Collected Short Stories: Volume V by Barry Rachin - HTML preview
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Collected Short Stories: Volume V
Copyright © 2016
This short story 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.
Table of Contents
Jesse Caldwell loathed Miranda Huffington, the business secretary at Patterson Toyota. Whenever the mechanic delivered repair orders to the front office, he kept conversation brief as possible, scrupulously avoided making eye contact or inadvertently staring at the woman’s deformed leg. Jesse had even considered taking a job with another dealership to be rid of the wretched woman. For her part, the only time Miranda paid Jesse even the slightest mind was when he did something wrong, which was why she was presently standing in the repair bay wearing an evil expression. “No signature on this form.” Miranda waved a three-part invoice truculently in the air.
In her late twenties, the business secretary exuded no joie de vivre. She lurched about Patterson Toyota with a profound limp, her body pitching forward in a herky-jerky manner as though she were about to take a pratfall and end up on her keister from one humorless moment to the next. Miranda wasn’t exactly ugly. Rather, she was one of those infuriatingly nondescript types who, despite her infirmity, might have been reasonably attractive if, once in a blue moon, she smiled or cracked a joke. The operative term here was ‘might have been’. But the dark-haired woman didn’t and so she wasn’t.
Jesse signed off on the brake job and handed the three-part invoice to the secretary, who swung about on her heels with less than military precision and hobbled disjointedly from the repair bay. A lilac-scented perfume lingered in the stale air until it was quickly overwhelmed by the stench of exhaust fumes and burnt rubber.
Well thank you, too, and have a stupendously nice day, Ms. Huff, Huff, Huffington.
Al Florentine, the repair manager approached from the showroom floor. “What a clod!” Jesse muttered as Miranda retreated back to the comfort of the heated showroom. “That troll treats mechanics like garbage.”
“She ain’t so bad.” Al assumed a mollifying tone. The middle-aged Italian with the swarthy complexion and sloping shoulders arranged appointments when customers called the dealership. He also assigned work orders and oversaw the repair bay operation. “No worse than the last few goofballs in her position.”
The manager had a point.
The previous secretary arrived late most days and couldn’t file properly. A record labeled ‘Munson’ might, if lucky, end up in the ‘M’s but that was it. She never bothered to position the manila folder to the rear between the MT’s and MV’s. It was organizational chaos pure and simple such that, inside of a month, customer accounts were a garbled mess, a regular automotive Tower of Babel. The middle-aged woman who preceded her was a menopausal hypochondriac with a drinking problem; she lasted a sum total of two months before filing a bogus disability claim.
If nothing else, the grim-faced Miranda Huffington was an anal-retentive workaholic. All customer records had to be properly indexed. She retyped the entire Rolodex file on pristine, three-by-five cards and, using a desktop publishing program, revamped several of Patterson Toyota’s customer care forms. At a staff party Mr. Patterson presented the new employee with a mahogany plaque acknowledging her ‘exceptional team spirit and personal initiative’.
“Miranda’s had a tough life,” Al blurted.
The repair manager clearly knew something about the dour-faced woman to which no one else was privy but waved a hand distractedly in the air. “More to the point, what you got against her?”
The question caught Jesse off guard and he felt his face flush with shame. “There’s a busted water pump on a Celica needs replacing.”
“The water pump can wait.”
Thirty feet away an acetylene blow torch fired up as a mechanic began loosening the corroded bolts on a blown muffler. “I dunno.” The rusty muffler fell away from the undercarriage of the car hitting the cement floor with a dull clatter. Jesse’s brain had reached the temperature of the softened bolts scattered about under the hydraulic lift. He waved a stubby finger in the air listlessly. “She’s a sadistic bitch!”
“That’s a bit of a stretch,” Al chuckled. “Miranda ain’t a bad sort. She’s just…” Without bothering to finish the sentence, the man smiled weakly and wandered back into the showroom.
Shortly after joining Patterson Toyota, Jesse signed a lease on a studio apartment off route 106 in Plainville, Massachusetts. In his late twenties, the move was Jesse’s first real taste of independence. He took the apartment for a year, paying the first and last month’s rent plus a hefty security deposit. On June first, Jesse Caldwell bought a secondhand dresser and end table at the Salvation Army thrift shop, threw his lumpy bed in the rear of his Ford F-150 pickup truck and drove off to a new life. Or so he thought.
The new life was, in truth, no different than his stultified old life, except that now the mechanic returned home from work to a claustrophobically tiny, studio apartment. He had his dirty movies – small consolation – but in the bargain had bartered away something ephemeral yet infinitely essential. The apartment at Beacon Woods Estate was quiet – excruciatingly so. Jesse kept the radio blaring from early morning until he lumbered off to work.
Weekends he relaxed by the pool, twirling his high school ring in endless circles like the revolving drum on a Tibetan prayer wheel. The residents seemed friendly in a neighborly sort of way but kept their distance. Sunning themselves on chaise lounges by the pool, the women were, for the most part, white collar professionals - twenty-something school teachers, secretaries and businesswomen with no particular interest in a grease monkey with calloused hands, burgeoning beer gut, salt and pepper hair.
So where were the eligible women his own age? Probably living elsewhere. Or, like his sister, Eunice, married, divorced, divorced again and now living with a new lover. What difference did it make? From Jesse’s perspective, finding a life partner, a soul mate, had devolved into a scavenger hunt.
One Saturday night toward the tail end of the following summer, an unfortunate incident pushed Jesse over the edge. With nothing to do, he had been stir-crazy all day, totally and irrevocably alone. Following the eleven o’clock news, he killed the lights and crawled under the covers. Two doors down, a Hispanic couple was blasting the radio ridiculously loud – a riotous mix of salsa and Latin jazz. Jesse finally dropped off to sleep but woke before dawn to angry voices. He glanced at the mint green numbers on the bedside clock. Five-thirty.
“Where the hell was you?” A gruff voice filtered down from the floor above.
“None of your business, Shit-for-Brains!” The woman was drunk, slurring her words.
Jesse knew the couple, but only to offer a brief greeting as they checked mail or passed in the lobby. Lean and morose with a nervous tic, the guy was a roofer. His shrimpy, dark-haired girlfriend worked at a Burger King. At least once a month, she slipped out alone bar hopping and came home sloshed. The roofer and his wayward girlfriend cursed each other, hurled insults back and forth but nothing ever came of it. Eventually the accusations petered away and they went off to bed. Sometimes Jesse heard the dysfunctional duo moaning with lust, the sexual release heightened by the foul-mouthed sparing - the titillating foreplay of culturally-challenged dimwits.
But this was different. The woman never stayed out all night. “I ask questions but get no answers,” The roofer growled. “Where’d you spend the night?”
“Put a ring on the third finger of my left hand and I’ll answer your moronic questions.”
Fluffing the pillow, Jesse placed his hands behind his head. This was about as entertaining, as a carnival freak show. “One more smart-mouth remark,” the roofer snarled, “and I’ll slap you silly.”
Jesse eased up on his elbows and listened attentively. Don’t feed into his homicidal rage. Back off. Leave the room. Go take a shower. Keep your pie hole shut. Don’t say another solitary thing. Don’t –
Two sets of feet scurried back and forth about the one-bedroom flat, followed by the crash of overturned furniture as the roofer beat his unfaithful lover. Jesse jumped out of bed and rushed up the stairwell taking the risers two at a time. By the time he reached the apartment, the door was already ajar. Several male residents, who lived on the same floor, were restraining the boyfriend. The distraught girl sported a chipped tooth and black eye. A clump of hair was missing off the top of her head. Like an oversized dust bunny, the frizzy strands lay in a jumbled heap on the living room rug. Five minutes later police arrived and carted the roofer off to the lockup. The following week, Jesse spotted the lovebirds lounging by the pool. A shadowy bald spot on the right side of her scalp, where the boyfriend yanked the hair out, remained but new growth was filling in nicely.
In early August when the letter to renew his lease arrived from the rental agency, Jesse called home. “How you doing, Mom?”
“Good and you?”
“Well, that’s just it. Five hundred bucks a month for a hole-in-the-wall, efficiency apartment… this complex is grossly overpriced. Plainville isn’t really all that convenient to where I work, and things can get a bit lonely especially when nobody’s around on holiday weekends and …” He paused to catch his breath. Such a mortal embarrassment - a grown man in his mid-thirties tucking his tail between his stubby legs and escaping back to the safe haven of his parent’s home!
“For crying out loud,” Mrs. Caldwell interrupted in a face-saving gesture. “Don’t waste your hard-earned money on some crappy, sardine can of an apartment. Cancel the lease and come home where you’re always welcome.” She slammed the receiver down mercifully sparing him any further mawkishness.
Jesse lowered his grizzled beard into his hands and had a good cry. Stumbling into the bathroom, he washed his face, patting the mottled skin dry with a terrycloth towel. Then he pulled a cardboard box from the closet and began packing the cutlery, dishes, pots and pans for the eight and a half mile trip home.
At noontime Al Florentine was back again standing near the tire balancing machine. “Wanna grab lunch?”
Jesse’s head was buried under the hood of a Camry sedan checking the transmission fluid. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll be done with this bag of bolts.”
At a Friendly’s situated two blocks from the dealership, the waitress took their order and ten minutes later set a bowl of chili in front of the repair manager and tuna fish sandwich with a diet Pepsi next to Jesse. “Last December when the boss was away in Vegas,” the repair manager stirred his chili, directing his words into the spicy broth, “I interviewed Miranda for the job.” He sprinkled a bag of oyster crackers over the top of his chili. “The girl attended junior college for a couple years, but that didn’t work out so hot. What with her handicap, she wasn’t much of a party animal.”
“She told you all this during the stupid interview?”
“Not exactly,” Al qualified.” The repair manager pursed his lips and spoke tentatively. “Got a problem with her gimpy leg?”
Jesse opened a bag of potato chips and splayed them on the plate alongside the tuna melt. “At first, but I don’t hardly notice it now.”
Up down, up down, up down. When she crossed a room it seemed as though the woman was placing her right foot in an endless progression of shallow potholes. Now the mechanic hardly paid any attention. Or perhaps Jesse logically associated the secretary with the odd gait – so much so that, if she suddenly began walking with fluid grace, that might have seemed equally peculiar. “No, her handicap don’t bother me.”
“She’s a beekeeper. The half dozen hives in her back yard brought in over two hundred pounds of honey last year.”
“How’d you learn that?”
“During the interview.”
Jesse tried to picture his personal nemesis decked out in an alabaster bee suit with dark veil and calfskin gloves. Beekeeping – yes, that would be the perfect pastime for an antisocial control freak like Miranda Huffington.
“It’s really amazing stuff how honey bees arrange things. In July and August when the weather gets too hot, they’ll fan the entrance with their wings to cool the hive. Amazing stuff, I tell you!” The more Al raved about Miranda Huffington’s stupendous bees, the more infuriated his coworker became. “Wanna hear something funny?” He rushed ahead without waiting for any response. “In late August all the drones get the bum’s rush.”
“What’re drone?” Jesse muttered.
“Male bees. They don’t do much of anything other than play footsie with the queen and gorge on honey. In late summer, the female bees close things down for winter and the drones become persona non grata.”
“What with the frigid weather coming, there ain’t no place for moochers and deadbeats.”
Jesse raised the tuna fish sandwich to his lips but, felt a sharp pang – acid reflux – and promptly lowered it to the plate. “So the drones get kicked out in the cold to die a miserable death?”
“That’s right,” Al confirmed. “With absolutely no say in the matter.” The middle-aged man raised the spoon to his lips and ate with gusto making a raucous slurping sound as he shoveled the brown beans into his mouth. Al didn’t speak again until the food was gone. “Just before we broke for lunch, I was in the office shooting the breeze with Miranda and she says, ‘That Caldwell never remembers to sign the goddamn work orders. If I didn’t know any better, I might think the nitwit was screwing with my brain.’” Al snickered as though at some private joke. “Then, without skipping a beat, she adds, ‘Is the jerk dating anyone?’”
Jesse’s eyebrows scrunched together. “She called me a nitwit... a jerk?”
“You’re missing the point.” Al reached across the table and tapped Jesse forcefully on the forearm. “All the time I’m eating this chili, I been considering your options and it all boils down to this. Your personal circumstances ain’t more promising than that rusty minivan with the blown cylinder head over by the dumpster, and all the while Miranda Huffington limps through life in search of a good-time Charley.”
The waitress arrived and warmed Al’s coffee. When she was gone, Jesse leaned over the table. “I got this problem with the opposite sex.”
Al grabbed another roll, sawed it in half with a knife, smearing a pat of butter down the middle. “There’s medication for that,” he replied, lowering his voice several decibels. “Not that I ever needed any.”
Jesse wagged his head in protest. “No, it’s got nothing to do with plumbing.” A group of high school students wandered in and were seated at a booth near the back of the restaurant. “In social situations I just get tongue-tied... never know what to say, that’s all.”
“A personal shortcoming... so now you got something in common with the woman. Ask her out.”
“A date?” Jesse felt lightheaded. “She’d laugh in my foolish face.”
“Not hardly!” Al wiped the bowl clean with what was left of the roll. “Miranda thinks you’re a bit rough about the edges but salvageable... an automotive diamond in the rough, so to speak.” Al belched, loosening his belt buckle several notches. “The woman might be a sourpuss cripple, but I seen women like her mellow like a vintage Bordeaux when treated halfways decent.”
“That’s a tad melodramatic,” Jesse groused, “and I still don’t see -”
“This is what you do,” Al counseled. “Ask the broad out on a date. Treat her like there ain’t no female on the planet half as desirable.” He waved his hands frenetically in the air. “Sex on her terms, not yours! You don’t lay a perverted pinky finger on the woman until she sanctions it.” Several customers at adjacent tables looked up from their meals. In addition to a lingering dizziness, Jesse was developing a brutal case of heartburn.
“If there’s a freakin’ foreign flick from Kazakhstan playing at the Avon Cinema that she wants to see, you go and read the subtitles and tell her it was just about the finest movie you ever seen.”
“Okay,” Jesse muttered. “I think I understand.”
Clearing away the empty plates, the waitress placed the bill on the table. Al Florentine pulled a twenty from his wallet. “My treat. You pick up the tab next time.”
At five o’clock the mechanics packed up their tool chests and went home. Office help generally followed a half hour later. Jesse lingered in the repair bay until quarter passed the hour then meandered into a cramped office off the main showroom. “The Blue Grotto, it’s a fancy schmancy restaurant on Federal hill.” If you got nothin’ better to do, I was wondering...” Miranda glanced up from a pile of service orders strewn across the desk, her features as inscrutable as Sanskrit.
“A date?” She laid the yellow NCR copy she was processing on the desk and smoothed the edges with the spatulated tips of her fingers. “Never been there myself but I heard they got valet parking.”
Jesse cringed. He knew that the gourmet restaurant was notoriously expensive but hadn’t factored the added expense into the price of the meal. Miranda kept her eyes focused on the paperwork littering her desk. “It’s against company policy.” she spoke in a gravelly monotone.
“Secretaries fraternizing with the work-bay help… Mr. Patterson told me so when I was hired.”
Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Jesse felt the turgid blood congealing in his brain. He shuffled halfway to the door on wobbly legs when her voice sounded again. “On the other hand, there’s no mention of it here.” She was clutching a copy of the Paterson Toyota employee handbook. “And I should know. I revised the manual... all thirty-five pages.” She sandwiched the three-ring binder between a row of paperwork neatly stacked on her desk. “I’m not doing much of anything tomorrow night.”
“Pick you up around seven,” Jesse replied. “I’ll make reservations.”
Saturday afternoon, Jesse found his mother hunched over the kitchen table stripping the skins off a bowl of Clingstone peaches. Earlier in the week she brought home a bushel of fruit purchased at a farmers’ market. The flesh, which clung to the pits, was softer and juicier than the freestone variety sold in the grocery stores.
Crooking her thick neck to one side, Mrs. Caldwell sniffed the air. “What’s that god-awful stench?”
Mrs. Caldwell gawked at her son. “Got a date?” Jesse’s head bobbed up and down. A squat woman with a doughy nose, Mrs. Caldwell lifted her watery blue eyes heavenward. “I’ll be a grandmother yet!”
Jesse watched her dice the blanched peaches into bite-size pieces which she tossed into a copper pot simmering on the stove. When the pot was half-filled, she sprinkled a generous cup of sugar over the fruit. Quartering a fresh lemon, she drizzled the juice over the mix.
“What’s with the lemon?”
“Brings out the flavor.” Mashing the soggy wedges in the palm of her hand, she drained the last few drops. “Opposites attract,” his mother chuckled at the clever repartee, “even in food.” She stirred the ingredients thoughtfully with a wooden spatula. “So who’s the lucky girl?”
“Just a secretary from work.”
The bubbling peaches exuded a tart aroma. “Can’t go out on a first date looking like an ignoramus.”
“That grease spot on your fly isn’t going to endear you to anyone. Go back in the bedroom and change your pants.”
“The others are in worse shape.”
Mrs. Caldwell eyeballed the thickening slurry before reducing the heat. “Take them off. I’ll clean the stain by hand.”
In the bedroom Jesse removed his pants and returned to the kitchen. “I never said anything about a first date,” he groused.
Now that the mixture had thickened Mrs. Caldwell proceeded to ladle the steamy fruit into individual preserve jars. A yearly ritual, she always steeped the preserves in a separate pan of water for ten minutes before tightening the lids. “Yeah, well...” She scrubbed the cloth with a wet rag and dish detergent. “The stain... it’s thinning away to nothin’. Don’t hardly show now.” She handed him the soggy pants. “Throw them in the dryer and I’ll run a hot iron over them when they’re dry.”
Drifting back to the stove, she teased a spoonful of fruit onto the ladle. “Taste.”
Jesse nibbled at the hot fruit. A look of sublime joy ebbed across his grizzled face, the dark eyes scrunching shut. “Don’t get much better than that!”
“Go dry your pants,” his mother barked.
A half hour later as Jesse was inching down the driveway, the front door burst open and his mother waddled down the bricked steps. She thrust a jar of the homemade jam through the open window. “Geez,” Jesse bellowed. “It’s hot as hell!”
“Give the fruit to your girl friend.”
“She ain’t my girlfriend. Just a ...” He left the sentence dangling.
“You tell her I don’t use no pectin. Nothin’ artificial to thicken the spread. It’s all-natural, fresh-grown. .. none of that high fructose, sicky-sweet, corn syrup crap.”
“Yeah, okay.” Releasing his foot from the brake, he continued down the driveway toward the street. Before Jesse reached the highway, he cracked the glove compartment, tossed his mother’s unsolicited gift into the cavity and slammed it shut.
“I ain’t much of a conversationalist.” They were cruising down the interstate ninety-five in the direction of downtown Providence. Wearing an inscrutable, sphinxlike expression, Miranda Huffington sat stiffly in the passenger seat, her slender hands folded in her lap. Since picking her up at the three-decker tenement behind the public library, Jesse hadn’t spoke more than a half dozen words.
“All that mindless prattle,” Miranda observed, “is greatly overrated.”
“That’s for sure.” Jesse balked, not knowing what else to say. If he tried to elaborate was he further contributing to the garbage heap of vacuous jibber jabber?
“My Uncle Jack was painfully shy.” Miranda cut short his self-damning reverie. “The man could sit in a room full of people and hardly string two words together.” The golden dome of the Rhode Island state house loomed diagonally to their left. “Then he married Aunt Rita.”
“And how did that work out?”
“Not so hot. The new wife was a non-stop talkaholic. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. The woman never came up for air... never shut her trap two seconds back to back.”
The last remnants of late afternoon light bleeding from the sky, Jesse could view the road clear enough but hadn’t a clue where Miranda’s monologue was heading “One day in mid-August, Uncle Jack drove to Green Airport in Warwick. He left the Toyota sedan with the keys in the ignition and booked a one-way ticket to the West Coast. No more captive audience. No more endless rants. No more Aunt Rita.”
Not a bona fide smile per se, but the intimation of good humor flickered across Miranda’s features. Jesse turned off the Atwells Avenue exit ramp. The Blue Grotto with its eggshell white, stucco veneer came into view directly ahead. “My father joked,” she continued dryly, “that Uncle Jack should have married a deaf mute.”
During the meal she ordered the gamberie aragosta scampi, which featured gulf shrimp and fresh lobster poached in a garlic butter. Jesse opted for the potato gnocchi tossed with caramelized onions, pancetta and pomodoro sauce.
“Al Florentine mentioned that you raise honeybees.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Miranda dabbed at her thin lips with a napkin and a faint hint of burgundy lipstick came away with the sauce. The girl never wore makeup to work. The color softened her features. “Fifty thousand bees in a single hive... all working for the survival of the colony,” she spoke in a confidential tone leaning forward across the table, “they’re truly selfless creatures.”
Dressed in a black tuxedo with cummerbund, the maître d’, a smallish man with a scant wisp of dark hair covering an otherwise bald forehead, was showing an older couple to their table. The last time Jesse wore a penguin suit with onyx studs down the front of a pleated shirt was during his sister Eunice’s last wedding. “At the end of the summer the females kick all the drones out of the hive. That doesn’t seem terribly fair.”
Miranda eyed him pensively. “No, but the males might eat down the honey reserves and the colony starve to death.”
“But then, Jesse protested, “in the spring when the bees emerge from the hive, there wouldn’t be any males to mate with the queen.”
“Toward the end of the winter,” Miranda explained they just make a new batch of drones to replace the ones that were evicted.”
After the meal they strolled about Federal Hill. Over the past few decades, the gritty, blue-collar community had witnessed a series of seismic upheavals. Those greenhorn Italians who originally settled the community had long since dispersed to the more affluent suburbs of North Providence, Johnston and Warwick as a wave of scrappy Hispanics invaded the streets running parallel as far down as dirt-poor Olneyville. Over the last decade, gentrification brought back the white-collar grandchildren of the original settlers to reclaim their heritage along with a mix of college kids and affluent yuppies.
At a bakery three blocks down from the restaurant Miranda bought a box of vanilla biscotti. “Did Uncle Jack ever resurface?” Jesse ventured.
“No, never.” A short distance from the bakery they paused in front of an art gallery featuring high-end pottery, ceramics and custom-made jewelry boxes. “You lived at the Beacon Woods apartments a while back,” she suddenly blurted in a peremptory, no-nonsense tone. “How come you moved home with your parents?”
Everything was blissfully perfect and now this.
Jesse hesitated considering his options. He could lie - resort to verisimilitude, bloviate, confabulate, bullshit his way out of the ticklish situation. Stalling for time, he peered through the display window of the art gallery at a keepsake box fashioned from a shimmery orangey black wood. A tag hanging from the box read: Cocobolo, Mexican rosewood. Two hundred fifty dollars. A pair of brass hinges was cleverly recessed into the carcass of the box, the back wall mitered to support the lid at a comfortable angle. The craftsman probably used a slot cutter chucked into a drill press to make the cut with the thin, sliver of a blade spun on a horizontal axis at low speed - six to eight hundred rpm’s. Jesse didn’t know any of this for sure. As a mechanic his stock-in-trade was finding solutions, fixing what was broke.
Everything but his sorry existence.
“If it’s something you’d rather not discuss...” Miranda’s voice jolted him back to the present.
“Living on my own wasn’t what I expected. No, not at all.” In a gush of emotional diarrhea, Jesse described his wretched loneliness and inability to make friends at the apartment complex. He even told her about the roofer and his shrimpy, dark-haired punching-bag-of-a-girl-friend. “Pretty pathetic, huh?”
Miranda screwed her features up in a bittersweet smile. Time seemed to flow in slower and slower increments. “Damaged goods... that’s what we are.” There was nothing maudlin or self-serving in her tone. Stepping in front of him, she thrust her face up under his chin. “Give me a kiss.”
“Peach jam... when I was a kid, my mother cooked it up in huge, copper pots every fall.” They were back at the car. “The mushy yellow fruit didn’t look half as nice as store-bought jams or jellies. What with the dented lids and smudged labels, I thought it was bogus... stupid as hell.” Opening the glove compartment, Jesse handed her the glass jar. “My mother whipped up a batch earlier today. She don’t use that gobbledygook thickener.”
“Yeah, whatever... It’s nothing fancy, but the taste is to die for.” Jesse fired up the car and glanced at his date. Miranda was staring straight ahead with just the faintest smudge of a smile brightening her mouth, the jar cradled in her lap like a precious heirloom, a fruity talisman.
Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?
“Adrian Flanagan’s working three to eleven over at the Brentwood Nursing Home.” Like a poker player dealt a lousy hand and waits for his opponent to fold or raise the ante, Jason Flanagan fidgeted with his hands. “Thought I might drop by later this week to see how she’s doing.”
His wife, who was stuffing the washing machine with a load of soiled towels grimaced but never bothered to raise her head. The wiry, elderly man, who stood a tad less than six feet, watched her measure a cupful of Borax liquid detergent. Kate, a petite Italian woman with a pointy nose and auburn hair streaked with gray, sprinkled softener into the machine before closing the lid. Her eyes flared and lower jaw flattened like a battering ram. “Not a good idea.”
Jason could sense his wife raising the emotional drawbridge, walling herself up behind a thick slab of brittle-minded certitudes “Why’s that?”
“The nursing home is a private business, and you’ve no legitimate reason being there.”
Jason cringed. After thirty-three years of marriage, his wife was still doing ‘the voice’.
The voice was a stilted, phony as a three-dollar bill inflection that she inadvertently slipped into when out of her natural element. A set of gears in the washer clicked and the agitator began swirling the dirty clothes in the sudsy water. Only now did the woman step back, hands on hips, and look her husband full in the face. “Some things are better left in the past.”
“Maybe I’ll go see my brother.” He scratched his stubbly chin reflectively. “What’s it been… fifteen years now? I’m sure he’s heard from Adrian by now.”
Kate Flanagan cringed. “You’ll be wasting your breath talking to that moron?”
Jason knew better than to argue the point. His older brother, Jack, was worse than a moron. He was a belligerent slug who never regretted a personal indiscretion no matter how much damage caused. A pot-bellied Irishman, Jack Flanagan was a loudmouth braggart who made it big in the durable medical supply business. Adrian’s mother was a non-stop talkaholic, who would rather slash her wrists than spend two hours alone in the house with her own private thoughts.
In later years, Jason developed the bizarre notion that his niece, Adrian, was switched at birth. Her parents—that is, the bogus couple who brought her home from the maternity ward—couldn’t possibly be biologically related to this soft-spoken, angelic soul. It was luck of the draw, and Adrian Flanagan got dealt a pair of duds, imbecilic jokers from the bottom of the deck.
Fifteen years earlier, Jack Flanagan’s mug was smeared all over the Providence Journal, when the IRS indicted him for tax evasion. A private accounting firm sent to review his corporate records at the medical supply company discovered that the flamboyant businessman, who favored Cuban cigars, Lincoln Continentals and off-colored jokes, was ‘cooking the books’. A slew of hospital beds and motorized wheelchairs that never left the company showroom had been billed to Medicare along with a hundred eighty-five bogus claims for bottled oxygen. Worse yet, an elderly woman with rheumatoid arthritis receiving inhalation therapy had been deceased a half dozen years.
Rumors circulated that Jack Flanagan was heading to Connecticut for a little rest and relaxation courtesy of the federal government. Jack’s new mailing address was a minimum security facility with an outstanding law library, soft ball field and state-of-the-art exercise gym. Nolo contendere. In the end, he copped a plea, paid a hefty fine and received a two-year suspended sentence. Case closed!
Throughout the ordeal, the man never showed a speck of remorse.
The week before his final court date, Adrian’s old man was yakking it up like a remorseless jackass at a Fourth of July barbecue. Decked out in Bermuda shorts and a garish print shirt, Jack Flanagan poked fun at the district attorney. Everyone cheated on their income tax, right? The unfortunate glitch with the hospital beds, bottled oxygen and wheel chairs was just sloppy bookkeeping. Sloppy bookkeeping to the tune of over two hundred thousand dollars!
At the cookout, not a single neighbor snubbed the man or expressed moral indignation. Even Jason’s parents, who damned the thieving bastard to hell in the privacy of their own home, laughed at their son’s flippant jokes and snide remarks. Jack Flanagan didn’t give a rat’s ass about a fall from grace. His only regret was getting caught.
Some things are better left in the past. The Thanksgiving following the indictment Jason was visiting his brother’s family. Adrian was hunkered down in the den, playing with a one-legged Barbie doll, which she was dressing in a glitzy evening gown. Jason remembered her as a round-faced imp with coal black hair cropped short —a persnickety tomboy with sparkling eyes, burnished coppery complexion and stocky frame. Adrian snuggled up alongside him on the couch with an impishly brazen smirk. “Uncle Jason, do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Adrian,” he hunched over and whispered with a conspiratorial flair, “They’re forecasting a ninety-nine percent chance of torrential downpour, but if it’s in cans, everything should be okay.”
Adrian giggled infectiously but just as abruptly her features darkened and the girl lowered her voice several decibels. “Daddy told mom that she’s got shit for brains.”
In the kitchen, the thermometer popped and Jason’s sister-in-law was easing the turkey from the oven. “Cripes!” He didn’t know what else to say.
“She called daddy a two-timing louse… a human turd.” Adrian reached out furtively and grabbed her uncle’s wrist. “My parents hate each other so much they’re getting divorced. It’s supposed to be a secret so don’t tell no one.”
For a second time in as many minutes, Jason was rendered speechless. He was carrying on a conversation with a nine year old about things that no child should comprehend. “I want to come live with you and Aunt Kate.”
Jason watched as an array of holiday concoctions – string beans with almond slivers, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and butternut squash laced with honey – was laid out on the dining room table. “That’s not possible,” he countered. “And anyway, I’m sure your parents will work things out.”
“No, they won’t,” Adrian insisted glumly. “They’re too selfish.”
Jason stared at the crippled Barbie doll. One of her oblong breasts was jutting out from the tattered gown. “Time to eat!” The call to table rescued him from the need for any further half-truths and cowardly evasions regarding Jack Flanagan’s marital intentions.
* * * * *
A few months later, Adrian vanished from the home, dragged off to live with the garrulous mother’s extended family. Jack remarried the following year and his new wife, who was really just a repackaged, jazzed up version of his old wife, got down to business.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
They had three children, all daughters, in rapid succession. No one ever talked about Jack’s first child anymore. Ten years passed. One day Jason’s daughter, Rachel, took him aside. “Saw cousin Adrian last night.”
“Outside a musical in downtown Boston.” In her early twenties, Rachel was a prettier version of the mother with an equally blunt temperament but less pointy nose. “She was in the Theater District just off Tremont Street near Park Square, working the crowd.”
Jason’s face clouded over. “I don’t follow you.”
“Adrian was gussied up like a hooker. A car pulled up and the driver rolled down the passenger side window. They negotiated a price. Adrian jumped in and they drove off.”
Adrian Flanagan as streetwalker decked out in a flimsy halter top, neon hot pants and stiletto heels - this latest bit of titillating garbage fit neatly with the outlandish potpourri of hearsay, idle gossip and innuendo that filtered back to him over the years. “Did you say anything to mom?” His daughter shook her head.
Jason felt nauseous, light headed. “Sure it was Adrian?”
Rachel nodded once. Jason’s favorite niece still wore her dark hair in a close-cropped, pixie style. The same squat, compact torso. “She’s all grown up now,” Rachel reported with a sober expression. “Got hips and breasts.”
* * * * *
Later that night after supper, Jason removed the food processor from the cabinet over the sink and arranged a collection of spices and cooking utensils on the kitchen table. What’re you making?” His wife asked.
“Hummus.” He ladled a healthy dollop of tahini from a metal tin into the bowl, then sliced a lemon in half and squeezed the juice into the mix. “Still visiting your brother?” Kate’s voice had mellowed since their conversation in the laundry room.
“Tomorrow morning,” Jason confirmed. Into the creamy paste he added salt and several tablespoons of olive oil. Grabbing a knife, he pried a garlic clove apart and began peeling the outer skins away from the fleshy interior. “I don’t expect much… just want to find out if he’s heard from his daughter.”
“I was a bit harsh earlier today,” Kate pulled up a chair at the table and cracked an apologetic smile, “but just the mention of your brother’s name sends me off the deep end.”
He reached for a jar of turmeric and sprinkled a half-teaspoon of the orangey powder into the food processor. “What are you reading?” he said, indicating a paperback at his wife’s elbow.
“G.K. Chesterton… Orthodoxy.” She took the crushed lemon rinds and deposited them in the garbage. “A Christian writer… very unusual.”
“In what way?”
“Chesterton said that children possess endless vitality. They want thing repeated and unchanged.”
“True enough,” Jason confirmed.
“Here, let me read a passage.” She thumbed through to a section near the middle of the book. “It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” She abruptly laid the book aside.
“No, keep reading,” He insisted, but his wife began tidying the soiled counter and showed no inclination to return to the book.
Jason shook a dash of cumin into the mix. From the refrigerator he located a package of red peppers in vegetable bin and brought them to the table, where he sliced them methodically lengthwise into thick slivers. He was considering his niece and the rhubarb. How many times had she sprung that insanely corny joke on him? A thousand, ten thousand?
The childish prank never got tiresome. Each time he came to visit, Adrian set the trap. A child’s sacred ritual. Pure magic! Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!
Jason placed the peppers on a baking sheet, skin-side up and slid them under the broiler for ten minutes until the skin charred. Placing the slices in a resealable plastic bag, he set it aside until the vegetable steamed sufficiently to remove the peel in one piece. Dumping the bright flesh into the food processor, he reduced the pepper to a fluffy froth.
“Here, taste.” Jason tore a slice of pita bread into a wedge and scooped a generous helping of the coffee colored dip.
“Yes, that’s delicious. Real tasty!” Slipping her arms around his waist, she pulled him close. “Fourth of July’s right around the corner. If you hunt down your long-lost niece, invite her over for the holiday. We’ll cook up traditional fare… hot dogs, cheeseburgers, potato salad.”
“And red pepper hummus,” Jason quipped.
* * * * *
“I should have done something?”
They were lying in bed with the lights out, Jason comfortably nestled up against his wife’s rump, an arm slung around her waist. Kate only half-heard the unsolicited remark. “What did you say?”
“Back then… before Adrian fell off the edge of the earth, I should have done something.”
“Your brother’s toxic,” she replied acidly. “Everything he touches turns to shit.”
“True enough but I should have done something.”
“I dunno. She was a dark-eyed innocent. What’s happened over the years… it felt like a Biblical curse.”
“You’re beating yourself up over nothing.” The room fell silent. Finally his wife rolled over and, wrapping her arms around his back, pulled him close. “The proper thing to do,” she said soberly, “would have been to remove Adrian from the maternity ward the day of her delivery and place the newborn with a decent family.”
* * * * *
Saturday morning, Jason was up early and on the road. Half an hour later he pulled into the parking lot of a shabby, split rib concrete building with a sign that read Flanagan’s Medical Supplies. Killing the engine, he went inside. A portly middle-aged man with sagging jowls and a bald head looked up from behind the counter. “My kid brother, Jason… what brings you here?”
“Nothing special.” Jason glanced around the cluttered space. A collection of hydraulic Hoyer lifts were neatly stacked along the far wall. That was new. The oxygen canisters – portable and fixed had been repositioned further down the room. Respiratory care was a major part of Jack’s business. “How are the girls?”
Jack waved an arm, a peremptory gesture of disgust. “Royal pain in the ass… that’s what she is. Second wife ain’t no goddamn better than the first.”
“Your daughter’s back in town.”
“So I heard,” he replied.
“You haven’t seen Adrian?”
“I’m the father,” Jack shot back abrasively. “It’s her responsibility to chase me down.”
Jack Flanagan rubbed his flabby face with a mottled hand. “The feds hit me with another, stinking RAT-STATS.” When there was no immediate reply, he added, “You familiar with the term?”
“Yeah, I know what it means.” When the authorities did a Medicare audit and found discrepancies, they used an algorithm, a mathematical equation, to predict the likelihood of the event recurring over a broad span of time, usually a year. If Jack Flanagan inflated a bill by several hundred dollars and averaged seventy similar claims each year, he would have hypothetically defrauded the tax payers out of fourteen thousand dollars!
“How much this time?”
“Three hundred big ones.”
Jack Flanagan smirked. “I’ll survive.”
“Why can’t you keep your nose clean?”
“I didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” he blustered, running all the words together. “It was a minor indiscretion… a bookkeeping error.”
An elderly woman with a pronounced limp hobbled into the store. Balancing on a three-pronged cane, she picked her way haltingly to the aisle with the motorized wheelchairs.
Between the digitalized parenteral feeding equipment, inhalation therapy supplies, hospital beds, wheelchairs and portable oxygen, there must have been a quarter of a million dollars in inventory littering the showroom floor. And that didn’t even take into account what his brother had squirreled away in the rear warehouse. With Jack, being honest earned you a comfortable living but was never enough, certainly not when the only valid crime was being stupid enough to get caught.
Reaching home, Jason found his wife puttering in the rock garden. “How’d your meeting with Jack go?”
Reaching down, Jason grabbed a clump of velvety blue lavender and let the delicate blossoms slip through his hand. Raising the fingers to his nose, he inhaled the bittersweet, cloying scent. “About as well as might be expected.”
His wife gestured with a flick of her head. “Did you notice the visitors?” The ripe lavender buds were loaded with golden honeybees foraging for nectar. As they descended, helicopter fashion, onto a pale blossom, the delicate pastel stem dipped precariously.
Reaching down, she fondled an emerald green dahlia. The blood red flowers wouldn’t emerge for another month or more toward the tail end of the season when all the other plants, except for a handful of hardy plants like sedum asters and toad lilies, had already played themselves out. Kate slowly rose from a crouched position next to the dahlias. “Are you going to see Adrian?”
“I could come along for moral support.”
“No, it’s not necessary.”
* * * * *
After the evening meal, Jason drove to the Brentwood Nursing Home and sat in the car with the engine idling for a good twenty minutes before mustering the nerve to enter the building. “Adrian Flanagan?”
“Over in the west wing.” The receptionist gestured in the direction of a passageway. “Check in with the nurse’s station at the far end of the hall.”
The Brentwood Nursing Home had a distinct odor—an odd mix of body wastes, Phisohex and medicinal ointments. Several bedridden women in adjoining rooms were moaning in a repetitive, sing-song fashion. As Jason passed the elevator, an emaciated gentleman dressed in a white johnny rose from his wheelchair setting off a shrill beep. A nurses aide came running and eased the fellow back down. As soon as his withered rump made contact with the padded leather seat, the hidden monitor fell silent.
At the nurse’s station a colored woman was writing in a patient’s chart while a male nurse sorted pills in thimble-sized paper cups on a medicine tray. A stocky, attractive woman with dark hair and a pink smock exited a room carrying a carton of juice. The worker hurried past toward the nursing station. “Adrian?”
The woman abruptly stopped and came back to where Jason was standing. Staring at him for the longest time, her features dissolved in a wispy smile. “Uncle Jason!” She leaned forward and, as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world, brushed her lips across his cheek.
At the nurse’s station a telephone rang. The fellow with the pill tray was locking the medicine cabinet with a brass key. For a split second, it was like they were back on the sofa at his brother’s house. “I’m off duty in ten minutes,” she instructed in hushed tones. “Wait for me outside in the parking lot.”
Like an apparition, Adrian floated off down the corridor disappearing into an adjacent room. Jason went outside and sat in his car. He felt mildly disoriented, as though time had begun flowing in the wrong direction, bleeding back into the past and forward into an as yet, unfathomable future - Einstein’s theory of relativity turned upside down. A dozen years flushed down the toilet as though nothing had changed in the interim.
A little after seven o’clock, a steady stream of employees began dribbling out of the building. “Wanna grab a coffee?” Jason asked.
Adrian shook her head. “Got to get home to my little girl. I only live a few miles down the road. You can follow in your car.”
Jason went back to where he parked. Adrian was a mother. A rumor to that effect circulated for years. At nineteen, she delivered a baby out of wedlock but signed away maternal rights at birth. A month later she was pregnant with a second child. Sadly, like everything else, the ephemeral truth lay buried beneath a bruising avalanche of tall tales, hearsay, melodrama and patently bad fiction.
Adrian lived on the second floor of a modest apartment complex in the Maryville section of town. When they opened the door, a small dog barking hysterically rushed to greet them. “My baby,” Adrian said by way of explanation. In the kitchen Adrian removed a plastic container from the refrigerator. Scooping a serving into a bowl, she warmed it in the microwave. Before offering the food to the dog, she held the container under Jason’s nose. “Bowtie macaroni, sweet potato, peas, carrots, corn, sliced apples, chicken livers and ground turkey.”
The dog, a dirty gray shiatsu, devoured a chunk of turkey then went to work on the macaroni. Wolfing down the entire bowl in less than thirty seconds, it licked its chops, and then began rushing about the kitchen with its corkscrew tail arched over the hind quarters.
“You cook your own dog food from scratch?”
Adrian nodded. “How’s my dad doing?” she asked.
“Okay. We sometimes get together at the holidays,” Jason replied stiffly. “He had three more daughters with his second wife.”
“So I heard,” Adrian’s lips turned up ever so slightly in a dry smile. “Are they nice?”
Jason hesitated. “The first two are obnoxious, but the youngest, Dawn, is rather sweet… reminds me of you.”
Adrian scooped the dog up in her arms and nuzzled its face with her chin. “My father got himself into a legal mess a while back. Whatever came of that?”
“He beat the rap… walked away with a lousy fine and slap on the wrist.”
“Sounds about right.” The wistful smile lingered, but now her eyes turned flinty hard. “What have you heard about me over the years?”
The question caught Jason off guard. “A lot of hooey… lies and innuendo.”
“Lies and innuendo...” She lobbed the words back at him like a tennis player parrying a well-placed shot. “And how do you know it isn’t true?”
“Other family surely heard I’m back in town,” Adrian continued after an uncomfortable silence, “but you’re the only one with the decency to look me up.” Adrian refilled the dog’s water bowl and watched as Mitzi gulped her fill. She put the kettle on the stove and, when the water sent up a wheezy hiss, poured tea and placed a plate of sugar cookies on the table.
“This young lady,” Jason reached for a physically challenged doll propped inelegantly on top of the sugar tin, “is she -”
“The only thing of value,” Adrian interrupted with a sardonic smile, “I salvaged when my parents split up.” “Did you know that Ruth Handler, a middle-aged businesswoman from Montana, originally invented the Barbie doll?”
When there was no response, she continued, “During a European trip Handler came across a German doll named Bild Lilli.” The chesty novelty item wasn’t exactly what Handler had in mind for a new product, but she purchased three of them anyway.
As Adrian explained it, the doll was based on a popular comic strip character. Lilli was a working girl who knew what she wanted and wasn’t above using men to get it. At first, the executives at Mattel, where Handler worked, didn’t like the idea so the businesswoman put up her own money to bring the doll to market. The Barbie doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York and sold three hundred fifty thousand the first year!
“Is there any particular reason you’re telling me this?” Jason sipped at his lukewarm tea.
“On a merchandiser’s whim, the doll could reinvent herself… take on an endless variety of extravagant personas from astronaut to medical doctor. She held a pilot's license, and operated commercial airliners in addition to serving as a flight attendant. In the late nineties, she even drove formula one race cars on the nascar circuit!” Adrian became animated as she spoke. “Later, Barbie and her longtime boyfriend, Ken, decided to split up and she settled in with Blaine, an Australian surfer dude.”
“All of which proved what?”
“Despite endless permutations, Barbie was essentially an airhead – a vapid, egomaniacal, anorexic, over-sexed numbskull. But none of that mattered in the grand scheme of things, because Barbara Millicent Roberts - AKA Barbie – was every adolescent girl’s role model. In the miraculous landscape of make believe, every woman edits the script of her own destiny.”
Jason rose and went to where she was sitting. Wrapping his arms around his favorite niece’s shoulders, he pulled her close. “We’re having a barbecue Fourth of July weekend... just me and your aunt. Will you join us?”
“Yes, I’d like that very much.”
“Uncle Jason,” she murmured as she accompanied him to the entryway. “Do you think the rain…”
The Hornback Alligator Belt
A squat man sauntered directly to the bar at the Marriot Hotel and ordered a boilermaker. "Chivas Regal... not that rotgut you pass off on regular customers," he called in a cautionary tone as the bartender went off to fix his drink. The man, who spoke with a thick Scottish brogue, wore a tuxedo, five onyx studs decorating the front of his pleated shirt below a black bowtie. A strong chin complimented fair-skinned, boyish features.
The dapper fellow turned to the man seated at his right. "What you drinking?"
Ralph Tucker lifted a glass of brownish liquid. Half the ice had already melted away. "Coke.”
The Scotsman’s dark eyes narrowed to thin slits. “A non-drinker?”
“Just trying to keep a clear head," Ralph clarified.
The man’s lips curled in a conspiratorial grin. "Woman troubles."
His pronouncement had the sting of incontrovertible certitude. Ralph nodded once but held his tongue. "I'm with the band. The two men shook hands just as the bartender, a lanky, middle-age fellow with sagging jowls and a doleful expression, returned with the drink. "We're playing a wedding… next room over." Having said that, he reached for the shot glass, tossed the liquor down his throat then followed up with a stiff swig of beer.
"Isn't it a bit early to be hitting the sauce, if you’re working all night?"
The man's dark eyes sparkled as he wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. "My family hails from Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands.” He lowered his voice several decibels. “Unlike the stumblebum Irish, who can't hold their liquor, women, paychecks, land or much of anything else, we Scotsmen suffer no such difficulties.”
“Look here." The man extended his right hand, palm down over the bar. The stubby fingers never trembled. Reaching into his rear pocket with his free hand, he removed a pair of metal brushes and began tapping out a percussive rhythm at breakneck speed on the mahogany surface of the bar. After several fancy flourishes he returned the brushes to his pocket, polished off what was left of the beer and ordered another whiskey with beer chaser. “Paddy Macgregor,” the musician introduced himself.
"Our friend's got woman problems," Paddy announced when the sallow-faced bartender glanced up.
"No, it's not like that," Ralph insisted. "Twenty years ago a woman threw me over for a guy with a six-figure income. This past June, her husband got nabbed embezzling funds at an investment firm. Following the indictment, the chump dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving massive debts, a mortgage stretching six months in arrears and a pile of dirty underwear."
"Aw crap!" Paddy sipped judiciously at the neat whiskey and ran a tongue over his lips. "When was the last time you seen this two-timing rat?"
"Over twenty years ago," Ralph replied meekly.
The bartender's bushy eyes brows heaved in disbelief. "Two decades you carried a torch for some money-grubbing bitch?"
"It's not like that," Ralph protested.
"Maybe she was a dazzling beauty?" Paddy offered.
"Not especially. But she had a reasonably nice figure."
"My ex-wife," the bartender leaned closer, "was partial to dirty movies… mostly soft porn, not the triple X variety.” Even though the man behind the bar was a good ten years younger than the drummer, his wearisome manner and dreary horse face made him seem considerably older. “For the few lousy years we were together, we shared a common interest."
Ralph shrugged philosophically. "We didn't have much in common, but sometimes you love a woman for no apparent reason. The romance defies logic." He sliced the air with the flat of his hand trying to extract a tidbit of coherent sense from his fractured thoughts. "This woman … over the years I never properly got her out of my system."
"I ain't so particular." The drummer lifted his beer and studied the amber liquid briefly before draining the second glass. "Anyone of the bridesmaids in tonight's wedding party, with the exception of the maid of honor, could satisfy my basic needs."
"Ditto!" The bartender screwed up his face in masochistic angst. He bent over the counter assuming a confidential tone. "Between alimony and shared assets, my spouse cleaned me out in the divorce settlement.” He crooked his head to the side, addressing his remarks specifically for Ralph’s benefit. “I don't need no money-grubbing femme fatale to fill in the missing pieces or make me whole. You're problem, if you don't mind me saying so, is that you're too damn nice."
"C-H-U-M-P!" With a staccato flourish, Paddy Macgregor spelled the word out, leaning hard on each letter for dramatic effect. "Once you start indulging a dame, you lose the upper hand." Paddy threw an arm around Ralphs shoulder and pulled him close. "But don't take it personal. I'm just trying to school you in the ways of the flesh."
Ralph first learned of Becky Steinberg's domestic debacle from a mutual friend, Sid Bentley. It was Sid who told him about the indictment and Becky's precipitous fall from grace. The news caught him like a sucker punch to the gut. "The woman’s down on her luck,” Sid noted. “Like that pathetic character in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth." When no comment was forthcoming, Sid, who was as much an insatiable reader as gossipmonger, observed acidly, "That nineteenth century novel where the New York socialite plummets into abject poverty."
"Never read the book," Ralph replied.
"Under the circumstances," his friend added, "maybe you should keep it that way."
Grabbing the half-empty beer, Paddy Macgregor slid off his stool. "Gotta finish setting up my drums."
When he was gone, the bartender pushed a plastic bowl of pretzels in front of Ralph. A minute passed in total silence. "Ever seen an alligator leather belt?"
The question was a frivolous non sequitur, but the bartender took no notice. "Yeah, they're stupid looking and cost a goddamn fortune."
Ralph reached for a pretzel but thought better of it and pulled his hand away. "Ever seen an Orvis, genuine hornback alligator belt?"
* * * * *
"No, Ralph. I can't marry you and stop pestering me. It gets tiresome." They were standing in the women's department of Ann Taylor at the Chestnut Hill Mall in Newton, Massachusetts. Big boned with prominent cheeks that sloped precipitously to a narrow, petulant jaw, Becky Steinberg – her maiden name was Shapiro - was the sort of girl most men would reward with an appreciative passing glance, nothing more. She walked flatfooted with her wide shoulders thrown back. The weight of her big-boned body rested on the heels as though a metal pole had been taped from the nape of the neck straight down to the tailbone.
Becky Steinberg dangled a skinny, emerald strand with a gold clasp under Ralph’s nose. The Orvis genuine hornback alligator retailed for five hundred ninety-eight dollars.
Six hundred smackers!
That was more money than he could earn fresh out of college at an entry-level salary! And the belt wasn't even all that attractive. Ralph swallowed hard. With her predilection towards plumpness, Becky's waist would swell beyond the outermost loop by early spring and then what? Did she try to sell the absurdly expensive designer original on EBay or through an upscale consignment shop? "You're gonna blow all that money on a stupid belt."
"No," she returned the pricey strap to the rack. "I already have one… picked it up at Bergdorf Goodman when I was in New York last month. I'm just trying to make a point."
I already have one… picked it up at Bergdorf Goodman when I was in New York last month… Becky's father owned a kosher butcher shop in Manhattan. The man had given his only daughter an American Express Platinum credit card three years earlier when she went off to college. Mr. Shapiro didn't care how often she used it. Each month he paid the balance down to nothing. The tacit agreement was that she marry well - that is to say, the prospective groom should arrive at the altar with a healthy investment portfolio because, once the marriage was consecrated, the father-in-law’s American Express credit card became defunct.
"I’m addicted to fancy-schmancy." Becky ran her fingertips over the stippled surface of the Orvis original one last time, caressing the elegant hide.
How many times had they had this conversation in the last six month? Becky had never agreed to an exclusive relationship. She dated other men regularly and probably slept with them as well. Over the February vacation she joined her family at a ski resort in Vale, Colorado. For stress reduction, she booked regular appointments with a reiki masseuse or jetted off to Club Med vacations in Cancun.
All this on a part-time job and her father's largess.
"I love to spend money,” she quipped. “It's part of my genetic makeup." “A shopping spree,” she added as an afterthought, “is like a trip to Mecca."
Ralph wanted to point out that most Moslems could only afford to make the trip once in a lifetime, but clearly that wasn't her intent. "You won't marry me?"
She leaned over and kissed him playfully on the side of the mouth. "No and, for the hundredth time, stop asking."
They were back out in the main concourse of the mall where a jazz quartet from the local high school was playing a Sonny Rollin's original, Oleo, on a makeshift bandstand. "All this shopping makes me horny. When we get back to my apartment, I'm going to do obscene and unspeakable things to your body."
The saxophonist finished the main theme and now the pianist was negotiating the circle of fourths pattern that composed the bridge of the lightening fast, bebop tune. Ralph ignored the lewd invitation. “As soon as you meet Mr. Moneybags," he groused, "I’ll get the bum's rush."
"That's a bit crass." She grabbed his hand, raised it to her lips and planted a mushy kiss squarely in the center of the palm before folding the fingers back on themselves. "We get along great and always have a ton of laughs." As the last eight measures of the standard wound down, the reed player launched into an angular, improvised solo - pentatonic scales and broken arpeggios that ventured away from the original tonal center before the rhythm section, which had laid out for several measures, attacked the tune with renewed fury. "I'm horny as hell," she whispered under her breath. "Let's go home and get raunchy."
* * * * *
Ten minutes later Paddy Macgregor returned to the lounge. His eyes coated with a glossy film, he seemed less steady on his legs. "Hit me again, Freddy."
"So what’s the decision?" the drummer pressed.
"Still weighing my options."
Paddy pulled the bowtie away from the collar and undid the topmost button on his tuxedo shirt. Somewhere between the bandstand and the bar, he had discarded the fancy jacket. "Yer former goilfriend… she cheated on you."
"We never had an exclusive relationship," Ralph qualified.
"Likegeysed," the drummer was beginning to garble his words in a verbal salad, "the slutty bitch donyadoity."
"What I'd do…," the bartended sniggered. "I'd visit the widow on the pretext of offering condolences… lay it on thick. Tell her what a swell gal she was and how she didn't deserve all this grief. Then I'd waltz her into the bedroom and screw her mortal brains out!"
"Count me in on plan A!" Paddy paused just long enough to upend the shot glass, emptying the contents down his gullet. The drummer slapped Ralph on the back and winked his bleary-eyed, moral support before rushing back to the bandstand.
Ralph glanced up at the bartender. "How long have you known that man?"
"Paddy's been with the house band five years now. He's an alcoholic in denial."
"Can he make it through the night?"
Freddy shook his head vehemently. "Not hardly. I'm afraid that demonstration of fancy brushwork earlier this evening may have been Paddy’s high-water mark."
The bartender threw the towel he had been polishing the countertop with down on the brass rail and lurched out from behind the bar. Freddy led the way two doors down to the Emerald Room function hall, where the band was negotiating a brisk waltz, Sunrise, Sunset. Seated behind the drums Paddy Macgregor was laying down a raggedy beat with only his right drumstick and left foot. The other hand hung limply at his side and his head slouched at a precipitous angle, the chin resting on his chest.
As they were heading back to the lounge, Ralph asked, "If you found yourself in my predicament, what would you do?"
"Aw, shit, I dunno!” Freddie spoke in the raggedy, disaffected drawl of a man who had come up on the short end of the stick more often than he cared to remember. “Life’s a crapshoot. The dame’s probably got a drawer full of hornback crocodile belts in her dresser drawer, so why lose any sleep over the selfish twit?" Freddy raised a hand in the air, indicating that he had something further to add but was struggling with his thoughts. "They got a term for women like her... hedonists. Yeah, that's it! Someone who puts their personal pleasure ahead of everyone else's." Freddy seemed particularly pleased with his appraisal. "She got what she wanted and don't deserve your sympathy."
"Hedonist," Ralph repeated. "Yes, that's true enough. She sure as hell indulged herself."
"Hedonists… they're worse than atheists," Freddy confirmed, "because they got no scruples, no morals." His droopy face convulsed with a bewildering mix of conflicted emotions. "Worst case scenario…what if you went back with this woman and she treated you same as before?"
"Wouldn't make a solitary bit of difference."
"What if squandered your money and was unfaithful as a Babylonian whore?"
"I'd forgive her on a daily basis and thank God for the privilege of a second chance at happiness."
The bartender gawked at him in disbelief. "In my capacity here at the hotel, I meet tons of unusual folk - psychopaths, weirdoes, homicidal maniacs, perverts, riffraff and assorted, eccentric whack jobs," Freddy ventured, "but I ain't never met anyone like you."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Ralph settled his tab and wandered out into the lobby. He dialed a number on his cell phone then, after a brief conversation, left the hotel and drove across town.
* * * * *
Rebecca Steinberg led Ralph into the living room, where the forty-watt bulb in a Tiffany lamp bathed the room in murky gloom. A soul in transit, all the woman’s worldly possessions were in boxes, under covers or in profound disarray. She pulled a white bed sheet off the leather sofa. "I didn't come to gloat," Ralph confessed self-consciously.
"I appreciate your candor.” She gestured to the sofa and he sat down. “What's it been… twenty years?"
"Closer to twenty-five," he confirmed.
"Seeing a friendly face is so nice,” Becky noted with a papery-thin smile. “Following the indictment, most of my former, A-list friends deleted my number from their cell phones."
Ralph glanced around the dreary, airless room. The furnishings were all high end - high end and high maintenance. A forty-inch, plasma TV with a wireless hookup to an array of quadraphonic Bose speakers hung on the wall over the fire place. The custom-built bar was trimmed with ebony and claret-colored rosewood. The exotic woods alone must have set the deceased back a small fortune - not that household expenditures concerned the former Mr. Steinberg any more. "Have you eaten?"
"Don’t have much of an appetite lately."
Ralph rose to his feet and rearranged the silk bed sheet back over the couch. The room felt more like a mausoleum. "Maybe we could go somewhere and grab a coffee. I know you’re busy, what with the foreclosure so I won't keep you."
He shouldn't have said that.
Becky had never mentioned anything about the bank. He learned that unsavory tidbit from Sid Bentley, the mutual friend. At some point in the near future, a marshal would show up at the front door to put Rebecca Steinberg out on the curb. The woman had exhausted every legal loophole. The checking account was drained dry. Having pawned all jewelry and disposable belongings, nothing remained.
"I'm going to live with my daughter in San Diego, while I get my affairs in order." There was no reply. "At this late hour, any options are fairly limited. The bank intends to change the locks and board up the windows by the middle of the month." It wasn't so much a house as a mini-mansion with kidney-shaped swimming pool, wraparound deck and two-car garage. "A week from Tuesday, I'll set the keys on the kitchen table, close the door behind me and never look back."
The sun was setting casting an even gloomier pall on the soon-to-be-abandoned property. Pulling into the driveway ten minutes earlier, Ralph noticed the lawn overgrown with crabgrass and dandelions - this in a community where a family who didn’t schedule monthly visits from ChemLawn, was considered pariah! The swanky pool had been drained, the bottom coated with a greenish scum of dead algae and rotting maple leaves. "What did you do after college?" she asked, deflecting the conversation.
"I opened a medical supply business. We sell motorized wheelchairs, hospital beds, inhalation therapy equipment."
"You've done well?" Becky seemed genuinely pleased by his success.
"We staffed a third location this past August."
"My husband, may he rest in peace, was a first-class schmuck." Her resignation was palpable.
“You mentioned coffee… give me a minute to freshen up.” Becky disappeared into the bedroom, emerging a short time later wearing a silk blouse and skirt. She had powdered her face, adding blush, where a mild case of acne back to high school left residual scarring. "Do you remember these beauties?" she quipped, placing a hand under her sagging breasts. The tone was humorous, not the least bit salacious.
"I remember," Ralph replied soberly.
"After breastfeeding three daughters, there's been considerable wear and tear." The bluntness caught him off guard. Becky Steinberg was already pudgy when they first met, but her breasts were… Well, there were no proper words to describe God's penultimate creations.
* * * * *
At the coffee shop Ralph learned that Becky’s father passed away eight years earlier. Mr. Shapiro had mercifully been spared the humiliation of his daughter’s precipitous fall from grace. A younger brother, Joel, showed no aptitude for kosher foods, retail or much of anything else. Ralph vaguely remembered Joel as the pampered, ben ha’bachoor, Jewish first-born son, who stood to inherit the family fortunes. But as Becky explained over a cup of mocha latte cappuccino, the ben ha’bachoor proved a feckless ne’er-do-well who flitted aimlessly from one ill-suited job to the next.
So much for the Shapiro family dynasty!
“I want to show you something,” Becky announced when they arrived back at the house. The late afternoon light was fading to murky gray as she led the way to the back yard. In recent days, the November weather had turned unseasonably warm with temperatures hovering in the low sixties. Behind a stand of diminutive box elders that resembled a mishmash of shrubs rather than bona fide trees a rickety Langstroth beehive was propped up on cinder blocks.
Originally painted eggshell white, the rectangular boxes, which were peeling profusely, exuded an aura of profound neglect. A handful of bees milled about the landing strip. “Eight years ago Howie comes home from work one day and tells me that a broker at the firm is an avid beekeeper. The guy manages upwards of a hundred hives. In addition to collecting honey he rents the bees out each spring to local cranberry bog farmers, who need their crops pollinated.”
“Howie buys a bee suit, calfskin gloves, a smoker… al the glitzy paraphernalia plus a fifteen-thousand-strong plywood box of Italian honeybees.” As Becky explained it, the bees were energetic and spirited. Every day they left the nest to forage for nectar in nearby fields and by late June filled the hive with ten frames of golden syrup.
“Howie removed a couple of frames from the hive,” Becky continued. “He claimed that the bees had more than enough honey to suit their needs and that if we didn’t take preventative measures, the colony might be inclined to swarm.”
Bending over, she cleared a handful of weeds obstructing the mouth of the hive. “He carried the frames into the kitchen, mashed the wax into a soggy lump and ran it through a mesh strainer.”
“So you had plenty of honey that first season?” Ralph noted.
“Enough to last six months or more,” Becky confirmed. “But Howie was obsessed. All summer long, he kept pilfering from the hive, so by Labor Day, the bees were lucky if they had twenty, lousy pounds of honey to last through a New England winter.”
“How much would they normally need?”
“Ninety minimum.” “Did I mention that, from when they first arrived, the honeybees were an utterly contented lot? Becky made a wry face. “Once they caught on that my husband was playing fast and loose with their honey stores, their blissful mood changed. Bamboozled, flimflammed, conned out of their hard labor, they sensed that the gathering season was too-far gone to recoup the losses and became frantic… desperate.”
“Their fate was sealed.” Ralph anticipated her thoughts. As Becky explained things, by mid-August Howie was persona no grata. If the stocky man with the salt and pepper goatee ventured within fifty feet of the hive, the vindictive bees chased him off with homicidal rage.
The winter that Howie became a beekeeper was particularly harsh with several nor’easters back to back and a protracted icy cold spell that petered out in early May. The bees starved then froze. “When we removed the top cover the day after Mother’s Day, it was not a pretty sight. A mountain of moldy carcasses… that’s what we found.”
“Howie blustered, ‘I’ll spruce things up, replace the damaged frames and order a new box of bees.’” “In all fairness, he did clean things up a bit but never got around to ordering the bees.”
“He didn’t replenish the hive?”
“No,” Becky confirmed. “His interest in beekeeping never extended beyond his first failed effort.”
Ralph gestured at the insects flitting about the entrance to the hive. “I don’t understand.”
“Seven years the hive remained empty. Year after year, nothing. The day Howie dropped dead, a swarm of feral bees found its way here. Given how he had mistreated both his business clients and the honeybees, I viewed their arrival as a cosmic joke.”
“Or an omen,” Ralph quipped. He gestured at the twin boxes stacked together. “How much honey have the feral bees gathered?”
“I never took a drop… not a single frame, so they should have more than enough.” Becky made a disagreeable face. “But it won’t make a bit of difference because, when the bank officials walk the property next week and discovers the hive, they’ll call an exterminator.”
“Hadn’t thought of that.” Ralph shook his head in disgust.
“Sometimes in the late afternoon I come out here and watch the bees… their comings and goings.” Becky spoke in a matter-of-fact, unruffled tone, directing her remarks at the shaggy hemlock trees on the far side of the lawn. “Honeybees are very community-minded. The welfare of the colony trumps all other considerations. They don’t know from hedge funds or sub-prime realty.”
* * * * *
With a flick of her head, Becky indicated a copper urn nestled on the fireplace mantle. “Meet my former spouse.”
“Howie would have preferred a cemetery plot, but prematurely cashed in his life insurance policy.” As though a constraining presence had to be dispensed with, Becky relocated her husband’s ashes to a cardboard box labeled ‘cutlery and dining room furnishings’.
She did not immediately return to where Ralph was standing. Rather, the woman studied the crumpled box with an opaque smile. Dropping down on her haunches, she undid the flaps and removed the urn. Uncapping the metal lid, she held the contents under his nose. “What do you see?” The sardonic smile deepened.
“Chalky dust,” Ralph replied.
Becky clapped the lip down with an irreverent thud. “The third time I caught him cheating, I threatened divorce. Howie begged me not to leave. The other woman… she was nothing more than an aberration, a momentary lapse of good judgment.”
“We went for counseling. After six months, the therapist took me aside. He says, ‘Your husband’s a phallic character disorder. People like Howie are narcissistic, opportunistic, self-indulgent… Hope for the best but plan for the worse.’”
“There’s no therapy… medication?”
“The psychologist,” Becky continued, “explained that the condition was structural.”
“Strange choice of words,” Ralph interjected.
“Structural,” she elaborated, “like a cornerstone or load bearing wall in a thirty-story high rise.” She cradled the urn in both hands. Becky smiled bleakly, a sad, disheartened broken expression of her current circumstances. “When I married Howie, he seemed such a swell guy.” Retracing her steps, she sealed her husband’s remains away in the cardboard box, running several beads of masking tape over the top for good measure.
Ralph placed a hand on her shoulder. "Come spend a week with me for old-time sake. We can wipe the slate clean… a new beginning. If nothing comes of it, go live with your daughter in California. No one need know."
Becky took a deep breath and let the air out sharply. “You want Romeo and Juliette?” The tone was more acerbic now. “We’re too old for that adolescent mush.”
The single bulb drenched the room in a dreary pall. Covered by a moss green comforter, a Steinway, baby grand piano rested near the bay window. "Still play?"
"Not in years."
Ralph recalled a rather eccentric interpretation of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the melody in the right hand overpowered by booming arpeggios that transformed the lilting, gossamer tune into a bombastic riot that had more in common with roaring twenties ragtime than classical music. “You still wear those outlandish belts?”
“The ones fashioned from alligator skin.”
Becky’s features dissolved in an impish grin. “Not in years. They’re passé. I’ve moved on to other, equally garish accessories.” She said nothing else for the better part of a minute. "I treated you badly, always putting myself first, and now you’re willing to settle for the dribs and drabs of a squandered life."
"I don’t see it that way."
She lowered her eyes. In the hallway a Kieninger grandfather clock recessed in a quarter-sawn, white oak cabinet stroked the hour. Edging closer, Becky placed three fingers on his chest, maintaining a safe but manageable distance. "A week for old-time sake?” she repeated the earlier offer. “How about a package deal?” Her fingers finally came to rest flat on his flannel shirt.
“I don’t follow you.”
“I need a safe haven… a sanctuary for the feral bees, either your place or someplace where no one will cause them harm.”
Ralph’s brain, which had temporarily shut down with the offbeat ultimatum, kicked into overdrive. He turned away, went and stood in front of the clock. “The mouth of the hive could be sealed shut with sheets of crumpled newspaper.” He directed his words at the oak paneling. “Other than the front entrance, are there any other openings?”
“No, just the one.”
His mind shifted back and forth in rhythm with the brass pendulum. “The best time to move a beehive is…” He left the sentence dangling.
“At night… once the temperature drops, they retreat to the interior and cluster together for warmth.”
“Yes, but it’s not that cold out,” he countered, “and the insects are still active. What about the drive?”
After a brief silence, Becky replied, “Bees are cold-blooded Turn on the air conditioner and let the car cool down. They won’t be able to fly.”
“Or sting,” Ralph added rounding off her thought.” He returned to where she was standing and placed his lips alongside her ear. “I’ll block off the hive entrance and then back the car up alongside the box elders. In the meanwhile, why don’t you grab a toothbrush and pack an overnight case.
Becky’s nostrils gently flared. The eyelids drooped to half-mast. “I won’t be long locking things up.”
"Haaaaah!" Marie Brewster, let out a brief whimper like a mortally injured animal before slumping to the ground unconscious. When she came to, a rotund, bearded man with pebbly teeth and a bald spot on the back of his head was bent over the middle-aged woman fanning her with a fully-illustrated Kaufman’s Field Guide for Birds of North America.
"Feeling better?" The hairy man eased the woman to a sitting position with her back supported against a white birch. The unfortunate incident happened this way. Marie had gone for a stroll at the Oak Knoll bird sanctuary a mile down the road from where she was visiting with her brother's family in Brandenburg. Meandering down the rock-strewn trail to an open area fronting on a lake peppered with patches of pastel-colored algae, Marie was admiring a chokeberry bush ripe with crimson fruit. Suddenly, a man's voice, gruff and menacing, called out, "Don't move!" The woman, who under the best of circumstances suffered from a myriad of insecurities, felt every molecule of breath crushed from her lungs as her legs turned rubbery and mind went blank.
"A Baltimore oriole," the man sputtered, "was perched on a branch no more than ten feet from where you were standing, and I was trying to focus my birding binoculars for a better view."
A Lhasa apso that scampered into the brush when the woman collapsed returned. Nestling in her lap the manicy pooch with the pushed in snout and pronounced overbite began licking the woman’s face. "No need to explain." Marie tentatively touched her scalp. The ebony comb holding her hair in place had listed to one side at a cockeyed angle. With the faintest hint of a double chin, the pudgy blonde had surely been a knockout in her youth. Now, in her middle years, she had become more matronly."Since childhood, I've always been prone to silly uncertainties and fainting spells."
Gabe helped the woman to her feet then glanced up into the topmost branches of a leafy polar. "They come up this way every spring to mate."
"The orioles," he clarified. "The birds summer here, hatch their chicks and migrate south again to Florida and Central America for the winter. Don't suppose you caught a glimpse -”
Marie raised a hand fretfully, indicating that she had missed the sighting. "Fainting in a bird sanctuary… I'm so embarrassed!" An elderly couple with expensive-looking hiking gear and matching safari hats wandered down the trail. “He's over there now," Gabe observed.
Marie squinted uncertainly. From the outset they seemed to be communicating at cross purposes. "Who is?"
"The oriole. Here, see for yourself." Gabe handed her the binoculars. "Over there… in the topmost branch of the sugar maple.”
"How beauuuutiful!" Marie gushed. The bird’s sides and belly were drenched in tangerine hues, the sooty-black wings edged with distinctive, eggshell white markings. For a day that started out like a Greek tragedy things were getting noticeably better.
“I recognize you from somewhere,” Gabe replied, “but I’m not sure where.”
“Marie Brewster,” the woman replied extending a manicured hand. She had shifted to a rustic bench fashioned from a block of maple near the path. “That’s my stage name, when I’m performing with the Brandenburg Theater Troupe.”
“Yes, of course!” Gabe slid down on the bench next to her. The dog, which had curled up in her lap, growled briefly sending up a throaty protest but quickly lost interest. “I saw you in the Alice in Wonderland production several years ago. You played the White Queen.” His smile quickly faded. “I brought my wife. It was our last evening out together. She passed away a few months later.”
Reaching out she patted him on the forearm. “I’m so sorry.”
“A phantom limb,” he added as a bitter afterthought. “The mourning process… even on good days, that’s what it feels like.”
Marie breathed out heavily and her features darkened. “I, too, recently just lost a loved one.”
“Was it a prolong illness?”
“Infidelity... I caught her with another woman.” In response to Gabe’s bewildered expression, Marie added, “I’m gay.”
He paused just long enough to digest the information. “A lesbian thespian?”
“A rather droll choice of language but, yes, I suppose.” The blonde reached up and reset the hair comb. “Does my sexual affiliation bother you?”
“No, not particularly.”
“I only mention it because some people consider homosexuals freaks of nature.”
Gabe opened his mouth but could think of nothing to say.
The Lhasa suddenly bolted from her lap and began scooting on his hind quarter across the grass. The dog settled down but almost immediately tucked his hindquarters forward and began scooting with the front paws in a bizarre, compulsive ritual. “His scent glands are acting up,” Marie observed, as though it was the most ordinary detail to share with a complete stranger. “It happens every so often. When we get home, I’ll have to ‘express’ the excess fluid.”
Gabe didn’t particularly care to know what that process entailed, but before he could conjure up a neutral topic Marie blurted, “There are these two, pea-shaped glands at four and eight o’clock just inside the anus. You insert a lubricated pinkie finger and squeeze to manually remove the oily, brownish fluid. It relieves pressure and helps protect against infection.”
Marie hadn’t mentioned anything about wearing latex gloves. “Sounds like a barrel of fun.” “Last month,” Gabe noted, deflecting the conversation to a more neutral topic, “my company closed down for a week to upgrade inventory. Figured I’d hike a small section of the Appalachian Trail in northern New England, maybe even climb Mount Katahdin in central Maine. I did it once before and it proved a spectacular trip.”
“So what happened?”
Gabe shrugged. “Don’t know. Without my wife it just wasn’t the same.”
She shrugged. “Ever think of remarrying?”
“No, not at my age.” He was seldom this candid, even among close friends. But because the garrulous woman had no use for men, at least not in the romantic sense, Gabe didn’t mind baring his soul. Nothing would come of their clandestine tēte-á-tēte. It was like making small talk with a cloistered nun or younger sibling.
Marie swept the dog back up in her arms and began rubbing his furry scalp with her generous chin. “Synchronicity… are you familiar with the concept?” He shook his head from side to side. The woman had the weirdest habit of leapfrogging about from one random topic to the next. “Synchronicity,” Marie continued, “suggests that life isn’t just a series of random events but an expression of deeper order in the universe.” “There’s a scene in Through the Looking-Glass where the White Queen says to Alice: ‘It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’"
“Yes,” Gabe confirmed. “I vaguely remember that line from the play.”
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today.” The blonde woman slipped effortlessly into a reprise of her role with the theater troupe. 'It must come sometimes to jam today,' Alice objects, but the Queen insists, ‘No, it can’t. It's jam every OTHER day: today isn't any OTHER day, you know.'”
After the gush of unsolicited drama, Marie suddenly fell silent as she paused to collect her thoughts. All the giddy theatrics - the posturing and gesticulations – had fallen away, replaced by a muted gravitas. “Synchronicity… maybe that’s what drew us together on this bench today… this utterly random moment in time and space.”
“A gay actress and middle-aged widower,” Gabe observed. “We make for strange bedfellows.” Before she could reply, he reached out and tapped her forearm. “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”
Without further explanation, Gabe sauntered off down the path to a small pond that was the centerpiece in the idyllic sanctuary. Behind a scrubby box elder tree no taller than his belt buckle he dropped his fly to half mast and peed on the tiny tree. When he was finished relieving himself, Gabe wandered down to the pond and stared out across the placid water.
The temperature hovered in the mid-seventies under a radiant blue, cloudless sky. In a boggy nook no more than twenty feet away, a painted turtle stuck its black snout out of the water. The turtle submerged leaving a ripple of silvery water eddying toward shore and, a minute later, reemerged in the middle of an oblong shaped bed of lily pads. If Gabe counted off several dozen additional sightings, the loquacious lesbian would probably have gone off elsewhere, leaving him free to continue his bird watching.
Synchronicity… are you familiar with the concept?
What was he to read in the woman’s cockamamie pronouncements? The amateur actress possessed a dry sense of humor, a precocious wit. But what good was it to him? Since his wife’s passing Gabe hadn’t felt an affinity for another woman, until this ditsy female collapsed in fright on the trail. A gravelly rumbling welled up in his throat, an irksome mix of desolation and futility. The painted turtle had resurfaced a dozen times already, but Gabe felt no great sense of urgency.
Synchronicity – they were both alone, beleaguered and loveless, but nothing could ever come of their serendipitous meeting. The event resembled some cosmic joke – as though a divine presence was thumbing its sadistic nose at their human predicament. Gabe scratched his beard languidly and watched as the turtle finally tired of the water, climbing up on a rock to sun itself. Only then did he finally shuffle back to the bench, where the woman was still sitting.
“I thought you’d abandoned me.”
“Obviously, there’s something more happening here than birds and social pleasantries,” Gabe replied, ignoring the remark. “We seem to share a certain…”
“Je ne sais quoi,” she interjected with a sly grin. “Yes, I sensed that from the outset.”
“But nothing can ever come of it, because you don’t consider men in a romantic sense.”
“Unfortunately not,” she confirmed, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”
Gabe shrugged. “Feels like a plot straight out of the theater of the absurd,” he countered morosely.
From the top of the ridge a stocky mulatto leading a Great Dane on a rawhide leash was shambling toward them. The slovenly woman wore a tattered pair of rawhide moccasins, a blouse that resembled a burlap sack and paisley culottes. The woman stopped at a metal post with a rectangular box. From the container she ripped half a dozen navy blue plastic bags, which she jammed into a hip pocket then proceeded on her way.
Approaching no more than twenty feet from where Gabe was standing next to the blonde, the gawky dog suddenly hunched over and dropped a steamy load of feces directly on the walking path. When the dog was finished, the woman delivered a sharp tug on the leash and the twosome continued on their way. “This is the fourth time I’ve seen her do this.”
Marie cracked a conspiratorial grin. “You’re keeping track?”
“Not anymore.” Gabe rose and chased after the light-skinned Negro as she was heading in the direction of a grove of red birch. “Lady, your dog just defecated on the walking path and you didn’t clean the mess.”
“Oh no, sir,” the woman replied in an affable, syrupy tone. “My dog squatted to pee, that’s all. He never moved his bowels.” She fingered the free litter bags that bulged from her pocket.
Gabe shook his head emphatically. “Your dog urinated further back up the path. Then he emptied his bowels... a huge mess over by the bench.” He gestured with his eyes to where Marie Brewster was still resting with the Lhasa apso cradled in a forearm.
“No, you’re mistaken.” The beefy woman wasn’t the least bit intimidated. If anything, she seemed to enjoy the verbal jousting. “It’s those silly lap dogs that cause all the trouble,” she tittered, indicating the actress’ dog, “but I most certainly appreciate your concern.” Pivoting away with a supercilious flourish, the woman meandered off in the direction of a clump of goldenrod in full blossom, leading her gangly dog on the leather leash.
Gabe rushed wildly ahead, blocking her path. “Go back and pick it up!”
“What you say?” The light-skinned Negro made a tight fist with her pudgy hand.
“Pick up your dog crap or there’ll be hell to pay.”
She began clenching and unclenching the knuckles in a rhythmic gesture. “You’re a goddamn bigot, who don’t especially like us Afro-Americans, so you look for every opportunity to torment my people.”
He gestured at the steaming pile of excrement - a huge, fetid, freshly-baked turd that stood out in bold relief on the walkway. “You can’t use a wildlife sanctuary as your private toilet.”
The brawny woman, who ran a solid two hundred-fifty pounds, dropped the leash altogether. Her dog traipsed off sniffing the fragrant wildflowers. Curling both hands into tight fists, she rested them on her ample hips. Puffs of air burst from her nostrils with rhythmic intensity. “And if I don’t pick it up, what you gonna do?”
Gabe stepped closer. The formidable woman never blinked. “First thing, I’m going to knock you on your derriere. Then I’m gonna drag your worthless carcass over there and reintroduce you to your dog’s artistic handiwork.”
“You and whose army?” The scenic stretch of countryside bordering the small pond was empty. Not a single creature, animal or otherwise, graced the trail beyond where they stood. Even Marie Brewster along with her finicky pooch had mysteriously disappeared. “It’s you’re move, wiseass.”
* * * * *
When he reached home later that afternoon, Gabe put his birding binoculars away and drifted down to the basement. From a pile of white cedar shingles he selected a pair of six-inch shakes. Flicking on the band saw, he listened to the soothing hum of the carbide-tipped, quarter-inch blade. Each Sunday throughout the summer months up until Labor Day, Gabe manned a booth at the local farmers’ market selling homemade birdhouses. It was hobby, something to kill time, and in his wife’s absence, there were far more hours in the day to account for than Gabe cared to consider.
With the aid of a miter gauge, he squared shingles and, placing a triangular, cardboard template over a slab of knotty pine, traced outlines of the front and back of the dwelling. The birdhouse would resemble a rustic A-frame with a hardwood dowel for a perch centered directly below an opening just large enough to accommodate a full-grown sparrow or chickadee.
At the four-inch belt sander, Gabe cleaned up the ragged teeth marks left from the band saw. Spreading a row of finished nails on the work bench, he reached for a small tap hammer and began assembling the miniature structure. The process was fairly straightforward. Over the past year he had assembled a hundred similar projects. Measure, cut, join – after so many years, he could accomplish the tasks with his eyes closed.
The showdown with the mulatto ended badly. From the outset, Gabe was bluffing, trying to intimidate the woman into cleaning up her dog’s mess. But the slatternly shrew would have none of it. For her, a violent confrontation represented little more than cheap entertainment, a blood sport. But there were no fisticuffs, no physical confrontation. In the end, Gabe stood by impotently as she meandered away, grinning triumphantly, her long-legged pet bringing up the rear.
When the birdhouse was finished, he went back upstairs and located a raggedy pair of boxer shorts in his bedroom cabinet. Back in the basement he ripped the underwear into narrow strips, tossing the elastic waistband into the trash. Dipping a patch of cloth into a metal container, he slathered a thick coating of tung oil on the cedar and watched with mute satisfaction as the wood darkened and the chocolaty knots stood out in bold relief. The tung oil with its glossy, amber hues would seal the surface grain, protecting the fragile structure from the elements once placed out of doors.
That the pudgy blonde, who visited the bird sanctuary earlier in the morning - was it nothing more than a meaningless coincidence or wink from the cosmos? “A middle-aged widower and a loquacious lesbian,” Gabe muttered under his breath. “What a hoot!”
The shock of hearing his own voice gave the middle-aged man a start. Since losing his wife, the house, which at times felt more like a mausoleum, remained morbidly quiet. In the evening, television and radio did little to fill the void.
He rinsed the oily rag with water, a precautionary gesture, and then took the bird house, which was almost dry and placed it on a shelf along with a dozen similar offerings. The front and back panels were decorated with an array of semi-gloss earth colors, the roof peaks capped with a V-shaped wedge of copper. An added bonus, the decorative metal helped keep the interior dry.
Gabe turned off the lights and went back upstairs, where he lingered under a hot shower and, without pulling back the sheets, lay down on the bed. It had been a bizarre, unsettling day. The gay actress with the mystical mindset was preempted by the pugnacious mulatto and her goofy dog. Gabe’s attempt to face the brown-skinned woman down failed miserably. Dealing with humanity was habitually a messy affair, not nearly as manageable as woodworking or bird watching.
Gabe’s wife, Jenifer, had been a devout Catholic. From the outset, he experienced no fondness for organized religion but tagged along every Sunday morning for thirty-two years. He never took communion or attended holy days of obligation, and when she died, he never set foot in a place of worship. A Baltimore oriole flitting capriciously through the treetops at the Oak Knoll bird sanctuary was far more appealing than all the church’s liturgy or flamboyant ritual.
Gabe blinked and crooked his neck to the side. A fly was buzzing back and forth near the Venetian blinds. He would have to kill the bug before settling down to bed or the bothersome pest would keep him awake half the night. On the night table was a slender book of poems. Grabbing the volume, he read a verse at random.
‘The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you;
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want;
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth
Across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.’
The poem, one of Jenifer’s favorites, was by the Persian mystic, Rumi.
Gabe returned the book to the nightstand alongside a picture of the twosome in happier times. Whether it was a week in Bermuda or a trip to the local library, they had always functioned as a unit. In the spring he dug the holes in the back garden for her prize dahlias and in the fall unearthed the bulbs and stored them away in a darkened niche next the furnace. Jenifer occasionally accompanied him on his bird watching expeditions.
A marginal hypochondriac, the standing joke was that Gabe would predecease his wife and, in her twilight years, Jenifer would be left to fend for herself. If a rear brake light on their Honda CRV burnt out, there would be no indulgent life partner, to remove the mounting screws, pull the plastic housing away from the sedan’s back panel and replace the bulb. For a five-minute job the garage would grab twenty bucks plus parts. That was Gabe’s biggest fear. But fate had a different agenda in store. It was a blessing of sorts. Where Jenifer was now, burnt out brake lights were a non-issue. No such earthly nuisances applied.
In happier times, Gabe built his birdhouses. Jenifer canned fruits and vegetables. One day she put up a batch of applesauce. While the fruit was reducing on the stove, Gabe sampled a spoonful. “What’s in it?
“A little of this, a little of that.”
He swallowed a second helping of the concoction. “Could you be a bit more specific?”
She lowered a half-dozen jars into a cauldron of boiling water and watched as air bubbles escaped from the lids creating the vacuum. “Fresh-squeezed lemons, a cup of raisins, cinnamon and a pinch of cardamom.”
“You could sell this by the bucket-load at the farmer’s market,” Gabe insisted.
“Hadn’t considered it.”
“All you need is a gimmick… some advantage to give you a leg up on the competition.” Drumming his fingers on the counter, Gabe allowed his thoughts to percolate and congeal into a plan of action. “Maybe you offer free samples in miniature pastry cups.”
Jenifer dipped a pinkie finger in the pot then lowered the digit in her mouth. “No one flavor overpowers the others,” she said with smug satisfaction. “Each remains distinct in its own right.”
A month later at the farmer’s market, Jenifer sold out her entire stash of homemade applesauce by noontime and, for what was left of the day, sat alongside Gabe while he hawked his birdhouses. In their later years, Gabe’s wife used to quip, “I’m gonna sell the goddamn house and pull a Lao Tzu. The term was code for disengaging from society and vanishing into the boondocks of northern Maine or some rural, hardscrabble Vermont village with a population of less than a hundred inhabitants, including chicken, sheep and cattle. They would live off their pensions and what crops they could grow on a few acres of granite-strewn, New England soil.
Gabe found an intricately detailed plan for a chicken coop in a holistic, back-to-nature magazine. The structure ran twenty feet with a corrugated metal roof and hinged door. He printed out the plans with accompanying three-color photos and studied the woodworking joinery for hours on end. Yes, he could manage the outer run enclosed with lengths of chicken wire stapled to pressure-treated two-by-threes and all the structural details.
A separate, interior shelter situated several feet off the ground offered cozy protection from predators and harsh, wintry weather. The two crates, where the hens laid their eggs, were easily accessible from a rear window with a sturdy latch, so eggs could be collected effortlessly without ever setting foot in the coop. Gabe and his wife would have a surplus of fresh eggs all year round and what they didn’t need, they could sell, barter or share with neighbors.
That was the original plan.
But then, Jenifer dropped dead and the Mathew’s second act fizzled. Gabe tried to conjure up an image of ‘pulling a Lao Tzu’ without his gentle soul mate, but, something essential had dried up and blown away in the ephemeral wind. Without Jenifer, the metaphysical adventure was dead in the water, little more than a cruel parody of their original pipedream. He tried to imagine himself on a farm – alone, unencumbered, spiritually rejuvenated, self-reliant, fully-realized, in failing health, suffering a terminal case of existential ennui, or, worse yet, presenile dementia – no, it didn’t work anymore. With her spunky determination, brash pronouncements and brazen willfulness, Jenifer was the trailblazer. Quietly and innocuously, Gabe manned the passenger seat. He seldom if ever led the way.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. Gabe threw the book of Persian poetry aside and rolled over on his stomach. Five minutes later he was sound asleep.
* * * * *
A week later when he visited the bird sanctuary, Marie Brewster, was sitting on the bench, her hands folded neatly in her lap. “How did you make out with the mulatto and her Great Dane?”
“Not so well,” Gabe settled down next to her. A black-capped chickadee was flitting through the branches of a spruce tree twenty feet away. “I threatened to beat her up if she didn’t clean up the mess, but she was only too happy to pick a fight.”
“Actually, as I recall,” the blonde corrected, “it was you who picked the fight.”
Gabe shrugged and his features dissolved in a self-effacing grin. Marie, who was staring absentmindedly at a wilted dandelion that had gone to seed, reached down. She plucked the slender stem and puffed lightly at the weed, sending a profusion of feathery filaments to scatter in the summery air. “Are you familiar with the Myth of Sisyphus?”
“The Greek king cursed to spend eternity rolling a huge stone up the side of a mountain.”
“When I was a sophomore in high school and realized that I had a penchant for full-figured women, I went and told my family.”
“And how did that work out?”
“There was shock at first, but eventually my parents were accepting. Within a month my dark secret was common knowledge. Everyone learned about my ‘situation’ – neighbors, nieces, in-laws, Aunt Tillie from Cincinnati… even the freakin’ mailman.” “Problem is,” Marie continued, “just like Sisyphus, each time I meet someone new the process of “coming out’, emerging from the figurative closet repeats again and again and again.”
“Never thought of it that way,” Gabe muttered. On a cone flower a short distance away a ruby-throated hummingbird was drawing nectar from the flower. He recognized it as a male, because females of the species possessed no telltale, scarlet markings.
Having drunk his full, the humming bird flitted off to another clump of colorful vegetation. In the far distance a group of birdwatchers crested a hill. A short distance behind them, the mulatto and her gangly dog brought up the rear. Marie grabbed his hand and gave the fingers a gentle squeeze. “Would you like to go out on a date?”
Gabe blinked violently. “But I thought –”
“No, not with me.” Marie gestured waving fitfully with her plump, pale hands. “My best friend from the theater group… her husband was a bastard, a regular lothario. They’re divorced five years now.”
Gabe was feeling light headed, his thought processes thick as molasses. “What’s your friend like?”
“Rather exotic-looking… with a decidedly dark complexion.”
Gabe watched as his nemesis crested the last hillock, heading in the direction of the bench. “How dark?”
“Parivash is of Persian descent.” Releasing his hand, Marie swiveled to face him. “You see, it’s like this. My friend lives on a two-acre spread up in Chepachet. Shortly after her children grew up and moved away, the good-for-nothing husband ran off.”
“Chepachet… that’s farm country.”
“Yes… well the husband fashioned himself a gentleman farmer, until he lost interest in both the livestock and marriage.” The woman’s indignation was palpable. “Last winter when the barn roof caved in, Parivash had to get rid of the animals.” A week later following a blizzard, a pack of coyote broke into the chicken coop, which was also in shambles, and left a trail of feathers and bloody entrails scattered across snow in the front yard.”
“Chickens,” Gabe repeated with a sharp intake of breath. “What sort does she have?”
“A handful of Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks and Leghorns.”
Sporting a petulant sneer, the mulatto shambled past the bench. Fifty feet further down the path, as if on choreographed cue, the huge dog pulled up short and emptied his bowels. The stout woman waited patiently for the dog to finish his business before continuing on her way.
“In answer to your earlier question,” Gabe picked up the thread of their previous conversation, “about the Persian woman whose personal life and farm are falling to pieces…”
The Third Fairy Tale
Ned Scoletti rose early, well before dawn, to catch the seven a.m. bus streaking up the coastal highway. With the cloying scent of orange blossoms snaking through the countryside, his mother was probably only just crawling out of bed, utterly clueless to the fact that Ned was on a Greyhound bus hurtling north. Final destination: Spaulding, Massachusetts. Two days. That’s how long it would take to get from Fort Pierce, Florida to New England. By late afternoon, his parents would realize the boy was missing, but it would be too late. The bus would be far up the coast near Saint Augustine or even Jacksonville just shy of the Georgia line.
A large black woman wedged her ample rump into the seat next to him and began nibbling on a bunch of red grapes. The woman thrust a fistful of fruit at Ned, but he only smiled and shook his head. “Where’re you headed?”
“Spaulding.” Having never actually said the word before, it sounded foreign on his lips. “Spaulding, Massachusetts. To visit my Aunt Josie.”
The black woman extended a huge paw of a hand and introduced herself as Hattie Mae Jackson. “Always nice when kinfolk move away but still remain close.”
Ned didn’t know what to say. He glanced out the window at an endless procession of cabbage palmettos. Front lawns and rock gardens were littered year-round with a colorful array of Jamaica dogwood, Spanish bayonet, and rhododendron. “I’m spending a week with my sister, Darlene. Her family’s situated just outside Arlington. I head up there every year about this time, and she visits with the kids around Christmas.” The woman shifted in the seat “Should be cooler in Virginia. Not so humid.”
Ned was happy to be seated next to the pleasant, dark-skinned woman and not some nasty old coot who slept with her mouth open or stared sullenly out the window. “Do you make the trip often?” she asked.
Hattie Mae peered at him uncertainly. “To see your aunt.”
“Never met the woman,” he confessed. “Aunt Josie doesn’t even know I’m coming.”
The black woman was holding a plump grape up to her lips but lowered her hand and put the fruit back in the plastic bag. By way of explanation, Ned added, “My mother had an identical twin sister. For the past fourteen years, I thought she was dead. Dead and buried. And now, a week ago last Friday, I discover Aunt Josie’s very much alive.”
Hattie Mae cocked her head to one side as though she were trying to process what she had heard. Finally, she tapped him lightly on the wrist. “Either you’re on some heavy-duty medication,” she spoke in a throaty bass, “or you’ve got one heck of a weird family.”
The bus driver shifted into the left-hand lane to pass an elderly man puttering along in a battered pickup truck. A white egret on skeletal legs was resting in a drainage ditch, which bordered a grapefruit grove. The sun climbed slowly in an azure sky. “One heck of a weird family,” he confirmed.
Ned stared out the window at the endless expanse of sandy soil that covered the land. The well-drained loam which blanketed most of the Lake District was ideal for citrus groves, and Ned’s father cultivated several varieties of oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes in their back yard. The best soil in the state, though, was the muck and peat deposits of the southern peninsula, a soil type born of the decayed vegetation from the marshes and swamp forests. Not that Ned gave two hoots about Florida topsoil or much of anything else right now except reaching his final destination in one piece.
At the tender age of fourteen, Ned understood how early settlers felt striking out on their own: Louis and Clark traipsing up the Missouri River toward the Rocky Mountains; the Midwest prairie farmers staking claim to wilderness homesteads. Of course, those early adventurers didn’t have the luxury of an air-conditioned, Greyhound bus with a lavatory in the rear.
Passing under a bridge, Ned glimpsed his reflection in the darkened window. His brown hair flopped down over a wide brow like an unkempt weed patch gone to seed. From his mother, Ned inherited hazel eyes flecked with brown plus a tendency to somber moods and prolonged periods of quiet reflection. From his easygoing father, a willingness to conjure up the numerous shades of gray sandwiched between contentious opposites.
The Greyhound passed Cape Canaveral, Titusville and Daytona Beach. Then a huge forest of longleaf, loblolly pine interspersed with slash pine, black gum and tupelo. Up around Jacksonville, they reached the state line. Halfway through Georgia near Fort Frederica, they crossed the Altimaha River. When the bus pulled into Savannah, Ned got off for ten minutes to stretch his legs, grab a root beer and ham salad sandwich from the snack bar. “Last call! All aboard!” the driver shouted. Ned settled in next to Hattie Mae Jackson, slouched down in the leather seat and closed his eyes.
On Friday two weeks earlier, Ned woke up in the middle of the night to the familiar sound of his parents bickering. “Twenty years, for God’s sake!” Mr. Scoletti muttered. “When does the insufferable feuding end?”
“A hundred and twenty years,” Ned’s mother shot back acidly, “wouldn’t be long enough.”
“So you’ll never make peace with your sister.” His father’s voice sounded menacing as a late-summer, Florida thunderstorm. “Carry the infernal grudge to the grave and beyond.”
Sister. What sister? Aunt Josie died almost fifteen years ago. Right? At that moment a sharp pang of terror swirled through Ned’s gut.
“It’s over and done with.” His mother’s voice was calmer, more conciliatory now. “In all the ways that truly matter, Josie’s dead.”
Ned glanced at the glowing face of the clock on the night table. Two a.m.. The central air conditioning broke down after supper. When Ned’s father called the repairman, he reached an answering machine. The bedroom was hotter than a furnace in hell, an interminable, bone-weary heat that wore you down through the steamy, summer and left you wishing you lived anywhere else but South Florida. Ned rolled over on his back. The sheets were drenched with sweat. He gazed out the window where a swarm of moths flitted crazily about the streetlights lining the roadway. In the hazy darkness the tropical vegetation exuded a dank oppressiveness. How many times had his father tamed the wiry brush and weeds before they crept back to reclaim the cleared land? Their relentless quest to overrun his mother’s flower and vegetable gardens crippled a half dozen lawn mowers and gas-driven weed whackers.
Ned was usually a heavy sleeper. If the air conditioner hadn’t broken down he would have slept straight through the night, waking non-the-wiser in blissful ignorance. But not really. He always figured Aunt Josie among the living, sensed a bewildering presence that his parents would neither deny nor confirm.
For one thing, no one ever mentioned how she died - a disease or untimely accident? - or where his aunt’s body lay buried. This woman who was the spitting image of his mother simply evaporated into thin air, transformed into a wraithlike wisp of nothingness. If her name was mentioned twice a year, that was plenty.
Aunt Josie, the ubiquitous nonperson. Aunt Nobody from Nowheresville.
One further, unsettling clue: a card postmarked July 3, 1987. Place of origin: Spaulding, Massachusetts. The crumpled card lay buried beneath a pile of odds and ends in Mrs. Scoletti’s sewing machine drawer. Signed Love, J, it bore no message.
The day after his parents’ quarrel, Ned found his mother sorting clothes in the laundry room. “Is Aunt Josie alive?”
If the outlandish remark caught Mrs. Scoletti off guard, she revealed nothing. Rather, she dropped a pile of dirty towel into the washer and adjusted the temperature setting. “When was the last time you had a friendly heart-to-heart, with your favorite aunt?” His mother spoke into the belly of the washer as the rising water swirl over the towels.
The element of surprise having slithered away, it counted for nothing. But then, Ned should have known better. Where his headstrong mother was concerned, such reckless strategies never worked. Especially when the subject was taboo. Off-limits. “Never laid eyes on Aunt Josie much less talked to her.”
Mrs. Scoletti added a dash of detergent. “Well I guess you answered your own question.”
In all the ways that truly matter, Josie’s dead! Ned recalled her scathing indictment from the previous night. In the back yard, Ned’s father was pouring some foul-smelling chemical over a colony of fire ants and the boy retreated to the rear of the house. “No one hardly ever talks about Aunt Josie.”
Mr. Scoletti stuck a twig in the mouth of the anthill and a platoon of smallish red ants rushed out to discover what was causing the commotion. “Yes, that’s a fact.”
“She isn’t dead, is she,” Ned pressed, “in the conventional sense?”
Several of the ants succeeded in climbing halfway up the offending stick before Mr. Scoletti threw it aside. “An interesting choice of words.”
Ned fingered a hibiscus with its large, showy flowers. His mother had ringed the edge of the fruit trees with a mix of royal poinciana, camellia, and fragrant gardenia. “Well, is she or isn’t she?”
His father soaked the ants a second time with the lethal mix and straightened up. “You heard the fight last night?” Ned shook his head. “Figured as much,” he said and walked away without elaboration.
What unspeakable crime had Aunt Josie committed to be banished - in his mother’s spiteful words - for a hundred and twenty years? There had been a falling out. Something outlandish on the scale of the Hatfields and McCoys. And here he was jumping right into the center of the maelstrom. God help Ned Scoletti!
The next day Ned called information. “Josie Applebee in Spaulding, Massachusetts.” Applebee was his mother’s maiden name.
After a short pause the operator said, “Yes, I have that listing for you. Area code 508...”
The next day, weighted down with a pocketful of loose change, he trekked a mile and a half to the Cumberland Farms and dialed the number. “Hello.”
“Is Josie Applebee there?”
“Yes, this is Josie.”
Something short-circuited in Ned’s brain. A light dimmed and flitted out like a circuit breaker on overload. He jammed the receiver back on the hook.
Okay. Let’s not have a nervous breakdown or do anything rash! We need a plan. A sensible course of action. But how could he develop a coherent plan if his parents continued to deny Aunt Josie’s physical existence? On Wednesday Ned withdrew 500 dollars of his college savings from the Sun City Bank and bought a round trip ticket to Spaulding, Massachusetts.
At nine p.m. the bus passed through Charleston en route to Myrtle Beach. Ned dozed off and on. Dinner was a bag of tortilla chips and a soft drink. His teeth felt grimy, but he forgot to put a toothbrush in his backpack.
“Now there’s some serious reading,” Hattie Mae whispered mischievously. A gaunt Jewish man, wearing a knit skullcap and lugging the largest book Ned had ever seen, joined the passengers an hour out of Daytona Beach. The bearded man, who was dressed in black, settled into the seat across from them, cracked the book open and never lifted his eyes from the volume. His lips fluttering noiselessly as he read, an emaciated finger accompanied the text across the page.
“Right to left,” Hattie Mae observed. “That monstrous book ... he’s reading right to left. Opposite of English.”
Ned leaned far forward in his seat. Sure enough, the Jewish man’s finger inched across the printed page as though he were reading backwards. Ten minutes later when Ned got up to visit the lavatory, he stole a glance at the immense volume. On one side, words blossomed in a flowery, exotic script he’d never seen before, presumably Hebrew. On the facing page was the English translation.
“While you were gone,” Hattie Mae confided when Ned returned, “I asked him about the book. Some Spanish philosopher wrote it almost a thousand years ago. Imagine that!”
“Yes, it’s quite amazing,” Ned replied.
“A Guide for the Perplexed. That’s what it’s called.”
A Guide for the Perplexed. What if a person could simply consult an ancient, moth-eaten manual and, abracadabra, solve all his worldly problems - set the universe spinning on an even keel. Was it just wishful thinking, a fanciful pipe dream? Ned gazed at the Jewish man. He was still bent over the heavy tome. A lock of dark hair, which he absent-mindedly twirled around an index finger, hung down almost to his shoulder. For this religious zealot, the world with all its intricacies and complications fell away. There was only a thousand year-old text and a Greyhound bus speeding north.
At the next stop an elderly couple boarded the bus and sat diagonally across, a seat in front of the scholarly Jew. “Hillbillies,” Ned mused. The elderly man, who looked like he’d slept a month-of-Sundays in his rumpled clothes, had a wide grizzled jaw that reminded Ned of the tempered steel scoop on a backhoe. He seemed angry and distracted as he stuffed a lumpy canvas bag into the overhead rack.
“Here let me help,” his wife offered.
“Leave me be!” He kept repositioning the bag but it was much too wide for the cramped space. “The morons who design these infernal contraptions never leave enough room. It’s disgraceful!” He spoke loud enough to insure that everyone on the bus was aware of his sentiments. The wife was trying to help ease the bag into the overhead rack but finally the man changed his mind, wrenched it free and crammed it under his seat. “Well, we’re off to a great start.”
“No need getting yourself lathered up over nothin’,” the wife spoke pleasantly.
“Shut up, you dimwitted fool!”
The woman winced as though she had been walloped with a pressure treated two-by-four. Then she screwed her face up in a hurt expression and sulked while her husband sneered at the back of the bus driver’s head. To the left, the Jewish man poured over his divinely inspired text. At the next stop the elderly couple got off. Lugging his lumpy, canvas bag, the hillbilly muttered something unintelligible and made a threatening gesture as he left the bus. Following on his heels, the downtrodden wife wore the look of martyrdom like a badge of honor.
The seat remained empty until a young woman with a newborn baby took their place. A shroud of darkness wrapped the countryside. “Was you tellin’ me the God’s honest truth back there in Saint Lucie County?” Hattie Mae was staring at Ned with a solemn expression. “About going to visit some auntie you ain’t never laid eyes on?”
At times, it didn’t seem real to Ned either. And he was the one making the trip! The revelation scared him half to death. But not enough so to scramble off the bus at the next scheduled stop and put his return ticket to practical use. “I wouldn’t lie about such a thing.”
Ned Scoletti was fourteen years old, a thousand miles from home and finally out from under his mother’s wrath and chronic consternation. The bus driver had turned off the lights so passengers could catch some shut eye. The Rabbi lit the tiny overhead light and was still grappling with his Guide for the Perplexed.
Darkness felt reassuring. A person could hide in the dark, take solace, and lick his wounds. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living some Greek tragedy.” He knew the pronouncement sounded melodramatic if not outright silly, but Ned needed to vent. He felt edgy, a mass of percolating emotions. In a word, a mess!
Hattie Mare Johnson wriggled her nose. Her black skin was perfectly smooth, flawless, so that it was impossible to gauge her age. “I knew some Greek people once, but never was partial to that goat cheese or stuffed grape leaves.”
“My family’s like a Greek tragedy,” Ned continued. “My mother murdered off her own twin sister twenty years ago.”
“But she ain’t really dead,” Hattie Mae interjected, “least not rotting in some moldy grave.”
“That’s why I’m sitting on this bus in the middle of the night,” Ned affirmed. “I aim to bring the metaphorical corpse back to life.”
“You,” Hattie Mae patted his arm, a comforting gesture, “sure got a funny way with words.” She stared out the window for the longest time, her jaw grinding back and forth as though the woman was chewing a mouthful of leathery meat. “Truth is, you don’t chuck family out with the trash,” she said grimly, “like a pair of smelly, worn-out sneakers.” Hattie Mae stroked her fleshy chin thoughtfully. “Can’t imagine what awful crime your auntie committed to be banished forever.”
“Sort of like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.”
“Can’t rightly say as I know the woman.”
Ned told her a condensed version of the Hawthorne story. “Infidelity. Yeah, well it’s a possibility. But I was thinking your aunt must have done somethin’ a hell of a lot worse.... something flat out awful. Strangled a newborn child with her bare hands or become a depraved dope fiend nymphomaniac.”
Ned shrugged. He fingered the rectangular piece of cardboard in his front pocket. The roundtrip ticket had cost a hundred and thirty dollars. That left $370 for incidentals. If his aunt were a murderer or slutty dope fiend, he’d turn around and catch the next bus south. But not before treating himself to a lavish, sit down meal in the best restaurant he could find. And maybe a restful night in a decent hotel.
“Can’t say’s I envy you.” Hattie Mae patted his hand reassuringly.
Ned located a scrap of paper and scribbled a number on it. “When you get to your sister’s would you call my folks and tell them I’m okay.” He pressed the paper into the black woman’s pudgy hand. “Tell them I’m on my way to find Aunt Josie.”
“Sure will. And I’ll mention what a fine young man they have for a son.”
Ned didn’t think his straight-laced mother would be any too happy to hear that her son, who ran off without so much as a kiss goodbye, was a fine upstanding person.
Mrs. Scoletti was a woman of extremes. A flawed creature prone to emotional excesses. Once, during a domestic squabble, she hurled a breakfast plate at his father. The dish shattered against the far wall leaving the buttermilk pancake and a half-eaten, hickory-smoked sausage plastered to the wallpaper. Bursting into tears, his mother ran from the room. Mr. Scoletti swept the broken plate into a dustpan then wiped the soggy pancake batter off the wallpaper.
“Your mom’s a humdinger!” Ned’s father chuckled. Judging by the veneration in his tone, Ned took that as an act of charitable forgiveness. Regarding the plate-throwing incident, there were no repeat performances. Over the years, Ned had learned to accommodate his mother’s whimsical moods. To love someone was to make allowances even when their behavior bordered on flagrant nuttiness.
In the morning they passed through Fayetteville and Elizabeth City. The endless stretches of Florida flat land were left far behind. Hattie Mae poured herself a cup of tea from a thermos and sipped at the steamy liquid.
“I’ve got pictures.” Ned pulled two snapshots from his breast pocket and handed them to his seatmate. The first photo showed two young children, Ned’s mother and Aunt Josie, dressed in matching sailor suits. The twin toddlers were hugging each other and mugging it up for the camera. A sign overhead read ‘Manatee Cove, Fort Pierce, Florida. Home of the Sea Cows!’ The second picture showed the girls in their late teens leaning up against a palm tree.
“Which one’s your mother?” Hattie Mae asked.
Ned took the print and studied it for the longest time. Everything about the women - their slim build, curly brown hair and impish smiles - was identical. Ned could stare at the picture until the bus reached its northerly destination and still come away unsure who was who. “Hard to say. Maybe the one on the right. Like I said, they’re identical twins.”
The black woman pointed to the first picture taken at Manatee Cove. “These kids sure looked happy.” She drank the rest of her tea then wiped the cup dry with a napkin before screwing the lid back onto the thermos. “I’m a God-fearing woman. Not one of those Bible-thumping lunatics you see on cable TV - the fanatics who talk in tongues and cast out demons. No, none of that fundamentalist mumbo jumbo for me!” She paused just long enough to put her thoughts in order. “While you was sleeping early this morning I prayed and asked the Lord to keep an eye on you. Then, this still, small voice spoke to me in my heart-of-hearts. It said you were sent as a messenger to mend damaged souls and heal festering wounds.”
The temperature in the bus dropped and the driver turned on the heater. The warmth was making Ned groggy. “Messengers bring something … a message or a gift,” Ned protested. “I’m going empty handed.”
“Yes, but what if you are the message? Your presence is what’s required.”
To be sure, Hattie Mae Jackson was a good-hearted soul. Her intentions were pure, beyond reproach, but her logic didn’t add up; it seemed more wishful thinking than common sense. Ned was on his way to visit a relative who wasn’t expecting him. Probably didn’t even know he existed. His presence was not required.
At noontime Hattie Mae gathered her belongings and left the bus. As the black woman was exiting, a young girl accompanied by her mother boarded. The mother settled the daughter in the seat next to Ned and found a place for herself several rows up. “Don’t bother the nice man,” the mother instructed.
“No, Mummy, I wouldn’t do any such thing.” The girl who was rather chubby with a pendant lower lip and dark brown eyes turned to Ned. “My name is Samantha Crowley and I’m in the red reading group.”
Ned smiled at the girl. She looked to be about six or seven years old. “Average readers are blue, dummies and sped-busers green.”
“Sped,” Ned mused. “That would be special education.”
The girl smoothed the front of her dress. Ned made a mental note that her fingernails were the same color as her reading group. “I got this swell book. I could read you a story.”
Ned was hoping the chatty girl would just shut up and leave him alone long enough to digest and make sense of Hattie Mae’s last few remarks. How had she put it? Even though he brought neither gift nor message, perhaps Ned -
“Siberian Fairy Tales,” the girl had rose up on her knees and was whispering in his ear. She was a sloppy talker and every time she hit a hard consonant, a ‘p’ or a ‘b’, a slurry of warm spit sprayed across the tight compartment.
“What was that?” Ned wiped his damp earlobe and leaned away from the girl.
She waved a children's book up in the air. “Got this swell book for my birthday. Here, I’ll read you a story.”
“Actually,” Ned grabbed the book away from her just as the girl was settling in, “I’m tired and think I’ll take a little nap if you don’t mind.” He wedged the book in the leather pouch hanging from the seat in front of the girl, but she retrieved it immediately and made a disagreeable face. He didn’t really care if the girl minded or not. The first adrenaline rush of the clandestine trip north having dissipated, Ned was exhausted. With his eyes closed, he slipped back into a protective mode, collecting his thoughts for what lay ahead.
“You probably weren’t a very good reader,” the girl muttered. “That’s why you don’t want to hear this Russian story, but I’m going to read it to you anyway.”
“Ninth grade,” Ned replied. “I’m going into high school next year, and I’m currently in the vermillion reading group.” The chubby girl eyed him suspiciously. “You don’t know what color vermillion is, do you?” The girl hesitated. “It’s bright red with orange highlights and a half mile ahead of your red group.”
That shut her up. Finally. Ned closed his eyes, slouched down in the seat and was fading off to sleep when an insistent drone drew him back from the solace of an incipient dream.
“Once upon a time there lived the Crane and the Heron,” the little girl recited in a singsong fashion as though reading exclusively for her own enjoyment. “They lived in the same bog but at the far end of it. Mr. Crane who lived all alone felt lonely and decided to get married.”
“‘I’ll take Miss Heron for my wife,’” thought the Crane
Her voice was tinged with a cloying, sickly-sweet quality. Samantha Crowley knew he wasn’t asleep and, even if he was, the girl could care less. “I don’t really want to hear about the Crane and the Heron. Why don’t you just read the story quietly to yourself?”
“Well I’m going to read it to you anyway as punishment for your rudeness. I’ll start from the beginning and, this time, don’t interrupt.”
“Once upon a time there lived the Crane and the Heron,” They lived in the same bog but at the far end of it. Mr. Crane who lived all alone felt lonely and decided to get married.”
“‘I’ll take Miss Heron for my wife,’” thought the Crane and he went to her. He walked seven miles through the mud. When he came to the Heron he said, ‘Heron, are you in?’”
“Birds don’t marry,!” Ned interjected.
“Siberian fairy tale birds can do anything they want,” Samantha corrected. “Heron, are you in?” she repeated.
“Will you marry me?”
No, I will not. Your legs are too long and your flimsy feathers too short. You can’t fly well and you haven’t food enough for two. Go away you skinny-legged Crane!”
“The Crane went home his hopes ruined.”
“The Heron gave it another thought. ‘It’s better to marry the Crane than live alone.’ So she hurried to the Crane and said, ‘Crane, you may marry me!’”
“No, Heron. I don’t want to marry you. Go away!”
The Heron went away, weeping and ashamed. The Crane thought, ‘I was wrong not to marry the Heron. It is dull to live alone. I’ll go and marry her right now. He came up to her and said, ‘Heron, I made up my mind to marry you.’”
“‘No, Crane, I won’t marry you! The Crane went away. Now the Heron thought, ‘I shouldn’t refuse him. What’s the good in living alone? I’d better marry the Crane.’ She came to the Crane, but he didn’t want to marry her. And to this day they visit each other constantly making proposals, but are not married.”
When she finished the story, Samantha closed the book. “Well, how did you like it?”
“Actually, it was rather depressing.”
“So you didn’t like it.”
“No, not particularly.”
Tucking her legs onto the seat, she lifted up on her knees so that she was staring down at Ned with an impudent grin. “Folktales are fables… stories that teach a valuable lesson. What did you learn from the story of the Heron and the Crane?”
How he hated the little girls officious, nasally voice! “Absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.”
“But you must have learned something,” the girl insisted.
“Given the opportunity to do the right thing or the wrong thing, most people generally opt for the latter.”
South of Fredericksburg the Chesapeake Bay loomed into view. Arlington came and went in a blur. The bus cruised the length of the New Jersey Turnpike, skirted New York and continued, full throttle, in the direction of Connecticut. Around eight o’clock that night, Ned glanced out the darkened window. The sign up ahead read ‘Providence Exit one mile’. The bus wasn’t scheduled to stop in Spaulding. Ned would catch a connecting bus from Rhode Island. He closed his eyes. It was just a matter of time now. The end of one journey. The beginning of another.
The obnoxious girl fell asleep leaning her head against Ned's shoulder. She dozed with her mouth open, leaving a line of drool snaking down to the wrist. As the sun was climbing over the horizon she opened her eyes and asked, “Do you know why the Gopher has a short tail and the Elk a long muzzle?”
“Not really, but I’m sure you’re going to enlighten me.”
She opened the book to the spot where she had left off. “Once, an Elk was arguing with the squeaky taiga Gopher. The Gopher said. ‘Summer should be two times longer than it is now.’”
“The Elk disagreed very strongly with her. ‘Oh, no! I don’t like summer at all. It is too hot and there are too many flies and midges in summer. There should be no summer at all. It would be much better.’”
“The squeaky Gopher answered, ‘If winter lasted all year round, there would be so much snow that you wouldn’t be able to run quickly. And man would be sure to kill you.’”
“’Kill me? You rascal!’ the indignant Elk stomped on the Gopher, but she managed to escape and hide herself in her hole. Only her tale was left under the Elk’s hoof. The Elk, sulky and angry, stretched his muzzle and fixed his eyes on the hole. But the Gopher never appeared.”
“Summer had passed but the Elk still waited for the Gopher. But the Gopher didn’t want to meet with the Elk any more. The Elk kept waiting by the hole. Rainy autumn had ended. Winter came along and covered everything with snow. And now again noisy spring had arrived, and summer was approaching.”
“Only then did the Elk understand that the Gopher would not come out to argue with him, and he left.” “Since that time the Elk’s muzzle is long and sulky, while the Squeaky Gopher’s tail is short.”
No sooner had Samantha Crowley finished the second fairy tale then her mother stood up and began pulling down their luggage from the overhead rack. “Did the Moose remind you of anyone?”
The white statehouse dome loomed in the far distance as the bus left the interstate. “With his nasty disposition, the animal reminded me of my mother.”
“And the Gopher?”
“My Aunt Jessie, my mother’s nemesis and personal tormentor, who passed away twenty years ago but was miraculously resurrected from the dead in recent days.”
The bus arrived at the Providence, Rhode Island bus terminal. Ned thanked the child for her Siberian fairy tales, collected his bag and left the bus.
Everything in downtown Providence was shut down except for a cold snack bar. A couple of college kids were gabbing away. When the girl said ‘car’ it came out ‘cahhr’. A cardboard box became a ‘bwox’. “When’s the next bus to Spaulding?”
The ticket agent pointed over Ned’s left shoulder. “Tough luck! You just missed it by ten minutes. There won’t be another until 7 a.m.” Ned laid a bill on the counter.
“One way or round trip?” the ticket agent asked.
“Round trip.” Ned took his overnight bag and settled in as far from the door as possible. The boy caught a chill back in New Jersey where the temperature dropped to 50 degrees, and now his throat was sore, rough as 50-grit sandpaper. The temperature outside had dropped another degree or two since the bus arrived. Hungry and cold, he was worn out from the trip. Maybe if he rested the chill would run its course and he’d be in better shape for ....
What word was he searching for?
Reunion, perhaps? No, you can’t reunite with someone you only met except in a Polaroid snapshot. Well, whatever it was, the event was imminent. Since the decision to come north two weeks ago, Ned had rehearsed this scene a hundred times or more in his overheated brain. He’d head straight to the house where Aunt Josie lived, ring the doorbell and announce, “Hi, I’m Ned Scoletti. Mary-Ellen’s son.”
Nothing more. Short and sweet!
Let his aunt play her hand, make the first move. Either Aunt Josie would welcome him graciously or treat him with the same callous indifference that caused her to pull a Houdini vanishing act so many years earlier. Hi, I’m Ned Scoletti. Mary-Ellen’s son. I want you to bare your soul and explain why the identical twin sisters in this fading picture hate each other so.
Ned swallowed hard; his throat had swollen shut. Glancing at the clock on the opposite wall, the small hand was edging up on midnight. Seven more hours and he would be back on the road. But the trip to Spaulding was a lark. A mere hour and fifteen minutes. Then a taxi to 105 Eddy. And then...
Hi, I’m Ned Scoletti, your sister, Mary-Ellen’s boy. Hi, I’m your nephew, Ned, newly arrived from Fort Pierce, home of the manatee sea cows. You don’t know me, but I just traveled up the Atlantic Coast on a Greyhound Bus to ....