Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans
Land Minds – Part 1
He was savagely independent, having lived in the small, rugged, mountain community for more than a decade of self-imposed isolation and breathtaking loneliness. His earthly abode stretched a thousand meager yards from the nearest neighbor, who he avoided like diseased rats. The term neighbor implied a false familiarity, an acknowledgment of another’s existence, of weight upon the earth. The tenants who filtered through the adjoining rental property quickly learned to not ask questions or “nose around.” It didn’t take long until they treated him as part of the landscape, like a dried clump of gray-white bird droppings splattered over decaying leaves.
His makeshift home was a fading, moldy red barn, built in the late forties. It had gaping holes covered with black, dirty, torn plastic that had been nailed on in a haphazard frenzy of urgent necessity. There was no intention or inclination to give a damn about its looks. An outhouse supplied the necessary hole for elimination. An old, creaky, barely functional water tower kept his body and wrinkled clothes free of grit and grime.
To reach his dwelling involved a precarious path through an obstacle course of poison oak, prickly blackberry bushes and a six-foot deep, quarter mile fissure of eroded, hard red clay.
His only contact with beings human was a weekly visit to Frank and Stella’s Market, after having cashed his check at the bank. When he’d first arrived in town, Frank and his wife Stella, had inquired about his line of work. Their questions had been met with forceful silence and a souring scowl. Alice, who worked at Community Bank, told Stella that even she, “If anybody should know, it would be me.” didn’t have a clue about where he was from or what he did. All she knew was that the check he cashed was made out to Mark Keeler.
Mark Keeler didn’t know if he was fifty yet. He hadn’t thought much about it since his wife had thrown the mother of all surprise parties when he’d turned thirty-five. Old school mates, employees, best friends and beautiful seven-year-old daughter, all yelled “Happy Birthday!” showering him with flowers and popcorn as he’d walked in the front door.
His wife, Charlene, had kept it under wraps for a month of delicious anticipation. She, with her short auburn hair, teased and permed for the occasion, was wearing his favorite dress – the long, light blue, lotus-patterned one they’d bought in Bali on their honeymoon. Her grin had stretched with satisfied pleasure, from one soft earlobe to the other, as the party progressed.
Yes indeed, she’d pulled out all the stops! Pictures of him as a kid, pants half down, in his cowboy suit; tales from his father about his son’s “wild” days; and “secret” information thrown in from friends like Kurt Frazier, who recalled the time he and Mark were found in the girl’s bathroom in junior high, sabotaging the toilets. His daughter, Jasmine, who had been allowed to stay up past her bedtime, smothered herself with laughter when hearing of her father’s exploits. “Daddy was in the girl’s bathroom?!” She was flabbergasted. Her reaction sent the whole room into a crescendo of chuckles and belly laughs.
“Yes indeed, that was a hell of a party,” Mark recalled, as he put away the groceries he’d picked up at the market. “When was that . . . fifteen . . . sixteen years?” he wondered.
His callused, once long and smooth hands put the last box of chemical free, organic cereal on the top shelf. He pushed up his thick-lensed, dark-framed glasses and glanced at the label on the soy milk carton sitting next to the cereal. It read, “Safe to drink until Jan. 2012.”
“Safe my ass!” he blurted. “Nothing’s safe.”
Looking past the carton, between the warped wallboard’s, he saw the ageless trees shifting their feet. He reached up with his hand and scratched the flaky scalp which had been tauntingly gaining ground on his receding hairline. After drifting from one rambling boxcar of thought to another, he disengaged his overloaded, freight train brain and finished stocking the sparse cupboard with his weekly supplies.
Locking the cupboard and turning to go relieve his bladder, he carelessly stepped on his sleeping mat and allowed his eyes to glimpse the muted, color photograph permanently placed on the orange crate he’d transformed into a nightstand. Barking orders at his mind to disregard the sudden, splitting images of brutality and butchery that appeared without invitation, he wrestled himself out the door and collapsed. He looked at the bright, blue canopy and saw only a soiled sky of torn memories and violent dreams. The fluids that pumped through his veins turned into a slimy run-off of emotional grease and sludge, making his heart wince and stutter like a clogged drain.
He tried to forget by building miles of paths, stone walls and chopping wood until his hands’ were an ocean of draining blisters. Once he thought he’d lost his marbles and ran wild through the woods, growling and panting like a rabid dog, but even the comfort of sweet insanity had eluded his grasp.
That afternoon, as he lay on the decomposing earth, remembering the unmemorable, something inside churned and twisted with nauseating persistence. His gut belched with inquisition.
“No!” he said out loud. “I can’t!”
“You must!” his conscience protested.
His hands clamped tightly on to his contorted face, pushing his square glasses into his round eye sockets.
“No!” he screamed.
A belligerent typhoon of insistence rocked him from head to toe. His body shook with involuntary seizures of dread. He gasped then sighed as his tear-drenched palms fell away. A small clear hole of light broke through the blood stained clouds.
END OF PART 1 (CONTINUED TOMORROW)