Current works, short story-wise.
HOME FROM THE HILL
One moment they were two strangers hurtling 17 feet apart from one another at 27,654 feet above sea level at 655 miles per hour, and in the next they were no longer in seats 12B and 16C en route on flight 1211 from Dallas to Boston.
The cabin, the fuselage, the crew, and the 116 other passengers were gone in a blink. They now stood—no longer seated in 12B and 16C, but stood—inexplicably on an arid plain of red and brown clay and stones with little more than hills upon one horizon for a landmark. No signs of civilization or the wreckage they must have somehow escaped was to be discovered in any direction. Neither had suffered any visible injury. It was…a most peculiar turn.
“How, how did we….” The woman began but could not finish. Her name was Claire. She offered as much in her introduction a few minutes later.
The man did not answer. Nor did he ever answer. Or ever speak at all, for that matter. He remained mute and as if dazed, only staring off into the distance, eyes fixed and mouth agape.
Claire, nearly equal in dismay, considered that her companion must be suffering from some form of shock.
“Trust me…I feel ya,” she said as she took his hand and coaxed him to follow. “Maybe we can make those hills before nightfall and climb them for a better vantage.”
It was when she mentioned ‘nightfall’ that she noticed there was no sun. The sky was lit, but the source eluded her, and all this despite the absence of clouds.
They walked for what Claire decided might have been two days before finally making their way into the hills where the earth was softer, something more like soil. Forging into a valley, the pair soon found vegetation and then water.
It was life; a clear, cool spring whose discharge and departure were both found in small crevices just a dozen or so feet below the surface. It was a body of water that Claire could have easily cast a stone across—had she not been beyond exhaustion.
Claire had gulped and gasped and laughed and taken some water in the lungs, and then choked and laughed again, before noticing the stranger still stood. His gaze fell upon the water, but it did not appear he was aware of the salvation before him. Just as she had goaded him for days across the playa, so now she guided him to drink.
It took several attempts to get him to swallow as she used her hands to ladle water up to his parched lips. Still oblivious, the stranger let it dribble away from the corners of his mouth.
“Son of a bitch. So you can lead a horse to water but not make it–”
But just then, he finally began to slurp from her cupped hand.
Days passed. They regained their strength. There were small fish that were abundant and easily caught by hand. Also a weird, fig-like fruit on the copse of trees that bordered the spring.
Claire did everything. Caught the fish. Harvested the figs. Gathered the firewood from the dead, fallen branches. Talked of their chances of rescue. Considered their mind-boggling plight. Pondered the absence of stars to include the sun. All the while the stranger sat, or stood, however Claire led and left him.
He would chew his food and sit in the spring to be made clean. Nothing more. Yes, nothing more than breathe and piss and shit and sleep. Or did he even sleep? She thought he must, but she never saw it.
All this as days collected.
Claire made forays to seek help or search for a way out. She never found any sign of either. The hills were few. She quickly determined that they were surrounded by the desert the couple had first found.
“An island. An island called Purgatory.”
It was an odd discovery when Claire realized that, while there were but a few trees, every day there was still plenty of fruit. And the fallen, dry branches were also replenished no matter how many she collected and burned. The spring was the same. Never did it once threaten to run dry and its stock of docile fish was always found in healthy abundance.
A strange plenitude of worry.
She explained all this to the stranger, turning the mystery of it over in her mind. He never responded. He never made any sign he was even aware of the figs, the fire, the fish…or her.
Over the course of the next year Claire nearly died twice. Both incidents were the result of her attempts to traverse too deep into the playa to find a way off Purgatory.
On the second occasion she only recalled collapsing at last into the caked earth—the island of hills, miles in the distance, still and no more than blurring figures at the edge of sleep. Or was it death?
Just the same, she awoke at the spring’s edge. The stranger sat nearby, trousers soiled and swaying from dehydration despite being four feet from water.
And so 11 years passed.
Claire stopped trying to escape and the stranger never once broke from his waking coma. He proved to be no more than a chore. Something like a shoddily built home that was always in need of repair.
“Like a fire in rain…forever needing tending.”
She died late one evening after three days of fever from an infected and ruptured appendix.
As she suffered her final hours the stranger stood oblivious where she had last left him two days earlier at the foot of the tree where she had collapsed while collecting figs.
“Why?’ she asked at the end.
But there was no one to answer her.
As Claire’s life slipped off like campfire smoke into the night sky, the stranger finally awoke. He blinked several times and suffered a bit of panic, struck and dismayed by his curious surroundings.
He didn’t finish the query. He spied the dead woman. He went to her side. He had no idea who she was; he was certain he’d never seen her before.
THE OL’ FAMILY BUSINESS
Domino Darvek’s father was a poet who suffered to repair shoes. A deft cobbler of words, but a mere tinker of soles. The shop was small, a stall, almost a cupboard. Customers most often entered with a smile. If there’d been a door, many would have slammed it behind them in departing. The old man only shrugged.
The boy limped to and from school.
It was a Tuesday, in the waning of the day, when Domino asked his father why he hated everyone so much. “Why do you not care about their shoes?”
“They are a burden.”
“Then why bother?”
His father at first, the boy was certain, ignored him. But then the elder Darvek swelled with a sigh. He rubbed at an ink stain on his cheek, smearing and making a mess of it with the glue that had gotten away from him.
“A life without at least some burden,” the man said, “it is like a donkey carried along by a hot air balloon.”
Domino shook his head.
The old man smiled and pushed his work aside. He loved his son and he loved any excuse to forget the shoes.
“A donkey floated along under a balloon. Neither is of much use in such a way. And it certainly makes sense to none below to have them so…well, up there,” he said, fingers dancing above the boy’s head. “And yet all will smile when they spy the sight on high float by.”
Domino smiled. And both nodded.
“Will you teach me to cobble, too?”
THE YAPPY LITTLE DOG
The yappy little dog got off his leash and had to tell the world.
“Yap, yap, yap.”
ThE little dog saw another dog across the street.
“Yap, yap, yap,” barked the little dog. “I can bark louder than you!”
But only a few people paid attention and the other dog even trotted away.
“Yap, yap, yap!” the little dog barked louder. He strained so hard a turd tumbled out of his ass.
The turd rolled away and so he chased after it.
‘Yap, yap, yap,” he barked at his turd.
The turd rolled down the walk.
“Yap, yap, yap,” the little dog barked. He hoped the people would admire his scat.
But no one really noticed.
The turd rolled off the walk and disappeared down into the storm drain.
“Yap, yap, yap,” the little dog barked after it.
His voice was echoed by the drain pipe. My, how it boomed!
People turned their heads. The little dog saw he had their attention and so he yapped louder still.
“YAP, YAP, YAP!”
Oh, he was finally important. Everyone was looking.
“YAP, YAP, YAP!”
He barked so loud that he didn’t hear the street-cleaner’s truck.
The little yappy dog didn’t hear the people when they shouted, “Look-out, yappy little dog!”
After the big truck with the massive spinning street brooms had passed, the yappy little dog was nowhere to be found.
And the street was quiet and the day was pleasant once more.
HOW THEY TRIPPED-UP THE EMPEROR
The would-be assassins were vexed by the boy. Men ruled by child. It could not stand. Day after day, the child king screeched and raced about the royal grounds. Running. Screaming. Laughing. Always running. Always demanding and having his way. He must die. He had to die. But how?
For his birthday they made an anonymous gift to him of lollipops…fashioned into swords.
Mindless he swam, and poorly, at that. Limping along and listing to the starboard. The current washed away the drool from his gaping maw. He did not drone on about his desire to consume brains; he lacked the vocal cords to do so.
A school of shiny backs flocked madly and darted in concert to elude him. They were not panicked by the dead glaze of his eyes, they were simply panicked at all times as their nature demanded they be.
The zombie fish, he nearly nipped a leatherback, but the turtle tossed him aside with a thrust of her flipper and by the time the zombie bobbed upright and had his bearings once more, the turtle was but a dark blob churning the distant green.
How the zombie fish had come to be, well, there was no science conducted to say, and none would know more of it except for this brief glimpse as the horror of its journey ended before it really began. The stainless steel blades of Strunck Chambers’s Evinrude E-Tec G2 outboard made chum and crimson foam of the zombie fish. The oblivious Strunck surged along on a tide of Jimmy Buffett and drunkenness.
Later that night, a hermit crab, a thick purple-clawed thing that had for three weeks now been using a discarded Barbie doll head for a home, crawled up along the shore. It had consumed a small bit of the zombie fish’s corpse. And now…now, it hungered for brains.
I wasn’t top of the line at anything. But every Lowdown Joe has to pay their rent on the first and so my shingle read ‘Gumshoe.’ A shitty enough name only slightly better than ‘Attorney at Law,’ some would say, but for my money it sticks and, besides, the good folks with the state bar had said my solicitor days were over. So the sign outside read in full ‘Gary G. Abernathy, Gumshoe at Large.’ I thought it was clever enough. Let the other private dicks go all New Gothic or Courier New with their gold embossed ‘Private Investigator’ for hire titles. We all got our angles.
Tuesday. The only thing good about it was it was one more day down the calendar; a fat, double crisscrossed X past Monday. Alright, it had two things going for it; it wasn‘t Monday, and I was on the job. First call in two weeks, if you don’t count collection agencies and my landlord, that is.
It wasn’t my first time being summoned or otherwise finding myself at a landfill. Fact is, of the nine major dumps in the tri-state, I was intimately familiar with ten. Dirty diapers and the rest of the disposal of humankind, to include the disposing of humans in a fashion quite unkind. But even being that hip to the tune, as soon as I topped the heap, I knew I was in the stink like never before.
The Betty Boop who’d called this meeting, a Park Avenue hooker I’d known in passing but never gotten around to knowing professionally, was reclining among last week’s news and banana peels with her best eleven o’clock dress hiked up to her pretty little neck along with a necklace of piano wire. Fashion to die for. And the good boys of the city’s finest, well, the poor, purple-lipped minx must have called them, too. Otherwise, how the hell else could they have been there snapping photos ahead of me.
It didn’t come as a complete surprise. I’d been set-up before. Late for the dance and left leaning against the wall until the lights clicked on. Fine and dandy. I was bored. So let’s let the great bronze gates of Hell swing wide, we had a quorum: a corpse, a chump, and just enough cops to trample us both.
“Hey, nickels for brains, how about letting a buck buy into this game,” I hollered a bit too loudly to get their attention. Maybe it was that or the decomposing naked prostitute, but two of the eight on hand went for their guns. Thankfully, I slipped and landed on my keister with two empty palms in the air before any lead started zipping down range my way.
“Gary! Detective Gary!”
If only the rookie who’d leaned in to help me to my feet could have eaten another tuna melt to add to his foam-fleck parade. How could a man’s breath beat out the rotting refuse of the teeming masses? A riddle for the ages. I turned my face from his. Bad idea. Blood and semen. I closed my eyes and shot the loudmouth in the head to shut his gob. Okay, not really. If only. But as I found my feet my hand found a severed finger in it. Top notch detective work. The rookie’s mouth was agape and so I deposited little Betty’s lost pinky in it.
The crime scene was officially contaminated.
“Cut!” The voice boomed.
“Boomed like a gasoline soaked sack of TN–”
“I said CUT! Strike the set. We’re finished here, people. That’s a wrap.”
“A…wrap?” I turned in direction of the woman who had made the bizarre proclamation. I think I saw her…a woman in a man’s suit striding off into the dark of…a warehouse? Before I could catch my bearings I was greeted by a cavalcade of comically dressed hipsters with clipboards and a team of lumbering troglodytes, the latter manhandling cables and stepladders and assorted tools and boxes and….
“Hey,” I protested. “I’m dealing with a crime scene here and this–”
I was cut short when a girl—or, at least, I think she was a girl—this broad with one side of her head shaved and painted in enough tattoos to make a carny blush, she suddenly appeared and snatched my fedora. Poof, without by or leave, and she was gone.
A finger of protest was raised. Mine. Or so I think. I started to deal with Miss sticky-felt-fingers…. I might have spun on my heels to make my stand…might. But that went the way of George Armstrong’s last huzzah against the Red Man as I was further knocked from my argyle socks. Two of the aforementioned troglodytes wheeled away the better half of the landfill horizon. I was a bit put off my game at that point. Gob smacked, as my tweed-wearing cohort McDonn–
“Fuck!” the skirt at my feet, the previously dead Betty Boop groused as she shifted to get to her feet. “Fuck. It. All.” She added. A dame for sure, I knew that because I still had a good gander at her décolletage—that’s fancy talk for boobs—as I helped her get her hooves planted.
“Thanks,” she said without considering my baby blues before barking into the dark, “Assholes!”
A dame, and a damn sexy one at that. A girl I could take home to mother and maybe make ol’ Ma recall the homestead, what with her having the pie-hole of my ol’ drunk mother’s uncle.
“You’d think,” she said, still without making eye contact, “Or you’d like to think,” she continued, pitching her voice off into the void where the one who’d yelled ‘cut’ had slipped off to, “that they’d at least let a pretty dyke director shoot the goddamned pilot before they pulled the plug on her, huh…HUH? But, no. For fuck sake’s nooo! Suits!”
She huffed twice and said two more things I’m not comfortable repeating as she fought to unravel the piano wire.
It was my mouth gasping for air as she finished.
In the end, she looked right and left, heaved hard both times and huffed one last time before she gave me a hard look. But she was a dame and I still had my charms. She melted.
A smile came to her. “Oh, for fuck’s…chin-up, Detective Gary. You’ll bounce back. We’ll all…. There’s no goddamn art left. Amiright? Ledger book jockey assholes. We could have made a go of this, eh? Ghost girl and gumshoe drunk determined to make everything right. It was a pretty…ah….”
She didn’t finish. Like the ghost girl she’d been babbling about, she sashayed away and blended into the crowd of freaks and weirdos.
I called after her. “Miss? I, uh–”
“Watch yer back, bub,” one of another pair of troglodytes barked as the two of them huffed past with the better part of what had been a lump of the landfill.
And so reality struck me. Struck me like the slimy slap of twenty-nine pounds of tuna KO-ing a rookie on his first day slinging the catch of the day down at the wharf. I wasn’t the top of the line at anything…I was….
I was out of work again.
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
In the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty-one, Percival McKinnery abandoned the shores of his Motherland, leaving behind him County Cork and the cold corpse of his beloved new bride, Julia. He took to the sea hoping to throw off the wolves of misery that hounded him. He left behind what little he still had and held dear, hoping to beguile the misery of days to come that haunted the trial ahead.
Landfall came two long months later after an endless heaving of sickness upon the sea that seemed sure and bent upon seeing him in.
There, as other bleary-eyed brethren stood bewildered, dumbstruck even, staring with their mouths agape at the crest of emerald green trees that rolled off onto the horizon of Virginia, Percival dove headlong from the ship’s rail and cleaved the water while others gasped and cursed. One man muttered something about “a fool off to drown his self in the New World.”
He was nineteen days into the Wilderness. Somewhere far beyond where the Europeans had so far settled. He had evaded death by bear and what he was sure might have been the same by the indigenous people—a fierce pair of men and a small boy who looked hungry to prove himself—and still Percival pressed on.
He would make his way. He would know his home when he found it. Three times God had spoken to him in visions and told him so.
In those moments of rapture Percival had seen fields of gold and streams of rolling waters. A sturdy cabin where a home-fire burned and the hint of companionship moved about busy at the hearth.
He was not under such delusions, but concentrating on navigating a slippery gully when his footing was lost and the walnut he had been clenching between his teeth was dislodged from the vice of his molars. As his back met the earth with a thud, the wind was knocked from his lungs and the walnut was planted firm in his throat.
He bucked and kicked about, falling twice more as he choked on the thing. He was near asphyxiation when he slipped a third time and struck his head upon a stone. The blow did not kill Percival McKinnery, but he was dead in two minutes just the same.
Whether his spirit went to someplace beyond to find his lost beloved Julia, there is no mortal who can say. What men did know of Percival came to pass some twenty-three years later when a man, who had been but a boy when Percival’s eyes saw him last, planted his musket at the foot of a strange and twisted walnut tree.
Before the hunter, like nothing he’d ever seen in all his years traversing and living and coming to know those mountains, was a tree commingled with the bones of a man; the nub of a femur protruding from one side and a hint of a skull grown over with bark but still there just beneath.
The hunter turned away, not wanting to linger, since, in the valley below, just over a small creek and beyond a field of barley, the morning’s first signs of life were stirring from the homestead of Josef Proust.
THE TIDE of LIFE
It was an autumn day, late in the afternoon, a Tuesday, when the last murderer died. There was no official announcement. Indeed, she and her crime had been forgotten. It was Pancreatic cancer. Pancreatitis, her cause of death, not her crime. Quite treatable, the cancer. Nothing could be done for the gene that predisposed her to the ugly actions of her life. She was forty-seven. In six days she would have been forty-eight. Would have.
And so she was gone. Good riddance. Yes, there would be other deaths…but no more murder. That sick twist of the primate mind had been rooted out. Like a weed it was pulled and left to dry in the sun. The weeds, some seven hundred and sixty-nine million of them, by modest estimates, were culled.
Evolution had stepped in. Humankind had evolved. From fire to wheel to electricity to nanotech, intelligence had marched on and won the day.
Her name, that last one, was Elizabeth Holt. She’d meant to kill herself after what she succeeded to do to her children and husband. Her conviction had not waned but her trembling hand and the talents of attending medical staff conspired against her.
And so, as part of her sentence, her nanotech was removed. The legion of microscopic physicians were gone. There would be no more scrubbing of toxins and deep cell repair. No more close attendance to glucose levels and monitoring of the endocrine. Aging would commence again. The decay of life, the ticking clock once paused would resume. She, sick and wrong, would be gone. Tossed from the raft of humanity. And so she was.
Meanwhile, a passionless race moves and pushes things about forever unquestioning. Immortal.
FOUR HOOVES OFF THE GROUND
The Colonel sighed. With wet eyes he watched the birds flit on high until those gathered—those earth-bound citizens come to commemorate Victory Day—were sure the full-bird before them had forgotten his place. Finally, the old man cleared his throat and spoke.
“If I must make war, let it be noble. But more than that fine and much hoped for state, let it first and foremost be waged fierce and unrelenting. Let my enemies fall in death or trembling.”
A wave of approval surged through the audience, murmurs and nods.
“I will not meet the exchange of life for life with any weaker measure.”
A man in the crowd supported that with a, “hear, hear!”
The Colonel gave no sign he heard.
“Make our battle howls the food that feeds our foes’ fear. Let my army’s swarm be the comforting blanket that quiets his pounding breast and unfurls his knotted hand…letting weapons slip away.”
To this there was outright applause. The Colonel did not wait for it to diminish before he went on.
“But more than all that…” he said, and then all but repeated himself to silence them, gathering the strength of his voice that had in times past been called upon to inspire men to terrible things. “More than any of that, that desire for victory. If victory should indeed be our grace. More than any of that, when my enemy is spent and drawn too weak of life and limb…and when he is finally weary of war…let me be his brother again. Let us gather together. Let us be broken parts made whole.”
There was a quiet save for the wind and a distant tolling bell and the pained mewling of a colicky babe in the crowd. The Colonel returned to his seat.
It was an uncomfortable smattering of applause that followed.
Off in the crowd, a man—a chicken hawk who’d never worn a uniform—turned to another smirking dissenter and groused, “It’s no wonder he was put out to pasture. Brothers? Phsst. Ol’ coot acts like we’re the ones what lost the war.”
It was in the concluding moment of the third and final act of The Folly and Fall of Herterion, that the title character was slated to suffer defeat in his rather literal battle with gravity.
For one hundred and nineteen performances, the play had proven to be a success, a packed house of some eleven thousand each night in the Odeon of Domitian and critics praising it almost every other day in the daily tablet, the Acta Diurna. The fact that the lead role would be played each evening by a new actor proved to be a driving force behind the call for repeated reviews and an unending slew of eager patrons.
It was during performance one hundred and twenty when a sparrow flitted down to light upon the set at the aforementioned, climactic and final moment. The audience loosed their previously anxious state with a surge of appreciation. Herterion, the doomed title character, perched near his newfound feathered companion, high above the audience. He was standing upon a cliff’s edge; beneath him, sixty-seven feet below on the stage proper, was a very real shoal of jagged rock.
Hollon Grippius, the playwright enjoying his first success after twenty-two years of failure, stood in the wings and had to restrain himself from joining the applause that followed the sparrow’s entrance.
The bird flew away. Herterion could not.
On this night, Herterion did not recite his final line: “And so I give myself to eternity.” Instead he silently watched the sparrow’s departure. The audience followed suit, and then, with the bird lost into the evening, the man playing Herterion stood and leapt into the air above the jagged rocks.
In all of one hundred and nineteen previous performances, just as now, every soul of the eleven thousand in attendance ceased breathing for the next two seconds.
His true name—the man leaping this particular night—was Cassiff. He had come to Rome as a slave and been sentenced to death for the crime of attempting to flee that state. He was purchased for the purpose of fulfilling the role of Herterion and convinced to make the most of his final “performance” after watching three other fellow actors whipped to death in rehearsals. The director demanded perfection. This was the Odeon, after all.
Cassiff had promised himself that he would close his eyes for the fall. It was a promise betrayed. He watched the jagged granite rush to him, he saw his femur burst from his thigh and splay into a savage bouquet, and, as pain gave way to a dance with delirium, he found himself amused by the colorful spray he had adorned those in the front row with.
And then he began to crawl towards them. Something he was not supposed to do.
The play was meant to end with death. Herterion’s death. In this case, Cassiff’s death. But, broken and splintered, somehow the condemned Cassiff had survived.
There was no curtain that could have been dropped—if there had, the director would have called for it—and so the bloody, once upon a time a man, thing drug itself down from the rocks as the play took on a final and unplanned fourth act.
WHISKEY AND BEAR
Despite his best efforts to lead a normal life, James Thicke would always be ‘that little boy who fell into the zoo’s bear compound and lost his arm.’
“No,” he would reply when recognized. “I didn’t lose it. I left it with the bear.”
As a child, he never said much more. As a man, in the long years to follow, if the person who’d blundered was apologetic—or an attractive woman—James sometimes added, “A nurse at the hospital gave it back to my parents after the doctors decided there wasn’t nothing they could do with it.”
If pressed as to what then became of the mangled limb—which actually happened on four occasions, twice with attractive women, once with a car salesman, and most recently during an interview for a job he failed to land—James had always replied that he didn’t know. A lie. His parents had the appendage incinerated. Afterwards, the three of them—father, mother, and one-armed boy—went to a beach where his father blubbered and blew snot while his mother shook the ashes out into a red tide surf of iridescent foam. James didn’t take part in the ceremony. He’d sat cross-legged back up in the dunes and pondered over whether or not the seagulls would try to eat the ashes. They didn’t. James was disappointed. He felt unwanted. Later, on the way home, he wished they’d gone to the zoo instead and sprinkled the ashes into the bear’s compound.
James never really missed his arm. How could he? He never knew its absence. As far as James was concerned, the appendage was still there. He would often forget and try to open a car door or wave hello. Only when such an operation failed would he remember that he needed to employ his real arm.
Years later, some years back—shortly before but in passing increments after the accident and somewhere among the many months of young James’s recovery—a syrup-voiced doctor with cigarette-yellowed teeth had diagnosed the boy with phantom limb syndrome. The physician had consoled James’s weeping father, explaining in poorly chosen words that, “By all counts, your son is lucky. Most people with phantom limb suffer pain from the condition.”
The doctor had hardly begun his examination and had more to explain—as James recalled—but the visit was cut short when his mother became overwhelmed and his father proved inconsolable once more.
For James, even after twenty-seven years, every time his missing limb failed to lift his whiskey sour, his mind’s eye could be counted on to conjure up the amber teeth of that old doctor.
“No pain,” James said as he eased the glass back onto the bar. “Proper.”
“What’s that, then?” a man, a stranger seated a few stools down the bar, inquired.
“I asked what’s that you just said.”
The man was lean to the point of gauntness. He was an older fellow—older, that is, in comparison to most of the bar’s patrons—and he wore a trucker’s greasy baseball cap to conceal what appeared to be his equally soiled and thinning hair.
The stranger repeated himself as he shifted around with an implication that he expected their conversation was going to go places. “I asked you what you said.”
James was not inclined to oblige. “Nothing,” he answered. He considered turning away but decided with very little thought better of it and instead played aloof.
It was a honky-tonk. A dive bar honky-tonk, at that. James preferred the place because it could be counted on that no one would ask him about his arm…or lack thereof. Men didn’t ask because the patrons of such a place didn’t want to be shown up by tales of valor or great adventure—the kind of heinous exchanges that stole a man’s arm—and the women were simply put off and felt awkward. Not only that, but any man drinking whiskey with only one arm was damaged goods, plain and simple. And it didn’t help matters that James was missing his left arm at that. After all, a man could take off a wedding ring, but not a ring tan line. But how was a girl to know the score when he was missing everything from mid-bicep down?
The older man stood and slid his sweating beer bottle over as he took the stool next to James.
James tossed off a nervous smile. He made room even though there still remained a good bit of bar real estate distance between them.
The stranger took a pull from his beer. “I guess you’re lucky it wasn’t your right,” he said, eyes staring straight ahead as though he spoke to the dusty top-shelf bottles of liquor lining the back of the bar.
“Arm. Your right arm. Lucky it wasn’t.”
There was something casual and engaging about the stranger that caused James to consider the comment to be little more than a friendly gesture. Small talk. Overtly stupid small talk, in James’s opinion, but only small talk.
“I’m left-handed,” James said.
“You were,” the stranger retorted without missing a beat, and almost, James thought, as though he had gone out of his way to set him up for the joke.
James turned, subtle but with swell. “How’s that now, mister?”
“Left handed. You were,” the stranger said. “Left handed.” He smirked but it was something of a poor effort to be charming, James thought. “South paw,” the man added, drawing out the words and pantomiming a pitch with his own left arm.
James was almost amused. “Look,” he said, “I’m not who you think–”
The stranger interrupted. “You’re the kid that fell….” He paused there, seeing he had James’s attention, and his voice lowered to an almost conspiratorial tone. “Fell in that bear pit at the zoo.” He paused to take another swig and let things sink in. “Well,” he finally added, “that is, you were a kid…back when that crazy shit happened.”
“Fuck you,” James said. “What makes you think you know anything about me? Fucking assholes with too much time on their hands. Weird ol’ fruit.”
Several shards of peanut shell fell to the floor before the stranger offered up his reply.
“Fair enough…. I don’t know everything. There’s plenty I couldn’t wager and make a safe bet of where it comes to you.” He sipped his beer. “But that’s the irony of our situation here.”
“But I am an authority, some might say, where it comes to the pertinent details of our sad story.”
James wanted nothing more than to keep up his face of disinterest. He could not. “Pertinent?”
A brief spot of time passed; little changed. More peanut husks found their way to the floor. The jukebox finished and found another song. The air remained thick with the sour of beer spills gone dry and cheap perfume and cologne.
The stranger leaned in to offer a peanut to James. The latter shook his head and the former shrugged and popped the offer into his mouth instead.
“See,” the stranger said, working the peanut around in his mouth. “I’m the man who dumped you in with that bear. ‘Scarlett,’ I do believe was her name if I recollect correctly. She turned out to be as deficient in her maternal instincts as your own sad excuse for a mother.”
“What the hell you sayin’?”
“You heard me.”
“You…what are you…who the hell…?”
The stranger turned to James. “I saw your mother was ignoring you. And while you were all but straddling that rail of all things. And so I picked you up and gave you a little boost. The jury is still out on whether it was in the right or wrong way.”
“So you got a nice, right-up close like view of Scarlett. Dumped ya right in there. Ploop!” He chuckled then and was lost in what seemed to be rather pleasant memory.
“No. I don’t know who you…where you’re getting…. I fell. I climbed up and fell.” James stabbed his finger into the bar to drive his point.
“You fell? Sure. I’m sure that’s how you remember it. That’s how everybody remembers it. Works for me. Worked for me for many a good goddamned years.”
“Your mother. Meredith. She was too busy making fussy eyes with some fancy fella in a cheap suit to even know better.”
James was caught up now in the drunken place he knew all too well but where things made far less sense than usual at this hour of night.
The stranger went on. “Fact is, if it weren’t for Meredith’s loose habits, you probably would not have suffered as you did. I did what I did sort of spur of the moment, you might say.”
James slid his tumbler of ice away and considered the old man.
Neither spoke, and after a moment the bartender arrived with another whiskey sour for James. “That one’s on me and I’ll have another Coors,” the stranger said. The bartender nodded and moved off.
“What the hell are you doing here, mister?”
“You even look like a liar.”
“I’m just having a bear. Oh, sorry…beer. Making a bit of small chaw with some poor somabitch what got mangled by a bear. Beer, bear. Bear, beer. Say, that reminds me…those news ladies…any of ‘em ever try and get kinky with ya? You know…an exclusive?”
“What? Hell no. I was seven.”
“Oh, yeah. But I mean…ah, never mind.”
James puffed in size and color. In his mind his absent limb stabbed a finger in the man’s direction. “Just what the fuck kind of game you think you’re playing here? Who are you?”
“Me? I told you. Chrissake, get the peanuts out yer ears. I’m the fella that dropped you in with the bear.”
Off in one far corner a glass fell and broke as if to metaphorically punctuate the end of a long-troubled relationship. A few heads turned and watched a girl storm out. The man left behind in her wake took a ring from his shirt pocket and stared dumbly at it. There was a brief round of laughter before a jukebox Willy Nelson and Merle Haggard took up crooning the ballad of Pancho and Lefty.
Almost as in afterthought the stranger muttered to James, “I’m your father.” Before the slack-jawed James could protest, the older man added, “Your real father.” They sat in silence until the man added, “Stupid somabitch.”
Where the stranger had expected more argument James met him with a question he would have never expected.
The stranger had almost as many questions as James. Did the boy know? What did he know? How had he come to know? No matter, there was no more time. There had been…but no more.
“I’ve come to see if you are a man of his convictions. If the fruit didn’t fall too far from the tree, as the old wives were wont to say.”
James remained silent as the stranger reached down and produced a worn leather valise that had rested between his feet and the bar. He held the bag in his lap for the moment it took to take two long swigs to finish his beer. Putting the bottle far aside he opened his bag and took out a single hundred dollar bill.
“That should cover our tab for now and any more you need to come for the night.”
Next, using two hands, he produced a newspaper and laid it with an audible thunk onto the bar.
“Why, James?” The stranger said. “People always want to cry and sigh ‘why?” They want reasons and motives and rationale. Tight little packages to wrap the madness of life into. Packages of life…packages of lie. So here’s what I’ll tell you. I got the cancer. I needed the truth to be known. I make my own story…start to finish. Bullshit, you say? Phfft. Maybe. But who are you to know what’s what…groping around in the dark with nothing but one arm….”
The man slid the newspaper over. “Now I need you to prove to be your father’s son. My son. Be a man of your convictions like I was that day in the zoo back in ’79 when your whore mother spurned me for the last time. And think about this, James. I need you to know this…. Meredith, your mother. Your good for nothing…. She was the one person who saw what really happened. Saw that you didn’t just fall. Saw that I dropped you over. But she said nothing. Think on that. Did nothing. She kept quiet just to save her own skin. Didn’t want the dirty laundry of her adulteress ways aired.
The stranger leaned in. “Now you think on that and read on this. I’ll be out in the parking lot. Nice and quiet in my car. Black Buick. Window down. You may only got one hand…but it’s all you need,” he said, patting the newspaper before turning away to leave James at the bar.
He felt the air leave the room along with the stranger as the bar door swung shut behind the old man. James waited several minutes, nursing his drink and ordering another he didn’t touch before lifting the fold of newspaper before him.
He’d read the banner headline nineteen times. “LOCAL BOY MAULED BY ZOO BEAR.”
Inside the paper James found the stranger’s loaded .357 revolver. He downed his last whiskey sour in one gulp.
He was still working up the nerve to take the revolver when the anxious bartender, long eyeing the Benjamin on the bar, stepped over.
“So, chief, we all done here?”
“I…yeah. We’re all done.”