Collected Short Stories: Volume III
Copyright © 2016 by Barry Rachin
This collection of short stories represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
107 Degrees Fahrenheit
Kissing his sister goodbye in the lobby of the Bonanza Bus Terminal, Nicholas Holyfield was blind-sided by a wave of emotions. He hadn’t seen the tears coming, didn’t even have time to avert his puckered, soggy face. “Sorry.”
Mary Beth only smiled and wiped the wetness away with the heel of her hand. The visit to Providence lasted two days. The bus to Boston was boarding now. She pulled him close for a final hug and said half-jokingly, “If you meet a pretty coed at college, bring her along next time.” She nuzzled his cheek with her lips, turned and limped away, swinging her crippled, left leg in a sweeping arc as though the errant limb had a mind of its own.
Nicholas boarded the bus and sat next to a fat black woman, poorly dressed and smelling of body odor laced with Jean Naté. As he slumped down, the woman, who had been reading, looked up and smiled. One of the front teeth was capped in gold. Nicholas leaned slightly forward and peered out the window. Mary Beth was a good two hundred feet down the road headed in the direction of the East Side, her body bobbing up and down like a cork on rough, tidal water. The way she moved gave the false impression she was careening at a diagonal when, in fact, her forward progress was straight ahead.
More tears came and, this time, Nicholas couldn’t shut the spigot. Like a toddler bereft of its mother, he was sitting on a Boston-bound bus crying inconsolably. His shoulders heaved, the breath caught in jagged spasms. The black woman glanced up curiously, opened her mouth but then closed it without saying anything. She turned her attention back to a pamphlet printed on cheap, grainy stock. The driver shut the door and threw the shift into reverse. Moments later, they were leaving Providence, Rhode Island, heading north in the direction of the interstate. Nicholas felt something soft and fluffy rubbing insistently against his wrist. The black woman pressed a Kleenex into his hand and discreetly turned away.
The bus passed the statehouse exit; the ivory dome of the capitol building materialized and was gone in a blur. They entered Pawtucket with its grimy factories and mills. The mayor had been indicted for extortion and racketeering the previous year and was now somewhere out of state at a country club prison for white-collar criminals. His biggest regret wasn’t betraying the public trust but being careless enough to get caught. “My sister was hit by a car.” Nicholas spoke, not so much from a need to unburden himself, but to justify his lack of restraint.
“Dear God!” The black woman threw the pamphlet aside and stared at him. Her sympathy, though slightly theatrical, was genuine, not driven by idle curiosity. “She isn’t in a coma or on life support?”
Nicholas frowned and felt the skin on his cheek draw tight where the salty moistness had evaporated away. “No. The accident occurred last winter while jogging. A car skidded on black ice. Broke her leg in three places.”
Nicholas shook his head. “Not hardly. Just an old lady returning from church at twenty miles an hour in a residential area. The car skidded on the frozen road. No one was at fault.”
The black woman directed her eyes at her hands which were large and formless, devoid of jewelry except for a simple, gold band on the third finger of her left hand. “Why was your sister jogging in the middle of winter?”
Nicholas reached into his breast pocket and located a wallet from which he removed a newspaper clipping. Underneath a picture of Mary Beth dressed in a sweat suit with a medal hanging from her neck, the caption read: Collegiate track star places in first, NCCA professional meet. “That’s my sister.”
The black woman took the tattered paper and held it to the light. For a woman with hands like Stillson wrenches, she was remarkably gentle with the parchment-thin clipping. “I’m trying to recall,” she chuckled, “last time I was that thin, but my mind don’t travel quite that far back.” She handed the article back to him. “Where’d she run?”
“The track meet was in New Jersey - East Rutherford. Fifteen hundred meters.”
Nicholas had been to East Rutherford in February of 1990. He was twelve years old but still remembered the competition vividly. The athletes, especially the runners with their unwieldy, long legs - calves hewn from rock maple, bulging, muscular thighs. Glistening, sexless, sinewy bodies primed for one task: outpace the echo of the starter’s pistol from the sprinter’s block to finish line. Mary Beth’s curly brown hair was tied back with a single strand of blue ribbon, a matter of convenience rather than aesthetics. Her tanned, lightly freckled face pivoted to one side as the women settled into their respective lanes. On your mark! Get set!
“Mary Beth didn’t actually win. She came in third behind the Romanian, Doina Melinte, and Mary Slaney. The Romanian ran the 1500 meters in four minutes, seventeen seconds and set a new world record. My sister was only 8 seconds off the winning time.”
“Eight blinks of an eye!” The black woman said with a earthy grin. “Since the accident, she don’t race no more?”
“No,” Nicholas said softly, “she can hardly walk much less run.”
“My nephew, Delroy, got a club foot.” She held her paw of a hand up with the fingers skewed stiffly at an odd angle. “Like this.”
Looking at the stubby fingers made Nicholas slightly nauseous, and he regretted sitting next to the garrulous woman. “The bum leg taken aside,” the black woman rushed on, oblivious to Nicholas’ distress, “Delroy done good with his life. Works in an upholstery shop. Got married a few years back and has two healthy children.” She smoothed the front of her dress with the massive hands. “What does your sister do now she ain’t racing?”
“With the money from the insurance settlement she doesn’t have to work.”
Mary Beth turned professional in January, three months before the accident. Negotiating the size of the financial settlement, her lawyer estimated potential earnings (including commercial endorsements) at half a million dollars. The insurance company balked, arguing that, in her short-lived career, she hadn’t won any major races, and it was unclear whether the young woman would fulfill her athletic promise. For every Doina Melinte, there were half a hundred also-rans. Mary Beth’s lawyer threatened to push for a jury trial.
Despite all the legal maneuvering, the final settlement proved rather modest. Mary Beth paid her lawyer and invested the remainder in stocks. A month later, she moved to Providence, Rhode Island and took a studio apartment on the East Side.
“I meant,” the black woman clarified, “what does your sister do with her free time now that she can’t run anymore.”
“She makes custom wedding albums from fabrics and lace and also takes small orders for decorative brochures.”
When Nicholas arrived at the bus terminal on Friday, his sister was there to greet him. He hadn’t seen her in six months, since the fall when she moved south. Mary Beth had aged. Nothing dramatic. It wasn’t the smattering of gray hair or crow’s-feet dimpling the eyes. Rather, her wiry body had gone soft and sedentary. The hard-edged posturing was gone; she no longer looked like a competitive athlete. Worse yet, she didn’t care.
“Little brother!” she hugged him close and lead the way out of the bus terminal in the direction of her 89 Nova. Turning onto North Main Street, she shot up College Hill. Though the temperature was hovering in the low nineties, Mary Beth wore dungarees. She always wore pants or long dresses to hide the scars and ravaged muscles on her left leg. When she was leaving the hospital, an orthopedic doctor suggested further ‘cosmetic’ surgery, but she nixed the idea. “Leave well enough alone.”
A group of college students with backpacks and tanned faces passed in front of the car. “That deep sea diver remark,” Nicholas said, directing his words at the dirt-streaked windshield, “hurt Mom’s feelings. She cried for half an hour.”
The previous month, Mary Beth’s mother visited Providence. It had been six months since they had seen each other. Mrs. Holyfield was a short, round woman with close-cropped, dark hair. The short hair made her look heavier; to compensate, she wore loose-fitting shifts and baggy dresses which only compounded the problem. “Why do you cloister yourself away, avoiding family and friends?”
“Think of me as a deep sea diver coming up for air as slowly as possible so I don’t go get the bends or go crazy,” Mary Beth replied cryptically. Taking her mother’s hand, she squeezed it gently. “Don’t know how else to explain it.”
Mrs. Holyfield saw no connection between the question asked and the answer proffered. The remark frightened her. It was the first thing she talked about, returning home after the visit. “If your father were alive,” she confided petulantly to Nicholas, “he’d make Mary Beth go see a counselor.” “A psychiatrist!” she added just in case her son failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem.
In late March of the previous year, Mary Beth returned home from the rehabilitation center. Having run the 1500 meters in just over four minutes, it took half as much time to hobble sideways, one riser at a time, up a short flight of stairs to the second floor landing. She refused to answer the phone, would not go outdoors except to sit in the back yard staring morosely at the empty bird feeders. If neighbors appeared, she retreated back into the house.
A week passed. Mrs. Holyfield took Nicholas to the K-Mart near Beacon Circle and bought bird food - a mixture of black sunflower seeds, cracked corn and millet for the jays and cardinals, thistle for the finches plus blocks of greasy suet for the woodpeckers and other, insect feeders. “Hard to believe,” she said, letting the feathery-light thistle sift through her fingers, “there’s nourishment in such tiny seeds.”
Mrs. Holyfield stuffed the feeders to overflowing and placed a wedge of peanut butter suet in a rectangular, wire cage. “Except for the most common varieties, people don’t know their birds; the hard part is learning the differences among species - the downy woodpecker, let’s say, from its close relative, the ladder-back.” Mrs. Holyfield launched into an unsolicited and rather long-winded description of each bird’s physical attributes, distinctive markings, size and habits. She picked up a single thistle seed - an eighth of an inch long and the thickness of several sheaves of papers - and let it roll off the tip of her finger. “Or a goldfinch from a pine siskin. That’s a bit harder. But still, where’s the pleasure of bird watching if you don’t know what to look for? It’s like giving a house party and not bothering to remember your guests’ names.”
“I think,” Nicholas said warily, “your analogy’s a bit thin.”
“Yes, but you understand what I’m trying to say.”
Nicholas shook his head. He did, up to a point, understand the implicit message.
The next day when Mary Beth went to sit in the yard, her mother joined her. It was forty degrees, the ground muddy and lifeless. “A pair of cardinals were here earlier. A male and his brown mate. They only stayed a short time. I think the jays scared them off.” Mary Beth shrugged noncommittally. “And all the goldfinches have lost their color. The bright, lemony yellows have faded to greenish brown. It may be a seasonal thing - like deer molting in the spring.”
“Yes, probably,” Mary Beth said dully.
“Don’t stay out too long or you might catch a chill.” Mrs. Holyfield went back in the house, sat down at the kitchen table and began to cry. Upstairs in his bedroom, Nicholas placed a pillow over his head to drown out the sounds of his mother’s private anguish.
After supper he went to his sister’s room, knocked and let himself in. Mary Beth was lying on the bed with her hands wedged between her thighs in a modified fetal position. She didn’t bother to look up. The color was bleeding out of the evening sky, causing familiar objects to blend and blur. “Tell me what to do?” he whispered.
In the kitchen Mrs. Holyfield was drying the last of the supper dishes and humming a melody from the church hymnal:
Lamb of God, You take away
the sins of the world.
Have mercy on me.
“Tell me what to do to make your pain go away.”
Mary Beth continued to lie quietly on her side. A half hour later the spongy, gray light congealed into total darkness and Nicholas trudged quietly back to his own room.
After Mary Beth relocated to Providence, Mrs. Holyfield began talking in code. She would say peculiar things like, “I talked to Providence,...” when she could have just as easily said, “I spoke to your sister, Mary Beth, earlier and ...” Was she trying to transform the infirmity into an abstraction? To restore her daughter through linguistic alchemy?
The night before Nicholas went to see his sister, Mrs. Holyfield came into the room and sat quietly on the edge of the bed. The latest issue of The Audubon Society magazine nested in her ample lap. Nicholas was packing. Not that there was much in the overnight bag - a change of underwear, socks, a disposable razor, toothbrush and Sony Walkman. He pulled the zipper shut and placed the bag on the floor.
“What’re you wearing?” Mrs. Holyfield asked. Nicholas pointed to a pair of cotton slacks and a navy shirt draped over a chair. “Yes, that will do nicely.” She drifted to the open window and looked out into the back yard. The bird feeders were empty. She never filled them after the middle of April. “Did you know,” she tapped the magazine lightly against the window sill, “that in winter, a black-capped chickadee can raise its body temperature to 107º Fahrenheit?”
Mrs. Holyfield was constantly collecting fragments of incidental trivia from the various birding magazines and newsletters she subscribed to. Familiar to her melodramatic pronouncements, Nicholas stared at his mother with a dumb expression. “Their bodies become feathery furnaces, internal combustion systems to ward off the extreme cold.” She came away from the window and sat down again on the bed. “At night while they’re resting, their temperature can drop as much as thirty degrees - a survival mechanism to preserve energy for daytime foraging.” Mrs. Holyfield smoothed Nicholas’ navy blue shirt with the palm of her hand. “When you’re in Providence, don’t say anything that might stir up bad memories.” She waved a finger preemptively. “Not that I doubt your good judgment in all such matters.”
All such matters. Nicholas had no idea what his mother meant by the odd remark and strongly doubted that she did either. “No, Mother, I won’t say anything that might upset Mary Beth.”
The previous winter on the third of February, two feet of snow fell through the day; a wicked, bone-chilling nor’easter sent the wind chill plunging to fifteen below zero. Nicholas, at his mother’s insistence, dug a path out to the bird feeder and filled the trough with fresh seeds. Only the chickadees - apparently, hunger took precedence over fear - were brazen enough to feed while he was standing there adjusting his gloves. With Nicholas a mere twenty feet away, they flew up to the lip of the feeder and pecked away at the ice-covered corn and sunflower seeds.
But where were the larger, normally more aggressive birds? The red-winged blackbirds? The crows with their lacquered, silver-green necks? The bedraggled mourning doves, the woodpeckers, jays and cardinals? Nicholas took a step closer. Several chickadees flitted away but were quickly replaced by a fresh batch of voracious birds. He moved closer still. The diminutive birds never flinched. Another two steps nearer; he was ten, perhaps only eight, feet from the feeder and, with the powdery snow swirling up around their black heads, Nicholas could see the birds in fine detail. The patch of white stretching from the eye around the side of the face; the narrow, gray edging on the wing feathers.
Nicholas turned and stared at the house. In the upstairs bedroom window Mrs. Holyfield was gesturing frantically, imploring him to come in from the cold. For a fleeting instant, Nicholas had the impulse to hunker down in the soft, insular snow and, if only for an hour or so until the light seeped totally out of the western sky, renounce humanity. But by then the birds would be gone. Even the chickadees had better sense than to remain exposed through the bitter night. A blast of frigid air caught Nicholas under the rib cage, knifing through his parka and flannel shirt. He picked up the shovel and empty seed pail and trudged back to the house.
Mary Beth pulled up at a traffic light, reached out with a free hand and tousled his hair. A wistful melancholy swept over her face only to be replaced by a good-natured grin. “About the deep sea diver remark - it was meant as an allegory. I didn’t get the bends or go crazy.” Turning onto a side street, she pulled over to the curb in front of a three-story, wooden structure and got out of the car dragging her foot stiffly. “How do you feel about sleeping on an inflatable mattress?”
Nicholas shrugged. He wasn’t quite sure what to say - or feel. “All that money in mutual funds and you can’t afford a sleep sofa?”
“It’s a studio apartment,” Mary Beth quipped. “Where the hell am I going to put a sleep sofa? On the goddamn fire escape?” All bitterness dissipated; the spell was broken. They went into the building.
The apartment was, indeed, quite small. A room with a bay window that fronted on a gentrified, tree-lined street served as a combination living room-bedroom. A tidy kitchenette and bathroom were connected at the far end. The furnishings were meager - a twin bed with a maple headboard, two end tables and a cheap stereo – vintage, Salvation Army decor. Despite the monkish austerity, the apartment had a cozy, lived-in feel. Nicholas went into the bathroom and threw cold water on his face. When he came out of the bathroom, Mary Beth said, “We’ll get something to eat and then feed Elliot.”
“She grabbed her keys and headed for the door. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Most of the artsy college types had cleared out for the summer leaving a mishmash of locals and diehard, summer students. A saxophonist with a goatee and dark sunglasses was playing Up Jumped Spring in a breathy legato at the corner of Thayer Street; a hat with dollar bills lay at his feet. In his sister’s presence, Nicholas had always felt a sense of reverence bordering on the mystical. At first, he associated the feeling with her athletic success, but, following the injury, realized that he had always felt that way. He experienced it now sitting opposite her in the restaurant. “Do you miss running?” As soon as he spoke, Nicholas realized the blunt foolishness of his remark.
Mary Beth’s head was cocked to one side. She was still listening to the saxophonist in the street. The player ran a series of dissonant, polytonal progressions then deftly modulated into another bebop tune. “I still compete, after a fashion. At night, in my dreams, I run a mean quarter mile. And that’s without the rigors of daily training!” Glancing up, she saw that Nicholas was flustered, his lips moving inaudibly. “The best kept secret in track and field,” she continued impassively. “is that East Rutherford was my high water mark. It was a fluke; nothing more. I peaked and was already past my prime.”
“You had some good races after that,” Nicholas protested.
Mary Beth’s features dissolved in a dark smile. “Half the races I never even placed, and in the few that I did, I was too far off the winning time to be considered competitive.” She put her hand under his chin and lifted his face so their eyes met. “It’s over, Nicky. Except in my dreams, I don’t run anymore.”
Walking back to the apartment, Mary Beth detoured through a park. She knelt down beside a scruffy plant with a thick stem and wide oval leaves. Withdrawing a jackknife from her pocket, she cut the stem, and a viscous, opalescent liquid resembling Elmer’s Glue bubbled out, staining her fingertips white. “Milkweed,” Mary Beth replied in response to Nicholas’ probing eyes. She put the jackknife away and they retraced their steps.
On the porch in the rear of the apartment, was a cardboard box. The sides had been cut away and replaced with a screen mesh. Inside was a caterpillar, its bulbous body ringed with yellow and black stripes. “You raise caterpillars?”
“Butterflies,” Mary Beth clarified, lifting the top of the box. “Monarchs. The caterpillars are just a means to an end.” She removed a wilted stem - most of the leaves had been chewed away to nothing - and lowered the fresh offering into a container of water wedged at the bottom of the box. She pivoted the plant so several leaves from an adjacent stem were touching - a bridge from one diminished food source to the next. Replacing the cover, they went back into the apartment.
“Where did you find your little friend?” Nicholas asked.
“In the same park where we got the milkweed. Two, white eggs, no bigger than a grain of salt, were stuck to the underside of a leaf.” She went into the bathroom. When she emerged, Mary Beth was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. “There’s a second caterpillar; it’s already in a cocoon and should be emerging soon. Perhaps you’ll get to see it before you go.”
She handed him the air mattress and Nicholas began inflating it with a bicycle pump. The sun having gone down, the heat in the cramped apartment was finally beginning to abate. Only now when she removed the cotton bathrobe, could Nicholas see his sister’s left leg. The deformity wasn’t as bad as he feared. Some tissue missing, the lower portion below the knee twisted, ever-so-slightly, out of alignment. “What’s the purpose,” he asked “of raising butterflies?”
Mary Beth was smoothing her brown hair with a rather expensive-looking, ivory-handled brush. The brush and butterflies appeared the only extravagances she allowed herself. “Marauding insects and harsh weather often destroy the eggs. Raising them in captivity helps even the odds they’ll survive to adulthood and reproduce.” She pulled the brush through her hair, the bristles tugging the tight curls to full length before springing back to hug her scalp. “There’s even a wasp that bores tiny holes in the monarch cocoons, injecting her own eggs in the growing host. The eggs eventually hatched and devoured the half-formed butterfly. When the cocoon split apart, the wrong insect, depending on your point of view, emerges.”
The mattress fully inflated, Nicholas laid it on the floor next to his sister's bed. She got some sheets and a light blanket. “I doubt you’ll need that,” she said pointing to the blanket.
“No, I shouldn’t think so.” Nicholas went into the bathroom, showered and changed into his pajamas.
“Anything else I can get you?”
He lay down on the thin mattress. It was surprisingly comfortable. “No I’m fine.”
Mary Beth flicked out the light and rolled over on her side away from him.
Despite the muggy, midsummer weather, the tiny apartment was reasonably airy. An occasional car passed in the street, accompanied by the incessant drone of crickets. The studio apartm