and held it up, letting the dim light through the cracked window do what it could to show its shine. Not much.
I held it out to Red.
She took it, stared at it.
It’s a silver dollar. It’s only worth a dollar.
I want you to keep it. Something to remember old Sid by. Will you keep it?
She nodded again.
Don’t lose it.
She closed her hand around the coin and put her hand in one of the pockets of her dress. I closed the lid on the box and closed my eyes.
When I woke again it was dark. The house was quiet. I could hear Blanche and Hubert in the kitchen talking to Mom. Couldn’t tell what they were saying. Making plans, I reckon. I’ll be gone soon. It’s only right.
So be it and amen.
There’s no way he knew what he gave me back then. It was just a dollar. They don’t make money like that anymore. It’s different. It’s real. Like Sid.
I didn’t know him. Barely even remember that time in his room, in that old house. But when I see the pictures, like the one with his birthday cake, it all comes back. The fading wallpaper. The crumbling plaster. The smells. The old gas furnace with fumes not quite burned. The mildew coming from the wood just beginning to rot inside the house and far enough along on the front porch that bumble bees and yellow jackets had taken over.
Sometimes I have dreams that I’m back in that house that seems to ramble on forever and I’m lost upstairs or in a room I didn’t know existed or trapped in the kitchen out back. It’s terrifying.
My kids are grown with families of their own but when they were growing up I told them about Sid. Showed them the pictures. I’ve even taken them to what’s left of the museum in Point Pleasnt. The kitchen was restored and moved to wide spot beside the highway. Every fall – football, football, football – they open it to the public and make apple butter. I’m sure Mom made apple butter for Sid.
It was an 1884 Morgan Silver Dollar. S series. Last time I had it appraised it was worth about $200,000. He had no way of knowing how valuable it would become. Just a shiny coin for little girl.
I keep it in a box in the top drawer of my dresser, under my scarves. I know I should put it in the safe deposit box. That would be the prudent thing to do. But I like to take it out and hold it, feel its heft. There’s more to life than money.
Sid knew that. Sid lived it.
The house – his home – is long gone. Hard to even see where it used to be. Doesn’t matter. Because I remember the kindness a gentle man showed to a small child so long ago.
This story is a work of fiction, though certain aspects are true. Albert Sidney Morgan lived a life of adventure and did indeed built flatboats, including the Eugene, and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions. He lived across from the John Amos power plant near Winfield and some of you may remember his Morgan’s Museum. In his last years, there was in fact a gathering at his house and Sid was bed-ridden, but I don’t know if he was in his last days, as he is in this story. The guests were watching football, and Sid did utter the immortal words, “football, football, football.” Some of you can relate. I don’t know that there was ever any drinking at the house. Maybe, maybe not. I’m claiming artistic license on that. The red-haired girl in the story is my sister, but the encounter described never happened. She doesn’t have a silver dollar worth hundreds of thousands. Really, she doesn’t. So while some of the characters are real, the story is fiction.
as you know, i listen to a lot of different music. one day i stumbled onto Pokey Lafarge. kind of reminded me of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks from back in the day. and then my imagination drifted.
so watch this, then read the story.
I know she wasn’t talking to me, but, yeah, she was talking to me. I know she was even though she wasn’t. Sometimes you just know.
I ain’t into music. I mean I like rock and roll but that ain’t music, you know what I mean? It’s just rock and roll. What these guys were playing wasn’t that by a mile. I don’t know what you call it, cause I ain’t into music.
The singer was a complete dork with a guitar bigger than he was. And they had one of them big fiddles and another dork slapping on the strings, p-thub, p-thub, p-thub. Some puny fellow with hair sticking up in ever direction played one of them whiny little guitars. And a fiddle player. Regular fiddle tucked under the chin. I would of thought maybe they was a country band, but then there’s the trumpet player, a tall, lanky drink of water who thought he was all that, but to me he was just a goof. Had one of them mufflers stuck in the end of his horn that made it sound weird. So I don’t guess they was country.
It was Jess’s plan. Me and Hoby went along with it cause we pretty much go along with all of Jess’s plans. Usually turns out ok.
Now the fact that I spent the night in lock-up, and the fact that I’m likely gonna spend some time in the house, don’t mean it wasn’t a good plan. Sometimes that’s just how things work out.
Besides, I’d spend six months in the hole if I knew Charlotte was waiting on me when I got out.
Yeah, she was talking to me.
Number one, I’m a fool. Always have been. Been hard for me to live a sensible life. Guys like Jess and Hoby come calling and I’m off. More often than not things end in trouble but that’s ok. What’s the point of living if you can’t get into some trouble now and then?
Number two, I’ve always had a way with the ladies. Maybe it’s the bad boy thing. Maybe it’s cause I’m the quiet one. Jess and Hoby always looking for attention. Me, I just sit back and let the game come to me.
So, yeah, it’s only natural that Charlotte would notice.
She was the clarinet player in the band of weirdos. I didn’t know what a clarinet was at the time, just looked like some kind pipe she was holding. Being the only girl in the group, she was hard not to notice. She wore a red dress that fell down below her knees. Dirty brown hair. I don’t mean her hair was dirty, it just kind of colored that way. A little too skinny for my tastes, but she was a girl, so you noticed, even though overall she was kind of plain. At least I thought so at first. Not the kind of girl that old Connie would hook up with. Conrad, as my mother calls me. My friends call me Connie, which I like all right. It’s good for starting fights with wannabe tough guys.
Hanging in the bar was part of the plan. So that night we’re in El Poopo’s or whatever the name of the joint was. It was the first one we came to when we were walking down the street. The plan was this: We were going to hang out in the bar for a couple hours. Blend in. Just three dudes in the crowd. We was going to wait until the night started to wind down cause it’d be easier to pull off, plus there’d be more money in the till.
I was sitting up next to the end of the bar by myself, which also put me right up next to the stage. When the time was right, Jess and Hoby was to start something. They was going to go at it pretty quick, cause if it was just a bunch of hollering, the bouncer would throw them out before it got going. They had to throw punches and try to drag a few more into it while they was at it. Then, when all hell broke loose, I’m supposed to slide behind the bar and grab some cash. A little fun, a little green. No big robbery or nothing like that, just a little cash and dash.
Ok, yeah, now that I say it out loud, it sounds like pretty bad plan.
Truth is, I don’t think none of us thought we’d go through with it. I figured we’d end up drinking and having a good time and nothing would come of it. And I’d probably been three sheets to the wind had it been a rock and roll band. Hell, I’d probably been three sheets to the wind if Charlotte hadn’t been in that dopey band of flake bats. But she was. And even though she was the only girl in the band, and the more I studied on her, the better she looked, she still hadn’t hooked me. She looked like she was dressed for Sunday morning church. I like my women with a little more edge.
The band was playing when we got there, some kind of rockabilly that might been respectful if they had played it like Skynard might have played it. They followed that up with some jazz crap that just wasn’t doing it, but there was a lot of them beatnik types with their fashion model beards and their cute little jeans with the rolled up cuffs and they seemed to like the dorky guitar player. Whatever. I ordered another beer.
Then they played a slow song. A sad song. I ain’t into music but I know blues when I hear it and that’s what they launched into. Ok. I could handle that. Dorko was singing and the big fiddle player quit thumping on that thing and plucked the strings soft and slow. Then Dorko quit singing and turned to Charlotte.
I never heard nothing like it. She made that clarinet cry, playing notes long and sad, then a run of notes together going from low to high and back down again, her fingers dancing over them little holes on that pipe. I don’t know how long she played but it wasn’t long enough. Dorko ruined it with his guitar and whiny voice. But it was too late. She’d hooked me.
So I paced myself. Cause in my mind, in my twisted reality, I knew me and her was meant to be. And when I finally get a chance to talk to her, I wanted my wits to be with me.
I looked over at Jess and Hoby and they was talking to some girls, drinking like there was no tomorrow. I relaxed a little, thinking Jess would just forget about the fight and the stealing and just sit back and have a good time. Suited me just fine. Me and Charlotte had our destiny to fulfill.
So the band goes back to whatever crazy music they play. Thumping on that fiddle, goofball tooting his horn. Even Charlotte was into it, but that’s ok. You got to do what you got to do. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She smiled at me once or twice. Pretty sure. I was hard not to miss sitting so close. I smiled back.
By the time I was on my fourth beer, I was starting to want the night over, hoping the band was winding down and I’d get a chance to work my charms on Charlotte. Jess and Hoby was still going at it, but Hoby looked a little agitated. Dang. Maybe they was going to go through with it after all.
Then the band played something different. Slower. The drummer played a kind of shuffling sound. Made me think of walking by myself on the street, walking up to Charlotte. She’s leaning on the handrail of one of the walk-ups down on Fourteenth Street. Somebody’s singing but it ain’t Dorko. I think maybe it’s the horn player. Got a deep, gravelly voice. And Charlotte sees me from down the street. I’m walking slow, shuffling like the drum. I’m a few feet away. She’s wearing that red dress, but now it don’t look like a church dress, cause she looks too good to be wearing it to church. She’s looking down at her matching red shoes. Then looks up at me, locks eyes with me.
Ok, I know I was just making up the scene in my head, and truth is, maybe I made it up after the fact, but she said those words that night. So smokey, so hot. It was part of that slow song. And when she said it, she was looking right at me. For sure. Right at me. Probably.
Then that gravelly voice was singing again.
I was sweating. Trying to catch my breath. Cause Charlotte does that to me. Every time.
I finished my beer and looked back at Jess and Hoby. They was jawing at each other. Didn’t seem like they was putting on, either.
Please let this be your last song. I’m just about out of time.
Then that tinny trumpet sound and I could tell the song was winding down.
And behind me, a big crash. It was on.
I wanted to let it play out. Just let Jess and Hoby get thrown out of the bar. I could tell them later that me and Charlotte had a thing going on.
I looked back at the band they was all watching, their eyes wide. Charlotte, too. Another crash. Hoby threw some dude across a table. Two more got into it. Jess looked at me and winked just as the bouncer grabbed him around the neck and punched him the face.
I had to do my part.
The bartender was down at the end of the bar helping a couple of girls climb over to get out of the way of fight. I took out the small pry bar out of my jacket, slipped behind the bar, opened the cash drawer, grabbed a hand full and started to make my way out. It took all of seven seconds. I was just about at the door when somebody grabbed me by the collar. I looked around and it was the bartender. He looked back to the stage. Charlotte nodded. She ratted me out.
They dragged me out of there before I even knew her name. Course these days stuff like that’s easy to figure out.
That was two weeks ago. I go before the judge tomorrow for my sentencing. I’m hoping for probation but if he sends me to the house for a spell, I’m ok with that.
I’m cleaning up my act. No more drinking. Not that I was a fall-down drunk, and I when I was in the middle of one of Jess’s plans, it was a total blast. But there was always some kind of mess to clean up the next day. And truth is, I’d never have a chance at someone like Charlotte being the low-life thug that I was.
So, yeah, I’m cleaning up my act. No more Jess or Hoby, either. And no more Connie. I’m Conrad now, just like my momma intended.
Speaking of momma, I went to church with her last Sunday. Not sure if church life is for me, but hey, they talk about forgiveness and starting over and hell, that’s a good place to start. Pardon my language. Got to work on that, too.
“I am going away forever – and I shall never, never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel and that in this world there are things that are – impossible.” — Lt. Lorens Lowenhielm, from the short story and film, Babbette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen.
“And, I shall be with you every day that is left to me. Every evening I shall sit down, if not in flesh, which means nothing, in spirit, which is all, to dine with you, just like tonight. For tonight I have learned that in this world anything is possible.” — General Lorens Lowenhielm Dinesen, from the short story and film, Babette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen.
I’m not a fan of subtitled movies. I have a hard enough time following stories without trying to read the subtitles instead of watching the scene. Babette’s Feast is a 1987 Danish film (and a short story by Isak Dinesen) about two sisters who live in a small village in Denmark. It’s without dramatic action, crazy plot twists, or wildly eccentric characters. It’s subtitled for English speakers.
And it’s terrific.
The quotes above are from the same character, the first when he was young and impetuous. The second when he was older and wiser.
And then there’s Babette, a secondary character without whom there would be no story. Her motives are pure.
“Through all the world there goes on long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”
If you can find it, give it a chance. You won’t be sorry.
I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.
She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.
She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.
That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.
I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.
And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.
He’s staying with Owen, she says.
Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.
She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.
How’s Owen feel about that?
They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.
I decide not to argue with her.
The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.
Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come. Good surprise, though.
The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.
Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.
I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.
He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the hill, looking down on us.
I had no idea who he was, this older, skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brandon and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.
And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?
But I could see it coming.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
This is an excerpt of a story in progress and is fiction, although it is based on true events. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
I don’t dance I can’t dance I don’t know how to dance and never will But sometimes Things just happen
I wasn’t there to dance At this little dinner club Where through the old sagging glass I watch the river flow lazy As it always has and will forever
I’m not from here Not that it matters And maybe that’s why this place is special No one knows me No one cares
I eat alone, as always Steak, medium well, baked potato I don’t drink except for when I’m here Ice cold beer From the tap
And here All is well, peaceful My other life, mistakes I’ve made, mistakes to come Is miles upriver, coming for me But not here yet
Most everyone is coupled up A group of four or party of six If I’m the object of pity or curiosity I don’t care Because the steak is good And the solitude comforting
In a far corner A black man named Bob plays jazz on the piano While a skinny white boy named Solomon blows a saxophone Lipton’s on guitar And Jupie lays down the beat
I know their names But to them I’m just a guy by the window eating a steak Maybe not even that And that’s how it should be
Somewhere in New York Or Singapore The same scene is played out with different actors But no better than Right here, right now
Yes, another beer So I don’t have to leave Because across the room with the party of six Sits a woman Alone
She’s in the company of others A man works to keep her attention And though she is with him and smiles on cue She’s not really with him And she knows I know
And Bob plays slowly And Jupie taps the high hat And the couples can’t resist as they move to the center of the room And embrace politely And sway as Solomon plays
And Savannah dances too Though that’s not her name But it should be because it’s a beautiful name They dance as two Who will never be one
She knows I’m watching And I smile And she smiles and we both sense the same thing And we both know That possibilities are impossible
And the song ends And most sit As the tempo changes and dancing is less forgiving They, like me Don’t dance
My glass is empty My time is done And I look to her table and she’s not there And as I lay my napkin beside my plate I look once more
I see her as I walk across the room Walking toward me And we meet in the center of the room, the music daring us And I accept the dare And reach for her hand
Her right hand in my left My hand on her waist And we move slowly to the beat, and she is smiling And I don’t know what I’m doing But it feels right
I pull her hand in front of us And her momentum Sends her into a soft twirl, her hair flying toward me And as she comes back, I pull her close And I kiss her
She blushes And behind me I hear gasps From the table of six and I can imagine their looks Though I’ll never know Because hers is all that matters
The music plays But I release her soft hands And I won’t even turn to look as I walk away And I know I’ll never go back As Solomon plays
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.