Sunday, April 30, 2017

Do You Need a Ride Somewhere?

It has happened before, I was in decent shape (for me) and then went back on the road to earn some boat money. This was a means toward an end; an end where I was going to live in a very healthy, minimalist way. I got distracted by this future healthy lifestyle and took my eye off the ball, again. There is nothing healthy to eat for 5 miles on either side of a highway. And after sitting on my butt for 10 or 12 hours of driving, I’ve not been very motivated to exercise. So, predictably, but suddenly, I realized I was back to an unhealthy weight and my fitness level had essentially just dropped off.

My Trek Antelope is my main means of transportation, but I’m only home 3 or 4 days a month and even though it travels with me, I don’t bike as much as I should. I decided that I could walk regularly if I put my mind to it. Recently I’ve got to where I’m doing 3+ miles four or five times a week and feeling good about it. I’ve been doing a lot of prep work on the boat, but I've been needing to do some work on prepping myself as well.  

On one of my walks, a car came up behind me and I could hear it start to slow. As the luxury car passed, the nice looking middle-aged woman driver seemed to be looking my way. Up ahead, the car did a gentle U-turn, and pulled over onto the shoulder. 

A few times before, I’ve thought I was going to get offered a ride. It may not be that unusual to come across a guy walking down the side of the road for exercise, but out by the highway, on the country roads around a truckstop, exercise may not be the first thing that comes to mind. 

Not far from me the lady turned her car a little deeper into the grass and got out. She was head to toe in business attire and walked on uncomfortable shoes. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but without even acknowledging my presence she walked down toward the woods to straighten a real estate sign that had begun to lean. “160+/- acres for sale.” I guess that explained the shoes. 

So just last week, it happened again. And it happened right next to some real estate signs. I can’t imagine but it might have been the same stretch of road. A car slowed down as it went by, did a U-turn, and came at me on the shoulder. It was an older Honda Prelude with the paint scorched off most of the horizontal surfaces. Down here in Florida, after 12 or 15 years, many cars have not only lost their sheen, they have begun to lose the paint. Older cars are even rusted on the roof and the hood.  

As the car came along beside me, the driver’s window rolled down. At the wheel was a young man; maybe 17 or 18 years old. A mop of loosely curled hair spilled out over the top of a pastel bandana tied around his head. His synthetic sleeveless shirt looked vaguely European and another bandana was tied around his right hand as it gripped the wheel. He must of been headed to an 80’s dance party or was looking for Richard Simmons. 

“Do you need a ride somewhere?” he asked with what seemed like genuine concern. 

I can’t imagine my appearance; near the end of 3 miles of walking, sweating through my shirt, a dirty Detroit Tiger cap, ponytail, old running shoes, and I probably hadn’t shaved for a few days. I caught a strong whiff of what seemed like both spearmint and patchouli wafting out of the car. 

“No, man. I’m a truck driver just trying to get some exercise,” I said as I sloshed my water bottle in the direction of the nearby truckstop. 

“That’s hilarious,” was all he said and he drove off, making another U-turn and continuing on wherever he had been going. 


Hilarious. 

At 6:20 pm on a Monday evening, plenty of traffic buzzed back and forth. I was close enough to Jacksonville and the farms out toward Hastings, besides St. Augustine behind me, that all kinds of different people in all kinds of vehicles were commuting in each direction. It wasn’t like I was alone watching the kid’s car drive off but I wondered as I stood there on the shoulder of FL-206 not so far from I-95, what exactly was hilarious?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cab Suicide

Warning: Contains plenty of adult language.


Joe drove his taxi across the Ringling Causeway as the evening faded into dusk. He loved this time of night. Striations of orange and pink and purple expoded in his rearview mirror and turned the glass towers of downtown into whimsical murals. With no fare in the cab, he had the windows down and the cool, salty evening breezes swirled around him. The winds off the Gulf always made him feel cleaner. His straggly, mostly grey hair, pulled back behind his head, twitched in the wind. He didn't smile a lot these days, but as he crossed the bridge and looked north over Sarasota Bay, he remembered what smiling was like.


He had been married to a woman who eventually learned to dislike him. The long glow of their romance had faded and they had gradually learned how much they disagreed about basic stuff. They argued about how to raise the kids they didn't have yet. They argued about the business he had started. They argued about money and whether he was making any. And they argued about stupid philosophical bullshit. Joe had finally played the bad guy and moved out. Just the same, she had probably been his last chance to be conventionally happy.


His business had almost taken off but then didn't. He and his partner had learned to scrabble and survive when it didn't seem possible to anyone else. Along the way Joe began to appreciate life, and to value things like money and success, in ways that most people, especially his ex-wife, couldn't understand. It wasn't about some external status, he felt he was doing something bigger and more personal too. With his wife gone though, Joe was able to see clearer the way his partner was handling the money, and how the company was actually doing. This more jaundiced eye helped him to leave the company after all. He still cussed at the notion that his ex had been right all along.


Now he drove this cab for a living and wondered what could possibly go bad next. Still, he drove a nice Town Car all day for Checker Cab of Sarasota. The company had the airport franchise, so only their cabs could pick up passengers there. It was decent money schlepping bitchy tourists back and forth between the airport and the resorts out on Lido and Longboat. At odd hours, Joe worked the city too, to make a little extra money. He wasn't even sure what the money was for, but it made him think that he was doing something with his life.


His last fare had been a family going out to the Longboat Key Club for their vacation. Two bratty kids, a gorgeous soccer mom in yoga pants, with a dad who didn't seem to deserve either. Joe was more than chagrined when he spotted some nerdy accountant who seemed to have it made; even though the whole lifestyle seemed foreign to him. The BMW, the minivan, parent-teacher meetings, the house in the suburbs, the fucking immaculate lawn, the pool off the patio, the packaged vacations and all that bullshit. It didn't seem like a real life to Joe, but it made him feel strange. Not quite jealous, not quite offended, but a little bit of both and something else too. Anyway, the dad tipped pretty well. The beginning of a vacation was where the good tips could be had. Everyone's excited and dad hasn't spent enough money to start rationing it.  


Joe turned up US-41 to head back home. This used to be 'the strip' in town back in the 50's. Old motels and seafood joints fought for waning attention with neon signs that lit the street. It was damn near Vegas for a mile or so. Joe could've gone home a couple ways, but up here he might find one more small fare. Every little bit helps, he thought. Helps what? he almost said out loud.


Near the end of the lights, a kid hailed for the cab. Joe slowed to turn and eyed the kid warily. The Chinese place was usually garishly lit, but it was dark this time of night. Hopefully, the kid just got off work or something. It was a strange place to be standing this late.


"Where to?" Joe asked from his already open window.


"I need to get up to Motel 301," the kid said flatly as he looked up the road and then back down toward downtown.


Motel 301 was a notorious spot on the northside and not the kind of place the cabbies liked to go after dark. Most of the local 'second string' hookers lived there with their junkie boyfriends. People didn't go to Motel 301, they ended up there. Trouble often found its way there too. The cops ignored all but the worst of what went on.


Joe eyed the kid again. He was wearing a clean shirt, his pants hung loosely. Just another punk trying to look tough. Mom and Dad were probably in the suburbs, nervously wondering where he was and if he was OK.


"Alright, get in" Joe barked, not convincing himself that it was a good idea. He hit the unlock button and the kid grabbed a backpack and climbed in.


They were silent as Joe drove up toward the airport and the motel. A jazz program out of Tampa buzzed quietly out of the cab's crappy speakers. Joe tried to think of something so he could chat with the kid. He usually liked to talk to his customers, but tonight he decided it was best just to drive.


Catching all the lights green was Joe’s favorite game. If he pushed the speed limit just a bit, he could usually hit them all. He seemed tp get away with a lot on the street. The cops gave him a little leeway with the taxi light on the roof. Being left alone appealed to him on many levels; ex-wives will do that for you.


Motel 301 was an island of bright lights out by the back of the airport property. The cab lurched and groaned into the rough parking lot as Joe looked around. A trucker had squeezed his big rig into the empty lot next door. The artificial light made the puddles shine like lakes from an airplane at night. There were a few cars around, but it looked like a slow night for the girls; weeknights usually were. A few stragglers hung around the stairs smoking, but most everyone had gone. Someone was probably making money tonight, most were not.


"You want dropped off out front or what?" Joe asked hopefully.


"My room's kind of in the back by those dumpsters. If you don't mind getting me close. Some of the people around here make me nervous."


Joe shrugged as if to say whatever. He didn't speak not wanting to reveal the tiny edge of nervousness that had snuck up on him.


"Right back there," the kid leaned over the seat enough to point toward a couple dumpsters at the far end of the building. One dumpster was at the edge of the light, half open with an odd assortment of junk piled into it. A dirty mattress leaned against the other which was just a dark box back in the shadows by the airport fence.


The cab slowed to a stop near the last room. Pealing paint and strips of plywood sagged off the neglected door. Joe clicked the meter which showed $4.75 in an eery green glow from the dash.


"How 'bout we just call it four bucks." Joe was tired. It had been a slow day until the nerdy Longboat dad's tip had brought him up to decent for the day. He wanted to give the kid a break, get him out of the damn cab, and go home to bed. Joe heard the kid dig in his backpack for a wallet and thought his day was about over.


Then he heard the safety click and felt the sharp stab of the gun's barrel behind his ear.


Fuck.


"How about we call it all your cash on hand," the kid grunted with a harder edge in his voice.


Joe looked through the chain link fence beyond the dumpster. The airport was dark. He knew no one at the motel would even stir for a gunshot. The quiet idle of the cab and the kid’s excited breathing were the only sounds. Joe knew he had to play this just right.


“Cash on hand” was such a suburban thing to say. Dad was probably an accountant. A bean counter and his punk kid; what a night.


The cab hummed. The kid rasped in Joe's ear.


"Huh ... well, thank God," Joe finally said.


"What the fuck ..."


"You're gonna save me a lot of trouble," Joe continued. "And you might keep me from wasting more time too."


"I don't understand, man," the kid stuttered. Joe felt the slightest release of pressure from the barrel behind his ear.


"You see, kid, I've been driving around in this damn cab, thinking about my useless, fucking life and about just doing myself in. Two years ago, my wife left me. Last year, I had to close my business and start driving this fuckin' cab taking tourists out to the Key Club and eating their shit every day. How would you feel?"


"Tough shit," the kid spit as he pushed with the barrel again.


"You see, I thought I would just pull into the parking lot out at Lido Beach or some damn place, stick the gun in my mouth and be done with this mess; just forget about it all. Been out to Lido four or five times and I couldn't do it. I don't even know what this gun tastes like yet. Do you know what your gun tastes like?"


"Fuck no, man," the kid said getting gentle again with the barrel.


"See, I figure about the time I hand you my money, you're gonna realize that you've been sitting in my damn cab for twenty fucking minutes and that I can I.D. your dumb ass. So you're gonna have to shoot me. I just wanted to say thank you ahead of time."


"Shit," the kid drawled and leaned back into the seat, still pointing the gun at Joe's head. "You are one crazy motherfucker, man."


"I'm counting on you now," Joe said sternly.


"I don't know, man. This is a fucked up situation. I don't wanna pop some crazy fuckin' cab driver. They'll hunt me down for that shit."


"Don't let me down, kid," Joe said.


He paused and then said, "Hey, you wanna see the gun I was going to use? It's a beauty."


Joe slowly pulled his gun from under the armrest and carefully held it up in his open hand; no fingers near the trigger. The motel sign bathed the gun in yellows and reds.


"A Smith and Wesson Mountain Gun, stainless steel, rugged, 44 fucking Magnum. What d'you think?"


"Its nice. I guess."


"You know once you cap me, you can have this gun too. It's built to take some shit - outdoors even."


"Fuck! You gonna give me your money or what? Crazy fucker. Jesus!"


"Look at these custom grips," Joe slowly twisted the gun in his hand. "You're going to love this fucking gun, kid. Don't forget to grab it on your way out."


When Joe caught the kid's glance in the mirror, the kid just stared back, dumbfounded and silent. His eyes swirled with anger and confusion. His gun still pointed at Joe's head.


Joe waited. The kid stared.


With the gun in his left hand, Joe let it drop slowly to rest on the steering wheel. He casually scratched the back of his neck with his right hand. The kid didn't flinch but leaned his gun a little closer, not yet touching Joe's neck again.


Again Joe scratched.


In a single motion, he stuck a finger in his right ear, pushed the gun over his shoulder and fired. The back window darkened and Joe's head swam in the acrid belch of gunsmoke and the incredible noise of the blast. His left ear howled, stinging like it was on fire. He had practiced that move in his head a hundred times.


He grabbed his phone and opened the door. When Joe stepped out, a couple girls were leaning over the third floor railing. They gaped and shrank away. Damn, he was still holding the pistol. Leaning back into the open cab, he set the gun on the seat and got a full face of the metallic smells from the backseat. He chose not to look at the kid. Joe already hated the kid for forcing his hand. He hated the job for making him think he needed the gun. He hated this life that kept kicking him while he was down. Joe slammed the door and dialed 911.

He wondered how he was going to keep himself from calling his ex-wife tonight.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Naked Kinky People Needed.


I have some issues with our current conversation about the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey." I have so many books on my list, many still piled on my night stand, that I'll not be reading the book. Further, I don't do movies, and won't see the film either. In our media soaked culture though, I have heard and read plenty about the book and the movie; whether I wanted to or not. I think we are making a mistake referring to this movie as 'porn.' I am not trying to convince anyone to be pro-porn, but we should be pro adults-making-their-own-decisions-about-what-media-they-consume. We do have plenty of issues about who has access to what at which age, but that is a different argument than what is or is not acceptable; and especially who gets to decide as much.

Despite how cool we think we are, the United States is a bizarrely puritanical and sexually repressed place. Many other countries have much healthier relationships with their own bodies and a much healthier respect for the sexual expression of others. For that reason alone, I am in favor of more nakedness in media.

Most of the repression in this country is an expression of patriarchy. We seem to have a great fear of women expressing themselves in ways outside certain small boundaries. This repression serves only to strip woman of their own power and happiness. There is an awesome column about that here. She says "... historically, attempts to delineate “good sex” from “bad sex” have been used to persecute women and queer people... " Ironically, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' was written by a woman. '9 1/2 Weeks,' a movie I mention below, was also based on a book written by a woman.

I don't have any experience with the book, but the movie, "Fifty Shades of Grey," is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America; a very timid and conservative organization. The movie, therefore, simply cannot be 'porn.' We should be very careful of how we use the word. Further, I've read that, for all the hype, Fifty Shades of Grey is actually pretty bland and the sex pretty vanilla, just with strange, shiny accessories. Social conservatives would be happy to expand the definition of what is or is not generally acceptable. They would love to reframe, or rewind, "community standards" according to their own agenda. We cannot let the word 'porn' become a blunt weapon in the culture wars. The consequences of allowing these lines to be redrawn without notice could have broad implications. Remember it was only a few years ago that copyright laws had to be employed to stop a company from editing what they considered the nasty bits out of Hollywood movies to make them safe for the timid people of the Heartland. Who gave them the right? Who gave them any guidance about which is what?

From what I've read about Fifty Shades of Grey, it seems like a close remake of '9 1/2 Weeks' from thirty years ago. I'm not sure anybody else, besides Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, has noticed. Mickey's character was also a fastidious and controlling rich guy. I haven't seen the movie in a long time, but their escapades started as a fun exploration of each other's limits. Sadly, he was sadistic enough in the end to cause Kim's character a kind of breakdown. The movie was a strange character study about two people trying to kink each other out, but didn't feel like it had broad cultural significance.

Consider the two movie posters. For Fifty Shades, he is practically choking her. For sure, he is in control of the situation. The 9 1/2 Weeks poster features only Kim Basinger, a woman expressing her own power. 

To my mind the worst aspect of the Fifty Shades of Grey, is that in the hyper-ambitious, MBA-infused cultural context of the 21st century, the author felt the need to make the male protagonist even more rich and powerful, and more sadistic. Though I won't see it, the movie seems to be more about the expression of his power and wealth than about sex. To me, power and wealth are much more dangerous afflictions to our society than naked people with whips and duct tape. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A New Version of "Cows Don't Talk, Silly."

I took one of my stories to a Writer's Workshop. The story was one of my personal favorites. The good people at the workshop just tore it to shreds. Yet in the most loving possible way. I needed everything they gave me. I am grateful to all the In Harmony participants.

The first version appears earlier on this blog. One biggest thing I learned at the workshop was the need for consistency, not just in voice, but in place and time as well. Interesting how it never occurred to me the first time.

Here is the new, workshopped version:


Jimmy offered a peanut to the pigeon. The bird cocked her head, deciding if she could trust him. The other birds jumped and strutted in a loose circle around him. He loved the birds, their bird sounds and the fuss they made.



Ever since he started Fifth Grade, Jimmy's mother had begun letting him walk down to the corner market for bread when she needed it. She used to send his older brother, George, but George often came home with a big wad of bubble gum in his mouth or a comic book, and Momma’s change was always short. Anyway, George was older now and had other things he was doing. When Jimmy went for bread, he made sure Momma’s change was right.

When the weather got colder, Jimmy wore his brother's boots to the store. He watched as the birds poked around in the cracks of the sidewalk and picked at the shiny wrappers that blew along the curb looking for something to eat. With fewer plants and bugs than in Summer, he knew they must be hungry.

One cold, grey day, when the first snow had collected in the nooks and crannies of the city, he surprised himself at the market counter with a loaf of bread . . . and a little bag of peanuts. In the little park halfway home, he stopped and fed the hungry birds. They were so happy, he didn't eat any peanuts himself. When the bag was mostly empty, he poured the little peanut hearts onto the grass and the birds jumped all over each other to get at them. He felt good, even kind of warm inside against the cold.

When he walked up the stoop that day, he paused before grabbing the cold doorknob, he could see that look on Momma's face when his brother had stood there chomping on bubble gum and handing her the crumpled plastic grocery bag with the half smooshed loaf of bread inside. In the bag hanging from Jimmy's hand just off the ground, the loaf he'd bought that day was fine. He had carried it carefully, but the seventy nine cents for peanuts missing from Momma’s change was burning a hole in his pocket. He took a breath and trudged in the door in his brother’s too big boots.

Momma was rattling pots in the kitchen making supper. When she came into the foyer, he handed her the bag but looked at the floor. He shook his arms until his puffy winter coat slid off the back of his shoulders and fell on the kitchen floor. The big zipper made a funny clunk on the tiles. The long sleeve of his shirt bunched up as he dug into his pocket for Momma's change; the short change. When he handed her the money, he smiled shyly at her warm face. She dropped the assorted coins into her jar and absentmindedly shuffled the bills, counting them. She worked at another store and counted money all the time. Her hands stopped at the end of the bills and she looked at him; not angry, just blank-like.

She scanned him standing there, her eyes twitching from his face to the coat on the floor. For a long minute, she didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sticky on his face or his hands. His lips weren't smacking on bubble gum too big for his mouth. He wasn’t carrying a comic or some cheap toy. A twinkle passed across Momma’s eyes and the corners of her mouth nearly turned up in a stifled smile.

“Huh, the price of bread went up a little.” Momma said. She tussled his hair and went back to preparing supper.

He stifled his own smile then, and turned to put the coat and his brother’s boots away. Momma seemed to understand that he had done something unselfish, something good. Maybe she didn’t mind, like when he wanted to tell his grade school jokes to her friends. She had heard all his jokes before but always laughed when the friend laughed. He could tell when an adult laughed only to be nice. Momma laughed as hard as she could.



Spring had started to sneak in under the snow. His little park had bits of color again. The grays and browns of Winter started to have little stains of green and yellow around the edges. The birds probably had stuff to eat, but he still brought peanuts every couple of weeks. Momma didn't seem to mind. Today, he had walked a little deeper into the park. The birds knew who brought their peanuts, and they soon surrounded him, cooing and fluttering their wings.

The birds made him laugh. They climbed all over each other and pushed and shoved to get at his peanut treats. Their wrestling reminded him of when he and his brother used to horse around together. When he pitched three peanuts at once, five birds crashed together and rolled around. Two birds, tired of the ruckus, flew up to a tree branch over the cement pathway. He liked it when the birds flew. They beat at the air with their wings and, almost by magic, let go of the earth and went wherever they wanted. Being a bird must be real cool, he thought.

His eyes left the flying birds, and he saw a lady sitting on a bench not too far away. He could see she was sad; crying maybe. Her eyes were moistened with little tears that shyly crept down her cheek. Momma was sad once in a while, and he knew sadness, too. The lady looked down at the path, but she wasn’t really looking at anything. He shook the peanut bag empty, scattering little kernels at his feet. The remaining birds fluttered while the lady wiped a tear off her cheek. When his Mom got sad, he would tell her one of his best jokes. If it was just the two of them, she wouldn’t laugh so much, but Momma would usually stop crying after a really good joke or two, so he knew the jokes worked.

Cutting straight across the path, he put the peanut wrapper in a big green trash can. He brushed the front of his jacket and pushed at the bottom snap until it clicked. The lady sat her coffee cup down and leaned to straighten her coat. He wasn’t supposed to tell jokes to strangers when Momma wasn’t with him, but he wanted to tell this lady a good one. Trying to be brave, he walked toward the bench. The sleeves swished against his jacket and made swishy zoom sounds. His shoes shuffled and scratched in the leftover winter sand. He got to the bench and stood by the lady. Usually a stranger would look at him when he stopped right in front of them, but the lady didn’t move for a minute. He heard her sniffle and slowly she looked up. She tried to smile but just looked at him; puzzled.

“What did the cow say to the farmer?” he asked her. His voice sounded funny in his own head, but he got the whole joke out without a mistake.

The lady’s makeup was bunched up around her eyes, and on one side of her face a smear and a little black line that rolled down toward the side of her chin. She looked at him for a couple long minutes. She didn’t smile, but he saw a wave of friendliness roll across her face like she had borrowed someone else’s happy face, but it only drifted by and didn’t stay put.

“I don’t know. What did the cow say to the farmer?” She had a nice voice and talked softly like some of his teachers did. Her eyes got a little brighter and warmer.

Slowly, with practiced nonchalance and perfect comic timing, he put a fist on each hip and cocked his head like a mother does when she tells her kids something happy. He took a nervous breath.

“Cows don’t talk, Silly,” he said with as big a smile as he could make.

The lady choked and then smiled softly. The choke was more a laugh than a sob, but it sounded to him like both at the same time. She took a tissue from her coat pocket and wiped her eyes. She reached out, still smiling, and stroked the sleeve of his jacket making that same zoomy sound against the fabric. Her smile twisted one way, then the other, and opened up spreading across her face. It was that other happy face again, but now it was happy all over and it stuck.

“Thank you,” she said with a funny quiver in her nice voice.

He felt funny; sort of floating in a way he had never known. There was a little tingle in his fingertips and under his earlobes. This must be how a bird feels, he thought.

“OK . . . ,” he said, “I mean, you’re welcome.”

He didn’t know what else to do, but it felt like he made the lady happy again; just like he did for Momma. His feet crunched as they twisted in the sand, and he turned to go. Two steps toward home, he heard the lady’s voice call after him.

“Don’t forget your bread. Doesn’t that grocery bag belong to you?”

I'm back ...

Well, I've decided to return to Blogger as host for my ramblings. As I look to departing aboard Bella in June, 2015, I am taking a close look at how I want to spend my boat money. Renting cyberspace for my anemic, untraveled, yet untrammelled blogs never made sense, I suppose. I am but a humble traveller, I will act more like it. Cheers and stay tuned.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Stuck at the Traveler's Inn

From a creativity challenge; the theme was 'loss.'

The mirror shook as a Semi rumbled by out front. Frank tapped his yellowed fingernails on the microwave and stared at the dingy wall. He turned to look in the room. The loose-jointed, cigarette burned furniture could be traded out for newer, but the walls had a patina that yet another coat of paint just couldn't cover. From the nicotine stained curtains, to the psychedelic clouds of corroded silvering creeping at the edges of the mirror, the room was more than 'lived in,' the dark film of 'suffered in' was on everything.

No one aspired to be a weekly tenant at the Traveler's Inn, it was the kind of thing that snuck up on you. The place was usually quiet, especially the weeks when the cops hadn't come. Frank couldn't remember exactly how long he'd been in the room, or at the motel for that matter. He thought he had moved once from one room to another. There were a lot of things he couldn't quite put his finger on lately.

A king sized bed, two chairs, a table, a small fridge and the microwave for a hundred and twenty five bucks a week. He paid four weeks at a time even though he didn't have to. Since he only got a check once a month, it was safer to have his room all paid. They changed the sheets and vacuumed the floor, but the sad air never seemed to circulate.

Though it had hummed fine when he first arrived, the microwave sounded broken. Frank's life was kind of like that; it used to just hum along and now there was a grinding noise in the background. It wasn't bad yet, but it was just enough noise that he knew it would eventually stop working. Worse was the feeling that something was missing, but not really knowing what. The timer dinged at him expectantly. Damn, he'd gotten so far in his head about the grinding that he'd forgotten until just then that he was hungry.

He jumped when the steam rolled out of the styrofoam container to nip at his fingers. From the dusty milk crate on the floor, he pulled out a roll of paper towel. After he had torn off a couple sheets and carefully folded the towels into layers, he stopped to wonder why he had wanted the towels. He might have just blown his nose and sat down again, but the oven door was ajar. He saw the steaming clamshell and remembered. Thoughts just didn't stay with him like they used to. They seemed to sneak up behind him, tap his opposite shoulder and then giggle when he got distracted.

He tugged the clamshell out over the paper towels like a hot pad. Frank carefully turned and walked the long way around the bed to where the table was. After tussling with the chair, careful not to bump the table where he'd set is his food down, he backed up to the chair. His old legs wouldn't let him sit down like a gentleman anymore, so he gingerly bent at the waist and knees, concentrated on lowering himself slowly. He grabbed at the chair's arms to make sure that he was aimed at it. About six inches above the chair, the ache in his knees got bad and his hips let go, he plopped into the chair. It wasn't good for the rest of him, especially his back, but it was the only way down.

He scooted the chair so that he couldn't see himself in the mirror. When he'd had a desk job he never liked facing the wall; though he'd had to a few times. If he happened to catch sight of himself in that big, corroded mirror, he felt like he was living in some kind of fish bowl. The last couple jobs Frank had weren't real jobs. They had just gotten an old man by for a time. He knew he had built things before and worked in a hospital once.

Steam rolled up off the noodles when Frank flipped open the container. Pork Lo Mein from Mark's. He liked Chinese food; didn't know why. It helped that Mark's was right next door. It was a ridiculous name for a Chinese place, but Amy, Mark's wife, talked a lot and was real nice. She and Mark were both actually Chinese, but had taken American names. Mark had been Mark for so long that even when he decided to open his own restaurant, it could only be Mark's. Frank was always more than welcome there and he didn't have to go far. Once, when he was sick, Amy had brought Hot and Sour Soup to him every day for a week. They even let him pay for the soup at the end of the month. There used to be a lot of people that came by, but Frank didn't think he saw too many of them anymore.

When he was loneliest, it was nice to have other tenants around, just to hear people walking outside or talking; sometimes yelling. Even the ones who were a little noisy weren't bad when Frank was having a rough night. There was a TV on the low dresser, but Frank almost never turned it on. He'd rather listen to the radio. He couldn't always remember the station he liked. Their tower was out behind a school and he could see it from the sidewalk outside his room, but no one had thought to post the frequency on the tower. Most days, he just listened to his neighbors outside and the noises at the edge of the city.

There was a neighbor who drove a truck and was only around a few days a month; a couple next door who always argued; even a mom and a couple kids in one of the rooms toward the office. Every once in a while, some hard looking guy would land there after just getting out of jail. Some of those guys were fine, but most of them kind of scared everybody. None of them stayed long.

One of the ex-cons had been real nice to Frank though. Jerry liked to talk about the meditation he had learned in prison. Really, he just liked to talk and told Frank all about having dropped out of school, the drugs and stuff, kidnapping that woman, and how he thought meditation had helped him settle down. Jerry had checked on Frank almost as often as anyone, then one day Jerry just never came back. Ben and Judith, the manager couple that lived out back, had to clean out the room and gave away what Jerry had left. Frank hadn't gone up to see the empty room.

Frank's room was a little dirty, but Vanny was coming tomorrow. He couldn't remember Vanny's whole name because he only called her Vanny. She had come from somewhere far away. He could tell she was Oriental but didn't want to hurt her feelings by asking about it again. Every week, Vanny came and changed the sheets, cleaned the bathroom and vacuumed a little. Once in awhile, he would give Vanny a little money to clean the little refrigerator out. There was never much in the fridge except cheap beer, leftover Chinese food and milk for his Mini Wheats.

Frank had been uneasy all day. He couldn't place it, but when he looked around the room, he felt out of sorts. Something nagged at the back of his mind. He was sure that something was missing but he couldn't think of what it was.

The Lo Mien cooled as Frank looked around the room. He had to start from scratch when he was having trouble remembering. The door was closed, the curtains drawn. He knew the carpet stain just inside the door. It was a simple square room but for the encroaching space of the bathroom. To the left of the bathroom was a nook with a counter and sink, and that mirror above them. On the wall opposite the bathroom was a rack to hang your clothes. The rack used to have those special hangers with just a little ball on top, but they were long gone and Frank's two coats hung off each end. Left of the rack was the microwave sitting on top the small fridge, then a nightstand, and the big headboard that hung from the wall rather than off the bed. Between the bed and the window, was the table where he sat.

He fidgeted, plinking at the edge of the stryofoam with a finger, trying to think. It seemed like the missing thing was something that he needed or that he had always had with him. A hollow feeling oozed into him when he thought he might never know. He couldn't remember stuff, how could he ever find it if he didn't know for sure that anything was gone? Frank had stewed on it long enough that he decided it was something precious. He knew that it was terribly important that he find whatever it was. His stomach grumbled and he felt sick just thinking about the missing thing. He looked down at the cool, congealed Lo Mein and realized he had been going to eat.

Frank pushed himself up off the chair to get a beer. He'd be up and down to the bathroom all night, but he needed another drink. Maybe it would quiet the nagging thoughts. It occurred to him to take a leak while he was up and he ambled slowly passed the foot of the bed. It was then that the little plastic orange caught is eye. It was sitting on top the television. When he had found the orange at the Goodwill store, someone told him it was used to catch fruit flies. It reminded him of Florida. He always thought he'd get to Florida. Frank just liked to look at it. He didn't have any damn fruit flies anyway.

Someone knocked on the door and scared him half to death. Nobody ever knocked. Well, Vanny knocked once a week when she cleaned but not this time of day. He turned toward the door and there was another knock.

“Mr. Frank, are you in there?” Vanny called.

Vanny. What is she doing here? He flipped the chain off the door and turned the knob. Vanny stood out on the cracked sidewalk with her granddaughter. The cute little kid had been cleaning with Vanny since Vanny's daughter started waiting tables again.

“Mr. Frank. So sorry. She took your boat.”

The little girl looked sheepish. As sheepish as a four year old could look when she knew she was cute enough to get away with almost anything. The little girl smiled at Frank with her glistening dark eyes.

The little ceramic boat was exactly what he'd been missing. It was a cartoon-looking tugboat sitting on a little patch of ocean waves; all primary colors, red and yellow, orange and blue. More than a little silly for an old man to keep around. On the port side, a ribbon banner floating across the waves said “Love You Boatloads.” Frank just stared.

Suddenly, he could remember the whole bit. He remembered a summer long ago and he remembered her. They had walked along the river at St. Joe arm in arm for weeks. More than a whirlwind romance, they met and were like old friends straight away. They were inseparable in a clichéd summer romance movie kind of way. Many couples reach a lazy kind of détente where neither is very happy but neither can imagine any other, better possibility. Lucky couples manage to settle into a casual joy. Deep in his gut, Frank remembered their unassuming, easy joy. His brain twisted and cramped to remember her name.

St. Joseph sat on a bluff over a beautiful white sand beach on Lake Michigan. The city had swanky boutiques, touristy souvenir shops and lots of restaurants. Frank knew they had eaten out all over town, but especially at the Chinese place. Frank was motionless as he fell deep into the moment he first saw the boat.

They had been eating Lo Mein and Spring Rolls in the middle of the afternoon. She had wanted to go into the shop next door. It was a garish tourist trap, but she had forgotten her sunglasses and wanted a cheap pair. Frank waited in the beach town sidewalk sunshine. Inside, she searched the racks for a reasonable looking pair of sunglasses among the bright colors, star shapes, and over-sized lenses. At the counter, while the clerk cut the tag off a pair she'd found, she noticed the tugboats.

Frank could still see her dance out of the store. She moved like an avatar. Her hair and her cotton dress flowed around her like an aura. The earth seemed to tilt to the gravity of her presence. She put a hand on his collarbone and her face shined up into his.

“I got something for you,” she said and presented him the tugboat.







“Mr. Frank. You OK?”

Vanny looked worried. The little girl strained as tall as her arms would reach, still holding the tugboat to him. Frank didn't know how long he had stood there. His legs were heavy, he'd become some sad statue built for all the broken hearts of the world. He smiled, more a grimace.

“Oh ... sorry ... thanks,” he managed to say.

“I should not have let her play with it, Mr. Frank. And then she took it home. We're sorry.”

“Vanny, I . . .” Frank struggled. “It's OK. Don't worry about it.”

Frank took the tugboat from the little girl. It felt as heavy as a medieval altar icon. He smiled at the little girl. She will break hearts someday he thought.

“OK, see you tomorrow. I just had to bring it back right away, Mr. Frank.”

“Thanks, Vanny,” he called after her as she walked back to her car, her bleach cracked hand on the girl's shoulder.

Frank carried the tugboat back to the dusty TV and placed it next to the plastic orange. Just as he set it down, he remembered the pain and the tug had suddenly glowed red hot. He could see the wrinkles on the chest of his shirt where she grabbed it in her fists, crying for him not to go. He thought she would change her mind and come along, but she just cried in the driveway as he left. She hadn't changed her mind at the last minute and he was stuck. It was a blindly selfish assumption and he had got it all wrong. He had never liked gambling but ended up betting his happiness on a sure thing that backfired.

Suddenly, the urgent need to pee. Frank struggled to get into the bathroom and undo the front of his pants. It was always like this now. He thought he was about to burst and then . . . nothing. He waited patiently, staring at the black and white tiles. There was no reason in straining. His prostate would let a little by in a minute. He chuckled about the “stolen” tugboat. There was one last little pain and he heard the pitter patter of relief. The worst was this tortured waiting, he thought.

Satisfied he had peed all that he was going to, Frank zipped his pants and walked back into his room. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and shuffled to the radio. What was that damn station number? He nudged the dial one way and then the other until a decent sounding song crackled through the tiny speaker. He sat down at the table and shoved his half eaten supper out of the way. Cleaning up could wait.

Today was alright, he thought. Sipping at the beer, he threw his left foot over onto the edge of the bed. He felt kind of good today for some reason. Damned if he could remember exactly why, but he'd take it.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Sticky Acrid Dread

It had been a pretty good day before the voicemail. Tara had been productive at work. Nothing bad, nor overly good, had happened, and now she was home. The kind of day that was as mundane, and as joyful, as a warm breeze in your hair. Besides having to deal with the occasional detail of a bankruptcy and a divorce, life was fine.

After nine years, a few of them happy, she and Rich had called it quits. Actually, she had moved out. For a couple months, she had quietly moved things into a little storage unit across town, planning for the day it got bad enough or she got brave enough to just leave. Rich's drinking had made the last three and a half years or so excruciating. She had tried everything; screaming and yelling, crying and begging, supporting and caring.

She had managed to get him into counselling a couple times and there was a helpful psychologist at the hospital. Helpful to her perhaps more than to Rich, but help anyway. Rich had been in the emergency room in medical danger from the booze several times that summer. The hospital didn't do rehab, but they would keep him for a week or so to dry him out. While Rich was there he had people to talk to and things to think about. Each time, what first seemed like a new beginning quickly dissolved into the same old hell.

Tara had moved out three months ago. Rich had racked up tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills, even after insurance. The last three years had been enough, she wasn't going to take care of the co-pays too. She had talked Rich into doing a bankruptcy before a divorce. She knew that he had gone along with the former to possibly prevent the latter, but lawyers abounded in her life. The bankruptcy had just gone through and the divorce was coming next.

Then this morning, the voicemail. By lunchtime, she had gotten brave enough to listen. Rich had simply asked her to call. He sounded healthy, if that was possible to determine in the span of a short message. He had even been sober when he called. It was just that she dreaded returning the call. Hopefully it was just some detail about the divorce that wasn't quite complete. She couldn't imagine what he wanted or why he hadn't elaborated. Rich had simply said, "Hey, Tara. Rich. Could you call me when you get a chance?"

Tara could almost detect a false optimism in Rich's voice. It hung on her phone like fresh paint on a dirty wall. She hoped he was just healthy enough to purposely try and sound positive. Still, a little echo of something else hung on in the silent moment before he had hung up the line.

She'd been home more than an hour. After the grocery store, she had laid out all the ingredients for supper on the counter, but hadn't begun to prepare anything. Twice she had hit the button, lighting the little screen, but both times she just stared and let the the phone go dark again. The thick paste of dread on her fingers prevented them dialing. The thought of talking to Rich gave her stomach a sticky, acrid feeling. Nevertheless, like tearing off a band-aid, on the third try, she dialed in a rush as soon as the screen lit, just to get it over with.

Rich had moved back in with his family. His parents and two brothers, none of them were particularly healthy or well adjusted themselves. They were not equipped to help the prodigal Rich. Tara worried that his drinking would just continue unabated. Rich's father answered the phone.

"Hang on I'll get him." The father had said.

The abandoned handset collected the familiar sounds of her soon-to-be-ex in-laws' house. There was a rustle in the kitchen; that would be Mom. A television was on, that would be brother Geoff. Dad's boots clomped across the dining room floor and Tara heard him call upstairs to Rich.

The rhythm of Rich's ambling gait approached. The phone would be laying on the desk in what used to be the dining room. There wasn't room for a table any longer, just two desks and a bench. The house was so small, especially now with five people living in it. Tara heard a scratchy fumbling as Rich picked up the phone.

"Hello, Tara?"




Tara couldn't speak. Rich was more than obviously drunk. His dad hadn't even warned her. Had it become so normal in the tiny house that it hadn't occurred to him to mention? She stood in her own kitchen, not able to decide whether to throw the phone against a wall or collapse on the linoleum and cry.

"Tara?"

She took a jerking breath, fighting against the weighty dread. In his stupor, Rich held the phone too close to his face. Tara sensed the heat of his stale breath against her cheek. He was miles away but she could smell the whiskey, and his dirty teeth. With a strained hollow gurgle, he drug air down his torpid throat. His alcohol addled breath thrummed against moist curtains of saliva in his sickeningly drunk mouth.

"Tara," he repeated. "Are you sure you want to go through with this divorce thing?"

He had practiced the line for days, she was sure. Rather than a dramatic flourish, however, the words had come out like junior high theater - one part Broadway come on, three parts primal fear. Her brain could not catch up to the audacity of his drunk question. The phone line went silent as an ancient temple. A lone pebble skittered from the cave wall of her soul and ticked randomly down a bottomless crevasse. Anger, confusion, even loneliness, ached in her throat as if she had swallowed a glowing coal.


"Yes," she finally said. "Yes, Rich, this is something that I have to do . . . for me. For my own survival."

Just then she heard a faint puffing whoosh as the pilot light of her heart re-lit. There was a little spread of warmth inside her chest and she hung up the phone. Her own life had begun again.