Category Archives: Fiction

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 I always go too fast, but I believe speed limit signs reflect outdated 1950’s thinking.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.

The Overlook

WE WANTED TO go north for our honeymoon. Ski, snowboard, lounge in the lodge at a small, intimate table near the big fireplace and sip pińa coladas, sex – lots of it – the whole magilla.

I-91 north, a straight shot most of the way to Vermont’s Mt. Snow, the road silky smooth and not congested now that we’d passed through the sprawl of Springfield. Multiple lanes spread out in front of us while the black ribbon of highway made soft the hum of our tires.

I tried a few bars of “I’ll be Loving You” in my off-key way, except I sang, “I AM Loving You,” and then turned from the wheel and leered at Sherry.

“Rich! Stop! Stop!” she laughed, “I could still have this annulled, you know.”

I stuck out my tongue. “What the priest don’t know can’t hurt me,” I said.

She giggled. “Rich, you’re not like this. You gonna get normal soon?”

“You like last night?”

“Umm…” She got a dreamy look.

That’s normal,” I said.

“Yeaaaaaah…” she strung the word out and for a moment Sherry’s face kind of glowed.

Had to be pleasure. We’d known each other in the Biblical sense for quite a time. I mean, who doesn’t check out the merchandise these days, I mean, both ways. It’s practically required these days, except maybe in enclaves of religious fervor. I judge not which is best for humanity, only that that’s my sense of it.

Only young once, Dad used to say.

I glanced at the dash clock; near noon. We’d left New London and all the people we cared about mid-morning Saturday with waves and good wishes and my stomach had just announced that I wanted food. We had drinks and sandwiches in the cooler in back and munchy chips up front.

“Lunch?”

“Hungry bear?”

I nodded. “Couple, three miles I can pull off at the overlook.”

Sherry looked at me and waited.

“Great view.”

“I don’t know it.”

“Never stopped there before?”

“Nope.”

“You’ll like it.”

We had met in a local bar at the end of 2016. New Year’s Party, one of those you pay a lot for to meet mostly strangers. Yeah, I know; a bar. I saw her in the crowd. Foxy, short cut auburn hair, sequined vest, black body hugging skirt, brilliant, white-toothed smile, gregarious.

Everything about her said playtime. Had to have her. Now a year later we’re married. We knew about our bodies. That’s easy, but how deeply did we really know each other?  We were about to find out.

I disconnected from the present and dipped again to December 31st, last year. We’d each given the other a story, superficial, mostly true. It always starts that way. Give a little, get a little, but both knew why we’d hooked up.

She worked for an ad agency in our town and I had a growing Internet business. A lot of .com’s had hit the tubes, but I’d set mine up for the long haul. For two years I’d watched the money roll in. I could afford our time away.

A sign appeared, rest stop, two miles. I liked in particular that the highway department had left a line of trees and brush between us and the parking area. We couldn’t see and barely heard the muffled sounds of speeding vehicles only thirty yards west of us. Here we could forget the frenetic pace for a few minutes and regroup.

Most of all I loved to gander at the Connecticut Valley watershed that stretched east of us to the hazy horizon. It held a river, flatland farming dotted with homes, and communities that didn’t sully the pristine scene as far as the eye could see. We weren’t very high up, but the vastness of the scene always awed me.

I pulled off the highway and slowed on the long ramp. The parking area opened up. Empty. I’d never pulled in before to find no one at all.

A first for everything, I thought.

I angled into a nearby space, stopped, got out, went to the back deck and opened it up. Clothes, snowboards and short, downhill skis suited to hard-pack took up the lengthy space between the storage area and the front seat backs, but stopped short of encroaching on the space over the front seat armrest, that is, they fit perfectly.

I grabbed the small ice chest and set it on the ground, made a space on the tailgate for our rumps and Sherry brought the bag of munchies out with her. Before sitting, she walked into my knees and I spread them to accommodate her. She planted a delicious kiss on my lips while shoving her considerable womanhood into my chest. Her brown eyes looked deep into mine.

“Love you, Rich.”

“You’d better save that for later.” I felt substantial stirrings below mid-line. “You know how weak I am.”

Sherry smiled knowingly, disengaged and sat beside me. We ate tuna sandwiches with chips and sucked down a couple of Cokes.

Rejuvenated, I said, “A week of skiing…and debauchery, of course, awaits.”

Her excited trill hit the mark. With my mind in a state of emotional disorder, I quickly packed things away, closed the rear gate and got behind the wheel. Sherry leaned over for another smooch, with energy.

I backed a few feet and swung to head for the ramp back to the highway. Toward the end of the parking area I caught something out of place and glanced at it. Piece of broken fence. Most of the area was precipitous, but not, in my opinion, dangerous…except right there. Where the highway department had put up a barrier, the ground dropped away maybe seventy feet, not huge, but plenty deadly.

I stopped. Sherry looked at me and I gestured.

“That doesn’t look good,” I said.

She glanced and looked away quickly. Very odd.

“Not your problem, Rich,” Sherry said, looking straight ahead. “Let’s hit the highway.”

“No, no. I’m going to take a look.” I stopped quickly and put my Forester in Park.

“Rich…?” I heard an edge to her voice I hadn’t heard before. Honeymoon…not the time for it. I looked at her. So far she’d played it right, in my view, deferring to me in most matters or talking out our few differences, but this?

“What if somebody just went through there and is hurt?”

“C’mon Rich, not your problem. I wanna go now!”

What’s with her? Fear? Lack of compassion?

“Sherry, I’m going to look.”

Anger flashed in her eyes, a totally new thing. Not just disturbed, her face flushed and twisted and in that instant I saw her in a less appealing light, the kind that does not bode well for a honeymoon or for any minute thereafter. We’d had disagreements before, but they ended in loving, or an arm tap or some off color remark that made each of us laugh. I loved that about her.

This I didn’t like at all. In this she tried to wrest control, to overpower not with persuasion, but brutishly. Unbidden thoughts ran swiftly though my mind. Marriage, a control gate? Get the guy, and after it’s solid, take over? How much did I know about my wife, after all?

I’m the kind of guy who always paid attention to balance in a relationship. Fifty-fifty. I believed in compromise, even giving in occasionally, so long as you did it without surrender. It empowered another’s personality and assisted self-worth. Action, with the right person, sent the same message.

I raised my voice in warning and said “Sherry, I’m checking this out,” opened the door and got out. Instead of subsiding, she made inarticulate sounds…furious…blazing.

Something in the back of my mind said, “Protect yourself.” I reached back in, turned the engine off and grabbed the key. I hoped she would see it as a firm denial of her attitude and bring her back to center. As a gamble I knew it could have the opposite effect.

I approached the break, some five feet ahead of me. As I reached the drop-off, I smelled gas and oil. Thin smoke rose toward me, oil on a hot engine maybe. I couldn’t see it where we’d parked earlier. Something went over not long before, maybe minutes. I squinted a little to focus my slightly myopic eyes. Yeah, something, a black SUV wedged in the trees fifty feet down. No sounds and too steep for me.

I heard the passenger’s door slam. I glanced back to see Sherry come running at me. In her wild eyes I saw hatred. It threw me off. What did I do?

She raised her fists to me and pummeled my chest. I let her for a few seconds – she didn’t hurt me and maybe she’d run down quicker that way – and then I grabbed her wrists firmly but not painfully to make her stop.

“Sherry, are you mad? Sherry!” I shook her.

That had some effect. The fire went out and she wilted against me.

“Honey, what’s going on?” I said. She started to sob. I let her get it out of her system. Finally she pushed away and I released her.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, her breath catching. “I never told you about my real mother and father. I owe you this.”

“What?”

“Promise you’ll listen and say nothing until I finish.”

I searched her face. “Okay.”

It came out, her deep, dark secret. She’d hidden it well. The parents I’d met she called hers, and from what I’d seen, they were. They were adoptive parents, I learned, and subsequent to Sherry’s confinement in a sanatorium for a year while strange, bearded doctors got her head on straight after her meltdown, they had taken her in and made her their own daughter.

“The truth, Rich, and the only thing I have kept from you, is that my parents were in an accident and were killed. Ten years ago. Just like this, Rich. Through a fence, over and down.” She shuddered.

“It freaked me. I couldn’t handle it. I buried it. I couldn’t tell you. What would you think? I thought I could live with it, but I can’t. I’m so sorry. I love you, Rich. What are you going to do?”

I held up a flat hand and walked back to the car. Reaching inside, I retrieved my cell and dialed 911.

“I want to report an accident.” I gave the details and finished with, “Hurry!”

Sherry stood stricken, not daring to move, as if the fragile moment might break and sweep away the dream she had finally attained. I wandered for a time, thinking, waiting for the police, readjusting my brain to take in what I’d heard.

Soon I heard sirens and then the parking area filled with emergency vehicles. After the police interviewed me, I walked back to Sherry. I’d done my thinking and made my decision. Life had to go on. With best wishes toward the accident victims I turned to Sherry.

“No other secrets, right?”

“No.”

“Let’s go skiing.”

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.

Sarah and Samuel

I HAD AN interesting day today. I met someone at the corner of Main and Farnum Streets. I’d arrived a moment or two after her. She stood silent at the light post waiting for the buzzer so when I moved to the post to position myself for crossing, I didn’t notice and bumped into her.

It’s strange I didn’t smell her.

I’ve been blind for years, a childhood accident. During that time I’ve had to learn to get along. My sense of smell is excellent, as is touch and hearing. Developing them has leavened the sight I lost and now in my middle years, I get along fine. I have a good job and my company is supportive of my disability. I have a home and although I live alone, I have many books in Braille and I read constantly. Life is quite satisfying, thank you.

As I said, I bumped into this person and she moved away slightly. I could sense her turn to look at me.

“Oh, sorry!”

“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” she replied, her tone slightly petulant.

“I didn’t see you.”

“Are you blind!”

“Yes.”

“Oh, sorry. So am I.”

At that moment the light turned and the buzzer told us we could cross. I walked side by side with her and struck up a conversation. People seem drawn to others who have certain familiarities and we had a big one.

“Wonder what people are thinking,” I said, “seeing the two of us crossing in tandem, canes clicking.”

She laughed. After the first insult – my running into her – she felt humor again.

“Where are you from?”

“Originally?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but here in town, too. I don’t know your voice and since we are such a closed community, I think I would have.”

We were midway across Main Street. I could hear and smell the cars stopped at the light. I tried to imagine the people in them. Were they young and upcoming or bold and carefree? Could a criminal with some sadistic purpose be at the front of that line, thinking what kind of thoughts? I always wondered about others.

“Well, first things first,” I said. “I’m Samuel.”

“Sorry. Of course! Sarah.”

“Hello Sarah. I’m originally from Detroit, but I’ve lived in Cincinnati for twenty years in my aunt’s house over on Danforth Street.”

“Oh, that’s a nice area. My sister and I walk there now and then, but I’ve never bumped into you before.”

“Actually, I bumped into you.”

She laughed again.

“Yes, you did.”

We sensed the curb at about the same time and stopped to negotiate it.

“Where are you heading?” I asked.

“I’m out for morning coffee. The little Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurant is up ahead another block. You sound nice. Would you like to take coffee and a bagel with me?”

“Is that the name of the restaurant, or is that what it is?” I laughed.

“Both.” She smiled. I couldn’t see it, but I knew.

“I’m on my way to work, but I don’t like to miss an opportunity to talk with a nice lady, so let me call my boss and see if she is okay with my being late.”

“You have a lady boss?”

“Sure, lots of lady bosses these days. Hold on, okay?”

“Okay.”

I pulled out my cell and my finger found the speed dial number. In a moment, the phone picked up.

“Sheer Magic, Monica speaking.”

“Monica, Samuel here.”

“Hi, Samuel, what’s up?”

“I’m going to be a half hour late, okay?”

“I think I can spare you.”

“Thanks, Monica.”

“Samuel?”

“Yes?”

“You’ll tell me what this is about when you get here, right?”

“Perhaps.”

“Hmm. Now I can’t wait.” A tinkle of laughter came over the phone. Sarah heard it and snorted. Samuel disconnected.

With a little giggle, Sarah said, “Matchmaker?”

“Can’t deny. Sorry.”

“Why? Never mind. Let’s get coffee.”

“Yes, let’s.”

They strode forward, the sighted sidewalk people obligingly moving away. Sarah and I heard them and could place their footfalls and even determine when they moved aside.

At the Hole-in-the-Wall Sarah said, “We’re here.”

“My nose already told me that,” I said, but I chortled, nonetheless.

A voice came from the front of the restaurant. “Hello Sarah. You cheatin’ on me?”

“Hi, Ben. It would serve you right.”

He laughed.

“This is Samuel. He bumped me down the street and I decided to take him in.”

“Hello, Sam. Welcome to the Hole-in-the-Wall. Watch out for this one. She’ll zing you.”

“Ben!”

“That’s okay,” I said. “She doesn’t sound dangerous to me. I’ll take my chances.”

“Ben, you’re going to give me a bad rep.”

“Nothin’ you don’t deserve,” he said, but he let out a belly laugh descriptive enough for me to form a picture of him. He had to be the cook. I could smell a variety of food products coming from his direction and I pictured a fat man in a greasy apron with hand swipes along the sides of his abdomen.

“How about a quiet table near the window, Sarah?”

“You mean the one you give me every time? And there is no such thing as quiet in your place.”

Ben laughed again. I liked him.

“Sure.”

They entered the eatery. Two or three tables were occupied and “Hello Sarah” came from them.

“You are well known here,” I said.

“I’ve been coming here for a couple of years. My kind of place.”

“Coffee smells good.”

“It is.”

They sat, automatically putting their canes handy to the side.

“Ben will bring me coffee and a heated bagel with cream cheese. What would you like?”

“I’ll have the same. I ate breakfast early, but it won’t hurt to be sociable.”

“Ben,” she called. “Two of the usual.”

Ben called over from behind the counter. “Two usual, comin’ up.”

“Now for your grilling,” Sarah said, and I pictured the Cheshire Cat. “Tell me about you.”

“Only if you will reciprocate.”

“I could do that.”

I started by telling her about Detroit, about my unremarkable upbringing in a loving, middle class home. I got to the auto accident when I was ten, where my parents were killed and I’d barely survived. The memories became fresh again and I halted and hesitated from time to time. When I got to the part where the tractor-trailer had slewed off the road, crossed the center divider and tipped over onto our car, I shook with the memory. My hands gripped the table until they turned white and Sarah seemed to sense it. Her hand came across the table and grasped mine.

“You don’t need to go on,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Her hand was cool, but I felt warmth in her touch. I gathered myself and took a few breaths. The restaurant had become very quiet. I’d forgotten the people sitting nearby and I realized that I’d been sharing my story with an audience. I stopped.

Sarah called to Ben. “How’s ‘the usual’ coming?”

“Be there in a minute,” Ben said, but he sounded subdued.

I’d had time by then to realize that I was reliving a time buried deeply, and it dawned on me that I needed to get it out, that it had been festering inside and that’s not a good thing.

I said, “Sarah, I’d like to have you hear the rest of it. Will you?”

“If you want. Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

With another breath, I began again. “We were on the Interstate on our way to Scranton to visit relatives and ran into a December snowstorm coming up from the south. The truck carried huge rolls of paper, newsprint paper. When it jackknifed onto our car I fell onto the floor from the back seat. Mom screamed. I can still hear it. I felt a sharp pain and then I couldn’t breathe, like the whole world lay on me.

“I woke up in a strange hospital. I had trouble thinking and when I tried to move, I couldn’t. My face hurt and my eyes felt…I guess the best word is ‘raw.’

“I heard a nurse say, ‘He’s conscious,’ and a lower voice say, ‘Good. That’s a big step.’

“I remembered nothing again until the following day when I again woke to pain, but I could think. I made sounds and finally words. Later they told me I had asked where Mom and Dad were, why weren’t they with me…and what happened?

The doctor came over to the bed and whispered that they weren’t able to come in and see me because of the accident. It scared me so much I didn’t want to ask the next question. Even though the doctor’s chose his words, I imagined the worst. They must have noticed my agitation, because a nurse with a soothing voice came over and did something and I went to sleep again, probably the IV drug, I believe now.

“I got better slowly and they finally told me that my parents didn’t make it, but that my Aunt Hattie from Cincinnati had come to the hospital and in a few days she would take me with her. I grew up with my aging aunt. She couldn’t have been more wonderful and supportive of her blind nephew.

“In my early twenties I got a bachelor’s degree from a Special Ed program run out of the local community college in nearby Covington and about that time Aunt Hattie died.”

I paused for breath. Sarah told me later that she’d never heard it so quiet at the Hole-in-the-Wall before or since.

“I stayed in my aunt’s house – she had some insurance that paid off the mortgage – and managed on disability insurance for awhile. I didn’t want to live off the government, so I did a job search and finally landed one at Sheer Magic, the curtain and apparel store. They have a design shop. Seems I have a facility for visualizing a complete room, and I’ve been there since. Now, what’s your story?”

Sarah sat there for a moment, trying to catch up. Before she began, several patrons got out of their chairs and came over. I looked toward the scraping sounds of chairs and knew Sarah would do the same. I pictured how our dark glasses must glint in the restaurant’s overhead lights.

“Mister,” one said to me, “I’ve been down on the world for a long time and in a few minutes you have changed that for me. I’m Chet. I hope I’ll see you again someday. I’m a carpenter. Anything you need done, talk to Ben and he’ll get me.”

Another man broke in immediately. “Mister, I’m Bobbie, and you done the same fer me. Anythin’ I kin do, let me know.”

Finally, a tall man in an expensive suit came over, reached for, grasped and shook Sam‘s hand.

“I’m with Goldman Sachs,” he said. “You have just created a defining moment in my life. My world had washed of color. I’ve been too cynical to realize how important hope is to me. Thank you.”

I sat still and tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. Deeply affected, I could say nothing.

Two went back to finish their breakfast. The man in the suit left.

Sarah looked in my direction. I could tell by her breathing. “Samuel, I was born blind, so I’ve never had anything to lose, but in these short few minutes, I think I have come to know you, the important parts of knowing, I mean. You couldn’t take the rest of the day off, could you?”

I hesitated. I had work to do and should be about it. If nothing else I prided on being steady. But an element had entered my life like a thunderbolt and I couldn’t remember ever feeling so disconnected from my own hum-drum before.

“Let me make a call.” I dialed Monica.

“I need the day off,” I said as she came on.

“You got it.”

I hung up. I couldn’t believe how happy she sounded.

Elephant in my Pocket

THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC ALLEY reached a long way back and brick walls on either side towered many stories, dimming the bright shaft of sunlight a few feet away. Squinting, I tried to discern “Fred,” the guy my friend Brian said would meet me. Brian had many contacts. I’d told him what I wanted and he raised an eyebrow, but said he could make it happen. He asked how much money I wanted to spend and I told him. A few days later he told me what I must do.

I thought of Brian as worldly, more social, not like me, the bookworm. He paced his way through college with me, but he didn’t have the drive to excel, not like I did. Good that it didn’t affect our friendship.

As I peered into the darkness of the alley I made out a shadowed form and gulped with the sudden thought, what if it’s not him? Things happened in alleys. I steeled my nerves and stepped in.

“Fred?” I called softly.

The man said nothing, but I felt intent eyes on me. He nodded. He appeared the epitome of average, not dirty or rumpled, but nondescript, with a forgettable face. He didn’t smile. Here goes. I tried to be ready…for what, I didn’t know.

“You have it?”

Another nod.

“Can I see it?”

From a pants pocket he produced a minuscule clear plastic envelope  and dangled it in front of me beyond arms reach. It looked like it. Trying not to breathe hard, I handed him an envelope. He opened it and peeked inside, closed it and passed over the little prize I wanted. He made no move to leave. I inspected the little package more closely.

Yes! I smiled and put it in my pocket. It felt strange doing something I’d never done before.

Somehow, the thrill of fear that gripped me heightened this first time adventure. Taking my cue from the silent man in front of me, I nodded, turned and headed for the street, but I have to admit, little tremors went up and down my back. At the end of the building, I glanced back into an empty alley. He’d disappeared. I reached into my right pocket, grasped the plastic, felt the outline of what I’d paid so much money for and held it protectively. As I walked, it seemed to swell in my hand.

I needed this. Four years of college behind me and already I had a good job offer. I earned it with hard work and personal dedication. This item in my pocket would cap the experience.

On leaving the alley, I became fearful. Suppose someone saw me duck into that narrow space between the buildings. What would a curious person think? Would he or she flag down a cop and point at me. Would I hear, “Stop, mister…!

Furtively I searched the crowded sidewalk. Had anyone noticed? I couldn’t tell. Sidewalks filled with shoppers went this way and that, intent on their own missions. I breathed a sigh.

Still, my body tingled. My emotions; too tight. It wouldn’t do.  I tried to relax and become one with the crowded scene, but kept my hand in my pocket, fingering the plastic. If I could get the rest of my body to cooperate, I’d look jaunty at worst, anonymous at best. Be part of the scene, raise no stir, blend in. That’s what I had to do.

Twenty-one years old today, not that Mom or Dad cared. Dad left Mom after a loud argument…it hit me, a year today! My twentieth birthday. A disappointing time. I hardly expected presents that late in life, but hearing “Happy Birthday, son,” from either might have been nice. No, the crack in their marriage overcame any thoughts of their son that day.

The memory crawled back. I saw me in my bedroom with the door closed, working on an outline for my Psyc essay. I needed to ace it.  I needed to stay focused entirely on my schoolwork. I didn’t want to be here with them, but we lived too close to the Cornell campus to justify staying at a dorm. Regardless, long-term money problems made it impossible.

Dad threw up his hands. He’d done it so often I pictured it as though I’d seen it, and I heard him yell, “That’s the last time, May.” Behind my closed door, I suffered in silence as the minutes stretched.

Finally, the door slammed; Dad’s final solution and not a word from him since. I stayed with Mom thinking only of my need to acquire my final solution, to get the hell out.

We lived in a big house on a tree-shaded lane on Linden Street, except in winter snowstorms an easy walk to the campus. After he left, to his credit Dad paid the bills, but he divorced himself from any contact with his wife and son. Total concentration almost to obsession on my studies insulated me from my parents’ adult mess.

I’m not saying Mom needed me. She had her own spate of problems, her drug dependency generated by a bad fall three years before from which she recovered physically, but with too many pain pills and an associated weight gain, her self-image plummeted. She became sloppy, ineffectual and quarrelsome. Dad had it “Up to here!” words I’d heard him say that echoed in my brain even today. I didn’t blame him when he gave up. I blamed Mom.

After he’d gone, I never felt right about telling Mom to stop wallowing in self-pity, so I said nothing. She’d put herself there and I believed she could have gotten help. She didn’t and I didn’t give her any support. Dad brought me up to believe that you make your own way in life. If you had a problem you couldn’t handle, suck it up. Unable to see Mom’s side of it, we became strangers in the same house and she faded into the background.

Then, in the beginning of my senior year, I met Gail, a theater student on campus. I fell for her hard. Her magnetism took some of the edge off my studies, but I had to graduate well. I had to be in the top tenth percentile in my class. When scouts descended on Cornell in the final semester, they had to notice me.

Gail’s and my chemistry was awful and beautiful and sensible and crazy and we wallowed in it. Mom sunk further into the background. A few months into the relationship, Gail and I had a serious conversation. Evidently, she had it as bad for me as I did for her, so mutual devotion, tied up in common sense and acceptance of the greater goal made it workable.

I graduated in the fifth percentile of my class. The scouts noticed. I had ached for Microbiology as my chosen field. I wanted a job in a top lab with all the tools and funding where I could prove myself and eventually indulge in working up original ideas I’d kept close to my chest for years.

Now I walked stiffly, looking from side to side with my eyes, trying not to appear an outsider to the moving crowd. I fingered the plastic and squeezed it gently, thinking of the near future and the job offer I’d wanted and successfully won.

I massaged this elephant in my pocket, my piece de resistance.

Gail rehearsed her small part in a popular local play today. I wanted her to see what I held so firmly. At Ithaca Downtown College Theater, I mounted the stairs, stopped before the main entrance door, took out the plastic envelope, opened it and beheld its contents. I inhaled and exhaled several times and squared my shoulders. This is for the two of us, I thought. Pleasure beyond measure. The thought made me giddy.

Now on the surest footing I’d ever been, I walked into the darkened theater, resolutely strode down the main aisle and onto the brightly lit, crowded stage, my face hot but my will strong.

In front of Gail, to the horror of the director whose rehearsal I had interrupted, I dropped to one knee, held out the brilliant one-carat diamond ring to her and said, “I love you, Gail. Will you marry me?”

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!

East Wind

THE WIND CAME from the east channeled by mountains either side of their protected valley. Six times out of seven a stiff breeze coming through Widders Notch foretold a hurricane.

She and Pa had to come back from severe damage a good number of times and since Pa died Grandma Jo had trouble keeping up the place. Her lumbago kept her to the sitting porch more and more and while looking at the beautiful, deep valley and the mountains and by dozing a good bit, she’d think about chores more often than doing them.

She lowered the moistened finger she’d held to the wind and wiped it on her stained overalls. She squinted toward the pine grove on her hill. Eyesight going right along with everything else, she thought. Maybe she saw needles waving, maybe not. Finger said east, so east then, and it feared her.

She sat back in her creaking rocker. At eighty-six she couldn’t see the end of her life, but it couldn’t be far off. Being resigned to it fit her thinking well enough. Jake, Hank Grover’s great grandson wouldn’t have to come up here anymore. He’d probably take it as a blessing.

Hank lived a half mile further down near the valley’s out road and Jo knew he carried a torch for her in Normal School back when Buchanan got to be president in1857 before the Rebellion. But she’d married Pa after the war and that was that. Sixty years later after Pa died, Widower Hank came up and tried to court her, but she told him they were friends and she wouldn’t upset that apple-cart.

“You need a man around, Jo,” he said.

“You can’t do nothing Hank, “she said, “and I can’t neither, so you want to help out, ask that strapping boy lives with you come up, split wood, maybe make a few repairs. I can pay him.”

“No need for that. I’ll set him to it. You know he’s soft in the head.”

“’Course I do. He won’t be a bother.”

Hank left, been five years back and he didn’t come again what with his farm and all his own chores and maybe disappointed, but the boy did and what help he gave paid attention to the woodpile for the most part. Not being quite right, she didn’t want him on her roof anyway, so the place ran down, right along with her. Now and then she’d wonder which would collapse first.

Now this wind’s a coming. She pulled her body painfully off the chair and went inside. The screen door creaked open and slammed on rusted hinges. She went about taking everything off shelves that could fall if the house shook too much and put it on the floor near as she could to the closest wall. Her earthenware had suffered many decades of use and had chips, but she couldn’t abide them breaking altogether.

She recalled the last big wind. It found Pa high on the side hill tilling the two back to back fields for what he hoped would be a second corn crop. He stopped midway on the second field, turned the horses around and came back as fast as the old plodders would come and shouted for her to batten down while he put the horses into the paddock for safety ‘cause he didn’t trust the barn. They worked together like soldiers and rode out that big blow sitting in the house listening to it creak and groan.

She couldn’t help but smile at those days working together. She had her memories. They’d have to do. The light began to dim as the first high clouds worked themselves between her and the sun. It reminded her, the storm shutters needed closing. She went after them as soon as she satisfied her view on the kitchen. She’d latched the upstairs shutters when it got too painful to climb the stairs several years ago and moved downstairs for sleeping. They closed from the inside; glad Pa did it that way when he built the house.  At ground level they fastened from the outside. By the time she finished, the leaden sky pushed at her with little gusts. She could feel the storm gathering strength.

About to go back inside and sit in the one stuffed chair Pa had bought for her forty years before, she’d mounted the porch steps and got a hand on the screen door when she heard a hail from down the hill. It startled her, not being alone. With a wave, Hank puffed up the dirt road toward her. He had to stop and lean against a post for a few moments, and then he doggedly continued.

Jo, pleased to see her old friend again, but puzzled as to why he’d appeared just then, made her way down the three steps off the porch and went to meet him. A strong gust hit her and she fell with a short cry.

“Jo!”

Hank came to her as fast as he could manage. The old man had little strength left, but bent down and helped her up. She leaned on him and he leaned back. Together they inched their way back to the porch and grasping the rail, pulled them both onto it.

“What are you doing here?” Jo gasped.

“Runner came up from town. Said big blow coming. Jake’s took sick bad. Doc Hall says he can’t be moved. Thought of you up here alone and started up the hill on Daisy, but she threw a shoe about a quarter mile back and went lame. I left her there and started walking. You need a man, Jo.”

The old woman couldn’t believe it, but it was so. “Guess I do, Hank. I’ll thank you for coming.”

“Catch my breath and I’ll give you a hand.”

“No need. What’d got to be done I did.”

“We’ll ride it out together then.”

“Glad for your company, Hank.”

The east wind grew and the turbulent gray sky lowered as the storm came on. The first big drops of rain slanted in and forced the couple off the porch. Inside they took to the kitchen chairs, looking at each other across the table and glancing up now and then when the old farmhouse shook. Upstairs something crashed and Hank struggled to get up.

“No, Hank, stay with me.” Jo took Hank’s hand across the table and held it and it made her feel better. The fear she held under the surface calmed.

She knew in that moment that she should not have turned Hank away after Pa died. What would be the harm? Farming took her and Pa’s strength and energy, but their marriage succeeded and they had sixty good years. Pa rested under the soil in the family plot. God gave them the land from which they wrested their living. They had done His will and she knew he worked in mysterious ways. He’d brought Hank to her when she most feared being alone, didn’t He?

The wind outside howled like fury. Another crash and then monstrous sounds, rending, tearing, splitting noises grew and the house seemed to twist. Ceiling beams sagged and big pieces of plaster dropped around them.

Hank’s grip increased in Jo’s hand and she knew he knew their end had come and she pressed his hand back.

“Pa,” she called amidst the thunderous din, “I’m coming to you, and I’m bringing a friend.”

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…

Soldier’s Return

I STOOD OFF to the side out of the jumble of people. Dangling from my hand on the Government Issue breakaway chains they gave us, my dog tags jingled flatly. Cheap metal, I thought. I stared at the train.

It stopped to let me off with a few other people and now began to move again, its job done. Now I had to do mine. I had to get a place and find a job. How would I do that? I knew how to kill, but that’s not very useful in civilian life, on the right side of the law, anyway.

Though the only soldier who got off, my GI drabs failed to call me to the attention of others on the platform. People, probably family, greeted those others, threw their arms about them and lead them happily away.

I’d taken my long coat off in the train for comfort and didn’t need it now. It draped from the crook of my left arm. Pretty warm day for two days before Christmas. My duffle bag sat by my feet. I looked down at the hand that held a nine by twelve manila envelope. In it fourteen pages of material, my DD Form 214, discharge papers, voucher stubs for transportation and the familiar “Misc.” reflected the sum total of the past eight years of my life, courtesy of the U. S. Government. The few other papers in the miscellaneous category, all military, all-important to them but not to me had mustered me out of the Army. The doctor told me to forget about “Nam.” Oh, sure.

Eight years getting shot at, saving lives, saving my own on numerous “fronts” distilled down to fourteen pages. Didn’t seem like much. A few hours ago some freshly shaved company clerk who still had a job said “Good luck,” but it sounded like “Sayonara, baby!” Twenty-six years old, back in the city of my birth, and for what?

A feeling of dread, the sense of choking on something I couldn’t dislodge lived in me for most of the day. They’d made me into a killing machine. They’d made me very efficient. I had physical scars and more in my head. Four months ago I caught a little shrapnel from a land mine my best buddy took. Superficial for me, killed him.

Charlie, a good man, sharp-eyed and careful…except this time. All it took. Now he’s in Heaven or wherever, in the ground anyway. They pieced him back together and shipped him home so his relatives could cry over him. I cried when it happened, but not for long. Not in a fire fight. No time.

I remember the lieutenant yelling, “Medic!”

After that, a blur. Suddenly someone hit me hard on the shoulder and pushed me to the ground, “Matt, what the hell…?”

I came to my senses and the blur cleared. “I just saw Charlie go up.”

“Yeah,” he said, “We all did. Pull it together!”

I made a conscious effort. After a few moments of lying in the dirt, it came back. Charlie’s gone, gotta go on. Made killing those bastards out ahead of the platoon personal.

I refocused back to the train station, but I couldn’t get the vivid images out of my mind. My release said “CCD. Chronic Clinical Depression.” I knew every word. Medical discharge. What the hell! No use to the government and no use to myself, no use to anybody. I tried to smile but it failed before it reached my lips.

What would I do, now that Uncle Sammy didn’t want his trained killer anymore? I’d gone in right out of high school to avoid the Draft. Thought it would make a difference. It didn’t. I’d make some rank…whoopee! Didn’t help.

If I’d learned anything in high school I’d forgotten it. What would I do? Security guard? Work in a bowling alley? Bet I could wash cars. Only not many places around used people to wash cars anymore. Spray tires, maybe. The thought made me want to retch. I’d tried that a couple of weeks during the summer before I enlisted. The mindless work matched the people around me. No thanks.

Getting a job with the problems I’d brought home would be hard. Mom used to say, “It’ll all work out, Matt. Just put your best face forward.”

Mom died three years ago in the car accident with Dad. No sisters or brothers. Yeah, right, things’ll work out. Sorry, Mom…can’t see it. I hadn’t seen any evidence since I got back in the States that anybody cared about anybody. Couldn’t even figure why I’d come back to my hometown. Any city would do. Got no relatives, no in-laws, no friends, got nothing.

The train station cleared out. A porter loaded his cart with the last of the bags left on the platform, chatting amiably with a young woman dressed in business attire. I saw her glance in my direction. I could have thought her beautiful; certain I would except for my black mood. That took the color out of everything.

I couldn’t seem to move from my spot. I didn’t feel comfortable standing there, but moving seemed a less comfortable alternative. What would I do? I couldn’t stay on the platform. Pretty soon someone would come out of the terminal and ask me to move along or ask me why I stood alone, unmoving. How would I answer?

Finally I dragged my duffle bag to one of those wrought iron and plank chairs that seem to be a permanent fixture in train stations. I sat down, not exhausted, but dejected, done, the end of my road and no clue what next. My brain turned off.

Lost in blackness, I started when a voice spoke softly near my ear.

“Soldier?”

I looked up. The woman who’d glanced at me peered as if trying to read me. I didn’t smile. I couldn’t, but I said, “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m sorry to bother you. Are you waiting for someone?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Just arrive?”

“Yes.”

She looked at me astutely. “You have no place to go.”

“No.”

After a few moments of deliberation, she said, “It’s going to get cold again tonight. You could use a good meal and some pleasant conversation.”

I left the ball in her court.

Undeterred, she said, “Do you have a place to stay?”

“I’ll find a rooming house somewhere in town.”

“And you have no job waiting, either.” The woman read my thoughts.

“Just discharged.”

“My name is Pat Birch. I am part-time pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in town. What’s yours?”

Some of the past began to return. “I remember it. Matt Billingsly.”

“Hello, Matt. This evening the congregation is having a potluck sit-down dinner at the church. Would you like to come as my guest? I can’t think of a better way to reintroduce one of America’s soldiers back into society. You might be able to network a little while you’re there, too.”

Who said hope springs eternal. My black mood melted and I began to hope for the first time in so long I couldn’t remember.

“I’d be honored, ma’am. I’d love to,” I said.

Pat hesitated, looked me over again as if seeing me for the first time, and maybe it was like that. Evidently she decided that she liked what she saw, because she said, “There is a rooming house not far from the church. I know that it has at least one room available. Can I offer you a ride there?”

Finally I could smile. Weight came off my shoulders. “Yes, you can. And thank you, more than you can imagine.”

“Follow me, Matt. Merry Christmas, soldier.”