Short Stories 

 

 

 

Friday
Apr102015

Short Stories by Robin Wyatt Dunn, R.A. Morean, Frank Pray, Les Bohem, Ivan Alexander and Heidi C. Bowerman

Need

By Robin Wyatt Dunn

 

No one I knew I knew before I held you. No one I knew I knew before I knew who you were, when I saw you by the pool, by my motel room.

I wish I could have done more than I did; I love you still.

It's twisted but it's enough; this was my life.

And no one can say I knew something that I didn't, that I had some inkling of our coming story, over the American roads.

They're mine but they're dying, so just let me tell you about this before they're dead, before I am.

Her name was Annabelle Exquisite Surf, she of two mothers, two lesbians from Fruitvale.

I was ready to check out (from life, not the motel) but then I saw her, and thought, well, you know what I thought.

Just look at that body.

And: maybe not yet.

I wish it could have been different but this is what it is, a small moral tragedy, of the sort you read about in books. Or ought to read about, before they snuff it out.

Are you ready? 

1. What Weezer Says

It's a starry night that it begins on, two nights after I seduced young Annabelle and took her promptly from her Arizona motel room, sans parents, sans everything but her hoodie and her fine down jacket. And her purse, and a change of clothes.

This starry night it's mine, still now, as the land is mine, as the man says, this land is my land, this land is your land, from Staten island, to the new york highlands. Now I know where Staten Island is at, that's the landfill one, but I don't know where those highlands are at. Maybe he means those monk towers over the Palisades, where the Jesuits roosted like Crows in the long ago. Or maybe that's upstate somewhere in the Adirondacks, in armed territory.

Some starry nights are better than others. Some fall in lockstep with you, and never let you go. No matter how much you might want them to.

"Pass me the pipe, honey," she said, and I did.

Her ass was the sort of fruit not every tree grows, like one of those superfruits they try to market from time to time, the fruit of the Amazon come now available through technology, and modern political dynamics—

Her eyes were less desirable, if only more lonely, but they contained too why I am telling this story, their need. Need is related to the word death, related to the word corpse. It's hard to write about need. We want to hear about the land of plenty, the land of milk and honey.

 

But what this land is your land, this land is my land leaves out, is that this is a land of need.

 

We got enough weed for now but what we don't have is time; it's running out . . .

 

"Drive faster, honey," she said. And I did, as she inhaled the smegma aroma of lost American centuries, wisdom that will not be counted. Who I am, lost over my need—

***

And last at right this dike over my oils and ills, this droomy dream bow I sail on slow, like YoYoMa's bow, over her body, ode on a G string, unto her G spot, on my last night, before who I was soon to become, her man—

She was moaning hot on the grass. The serpent and the fable, and I'll be done before I'm able, to reaffirm—

***

It's like Weezer says: oh yea. all right.

But not yet, not enough. I owe you a little more than that. My government-to-be. My not-quite-there confessor.

This is a jukebox, then, imagine me with my cheap mike and my drool-boy curls:

I was a man with a plaaaaaan!

One that didn't work out.

Being an artist by nature, though one with but few works to his name, I considered suicide, and bought a gun.

And put it in my mouth.

And pulled the trigger.

I blew my brains out!

Only not really . . .

What happened was the bullet struck my two front teeth and ricocheted straight out, taking my teeth with them.

Mom and Dad had to pay for the replacements (and I had to get out of there before the cops showed up).

So like Weezer says:  like father. Stepfather. The son is drowning in the flood—

And that's me, or close enough. Drowning in my petite American flood, my petite American flood of Annabelle and the last century where we can pretend to mean shit . . . my heart is yours, I promise you that much, whatever happens—

***

"What're you doin?" she asked, sitting there in her bikini, dangling a leg in the water.

"Workin' hard or hardly workin,'" I said.

"What do you do," she said.

"I depose small governments with the stroke of my pen," I told her. And she smiled, just a little.

I don't know what she was smiling at. Maybe it was just my clothes. I hadn't changed them in five days.

"Where are your parents?" I said.

"At Costco," she said.

"You want to run away with me?" I asked her.

"All right," she said. "Just let me get my stuff

2. The Jerusalem Room

You can play there for days in the desert and no one will kick you out, as long as you have money to pay the keeper, and songs to sing.

I can sing forever, though my voice isn’t that good, and my songs are other men's.

The Jerusalem Room is one of those pieces of paradise you can still find in America, where no one knows your name, and no one cares to, where you can drink whiskey like water and watch the sun rise over the sky like a nuclear daydream, hotter than my love, or yours, hotter than fuel, hotter than my fear under the sentence I now face (a terrorism charge), hotter than one kilo of C4, hotter than my heart, and its twisted avenues of maintenance. The desert around The Jerusalem Room in Death Valley, California is a joy.

"Dance with me!" Annabelle said, and I did, sipping the last of the whiskey.

The Jerusalem Room's monetary habits are part of a growing American trend: you pay to play the piano in The Jerusalem Room. Just like every rock and roll star you've heard of in the last thirty years was the son or daughter of a rich rock and roll star.

I get the monthly deposits in my account and I don't bug my parents, except when I shoot my teeth out, and in return I get to partake in the American tragedy, of a man at the piano, who does not ask for change, who does not solicit songs, or take requests, because he can do just about whatever he wants at that keyboard and folks will listen, as long as he buys the drinks.

As long as the mood stays quiet and ridiculous. Like the end of the world.

"Dance faster!" she says, pouting, and I do, already a little drunk, watching her ass swing in the morning desert breeze.

If a woman can do anything, it's not make you go sane, but something that can be called a cousin to sanity, which is purpose. And you can choose a sane or an insane purpose, but women appreciate a purposeful man, even if his purpose be self-destruction.

I no longer do drugs. But I don't mind if you do them. That's fine with me.

The Jerusalem Room is my sanity. With the insane colors of the ruins glued all over the walls, like an exploded Hollywood dressing room. With the chintz and the glints of flint you'll notice from the barkeep and owner Mr. John, a face you'll soon never see again, as he is set to depart our American Story, with pancreatic cancer.

"Go break my last C-note and get me a bottle of whiskey," I said to Annabelle, striking up some Edward Elgar.

Elgar's no tight ass even though he was a Brit. He's delirious. Exquisite. Rich mellifluous and rigid, not like a square, but like an arrow, made by the finest fletcher of the city, fired straight for your besieging heart—

If I need Elgar I need you, deeper than anything, deeper than this time now, so young and already so broken, deeper than this problem I've developed lately, of remembering how who I'm supposed to be in the near future doesn’t jive with who I've recently become . . .

An asshole with a very cute jailbait high-schooler on his arm. Drinking booze illegal for her mouth. Smoking dope (provided by her, admittedly), similarly verboten, as she lacks a medical license.

I insisted she go on the pill as I've never been very good with condoms and so dragged her to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Barstow, for, while I'm sure she'd make a reasonably good mother, the evidence of my crime would then be inescapable.

But I suppose I've already broken federal law in transporting a minor female across state lines for immoral purposes.

My defense then rests, your honor, on the morality of my purpose.

The Jerusalem Room is called the Jerusalem Room because an old and crazy Jew bought the place in the mid 1950s and proceeded to glue the cultural effluvia which now make the place famous all over its walls.

Perhaps, some day, I too can be an old and crazy Jew. If I ever get out of California . . .

"Let me pour it for you, honey," she said, and I smelled her hair mixed with the Jack Daniel's as I played Elgar's dog running for the bone, down the piano . . .

3. Dinosaurs

While I drive I take my front teeth out with my lower lip, making them stick out at a 90 degree angle, then I pop them back in, and she laughs.

She laughs when I play the giraffe. I make a good giraffe (down in my heart), holding the wheel like a tree, and looking for leaves on the road. The giraffe is solid. Tall. Serious. Elegant (well I'm not that). Refined. The giraffe is an interloper who does not interlope. He overlopes. He steps right over the problem, to his food.

I wish I could do that.

My problem is the woman in the car with me. It's not even for the sex I love her, but for her eyes. She's even more lonely than I am.

"Where do you want to go, honey?" I ask her.

"Madagascar!" she shouts.

"Where that I can drive you to?"

"I want to see dinosaurs!" she shouts.

Dinosaurs I can do.

***

Are you listening? Am I getting through? Hey, what station is this—

***

We heard gunshots that night. Not the last ones I would hear, unfortunately.

But that was later and this is now, heading into a kind of sleep, though I'm still driving the car, heading east, toward the dark horizon, watching the stars come out, slipping my hand between her legs, and she's still awake, but her eyes are closed.

I cup her sex, some mercurial salvation, a big ticket item in a stripped down Communist-era market. I hold her sex with my right hand and the wheel with my left and the highway is eternal, and so am I.

***

What I found out later (but should have figured out sooner) was that this was not the first time my little angel had done this. Run off with a man without a word. So I was fortunate, as it turned out, that I was not the first Romeo to traipse up her virginal bower, because her two mothers back at that motel in Arizona did not at once notify the authorities. They knew she'd be back.

But she was far wiser than me, and what a man doesn't ask he has no right to know, and so all I knew was that she loved me (she’d told me that right away).

The night was too big for words.

***

"What are you doing?" she said to me, standing outside our motel room, that second night.

"I don't know."

"What do you want to be doing?" she said.

"You," I said.

"No, really."

"I don't know."

"Me either," she said. "Let's go to sleep. Tomorrow it's dinosaurs!"

***

I am not anyone. No one in particular.

She is someone. I do not know who she is.

I belong nowhere, and everywhere, which means I can be anyone. Whereas she knows ...

"Are we out of weed?" she asks sleepily from the motel bed.

"Yes."

"Fuck . . ."

She knows who she needs to be. Her body is more useful than mine is. She is Protean. Assertive. She needs more marijuana.

"I don't get paid till next week."

"That's okay," she says.

I sit down by her warm body and look at the desert sunlight through the thin curtain.

I have to take her back to Los Angeles. I have to never return to Los Angeles.

"It's dinosaurs today," I say.

"Oh yeah!" Her small, round face is delicious in joy. I give her a kiss, then scoop her nude body from out of the bed and dress her, while she giggles. Something is happening but I do not know what it is. Love, I suppose, but I don't recognize what kind …

If I am careful. If I live my life without too many buzzwords. If I live at a sufficient distance from the wrong sorts of people. If I remember to remain productive. And useful. Warm. If I am borne on you—borne by you—and I bear you back …

If I am careful I will be allowed to keep her. As a prize. As appreciation. This is what I tell myself. It is too much, but it was what I told myself.

She hopped in to the car and I drove north, throwing the motel key at the window of the clerk, who raised his fist in comic rage, towards dinosaurs:

She is not my appendage. She is my extrusion. She is not my property. She is my prison guard.

"Baby you're beautiful," I say.

She snorts with laughter.

"Pull over I want to suck on your cock," she says.

"Safety first," I say, pulling over.

The horizon comes from the word horos, boundary. The boundary is the most beautiful thing. It can not be described in words. It is only barely felt in the medulla. The boundary is God.

I hold tighter onto the steering wheel.

***

We beg a joint from the proprietor of Dinosaur Haven, a huge and good-natured aging hippy, with a braided beard and a small huge-eyed dog who looks stoned.

I don’t get high any more; really I don't. But I got high with her.

The Stegosaurus, I realize, inhaling carefully, is a fruiting body. The Stegosaurus is a cosmic flower, seeking starlight, and pollen, with its long lows in the jungle dark.

"Catch me!” she cries and runs between the Pleiosaurs and Triceratops, their large bodies anchored with rusted metal bolts to the desert earth. They stand over me like the gates of Uruk. She is my Enkidu, though not my servant, though I am perhaps more wild than she. Together we can slay Humbaba, if she will reveal her evil face, if I can stand to face danger for Annabelle, if I can knock her up—

I pass her the joint underneath the Brontosaur and lean back against the polished fiberglass body. Doesn't anybody love dinosaurs anymore?

They do, I know. Though we are the only ones here. The only ones who could afford the gasoline today.

If we are in the Middle Ages I am a reluctant nobleman, of middling bloodlines and no particular talents. Perhaps above-average health for a noble, having taken up scribbling in lieu of drugs.

"What's that one?" she asks.

"Archaeopteryx."

"It looks like a bird."

"It's a dinosaur bird."

"I want a pet Archaeopteryx," she says.

"I'll get you one. But call your parents first. So they don't worry."

"I'll send them a text."

"Okay."

She types out her message.

"What did you say?" I ask.

"I said 'Met a fun guy!' "

I laugh. "Well good," I say.

Pterodactyl has a certain headiness about it, notwithstanding its huge and pointed head, its musicality of form can be understood as a moral lesson for the human species: of who we could be, if only we want it bad enough—

I want her bad enough but what I want about her is something I cannot have, her energy, and her innocence, her particular fragrance, as of a morning in some French peasant village of oak and disaster—

Tell me who you will become and I will tell you my name, it's Travis the Traveler, and I will be for you what you could be for me, if only you want it bad enough; your voice.

Let me be your voice, as Ian Holm in that terrible dead school bus movie is the voice for the grieving parents, let me speak for your suffering, so that I can be saved—

4. Fruitvale

"Where were you going with your parents?" I ask, driving.

"Home."

"Where had you been?"

"Texas."

"How come you're not a Lesbian like your moms?"

"Maybe I will be."

"I'm just kidding."

"I'm not."

***

That day was our first encounter with the police.

***

I dreamt of the dinosaurs that night. I was a dinosaur, or a kind of dinosaur. My territory moved over me and under me, lifting me up, and filling me. My mate was over the escarpment, moaning, her voice like a river from a previous era, filled overbrimming with messages only a few of which I was able to decode.

I’m hungry . . .

and

I’m in love.

I awoke in sweat. She was staring at me, standing in the room.

"What is it?" I said.

"I have to leave."

"Okay."

***

My money has amusing legal entanglements associated with it. I receive approximately $800 per month from my trust fund. Unlike other trust fund babies, however, the full sum of my estate will never enter into my hands.

My deceased uncle, who deemed me his peculiar beneficiary, decided to donate the entirety of my inheritance to the Republican Party upon my death.

Thus, while I am assured respite from starvation and homelessness, I must also work the system diligently to cover my basic needs, such as health insurance, which I finally managed to achieve from Medi-Cal, the coverage for the poor. But many other forms of governmental relief I do not qualify for, since I am, technically, independently wealthy.

Of course, I could always go to work. But no employer seems to value the skills I have.

Even my car will soon grow unaffordable. Then I will be unable to leave Los Angeles.

***

The encounter with the police had shaken both of us, I knew. I didn't want to let on that it had. We both were gloomy now.

Throw off society, this is easy to do. But society will never throw you off. You are one of us.

I had had my license and registration. No outstanding warrants. But drivers are few and far between these days. And Annabelle's lack of identification had not pleased the officer.

California law hung over us both like a grim smog.

I was driving her to Fruitvale. Her mothers were expecting us.

***

As a suicidal, recovering addict I could hardly claim to be an attractive mate for Annabelle, but Mrs. and Mrs. Exquisite Surf Wordsworth did not immediately throw me out their door, or greet me with a shotgun.

"Hello," said Mrs. Wordsworth, standing on her high porch. The two women almost looked like twins, though they were three inches different in height. Both graying, both serious looking.

"Mom, mom, this is Travis," said Annabelle, standing halfway up the porch steps, between me and the mothers.

"Won't you come in Travis," said Mrs. Wordsworth.

We'd driven all day and it was starting to catch up with me. But I would not faint and ruin the show.

"Annabelle tells us you're a filmmaker," said Mrs. Wordsworth, gesturing towards an armchair.

"Former," I said, seating myself on the edge of the large chair. In the lions' den.

"It's nice of you to bring our Annabelle back to us," said the other Mrs. Wordsworth, watching me with cool eyes.

"The least I can do," I said.

"Yes," said Mrs. Wordsworth. "I'm sorry, we haven't introduced ourselves. I'm Kathy, this is Margaret. Maggie, won't you get us some tea?"

"Do you take green tea?" asked Margaret.

"Sure," I said. "Thank you."

Annabelle hovered behind my chair, watching her mothers. She seemed pleased with herself. She'd brought home fresh meat for dinner . . .

"Thank you for not calling the police," I found myself saying.

"Why would we do that?" asked Kathy, smiling.

"Well, thank you for not doing it," I said.

"What do you do these days then, Travis?"

"I'm between jobs, Mrs. Wordsworth."

"Kathy please."

We sat in silence, except for Annabelle, who remained standing. I drank my green tea.

"He's taking me to Hollywood," said Annabelle. This was news to me.

Kathy's eyes widened. "Oh?" she said.

"I'm going to be a famous actress."

Both mothers laughed. I smiled nervously. Say something, Travis.

"She really is a remarkable young woman," I said.

"Yes," said Kathy, standing and putting her arm around her daughter for the first time since we'd come in. "Yes she is."

The mothers regarded their offspring. Who was the father? I hadn't asked.

"You'll sleep in the living room, Travis," said Margaret. "There's a futon."

"Sure," I said.

***

The morning light hurt my eyes.

"We're going shopping," said Kathy. "Our daughter is going to need new clothes for her big debut."

"What?' I said, regarding my new prospective-mother-in-law from beneath the thin white sheet.

"In Hollywood. If you need us, the number is on the kitchen table."

Annabelle waved goodbye.

I lay in the futon in the Bay Area morning light.

It was warm, like a lot of Bay Area homes; inviting. It reminded me of England in some ways, these homes, little nooks and crannies, granola and clean living.

I found my way to the shower and saw the white bucket in the stall. SAVE WATER the bucket announced.

I turned on the shower, letting it warm up, listening to the pitter patter into the bucket.

Lesbian mothers were very strong, I realized. The gay community in Hollywood would be strong allies, I realized . . .  but somewhat overbearing . . .

What was I thinking. Did I really intend to abscond with the young woman? But I'd already absconded with her. The women were merely calling my bluff.

I was trapped.

I stepped into the hot stream of water and tried to forget that I was a man.

5. Hollywood

I am a failure as a human being, but this is all right. I fail very well indeed.

***

Hollywood is a great light and we moths move towards it. Not all moths see the light, but those who do move towards it.

Some are eaten, swallowed by the light . . . killed.

Some live in its embrace, dying slowly. Living richly.

In the darkness that surrounds the light, the moths can discern the outlines of the landscape. Here, a porch. Here, a rocking chair. There, the porch swing. Above, the night.

The Hollywood light is a powerful radiation. The weirdos come here because, even if you weren't weird when you arrive, the radiation will mutate you.

This is why moths seek the light, despite its killing force. It gives knowledge.

It gives power.

The great light of Hollywood is both death and religion. What else can it be, for little moths?

***

I am no exception. I swirl too around its light. But I am fortunate in that I have seen it kill people and know it now for what it is. It almost killed me too. So I decided to make my home near the light, and never go too close to it.

Even that is dangerous. It will likely try to kill me again. But I do not want to leave it.

It is like no place else.

***

"Oh my god I'm in Hollywood!" said Annabelle, in her jean shorts and hat and sunglasses. I wore my traditional black.

I was now her manager.

"Yes, you're in Hollywood."

"Oh my God, where are the movie stars?"

"They're in the hills, honey, and in Malibu, hiding away."

"Aww."

"But we can see the stars on the sidewalk."

We moved through the gentle crowd, reading some of the names under our feet. We stopped and had our photo taken with Marilyn Monroe, who sits so kindly by the subway, her skirt blowing up forever. They always find a good look-a-like; they capture her spirit, whatever the shape of the nose, or the exact length and shade of her hair.

***

I suppose I’m not a failure as a human being. I’m not a eunuch. I’m not Adolph Hitler. I don’t murder people for a living. I don’t train and manipulate child soldiers. I just commit statutory rape.

The statute is like a statue, like David, larger than life. But I am smaller than David, and less eternal. I may die any day now.

“I want a hot dog!” she cried.

“And you shall have one.”

We eat the dogs under the nuclear sunlight, not knowing what horror is. Almost unable to imagine it.

She is talented, I know that much. The question is, how shall I use her talent. Talent is something that wants to be used; it wants harnessing. I must use her delicately, and well. But even this assumes I will be able to get the modest permits. But that is easy enough; no, what I am assuming is that she will want me to direct her.

“So you want to be in the movies, dollface?”

“Yeah.” She smiles at me.

“You’re here at the right age.”

“Lucky me!”

“We’ll have to get us a Backstage, see what’s new.”

“Not today though. Tomorrow.”

“All right. Tomorrow.”

She is afraid. So am I.

“What kind of part do you want?” I ask her.

Around us we can see some aspiring actors already, a couple of them clutching headshots and resumes. A few more wait outside the photo studio, practicing the fine art of patience. In the distance, a pimp dressed in bright yellow including a huge top hat swivels his ass and plays with his cane.

“Look at that pimp! Oh my god,” says Annabelle.

“He is definitely a pimp.”

“I want a good part,” Annabelle says. “A really good part.”

“Yes, those are the hard ones to find.”

“We’ll find one,” she says. She presses her lips together.

“Meanwhile I’ll write you a good one.”

“Yes, do that!”

She runs in to a clothing shop and I follow her around, enjoying the attention a pretty girl gets you.

“I’m sending moms a pic!”

“Very good.”

She stands on the streetcorner, and takes her selfie, one arm wrenched around my neck, the other extended above, holding her phone.

In the shot, she grins like a mannequin doll, imperturbable, and I am the growling behemoth shuffling in her bright wake, the entourage.

The hanger on.

“I’m your hanger-on,” I say, looking at the photo on her bright pink phone.

“Yes,” she says, and kisses me on the cheek.

 

Parades

By R.A. Morean

 

                   He stands, one hip out, looking at sweating bottles of green tea through the glass of the General Store’s refrigerator. He is leggy-tall and I mean stringy with legs.  Slender, slight, sinewy, and at the pelvis is where the tutu flares—usually hot pink or perhaps purple with a slip of white. Today, mid- June, the wavering fan is a swirl of pastels.  Adding to his height are strappy sequined heels, open toed, revealing large horny feet, chipped nails, and a ring circling each pinkie. Bangles and bracelets jangle when he walks, a hand fluttering to his chest when accosted on the street for either overly friendly gossip or expletives. No conversation ever floats in the space between.

                He sighs and looks at me for help.  Which would I prefer? The Ginger Parade or Pomegranate Smoothie? Bright blue dual swaths of shadow curve like monotone rainbows above each eye and red lips part quickly, too eager to smile.  That smile is swift—he’s learned to deflect the dichotomies he lives with, the 1’s and 0’s of a polarized life.  He is, oddly, the physical embodiment of nuance.

                I say, go for the ginger, adding how expensive the glass bottles are.  He sighs and agrees and stakes a claim:  beautiful things are pricey. He turns away and selects the ginger, and the silly silver spandex top fitting snug and more secure than any I could ever wear, accentuates small breasts and a flapper’s waistline. He pauses and sets the bottle back on the shelf, the hand resting on this chest again, like a large stunned bird, motionless but somehow wired for instant flight.

                “But ginger can be so stingy on the back of my throat,” he says and reaches again, the other hand moving, this time for the purple red pomegranate.

                Then a young man walks past us and thick soled biker boots leave a little rubber smear on the floor when he rounds the corner, finds us and our discussion, and momentum is scuffed. The two of us glance at him and he smiles, his skin very white and his wavy hair dyed blue-black. He has a bouquet of cheap orange carnations and a soft cantaloupe tucked under his arm like a football. His heavy leather jacket is bright with silvery spikey cones waving with every move like fat porcupine quills.

                “Ooo, look at you,” says my new friend. “Nice studs.”

                The boy does not look at him, but finds me and says proudly, “I did these myself. Took a week. Blistered up my hand.”

                After he leaves, the man in the tutu changes his mind. “I think I’ll take the ginger anyway,” he says. “Sometimes the burn is good.”    

              “I always want to be the parade,” he told me once, brushing back a strand of blond wig-hair with one large, flat, manicured hand.

               But I know a parade of one is lonely. 

 

Beatle Boots

By Les Bohem

 

I met Heather Allen on my second day of summer camp. Two days earlier, my parents had taken me to the Burbank Airport and deposited me on the plane for Reno with about twelve other kids. In Reno, we were met by Ray, a counselor who wore two-hundred-dollar cowboy boots and chewed tobacco. He drove us in his pickup to the Walking G Ranch, a mile outside Taylorsville, California. The Walking G bred jumping horses and every summer part of their grounds was turned into a camp. It was a large spread against the side of the Taylorsville River.

The woods and mountains of northern California surrounded the ranch. Mount Lassen National Park was less than sixty miles away. I was thirteen and had just finished my first year of junior high school; I wasn’t at all interested in the bounty of God’s creation.

What I was interested in, so much so that everything else in the world might as well have been the background blur of an out-of-focus snapshot, was the Beatles. They had appeared to me like a vision during my first awful days of junior high. There was nothing as bad as junior high school, and the first days were the bottom of that incredibly deep barrel. Today, if I were given a choice between living as a heretic during the Spanish Inquisition or reliving the first two weeks of junior high, I would rush for the rack with arms outstretched. I often think that the kindest thing we could do for our children is to take them out and promptly shoot them on their graduation from the sixth grade.

The tortures were many. There were the bullies, older kids who threw pennies at you and wrote huge S’s on your back in chalk to mark you as a seventh-grade “scrub.” There were sweet talkers who sold you tickets to the third-floor swimming pool when there was no third floor. There were the unhelpful teachers, all of whom hated junior high school more than you ever would, and the ungodly routine of moving from class to class. There were the fights and the crushes and the panic when you lost some card or other that your father was supposed to sign. More than anything else, there was the newness, and a vague anxiety to go with it. Junior high school began the business of growing up, and it must have been that, more than anything else, that was what made the whole thing so frightening.

I had gone through my first week in the abyss and saw no hope of ever climbing out, when I heard “Love Me Do” on the radio. There was something in that record, as there was in all the ones that would follow, that was a salve against the wounds of day-to-day life. I think it was the promise of never-never land. The Beatles were Peter Pan come to give all of us Wendys one last chance to fly. We didn’t have to get serious, to think about our future, to grow up. We could stay outside and play for a little while longer.

By the end of the year, the Beatles had become a fixture in my life, an immovable point around which everything else turned. I had all their records, I knew the words to every song, I wanted to grow up to be John Lennon. The beauties of mountain and stream held little attraction for me. The only enticement that my parents could offer me for going to camp was that my friend, Andy, would also be there.

Andy and I had gone to grammar school together and our parents were friends. We’d been separated by our districts and were going to different junior highs, but we had seen a lot of each other during the year. Andy had a drum set on which he could keep a pretty good beat, and he could toss his hair just like Ringo. We were still very good friends.

But Andy had gone with his parents to New York, and he would be coming to camp a week late. For that first week, I was to be on my own.

At thirteen, I was the oldest of the campers by a year. It was a year that made a lot of difference. After the trials of junior high school, the sixth graders seemed loud and silly. Already on the truck ride from the airport, I had decided that I wasn’t going to make any new friends.

We got to camp around dinnertime. Several other truckloads of campers had already arrived. It was dark by the time we finished eating. Ray led the way back from the mess hall to the boys’ cabin.

It was a long room of about fifteen bunk beds, with a bathroom and a shower at one end. I took the top bunk at the far end of the room and put my duffel bag on the bunk below, to save it for Andy.

Ray slept in the cabin with us, in a separate area that was partitioned off. The partition only went up about two-thirds of the way to the ceiling, and Ray’s reading lamp would light the room in a faint glow after lights-out. Ray also had a record player in his “room.” And a guitar. That first night, he sang us to sleep with Hank Williams songs, and in the morning, we woke up to a record of George Jones singing, “The Race Is On.”

There was no schedule for the first full day of camp. We were supposed to walk around, get familiar with our surroundings and with each other.

I ate breakfast quickly and then started out by myself. I went into the woods beyond the mess hall and came to the river. I followed the river upstream for a while and then wandered away toward a barn.

The barn door was open and I went inside. It was a hot day, but the barn was cool. A huge mound of hay filled the place, and a rope hung from the rafters. I lay down in the hay and two things happened. I sneezed and someone laughed. I sat up quickly and looked around me. I couldn’t see anyone.

“Hey, toss me that rope.”

It was a girl’s voice coming from somewhere above me. I stood up and looked around. Heather Allen was sitting on a crossbeam, almost straight over my head. She was in jeans, a bright red T-shirt, and her hair was the same dirty yellow as the hay. I grabbed the end of the rope and tossed it up. It took me three tries to get it to her, then she caught it and in the same motion came back down with it, landing next to me in the hay. I sneezed again.

“’ts your name?” she asked me, pulling some hay out of her hair.

We stayed in the barn for about an hour. Heather was fourteen and her father was the Walking G wrangler. She lived there all year and she hated the summers because of the campers.

“Someday I’m going to make a lot of money and buy this place and none of you sons of bitches’ll get past the damn gate,” she said.

We took turns on the rope, dropping into the hay. My eyes were running and I was sneezing. She teased me about it and said it showed how much I knew. I trembled a little climbing out on the beam to catch the rope and I hoped she didn’t notice. She had a rich, wild laugh and the most wonderful eyes in the world. They were blue and they danced and shimmered.

After a while we both lay back in the hay, tired. Neither of us said anything. We were there for about ten minutes when a man’s voice called from outside.

“Heather? Heather?”

“Hey,” she whispered to me. “You’re not supposed to be over here. You’re all right though. What bunk’ve you got?”

“The last one back on the right, by the window.”

“Top or bottom?”

“Top.”

“All right, I’ll come get you tonight.”

She looked at me for a minute. My eyes were watering again. She took my hand and put my finger under my nose.

“For Christ’s sake don’t sneeze.”

She smiled and left.

I waited for about twenty minutes and then walked back to camp. I felt a lot of things at once. Nervous, because I would have to sneak out of the cabin that night, and because I was afraid she might not come. Important, because Heather was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen and she seemed to like me. Self-conscious, because hay made me sneeze and I was a year younger, and climbing out on beams and sneaking out of the cabin were things that made me nervous and I wanted, more than anything in the world, to be whatever it was that Heather Allen wanted.

After dinner, we had a bonfire and one of the counselors told stories. It was a warm evening with a breeze, the sky staying deep blue. I didn’t listen to the stories.

When it was time to go to bed, we walked back to the cabin with Ray leading us. I was in my bunk before most of the other kids were out of the shower. The bonfire had lasted a long time and I was afraid that I’d missed Heather. I lay there and waited. Soon all the others were back in their bunks. Ray took a head count and then went behind his partition. He began to softly play the guitar and sing. The others drifted to sleep. I picked up my jeans and put them back on. I held my shirt under my sleeping bag.

I lay there for a long time. I hoped that Ray would finish before Heather came, but he seemed to know every song ever written. I had begun to think that she wasn’t coming when I felt a breeze from the opened window behind me. I hadn’t heard a thing.

“C’mon,” Heather whispered.

Quietly, I slipped out of my sleeping bag and started out the window. Ray was still singing behind me. My jeans caught on a nail and my foot kicked against the wall. It was a loud noise. Someone coughed. Ray stopped singing. I froze with my head out the window. I could see Heather below me, waiting.

“Hurry up,” she said.

I made a face and reached back, trying to find the nail and unhook my jeans. Ray started a new song and I freed myself. I jumped out the window and stood on the ground facing Heather.

I pulled on my shirt and she took my hand and led me across the field toward the river. We went into the woods. There had been a moon but it was already down under the trees and the night was dark. She knew her way and walked quickly, dragging me behind her.

“Scared?” she asked.

I said that I wasn’t. I was thinking about her hand. I squeezed a little. She squeezed mine back.

We got to the river and she led me along the bank, until we got to a big slab of rock set like a shelf above the water. We sat down. The rock was cool, and without our footsteps, the night was full of its own sounds. Heather leaned into the water and pulled out two bottles of beer. She reached into her jeans pocket and took out a bottle opener.

“I get these from the guys in town,” she said. “Ricky steals them from the market.”

She handed me an opened bottle and sat close to me, so that my arm was practically around her. I had never had a beer before. We drank for a little while in silence, and then she turned and looked at me. Her face was very close to mine. I put down my beer and kissed her.

Her mouth was cool from the beer. I remember that most of all. The wet coolness that matched the cool of the rock and the summer night.

Heather was the first girl I had ever kissed and I was worried that she would say something, tease me the way she had about sneezing. She must have known, but she didn’t say anything. We kissed for a while and then drank some more beer and then kissed again. Then we sat back and looked at the stars. There were a lot of things that I knew would one day happen to me without really believing that that day would ever come. I would grow up, go to college, have to shave every day, get married, have children, die. I realized that one of those things had happened.

After a while, she got up and led the way back to the cabin. It was much harder to climb in the window than it had been to climb out. She had to put her hands together and boost me up. Ray’s light was out and the room was dark. There was the quiet sound of a lot of people sleeping. When I leaned out the window to look for Heather, she had gone.

The next day we went riding. I had never been on a horse and I was put in the beginners’ group. I spent the day hoping that Heather wouldn’t see me struggling with my horse. After dinner, I went straight back to the cabin and waited. She didn’t come.

The day after that we drove up into the hills and swam in a lake. We got back in the early afternoon. I walked up to the barn and started in. One of the wranglers yelled at me and sent me back to camp. Heather didn’t come that night either.

The next night, I was almost asleep when I felt the breeze behind me. Ray was singing behind his partition. I pulled on my jeans and climbed out the window.

We went back to the rock by the river. I wanted to ask her where she’d been for the last two days, but I didn’t. I told her stories about my friend Andy and I told her about the Beatles.

“I’ve never heard them,” she said. “But Ricky says they’re queer.”

“No, they’re not. John Lennon’s married.”

“I don’t care. The guys in town like Roy Orbison. They’re not going to play no Beatles at the Fourth of July dance.”

Below the rock, the water was deep enough to swim in. We swam in our underwear. There was something unfamiliar in the cool, dark water. We swam and we talked and we kissed, and it was nearly dawn when I got back to the cabin.

The next day was Friday. I didn’t see Heather. On Saturday we walked into town with Ray. He was picking up supplies. One of the other counselors met us there with the truck.

Taylorsville was a tiny town with a main street where there was a market, a gas station, and an American Legion auditorium. Outside the auditorium was a huge banner advertising the Fourth of July dance.

Ray bought us each a soft drink. I was hot from the walk and I sat on the porch by the market to drink mine.

Across the street by the auditorium were three huge Indians smoking cigarettes. They were boys, about sixteen, and as big as anyone I’d ever seen. They wore jeans and Levi’s jackets with the sleeves cut off. A fourth, dressed just like his friends, came out of the market and crossed the street. He had two watermelons under each arm.

He caught me staring at him and he looked at me for a moment and then he laughed. It was the meanest sound I had ever heard.

Heather came for me again on Sunday night. She seemed different. She was very serious.

She took my hand right away and we started walking for the rock.

“Don’t say anything,” she said, and squeezed my hand.

We walked through the woods to the rock and sat down. Heather looked at me and put her hand in the water.

“Do a lot of kids go to your school?” she asked.

“I guess.”

”I don’t think I’d like it in L.A. You can’t have a horse there.”

“People have horses.”

She was quiet. She looked away from me, then cupped her hands and splashed water into her face. She never looked prettier to me than she did then.

***

Andy came late Monday night. One of the counselors had driven to Reno to get him. He was wearing Beatle boots. They were the most wonderful things I had ever seen. Black and shiny with pointed toes and elastic on the sides. His mother had bought them for him in New York, from the shop that made them for the Beatles.

We made plans that night. I was going to get an electric guitar as soon as I could. Andy already had the drums. We would form a band.

The next morning at breakfast, Ray sat down with the two of us.

“Since you two are the oldest here,” he said, “we kind of figured you might like to go to the Fourth of July dance in town. It should be a lot of fun.”

Andy had brought The Beatles’ Second Album. I hadn’t heard it yet. Ray said that we could listen to it on his record player. I ran up to the barn. The wrangler who had thrown me out was there. I told him that I was looking for Heather. He said that she was at the stable. I found her and brought her back to the cabin.

We sat in Ray’s room and listened to the record. Andy would turn up his favorite parts. Heather didn’t seem to like him much. When I asked him to, he showed her his Beatle boots, which he had put under his bunk so they wouldn’t get dirty. She said that she liked cowboy boots better.

When the first side of the record was over, she stood up.

“It’s not very good,” she said and walked out.

I followed her outside. I caught up with her and tried to hold her hand. She pulled away.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“Hey, me and Andy are going to the Fourth of July dance. I thought we could all go together.”

“I don’t know if I’m going.”

She ran back toward the stables. I went inside and listened to the other side of the album with Andy. It sounded tinny and far away through Ray’s little speaker.

Andy was very excited about the dance. He thought that he might meet a girl there. In New York he had stayed with his mother’s sister’s family. His aunt had a daughter his own age, and the daughter had a girlfriend.

“I think we’re sort of going steady,” he said. “I’m doing pretty good so far this summer.”

I tried to find Heather the next day, but she wasn’t at the stables. She didn’t come that night.

The day after that was the Fourth. Andy spent the morning polishing his boots, which were already shiny and clean. We went riding that afternoon. When we came back to the cabin, Andy’s boots were gone.

Andy started to cry, and the other kids gathered around. Ray came out and I told him what happened. He spoke sternly to all of us about taking someone else’s property. Then he went through everyone’s bunk and duffel bag. There were no boots.

Andy didn’t go to dinner. He didn’t want to go to the dance either, but Ray said that he had to.

We drove into town with Ray and two of the girls’ counselors. We parked by the market and walked across the street to the dance. The auditorium was lit up brightly, and there were no other lights on in the town.

There were about forty people in the hall. It was decorated in red, white, and blue crepe paper. A jukebox played country music and old rock and roll. I looked around the room for Heather. She wasn’t there. Outside, someone was shooting off firecrackers.

Ray was dancing with one of the counselors. Andy hadn’t said a word. He walked over and sat by the punch bowl. The other counselor asked me to dance.

She was very nice. She was twenty and waiting to dance with Ray. We went onto the dance floor. I was still looking for Heather. Outside, the firecrackers were getting louder. About halfway through the song, I saw something shiny and familiar at my feet. It was Andy’s Beatle boot. I looked up. Dancing next me, wearing the boots, was an Indian boy, about my age. He had on a sleeveless Levi’s jacket.

He had seen me looking at the boots. When the song ended, he started for the door. I went after him without saying a word to the counselor.

He was outside the door when I got there, just to one side.

“Where’d you get those boots?”

“Eat it.”

“Those are my friend’s boots.”

Another voice came from somewhere behind me.

“Those are my brother’s boots.”

I turned around and the Indian I’d seen carrying the watermelons was standing behind me. His three friends came from behind the auditorium. Heather was with them.

“You want them back?” he asked me.

Heather looked right at me and smiled a tough smile. I was frightened. I could feel myself starting to cry. I didn’t want them to see that. I turned and walked quickly back into the building.

Andy was still sitting by the punch bowl. He looked up as I came in.

“I bet it was that girl that took them,” he said. I felt too guilty to look at him.

The counselor asked me to dance again, and then she danced with Ray and I danced with the other counselor. Andy stayed in his seat by the punch bowl. Outside, the firecrackers had stopped.

***

I only saw Heather once after that. It was about a week later. We were out riding and we’d stopped in a field to have lunch. There was the sound of a galloping horse and Heather rode past us. The sun was bright and her yellow hair caught the light. She disappeared quickly up a hill.

A few nights later I woke up, feeling a breeze behind me. When I reached for the window, it was closed. I still kept my jeans at the foot of the bunk. I slipped them on and climbed out the window.

It was a bright night, with a nearly full moon. I walked through the woods toward the river. There was nobody on the rock. I sat for a while, listening to the river and the crickets. Finally I got up and took my pocketknife out. I walked back into the woods and, picking a tree that could not easily be seen from the river, I carved Heather’s name and my own into its side. My knife was small and its blade was dull and it took me nearly until morning to finish carving.

 

The Red Light 

By Ivan Alexander

 

He could hear distant sirens, and wondered if he should pull over. The yellow traffic light ahead was turning red, so he stopped at the intersection instead. At the light he waited, the sirens grew louder. Bear earned his nickname back at the 753rd Ordnance Disposal, EOD in West Virginia, and it had stuck ever since. He was a congenial fellow and well liked. His frame loomed large on the field, hunched over a project, which is why his team mates had given him his endearing name, Bear. Now with many missions of bomb disposal behind him, it had become as much a part of him as his large steady hands, strong fingers, and he thought about that now. Bear was about to neutralize a newly discovered improvised explosive ordnance near the entrance venue at Yankee Stadium. It was deemed too sensitive to move, so his EOD was called. That evening's game with the Dodgers was postponed until Ordnance gave the 'all clear' signal. It appeared a homemade bomb, but unfamiliar. 

Bear had seen many devices, some more clever than others, some he would rather forget. All were diffused. But this IED was a new design. The trigger mechanism behind the outer casing cover was electrical; he knew that. It puzzled him why the inner casing had a flashing red light, which usually meant a timer. None was evident here. It resembled a simple 555 relay with both red and green LED lights, but different somehow. On one hand it appeared obviously simple; on the other it was remarkably well hidden, a sinister Chinese box hiding its true intent. He paused and watched, taking in his breath slowly to steady himself. Who, what fiendish mind, would install such a devious trigger, so simple yet so complex, he wondered silently. Everyone else at risk, including his team, were safely back of the hastily erected barricades, so he was all alone in his work. It was a job, his duty, and he was proud to do it. Saving lives was part of his training; it was also in his character. 

Time was fading into dark, and Bear knew many children were eager for the game, adult fans too. It briefly reminded him when he played little league back home in the foothills of Virginia, the small diamond field framed by the large blue mountains beyond. It gave him a momentary reassurance, but his training taught him to bracket the thought and move it safely aside. His thoughts had to focus directly on the dangerous task at hand without distraction. There were audible murmurs behind him, just beyond the barricades, police chatter. He knew how high was the tension there, having been an observer himself on other missions, tense, crouching, listening. He was crouching now, his large bulk armored in helmet and torso protecting armor, gloves removed as he worked his tools. A bolt was unwound a quarter turn, listening for a click. No sounds. He turned it again a quarter. By now beads of perspiration had formed around his eyes, and they stung a little. But Bear paid it no mind. It was impossible to reach inside the helmet's thick visor. In response he again steadied himself, unconsciously counting each breath as if it were his last. He was extra careful with the wire crossing over another, as their ends were exposed. He felt a vice tighten around his heart. A spark would be fatal. He finally removed the inner casing over the trigger, very carefully and deliberately he set it aside on the tarp. Then his fingers gently probed deeper into the mechanism, red light still flashing. 

There was a large red wire showing, obviously a decoy, and two lesser ones in yellow and blue, begging innocence, but he was not tempted to use his cutter on any of them. Rather, he pushed them aside for a better view, back behind the small nine volt battery. Hidden there was the key to dismantling this trigger, he thought. You have to think like a bomb maker, imagine his devious mind working in solitude, the monster chortling to himself. How many people will his evil creation kill? How much terror will it spread? He had to imagine it studiously like that. But instead he imagined his father and himself setting traps by the creek, remembering the beavers they caught. The branch down from their house would flood at times, and it was always the beavers. He remembered his father, tall and strong... But again he dismissed the thought and counted his breath. There was no time to reflect now, all that is passed. A few inches from his face was the deadly bomb that needed dismantling, and he needed more light. 

There was the pressure of time, the mysterious red light, the crossed wires, the beads of sweat, his rapid breathing, growing darkness; all weighed on Bear as he probed deeper with his instruments, trying to get a clearer view. Minutes seemed like hours. He set them aside to light another torch, moving it into place for its strong beam to better focus on the IED's trigger. Behind the barricades were flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles, casting fleeting shadows around him, dark silhouettes of his large hunched figure. He could hear a chopper high overhead. Bear finally understood the deviously treacherous mind of its maker, how he wired the trigger with a clever devil's bargain: Either wire, blue or yellow, could trigger the mechanism; or it could stop the bomb. Bear let out a long held breath, almost a whistle through his teeth, his steady hand betraying a slight tremor. Which wire to cut? Everything now hinged on this choice. He tensed: Which one? 

Bear had been here before, back in training at Quantico. He remembered vaguely the same choice presented during exercise. He chose rightly then; time fading like a dying ember, he must do it again. As his concentration deepened, the ambient background noise faded into silent calm. Incongruously, he saw his wife Mary and their little girl Sam, her golden hair playing in the sunlight. Was it an apparition? He could not dismiss them, but cautiously moved the thought aside.  He felt his fingers close on the wire cutter, squeezing, softly squeezing the blades to cut. Bear stopped, listening to his breath, making certain it was the right thing. He squeezed further... To his surprise, the LED turned green. 

The traffic light was green. He felt his foot on the accelerator... He never heard the loud bang. 

 

If Only…

By Heidi C. Bowerman

 

“If she does it again, she’s dead,” is how the text read.

If she stopped breathing again is what “it” meant.

Apparently, an oxygen mask was too much to ask for their dying mother. My nieces had somewhere better to be … in New York City.

There was not time enough to drive. They would have to fly out from New Mexico that night. They had somewhere to be … in New York City.

The remains would have to be sent and any service arrangements delayed, indefinitely. Although it would have been nice to commemorate what would have been Natalie’s 75th birthday, they may never come back from New York City.

If only they had flown in the first place.

But, Natalie wanted to admire the countryside. She had done it in the past. She was not that much younger then. Besides, she felt fine when they left California.

In Santa Fe, however, the altitude changed. Natalie began to wheeze, uncontrollably.

So they stopped the van, at the nearest emergency room, surprisingly.

“What’s wrong with her?” they asked.

“I don’t know. It could just be that she’s old,” the intern said. “What she needs is an IV and an oxygen mask.”

“Would you prescribe antibiotics for the road?”

“No!”

“But, we have to be in New York City.”

“Does she have an advanced directive?”

“No.”

The intern handed them a standard form to sign. The box clearly checked read: do not resuscitate.

As they signed the DNR, Natalie drifted in and out of consciousness. But when she was awake, I imagined her eyes saying, “I don’t want to die. Please help me.”

Unfortunately, my nieces were too busy planning their itinerary.

Natalie gasped for air.

“She’s coding!”

“She’s gone.”

What may have seemed quick probably was not for Natalie.

But, there would be no time to grieve. The sisters had a plane to catch.

They arrived with what they feared was only a moment to spare before the delivery.

Actually, they were quite early. As it would turn out, the baby came late. Days late. A healthy newborn girl.

“It’s too bad grandma couldn’t be here,” the baby’s mother said to my niece.

“Yes. But, like the doctor said, it was just her time to go.”

 

 

 

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