Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘St. Catherine’

Every Instinct

Beginning of Every Instinct. An excerpt from the short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans. Complete story posted on Angie’s Diary.

Every Instinct

A warm breeze squeezed through the holes in the window screen of the small box trailer, caressing the hair on Steven Rice’s arm. He stopped writing his notes on the pink paper and looked out the spotted, streaked window, at the old trees, vines and plants rooted in the lush green gully bordering the backyard.

He wondered how this small land of wood and greenery had flourished so bountifully, while trapped between residential asphalt and city streets of noise, grime and drifting exhaust.

“The stories they could tell,” he thought, staring at the knotted oaks, “hot, cold, dry, wet; season after season; change after change.”

Mr. Rice had survived a few blustery seasons of his own. Surgical intrusions, vandalistic relationships, precarious illnesses and winds of death had blown through the canyons of his life, leaving crevasses and jagged scars on the landscape of his soul. His receding, graying hairline and scarred, wrinkled skin, were testament to his growth and decay. Wire-rimmed spectacles framed his large protruding nose, providing an exclamation point to his tall, skinny frame. A light blue dress shirt and beige, corduroy slacks covered him modestly. They were just right for his kind of work: not too shabby, not to fancy or extreme.

Steven watched a brown, orange-bellied feathered friend jump from one of the trees to the soft green grass below the window. He wasn’t sure if it was a dull robin or a bright male sparrow. The sound machine hummed and the violins, emanating from the radio playing in the adjoining room, traveled through the thin plywood walls. They used the machine and classical music, to drone out their confidential conversations and keep the words, sounds and cries from reaching beyond the small, fern-potted cubicle they used for their private, intimate encounters with mortality.

There were two stout chairs with short, wide backs and legs; that looked like they had been dropped from a tall building and compressed on impact. An acrylic-padded office chair had been rolled under the insignificant, almost nonexistent, desk facing the dirty window. Fresh cut flowers, a miniature digital clock, some calligraphic business cards and a blue lit candle, graced the small glass table situated between the flattened chairs. The wall was adorned with two of his wife’s framed photos. One displayed a sensuous purple orchid in full bloom. The other contained a golden-orange poppy poking its head through the crevice of an intimidating mountain of cold, gray granite.

His wife, Jillian, was an excellent photographer, but hadn’t practiced her craft for years. Children, a job with the city planning department and various environmental causes had limited her photographic pursuits. Now, with the kids in their twenties, she and Steven had more free time for their individual passions and pursuits. Steven planned on taking up hang gliding, running off the tops of mountains and floating above earth like a bird. Some mornings he awoke with delight and told her about a flying dream.

Steven had been twice married before taking his vows with Jillian. The first mishap was as a young man of eighteen, when he had mistaken lust for love and connected with a warm, loving woman named Yolanda. There union lasted but a short two years; neither knowing who they were or what they wanted; both believing freedom equaled zero responsibility and no commitment.

The second marriage, to Peggy, had matched all the images in Steven’s head of “settling down”; but other than producing two beautiful children, the relationship was awash in misunderstanding and contrary ambitions. Everyone but he and his wife saw the mismatch from the start. They relinquished their individuality and personal boundaries to try to meet the others perceived needs or desires. They mistook control, security and acquiescence for love.

Jillian was the first to believe in Steven, to love him without an unconscious, unspoken need to control or manipulate his behavior. He had returned her respect and care in kind. The magnetic current that had originally attracted them upon first sight had done nothing but increase in intensity and strength.

The candle’s lavender aroma and the scarlet scents of spring, mingled conspiratorially, as Steven redirected his attention to the form under his hand and scribbled, in his disjointed, undecipherable hand writing, the words which best captured the last hours drama. The documentation was tedious, at best; but the lives and stories of those with whom he crossed paths, were anything but.

As he put the pink pages back in their vanilla envelope and placed it in the drawer, he felt the familiar vibration of footsteps on the wooden ramp. The ramp, made out of plywood and two-by-fours, had been hastily installed for wheel chair access, after the temporary trailers had been placed on their cement blocks.

The outer door to the middle office opened suddenly, sucking sound and air into the self-contained unit like a surfacing diver gasping for breath. Someone entered, knocked on the open hollow door to Steven’s little cubicle and peered around the corner.

“Mr. Rice?”

“Yes,” Steven replied, standing and holding out his hand. “Please, call me Steven.” He was forty-nine years old, had accumulated a number of advanced degrees and training, but still felt strange when somebody called him Mister or Doctor. The formal titles carried too much weight; too many expectations and implications of difference and separation. It made him feel old, defined and limited.

The gentleman clasped Steven’s hand cautiously, as if he could be infected with suffering by mere association.

“Mr. Hartman?” Steven asked.

“Rob,” Mr. Hartman nodded warily. “Rob is fine.”

“So . . . you found us OK?”

“I’ve seen the sign whenever I drove by, but never had any reason to . . . you know . . . stop in.”

Steven nodded.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“Actually, you’re right on time,” he said, closing the door. “Please, have a seat.”

Steven took the opposite chair and handed Mr. Hartman a clear clipboard with a form and pen attached. “A brief formality; we don’t want there to be any surprises or misconceptions.”

“Of course,” Mr. Hartman replied calmly, while his instincts told him to drop the damn form and run for his life.

“Whatever you tell me is confidential.”

Rob nodded, glancing over the printed page. His jaw was clamped tight as a pressure-cooker, the corners of his mouth descending, searching for something solid; some anchor to latch on to. His dark black hair was combed neatly in place, his striped sport shirt was buttoned to the collar and his cuffed slacks nicely pressed. Steven noticed a slight shaking of the fingers, as Rob signed and returned the form, carefully avoiding any eye contact.

Rob tried smiling as he handed over the clipboard, but it got stuck in his throat like a chicken bone before reaching his dry lips.

“Thank you,” Steven said, placing the “formality” on top of the desk. “Thank you for coming. I know this is hard.”

Rob nodded, rubbing his hands on the wooden rests of the armchair and looking at the floor. He cleared his throat several times, as if he was going to speak, but decided against it.

“He knows how hard it is?” Rob said to himself. “I doubt it.”

“When you called,” Steven interjected, “you didn’t say how your mother died. Can you tell me what happened?”

“Man!” Rob thought, his adrenaline pumping. “I barely hit the cushion before this guy is asking me how she died!”

READ CONCLUSION AT ANGIE’S DIARY.

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2

From short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2 (Conclusion)

Joanne put her bag in the trunk of her partially rusted Volvo station wagon and closed the beige trunk with a thud; sealing the contents for a safe trip home. She’d just called her husband and kids to let them know she was on her way.

“Drive careful little Sis,” I said sarcastically, both of us knowing she was probably the safest driver in North America. I used to tell her she drove like an old granny when we were teenagers. She’d sit at a four way stop, for what seemed like hours, making sure there weren’t any cars approaching within a hundred miles!

“You big Dufus,” she grinned. “Have I ever been in an accident?”

“No.”

“Have I ever gotten a ticket in my whole life?”

“No.”

“Then shut up already and give me a hug.” She grabbed my arm, pulled me close, put her arms around my back and squeezed hard. I squeezed back. She squeezed harder, as did I, until it felt like she’d break my back.

“OK! OK!” I gasped, pretending to be out of breath. “Man! You’ve gotten strong in your old age!”

“And don’t you forget it!” she teased, as she got in the car, closed the door, strapped herself in, adjusted her mirrors and rolled down the window.

I leaned in and kissed her. “Love ya. Take care.”

“Likewise.” She kissed me back.

“Remember,” I kidded, “it doesn’t matter how you feel as long . . .”

She shook her head, having shared this joke a hundred times. “Yeah, yeah,” she completed the line, “as long as you look good.”

I jerked my finger, like shooting a gun and blew away the smoke, completing our leave taking ritual. She waved and rolled up the window, then suddenly rolled it back down. I leaned in.

“Call her,” she said.

“What?”

“Call her tonight.”

“Who?” We’d been talking about Robin every since we’d left the beach.

“I mean it Rueben. There’s something between you two, something special.”

I’d planned on calling the minute Joanne was out of sight.

“Sure,” I grinned.

“Promise?”

“Promise,” I said and crossed my heart.

She rolled up the window, checked for oncoming cars, for what seemed like an hour, then slowly eased onto the highway. She looked in her rear-view mirror and waved one last time.

I stood and waved to my beautiful little sister. As she drove away, I remembered telling her once, after she’d interrupted my cowboy game once to often, “Leave me alone! I wish you were dead!” The memory filled me with shame.

“Hellooo stranger,” Robin answered, with a seductive, languid drawl.

“Is this Robin?” I asked, “The surfing consultant?”

“Rueben! I knew you’d call.” Without skipping a beat she said, “Can you come over tonight?”

“Tonight?” I think . . .”

“Think!” she interjected. “There’s no time to think.”

“Well . . . sure.”

“Can you pick up some wine and flowers? I was thinking about you all the way home and plum forgot to . . . oh yeah! Make sure they’re . . .”

“Fresh cut,” I finished her sentence, “right?”

“You devil. How’d you know?”

“I don’t know.”

“That place next to . . .”

“Shopper’s Corner,” I surmised. No problem. It’s right on the way.”

“You sure?”

“No problem, I’d love too.”

“Love too,” she repeated. “Isn’t that a great word – love?”

“Yeah, it’s a great word, but don’t you think we’re moving a little fast here?”

“Fast?! Are you going to wimp out on me before we even get started?” She quietly added, “We’re mates and you know it.”

“Mates?”

“I may not know a lot, but I know when I’ve been thrown a pearl.”

“A pearl?”

“This kind of thing is rare,” she went on. “Some people don’t know when it’s come up and bit them in the bud and others keep thinking it’s somewhere they’re not.”

“That may be true, but . . .”

“I’ve only felt this way once before,” she said. “I may be about to die, maybe not; but I’m not about to let your fear screw things up.”

She got that right. I’d been burned before. In my early twenties I’d fallen in love with a slim, nineteen-year-old redhead named Francine. We were stupid enough to get married. It lasted about a year. I was so dependent on her approval I would have leapt off a cliff if she’d asked. She had to literally jump in bed with my best friend before I crashed and burned. That experience had embedded its tentacles deep under my skin and been tediously removed, one by one, year after year.

“You’re right,” I said. “I felt that way before and this feels like the real thing, but…”

“No buts about it. The only butt I want to see is yours.”

I don’t know where she got the courage to be so blatant, but she was right on the button. Something in my chest had been cracked open like a safe and she had the combination.

“I’ll be there in an hour.”

“One more thing,” she said. “I love you.”

“Likewise.”

“Likewise?” she teased. Is that the best you can do?”

“Robin,” I paused, “what can I say? I love you too. Be there soon.”

“Not soon enough,” she whispered.

I started to hang up, then quickly brought the phone back to my ear. “Robin! Robin!”

“I’m right here,” she replied calmly. “It would help if you had my address, right?”

“Yeah.”

“6427D South Cliff Drive. You know where that walkway is by the harbor?”

“Sure.”

“A half mile from there, off Seabright, take a left on Surry.”

“Got it.”

“You got it all right; you got it all.”

“See ya.”

“See ya?!” she protested. “I hope you’ll do more than that.”

“You know what I . . .”

“Of course,” she interrupted. “And you know what I mean.”

“Sure do,” I said, twisting the smooth phone cord tightly around my index finger.

Beyond all logic, the magic continued. We spent days and nights “being in our skin”, as Robin would say; listening to the rhythms of the world; the sensations of our bodies; touching, sensing, smelling, gazing upon one another’s human form, with mournfully explicit awe and delight.

Entering her small, cozy apartment by the sea; felt like committing myself to a religious sanctuary where all our prayers were offered and received.
She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved here mother, her brother, her nieces, her eighty-year-old grandmother and her friends and colleagues. She’d worked in public relations for the Santa Cruz Visitor’s Bureau for over fifteen years and was missed by her peers, who often stopped to visit. Indeed, public relations, was an apt description. She had an uncanny ability to put people at ease.

Her best friend, Bessie, told me about a bigoted movie producer visiting from Los Angeles, who’d locked horns with Robin’s supervisor, Mary Lou, a tall, intelligent woman, who’d been born and raised in Texas. During a meeting with Robin, Mary Lou and Bessie, the movie producer had made a snide remark about cowboys and rednecks all being “stupid hicks.” “Mary Lou’s cheeks turned fire red,” Bessie explained. “Her jaw was tighter than a vice. If this guys company shot their film here it would bring the city a couple million bucks. Mary Lou was just about to let the jerk have it when Robin smiled and said, ‘You’re right. There are some stupid cowboys.’”

“Well,” Bessie continued, “Mary Lou and I gasped and stared at Robin in disbelief; until she added, ‘There’s idiots everywhere, aren’t there?’ ‘You got that right,” the producer said, shaking his head. ‘I must say’, Robin continued, ‘I’ve said some pretty stupid things my self. I bet there’s a lot of lame producer’s in Hollywood.’ “The producer jumped right in and said, ‘You have no idea,’ and started telling us about one ‘incompetent ass’ after another.”

“Needless to say,” Bessie concluded, “we made the deal.”

Robin’s charm remained intact in the midst of purgatory. You name it, she tried it: medications, transfusions, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxifications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormones, prayer, meditation, visualization . . . but the cancer kept chipping away.

The last weeks found me sinking, looking for a branch to hold onto. I was being pulled under by emotional quicksand. There was nothing solid to stand on. Her face had turned black, blue and yellow, as if she’d been in a bar room brawl. Her skin was translucent, stretched over her frame like a sheet of white plastic; her arms as thin as straws. She struggled to take in a full breath. The body I loved was disintegrating like melting snow.

“I hope I’ve made a difference,” she said softly, one gusty morning.

“Without a doubt,” I assured, with a lump like a clod of dirt stuck in my throat. “You’ve given so much love.”

“Yes, I have.” She stroked my cheek. “That’s been the best part.”

“What now?”

She turned away, looked out her large window and watched a mother and daughter lean against the cliff side railing, their hair being blown by the wind.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I wanted to run, jump off the earth, find a black hole and hide. “I don’t know, but you can’t leave.”

“Nice thought, but just a wee bit unrealistic.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at my naivety.

“It’s just . . . I don’t know . . .” I struggled to find the right words. “How do you keep this up?”

“I have no choice,” she said, without hesitation.

“I know we don’t always have a choice,” I blundered, my mind racing with useless, crazy thoughts. “If it was me, I’d be screaming and yelling.”

“I don’t have a choice,” she reiterated. “This is who I am.”

We heard someone knocking. Our intimacy departed, as we turned our heads. The door flew open, pushed by gusts of cold air and Robin’s mother, who entered the tiny living room with the electric hospital bed looming in the center. She struggled to close the door behind her, pushing against the tenacious wind and patting down her gnarled hair. She took off her floor-length wool coat and placed it on the corner chair. With a forced cheerfulness that belied her dread, she exclaimed, “There’s my girl.”

“Hi Mom,” Robin smiled, holding out her shaking arms.

Joanne was making a return visit in a few days. We’d kept in touch. She knew the story. I wish she was here. She’d know what to do. She’d help her big brother learn how to say goodbye to the Barking Seal Societies lifetime member. She would know how to say “I love you” without clinging to hope. She and Robin understand life from a place I do not know. They know that “take one day at a time” and “seize the day” are not cliches; they’re the essence of our reality.

If only Joanne was here and Robin wasn’t leaving. If only . . .

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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