This and that cascading the pages, the wish I was/wish I– ages the face and wearies the bones, all the stones in the head, the bread and water in bed. Subtle tyranny is what you bought into when you fell into those roily thoughts, the oily haves and burnished have-naughts. Rehearsing your elegy should grant you some clemency, but you were younger then, offended less easy, and much more yes-pleasing. Sentimental has its place, but it traces too many lines on your page-blurred face.
This hunger, see, this unquiet curiosity, this morbid fascination with restlessness, forgetfulness, disjointedness. You see it between the words, the bridges across the vowels, the howls of discontent. You’re primed, you’re pumped until something comes up that matters less; so confess, you’re not interested in the news cycle, you hike those miles in broken boots, and why? Your choice to fall asleep to your own voice, without a hint of wonder, well brother, don’t knuckle under, carry that weight, you brought it on yourself.
Voluptuous, quickening, taunting, a voice a thousand days old and calling, the full depth of my skin, your haunting begins, your cold gutting hands leave me wanting.
Nothing had changed, not in thirty-five years. The linoleum was still the same curling horror, perpetually grubby, crumbs in the corners, coffee stains, grease stains, torn, doctored with masking tape. The counter top was semi-clean, wiped down with a dry cloth, but there were cups in the sink, his cups, four of them, a coffee diary. Someone should have picked up a broom, washed the cups, replaced the light bulb over the sink, maybe spritzed some Febreze on the curtains and chairs. Or was this a Timeless Memory? Leave it as is, a final snapshot for the family album.
The four of them, sitting at the kitchen table, a deck of cards sprawled in the center, a can of Diet Pepsi, bottle of Michelob Light, styrofoam cup of green tea, a glass of watered-down Knob Creek. That told you something about them, the differences, the wet appetites. Only one ashtray, and that was for Brenda, still smoking after all these years. Donny had a vape in his shirt pocket, but he wasn’t brave enough to bring it out, afraid they’d make fun of him. The kid in the family, always hungry for reinforcement, and if he wanted to be a middle-aged hipster, well good for him. Kevin, the don’t-give-a-shit bro, shirt sleeves rolled up, patchy beard, carpenter hands. They all looked up to him growing up: daredevil, knuckle-cruncher, belligerent poet. Looking at him, you’d never know he had a degree in sociology, his skin had that sheen of 10W-30. Brenda, the baby-doll, always too old for her skin, raspy voice and big blue-gray eyes that allotted her three ex-husbands and a paid-for bungalow. Timothy, the eldest, the disappointment, a man of diminishing returns. He ran a car wash on Route 77. He was the guy you called when the change dispenser was busted. He still wore a skinny tie, and subscribed to The Wall Street Journal. A boorish drunk once you pried him loose.
But they were blood.
“It’s a stupid little game,” said Kevin. “We should be doing something else. I just want this to be done.”
“It’s meditative,” said Brenda. She scooped up the cards and arranged them in her hands, not quite a shuffle. “There’s enough to think about. A distraction from the main event.”
“Hell of a thing to call it,” said Timothy. “How many do you think will show up?”
“Four,” said Donny. “At least four.” He fiddled with the vape in his pocket.
“Duh,” said Kevin. “The term is captive audience. We have to be there. I don’t see the point of coming back. To this place.”
“The scene of the crime,” said Brenda, who then surprised them all by giggling. They got that it was a reflex. She hated this place more than the others. Good reason, if the stories were true.
“Filthy little shack,” said Timothy. “We should tear it down and pour salt over the wound. Maybe sell it. Get it upgraded to a slum.”
“That’s harsh,” said Donny. “Brenda, you going to shuffle those cards or what?”
“Poker,” said Kevin. “Texas holdem. Break open your purses, girls. Crazy eights is, like, the lamest. Is this a fucking sleep-over? Put on some Shaun Cassidy and let’s rock out in our jammies.”
“You’re a jerk,” said Timothy.
“I know. But what are you gonna do?”
“I remember… thinking that was a dream. Or a punishment.” Donny took a sip from his styrofoam cup, the tea now cold. “I kept thinking it would get better. I’d wake up and it’d all be different. But even as a kid, I knew that was wrong. No dream. Things got better after high school, but that was a long stretch for a kid to keep hoping, knowing it would be twenty years down the road before, you know, a clean break.”
“It was never clean,” said Brenda. She giggled again. “At least we escaped. Finally. And we made it to today.”
Timothy raised his glass. “To today.”
“Today,” said Donny. “The day we finally get to bury him.” He took out his vape, shrugged, and fired it up.
“Today,” said Brenda, and she passed the cards around the table.
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There was a loud crack of thunder nearby. It was very loud. I looked to the sky, and it was transparent blue; if you could see beyond it, you could see all the stars. I turned to Jeremiah, and he was
falling to the ground, his belly red and wet. It wasn’t thunder at all, but a gun shot.
He reached for his tobacco pouch. “I wish you wouldn’t do that when you’re driving,” I said. “You get it all over yourself and make a mess of your shirt.”
“I’ll be more careful,” he said, and he frowned.
I will never get all that blood out of his shirt, I thought. It was an odd thought, removed from everything, a wandering flea in my head.
“Gunth kept an old bentwood rocker on his porch,” he said. “Maybe it’s still there.”
The road was flat, shimmering heat rising already. It would be a hot day, and I was glad for the big shade tree in our yard.
A common sound, except when it is unexpected. A common sound, except when it tears a hole in your husband’s belly. A common sound, except when your legs are stone; no, not just legs, but everything. I was stone eroding from inside. Everything I knew was a single ruined thought. Too shocked to speak, or scream, or beg time to step back for a moment, to contemplate what had been done. And Jeremiah stood still for a moment, for the rest of his lifetime, his hands cradling his damaged stomach. His eyes saw nothing but whatever thoughts were left behind them. And then he fell. Collapsed in the dust, and the dust chuffed up and surrounded him, unconcerned.
And there was another shot. My legs were stone. I understood.
Excerpt from A Very Tall Summer. Available from Amazon:
We had about 45 minutes of sunshine this morning… one of the few times this year we haven’t been smothered in fog. It was nice while it lasted.
For a limited time only, Ordinary Handsome is free if you purchase A Very Tall Summer. That’s two Handsome books for the price of one! Tell them what they’ve won, Johnny!
“That’s right, for a limited time, Ordinary Handsome is free if you purchase A Very Tall Summer. Both have shiny covers and words inside! And did I mention the covers? Yes! They’re shiny! And, um, different colors!”
“That the best you can do?”
“Gimme a break. You told me there’d be pie. And you call this coffee? You wake me up at 5 in the morning for this? And the covers aren’t so shiny. And you’re out of Splenda. What kind of monkey house are you run–”
That’s right! Two for the price of one!
“And this coffee was imported from Saskatoon. Is that even legal? And another thing, where are my shoes?”
Limited time only.