I am the regret of the elderly. The deja-vu fucked feeling that settles in your heart as your try to sleep. Sleep is an illusion. Sleep is a vicious whisper; Johnny cut your heart out. He keeps it in the freezer. Remember when we sat under a freeway overpass, forties sweating in the sun? We were bigger than everyone.
Looking through the wrong end of the microscope.
Children die. Women get raped. That's a drag sure, but have you watched this new show? This new show will fuck your head up. Give you something to think about other than Border Patrol and Peter Thiel and what the fuck is going on anyway. Think I'll douse myself in grain alcohol and start a goddamn fire.
I remember when all you needed was cigarettes and a cup of coffee. And me. I was the catalyst.
Yeah, I know your Dad was a dick. Yeah, I get it, he never understood you, and you never undestood him. Did you understand the symbolism? Maybe not. I once saw you abandon your friends to die. That was illuminating. I learned from that shit.
Donut shop. Coffee shop. Park bench and lights throbbing. Did you hear about? Did you see? That show last night. They were wasted. Or I was. Just like every show. And now they all seem the same. Was it a show I played or was I just there. Did. I. Make. The. Guestlist. ???
Diner breakfasts are salvation. Hash brown Jesus, make me whole. Trade me some shuteye for a glossed out soul. One bump of salvation, cause I'm on a roll.
Splitting whiskers won't make you whole.
At Pete and Ginny’s cafe cum gin joint, the bar runs from the bright front window down to the shadows by the kitchen door. The light here gets progressively darker as you walk along the mahogany and brass path from our perky entrance to possible perdition, as if you’re diving deeper into the ocean.ReplyDelete
Today, it looked like one of our regulars, Ben Frazee, was exploring the Marianas Trench of alcoholic melancholy. At the far end of the bar, Ben seemed to be sucking in darkness as much as booze, like he was hoping to suffocate — or drown — whatever lick of flame he still carried for his now-ex Kasie Dellasandro.
“Hey, Ben. What’s happening, brother? Pete been taking care of you?” I said as I came on shift. He merely raised his chin in greeting, mumbled something and then stared back into his glass, somehow deeper than the six inches of melted silica, Tennessee ethanol and frozen H2O that sat before him.
“Dude, if you looked any lower you’d be staring at the world from under those rocks,” I said.
“Does it matter? Maybe that’s what I need, a different point of view, like looking through the bottom of this glass. Even at six bucks a shot,” Ben said as he sucked down that last puddle of whiskey. Then he crunched on an ice cube and I shivered a little.
He pushed the glass toward me, saying, “Y’know? Things looked much better. Gimme another glass of enlightenment, Kenny.”
“Girl trouble?” I asked while shoveling him his Jack and Coke.
“Does it matter? All us birds perched on this mahogany are here for some sad reason, otherwise we wouldn’t start drinking at noon on a Tuesday. Now would we?”
“Well, that makes the boss glad. But even after five years of distributing liquid psychotherapy, sometimes serving the tail end of this early crowd makes me feel kinda guilty.”
“Don’t. I’m fine. We’re all fine. And no bitch will ever drive me to drink. Or that’s what SHE said. I can drive just fine on my own and if not, then there’s always Uber. Of course, then a bitch might be driving me FROM drink.” Ben, quieted for a second and then let out a laugh at his own drunk joke. But I couldn’t laugh at the poor guy.
“So maybe you might slow your roll for a while. Okay? Make me feel a little better.”
“Aw, okay, Kenny. You know, I always liked you. Straight shooter, good listener, you don’t overdo the ice , you don't stick any fruity-ass fruit in my glass and you don’t chintz on the whiskey. You’re a saint, brother,” Ben said as he extended his hand to shake mine. When I let go, I noticed there was a ten-spot stuck to my palm.
I told him the next one was on me, but that would be it for a while. I thought he was going to cry right there, but I wasn’t sure of the exact reason. Sometimes drunks are hard to figure out.
At my break I slipped away from the noise to call Kasie to tell her how Ben was handling their breakup.
“It doesn’t matter, baby. Don’t forget to pick up some milk on your way here after closing time. Gimme a call so I can…turn the on porch light for ya. Okay?” she said. Then hung up.
When I got back behind the bar, I noticed Ben was gone and never touched his last drink. I took a sip before I dumped it. That's when I realized I forgot to ask Kasie what kind of milk she wanted. I decided it really didn’t matter. I’d go home to my place after work instead.
Sometimes women are hard to figure out. Just like some drunks. Love is too. But what the hell does that matter, either?
Love your dexterity with the visceral details. I can hear the crunch of that ice.Delete
I agree. And you tapped into that scene perfectly.Delete
I love stories where characters choose their better angels but without sentimentality. Weary, pragmatic kindness still counts as kindness.Delete
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Part 1 (Part 2 in reply)ReplyDelete
Jake had been out of the killing business since the kids came along. When first he saw his little Emma, so pink and vulnerable and innocent, and felt the crushing weight of his responsibility for her, he told Leo he wanted done. “I’ll miss ya,” the big man said, as they downed one last shot in the seedy Orlando bar they’d called home, “but I get where you’re comin’ from. Still. A girl. Girls are expensive. You gotta pay for the clothes, college, the wedding…” Jake said thanks but no thanks, paid for his drinks, and left.
It had been a good life, being a family man. Mostly a good life. He had an honest living as a foreman for a construction company, a modest house in a decent neighborhood, two weeks’ vacation every year. He took care of his girls. Three of them now, pretty like their mother, and he showed their pictures to anyone who would look. There were soccer games, sleepovers, birthday parties, trips to Disney World, and he was up for all of it.
But he hadn’t been feeling so well lately. First he thought allergies, maybe a cold, then when the cough lingered maybe an infection, and his wife and Emma nagged him to get it checked out. He put off the appointment, once, twice. He’d lived with worse. Can’t work construction without getting hurt once in a while. If it was something that would eventually get better on its own, why waste the money only to find out he was okay?
Then he wasn’t so okay. He thought it was one of those perfect storm things. Working outdoors on a hot afternoon after a greasy lunch that he shouldn’t have eaten. Next thing he knew he was in the ER, tubes all over the place, monitors that wouldn’t stop beeping. His wife sitting quietly beside him, her face a war between fear and worry and told-you-so.
They said he had cancer. “Just give me the specs, Doc,” he said when his wife had gone to the cafeteria for coffee. The others were too young for hospitals; Emma stayed home with them. “How long do I got?”
The doctor shrugged. It was inoperable. He talked about stages and types of treatments and general expectations and quality of life. Somehow having a blueprint, seeing the shape of it, made Jake more comfortable about his situation, or as comfortable as a man can be when his days were numbered.
Physically, he didn’t feel so bad, not yet, just got tired easier than he used to. But, as they had every other minute, his thoughts returned to his girls, his wife, how he would take care of them now that he couldn’t work more than a few days a week, short ones at that, confined to his office. He didn’t have life insurance; the whole deal seemed like a long con to him. His memory latched onto his last meeting with Leo. “Girls are expensive…” How hard would it be, to take a job or two? He could still drive. Could get around with his oxygen belt-pack. His wife didn’t need to know. A dying man deserves some time to himself, doesn’t he, without having to explain every little thing he did?
But Leo had his doubts. “Look, Jakey, I get it. But I want you to sleep on this. Really think about it. If this is the way you want to spend your last days. Sixteen years ago you stood in that same spot and seemed awful determined that this wasn’t the life you wanted anymore.” Jake was ready with his decision but Leo wouldn’t take him up on it yet. “You feel the same in a few days, you know how to reach me.”
So he took a few days. Emma, his first, his heart, wanted to take him places, now that she had her license and a vacation from school. They went to Daytona Beach, took long drives up the coast. During one trip, they stopped at a place that cooked shrimp straight from the boats, and a TV news network was blaring from the bar. “Who’s that schmuck?” he said. “I’ve been seeing him everywhere.”
Emma made an expression he remembered from the first time his wife had tried to get her to eat peas. “He’s gross, a total perv. He, like, sold girls to his friends. Girls younger than me, even. Disgusting. I hope they lock him and his sick friends up for the rest of their lives.”
The picture changed to a video of a girl, maybe a little older than Emma. Looked a little like her, too. She was crying. Every word in the caption below her face made his blood boil. If Leo gave him a job like that, Jake would do him for half price at least.
“You ready, let’s go.” Jake pulled some bills from his wallet.
She filled the car with nervous chatter on the way home, and he wanted to listen, wanted to soak up the music of her voice, but it was hard to concentrate. All he saw was that bastard’s smug face. When she pulled into the driveway, he said that he had to run a quick errand. Something he forgot to do when they were out. Something that wouldn’t take long.
He still saw the questions in her eyes, the fear and worry, all the way into town. He saw them while he parked, while he took a last hit of oxygen before walking into the bar.
“I won’t take no bullshit jobs,” Jake said. “No turf wars, none of that crap. I want guys like that Epstein creep.”
Leo hesitated for a moment. Then stuck out his hand. “Welcome home, Jakey.”
It blows my mind how you do this. So many plots live in your head. This is another awesome example.Delete
What Dan said. And the ease with which you juggle all the elements of those plots.Delete
I really don't have words for how much I love this piece, Laurie. It's sweet, then heartachy, then you just kinda want to cheer for Jake. <3Delete
Love for the home piece and the MaderRap™. Especially the first paragraph.ReplyDelete
I love how it ramps up and reaches a type of sorrowful beauty.Delete
More love for the home piece and MaderRap. Love the rhythm of the beginning and the end, and (as always) the way you sing the truth.Delete
From as far back as Beth could remember, she’d been schooled in the matter of deportment, not only for the sake of her standing in society, but so that she could catch a suitable husband when the time was right. She learned to stand and sit straight, even when the gentlemen around her were allowed to slouch. She was taught which fork to use and to always keep her elbows off the table and her napkin in her lap, despite what the gentleman at the table might do. And she was trained to skillfully avoid giving any sort of offense to anyone – but most especially not to any eligible men.ReplyDelete
Beth reached a marriageable age, and she put her deportment lessons to use. She was careful to never step on anyone’s toes, literally or figuratively. She avoided upsetting her mother with arguments, even when she disagreed with the woman. She swallowed her opinions in conversations with friends and strangers, though it nearly choked her at times to do so. And she tried her best to never, ever inconvenience anyone at all.
Beth played by the rules for years upon years, growing more melancholy and disconsolate with each passing day. Why, she wondered, was it so terrible to have an opinion, especially one supported by facts? And, come to that, why was is it so terrible for a woman to show that she had a brain and knew how to use it? Why was she always the one inconvenienced and never the one to cause the inconvenience? Had she only been born into this world to spin out her days muzzled and chained?
Then one day, it happened, as she sat with her mother and some various acquaintances, chatting over tea.
“It’s ridiculous,” Eloise said, her pug nose in the air. “Letting that poor girl think she fits in with us. She’d be better off with her own kind.”
Beth turned toward Eloise with a blank expression. “Her own kind? Whatever do you mean?”
Eloise, ever obtuse, replied, “You know precisely what I mean!” She lowered her voice to a mock whisper. “Gypsies.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, Eloise,” Beth said, setting her tea cup down with rather more force than was necessary. “Esther isn’t a Gypsy any more than I am the Queen of France.”
“She must be,” Eloise replied. “You’ve seen what she looks like. And her manners! Surely those of someone raised wild.”
Beth twisted her fists into her skirts. “I don’t see how anyone with the manners of a goat can possible criticize a lovely girl like Esther.”
Eloise’s brows drew together in puzzlement, and then her mouth dropped open in surprise. One of the other ladies gasped, and Beth’s mother admonished her.
“Apologize at once!”
Beth shook her head slightly. “I will not. I will not apologize for speaking the truth, however unkind it may be. Nor will I sit here and listen to Eloise, or anyone else, speak ill of someone because of how she looks or because she wasn’t raised with the same advantages as we were.”
“And for that matter, I refuse to be constrained any longer by this false politeness we’re all made to endure. I shall speak freely, if I so choose, and keep quiet only if it pleases me. Begging your pardon, ladies, but you and the rest of society is not my top priority. Neither are you, mother, nor any potential future husband. I am my top priority. Anyone who doesn’t like it can tuck themselves into my sewing basket and carry themselves straight to Hell in it.”
With that, she bobbed a polite curtsy to the assembled ladies. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said. And then, “Good day.”
And it was.
Brava, Beth! I love this: "Anyone who doesn’t like it can tuck themselves into my sewing basket and carry themselves straight to Hell in it."Delete
This is a great piece and an illustration of strength. Tight, solid, and fun.Delete
I love the sly nod to Goodfellas in the opening line, and how it then goes in an entirely different direction, until we ask ourselves "Does it really?" The characters are every bit as vicious as Tommy and Jimmy.Delete
You’re with me now. We’re walking into some place brutal. Hard. Ice-cold. One of the places known simply as Off Limits.ReplyDelete
“Are we meant to be here, Mama?” you ask.
“No. No one is meant to be here. Ever. But it’s okay.”
You flinch when a sound reaches us in the hollow air of the tunnel. A sound of something monstrous. Something not meant to be. A roar and a shriek and a lament. I flinch too, but I’m your momma and I can’t show my fear.
“Mama, what was that?”
“It was something we have to get past.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Neither do I, dear heart. But we have to. Be brave.”
I already miss the pugilistic night of the surface world, gusts like dancing feet, tense quick jabs of rain and sleet; despite the lightning combos to our body, the sudden hulking scimitar of the hook, this place is so much worse.
I want so badly to say this, but I only think it: You are a warm jewel, a pulsing light. Your copious life makes mine a blip. You are a white hare glistening in an arctic winter. You stand still, quivering, brimful of the moment yet unmindful of the rest. You are a bird, mellifluous as a single sunrise in spring. You are full-throated, raw, momentous, awake to all your possibilities. You are an artist on stage and I the audience, each a battery charging the other. How do I tell you what you mean to me? How do I not scare you away? How do I pretend it’s okay?
“Mama, is that a man?”
I start and squint yet cannot see what she sees, though I sense some immensity moving peripherally, like a shadow disengaging from its host, like a dark uncoupled ghost.
“I don’t know, my sweet.”
Our crime was knowing, is all. Things were set in motion. We are so small. Which might yet be our hope. Hope. The most vicious of four-letter words.
I feel her hand squeeze mine harder, and a flurry of mechanical sounds echo ahead and behind, steampunk corvids and clanking maestros preparing for some dark discordant machine song.
The voice when it comes is close yet far, flat yet loud. Intimate and appalling, snaking through the marrow of my bones.
“Your first mistake was to leave. Your second and worse mistake was to take her with you. Your third, and by far your worst, was to tell of what you know.” A voice that sounds like something flayed, a whisper-shriek like steel wool raked over mortal wounds, an unviable thing aborted by another universe yet thrust into this.
My fear near throttles me, but I manage to say, “Let us past.” My voice with subatomic spin passing through nothing, a neutrino sigh.
He is pestilence. The deadly sludge in a reactor. Something oily and massive clogging a sewer. I can smell his awful smile. He doesn’t even need to speak. The impasse between us spans eons.
My girl’s hand squeezes tighter, and I can feel the tremors of her terror. This gives me the strength I need.
“You have the power to destroy us; that is obvious. Still, you will allow us passage. You will show ‘mercy’”—hoping he doesn’t hear the quotes around that word—“because if you don’t, the circuits woven into my veins will transmit topside what unfolds here, and everyone will know you as the monster of our nightmares you claim not to be. So prove it. Let us go.”
If silence can be personified, his is a great bubble of malevolence, an inbreath of all that is loathsome, a quietly calculating horror, far from sane yet bright as the suppurating heart of an infection. Time uncouples from space. We are unmoored, adrift in a warp of unnameable matter.
After the alpha of then and the omega of when, he speaks.
Good call, but you will never make things right, I think, as we head for the unknown, hands still clasped, my tiny fawn’s galloping heart echoing in the pulse of her wrist.
Love this. Thank you. I'm still digesting it.Delete
Wow! I need to chew on this one, too. It's awesome. Great dialogue.Delete
This one kept wanting to go more sci-fi when I meant dystopia; not sure I should have resisted it so much. In a strange way, this is another take on the theme Laurie wrote about here: powerful predatory men with the world stacked in their favour and how, just once even, we might see them thwarted.Delete
I love your horror, and I love this sci-fi horror. Creepy neck chills all the way through.Delete
And this: "Hope. The most vicious of four-letter words." Yes. So much yes.
Ursula leaned forward, her upper thigh rasping against her knee. I’d insisted she wore fishnets: they’d always done it for me since I’d seen that movie where the French maid offered her employer extra services. It’d been a revelation to me, like she was almost half nude, her skin available but barred-away like she was in a cage. I loved the texture too, the close diamond pattern like a lizard’s scales. I was aching to touch her now, to slide the palms of my hands along her legs, snagging the fine mesh with the tips of my fingernails, listening to the soft tugs as the strands skipped past and my fingers inched forward.ReplyDelete
“You want for me to play this time? Or maybe you take the initiative? Ursula looked up at me across the rim of her fringe, her hair immaculate. I knew it was a wig but that excited me too; the knowing how much she was prepared to change herself for me, my pleasure her main concern.
I shook my head, then seeing her frown added, “I prefer it when you take charge. It’s restful. Intimate. You know exactly what I like.” I unbuttoned my collar, inviting her to continue, knowing she would sense what it was I needed.
“Okay.” She stood. Her legs scissored toward me and she began to hum that tune; the one she always did. I leaned back and began to imagine another time; the flirtatiousness of Irene in the months after she'd married my brother. She’d worn fishnets for me too and it had been such a loss for me when they had to leave town. I’d been convinced Tom hadn’t known. He’d never said anything to either of us.
You pack so much story and detail so well into a small space. Now I'm missing fishnets.Delete
Your snapshots are always so vivid.Delete
What they said. I can always see the scenes you set. Almost hear and feel them.Delete