Slice of Life

 

I come here every May 15th. The weather has finally turned for the better, the trees almost glow with that vibrant young green that seems so magical and alive. Below me the river peeks out through the breaks in the canopy. If I get here early enough I can watch the dawn mirror on its still surface. That’s the way we always liked to see it, back in the days when we came here to be alone together.

Now I come here to be alone, alone.

Sounds funny, but it makes sense to me.

This park was our favorite place to camp, not up here, down in Campsite 3 – the one closest to the trailhead. It’s a seven mile loop, just long enough to make us ravenous for lunch when we got back. We usually had a very light breakfast. You have to be quite breaking bread before sunrise. Other campers frown on being disturbed.

I don’t camp much anymore. Motel 6 is about as close as I come. I don’t do the seven mile loop either. A mile and a half up, and a mile and a half down pretty well does me in. But I still come, every Ides of May, both to revel in the spring and to reminisce on what we had before the cancer took her.

We used to sit here, on this very bench, and the bench it replaced, and talk about anything and everything – the kind of relaxed and easy conversation only people who know the depths of each others souls can have. Important stuff. Talk out hurt feelings, discuss plans for the future. The kids. And downright silly stuff – which was better; “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” or the original “War of the Worlds.” Neither of us liked the remakes much.

I still talk to her. Still cover the same sorts of topics, everything from politics to the latest cat videos on the Internet. She loved cat videos.

Only now she doesn’t talk back.

I get strange looks from the hikers that finally work their way up here when they see me talking to no one. I just smile and nod, fall silent until they pass.

I’m sure someday, maybe not too long from now, she’ll answer back.

~

© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

I watched Cliff watch the waitress walk away.

“What?” he asked, feigning innocence.

“Jeeze, Cliff, you couldn’t be more obvious.” I sipped my coffee.

“Like you don’t appreciate a nice posterior?” He sopped up the remains of his egg yolks with his toast, and pointed the dripping mess at me in lieu of a finger. “I see you making eyes at Angie, over at Mable’s.”

I felt myself flush a little.

“Have you asked her out yet?” he asked as he delivered the final morsel to his mouth.

I shook my head, no.

“Why not?”

“I don’t need complications.” The waitress, Helen, came back with a coffee pot.

“You boys need any more coffee?”

We both slid our cups out toward her.

“Complications?” Cliff looked up and winked at Helen. She winked back.

“You know me. When I get close to people, bad things happen.” Seems to me everyone I’ve ever been close to dies. My mother. My sister. Probably my father…

Cliff snorted. “Bullshit. Nothing bad happened to Jen, except you letting her walk away, like a damn fool. Mary and I thought she was the real deal.”

I shook my head as we both started reaching for our wallets. “It just wasn’t going to work. She wanted something steady, someone who could give her a house with a picket fence, kids, a dog.”

“You should give it a try,” he said. It occurred to me I had just described Cliff’s house, his life.

Helen brought the check and we settled up between us, leaving her a nice tip. Helen always treats us well, so we always return the favor.

As we started to rise Cliff said, almost casually, “Did you hear Joe Hennessy died?”

I stopped, still not fully risen from the booth. “No. When?”

“Found him dead in his bed, early last week.”

I finished standing and gazed out the window. My reflection gazed back at me, looking beaten, worn.

“Do you know when the service will be?”

Cliff flinched. “Oh, jeeze, I’m sorry, Max. I should have called you as soon as I heard. They buried him on Monday. Down at Oak Grove. I just assumed you saw it in the paper.”

Not likely. I never check the obits.

“No one contacted you?”

I let out a bitter laugh. Who would contact me? No, my old work mates would just as soon shake hands with the devil. I didn’t exactly leave the force on good terms.

Cliff put a sympathetic hand on my shoulder and gently steered me toward the door.

“Everybody said he was crazy,” I reminisced as we navigated our way around incoming customers, a bus boy, and three children who had decided the floor made an excellent play station. “I guess he was, in a way.” We finally made our way outside and stood taking in the crisp autumn air.

“You know, he was in the Corregidor Death March. That might make you a little crazy,” I went on. Crazy Joe Hennessy – my first partner after I made Detective. I sat through many a tirade about the Japs, as he called them, while on stakeouts. His war experience made him bitter toward all things Japanese. Other than that one sore spot he had a good sense of humor, and he was a damn good detective. I could not have asked for a better mentor.

We worked together for two years before he retired.

After I left the force he called me on several occasions to see how I was holding up. We went out to lunch together occasionally. I lost track of him over the years, after he moved south of town, something I now regretted.

After Cliff pulled away I climbed into my Brougham and sat in quiet contemplation for a while. I roused myself from my reverie when I was starting sweating. Despite the cool weather, the closed car was getting hot. I fired up the engine and powered all four windows down.

I had a vague idea of where Oak Grove was, a small Baptist church south of town. I put the car in gear and headed for I-85. While idling at a light I played it safe and asked the GPS to give me turn-by-turn directions.

It was a pleasant drive, giving me time to be with my thoughts.

Once off the Interstate traffic was virtually nonexistent. I lowered the windows again and followed the directions my digital navigator gave me until I pulled into the nearly empty parking lot of the Oak Grove Baptist Church. There were three other cars in the lot.

It’s a small cemetery, so it was not hard to pick out the newest grave. I was surprised when I saw someone else standing near it. I knew almost immediately who it must be – Ami Motsomoto.

The old newspaper photo flashed though my mind: a busy front porch, several police officers milling about, and stepping out the front door, Joe Hennessy, holding a dark-haired little girl. The girl had her hands twined around Joe’s neck as if holding on for dear life.

The caption read: Corregidor survivor saves Japanese girl.

Technically, the caption was wrong. Her father was originally from Southern California, had spent his youth in an internment camp with his Japanese born parents. Until this case came along he would have just been another damn Jap as far was Joe was concerned.

None of that mattered anymore. There was a girl that needed saving.

She startled when my shadow fell across the grave, looked over to me with a wan smile on her face.

“I missed the funeral,” she explained, gesturing with the bouquet of grocery store flowers she held in her hand.

“I did too.”

She nodded sympathetically. “Did you know him?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“He was a good man,” she said, stooping to lay the flowers where the headstone would eventually stand.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, he was.”

© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

A crowded department store with holiday decorationsPhil Ackerman turned at an audible gasp and a stifled sob from just behind him. He had just pulled the last package of Sparkle Bright off the shelf. The damned doll was a hot item this year, and this was the third store he’d looked in. A little girl of about seven years of age was tearing up as her mother stooped beside her.

“But I wanted to get Sparkly Bright for Ginny,” the little girl whined. Her mother glanced up at Phil with a pained look on her face, offered him a wan smile, and shrugged.

“We’ll find one somewhere else sweetie,” she said none too confidently.

The little girl’s shoulders shook. “But what if there aren’t any more?” Tears began running down her cheeks.

Phil fumbled Sparkle Bright from hand to hand as he faced his cart and then, as if making a sudden decision he turned, squatted down to the little girl’s level, and offered her the doll. Her face lit up in disbelief.

Her mother began to protest, but Phil put the doll into the little girl’s hands and stood back up.

“It’s OK. I hate to see her so disappointed. I’ll find something else.”

“You really don’t have to do this,” the mother said, straightening but looking very relieved.

“No, I insist.” They exchanged season’s greetings and went their own ways.

 

“Well, that one was a near thing,” Helen Dunstin said as they climbed into the minivan.

Her daughter, Katie, tossed Sparkle Bright into the back seat, amongst the fifteen others they had managed to nab at the various stores they had visited.

“Yeah, what a sap,” Katie said with a smirk as she buckled in. “These things are worth a fortune on eBay.”

~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Neon Tommy via Flickr Creative Commons attribution and share alike license.

 

A man from behind, standing at a fast food counter.Jackie looked at the clock on the register as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. She was twenty minutes overdue for her break, and Mister Jackson was still out back in the storage shed getting more twenty ounce cups. Was he freaking making them?

She perked up and plastered on her best fake smile as a customer stepped up to the counter.

“Welcome to Burger Den. Can I take your order?”

He stood there, studying the menu like it was the periodic table before a chemistry exam. Another man walked up behind him. Then a woman. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Bridget or Kevin were available, but they were both busy. She waited patiently for mister indecisive.

“Yeah. Yeah.” He looked back up at the big board. “I’ll have a Tiger Burger. No. No. Make that a double Tiger with cheese.”

She pressed the iconic button.

“Oh, and with bacon.”

She pressed cancel, then pressed the next icon over.

“Do you want fries with that?” she asked.

“Yeah. A large fry. And a Panther concrete. That’s the one with fudge in it, right?”

“Yes sir. Large, medium, or small?” Judging by his girth, she figured it’d be large. She was proven right, again.

“For here or to go?” To go.

He stepped aside as she handed him his ticket.

As the next man stepped up her eye was drawn to the woman behind him. She had a smug look on her face, and her eyes kept darting toward the counter, then back down. She was whispering on her phone.

“Welcome to Burger Den. May I take your order?”

This man knew exactly what he wanted, and he wanted a lot of it. “Have some friends over,” he explained after rattling off his order.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she heard the woman behind him snicker. “It’s definitely Jackie. Can you believe it?”

Jackie fumbled with the register, getting the man’s order wrong. Her ears strained to hear past his complaint.

“I’m going to wait and make her ask, ‘You want fries with that?’” The woman glanced up and their eyes met. That’s when Jackie put it together. Bethany Abrams, her nemesis from high school. Dressed to the nines, as usual. What the hell was Beth doing in Burger Den?

Jackie glanced over her shoulder to see if someone else was available to take over at the register. Still no sign of Mr. Jackson. Bridget was taking care of the drive thru, and Kevin was changing out the mix for the shake machine. Damn.

She read the lengthy order back to the man, accepted his money, and handed him his ticket. Salvation in the form of relief did not arrive. Bethany Abrams stepped up to the counter.

Jackie forced a smile. “Welcome to Burger Den. May I take your order?”

Bethany just stood there for a minute taking her in like an exhibit at a freak show. She grinned from ear to ear.

“Jackie! Jackie Freedman? From Central High? Well, how you been doing, Jackie?” Her tone was as thick as syrup. “It’s Bethany Abrams. You remember me?”

“Hi, Bethany.”

The man behind Bethany was getting antsy.

“How you been, Beth? Can I take your order?”

“I’d like a cheeseburger, and a small drink.” She stood there, smirking.

Jackie pushed the two icons on the register.

“$4.57,” she said.

Bethany frowned, and made no move to pay.

“That will be four dollars and fifty-seven cents, ma’am,” Jackie said loud and slowly as if addressing a simpleton.

“Aren’t you supposed to ask me if I want anything else?”

“You told me what you wanted. I told you what it costs. Are you unable to pay, ma’am?”

Anger flashed across Bethany’s face. “I’d like to see you’re manager!”

“Believe me, so would I. $4.57.”

Bethany quickly recomposed herself, then held up her cell phone and snapped a picture. “Haven’t seen you on Facebook in ages,” she said, once again in a sugary sweet voice. “I’m sure this will get dozens of ‘Likes’.”

Jackie could feel her face burning. The man behind Bethany was getting impatient.

“That will be $4.57.”

Bethany fumbled inside her pocketbook, never letting go her phone. She finally produced a five dollar bill and tossed it at Jackie.

Jackie entered the Amount Tendered as 5.00. The cash drawer slid open and the man behind Bethany made his move. Bethany screamed as her phone went flying when the man grabbed her in a choke hold and shoved a handgun against her temple.

“Give me all your cash, or this bitch gets it!”

Jackie saw the look of abject terror in Bethany’s eyes, flashed her best Burger Den smile, slammed the cash drawer shut, and dove for the floor.

~

© 2014 by JM Strother, all rights reserved. Photo © 2014 by JM Strother, all rights reserved.

 

My instructions were clear.

Only go to houses with the front light on.
Always keep your sister within sight.
Don’t cross the streets.
Stay on our block.
Say thank you.

Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood starts around twilight for the little kids, and sometimes lasts as late as nine o’clock for the bigger ones. My sister and I were of that in-between age, she being seven, and I a very mature ten. She was still too young to go out on her own, so I was tasked with the burden of being her escort.

I was of two minds on the matter. On the one hand it made me feel important, and I took my responsibility seriously. On the other hand, what ten-year-old wants to be saddled with their kid sister on the coolest night of the year? If my parents were the audience, it was the worst burden they could have possibly dreampt up, pure and simple. Out of their purview, I pretty well strutted with self-import, and tried to boss Molly around as if it were my divine right.

Not wanting to be confused for a little kid I insisted on waiting until five-thirty to roll around, much to Molly’s protestations. Five-thirty was what my friends, Tim Morgan and Bill Taylor, and I had set as an acceptable departure time. By then many of the little ones were already being shepherded home by their over-protective parents.

Halloween night of ’05 was all one could ask for. The weather was warm and dry, the sudden cold snap at the start of the week past, with only the lightest of breezes to stir the air – no jackets were necessary.

We all gathered down at Bill’s back gate. Tim looked none too happy, for while I was encumbered with Molly, he had it worse – his twin sisters, Mary Ellen, and Tabby were in his care. Bill, on the other hand, looked pleased as punch. He was the youngest in his family, and this was the first time he was allowed to do the rounds on his own.

The six of us – me as Albert Pujols in my Cardinals jersey and cap, Molly as a witch à la Hogwarts, Tim a hobo as he was every year, his sisters as Kim Possible and Dora the Explorer, and Bill as a pirate – headed out, intent on making the best haul ever.

Our block, though not particularly long, is known to be generous. Another factor going for us, Crestview Court – the short cul-de-sac bisecting the back side of our block – adds another nine houses to our route without requiring us to cross a street. So, despite our parents’ rules, we had a good chance of meeting our goals.

We did our own street, Brookdale, first. Unfortunately, we made old lady Carter our first stop. Valuable collection time was lost while she puzzled out who we were. In the end Mary Ellen and Tabby stumped her. They had to say who they were, and then had to go into a long explanation detailing the exploits of Kim Possible and Dora the Explorer. Still, it was my first chance to try out my home grown joke, and I delivered it with gusto.

“How many Cubs does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Mrs. Carter stared at me for a moment before making the obligatory response. “I don’t know. How many?”

I started cracking up before I even delivered the punchline. “No one can remember, they haven’t done it since 1908!” My laughter subsided as I realized Mrs. Carter was still staring at me as if waiting for the finish. “Get it?” I asked. “Since 1908.”

She smiled and said, “That’s funny,” in the most unconvincing way. All this, and all we got was a lousy fun-sized plain chocolate bar.

Fortunately the rest of our street made up for it. Green Meadow, being the cross street was pretty much a wash. There are only two houses on it, and the Stewarts’ porch light, as always, was off.

By the time we got halfway down Woodcrest our bags were actually getting pretty heavy. Tim looked longingly across the street at the Turner’s well lit house. Word had it that the Turner’s went all out, gave full-sized candy bars, and had a great haunted house setup in the basement.

“Let’s check out the Turner’s this year,” Tim suggested.

“We can’t cross the street,” Molly said.

“It’s not busy. Let’s go.”

I was all for it, but Molly said she’d tell mom if we did.

“We’ll we’re going,” Tim decided for himself and his sisters. He was determined. He was also drawn by the fact that he had a major crush on Jenny Turner. “You coming?” he asked Bill.

Bill looked torn, but in the end decided to stick with us. Tim and the twins gave a quick look both ways and then dashed across the street and disappeared into a crowd of about a dozen other kids heading up the walk.

The three of us continued on and soon came to the corner of Woodcrest and Crestview Court. Of the nine houses only three had on lights. Bill suggested we skip it as not worth the effort, but Molly insisted we do the circle. After a good deal of wheedling she got her way.

The last house we came to with the light on looked a bit unkempt and Bill suddenly lagged behind.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“Oh, nothing. I just don’t want to… That’s old man Henderson’s place.” I didn’t know much about old man Henderson expect he seemed to be lonely and walked a tired old black lab every day. I shrugged. “He’s kind of creepy,” Bill went on. “They say he killed his wife and keeps her in a rocking chair, like in that movie.”

“He did not!” Molly retorted. “He’s a nice old man, and Bo is a really nice dog.” She started down the walk.

“Molly, wait!” I reached for her, but she jerked out of my grasp and darted to the door. Before I could stop her she rang the bell.

What could I do but follow her onto the stoop? I looked back, and Bill stood there at the end of the walk, neither coming nor leaving. Distracted as I was, I nearly jumped when the front door jerked open. A warm orangish light washed out upon us.

“Trick-or-treat!” Molly shouted.

An old man in a red T-shirt and bluejeans stood on the other side of the storm door regarding our attire. A rolly-polly black lab stood just behind him, lazily wagging its tale. The man glanced aside, into another room, then slowly opened the door a crack.

“Trick-or-treat!” Molly shouted again, her eyes fixed on the black lab.

“Hello, Molly. Is it Halloween? I clear forgot.” He looked a bit perplexed. Then he opened the door wider to allow us to step in. I reached, but Molly was over the threshold before I could stop her. What could I do but follow her in?

The house had that vaguely sweet yet unpleasant odor reminiscent of the nursing home grandma was in. I glanced back out the door to see Bill standing resolutely at the curb.

Molly made straight for the dog, who nuzzled up to her warmly. They obviously knew each other well. Then she glanced into the other room and said, “Happy Halloween, Mrs. Henderson.”

That’s when I noticed the hospital bed. I took in a sharp breath when I saw a pale withered arm rise up and give a fluttery finger wave before dropping back down. The arm belonged to a gaunt old woman laying under several blankets. With a knit cap on her head only her pale arms and face were visible. Yet her clear blue eyes were very much alive, and she gave us a warm smile.

“I’ll see what I can rustle up,” Mister Henderson said, shuffling off toward the kitchen. As he did so Molly went over to visit with his wife, the dog tagging right behind her. I lingered by the door, undecided whether or not to bolt. As I fretted, Molly blithely related the adventures of our evening thus far and detailing her night’s haul. I was about to make a move to grab her when Mister Henderson came back into the room.

“This is all I could manage,” he said, almost apologetically. Molly joined us in the hallway and he dropped a full-sized chocolate bar into both of our bags. “So,” he said, “you have a joke for me?”

I told him my Cubs joke and he laughed heartily. Then he handed me another chocolate bar. “This one’s for your buccaneer friend out there,” he said, indicating Bill.

Old man Henderson watched us walk back out to the curb. When we got there Molly let out a gasp and turned back abruptly as if she forgot something. “Thank you!” she shouted down the walk toward the house.

In response Mister Henderson gave us a friendly wave. As we turned to go he closed the door, and front light winked out.
~
(c) 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Fireworks rocket burstIn the spirit of the holiday I am reposting this one from several years ago. I liked it then, and I still like it now. Happy 4th, everyone.

~jon

Semper Fidelis

Usually Maggie Walton would go down the block with her best friend, Ross Little, and the rest of the neighborhood gang to watch the big Forth of July parade proceed down Jefferson. After the parade they would head for the annual Freedom Fest Picnic and spend hours on rides and playing carnival games. Ring toss was her favorite. Then home for barbecue with the Littles, and the big fireworks display, which they could see just fine from their own back yard.

None of that would happen today. Well, maybe the barbecue and fireworks, since they were enjoyed from home. But nothing else. Maggie was grounded.

An hour before the start of the parade her father sternly reminded Maggie that she was not to leave the premises. At nine o’clock she wandered out to the front yard and stood at the very corner of their lot, to peer down the half block towards Jefferson, where the crowd was gathering. Neighbors and friends passed by on the sidewalk and she declined several invitations to join them. She was surprised that her grounding was not common knowledge, and somewhat deflated in that realization.

By nine-fifteen she could hear the distant thrum of the marching band, and the occasional scream of the siren from the old red fire truck that lead the parade. Soon she could pick out the tune the band was playing, and she saw the crowd tighten along the curb as people vied for better views. Now the music was loud and clear. The band was passing, blasting out Semper Fidelis, and for the most part stayed in tune. She could see the broad shining throats of the tubas swinging in step above the heads of the crowd that otherwise blocked her view. The band passed, followed by a parade of cars and pickup trucks which she could not see, though she could see groups of people drift by, standing and waving to the crowd from the backs of those pickups. Some were in costumes of various kinds: old man Heinz done up as Abe Lincoln, a few veterans, assorted throw backs from history, but mostly just plain old townsfolk waving energetically to their fellow citizens.

Her attention peeked a little, then her spirits sank even more when the truck carrying the VIPs passed. The mayor waved magnanimously, as several volunteers tossed candy into the crowd. Kids, for the most part, surged forward to snatch up as much of the sweets as they could. Maggie would end up with none of it. She sat down on the curb, dejected.

After a bit she became aware that people were passing by, now heading home. The parade was over, and the crowd was breaking up. She turned and saw Mr. and Mrs. Feldon passing behind her. She returned their nod politely. Then Ross came rushing up the street, holding his shirt like a basket. He spotted her, and veered over to where she sat. He plopped down beside her and dumped the contents of his improvised basket onto the grass between them.

“It was a great parade, Maggie,” he puffed, still catching his breath. “Too bad you couldn’t come.” He looked at the candy and nodded. “I got candy for both of us. Even steven.”

“No kidding?” She sat up with brighter spirits.

“Sure. It’s my fault you got grounded. Well sort of.” He had lured her away from her chores last Saturday, after all.

They began to split up the candy 50/50, each taking a turn at picking what they wanted. It was mostly unbranded bulk stuff, but there were a few bite sized candy bars, which got picked rather quickly. They were in the midst the divvying up process when they became aware of someone standing in front of them.

Brian McMartin stood just off the curb in the street, at their feet. He looked down at them, a contemptuous smile on his face. “Giving your girl friend some candy, Ross?” he taunted.

“Shut up, Brian,” Ross growled.

“Why don’t you kiss her?” Brian gibed.

“Just go away!” Maggie urged, shaking her head in disgust.

Brain took a step closer, looming threateningly over Ross. “Who’s going to make me? Little Ross?”

Ross jumped to his feet, spilling his candy on the curb. Brian gave him a slight shove before he had steadied himself and Ross fell over in a sprawl. He scrambled to his feet again, but not before Maggie was standing in front of Brian, fists clenched and ready to fight.

“Oh, so your girl friend does your fighting for you, huh, Little Ross?” Brain cackled.

Before Ross could shove Maggie aside Mr. Walton stepped out of the front door and began to fiddle with the garden hose. He casually looked over to the kids. “Morning Ross. Brian. How was the parade?”

Brian suddenly needed to check his shoe laces and muttered some inaudible reply as he bent to attend to them. Mr. Walton pulled on the hose to line the sprinkler up so that it would reach the garden under the bay window. By the time he looked up again Brian was gone, wandering off down the street. He gave Maggie a wink, looked up at the clear sky, and said, “Fine day, isn’t it?”

~

© 2009, 2013 by J. M. Strother – all rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

My story, “The Rains Come Down,” is featured over on the #amwriting Blog today. It examines the theme of grace and dignity in the face of adversity. I hope you’ll go over to read it.

~jon

Photo, Four Mule Team, from the OSU Special Collections, via Flickr Creative Commons, no known copyright restrictions.

 

A coal mine trap boy sitting by his trap door.The worst part was not knowing the time beyond the broadest sense of the term. There was starting time. There was lunch time. There was quitting time. If old Harv happened to be on one of the trains there was the occasional real time, since old Harv owned a watch that actually worked.

“2:35, Vance,” old Harv told him last time the train trundled by on it’s way deep into the mine.

“Thanks, Harv!” Vance called back while trying to shield his face from the bulk of the coal dust being thrown up. He felt the grit of it between his teeth. As the train passed he fell in behind it, walked some feet into the passage to watch the arc of light cast from the lead car’s headlight grow ever smaller. Before it dropped completely out of sight Vance grabbed the handle and heaved the trap door closed, shutting the miners and their precious air into #29 West, and him into the dimly lit access shaft.

2:35. Nearly three and a half more hours before the train would return with its load of coal and offer him his ride out to fresh air and comparative freedom.

He retook his seat and stared at the dimly lit wall on the opposite side of the tracks.

He still had an apple. He fingered it in his grimy pocket, then thought better of it. Best save it for when his stomach really started complaining.

To take his mind off food he began to sing the song he heard from the tavern across the street as he went to sleep last night.

Oh! you beautiful doll,
You great big beautiful doll.
Let me put my arms around you,
I could never live without you…

He sang through both verses and the refrain twice to be sure he had the words right before giving it full voice.

Vance never sang in public. For one thing, his momma would tan his hide if he did, for another, he was at that awkward age when his voice was beginning to change.

Still, Vance figured he had a pretty good singing voice and knew he had an ear for music. He only had to hear a song two or three times in order to commit it to memory. With the Coal Hole right across the street he had ready access to all the latest tunes. New songs drifted out of the tavern almost every week and he paid keen attention as he lay in his bed by the open window. His repertoire was constantly growing. As it grew, so too did the vague plan in the back of his mind.

People made money singing.

It would nearly kill his momma if he ran off, but he’d make it up to her. Once he got to a real city he’d get jobs in places much bigger than the Coal Hole. He’d send money back home, a lot of it, more than making up for the seventy-five cents a day he made as a trap boy. Heck, more than the dollar fifty a day he could make as a miner. Maybe he’d even be able to get momma to move away from Blacklog and join him in Lexington, or maybe even Louisville.

No sooner did he finish You Beautiful Doll than he started in on Down By the Old Mill Stream. She would never admit it, but Vance actually saw his momma smile when that song drifted in over dinner last summer. Then here eyes teared up and she made off for the kitchen to fuss over the coffee pot for a while.

He was just belting out “It was there I knew that you loved me true” when the explosion ripped the trap door from its hinges.

Vance groped around in the dark, coughing on the coal dust, trying to assess his own injuries. For the life of him he could not get his bearings. The explosion had made a shambles of his little set up, the concussion of it extinguishing his one lone candle. Unsure which way was what he crawled about, frantic to find his way out. When he felt the cold steel of the rail under his hand he gasped, then laid his face right down upon the track. This was his lifeline, his connection to the world outside.

He fumbled in his pocket for his matches. With shaking fingers he tried to strike one against the track. It broke. He fumbled for another, then stopped, realizing what a fool he was. The coal dust was thick and explosive. He pulled himself to the middle of the track and sat up, looking toward what he believed to be the interior of the mine and began to call out the names of the men he knew: Harv! Sam! Frank! George!

Harv!

Only darkness returned his call.

~

© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Lewis Hine, circa 1911, via Flicker Commons, no known copyright restrictions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headlights in the darkShe’s hiding something from me.

Ellen sits hunched against the door, feigning sleep. I steal glances her way when traffic allows, careful to keep the car pointing straight down the rain-slicked road. Her eyes flit open now and then, when particularly bright headlights wash over us. Definitely not asleep.

The wipers make the drive miserable. I should have replaced them months ago, but somehow wipers are easy to ignore during a prolonged drought. Now that it finally is raining the windshield is so streaked the glare of oncoming traffic nearly blinds me.

I wished her luck this morning when I dropped her off at work, and checked my cell phone repeatedly throughout the day. It was make or break day for us, with her company handing out pink slips to 20% of the staff.

I knew by her face when she came out tonight that they let her go.

“They sacked me,” she said when she got in the car. We both sat there in silence for a minute, me trying to take it in, she trying to keep it together. I’d been out of work for four months now. In our mid-forties, with two kids, and a mortgage we really needed her job. As I moved to put the car in gear she lost it, wrapped herself into me, and cried her eyes out. It was all I could do not to join her.

“We’ll get by, Ellen,” I said with no idea how on Earth to keep that promise. “We can get through this.” Somehow we had to.

She grew sullen as we headed home, withdrawing into the pretext of sleep. I recognize it as one of her strategies to avoid talking about something.

I pull into our drive much relieved to be out of the glare of oncoming headlights. I nudg the car forward leaving her just enough room to walk between it and the house. For a long time neither one of us says anything, letting the warmth from the heater keep the cold cruelty of the world at bay.

“Jason,” she says as I start to reach for the keys, “I’m preggers.”

I stare out the windshield, watching the wipers lose to the rain. Flip. Flop. Flip. Flop.

She lays her hand on my thigh and whispers, “I’m so sorry.”

~
© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Steve A Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic License (CC BY 2.0)

 

A long shelf of books in a storeWilson Madon grabbed the door handle then stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the notice taped to the glass. His eyes flickered from the notice, to the clerk behind the counter, to the nearly empty shelves, then back to the sign: Going Out of Business, 70% Off.

An immense sense of sadness nearly overwhelmed him.

He was forced out of his reverie by a customer approaching the door from inside, his book bag stuffed to overflowing. Wilson stepped aside to afford the man an exit. The little silver bells atop the door tinkled as he emerged.

“Not a lot left,” the man said, “but still some gems in the nonfiction section.” He went on without so much as a pause.

Wilson grabbed the door before it swung completely shut, making the bells ring once again, and stepped inside.

“Joshua, what is all this?” Wilson asked.

The clerk turned and offered a weak smile. “Hello, Mister Madon. Here to pick up your special order?”

Wilson took a few tentative steps towards Joshua, and nodded mutely. He slowly lifted his hand and swept it across the scene before him. “When did all this happen? I… had no idea.”

Joshua looked chagrined. “Mrs. Hurbert decided to close shop last month. We sent out notices to all our regulars, you should have gotten one.”

Wilson imagined the Thoth Books envelope under his mail slot at home, amid the pile of unopened 3rd Class junk mail, ignored catalogs, and advertising fliers. He rarely looked at his mail, the reason his daughter had finally forced him to sign up for automatic bill paying. While his gas, electric, and water would not be cut off, any incidental bits of news or information generally went unnoticed until Alice came round for another visit. She made a point of doing so at least once a month to ensure he did not fall into arrears on some oddment that was not on the payments schedule.

“She can’t do that,” Wilson finally said, turning to face Joshua.

Joshua shrugged.

“Sorry, Mr. Madon. She just can’t make a go of it anymore. Online sales. Ebooks. The big box stores… well, she just doesn’t have the sales to keep going.”

“But where am I going to get my books?” Wilson asked, incredulous.

“There’s a bookstore out in the mall.”

Wilson waved that off as nonsense. “I don’t go to the mall. I don’t have a car.” Alice had taken the keys from him over a year ago.

“Order by catalog?” Joshua offered as a suggestion.

“No one carries the books I need,” Wilson scoffed. “It’s all ridiculous pseudo-anthropological drivel. I need this store.” He looked at Joshua with beseeching eyes. “I need you.”

Joshua looked down and shuffled his feet. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Madon. I won’t be able to help you anymore. Do you want your book?” He lifted an old hardback book off the counter a bit, and put it back down.

“Yes, yes. Let me look around a little first.” Mr. Wilson wandered toward the back of the store, toward the nonfiction section. After about a half an hour of poking about he came back to the counter with two books in hand.

“I’ll take these, too.” He laid a small cloth-bound book atop his special order, and placed the large hardback next to it. He thumped the big book twice with his index finger. “Lucky to find this one. First edition too.”

Joshua opened the book to check the price – $1.20. He flipped it shut. “I’ll throw that one in for you for free.”

Wilson beamed, then reached into his pocket to pull out a tri-folded piece of loose-leaf paper. “And could you order these titles for me?”

The smile melted from Joshua’s face. He shook his head. “They’d never arrive in time.”

“In time for what?”

“We’re closing at the end of the week, Mister Madon. I can’t order books for you anymore.”

Wilson’s lower lip trembled. He turned away, opened his mouth as if to say something, then turned back, befuddled. “Yes, yes. You told me that. Let me pay for these and I’ll go.”

Joshua took his check and handed him a bag with sturdy handles for the walk home.

“Tell Mrs. Hurburt I said hello. Maybe I’ll catch her next time I’m in.”

The tiny bells tinkled as he walked out the door.
~

© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.
Photo: Clark’s Store, from the State Archives of North Carolina – Raleigh, via The Commons. No know copyright restrictions.

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