Category Archives: Drama

Remember January

I’M SITTING ON a backless swivel stool at O’Brian’s bar nursing a double scotch, my thoughts on how my life went to hell ten years ago. A guy comes in and takes the stool next to me. I look across the bar and eyeball him in the big mirror. Angry eyes! I see a bearded man, big features, blue work clothes. He puts one hand on the bar and leaves the other somewhere in his unbuttoned heavy greatcoat. Impression? Guy’s got a problem.

I shift a couple of inches past a half-full bottle of gin aggravating my view and focus on my reflection. The guy I see is grubby, unshaven, dirty shirt, mouth down-turned in a scowl. I stare at my shirt collar in the mirror. Frayed, just like me. Life sucked.

My parole officer decide to check up on me I’d be up shits creek. I couldn’t be here. Maybe someday he’d find out what down and out means.

O’Brian’s sits in the middle of a row of struggling businesses a hundred and forty steps from my pad. I counted them twelve times before I lost interest. To call the hovel I live in a pad is generous. I’m on the third floor of a nineteen thirties brick tenement that lost hope forty years ago. It ought to be condemned but in Detroit you can go up and down half the town and see the same thing. There’s a word – endemic. Yeah, that’s it. Detroit and me have had better days.

Guy in charge where I live: dirty every way. Never see my super dealing, but some of the types I eyeball walking to his door and looking around like “how guilty am I” says it all. He fits with the dingy halls, holes in the walls, amateur knife carved woodwork, graffiti, and yeah, the smell, urine, rotting garbage and a pervasive undertone of weed. You don’t get used to it.

Derelicts lurch and stagger in the hallways. They can’t hold it, don’t care or are too drunk to know. My plumbing breaks twice a week on average. Ask the super to fix it, I’d wait forever, so I mickey-mouse it.

I look into my whiskey glass. My two hands gently cup it like a lover, but my thoughts keep bouncing back to the long ago January when my hell began. Remember that movie Groundhog Day? Mine goes ten years back…today…ten years back…today, like a yo-yo.

Ten years ago I had a good job, respect, decent pay. How I could embezzle all that money and get caught and do time, that’s history. Looking at life from the other side makes me sick, but you know; I did it and nothing new, I did it for a woman.

The big guy looks me over. He speaks, “Tale of woe?”

Tale of woe?  Sure. Why not? I got time. I could write a book I got time. I look at him direct, first time.

Now the guy has a half smile on his lips. His eyes don’t speak to me like before, but I’m looking into them and they’re dead eyes. I’m immersed in me and if I should see some signal, I miss it. We exchange a few nothing words on the state of who cares and I decide to go for it. You wanna talk, strangers are best.

“You really wanna know?”

He looks at me fixedly. After a short pause, like he just swallows something didn’t agree with him he says, “Tell me…”

Seems like there’s more but he clams up.

I swing my stool towards him and then back and stare into my half full glass. I wind up with a couple of long breaths. “Of all the months of the year, I remember January, because that’s when I started cooking my company’s books.”

The man gives me his ear. Good line, I’m thinking, like the first hook in a novel.  His eyes jump a little when I say January. It makes me wonder, but I let it pass. I warm to my narrative.

“I lived in Des Moines and did the books for this grain company. I had a wife and a couple of kids. I made decent money and no, I wasn’t happy, but life could be worse and I knew it. The kids grew and I worked a lot and my wife got tied up with soccer and plays and PTA stuff.

“She didn’t have time for me, even bedtime. Too tired? Headache? Either the same to me. I took it she began to lose interest in the things a relationship is supposed to be about, the saving graces, if you know what I mean. Ended up she did her job and I did mine.

“I didn’t see it then. Like I say, I figure she’d cooled off. It happens. You see it on TV all the time, disaffected people, sordid romances, whatever. So I worked and that’s what I did for my family. What more could she expect?

“Okay, I don’t get what I need at home so I start stopping at the local bar a mile or so from my house for a couple before going home nights, you know? If she speaks at all she might yell from the TV room, get your supper from the oven. Most nights I ate alone.

“This goes on a couple of years. Resentment builds, right? Well, bars are good places to pick up girls. Also true is hot, needy girls look for the lonesome single, right? Everybody’s looking to fill some void. So this gal comes along one night I’m sitting there minding my business and next thing you know I’m minding her business. She says her name is Millie. She’s cute and she’s hurting and I’m hurting and you got to know what happens.”

I have the sense the guy is tense and contained…like you can’t see a bomb ready to explode but you sense it. I’m too disconnected to read anything out of it.

“Upshot?” I say, still thinking of my story. “Suddenly I’m in need of money. I’m living for the first time in years. I’m enjoying myself. I start cooking the books. It’s easy. I’m Steady Eddie, right? The boss doesn’t suspect…only he does and I don’t see it.

“The yearly audit arrives, but instead of my boss asking me are we straight with the government and do we have plenty of cash reserves like always, he hires an outside company to do the work and next thing you know I’m indicted. Then I’m in jail.”

“That’s ten years ago. Now I got no wife and my kids have been adopted by her new husband and she won’t let me see them and I live in this piece of shit place even the rats don’t like.”

I run out of steam. I turn to look at the guy and I don’t like the look on his face. It’s tight and red and suddenly I stare at him, like what the hell did I say?

Now he speaks. Measured, clipped, holding back like on a short fuse. I swivel towards him again, confused.

“Well, Steady Eddie,” his words dripping with sarcasm, “this Millie, she was my wife. We patched things, but she couldn’t handle her betrayal. She killed herself the January after her affair with you. I’ve been waiting for you to get out. I searched a long time to find you. I’m going to help you…”

His coat opens and the arm he’s hiding comes out and in one motion he plunges a six-inch hunting knife into my belly.

He finishes, his voice filled with hate, “…out of this world.”

The pain is so bright I can’t catch my breath. I double over onto the bar. He gets up and starts to leave but stops, turns and says coldly though the haze of my roaring pain, “I remember January, too.”

Underbelly

THE VISTA CLAIMS my attention until suddenly I feel something wrong with my steering. I top the last rise going up the mountain on a left hand curve. It’s there that I feel a jiggle that shouldn’t be. For a time, while enjoying the beauty of my new Porsche, I let some business problems distract me. I’ve been driving on automatic pilot.

I step on the brake. Soft. WTF? I push harder and they sink to the floor. I didn’t need brakes going up but I would soon.

I’d smooth powered up to the seven thousand foot mountain pass in my new Cayenne going faster than I should. I always go too fast, but I believe speed limit signs reflect outdated 1950’s thinking. As I look for a place to stop, my active brain derails and I ruminate about speed in the 21st century.

Cars are better these days, better rubber, better brake linings, better steering, more safety gadgets and most highways are super good out west. They can handle speeds in excess of the posted limits every day of the week. And I love big, powerful engines. I seldom see a driver doesn’t agree with me.

I know the Man could kick those limit signs up to meet today’s conditions, but they wouldn’t. Lower speed limits slows drivers down, not for reasonability, but for fear of being stopped by Enforcement. More important, they represent a steady source of revenue for the town or State and a good revenue stream means a fat surplus; the golden grail of government. It demands of governors and legislators to spend it for the people and I expect it lines a few pockets for the clever ones.

I oughta know.

Okay. I’m thinking all this extraneous shit while I reach for the emergency brake with my fingers crossed. It works. Up ahead, a dirt and stone vista pull-off. I yank it up and veer onto this outlook built to handle half a dozen cars. The emergency brake stops me easy. I don’t think about it that second, but I do later on. I leave the brake on, shift into Park and shut the engine down. That’s ‘cause I’m reacting.

Then I think about it. I sit very still. I draw a few deep breaths. Okay, it scares me some because I’m already analyzing the whys and wherefores. When nothing happens and my heart gets back where it belongs I open the door. I leave it open.

First thing I gotta do, check under the car. The slight angle of the gravel parking area is okay. Just to be safe, I’ll kick up stone against the downside of each wheel.

I look around. Great view, mountains and valleys and the best fresh air in the world. Boulder sized rocks line the perimeter of the parking area. A sign at one end, vandalized by teens looking for a statement to make against the status quo says, “Danger – Drop Off.” Maybe that takes care of the Stupid Factor…I dunno. Lot of stupids out there.

For me, I wouldn’t blame the Man if I did something dumb like fall off a cliff, but then I think of that woman who spilt hot coffee in her lap and sued the restaurant. Then I think about the jury from another planet that gave her the big reward. What, she didn’t order hot coffee? She didn’t know it would be hot? She didn’t cause her own problem?

I shake my head. Back to now. No one in sight. I study the terrain. Could anybody be parked out of sight? A couple hundred yards or so are clear. I listen carefully. No mountain echo from cars laboring up the pass. Okay, nobody close. A fluke? I shake my head again. No fluke. You don’t get to run a gaming empire by believing in the Goodness of Man.

Something’s going on and I gotta find out. I got enemies who do bad things to people. Before I get out, I unlock my glove box and take my friend Mr. Badass Glock Nine in hand. I grab an extra hollow point magazine and pocket it.

Now on the ground, I take off my Armani jacket and walk it to one of the distant boulders, fold it carefully and set it down. Back at the car I lower myself to the ground and crawl under. Yeah, what I thought. Steering bolts loosened and the bottom of one lateral brake line same. Nice job. Fluid all over the place, but it wouldn’t be evident to the driver, especially one heading into the mountains. This Pro wanted me to be far away from anything before symptoms began and knew I’d be on my Reno run today.

I check for wires I don’t think belong. Yeah, right there. I trace them up into the engine and under the dash beside the cable bundle. My mind is working overtime. I want to kill a rival and send a message, what would I do? Blow him up’s a good way. Get rid of him somewhere far away with minimum collateral damage. Send a strong message to his loyal few.

It’s cool at seven thousand feet. I dust off and put my jacket back on. From what I can guess, I figure the Pro packed the engine with explosives. I reach in my pocket and finger my key, thankful that I never, ever leave my car with the key in it. In Las Vegas it’s a great habit to have.

I stand and listen again. Still clear. I walk across the road and lie down in a deep runoff ditch. I click my remote start.

Holy shit! What the hell did they put in the engine! The car goes up like an IED. I’d be in pieces Humpty-Dumpty with a map couldn’t put back together again.

Back to work. I get up and dust again from habit. Time to find a place to hide. I have an idea. The Porsche burns fiercely, but enough shattered bulk remains to hide behind if it cools before I get company. That will be my first line of offense. Now I walk back to the edge where the sign warns idiots not to get too close.

Drop-off, all right, but to the side of it where the slope graduates to a sensible angle, I see a possible hiding place safe enough so they can’t see me and close enough to get off a few good rounds. Glad I have no fear of heights. Below my second choice the mountain drops away about a thousand feet.

That gives me another idea. Very few patrols come over the mountains in summer. That I interpret to mean that the next car or truck to appear will be my “friends.” I want to welcome them in some fitting way.

I settle into the little declivity and put my ear to the ground. Nothing yet. I visualize probably two assassins seeing the cloud of black smoke rise above the foothills. I picture them smiling and cracking each other on the back and imagine a conversation.

“Let’s go,” one would say. He’d finger his gun.

“Boss wants me to bring back a piece,” the other one might say. He’d laugh.

I had it. Aaron Brustein, he’d be the one. Sneaky bastard. He would be elsewhere preserving his alibi. I wait a minute. His goons can’t be far away now. I put my ear down again. I hear a sound, faint but growing. I take the safety off the Glock. The car has stopped burning, but heat radiates at me. They’d be coming up the hill soon.  Do I dare chance it?

I’m not a coward and I don’t like people trying to kill me, so the whole thing really pisses me off. I move from my hiding place to a spot behind the tail of the Porsche. Smoke and heat rise straight up. It’s hot, but I can take it.

Perfect. I wait, gun in hand. I feel the fifteen shot magazine in my jacket pocket. Not likely I’ll need that. One chance, that’s all I’ll get. My lip curls in part of a smile. It’s all I’ll need.

My guess, the one who wants a piece of me will be riding shotgun. He’ll get out, gun in hand while the other looks front and checks his mirrors. Driver will have a gun, probably stashed on the center console, but convinced I’m dead, he’ll leave it there. Even in his hand, he’d be so close I couldn’t miss. I’ll plug “shotgun,” and then empty the magazine at the driver. It’ll be a cake walk.

I hear it plain now. A black Suburban crawls over the last rise. It pulls in and stops twenty feet from the smoking remnant. I sit on my haunches waiting. The car sits there for a long time. My legs start to cramp. Not now, I tell my body. Through a tiny window created by torn metal, I see the door open slowly. Figured. Brustein’s boys all right, Alonzo and Skippie. Alonzo gets out. He’s arguing with his partner.

I catch Skippie saying, “He’s dead. C’mon Alonzo, get back in.”

Asshole never had balls.

“Uh-uh,” Alonzo says back, “You know what the boss said. I gotta check. Some part of him is here. Make sure, he says.”

“Christ! Check then. I want to get out of here.”

Did I guess it! Alonzo gives him a look of contempt and moves away from the SUV, his eyes searching. Ten feet from the Porsche, I stand from behind my cover and shoot him, chest and head. Without waiting to see what damage I did, I turn to the Suburban and empty my Glock at the front seat, all thirteen remaining shots. I try to miss the front windshield. I do. Practice pays.

I hear a pitying cry and the big car starts to move. Idiot kept it in gear and his foot on the brake. What a rabbit! That’s my ride! I bolt from behind my cover and run at the big car. The passenger’s door is swinging shut and the Suburban is heading for the drop-off.

I grab for the door and catch the handle. I’m running sideways trying to keep my feet while yanking the door. It opens and I stumble but I’ve still got the door. I swing onto the high step and plunge onto the seat. Skippie is slumped with his head out the driver’s window. He’s covered in blood. He’s not my problem anymore.

With a hand I kick the shifter into neutral and yank on the emergency brake. The SUV crashes against the boulder but stops. I jump back out onto gravel and stand there transfixed, lungs heaving from unaccustomed effort. The boulder, dislodged from its place, moves out into space. It tumbles and disappears. I listen for several seconds until I hear it hit and the sound gets back to me with an echo not far behind.

I listen again. Dead silence. Much better. I check out the front damage on the big vehicle. It’s drivable. I finally get out my cell and call Captain John Levine, my contact with LVPD. I outline what happened.

“I’ll cover this end,” he says. “What are you going to do now?”

“Me? I’m going hunting.”

Incident at Northern Sky Lodge

I’VE NEVER BEEN here before. Hell, I’ve never been to Alaska before. Talk about big. I thought Maine covered more territory than I could possibly explore. This place? Miles of tundra, mountains that would literally take your breath away. I mean if you hankered to climb them, you’d need oxygen to breath. We weren’t doing that!

Curt and the boys from the Maine Big Game Hunting Club convinced me to spend the money and take the trip. Curt had been there before and emoted about the big state. They were so animated that Bob and I caught the fever. Little did I know.

Okay, so Curt Travers, Bob Fleece and me, that’s Jack Berson – I’m telling the story here – we prepare and put our affairs in order for an extended trip, you know? Packing to hunt in Alaska is not exactly the same as in the lower forty-eight. Plenty of books and brochures point out the what and why of it.

We catch a United Airlines flight to Anchorage, We get there safe, “flying the friendly skies” and all, pretty boring, but anticipation keeps us on our game. At the airport we find a small hanger, name above it and a sign below that, Flights to Anywhere in Alaska. The plane’s small and comes with a wild looking local prop jockey, guy named Randy Bull.

I’m the one says prop jockey.

“We call them bush pilots up here; take off and land on a 150 foot runway if need be.” He laughs.

“We want to fly up to Nenana Airport,” Curt says. Nenana is only ten miles or so north of Northern Sky Lodge where we’re going.

Randy frowns. “No can do. It’s closed for a few days, hanger fire. I’ll fly you to Clear Airport up near Anderson. You can get a car there to the lodge. Heard of the place; about fifty miles.

That didn’t seem bad. Fifty miles isn’t much in Maine. “Deal!”

Randy flies us to the airport. He’s not cheap but we know everything’s expensive up here. He earns his money in the changeable weather we run into on the way. Guy’s unflappable. I stop wondering about him being a prop jockey. We land, unload and get us a four wheel drive Jeep for off road. My Alaska map says Clear Lodge is pretty nearby.

“Why not stop here, Curt? It’s close and the territory’s wild enough,” I say.

“Nah. I got it on good authority that Northern Sky Lodge is the place to step off for hunting wolves. That’s what you wanted, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Stick with me, buddy. I won’t steer you wrong,” he says. “Alaska’s sectioned off for bear and moose and all the other big stuff. 20C, that’s the area we want. Season’s been cut to April 1st, but we’re under the wire on that. We’ll be fine.”

Bob drives. He doesn’t talk a lot. I sit in the rear seat and squirm this way and that seeing first only sights along the way. I find it exhilarating. Highway 3 is a good road. Alaska winters are hard on all roads, but the maintenance people keep up with it, seeing as there are so few highways, and considering the state’s over a half million square miles large.

I’m pumped. The others look pleased, too. We’re gonna have a great time, bag the limit and bring home trophies for the other club members to drool over.

That’s the plan. Ever hear how plans can oft times go astray? Me, too. Northern Sky Lodge is clean and well kept. It’s rustic, log cabin style and comfortable. The owners are Alaska stock. We discover they are selling the place. Just as an aside, I ask why.

“Wife and I want to retire and move south,” Brad Stepel, the owner says. He’s a big fellow and he looks capable. He’s wearing what I call tundra wear, loose cut heavy denim trousers with cargo pockets and a wool long sleeved red-checkered shirt. I can’t see his feet, but I’d bet he wears size twelve hunting boots 24/7. Behind him hanging on hooks on the knotty pine wall is a repeating rifle heavy enough to bring down elephants. I look and look away.

“But it’s so beautiful here,” I say. I don’t exactly have a bad feeling, but I want to conclude our check-in and get to my room. The guy is borderline scary.

“We’ve had the place for years and we’re ready. You interested?”

“Just wondering.” That ends the conversation. We get adjoining rooms and settle in for our week.

Marta’s his wife. She’s a small woman, careworn and no longer pretty.  She looks hardened by the place she lives in and maybe for the life she leads, who knows. She also looks – what – a little weird maybe? She doesn’t speak at all. Her husband’s the player. We ignore her.

Once removed from the hulking presence of the owner, we lighten up. Curt doesn’t seem bothered and Bob grunts and grins when I air my immediate concerns with them.

“Jesus, Jack, you gone paranoid?”

“No, just got some vibes you clowns missed is all.”

“Shit, there’s three of us. What’s he gonna do?”

“Yeah? Well, I’m locking my door and my windows tonight.”

They look at me funny, but there’s nothing else.

Bob speaks up. “Let’s figure out what we’re going to do.” He looks at his digital watch.

Curt says, “Look, it’s three o’clock, late winter time. That means we don’t have much more light. Let’s find a place for a few brews and get a good night’s sleep. Take a few to set up your packs for tomorrow and meet me in the lobby. You okay with that?”

We both say “Yeah, sure.” We separate and spend time, leave and lock our rooms and Curt is there when we arrive.

“I just asked Bart here where we could get a drink. No place close, he tells me, but he keeps beer around for guests, $6.00 a bottle. There’s a small lounge over there.” He points. “You good with that?”

“Steep for beer.” Bob says.

“You know nothing’s cheap up here.”

Bob looks cross for a second but nods. Brad walks in and unlocks his small bar.

“Take what you like and I’ll bill you later.”

“Sounds fair,” Curt says and reaches for a cold one. Bob follows and I grab one. The stuffed chairs are comfortable and we trade stories and we’re blitzed before we know it. Around ten-thirty we’ve had enough. I’d lined up the bottles all evening, kind of anal. I smile stupidly at my impressive assembly.

Brad is back in the private part of the lodge behind the desk. I see him sitting in a chair. I see him look at us from the corner of my eye as we head for our rooms. He’s staring. As I unlock my room I glance up. Unsmiling Marta is looking down the hallway at me. Maybe I am paranoid, but I don’t like what I’m feeling.

We’re pretty drunk and we crash right away, except I’m bothered so I can’t sleep. I can hear Bob snoring through the wall. I have the end room farthest from the lobby. Curt could be snoring too, but I wouldn’t know. I glance at the clock on the nightstand, eleven-fifteen.

My eyes finally start to get heavy, when I hear Bob stop snoring and then I hear a muffled scream. Something is not all right. I’m out of bed and heading for the door when the image of Brad’s face looms in front of me.

So I’m crazy. I get my rifle and chamber a bullet, go to my bed and sit there, my back against the headboard. I hold my rifle at the ready, aimed at the door. I’m scared shitless. I hear a click at the door and a key fumble in the lock, slow and quiet. I picture Bob in the next room dead, killed by this lodge owner driven mad by the loneliness of living far from anywhere, acting out some nightmare in his mind, who knows what or why.

The door opens a crack, then more and in the dim glow of the hallway nightlight, I see Marta, butcher knife in her raised hand as she rushes toward my bed clearly intent on murder.

I shake and tears come and I gulp and fire, but my aim is true. The thirty-ought six slug intended for my first gray wolf smashes into her chest. It blows her out into the corridor. She’s dead before she hits the floor.

I know she’s killed my buddies. I can sense it. I must find out, but what about Brad Stepel? He heard the shot. He must have. What would he do?

I wait. There is no other choice. Yes, there is. I get off the bed. In my bare feet I walk to the bathroom. I load another cartridge into the chamber. He’ll have a gun. It’s him or me.

I hear rapid footsteps. They stop at Marta’s body. There begins a keening wail so incongruous that for a moment I can’t fathom it. The sound goes on a long time. Stepel is grieving. Then, mixed in with the owner’s sound I pick out a siren.

Did Brad call the State Police? He must have. I pad to the door, rifle still ready. Once past the partially open door I see him on the corridor floor, covered in Marta’s blood, cradling her head.

Through his sobbing, he manages a few halting words. “Mr. Berson, she went off her meds. I didn’t know. There were no signs.”

He looks down at the bloody knife on the floor next to Marta. He begins to shake. The siren stops abruptly, and I hear the Lodge door slam. Footsteps; Brad’s name called. Silence, then a big trooper appears, gun drawn. I hear him shout.

“Drop the rifle, mister.”

I have a live round chambered, safety off. I slowly lean down and lay the weapon on the floor, my other hand held high, palm open. The Trooper watches me closely.

“Brad, what happened here?”

“Hey, Tom, not his fault. Marta went crazy. Check the two adjoining rooms. She probably killed the other guests.”

The Trooper asks me to put the safety on and hand him the rifle. I do. A quick check reveals what I fear most.

“Both dead. Sorry, mister.”

I give him my story and he accepts it. Self-defense. My turn to break down. My legs are jelly and I slide down the other wall and grieve.

I’m home now. The flight took far too long. My report at the gun club left a quiet, somber audience. I look back. I wanted to bring down a wolf and I killed a human being. They accepted my resignation.

That’s the end of my story, all but a memory I have to live with forever.

At Loggerheads

THE BIG RIG came lumbering slowly out of the low-lying fog. The truck announced its presence long before the Hatch family saw it. Sue and John stood silent beside their car. The Honda sat off the one lane dirt road at an odd angle, both passenger side wheels in a muddy ditch up to the rocker panels.

Sue gave a little cry of relief when she heard the flatulent diesel sound as the unseen driver eased off the accelerator. They’d been stuck for hours.  She couldn’t get warm wearing the light sweater she’d brought, but she couldn’t sit another minute in that car.

She looked at her son kicking in John’s arms. Jason needed food.  The last of the milk went an hour ago. The kid cried incessantly now. Damn John and his scenic shortcuts!

John took it on the chin first in her unhappy tirade and later in her pointed silence. It matched exactly the hush of the deep woods until Jason got started. John, for his part, bore Sue’s mood stoically.

He got them into it and he didn’t know how to get them out. Their Honda had stood them in all kinds of weather, but nothing did well in mud.

Sue’s petulant attitude didn’t help. He’d tried all the things a man will try, first with confidence and later in desperation.

The pine forest stood majestic in the coolness of the fall day. The fog that began in the lower valley after the sudden rainstorm had moved upland as the sun heated it from above. Now it covered the entire valley but not the high ground above them.

Looking up the hillside, searching for some inner peace, Sue thought the tall pines’ dark green needles should strike a pleasant contrast to the big patch of vivid blue sky that appeared after the quick storm. It could be a picture postcard, but her mood wouldn’t let her enjoy it.

Here they were, miles from civilization. They didn’t dare try to walk back to the seldom-traveled highway in mid-state Maine they’d left for this route because of bears. The woods were full of them. She wouldn’t even consider it, and no way did she want John leaving her and the baby.

“Ouuu!” she cried in utter frustration, “John, do something with Jason!

John had seen frustration in his wife in their past ten years of marriage. He’d just have to wait it out.

He said as gently as he could, “We’ll get out of here, honey. I’m doing the best I can.”

“You’ve said that five times and we’re still here!” she screamed.

John subsided. He walked with his son in his arms on the nearly dry crown of the road. Motion sometimes distracted Jason. Not this time. His clock said time to eat so he let his parents know.

John looked at the sun. Nearly noon. He pictured his watch on his dresser at home. Lot of good it did there, and the car’s electric clock had quit a couple of months ago. Meant to have it fixed…the road to hell, he thought.

This lark he’d planned didn’t turn out that way. Route 633 had to be five miles back, at least. He rued his decision after a mile but couldn’t find a turnaround. Maybe at the next curve he’d find a place, but it didn’t happen.

The sudden downpour, gone as fast as it came, turned the road into a quagmire. It came on so quickly and hard he had to stop. He literally couldn’t see the road. It worried him that they were still going up the side of this mountain. Once he started driving again, he feared they’d be in trouble, only a matter of time.

Out of the fog the big Mack logger nosed its way upward. The driver saw them and stopped. A man his late thirties got out of the cab, nimbly caught the step and jumped to the ground. He wore an insulated red and white, checkered flannel shirt with sleeves that came just above his wrists. He had plenty of muscle under the shirt. He looked them over and then at the Honda and stood silently for a moment.

“Private road, mistah,” he said in his quaint Maine accent. “Didn’t yuh see the sign back theah?”

No,” John said, “I didn’t see any sign. My map showed this road and I thought it went to a scenic overlook.” John still had Jason and he whimpered and fussed even as John bounced him in his arms.

“Yuh got a bit of the way up the hill.”

“I know. I was looking for a place to turn around, but it kept going up and up.”

“Ay-uh. No place to turn fur another mile, I guess.”

“Then we got the rain and instant mud and you can see what happened.”

“This road’ll handle a rig. That little pip-squeak car’s no good here.”

“I found that out.”

“Lemme see thet map o yourn.”

John handed the baby to Sue and she cooed at Jason and bounced him some more without much success. John went into the passenger’s side of their car and grabbed the map off the dash. The logger didn’t introduce himself. John went up to him and turned so they could both look.

“This is where I think we are.” He pointed to a place on the map.

“Ay-uh. I kin see whayah yuh made yuh mistake. Yuh see this nub ovah heah?” the man pointed.

“Yes.”

“Now, yuh see this nub ovah heah?”

“I’m on the wrong mountain, aren’t I?”

“Ay-uh.”

“Can you help us out and get us turned around?”

“Well,” the man said, “yer trespassin’ and Mr. Mulgrave don’t take kindly to trespassers.”

The man didn’t sound at all friendly.

“Look, all we want is to turn around and get out of here. You can’t pass my car. It’s blocking the road.”

“That’s not a problem, mistah. I kin push you right over the edge there. Yuh see the edge there, don’t yuh?”

John looked involuntarily. He didn’t like the steep down-slope at all. Sparse growth and fifty feet further down a cliff that dropped out of sight.

Now the guy looked mean. John gauged what kind of man he could be. Thin but hard muscled, he couldn’t weigh more than one fifty. John had him by thirty pounds. Pretty obviously the man had an active physical life and worked hard at it. John had a desk job a few years of sitting away from his iron pumping days. He doubted he’d be a match for this stranger.

Sue took this moment to get into the conversation. “Look, mister, we’re in your way and you want us out of your way, right?”

For the first time the man really looked at her. Cute little thing. Her turned up nose kinda reminded him of his dead sister Maude. About the same age, too. Two years since the cancer got her. He loved his Sissy, so ‘bout that time he told God to go screw.

The gal wore a light blue dress with some kind of lacy white stuff bordering the edges, made for riding comfort in a car, but not for standing around outside in a mountain wilderness. Her light sweater wouldn’t cut a Maine wind, no how. Like he’d asked, he saw her shiver.

She had a cute kid, too; would have been cute if he wasn’t caterwauling right about now. The woman tried to push its face against her breast to muffle the noise. That just made him notice her chest.

Kid didn’t matter, but Mr. Mulgrave had strict instructions about people nosing around. He had a lot to lose if anyone saw his operation and got outsiders involved. Pretty likely they’d see it if he got them to a turnaround.

“That’s right, little lady.”

“So won’t you help us?”

The man pondered. Foxy looking thing. His eyes narrowed. “Maybe I kin. Maybe yuh kin do somethin’ for me. Maybe yuh kin help me a bit and maybe then I kin help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Flat out, I ain’t been with a woman fer a real long time. I’m feelin’ a need.”

“You don’t mean…?”

The man stared at her.

John gaped at the two and horror came to his face.

“Wait just a minute!” he said, “What you’re suggesting you’re going to have to do over my dead body. Forget it, mister!

“You got nothin’ tuh say, buddy. I’m talkin’ tuh the lady. But since yer talkin’, you wouldn’t have a problem with returnin’ one favor fer another, would yuh?”

John saw white! He felt hot all over. Nobody could do this. Maine was part of a civilized country, wasn’t it?

The scenario had turned strange and ugly. He decided he couldn’t argue with the guy and no man would rape his wife before he lay stone cold dead trying to prevent it.

“You’re doing nothing, mister. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Sue looked confused for a moment, but now she could see a confrontation coming and she could stop it.

“John, let me talk to him.”

“No, Sue. Don’t you know what’s going on here?”

“Yes, I do. I want to talk to him.”

“No!”

“Excuse me,” she said to the man, and took John’s hand and led him away out of earshot.

The trucker watched with interest while Sue in low but intense conversation gesticulated wildly and John gestured back with finality. Finally he threw his hands up in disgust, turned and walked rapidly back to confront the man.

“Under no circumstances am I going to give my wife to you. Forget it! She has nothing more to say.”

“Whatevah.”

The logger turned, walked back to the truck and quickly got in. John divined his next move. He ran to the idling truck as the driver put the rig into low gear. With a rage he hadn’t felt since he’d pasted that bully Bobby Hunt in the face as a boy, John jumped onto the step, reached through the open window and punched the man in the side of the head.

Momentarily stunning the man, John pressed his advantage, grabbed his coat and pulled him toward the driver’s window. The driver’s foot came off the clutch and the big truck started forward. John hung on, one arm around the man’s neck as the other reached wildly for the steering wheel.

Fifteen feet from the Honda, Sue, between the car and the oncoming truck, screamed and tried to run up the hillside, slipped on mud in the roadside gully and went down with the baby, instinctively twisting to save Jason.

Her head hit a rock. She lay suddenly quiet and still, while the baby screamed on her chest. The truck headed directly for her legs.

John hit the driver full in the face. Then he grabbed the wheel desperately, turning it hard to the right. The vehicle found the edge and went over, missing Sue’s legs by inches.

As the big truck’s rear wheels cleared the road and the rig started slowly down the steep slope, the man stirred and sat up.

John grabbed his neck and squeezed. With a violent twist to the left, the man hit John in the face and John reeled away, lost for a moment. As he fell back the crook of his arm found the outside mirror and hung him up. Recovering quickly, he savagely went back through the window and hit and gouged at the man. They were twenty-five feet down the slope and gaining speed.

The man’s foot found the air brakes. Fending John off, he stomped on the pedal. The engine stalled, but the brakes couldn’t stop the rig. On wet ground ten tons of steel riding on ten huge rubber tires slid slowly toward the precipice, making long, reddish dual skid marks.

Ten feet…five…John screamed a horrible epithet and fell away from the truck as the front end went over the cliff. John grabbed at the hardy root on a stunted tree. It tore away and he slid closer to the brink. He grabbed wildly for another. It held. He lay, feet out over space, eyes closed, terror in his heart.

He heard a cry with a sob and then the wrenching sound of the loggers rig leaving the ground on its way over. Sound followed sound, first nothing but a wail, then crashing, crashing, crashing, trees going over forever…then silence.

Sue! Jason!

He pulled himself carefully up and got ground under him. His gorge rose. He swallowed it back. Painfully, he grabbed any handhold he could find as he worked his way up the hill. His fingers began to bleed and mix with blood from his scored knuckles. He wore holes in his pants and his face felt numb.

Not as bad as the other guy, he thought with well-deserved malice.

Nearing the road he heard Jason’s healthy cry and as he gained the crest, he saw the baby on unmoving Sue’s chest, her arm across him.

With a catch in his throat, he called, “Sue?”

With halting steps he walked to his wife. Bloody ground under her head and the sharp rock next to her told the story. He bent down and felt. Pulse weak but regular. He gently moved her arm and gathered up the baby. Jason whimpered in his daddy’s arms.

Sue needed attention. Jason would have to wait. He carried the baby to the car and locked him into his car seat. Grabbing the first aid kit from the passenger’s side door well, he went to the trunk and got the picnic blanket out. He felt Sue over. Only the head wound. She moaned.

“Sue?”

Gradually she came to. He gentled her in his arms.

Sue’s eyes focused and she let out a short scream as a nightmare passed through her and reality crept in. When he could see reason in her eyes, he told her the man had gone and wouldn’t be back. She clung to him.

The road dried by mid-afternoon. John had Sue get in the drivers seat and told her how to rock the automatic up one side of the rut he’d made, stand on the brake while she shifted and then run up the other side to gradually widen the lock he’d placed on the right wheels. While she did that, he pushed; first front and then rear. In that manner they eventually got free of nature’s muddy trap.

They drove the mile the man said would have the first turnaround and found it. They also found a side valley with several acres of healthy growing marijuana plants. The authorities would be very interested in the crop. What was the owner’s name…Mulgrave…yes…Mulgrave.

The police would no doubt be interested in another story they had to tell, too.

Summer Vacation

JULY 1ST. WE drive north because we always drive south at the beginning of summer and I don’t want to do what we always do. My wife wants the old, comfortable way, but I get my back up and decide she could do something I want this year. She can’t reason with me.

That’s her big forte, reason. She finally gives in. This is why.

My headaches had been coming with increased frequency. That started a year ago. Eventually I went to my lady GP and she referred me to a specialist. I railed to my wife about like why should I go to her at all, half serious, half in jest. I said it’s like she didn’t know anything.

I have a fever or a pain and it’s, “Oh, you’re sick. I better send you to a specialist.”

I wonder what commission she got on me. Like, would I go to her because I’m well?

“Why don’t you change doctors?” my wife asks.

My answer: they’re all the same in my book. At least this one’s good looking. Smells good, too. Okay, so maybe I’m oversexed. I just do the eye thing and sniff the air she passes through. It’s not like I don’t know I’m married. It’s not like I don’t know what side my bread is buttered on. I’m a male. We’re hardwired for it. I read that somewhere.

Getting back, the headaches began with tightness across my forehead. It didn’t really hurt much at first, just something new. I read somewhere that the first twenty-five years you get growing pains and the rest of your time is dying pains, so I ignored it.

That pretty much answers it for me so I experiment with ibuprofen and aspirin and other stuff to see which one works best and eventually settle on ibuprofen. Six months into when I’m first aware, I mention it to my wife and she says go to the doctor and why’d you wait so long?

“Because it hurts enough now,” I say. I leave it as a question on my lips.

“Stupido! So now I should worry?”

“Nah, it’s not that bad, just more.”

“You gonna make an appointment or do I have to do it for you?”

“I’ll do it. Geez!”

So I go to my GP and she sends me to a specialist. And I got a brain tumor. And it’s growing. I can still function with pain meds and the doc specialist puts me though chemo and I’m in between sessions and our vacation comes up and I want to go north. I gotta say my wife gave up easy. Maybe too easy. I give that some thought.

So we’re on the road. I wanna go to Canada. I haven’t been there in a lot of years and I wanna go, so she stays mum on the subject, and she’s sitting by my side and we’re grabbing big breaths of clean air in our little convertible and the pain isn’t getting past the good way I’m feeling so all’s well, way I figure.

We go to the Bay of Fundy, stopover in New Brunswick and cruise Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and see a bunch of sights like Hopewell Rocks and fishing boats lying on their sides waiting for the fifteen foot tide to come in and the Tidal Bore in Truro and this sharp pain begins behind my eyes and I don’t let my wife see this new thing and I’m getting worried, too, but I don’t want to ruin it for either of us, so I hide it.

I should be smarter, because I’m getting it that I really am sicker than the doc’s best guess or maybe it’s growing faster or something. Anyway, I have a choice. I’m in control. My wife doesn’t like to drive. She can do it, no problem, but she likes me behind the wheel and she’s really down on big highways.

Well, we get up at the B&B on our last day before heading back to the States and I’m in the bathroom and this pain hits me like a sledgehammer and holy mackerel, I can’t see for a few seconds and sweat breaks out across my brow and I’m glad my wife is still sleeping, only she’s not, because I thought I held in the groan but it got out and she’s standing at the door and there’s this expression on her face I hope I won’t see again in the future.

“Mickey?” It’s accusatory.

I’m still in pain and she knows it’s worse than ever.

“I’m driving today,” she says.

“Yes, you are, honey.”

“I’m taking you to the local hospital.”

“No, it’ll pass. I’ll be okay, but we gotta head for home, for sure.”

She mulls that. You don’t pull wool over her eyes for long.

“I’m calling the doctor.”

“No.”

“I’m calling the doctor.”

“Okay.” I say this because it’s hard to see again.

This B&B has long distance calling, lot of business from the States, I speculate. She dials out. She waits a time and I hear her side of the conversation with various lengthy pauses.

“Dr. Schwimmer, please? Lola Wright calling. It’s about Mickey.”

“Can I reach him? It’s important.” Anxious.

“He’s what?” Angry.

“Who’s covering?” Demanding.

“He won’t do. No, stop. Listen. You need to locate Dr. Schwimmer immediately and have him call me here. I’m out of the country.”

“You’re not listening. I said Dr. Schwimmer, NOW!” She’s going to follow the cord right up that Receptionists mouthpiece.

“Let me talk to the office manager.” Softer, controlled, dangerous.

“Carol, that ditz you have answering your phones needs counseling or firing. Mickey has taken a turn for the worse and we’re in Nova Scotia. I need advice from Mickey’s doctor now.”

“A fishing trip? Does he have a cell phone?” Scary, quiet, measured, palpable.

“Try to get him.” Serious, holding back. I see her face working.

“Carol, I don’t care. GET HIM!” They can hear Lola in Halifax.

“I’ll be waiting by this phone.” She gives the number and hangs up. She looks at me. I feel pasty.

“Mickey, you better lie down. You don’t look good.”

I married a nurse. What should I expect? Lola edges me out of the bathroom and I go back to bed. She’s a take charge girl. Know your stuff and respond quickly, best kind. It’s one thing I love about her and if I didn’t it wouldn’t change anything.

She goes to her purse and gets this little capsule, brings it with water and I swallow it. No point in asking. She showers and dresses and plants herself on a chair by the window next to the phone.

An hour goes by. I’m flying. No pain. It’s not aspirin. The phone rings.

“Yes, doctor…”

She describes my symptoms and I wait a long time.

“Yes, doctor.” She hangs up.

“He wants us to head for home, but don’t stop there. Come directly to the hospital. He’ll be there. He’s arranging for a surgeon. Said it’s obvious the chemo hasn’t stopped it.”

“They gonna cut a hole in my head?”

“Likely. I’m going to ask them for a brain transplant while they’re in there.”

“Funny.”

“Best chance I’ll ever get.”

“Ha ha.”

“Get up, buddy boy. We’re heading out as soon as we can pack.”

Talk about switcheroo. I get my summer vacation and now it’s back to the States to star in my personal life changing event. I’m riding; she’s driving. I got a new job; keep her awake.

Funny the twists and turns in a life. Until it’s not funny.

Looking Down

It is best to keep in mind that this experiment in storytelling requires the reader to accept the premise of a disability as tailored throughout. It might require a paradigm shift, i.e., instant suspension of disbelief at the get-go. Above all, keep in mind that it’s fiction. Now you are as prepared as you’re going to be.

ΩΩΩ

“I LOOKED AT Sally and what did I see?
I saw Sally, looking at me.”

I think okay but I mutter or blurt in rhymes and it’s a rare condition and I can’t help it. The medical community calls it Rhymosis. I kid you not. Not the nose thing. That’s Rhinitis. Actually, wish I had that instead. At least it’s treatable. It affects everything I say. You think it’s humorous, but it gets old.

“Know what I mean
Jellybean.”

Sally and I love each other and we’ll probably get married as soon as she decides she can put up with my malady. We also love to climb and we had never been to the Grand Tetons before. This would prove to be the final test, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The mountains stood before us, majestic, silent, ancient and hoary and the big smiles on our faces the genuine article. Anticipation translated to the here and now. Hot dog!

“Sally’s my love
We fit like a glove.”

There I go. Tom, our guide, said to stick with him and listen before we make any stupid moves. He lacked social skills, but came highly recommended. We said okay. Actually, I said,

“Hey friend
We’re here to the end
So tell us true
And we’ll stick with you.”

He smirked. Thought I was kidding. He’d find out. Probably get old with him before we got to the foothills. We hiked our packs onto our shoulders and set off, bundled against the chill, Sally to my right and Tom up ahead, leading the way. For a mile or so, the terrain gentled and caused no strain. Sally carried twenty pounds. Us men carried forty.

“Easy enough
In case it got rough.”

Eventually we started to climb and slowed to pick our way. Tom knew the land and pointed out things to watch for. Sally smiled at his attentiveness. I didn’t think anything, being more interested in the sights.

A canyon opened before us and the trail narrowed. “Careful there,” said good guide Tom and I blurted,

“The hills are rough
The going is tough
But we’ll prevail
Or fall on our tail.”

For all his social ineptness, Tom took his work seriously. He came to an opening across our path; maybe fifty feet deep and three across, motioned us to stop and then jumped across, agile as a mountain goat. He held up a hand for me to hold back and asked Sally to cross first. He held out his hand and she grasped it with her gloved one. I muttered,

“Fair maiden needs care
So guide Tom is right there.”

He called her to jump on his signal. She looked scared…

“But did
As he bid.”

Another blurt, but in low murmur and only to myself.

Once over, the guide called to me to leap and I did, but the ground crumbled as my feet caught the edge and I began to fall backwards. Sally screamed. Tom pivoted and grabbed for any piece of clothing he could get, clutched the bottom of my coat and planted his feet hard. With my jacket a fulcrum and my feet slipping on dirt, I yawed over the chasm and crashed to earth on the lip of the far side.

Sally reached down, got a fist full of hair and pulled me onto firmer surface.

“Ow! The hair, the hair
It just isn’t fair
But this isn’t a boast
Without you, I’d be toast.”

I know Sally tried to help save my life, but it came out anyway. Turning onto my knees, I gained my feet, grateful that Tom wouldn’t need to fish me, doubtless dead, out of the fissure.

“Tom, I almost fell
To save me was swell
But I’m stupid as hell
To almost fall in that well.”

The guide said “Nada,” and gave me a big macho smile that ended it. Then I noticed something else. Sally looked us both over as if comparing. Could it be…?

I’m not the jealous type, but Sally could be getting tired of my unintentional poetic outbursts. Handsome Tom the mountain guide, rugged and virile…I wondered. I had to redeem myself in Sally’s eyes. But how?

We climbed steadily, sometimes leaning against almost vertical gray walls to keep our balance. The trail narrowed in these places and Tom had us tie ropes to our waists. For Sally, he’d hook an end of his rope to her safety “harness” and I would do the same on her other side. We’d then feed out ten or fifteen feet for each of us. Tom eased through the passage with care and then had Sally work her way past the same stricture while he gathered line and I paid it out, keeping Sally’s lifeline taut.

Although always last in line, being last also seemed best. Should Sally misstep and fall, she had us both to catch her, with her weight distributed between us. Should I fall, there would be two to bear my weight and pull me up, I hoped. More important, should I not make it because of an accident, Tom could get her back to civilization.

The views became breathtaking as we moved upward. It would be too dangerous to go into the snowline, but we’d gained a couple of thousand feet and did not want for spectacular sights.

Tom mentioned just ahead a flat shelf held a view he liked. When we got there, we turned to look. Sally gasped at the beauty. Tom looked at her intently and I thought, possessively. Sorry, I couldn’t overlook that look and it unsettled me. Still, I tried to be cool.

As I looked down from my high point, what I saw nestled between overpowering mountain heights gripped me with the power of magic. The mountains came together and a river, fed from three extraordinary, thundering waterfalls, began to wend its way toward Wyoming’s Jackson Lake. My debility kicked in. I spouted something to commemorate this wonderful view.

“The view is ocular
Our eyes binocular
The scene is wet
But better yet
The mountains I see
Are for you and me.”

Hoods up and cheeks red, we reveled in delight as we felt our hardworking muscles euphorically deliver the rewards of glistening youth.

Then it happened. Coming around a sharp bend on a narrow section, I felt something in my feet, a vibration. Tom felt it, too, and laid his ear against the cold stone face as if listening. His face worried, he looked up.

“Avalanche!” he cried. High up in the snowpack, a section of the mountain took on a cloudy look and I saw movement. Tom glanced around wildly, looking for something. I understood him instantly.

Then he lost it. “We’re gonna die!”

His pitiful panicked cry transformed him into an ugly thing. What happened to handsome, rugged and virile? For me his light went out.

Behind me, the mountain rose sheer for fifty feet and then took a sharp angle upward. That’s it! Already in motion, I said,

“Quick, that place among the rocks
Will save our clocks
I’m saying we’ll make it
I wouldn’t fake it
Save your breath
To avoid your death!”

The rumbling grew and grew. I saw Sally grab Tom’s rope and yank, turning him toward us. Sally and Tom ran right behind me as terror gave wings to our feet. We arrived and I shouted:

“Paste yourselves against the wall
Or you will surely fall
Do not look askance
Don’t invite grim happenstance!”

The words tore from me and were lost in a crashing whiteness that vaulted over us. We became one with the mountain. We shook in sync with the avalanche as the roar of snow overwhelmed our ears and threatened to take us on a two thousand foot journey to oblivion.

The whiteness and roar seemed to last an eternity. Then, just like that, it ended.

Sally’s face, white as the snow that attacked us, softened as she realized we still lived. Tom, too, white with fear, regained his manliness. I, curiously, felt wonderful. During this trial, something happened to my sense of well-being and I felt serene.

What pleased me most came from Sally, a fitting end to this awesome saga, to find no one but me in her thoughts.

“My dear, you couldn’t be braver
You are my true savior
My mind is made up
You get the winner’s cup
I am no longer harried
It’s time we got married.”

Haiti Alone

I AM RENE Michaud. I am seventeen and Salé is fourteen. When the earthquake comes, we are in our home in Port au Prince, 12 Rue Galat. I am reading a book on chemistry from the local library for my school project and Salé plays her fan over the head of her beloved brother to cool him.

I say, “Faster Salé; it is too hot.” She laughs in that high giggle I love to hear and moves the fan more at my head and she ruffles the pages of my book with the wind of her motion.

This day is twelve January. It is late afternoon. I suddenly feel something and my vision becomes strange with movement, yet I sit in my chair and I have not moved. Then a low sound begins and then a rumbling and my house starts to sway and glass falls from the shelves and breaks on the floor.

We know then what it is. It is God’s vengeance. In school the teachers have said that one day God will come down from his Heaven and destroy the corrupt among us. They say many in my little country of Haiti are corrupt. I do not believe them when they say this, but what am I to think now? Surely He will save the good and the pious. Surely He will save the children.

Mama is at work by the sink. I look at her and I see she does not understand.

I call, “Mama, you get out, run!” I see her eyes get wide and she throws down her dishrag and turns to the door, but it is many meters from her sink in another part of the house.

The door is open to let out the afternoon heat from our small dwelling and we are near to it because the light is good. Frightened, Salé drops her fan and puts her hand over her head and runs out, I behind her. The floor jumps up and down and moves from one side and another and it is hard to stand, but we get into the street.

I look up toward the blue and then to the declining sun, and I see clouds of dust rise toward it from buildings that break up and settle to the ground as I watch. The sun fades and becomes a bright round ghost and choking dust gets into my eyes and mouth. Salé coughs and covers her mouth with a hand, but it does no good. I pull my shirt up to cover my mouth and it is better. The blue above fades.

I turn to look back at my home and I see the roof fall in. I hear Mama shriek in fright and pain and it is a sound I will hear forever. Then dust roars from the door and Mama is gone. Salé and I run into the dust and try to pull away pieces of cement and mortar to find our mother, but already it is too late.

We weep the day and into the night. We are in shock, but even then I know I must take care of my sister on my life. It is the family way.

At first we stay to help others, but when night comes and the day follows and there is no food, I tell Salé we must leave Port au Prince. I know that the city will soon become a dangerous place for my fourteen-year-old sister and I address her.

“Salé, we must leave. We must leave now!”

“Where?”

“To Ganthier.” And she says nothing because she knows of our relatives there. She is sad, but she does not argue.

We walk on the road out of the city. We walk because we can do nothing else. Nothing moves but feet. We will seek out our mother’s uncles and cousins and tell them about our mother. We will ask for help.

Our bare feet find the smoothest way around and through the rubble. We hide when the gangs come through. Suddenly there is no law and the gangs will rape my sister and they will kill me because I will be dead before I let them do it.

So much damage! It frightens us all the more. It is like a war I read about in my history class, but these are not bombs that have destroyed the city and the villages and the roadways and torn my country apart, but God’s punishment for our corruption and evil is what has done this.

Ganthier is only sixteen kilometers from our home. It is true that it takes two days to go this short distance. We must hide often.

While we walk I think of home and Mama dead beneath our ruined house and pain comes to my breast again as it does in each day since we left the city.

Sometimes I help some we find along our way who are hurt, where others have left them to die. After some time I can do it no more and then after that there are no more that move and I no longer look closely, because we can find no food and we are very hungry and I must do a single thing only and it is to find our kin.

When we enter the town we see it is flat on the ground and the dead at the sides of the road are beginning to give a bad smell and we see something odd about these dead ones. We see pustules on face and hands and legs.

We go to the home of our kin and they are dead and they are also covered with large, open sores. I slap my head with my open hand because I believe this is plague! God is taking his vengeance upon many whom I would not think corrupt, and yet I see death everywhere. I hear one in the road crying for help, but he has great circles of pus on his body and though he staggers toward me I am afraid to touch him. I say to Salé he is sick and we must get away and this town is a dead place, and I grab her arm and pull her and we run and run and run until we cannot run more and then we fall to the ground so tired.

When I have caught my breath again, I say, “We must go to Jimani!”

Salé does not speak now. Her eyes are wide and her pretty mouth is open, but I do not think she knows this. There is too much horror, too much death, too much smell, and we now believe there is no one to turn to.

Jimani! We will go to our sister country. There are people at the border and they are Dominicans. They will take us in and feed us.

We are wrong. We have been friends but we are friends no longer. They have sent us away. They say we are cursed by the killing sickness. Even their Voodoo doctor casts his bones in the dirt and shakes his head and when he does the soldiers look at us in anger and sadness and say to run because if we don’t they will shoot us and one fires his rifle in the air to show they will, and then I know why they will kill us. It is because they are afraid.

I yell to them that we do not have the plague, but they will not listen. Live off the land, they say, and come back in one month if you still live. Then we will believe. So we leave the border at the gate to Jimani and go back into the country and search for food to eat.

We find enough to sustain us, but now I wonder what reason there is to go on.

My sister and I have walked for days and days and all we see are rotting corpses of the dead and I think we may be the last alive in my country. The smell is very bad. Even the flesh-eating birds avoid the dead. It is hard not to weep. It is hard to keep going.

We wander along the border beyond reach of the soldier’s bullet, beyond their sight, and we come to Etang Dumātre. I am amazed how big this lake is in my small country and that in my seventeen years I have never looked upon it before.

Here I sit on the green grass and throw stones into the water. I watch the ripples spread and disappear and I think the ripples are like what happened to my people. Salé lies on the ground. She cannot go further. I do not wish to. I have made her as comfortable as I can. We will die here.

Pustules have broken out over her body and they seem to grow as I watch. Her fever is so hot and she is restless and I can no longer rouse her. My arms itch and spots of redness have appeared. I have this plague, too.

This is a beautiful place. I wish that Salé could see it. Her breath labors now. In a few minutes I will be alone, the last of my countrymen. How long after will I join my sister?

Salé is an innocent. I have done nothing to warrant death. What is the reason for all of this? Where is the benevolent God Mama prayed to all her life?

I think I will die, but I do not think I will have my answer.

Good Mistake

BACK IN JULY I drove my wife and our son Joey to Pittsburgh to see some relatives. We weren’t really close to them anymore, but decided to visit on hearing that old Uncle Gregory had cancer and wasn’t doing well.

I’d known Uncle Gregory pretty well as I grew up. They’d lived in Litchfield on the next farm a half mile away. Aunt Maggie baked just the best hot muffins, as I recall. We’d go on over maybe two, three times a month. Uncle Gregory’s stories fascinated me as a youngster, and I always had fun in his old farmhouse and barn.

One day he looked at me strangely and said, “Richie, my boy, one day you’re going to be in the wrong place at the right time! On that day you are going to rise above yourself.”

Did he mean fly? He looked at me owlishly, like he’d had a revelation. It scared me a little and if I didn’t like him so I’d have told Mom, I think. But I didn’t, and soon I forgot about it. I forgot for a long, long time.

One year Uncle Gregory and Aunt Maggie quit the farm and moved to Pittsburgh. The mills produced steel, big time, back then and the money looked awfully good to my aunt and uncle. They’d farmed the place in Litchfield pretty much unsuccessfully for twenty-five years. The land in their quarter wasn’t much good and the crops showed it. They weren’t dirt poor, but close enough.

When Uncle Greg came to Mom and told her he couldn’t do it any more, Mom cried.

“I’ve had enough,” he said, “let that farm break somebody else’s back!”

She loved her big brother, but nothing to be done. Uncle Greg made up his mind and his sister couldn’t change it. Even as a twelve year old, I could see he looked tired. I saw something else in his eyes, too. Later on, when I became an adult; that look came back to me and I knew then that the land had defeated him.

They pulled up stakes and moved. Life did, too. I remember Mom and Dad looking wistfully after their little boy as I dragged a suitcase out to my old Chevy and tossed it in the trunk. Molly, bright eyed and beautiful, waited in the passenger’s seat with a glorious smile. Somebody had tied old cans to the bumper and taped a sign on the trunk. We kicked up some dust as they clattered behind us, disappeared around the corner and into our new life.

Now twenty-five years had gone by. I became an EMT. I liked the job and I liked the companionship of the people I worked with. We were family.

Mom died within a year of Dad, four years ago. Dad had carried too much weight around for too long.

“Your Mom’s good cookin’,” he’d say.

Mom chided him about it, for all the good it did. But she loved him. The look in her eyes when he came back from the fields at the end of a long day said it all.

Uncle Greg and Aunt Maggie came for the funerals, but didn’t stay long. Now we were heading their way, probably to the same purpose.

Signs pointing to Pittsburgh cropped up early. Mighty big numbers appeared on those signs initially, but we ate up the miles and the numbers got smaller and smaller. Finally I saw one that said Penn Hills and Monroeville, on the outskirts of the big city where my aunt and uncle lived. I shook my sleeping Molly gently and she came out of it.

“What…”

“Pittsburgh. Need my navigator.”

“Oh, okay, honey.” She rummaged around on the seat and found the directions. She glanced at the paper and gave a cry of dismay.

“Rich!” she said, “My water bottle must have sat on the paper. The ink ran. I can’t make out what exit to take.”

“Don’t worry, hon,” I said, “It’s up here.” I pointed to my head.

She grimaced.

I shot her a quick look. She smiled.

“I’ll recognize the sign when I see it.”

“Right!”

“Ye of little faith.”

“Right!”

“We’ll see. Ah, that’s it up ahead.” I saw a sign in green with reflective white writing that said “Wilkinsburg, next three exits.” That’s their suburb.

I thought, “Which one?”

I opted for Route 8. We have one of those in Connecticut, a really nice, well-maintained road. I couldn’t be far off. I took the third exit just as if I had it all planned. Molly looked over at me and I glanced at her. Men don’t need directions.

Except they do. After five minutes, I said, “Oh, damn!”

I said it a little too loud. Joey, our late life child, woke quickly and started to cry out. Molly looked at me reprovingly and turned to calm him.

“Sorry, Joey. Sorry, honey. I just realized that we can’t get there from here. The directions came back. Thought I’d nailed it. Should have taken 130.”

Molly, properly flustered, said. “Great! What now?”

“Sorry.” I felt contrite. “This will take us out of the way, but I can find a way to double back, I think.”

“Shouldn’t we stop and ask directions?

That nettled me. Sure, I made a mistake, but I could correct it.

“No, we’ll be fine.”

Molly knows me. She kept mum.

We’d traveled about a mile when all hell broke loose! Approaching the intersection of Rt. 8 and Oakwood Street, going about fifty I noticed the big blue and white “H” signs for Columbia Hospital. The image acted like the click of a trigger…

Suddenly I heard the squeal of brakes and then the thundering sound of metal on metal. A second before, some dude tried to power his rusty old Toyota along the breakdown lane at the same time a light colored Lexus made a right turn. Fifty isn’t fast when you’ve got a lot of room and traffic is cooperating, but right now it was deadly.

I jammed on my brakes! My Honda swerved and lost it. I fought the wheel. Vehicles all around me maneuvered, trying to avoid the unthinking stupidity of one individual. We were all too close now. I heard a wrenching crash behind me and then I got rammed.

“Damn!”

The hit to my rear sent me sideways! I whipped the wheel and recovered. In seconds it ended with silence. I looked at Molly.

“You all right?”

Molly looked scared and disoriented. She nodded.

“Joey?”

A whimper from the back seat. I turned to look. The impact had dumped him on the floor. He began to cry.

She turned without a word to take care of him.

“Joey? It’s all right, honey. We’re in an accident. Come here, sweety.” Joey’s arms were out and his mother grabbed them and they nuzzled each other.

I tried the door. It protested but opened and I got out. My first impression; smoking cars and cursing people. Then I saw a flickering orange light ahead. The sun had been roughly behind me. Fire! The screaming began. It reverberated through my head and drew me like a magnet. Maybe somebody else could function in this, but I knew what I had to do. I jumped over twisted bumpers and skirted slack-jawed people. Twenty feet in front of me I saw it.

The miscreant’s car had caromed into the side of the Lexus just ahead of the right doorframe. The luxury car withstood the heavy impact but as the Toyota crushed in at an angle, its bumper and hydraulic shock absorber took out the right corner of the Lexus’ firewall. The thin gas line above the engine severed. Gas ran over the hot engine. Smoke poured forth with fire a fraction of a second behind. Inside the Lexus, a woman and her husband sat, trying to clear their heads.

The gas fed fire sought to escape. Flames shot out of the car’s crumpled hood and into the passenger compartment. The man’s wife began to burn. She screamed! Her screams echoed amongst the wrecked cars. People’s heads turned in time to see what appeared to be a madman leaping over the damage heading for the anguished sound!

Inside the car the husband began to understand. He reached for his wife to pull her to him, but she couldn’t move and her sounds were primeval. He became frantic and pulled harder. He called his wife’s name. A shadow fell at the door but the man could see only his wife. Nothing else in his world mattered. Others around the scene moved toward the sound. Still others, afraid that the car might blow up, moved away.

The madman yanked at the door. It didn’t budge. He looked around and called to the others. “A tire iron, shovel, anything!”

Some responded and looked quickly into trunks that would open.

Someone called, “Here!”

The madman turned and caught a hurled tire iron. Without a thought, he attacked the edge of the doorframe, tearing, ripping. He caught the edge and with superhuman strength, he pulled and twisted. The door gave and he grasped the edges. With a scream of metal, he flung the door open.

The woman turned to the air that entered the car. The awful, hideous look on her face should never be seen by any man. The madman paid no attention. He grabbed a breath, held it and reached over her deftly to disconnect her seat belt. Then he reached into the fire and felt for the burning leg. He must free this wounded animal.

Burning groceries! Canned goods! Jammed! He yanked them out and threw them behind him. He freed the leg. Dragging the burning woman out with the strength of ten, he laid her on the ground, ripped off his blazing shirt and tossed it away.

The woman moaned in fright and pain. She turned, grasped the man and held on ferociously.

He held her tight for a moment. “You’ll be okay,” he said, “you’ll be okay.”

Sanity returned to the husband. Coughing and choking, he got out of the undamaged side of the Lexus. He came around and looked at his wife, then her leg, then at me. He started to cry. His wife closed her eyes against pain that now crept beyond shock.

My arms felt blistered and burned, but I didn’t look at them. I disengaged from the woman’s arms and the husband knelt and took her in his. I heard sirens racing toward us. Above that, a swelling cheer from the many people who now surrounded and helped us away from the burning vehicle.

Finally I looked around. Smoke rose into the sky and flames pushed blistering heat at us. Molly arrived at my side and her look contained all the compassion and pride that can be felt by woman for her hero. She carried my EMT bag from the trunk. I go nowhere without it.

I opened it with burned hands and got out the salve. I went to work. Molly helped all she could. Two police cars sped up and screeched to a halt, followed by an ambulance, the fire truck right behind. Competent men boiled out of the vehicles. Two grabbed chemical extinguishers and went to work on the roaring fire. Two more approached the woman and me. Assessing the situation in an instant, each took charge of a burn victim.

An EMT gently disengaged the husband from his wife and the wife lay back on the blacktop. She started to shiver. Expert hands stripped away burned clothing and applied more burn ointment.

The EMT who approached me said, “You’re an EMT?”

“Yes.”

“From what I can see, you’re a goddamned hero!”

I said nothing. What could I say, that a madman took me over and just now I’d come to my senses?

“Hold out your arms, my man. Hank.”

“Rich.”

“You’re one of us, Rich, definitely one of us.” He went to work.

The police took charge. Out of noise, confusion and chaos, order. The firefighters put the fire out. Relative calm returned.

Molly stood by my side looking down at me. I’d loved her and she’d loved me, but never in our years had I seen love like what glistened in her eyes at that moment.

“Molly, better get on the cell and tell Aunt Maggie we’re running a little behind.”

“It can wait a few, honey. I’m going nowhere.” She smiled.

From the edges of my memory I heard Uncle Greg’s prophetic words, “Richie, my boy, some day you’re going to be in the wrong place at the right time. On that day you’re going to rise above yourself.”

Wrong turn, wrong road. Burns we’ll remember, but we’ll heal. And a life saved. You called that one right, Uncle Greg.

Cobwebbed Memories

SHE DIED ON July 14th. Gram lived ninety-nine years, Adele Phylura Rampitz in life, most of her years were good ones; I mean robust and healthy ones, not good in the sense most people think about it.

Toward the end, the last five years, she suffered from old-timers disease and a couple of things changed. The razor sharp mind, having sawed away at life and all she came in contact with for nearly a century dulled. As her surviving heir, I found that reasonable, as I knew from my reading that not many old brains remain unclouded past seventy.

During that time Gram mellowed. She began to see life through “rose-colored glasses,” as the expression goes. I did a double-take a number of times when she stared at things I couldn’t see and affected the tone of a blushing nineteen-year-old.

Before the change, her razor-sharp mind attached directly to a razor-sharp tongue. She made the Wicked Witch of the West seem friendly and caring to those who knew her, and she got away with it by dominating everyone.

I’m Harry, grandson, single and last of the line, may it stop here!

At the end I couldn’t tell her what a bitch she had been to her late husband. I’m convinced she drove him to his death. When Mom died in the car crash with Gramps driving and him coming away from it without a scratch, the tongue lashings rose to a higher level.

He cashed out weeks after the tragedy, a broken man, a bullet to the temple. Dad, ill in the hospital and the reason for the trip Mom and Gramps took that day took the news unsmiling. Once home he became distant and uncommunicative. I could see his pain, but I had pain to deal with. I’d loved Gramps, too. As a twelve year old boy, what could I do?

We lived close by, but with Gramps gone, Dad sold his house and he and I moved back in with Gram out of duty. He fell under Gram’s inflexible eye and gradually her presence beat him down. I’m convinced almost anyone living within a two-mile radius of her felt her uncompromising personality to some degree.

Three years later Dad finally quit trying and hanged himself in the garage. I still try to force out the memory of it. I know he’d cared for Gram and me as best he could, but Dad could never free himself from Gram’s inquisitor’s aura. It finally broke him as it had his father.

Right after my father died, I knew I couldn’t stay. I feared being alone in the big house under Gram’s glistening dark and all seeing eyes. At night, lying in my third floor bed, I thought about Dad and I thought about Gramp. Perhaps too young to know all the facts, I believed Gram was purely evil.

One day, a week after Dad’s funeral when my body hummed with nervous dread, I packed what I could in an old suitcase and emptied my savings from the hidden coffee can in my room into my pockets. Very quietly that night I slipped out of the house while she slept and ran away to Minneapolis.

I guess associating with Gram aged me somehow, that and desperation, because I got a job almost immediately at an Exxon gas station pumping gas, cleaning toilets and general stuff. I slept in an abandoned car for the first two weeks and I think the boss got suspicious seeing me wear the same clothes every day, but he just rolled that big cigar around in his mouth and didn’t say anything.

After I had some real money in my pocket, I found a rooming house in the low rent district. A good-looking lad, hat in hand, I told the landlady my story and she took pity on me. I got room and board for fifteen dollars a week. I had to clean up the place and keep things neat. I told her the truth; all except for my age¾I said eighteen.

I struggled to make good in Minneapolis and I did hang tough, learned the gas trade and eventually bought the station from Lou Green, who’d taken sick and couldn’t run it anymore. In the meantime, my section of town deteriorated and prices went up and I never really liked the work.

I returned five years before Gram died. Adele¾she wouldn’t like it but I’ll call her that¾lived in Pipestone, Minnesota, a little town of three thousand, southwest of Minneapolis near the corner of the state where it meets South Dakota. She lived in a big old Victorian house on a low hill up on Spenser Street, pretty near town center that dated back to the early nineteen hundreds.

I’d been away for twenty-five years and memories of the iron will and acid tongue I’d learned to hate in Adele had dimmed, so when the call came to go back and take care of the old place and the old woman, with my fortunes at low ebb in the big city, I agreed. I sold the station off at a loss and good riddance and left town.

The neighbor who tracked me down about Adele’s mental state lived in Pipestone a few houses down in a small but neat white clapboarded Cape, and had for thirty years worked for Adele doing laundry and general housekeeping, most likely as much a friend as Gram would ever accept into her inner circle. Hilda I sort of remembered when I got the letter that came to the gas station.

Once back in Pipestone I saw the house needed more than paint so I did the repairs and spent all next year sprucing it up. A place grows on you when you put work into it and I became comfortable there.

Adele’s condition worsened so gradually I hardly noticed, but early on she made the transition from foggy evil Gram to good Gram and I could handle her just fine. The trust fund that supported her took care of the property, the taxes and also paid for round the clock nursing help, but not much remained of it. She’d made me promise I’d keep her in the old house until she died. I honored that even though I’d begun to worry how I would keep the old place going.

One warm evening in mid-July, Nurse Nancy tiptoed down the long, carpeted staircase and knocked gently on the doorframe to the living room where I sat reading the weekly Pipestone Chronicle.

“I believe she’s going, sir.”

“I’d better go up.”

Nancy followed me back upstairs. Gram looked small and gray against the white sheets. A huge feather pillow billowed around her. Her breath labored and I’d swear she’d finally decided to give up, because no way would death claim that woman unless she agreed to it. She saw me and gestured me to come near. With a weak flutter of her hand, she waved the nurse away. Nancy left the room.

“Harry,” she said in a voice near a whisper, “I’m going to die now. In the wall safe is a locked box with a letter in it. The key is taped under the nightstand here in my bedroom.”

I had access to the safe for years, but not to that box and I’d asked her about it. She’d say, “When I die.”

Now she said, “Read the letter. It has instructions in it for you to follow.”

I remained silent.

In a diminishing voice, she said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The saying seemed hauntingly familiar.

She let out a final, long breath and no more followed. Like that she died.

⇔⇔⇔

Some endings are also beginnings. The letter instructed me to find a small black box with a gold leaf emblem on its top. I’m in the attic now. Cobwebs attach to everything and dust outlines them. The spiders have long since left. My five cell flashlight searches here and there in the overfilled, cramped surroundings. It’s a wonder the floors can hold this weight.

I search through cobwebbed memories that go back more than a hundred years. The letter says I must find it and that when I do, I will understand. Mysteries irritate me, but they also beckon.

Adele didn’t hint where I might find this box, except that it is somewhere in the house. It’s not downstairs. I’ve been in the attic two days now and I’m tired. One more aisle to go and it’s back downstairs for me until tomorrow.

I crawl to the east wall. Light enough from the small, dirty, four-light end window shows a narrow passage. Before I look into it I peek out. Pipestone has beauty and it spreads before me. It’s a view I’ve never seen before. I like it, but in a moment I turn and shine my light into the passage, and there, near the angle of the roof, sitting on top of a pile of cardboard boxes is a small, dust-covered box.

Trying not to hope, I move carefully into the space and pick it up. After rubbing the top with a hand, I blow away the dust. It makes me sneeze, which is somehow funny and I laugh and that causes more sneezes.

Yes, gold leaf, a beautiful box with Chinese pictographs on its top. It’s locked. The key is in the study on the big mahogany desk, where I’d retrieved it from Gram’s nightstand. With the box under my arm I close up the attic and make my way to the study.

The key opens it readily. Inside are some papers and a ring. The ring has a diamond in an ancient setting that must be fifteen carats if it’s a single one. It sparkles in the light over the desk. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I’m blown away. After a few minutes I put the ring down and look through the papers.

They’re dated twenty-five years ago, title and deed to the house in my name. I open the letter at the bottom. It says:

Dear Harry,

I hired a detective to locate you and left a letter with Hilda on where to find you at the right time. If you are reading this, I have been successful. I am who I am, but I am not evil, only driven. I hope by now you have forgiven me, but if not, I understand. Sell the ring. It will set you up for life. I miss my husband and my son, but that you read this now proves you had the enduring strength of the Rampitz clan. Besides this house and property, you are the only thing in this world that truly mattered to me.

Love,  Gram Adele

That memorable phrase comes back to me. She’d said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I’ll be damned! All manner of things are well indeed. And as important, clear to me. Finally!

Requiem for America

I REMOVE MY glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash outlines my little cellar window. I’m on the edge of my seat watching TV in my basement. My wife is upstairs, probably sleeping. Did I care?

The dazzling light comes through the sunken window-well from outside through bars I welded onto the metal frame to discourage burglars. They outline the other side of the room with surreal, distorted shadows. What the hell?

As I begin to panic my mind reviews why I put the bars in. My area of town hasn’t had a problem in years, but an ounce of prevention never hurts.

This picture of Marge blows into my face and I hear her say, “Cover it with a privacy curtain. I don’t want to look at bars.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it,” I grumble, but I only finished the room two weeks before and I by God want a break. So I don’t get around to it. She goes away fuming.

By reflex, I dive for the floor while my brain is still in its blame scenario. You want it done quicker; I think at her maliciously, I’ll show you where I keep the screwdriver and the screws. Put it up yourself.

She’s been pissing me off lately. I know I have an old rod that’d work in that spot in the workroom someplace. Damned if I want to spend any more money on this project and I don’t feel appreciated, so she wants me to do it, she can wait!

The incredibly brilliant flash twists my reason around. I wish I’d done what she asked.

Lately I go down cellar to watch TV at the end of my shift.  Better than sitting upstairs to stony silence. Tonight I sit in my recliner all antsy watching bad news on TV get worse, my third vodka martini all but forgotten.

Bad news, lousy political climate, fear abounding, but no warning? Could our government be that lax? I listen to TV politicians, our “intelligent” representatives on their soapboxes scream at each other, half for war, half for appeasement. Overload lights and doubts crash through my brain.

Then this brilliant flash and I know in my soul this is it. It’s here. My God, Armageddon!

What should I expect, maybe a high-pitched whistle like the one the phones made when a B-52 bomber penetrated the Soviet air defenses and annihilated Moscow in the movie “Fail Safe?” Maybe a low, ground-shaking wave like an earthquake? Will the house above me disappear in a tornado of manmade destruction seconds from now? Will I look up and see a starry sky above me, a huge gaping hole with me at the bottom, hands over my head, my house, my wife, my children atomized above me? Will I start to glow?

It didn’t happen.

I struggle to get to my feet and then I guess I woke up, because my eyes open and I am sitting where I’d been since I got home, slouched on my easy chair. Must have dosed off. Only a dream? Liquor befuddled my brain again. I do a self-assessment.

Gotta drink less in the evening after work. Yeah, my stinking job, hated it. The thought comes with that acid, pit of the stomach feeling. My corporate job evaporated. Downsized; nice word. I’d like to upsize them! Good money gone, no prospects, played the job market for months; nothing. Finally I took this job I got.

Nobody in his right mind would deliver pizza for a living; maybe a high school kid who needed some jingle to impress the chicks, maybe that, but not me, forty-eight years old with one foot on a financial banana peel.

“So you could stop buying the booze, right, Frank?” she said during one of our recent heated arguments.

Uh-uh, not that. Gotta have something. Oh, jeez, twelve-thirty. In that moment the local TV station, WGJD went off the air. The color bar came up and audio went to hiss. Marge didn’t wake me up for bed again.

Tonight I can relate. I lost a really good job and if people don’t think losing your level of living based on a big paycheck doesn’t cause strain in the family, I can tell you, it does.

Feeling contrite after my dream I move slowly to the stairs. We have an extended ranch style house. I like living all on one floor except for the room downstairs I just cobbled together, but there’s a cellar stair that creaks pretty good. With the bedroom close to the cellar stairs the sound could wake Marge. Have to fix that, one day. Anyway, I avoid the squeak by stepping on the outside edge of the stair and climb carefully the rest of the way and tiptoe into the bedroom.

The state of our relationship is evident. Marge left me plenty of room in our king-sized bed. She’s asleep over near the edge, like she could fall off if she moved wrong. I get the message and it brings me back totally sober.

I have to do something soon or this marriage will dissolve like my job and deep down I don’t want that. I love her. The strain worked its nasty magic on us. I knew it in my more lucid moments, but delivering pizza? My God, how far down I’d come!

I look at her sleeping form, the mound of her hip and the gentle slope of her legs under the covers, the slight bulge made by her small feet. Our sex life went down the toilet a couple of months ago after I announced that I had to take something, anything, that we couldn’t survive on nothing and my unemployment checks were about to stop. I tried to make working for Pizza Hut sound like an opportunity, but she saw through it as quick as I did.

I crawl in, trying not to shake the bed and resolving that I would somehow get better work. I need it for me, too. I’d married late. We still had two at home, Justin, the fifteen year old and Mark, our late love child, only nine. I owe it to them, and yeah, I owe it to Marge, too. She stuck by me through thick and thin. We had some rough shoals to cross, but we crossed them together. I warm the hollow I made under the covers and go to sleep.

We live in the nice suburb of Alington outside of Cliffside Park in New Jersey, a river and a stone’s throw across from that fat target, Manhattan Island.

I don’t live far from work and in the morning I have nothing to do. Marge makes breakfast quietly and avoids any more blowups. I sit at the table and just as quietly thank her for it. Work doesn’t start until eleven.

I turn on the TV in the living room and the events that caused my dream the night before come crowding back. I hear Senator Pacifier and Congressman Inflamer’s words being rehashed over the news. The professional newscaster reporting the news doesn’t look nervous. I have to admire that, but I’d bet the two nickels in my pocket that behind his eyes he fears like I do, like most of us.

From the news and the stuff coming out of Nigeragua-the corrupt African country that announced a year ago it had the bomb and a nice delivery system, thanks to some fifty surplus ICBM’s the Russians willingly sold them thinking they’d never be able to use them and no skin off their nose, anyway-it sounded like the hawk had the upper hand.

The Africans had a lot of support in America for obvious reasons. Thinking about it, I also detected a bit of black pride on the streets lately, too, more than usual. Most African Americans didn’t get that if push came to shove and Nigeragua shoved first, they’d suffer right along with the rest of us.

The world seemed to be heading into another mess, with the U. S. bullying and threatening and posturing. This time the Nigeraguans wouldn’t back down. Matter of fact, the announcer just said something new. I concentrated on his words; Washington had received an ultimatum and the Executive and Pentagon were studying it in closed session. He said an announcement from Fred Dingle; the President’s press secretary would be forthcoming.

A chill crawls down my back.  A dream’s a dream, but this sounds too real. I’ll fight if I have to. I’ll fight to the last for my kids and for Marge, but the TV brought possibilities into my home I never thought I’d have to face, right here, right now.

How do you fight an atomic bomb? How do you do that? I wouldn’t think for a minute that if a hydrogen bomb exploded over the Empire State Building we wouldn’t be seriously affected across the Hudson. Are you kidding? We’d be devastated. I mean, for years I enjoyed looking across the river at the bustle of humanity, usually being glad I didn’t have to live so tightly packed, that I had space. Suddenly Manhattan’s way too close.

I go into work and work the day, even get fifty in tips-it helps-and when I get home at eleven, I go right downstairs to watch the night news staff rehash the day’s events. The news, if anything had gotten worse and America’s military had gone on Def-Con 1, which frightened me. The fear I’d held earlier came back. We’re all in a big pickle!

A thought comes to me and I slam my forehead with my palm. I didn’t kiss Marge when I came in. Funny, as I thought about it, I hadn’t done that in a long time. With the internal upset in our lives, I’d stopped. I couldn’t remember when it happened. It comes to me as a revelation. I realize I need her desperately.

I run back upstairs and into the bedroom where she sits up reading, her pillow behind her supported by the headboard.

“Marge?”

She looks up. I feel anguish come into my voice and I have trouble starting. She gazes at me curiously.

“I love you, Marge.”

She stares at me and in a little hurt voice, she says, “What brought that on?”

“America’s going to hell, Marge. I just realized I’ve been responsible for all the crap we’ve been going through I the past few months. I’m so sorry.” Tears leak from the corners of my eyes. I remove my glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash…