On the metro, the five-line, I hit a cool breeze, seven-foot tall and made of fine china. I meet a diva, a goddess, something outside the line, outside the cement and the metro.
Hello you! Here is a quick scene sketch I whipped up for you this evening. Enjoy!
“I mean it. Not like your other songs. It’s real, I feel it under my skin. With the headphones—wow.” Her shape wavers on the edge of his vision.
“Shit.” Payton closes his eyes, leans forward; breathes out.
Can she say anything but ‘what’? A slow twang fills the silence between them. Payton’s aching voice whines out from a pair of clear dome-shaped speakers on his desk:
But I have so much to say…before you fade away…
She looks down and grinds her heel into the ground. “Jeez Payton, do you want me to stay for a little while?”
“No—no…You were on your way out? Just go.” Payton waves Reagan out of the room then turns the music up. Payton hears the sound of heels leaving over wood. “Wait! I—cha—…”
He grips his hair. “You’d just”—he tries to shake it out of his head—”you really care *that* little?”
But I have so much to say…before you fade away…
“Stay?” He says. “Just for tonight.”
She shakes her head. “No.”
“Is it fixed then? Whatever made this impossible for you, is it fixed now?”
“What needs to be fixed will take time. This isn’t healthy anymore Payton.” She turns to leave, stops, takes out a receipt and scribbles something on its back. She holds it out; Payton slips it out from her fingers and examines it with care. “It will feel all right soon.” She squeezes his shoulder. “I really think so.” Reagan leaves. Payton cries into the slick strip of receipt. His back heaves in time to his tune.
But I have so much to say…before you fade away…
Here is a little scene sketch I did this evening. Enjoy!
A man in a grey suit and handcuffs waits with his hands folded and feet crossed under a cold metal table. He taps his thumbs together and glances around the room. A pale blue door opens and a man in black trousers and button up shirt comes in. He is thirty-five, forty, with greased black hair and a square stubbled jaw. He lets the door suck shut with a thwack that makes the grey man jump.
“How long you been sitting in here Ralph?”
“‘Bout an hour. They told me that Detective Sydney going to come by.”
“Detective Sydney’s gone home for the day. I’m detective Moray; I’ve taken special care in examining your case.”
Ralph’s jaw hangs open to one side. “They promised me I only had to talk to Sydney.”
Moray eases out a chair and sits. “I know they did Ralph, and they shouldn’t have done that, I apologize. I’m Detective Moray, like I said, and I’m going to do work with you from now on, all right?”
Ralph hides his face in his hands. Medium length white locks of hair spill over his knuckles. “I told them I didn’t want to talk to a man.”
“I’m told we’ve done what we could to accommodate you, but the female officers are refusing to interview you… Can you tell me why that is?”
Ralph’s face springs up from his hands, twists in pain, his lips part to speak; he holds out his hands and sobs aloud. After a moment he regains composure by biting his lower lip and taking three deep breaths through his nose. “Tell me what thing it is that disgusts them. Tell me that and you will have sold the greatest riddle mankind has pondered since the first man asked himself, ‘why?’ Oh, Detective, Marty was it? tell me why they do it.”
“Whom do you mean?”
“You know why Ralph. Don’t you? It’s your aggressive behavior and reactions to their questions. Right?”
“I told them: I don’t know why I’m here; I’m scared and tired.”
“You’re scared and tired? Well I don’t think that explains, when Detective Sydney asked you why you raped Miss McCormac, you told her it was because ‘She looked at me like you are right now’. Do you think that explains it?”
“I want to go home.”
“I’m sure McCormac told you the same thing Ralph. Can you tell me what she said back to you?”
“She never said anything like that.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing, I never knew her.”
“Never knew her. Here’s the thing Ralph. I don’t believe you’re telling me the truth right now.”
“No one’s believed me since I set foot in this damn madhouse.”
“Well, you just told me that you and Miss McCormac don’t know each other, but last night when we brought you in, it sounded like you knew each other pretty well. You were shouting all about Miss McCormac. ‘McCormac you this and that,’ ‘I’ll kill you, you this and that.’ Do you see why I can’t believe you?”
Ralph’s face drips with mucous and tears. “You’re making a mistake, please listen to me!”
“I need you to listen to me Ralph. You’ve had your fun with the precinct. You’ve had your fun with our system. Now the games are over. Now I’m here, and I’ll be honest with you Ralph, I’m not going to make this pleasant for you if you decide to continue on like this. So cut the shit. Stop crying. You see, I only care about one thing and that’s finding out where this girl is and I’ll be here until you do. Do you hear me? Do you hear me you little puissant piece of scum? It’s just you and me the rest of the night, and I’m gonna enjoy myself.”
Ralph stops crying, lays his palms gently on the tabletop, and lowers his brow. “Here’s the thing Ray. I don’t have anything against guys like you. In fact, I couldn’t have asked for a better replacement to Detective Sydney.”
“Yeah? And why’s that?”
“Because the women officers are far too cautious around rapists, whereas big dumb brutes like yourself are usually blind with rage.”
“That’s right. Rage is a good word.”
“No, no, I said ‘blind’ rage.”
“Rage is rage, there is no difference.”
“No?” Ralph says, sitting back in his chair and pouting his lip. “I suppose you’ll have to let me know.” Ralph lunges over the table, hands free from his binds and grabs a fist full of the detective’s hair. He raises the jagged end of the picked cuffs high over Moray’s face and drives it deep into his right eye.
We sat and dripped sweat in the honey heat, listened to Mic D on the upright, and Mama Tracery checked on each table one by one.
“Samuel,” Mama Tracery said, “you’re going to start paying a maintenance tax on those fritters if you don’t slow down boy; I spent my last penny on those broken legs.”
“Yes ma’am,” Samuel said through bits of fried potato.
I threw my arm over Samuel’s shoulder. “Don’t listen to her Sammy,” I slid my plate of steaming pastries under his nose. “Have a happy birthday friend.” I shook him then stood with my cup raised. The boys held up their drinks with me and quieted. Mic saw me stand from his upright near the door and softened his playing. “Good on you Samuel m’boy! for surviving another year in this God-abandoned hell-hole. You’ve made our loads lighter with your weight, been the pillar of many fond tales told throughout Sand Canyon. You are a true un-wit and a gentle beast… we love you dearly, old friend.” I bowed. The boys cheered and most of the bar joined in.
“Hear, hear!” Mama Tracery said, and Mic turned up the music and the tavern carried on as normal.
“I don’t know why you guys give me so much trouble with my weight. Here. In the factory… I didn’t choose this you know?”
Jethro swatted away Samuel’s words. “People wish they had that belly. People want it. They want to be warm at night, maybe get some sleep during their damn ‘drills’. You listen to your friend Jethro, I won’t steer your wrong. In some countries, you are king.”
“Hush!” Samuel said. “Stop it with that, it’s busy tonight.”
“Oh, They don’t drink here.”
“They drink where they will drink.”
“Lighten up boys,” I said. “I’ve ordered another round.”
“You’ll kill me tonight,” Samuel said.
“All this talk about death! I came to celebrate a special day, not talk about the Goose-law.” The others laughed.
“Yes, well it is easy to talk about something you’re ignorant of, isn’t it?”
“Woah, woah, Sammy, it’s all right friend, drink, breathe—what’s gotten into you? You’re still plenty young for finding a woman.”
“Ya,” Yulcup said, “the problem’s when he finds ‘er, Samuel don’t know what he do, hey?”
“What’s bothering you Sam?” I said.
He pulled at a red swell on his earlobe. “I’m… It’s really not much, I’ve… haven’t you heard about the residential arrests?”
“Sure,” I said, “but they wouldn’t do it without reason. Not that I like the bastards this side of the border, but I’ve never seen one in town, and as long as it stays that way I’m not turning away a place to earn.”
“Okay boys,” Mama Tracery said, “you’ll have to pay for them all this time,” She held out a cup for me to take.
Then the tavern door burst open. A group of men filed in and stood motionless in grid formation. The orange evening glow of the industrial square caught on their huge backs. The soldiers wore common clothes, but their short-clipped haircuts and massive size betrayed them.
“Gauslaw,” Jethro said. The word soured in his mouth and he spit into his cup. Then he put his chin on his chest. Tommy, who until that moment knew not but the taste of table wood, jolted up and, seeing the men, slid from his stool to hide in our legs.
Finally, Old Epot came before the bar and lifted a hand. “Welcome to Epot’s friends, I’m Cardinal Epot… Can I get you gentlemen anything?”
One of the soldiers lunged out from the group and seized the collar of a nearby patron. I didn’t recognize the middle-aged man. The soldier drove a fist into his cheek and the man collapsed from his chair. The soldier mounted the man and placed three sharp blows to the head then left him on the floor.
“Well, hold it now!” Epot said.
A young woodworker, Aegon, knelt by the beaten man. “I can’t feel if he’s breathing… Epot, someone call the guards!”
“Wait just a minute now! You men haven’t asked for anything and you’re already sticking people. Maybe I can oblige you? I’m sure I’ve got something here even a Gauslaw would like—you are Gauslaw, that is—I mean, excuse me for assuming, but even if you are, I can’t have my customers beat up you see? No one will come back. If no one comes back, then I can’t pay the high—albeit fair—taxes that I do, and I’ll tell you if you don’t know, liquor is popular in Sand Canyon. What do you say? What can I do for you?” Epot hasn’t lived in the canyon all his life; he saw the world before he gave his money to the wrong people and ended up here; he knows how to talk to people. But had he ever talked to a Gauslaw?
“This man needs help!” the kneeling man said. “We need a doctor, we need help! Somebody call the—” but before he finished, a second soldier’s boot struck him in the gut. The boot struck again, then again, and again; the man’s chin ran with red. Mama Tracery shrieked.
The soldiers parted down their center; out steeped a nobleman in a heavy wool suit and a tie that spun the tavern light; his hands hid behind his back. You’ve never seen blue eyes before this man; they somehow stuck on each of us at the same time! “Now,” he said it with a polished metal voice; smooth and level. “I don’t want to hear another word that isn’t a direct answer to my next question.” He waited for a moment; everyone seemed to understand. “Right. Where is Samuel Phillis? And don’t bother lying to us, we know he’s here.” He held up a black revolver. “Just a matter of how many of you rats I’ll have to kill before he comes to me. So… who wants to save a life today?”
The boys and I didn’t dare look to Sam, but we all felt the table rattle and we all leaned our elbows on it to keep it still.
“Why you mean Sammy Phillis, Sammy Phillis from factory three?” It was Mic. He had clambered back to his upright while the soldiers spoke and now seemed almost calm, or drunk, or stupid. It was Mic though, so probably all three.
“Shh!” a voice hissed from one corner of the tavern. “Shut it Mic!” from another.
“You know where Samuel Phillis is?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mic said, “I know Sammy, I know Sammy real good. You know, that jolly old ham taught me a thing or two on this upright. In fact he worked on a few pieces with me.”
“Let’s hear it then boy, I’m not as patient as my friends.”
Mic gave a huge smile and rubbed his palms together. “The Gauslaw says play, lord I’m going to play.” Before the soldier knew what he meant, Mic had already started pounding out a bouncy tune and shaking his head. “Oooh! My old lady promised me, when she died, she’d set me free!” he sang. It’s a good song, you know it; old Mic changed it some, but it stayed good. As he sang each line, more and more of us around the tavern joined in echoing it back. “She lived so long that her head got bald, and she gave out on the notion of dying at all! Oh, my old lady said to me, she said ‘listen here baby, I’m going to set you free!’ Oh but when that head of her’s got slick and bald, the lord couldn’t have killed her with a big green maul!”
“Enough!” The leader said. He signaled for one of his men to stop Mic, but we all pushed our tables together, shut our eyes, smiled and kept singing louder.
“My old lady wouldn’t die, With her nose all hooked and skin all dry, but my old lady somewhere did flee, and she left me here in the factories!” The whole structure swayed with us, our voices matched by the cedar walls; the soldiers commands were not heard.
Mic stood and pointed straight at the soldiers, “Then old Gauslaw likewise promised me, in years come and gone to set us free, so here’s some poison to help you along, and may the devil preach your funeral song!” And with that, Mic bent over and pulled something—I couldn’t see what—from under his bench, and charge the soldiers with arms raised.
So many of the patrons had stood in that moment that I did not see him fall. I heard the shot, something dropped, and the singular inhale from those who had seen. And then, oh friend, then! what happened! It began with a broken bottle thrown, another round fired, then deafening cries and cheers and the assembly contracted around the soldiers. We turned on them all. They couldn’t draw their swords or pistols, we held them so tight. We killed them, all of them, ten Gauslaw dead at Epot’s, ten Gauslaw dead!
And now I’ve told you, take this weapon, gather as many others as you can. We are barricading the tavern against the nobles and we need your help! What do you say? Work together, fight together—can I count on you to help the rebellion?
“I can’t believe we made it out of there for under thirty bucks,” Delilah said.
“It’s too early to talk about money,” I said. “I should be sleeping right now, not ‘Sunday shopping’ and pushing carts in the hot sun.”
“Don’t be a baby.” She clicked something in her pocket and a black BMW’s tailgate floated open. “I’m just saying we did really good hun. And we have to stop thinking about it only when it’s convenient for us.”
I lifted the groceries into the trunk then slid into the driver’s seat and groped behind the wheel for a place to stick my key. “How do you start this damn thing again?”
“It’s just this, here—” Delilah leaned forward and with one finger, depressed a silver-dollar sized button on the dash with the words ‘START/STOP’ written on its face. The diesel engine rumbled then purred. The dashboard displayed diagnostics and the LCD screen lit up and engaged the rear-view camera. “We can’t spend like we have been. Times are rough now. We can’t afford to be so careless anymore.”
I pulled out and maneuvered my way through the parking lot. “What are all these people doing on a Sunday morning? Go to church for God’s sake; how do I get out?”
“Left, here—here … or not. Okay, wait for this next one.”
“Can I get out there? Where this guy is?”
“Yes, yes, go, go. Stop, use your blinker.”
“I love how I’ve just forgotten how to drive all of the sudd-”
Knock, knock, knock!
“Oh my God, Jake, it’s that man at the window.”
I squinted through the tinted passenger window and saw a bent figure, so dark I could only make out the yellow of his hanging eyes.
“Go!” Delilah screamed.
The man pointed to a cardboard sign in his other hand that read, ‘HUNGRY’.
I tapped the horn and the man backed away. I pushed the pedal down and ripped out into the flow of traffic. “What the hell was that?”
“Why didn’t you go?”
“What—why did you freak out, it was just the guy at the corner! We saw him from a mile away!”
“He tried to open my door!”
“Oh my God, he did not try to open your door, he was trying to get our attention.”
“Why didn’t you go when I said go? Jake, why didn’t you—what are you doing?”
“I’m turning around.”
“What! No. Jake, I’m seriously going to scream, stop.”
“Chill the heck out Delilah, the guy’s hungry.”
She laughed and slapped her door. “What are you going to do? Take him to breakfast?”
“I’m going to give him a few bucks, stop.” I turned back into the lot and parked a few hundred feet from the man. “Stay here.”
Delilah yelled something, but I couldn’t hear over my heavy breathing and then I was by the man.
“Uh-oh, don’t keel over now,” he said. His voice was deep and wooden.
I swatted a hand at him. “I’m alright, are you alright? I—I’m sorry about that, you know, my wife flipped out.”
Delilah squeezed my bicep and I cursed. “Jacob Alexander Garcia, we’re going, now!”
The man coughed; he lifted his brow. “Well that’s no trouble at all. No trouble at all. Not on my corner, no sir.” He laid his hand on my shoulder. It was a slender thing wrapped in tight soft skin. I smelled wax and oil on it, and dinners with family I never met; traditions. I smelled them in his hands, a sort of pruning or conditioning that clung from his youth. It seemed to me the most pleasant of hands. I asked him his name. He told me ‘Rue’.
“Yeah man, I’m the spice of life you know?”
“That’s an interesting name,” I said.
“My mama had some interesting problems!” Rue chuckled and crossed his arms over his heavy canvas coat. “I tell you what happened: the day I was born my mama look at me and she says ‘Wa-what? Wa-who? Wa-rue?’ ” I laughed. Delilah squeezed me harder. “No, no, I come out and she says ‘I rue the day!'” I laughed harder.
I asked him how he came to be in Orange Country. “Me? I’m on vacation!” He said. “At least I was. But that was nigh ten months a-gone.” He tapped his toes and snapped. “Came on vacation, stayed on probation!” I saw the corner of Delilah’s lips turn up. Rue noticed and stretched out his smile. “That’s right! Blame it on the rain,” he sang, “that’s right! I’m from Cleveland Ohio, out West on my quest for gold and glory. But um, tell me sir, can you spare a dollar?”
“No.” Delilah said. “I’m sorry. Jake, let’s go.”
I pushed her hand away harder than I intended. “He just needs some damn food alright?”
She stared at me, wide-eyed and disgusted. “He needs booze and drugs!”
“Oh yes, but a man’s got to drink,” Rue said. “That’s something they don’t tell you. You know, men been drinking before history was being written. You know that grog was in his cave with his friends drinking wild-fruit moonshine, waking up at four the next evening with a big-toothed cat, miss the big hunt? Heh… Well, that’s something they don’t tell you…”
“See Jake? Let’s go.”
I dug in my shorts pocket and pulled out a fist full of crumpled bills. I held it out. “What I got Rue. Sorry again for almost running you over.”
He thumbed his lip and shifted his eyes side to side, then slowly pulled the bill from my hands; he winked. “It’s appreciated.”
Delilah and I went back to the car and continued home. She settled down after a few minutes. She inhaled through her nose with closed eyes, exhaled, and put her hand on my lap. “If we keep it up like this, we’ll save enough for Europe in a few months. I love you.”
One Word Prompt: benefaction
I wrote this exercise earlier today. I hope you enjoyed it!
I sat on the couch with a glass of two-dollar Cabernet. Sheldon came in at twelve forty-five with his shoulder’s rolled forward and back facing me. His head hung to one side as he fumbled at the lock. I didn’t cry, crying ends it before we can begin. I needed him to hear this. And like it or not, the drink might help. I asked him how work was.
Sheldon pawed through the refrigerator, a clear package of tomatoes fell and scattered in all directions. “You know I wasn’t at work.”
I held a sip in my mouth and tested my endurance against the tannic juice. If I looked at him now, I would cry. But I wasn’t going to cry. No Phyllis, you aren’t going to cry. “I thought maybe you stayed to tutor some students or maybe pick up a detention?”
“I told you that I’m not doing that monkey work. Let the first year teachers take it.” Sheldon entered the living room with a plate stacked six inches tall with red turkey meat, and two silver beer cans balancing on its edge.
“I thought you said it was an extra fifty or sixty dollars?”
He collapsed into the opposite corner of the couch from where I sat. His upper-lids swelled and I could not see his emerald eyes. He unbuckled his pants and turned on the television. “When are you going to have time to do that? Yesterday I had to drive all the way to the store, waste my time, just to have a normal dinner.”
“Please don’t be angry Sheldon.”
He snapped open a beer and drank. “Stressed enough with this damn job’s slave wages, now with the baby.”
“Maybe my paintings can bring in extra money.”
“Haha… What do you want me to do with that? You want me to get a second job?”
“That’s not it.”
“It is. We don’t make enough that my wife can be happy. I don’t provide enough for my wife to be happy. Christ Phyllis! if our son is anything like you,” he held up his hands and stuck out his lip, “I’m in for it, oh boy, I’m through!”
“I just wanted to ask you if I could get the money to buy the URL and stuff.”
“Well I can explain m—”
“That’s your business plan? and stuff? So wait. This whole thing was about you asking me for money? after you’re telling me that we are so fucking poor.”
“I need to work harder apparently; I need to get another job to pay for daycare so my wife can play entrepreneur!”
“Maybe if I finally got my work out there, someone would recognize it as something worth—something!”
He muted the television. “No one cares about buying art, especially not the kind of art you do.”
“What? People don’t want, they don’t want, well whatever the hell it is you paint—grotesques?”
“They’re the human figure. My work was never for shock. And you know what, Molly down the street sells custom craft buttons online and she makes enough extra money for yoga classes. I just—honey you won’t have to worry about the dinners. You won’t have to worry about Jack. I promise. I’ll take care of it all, just the same. Please, Sheldon.”
“Heh!” He turned up the volume, “Fine, you know what? here you go. Put it on the card. Show me the checkout screen before you pay, hear me?
“I hear you Sheldon.” I took the wallet he tossed across the couch and pulled out the bank card. I rubbed the stiff braille of the card under my thumb and finished my wine. “Now,” I thought, “we’ll see.”
Prompt: One good turn deserves another. —Aesop’s Fables
All I could see was gold and hot-white, and in the middle of it all, the most incredible figure I’d ever seen. The Spanish sun bleached away everything on that lost island, but not him. Its rays splashed all around his tall silhouette, but the pirate’s sword swung so wide and sliced so fine that it split that sun into a million pieces.
“Ahoy!” He called to us, “be not becalmed before theses hounds of Hades! No me hearties! me buckos! All hands to me! All hands to your mizzenmast! Fill not your coffers with barbarian blood! To me lads, to me!”
The captain’s order wrapped around my middle and pulled me up from the beach. Nothing mattered but the captain and his longboat and off, off this cursed land and clear of flesh-hungry natives. I realized I was not running alone; Kesser and Mango pushed and tugged each other in turn on my right and at least three other crew members I didn’t know tripped and scrambled on my left. I dared not look behind. Not where I knew the dark bodied beasts of the steamy jungle drew closer.
“Don’t stop cabin boy!” Kesser said, “He’s gone mate, he’s gone, to the boat, to the captain—arg!” he hits the sand for the last time and Mango disappears with him. Another glade to my left confirmed I ran alone.
“On boy! On boy!” The captain drew a dagger from his boot and staked the boat’s tow rope in the ground. “Run, damn you gully rat!”
My lungs refused to open and I pushed, blinded, on toward the captain’s calls. Behind me the hoo-bolo-hoo-bolo-hoo-bolo-hoo! of the hunter’s song; the stampeding feet; stomped out any hope I had of stopping.
My body reached the captain but I flew far away. I saw the black-coated Bart launch me over his plume and hard into the boat. The whoops stopped, the thin tissue in my throat that smacked when I breathed was gone, the blood that congealed in my spine broke; I was a head, floating up a pillar of warm sea air and I was very glad to be leaving myself ashore.
But it was not just me ashore. It was my benefactor. It was my purposeful savior. It was the only thing that could have stayed me. Captain Bart swiped and poked into a formless monster, armed and attacking with a thousand teeth. And so, I stopped, I pulled myself down to the longboat and stood my child’s body up right. Immediately I searched the craft for a weapon. I drooled then spat blood into the foam.
I turned, panicked, to the beach. Bart barked and beat back the horde, swinging fast and wide. “The black ball, boy! Light her up! Throw her out!”
In a wooden chicken-cage at my feet, three tar-black orbs lay nested in wet hay.
“I don’t have—I don’t have fire … fire …” I looked back to Captain Bart, I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe before I opened them again and searched the mob. I could not mistake the waving heat of fire; their ranks were thick with torch bearers.
The captain yelled. I lunged back to the chicken-crate and drove my heal into the planks until I could take all three orbs into my arms. I took the first in hand and weighed it in my hand; it was heavy, four pounds, and my shoulder ached under it.
“Skunk my boy! If you’re planning to save my life, now would suit an old pirate well as later!”
I set down the other balls and took the first in both hands. I twisted my torso and heaved it toward the beach. It landed behind Captain Bart who saw the ball coming, kicked sand at the natives and dove aside. When nothing happened, he jumped to his feet and fought on. I took up the second and tried the same technique with more twist. That time I made it into the mob, but again, nothing happened.
The natives yelped in a high, frantic tone. I took up the last ball and prepared as before. When I did, I saw the captain waving a hand at me and I paused. Just then, his magnificent sword dropped from his unbreakable grasp. It stuck in the sand and its master followed after. The mob’s cries grew more excited as I twisted farther still and sent out our last chance with a prayer.
The effect was more than the natives could not have prepared for. The bomb landed in a hot patch of natives, three yards past the captain and expanded into a blast of thunder and fire that consumed every man it touched. The panic that followed gave me the chance to reach shore. I took up the eight-foot oar and stabbed and twisted it until I nearly beached it. “Captain! Grab hold sir!” I cast out the oar, catching it in hand at its butt; it touched his cheek. “Please captain, grab on, I’m drifting out!”
Captain Bart snatched up the swollen oak oar in his fist. “It wasn’t perfect lad.” He groaned to his feet and let the ebb of the waves drag him out with me and the longboat. I grabbed him by the straps on his coat-shoulders and helped pull him up out of the water and onto the deck. His coiled beard glistened with sea-dew. His rotten teeth clicked as he laughed. “But you did leave a powerful impression on the damn savages, eh?” And with that he slipped into a long fit of coughing laughter that followed us out to our anchored ship.
Here is a scene sketch I wrote this morning. Enjoy!
“What’s this, Arnie?” I said.
“A note, genius.”
I peeled the note off the counter and read as I headed into the back. It said I had received an official warning for poor work performance; that my drawer had been short three days in a row, and that, by accumulation with a write-up from the beginning of the month, I was two strikes in to the company’s ‘three strikes’ rule. I stuffed my bag into the locker then emerged to find Arnie not at his register. “Arnie?”
Pumpt! “Ouch! Shoot!”
He rose from behind my register, rubbing his head. “Hey, I flicked my pen. I was wondering where you ran off to.” He returned to his station, straightened a few stacks of coupons, cleared his throat, and struck a key on his register.
“Did you hear about this?” I held up the yellow ticket.
“What? You getting yet another write-up and being on the verge of termination? yet again? You know sweet heart, I have to say, for someone who wants to be manager some day, barely getting through every month by the skin of your teeth—Hello ma’am, welcome to your neighborhood CVS—Shame Jane. Real Shame. What are you doing there?”
“Looking to see what you stole.”
“Stole? You’re a crazy woman, what could I possibly want from you?”
“Oh, I don’t know Arnie, maybe shift lead?”
“Shift lead went to the better employee.”
“There is only one way this game gets played kiddo and I don’t think you know the rules yet.”
“Being a total ass-hole?”
“Jane!” It was Mr. Goldberg. Shit. “Jane, Jane, Jane, I’m sorry dear, but can’t you see we have customers?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Goldberg, we were just—I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.”
“I think that would be in your best interest. Let me see you? for a few minutes before break all right?”
“If it’s about the write-up thing, I got it.”
“I know you’re new and our system can take getting used to—I do—and I really want you to stay with us… Just a few minutes before lunch okay?”
When Goldberg left, Arnie snapped one of the minty-nine cents hair ties at my chest and it rolled down the front of my polo. “Score! Hey I need to take lunch early today, so I’m moving yours to three.”
I had to untuck the shirt to shake the tie out. “Move it up your nose.”
By the time three o’clock came, my head felt swollen and my stomach quivered with emptiness. I could taste the soft pill-oats and tangy spread of my sandwich; I inhaled the buttery brine of the turkey breast; I felt the light sponged bread at the corners of my mouth. I couldn’t help stopping at my locker for a bite. I twisted in my combination and unthreaded the lock.
“Jane? Jane, what happened to lunch?”
I explained to Mr. Goldberg that Arnie had selfishly changed my lunch so he could have his early. Mr. Goldberg deduced that Arnie must have done this in order to cover the afternoon rush, and that he was very driven indeed to take initiative on the store’s behalf; all CVS employees take note!
Goldberg sat me down on a plastic chair and took a seat on some cases of ice tea we pulled the week before. “So what’s going on Jane, huh? How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I lied. He nodded and tucked in his lips. “What about at home? Is everything fine with your sisters?”
“We don’t need to talk about my sisters.”
“All right,” His face lifted, “all right, good, well I assume you got my note this morning? Yes. I would have given it to you myself, but I wanted you to have a chance to think.” I asked him what about. He said, “about why we’ve had discrepancies in the register logs the past few days.”
“I don’t close, Arnie does, why aren’t you asking him?”
“That’s not the issue here. Look, it’s trickled down the railroad track that the morning shift counts aren’t matching up with the evening shift counts.”
“That makes sense, because the only time my drawers are off are when I’m a few dollars over, not under. And I count twice.”
“Sometimes we can miscount—”
“Tell that to Arnie, he can’t even keep track of when his shift starts.”
“I have an agreement with Arnie. He has some special circumstances that make his mornings unpredictable.”
“Yeah, how late he stayed up playing World of Warcraft and drinking Mountain Dew.”
Goldberg dipped his chin. “I’m not saying this is anyone’s fault.”
“It kind of sounds like you—”
“I’m just trying to give you fair warning. I’ve got to be honest with you, when I first hired you I thought you were a superstar. You told me that this was where you saw yourself in six years and not only that, but that you wanted to work up to assistant manager some day. I believed you then.
“I still feel that way.”
“Your shift leader and I talked about some other issues as well that I’d like to bring up with you. The truth is Jane, we don’t have room on our schedule for a part-time morning employee right now,” We? “and I really need you to start picking up some extra hours.”
“But Mr. Goldberg, we talked about this, I have a, a special situation, or whatever you said with Arnie. Between her and school, I can’t, I just can’t.”
“Mr. Goldberg,” Arnie said. “I’m heading to lunch; we only got Donny out there. Jane needs to cover the register.”
“You got it pal,” Goldberg said. “Jane, none of this is final okay, we can talk later, but right now you need to get out there and watch the registers.” He stood and left, taking Arnie under his arm; laughing almost instantly and leaving me alone with the tea.
Prompt: River Cliffs
A dozen proud pines stunk and softened along the river’s edge, back to the open earth after half a millennium. “This is what I’m talking about Sara, this is paradise!” I tasted the sweet grass in the air. “Ah! It’s like we’re adventuring across some fantasy land.”
Sara didn’t respond, but struggled under the weight of her pack to close the distance between us. She hooked her thumbs under the straps and lets her elbows bounce about. “Maybe you’ll see what you came out here for today? And we can get back a bit early.”
“Maybe. I don’t know love, I’ll try, I mean, I’ll try hun, but look at this place! I’ve never followed a meandering river like this, it’s incredible. And there, look,” I gestured to a point up ahead. “The land slopes up there, it creates this cliff you see?” The cliff slopped up over the white water in an arc of grey stone that plummeted onto a bed of eroded boulders. The water churned and bubbled white; crashed around the stone warts of the watery steps.
A mile further on, the drop evened out with the riverbed. Stout pines clustered in tight patches, some directly at the river’s edge, others far across the plain grass. Steaming old pine logs scattered like the debris of a blown bridge. Somewhere, a Purple Martin’s liquid gurgle chortled out a low tune; then called out in two final notes cherr-cherr, and fell silent again.
“What’s this up the hill, near the top of the cliff thingy?”
“Looks like … Well it looks like a campsite.”
“A campsite? I thought the point of coming out here was nature, to get away from regular day-to-day things. You brought us to a family camp site.”
“Yeah, yeah, funny. Come on.”
Near the apogee of the cliffs, we came to a brown canvas tent draped over two vertical branches that sunk deep into the flood plain. The cloth was anchored with wooden picks punched through its corners. An animal skin with dark grey fur and a three-inch hole in its side served as the front door.
“Okay, that’s not creepy.”
“What’s creepy?” I said. “This is rad, it’s like a Renaissance faire or something.” Just in front of the primitive tent lay the remains of a stone fire pit that was no more than ten white stones, the color and shape unlike its immediate neighbors in the area, with ash and burnt clumps of what looked like animal droppings littered throughout its belly. I crouched and held my palm over the pit.
“What do you sense young one?”
“Shut it, I’m trying to see something.”
“Ryan, this camp is like ancient. What are you—”
“I’m not kidding you Sara, come here, you can smell it too.”
“That’s gross Ryan, that means this is some hobo’s home, don’t touch that!”
Under one of the pit’s stones I spotted the tan edges of unburnt paper and discovered a note handwritten in pencil.
“Just put it down, we should go, I don’t want to keep poking around.”
“Yeah, yeah, hold your horses.” I pocketed the note and pushed aside the animal skin to peer inside the tent. Inside lay a thin woven horse blanket decorated with faded red stripes. On the opposite side of the tent hunched a bright yellow box. Along its mouth were painted black diamonds. “What if he’s got gold in here or something?” The latch was held in place with a metal pin, but yank and wiggle as I might, the chest remained closed.
A jagged twig stabbed into the tent and flipped back the animal hide. Sara shrieked. “Don’t touch that! Jesus Ryan, get out of there now! You’ve got to be kidding me—let’s go. No more joking around Ryan.”
Outside the tent, I unfolded the note and read out loud:
“Time. Into the river mouth, down the river cliffs, beyond the oxbow lakes and to the ethereal kingdom of Orkor.”
“Wow this guy is nuts.”
“I told you, you don’t need to be an anthropologist to get that, so let’s leave crazy Joe’s trinkets and rat blankets alone, and let’s move on. Please.”
I stared at the note in my hands. The water wind threatened to suck it away from me. Just then, a red bellied fish popped out of the water and climbed several feet before crashing back down into a million water droplets. Just beyond where he fell, a glint caught my eye. “Sara, you see that? There, something like metal?”
Sara rolled her eyes then turned where I pointed. “I don’t see anything. Just a crazy loud river and a bunch of rocks and maybe a fish…”
“No, there, see? Like glasses or something. Yeah, like a pair of glasses.” Sara gripped her hips and squinted her eyes. I jogged up river to get a better angle. “They are glasses. Shit Sara, they’re glasses.” A pair of ovoid glasses tipped and rocked against the water raining down on them, their moss bed, and the boulder that raised them out of the rushing current. A petite white-petaled flower multiplied itself in jagged glass still left on one side of the frame.
“Oh my God.” Sara was beside me.
“Oh man. We need to get back to the car. We need to … I don’t know what do you do in this situation?”
“We have to tell the police Ryan.”
“You really think he jumped in? Those can be anyone’s glasses.”
“The note said he was going to meet the river people, so yeah, I do, and I’m tired of being ignored on this. Ryan Curtstun, we’re leaving now. We can try again tomorrow, but I am done.” She started down the slope. I blocked the sun with my hand and tried to intimidate the glasses into giving up their story, but after several moments of the thin metal frames wobbling and doing little else, I turned and followed Sara toward the car.
The roar woke me from the best dream I’d ever had. I was home, in the dream, and my red towel was there, and Sis, and me. I was there, but I could see myself like I was Blackdog standing over me on the couch. I rolled and kicked a cushion out of place. I rolled again and tore the corner of my towel. It was a normal day. Everything was perfect. Then the roar woke me up and the old growl bubbled in my chest.
“Just the vacuum, don’t worry, she’s in the front room.”
“Blackdog? I dreamt about you.”
“Yeah? Sounds like a terrible dream.” He leaped from the couch and landed at my toes.
“What’s that smell?”
“It’s me. The old lady’s on a cleaning kick today.”
“Don’t call her that. Mother. Call her Mother.”
“Fine, Mother, Mother old lady’s on a cleaning kick. Anyway, I guess I made the chores list, they tried to drown me. They fill a pit with boiling water, hold me down with stone hands, and after they wet me, they blind me with a white salve and tell me I’m clean. Hah! To be honest I was expecting worse. I hope that’s not the best these folks can do,” he dropped to his chest and raised his hind in the air, “because I’ll show them a thing or two about Captain Grizzles!” He pounced!
He landed on my shoulder and I gently pushed him off with my nose. “Your name is Blackdog.”
“No, it’s Captain Grizzles! I don’t want to be Blackdog.”
“You have to. That’s what she named you.”
“Who named you? Tombo? I mean, its kind of dorky, but its better than Blackdog!”
“Sorry, its Blackdog, okay.”
“No. It’s the darn, the darn …”
“Yes. I’ve never liked it. I keep my distance as much as I can. If you are going to be living here with us, I suggest you do the same.”
“Because we don’t know what it can do. But anything that can howl like that creature can, for as long as it can, without pause, is dangerous. And we do not go near it.”
“Don’t be scared Blackdog.” I laid my head back down. “Life here is actually very pleasant once you find your things.”
Blackdog crawled to me and we laid nose to nose. “What is a ‘your things’?”
“You know, like … well like my towel.”
“Things that, after a long time, collect smells and tastes that will always remind you that you belong somewhere.”
“Wow. What else can be a thing?”
“Anything really. I have this towel, my chicken of course, Sis—”
“That chicken is one of your things?”
“Yes, why?” I suddenly sat up and spun to find Sis at her place by my feet and—no, no, she was gone! “No! Blackdog, where is she?”
“I, well you see, I didn’t know that the chicken was your thing, and you were sleeping, and you weren’t using it, and I … Well I threw it around a bit.”
“Where did you take it, pup?”
Blackdog whined and rolled on his back. “I might have taken it by the black run-walk?”
“You took chicken into the front room? Blackdog, the vacuum!”
I stood and trotted to the hall and peered around the corner. There, under the treadmill laid Sis; in front of her, the yellow beast suckled greedily at the carpet for food, mindlessly rocking forward and back, incessantly moaning. “I have to get her Blackdog.”
“But you said vacuums were dangerous.”
“And if it weren’t for you, I would never be considering doing this.”
“Why don’t you just wait until she’s done?”
“No time for that pup, Sis is in trouble.”
Sklurp! Sklurp! The vacuum had lapped up the welcome mat in its mysterious maw and Mother cursed and yanked at it. ‘I guess she doesn’t just do it to me,’ I thought. She finally freed the mat, and as she did we caught sight of the horror under its black head. Two grinding jaws of black teeth, spun at high-speed. The broken bits of debris from its earlier meals lined its lips.
“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Not even being a Great Dane. No sir.”
“You aren’t helping pup. And I don’t have a choice.” I waded out into the hallway.
“Good luck Tombo.”
I didn’t turn to look at Blackdog, but I knew he was shaking with me. I took even steps and with each one the rumble creeped nearer to the soft patch on my lower belly. I reached the end of the hall, Blackdog said one last thing, but I couldn’t hear him then; I waited until the beast backed far enough away to give me a clear run. Wait … And go!
I cleared the distance to the treadmill in one leap and took up Sis in my teeth. I turned. I saw Blackdog in the living room, his tail twitched. I focused on him and made a second leap to finish the rescue, but as I was in the air, something caught my leg and pulled me to the floor. The vacuum cord slipped tighter around my hock. I yelped and dropped Sis. I jumped to my feet and whirled around to find her, but instead I collided with the creature and collapsed to the floor, my breath gone, my fate sealed.
But then she was there, Sis, just beyond my snout and I let out a terrible bark as I scooped her up and slipped and scrambled down the tile hall to Blackdog.
Later that evening, Blackdog and I shared my red towel, and we talked in low voices as the family stared at the television. Blackdog’s tail wagged frantically. “And then, she told him, ‘The darn thing just died, and refuses to work!’ ha!”
I licked Sis. Her wet spot offered up memories of Mother, years ago, and hot grass, and dirt planters, and home. “You just have to find your things, hold onto them, you’ll be fine pup. You’ll be fine. Now I would like to get some rest, I’ve done my duty for today.”
Blackdog yawned. “Yeah, I’ll join you. But say, Tombo, have some more exciting dreams tonight, okay?”
I closed my eyes and let the nonsense noise of the television white out my thoughts. “I’ll keep my dreams,” I said, “but like the vacuum, you will learn these things in time.”
“Can Sis be my thing too?”
“Go to sleep pup.”