Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘Saint Catherine’s Baby’

Moving Up – Part 2

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt)

Moving Up – Part 2 (Conclusion)

There I was with my stuffed dog and my mother’s eyes. The neighbor’s door slammed and the TV in the apartment below squawked like a rap song on downers. The water in the pot I’d put on the stove was boiling, the shrieking whistle increasing in velocity. I looked in those eyes, saw my reflection and wondered out loud, “Why did you leave? Where did you go?”

I went to the stove, turned off the kettle and poured what little water was left over my oolong tea. I turned up the volume on the radio, which I must have left on went to work. The announcer said the guy playing the violin had once played for change on the streets of Paris and now graced the stages of concert halls around the world.

I returned to the recliner, put the dog in my lap and hugged its neck. I closed my eyes and drifted off, as my reassuring nightmare gracefully returned.

The snake-eyed woman oozed out of the festering sore, her hands and bony fingers reaching for my throat. She whispers, “Die my love. Die a slow death. There is nothing but pain and sadness.” Her cold fingertips tighten on my Adam’s apple, as I flail with clenched fists to beat my way free, my knuckles smashing into her skeletal face without any impact. Her face changes into a tornado, sucking me in and spitting me out between her thighs. My heart muscle has been shredded into little pieces and is being flushed down the sewer.

My hand slid off the armrest and hit the floor. I found myself sitting in a chair, holding a stuffed dog with marble eyes. The phone was ringing again. I answered.

“What? Oh, hi Annie.”

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Where were you? I called earlier.”

“I must have been in the shower.” I lied.

“How’s your new job?” she asked, disdain seeping through her cheerful “everything is always great” voice.

“OK, I guess. I found the coolest dog.”

“A dog?!” her voice raised an octave. “I thought animals weren’t allowed . . .”

“No, they aren’t allowed here. Not a dog dog . . . it’s a stuffed dog. It’s in great shape. I can’t believe somebody threw it away. And it’s big. I mean really big! If I stand on end it almost reaches my head. And the coolest part is its eyes. They don’t look normal. They’re all glassy, deep black and vacant like. They remind me of . . . well . . . they’re very cool. You’ve got to see it.”

“I’ve got Springer,” she replied, “a real dog. Why on earth would I care about a fake one from the dump?”

“Well, no. I guess you wouldn’t.”

“You could have a real dog,” she pleaded, “if you weren’t so stubborn and moved out here.”

“Well . . . I’ll just have to enjoy my ‘pretend’ dog by my old stubborn self.”

“Don’t go all sad and sorry for yourself on me. You know what I mean.’

“Yeah, I know. Grow up, right?”

“You said it, not me,” she laughed.

She always wanted me to be someone or somewhere different, but she kept calling and seeing me anyway. If I could mint how many times she’d said, “Grow up.” I’d be a billionaire. I have grown up! I like my life just fine. It’s safe, secure and pathetically terminal . . . except for my nightmares. They may leave me sweating in terror, but they’re consistent, predictable and more painfully present then anybody I’ve known dead or alive. She keeps hoping I’ll change. She’s like that, full of faith and seeing the good in people. Some folks can’t help it.

“Why don’t you come stay with me this weekend? We could take Springer to the lake, go fishing and camp out at Crescent Cove.”

“Sure, but I’ve got to work Saturday morning. I’ll drive out in the afternoon. Maybe we could get in a little hook and sinker Sunday morning.”

“I guess that will have to do. See you then.”

“Later,” I said and hung up.

The truth be known, I could only handle being with Annie for a day, two max. Something about her always made me feel inadequate, like I was lacking some prime ingredient for her stew.

I looked at the chair and saw the dog had fallen on the floor. I picked it up, brushed it off and found myself staring at those eyes again. They held me like a voodoo curse. I shook myself free and placed it by the wall, under the window with the dirty blinds I never open.

***

It’s been a year since I started working at the dump. Annie finally got smart and left me alone. I heard she’s hooked up with some organic strawberry farmer who loves the country and has lots of “real” dogs. I’m still living in the same immaculately disastrous apartment, enjoying a Sunday to myself and reading the paper. The stuffed dog I found last year is still lying under the window, sagging a little more in the midriff, obediently collecting dust. I pick it up now and then, whenever I need a good shot of collected misery.

I put down my cup of cold coffee and am drawn to an interesting add.

WANTED. NIGHT DRIVERS. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. WILL TRAIN. REFERENCES REQUIRED. CALL SEASON’S MORTUARY. 639-4518.

“Well now,” I say out loud, “talk about a dream job. I think I’ll call them first thing in the morning.”

THE END

Part 1

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Moving Up – Part 1

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt)

Moving Up – Part 1

If you enjoy stench, spilled guts and sights too horrible to imagine, it was a dream job. Not a cash cow or silk tie kind of thing, but it kept me out of trouble, paid the bills and satisfied my sliver of sanity.

I had the honor, no the privilege, of driving the county roads to pick up dead animals that had been dismembered, disemboweled or squashed like aluminum cans after they had followed an arousing scent or been running from a perceived or real danger.

The blue and white van I had been provided was a mockery to survival itself, but came with the territory. With brakes that required savage pumping to avert running into a brooding oak guarding a curve and lights that flickered on and off like a firefly, it was a matter of faith and fatalism that kept me roaming the roads like a vulture.

“Sure John, we fixed the van,” the mechanics at the city yard would reply with a smirk. “A little gum and masking tape did the job.”

They enjoyed their friendly razing, not realizing their haphazard maintenance was abetting my undercover mission to obliterate my self and obtain absolution for having the gall to keep living.

The early morning ritual of driving the two-lane roads in a death trap was actually quite therapeutic and made me acutely aware of the precariousness of my existence. The sad eyes of a dead raccoon, the resigned look of a possum or the dilated pupils of a terrorized deer strengthened my daily revelations.

I began to see their deaths as sacrifices for their species; not unlike the human sacrifices made in ancient cultures in which it was believed that offering up someone’s soul every now and then would somehow please the gods and protect the rest of the clan.

Staring into the trees, driving along the blacktop at a crawl, my lights returning just in time to see the center line, I would glance out my bug-splattered side window and imagine the beasts of the forest at their nightly gathering.
“It’s your turn,” the eldest skunk would tell his brother, the one he’d always hated. “It’s your turn and everyone knows it.” The young sibling would stare in disbelief and frantically argue.

“What?! My turn? There have been more of us stinking up the road since last winter then there have been rabbits in a blue moon.” Turning towards the rabbits, his nose in the air, he snarls, “Why don’t they put up for a change?”
I’m not sure how they make their selections. Most of the animals that sacrifice themselves aren’t virgins, though I doubt that matters as much to them as it has with humans. I had a strong feeling their decisions weren’t reached by consensus.

My mind tended to play tricks while I was shrouded in morning’s dark shawl. Just before sunrise I would lose track of where I was and became blissfully disoriented. The thrill of being lost and abandoned, with a load of dead carcasses, made me feel like a kid who has just been terrorized from seeing a monster in the closet. Chills of helpless agony caressed my spine, leaving a pungent residue of powerlessness that lasted until I returned to the county yard and dumped my scavenged cargo.

To my surprise and disappointment, the excitement and unique perspective the job provided began to fade. Instead of adrenaline or anticipation numbing my senses, I became jaded and morose. It became commonplace. My lovely nightmares had ceased and I began to look forward to my days off.

After weeks of concentrated contemplation I applied for an opening in waste management. They must have been desperate. Within days of turning in my application I was offered a job at the landfill three miles from town.

It seemed that good fortune had struck twice and unlike lightening this was something I looked forward too. A feast of garbage awaited my attention and it was being served on a government platter with higher pay and benefits; though the health coverage and retirement fund amounted to a big fat zero since I didn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy such entitlements.

They started me out at the sorting machines for recyclables, but that was too clean and tidy for my tastes. Luckily I got in good with Gary, the boss and it wasn’t long until he granted my request and demoted me to a better position.

“You sure you want this?” Gary grumbled, as he took the five bucks from a city resident entering the yard with a truckload of junk. He didn’t like sitting at the gate all day, but Leslie was out taking care of her sick husband and I was a flunky when it came to handling money.

“You bet,” I said, staring at the ground to make sure he didn’t see me grinning.

“OK.” He handed the driver their two-bit change and receipt then looked my way. “It’s your life.”

“Thanks Gary.”

As I put on my gloves and headed towards the screeching seagulls that made the landfill their home, he hollered, “If you change your mind let me know and I’ll put the next new guy on it.” I waved.

I quickly wadded into the middle of the filth to search for valuables that had been dumped along with the refuse. Whatever we found that was of any value we set aside for the city to resale or recycle, but everyone knew we could take the occasional prize home for our own enjoyment or consumption.

***
One wet drizzly fall day, after slogging through a pile of decomposing lettuce and coffee grounds, I came upon a large black and white stuffed dog as big as a small horse. I brushed off the fur, removed my gloves and felt it from head to tail. It only had one small tear, the stuffing seemed intact and it didn’t smell too rancid. I turned it around to look at the front and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. The eyes were dark shiny half-shelled marbles that looked exactly like my mothers.

I was a child when she left her limp body on the bed, but the vacant expression in her eyes had been scorched into my little mind forever. Now, in the city dump, up to my knees in trash, I held my find above the waste and saw my mother staring back from her glassy-eyed, opium-filled refuge.

I whistled and waved at my sorting colleague Sammy, to indicate I was taking my break. He waved back and nodded. Sammy was the only guy I knew who liked garbage as much as I. He always offered to cover shifts for the rest of us. He was afraid he would miss the find of the century the one day he was off work.

I walked to my oil-stained motorbike parked in the corner of the yard and tied the dog on the back of the ripped leather seat with a tattered budgie cord. It looked like a carpetbag slung over a pony’s saddle and left little room for my sorry ass on the ride home.

That night I washed, combed and brushed the fur, stitched the tear and polished the eyes. I was lost in those eyes when the phone rang. I didn’t answer. It was probably Annie. She’d been hounding me for years. “You’ve got to move out of the city. Come live with me.” She called once a week from her parent’s home telling me how much she loved and adored me.

Annie and I had met in high school. Her best friend Sylvia had been killed in a freak auto accident the day before graduation. She came to me for comfort. I listened. She interpreted my silence as love and tethered herself to me like a goat to a stake. I have no idea what love is. When her friend had died I just didn’t know what to say and figured saying nothing was better than mouthing off a bunch of cliches or condolences. If I’d known she would become so possessed I would have told her, “Everything will be OK.” Or, “I understand. Don’t worry.”

Now there was nothing I could do but wait. I don’t know how to say good bye; other people do that.

PART 2 TOMORROW

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Dressed In Black

Excerpt from Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories.

Dressed In Black

Stephanie came every day. She came without presumptions, ulterior motives or expectations of exalted visions or transcendent love. She came out of habit. She came because of a promise.

She arrived promptly at six in the evening, in stormy or serene skies and sat on her cushion of leaves inside the hollow of a burned out stump, protected from the weather by a neighboring family of Ponderosa Pines.

She never faltered or dozed. Her vigilant eyes were fixed upon the lush meadow before her; the meadow that transformed from dry golden browns in the summer to sparkling sheaths of undulating greens arching towards the fall and spring skies, enticing the wet rains to provide them their full desire of liquid fuel.

She didn’t meditate on the present, reminisce about the past or worry about the future. She remained on duty like a royal guard. Nothing could distract her from catching a glimpse of her departed father.

Stephanie was thirty-four; old enough to know the difference between reality and fantasy; old enough to have been cut and burned by men’s’ promises and women’s’ expectations; old enough to have married, miscarried, divorced and buried a friend.

She had lived at three diverse locations in her parents’ province; by the river, in the valley and most recently in the mountains. The total population of the area was less than a cord of wood and spread east to west like an open picture book.

Each of her previous living quarters had been to her liking, simple, adequate: free of pretense or superficiality. The two-bedroom home she presently rented, after her divorce from Marty “meticulous” Johnson, was far more space than she needed, but it would suffice. It held her few belongings in the comfort of its wooden walls, greeted her at night when she returned and warmed her breakfast on its four-burner gas range before she left at sunrise to make her rounds.

Stephanie would faithfully sit in the tree stump every day of the year. Her frizzy red hair was stuffed inside her pale leaf-green forester’s cap. Her short, strong legs crossed lazily in front of her ample hips, as her camouflaged gloves held the binoculars up to her sharp hazel eyes or rested comfortably on her lap.

Marty, her ex-husband, had always called her Cinderella. No matter where they were or what they were doing, she would run off in the early evening to her spot in the woods. She wasn’t afraid her car would turn into a pumpkin or her gown into rags. She was afraid she would miss seeing the form of her father when he reappeared.

When Stephanie was a young girl and she and her father had been sitting at dusk, in the very hollow she now visited, he had once said, “If reincarnation is real, which is highly unlikely.” He worked at the university and despised shallow religious dogma or superstitions. “But, if it is,” he had said seriously, “by some remote possibility true, then I want to return like that.” He had pointed at the magnificent creatures grazing in the meadow before them. “I want to be as big and black as the one I saw when I was a kid camping with my dad.” He had turned his endearing gaze upon his precious offspring, his only child and confessed, “I’ve never seen anything like it since.”

Ten months later, while Stephanie’s mother was picking her up at school, her father had suffered a heart attack and dropped dead on the hard linoleum floor of his fluorescent light-filled laboratory.

Stephanie and her mother had rushed to the hospital, after returning home and hearing the frantic message from his long-time colleague on their answering machine. It took them two hours to get to the city.

Her mother had tried to prevent Stephanie from going behind the curtain in the emergency room, but a battalion of marines couldn’t have stopped her from seeing her beloved father.

She hadn’t shed a tear. She’d looked at his ashen face, felt his icy hand and said, “Don’t forget Daddy. I’ll wait for you.” She knew he hadn’t really died. He had just changed form. She knew it without a sliver of doubt. She knew it because if she had allowed her self to believe otherwise, the pain would have ripped her to shreds.

As she matured, studied mathematics, biology and physics, her faith in reincarnation was bolstered again and again. She had underlined statements that confirmed her belief. “Energy doesn’t disappear into a vacuum, it always has an equal and opposite reaction. Matter never dissipates, it simply changes form.”

Even when she attended medical school, at the same university her father had worked, she had kept her internal contract and driven two to three hours a day to sit at their spot in the woods. She was thrilled when, after graduation, she had been offered a position as her home districts medical officer, covering three sparsely populated counties on the Canadian border. The only condition she’d insisted upon and been granted, was being off-call between five and seven every evening.

She waited and waited and waited some more. Thousands of images had passed through her hungry mind. She knew when it happened it would fill the void, the pit in her heart that had been filled with despair over her father’s long absence. She knew it was the only sane thing that could give her peace. She couldn’t pretend, imagine or dream it into being. The large black moose had to be real. Its reality would let her know her Daddy wasn’t dead. It would confirm her belief in medicine, in science, in living. Its existence would bring order to chaos.

She had seen every shade of brown and tan; mothers, fathers, siblings and babes. She had watched several generations come and go, heard their mating calls and crashing clashes as they fought over the women of their species. But in the twenty-four years since her father’s death Stephanie had never seen a large pitch-black figure like the one her father had witnessed as a boy.

Winter had arrived early. Soft white freshly fallen snow covered what she now considered “her” meadow. The sun had gone down early. Her hands felt like ice cubes stuck inside a freezer. She rubbed them together under her father’s down jacket. Her heavy-duty flashlight stood on its end next to her aching knee. She silently stretched her legs and slowly refolded them, years of practice and patient persistence guiding them effortlessly back into position.

She heard branches snapping and loud snorting immediately to her left. She grabbed her flashlight and anxiously waited until the footsteps subsided. She flicked on the head lamp. Her hand shook as she found the silhouette of the towering Bull Moose against the white snow. Her heart leapt into her throat. The sudden gasp for air burned her lungs. The mammal with pitch-black fur raised its head, looked knowingly into her eyes and winked.

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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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Falling On High – Part 1

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Falling on High – Part 1

“Tony! I need the hammer!”

“What?!” Tony yelled back, as he poured another bucket of hot tar on the smoldering flat roof.

The hammer!” Mike shouted, from the other side of the remodeled two-story home. “It’s on the edge, by the gutter!”

Tony looked behind him and saw the tool lying on its side. He put down the tar-bucket and grabbed the compression hammer. “Lazy jerk,” he exclaimed quietly, coughing up a mouthful of mucous and spitting into the top of a nearby magnolia tree.

He walked over the roof’s crest and saw Mike holding a pile of shingles with his knees and a pack of nails in his hand. “Idiot,” he thought. “Why didn’t he get it before he started?”

Tony handed Mike the hot-handled hammer.

“Thanks man,” Mike said, his long sun-bleached ponytail sticking to his shirtless, tanned, muscle-infested chest.

With his cheeks ablaze, Tony nodded imperceptibly and turned back towards the bubbling tar. “Stupid kid,” he hissed.

Tony Mendoza, creeping up on fifty-three years of age, had been a roofer for over three decades. A short, quick-tempered shot of a man, Tony was unable and unwilling to acknowledge his graying sideburns and an aching back that felt like it was carrying a hundred-pound bag of cement.

Because of the skyrocketing demand for new housing and a shortage of skilled labor, contractors were scrambling for help.

Tony had been informed by George, the foreman, to break in the new guys slowly. “Show them the ropes,” George had insisted.

“I’m running out of rope with this guy,” he’d told George that morning. “Might as well be up there by myself.”

“Give him a chance,” George had replied. “Remember when you started out with my dad? You didn’t know a beam from a chimney.”

Tony had grinned, in spite of his agitation, muttered some silent obscenities and climbed back up the ladder with another bucket of tar. He retrieved his blue-rimmed cap from his back pocket, slipped it on his balding head and let his eyes drift across the rooftops and swimming pools.

The heat from the scorching Tucson sun raised his body’s thermostat to fever pitch, as memories drifted before him like a mirage.

George’s dad, Lesley “Jake” Simpson, a full-blooded Cherokee, had started Simpson’s Roofing in the seventies. He and Tony were both raised in Arizona and had been stationed with the armed forces in Germany.

“When I’m done serving Uncle Sam,” Jake had droned daily, “I’m going to start up a roofing business. Doesn’t look like it now, but I got a feeling a lot of people will be moving to Arizona and they’re going to need a roof over their heads.”

Tony had listened to Jake’s dreams, while they were bundled in heavy wool coats, gazing out on a snow covered military compound in Stuttgart.

“Jake,” Tony recalled fondly. “He was an upright guy.”

He remembered the incident in a Stuttgart bar when he and Jake, who was the size of an adult grizzly, had gotten into it with some drunken German bigots who’d called Tony a “brown monkey”.

Tony, who’d had a few too many drinks, knocked the beer out of one of his blond-haired antagonist’s hands and punched another in the face. Before he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew, he felt fists and boots slamming into his mouth and side. He kept swinging hopelessly as he hit the ground. Fearing for his life, he rolled up and protected his head from the next blow. He heard thuds and shouts and looked up in time to see Jake throwing two men out the door and another lying on the floor yelling that his leg was broken.

He felt a hand under his arm and was suddenly standing. Jake whispered, “Come on Sitting Bull. Let’s split before these cowboys call for reinforcements.”

Not sure how they made it back to the barracks that night in one piece, Tony never forgot Jake’s kindness and considered himself forever in his debt.

After they’d been discharged, Jake had taken his savings, obtained a loan and started the business he’d talked about. Tony was his first employee. It had been slow going at first. A few men, mostly vets, all working on a house or two, then taking a couple of months off and holing up with what little they’d made.

Times had changed. Now they were backed up for months on end with contract after contract. More people had moved to Tucson than Jake had ever imagined.

Except for George, who’d grown up on rooftops with his dad, all the originals had left or passed on. Jake had died in 94 from cancer and handed everything over to George. Fred “Fingers” Johnson, called it quits and moved to California to work in an oil refinery. Hank “Honk” Perez had moved to Flagstaff and gone into plumbing with his brother. And Barry Mendelson had immigrated to Israel and helped build a Jewish settlement in something called the Gaza.

Tony had a family, sort of. He’d wed Jamie Herrera in 76. They’d met at a cousin’s birthday celebration and he’d dogged her for four months until she gave in and agreed to marry. She wasn’t any “Jennifer Lopez” he’d say; but she was a good mother to their kids and they’d had some fun times.

They divorced in 88 after she’d gone on and on about him not “communicating” and “spending time with her and the kids.” He’d made an ill attempt or two at listening and speaking his mind, but it never seemed to be enough. No matter what he said or did it was the wrong thing. Hell, he’d even gone with her to a shrink, but the guy was such a pansy he wouldn’t have trusted him with a quarter, let alone his feelings. And to top it off, the guy had charged almost a days pay for fifty minutes of nonsense.

His kids, Fresia and Alberto, were grown and on their own. He had three grandchildren. He visited them all at Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays. His children and their families had moved out of state long ago, leaving him alone with no friends and no relations. He sent them money but they rarely called. He wasn’t one to gab on the phone.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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A Good Book – Part 2

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

A GOOD BOOK – PART 2 (Conclusion)

As they drove home Ruthie went on and on about Alice’s novel, almost repeating her every word. Sy paid particularly close attention to his driving until Ruthie stopped her monologue long enough to ask, “What did you think? Did you like it?”

Sy cleared his throat and carefully replied, “She sure has a way with words.”

“But did you like it?” Ruthie reiterated. “Did her words touch you?”

“Oh, it touched me alright,” he said to himself, recalling an argument that he and Alice had once had that sounded remarkably close to her characters. “It was good,” he replied. “A little unrealistic, but good.”

“Unrealistic?” Ruthie questioned, sounding more surprised than she’d intended. “How so?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, wishing he’d left well enough alone. “Do you think men are that uncaring and unconscious?”

“Yes, most.” She rubbed his shoulder gently. “But not all.”

They gazed into the fog that had descended on the blacktop.

“Have I ever treated you like that?” He asked, almost imperceptibly.

“Like the guys in her story?”

Sy nodded, ever so slightly.

Ruthie looked out the side window at the fence posts appearing and disappearing in the thick soup along the edge of the highway. She didn’t reply until they rolled into their driveway and Sy turned off the key.

“Actually,” she said softly. “Yes. You have.”

Sy felt a chill up his spine as he got out and opened the door for Ruthie. “Not me,” he told himself. “That was the old Sy.”

They walked to the house. He held open the screen as she unlocked the front door and entered. Sy took their coats and hung them on the antique maple coat rack while Ruthie turned up the thermostat. “I’ll make us some tea,” she said and went into the kitchen.

Sy followed, sat down at the kitchen table he’d hand made from pine wood not long after they’d married and watched her move in her familiar surroundings. How many times had he’d seen her at that old gas stove, cooking something up for him or the kids; a thousand, ten thousand?

As she placed their large mugs of decaffeinated Earl Gray on the table, sat down and leaned back on the fading daisy print wallpaper, he asked, “When?”

“When what?” she smiled.

“When have I acted like the men in that woman’s book?”

“Only about every day for the last thirty-four years,” she said.

“Are you serious?” he gasped.

“No,” she said. You’re not as blatant or consistent, but you have your moments.”

She sipped her tea and watched him through the steam.

“For example?” he queried.

Ruthie looked at his lined face and sunken blue eyes, trying to surmise how much and how willing he was to hear. Disregarding her past experiences and the hundreds of times she’d brought the issue to his attention, she decided to grab her red cape of hope and enter the bullring.

“Remember last Friday, after I’d been tutoring English to that cranky old German woman half the day and then worked at the church office all afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“Remember that night?”

“What about it?” he asked, trying to gauge the forthcoming charge.

“Remember when we went to bed and I almost fell asleep before my head hit the pillow?”

“So?” He didn’t see any connection.

“Remember how you snuggled up behind me and were all hot and horny and I said, ‘Not tonight, just hold me?’”

Sy put down his cup, which made a louder thud on the table than he’d expected. “Yes and I totally understood and said so, remember?” His mouth was taut and his breath shallow.

Ruthie smiled. “Yes, you said as much, but I could feel otherwise.”

“How could you feel anything?!” he declared; his shoulders erect. “I went to the living room and read.”

Ruthie went to the stove and returned with more hot water. She filled his cup, then her own and sat back down. “It didn’t feel like you understood the next morning when you barely touched me and only replied in monosyllables. It felt like you had closed down shop and checked out.”

“What’s wrong with wanting a little love from the person who says she always loves me?” Sy declared, his face curling like sour milk.

“But I DO love you.” Ruthie leaned forward and placed her hand on Sy’s callused knuckles. “Why do I have to prove it with sex?”

“You don’t have to prove anything!” Sy exclaimed, sliding his hand away and tightly grasping his cup. “I know you love me, but what’s wrong with wanting to share a little sugar to show it?”

Ruthie sat back and stared at her now empty palm. “Nothing, if it’s at a time when I have the energy and my body is willing and able.”

“Well,” he snarled. “There you go.”

“Did you hear me?” She looked intently at the spot on his forehead where his wrinkles assembled to worry.

“Loud and clear.” Sy went to the sink without looking back. He rinsed out his cup, put it in the dishwasher and turned around. “I’ve heard it a thousand times. You love me, but you don’t want to make love with me.”

“Stop it!” Ruthie stood abruptly. “Just stop it!” She took two rapid steps, faced Sy eye to eye and said, “Are you implying that we never have sex, that I never kiss you, give you pleasure or want you inside of me!?”

Sy tried to move, but Ruthie put her arms on either side of his and pressed herself firmly against his pelvis. “No, you aren’t saying that, because you know that would be a lie.”

“But . . .”

“But, it’s never enough, is it?”

Sy hesitated. “Well . . .”

Ruthie shook her head side to side, her cape of hope torn to shreds. Her eyes watered. She tried to turn away from her predictable hard-headed husband, but Sy firmly and gently, grabbed her wrist and stopped her.

“Don’t you see,” Ruthie cried, “how that makes me feel? No matter what I do, it’s not enough. I am never enough.” She let herself be pulled closer. “Why can’t you just love me as I am?”

Sy took her arms and put them over his shoulders then encircled her waist with his own. “I do,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel like that when I don’t perform on demand or the way you want.”

“I’m sorry,” Sy said softly. He wiped the tears from under her eyes.

“I love you more than anyone I’ve ever known,” Ruthie cried, “but feeling forced to have sex, to not alienate you, isn’t love, it’s fear, just like Hooks says. That kind of love feels coerced, manipulated; manufactured to fit some imaginary image of how you think I’m supposed to be.”

Sy felt a lump rising in his throat, as his hold on Ruthie tightened. Her words seeped through his weathered walls. Something cracked open.

“Why now?” he wondered. “After all these years. Was it something Ruthie said or how she said it? Was it Alice Hawkins or Hooks, whatever she went by these days?” Whatever it was, his comfortable delusion of being different from other men was crumbling under the weight of a searing reality.

Ruthie felt the shift. She could feel his skin of fear peeling away. She could see him turning, painfully turning away from conditioning, expectation and judgment. She had never felt so completely and openly accepted by this man. His love was palpable. He saw her. He really saw her.

“I’ve always loved you,” she whispered.

“I know,” he cried. “I’ve kept you away for so long.”

She wiped his face and her own, then looked at her wet hands. “We should boil these tears instead of water for tea,” she grinned.

Sy felt like an anvil had been lifted from his chest. He could breathe freely. He sighed deeply. Each breath released another encrusted layer of tension, doubt and the fear of rejection.

***

When they went to bed that night they looked like they were teenagers who had just fallen in love for the first time. Their eyes were full of anticipation and unlike most teens, knew who they were and where they had been. Their lovemaking was slow, passionate, peaceful and fulfilling. Their history held them and freed them.

After turning out the light, Sy snuggled up to Ruthie’s behind and put his arm around her soft belly.

“You know that Ms. Hooks?”

“Yeah,” Ruthie said, on the verge of dozing off.

“I knew her back in college.”

“Really,” she sleepily replied.

“I mean I really knew her, like intimately.”

Ruthie raised Sy’s arm off her belly and turned to face him.

“Really.”

“Really,” he said, his hot breath caressing her cheek.

“Tell me,” she said, her eyes wide open in the dark. “Tell me all about it.”

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A Good Book

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

A GOOD BOOK – PART 1

“Hurry up Sy! We’ll be late, Ruthie hollered from the hallway, as she threw on her wool coat.

The last time they arrived late at a book signing at Sophie’s Choice, to hear Isabel Allende read from her latest release, they’d ended up by the front door with biting cold wind attacking the back of their necks every time someone entered or left the building. Sophie’s was there favorite literary hangout among the plethora of bookstores in their academically diverse college town. It was named after the owner, Sophie Thompson, who had taken her sister’s advice and appropriated the familiar title.

“Sy!” she yelled again, just as he turned the corner from the upstairs bedroom and descended the aging wooden stairs, which squeaked like asthmatic mice with every step.

“I’m coming. I’m coming,” he grinned, still tucking in his shirt. “You’d rather I go naked?!”

Ruthie’s lips parted slightly as she watched her husband of thirty-four years. He walked with a slight limp from his hip surgery the previous summer.

“Damn,” she thought. He looks good.”

She waited until he reached the last step, stood on her toes and shared her thoughts by planting a kiss on his familiar weathered lips and giving him a squeeze around his hips. When their mouths parted he kissed her slightly rouged cheeks and put his large fingers through her shoulder-length wavy gray hair.

As he snapped his tan parka, he asked, “Who is this we’re seeing again?”

“Alice Hooks.”

“Hooks?” he rolled questionably across his tongue, while holding the screen door open for Ruthie to lock the door. She put her arm in his as they walked towards there eighties Plymouth. “Isn’t she that environmental fiction writer you like so much?”

“No,” Ruthie said, waiting for him to unlock the car door. “You’re thinking of Barbara Kingsolver.”

Sy opened her door.

“Thanks Hon,” she said, as she sat on the old torn leather seat.

Sy went around the front, climbed in, patted the dashboard for good luck and turned the ignition.

“Still purrs like a kitten,” he said sweetly for the ten-thousandth time.

They drove out of the gravel driveway, down Chestnut Street, towards town on the straight and narrow two-lane road they had driven their kids and step-kids to school and themselves to and from work for thirty years. This was Sy’s second marriage. He had two children from his previous marriage and he and Ruthie had purposefully created one of their own.

The next in kin had all flown the coup long ago and kept in touch with their “old folks” with fluctuating degrees of attention, based on their needs and/or personality. The one constant connection with their offspring was their children’s children. They had three of these grandchildren, two by birth and one adopted, to whom they were severely devoted and unashamedly tethered.

“Alice Hooks is a writer of romantic feminist fiction,” Ruthie explained. “The book she’s reading from tonight is Close Encounters. It was nominated for The National Book Award last year.”

“Sort of like Gloria Steinem falling in love with Steven Spielberg?”

“I knew you’d say something like that,” Ruthie sighed. “I just knew it.”

“Well,” Sy replied, still grinning at his own joke, “I had to say it then didn’t I? I don’t want to destroy your expectations or diminish your superior powers of Elementary Spiritual Perceptions.”

Ruthie gently slapped his leg with the back of her hand.

“Far from it,” she smiled. “Close Encounters is about a woman called Maya. She’s an anthropologist and professor, who circumnavigates the globe on research expeditions. While studying antiquities and cultures she also searches for a man who is willing to practice feminism in bed, as well as at work. Every time she thinks she’s found her mate, he starts to subtly or blatantly manipulate her and splits when he doesn’t get what he thinks he wants.” Ruthie sighed noticeably.

Sy’s smile had vanished. He gazed straight ahead, as if he was a student driver concentrating on not making a mistake. As they reached the city limits he said, “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Does she ever find the man of her dreams?”

Ruthie’s left hand rested gently on Sy’s thigh. She could feel his hamstrings tighten with each step on the gas peddle. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t finished it yet.” She smiled and squeezed Sy’s leg. “But I’ve found mine.”

Sy was flooded with relief by Ruthie’s re-assuring words. He had always helped raise the kids, cleaned and cooked at home and believed that women and men should be respected for their character not their gender. He was beginning to look forward to hearing this Hook’s lady.

The parking lot at Sophie’s Choice was full.

“I knew it,” Ruthie admonished. “Will have to park on the street.”

Sy found a spot a block away. They walked briskly to the entrance and to their surprise, saw two empty chairs in the far back. They made their way to the metal folding chairs, used their coats as cushions to sit on and caught their breath. Sy took in the crowd and noticed that only two other men were in attendance, re-confirming his enlightened attitude.

Their timing was impeccable. Just as they had taken their seats the introductions were completed and the author, to much applause and a few jubilant trills of sisterly welcome, stepped up to the podium.

Sy was mortified. Not only did Alice Hooks not look like the radical feminist he had envisioned, but she was not Alice Hooks. The woman he saw standing before the crowd, waiting respectfully for the applause to subside, was Alice Hawkins, the woman he’d been in love with in college.

“I can’t believe this,” he proclaimed, while his eyes remained riveted to the wet lips and long neck he had once kissed so passionately.

“She must have changed her name,” he whispered to Ruthie. “I knew her when she was Alice Hawkins.”

“Shhhh,” she replied.

Sy was eternally grateful that they were late and ended up in the back row. “I wonder if she would still recognize me?”He pondered. “I doubt it,” he answered himself. “I was nothing to her.”

As Alice began reading from her book Sy couldn’t push aside the gut feeling that her personal life and thus his own, was being laid bare for public consumption. He was undoubtedly one of the men she had based her story on.

“He raised his sweaty head from the pillow,” Alice read, “and practically spit in Refina’s face.” Alice glanced at the audience over the top of her designer glasses, then returned to the words on the page. “’You aren’t worth it,” he said coldly and turned away. You don’t understand.’

‘Understand what?’ she pleaded.

‘Me. You’ll never understand me.’

Rafina replied, ‘I understand you all to well.’

‘See!’ he yelled, with a trembling voice, as he got out from under the rumpled bedsheets and put on his bathrobe. ‘You’ve never liked me!’ He pouted, retreating to the bathroom. She slipped on her nightshirt and followed.

‘There’s no pleasing you,’ she said, standing in the doorway as he pissed away his anger. ‘Whatever I do isn’t enough. You always want me to be different.’

He shook off the last drops, tied his bathrobe and walked past her as if she were part of the door frame.

‘Lies,’ he whispered. ‘All lies.’ She watched him zip up his pants. ‘How often have I told you I love you?!’ he said accusingly.

‘Yeah,’ she agreed. ‘How often and when?’ He stopped tucking in his shirt and stared blankly. ‘Whenever I get physical, is when,’ she stated. ‘When I act like your sexual puppet, is when. Whenever I do things I don’t really want to do out of fear I’ll lose you. And you know what?’ He put on his watch and started towards the door. ‘I’m going to lose you anyway.’ She wiped her fingers on her nightshirt, as if she was trying to rub out the memory of his touch. ‘I don’t need that kind of love.’

‘See ya Refina,’ he said, turning. ‘I hope you enjoy being alone. You’re so damn controlling and manipulating nobody could ever put up with you.’

‘Don’t project your crap on me!’ she shouted, as the door careened open and he disappeared down the hall of the old city hotel.

Refina stared through the door at the empty hallway and concluded, ‘I’d rather screw myself then let that fool think he’s loving me.’”

***

After the reading Ruthie wanted to get her book autographed, but Sy lied and said, “It’s late honey. I’m a little tired.”

She looked at the long line and the clock, hesitated, then reluctantly agreed.

Sy deftly guided them towards the door, along the far side of the exuberant crowd that had cheered Ms. Hooks with a robust standing ovation.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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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 Sweetest Man – Part 2

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

The Sweetest Man (Part 2)

“If he wasn’t a married man, I’d have honed in on that honey years ago.” Marina whispered to the mothers.

“Married?” Eloise exclaimed. “I don’t know if he’s married or not.”

“Really?” Marina replied. “I always assumed . . . he never even looks at me.”

“Just because a man doesn’t look at you Marina, doesn’t mean he’s hitched,” Eloise chided.

Marina good-naturally pushed Eloise on the shoulder.

“Just because he’s not married,” Linda broke in, “doesn’t mean he’s worth your time. After all,” she scoffed, “look what he does for a living. He’s not going very far.”

“I don’t care if he was washing dishes or the president of IBM,” replied Marina. “If there was more like him in this world, we’d all be better off.”

“It matters,” Linda insisted. “And you know it.”

They all nodded, agreeing with both Linda and Marina.

Leslie bid farewell and went out to the basketball court to get Sevon. By the time they got to her new car she had forgotten all about Joshua Johnson.

***

After putting the old three-speed bike away in the garage, the one he rode to work for the last twenty-three years, Joshua entered the house by the back entrance. The weathered screen door squeaked and slammed shut behind him.

“Hey Mom, I’m home,” he shouted, as he hung up his lightweight windbreaker and walked through the kitchen. On the scratched cutting board, by the sink, were some carrots and potatoes; half of which had been sliced; the other half lay silently by themselves, waiting for someone to rescue them from their wilting future.

“Mom,” Joshua said, a little more urgently. “Mom! You OK.”

“I’m just fine.” He heard her reply from the living room. “Stop your fussing.”

Joshua saw his mother, Alberta Johnson, sitting in her favorite “Big Daddy” chair, as she always liked to call the worn and tattered green suede recliner. Her feet were raised on the chair’s movable leg rest.

“Started dinner,” she explained, “but couldn’t get my breath. Had to sit a spell.”

She took in a few quick gasps that sounded like someone taking a drag on a water pipe.

“Mama,” Joshua scolded. “You leave that to me. I don’t mind cooking when I get home. It sort of relaxes me.”

“After you been out working your buns off all day?” his Mom shot back. “I’ll have no part of that.”

“You know what the doctor said,” Joshua replied. “You’ve got to pace yourself, stay off your feet.” He went back into the kitchen and kept talking. “That congestive heart stuff isn’t something to play around with.”

Alberta almost spit, as she hollered after him. “If the good Lord had wanted me to sit on my behind all day, he wouldn’t give me the legs or the gumption to use ‘em.”

Joshua returned and handed her a glass of water and some pills. “And if you don’t stop hovering over me,” she frowned, then winced, as she swallowed the pills. “I’m going to die from being babied to death!”

Joshua smiled, took the glass back in the kitchen, returned to the living room, sat on the matching green sofa and propped his feet up on the coffee table.

“How goes it with the rest of the world?” his Mom asked earnestly.

“Couple new kids today,” he replied, as he picked up the daily paper and began scanning the headlines. “One of the cutest little girls you’ve ever seen.”

“And the other?” she nodded, having expected him to tell her without her having to ask.

“Well,” he said slowly and lowered the paper to see her inquisitive eyes over the top. “The other’s name is Sevon. Nice looking kid.” He paused for effect, then said dreamily, “and his mother . . . man, was she something else.” He shook his head with pleasure, remembering the way she looked at him from behind, after they’d met and parted. He put the paper in front of his face once again, to hide the enormous smile from his mother.

“Put that thing down!” she insisted, pointing at the paper. Joshua folded the daily news neatly and placed it on the table by his feet. “Now, are you going to tell me more or do I have to beat it out of you?” she said, raising the cane she used for walking, like some menacing spear.

Joshua chuckled. He knew she enjoyed the banter and played it out as long as possible. She got pretty lonely during the days and loved a little intrigue. He wished he could afford to stay home and keep her company, but it was financially impossible. She had always been self-sufficient and independent, but since his dad had died from lung cancer in 1986, she’d been quite lonesome. It wasn’t long after his death before she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that was on top of her already existing arthritis and high blood pressure.

“Her name is Leslie,” he recalled. “Real nice. Real nice indeed.”

“Well?” his Mom said, almost coming unglued.

“Well what?” Joshua teased. He knew what was coming.

“Well?” she said sharply. “Did you ask her out, talk a little, make a move?”

“Make a move?” Joshua laughed. “Where do you come up with this stuff, TV?”

“For God’s sake Son,” his Mom exclaimed. “You said she was pretty. You said she was ‘something’.” She shook her head. Do I have to spell it out for you? Have you forgotten your single and a man? A good looking one, if I may boast,” she said proudly.

“Mother,” Joshua replied with a hint of irritation, as he got up to head back to the kitchen to finish dinner. “She’s probably married.”

“Are you sure?” she asked as he bent over and gave her a kiss.

“I don’t know,” he said standing, turning to leave. “She seemed pretty high class.” He walked towards the kitchen and muttered. “What would she ever see in a janitor?”

“Come back here!” Mrs. Johnson demanded, as she thumped her cane on the floor like a gavel.

Joshua turned and waited for the inevitable motherly pep talk, realizing he should have kept his thoughts to himself.

“You do honorable work for an honorable daily wage,” his mother instructed. “You help keep a clean place for God’s children to learn.” He lowered his head. “Look at me when I’m speaking!” He looked up quickly. “And to top it off, you’re an intelligent and kind man.” Joshua listened, knowing what she said was true, but also understanding how a man was measured. “Anybody says otherwise, is either a fool or blind,” she concluded.

“Yes Mom. love you too,” he assured her, then turned and headed towards the counter to finish cutting the vegetables that had been waiting so patiently for his arrival.

***

Without making it to obvious, Joshua made a point of taking out the cafeteria garbage at the same time the following day in hopes of at least seeing, if not talking too, Mrs. King. Discreetly, he looked up and down the hallway when the bell rang and saw hundreds of students, parents and teachers, but no Leslie King.

“Forget it,” he said to himself, carrying the can on the pushcart to the garbage bin. “What was I thinking?”

As he was about to re-enter the building, the door flew open and hit the metal can in his hands. It was Sevon.

He looked at Joshua briefly, muttered, “Oh. Sorry.” Then ran down the path towards the parking lot.

Mrs. King followed close behind yelling, “Sevon! Wait up!”

She almost walked right past Joshua, who stood silently behind the open door, then felt his presence and turned.

“Mr. Johnson?”

“Good day Mrs. King,” he nodded, unable to keep his pleasure at her acknowledgment under wraps. “And how are you and your son today?”

“Quite fine, thank you,” she replied; glancing once more down the path to make sure Sevon was safe. Turning to face Joshua directly, she asked, “And you, Mr. Johnson, how goes it for you?”

“Much better,” he said, looking down at the ground shyly.

“Much better?” she questioned.

“Much better, having seen you today,” he blurted boldly and looked her square in the face.

Now it was Leslie’s turn to look away, suddenly at a rare loss of words.

If someone had been watching this encounter from afar, they would have thought these two adults were acting like young teens experiencing a crush for the first time.

“Mr. Johnson, please,” she rebuffed.

“Mr. King’s a lucky man,” he offered. “Yes indeed.”

“There is no Mr. King, Mr. Johnson.”

“Please, call me Joshua.”

“Leslie,” she said, matching his dismissal of formalities. “King’s my maiden name. Sevon’s father is Albert Wilson.”

Joshua could hardly contain his ecstasy, but all the world and Leslie saw, was a slight nod of acknowledgment.

“And you Mr., I mean Joshua,” she wondered out loud. “Surely a man such as yourself is happily married, I presume?”

Joshua saw Sevon walking quickly towards them. “Married?” he answered. “I’m afraid not.”

“But Eloise Jacobs said . . .,” she started to blurt out, but was saved by Sevon.

“Mom! Come on!”

“Sevon,” she said sternly. “Don’t interrupt when people are talking! You hear me?” She looked in Joshua’s direction.

“Sorry,” Sevon said quietly. Joshua acknowledged the boy’s apology with a grin.

“Mothers,” Joshua said, shaking his head and smiling understandingly at Sevon. “They can be such a pain.”

Sevon stared blankly, having no idea that Mr. Johnson was joking, then grabbed his mother’s sleeve. “Come on! The game starts at four o’clock on channel eight!”

“Soccer,” Leslie explained, as she was being ushered away by her increasingly excited son. “He’s become a fanatic. Talked me into getting cable so he could watch every week.”

Joshua didn’t budge. His heart was beating like a time bomb.

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” Leslie hollered, walking half backwards, as she and Sevon made their way to the parking lot.

He remembered nodding and grinning stupidly as they left; feeling like everything was in slow motion until Mr. Duncan, the principal, opened the door to leave.

“Good night Mr. Johnson,” he said, taking a double look at the school custodian, who was frozen, with an empty garbage can in hand, looking towards the parking lot. “You OK Mr. Johnson?”

Joshua shook his head, like shaking off a vision, when he realized Mr. Duncan was addressing him. “Oh yes. I’m great, thank you,” he replied and opened the door to take in the can. “It’s a beautiful afternoon, isn’t it Mr. Duncan?” he said, looking up.

The principal looked at the cloudy gray skies and back at Joshua. If you say so.”

“See ya tomorrow,” Joshua closed the door and stepped lightly; pushing the empty trash can down the hallway; whistling an improvised tune all his own.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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The Sweetest Man – Part 1

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Joshua Johnson stopped hauling the garbage can towards the bins and watched the Kindergarten children laughing, jumping and skipping on the playground.

“What a sweetie,” he thought, looking at a child with ribbon tied pigtails flopping on the side of her head like rabbit ears, as she ran playing freeze tag with another girl. “She’s just too cute.” He smiled to himself, picked up the can of discarded lunch plates and food and walked without haste towards the trash receptacle.

Joshua and smiles went together like popcorn and warm butter. He was one of those folks that could drive you nuts with his pleasant disposition. It could be the coldest, wettest, dreariest day of the year and he’d find something nice about it.

Just as you ran into the hallway, pulling your child in out of the storm, drenched and shivering, he’d walk by and say, “Good morning.” If you looked at him frowning, wondering what was good about it, he’d nod out the window and add, “Sure is a God- send for the trees.” As you forced a crooked smile, he’d be off, whistling some cheerful tune that sounded familiar, but he’d made to be quite his own.

Mr. Johnson, who was fairly good looking at fifty-one years of age, with short, curly gray-black hair, skin like rich dark earth and a prominent dimpled chin, had a gift for remembering names. He knew almost every child in the school. On his way to dumping the trash, Joshua realized he didn’t know the name of the little girl he’d seen playing tag and resolved to find out first thing in the morning.

***

As the bell rang, announcing the end of the school day, Leslie King made her way through the swarming hallways and met her son, Sevon, outside his fifth grade classroom.

It was only the second week of school and she and Sevon had hastily moved to the area a month ago. Though she’d known about the move ahead of time and prepared all summer, it had taken them much longer than she’d anticipated to find a decent place to live and a school district she found acceptable. It had just been their luck to move to an area of the country that had one of the highest costs of living and the lowest vacancy rates.

As a marketing manager for a major software company, she was required to relocate when needed. She was fine with the traveling, but didn’t like the impact it had on Sevon. She’d decided that this would be their last move. She was already looking into starting her own consulting firm and had some good leads on a few venture capitalists who might be interested.

Her mother, a professor of literature at the University of Texas in Austin, said she’d pitch in a couple grand if she needed it. She’d been able to keep her head when her mother had offered and simply said, “Thanks Mom. I’ll let you know.”

Yeah, her mother would give her some dough alright, but she’d have to pay some painful penance, hearing about how she was an idiot for dropping out of graduate school in her final year. And knowing herself, as she did, she knew that that sickening childhood shame, of never being good enough in her mother’s eyes, would once again creep under the door of her watchful radar and infect the healthy self-esteem she’d struggled to develop and protect.

Since Sevon’s father had left, over four years ago, Leslie had been too busy simply surviving to concern herself much with dating or meeting anyone new. he’d gone out a few times, usually with executives or colleagues, but found them to be conceited or consumed with accumulating material goods. She didn’t see herself as knocking guys out with her looks, but knew that for someone thirty-seven years old, she could easily strike a pose with her high chestnut cheekbones, accentuate her firm hips and legs and still turn some heads.

A few years ago she’d straightened her kinky black hair and had liked it so much she’d continued to torture herself with the weekly process to keep it that way, though it had now become more habit than enhancement.

She didn’t really care about how she looked anymore, just enough to keep appearances and have Sevon be proud of his mom. He was all that mattered. Any men in her life were a sideshow, at best a momentary pleasure, at worst a nuisance.

“Hey little man,” she said, carefully restraining herself from giving him a big luscious hug, knowing that would embarrass him beyond comprehension in front of his classmates. “How goes it?”

“OK,” he replied, smiling.

As they walked towards the exit, Leslie bent down slightly and whispered, “I missed you today.”

Sevon glanced up, frowned and looked around quickly to make sure nobody had heard her. “Mom!” he hissed.

He’d grown so much in the last two years that he came up to his mother’s chest.

“It won’t be long until you’re a big man and I’ll be looking up at you,” she would tell him fondly, when they were in the privacy of their own home. He would try to act like he didn’t hear her, but she could see his pride burst like fresh seeds from a pod and would have had to take sandpaper to wipe the grin off his face.

One of two women, standing in front of the school office, talking loudly, glanced at Leslie as she and Sevon started to walk by. The woman, wearing shorts and a bright yellow-orange jogging sweater, stopped mid-sentence and said, “Hello. I’m Eloise, Eloise Jacobs. Alex’s mom.”

Leslie stopped, shook Eloise’s pinkish-white outstretched hand and wondered if she was supposed to know this woman.

“Our sons’ are in the same class with Mrs. Rios,” she explained. “Your son’s name is Devon or Givon . . . I’m sorry I don’t remember.”

Leslie turned to her son. “This is Sevon,” she pronounced clearly, accentuating the short e.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eloise exclaimed, reaching out her hand to Sevon. “Glad to meet you.”

Sevon shook hands quickly and he and Alex, who had just appeared, both scurried down the hall.

Leslie called, with a little anxiety in her voice, “Where are you going?”

Sevon yelled, “We’ll be outside Mom, by the basketball court.”

Before Leslie could say another word Eloise started talking. “Alex has gone here all his life. It’s a great school. Sure, there’s a few teachers that are so so, but most of them are good. And the parents really help out.”

Leslie noticed the other woman Eloise had been talking to start to leave, as did Eloise.

“I’m sorry,” Eloise said quickly, grabbing the other woman by the sleeve. “This is Linda Chang. Her daughter’s in the other fifth grade class. She helps out with the tutoring program in the library.”

Linda shook Leslie’s hand. “Is this your son’s first year?” she asked, a solid silver necklace around her throat and an aqua blue suit adorning her medium frame. “I don’t remember seeing him before.”

“Yes,” Leslie said hesitantly, still looking for Sevon out the window. She saw him playing with Alex, relaxed a little and turned back towards Linda. “We just moved here last month. Is it always so hard to find a place?”

Both women gave knowing nods.

“Where were you living before Mrs. um . . .?” Eloise inquired. “You do have a name besides Sevon’s Mom I presume.” All three women smiled, understanding how they often were referred to as someone’s mother instead of by their own names.

“It’s Ms. King, but please call me Leslie,” she replied. “We were living on the East Coast until I got transferred.”

“Transferred?” Linda inquired. “What do you do?”

“Well,” Leslie explained, “I have been working as a marketing consultant but I’m looking into . . .”

“Hey! What’s up?” yelled a short woman with long braided hair, high heels and bright red lipstick. A little girl that looked like her miniature was pulling her by the hand.

“Go play with Stacey,” she told the little girl. “She’s right out there.” She pointed to the playground. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

The little girl looked outside and took off running.

“Don’t run in the hallway!” the woman said and joined Eloise, Linda and Leslie.

“She’s such a doll,” Eloise told the woman.

“Yeah,” the lady replied, “a wind-up doll that never stops.”

They all laughed.

Eloise made the introduction. “Mrs. King, I mean Leslie or better known as Sevon’s Mom.” They all chuckled. “This is Marina. Marina Higuera.” They shook hands.

“Marina is the queen of the PTA,” Eloise continued.

“And about everything else,” Linda said satirically.

Marina lifted her chin and sauntered a few steps.

“It’s a good thing our husbands don’t attend PTA meetings,” Eloise smirked, “or Marina would have hijacked them all.”

They all laughed, as Marina batted her eyelashes playfully.

“Welcome,” Marina said sincerely.

“Thanks,” Leslie exclaimed.

Joshua entered the hallway, pushing the empty garbage can on a handcart and walked past the front desk whistling. He was reminding himself to find out the name of the new kid he just saw playing outside with Alex Jacobs.

Leslie, in the midst of explaining once again what she did for a living, stopped mid-sentence and watched the handsome, seemingly distracted older gentleman walk past whistling. The other women saw her eyes wander.

Suddenly, Marina called out, “Hey! Mr. Johnson!”

Joshua tipped the handcart forward, so it stood by itself and turned around to see Eloise Jacobs, Linda Chang, Marina Higuera and a lovely woman he didn’t know. With his easy, “I’ve got all morning” attitude, he walked over and nodded hello.

“Good afternoon,” he said, trying to keep from staring at Leslie. “Beautiful day out today, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed,” Marina exclaimed, and without much hesitation introduced Leslie.

“Pleasure to meet you Ma’m,” he said with pleasure, unable to hide his admiration.

Leslie shook his hand gently and felt a warm strength returned.

Nodding his head towards the basketball court he said, “And that must be your boy out there?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Sevon.”

“Well well,” he said, not sure what else to say with all the ladies staring at him. “I ah, better get back to work.” He nodded over at the can in the middle of the hallway. “I can’t leave that standing there now, can I?”

“Take care Mr..Johnson,” Marina cooed.

“You all have a good night now,” he replied.

As he turned, he flashed a quick smile towards Leslie, but not enough for anyone to notice. He started whistling as he walked away from the desk and through the door to the cafeteria.

“Now wasn’t she something,” he told himself, as he replaced the trash can and put in a new liner. “Whoever she’s fixed up with is one lucky man.”

It had been a couple of years since Joshua had even considered getting involved with another woman. He enjoyed their company and was just as drawn to the opposite sex as most men, but things never really worked out and he’d decided it was better to leave things alone, considering his circumstances at home and all.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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