Category Archives: Light fiction

Fireside Chat

I LEAD OFF the discussion. “Friends do for friends, right?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Charlie starts.

Get this. We are sitting around this roaring campfire in the woods up near Talcott Notch. It’s a warm night and insect spray is keeping the bugs off. Our faces are blazing and our backs are cold. Five of us stare into the flames together, me and my four friends. We are unlike, like I mean different! It’s not an encounter session…maybe it is. We’re here to talk out something.

Two rules; we stare nowhere but at the moving flames while we’re talking, and everyone must have something to say.

I better back up a bit. It comes down to an argument we had back in March. That day we’re in Joe’s Bar on Center Street in Waterbury tossing Bud’s and Sam’s and maybe a few boilermakers. Hand to mouth we’re munching chips or cashews or popcorn at one of Joe’s seriously distressed tables. The surface is covered with bottles, most being empty. We’re a bunch of old farts being loud.

To understand this group and where we are you have to get to know the guys. First me. I’m Donnie. I make things happen. I’m headstrong with a bit of a temper. I might know almost as much as I think I do, depending on who you listen to.

So Charlie’s got a load on and throws out the thing that grabs me. “Why are we friends?”

“Why are we friends? You shitting me?” I say to him.

“No law says we have to be,” Charlie says.

“You got no string tied to your ass,” I say back.

I get this sudden thing, like a brickbat to the side of the head. It’s something I’d been mulling for months, but it didn’t have a home until that moment. We’re not alike in any way, shape or form, so why do we stick together? I hold up my hands and wave everybody down.

“Hey, gang, Charlie wonders why we are friends.”

Everybody in the small group debates the point and we get nowhere, as usual, but nobody says no when I offer to head up a special session of the self-styled Raucous Bunch in a place where they’ll have no choice but to think about it. I don’t want asshole answers.

Now it’s July and here we are, camping…and drinking…and munching. Food seems to be part of every social conversation. Maybe food is a catalyst in the nature of friendships, something to do with your hands while you’re thinking, I dunno. Well, if you’re Italian, ha ha.

I plan to test the theory tonight by the fire. Some time ago I gave them all homework, a sheet of paper, a list in fact. Here’s how I figure it will shake out. I’ve had a spotty life, but I’m good with me. I like me. Sometimes I disappoint me, but I rationalize, who doesn’t?

Charlie, the one who kicked this off in my head went to college and graduated an engineer. He stuck with it and had a successful career. That’s in engineering. In marriage, he stunk. He got a girl and had some kids, but the idea of a permanent relationship went south five times before he gave up and decided single fit him best. By then his divorce decrees said he had to pay for seven kids until they became adults. That’s all past him now.  The last one turned eighteen a month ago. He’s pragmatic about it.

Al is short and bull-like and isn’t that smart like a thinker, but he’s the tenacious one. He ended up a laborer, what’d he care? He wins arguments by sticking to what he knows and never rises to a new idea. Still, he’s a sweetheart of a guy and nobody denies that. He married, but didn’t have any kids. His wife died three years ago.

John is quiet and studious when you compare him to the rowdy gang we generally are together so I wonder how he got to be part of the Raucous Bunch. I scratch my head on that one. He told us once he wanted to be a Minister, but life got in his way—didn’t it for all of us—and he became a Librarian his whole life instead. He had the same job when he retired. Advancement didn’t appeal.

Finally we come to Ralph. He’s our big guy, three hundred pounds of mostly muscle gone to seed through inactivity. He worked in the Waterbury school system and from what I heard, when he bellowed, the kids listened. He made them look up to him, so he did well.

There you have it. The Raucous Five, and except for me—I’d been camping for years—the others met at the campground shorn of their natural habitat. I’m thinking I picked it right.

So I ask the question and Charlie already wants to pick a fight.

I say, “Go ahead. You opened you big mouth, BUT what?”

He looks at me. “Rule number one, stare at the fire, Charlie.” His gaze goes back. Now he’s talking to all of us. There’s method in this madness.

“Okay, Donnie, you’re right and you’re wrong. Suppose I turned you in to the police because I was trying to be a friend.”

“Let’s roundtable first.” I look at Al.

“Yeah. Charlie, you’re not being a friend if you rat on a friend.” Al does what I think he’s going to. He’s sticking to the tried and true. He’s honest because he can’t think of a good way to not be. I like honesty, but there are all shades of it.

“Maybe a friend you rat on isn’t a friend.”

John speaks up. “What drew you to him to begin with?”

Ralph moves in his chair. It threatens to collapse and dump him. I’m taking a bet in my head on that. Before John can answer he joins. “Twenty-five years I taught grammar school kids and I saw every kind of conflict, including friendships that came and went. You can’t figure it. It’s chemistry.”

I break in. “The major problem is kids become big people and all people change as they go.”

“Right,” Ralph says, “they grow up, they grow down, they grow sideways, and what’s the cause? Other people, other circumstances, other places and how people react to them. It’s up here where all that happens.” He taps his noggin.

Charlie glances at Ralph and returns to studying the flames. “You know; I like this,” I say. I reach into the nearby woodpile and toss a good sized stick across the burning center. Sparks leap for the sky and everybody’s eyes follow them up and watch them die.

John says, “You like what?”

“Thinking. We don’t do much at Joe’s place.”

We’re silent for a time.

“You guys check out the thing I gave you?” They turn to look at me. They’re going to crack wise, but before they do they get this look and they glance at each other and nod.

“Yeah, thanks. A list of all the values people live by…or should. I thought you were blowing smoke up my butt, but you opened my eyes,” Charlie says. “You want to tell us what you had in mind, Donnie?”

“Sure. I’ve been thinking about our group for awhile and I started wondering about it. Wasn’t till Charlie made his offhand comment a few months back that it gelled with me and I figured I ought to go for some answers. That’s when I grabbed for the brass ring and spilled it to the group and here we are.”

They’re all ears.

“First, friends do for friends. We know this, but did we know that each one of us comes to that conclusion from different places. What is a friend to Al, to John, to Charlie? Ralph may have a different take on what’s a friend to him. See?

I see cloudy confusion.

“Or…maybe there’s nothing to see.”

I deadpan so they can’t read me.

“This sheet I took off the Internet from some guy named Blackwell, on values we live with. I looked it over and shortened all the garbage he spouted to what I figured were the real meanings of what he tried to say. I left one out.”

Nobody looks at the fire now. They pull out the sheet I gave them from front and back pants pockets, one from a shirt pocket, and they study the list in the firelight.

I’m seeing what I want to see so I feel smug, kind of. “What value did I leave out?”

“Tell us,” they say.

“Sure. It’s friendship. Friends are people who sustain us by accepting us as we are.”

The light dawns. So easy you could trip over it. Of course it’s a value!

Charlie says, “You dragged us out to your goddamned campsite in the wilderness to tell us this?”

I make it heartfelt because I feel it in my gut. “You guys, you’re what I have and I’m for you. Isn’t it nice to know why a bunch of guys who wouldn’t look at any of us on the street turned into buddies? You think you’d remember if we’re screaming at each other in Joe’s place?”

The guys sit and think a bit.

“So it’s written on the inside of your brains?”

Nods and, “Yeah.” We share a special moment.

Then Charlie says to the boys, “Let’s grab this old bastard and toss him in the lake.” They get out of their chairs and go for me.

Friends…so nice to be appreciated!

Appreciation Profile

“HOW ABOUT A hug?” he says.

“Okay,” she replies. It comes out as a sigh. She’s mad at him. She doesn’t want to, but that engaging quirk of his lip takes some of the steam out of her. She relaxes a little. They come together. The hug is silent, warm, and tingly and costs them nothing. It brings a smile to both peoples lips.

“We should do this more often,” she says.

“It does have a leavening effect on our relationship, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. I forgot what I was mad at you about.”

“Must have been awful,” he says, still holding on.

It comes to her. She’s never far from the moment, not ever. She operates on a different level from him and he idly wonders as the next statement spills from her mouth, if living in the moment one hundred percent wouldn’t be better than coming to it as he does, kind of sidelong, detached, transported into it rather than being there.

He’s not going to change. She’s not going to change. The thought is absurd in the circumstance, and yet it does not surprise him. It’s who he is.

She says, “You’re a beast, you know.”

“Moi?” his mispronounced French is his signature. The tone of voice softens the word. Maybe they can talk this new thing out with more light and less heat. His indiscretion couldn’t be monolithic, after all.

“Yes, but I’ll save it until the next time.”

“That sounds a bit more like you.” He can’t help it. He should not have uttered the words but they came out. Like the voice of doom, it goads her.

“Just what do you mean by that?” Item: feelings can change in a heartbeat.

She can get so…er…find a good term…moody sometimes, he thinks. Two steps back, but he responds adroitly. “It is my dear, one of the things I love about you.”

“And what is that?” She moves away from his embrace and stands still in the kitchen, but the impression of her words is all hands on hips. Her hackles are right back up again.

Dig out; dig deeper? He gives it a shot.

“The straightforward honesty you project in all things. I had a wife who stabbed me in the heart, but I never saw it coming. She was devious and dishonest. You are not. It may hurt to hear what you have to say, but at least you are up front. Thank you for that.”

This from one imperfect soul to another, he thinks but does not say.

He has alluded to her first husband obliquely. This is part of a strategy that has worked in the past and he knows she will recognize it. She’s not perfect and she accepts that on a personal level, but to admit it in a confrontational situation wouldn’t be her.

They are both running true to form. Their knowledge of each other and how they parry is classic. They have had many years together and know one another as much as two people can. Although the outcome is not preordained, they are giving it their best shots, and they know their fail-safe points.

All that he said came from his heart. He hoped she would accept it as being honest and forthright.

She ponders a few moments, her face impassive, and then says, “Okay, husband. Look, I have shopping and we’re going out later to a movie. We’d better seal this with another hug, don’t you think?

Gets right to it! We embrace. He relaxes. She is healed and he is no longer raw.

She goes her way. He goes his. A potential rift is sealed. He gets to thinking it over and decides that appreciation is oft-times better molded into a scene than spoken. It’s a healthier way. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than any professed uttering. They have the same meaning as the spoken word, but are more permanent.

A good result is unbeatable. He thinks that we all stand on the head of a pin and balance is the only force that keeps us from the abyss. He likes that thought.

Gordon Tuttle

Light fiction with subtle humor, or as my Australian friends would say, “humour.”

LONG BEFORE I  actually laid eyes on the man, I sensed that my relationship with Gordon Tuttle wouldn’t be a source of joy and comfort to either one of us, especially me. What could I expect? His goons had me tied up with duct tape, one of my two favorite products. I love WD-40, too. That’s the other one. I felt I should mention it since I brought it up.

Got to hand it to Gordon’s boys, using modern technology to do the job. Imagine trussing somebody up with rope when duct tape is used around every home in America. You know, quick repairs to your car’s upholstery, covering the split in your kids bicycle seat, just about anything.

They had me in a kitchen chair. My kitchen chairs weren’t all that sturdy, being twenty-five years old and having gone through the rigors of my four, now grown and gone children. Made of oak, my favorite wood, the old brown high-back style meant they were strong, except at the joint points, which creaked from loose screws and failed glue. I point out that they held me tight just fine.

Charlie and John did a good job of making me part of the chair, I have to admit. Crooks learn stuff about things most people hear or read about, but seldom take time to really get into. I think it’s part of the School of Hard Knocks where they learn all that stuff, you know, how to use rope and duct tape, how to torture people for information or just torture them, if that’s their thing.

Charlie sat on a chair smirking at me. Charlie wore an outsized blue work shirt and baggy jeans. His belly protruded over where he might have had a belt, but I couldn’t tell. I guessed he liked his beer. A disgustingly fat, but very strong man, he kept his eye on me while John went out for cigarettes. There’s a packy a block from my house and they sell ‘em there. I know because I buy liquor there. Obviously, they sell cigarettes, too.

I don’t smoke any more. Filthy habit. Stinks up a room and the stale mouth you get from cigarettes only works if your wife also smokes like a chimney. Then you’re immune, kind of.

‘Course, if you’re a drinker and she’s a smoker, neither one of you would be able to abide the other, I suppose. Fortunately, my smoking wife died of lung cancer two years ago, kind of why I gave up cigarettes and started drinking. Well, not fortunate she died; only that she doesn’t have to watch me become a lush. I do miss her. Strange how when you’re all tied up, you have time to think about absurd things.

Charlie’s a hulking dummy, Gordon’s dog. He likes to hurt people. Evidently Gordon saw value in that, because I picture Charlie groveling at his feet like a lovesick puppy, that type of guy.

The only contact I had with Gordon so far, a phone call I got two days ago, he told me he’d be showing up to discuss money. As I sit looking at Charlie’s smirk, I replay the conversation in my head.

“Money? Who is this?” I say to the unfamiliar voice on the other end.

“Gordon, my man.” He sounds black. I know, I shouldn’t stereotype, but he does.  He has that unmistakable inner city speech pattern. I search my brain, but I can’t make a connection. There has to be one. In my business, you don’t get to know all the people you affect, one way or another.

“I don’t know a Gordon, do I?”

“You gonna soon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know Dilatania Jones?”

“Oh, her. Yeah, so what?”

“She married to a friend of mine.”

“How’d you get my number?”

“I got ways, man. Look for me.” He hung up.

I found it a little unsettling. Dilatania Jones borrowed some money from me. I run this banking business, see. You need money and you can’t get it from a regular bank, you can come to me. My rates are high, but you got a need, I can fill it, you know? Call it a substandard client loan fund, something like that. Hey, the banks give out sub-prime mortgages. Pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

Jones didn’t tell me what she wanted the money for, but I found out later her husband is into gambling and isn’t always successful. Not my problem, but I’d been after her for the weekly payment. You know, nice at first, accommodating – for an additional fee, of course – then not so much.

So this morning about seven a.m., this guy John comes to the door. John is tall and thin and clean cut and he’s got blue eyes and he’s wearing a dark brown delivery outfit that says UPS. He looks the part. I can’t remember getting a delivery so early in the morning before, but they got to start sometime. I’m not expecting something, but I have in the past, so I open the door. I should have listened to that little nagging voice in my head.

“Check this out first,” my voice says, but I don’t.

My voice is right. John pushes me and I catch my balance on the telephone table near the door and by that time Charlie looms behind him and it’s all over but the shouting, you know.

That’s where we are now. John comes back and I’m sitting, going nowhere. I can’t believe this, he lights up outside and has his smoke before coming back in. Gotta love these no smoking programs. Even some of the scum are doing the right thing. Must eat in restaurants a lot.

Five minutes later Gordon walks in. He’s short and dapper and I want to laugh because he’s wearing a zoot suit. Remember them, high waist, wide legs at the top, tight cuff, pegged trousers, long coat with wide lapels and the wide padded shoulders. Remember the zip-up pants bottoms? This guy’s out of the fiftes, for crying out loud. He’s got intense brown eyes, kind of bloodshot near the edges and with a little madness in them. In a couple of minutes I figure I know why he’s the boss of this pair. He’s a take-charge guy, and for his size, real impressive. He gets right to it.

“My friend Lennie found out his wife borrowed some money. He had to take her in hand. Consider it a bad investment. You write off bad investments?”

“Not often.”

“You going to write this one down.”

“She signed a contract.”

“It’s void, get it?”

“Let me outta this chair and we’ll talk.”

“I talk, you listen.”

The upshot of my day is I get to live and we forget Dilatania Jones, Lennie Jones, Gordon Tuttle and his two dogs. We go back and forth for a little, but after he calls Charlie over to administer some grinning persuasion, I decide Gordon is right, after all. He didn’t exactly break my legs, but they’ll be healing for a time and he may be a dummy, but at pain he’s an expert.

Win a little; lose a little, like life. It took me six hours after they left to get out of the tape job. You’d think he could have left a kitchen knife nearby to help out, but I didn’t suggest it with Charlie around.

I figure I’d better relocate. I’ve been known to make good choices when it counts.

Lots of big towns in this land of opportunity.

Lannie Mae

Lannie Mae Richards for many years had embodied the rock upon which her family stood. Raised in a God-fearing household, she carried those lessons through her life and taught them to her children. She broached no compromise with the laxity she saw in “moderns,” as she called them. Now, for the first time in her life it appeared she would have to let others help her do what in her mind anyone could do with ease.

She’d fallen again, not to the floor, but against a filing cabinet. No one would have noticed except, curse it, she yelped. Stella, the Office Manager, heard her from the other side of the room and called to her.

“Mrs. Richards, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she’d said, but by then Stella had crossed the room and Lannie Mae couldn’t pretend. Hurt like the dickens. So did her ankle. She wondered idly what she’d managed to do to that.

Stella helped her to sit on a nearby swivel-chair, and turning, said over her shoulder, “I’ll get your son,” and ran out of the room.

“No, no need,” but by then the lady had disappeared toward the president’s office. In thirty seconds, Lance appeared, assessed his mother’s situation and said, “We need to talk.”

All conversing done, today she sat in a wheelchair with a drab brown, careworn shawl around her shoulders; her favorite shawl and she didn’t care who knew it. With her head bowed, she waited for her son Lance to finish registering her for a suite of rooms at Brandywine, an upscale assisted living facility not far from the factory.

Tired in body and spirit, she didn’t want to come here. Nonetheless, she alone made the decision to apply. She gave Lance no voice in her decision. Her oldest son argued and even pleaded, suggested they would keep her at home, but in her mind being out of sight would take pressure off her family; the right thing to do. They would not have to live daily with a fear that at a wrong moment, she would miss a step and perhaps break something serious and permanent.

The wheelchair in which she sat spoke silent volumes about her pronouncement. She’d volunteered for a placement, insisted on it. She’d sprained her ankle, hence the wheelchair.  The bruise on her shoulder, black and ugly, meant nothing. Now the facility doctor had her records and silently studied them.

A hairline fracture of the hip, mended, but fragile in the extreme with extensive osteoporosis the doctor mentioned briefly as he reviewed her x-rays convinced her. She asked the doctor when that happened and he looked at her curiously.

“You don’t know when it happened?” he asked.

“Would I ask if I knew?”

“You’ve forgotten.”

“Doctor, I’m in this world eighty-seven years and I forget nothing.”

“That’s astounding.” He didn’t believe her, so he waited.

“Life is filled with pain, doctor. I take it as it comes. Sometimes it hurts. I can think of a dozen times I could have broken something and sometimes I did, but the exact event that caused what you just told me is mixed up with some labor or other and therefore meaningless. I don’t have time to rest on my laurels. Work waits for no man. Doesn’t wait for me, either.”

The doctor looked quizzical, but had nothing more to say so he gazed at Lannie Mae’s son and Lance nodded.

“Well,” the doctor said, “I can do nothing for you, except to caution you about doing too much. I’d like you to remember that your body won’t take the strain you’re determined to give it and if you don’t ease up, it’ll be worse next time. Our Administrator will arrange for all the assistance you require.”

A couple of days before, at home, she had him make the calls that brought her here, she’d told Lance how she felt.

“I’m tired of the looks I’m getting. Stella follows me around like a pup and I know what she’s doing tailing me. You take me to Brandywine now,” she said. “You and your siblings can visit as often as you want or not, Lance. The business is more important than I am.”

“That’s not true, mother.”

“Thank you for that, but you know well enough it’s true. The town will disappear if the mill stops producing. You don’t want that, do you?”

“No, mother,” Lance sighed.

The mill earned millions and it was the family’s fortune – and burden – to have begun operation in the mists of the past and through good stewardship, caring managers and contented workers that it continued.

The brass plaque affixed to a large boulder at the side of the long drive to the facility proclaimed Milltown Textiles – 1740, mutely but proudly. It started on a shoestring like all ventures had back then. Men carved a place out of forested woods. They knocked down trees, moved rocks and blasted when the terrain wouldn’t give up to Man’s design. They built dams and waterwheels and other things with hands that sometimes bled. Their blood washed away in each rain, but their monuments of civilization stood and grew.

The clever and driven worked long hours and paid attention to business and they succeeded. Their survival took many forms two hundred and fifty years ago, but they never compromised the drive to better themselves.

A quarter of the population of Milltown owed its existence to the mill and the rest of the town relied in some measure on the people who produced products everyone needed. Food, clothing and shelter were the basics of life after which all other things followed. Milltown Textiles provided one of the three. Stores sold merchandise that flowed daily from the big warehouse doors and trucks rumbled through the town to distant destinations. Milltown Textiles made life good.

Lance Richards ran the multi-million dollar business, making decisions all day long, but he couldn’t get a thought in edgewise where it concerned his mother. Up to now, she’d been a constant presence that hung over everything. With the gut feeling that his mother’s life and that of everyone she had touched for the past seventy years must now change by her simple act, he completed the paperwork and held a clipboard for her signature.

She looked the documents over carefully, her half glasses low on her nose. Pointing at a place, she asked a question and another, reviewing thoroughly. Finally satisfied, she signed with her unique scrawl. Lance handed the clipboard back to the doctor.

“Mother, the nurse will take you to your rooms. I have to get back to the mill.”

“Of course,” she said, and patted his hand.

Lance kissed her on a proffered cheek. Always in control, he thought. Brandywine, you are all about a new experience with Lannie Mae Richards.

“I’ll check on you tomorrow. That special shipment has to get out and I have some paperwork the shipping supervisor needs on my desk.”

His mother waved at him dismissively. The corner of Lance’s mouth turned up in a quirky grin. Just like her.

As he left the building, he made it a point not to look back, an inbred and now involuntary habit of life. Outside the door, he lost the grin and allowed his brain to be assailed with the multitude of problems command generated. He focused briefly on his mother. Mother knew the score. She knew he could handle it. In fact, Lannie Mae had passed the mantle seconds ago. She’d never say it, but by taking herself out of the loop, she’d ratified his position as de facto president. He now truly ran the company.

At Brandywine, Lannie Mae looked up at her nurse’s aide.

“Show me my rooms, Margaret,” she said. “You play poker?”

Mary Beth and Ollie

I glanced out the window on Amtrak’s D.C. run, my thoughts on other things. I’d switch trains in Baltimore and then cab-dash into the district to be there by five p.m. I saw rolling fields of early corn that stretched all the way to the mild hump of horizon. Gray hills continued into the distance. The fields shimmered with June heat.

My pen hadn’t made many marks on the pad I held in the last hour. I became aware of a crick in my neck. I wish I’d bought that cheap laptop I saw at Staples last week. Best price I’d seen in months, but it’d still cost me close to a thousand and my frugal-bone told me I’d better wait on the money. I didn’t have it.

I consciously moved my neck back and forth and rubbed it with a negligent hand.

The article wasn’t coming easy this time. I couldn’t get the right amount of worry into my words and Tim Roderick; my editor at Time had admonished me at our last meeting.

“Rich, this one’s time has come. Make it bleed and I’ll feature it in the center section. We need this one and you do, too.”

I got his meaning. My last several articles weren’t up to my usual slash and burn style. I knew it, but that last episode with my ex-wife threw me way off. I leveraged my mind out of there.

I stared at the rolling hills, felt the rushing train. I rode rails; fear of flying. Up to now I’d blocked out the monotony of train sounds. Now I let in the regular clack-clickety-clack of big steel wheels ironing out the unvarying track separations. Soothed my mind. My eyes drank in the greenery.

Out there patterned fields flicked by; corn standing like leafy green soldiers, row after row, separated with hedgerows like Army battalions. Others with straight stonewalls separated one owner from another. The greenness subtly changed as I watched. The next several fields were a little yellower and the corn not as tall and I knew that the farmer working them needed money. Probably stretched his fertilizer too far.

I felt a pang. Right there, another example. I pulled out my map and tried to estimate exactly where we were. I marked the spot with a yellow highlighter and put the map away. Maybe I could use it some time.

I shrugged. Enough about other people’s money troubles; I’d have more of my own if I didn’t. Time to get back to work. I picked up my steno pad and grabbed the ballpoint. With the economy in the toilet and the damned politicians in Washington about to pull the flush handle on the American economy hard enough to include two or three future generations, I didn’t want to deplete my nest egg any more than I had. Might have to live frugally again. I had done that in my youth and I knew how, but it went against my grain. I’d always been a responsible citizen. I’d minded my money, paid my bills and kept my obligations within pretty strict limits.

Had fun, though. Doesn’t take money, not all the time.

The fellow next to me shucked into a better sitting position and I noticed him for the first time. He had on a worn tweed coat, mismatched corduroy pants, and a blue denim shirt with a rumpled collar. The shirt pocket sported a dark blue stain from a leaky ballpoint. His shoes needed attention, but not as much as the rest of him.

The train felt cool enough, but the guy had to get off sometime and when he did, how uncomfortable could that be? Thirty-five degrees, oh yeah, but ninety-seven in Baltimore, from what I heard. First impression, nobody’d be waiting for him at the station.

Not my problem. I had to construct an emotional piece that would bleed all over Time’s centerfold. I went back to work, staring at the two hundred or fewer words I’d written and looking for a sign of blood.

No blood. I squeezed my eyes shut until they hurt, opened them and looked at my neighbors a bit closer.

Across the narrow aisle a boy and his mother sat. Mom looked careworn and the child appeared listless. Mom wore a fading red dress. I’m not a style horse, but I knew that one had passed years ago along with its better days. The boy wore worn,  ill-fitting hand-me-downs. I grew up with a lot of that and I got a little lump thinking back. Neither looked my way. They seemed oblivious, sunk into themselves. The word “desperate” came to mind.

Funny what people can project without doing a blessed thing. I’m a writer and my life is mostly on paper. I don’t talk much except through my fingers, but in a sudden paradigm shift the beginnings of excitement surged someplace inside.

I looked at the lady. “Ma’am?”

I broke her reverie and she slowly turned toward the sound of my voice.

“Are you addressing me?” She had a soft and elegant voice that belied the rags I’d stereotyped and her voice had a deep-south accent I tried to place immediately. It’s something I do, a game, I guess. Alabama? No, more Tennessee. Memphis maybe, but city, not ridge-runner. Gotta be careful with stereotypes. The accent and manner caught me off guard. She didn’t smile, but her face gentled as she focused on something beyond lassitude. She seemed younger then, effecting a small, significant transformation.

“Yes, ma’am. I’m a writer for Time Magazine and I’m writing an article about the bad economy. I’m stuck, and as I glanced around for the first time since taking my seat, I realized there are three people around me and I’m sorry to say I may have stared. It came to me that my three companions may have what I’m trying to develop. May I ask you a few questions?”

She hesitated, “Why, I don’t know…”

The mismatched man came to life. “Mister, them’s my sister and her little ‘un. Muh names Ollie…Ollie Pratt. Why not you ask me your questions?”

He had the same accent, but his voice had an unusual, gravely texture to it, like maybe he’d been a miner and got a snoot full of coal dust over time.

“Why, sure,” I said. We introduced around; Ollie, Mary Beth and eight-year-old Derwood. After I broke the ice they came out of their lethargy.

I proceeded to ask about them where they were going and where they had come from. I got that they came from a little village a few miles from the big metropolis of Memphis, Tennessee. I chalked up one for me. I asked them about their jobs and their opinion of our government and if they favored what it had in mind for the economy. I asked the questions gently, almost apologetically. I held in my excitement, because these were people, real people living just what I needed to hear about.

And while we talked I got to know them and they began to smile and trust me. Ollie’d been a miner in West Virginia, but when the mines closed he had to go all the way to Memphis to find work.

“Gas station, pumpin’ gas, sellin’ candy and cigarettes.” His expression said he didn’t like it. “Mining, yuh got dirty, but yuh had yer crew keepin’ yer back all the time. Scarier selling gas with all them robbers out theah then workin’ under the ground.”

“Yes, I understand. This country’s gotten to be a dangerous place. It’s part of what my article is about. There is a correlation between tough times and crime.” And other things, I thought, but didn’t say it.

“We aren’t well off,” Ollie said. “Done visitin’ tuh oldest sister and her Fancy Dan husband. He’s a stockbroker in New York City. We proud, but with the government bailin’ out all them big banks and fat companies, I figured we’re worse off altogether, so’s we went north to see if sister’s man could help us a bit. Turns out he’s lost a good bit himself and he’s concerned about carryin’ his family. Goin’ tuh sell his boat and the summer place. Don’t know who’d buy it, but somebody’s got money somewheres.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Well,” he stopped to take a long breath, “we’re on our way home none the better. I figure if the fat cats are down in the dumps, where’s that leave us? Nowhere, I think.”

Ollie had started to get animated and then thought better. I wasn’t the enemy. He figured it’s the government and I knew some part of that would creep into my article and become the part that bleeds.I lost track of time and when the whistle sounded ahead to warn an intersection, I realized we were entering the outskirts of Baltimore. I thanked these down to earth people and wished them well. I had my story now and I knew just how to get it into that centerfold. I’d earn my pay, this week anyway.

Getting Along

I HAVE ONE hand in my pocket. The other holds a stick slung over my shoulder. A blue polka-dot kerchief filled with all I own bobs at the end. I whistle something out of tune, but it’s happy and that’s all I care about. The road I travel is dusty and today’s going to be hot. I’m on a lane with overhanging trees and their green leaves slap me gently as I pass. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going; I just know I’m free. Free to make my own choices. Free to succeed or fail and it’s all the same to me.

The hand in the pocket holds a piece of paper. I take it out again and look at it, maybe for the hundredth time. It’s my divorce decree. I jump in the air and click my heels. There’s no one around, but it could be Madison Square Garden, for all I care. Out from under. Hot dog! I could have one day left on this earth or forty years, I couldn’t care less. Happiness is a piece of paper with official writing on it in dull, dry as bones legalese, but to me it spells freedom.

The blue polka-dot kerchief doesn’t look like much. Nobody is going to stop and rob a dusty guy with nothing but a tied up blue kerchief at the end of a stick. They wouldn’t guess there’s sixty thousand dollars in there, her payoff. I get the money and she gets the house, the grounds, and the headaches.

The kids? I’ll miss them, part of the price. Thinking back to the troubles, they’re better off with her than me. She influenced them too much while I worked my butt off trying to stay even with her spending habits. They caught her particular brand of crazy and nothing I did could lead them out of her downward spiral. I know a guy shouldn’t give up on his kids, but when I decided, I saw only a stacked deck and me with no aces.

Reason with her? Hah! You didn’t reason with that witch. She’s a perfect definition of a fair weather wife. Fine while everything went her way, but one downside, one need to move together to meet a challenge or ward off an enemy or handle some other crisis as a couple and she’d leave me in my corner all alone. Solidarity? Loyalty? Hell, no!

I stop and concentrate. I send her a mental message willing her lots of big headaches. I wish she could see me smile!

Twenty-five years of my life I devoted to her and her spawn. Now that I’m out of it and fancy-free once again after half a life of pure agony, I can do what I want, when I want and I love the feeling.

I could be stupid, carrying all that money in the bag at the end of a stick, but I’m thinking I’m smart. Who’s going to see money on a tramp? They’ll see dirty clothes, underwear, maybe a dented pot for cooking and book matches, maybe fingernail clippers, maybe even a razor and soap, but not money.

Regardless, I’m not that stupid. Got a little Smith and Wesson twenty-two short riding herd under my jeans, right over the iliac region, you know, right where the back curves inward, makes a little hiding place. Got the gun wrapped in a piece of old blanket. Shirt hanging out loose, who’s gonna see it? Hardly feel it, but I know it’s there and guess what? Yeah, I got plenty of ammo on me, too.

I don’t like guns, but a man needs to protect himself. Won’t be long before I find a place to stash the money. I’m going to disappear, become someone else. Got the profile down and I practice it as I go. Just need to find a small town, 8500, maybe 9000 people, small enough so I can be known in my circle, but big enough, you know what I mean? I want a place where I can feel comfortable with my handful of friends but not be known by all the people. It’s insulation by my way of thinking.

I’ve got plans, you see. I’m going to start up a little business. I’ve been mulling it over for some time. This money’s my grubstake. No one knows my plan because no one is going to know me until I’m ready. That gold-digger wife I had won’t know, but after I’m back on my feet, I’m going to send her a note, twist the knife, so to speak. Maybe by then I won’t hate her so much. Maybe I’ll even pity her. Yeah, pity, I’ll use that in my letter from…let’s see, where shall I send it from?
Have to think about that.