Pentimento

He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, the vigorous dialect of entrails, the still-wet scribbles collected around the jacaranda tree trunk. He takes a rake to the mess, gathers bones in a small paper sack, folds dirt over the killing ground. This has become his morning ritual, and he has not yet told his children about the deeds of their second-favorite pet.

All six sisters sit staunchly upright on an iron bench in front of Ay’s Grocery, waiting for the milk wagon. Some days the girls seem smaller as the early morning fog captures them wearing identical linen dresses.

“That’s alright, Papa,” said Mira, the oldest. “The birds are just waiting for us to die, anyway.”

To each child, a gift is given. The cruelty may be that it may not be discovered, so a father cannot nourish it, thinking it absent. Mira was twelve. He was forty-two and a half, if his birth certificate was correct. It was possible it was not.

“They are all sadness, these blessings,” said Cora, the fourth girl; that something so important could be so simply said.

His girls spoke things that felt substantial. He did not train them to do this. Their mother taught them quietly and privately, so they could save him from his grief.

He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, but he still cannot quite read the language of his daughters. They already know he hides the birds’ remains from them, and yet still choose to buy fresh milk each morning for their second-favorite pet.

He sits upright against the jacaranda tree trunk and lays his hand upon the wounded dirt. He waits for them to emerge, one girl at a time, from the morning fog.

Where we go dancing

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Me and Fo’ were well-digging since 6:30 that morning — same as every day since the middle of August — at Missus Bryant’s place near the edge of the Tallahatchie, and we looked exactly as what we claimed: gritty all the way under our hats and teeth. Miss Francine, Fo’s older cousin from Chicago, said she was curious about where folks went to dance in Dollar, and he told her, “in our kitchens, mostly. But sometimes in the grass when the night is particularly dark and clear. We take turns at the radio dial — we hope for some Dinah Washington, but maybe come across Buster Benton, or turn it up REAL loud when we finally find Little Richard (if we can find a station that plays him) — and when we’re not dancing, or listening, we watch for stray headlights that might be bringing bottles of Something Special to folks who carry more than just cherry Lifesavers and carpenter’s pencils in their pockets.” And that was the most expansive speech I ever heard Fo’ give, but I was aware that he wanted to impress Miss Francine, and was a little bit infatuated with her besides. He grunted at me when I asked him to explain how anyone he knew would bother with a carpenter pencil when it would be just as efficient to mark a measurement with a sharp stone. Miss Francine turned to me and she smiled her most famous big city smile and she asked me, “Do you dance, Bennett, and not just with scarecrows, but with real girls? I don’t expect you to know how to dance with a woman, so don’t you dare be nervous if you have to say no.” And I said, “Miss Francine, I can dance the ears off a row of corn when I have a mind to. Why, that corn becomes ashamed of itself and wishes it could be half as worthy as old dry cabbage or a leaf of backfield tobacco than have to endure another minute of the spectaculation of my feet.” Fo’ made a sound like the backfire from his uncle Joby’s Massey-Harris. “It’s Friday night, Bennett,” she said. “I suppose a boy like you knows where to find a hot spot to dance, other than a nearby cornfield. Or with an ear of corn.” I blushed. I did not know any dancing place nearby, but I told her: “Yes, ma’am, I do,” and Fo’ leaned over and jabbed a skinny knuckle just below my rib cage. “Boy,” he said, “you don’t even know where to find a working radio in your Mama’s house.” I meant to swat him, but he side-stepped me and I almost fell into the hood of Miss Francine’s Chevrolet, which would have had a ruinous effect after my dance story. “Steady there, corn boy,” Fo’ whispered. “There is a cotton gin barn in Glendora,” I said to Miss Francine, and Fo’ raised his eyebrows. “I heard that they sometimes hold dances there for young people. They keep ice buckets of Coca-Cola and sell them for two cents a bottle and they run a generator for a jukebox.” This was not entirely untrue, because both Fo’ and I heard the story from my sister’s boyfriend Henry, who was only unreliable half the time. We were also told that it was a place for older boys, nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, and that we should stay away from there unless we wanted  to trade our curiosity for a beating. Fo’ was fifteen and I was almost fourteen (but looked older). And Miss Francine was a grownup woman with a car, so I didn’t think it was necessarily a stupid idea. “That’s a stupid idea, Bennett,” Fo’ said, and Miss Francine only shrugged, and that was the end of that. So we spent most of that night behind Fo’s grandma’s house, drinking lemonade and ice water, and the place stood out for me like a sandcastle under a three-quart moon, fading in and out, washing away and retreating under all kinds of wavering shadows. We heard  cries in that still night, or what I thought were cries , and some screams, though I imagined and dreamed of all kinds of things in the days that followed. We heard about the boy the next day. Miss Francine’s brother RickyLee  drove her back home to Chicago soon after. We shook hands and said goodbye, and I could see the relief in her eyes that she’d never have to come back here. I wanted to go with her, and not just because I liked her (I did), but because I wanted to be far away from everything here that was so broken and mean. 

They found that boy’s body, the boy they called Bobo, and what was done to him, I can’t describe, and I won’t. It made me give up on learning how to be a boy. All at once, the idea of being foolish for the sake of being foolish seemed so badly foolish, and I ran from it fast. Me and Fo’, we stopped being boys right away. We gave up on digging wells for thirty-cents a day for Miss Bryant and her ilk, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of men we wanted be. Some days it still matters, I guess. I asked Fo’ years later what his grandma thought about us staying in her backyard that night. “Don’t think she stitched the two things together,” he said. “ But she was always kind about you, in spite of you sometimes being a world-class fool. ‘You boys act properly around Miss Francine? Ricky’s girl?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said. ‘We amused her plenty. She’s a nice girl and we were very respectful.’ Granny nodded, like that was what she expected. Then she rubbed her eyes, like she was suddenly weighed down by a lifetime of tiredness. ‘Nice is good, Fo’, she said. ‘Being reliable is good. But taking care of one another… making each other feel safe in the other’s company. That is especially good. And you are good, Fo’ You are especially good.’ And then she told me an old story about a dance contest she entered when she was a girl. I heard the story a hundred times before, but this time it gave me shivers, Bennett. You know? It still does. We could have gone dancing at the wrong place that night.” 

That was the only time we ever cried together, and it rained down hard out of our eyes.

The middle of a very rainy afternoon

We heard the baritone command of the rain 
— it was a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.
We clouded together under the canopy
of a delicatessen and waited for the pastrami
to invite us inside, but it was typically mute
(as pastrami will be), and so we waited.

We had no umbrella,
and my suit was freshly laundered
and Dee’s hairstylist was profoundly anti-weather,
so we watched the sky and the gray passers-by,
and waited for a change:
perhaps a burr of sunlight,
or a morsel of blue above the Grand Theatre 
or William’s Mercantile?
But none availed itself to us.

My wristwatch was impatient,
for I had an appointment to somewhere,
and Dee was terribly afraid of catching
pneumonia or heart-faintness,
and the Delicatessen was about to close.
We would be stranded! in the middle of the city,
perhaps savaged by the wageless poor
that roamed the alleys behind the
dry-cleaning establishment.

The music of the rain no longer entertained us,
and our bones shuddered in the dampness.
Dee’s glasses were misted by her anxious tears,
and I longed for a cup of Earl Grey, strongly brewed,
and in a civilized setting. 
I sighted a taxi-cab passing by,
Off Duty, it suggested, and I waved,
and the attendant waved his finger back at me
— a charming fellow — but he still drove away.

And now here we wait, Dee and I,
impervious to this foul weather:
more resilient than most, and braver than many.
The afternoon has fallen upon us in a very hard way,
but my suit is still unassailable
and Dee’s curls still hold most successfully.

We will wait until our moral victory is assured
should the rain ever stop for a moment or two
or until the umbrella shop next door
re-opens its doors to us before
close of business today.
Still we hear the baritone command of the rain 
— it is a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.

The man on the other side of the door

This is a place of unremarkable geometry, of hand hewn beams and reclaimed cabinets, of cotton curtains and poplin tablecloths.There are stout lines built around her silly feminine froth. You might savvy her girlish moods: the bright New Orleans yellow in the hallway, or maybe the baby doll figurines on the bookcase. But don’t forget, this is my home, and it is a place of unremarkable cruelties. 

There are stains in my study that look like ketchup, but are not. There are sudden movements that turn on all the security lights.There is a smell that is barely masked by the nine dollar dirt that feeds her windowsill herbs.

I’ve heard all these sounds before, but this one is closer, and I know why. There is a man on the other side of the door, limping, wet from the chase. He beats on the glass with the heel of his hand. I turn on the porch light because I know. I’ve been expecting him for twenty years, back from a time when my life was fraying. He took the left road and I took the right. I don’t want to see him now — for us to see each other, really — but his t-shirt is torn from armpit to belly, and I swore to him. He is older now, of course he is, but his eyes still show his fury, and mine have turned soft and careless. 

Richard,” was the only word he had to say, and I knew it was time.

Chicken scratch

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It’s the same, every night. I reach for the dream, and I’m grabby-fingered, grievous.

The dream– no, she — is my beautiful. The woman, alone, in front of a barn, tossing scratch to the chickens. She wears a faded bluey sundress, and it is judiciously short, judicious sassy, cut just above the knees, threadbare and very old. It is 1960’s Flower-Power aphrodisia. She doesn’t care. She loves who she is, and I’m a bystander. I see her from profile: the tilt of her hips, the slow current of her arms, the equid arch of neck. Her hair is long, and it flows like a fire beside a curved river. This is her, and this is her’s.

The light captures every grain of the chicken scratch, effervescent dust, as it drifts to the dirt. Even in dreams, everything is bound by gravity. The sun falls below the hills, bloody and huge, and she is cast in it, a form too pure to be possessed. Her dress becomes invisible and she is a body radiant.

She turns to me and turns from me, and I understand. And I grieve.

Chandeliers

I dreamed of that ballroom we saw in that movie, you know the one, with the old-timey music that flooded the air, Glenn Miller I think, or maybe Jimmy Dorsey, and those tiny tables that could only fit napkins and two martini glasses (at least our TV trays can fit a Hungry Man Dinner and a biscuit). The couples danced in rhythmic seizures, the war was over or maybe not begun, bright colors and balloons, sweaty but not in a smelly way, and everyone was crazy alive, and they looked like Blondie and Dagwood. Yeah, I dreamed we were dancing, really moving, and we danced the Charleston, hands and grins all over the place, and people watched and they envied our sway, and I looked up and saw elegant chandeliers, and I remember you said we should get one of those for the cabin, and I promised you I would look. And now it’s 4 a.m., I’m online, and honey, I don’t think it would fit in the living room. But I did find a nice set of candles and a Big Band CD collection, and we can dance like stink in the backyard if we want, and maybe drink wine coolers from our much bigger TV trays.

Him

Death is one contentious motherfucker. His name carries your weight and it should be enough. Still, you cannot rise. Dying would be like bathing in someone else’s skin. A hello, a goodbye, a perfect eyelash on your cheek. He lifts his hand and you are parched.

His face

I don’t remember his face. It should be easy, being married for almost 45 years. When we were younger, he was a good looking man; good enough for this stray-dog town. He teased me that he had a string of women hanging from his suit pocket. I guess I never cared for that. He was never that good looking. But he could tell a joke, and he could take one, so I expect I should too.

I don’t remember his face. I recall certain features of it. The arch of his mouth when he smiled. His nose, twice broken, from when he worked over at the granary. His ears, the way they peaked out from behind that mop of hair. I swear, you’d never know he was leaning into his seventies. It was always so bushy, no matter how much he wet it back. He was vain about his hair, but never mind. Everyone has a vanity, and that was his.

I don’t remember his face. I remember his eyes, that solemn shade of green. Something sad about that color, melancholy, though I couldn’t tell you why. That particular green, like summer ready to turn. I can still see him working the garden, harvesting the last of the tomatoes, wearing that damned floppy straw hat of his. He knew – we both knew – he looked ridiculous, but that was our private joke. And when he turned around to face me, those eyes always caught me off guard. “Golly, Mary, you startled me,” he’d say, no matter how loud I approached. And we would laugh.

I don’t remember his face. I recall the scar on his chin, and the wrinkles on his forehead when he worried about things he wouldn’t confess. And oh, how his cheeks felt, so soft and whiskery as my hands tried to smooth them.

I don’t remember his face, but I remember his hands around my throat. The strength of his fingers. Choking and choking until I could taste the darkness in my throat.

I don’t remember his face, but I will. And when he says, “Golly, Mary, you startled me,” he’ll mean it. And I will laugh alone.

***

Note: Just a simple flash fiction piece I thought up on my way home from work tonight. My wife and I been watching episodes of the original Twilight Zone every weekend since Christmas, so I suppose there’s a bit of influence there. Or maybe it’s just me.  This was fun to write — grim, of course — but fun. 🙂

Aim and velocity

You and me, we threw stones at each other. We always have, right? We put enough space between us so we didn’t hurt each other too bad, but, you know, we’ve both developed a pretty good aim. And velocity.

We started, what, when we were kids? Christ, I don’t remember how old we were. Ten? Thirteen? That sounds too old, but ‘kids’ is such a damned dense demographic. You remember that one kid, what was his name, Toby Adamson? Guy with the blunt hair, always wore turtlenecks and pressed slacks? Thought he was a big deal because he carried a wallet and comb in his back pocket? Yeah, you know who I mean. You had a crush on him, don’t tell me you didn’t. ‘Jenny Adamson’ scribbled inside your notebooks, ‘Jenny + Toby 4Evr.’ He didn’t like it too much when I threw stones at him, did he? Curled up like a little girl. Transferred a year later, got the fuck out of Dodge because he was too soft. Probably a cokehead now, or an assemblyman, who cares? I remember you laughed at him after that, right in his face, just before he left. He asked you to that ‘Surf and Sun’ dance in the gym? You called him a pussy, right in front of everyone. He rolled away like a Slinky. And we went back to throwing stones at each other, opposite sides of Breeman Street, laughing the whole time.

And then things got serious. We’d go inside our houses and put iodine on our cuts, then go back outside and hold hands downtown and maybe neck in the theater. No, no ‘maybe’ about it. We were all over each other. Remember that? We were hot stuff back then, weren’t we?

Then we grew up. Childhood sweeties. Dangerous sweeties. But we were careful. Gotta hand it to us, we never got caught. Drinking behind the Odeon Theater, or in that alley behind Kresges, fumbling with zippers, sliding out of our jeans, smashing Coke bottles on bricks. We were running with scissors and no one ever figured it out. When we were old enough, we got married on the sly, shocked the hell out of everyone. And no one. We were too young, that was the bitch, wasn’t it? It wasn’t that we shouldn’t get married, but not at eighteen. Hell, we were in a hurry. Always in a hurry. Because it might not last. There was too much fuel to burn, and we burned hot.

Forty-two years. Damn. Did you ever think time could be so slippery, that the flames could be smothered so easily? And angry. Why were we always so goddamn angry all the time? We always threw stones at each other, but sometimes they weren’t stones. Sometimes they were words, sometimes open-faced slaps. And we weren’t always careful how hard we threw them. Sometimes they were deliberate and dangerous, because, you know, we learned how to aim, we learned velocity.

And now you’re laying there and it’s quiet. I guess there’s background music coming from one of the other rooms, some dignified noise, but I don’t hear it. I don’t really see the people coming in the door to shake my hand or shovel some meaningless words into my ears. I just see you and me, throwing stones at each other. For so many years. And I’m so sorry that the last stone was the last stone for you. I thought we were both tough enough, but I guess toughness fades over 40-plus years. We would have laughed about that when we were kids, wouldn’t we? If we knew that that kind of aim and velocity could be so dangerous. We should have been more careful. I don’t think anybody really knows how vicious it can get.

Twenty-two crayons

nightfall
You line up your crayons according to the shades of the sky. Red and orange, of course, but before them, black and gray. You’ve worn those colors down to smudges of wax on the tablecloth. Is that what you see, more darkness than light? You won’t say. There are others, of course, but the paper peeling is less with the bright colors. There is harlequin green and cornflower blue, and those gaudy pinks I used to tease you about, the ones that matched your old summer blouses. You never use the quiet colors, not to blend, not to soften those coarse, bleeding shades. Should I worry? Every morning you line up the same twenty-two crayons, so do you expect to use them all sometime? You haven’t yet, not even frivolously. Am I to blame for replacing them when you’re finished? You won’t say.