Fiction, Unpublished

Night Train

 

 

“Mom, why does the moon have quarters?”

“Because if it didn’t have quarters it couldn’t get full.”

“Oh.” At times Jax just needed to hear an answer. “Mom, are you mad at Dad?”

“No, Jax, we just had,” she looked away from his trusting face, “a disagreement. That’s all. Now get your stuff together. Daddy’ll be here any minute and he’s got something fun planned.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“What’s the surprise?” He looked at her, face relaxed, eyes round.

She squatted down in front of him. “Well Jax, if I told you what it was, it wouldn’t be a surprise. And it’s a good surprise. It’ll be fun.

 

At night the trains pass her new house. Their sound begins unnoticed, grows louder, rattles the windows, and then diminishes nearly to silence and sometimes beyond, cut off by what in longer spans might pass for sleep. The trains are relentless. There is always another, and she is awakened to her particular reality again and again in a cycle that seems to have no relief.

The whistles announce every small crossing, some with just an X beside the road – scant warning for the distracted driver. When she has no lover she counts for sleep, but when it comes the whistles penetrate and darken her dreams, more horrible and more substantial than almost anything in her waking world.

Lying in pale light she feels tonight’s lover join her. Down miles of track, another train approaches. The sounds of wheels and engine ride the flat ground over dew-wet fields of soy, corn, okra. The whistle comes trough the window and into the bedroom where she buries herself in the lover’s rhythm. She is unable not to imagine the riders, crossing county after county, at once a part of and removed from the violent passage they have joined.

 

Jax jumped up when he heard the car. “Daddy’s here,” he squealed and ran to the door. She picked up his bag and checked for toothbrush, pajamas, and Willy, and zipped it. When she got to the door Chris was there, but Jax was halfway to the car.

She handed the bag to Chris and said, “I told him you had a fun surprise.”

“Great, now I’ve got expectations.”

His cheekbones seemed to jut out more than she remembered and there were new wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. “Try not to disappoint.” She tried to smile, but didn’t feel it.

 

Before the train gets near, the lover looses concentration and his rhythm unsteadies. He convulses, stops, rolls aside and his eyes meet hers briefly in a flash of moonlight, more puzzlement than promise.

The train continues; the whistle calls, “I am coming,” not an idle threat. The vibration of steel on steel guarantees an arrival, a passage, a recession. She thinks of other riders, disembarking on a country siding, their faces gape-mouthed at the awesome destructive power of their conveyance.

She is startled. The whistle is different, wrong. It’s more insistent. She sits bolt upright. Her lover half rolls, wakened from his own sleep to look up at her from arm’s length.

She sucks in air and holds still, fists full of sheet, and begins to shake.

“What?” he asks.

“Shhhhh,” she responds softly first and then short and sharp as steam “shhh.” The beat between the whistles is too short. No time to catch her breath from one blast to the next. There is something on the track. It’s the junction of her waking nightmare – she knows the spacing of the trains on the tracks, knows the time.

 

 

She handed Chris the boy’s bag and watched as he buckled Jax into the car seat. The day had been warm for early spring. The stars were just emerging from an indigo sky. She turned her face from the car.

 

 

She thinks, ‘Don’t let it be a car stuck on the track,’ and out loud she whispers “not tonight.” But the Doppler drops and this train is now past its point of closest passage – it is not her junction this time, not her family.

“What? Are you alright?” the lover asks.

“Please leave,” she says quietly.

“What’s wrong,” he asks, false tenderness unable to cover his confusion.

“Get out,” she says, and then kicking off the sheets, “Get out of here.”

Alone again in the dark she dresses slowly, quietly, the silence between trains cut by sounds of zipper, snap and buckle. She walks outside and leans out so she can see the distant, empty track. The full moon, close to setting, illuminates a thin line flowing over soft hills, shining like silver, empty and frail. She thinks of Jax, the car pulling away, and tries to remember a smile on his face.

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Fiction, Short Story, Unpublished

The Dew Falls like Rain

The Dew Falls like Rain

(Unpublished – please contact the author if you wish to publish this story)

Marg and her husband Frank were in the kitchen with their dog. Frank was sitting at the table and Marg was picking up the dishes. She had just put her plate, still with a few peas trapped by mashed potatoes, on top of Frank’s empty plate when the call came. The dog stood up with nervous feet. Marg stopped and stared at the plates in her hands and Frank tilted his half empty wine glass. Marg was expecting Jerry to call, but this call was early. In a few minutes Frank would be in the den watching the news. He never missed it, and that gave Marg a little time to talk with Jerry.

Another ring and the dog’s thin black nose pointed at the phone and then back at Marg. Marg clattered the plates in the sink and picked up the phone before the third ring died in the bell. The dog sat back down with her nose low and eyes on Marg.

Marg held the phone to her ear without speaking and when she glanced at Frank he gestured with his hand to get her to talk. “Hello?” the voice on the phone expected someone to answer.

“Hello,” Marg said after a deep breath.

“Good evening, is this Marg Henderson,” the receiver buzzed in her ear and she relaxed. It wasn’t Jerry.

Frank held his glass up to see the color of the wine in the overhead light. She used to love to watch Frank drink a glass of wine, loved everything about Frank back then, but she didn’t feel that way so much anymore. In fact, he mostly irritated her now and she turned her face away and watched the dog lap water from her bowl by the back door. The dog kept an eye on Frank while she drank and it was endearing, even if it did make her look a little paranoid.

“Yes it is, well, Marg Green now, what…” Marg answered, hesitantly, “How did you get my number?” She held the black phone cord in her hand while she talked.

“This is William Pruitt. I’m a lawyer. I got your number from Sam Walters. Well he had it in his address book. I’m afraid I have some bad news Mrs. Green. Is this a good time?” The voice on the phone was diffident, but confident and too calm.

She had known Sam Walters as long as she could remember and he’d never given anyone her number before, and he’d never called her. “Is this a good time?” She repeated the question with eyes on Frank, thinking it was not. She wanted Frank in the den when Jerry’s call came. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Jerry, but she knew she wanted to talk to him.

“Well I’ve got some bad news,” said the voice on the phone. Frank looked at her with the edge of his eye. The voice continued, “I need to speak to you for a few minutes.”

“Okay, go ahead.” She coiled the cord around her index finger and her eyes turned back to the solid black phone, its dial still, like a broken clock. This stranger’s bad news would not affect her, would not impact her.

“It’s about Sam Walters.”

“Yes,” she said breathing in. She looked at Frank, and then continued, turning toward the phone, hearing her own voice vibrating through the receiver, “what is it?”

“It’s bad news,” the voice stopped and waited. She tried to invent bad scenarios involving Sam, but at their core they were all the same and she felt her thoughts drawn from the call she was expecting. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” it paused again, “but Mr. Walters passed away two days ago.” The voice said that and stopped talking, and Marg forced herself to breathe in again. She pulled the phone cord against her neck and glanced at Frank and his eyebrows pushed up wrinkles in his forehead.

“What? Who is this?” she asked.

“I’m the executor of Mr. Walter’s estate, William Pruitt, Attorney at Law,” said the voice, defensively official.

“Passed away? What happened? Three weeks ago he was fine.”

“Well, Mr. Walters wasn’t young, you know, and two days ago he had a heart attack. The mailman found him in his driveway, next to an overturned wood cart. He was beyond help when they got him to the doctor.”

“But he was healthy,” she protested.

“He’d been chopping wood, must’ve overdone it. He’d cut and split more than a face cord, and he was hauling it, a bit at a time it seems, down the drive when he collapsed. That’s how they found him.”

“Down the drive?” she asked more to herself than to the phone. “What…” She turned her back to Frank and leaned against the counter and it hit her right on the waistband of her black stretch pants. “He looked after us, he looked after our cabin.”

The last time she’d seen Sam was three weeks ago when she’d taken the dog to the cabin for a secret rendezvous with Jerry. Sam had seen her car pull in the drive, and he had brought over a wheelbarrow of seasoned firewood to counter an early autumn chill.

Now the voice on the phone was saying, “Yes, I’m sorry,” it paused. “There will be a memorial service in Blairsville tomorrow morning at 11:00 and a reading of the will immediately following.”

She put her hand flat on the counter and leaned on it until her bodyweight started to pull her shoulder blade away from her spine and her shoulder hit her earlobe. Three weeks ago she’d told Frank she had to winterize the cabin. In truth, Sam took care of winterizing the cabin and it wouldn’t be needed for another month, but Frank didn’t pay attention to the seasons.

Shortly after Jerry arrived at the cabin, Marg put the dog outside and she darted off, nose to the ground, eyes in the trees. Marg wanted to go for a walk, crunching through the first fallen leaves that covered the ground around the cabin, but Jerry had other ideas.

The dog didn’t tolerate any intimacy with Marg and she was tenacious when she locked onto and idea. She moved like a dog much smaller than her 50 pounds, and she was wiry strong, very quick and had teeth like razors.

Jerry’s car was parked in behind a bank of rhododendrons just before the drive, and Sam hadn’t seen it. He’d been about finished stacking the wood when the dog cornered him and he’d stepped through the unlocked cabin door to get clear of her snapping teeth.

Now, in the kitchen, Marg let go of the phone cord and looked past the table to the dog. The dog lifted her ears high. “This is so… so sudden,” Marg said holding the receiver with both hands, shaking her head.

“Yes, it must be a shock,” the voice paused and then went on, “Mrs. Green, you’re named in the will. Mr. Walters left you a few personal items – nothing of any great value – and an old shotgun. I wanted you to have a chance to come to the service and to the reading if you could. It will be very short. I expect the reading will be over by 2:00pm and if everything goes smoothly, as I’m sure it will, you could take your things, just small items, and be home early.”

Frank put down his wine, held his hands in front of him palms up, his brows now pinching deep creases.

“Of course, we could ship the things to you, but the shotgun might be awkward, and I thought it might be more convenient, might be easier for you, if you wanted to have them sooner, if you could come up for the service and then to the reading of the will. I could give them to you then.”

“Who is it?” Frank whispered, but Marg turned away. She saw him glance at his watch with her peripheral vision.

The voice on the phone continued, “…and if there was any contention, from the family, not that that’s likely at all, but if there was, we could settle it right there.”

Marg took down the details about the service and the will and said, “I’ll be there.” Frank shook his head and held his hands out.

She put the receiver back on its cradle. “Who was that?” Frank asked, but the words just went into her ears and didn’t get through. The dog came over and leaned against Marg’s leg. “Marg? Frank repeated, and she looked at him. “Well, who was it?”

“Oh, that was a lawyer from Blairsville,” she said reaching down for The dog’s head, but the dog ducked out of the way with a quick motion so Marg patted her side with the back of her hand. Marg eyed Frank directly, “Sam died.”

“Who?”

“Sam Walters”

“Oh, the cabin neighbor?”

“Yes,” she said. Sam’s family had lived next door to the cabin since before Marg was born. “When I was a girl, He used to hunt birds with Granddaddy. He was the same age as my father, but daddy didn’t ever hunt or even shoot a gun,” she said.

Suddenly memory flooded back in vivid detail. When she was a girl, Marg’s family was gathered around the cabin fireplace. Her grandfather had spent the day hunting with Sam and as they relaxed by the fire sipping mulled wine, he’d said, ‘Sam, why didn’t my wife have you instead of that bookworm,’ and she thought that was a bad thing to say right in front of her father, but then everyone laughed. Marg’s mother looked at the floor and pretended to laugh, and Sam looked out the window with his muscles pulling his lips up into a sort of smile.

“Sam left me granddaddy’s shotgun and I need to go get it,” Marg said quietly in a single breath. She knew the gun. When she was a girl, Sam showed her how to press it against her shoulder and relax to avoid the kick. It was a 16-gage bird gun – too small for a grownup, and he let her carry it. She could not see all of the detail now, but she’d fired up into a tree, maybe there was a bird. The kick almost flattened her and when she looked up a man was falling out of the tree. His face was bleeding. Her grandfather cussed about poachers and Sam ran over, but he wasn’t moving. Her grandfather and Sam talked fast, and then she and her grandfather went home with Sam’s gun and Sam took granddad’s. Sam went to town and reported the accident and came home later without her grandfather’s gun. After that Sam didn’t go out with her grandfather anymore, and she never went hunting again.

Frank’s mouth puckered like it did when he was tasting wine, even though his glass was empty, and he said, “I’ve got meetings every day this week and in the morning Saturday, but we could go up Saturday afternoon and come back Monday morning.”

“No. The memorial service is tomorrow and I want to get up there. The dog lay down with a small grunt. Marg smiled at the dog, “I’ll go up in the morning.”

“You know I can’t cancel my meetings.”

“You don’t need to go,” she walked to the sink and picked up the plate with the mashed potatoes on it and scraped it into the trash. “I can manage by myself.” The dog lifted her head quickly and her floppy ears popped up and framed her narrow face. Marg pulled on rubber gloves, turned the hot water on full and started rinsing the dishes with her back to Frank.

 

Three weeks ago, Marg and Jerry had been about half on and half off the sofa at the cabin. Sam had walked through the door and closed it behind him to escape the dog. ‘Is everything alright?’ Sam had asked, startled to find Marg with clothes in disarray, in the carnal grip of a strange man. Sam was holding a good-sized piece of firewood, hand still on the doorknob. The dog barked wildly outside. Jerry jumped off of her and covered himself with a pillow. ‘Oh! Sam!’ Marg whispered, barely able to speak – Jerry had knocked the wind out of her when he jumped up. ‘I’m fine, we were just…,’ but the instant he recognized the situation, Sam had jumped back through the door and the dog’s barking shifted to a snarling growl. Marg pulled her clothes on and struggled for breath as she followed Sam. She got through the door just in time to see the dog’s teeth flash across his leg. He still held the firewood, but reached for her collar with the other hand. The dog scampered out of his reach leaving a bone-sized tear in his tough work pants. Marg caught the dog and would’ve helped Sam, but he was moving quickly down the driveway. “It just got the pants, don’t worry, just some old work pants,” he said waving over his shoulder without looking back.

 

In the kitchen Frank asked, “What will the neighbors think about your frequent trips to the cabin alone?” Steam rose in the sink.

She kept her back to Frank and wiped the side of her face against her shoulder. “They’ll think you’re busy at work and I have to go out of town for a funeral,” she finished rinsing the dishes, locked the stopper down with a quarter turn and squirted dishwashing liquid into the steamy, bubbling stream from the faucet, “anybody who bothers to ask. And who cares what anybody else thinks anyway?” She held a plate in the sudsy water and swirled the dish cloth vigorously around it and then passed it under the hot water and placed it in the drainer. She grabbed the other plate and repeated the process.

“I worry about you going up there, alone,” he thought for a moment, then continued, “what if something goes wrong at the cabin? What will you do with Sam gone?

The sink was full of scalding water. Marg plunged her hands in to feel for silverware, the water burned right through the gloves, but she kept them in until she’d found every piece, and then she just held them under the scalding water using the pain for strength. “I’ll be fine.” Marg didn’t look at Frank as she finished the dishes, but the dog stood up and pointed at Frank with her ears.

With the dishes done and the used dish water spiraling down the drain, she stared at Frank. The dog looked from Marg to Frank and back. Frank said, “If you want to go up there, I’m not going to stop you,” and he had no idea how true that was.

The phone rang again and she glanced at the clock and remembered Jerry. When Frank started for the phone she said, “You’re missing your news.”

Frank checked his watch, said, “Damn, it’s half over,” and started for the den, but stopped when the phone rang a second time. Marg stepped up and stood over the phone and looked at Frank, and then said “I’ll get it,” in a flat voice.

Frank tilted his head, and the dog leaned to one side with one foot off the floor and watched him.

Marg picked up the phone and said “hello,”

“Marg, can we talk?” it was Jerry.

“Oh hi, how are you?” she said into the receiver and watched Frank walk toward the den.

“Is he in the room?” Jerry asked.

“No. Go ahead, we’ve got a couple minutes,” she said, clipping her words.

Jerry said, “I want to see you, can we meet at your cabin this weekend?”

 

Their affair had begun on summer solstice at a party in her back yard. Well into the shortest night of the year, she and Jerry were talking alone and his eye sparkled starlight mixed with tiki torch, while he poured words over her, his voice soft as the summer air. “It’s a beautiful night, let’s go for a natural swim,” he’d said, and that’s when she knew for the first time she craved a man with a passion for nature.

Three weeks ago at the cabin, Marg had lain awake in the sleeping loft with Jerry snoring beside her. She couldn’t get Sam out of her mind, his running away holding the tear in his pants. She’d seen Sam so seldom over the years that she hated to leave it like that until the next time she could get to the cabin. Deep in the night, after replaying everything over and over, raindrops began to fall on the metal roof just over their heads, a soft steady rhythm, the sky washing the earth, and she fell asleep.

 

Now, she held the phone to her face thinking, ‘Equal parts dark and light, bad and good,’ trying to remember the poem Jerry had breathed into her ear on that first night last summer, while they held each other in the dark, warm pool under shimmering Sirius, the Dog Star, but it was hopeless.

Three weeks ago, Jerry had been eager to put the dog out of the cabin and get down to business. It was like his sense of romance was a temporary thing, a trick of summer stars.

“No Jerry, I don’t think so,” she said and then was quiet.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“You remember Sam Walters?”

“Oh yeah, at the cabin, he’s the one that caught us… with our pants down, so to speak,” he said, trying to make a joke.

“Yes,” she said making it a shorter word.

“What? Did he tell Frank?”

“Of course not, he didn’t say anything,” Marg said this louder than she meant to and clapped her hand over the receiver and tried to see around the corner into the den when she reached the end of the phone cord. The white of the dog’s eye flashed as she rolled her eye to Marg and then away.

When she was a girl, Sam had taken responsibility for the hunting accident even though he’d known it would ruin his reputation in the community. Her grandfather had protested at first, but Sam had convinced him it was better to spare Marg the trauma of the inquiry; of knowing how badly the hunter was hurt. She didn’t understand that short, overheard conversation, or learn that the hunter had died, until much later.

She went on in a softer voice, “Sam was one of those people you could count on completely. He either liked you or he didn’t, and if he liked you he accepted you as is. He would never have said anything. He…,” her voice broke and she struggled to gain composure as the emotional weight of Sam’s passing hit her for the first time. She thought of her father’s death years before. This was worse. “He’s dead.”

There was a brief silence from Jerry, and then he said with a hint of relief, “He died?” then more sympathetically, “Oh, I’m sorry. He seemed like a nice man.”

 

Three weeks ago, she’d needed the sound of the rain and the thought of it sifting from heaven to get to sleep. When she awoke, the rain was still softly on the roof. But when she pulled herself up and looked out the window, the sky was clear and the sun had reddened the east. There was a mist rising from the creek and the branches over the cabin dripped with dew. There had been no rain and that made her cry.

 

“I want to see you, Marg, can you come out tonight? Maybe make a trip to the drugstore? Tell me what to get and I’ll get it and meet you in the parking lot.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, wondering if her answer would have been different if she could’ve taken the shotgun with her; could’ve felt its cold weight on her lap while she waited. “I’ve got to hang up now.”

“How about tomorrow?” he asked, his voice rising slightly.

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to see you any more,” she said and he was quiet for a while. “Good bye,” she said.

“I’ll call you next week, let you think,” he said quickly.

“No. Don’t call. It’s better this way. It’s not going to work out with us…,” she said.

“But that night in the pool, that was…,” Jerry’s voice sounded small and dry through the receiver, “it was the best.”

“It was natural then, that once,” she said to Jerry, “but now that’s just a memory. I want something solid.” She thought of when she was a girl, how Sam had warned her about the kick of the shotgun, how it hurt when she pulled the trigger the first time.

Jerry didn’t respond. “I’ve got to go, now,” she said, “good bye.” She quickly placed the receiver down on its cradle and let her fingers linger on the plastic, still warm from her grip.

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Uncategorized

Dark Light

 

 

 

Dark Light

(Unpublished – please contact author if you wish to publish this story)

 

Something moved outside the window. In the apartment across the alley, through the glass something moved too quickly. He stopped, bent, standing in his living room, watching. When he stopped, it stopped. He held his breath to listen, his heartbeat dominated. All he ever saw from that apartment was light; blue light, green light, white light, even dark light. It slashed out through cracked open blinds, in horizontal bands, from what must have been a huge television. The motion that stopped him was too close for that.

With settling apprehension that pecked at the edges of his composure, he realized it was a reflection moving across his window glass. Jillie had been on his mind, and his first wild thought was that it was Jillie moving behind him, reflected in the glass. But of course it could not be her.

It was him. His reflection in the glass of his window, moving, stopping.

This was the third time today that a reflection had fooled him. It was the third time he had looked out a window and mistaken a reflection for something other than what it was. He turned off all the lights and went to bed.

 

“Are you with me Jillie?” he asked glancing at her and then walking down the beach away from his car. She started to follow. He stepped, stone to stone, through a tidal pool. He did not look back, but he listened. He hoped she was close behind, trusted. “Are you with me,” he repeated.

“I’m with you,” the sound was small coming from behind, but carried well over the sound of surf on sand. Her voice reflected up from the stones below his feet with the soothing quality of good news, and it buoyed him, his heart lifting in his chest.

Earlier in the day she had bumped into him on the sidewalk outside a diner, a coincidence. Now her bare feet brushed the stones like the whispered slap of a bird’s wing grazing water.

“I feel like I know you. Have you ever been to Maryland?” he asked hopefully, trying to put the pieces together, trying to understand how her voice could fit so perfectly in his ear.

“No, not in this life,” she said, “should I?” She paused beside him, feet on stone. He reached for her face, but pulled his hand back when he caught her eyes on his.

“Only if you’re interested in my personal history or crabs,” he said and then added quickly, “Maryland has the best blue crab.”

Her nostrils flared, grabbing extra air before she laughed. “Then I’d like to come.” Her ear was punctured with tiny holes from the swelling of the lobe up the side and around the top, but she wore no earrings. “Do you live there – when you’re not on vacation?”

“No, but I know the way,” he said, not yet sure he wanted her to know where he lived, and then he added, “I’d love to take you there.” She laughed again, and he wondered if he’d responded too quickly, too eagerly. She faced away from him and then cut her eyes at him. They were crystalline amber with deep pupils that seemed revealing and inviting, and when she closed them half way, they were also frightening.

He touched her first on her arm, almost by accident. He touched her near the elbow with the back of his hand. Walking along the water, their wet feet picking up sand, she got so close he had to look up. He brushed her arm with his knuckles. She stopped and looked at him, but instead of telling her her brown hair had a thousand colors, he blurted out, “There’s a bird,” and gestured to a sand piper running along the wet beach just ahead of the last wave.

She looked at the bird and said, “un hunh.” Her skin was warm and he could feel the hair on her arm. She held her arm out to prolong the contact; that’s what it seemed like. At the time he didn’t believe the world was that kind of place, where he would meet a girl like Jillie and touch her and have her respond as she might have in a dream he controlled. She was too perfect for that.

She kept her eye on the bird, following its sprint down the beach. It stayed just ahead of the wavelets, so adept it seemed the piper would never get his feet wet. And then he darted into a receding wave and pulled up a morsel and gobbled it down. He shook his head once, twice, three times, and then with a flap of his wings floated on the breeze back to dry sand. She took quick steps toward the bird, leaving his hand in mid air.

When he caught up with her Jillie took his arm, held it tight against her ribs, pointed and asked, “What’s that?”

He knew she didn’t care what the bird was eating, that she did it for the touch. His pulse raced. He felt like he was watching Jillie and himself from close by. He wanted to tell her something that would capture her attention, make her move closer, but when he opened his mouth he said only, “I’m sure it was a mole crab, the sand is full of them just under the water.”

 

Lying with her, well hidden in a hollow in the dunes, he said, “I want to see you again, in real life,” and she studied him without responding, the flush still deep in her cheeks. He had to look away from her gaze. “Where do you live?” he asked.

“This isn’t going any further,” she said.

“Why,” he asked feebly, feeling the day crashing from it’s climax, reeling, not knowing how long it would be before he would land, “don’t you want it to?”

Her skin was hot against him. With each breath the rise of her chest ground sand across his hip. Her foot scratched the top of his as she pushed against him. “You’ll go your way, I’ll go mine,” she said, her eyes different, flatter, but still frightening when he looked directly into them. “You’re beautiful, but you’ve got a life that’s not on this beach,” she said. “So do I,” She looked away and began to withdraw.

He started to say something, anything, to hold on to the moment, but there was nothing. She laid her cheek against his shoulder and the grains from the beach dug into his bare skin as she used that pressure to regain her balance.

The sky was gray. He thought he’d been aware of everything, the hollow sound of the breeze in the sea oats, the cries of the gulls, and the pound of the surf. He had closed his eyes in long blinks, like gasps for breath, where he shut out her face so he could see it better, study the after image of her open eyes reflecting blue sky, her wrinkled brow, her eyes finally squeezed closed. Even as he felt her quaking from inside out, launching him into temporary, pounding oblivion, he was seized by a painful ache that began as longing and ended as fear and a sickening compulsion to cling.

Now, lying on his side, breath coarse, face to the sky, skin cool where Jillie had been pressed against him, the blue had gone deep gray and he’d missed something. What happened to the sky they’d walked under? Lain under? It seemed a long time had passed. Like this was a different day, a different life. He didn’t realize the extent of the discontinuity until after he stopped the car to let her out. She leaned against the passenger door as far from him as possible and refused to give him her number. “Then let me give you mine,” he said, but he couldn’t find anything to write on, and when she said nothing, he wrote his home phone number on her knee. Her eyes coolly reflected the gray sky. “You want my address too?” he asked.

“The number is enough,” she said and touched his hand, still resting on her knee with the pen, and then moved his hand off. His life would now be divided – before Jillie and after Jillie, and he didn’t realize that once he left the beach he would not be able to find her again.

 

Back in his apartment he could not sleep. When he closed his eyes he saw bright light of all colors ripping through black darkness. It made him think about what would happen next, and he caught his breath.

He had grown to think of that day with Jillie on the beach as his best and his worst. Since then, time was simultaneously drawn out and contracted until he had no real sense of how long ago it had been. He squeezed his eyes tight closed and listened for her voice, trying to remember its timbre. “I’ll call you when I get back home,” it might have said, or “I’ll miss you.”

All he heard was the faint rush of water from the plumbing in the apartment wall. He couldn’t remember her using his name at all. He had forgotten to write his name on her knee. He turned over onto his stomach and pulled the pillow over his head and down tight until his heartbeat dominated, and his pulse in his ears was like distant surf.

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Fiction, Short Story, Unpublished

Absence

Absence

(Unpublished – contact author if you’d like to publish this story)

Lydia was folding clothes. The light in their laundry closet bounced off her bright hair and against their kitchen window and back to him. As usual, she was not paying attention to him. She was focused on her task. He faced the window, and her reflection bobbed into and out of sight as she bent to pick up clothes from the dryer. The reflection seemed wrong. It looked so unlike her that he had to keep both Lydia and her reflection in sight for a sequence of moves to convince himself that both were Lydia. But even while he watched them moving together, Lydia and her reflection seemed to have two entirely different purposes.

As he finished soaping the dishes, Lydia bent down, picked up a napkin, shook it with a pop, folded it in the air and put it into the basket on the other folded clothes of like color. He looked at the soapy dishes. He didn’t look back at Lydia’s image in the window because he didn’t like the idea that her reflection could have a purpose beyond that of its creator.

He picked up each plate and ran it under the hot water and kept his attention on the dishes until he couldn’t stand it anymore. When he looked back to the window, Lydia’s reflection had moved on without a sound and he saw only his own head, which was oddly shaped from the back-lighting.

Leaning up close to the glass, he looked around the room to see where Lydia might’ve gone. He leaned over the dish drainer, bristling with silverware, and nearly lost his balance. Even though he could see all but the dark corners of the room in the window glass, there was no sign of Lydia or her errant reflection.

Still facing out of his apartment, he picked up the dish towel and massaged his hands dry with the worn, damp, cloth. “I’m going to take a bath,” he thought he heard her say. It startled him because he hadn’t seen her in the window, but when he turned back to the glass her reflection was walking away.

 

He lay down on the sofa. The radio played classic jazz, soft, and felt the strain of worried days begin to flee his body. He was paralyzed with comfort. The sofa was soft and firm at the same time and he closed his eyes, just for a moment. He heard the water in the bathroom, or maybe it was rain.

 

The cushions felt too soft. Lydia was standing over him wearing her straight black dress, pushing simple pearl earrings, black pearl studs, through her lobes. “Come on, you don’t want to be late, you’ll have to sit in front,” she said, smiling. She had turned his radio off.

His lips worked to say “I love you,” but he was unable to speak. No air came through his lips, and she was gone down the hall, her black pumps clicking on the heart pine.

 

He woke again. It felt like he’d been waking at this time, on this sofa, for weeks, but as soon as he was fully awake he realized that he’d just awakened the once. Lydia in black was a dream.

 

Off the sofa and back in the kitchen, he thought he saw something in the glass. He threw open the window. It was outside his apartment. It was a possum, its gray fur matted and dripping. The possum was startled by the sliding window and bonging of counter weights in the sash. It stopped in its tracks. It faced him sideways and hissed through open mouth, jagged teeth on full display, and then continued on its slow, wobbly track along the top of the fence beside his building.

He turned around, expecting Lydia might be standing behind him, also watching. But she was not there. What he’d thought was her perfume was the blossoming tea olive just outside the window. He inhaled, drawing the damp, evening air deep inside, looking for that perfume. But now he could smell only the old window screen.

 

In the living room he looked at his image in the dark television, its curved gray screen a poor mirror. He hadn’t turned it on since Lydia left. His image looked old. He was tired and he didn’t want to think about Lydia any more today, so he looked around the room for a distraction. His shoes were on the rug under the coffee table. There was a ring on the table, just one ring, where he fell asleep on the sofa with a glass of ice and bourbon when he realized that Lydia wasn’t coming back.

He tied his shoes and went out into the hall and breathed. The old paint had a flat smell. He liked the smell before. He thought he and Lydia had talked about it. After a minute he decided it was stupid to be standing there thinking about Lydia. He walked down the stairs and out onto the street.

The rain had stopped and darkness enveloped his building like a bully he preferred not to run into, but who didn’t frighten him anymore. He didn’t have the right shoes, but he walked on. He thought about how Lydia looked in warm clothes, walking fast through chill autumn rain, jacket pulled up over her dark hair, shirt un-tucked, flashing a slight curve of belly, looking at him sideways all the time, as she walked. The way she had when things were new. He thought about the way he’d looked at her – or was it her catching him – the line was a little blurred. There were times, back then, when he had to reach out and touch her, just a little, just with the side of his hand or with his shoulder against hers, to remind him, assure himself that they were actually two separate people, with separate destinies. Now he wondered if that had really happened.

His destiny tonight, he realized as he moved past the plate glass window of the jewelry store, its scissor steel grate locked over the glass, was to walk these rain-slick streets alone.

 

On the sidewalk, his steps gradually slowed until he wasn’t moving. He glanced into the window of the salon he’d told Lydia about and it too was closed. There was a light inside. When he turned toward the glass his face was imposed on a scene that was a little disturbing. In his reflection he tried to see what Lydia saw in him, but he was distracted by a motion inside the salon. A mouse scampered along the back wall casting a large shadow.

He walked on. Now that the rain had stopped, his hard shoes made sharp clips on the sidewalk and these bounced back to him so crisply that it could’ve been someone else’s foot falls, someone walking behind him, someone with a lighter, faster stride. He stopped short. When he stopped the sound stopped with him.

 

Back in the foyer of his building the blinds were drawn against the late hour as they always were. He got to his door without seeing another reflection and held his key and listened before sliding it home and jiggle-turning it in the old lock. He went quickly to his room without turning on a light. Stripping to his underwear he lay on his back in the dark and listened, willing Lydia back into his life; willing her to reach out to him at this moment. He shut his eyes tight until he saw sparks and breathed slow, deep, breaths with all his attention on Lydia. In his mind he tried to see her thinking about him. He visualized her lying in bed alone, but she fell asleep.

 

 

 

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Short Story

Spinning

by Vergil Coberly

First published in Atlanta Magazine, ©Coberly 2004

“What you’ve got to do is pick a spot straight overhead,” Suzie said, looking up at clouds catching the last light of the day. “You’ve got to stand up straight and tilt your head way back, like this,” she demonstrated with arms raised to shoulder height. She didn’t stop talking because she wanted to drown out the voices from the living room. “You start moving around in a circle, and you find something directly overhead, something that doesn’t wobble as you spin. It can be a cloud or a hole in a cloud or even the moon if it’s really cold outside.” She looked down at her smaller imaginary friend, Number Three, and continued,” Did you know the moon is out in the day sometimes? I didn’t believe it either until Ronnie pointed it out.”

She started talking to Number Three around when her real mom lost her baby sister. That would’ve been their third baby. Her real mom said she didn’t know what it was going to be, but Suzie knew it was going to be a girl. It was. Her real mom died a little after the baby and everyone was very sad, especially her father.

Her father started working more after her real mom died and she and her big brother Ronnie took care of each other. On Saturdays when her father was gone, they made eggs together. She would break the eggs and Ronnie would scramble them. At night she missed her mom the most and Ronnie would sit on her bed and tell her stories about what it was going to be like to graduate from high school.

Her father had a new wife now. Suzie didn’t want to call her mom, “she’s not my mom,” she said, but Ronnie explained that she was their step mom, which was better. “She’s the mom you choose,” he told her, but she didn’t remember choosing.

Her father still traveled a lot, and at first Suzie thought it was going to be great to have a new mom, but when her father was gone Step Mom seemed to like the same things as Ronnie, and she couldn’t cook or read like her real mom could.

Spinning took all of her attention so while she was spinning she couldn’t think about anything else. Spinning made her feel free, like she could fly. She felt like she could just take off if she could spin fast enough. Number Three had watched her spin before, but Suzie had never explained the details.

A few minutes ago, from the kitchen table where she was drinking purple grape juice and doing her math worksheets for Miss Amy’s class, Suzie saw a big, dark car with writing on the door pull up and a man and a woman with the same funny clothes got out, stiff. They were like Ronnie’s special war clothes, in his picture, but they looked different when you saw them in real life. When they got to the door, she ran into the living room because she thought they might be friends of Ronnie from the war, but when Step Mom saw them through the screen she just stopped right in the middle of the room and stood there with her hands together. Suzie stopped beside her and when the man started to talk Suzie didn’t like his voice so she ran into the side yard. She could still hear their voices, quiet talking, explanations, and then quiet, waiting for Step Mom to ask something, then quiet talking. It sounded like they were right in Ronnie’s room. That’s when Suzie started explaining spinning to Number Three.

“Okay, today you should focus on a cloud,” she stopped moving and tilted her head back. You stand completely still with feet apart and hands at your sides. I use fists when there is a war and when we don’t have a war anymore I’ll keep my hands open.” She started spinning slowly, hands clinched, and talked a little louder, “You tilt your head back until you are looking straight up at a cloud like that one,” she pointed a fist to a small, red-tinted cloud. “It needs to be directly away from the ground.” She talked fast, “It’s like there’s a pole that goes from the center of the earth right between your legs and through your brain and past the clouds and on into space, and that’s your spinning pole.” She glanced down and then added, “Oh, it’s not a real pole, you have to make believe you’re spinning around a pole or you’ll fall down.” She moved slowly, stepping in circles. She spun faster and faster, flattening blades of grass in a circle half as wide as the spread of her fists.

She tried to talk over the voices, but finally she had to cover her ears with her fists to block out them out. She spun and spun, but she could not get the picture of those people, stiff in their green clothes, stiff in their faces, out of her mind. She spun until she was breathing hard and she still spun.

Ronnie told her astronauts had to spin as part of their training. She thought she was probably close to nine Gs – Ronnie said that’s what the astronauts needed to spin to pass. But a lady at the drug store told her astronauts didn’t have to spin anymore. Now they got to ride in the belly of a big airplane. She got so dizzy her brain seemed to be spinning inside of her head. She was so dizzy she fell down, for only the second time ever from spinning, and when she was trying to get up she threw up the grape juice and it was still cold. The vomit comet – that was the name of the airplane the astronauts fly in. Now she knew the lady at the drug store must be right. It was surprising that Ronnie was wrong about something like that and she couldn’t wait to tell him about it. “This doesn’t usually happen,” she said to Number Three, trying to wipe the purple stain from her shoulder and chest. She heard the doors of the car shut and then the car drove away with the war people, but she couldn’t get up to watch them go.

The first time she spun was half a year ago. She hadn’t spun much in the beginning because she didn’t really need to, but lately she spun all the time. Her father married Step Mom a couple of years ago and it was all downhill since then. Anyway, the day she started spinning she was looking for four leaf clovers in a patch in the side yard and she heard a whisper, “Bring it here, I’ll put it on you.” The voice was familiar, feminine, but not one she recognized right away. She stepped closer to the window and the crush of grass under her bare feet sounded deafening. “What are you waiting for?” the whisper sounded like a swimmer coming up for air.

The window was high enough that Suzie could not accidentally look in. It was open to pull in the first cool air of fall. Suzie wanted to be close to that voice, wanted to be that voice, wanted to be close to her father and she felt jealousy burning behind her eyes.

Step Mom was younger than her father, more like Ronnie’s age sometimes. Her father would look at Step Mom with his head low, and he rest his hand on her shoulder the way he used to rest his hand on Suzie’s shoulder – sort of the same way. Even Ronnie touched Step Mom. Suzie watched one day when they were all in the kitchen. Ronnie put his hand close to her while she was stirring lemonade and then he touched her arm and said, “that looks like good lemonade,” but that was stupid because he drank everything so fast he could never taste anything. But Step Mom didn’t notice that, she just smiled.

Suzie moved close to the window and reached up to the brick sill and pulled herself up. She could feel her fingers grinding into the bricks and was careful not to make a rubbing sound. It was Step Mom and her brother. They were naked. He sat with his back to the window and Step Mom was holding something in front of him – her arms moving a little. Then Step Mom lay down on the bed and spread her legs wide and Ronnie lay down on top of her and started bouncing.

Suzie’s foot slipped and scraped down the brick wall and her knee hit the wall and while she was still hanging there Step Mom looked up with her eyes wide and Suzie jumped to the ground, but when her feet hit they didn’t know which way to run, so she started spinning. Like that was what she was doing outside the window beside the juniper. She squeezed her eyes shut and spread her arms wide and she spun and spun, and she forgot about everything but the spinning. She lost her balance and tumbled into the juniper, its blue-green branches with cocoons hanging floating low over the ground and sheltering spiders. The world was spinning and the spiky branches held her and for the first time she did not think about spiders running out of their hiding places and biting her. She lay still on the pitching bush with hands clutching prickly branches to keep from being thrown off.

“Suzie? Are you okay?” Step Mom asked walking with quick movements of her knees. From the juniper, her dark blue shorts seemed to be on sideways and Suzie could see her bosom where her shirt wasn’t buttoned all the way. Step Mom bent over and lifted her out of the bush. “Get out of that bush, it’s full of spiders,” she said. She pulled Suzie to her feet.

Unable to stand, Suzie fell against Step Mom. “Are you alright?” Step Mom asked hugging Suzie against her chest, crushing her head and sniffing at her like a dog. Suzie inhaled and Step Mom smelled like a ripe melon, a day later.

A few days after their father got back in town, Ronnie announced at the dinner table that he was joining the war. Her father was a little surprised, but since he had been in a war he thought maybe a war would be good for Ronnie. Step Mom just held her napkin in her lap. Nobody talked very much, which was normal because everybody was usually too busy eating to talk, but Step Mom didn’t eat anything.

Last night, when the strangers in the car with words on the door came to the house, her father was out of town and when he called, Suzie answered the phone. She started to tell him about the strangers, but Step Mom took the phone and told her to go to bed. Then Step Mom talked for about 10 seconds and hung up and went to bed and closed the door and made sounds like a sick person.

Summer was just starting to make the mornings hot and the birds got up early so it was hard to sleep late. This morning Step Mom cooked the scrambled eggs with a lot of muscle, breaking them into the hot, oiled pan and working them with her fork churning like a propeller. Ronnie used to put ketchup on his eggs and push them around with a triangle of buttered toast. Suzie wondered if they had ketchup at the war.

A bird outside the window sang the same 12 notes over and over until she noticed it. She’d been hearing it and as soon as she noticed, the bird went for three more loud notes. She put some ketchup on the edge of her scrambled eggs and Step Mom’s eye, always scanning, stopped on her and Suzie waited for her to say something about the ketchup, but she didn’t. Her eye just moved on and spotted a glass and she put it into the dishwasher. Then she put the flat griddle pan in the sink and swished a few times and rinsed it and set it in the drain pan.

This morning was not so unusual. She was sure she’d heard the bird before or one just like it – there were so many it was hard to be sure. So many calls. She wanted to know them all, but how could you?

“Your brother is not coming back,” Step Mom said interrupting the bird and leaning over the sink, holding herself up with one hand on the edge of the sink and the other on her hip. She was looking into the sink, her nose pointed to the middle of the sink.

“Is he moving somewhere else?” Suzie asked.

“No.” Step Mom studied the sink.

“He said he was moving when he finished with the war. Is the war over?”

Step Mom turned from the sink toward her and her face was squeezed up like a sponge. She was sure Step Mom was wrong about this family matter; after all, Ronnie was wrong about the astronauts. But Step Mom was crying – that was a big clue. “He’s not coming back dumpling, he was shot.” She said shot with three syllables and she didn’t normally talk like that at all. She started coming over to Suzie with arms wide open and she kept talking through sobs and the words were bouncing off like toy bullets and Suzie pushed her arm away and ran out the back door and across the yard and up the alley. She ran until she fell down. She wanted to spin, but she couldn’t catch her breath. She was crying and the tears got in the way of the air. She felt like she was going to die. She got on her knees and put her hands on the ground and tears streamed down her face and everything was completely quiet. Her chest heaved but no air was moving in and out. Things started to get black and she heard her brother’s voice, something he said just before he left. ‘There’s evil in this world, Suzie, and somebody’s got to do something about it. Dad and I talked. I’m going to stop this evil so the world will be safe for you. It’s dangerous, but I’ll be okay. I’ll be fighting evil so I can’t really get hurt all that bad.’

Suzie started to breathe again. The air was going in and back out slower than her chest was heaving, but she no longer felt like she would die.

‘I love you,’ he’d said. He’d never said that before and she thought war must be very serious, but it must be okay if it made Ronnie say that.

“Friendly fire.” That’s what Step Mom had said. Suzie breathed now, in and out the way God intended. She stopped sobbing. She threw up her eggs and the ketchup was there, a streak of red.

She stood and tried to spin with her fists closed, but she was too dizzy, so she started again, slowly, with her hands open. “This is how we spin now,” she sobbed, but for the first time she felt silly talking to Number Three. She didn’t want to spin anymore. She curled up on the ground and cried.

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