Of sweeter things

“The determination and machismo of this war has not changed,” wrote Vicente, “and yet it has agitated me in deep ways. There is, I think, a mute despair among us, but it is tempered by the same resolve we clothed ourselves in at its beginning.

“We still, to a man, yearn for a bit of simplicity and homeliness in our days: a length of hickory to stir the hearth coals, a blackened spoon we can polish and preserve. Or, simply, a piece of bread beneath a soup bowl. But — and I write this with great reluctance — I cannot rationalize why we are still fighting. Our days are forged by anxiousness and irresolución, and we are steeped in sloughy maroon soils; the air, a perpetual spray of crimson tissue, chokes us, and beclouds our eyes. We are hungry to advance, but more, we are starving for this to be done.

“I beg you forgive me my propensity for awful detail, but I cannot seem to exorcise these thoughts. There is such foulness in the air. I cannot remember, or even imagine, the fragrance of your hair. When I close my eyes, it is to reach for you. But now, as I am, slanted inside the torn shell of some beast’s remains, my trousers pierced by rocks, my bootlaces rotting in clots, the remains of my tobacco, wet crumbs, I think I shall rest for a moment. I will write you another letter, and of sweeter things. But now, I cannot think of anything that can calm me more than the thought of you, and home.”

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Silhouettes

Oh, honey, there are shapes beneath these roads. They push me and they drag me, and, God help me, I’m yoked to every mile. I am numb to the drizzled headlights and smudged taillights, the curves, the swerves, the nerves of bumper-to-bumper, the mathematical sinew of the overpasses, the posterboard landscapes, the flat hallucinations of the alpha and omega. Oh, and sweetheart, the construction, the obstructions, the crazy and the caffeinated, they want to pour their horsepower into the concrete while I’m steering left-handed, trying to pry the goddamn plastic lids off the goddamn Styrofoam cups, and honey, I always spill the hot coffee on my fucking wrist.

These have been my nights and days since I left you.

And then I came upon this place: a slender space beside the swagged shoulders of an unmarked highway. I recognized the tarnished ancianos who were waiting for me. There were six men and a woman, and they were sitting in a straight line on the sloped walkway of the Motel Fatigado. A flat line of hands rose to guard eyes against dust and sun. They studied my silhouette for a moment, then resumed their pinched slouches.

An old man dismounted from his chair and approached. He was wearing a shredded straw hat and baggy jeans. His shirt was a clean button-down, faded antediluvian white. He could have been an Old Testament priest soliciting confessions, eager to pore over fresh sin. More likely, he was tired of sitting.

You have el bagaje? Suitcase?” he asked.

I nodded.

He pulled a packet of folded tissue paper from his shirt pocket, and offered me a cigarette. He told me that Room 8 was vacant and clean. He did not ask me my name. I accepted his tobacco, and he lit it with a wooden match. His hands were narrow and veiny.

He said his name was Cándido, and the woman was called Melancholia. “The new guests always ask about the woman. You see her? The beautiful woman who sits among the dogs? She is clean-handed. You understand? Inocente. She knows magic. You prey on her, you will leave with bruises.”

I nodded.

Sit with us,” Cándido said. “Melancholia keeps the plastic cups in her room. We have tap water and tequila. Perhaps there is ice. I will introduce you to the others.”

I declined.

***

Forgive me for my long absence. I’ve  been dealing with some health issues and slowly working on a new novel. I hope to get back into regular posting and visiting soon, so please bear with me. 🙂 – SB

Speaking of Drunk Larry…

Ricky laughed. “Speaking of opening the door. Guess who was waiting on me to open the joint this morning?”

Drunk Larry.”

Hell, yeah.” He combed through his hair with his fingers. A quick task since all that was left were gray bristles. The boy he had been rode a Harley Softail and had hair down to the middle of his back. Now he looked like a retired drill sergeant. It was like looking at a double exposure. An old habit from a fractured past. How many of us want to look at age straight in the face? “I mean, how many times have we tossed him? Eight? Twenty? So he’s standing there – shaking there – and he starts bitching how I was five minutes late opening up. Did you know he’s still parking his van behind the bar? Sleeps there, I guess. He can’t afford another DUI, so he forces himself to walk those twenty extra steps.”

I wonder if we can do something about that,” I said. “Convince him to take his business elsewhere.”

It’s not like we’re getting rich off the guy. We’re the idiots for serving him. He’s stiffed us more times than I can count.”

I told you not to serve him. Show him the door. Head first, if needed.”

Ricky nodded. “Aww, I feel sorry for him, Bart. He’s harmless. But you’re right. There’s other places he can go to weasel a few drinks. Gilly’s would fit him better. It’s a dive. And he ain’t exactly supporting our pension fund.”

This isn’t Cheers,” I said. “And he isn’t Norm. He’s probably draining off customers. Nobody likes a drunk, even in a bar. A tire iron to his windshield would do it.”

Yeah, probably would.” He grinned, but I didn’t grin back. “You serious?”

Serious as suicide,” I said and regretted it. It hurt in all the wrong places. “We can do it tonight, after closing. I’m done with Drunk Larry.”

Uh huh. Christ, Bart, one shot of Chivas and you’re ready to go full-on, ain’tcha? Oh, and by the way, he was rambling on about something he saw at Wolf Creek last week. Something about moving shapes. It was all mixed up. He was a fucking moving shape.”

I studied Ricky’s face, and it was calm. “What do you think? You worried?”

Me? Nah. He was stewed. It’s been too many years to mean anything. Something would have come out by now. He’s just a nervous drunk, afraid of being caught sober. I figure he spends a lot of time out there, hunting for beer bottles to cash in at the Depot. The Creek’s where all the kids go to drink. His brain is as pickled as Einstein’s.”

You think so?”

Sure. It’s been years and years since–”

All right,” I said, and considered. “Two beers a night, Ricky. Whatever’s on tap. And then show him the door.”

You worried about him? Seriously? I’m sorry I mentioned it.”

Don’t be. It’s probably nothing. But it bears watching, right?”

Everything bears watching, Bart. You taught me that.”

Did I?” I asked. It was a real question.

Rehearsal

We grew to become cruel men. We gathered our wounds and we coddled our scars and lionized them under the tract lighting of The Saluda Bar. When called upon, we mourned our dead, and then moved on. But sometimes we couldn’t.

This past July I lost my son, Daniel Benton Sawyer. He was twenty-three years old. I could tell you the number of months and days, but I won’t. My life was a rehearsal for this loss and I am unprepared to measure his life against mine.

Two days after my boy’s passing, my friend Wayne Scobee was busted for illicit behavior. He offered to blow a Georgia Tech student in a Ruby Tuesday bathroom stall. The boy was nineteen and he broke Wayne’s nose. I thought about breaking it again if he showed up at the funeral, but I was too goddamn tired. Nineteen? My head orbited that number like a comet. Nineteen. That was younger than Danny. I needed time to sort through the rubble, and time was no longer a luxury, if it ever was. My heart was too cruel a place for any illusion of forgiveness.

(A work in progress)

Brother Efrim

Ah, brother Efrim. He never told his story well. Everything about him was submerged. He wore both masks, the comic and the tragic. When he drank, he was the best goddamn drunk he could be. Sober, his heart was larger than anyone she knew. Elani loved him and she understood the depths, the wear-and-tear of pride, the oscillating moods. She tried to rescue him, and still hoped she could. He was stubborn.

She often drew him in her sketch book, always from memory. He had little patience for sitting still or staying in the moment. His face was angular and whiskered, pliant skin over bone. The portraits were always in charcoal and pencil, because that was him, practically a Dickensian character, bare meat on his bones, unwashed hair, seared lips.

She found him once, on one of her rescue missions, slumped on the sidewalk. The street lights dredged the pavement like flour, and he was a shapeless drift of luminance. He was waiting for the better angels to show up. Or his sister.

She cupped the back of his head. No more, he mouthed, but the words were a malt liquor vapor.

***Excerpt from a work-in-progress, The Stone Age***

Romantic ideas

“I love her, you know.”

“Everyone loves her.”

“But, yeah. I mean really.”

“Well…..”

“No, really.”

“She’s a nice girl. But c’mon. You’re too young. She’s too young.”

“Doesn’t mean it isn’t real, Efrim.”

“Well don’t tell her. She’ll get all upset.”

“Why?”

“Just because. You don’t know, David. She’s… flighty. She gets these big romantic ideas and she doesn’t know what to do with them. She cries at the end of movies. She keeps a diary and draws hearts on the cover. She thinks the Partridge Family is real. If she thought things like that were real… well, I dunno. She’d take it too serious. She’d imagine wedding cakes and sparkly placemats. She’s not old enough to know that those things aren’t ready for her yet. If she knew that you loved her, she’d think bad things could never happen. And bad things always happen, especially to kids.”

“Maybe not this time?”

“Just wait, David. Please.”

“But I love her.”

“Then you should wait. Okay? You wanna shoot off some firecrackers?”

“Hey, yeah!”

The father of children

The move to Wishing was the best thing. Frank Cobin wasn’t a big shot in town anymore, engorged with bravado and insolence. He was the stranger in town, and had no favor with the thin-faced men: the corner-men, the hustlers, the scammers, the casually dangerous.

The move to Wishing was the worst thing. Marooned from his pals, Frank took his temper out on his wife and kid, bullied them with his knuckles and insults. His ambitions were volatile, written in chalk, scribbled and wiped clean every day.

Eldridge caught him with his pants down, with that woman from downtown, that woman who worked at Bibby’s Department Store, and his old man didn’t have much to say about that. He had a weakness for the Negro women, he told his boy, and

runnels of sweat ran down her round belly, clean like rain water. Her breasts rose with every inhalation, nipples hard like rock candy, hips churning to a hallowed beat. Eldridge could smell the woman’s sweat, and it was not fear-sweat, but a submissive heat-sweat, her face straining for pleasure, her eyes greedy, flooded with inside light, and

don’t tell your mother, don’t let her know.

And his father cried and groveled, but not for forgiveness. He needed to preserve that secret, that deep echo of himself, and he begged his boy not to draw out that darkness.

Eldridge never did tell, but the secret exhausted him. It was a guilty-belly, hungry-belly secret, like a tongue against a throbbing tooth. His father stopped using his fists, and Eldridge learned to use his. He discovered his own appetite that night, and the shades pulled down on his childhood. The shadows, he understood, never went away. They clove to everything, and soon the headaches began, and his temper grew more sour.

Eldridge stared down at his father, his old and ruptured flesh, and heard Frank’s impious excuses for the last time. He ended that part of his life for good. No one ever knew.

“The father of children”, he said, “has a duty to protect them, not bury them.” That was what Frank Cobin did. He buried his son in a lie.

“The father of children needs to be accountable,” he said, and kneeled on his father’s shoulders. The old man had turned scrawny in his old age, dry as jerky, so it wasn’t hard. It was like resting on a piece of shredded hickory.

“You punished us for the smallest mistakes,” he said. His voice was calm, almost soothing. He lowered the heel of his hand on his father’s throat, and he felt its pulse, irregular but strong. “You betrayed your wife and your child for the sake of a whore.”

“No whore,” the old man wheezed.

“You couldn’t be trusted. Who do I trust now? You made us feel like dirt, like we were useless. And you were whoring around like a man of the town, laughing at us behind our back. And the only thing you’ve ever been ashamed of is that you were caught. How do you think that makes us feel? At least Mom was spared. I protected her.” He sunk his hand deeper into Frank’s throat. He felt bone and gristle, paper thin.

Then things got fuzzy around the edge of his temper.

**Excerpt from The Stone Age — a work in progress**