Here, There and Everywhere

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Land Minds – Part 3

Saint Catherine’s Baby (Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans

Land Minds – Part 3 (Conclusion)

Yosh watched in bewildered silence as Mark fought his way upstream, like a battered, dazed salmon, trying to jump one last time over the dammed waterway. He saw him floundering in unseen rapids then make a courageous ascent towards the pearly gates of luxury.

Mark reached the massive, brown, mahogany door, his chest heaving, as if he was preparing to give birth. His hand reached out between contractions, started to knock and froze in mid air. Whirling around like a drunk, he swayed towards the path, collapsed on the steps and screamed like a lanced bull. His glasses fell to the ground, cracking the right lens.

Yosh ran to his side at the same moment the monstrous door cracked open. A tiny woman in her early sixties, no taller than five feet and wearing a double-breasted blazer of black satin, stood her ground with a mixture of unabashed fear and annoyance. “What’s going on?”

Yosh answered nervously, not sure himself, “It’s um . . . it’s OK. He’ll be OK.”

She stared at these strange companions sprawled on her doorstep. “What do you want?!”

“We’re ah . . .,” Yosh stuttered. “It was a mistake; wrong house. Sorry. We’ll be going.” He tried to lift Mr. Keeler, whose head was buried between his knees.

“How . . . long . . . has she . . . lived here?” Mr. Keeler said between sobs. Yosh turned and asked.

The woman hesitated then replied, “About fourteen, fifteen years.”

Mr. Keeler lifted his throbbing head, wiped the liquids streaking his face and asked, “Who were the previous owners?”

“Wheeler or Bueller . . . something like that.”

“Why’d they sale?!” Mark shouted. “Where’d they go?!”

“How should I know? Listen, if you’re OK you better go or I’ll have to call . . .”

Mark raised his arms, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going.” He began to rise and faltered. Yosh reached for his arm but had it pushed away. “Leave me alone.”

“Sorry. I just . . .” Mark was already half way down the path. Yosh turned and said, “Sorry to have caused you any trouble.”

By the time he picked up Mr. Keeler’s glasses and made it back to the car Mark was slumped in the front seat looking like a crushed can.

The can spoke, “Sorry about that.”

“No problem. Here’s your specks.”

Mark put on his glasses without noticing the damage. “I thought it would help. You know . . . face your fears . . . that kind of stuff.”

“You’re the Wheeler she was talking about, right?” Mark nodded. “You lived in this place alone?”

“No,” Mark whispered. “Can we go now?”

“Sure.”

Yosh pulled out of the driveway with an unintended lurch and headed downtown. When he passed 89th Ave. Mr. Keeler looked up.

“Have we passed 89th. yet?”

“Yeah, just now.”

“Damn! I’m sorry. Do you mind back tracking and taking 89th West?”

“No, I don’t mind. I’ve got a couple hours to kill.” He took the next exit, turned back North and veered off at 89th. “Where we headed Mr. Keeler?”

“Jasper Memorial.”

“You mean the graveyard?”

“Yes, the graveyard; the yard of graves; the grave . . .”

After a few bends and turns they arrived. The metal plated sign over the brass gate read JASPER MEMORIAL PARK – LAND OF REST.

Yosh didn’t feel very rested. “What the hell am I doing here?!” he wondered. “I hate these places.” The last time he’d been to a funeral was his grandfathers. They dressed up in ironed pressed suits on a sweltering hot summer day and listened to a bunch of Shinto Priests in stupid hats talking gibberish for over an hour. It had been unbearable.

Mark looked like a hunter scanning the horizon for prey. “There, by that big white cross!”

“Which one; they’re everywhere?”

“That one; next to the hedge of oleander.”

They parked, turned off the engine and disembarked.

“Please, wait here,” Mark said.

Yosh went back to the car, leaned against the side door and watched Mr. Keeler venture towards the hedge with his arms wrapped around his tightly packaged body, as if he was holding a large pillow to cushion some sudden charge or blow.

Mark was not aware of his spineless body heading towards oblivion. His mind swam with familiar fears as his gut plunged like a boulder falling over a waterfall towards sharp rocks below. His eyes were awash in a salt marsh of tears. He almost fell over Charlene’s headstone, bruising his knee. He knelt on the soft bosom of grass and begged to not see . . . to not see the blood . . . the mutilated bodies . . . the horror. He pleaded to view them before . . . before the insanity . . . before his nerves were injected with a murderous rage . . . before he became a walking corpse of memory. He reached out and felt the cold smooth stone of the adjoining marker. Through the blur he saw Jasmine’s name, as clean and fresh as if the engraver had just laid down their chisel.

“My sweet child . . . I’m so sorry.” The wildfire in his heart burned more acreage, jumping between his ventricles and valves like a flaming jackrabbit. A sudden snap and he swore a two-ton elephant had jumped on his chest. He keeled over, clutching at his lungs, gasping for oxygen and space.

Yosh sprinted to his side with the speed of the young.

“Mr. Keeler! Mr. Keeler!”

Mark squinted and felt air rushing back in to his lungs like a long lost child. He gulped in relief and languished in the momentary freedom from pain.

“You need a doctor!”

“I never felt better.”

“Mr. Keeler I . . .”

“Mark.”

“OK, Mark. Don’t fool around. You need medical attention and . . .”

“Look Yosh . . . it is Yosh?” Yosh nodded; shocked that Mr. Keeler remembered his name. “It’s just a little heart attack. Believe me, it’s nothing.”

“Nothing?! Look here Mr. . . . I mean Mark, this could be serious!”

“It would be a blessing. I’ve never had the guts to do it myself.”

This man once had everything he’d dreamed of. How could he talk about suicide? Then he saw the headstones and read, “Charlene Keeler. May 18, 1952 – February 10th, 1984. Beloved wife, mother, daughter and friend.” He turned and recited the eulogy on the matching stone. “Jasmine Keeler. November 27, 1977 – February 10th, 1984. Beloved Angel Child.”

Mark heard the words “Angel Child” and looked at Yosh’s clean-shaven face. His stunned silence begged an explanation. Mark swallowed, felt his Adam’s apple rise and fall, took hold of any remaining capacities within his possession and ran zigzag through the mind field of his memory.

“I got home from work around six in the evening.”

“Work?”

“I was vice-president of research at Lupin Technology.”

“Lupin? Oh yeah, satellites and stuff, right?”

“I got home around six, threw my bag on the chair and called out for Jasmine. She usually hid behind the sofa or curtain, waiting to pounce. She never thought I could hear her or see where she was. When she couldn’t stand waiting and jumped out, I always acted surprised. Then she’d throw her arms around my neck, give me a big hug and kiss and tell me all about her day. That evening I waited and waited, but nothing happened. No giggles, no movement, no sound. I called again, ‘Jasmine! Charlene!’ Nothing. Charlene’s Audi was in the driveway so I knew they were home. Then the adrenaline kicked in. I looked more closely and saw open drawers and broken glass. We’d been robbed. ‘OK,’ I thought, big deal, we’ve got insurance.’

I figured they must be in the back calling the police. I went to the kitchen, stepped on to the marble-colored tile floor and smelled Charlene’s perfume. It was a mixture of rose and sandalwood. She got it special made from some fragrance shop or aromatherapy place. Of course, when she wore the stuff it didn’t smell anything like it did from the bottle. It was sort of like . . .” his voice drifted off.

Yosh listened, as his composure crumbled like the wall of Jericho.

“I looked out the window, to see if they were in the garden, then went around the chopping block and stubbed my toe. I looked down and saw I was standing in a pool of blood.” Mark’s hands twitched. He stared through Yosh as if he was a cloud of vaporous gas. “It was Charlene. Her neck was cut in half. I moved backwards running into the wall, leaving a trail of bright red foot prints.”

Yosh sat down, as Mark’s description leveled his belief in humanity like a wrecking ball. “My God.”

“Then I saw Jasmine. Her skirt covered her pretty head, like she was trying to hide. I slipped on the blood, crawled to her side and uncovered her face, half-expecting her to yell ‘Surprise!’ Her eyes were plastered open in fright. I tried to lift her up and felt something warm and wet oozing from her chest. Her last ounce of blood covered my hands. I grabbed her arm, which was nearly severed and hung like a piece of string cheese.

“Please!” Yosh interjected. “That’s enough!”

“I must have screamed or yelled. Someone called the police. Somebody’s hands were pulling me away from Jasmine’s drenched little body. It was like being sick on a broken down carousel that kept going round and round and I couldn’t get off.
They caught the guy. There was a trial. He was sentenced. I asked a friend to sell the house and send my checks to my uncle’s old place in the mountains. I’ve been there since.”

Neither man moved. Shadows fell upon their faces and slithered into the undergrowth that covered hundreds of souls.

“Let’s go,” Yosh finally said. He helped Mark to his jellyfish feet.

“Where are we going?”

“To the doctor,” Yosh said, walking towards the car, their arms draped around one another like old war buddies.

“No thanks. Let’s go home.”

“Where’s that?”

“You know; that old place next to Mr. Matsuma and his sister,” Mark winked.

Yosh helped Mark into the silver Civic. Mark looked out the window, across the recently cut grass, his family’s death bed. A breeze drifted through the window carrying his dreams to their graves of dirt and dust. He kissed his palm and blew his heart in their direction. “If only the living was as easy as the dying,” he whispered.

Yosh turned onto the highway and headed towards the sanctuary of living trees and solid mountains of iron and granite. His city business could wait. He had to deliver Mr. Keeler, Mark, back to the woods . . . back to safety . . . back to his shattered life of fierce independence . . . of living out his days without interference, threat or judgment. He thought of his fiancée, Rosita, of how he would hold her, protect her and care for her with a new found fierceness she would never understand.

THE END

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Land Minds – Part 2

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans

Land Minds – Part 2

Late that afternoon the sun caught him breathing heavily and glared questioningly into his fearful eyes just before he disappeared into the woods towards town. He carried all he owned in a small leather shoulder bag flapping loosely against his spine.

Instead of going to the bank or store, as was his custom, he found himself standing precariously at the edge of the sultry blacktop being lured by an invisible seductress called hope. When the occasional car or truck sliced through the air with its metallic precision, he reluctantly lifted his thumb skyward. He wasn’t sure if he could be seen. He felt invisible.

The town’s eyes glistened with surprise, from Jesse down at the corner gas station, to Stella at the store, who promptly hollered at Frank to come outside, “and see for your self!”

Mark heard their thoughts rattle and hum before he saw them staring. Their investigations crawled up his hairy legs and under his cotton shirt like a voyeuristic spider. He slowly turned counter-clockwise and took in the town and its’ citizens, as if he had just arrived from Mars.

Frank waved. Jesse nodded. Mark noted their movements and felt his barrel chest rise and fall. His glasses slid down his sweaty nose, as his eyelids drooped and his bones sunk into his earthbound feet. The receiving instruments in his ears vibrated with the trees’ caution. “Don’t go! They’re animals . . . human animals . . . savages . . . whores of power.”

A silver Honda Civic had slowed and come to a stop about a meter from Mark’s khaki pants before he sensed its presence and opened his far-sighted eyes. His pupils adjusted to the light bouncing off the chrome fender as he realized the car was waiting for him to acknowledge its existence. Warily, he moved towards the open window on the passenger side, bent his knobby knees and slightly bulging waist and peered in to the interior.

“Hey, Mr. Keeler, where you headed?” The blurry face came into focus. “Don’t remember me, do ya?”

Mark’s head wobbled side to side acknowledging the correctness of the man’s assumption.

“Yosh, Yoshi Matsuma. My sister and I moved in just a ways down from your place last August, remember?” Again Mark’s head motioned his ignorance. “I’m going to the city if you want a ride. You are wanting a ride, right?”

Mark forced his haggard face to nod a meager yes, opened the door stealthily and willed his body to sit. He reached out with his sunburned and peeling arm, grabbed the plastic door handle and slammed it shut with a dull thud. As the mechanical convenience accelerated a renegade breeze blew in the open window. The stoic, composed redwoods cried a warning, their limbs rustling with nervous jitters and ancient fears.

Five minutes into the ride Yosh opened the curtain of silence. “We’ve fixed the place up pretty good; a little paint, some elbow grease and voila!” Mark’s tongue remained frozen. Yosh thought he saw his passenger’s eyebrow ascend slightly but couldn’t take his eyes of the road. “Of course my sister, Janey, added all the nice touches. You know, flowered curtains, pictures, table cloth, that kind of thing.” No reply. “Yes indeed, she’s made it quite livable.”

Yosh sipped his coffee from a lidded cup below the dashboard. “Like something to drink?” Replacing his cup he reached behind the seat, grabbed a bottle of Geyser Natural and offered it to his guest.

“No thanks.”

Yosh flinched at the sound of Mark’s voice, which had crept from his face like a toddler peeking out from behind their mother’s skirt. “If you change your mind just help yourself.”

The car left the winding mountain fortress and glided along the golden, rolling hills of brown and yellow grasses.

Yosh took a deep breath and felt the knots in his shoulders sigh with relief. “Always happens,” he said. “I never realize how uptight I am driving that part of the road until it’s over.” He took another sip of coffee. “We’re buying you know. No more money down the drain renting. It’s our place now. We’re going to be neighbors for a long time.” He looked at Mark’s backpack in the rearview mirror. “That is, if you’re coming back.” Mark looked out the window at the receding mountains. “Are you?” Yosh reiterated.

It took Mark a moment to realize he was being asked a question.

“What?” he said, looking out the windshield.

“Are you leaving for good or just going on vacation or something?”

He looked casually at the man who had been speaking. Yoshi Matsuma was a young, dark-haired man, without a wrinkle or hint of severity or judgment in his friendly face.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, it’s none of my business really, but you seem a little, I don’t know, a little out there.”

Mark’s mouth contorted into a grin, shocking them both. “You could say that.”

Yosh, surprised and encouraged with the sudden reply, gently pushed the boundaries, “I hope you come back.”

“You barely know me.”

Yosh slowed for a long curve. “There’s something . . . I don’t know . . .” He rounded the corner and let the wheel straighten itself out. “Just something about you I trust.”

“Trust! What does he know about trust?” he started to say, but Yosh interrupted.

“Look, I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Oh my God,” thought Mark, “not the truth.”

“Janey isn’t my sister, she’s my fiancée.”

Mark tried acting surprised, but wasn’t good at faking indifference.

“I know,” Yosh persisted, “it sounds stupid, but we weren’t sure how people in town felt about these things, so we thought we’d play it safe.”

The words rolled around in Mark’s head like a lead marble in a pinball machine. “Play it safe. Play at safety. Safe at play.”

“We plan on getting married, but our parents kind of freaked out about it. She’s not Japanese and my folks are real traditional about this stuff, you know?”

Mark nodded, he knew about prejudice. He knew how hate could consume your soul like fire, brand your hide and leave permanent shrouds of black ash lodged in your heart.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Yosh pleaded. Mark sat encased in his private inferno. “Mr. Keeler. Mr. Keeler!”

“What?”

“This is between us, right?”

“What?”

“Janey and me.”

“Yeah, sure.”

The sigh of a man who’d just been pardoned escaped from Yosh’s wound-up body, as they drove towards the concrete encampment. Over a hundred minutes of dead time ticked methodically on the dashboard clock until the cities outstretched fingers, delicately referred to as suburbs, fondled them with their manicured yards of caged nature.

Mark sensed the turnoff for Enterprise Estates before the green and white sign flashed into view. “Enterprise Estates,” he said out loud. “This is it.”

“You sure Mr. Keeler? These places are pretty ritzy, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” he replied, “I know.”

The exit overtook them quickly as Yosh veered right and turned into the walled subdivision. He slowed for the speed bumps and kept his eye on his hitchhiking friend. Mr. Keeler was trembling like someone with Parkinson’s.

“You sure about this?” Yosh said with concern. Mark nodded stiffly.

Yosh drove slowly along the squeaky-clean street until they passed a large, white, Mediterranean style home with blue fabric awnings and a long, brick driveway which stood out like a parading peacock.

“Turn here.”

Their small, Japanese model transport hesitantly crept up the wide u-shaped drive. Mark felt each indentation between the bricks thump, vibrate and spread to the soles of his feet from the rubber tree tires below. They came to a smooth stop in front of the extravagantly landscaped walk, which was lined with red and yellow roses, pink carnations and purple Mexican Sage.

Mark opened the car door gingerly and stepped into the external atmosphere of opulence. His knees buckled. He quickly recovered, grabbing the door and slapping his right cheek until it turned bright pink, then headed like a kamikaze pilot towards the front entrance.

END OF PART 2

(CONCLUSION TOMORROW)

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Falling On High – Part 2

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Falling On High – Part 2 – Conclusion

“Hey! Tony! Can you give me a hand?”

Tony put down the leveler, straightened and heard his knees crack, as he trudged once again up to the peak and looked over. Mike was on the edge of the roof trying to hammer in a piece of plywood that appeared warped.

“Can you hold that side down?” Mike asked.

Tony slowly worked his way to the edge and looked more closely. “You can’t use this,” he said, as Mike reached for a nail.

“Why not?” Mike questioned. “If you just hold that end I can get it to stay down.”

Tony shook his head. “It’s warped.”

“Just a little,” Mike insisted, flicking his hair behind his broad shoulders.

“Just a little?” Tony shouted, trying to calm his surging rage. He lifted up the piece of plywood, put it on its end and pointed. “It’s as warped as a politician! You can’t put this kind of crap on a roof.”

“I can do it,” Mike puffed up.

“That’s not the point, damn it!” Tony yelled. “You can’t use junk like that and be proud of your work.”

Mike shrugged. “Hey. It’s just a job.”

Tony felt his ears burn. He thought about grabbing the hammer and hitting Mike up side the head but remembered what George had said. He stood. His knees shook. It’s not just a job to me,” he said. “I’ll cut you another piece.” He growled, taking the warped plywood towards the ladder leaning against the front of the house.

As Tony placed his foot on the aluminum rung, holding the plywood in one hand and placing his other on the roof, the ladder slid sideways and crashed to the ground. The warped plywood followed, as Tony hung onto the gutter by his fingertips.

“Help! Mike! Help!”

He heard footsteps running on the rough gravely shingles and saw Mike’s young face peer over the side.

“Hold on,” he instructed. “I got ya.”

Mike grabbed Tony by the forearm, dug his heels into an exposed rafter nearby and pulled Tony up with a swift burst of youthful invincibility.

Tony crawled to his knees and looked away, hoping Mike hadn’t seen the terror in his eyes, but knowing he had.

Instead of saying thank you, Tony exploded with shame. “You stupid . . .” His voice trailed off as he got his bearings. “Number one rule,” he continued, “always, always make sure the ladder’s secure.”

“I just saved your butt,” Mike sneered, starting to walk away. Tony got up and followed.

“It shouldn’t have happened!” Tony yelled. “That ladder wasn’t secure!”

Mike waved Tony off and shrugged his shoulders. Tony grabbed Mike by the arm and turned him around. “Listen, you . . .”

“Don’t touch me old man,” Mike said sharply.

Tony pushed Mike on the chest. “Not too old to take you out.”

Mike turned and tried to walk away, but Tony grabbed him again by the shoulder.

Tony felt the wind leave his body as he crumbled to the roof, his gut contracting with pain from Mike’s sudden blow.

“I said, ‘don’t touch me’,” Mike leaned over and whispered.

Lying sideways, Tony watched Mike grab his Hawaiian shirt, go to the tar- covered roof and disappear down the back ladder.

Tony gasped and caught his breath. He put his hand on his stinging cheek and felt a bloody abrasion from landing on the shingles. He heard a door slam an engine rev and saw the top of Mike’s truck as it drove off.

“Stupid kid,” he said out loud. “Try to show him the ropes and look what you get.”

Curled up on top of the house, the sun sinking in the Tucson sky; Tony thought about Jake. Drops fell on his cheeks. It wasn’t sweat and it wasn’t rain; it was a foreign substance Tony had heard of called tears. Jake was the last person on earth he’d ever considered a true friend. Now he had nobody.

He sat up slowly, his back throbbing like a gigantic toothache and wiped his nose on his forearm. Out of nowhere his ex-wife’s parting words pounded in his head. “I actually feel for you. You’re the sorriest, loneliest man I’ve ever known. I don’t see how anyone could stand living with you!”

By the time his feet touched the ground night had descended. Walking gingerly to his truck Tony paused and looked up at the first stars out alone in the night. “Ah hell,” he whispered. “Maybe I was too hard on the guy.” It was then and there, in the silence, that he decided to find Mike first thing in the morning.

Tony saw Mike talking with George through the office window when he pulled up early the next day, just after sunrise. George was grinning and Mike didn’t seem too upset about anything. “What’s so funny?” Tony wondered, as he headed towards the front door.

George saw him first. He didn’t stop grinning. Mike, on the other hand, stopped talking and silently looked out the window as Tony closed the door behind him.

“Heard you had a little ‘disagreement’,” says George.

“Yeah,” Tony replied quickly, before he lost his nerve. “That’s why I’m here and not out working yet. I was wondering if I could talk to you a minute Mike . . . privately like.”

George tried to square up Tony’s intentions, then glanced at Mike. “OK with me. How about you?” he asked Mike.

Mike glanced sideways at Tony, who didn’t seem angry or pissed off and said, “Sure. Why not?”

“I’ll be right here if you need me,” George said to both men as Mike followed Tony out the door.

Tony wasn’t sure what he was going to say or how; he just knew that for some reason he didn’t want anyone else in this world to hate him. If there was some way to set the record straight and start over, he was going to give it his best shot.

Mike turned and leaned against the side of the corrugated building. He folded his arms, making his biceps more menacing than normal and kicked at the dirt with the toe of his work boot.

“Listen Mike.” Tony moved a little closer. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands so he tucked them in his front pockets. “I’ve never told anybody this before and I don’t know why I’m telling you now, but if its worth anything, I’m sorry for the way I acted up there.”

Mike stopped kicking at the dirt and looked at Tony out of the corner of his eye. Tony took up where Mike left off by looking down at the ground and kicking at the dirt.

It seemed to George, who had quietly stepped outside and was watching carefully; that there was nothing to worry about. “At least nobody’s thrown a punch,” he observed.

Mike didn’t know Tony from a hole in the ground and had no idea what a monumental and life-changing event it was for this man to apologize. But he could see that the old man was serious and he wasn’t one to hold grudges.

It took Tony a minute to raise his eyes and see Mike’s outstretched hand. Surprising himself, Tony smiled and gripped the offered hand with both of his own. “Thank you son,” Tony said, sending another shock wave through his system. He never even called his own boy “son”. “If there’s anything you need up their today, just give a holler.”

“You got it,” Mike agreed.

As the two men started walking back towards the office laughing and playfully punching one another in the arm, George looked up at the sky and said, “Dad. Now I’ve seen everything.”

THE END

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The Sweetest Man – Part 3

Excerpt from short story book Saint Catherine’s Baby.

The Sweetest Man (Part 3 – Conclusion)

Mr. Johnson and Ms. King, who now referred to one another as Joshua and Leslie, met the next day and the day after that. With Mrs. Johnson’s insistence, Joshua started seeing Leslie in the evenings as well, usually at Leslie’s home for dinner. When Leslie could arrange a babysitter, even though Sevon insisted he could stay by himself, “I’m TEN Mom!” they would go out to a movie, dinner or a walk around town.

It wasn’t long until mouths’ were talking and tongues’ a wagging at school.

“You Wiley Coyote you,” Maria exclaimed one afternoon to Leslie. “All this time. Not one look and here you come. Pow! He practically falls over himself chasing after you.”

Eloise laughed. Leslie chided. “Come on. It’s not like that. We’re just good friends.”

“Friends?!” Maria almost shouted. “Just friends my foot. You think we’re blind? We don’t see the way you talk?”

Leslie rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny the accusation as she walked away, leaving Maria and Eloise grinning, both genuinely happy for their new found friend, the “mother of Sevon.”

***

“Can we go to your place tonight?” Leslie asked sweetly, as she and Joshua left the Thai Kitchen, which had become their favorite dining spot.

“Well . . . I don’t know.” Joshua hesitated. “Don’t you think we should get back home? Ginny probably needs to leave soon.”

Ginny was the babysitter Eloise had found for Leslie. A freshman at the community college, she and Sevon had made a great connection. She didn’t treat him like a little kid and when he discovered that she had played soccer throughout high school and was on the college team, it was admiration at first goal.

“It’s only six-thirty,” Leslie replied. “She doesn’t have to leave until nine.”

“Oh yeah,” Joshua said, already knowing that was the case, but stalling, not sure what to say.

“Sure, sometime soon,” he said, giving her a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. “Let’s go see that new flick by Spike Lee.”

“Soon, soon, soon,” she frowned. “You always say that.” She looked at the wet pavement as they walked, water still streaming down the gutters from the downpour an hour earlier.

“Are you hiding something?” she inquired.

“Hiding something, from you?” He looked hurt.

“You’ve never invited me to your house,” she said. As he lifted his arm off her shoulder, she stopped walking, braced herself and took a risk. “You got another woman at home?”

Joshua rolled his head and looked up at the dark sky. He hadn’t told her about his mother. He was afraid she’d think he was a loser, “a coward,” his previous lady friends had said or implied, because he still lived at home.

“Oh my God!” Leslie gasped. “How could you?!”

The expression of anguish on her face almost killed him. She abruptly turned and started to run. He ran after her and grabbed her long coat by the sleeve.

“No! No!” he panted. “It’s not like that.” He could tell she didn’t believe him, but she had at least stopped to listen. “Yes, I live with another woman . . .”

She raised her hand to slap him, restrained herself and turned to flee, but he wouldn’t let go and turned her around. “It’s my mother!” he shouted.

Leslie’s mouth dropped open. She stared at Joshua, flabbergasted. “Your mother?!”

He nodded, waiting to hear a litany of judgment, deprecation and farewells.

“Why?” was all she said. She took Joshua’s hands and held them in her warm gloves. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Joshua had tried to avoid this moment at all costs. How could he explain that he’s the last and only family member living that can care for his mom? How could he tell her that he’d promised to never put her in a home with strangers? How could he tell her he owed his mom the world; that she was the only one who stuck by him when he returned from Viet Nam addicted to heroin; the only one waiting when he got out of jail for robbery; the only one that called and visited every week during his rehab? Every other woman he’d known had left him for someone successful, someone who wasn’t such a “Mama’s boy.” How could he tell her all that?

“I was afraid,” was all he could manage. “I was afraid you’d leave.”

“Leave?” she said pulling him close. “You’re the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.”

She wrapped her leather coat around them both; re-heating the bond that had been temporarily frozen, extinguishing the fear that had drained the blood from their bodies.

“When can I meet her?” she whispered, after gently kissing his soft cheeks. “Tonight?”

“No. She’d be livid if we showed up unannounced. She’ll want to make a big to do about it.” He smiled sadly, returning Leslie’s kiss with one of his own on her wet lips.

“Oh. I hope she won’t go to all that trouble.”

“She won’t,” he corrected. “She can’t be on her feet long. It’ll be me who does the actual cooking. She’ll be the general in charge, ordering me to do this and that.”

“I hope she likes me.”

“Like you?” Joshua’s replied. “How could she not like you?”

His gut tightened into a knot, knowing that his mother had always found some fault or perceived character defect with his lady friends.

***

Leslie and Sevon closed the doors to the Camry and walked across the street. They opened the gate of the chain link fence to the old brownstone and headed towards the front porch.

“You be on your best behavior, you hear,” Leslie reminded Sevon. “This is very important for Mr. Johnson and me.”

Sevon nodded for the hundredth time. “How old is his mom? I bet she’s ancient.”

“Sevon!” Leslie sighed. “She’s not ancient, just older.”

“How old?” Sevon asked, as they stepped on the creaky steps.

“Shhhhh!” Leslie cautioned. “I don’t know.”

***

“Don’t forget the crystal wine glasses!” Alberta Johnson shouted from the living room.

“I didn’t!” Joshua yelled out from the kitchen, were he was nervously watching the clock. The table was immaculately set with silver utensils, which had been passed down from his great-grandmother. Bright red roses splayed out from a vase in the center of the white lace cloth, which blessedly covered most of the gaudy Formica top.

When he returned to the living room to help his mother out of her chair, the doorbell rang. He turned back towards the kitchen, wondering if he should get his mother up first or answer the door.

As he hesitated, looking at the front door then at his mother, Mrs. Johnson yelled, “What are you standing there for? Hurry up before they run off already.” He started coming towards her. “Go get the door you fool,” she snapped. “I can make it on my own.”

He watched her rise, with great effort, using her cane to steady herself, as he hurried to the front door.

“Come in. Come in.” He ushered Leslie and Sevon into the entrance way. “Who are you two fine looking people?” he kidded.

Leslie kissed him on the cheek. evon nodded a perfunctory hello.”

“Where’s you’re Mom?” Leslie asked, noticing the beautifully laid out table setting.

“I’m right here,” Mrs. Johnson replied, huffing and puffing her way into the kitchen.

Leslie, taken aback by how bent over and breathless Mrs. Johnson was, stood and stared. Catching herself, before it was noticed, she went up to the matriarch; shook her hand and said, “What a pleasure to meet you.” Turning towards her son, who looked like he’d just seen someone raised from the dead, Leslie twitched her head to indicate he should move closer. “And this is my son Sevon.”

Sevon bowed, reluctantly took the outstretched wrinkled hand and said, “Nice to meet you Mrs. Johnson.”

Mrs. Johnson laughed. “Now, aren’t you the little prince?” Sevon backed up closer to his mother. “You keep that up and the girls will be all over you.”

Looking a little sick at the thought of girls being “all over” him, Sevon nodded politely and decided then and there to keep his distance from the old lady.

“Please,” Joshua motioned towards the table. “Dinner is just about ready.”

Leslie pulled out a chair for Mrs. Johnson, who was so focused on landing gracefully in front of company, that she didn’t bother to say thank you. Sevon sat as straight as he could, like his mother had instructed, at the opposite end.

Leslie sat down next to Mrs. Johnson, put on her napkin and complimented their hosts. “This is beautiful.” She smelled the roses, then picked up a silver knife. “And these are exquisite. Where did you get them?”

Joshua put a plate full of steaming hot lasagna in front of his mother, who replied, “They’re from my grandmother. They were a wedding gift from the woman she worked for.”

“What company did your grandma work for?” Leslie asked, grateful to have something for conversation.

“Company?” Mrs. Johnson stared hard at Leslie. “Where are you from?”

“What?” Leslie said, as Joshua placed dinner before her, smiling lovingly, not having heard their interaction.

“She was a cook, a cleaner,” Mrs. Johnson continued sternly. “She was a slave.”

“Why yes, of course,” Leslie acknowledged, feeling like she’d just slipped and fallen into a mud puddle. “I meant . . . I was just wondering …”

“What company?” Mrs. Johnson muttered, shaking her head, wondering how her son could find someone who had no sense of history, no understanding of what they’d been through, of who they were.

Joshua put a big helping of Lasagna in front of Sevon and a large portion at his own seat, then placed a bottle of wine and one of apple cider next to the roses. He sat down across from Leslie, between his mother and Sevon. After putting on his napkin, he glanced over at Leslie. His smile disappeared when he saw her look of confusion. Without wasting a second he looked at his Mom for an explanation, but received none.

Leslie watched Mrs. Johnson and Joshua bow their heads to pray and did likewise. Sevon, not being brought up in a religious household, reached for his fork and took a mouthful of lasagna before his mother could stop him.

Alberta Johnson shot an inquisitional look at Sevon, then his mother. “Sevon!” Leslie admonished. “What on earth are you doing?” Sevon was at a loss. His Mom nodded frantically at Joshua and Mrs. Johnson’s bowed heads.

Sevon put down his fork, whispered “sorry” and bowed his head.

The rest of the evening was civil, but no matter what Leslie said or did, she couldn’t erase the mortal sins Mrs. Johnson insinuated they had committed at the dinner table.

“That woman,” Mrs. Johnson gasped, after their guests had left. Joshua helped her back into her “Big Daddy” chair and raised the footrest. “That woman doesn’t deserve you.” She looked at the picture of her dead husband on the bookshelf, realizing once again how much she depended on her only son. “She’s got no religion.” She took a few skeletal wheezes. “A kid with no manners. And . . . worst of all . . . she doesn’t even know she’s black.” Joshua remained silent, as his mother gargled on. “Did you see her hair?!”

***

Driving home, in her new luxury Toyota, Leslie knew she couldn’t blame Sevon, who had never said grace in his life and she couldn’t take back her naive question about Mrs. Johnson’s grandmother.
“How on earth,” she told herself, “was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader.” As they drove on she became more incensed and less self-effacing. “What century does she live in? she told herself. “Praying never got us anywhere!”

Two minutes later she found herself arguing for understanding and patience. “So, she finds it comforting. Who am I to say what works best for the old lady?”

***

Joshua finished up the last of the dishes, got his mother’s night time medications and brought them, with some water, into the living room.

“Here you go Mom.”

“Thanks son.” She plopped the handful into her mouth, took a big swig and swallowed them all at once, coughing a few times to clear her throat.

After making sure they’d all gone down OK, he said, “I’m going to go read a while.”

When Joshua came out of his room, about twenty minutes later, his mother said, with a slight slur, “I, I think I’ll go . . . my prayers and . . . to bed. I’m pppretty tired all of a sudden.”

He helped her rise. She leaned on him hard and dragged her cane behind her. Her shuffling was worse than usual as they entered the bedroom. He sat her on the side of the bed and pulled back the hand-knitted bedspread. Gently removing her shoes, he laid her down and pulled the covers over her shoulders.

“Thanks sweetheart.” They kissed each other goodnight. “You’re sssuch a swweet, sweet boy. What . . . what would I . . . I ever do . . . without you?”

Joshua turned off the light, closed the door and went to the bathroom. He took the few remaining barbiturates he’d switched with his mother’s medications and flushed them down the toilet. As he watched them disappear, he realized he had been so taken with Leslie King, that he’d forgotten to find out the name of that cute little girl with pigtails that he’d seen on the playground several months ago and promised himself he’d find out first thing in the morning.

THE END

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The English Lesson – Part 3

Conclusion of The English Lesson. An excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

After several moments of silence, Mrs. Frankel closed her eyes and whispered, “That man save my life.” Her eyelids parted slightly. “After war, our town in ruin from bombs. Many months go here and there. Much poor, much, how say, puberty?”

“Poverty,” Ruthie nodded, choking down her urge to laugh.

“We have little to eat. Most people in country same. Our haus destroyed. No verk. Father dead.” A smile caressed her lips. “Then comes Claude. He intrepoter, inturp . . . you know, talk for. He verk with Americans because he speak Deutsche, English and French,” she blushed. “I just young girl. He came in night, after verk and ask my muter if he can take out me. She say, ‘Ask her, not me.’ Of course, I say yes. He is so nice and looking good.” She smiled so broadly that Ruthie could see her scrubbed white dentures.

“He bring our family extra bread and ration coupons. I not help but fall in love with man. He very gentle and true.” She stopped and caught her breath. “One day he tell me his story. Claude’s parents were arrest by Nazis, just as he home from school in afternoon. He been told what to do if something happen, so he go hiding and join sister, who already live in château in France, where brave owner save many refugee.”

Mrs. Frankel suddenly stopped, got up stiffly and moved down the hall. “I show something,” she mumbled, then disappeared into the back bedroom. Ruthie could hear her opening drawers and struggling to close them.

After several minutes she returned with a small, torn envelope and drew out its crumbling contents. She handed the paper to Ruthie who looked blankly at the German correspondence. “I found letter going through his thinks. It is to man who survive death camp and write Claude to tell him how his parents horrible finish. He know and see Claude’s parents go into gas death. Claude’s letter back to this man is scream of anger and how you say, griefing?” The handwriting was neat and precise up to the final shaky sentence. Mrs. Frankel read it to Ruthie. “His last words say, ‘I have to stop writing . . .’”

A shadow fell upon the room, as a limb outside the window blew in the gathering wind. Ruthie folded the letter with tenderness and handed it back to Mrs. Frankel.

“He end up verking as journal speaker for Radio Free Europe, then as soldier for underground,” she said proudly. “He speak languages good.” Ruthie’s smiled. “Not like me.”

Mrs. Frankel’s smile subsided as her story continued. “It hard to think my sweet Claude as soldier boy. He live in woods and mountain caves two years until allies, how you say, ‘parasite’ vepons from sky?”

“Parachute,” Ruthie gently supplied the word, not wishing to intrude.

“Yes, parashut,” Mrs. Frankel agreed. “Then they have guns and bullets to fight. He say he lost many friend . . . many French friend. He very brave. Not only he stood his place, but run back and forth during heavy fight to bring friends bullets. He grew above self and after war was honor the la Croix de Guerre by French guvermant.”

Mrs. Frankel took a blue and white embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of her plain, neatly ironed dress and blew her nose. “‘One of happiest day in life?’ he say, when he and thousand of French people greet American soldier boys and march down Champs de Elysees.”

“What was the other?”

“Other what?”

“Happiest day of his life.”

She gazed at her husband’s picture. “When he meet me.” Her tears flowed freely. “He always say I best thing in his life.” She resorted to her hanky once again, dabbed her eyes and apologized. “I sorry. Please . . . I just old, sad woman. Not your problem.”

“It’s OK.”

Mrs. Frankel blew her nose one last time and pocketed her handkerchief. “Enough.” She picked up the pages, pointed, and demanded, “What this say!?”

***

Sy was half-asleep, lounging in the car, when Ruthie left Mrs. Frankels. The wind had picked up, blowing a multi-colored curtain of autumn leaves around her. She stopped at the front gate to wave to Mrs. Frankel, who watched through the living room window. The shades had all been opened.

She went to the car. With the English lesson resting on her lap, she looked fondly down the maple and elm-lined street.

Sy sat up slowly and turned the ignition. The old Plymouth hummed to attention.

“How goes it?” He put the transmission into drive.

“Not bad.” Ruthie’s seditious smile lit her face. “Not bad at all.”

Sy put the gear back in park. “Not bad?” he said incredulously.

Ruthie buckled her seat belt and said, more to herself then to Sy, “Not bad, once you get to know her.” She leaned over and kissed Sy, who stared at her blankly. “I’m awfully lucky to have you,” she grinned.

“What brought that on?”

“Let’s go home,” she nodded towards the street. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

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