Friday, December 12, 2014

Chapter 8 of My Boyhood

The day before we were planning to leave Oklahoma and continue our eastward journey, something unexpected happened. I fell in love. Her name was Shelly.
Grandpa was a Pied Piper. He’d go for a stroll about his neighborhood and return home with kids following him by the dozen. He was a jolly, Santa-like man and was generous with his always well-stocked bowl of candy and great many stories. He’d make kids squeal with grossed out laughter as he showed them his maimed fingers. One of them was a nub with only a hint of a fingernail. He called it his “sausage finger” and would tell the kids the tale of his days helping his dad in the sausage factory and how he one day got into too much of a hurry while feeding pork into the machine. And then his punch line would follow after a brief pause for anticipation.
“The grocer thought that was the best tasting batch of sausage ever.”
Then he’d tuck that finger away into his palm and extend one even more hideous, his “saw finger.” That one had been sliced open long-ways by a table saw. It had healed imperfectly with one half of the finger protruding slightly farther than the other, resulting in a jagged fingernail. As a kid, he was helping his dad make a front door for their house and got into too much of a hurry (he was always in too much of a hurry as a kid) and it too had a punch line.
“We saved half a can of red paint on the door that day.”
I suspect he was just a rather precocious, careless, and dishonest kid who played with meat grinders and saws after being forbidden to do so. After all, he did raise his only son who, after being forbidden to drive their new car in the street, got a moving violation for driving it down a sidewalk. The ugly healing of his “saw finger” suggested that of a kid, knowing he was in trouble for playing with his dad’s saw, squeezing the bloody mess back together with a make-shift bandage and hoping for the best. (I could be wrong. If one’s to believe his stories about how poor his family was and how all they had to eat for years was two-day-old bread, stale crackers, and raw milk, his finger may have simply been healed as well as they could afford. And why shouldn’t I believe his stories? They would explain his strange adult habit of making a daily snack of milk poured over ice stirred together with crumpled up saltine crackers to give it the consistency of a milkshake.)
His stories also now seem curiously manufactured and self-serving, such as his alternate punch line about his sausage finger.
“It was all worth it when the nigger family across town got sick and threw up for days after eating that batch.”
Also strange was the locked trunk in his bedroom covered with a confederate flag. Every time I asked if I could look inside, he’d say, “Not today. We’ll save that for another day.”
It was during one of those candy munching, Pied Piper story filled gatherings of neighborhood kids on his back porch that I met Shelly. I don’t remember how many kids were there, or any of their faces or names, because only one mattered. It seemed I was all that was on her mind as well. I’d look over at her and get lost in her bright red lips and short dark brown hair as she folded and unfolded her hands in her lap listening to Grandpa. Then she’d make contact with me with her big green eyes and I’d look away embarrassed and start fumbling with my own hands. Then, when I thought it was safe to look again, I’d catch her looking at me and the whole meet cute game would begin again. What had happened to me though? When I was younger, I had wasted no time getting down to necking with my babysitter’s pretty little daughter. With Shelly, I couldn’t even look her in the eyes.
Later, it was just the two of us sitting on the back porch together, eating root beer floats that Grandpa seemed eager to make for us before leaving us alone again. Shelly was eleven, about three years younger than me, but she was miles ahead. She told me how cute I was and how she wished I could stay all summer. I just sat, blushed, smiled. I should’ve been returning her compliments, but I was paralyzed.
Eventually, time came for her to go home and I was doomed to spend the rest of my vacation daydreaming about her instead of my usual Tarzan and sweet Jane when she said goodbye by giving me an ever so slightly lingering kiss on the cheek before getting up and skipping away. How I avoided my own little Lolita complex, a Humbert Humbert pursuing her sexually precocious eleven-year-old that got away for the rest of my life, I’ll never know. I spent the entire evening, not packing, but composing a love letter to Shelly, saying everything I had been too shy to tell her—and a lot more—in purple prose worthy of a horny 14-year-old Vladimir Nabokov. I asked Grandpa to give her the letter after we left. “Please, not before.” I don’t know for sure if he ever did (maybe he read it first and thought better of it), but when I asked him about it almost a year later over the phone he said she’d been very excited to get my letter and couldn’t wait for us to visit again.
For reasons beyond my control, we never did return to Oklahoma. It didn’t much matter to me though. Simply writing that letter had the effect of freeing her from my thoughts and I’d only asked Grandpa about her reaction out of embarrassment over what I’d written, secretly hoping he’d admit he’d read it and thrown it away.
I have a theory as to why Shelly easily drifted out of my consciousness. I wanted her gone. It was the way she had laughed when Grandpa described how horrible the “nigger neighbors’” house smelled. Or, maybe I forgot about her so quickly because the rest of our vacation trip would give me plenty of other things to think about.

When I was in high school, I was in the band. As if being small and quiet didn’t get me punched in the gut enough, I also had to be a “band fag.” There were only two things worse than being a boy in the band, being a boy in theater or choir. If it had been legal, the “soch” football players would’ve duct-taped choir boys to the blocking sleds while the “soch” cheerleaders waved their pom-poms.
If you were a boy in the band, you were at the bottom of the food chain, for sure, but you did have some protection. All of the cutest girls (other than cheerleaders) played either flute or alto sax, and they were friendly with—though seldom attracted to—the guy trumpet players, percussionists, and the first chair flutist (who was actually a bit of a stud). So, as locker row politics went, a linebacker could despise a trumpet player on principle and could give him a frequent punch in the gut, but only when no alto sax or flute girls were watching. If one got caught, he’d risk having to use his hand for weeks.
I had a crush on an alto sax player, but instead of knowing what to do; I’d just be a trembling mess whenever I was in the same room with her, which was every weekday from 10:00 to 11:00. Her name was Sue and she was one of Sis’s friends.
I got a chance once, shortly after getting my driver’s license, to take Sue and Sis to the beach, and I couldn’t handle it. Just the sight of Sue walking out of her house toward my car in a bikini with a towel around her waist and wearing sunglasses and sipping a soda was overwhelming. I barely even remembered how to drive. I stalled my VW Bug while backing out of her driveway. While stopped at a red light on the way to the beach, I was so caught up in catching glimpses of her in the rearview mirror that I started to roll forward, ever so slowly, and would’ve rear-ended the car in front of us if Sis hadn’t yelled, “Scott! Watch out!”
While at the beach, I spread my towel a short distance away from the two girls and continued trying to look at Sue without being detected. I didn’t think of anything else for hours. I didn’t talk to her out of fear of vomiting. I didn’t relax. I enjoyed nothing about the beach that day. And when time came to pack up and go home, I really fucked up. There was a bit of a breeze and I failed to check its direction. I picked up my towel and shook it clean of the sand it had collected. Then Sue said the only words she spoke to me that day or ever before or ever after.
“What the hell are you doing!?!”
She frantically brushed the sand from her beautifully tanned, lotion-shiny, perfectly sexy body and then stomped away. On the way to my car, Sue spotted some guy friends my age with a car and nabbed a ride home with them. Other than out of the corner of my eye during band practice, the only time I saw her again before erasing her from my mind came a week later. I saw her making-out with a wide receiver in locker row.

The closest that Mom or Dad came to giving me “the sex talk” was Mom’s telling me that, if I didn’t take better care of my skin, no girls would ever date me. This, naturally, led to my being forbidden to eat chocolate and peanut butter, making countless visits to the dermatologist to get my zits zapped with liquid nitrogen, and washing my face endlessly with an assortment of funny looking and even funnier smelling bars of soap. Nothing worked. All I got out of it was redder, shinier, angrier zits. It was like the game “Whack a Mole.” When one zit would rear its ugly head, I’d slather it in ointment only to watch it wither away to be replaced by another zit from a different pore. There were plenty of days when I had to be dragged from my room and pushed out the door to go to school. It felt like Mom was saying, “No girl is going to want to look at you, but go out there and let them see you anyway. Oh, and hurry up and start asking girls out. I’m starting to worry about you.”

I almost threw up at the high school once. I’d parked my car and was walking toward the classrooms when I saw a gathering of students around a glass-encased bulletin board. There was chatter mingled with laughter. Curious, I worked my way through the crowd toward the subject of their amusement. When the last few students in my path parted, I saw a horrifying sight. Someone had torn pages from a magazine and had taped them inside the glass case. They showed an erect penis inside a woman’s mouth. To me, the images were stomach churning. It appeared the woman was eating the penis. It had never entered my consciousness—even by then at age 16—that oral sex existed, that it felt really good, or that people did it all the time. (I mean, my god, anyone who watches the opening shower scene in Carrie and thinks that it’s unbelievable that a teenage girl could be so na├»ve about her period that she’d freak out and think she’s dying at the sight of the blood has no idea. And I didn’t even have a particularly religious upbringing.) I felt a surge of nausea. I turned my head away and ran back to my car where I sat with my head between my knees, feeling dizzy.
It was especially strange that, after sheltering me from sexual images so completely, Mom, feeling desperate to boost my interest in girls, gave me a gift subscription to Playboy for my 18th birthday. (Without her knowing, Dad had already been giving me his used issues for years, accumulating under my mattress giving it a suspicious bulge.)

I had opportunities to—possibly—date girls during my teen years. Sis was a cheerleader (something most guys would’ve wasted no time leveraging to their advantage) and one day after school I had a golden opportunity. I was waiting in my car for Sis to arrive so we could drive home. When she appeared, she had two cheerleader friends with her and asked if I’d give them a ride. What I said both made no sense and perfect sense.
All sorts of panicked thoughts surged up within me.
“Oh god, this is going to go badly. It’s going to be another trip to the beach with Sue.”
“What if they expect me to talk with them or [gulp] ask them out?”
“What if they want to devour my—”
A rush of fearful, irrational thoughts overwhelmed me—and over two girls who were, well, just two girls like Sis who just wanted to get home.
When Sis asked if they could have a ride and I said, “No,” she was on the spot, I imagine realizing once and for all what a loser she had for a brother. The three of them talked for a bit, Sis apologizing while the pair kept giving me quizzical glances. Then, the two that got away, walked away, Sis got in the car, and we drove away.

On an earlier occasion, Sis threw a party at our house for her friends, all 8th graders, and I was there too, pretty much by default, living there and all. I never went to parties and was mostly irritated that her friends were in our house making all sorts of noise while I just wanted to read or watch television. At one point, I wandered into the kitchen to get something to drink and I got trapped.
One of her friends, a very pretty girl named Sue, was intrigued by the presence of an older, high school boy and sent one of the other girls, the only girl at the party I actually liked and could sort of talk to, over to ask me to dance. My initial hope that the girl doing the asking, Janie, wanted to dance quickly evaporated as I realized that it was the unfamiliar girl, standing across the room in a group of other equally terrifyingly pretty and unfamiliar girls, who wanted to dance. And I’m sure you already know my response.
I didn’t know how to dance, I had never even tried to dance, and being made a fool in front of a bunch of 8th graders wasn’t something I wanted to do that evening, although, of course, I had just made myself more of a fool than an entire evening of bad dancing ever would have.
I retreated back to my bedroom and was followed shortly thereafter by, of all people, Janie. She hung out with me and we talked small talk for a while as she, a gymnast, repeatedly twirled about on the chin-up bar in my bedroom door frame. Why did I never ask her out? Or better yet, seize the opportunity for another upside-down kiss? She may as well have had the words “Ask Me Out” printed on her t-shirt that night.

I always looked forward to Fridays during high school. It wasn’t that the weekend was just around the corner that made Friday a special day, it was the anticipation of lunchtime. I remember Fridays as being hamburger day. A greasy patty that seemed to be made out of something like meat, smothered in Thousand Island dressing, and wrapped in aluminum foil that made the bun mashed and soggy. It didn’t matter though. I would’ve eaten almost anything because Friday was also rock band day.
Several of my classmates, mostly either surfers or “loadies,” would drift about forming and reforming various rock bands and my high school during the wonderful seventies—they even had an English class devoted to The Lord of the Rings—would allow them to perform half hour sets for our lunchtime entertainment. It was the time of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and the bands would always cover their latest hits. It was their covers of Van Halen though that really got me. One of those cheerleader girls I’d had a chance to almost drive home had once remarked, just loudly enough for me to overhear, that she thought David Lee Roth was “so fucking sexy.”
I’d go home after school on Fridays and drop Van Halen’s first album onto my turntable, sit back, close my eyes, and imagine myself on that concrete amphitheater stage during lunch singing like Lee Roth. Everything out of my pipes from “You Really Got Me” to “Ice Cream Man” had every girl in school I’d ever wanted from cheerleaders to every Sue in the yearbook swooning and poised to rush the stage and tear my clothes off.
Reality would always gradually seep into my fantasy though. I longed to be a rock star because being one would be like the anti-Scott. It’d be like Peter Parker donning his spidey-suit and becoming someone else entirely. Inevitably though, I’d become the guitarist, standing behind the front man, playing killer licks. Soon I’d be the drummer. Before long, I’d be a roadie standing off to the side and getting yelled at to turn up the microphone. Then I’d snap out of my dream—brought back to the reality of a Friday night alone in my bedroom reading The Chessmen of Mars—by the sound of a needle scratching and popping back and forth at the center of side two of Van Halen One.

During college, I worked at a snack shop at a golf course with two girls, both, of course, named Sue. (Well, one was actually Suzie. So, so many Sues have tormented me.) Both would casually flirt with me, until one typically “me” moment one day. I was under the spell of having seen my first art films—Bergman, Fellini, Tarkovsky. I had been daydreaming as I stocked the beer cooler and cleaned the grill about a scene I wanted to write for a movie. It involved setting up a formal dinner with cultured guests and servants and four elaborate courses—all taking place on a windy, rainy, rocky beach like something out of a surrealist dream.
“Can I ask you something?” I said to Suzie.
“Yes,” she said, perking up.
I then described to her the scene in my head.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked.
She never flirted with me after that. It’s amazing that I ever managed to father children.

I was a teenage boy though, and wasn’t without my needs. I was quite accomplished at bed humping while leering at a spread open Playboy. I was prone to carelessness though.
One day, Mom walked in on me and made a hasty retreat, never opening my closed door ever again, with or without knocking. I could’ve started growing pot in my room for all she would’ve known. On another occasion, I was deeply involved with Miss September when I heard laughter outside my bedroom window. I hadn’t closed my blinds fully and a group of teenagers walked by, headed toward the nearby secluded beach, a girl and two boys. I poked my head up and looked out the window. They looked back and saw me watching and one of the guys pulled down the girl’s bikini bottom while the other guy slapped her bare ass and grinned. They continued walking; not looking back again as if I no longer existed. I stretched out on my bed again, tossed aside Miss September, and instead fantasized about what the trio was about to do on that secluded beach.
When Mom came home from work that day, I said, “I’ll never have a girlfriend. I may as well kill myself.”

Monday, May 21, 2012

Idea for a non-fiction book

Book Idea
The book will be three things:
1.       It will be an anthology of the best movie writing I’ve done during my 18 years living in Mandan. (I’ve written roughly 200 pieces. I’ll select 75-100 of them.)
2.       It will tell the story of how I found happiness and was able to pursue my dream of being a film critic in an unlikely place.
3.       It will be about how, if one so chooses, one can turn any place into one where dreams can flourish.

It will follow this outline:
I.                    Introduction: Or how one can be happy anywhere, if one so chooses
II.                  The Open Forum Writings: Or how I created a publication to house my reviews
III.                The Lost Writings: Or how I kept my dream alive via the Internet
IV.                The River’s Edge Writings: Or how I rediscovered my Open Forum days (without having to pay for it)
V.                  The Bismarck Tribune Writings: Or how I found a bigger audience
a.       The Rave Reviews
b.      The Pans
c.       The Cinema 100 Reviews
VI.                The Prairie Independent Writings: Or how I truly found a home in my new home

The book will include present day commentary along with each piece. This commentary will focus on:
1.       How I feel about what I wrote then, now.
2.       How the piece fit into my personal story. I.e., what was going on in my life at that time?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chapter 15

I was peering down a dark tunnel with this little pool of light at the far end. In the light, I saw three things: Ed was kneeling beside the bed, his voice soft but scolding. My mom was in the bed, moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. On the nightstand was an open and half empty bottle of pills. It was like how in the movies they always light things so you’ll see, and only see, what you’re supposed to see.
Have you seen those old silent movies where a circle would suddenly iris down to only show a single detail, something really important like a hand holding a gun or a bunch of keys hanging on a hook? That’s what this moment seemed like. It was like the most important detail in my life was there before me in a tiny little circle.
I had awakened in the middle of the night. Something must not have been feeling right, maybe a slight breeze across my bed that shouldn’t have been there. Everything had been the same in my family my whole life until recently. Now, every little change was starting to seem a harbinger of terrible things.
I stood in their bedroom doorway for a minute, maybe longer. When Ed saw me he snapped his fingers and pointed me back to my bedroom. He followed me and closed the door. I did as I was told, but lay awake most of the night. I heard strange muffled sounds coming from their bedroom, coughing sounds, walking around sounds, and water running and toilet flushing sounds. After a while I covered my head with my pillow.
In the morning, things seemed normal again. Ed was gone. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table staring into a mug of black coffee. Eagle was drowning toy soldiers in his cereal bowl. And I was late for school.
That day was interminable. When I was in class, I couldn’t wait for lunch. When I was eating lunch with Annie, I didn’t hear a word she was saying. I just wanted lunch to be over so I could get on with the day. It felt really important that I get home. I was afraid something might be changed forever when I got there.
When the final bell rang, I ran out of the classroom and didn’t stop running until I pushed open our front door. “Mom!” I yelled. The house was quiet. The downstairs was empty. I started checking room by room, still running, until I got to the bottom of our stairs. I paused. I needed to catch my breath and to gather myself before climbing toward the bedrooms.
It’s amazing how different a place looks in the daylight. At night, everything is shadowy scary. I think horror movies are so horrifying because you can’t see anything. At least, that’s why the really good ones are so scary, the old ones with zombies and vampires and cat people. I’ve only seen one brightly lit movie that scared me. The Shining.
As I pushed open the door to my parent’s bedroom, I felt like little Danny going into room 237. I was curious, fearful. But everything seemed okay. The dark tunnel of the night before was gone. Now I could see everything. The bed was made. Mom’s nightgown was neatly folded over the chair by the dresser. There was no bottle of pills on the nightstand, just a clock radio, an empty water glass, and her dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre.
I was about to leave when I heard a sneeze and noticed the bathroom door was closed and light was creeping out through the crack beneath. I went to the door and tried turning the knob. It was locked.
“Mom,” I said.
There was no answer. Then I heard a coughing, retching sound, then another sneeze. “I know you’re in there!” I shouted. There was still no answer.
I ran to my bedroom and grabbed a bobby pin from a tray on my dresser and hurried back. Bathroom door locks are so easy to pick. Maybe they’re easy because of times like that, like times when someone slips and falls in the bathtub. All you have to do is poke something through the little hole in the center of the knob, feel around for the little lever inside, and twist the knob while pushing.
Just as it did the time Eagle locked himself in the hall bathroom with my Barbie dolls and a bottle of maple syrup (don’t ask), the lock popped open and the knob twisted in my hand. I pushed the door inward. I’m sure I was shaking terribly. What I saw has haunted me ever since.
Mom was sitting on the toilet in her underwear. Her eyes were half closed. She looked exhausted like she’d been crying for hours. She was shivering even though it was blazing hot in the bathroom with the heat lamp glaring. And her cupped hands in her lap were filled with vomited up, undigested little white capsules. I almost threw up myself from the smell. I don’t know which was worse, the smell or the sight, but I reeled back out into the bedroom. Then I got angry.
I went back into the bathroom and grabbed what was left of the pills; some still in the opened bottle and some spilled on the counter and threw them as hard as I could against the mirror.
“Why are you doing this?” I screamed.
Mom looked up at me and mouthed “I’m sorry Marla. I didn’t want you to find me like this.”
I went to the shower and started the water, leaving it cold. I grabbed her by the arm and started pulling her toward the water. The spray was already getting us both wet with the shower door open. She tried to get to her feet but was so unsteady that she sat down again. I pulled harder and she stumbled forward into the shower and crumpled to the floor under the chill water. She was too weak to scream. She just cried louder.
I took the bar of soap and starting cleaning her up. Then I slapped her. Then I hugged her. She just kept saying softly “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Once the color started coming back into her cheeks, I shut off the water and wrapped her in a towel. I hugged her again, really hard this time through the towel, and could feel her still shivering.
The bathroom window overlooked the driveway and suddenly the sounds of Ed’s car filled the moment. Mom perked up.
“Marla. Don’t let him come upstairs!”
She pushed me away. She seemed to have found new life and got to her feet, ushering me out of the bathroom. She closed the door. I heard it lock.
I reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to stop Ed’s progress. I grabbed him by the shirtsleeve and starting tugging toward the kitchen.
“Come on Ed. Let’s make lasagna.”
“Are you wet?” he asked.
“Yes, I guess so,” I said still tugging. “Come on.”
He resisted for a moment. Have you ever seen the movie The Searchers with John Wayne? There’s a moment where he stands by his horse, rubbing its back with a blanket and staring far, far away. It’s as if he can see the Indian attack that is happening at that very moment many miles away at his brother’s homestead. Almost everyone is murdered. That’s what I was thinking as Ed gazed up the stairs.
Almost reluctantly, certainly hesitantly, he gave in to my insistence and followed me into the kitchen. And then I started my fumbling. I wondered. What is lasagna even made out of?
I started opening cabinets and pulling things out – cinnamon, tomato soup, and macaroni.  Boxes and cans began to pile up on the table. Ed pulled up a chair and sat down. He sprinkled a bit of cinnamon on his finger and licked it. He looked to be enjoying the show.
“This is going to be the best lasagna you’ve ever made, hon,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I said and kept improvising.
“I read this great new recipe for lasagna in one of mom’s magazines just the other day. Would you like to give it a try?” he asked.
“Okay, but it may not be as good as mine.”
He added a can of spaghetti sauce and some lasagna noodles to my ingredients and started fishing around in the fridge. He pulled out a bag of white cheese.
“So, how’s mom, hon?
“She upstairs?” he asked as he pulled a big pot out of the cupboard and started filling it with water.
“She’s taking a shower.”
“I don’t hear the water.”                         
“How many noodles should I put in?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Nine,” he answered, playing along.
We continued working – or mostly he continued working – in silence. I knew already that my charade was only partly successful. He hadn’t gone upstairs. I’d bought mom some time, but why did I think to make lasagna? I hated lasagna. And he knew that.
I know he knew everything. He’d been through the night with her. Whatever I’d glimpsed down that dark tunnel had been his and mom’s reality. It must’ve been awful if mom had tried swallowing a handful of sleeping pills. It must’ve been terrible to cause him to look up the stairs with such concern. It must’ve been horrible for him to go along with my lasagna game.
“What are you two up to?”
We both turned around startled. Mom was leaning against her cane in the kitchen doorway. She was fully, casually dressed in jeans, sweatshirt, and floppy slippers. She looked great. And in one swift motion she took over the creation of the lasagna and shooed us both out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t until time to eat that it occurred to me. Where’s Eagle? There were only three of us at the table. Mom sent me upstairs to find him and bring him down.
His bedroom door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it inward and there he was. Beneath the window, he was sunk so far down into his green bean bag chair that he almost disappeared from sight. He was holding a copy of A Princess of Mars in front of his face. I think he was pretending to read though. His hand was shaking just a bit too much to be able to focus on the words.
“Get up stupid. Time to eat,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. He just tucked his legs up tighter to his chest and a little stream of white pellets shot out through one of the many tiny puncture holes made by Marty.
I went back downstairs. “He’s not budging,” I announced.
“We will. When he gets hungry,” Mom said. (I wondered even then why she said "we" instead of "he.")

The next morning, Saturday, Eagle and I had just settled in front of the TV for cartoons when Ed came into the room, turned the volume down, sat on the coffee table, and cleared his throat.
He didn’t have to say anything. I was already shaking and the tears were already coming.
“Kids, I’m sorry. I don’t know…”
He started to shake too. His lower lip had that tremble that one always gets when nervous.
“Your mom and I… I…”
He cleared his throat again and found some courage.
“I’m moving out. Mom and I are getting a divorce.”
He tried to look us in the eyes, but couldn’t. His eyes just drifted down into his lap. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to say. I wanted to hug him, for my comfort more than his, but I also wanted to hit him everywhere at once with my fists. All I did was sit as more tears came.
I wasn’t sure at first if Eagle had heard him. He wasn’t shaking. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t… anything. Then I knew he’d heard.
He got up, raised the volume, sat down, and took a bite of Cheerios.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

This Town Smells Like Popcorn

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Marv’s Market. She’s eating Red Vines, four at a time. He’s crunching his way through a bag of roasted almonds. He knows apes need lots and lots of nuts to survive. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids, she’s 12 and he’s nine, sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December afternoon.

A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab and barely reaches the kids’ noses before being carried away by the wind. An empty 7-Eleven cup falls to the street and rolls under the truck.

“Get in,” the driver tells them. She’s pushing 40, but looks like she already left that age far behind. She’s wearing western chaps over blue jeans held up by a heavy leather belt with a turquoise and silver buckle.  Her cowboy boots are cracked and her western shirt with snaps is wrinkled and stained. The top two snaps of her shirt are unfastened – On purpose? By accident? – revealing an undersized bra and sun wrinkled skin. A tan cowboy hat and cigarette dangling from her cracked lips complete the picture.

“Are you still mad Aunt Dorothy?” Marla asks while getting to her feet. Dorothy shakes her head and then turns to blow smoke out the window. Marla motions for Eagle to come along, but he sits firm, still popping nuts into his mouth. “Come on Eagle,” she urges.
“I’m not gonna,” Eagle says crossing his arms and clutching his almonds to his chest.
“Why aren’t you gonna?”
“Tarzan told me not to get back in the truck.”
Marla turns to Dorothy, “He’s not going to get in, I’m afraid. Nothing’s going to change his mind when he’s like this.”
Dorothy sets the parking brake and reaches behind the seat. She pulls a plastic spear out and starts rolling it between her hands. “Tell him Tarzan came by the house today … and left this.”
Marla turns to Eagle, but he’s already spotted the spear and is scrambling to his feet. “I didn’t know you know Tarzan, Aunt Dorothy,” Eagle says.
“Oh yes. We had lunch today. Did you know his favorite food is hamburgers? He ate three.”
Eagle dives into the cab ahead of Marla and grabs the spear out of Dorothy’s hands. He gleams like a boy on Christmas morning and starts stabbing the dashboard. Marla plops into the seat beside him and reaches for the door handle. She pulls, but her hand slips and she almost tumbles out of the truck. She braces herself with one hand, grabs the handle again, and pulls it shut with a grunt.
Dorothy releases the brake and shifts into first gear. She pops the clutch and the truck lurches forward with a jolt, leaving a puff of black exhaust in its wake.
“Do you two have anything to say?” Dorothy asks.
Eagle doesn’t look up. He just keeps thrusting the spear into the dashboard. Marla looks out the window and says, “Sorry.”
“Sorry what?”
“Sorry for being such a brat, Aunt Dorothy.” Marla throws an elbow into Eagle’s shoulder.
“Owww!” Eagle yelps and turns toward Marla, furious. He threatens her with his spear and snarls like a wild thing. She stands her ground and glares back at him. It becomes a stare down between two wild cats. After a minute of tension, Eagle and then Marla begin to smile and as the tension dissipates he blinks first, losing the contest. He lowers his spear and toying with it in his lap says “Sorry, Aaaaaunt Doroooooothy.”
Cigarette between her fingers, Dorothy reaches down and pushes a cassette into a tape player crookedly bolted beneath the dashboard. Some ash falls to the floorboard to join a mound already there. Music starts playing as she absentmindedly places the cigarette back into the corner of her mouth. The singer is Anne Murray:
“Every now and then I cry/Every night you keep stayin' on my mind/All my friends say I'll survive/It just takes time—“
Eagle blows a raspberry and hits eject with his spear. He looks over at Dorothy as if challenging her to a duel.
Dorothy knows better than accept his challenge. She just reaches down and pushes the tape back in. As she does, more ash shakes loose and falls to the floorboard. Marla notices and frowns.
“That’s gross, Aunt Dorothy,” Marla says.
Anne Murray continues:
—A million miracles could never stop the pain/Or put all the pieces together again/No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart—“
“I hate your music,” Eagle says as he pokes the tape free again with his spear. He turns in his seat to face Dorothy.
“Eagle, you do that one more time and—“
Eagle interrupts her with another raspberry and threatens her with his spear. She raises her hand as if to slap him and still more ash falls to the floorboard.
“I said that’s gross!” Marla shouts.
She pops open the glove box. It is like a rolling junk drawer. Bottles of Advil and Tums roll and slide about. There’s a hairbrush filled with hair strands. A used up and dried up stick of deodorant missing its cap falls out. Marla catches it and tosses it back in. There are two heavily read paperbacks – a Zane Grey and a Barbara Cartland. There is a hastily and very improperly folded road map torn across most of its creases.
And, of course, well within reach is a carton of Marlboro Lights with two packs remaining. Marla grabs the two packs and, staring defiantly at Dorothy, holds them out the window.
Dorothy starts the tape again and it becomes a bit wobbly from being started and stopped. Anne Murray sounds sick and tired:
No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart/No I don't see how it can while we are—“
Eagle hits eject. Dorothy slaps him across his right ear and he immediately curls up in a ball and starts wailing. Marla tosses the cigarette packs out the window. Dorothy slams on the brakes.
“Out! Go pick’em up!” Dorothy orders.
Marla looks at her in disbelief. Eagle wails even louder.
Marla opens the door and slides to the ground. She walks along the side of the road kicking at weeds and turning her head away from passing cars, embarrassed. She spots one of the packs and gives it a kick into the ditch.
Dorothy honks the horn, holding it in to fully express her anger. Marla retrieves the pack and finds the other perched atop a thistle bush. She starts to slowly walk backwards toward the truck. Dorothy honks again and Marla runs.
“Here’s your stupid cigarettes,” she says climbing into the cab. She tosses them at Dorothy and one of them hits Eagle on the nose. He turns to Marla and slaps her. Marla slaps his other ear and he slides as far away from her as he can and leans his head against Dorothy, his crying now a muffled whimper.
They drive for a while in silence, Dorothy staring straight ahead, Marla staring out the window, and Eagle rolling the spear around in his lap. They are entering a town again and Marla watches as a gas station and a general store roll by. This town smells like popcorn.
Finally, Eagle breaks the silence. “Tarzan told me not to get in the car with you. He says you’re a mean lady.”
“I wish you’d shut up about Tarzan,” Dorothy says without looking at him.
Marla says, “I’m glad Mark didn’t marry you. You would’ve made a terrible mom.”
Dorothy grips the steering wheel tightly, fiercely. Eagle stops mumbling and looks at Dorothy, then at Marla, and back to Dorothy again. Marla smiles cruelly. Dorothy pulls off the road and stops the truck.
“Get out… Both of you… Get out,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door open with a creak and slides out to the ground. Eagle slowly follows her and once he’s beside her he cautiously looks about ready to defend her with his spear.
“Shut the door,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door, but it doesn’t shut because the seatbelt is dangling in its way. She tosses the belt onto the seat and tries again. This time it shuts and immediately the truck pulls away, its spinning tires kicking up gravel. There’s another puff of black exhaust.
Driving away, Dorothy pushes the tape back in and it crankily starts playing:
“—still apart/And when you hear this song/I hope that you will see/That time won't heal a broken-hearted me/Every day is—“
The music stops. Dorothy reaches down to remove the tape and it unspools, part of it still stuck inside the machine. She gives it a tug and the tape breaks. She wraps the tattered tape around the cassette.
“Goddamn him!” she yells as she heaves the cassette out the window.
She tears open a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights and pops one in her mouth. She pulls a Bic from her shirt pocket, lights the cigarette, and drops the lighter back into her pocket. She takes a long draw. She takes the cigarette from her mouth and grips the steering wheel with that hand. Some ash falls to the floorboard. A single tear breaks loose from her eye and travels down her cheek, its course following one wrinkle and then another, and then another.

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Quick-E Mart. They’re sharing a box of popcorn. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December evening.
A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab.
“Get in,” the driver tells them.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Lollipop

“My turn,” Marla says.
“Okay,” Annie says as she licks a giant spiral lollipop the size of her head. She stops licking for a moment and coughs.
“Come on Annie. You had your turn,” Marla says.

Annie takes one last long, leisurely lick and hands it over. “Here you go.” Marla takes it and immediately starts running her tongue around the circumference. After a few trips around, her tongue follows the spiral all the way to the center.

She hands the lollipop back to Annie as they turn the final corner on their walk home from school. Marla runs her hand through the ivy overgrowing the fence along the sidewalk.

“Mr. Johansson was so funny today,” Annie says between licks. “I love how he says everything twice.”
“Now listen up class… listen up class,” Marla imitates giggling. “This’ll be on the quiz… on the quiz.”
“He’s always looking at the board and then turns around to look at us and says it again like we didn’t hear him,” Annie says.
“The commutative property says that… says that six times three equals three times six… three times six,” Marla spurts out, laughing now.

Laughing too, Annie slurps at some sugary juice running down the stick onto her hand and starts to choke. She starts coughing, sputtering, and laughing at the same time.
Marla whacks her on the back.
“Owww!” Annie says.

The two girls stop at a gate. Annie flips the latch open without looking away from the lollipop, holds the gate open for Marla, and pushes it shut behind them as they head up the front walk. The sounds of someone playing piano scales, gradually faster and faster, can be heard through the open front window.

“Shhhh,” Annie says. “Daddy’s practicing.”

Annie quietly opens the front door and they go inside. When she closes the door, the hinges creak. They freeze and hold their breath. The piano scales keep going up and down. They exhale slowly as Annie finishes closing the door.

As they cross the foyer to the stairs, Marla looks into the parlor and sees Annie’s dad intensely hunched over the keyboard, head down, and eyes closed. He reminds her of Linus from Peanuts.

The girls kick back on Annie’s bed. Marla’s on her stomach alternately kicking her butt with her heels. Annie’s propped up against a stack of stuffed animals with her feet resting on Marla’s back. They are passing the lollipop back and forth, one lick apiece each time.

“God your feet stink!” Marla says.
“I know,” Annie giggles and then coughs. “Marla?”
“What?” Marla asks.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” Annie asks.
“What do you mean?” Marla asks.
“About me flirting with Marc… You still like him?” Annie asks.

Marla is quiet. She stops kicking her butt. Actual music starts drifting up through the floor and they listen.

“Liszt. My dad’s favorite.” Annie says. “Whenever he plays this, I always feel… I don’t know…”
“It’s okay,” Marla interrupts as her feet start kicking again. “I think Marc really likes you a lot.”
“But you went out for a long time,” Annie says starting to lick the lollipop again.
“I was thinking about maybe going with Tom anyway. You can go with Marc if you do one thing,” Marla says.
“What’s that?” Annie asks.
“If you let me have that,” Marla says and starts tickling Annie until she frees the lollipop from her grasp. Annie chases after it for one last quick lick.

Marla gets off the bed with her prize. “I have to go pee,” she says.

Out in the hall, Marla stops and looks into the master bedroom. Annie’s mom is standing by the window, motionless, staring outside.

Marla leaves Annie’s house and Annie remains standing on the front threshold.
“Bye,” Annie says.
“Bye,” Marla says walking to the gate.
Marla opens the gate. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Annie says. “Bye,” she says again, starting to giggle as Marla starts down the sidewalk.
“Bye,” Marla giggles back.
At the house next door, Marla turns up the front walk. “Bye,” she says. Annie laughs.
Marla opens her front door and says, “Bye.”
Annie says “Bye” laughing so hard now that she’s crying. They both close their doors. A few moments later, they both open their doors at the same instant and poke their heads out.
“Bye,” Annie says.
“Goodbye,” Marla laughs.

Marla is in bed. A bit of light and an icy breeze flows in through her slightly open bedroom window. She shivers and rolls from side to side. Her blanket is in a ball around her feet.

There is a faint “pop” sound and she opens her eyes. She listens. Her eyes start to close and then it happens again. “Pop … pop.” She opens her eyes again and listens.

Marla wakes up. It’s morning and the blanket is now covering her again up to her shoulders. There are sounds, but not the usual morning sounds of birds chirping. She looks up and her mom is sitting at the foot of her bed. She looks distraught.
“What’s wrong mom?”

Her mom doesn’t answer. She just slides across the bed toward Marla and takes her in her arms.
There is a sound of car doors outside and Marla ducks out of her mom’s arms and goes to the window.
“Marla… don’t…”

Marla looks outside. Annie’s house is surrounded by bright yellow tape and there are police cars and police officers everywhere. Marla sees Annie’s mom sitting in one of the police cars. Then she notices Annie sitting in another. Marla runs from the room, evading her mom as she tries to stop her.

Marla runs down the stairs and out the front door. She reaches the sidewalk and stops. She watches the police car with Annie drive away.

Marla walks down the sidewalk alone carrying a binder and a math book. She turns the corner and runs her hand through the ivy covering the neighbor’s fence. She stops to watch four men with a dolly as they wrestle a piano down the front steps of Annie’s house.

Marla coughs and sniffs twice. “I shouldn’t have licked your lollipop Annie. I think I got your cold.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Ring

I’ve stumbled through many relationships. There was Allie who told me that she was no good. I didn’t listen, so she stopped talking. There was Michelle. She and I never did get in sync. When I wanted to get something going, she was pining. When she got over her past, I’d moved on. There was Carolyn. We slept together on our first date. Most awkward mistake I ever made, probably for her too.

And there was Candy. There was something about her. It’s been almost 30 years since I last saw her and I’ve never freed her from my mind.

Our first date was a drive and a picnic at Snoqualmie Falls. It was one of those first dates with few awkward silences, my only such date first or otherwise, ever. We drove up and back deep in conversation.

“I love golden retrievers. They’re so beautiful,” she said.
“Me too… And huskies,” I said.
“Oh, I love those. Isn’t this drive gorgeous?” she said.
“Very,” I said. …

We spent the entire afternoon enjoying the view – her, the mist as the water tumbled toward the rocks below, and me, her curves beneath her long chaste wool dress as I caressed the small of her back.

When I dropped her off at her apartment that night, she turned to me to say “Thank you” and I said “You’re welcome” by giving her a sudden, awkward kiss. She looked confused. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t say anything either, the one awkward silence.

I’ve never had a hard time getting lost. It’s a joke, sort of. I have a sign outside my bedroom door that reads “Bathroom” with an arrow pointing the way.

I had it all worked out. We would start the evening with dinner at 4:30 at Bartleby’s, a quaint Irish place, and then a movie at 6:15 – Raising Arizona. It all hinged on finding Bartleby’s, a family favorite from her childhood. She said, “I’ll show you how to get there.”

Traffic was a snarl. Look up “frustration” and you’ll find “trying to get anywhere at 4:30 on a Friday in Seattle.” Just a few blocks from our destination with its green sign glowing like a beacon through the drizzling rain, I was faced with a decision.

“Turn left up here,” she said.
I started to change lanes.
“No, I mean right.”
I switched my blinkers.
“No, go left!”

I swerved into the other lane, got honked at, and turned left. And it only took a moment to realize we were in trouble. We were heading out of town across a floating bridge with no way out until Clyde Hill.

It was bumper to bumper all the way across, the memory of Bartleby’s fading.
“I’m so sorry,” she said pulling her collar up and tucking it under her chin and pulling her sleeves down into her fists as if trying to disappear into her wool dress.

“It’s okay,” I said.
“You really must hate me … Don’t you?”
“Don’t be silly. I love you.”

We drove in silence until we reached Bartleby’s at 5:45. We ate and drank and drank some more until time to leave for the 8:30 Raising Arizona. As babies tumbled from a crib atop Nicholas Cage, I couldn’t stop laughing. I looked over at her and there was a single tear on her cheek. I watched it in the flickering light as it finished its journey and dripped from her chin. I squeezed her hand.

It was the only time I’ve ever cried as an adult.

I’d just spent a week away from Candy while her ex-boyfriend Phil was in town. She’d told me, “We spent so much time together. I can’t just tell him I can’t see him.” I was finally with her again after he’d gone back home to Chicago.

I suddenly felt my whole body shaking and I didn’t know what was happening until she started pleading, “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”

I rested my head in her lap. I could barely feel the warmth and softness of her flesh through the layers of wool. I looked up at her, for comfort. She was distractedly pulling her turtleneck as far up her neck as it would reach.

“Why do you keep doing that?” I demanded.
She kept tugging.
“Stop it!”

She got up and left the room. Not mad, not hurt, just confused. We ended up making out that evening. We always ended up making out. But I drove home feeling her confusion.

I type her name into Google. “Candy Morrison.” There are about 11,000,000 results including images of a nude model with very large breasts. After spending a moment eyeing those, I scroll down hoping for some sign of my Candy.

Google is amazing. I can usually find anything about everything. Why am I having such a hard time finding what’s become of her?

I was smitten. Only days after tears had overwhelmed me, I’d almost forgotten about Phil – and Candy was trying hard to please me as if still feeling my harsh words. She kept pulling her collar down and pushing her sleeves up past her elbows. There was something lighter about the fabric of her dress and her lips were the shiniest I’d ever seen them.

The excitement of seeing so much exposed skin on her was intoxicating. Was she finally opening herself up to me? Maybe she’d needed that time alone with Phil so she could forget him?

Such were my thoughts as we cuddled on her couch, the passion of our kisses growing with each pause for breath. My fumbling hands found the zipper at the base of her neck and began to glide the tab downward, slowly separating the teeth. The zipper offered no resistance and she didn’t either. I kept kissing her and she kept kissing me back.

The tab slid past her lower back and I paused to press my hand against her skin. It felt softer, smoother than I’d imagined. I slid the tab until it stopped at the top of her panties and then, unannounced, her dress tumbled from her shoulders revealing tiny bare breasts, perfect morsels. Instinctively I took one into my mouth.

I looked up into her eyes expecting an invitation to continue and saw instead the fear of a wounded, terrified, cornered doe. Guilt hit me. I suddenly felt a rapist.

I placed her dress back over her shoulders and slid the tab back up along her backbone, re-clenching the teeth along the way. I sat back against the throw pillows at the end of the couch catching my breath. She curled up against the pillows at the other end, the couch seeming twenty feet long.

I didn’t know what to say so I started, “Candy, I love…”
She interrupted, “If I ever get pregnant, I’ll die.”

As always with Candy, she was dramatic one day, calm the next. I saw her two days later and she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt for the first time since I met her. She always looked sexy to me, but that day she was making me dizzy.

We were having lunch at her apartment and I noticed an unopened letter on the counter. It was from him. She had it in plain sight just begging for me to notice it. When she saw I had, she said, “It’s over. I wanted you to see that so you could see this.” She picked it up and tore it in half, dramatically dropping the halves into the garbage.

Her gesture was a relief to me. But in bed that night I imagined her fishing it back out, reading it tearfully, and leaving the next day for Chicago, never to be seen again. It felt like a “do something now or it’s over” moment. The fear of losing her kept me awake.

The next day I called her best friend Marlene and asked her to meet me at the mall. We spent four hours going from one jewelry store to the next. I trusted she knew Candy’s taste better than anyone.

“What do you think?” I asked, pointing at a ½ carat Marquise.
“Have you dropped any hints?” she asked.
“Sure I have… Or do you think she’d prefer that one?” I pointed at a round cut.
“What has she said?” she asked.
“I think I like the round one best,” I said.
Quietly, she said, “No, I think she’s more of a Marquise girl.”

The whole time I knew her I only saw Candy drive once. She was terrified, but she wouldn’t tell me why. She just insisted that I always drive. This complicated my big evening.

I wanted to pop the question in my living room before a roaring fire after a nice meal over glasses of wine. It was just some romantic image I had floating through my head. This meant that I would have to drive across town to pick her up and drive her all the way back to my place, something sure to arouse suspicion. She’d never seen my house before.

“Where are we going?” she asked.
“It’s a surprise.” I said.
“Oh,” she said.

I pulled into my driveway and parked. “I thought it was about time you saw my place,” I said.

I hopped out and started toward the door and saw that she was still sitting in the car. Like a gentleman, I went back and opened her door for her. I allowed her to go ahead of me. “After you,” I said.

I unlocked the front door and pushed it inward. She hovered over the threshold for a moment before going inside. Dinner had been slow cooking all day. “It smells really good in here,” she finally said.

And it did. I had everything planned. I was setting the perfect mood. The table was set and candles were already flickering in the dimly lit dining room. I’d been waiting for years to finally share my house with someone. Hopefully my queen-sized bed too that I’d bought two years earlier at the urging of a lady friend. She’d told me, “Come on. Go for it. You won’t be a bachelor forever.”

I took her coat, folded it carefully, and draped it on my bed. I returned to find her fiddling with my stereo, my copy of Kind of Blue in her hands. I remember thinking, “Girl has taste.” I took the record from her and told her to make herself at home while I put it on. Soon, we were relaxing on the couch, her with her eyes closed and head back, and me enjoying the sight of her while the strains of Miles Davis drifted through the room.

Dinner went as planned. Everything tasted perfect and by the third glasses of wine we were both laughing and listening to records like two college roommates.

As we moved to the fireplace with a fire already blazing, I was just drunk enough, just relaxed enough, and just happy enough to ignore how fast my heart was racing. The moment was here. Now I just had to do it.

“Candy. I said I have a surprise for you,” I said.
“Yes. Thank you. The evening has been wonderful,” she said.
“Yes it has. And I’m hoping we can have many more wonderful evenings,” I said, pulling the ring out of my pants pocket and holding it before her. I’ll never forget how it sparkled by the light of the fire. “Candy, will you marry me?” I said.

I looked into her eyes. They were deep and green and beautiful. I couldn’t tell what they were seeing, though. They were looking somewhere, but they weren’t looking back into my eyes.

“Take me home,” she said.
“What’s wrong? Please try it on,” I said.

She took the ring from my outstretched hand and rolled it around in her fingers. She handed it back and started walking toward the door. I followed. I didn’t know what else to do. When she went out the door, it was my turn to pause, hovering over the threshold. Then I stepped out into the night, closing the door behind us.

We drove back to her apartment in silence. She let herself out and as she closed the door I spoke my last word to her, “Candy…”

I started to feel the wine as I slowly drove home. I was lucky the cops were somewhere else that evening. Getting pulled over would’ve really made my night. When I got home, I poked at the embers until they were no longer glowing, went to the bathroom and stood before the mirror wondering why that guy staring back was such a loser, and then went to bed.

I finally started sobbing when I turned on my bedroom light and saw Candy’s coat still draped carefully across my queen-sized bed.

I type “Candy Morrison Phil” into Google and sit staring at the screen. Damn, Phil. Phil what? Candy never said his last name. Adding just “Phil” to my search isn’t going to get me any closer to the truth. It’ll just take me to a nude model with very large breasts again.

I click the search button anyway.

About a week after the big evening, I got a call from Marlene.

“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Candy packed up and left for Chicago yesterday. I’ve never seen her like this,” she said.

I was speechless. I wasn’t over Candy. How can you get over someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with in only six days? I was still hoping she’d change her mind and ask me for the ring. It took me another two weeks after she left before I finally returned it to the jeweler.

“Scott? Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes. Sorry. I have to go,” I said and hung up.

For the next two months, I didn’t do much. I sat around the house. I’d lost my taste for Kind of Blue and started listening to The Rolling Stones while drinking Jack Daniels. I remember “Dead Flowers” being a favorite.

I would go out and take long drives, nowhere in particular. One day, I was at a stop light and a familiar car drove through the intersection, a VW bug, vintage ’64. It jumped right out at me. It was light blue and had these funny, homemade bumpers made of oak. It belonged to Candy’s dad. But what made my heart race was Candy was driving.

When the light changed, I followed. She was driving slowly, cautiously as if the car was as fearful as her. I kept a safe distance feeling like a private investigator in some film noir. I followed her to the edge of town and away toward the mountains. We headed up the pass. I remembered her saying “Isn’t this drive gorgeous?” And I looked about and thought “Yes. It is.”

I knew where she was going long before she got there. It was no surprise that she took the turnoff for Snoqualmie Falls. I wondered why she was going there. The only time she’d ever been there was with me on our first date. Was she re-living that day? She parked near the lookout point and I parked at the far end of the parking lot and watched her from my car.

She got out and walked over to the railing and started fiddling with the coin operated telescope. There was a mom with her little girl standing nearby. The girl was licking a huge, rainbow colored lollypop. Candy kept looking over at them and then pretending to peer through the telescope.

The mom and girl wandered away out of sight eventually and I decided it was my chance to go try to talk to her. But before I could open the car door, in the blink of an eye, Candy climbed up onto the railing and jumped. I ran to the edge as fast as I could and looked down. Through the mist, I could see her body on the rocks far below.

I think “George,” “George Morrison.” That was her dad’s name. I type “Candy George Morrison Seattle” into Google and click “I’m feeling lucky.” And suddenly I find myself reading an obituary. George died just a few weeks ago from a freak fall from a ladder. He was survived by Candy (Morrison) Oaks and two grandchildren Jason and Olivia Oaks ages nine and eleven.

Oaks! Phil Oaks! I type “Candy Phil Oaks Chicago” into Google and there she is, or rather there they are. The first suggested image is of little Olivia holding up a trophy and wearing a swimsuit. Little Jason is frowning and Phil has his hand on Olivia’s shoulder. He’s smiling proudly.

Off to one side, a distance away, is Candy – looking older, but still my Candy. My eyes go straight to her hands tightly clutching the sleeves of her long, chaste wool dress.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Finn and Sam

The fingers of his left hand nimbly dance up and down the fret board, his right hand motionlessly plucking the strings in fanciful patterns. What comes out is from some magical place between folk and classical.

Finn has been playing guitar for seventeen years, ever since he was a boy of eight, but he’s never played with such passion. He’s performing for Sam, trying to set the mood. There’s a diamond ring resting in the pocket of his jeans draped over the bedpost waiting for the right moment, a moment they’ve both been anticipating since Valentine’s Day when she gave him pink heart shaped candies with the words “Marry Me” printed in rose red.

She’s 23. Her full name is Samantha, but don’t get caught calling her that. She’s sturdy, stocky and a Tomboy with a capital T. She wears her blond hair clipped short – to keep it out of her way. Brushing hair away from one’s eyes may be flirtatious fun for her friends, but it has no place in her life. Finn loves her hair short. Better to see her dazzling green eyes, her most striking feature. He’s been smitten since their first date when he narrowly escaped drowning in them.

Finn is her soul mate. He’s wiry, quiet and quick of foot and a bit softly effeminate of voice. His shadow could pass for a boy or a girl and nobody would think twice if he walked out the door one day wearing eye-liner or a wig. But androgyny can be a curious thing. He’s slight, but that didn’t keep him off the football field each fall. He could outrun the entire conference and was impossible to bring down. He wasn’t strong. He simply avoided being caught.

Sam is reclining on the bed with Finn, her head lazy from pot, his music fluttering about and smoke drifting over and through the curves of their naked bodies. She smiles, her mind lingering over the passions of the past hour. She looks up and is startled to see him smiling back. She blushes, kisses him on the rear end, and hops off the bed.

“I’m going to make coffee,” she says. She leaves, still naked, while Finn stretches out and continues playing, louder so Sam can still hear.

She pauses before entering the kitchen. The windows are boarded up, there are cracked open cases of canned food in the corner, and bottles of water line the counter top. She hesitates, wishing this reality would go away. She still hears him playing, but other sounds now fill her head – horrible, clawing, incessantly scratching sounds. She carefully pulls a knot-hole from a board covering the window and peeks outside. Her thighs begin to tremble slightly and she slaps them to make them stop.

“You really shouldn’t look outside?” Finn says as he covers her shoulders with her robe.

She slides the knot back into place and picks up a bottle of water. She crosses herself and says, “Please dear Mary,” before turning the knob on the stove. Flames ignite and burn brightly. They both know the day is coming when her prayer will no longer be answered. She starts making coffee.

“Time for my chore,” he says.
“Screw domesticity,” she says.
“You’re still making coffee,” he says.
She shrugs.

“I’ll be quick. Latch the door behind me.” Still naked, he plucks up a bag of garbage. “I’ll be quick. Don’t want anyone to see my bare ass.”

He unlatches the kitchen door and dashes outside; she quickly latches it behind him. She plucks the knot back out of the board covering the window and watches, her thighs immediately trembling again. She doesn’t care now.

Finn reaches the middle of the yard and then does a skidding, sharp turn like a character in a Roadrunner cartoon. Then he angles toward the end of the driveway where a dumpster has been pushed as far from the house as possible until its wheels got stuck in a patch of grass and mud. You can see the smell. Garbage bags are spilling all about. Garbage men stopped coming long ago. He makes it to the dumpster, but it is always the trip back that’s tricky.

The first to appear, blocking his path is Mr. Christianson from two houses down the street. He used to be a plumber and always wore the same green overalls and red cap. He always had a lively skip to his step, clearly a happy plumber. Today though, like every other day lately, he’s changed. He’s still wearing the cap and the overalls, but the skip has left his step. Instead, he staggers a bit sideways and then lunges forward, gradually moving about. His face is tight like a mask, frozen in a final grimace from the day he died. There’s tattered flesh on the side of his neck, rotten, dangling, and gray. His eyes stare ahead, determined.

Then, out of the corners of her eye, more appear, two from the left, three from the right, all of them blocking Finn’s path back to safety. Her thighs tremble faster.

Finn has been here before though. He gets a kick out of it. He gets down into a three-point stance, looks to the left, then to the right, and is off and running. He runs straight up to Mr. Christianson, stopping just short of his groping grasp, tweaks his red cap playfully and is around him with a quick sidestep and a twirl. He makes similarly easy work with the others as well, but he always cuts it too close for Sam. Her whole body is trembling as she unlatches the door, lets him in, and pushes it shut behind him. He notices her trembling and takes her in his arms and holds her.

She returns to the stove. He returns to the bedroom. She can hear the notes from his guitar again drifting out the bedroom door, down the hall, and through the living room as she pours two cups of coffee. She turns around and... One of the cups crashes to the floor.

Outside, Mr. Christianson slowly turns to see Finn prance back into the house. The other zombies gathering in the yard – nine by the time Finn escaped – all look confused and dejected, if such feelings can be attributed to the walking dead. But Mr. Christianson presses on, side-stepping and lunging after Finn as he has so many times previously. It’s a routine. Everything in the life of the dead is routine. Finn’s adventures outside are what he – uh – lives for.

He reaches the door. He stumbles against it and turns to stumble away, but is surprised to see the door swing inward. He wavers side to side with uncertainty and then shuffles inside. And there she is just a few feet away. He lets out a groan that emanates from his bowels as she turns toward him holding coffee cups, startled. Fear glazes her eyes. Her mouth opens but is silent. She drops one of the cups with a crash.

He lunges toward her. She’s trapped. She tries to run past him, but he reaches out and grabs hold. Zombies are dead, but they’re remarkably strong. She is in his grasp, helpless. She screams “Inside!” as rotting teeth sink into her shoulder.

Finn is relaxing on the bed, wiggling into his jeans with one hand while strumming his guitar with the other when he hears the cup shatter across the floor and hears her scream.

And he is instantly in motion, no movement wasted. He’s rehearsed this moment in his mind many times while hoping the tables would be turned and it would be Sam rushing to his aid. He’s off the bed in a flash, the guitar bouncing on the sheets, the box still ringing with his final notes. He runs from the room.

He grabs a Ruger Blackhawk from a holster on the wall in the hall without looking. No need to check if it’s loaded. It always is. He dashes through the living room and skids into the kitchen taking in the situation at a glance. Two more zombies are halfway in through the open door. Point blank he puts a bullet through the head of the first one and he crumples to the kitchen floor. He kicks the other in the chest and she tumbles backwards outside. He slams the door and latches it.

He turns, places the barrel against Mr. Christianson’s head and pulls the trigger. Brains and skull spray the kitchen wall. Sam breaks free and collapses into Finn’s arms. He holds her. They’re both sobbing now. A tear runs down his cheek as he watches blood from her bite wound pulse out, flow down her arm, and drip into a puddle on the floor.

Sam is breathing quickly and shallowly. Her shoulder is bandaged and she’s propped up against pillows on the bed. He takes the ring from his pocket and slips it onto her left ring finger. This, ever so briefly, coaxes out Sam’s last little smile.

Finn sits facing her, serenading her. The revolver rests on the bed beside him. He sings:

“Childhood living is easy to do/The things you wanted, I bought them for you/Graceless lady, you know who I am/You know I can't let you slide through my hands…”

The passion in his playing is laced with melancholy, the sadness a musician feels during a final performance. While he plays, he watches Sam’s final performance.

Every time she takes a breath, there is a terrible rattling sound in her chest like she’s drowning and her eyes become frightened. When she exhales, her arms stiffen and then she finds a bit of peace for a moment. And then the whole thing happens all over again, each time the peace lasting just a bit longer. Finally, the peace goes on and on. She doesn’t inhale again. Her head rolls slightly against the pillows and her eyes close.

Finn lays the guitar on the bed and picks up the revolver. He studies her face; waiting for the moment he knows is coming. Death always follows the same script nowadays.

It starts with her legs cramping up, toes turning inward. Then there is a gurgle from her belly and a flatulent smell. Her arms curl into an awkward position with her palms facing upward, her hands twisting into claws. Then her neck stretches to its full length and the skin on her face draws tight, her mouth assuming a wild animal snarl. And then her eyes pop open, staring straight ahead.

He tries not to meet her gaze. He just lifts the revolver and points it at her head. He closes his eyes and silently prays and then opens them again. She is sitting upright and one hand is groping toward him. And then his eyes meet hers and he can’t help it. He’s smitten all over again. Everything about her has become grotesque from head to toe, except her eyes, those dazzling green eyes as deep as the deepest pond. There’s nothing to save him this time. He drowns in them, willingly.

Finn forms a box with his hands, blocks everything else out, and looks into Sam’s eyes. And he suddenly has his love back on the bed with him. There is no horror in those eyes, no hunger to devour, just desperate pleading.

The gun drops from his hand. He blows her a kiss and walks from the room. He opens the kitchen door and goes outside. The zombies have dispersed and he heads toward the woods behind the house. He’s in no hurry. As long as he keeps walking, he knows they won’t be able to catch him.

He walks deep into the woods, darker and still deeper, until he abruptly emerges into a clearing. He stands before an almost perfectly round pool with a stream trickling in on one side and another trickling the water away again on the other. There is a bit of sand and a bench. He sits facing the water.

He and Sam used to come here to relax before the zombies. He has so many memories here with her. Now, they flood is mind.

He used to be so nervous when he performed on amateur nights at the Sand Dollar. He’d spend his minutes of preparation in the men’s room trying to throw up, but failing. Not even that relief was going to help get him through the evening. He’d take the stage and sheepishly gaze into the darkness, lights glaring in his eyes. He’d start playing, fearing that his fingers had forgotten what to do, but the music always found its way out. He was never sure what the crowd thought. All he’d hear was shuffling of chairs and clinking of bottles.

One night when he wrapped up and started putting his guitar back into its case, he heard polite applause and was pleased that it lasted long enough to seem sincere. Then he heard a single voice coming from far away, booing.

He got up to leave and turned as the house lights came up. He could see a young woman seated at a table in the far corner booing; or rather it was a parody of booing. She kept cupping her hands over her smiling mouth to help her voice carry and then she’d resume clapping. When she realized she’d been spotted, she waved. A waitress arrived at the same moment and sat two beers on the table.

They wasted no time. The evening’s conversation covered all the bases. Same religion: check. Both wanted kids: check. Both wanted about three kids: check. (She preferred boys, he girls.) Who is better, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles? Why, the Kinks of course: check. They were between the sheets together that night. Within a week, they didn’t bother with sheets, they just ran out into the woods, stripped, and jumped into the pond together.

One night, they pitched a tent just a few feet from the water’s edge. They spent the night making love to a symphony of crickets and frogs. He awoke in the morning while she was still sleeping. While walking back to the house to shower for work he noticed something in his pockets, pebbles maybe? He started pulling out little Valentine’s Day candies, every one bearing the words “Marry Me.” He turned around and spent the entire day with her in that tent.

Finn hears the crunching of leaves and turns his head, expecting to see zombies, perhaps with Mr. Christianson leading the way. Instead, he sees Sam slowly moving toward him. She’s gripping his guitar in one hand, its body dragging the ground emanating curious vibrations like music.

She staggers up to the bench and stands wavering above him. She slumps down beside him and sinks her teeth into his throat. He reacts as if they’re making out. He doesn’t pull away. She growls hungrily. He wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes.

He falls, taking her to the grass with him. He opens his eyes to see her face and cringes. Then he regains his courage, forming a square with his hands so he can only see her green eyes. He begins to shiver calmly and closes his eyes again.

The next time he opens them, they will be together, forever.