Duck and Pray published 2017 in the Linden Avenue Literary Journal
Ellen ran up to our group in the school yard to report what she’d heard. “Sister just told some kids, ‘Saint John will save us.’ ”
“Saint John the Apostle?” asked Andrew.
“No.” Ellen smirked. “JFK.”
A week ago, President Kennedy went on television to tell the nation there were missiles in Cuba pointed at us. We’d heard some of the names in the news before. Khrushchev was the guy who banged his shoe on the table. And Andrew liked to call the Soviet minister Gromyko the gecko. But mostly we kids were worried and unclear on the facts.
As the morning bell rang, Ellen and I got in the girls’ line. “Nobody tells us nothing,” I kind of hollered, because who cared about double negatives when it could be the end of the world?
Our seventh-grade teacher didn’t ease our fears. She started each day now with the same question.
“Is your soul in the state of grace?” She looked hard at the troublemakers who she kept close in the first row. “If your soul is pure, you should be happy to die.” She began to pace the classroom. “If the missiles come, this entire class will go to Purgatory. She struck a pointed finger at the air on each word. “Not one soul in this room is worthy of heaven.”
We were all nervous, but Andrew seemed really shook up. I could tell by the way he was twisting the top of his sock around his finger into a white cocoon. It couldn’t be the threat of Purgatory that was bothering him; we’d heard all that before.
I drew a question mark on his back with the edge of my ruler.
“I’m, I’m...” Andrew and I both stuttered a little when we were nervous, like if we had to go up and put stuff on the black board. “I’m not worried for me but...” He turned his head a little so I could hear.
“What?” I whispered.
“I’m not supposed to tell.”
A crack of Peter Marie’s ruler against her desk ended our chat.
Andrew and I were the only kids in our families. We both wore glasses, loved to climb trees, and we’d been best friends since kindergarten. But when we were at school, he hung around with the boys, and Ellen was my best school friend. She and I ate lunch quickly so we could run upstairs and claim the one tree in the school yard. She pulled some candy and a paperback from her bag. On the cover was a girl, a horse, and a boy.
“Are your folks building a fall out shelter?” She carefully divided her candy between us.
“Nope. Don’t ask me why.”
We’d all been sent home with the pamphlets that showed drawings, measurements, lists of building materials and all the food and water and tons of other stuff we’d need when the shelter was built. When I had showed them to my parents, they looked at each other and shrugged.
Ellen handed me one half a brown licorice, one whole black, and a red hot jaw breaker. “What if you were locked up in a fall out shelter, with your boyfriend, after a bomb?”
I snorted. Boyfriend. Right.
“I mean make believe boy friend, one of those cowboys you like.”
I was too embarrassed to name the guy, but Ellen wasn’t. “Michael Landon.”
I preferred the make believe one. “Joe Cartwright.”
I pictured him in our basement, cowboy hat tilted back, eating canned pears with me and my parents while we waited for Armageddon.
“OK, Little Joe,” said Ellen. “What if you were going to die, would you go all the way?”
Ellen was very interested in that subject lately.
“It’s a sin,” I reminded her. “And not just any sin. A mortal one. Besides, we wouldn’t want to sullyour love.” That was a new vocabulary word I’d learned in the Reader’s Digestcolumn “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power.”
When the end of recess bell called us to formation, Andrew pushed in front of me as we lined up.
“So what's your secret?” I asked.
“Tomorrow. I promised I wouldn’t tell until tomorrow.”
“But the missiles!” My voice sizzled through the quiet of the forming lines.
“My dad said if Castro doesn't watch out, he’ll get a taste of our cigars.” Dave Ryan chuckled at his joke. We joined in with muffled snickers. I kind of liked Dave. He asked me to go bowling last summer, but I got chicken pox, so he took Lousia Scarmaleno instead.
At one-fifteen, the principal’s voice came over the loud speaker.
“Sisters, boys, and girls.” Around me a silent chorus of kids lipped the familiar greeting. “At one thirty promptly, there will be an air raid drill. When the bell sounds, go quickly and quietly to your lines and proceed in silence to the church.”
“The church?” I was stunned. Saint Patrick’s was a converted opera house, two open stories with big stained glass windows. Why not send us to the cafeteria which was a cellar with stores of canned goods? Why were the adults ignoring this fallout shelter stuff? What were they not telling us?
Sister told us all to be quiet but nailed her eyes on me.
We filed into church and took our place in the center pews.
As we waited for the principal to begin the rosary, I tipped my head back. Oh no. Right over head, one of the lights. They were bigger than me, and hung from long gold chains and fixtures that looked pasted to the ceiling. I tried to never sit under one, but it was hard since there were four each side above the center pews. I’d noticed the nuns always sat in the side aisles.
I knew it wasn’t true, but I liked to picture the chains that held the lights going through the fixtures, then up through the ceiling, and winding around a huge steel beam, which nothing could disturb—except maybe a missile.
After the rosary we went back to our classroom. Sister told us to take out drawing paper, although it wasn't art day. Threatening us with extra homework if we didn’t stay in our seats, she tucked her hands behind the front panel of her habit, and left the classroom, quietly shutting the door behind her. Seconds later, fifty five kids cut loose. Some hung out the windows calling to people in the street. The door slammed back open, bouncing against the wall. You could hear from up and down the hall the other classes going wild. Some kid ran in our classroom to report that all the nuns were downstairs in the principal’s office.
A black board eraser whipped passed. It planted a chalky bar on the back of Andrew's white shirt. He kept drawing. I leaned forward to see. His paper was covered with missiles and tanks, except for a box framed by swords. Inside it stood an armored knight, lance in hand.
It must have been ten or fifteen minutes before Sister returned in the middle of our booming madness. Silence fell slowly as she entered through the open door. Andrew turned to me and rolled his eyes. Here come the cannons. To our amazement, she acted like we weren’t even there. She went to her desk and began to pack her book bag. The dismissal bell rang. Still, Peter Marie said nothing. Eyes signaling messages of surprise, we packed up quickly and pushed for the door before she could change her mind. Andrew thundered down stairs to his altar boy meeting. No one got in line today, or paid much attention to the No Running rule.
Outside it felt more like summer than three days to Halloween. I tied my sweater around my waist and shifted my books to my hip, boy-style. I passed a group of kids coming from public school. They were dressed in the colors of fall, clothes as mixed as the kids at St. Patrick’s were uniform. I was loaded with books, while a lot of them carried nothing, or just some loose papers. They seemed happy—loud, laughing. I studied their faces. They didn't look like they had missiles on their minds.
Walking home, I managed to kick a stone all the way up the hilly sidewalk without losing it once to the street. My mother was on the porch, checking the mail box.
“It’s over hon,” she called. “It was on the news about an hour ago. Khrushchev’s going to take the missiles out of Cuba.”
I dropped my books and did a little dance while I said a prayer of thanks for our deliverance. I remembered the nuns leaving us all unsupervised while they went down to the principal’s office which had the school’s only television. They must have seen it on TV too. The Cuban Crisis had passed, the end of the world wasn’t coming, and Sister Peter Marie hadn’t bothered to tell us.
“Andrew called,” my mother said. “He must be excited about the baby.”
“Baby?” So that was Andrew’s secret. I knew it was selfish, but I was a little sorry he would no longer be an only child. Still, I understood now why he had been so worried. Would it be bomb or baby?
“He said it was a secret, but you knew?” We sat down together on the porch steps.
“Sometimes his mother and I volunteer the same days at the parish thrift shop. She’s due around Easter.” My mother flipped through the mail. “Got a lot of homework?”
I nodded. “Mom, weren’t you worried the world was going to end?”
She tucked a stray hair behind my ear. “Your father and I went through the war,” she said as she sometimes did, to remind me, I guess, that we can all be brave when we have to be.
She tapped the top of my head with the mail, smiling. “Pot roast tonight with ginger snap gravy.”
Neato. And I still had time before dinner to bicycle over to Andrew’s, to talk about the end that didn’t come, and the beginning that did.
The Red Jacket published Winter 2014 in The Milo Review
Not a particularly good student, today Joan seemed especially distracted. This week, someone had taken away the school desks they usually used and left cheap, small plastic chairs which Joan, a soft but solid size sixteen, was overflowing. Lexie asked her if she wanted a break.
Joan pushed the workbook aside. Two long pink fingernails slid a cigarette from the pack on the table. Lexie didn’t smoke, but she carried matches, the prisoners weren’t allowed to have their own.
Nobody actually called them prisoners at the CF. The women doing time called each other girl, sister, bitch. The prison guards called them ladies!an exclamation point in their voices whether the mood was fun, fatigue or fury.Joan exhaled a narrow blade of smoke. “My little ones can’t come to visit Sunday, just my oldest girl.” She ran the tip of the cigarette around the lip of the ash tray, sculpting it to a glowing point, stole an instance of rare eye-contact. “You want to meet her?”
Lexie said she would, flattered by the invitation and, of course, anxious. But that was always her underlying state when she was at the CF. She hoped that coping with it would make her braver, because she often felt wobbly and afraid since her father died. Losing him had made her lose focus. She couldn’t have continued graduate school even if there had still been money to do so. Too sad to put together a professional resume and begin looking for a ‘real’ job, she took a temporary one driving a van, and found a studio apartment in Bedford Hills. The correctional facility was just down the road from her. She had passed it on Sunday mornings when she got up early to cruise the quiet country roads, before parking near a deserted village green to sip coffee and think about her father. He had been an engineer as well as an amateur oil painter. Once a week, for all the years she could remember, he’d taught art to inmates at a maximum security prison. He had often spoken to her of service, how important it was to remember that good-fortune was serendipitous and should always be shared.
One day, on her way back from her Sunday morning wanderings, as she was about to pass the sign for the women’s prison, Lexie turned in instead. Beyond the curve of the tree-lined drive, down in a hollow, spread a complex of one and two story brick buildings. There were no towers or guards around the grounds, but all the windows were barred. High chain-link fences crowned with concertina wire surrounded everything.
As she sat there wondering if she should take a chance or simply drive away, a bus pulled up. Soon people streamed out, mostly women and children. Taking this as a sign, she joined the crowd moving slowly toward the door marked visitors. It opened into a wide room with a counter and desks separated from outsiders by a bullet-proof window. On a khaki-green wall opposite the counter was a bulletin board. Posted there were several notices looking for future rides, written on scraps of paper, held in place three or four to a thumb tack. In the middle of the board hung a notice typed in capital letters on a sheet of pale pink construction paper, its four corners stapled to the cork.
ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS TEAR MOTHERS AND CHILDREN APART.
THE LONGTERMERS COMMITTEE SEEKS YOUR HELP.
BE A VOICE FOR JUSTICE AND CHANGE.
COME TO OUR MEETING.
7 PM THE LAST THURSDAY OF EVERY MONTH.
At the first meeting Lexie learned that the new Rockefeller drug laws made the penalty for selling two ouncesof any street drug, including marijuana, the same as second-degree murder. Lexie, who had inhaled her share as an undergrad, knew that she could just as well have been a resident at the CF as a visitor.
The women went around the table and said what they were in for and how much time they had done. She noticed the smirks on a couple of faces when Joan—who was doing fifteen to life for drugs and had served six—said that she had been set up. Almost every one of them claimed innocence.
After that first meeting the social worker, who had co-chaired with one of the inmates, tried to recruit Lexie to volunteer. With Joan in tow, she asked Lexie if she had ever tutored, and would she help Joan get her GED.
That was five weeks ago. Now Joan wanted her to meet her daughter. Was there some appropriate behavior for this stuff, boundaries she shouldn’t breach? She didn’t know, she just wanted to go with the heart. Lexie arrived at the cafeteria and spied Joan in the corner at one of the smaller tables wearing a gold and red paisley shirt, black skirt and a single strand of red beads. Normally the women had to dress in the regulation burnt orange uniform, or at least pieces of it. Joan often wore bright, geometric or floral print polyester blouses over the jail pants when she came for tutoring or went to the long-termers meeting. Today her hair was combed and sprayed in perfect layered waves. She had put on rosy blush and wine-colored lipstick.
“I got here an hour ago just to get this spot,” she said. “Those long tables out there in the middle, everybody’s in your business. And it gets so loud, you got to shout to be heard, the way the guards like it, nothing private.”
Or illegal, thought Lexie.
Joan stood up suddenly, waving both hands. “Sherry.”
A young woman, long legged, darker than Joan with high cheekbones and a short Afro hair cut walked toward them, her smile Christmas morning bright. Slender as Joan was plump, she wore a butterscotch blouse, matching platform shoes, and jeans so creased they could cut sugar.
Mother and daughter embraced. Sherry sat down next to Joan, whose eyes rose for a moment to Sherry’s then dropped. She never made eye contact for long. “Honey, I’d like you to meet Lexie, my…”
“Tutor.” Lexie rushed to fill the gap at the same time as Joan said, “Friend.”
The word was warm as bourbon on an empty stomach.
Joan asked Sherry how the young ones were.
Lexie learned there was also a son in fourth grade and a daughter in sixth. They all lived now with Joan’s brother and his family.
“God Bless them.” Quiet tears slid down her round cheeks. Sherry draped her arm around Joan’s shoulder and kissed her temple.
“Lexie huh?” The girl smiled. “Where your momma get that name?”
Lexie was relieved to have the moment lightened. “The actress, Alexis Smith.”
“I remember a movie she was in with, what’s his name?” Joan cocked her head. “The one with those blue eyes?”
Before Lexie could answer, Sherry placed an open pack of Newports on the table. “I got you some cigs.”
“Have you been smoking girl?” said Joan.
“Just a little.”
“But your voice,” her mother protested. “Sherry’s in the church choir and senior select chorus at school. I wish she could sing a little something for you, but that’s not allowed here.”
“No singing?” Lexie asked, but Joan kept talking.
“Sherry is up for a scholarship. She has the highest business scores in her class. Good with numbers, like me.” Joan put her hand over her breast bone. “I was a bookkeeper you know.”
Without a high school diploma, thought Lexie. Self-taught. But this didn’t make her innocent of the crime she was here for. She looked from mother to daughter, face burning as if they could read her thoughts.
“I saw the pizza place lady.” Sherry spoke up to be heard in the crowded room. “She ask for you. And Miss Bob, from the girdle shop.”
Joan pursed her lips. “Lingerie shop, and those folk just miss my work. Fools will let their books go all a mess again.”
“Momma, everyone knows you got screwed.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Joan softly slapped her daughter’s hand.
“It’s not fair, that no good man free and you in here.”
Joan rocked slowly back and forth. “My nephew was dealing out of my house.”
“You should’ve taken the plea,” said Sherry.
Joan nodded. “I should have taken the plea, but I had a clean slate, and everyone said I’d never get convicted, so I went to trial.”
A sudden sad silence fell over the three. In the aluminum foil ash tray no bigger than a saltine, Joan plowed ash into a little mound, tapped her cigarette over it like a burial blessing.
“I should be getting along.” Lexie stood. She should give them time to themselves.
Outside it was pouring. She was not surprised when the car didn’t start. It needed new wiring. Afraid that if she kept at it she’d blow the ignition, Lexie threw open the door and sprinted across the parking lot. In the visitor’s entrance, there was a new guard behind the bullet-proof window, a tanned, thin young man with side burns shaped like the stem and bowl of a pipe. He picked up the visitor list and asked for the inmate’s name.
Lexie leaned in toward the small round speaker in the center of the window. “I already had my visit. My car won’t start.”
He put down his clipboard, rested his arms on the ledge.
“Can I leave my car in the lot and pick it up in the morning?” By then the wires would be dry and somebody at work could give her a lift here in between runs.
He crossed his arms, shook his head. “You got to get it out of here before midnight, or it’ll be towed to the Bronx.”
“Hasn’t this happened before?” Lexie asked. “Don’t people have car trouble?”
He shook his head as if she were the sorriest thing he’d ever seen. Returning to his desk, he sat down and rummaged through a drawer. Lexie didn’t know if she had been dismissed. She shouldn’t have said anything. Her chest felt like a tightly wound jack-in- the-box. It seemed like ten more minutes passed but it was probably only three or four before the guard came to the window. She inhaled deeply, straining to keep her cool.
He slid a business card through the slot. “This place will tow it. Write down that number and give me back the card.”
It showed an Irvington address. Half the distance to the Bronx. The tow driver dropped her off at her place, and though she begged him to leave the car too, he couldn’t do it. Lexie took the train to work while the Pinto repairs mounted. On Thursday she walked to the CF to tutor Joan. Lexie was surprised Joan still bothered coming. She never did the GED assignments ahead and she took forever to complete the ones they did together.
Lexie leaned back in the plastic chair, raising its front legs off the floor, balancing with the tips of her fingers against the edge of the table. Cunt. The word was printed in capitals beneath the overhang of the table top, you had to lean back in your seat to see it. A lot of women hated the word, but here she heard it all the time, used as a lascivious endearment, a threat, a prelude to attack. It wasn’t the word that signaled trouble around here or the volume at which it was said, it was the speaker’s face. Except in Joan’s case. She showed little expression. Sometimes, it felt like there was somebody else in the room only Joan could see, standing beside you.
With ten minutes left to the session, she put down her pencil, briefly met Lexie’s eyes. “I’m going for a pardon.”
“Fantastic.” She brought the chair back down on all fours, hesitated a beat then added, “Going for a GED will look good for your file.”
“I’m not going to take the GED. This is my last session.” Her hand landed on Lexie’s for an instant. “It would help me more if you’d write some stuff I need, a character letter.I don’t like to talk about it in here.” Joan glanced out of the corner of her eye at the two women on the other side of the room. They were poring over some leaflets, speaking in English, then rapid Spanish. Just outside the open classroom door, a guard sat looking through an Avon catalog.
“I’d like to send you a letter, telling you all about it and what I need,” Joan said.
Without taking ten seconds to think it over, Lexie wrote down her address in Joan’s workbook. Should she have hesitated, she wondered later as she tried to fall asleep. But what was there to think about? Still, she dreamed about the prison that night. She didn’t like doing even imaginary time there, but tutoring was over at nine, so the imprint of the place was still fresh when she got into bed. In the dream, she was stuck in a passage way between two locked doors.
At the end of the week, Lexie took the train to the repair shop to pick up her car. The bill equaled half a week’s pay.
Work was busy. The trip-board packed with school routes and sports events. Lexie was averaging fifty-five hours a week behind the wheel and soon got her bills caught up and the fridge stocked. The long hours left little time but she made it to the long-termers meeting in September and was disappointed when Joan wasn’t there. When she asked about her afterward, she got only shrugs.
In October, near the fifth month anniversary of her father’s death, Joan’s first letter came. The handwriting was a mixture of printing and script. She hoped Lexie was well. She herself had a cold and hadn’t been doing much except what she had to.
Lexie, having just come from work, kicked off her oil-stained Keds and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. She scanned the pages for the great revelation, an explanation finally of how Joan had gotten into the mess she was in, but it wasn’t there.
The setting sun through the orange kitchen shade filled the tiny space with a pumpkin-colored brightness. For a moment, she pictured Joan here, seated at the gate-leg table. She wondered what her favorite food was. As a sort of reversal of the condemned’s last meal, she would love for Joan to have her first meal as a free woman right here in her kitchen.
Lexie read the letter a second time. Joan wanted her to write a reference saying positive things. She was not to mail it to the governor, but send it back to Joan who would submit all the letters and other documents in one package when she requested clemency. That meant Joan would be reading whatever Lexie wrote about her.
In order to get a pardon, I have to admit that I’m guilty. Lexie read the line again.
She yanked on the end of the kitchen-window shade. It sprang to the top, slapping wildly around the fixture.
“Guilty of what?”She asked of the sunset, a miserly line of cherry light shining through a tear in the darkening sky.
The next day, while sitting in the bus waiting for the high school kids to get out, she started working on the letter for Joan.Just tell about the tutoring and how you feel about my character, Joan had written. I know you’ll find the right thing to say, because you always speak so nicely.
Why am I doing this? Lexie wondered, staring out through the windshield. It was out of guilt in a way, but for what? That she had never gotten caught smoking dope, running a red light, breaking into an empty summer cottage when she was a teenager?
Guilt that you survived?The words came to her in her father’s voice.
“And you didn’t,” she whispered back.
With absolutely no guidelines, Lexie worked on the letter. She wrote of how Joan had initiated tutoring, how sincere and honest she was in her efforts, how her previous life as a working mother of three and a respected professional spoke for itself. It took her a long time to stretch out these meager statements into something plausible. She wondered if anyone besides Joan and her counselor would even read them.
Soon after she mailed the letter, she caught the flu. Kindergarten kids had passed it around the noon bus like a cookie. Because she was not in the union she had no sick time and lost three day’s pay. Thanksgiving came, the first holiday without dad. She and her mother went to her aunt’s house, as they had always done. The table seemed too big with their diminished number. The spaces the dead leave are not empty, Lexie thought, they are filled with absence. Although they did what they could to be cheerful and helpful, it was a sad strained day for her and her mother. Now, Christmas, she thought as she dropped her mother off. God, help us.
In December, she still hadn’t heard from Joan. She went to the long-termers meeting, expectant and uneasy, but she wasn’t there. This time she didn’t bother asking about her.
The Sunday before Christmas, while grocery shopping, Christmas cakes caught her eye. They were rectangular layers covered in thick white frosting with Merry Christmaswritten in decorative red icing beside a plastic decoration.
Lexie had a sudden urge to give some holiday cheer to Joan, maybe find out what she thought of the reference she had written. She chose a chocolate cake with a Santa on top, corny but festive. She also bought a lipstick, some tortoise shell hair clips, a small container of hand cream and a little gift bag to put the items in.
The cold wind was strong and stinging as she crossed the parking lot to the prison. It was late in the afternoon, so most of the visitors had gone. The guard on duty was the same one who had made her have her car towed. He greeted her like an old friend as she signed in.
“Looks good,” he said, after holding up the cake box and making sure it was still sealed. He peeked in the bag of gifts, opened the lipstick then the hand cream, sniffed it, returned the items and handed it back to her. Lexie shoved it into her coat pocket.
She told him the person she was visiting didn’t expect her.
Picking up the phone, he pushed a button, gave Joan’s name. He could easily have said who was here, but this wasn’t a hotel and the guards had perfected the emotional put-down in many small ways. They treat us like children. Lexie had heard the complaint often at the long-termers meeting, which was not supposed to be a gripe session, but never failed to become one.
In the visitor’s room, a small artificial Christmas tree with a sparse twinkling of lights and a few silver balls sat on top of a rickety tray table. Lexie sat down on a green vinyl sofa that hadn’t been there before. She watched the door for Joan, wondering if she would be disappointed when she saw it was Lexie and not someone else. But no, when Joan appeared, dressed today in the burnt orange regulation pants and top, she smiled before she glanced away.
Joan put her hand out for Lexie’s and gripped it tightly, her long nails digging slightly into her palm. Leaning in close as she sat down, Lexie caught the scent of cigarettes and hair product.
“I got clemency,” Joan whispered.
“That’s great,” cried Lexie, although inside she was nearly dizzy with unspoken recriminations. Why didn’t you write me? What if I hadn’t come today?
“When do you get out?”
“They have to process me,” said Joan vaguely.
“If you need a ride, I can take you home that day,” Lexie offered.
“I don’t know if I’m going to my sister in the Bronx or my aunt in Hoboken.” Her gaze drifted to the cake box on the floor beside the sofa.
Lexie picked it up, but Joan didn’t show any interest. Suddenly the thick white icing and plastic Santa looked babyish through the cellophane lid.
Joan took out an unfiltered cigarette. Lexie gave her a light. Joan exhaled, picked a bit of tobacco off her tongue. “You know what I really need? A coat.”
Lexie nodded, imagining Joan would have to become acclimated again to the outdoors. “Something warm.”
“Something bright,” said Joan. “Purple, red, blue.”
“When do you need it?”
“As soon as possible. But don’t bring it here. You can’t trust the guards at visitor intake, they steal everything, better it comes through the mail.”
Lexie noticed two inmates going around the room, straightening chairs, emptying ashtrays. The clock said twenty to five.
Joan rose from the sofa. “You have my address?”
Lexie nodded, she’d made copies of everything she had sent. She pulled out the gift bag. “There’s some little things in here for you, lipstick—”
“Oh. You’re sweet.” Joan took the bag from Lexie and peered inside.
“The clips are because you like to pin your hair up sometimes.”
“Thank you, honey.” Joan looked into Lexie’s eyes, holding her gaze longer than she’d ever done before.
“Let me know about the ride,” said Lexie. “And congratulations on, you know, everything.”
Joan smiled, dropped the pack of cigarettes into the gift bag and holding it like a purse, sashayed off, never looking back, leaving the cake behind and Lexie feeling dismayed and dismissed. On her way out of the CF, she gave the cake to the guard.
Afterward she sat in the Pinto waiting for the engine to warm up feeling like she’d just gotten a bad sunburn. The woman had received a pardon, for god’s sake, yet she acted like it had never been in doubt. Is this what had landed her in prison? Always expecting that life would treat her justly, that her nephew wouldn’t deal drugs out of her house, that the jury would find her innocent?
“I don’t know a thing about you,” Lexie’s breath made smoky puffs in the cold car. “And shit, Ineed a coat too.” She shivered in her thin pea jacket. Probably thinks I’ve got money, and of course, compared to Joan, she did.
The following week, between school runs, Lexie shopped for Joan’s jacket. First she went to a couple of women’s clothing shops, found she couldn’t afford anything, and headed for the discount stores. Even there she got a walnut-size knot in her chest when she saw how much they cost. Well, she reasoned, there were lots of holiday parties in the next few days, she wouldn’t have to worry about eating, and probably her mother would give her a check for Christmas.
Lexie found a rack of three quarter length jackets made of nylon with quilted lining. She had a feeling this was not the style of coat that Joan had in mind, but this was her price range. She spied a red one among the large sizes. It was nicely cut, not boxy, but it was fifteen dollars more than she could possibly afford. If she bought the coat, she would have to be late with the rent. Then she found the brown one. It was simpler, more like a long ski jacket, with double breasted buttons and a price tag closer to her range.
By the time she got a box and mailed the coat, it was the day before Christmas. Lexie figured with the holiday weekend and the time it took to get through the mail room at the CF, Joan wouldn’t get the coat until after the New Year.
At the bus company Christmas party she asked some of the drivers the best way to get to the Bronx and Hoboken. Among them they came up with a half dozen routes, each swearing it was the best.
The weeks passed. It was almost February and Lexie still hadn’t heard from Joan. It hurt at first realizing when she didn’t hear that she probably wasn’t going to. She found herself, when looking through the mail, hoping for a letter postmarked Bronx or Hoboken, even the CF, but there never was one.
She could understand that Joan would want to leave behind all associations with prison, and unfortunately Lexie was one of them. Her disappearance didn’t actually distress Lexie, but she couldn’t deny that the woman had gotten to her, had put another little crack in her heart. She had come to realize that people’s hearts didn’t so much break as become fissured making it easier for fresh pain to seep in and find its level.
In her less rational moments she thought about the brown jacket she had sent to Joan, not the bright colored coat she had asked for. Had it been an act of passive aggression? A way of saying, You ask too much. You don’t know me. I’m broke and broken too. Sometimes she wondered if things would have been different if she had said the hell with the rent and bought Joan the red jacket.
Bardo Published Fall 2016 in RavensPerch
“You know what makes me feel bad?” Rob’s father stares out the bedroom window. Rusty football-size hydrangea block the view of his fishing boat trailered in the back yard.
Rob hopes no confession is forthcoming. His head will burst into flames if his normally private father becomes personal.
“It makes me feel bad about that snake I shot,” his father says. “Remember?”
Rob puts a glass of juice on the night table beside the day’s lineup of white and pink pills.
“Yeah. I remember.” It was the biggest snake he had ever seen. Round as a tennis ball, eight feet long, it wasn’t bothering anyone and Black snakes are not poisonous, but his father said it might hurt one of the kids running around in the woods that day, some friends of his parents and their families on a cookout. It was sad, seeing it dead, lying on the forest floor like a big empty garden hose.
It had always bothered him that he had shot it. Since he was a little kid Rob had thought he wanted to be an outdoorsman, like his father. Then, when he was fifteen, he killed his first deer. Rob felt the impact of the hit in his whole body. Something inside him fell down and died that day, surrendered with that buck, as it tried to rise from where the bullet had driven it to the ground. He never took up a weapon against an animal again. And now he didn’t eat them either. He still partook of fish and eggs. He wasn’t that enlightened. But he did try to practice non-violence, ahimsa, a Sanskrit word he learned in Eastern Religions 201.
If his father feels good, he and his mother do too. If his father suddenly can’t get his legs to move, or the pain is making him withdraw, then everybody is fucked. Today he is a little better. No more chemo. The barfing has stopped. Up until now, he has always been a busy man, a fisherman, a putterer, so they try to find small tasks he can contain on his lap. Today he wants to straighten stuff so Rob removes the top drawer of the bureau and puts it on the bed within his father’s reach. It holds handkerchiefs, socks, general junk. And the imitation leather box with the military medal inside.
When Rob was a kid, he’d get it out again and again, studying the little silver star in the middle of the big brass one. Whenever he asked his father how he had won the medal, his father would always say,
”Oh just doing what I was told, like every guy there.”
“What are these branches around the star?” Rob had asked more than once.
“I guess they’re laurels. To the victors go the laurels. Don’t rest on your spoils.” His father had chuckled, Rob joining in, but he didn’t get the joke until he heard the correct quote, years later in a history class.
His father picks up the box, puts it aside, begins to untangle a bunch of key rings, tie clips and single cufflinks. Leaving him to it, Rob fetches the trimmer and cuts back the dead hydrangea. He dropped out of college in September, right after registering for third year, so he could help his mother fulfill his father’s last wish—to die at home.
Now that the bushes are trimmed, he doesn’t know if it will make his father feel better or worse, seeing the boat in the back yard from his bedroom window. It Makes Rob blue that he’s too gutless to ask.
Back in his parents’ room, his father is asleep among stacks of handkerchiefs, ties, the Zippo lighter with the U.S. Infantry insignia, and an unopened pack of cigarettes. A reminder that he has conquered smoking and is above temptation.
On his way out the door that evening, Rob’s gaze lingers at one photo among the wall of pictured family and friends. His folks in the brand new lime green 1965 Mustang, the spillway at Croton Dam behind them. In the driver’s seat, his mother is wearing a straw hat, a big grin. His father is leaning against the car. He had just been drafted. In a few months he’d be in Vietnam.
Driving through the countryside onquiet back roads, Rob looks for that sign he’d once seen, the motel with the Tibetan name, Bardo. A word that means a layover state after death, like limbo or purgatory without the flames. He wonders if Bardo is just the owner’s name, or is it a riff, a flipped side homage to that famous hotel where you can check in but never leave.
The day of the drawer-neatening, Rob thinks his father seems good, but a week later, pain sweeps the poor guy overboard. Every two hours, his mother pours liquid morphine, bright blue as Easter egg dye, into a small plastic cup ribbed with measuring lines. His father throws the drug down like it’s a shot of scotch, takes a drag on an invisible Camel. Rob feels the ghosts of countless cigarettes resting in the cradling place between the fingers of his own and his father’s hand.
The guy is stoic. He doesn’t say anything about what is happening to him. Rob figures his father has been talking to his mother about the deeper things, but when he asks, she says no.
Rob feels a heat of frustration gather in his chest. “If he doesn’t talk about his feelings now then...”
“When?” She puts her hand on his shoulder. “Oh hon. He’s not keeping his feelings from us. He just doesn’t know what they are.”
When his father’s teeth click together, speeding with the morphine to describe the thoughts his tongue cannot shape, Rob is reminded of a toy monkey. The chemo has left short fuzzy hair like a monkey too. His skin is sallow except for his arms where the fisherman’s tan has not fully faded.
Sometimes, when the morphine makes his father talkative, he recounts highlights from his life, as if he is living them again, not just narrating. He is picking apples, making home made wine, fishing for bass. He speaks fast, lashes fluttering over half-closed eyes. The hospice nurse says this narrative he is telling is known as life review. Rob feels a little hurt when his father doesn’t seem to be doing things with Rob in his life review, or even his mother. The only name that he ever says is Siswhich isn’t really a name, but it’s what he called his twin who died when they were three.
Mostly Rob watches from the doorway. Useless, lacking the guts to nurse his father, to help him piss into the plastic urinal. But forgiving himself too. He senses his father would be embarrassed for both of them were he to take part in these intimate ministrations.
His father trembles and writhes now between doses of liquid morphine. He’s too weak to hold the plastic shot cup and he has difficulty swallowing. His mother asks the nurse where they go from here and she recommends injections. But since hospice can only visit once a day, his mother will have to learn to give the shots herself.
Rob’s mother wraps her fisherman’s cardigan more tightly around her, presses her lips together as if she’s humming. Fear jumps from his mother to him like a scrabbling little animal.
He rides around and thinks about giving injections to his father. Convinces himself he can do it. Or maybe he’ll just forget about school for another year. That way they can hire nurses to do all this stuff. He’ll help his mother find the right services, organize this. Take something more than the grocery shopping and laundry off the poor woman’s shoulders.
Well, he did take care of the yard too.
That night around eleven, when Rob comes back from his ride, he smells cigarette smoke as he enters the house. His father’s too weak to smoke, and as far as he knows, his mother quit when he was six. At first he thinks the TV is on, then realizes she is on the phone in the family room. Her voice is a slow murmur he can’t decipher, she gives a sudden quick laugh. Rob draws in a breath of surprise. Chides himself for such a dumb response. What, she can’t laugh because his father’s dying? The admittance of those words drop him down an elevator shaft from a nice high he had groomed earlier, with some weed sent by his former roommate.
He wonders who she is talking to. It’s good they make her laugh. But he would be lying if he didn’t admit to a quiver of discomfort that someone might be in the wings already, waiting to swoop in and take her away. Of course it could have been one of her many female friends on the phone, but she usually talked to them in the kitchen while she cleaned up the sink or folded the laundry, and never this time of night.
The next day when he comes downstairs ready to talk to his mother about sacrificing school, there is a new nurse. A guy with a short gray pony tail and iguanas printed on his scrubs, says he’s from a private nursing service, and that his mother has gone out for a run. The nurse leaves after his father falls asleep. He makes another pot of coffee. His mother returns, checks on his father, takes a shower, joins Rob at the kitchen table for breakfast. He’s scrambled the one egg he could find and added enough grated cheese and milk to stretch it because she won’t eat unless he does. He’s made toast and taken out every possible topping he can find, there isn’t much. A glaze of jam at the bottom of the jar, some rock-hard natural peanut butter that no one likes, ditto the marmalade. He sees he isn’t doing a very good job with the shopping, vows to improve.
“To pay for these nurses, I can either get more loans or put off school for another couple of semesters.”
His mother looks up over the top of her cradled coffee mug, elbows on the table. Rob notices her fingernails are bitten and chipped. They used to always be neatly manicured with coral polish in summer and wine in winter.
“Remember the year we had a Halloween party and the guy came as a pirate, with that lame beard?” Her blue eyes seem bigger. Rob realizes it’s because her face has gotten thinner and it makes them more pronounced.
“He had streaked liquid shoe polish all over his face. You were so funny, very indignant that an adult would do something that cheesy. How old were you, eleven?”
“Twelve.” Rob remembers the beautiful red head that came with cheesy beard. She wore a witch’s hat, black leotard, and a purple cape that didn’t quite cover her perfect ass. Not his wife, they said. He was newly divorced.
“He’s called a few times asking after your father, always says he wants to help. I told him your father is in excruciating pain, and I am concerned I will hurt him more if I try to give injections. I not sure, even if I could find the money, that I’d be able to put together care as quickly as your father needs it.”
She loads her mug in the dishwasher. “So the nursing service shows up this morning and says they’ll be here every four hours for...” she sighs deeply. “The duration.”
“Who is this guy? cheesy beard?” He asks, hearing his voice go smaller. He doesn’t mention the cigarette smoke last night. All trace is gone this morning.
“Some demi-god at one of the major hospitals in the city, can’t remember which.”
“And he has connections at nursing services here, in the wilds of Putnam County?”
“You know your father. He has quite a network.”
“He’s the first person I ever heard use that word as a verb,” Rob says.
It feels like his father is acquainted with about ten thousand people, and every single one of them is, according to him, a great guy. Maybe his father is right to unconditionally believe in the best in us all. Although it seems to Rob a bit unworldly.
Rob moves one of the club chairs from the living room, without his mother having to ask so she has a comfortable place to sit beside his father. When he finds her dozing in it one evening, he foregoes his joyless riding, and pulls over the cushioned bench from her vanity table. His legs are too long. He feels like a skinny bird on the low bench, a vulture, hanging over the bed. But he’s too zombie-brained to fetch a chair from the dining room.
Earlier the nurse gave his father an ejection that has made him seem comfortable. He quickly comes to love these people who show up and help so predictably. Not just for the relief they give his father, but for how they make everything seem natural within this world that is so different from the one outside the room where the most important thing in his family’s life is unfolding. There is no pretense any more about what they are all here for.
His father’s eyes occasionally open but this evening they are closed, he appears to be sleeping peacefully. Rob sits for a long time monitoring his father’s breathing. He counts the seconds between each in and out breath. He’s not sure if the gaps are getting longer. Now that he knows death is coming, he wants it over, the suffering to end.
Please take him. He repeats the mute plea with as much love as he can endure without breaking apart. Holding his father's hand, he silently wills him, Please let go Dad. Just let go.
Although he has hardly acknowledged anyone in several hours, his father’s eyes open. He looks at Rob and says clearly,
“I'm trying son.”
Rob is profoundly ashamed that his father has read his thoughts. He doesn’t want him to die, just the anguish to stop. And, illogically, he wants it to be over so things can be normal again.
After a day in which he eats half a popsicle and rallies a bit, his father dies suddenly while Rob is out joylessly riding beneath a blazing full-moon.
The first lesson he learns about death is that normal is the world with the shape of that person in it, and when that shape is gone, the world does not suck itself back together. The matrix has realigned, the molecules have shifted. Gone changes the world from here on in amen.
At the funeral, bag pipes sob and wheeze, squeezing his heart like a tourniquet. A long procession of cars follow the hearse and limo. His father’s office was next to city hall. Great guy. Mr. pro bono who always had so much time for others. Rob is pissed as hell at him for dying.
Grief feels like flu. A low grade body ache and hot flush. He fluctuates between woeful outrage that this sad life, with its messed-up shape, is the new normal. And despair that he cannot fix it.
He remembers again and again, each time with fresh shame, how thoughtless he had been when his friend’s father died. They were fifteen. Didn’t he always have heart problems? Rob had asked, so cold-hearted. No, that’s my mother, his friend had said.
Though each day feels thirty six hours long, reptile-brain and being-body are complicit with passing time. The hole where the living popped out of the plasma begins to repair. Sometimes Rob views himself from a remove. Dissociative behavior, he knows the term from Psych. On the outside, he looks like any college dropout on the streets at ten a.m. Standing in line to order his egg on a roll and coffee. But on the inside, it’s like they’ve dammed the river and flooded the town and everything is drowning.
With some of the insurance money, his mother installs hardwood floors in her bedroom and replaces the refrigerator. These distractions help for a little while. But the house seems to exist in a low light amid a gloaming dusk, window shades at half-mast. Rob sometimes comes upon his mother staring out a window, back curved like a tear drop.
Trotting down stairs this evening he steps on each Aubussonrose,the way he did as a kid. They sit dead center on every step, carved into carpet lush as sod. His mother is in the family room, in darkness. There is cedar incense burning, a scent that reminds her of girlhood visits to Cape Cod. The glow of the TV washes her face. He’s pretty sure she never changes the channel. That the TV is a projection screen for memory slides. He wonders if she always see his father in a good light? Does she remember the day he threw the broken can opener off the back porch and almost hit one of the neighbor kids? Or does she only see him laughing, looking boyish with that GI hair cut he never abandoned after the war?
A twelve-wheeler goes through his heart. Rob feels tears rimming his eyes unexpectedly. Oh dad—he speaks to his father sotto voce—I’m so sorry you are not here.
“Hi sweetie.” His mother looks up, stops biting her lips. A diffident smile spreads over them. “New shirt?”
She has given him money from the estate and wants him to spend some on himself.
He nods. “Going for a ride.”
“Drive carefully.” The reply is automatic as her gaze drifts back to the TV.
He gets into the old station wagon, pumps the gas pedal because damn it Dad, this is the only way to start it no matter what you say... used to say.
He doesn’t really believe his father is watching or that his soul has moved on to an afterlife. He is not like his father—a soldier, a church man, a counselor. Rob can not imagine one fucking bloody belief he would be willing to defend with his life.
He drives toward the river. Is about a mile from the house, at the corner ofHudson and Orchard, when He lives!His soul shouts with a jubilant fire. It’s his old man. For a nanosecond. But no. It’s just a guy in his fifties wearing a Yankee cap. The mind is so dense. His father has been dead five weeks. Why hasn’t his brain caught on?
At the river landing, Rob parks. From his shirt pocket, he pulls out the last inch of a joint attached to a small alligator clip. Here’s to you dad, he lights up, my burnt offering. He thinks of his mother making her own, in front of the television, engulfed in a private communion of cedar smoke and shadows.
When the roach is ash, he gets out of the car, stuffs his keys and clip into his jeans’ pocket. A pickup truck arrives and a couple his parents age in an old MG. It’s prime time. The dropping sun paints big gaudy bars of watermelon light in the western sky.
On the outside, Rob’s just another college dropout, come to see the sunset. Any bloke, everyman. Moseying along. But inside, it’s raging howling dissonance, acid skies, the rise and fall of nations.
Two Namings published in The Fable Online
I’m that rare man who lives to see old age. And that rarer still who survives to hear songs sung about his deeds, although my beginnings are modest. I come from a line of tuckers, the men who blow tuckets on their horns to herald meals, although by the time my father inherited the post he was cooking the meals and the horn had been replaced by a bell. But the name remained and was shortened to Tuck. In the rhymes and songs of the greenwood I am a friar. And though it is true, like all cooks, I did bake, broil and fry, I was never a monk or a man of the church. I was just Tuck, one of Sir Robert’s many companions.
As the younger son I had no prospects in the kitchen, where there were already too many cooks for the lord’s small estates. So, soon after I turned seventeen, my father gave me the dozen pennies he had saved, and I set out from our home. Two days of walking took me to the harbor where I found a job as deck hand and cook on a big broad cog. Almost every inch of the ship was filled with the goods it carried, but for two days The Stout Ladystayed docked in the waters of Biscay, waiting for a load of plate to be shipped north.
Then one day a man appeared on the dock requesting to come aboard. “I’m Sir Robert.” The stranger spoke good French but with an accent I couldn’t place.
“Is that not a common English name?” the first mate called down, none too warmly.
“Sir or Robert?” said the stranger.
The first mate smirked.
“A wagon follows soon with the shipment of plate you’ve been awaiting from Limoges,” the stranger said. “And two large barrels of rum and one of ale.”
The first mate’s face grew suddenly friendly and he gave permission to board. This Sir Robert went into the forecastle to talk to the captain. Later, as I was helping to load the barrels of drink an older man, who appeared to be Sir Robert’s companion, boarded as well.
We set sail and that night Sir Robert slept on deck with the rest of us, but his companion stayed in the small aft castle, a hut that usually lodged animals. The first day out the rumors began. By the third the truth was out. The old man on board was the king of England.
The crew may have been rough and unschooled men, but they heard the news of the world in every port of call. Richard was infamous for loving neither France, where he ruled, nor England, where he had abdicated rule to his brother John. Throughout our journey the man with the heart of a lion spoke to no one on board. But when we docked he thanked us for our service to the crown. He told us that he was in the region suppressing a revolt by a certain viscount, and he offered an unnamed sum to any one of us willing to join him.
I cut my eyes toward the captain, expecting him to be furious with the king for trying to steal his crew. But he didn’t look worried, and he needn’t have, since the only volunteer Richard won was a young deck hand who had talked about nothing since he joined on but his desire for a noble calling such as the king offered. The rest of us stayed where we were. We were seamen, not soldiers. King Richard departed from us at the new moon of February. Not two months later he would die from a cross bow wound received in the siege he had urged us to join.
It took about six months before I got tired of the sea and yearned for plains and meadows, mountains and fields like the countryside which had shaped me. I took up a wanderer’s life, earning my way sowing and picking, drifting north until finally I reached the northern coast. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get back on a boat for a long time. But sooner or later there will be water in front of you and nothing to do but mount it. And I had heard that the growing season was longer in England.
I was bound for Cornwall, but the crossing was rough so I only went as far as Dover. Soon after I disembarked, I ran into Sir Robert in a tavern by the quay. At once I was struck by the change in him. His face had more lines than just the year should have etched, although he did look strong, lean and muscled. A new, raw slash scarred his neck. I greeted him respectfully and reminded him where we had met. He wasn’t welcoming, but he wasn’t cold either, simply offhand. Eventuallyeveryone comes back to me, his manner seemed to say.
He had lost everything during his crusading years, but he looked on life with rich regard, as a puzzling, rousing game that was somehow all part of God’s plan. In our cups one night, he explained how he saw the world as linked in ways he couldn’t fathom and felt he was bound to search for signs and portents that would help explain the joinery in the puzzles that beset us all. He was a deep-natured man, but straight forward too. Together we looked for work and were often hired as a pair; most of the jobs were unloading freight and didn’t pay much.
Sir was not proud, he would labor at anything, although he did not like the field. Until we met, he had been paying a penny a week to sleep in a cupboard. With our money pooled, we moved to a stall in one of the stables. It was ripe but dry and came with all the bedstraw we needed.
There are many songs about Sir Robert, me, his merry men and of course the lady Marian. In truth, her name was Viviane. Sir Robert met that fair maiden at a wedding. We hadn’t set out to attend a bridal feast, Sir Robert had simply awakened one morning in early June with the sudden urge to be off the docks and deep in the greenwood for St. John’s Day. He said his friend was lord of a great demesne in Somerset, where he’d spent many a glad some midsummer feast. He proposed we set out at once to pay a visit.
Until now Sir had, as I said, avoided field labors, but it was soon clear that was the only work we’d find. An early, sunny spring had followed a mild winter and everything was knee high. We took work as we travelled hoeing, weeding, cleaning up, and there was sometimes a hut to be built or a pen. Sir Robert was educated and could draft an engineer’s plan for almost anything. For a fortnight we worked our way through the country side. It was a beautiful green place of many merits with steep gorges, rolling meadows, and much small game for an easy meal.
Although Sir Robert pushed us along to arrive in time for the celebrations, he was uncertain exactly where our final destination lay. It had been twenty years since he’d been to his friend Guy’s.
One evening, after supping on the last of our wine and food, Sir Robert suggested that in the morning I head east and he due north, to double our efforts to find Sir Guy’s demense. At dawn we parted, pledging to meet up the next day here in this pasture by the egg-shaped pond when the sun was overhead.
Walking east all I reached was the sea where I wandered about for hours, exploring tide pools, filling my sack with shells. I was too drunk with the heat to head back inland so I slept that night on the beach. The sound of the water smacking against sand pulled me into a deep dream from which I didn’t awake until late morning. By the time I made it back to the egg-shaped pond, the sun had sunk well past midday. No doubt tired of waiting for me, Sir Robert had fallen asleep near a hay stile, his head pillowed on a folded cloak. Remembering the seashells, I pulled a few from the bottom of my sack and pelted him with them. It took three before he awoke.
“Tuck. Thank the sweet savior you’re here.” I could see he was in a fine mood.
“I had success in finding the home of my good friend Guy. We are arriving, it seems, at an auspicious time, for his son’s getting married today. We have found a haven for a week or so, but there are a few little ruts in the road before we can set our cart down.” He put his hand on my shoulder.
“I need you to be a priest.”
I knew his moods and I could tell he wasn’t joking.
“Our host has remarked, emphatically, that he does not believe me to be sufficiently pious.”
“Twenty years of crusades should hold some weight, but since they don’t, I told him my companion is a holy man. I was not specific, so a priest or a monk. Whichever you choose, I think a clerical hair cut will lend authenticity.” He picked up the robe he had been sleeping on, a plain homespun monk’s garment. Inside its folds was a shaving blade.
Now I understood he wanted me to cut a tonsure. I had just turned eighteen but was about to go bald. Once shaved and dressed in the colorless cloak, I began to feel clerical, until Sir Robert warned me to stop patting the top of my head.
We soon arrived at Guy’s house. Two high stories of timber and stone rambled off a large center hall in a muddle of rooms bursting with people. Despite the crowd, Sir Robert had found a place for us to sleep in the corner of a storeroom. I left my sack and bedroll there and we returned to the hall. It was decorated in garlands of greens and flowers with pitchers of wine everywhere. We weren’t seated at high table, but close to it considering we were two strange ruffians.
One of the men at our table explained to us Guy’s predicament. The priest who was to marry the bride and groom had taken a fall. A replacement was on the way here, he said, but no one knew when he’d turn up.
The woman beside him cut in. “Everyone will want to be going home in two days when midsummer ends. We have work to do, sir, work to do.”
Just as I was beginning to understand the real reason for Sir Robert’s making me into a monk, the host, Guy of Somerset, approached our table and confirmed it.
“Have you ever performed a wedding before?” he asked.
“No sir, I have not.” I sized him up. He was slender with limbs like a fleet hound.
“How difficult could it be?” Sir Robert beamed at us, delighting in his game.
“We can put the wedding off for a day or two in hopes the priest will arrive. But if he is not here when midsummer ends, you,” he pointed at me, “will offer the sacrament of matrimony for my son and his wife.”
That’s when I began to plan my escape. I would not stay here and risk performing an illegal marriage; men have been hung for less.
“Now, my friends, I know you’ll all get bad-tempered if we don’t bring out the cakes,” said sir Guy. People at our table laughed, but I didn’t know what it was about. I had never been to a wedding before.
The bride and groom entered soon afterward and joined Guy and his wife at high table. A bell rang. When the room had quieted, Guy told his guests of the marriage postponement, but that the feast would commence any way, quickly adding that the kissing cakes would now be served. A cheer went up.
“What’s a kissing cake?” I asked of no one in particular. A woman who had just joined our table, told me. “Cakes the size of the circle your hands make when you put your fingers together.” She demonstrated with her long, shapely fingers. She was good looking, the way all women are when they are young and slim as a barley stalk. “I’m Viviane, Guy’s niece.”
One of her finest features was her voice. It was mirthful, but not sardonic, just wondrous with an echo in it of soft bells. She had enchanted me already.
“I’m Tuck.” Then I remembered I was supposed to be a priest and my hand went without forethought to my bald head. “Friar Tuck.”
While we were speaking, I was aware of servants carrying in stacks of small cakes which they placed on the tables. Some were covered in jams and jellies, others with rose colored icings or sprinkled with sugar, fruit and small flowers made to be eaten.
After awhile, when all had partaken of their first fill of sweets and wine, the bridegroom and bride came forward to the center of the room. She was dressed in red with many colored ribbons tied all around her person. Taking one of these long ribbons from round her neck she wound it loosely around the groom.
“What is she doing now?” I asked.
Viviane, to whom I had slid closer when the man beside me got up, explained. “That ribbon is the first of many good luck bands that will be given away this night.”
The groom threw the ends, weighted with red and blue wooden rings, out to the guests. Several young men began scrambling for it. The one who came out on top held up the ribbon end. People cheered. The bride pulled the ribbon off herself, her groom gave it the youth, and then the music began.
“I would have thought you’d seen many weddings, father, performing your duties, and that these customs would not be strange. And yet, I do hear the sound of another shore in your English.”
I laughed, but didn’t tell. Then she was asked to dance one after the other, and I settled in to eat and drink and watch the revelries.
The merrymaking went on into the night. A drummer, a piper, and vielle player squeezed into a tiny gallery over the hall. They never seemed to tire. It was not until just before first light that the music finally stopped. With dancers parting, the bride walked carefully to the center of the floor on the arm of the not-so-steady groom. She looked a bit pickled too as she held out her arms.
“It means it’s time to pluck the remaining good luck from her.” Viviane had found me again, seeking me out to explain. I wondered why.
“Usually this is a custom reserved for the women.”
“Not this time.” I watched Sir Robert, who had pushed to the front of the crowd, dive for one.
“Those wide ribbons signify fertility.” She chuckled. “He’s a bit old for that.”
“It’s not fruitfulness he’s after,” I told her, “It’s winning.”
After a raucous scramble, Sir Robert held up the red band for me to see, his face alight with triumph.
“You’ve won it!” Guy shouted across the hall “Come, both of you, drink with me.”
Guy seated us beside him and when we all had wine, he raised a cup first to the bride and groom, then to King John who was also soon to marry.
“The girl’s thirteen years old I hear, a child,” remarked Robert a bit priggishly I thought.
“The new king may not welcome the criticism of his marriage from the liege of his dead brother.” Guy took the ribbon from his friend’s hand and wound it around his neck. “Have you thought of that, Sir Robert of Huntington?”
“I have not, Sir Guy. But why would King John care what I say?”
“Because you’re an agitator and a wit. Annoying traits. Now. Guard yourself, lie low, find another name.”
He pulled a ring from his hand. Took Robert’s pointer finger and slipped a thick silver ring with the head of a wolf carved on the signare. “My friends will become yours, and when they see this sign, they will know you as one of us.” Guy leaned toward Sir Robert and lowering his voice said, “We are watchful of the new king. Join us in our vigilance.” Then he raised his cup. “To Robin Wolf’ Head.”
Thus were two namings made that night. I was dubbed Friar Tuck and Sir Robert, Robin Wolf Head. I don’t know why or how it changed, but by the following Saint. John’s Day, it had become Robin Hood.
Soldier's Heart published in Tiferet Issue 13 2005
My day began with two “tender mercies of the Lord,” as our scripture calls those unexpected visitations of grace. First, the coyotes. They came along the shoreline at daybreak, when the sky was like the head on a blackberry ice-cream soda, sniffed around the gazebo in front of the big salt box house, then loped off toward the laurel thicket.
Coyotes roam over most of Cape Cod. I read about them at the local library, in the days before I caught a look at myself in the glass display case near Reference and knew I looked too reddened, too weathered. I’d seen that observation in the librarian’s eyes, too. Homeless. Except I’m not exactly; I’m a squatter. And like a junkie who thinks as long as he isn’t shooting up, he isn’t addicted, I think as long as I’m not living in a shelter, I’m not a homeless veteran. When I’m feeling bigheaded I can almost convince myself that I’m at least twice-removed from being a cliché because I’m squatting on a boat.
All up and down the tidal river the summer homes are closed for the winter, their moorings empty, their big boats put in dry-dock. I’ve seen them in the marinas near town, shrink-wrapped in sheets of white laminate. They lie cradled like hapless diapered babies made to come out of the water.
This place makes me want to weep with thanks that the world can contain such material abundance, and sorrow that it traps us, and distress that it is not mine. My life is anti-abundance, though not without blessings. First the coyotes, then an answered prayer, to communicate with God again. The form of that communication has come to me in the form[LH1]of a spiral notebook I found, where I can record my thoughts the way I used to. They had been like another form of worship for me, my daily journals, addressed, mostly, to the Lord.
The spiral notebook was in one of the boat lockers, all but unused, the first two pages filled with rows of big neat numbers printed with a purple crayon, like a kid had been keeping a game score.
If I don’t see my daughters soon, I’m going to cut out my heart with my Buck knife. Why is their mother keeping them from me for something I didn’t even do?
In April, when I first told my wife about the other woman, the one I did not have an affair with, but had intended to, she asked me to leave. I moved into a motel and visited the kids about three times a week. In June, she told me in a phone conversation that she was sending them to camp for eight weeks, and I wouldn’t be seeing them until September. Aren’t there visiting days? I asked. When she didn’t reply, I let it drop.
I had been laid off from my job about two weeks prior to that conversation. Unemployment checks had just begun. Since I couldn’t see my kids, and had no job, I figured, “Why not take the summer off?” So, I filled my military three-day pack and rolled up my sleeping bag—it’s good for up to ten degrees Fahrenheit. I’d brought it to the motel when my wife threw me out, because it sometimes helped to sleep in it when I had insomnia.
To start my adventure, I put the rest of my clothes in a box, got a bus to the post office—my wife had custody of our one car—and mailed the box home. Carrying just my pack and roll, I hitched a ride at the pancake house right down the street from the motel where I’d been staying. A guy was taking a load of seafood over the mountains in a big refrigerated trailer. It wasn’t until we came down on the other side that I realized I had been feeling cordoned-off by the mighty Cascades, these months in Seattle. When I reached Spokane, another trucker took me south. I didn’t know where I was going, but people kept asking, so I started saying Nebraska, because I thought it would be good to go back to my hometown. There were certain feelings I wanted to try to conjure about the place where I had lived for the first seventeen years of my life. I hadn’t been back since my mother’s funeral, ten years before.
Except for some elderly people in my family’s old neighborhood, I didn’t see anyone I knew during my stopover in Nebraska. My father had died five years before my mom. God rest his soul, he used to beat the crud out of my brother and me, and we honestly seldom knew why. At least he never tried to have sex with us. Some of the things I’ve heard from guys in the service do not bear repeating.
My father worked the graveyard shift at the sugar beet cracking[LH2]plant. We could see it from our house. All lit up at night, it had a strange beauty, like a Martian castle. His chosen deity was football, and his hobby was fishing. My mother’s deity was God, and her hobby was keeping the faith. While the Mormon faith never took with my brother, she said it was like I was born believing.
The real desire that had pushed me to Nebraska was the requirement to feel rooted, because the woman who had put a bad patch on my marriage had accused all Americans, and therefore me, of being “rootless trees.”
“I don’t understand. How can you leave your ancestors’ burial ground behind?” She said it with incredulity, not criticism. “You allow strangers to tend your parents and grandparents’ graves?” It clearly stunned her.
In my mind, I wanted to show her that I wasn’t a rootless tree. When I went to the graveyard, I found it had been built up since mom’s funeral, and I couldn’t find my parents’ plot, so the woman proved herself correct—I am a rootless tree.
I’ve lost count of all the rides I got between the west coast and the east coast, but I know that four of the people who picked me up, including the last one who took me to Cape Cod, had a dog in their vehicle. The last one was an old Lab, lying on her side across the back seat, gray muzzle snagged back in a toothy smirk. Flashes of my own dog struck through my head like swords.
“You a soldier?” The guy asked as I got into the car. “I saw your pack.” He looked down at the stuff at my feet.
My pack was tan, brown, and black—the camouflage colors of a desert war. I had been hitchhiking on a feeder road, where people could slide past slowly and check me out before they got on the highway.
“My ex-wife was military,” the driver said as we got under way. “So I notice these things.”
He looked to be in his mid-forties, a Boston realtor, he said, who sometimes got listings on Cape Cod, where I was heading because I’d seen it on a map and the name appealed to me. The guy talked about the real estate market, the population ebb and flow, the ratio of year-round residents to seasonal. I listened, and began thinking about all those empty houses, and wondered if I could borrow one for a little while.
“You interested in boats?” the driver asked, as we went over a bridge that separated Cape Cod from the mainland. Down below, an empty oil barge chugged ahead of a blue tugboat.
“I don’t know much about boats,” I told the driver. The first real boat I’d ever been on, aside from rowboats and once a canoe, was on a harbor cruise in Seattle. That old girl was a big, double-decker with a hundred-plus people on board, and very large engines. My kids had a ball. Afterward, we strolled around the marina. My youngest was just learning how to read, and she sounded out the names painted on the sterns of the sailboats and motorboats that filled most of the slips. She and her sister found many of the names hilarious, though some of them were wordplay that they couldn’t possibly have understood. That was one of the happiest days I had since coming home from the Balkans.
“My ex lives on a boat, down in Florida,” the driver said. “She was in the Navy. Couldn’t get used to living on land after she retired.”
I hadn’t been paying good attention until then. That’s when I got the dazzling idea that instead of squatting in an empty vacation house, maybe I could live on a boat.
Since the realtor thought I was a soldier, he drove me to the military reservation and I didn’t bother to correct him. He dropped me on a road near the back entrance, out of the sight line of the sentries. I barely had time to get my bearings when a kid stopped and asked me where I was headed. I told him the beach. After a few miles he left me at something called a rotary, which was a small, grassy traffic circle where two routes and two roads intersected. He said to bear east to reach the water.
The area was suburban and, luckily, became almost rural when I got off the main road and headed for the cover of woods. Since I was looking to squat on a boat, seeing a street sign that said “Little River Boat Ramp” seemed ordained, and I turned down its entrance. The paved road went for about a half mile, then sloped sharply into the waters of a narrow tidal river. On both banks were large white houses with long sweeping lawns. And at the end of each lawn was a dock, and every dock was empty. There wasn’t an anchored boat in sight. Not even a canoe lay in the dead winter weeds. Unfortunately, in my ignorance of the sea, I had not imagined dry dock, so my idea of living on a boat seemed busted.
I walked around the edge of the tidal river to where the river emptied into a marsh. I slogged through the marsh and came to a place hidden by cattails and milkweed, and there was a boat, half aground, tied to a short narrow dock by a few lines, the boat’s stern riding in about a foot of water.
I have earned both medal and metal, although that does not make me the hero of my life. I was wounded in our desert conflict in the early nineties, while leading a small scouting mission of armored vehicles. We came under fire, and my driver spooked and accelerated hard. All of a sudden the ground beneath us dropped away. I was in command, standing aft in the Bradley as it soared through the air. I flew up, like a cork on a Champagne bottle, into the steel ceiling, and came down hard when the vehicle landed on all fours in the deep packed sand. I ended up with metal pins in the back of my neck, and a medal for my chest, which no soldier ever cares about. After two surgeries, the docs recommended medical discharge. I came home feeling like I had lost my lodestar.
I probably shouldn’t have gone to the Balkans so soon after the medical discharge. I took a position with an independent contractor who had been hired by the Bosnian government, after their war, to train the new military. The salary was three times my military pay. I taught at the simulation center, guiding tactical war games with software programs and multimedia aids. I was back in my element.
I soon found out that the recruits I had been employed to teach were not your average, green enlisted men and women. These were former students, engineers, shopkeepers—people who had just fought for their lives, and their country, street by street. During the war, they had become the tactical commanders of their neighborhood brigades; and every one of them had stories.
I heard about the sixteen-year-old girl who successfully took away an RPG from the Serbs on her first raid. But when she fired it, the force blew her apart. There were lighter accounts too, like the man who had collected a fleet of tanks, all stolen, one by one, from the enemy. I tried to capture all these stories on tape. I talked and talked to these courageous people, both in the Sim center, and in the cafes, drinking endless cokes to their coffees and wine. I even learned to take a cigarette once in awhile, because people were always offering them, and it felt kinder to take the thing and not smoke it, just light it, and play with it in the ash tray.
Despite the aftereffects of the war, Sarajevo was still beautiful. Roses bloomed everywhere. I had been preparing for the Balkans since I was a freshman in high school, and had first become besotted with their passionate, fractured history. I had built a romance around the place for years, yet finally being there surpassed my every fantasy.
Sometimes, in my dreams these days, people are speaking in Bosnian, and I understand. But when I’m awake, I can’t remember the words, and can’t translate them if I do. It spooks me because I studied the language back in college. That was quite a while ago, but between that, and all I picked up over there, I should remember more.
After I came home from Bosnia, my moods swung like a pregnant woman. I eventually went to a shrink at the VA, and he said it was PTSD, Soldier’s Heart they called it back in the Civil War.
“But I’ve been home from the Gulf for two years,” I told the doctor. He said it didn’t matter, that going to Bosnia so soon after the Gulf had temporarily cauterized my emotional wounds, and now the trauma would emerge, full-blown. When I asked if the cause of my moods swings could be from PB, the antidote to nerve gas that the military had given us, he said no, but what else could he say, and really, did it matter? You take the antidote or you die from poison gas.
Back from Bosnia, I got a job as a project manager at one of the big health insurance companies in Seattle, with a one-hundred-and-twenty-mile-a-day commute. It was a consultant job, which just means temp. I had claustrophobia every morning, trying to adjust to being in a cubicle. I was bored and underutilized at work and spent most of the day obsessing over the battle stories people had told me in Bosnia. I tried to write them down, but couldn’t focus. I finally recorded them on a cheap little boom box my wife bought for me, back when she was still sympathetic to the PTSD, even though I had never tried to explain it to her.
I had always felt that it was part of being a soldier, bearing the burdens, the memories. I would never tell her how every explosion, every death, every near miss, wounds your psyche with a dull pain that never truly knows cessation. Like a fire underground in a mine, it burns through you, glowing coals that supply no warmth. It damages you, and it makes you hard with a sorrowful judiciousness. An appalling knowledge of your own accepted parameters for brutality.
I accidentally told my wife about the other woman, because I cracked up a little bit after I shot my dog. I had to put down my beloved spaniel after some guy in a utility van, turning around at our dead-end, hit her as she dashed from under the juniper to chase his truck—a habit I had never been able to break her of. The driver didn’t feel a thing. Took off, unaware of what he had done.
I watched it from the living room window. Saw her fly up, come down with a terrible thud, twirl on her side in a circle, unable to rise, her paws throwing up gravel, as she fought to raise her smashed haunches. I ran to her, knelt and stroked her spotted muzzle, told her in a soft voice what a good girl she was. Her eyes flashed back and forth, like the pendulum on a clock; clearly she had spinal injuries. I asked my wife to stay with the dog while I got the thirty ought six. Thank God the kids had already left for school and that we had no nearby neighbors.
It was like my dog understood. I could read it in the sorrowful tremble of her amber-colored eyes. I shot her right in the side of the head. But the poor creature jerked, and it took a second bullet. I can still hear her plaintiff, startled yelp.
It was the end of a little bit of me, shooting my dog, firing that rifle. I hadn’t even been hunting since I came back from Bosnia, having lost the stomach for guns and death.
I have grown to love this river marsh where I now live. At high tide, silver waters flood the blades of winter grass; but there is no ferocity to this flood. It’s like a deep, calm bath. Instead of marsh, the words “water meadow” seem amore gently fitting description.
Evergreens and birches rim the marsh and all but hide the boat where I live. There is no one around, except an occasional fisherman or some guys in the trades making another improvement to one of the empty manor homes. Still, I’m cautious. I don’t approach the boat from the front drive of the house. I come around the edge of the marsh. Although there are patches of thin ice on the pond, it has not frozen. I’m guessing the tide and currents fight the freezing molecules. I didn’t have time to investigate this topic before my self-exile from the library, but I did learn about my boat. The top level is a tuna tower. It’s been smashed by a hunk of a tree that was hit by lightning. About three feet in circumference, the piece of split tree crashed through the tuna tower and the drive area below.
The boat has a good-sized stateroom, and the lockers are full of blankets and linens. Unfortunately, the shower and kitchen appliances—even the toilet—cannot be used. They run on electricity, and the engine and generator have been removed from the boat. But there is a triple-burner propane cook-stove in the galley that throws off decent heat, and a battery-run lantern. So, I ration the light and heat, and with the carpeting and blankets, it’s pretty snug in here.
In a place hidden by laurel bushes, I dug a latrine with a shovel I found in the garage. The windows were unlocked, so it was an easy snag. I dug the latrine well beyond the fifteen-meter regulation from the water table. Altogether, the accommodations aren’t bad. Of course, I don’t tell my wife I’m squatting. When I call, and she asks me where I’m staying, I tell her with service buddies or at a Y.
The boat has a medicine chest and a large emergency kit, but the aspirin bottles in both places were almost empty when I came aboard. There is only one aspirin left, and I forgot to get some today when I withdrew what I allow myself from the VA deposit.
My family is fine financially, and my wife doesn’t even need my check, because she has the store her parents left her. But I told her to put all my checks in the girls’ college fund, so I just take out a little each week. I had to take more than my usual thirty bucks this time because I needed propane.
It was tough getting the full propane tank back here. I ended up hitching a lift with some guy in a van who said he worked for a flooring company. I said that I was helping someone doing odd jobs in the area. I don’t know why I opened my mouth and volunteered that lie. I forgot that this was a small town where everybody probably knew each other. He asked me the guy’s name. Tony something, I said. Later, as he was pulling over to drop me off, a cop car came by, lights flashing, going in the other direction. Then another cruiser flew past. I felt the leap of guilty aggravation that authority stirs in my vitals.
“That’s a lot of police,” I remarked. “Something big must be going on.”
“Nah. Doesn’t have to be big,” the guy said. “The cops in this town just like to swarm.”
As soon as his car was out of sight, I headed for the cover of woods.
When I first came here, I was on the watch for folks day and night, but I’ve discovered that this place is a vacant planet in winter. I don’t know why I’ve stayed here so long. I don’t want to live anywhere but Seattle with all my girls.
I talk to my daughters once a week. My wife said calling more often upsets them. Sometimes, she doesn’t even come on, if she’s busy with a customer. I call them at the store where they go after school, to do their homework until my wife closes. My eldest is eight. She wants to know if I’m going to the desert again. Will I bring her a camouflage shirt? My other daughter is six. The last time we spoke, she asked if I’d be home for Christmas, and when I didn’t answer quickly, she began to cry. My wife took the phone and gave me hell for upsetting my daughter. Then she told me the bishop from our ward had been to the house again and asked when I was going to stop traveling and come back home. He suggested it was my wife’s fault that I had run off, implied she hadn’t been meeting my needs.
My wife and I got married when we were barely twenty. We had been together two years. Both virgins. I’m sure she wanted a big church wedding, but I couldn’t wait. I had reached the point where I had to have sex. I swore to her that someday we would have a lavish reception, renew our vows at our twentieth anniversary, or something like that.
I have always been true to my wife, although I lusted after others and struggled against it. The woman in Bosnia, with whom I did not have sex, just took the breath right out of me. She had a heart-shaped face, like a lot of people in her country, and arched, teasing eyebrows. A wit that stopped just short of cutting, and then turned provocative. She was a soldier, so she wore the uniform trousers: dark pants that showed off her big heart-shaped ass. Man, I loved when she took her jacket off and I could see it. I’ve always been a legs and ass man, and I wanted her badly. And I was so lonely for my wife, for human touch.
But I never did make love to my hourglass-shaped soldier. And still my wife can’t forgive me, because I made the mistake of telling her that I wanted the other woman. I told her the whole story, how the woman and I had made plans for me to come to her place in the suburbs of Sarajevo. How an unexpected security curfew locked down the city, and kept me from meeting her as we had planned. So God intervened for me in the end. I had considered it a close call, realized that the woman could have gotten pregnant. I could have lost my wife and kids.
My wife said she hadn’t been to chapel since the bishop came to the house. She didn’t even know if she believed anymore. I told her I still believed, but I didn’t tell her that I’d lost the desire to engage with God.
My religion forbids alcohol, coffee, adult movies, tobacco, drugs, and sex out of wedlock. The prophet said we should keep ourselves apart. My scripture assures me that, if I live a righteous life within the fold, when I die I will attain a new and luminous body, and I will make great pleasure with many women. In this, it resembles another polygamous, prophet-guided religion that believes the afterlife will be a sexual harvest.
I have a number-seven-out-of-ten headache tonight. That means it will take seven aspirin to get it under control. Sometimes, my thoughts feel as if they don’t reside in my head, but in my heart. And my heart is a hamster running in a wheel, inside a cage, trying to invent perpetual motion.
This confused me, to a scary degree.
“I wasn’t home last Christmas?” I sputtered. “Was I in Bosnia last year?”
“No. That was the year before. Last year you were ’traveling,’ like you are now.”
“Of course I was.” I spoke loudly to try to hide the terror in my voice, but she knew me too well.
“Just come home,” she said.
My chest unzipped. My heart began to glow like a campfire.
“That’s the first time you’ve said that,” I told her.
“Nope. Not true. I’ve told you to come home lots of times. Don’t you remember?”
“No,” I confessed. “I think I lost a year.”
“Come home and help me lose some pounds before the Christmas concert. Just come home.”
“Am I dreaming?”