Revealing Moments by Wayne Scheer
In these tales of hope and despair, childhood and old age, a woman decides her mother's fate, two strippers discuss plans for the future, and a young boy watches his father die from the top of a tree.
Wayne Scheer Revealing Moments stories Revealing Moments Revealing Moments Wayne Scheer Thumbscrews Press Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the publications in which the following stories appeared, sometimes in different form: Camroc Press Review: “It’s Not That Funny” Dead Mule: “Pig Roast” Drunk and Lonely Men: “Spring Training” Flash Me Magazine: “Life-Support” (as “A Lonely Choice”) Flashquake: “Blind Date” (as “Blind Date, 1960”) Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k): “Maybe Next Year” The Rose and Thorn: “An Old Lady in a Faded Dress” The Shine Journal: “The First Wife,” “The Old Oak Tree” Sniplits: “Hemingway Be Damned” The Sylvan Echo: “What’s Wrong With Me?” Toasted Cheese: “Final Wish” Whim’s World: “Choreographed by Time” Copyright © 2009 by Wayne Scheer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. Cover photograph by Petr Kratochvil. Author photograph by Patricia Johnson. Book design by Daniel Casebeer. Set in Palatino. First Thumbscrews edition: February 2009. www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews for Vickie, my life Contents Introduction Blind Date Mirror Image In the Dark Winter Break Climbing High Don’t Laugh At Me The First Wife All You Need Is Love Crossing the Line The Storm Pig Roast Spring Training Life-Support The Old Oak Tree Scented Candles Final Wish A Carefully Planned Evening Morning Routine Maybe Next Year What’s Wrong With Me? Hemingway Be Damned It’s Not That Funny Choreographed by Time An Old Lady in a Faded Dress ix 3 6 8 10 12 14 16 17 19 21 22 24 26 29 31 33 35 37 39 41 43 46 48 50 Introduction In Big Sur, Jack Kerouac writes, “Always pull back – and see how silly we must look to God.” With this in mind, I begin the introduction to this collection of shorts. Most of these stories – moments, really – are tiny studies in revelation. The characters are alone in a vast, unknowable world, and they cling to whatever they can to avoid plunging deeper into the abyss. Still, I hope there’s enough humor and wit to offer the reader perspective, a reminder that there’s more to life than pain. And if it sounds like I’m taking myself too seriously, I’ll paraphrase something I heard Kurt Vonnegut say in a lecture: “Remember the old adage about how if an infinite number of monkeys type on an infinite number of typewriters, they will eventually type something beautiful? Well, the Internet disproves that.” ix First and foremost, I want to thank Jack and Kurt for helping me keep this project in perspective. I also want to thank the Internet Writers Workshop for their insightful critiques and constant encouragement, and Daniel Casebeer, editor of Pear Noir!, for the push to get started. Despite the darkness that many of these shorts contain, I enjoyed discovering what I had hidden away in my files and in my head. I hope the reader will enjoy this effort as well. x Revealing Moments Blind Date Marcus Epstein stood at his bathroom mirror, brushing his dark, unruly hair straight back. Displeased, he forced a finetooth comb through the maze of curls. Ringlets of hair still popped up like the clowns in maniacal jack-in-the-boxes. Adding water made it worse. It took globs of Vaseline to finally do the trick. He slicked his hair back, convinced that he looked Italian: tough, solid and strong. His parents regaled him with stories about great Jews in history, from Albert Einstein to Neil Sedaka. But Marcus knew that while Sedaka sang about his “calendar girl,” the real Miss April dated Frankie Avalon. He rummaged through piles of school papers in the top drawer of his desk and found a solitary Marlboro. He had no intention of lighting it; he just wanted to see how it looked dangling from his lips. He tried scissoring it with two fingers, but feared he looked effeminate. Cupping it with his full hand 3 worked better. He had seen Tony Capprizio hold a cigarette that way. Pushing up the sleeve of his t-shirt, he bent his arm at the elbow. But even Marcus couldn’t delude himself into believing that the slight bump on his skinny arm resembled a muscle. His Adam’s apple protruded more than his bicep. The football players at his school had thick necks that rested confidently on their shoulders. His neck was more like a pole that balanced his head like some crazy Halloween decoration. How’d he ever get talked into a blind date? His cousin, Lenny, two years older and on the basketball team, assured him he’d like her. “She needs a date. I kind of feel sorry for her, you know? She’s a good kid.” “I don’t do blind dates,” Marcus said, trying to sound cool. “I know,” Lenny said. “I know you don’t need my help to get a date. But, look, she’s Linda’s friend. I promised I’d do her a favor.” To be honest, the prospect excited Marcus. He didn’t date much. He went out a few times with Judy Perlman, but she dumped him for that Tony guy. Italian, of course. Still, Marcus couldn’t seem too eager. He had a reputation. Marcus relented when Lenny showed him a picture: long, dark hair that hung over one shoulder, a nice smile. She looked good. Too good. Girls who looked this good didn’t need to get fixed up. “What’s wrong with her?” He remembered asking Lenny. “There’s gotta be something wrong with her.” “Nothing’s wrong with her,” Lenny had assured him. “I swear. On my mother’s life.” Marcus remembered seeing something weird in the way Lenny looked at him. He didn’t know what it meant at the 4 time, but staring at the way his ears stuck out from his head like a pair of pink earmuffs, it came to him. He understood. He was the blind date. He was the one Lenny felt sorry for. Despite the Vaseline, his hair started to curl. 5 Mirror Image Wearing nothing but a red thong and a garter strap, Cindi stood at the mirror. She held up her breasts and released them. “At least they still bounce back. It won’t be long before they just go splat.” At the next mirror, Laurie applied make-up to darken her nipples. Cindi used make-up to lighten hers. Turning sideways, Cindi patted her stomach. She’d admit to a little flab, but she still looked pretty good for someone closing in on thirty. Looking good used to be enough. Now she wanted more. She had started taking courses at a local community college, but she still had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. All she knew was that dancing for tips wasn’t enough anymore. “How old are you, Laurie?” “Almost twenty. Why?” 6 Before she could answer, the blaring music from the bar invaded their quiet. “Let’s go, girls,” Rizzo shouted, opening the door to the dressing room. She smelled his cigar immediately, followed by the bar’s familiar stench of stale beer. “Cindi, you’re on the back stage. Laurie, you got the front.” The music was muted as soon as the door closed. Cindi calculated the loss of tip money by dancing in the back. Once again, she turned towards Laurie. “Do you have any plans for your future?” “Sure,” Laurie answered with a confident smile. “My boyfriend’s gonna come by after the last set. We’ll probably go clubbing.” 7 In the Dark I always make them turn off the light when we do it. Sometimes they want the light on so they can watch me go down on them, but I say that’ll cost twenty bucks more and that usually shuts them up. King Benny tells me I’m crazy. “What difference do it make?” he asks. “I just don’t want to see them looking at me,” I tell him. When I was thirteen I got the nickname Bunny. You know, because I was doing it all the time. Usually with my momma’s boyfriends. But, to be honest, I never liked it. It hurt. I just figured I had no choice. They would tell me how pretty I was and sometimes give me stuff, like jewelry. I knew what they gave me was cheap shit, and I knew that’s all they thought I was, but I figured I had to keep doing it. You see, they’d make me promise to keep what we were doing a secret, and that gave me something I could hold over them. 8 I learned early to do them before they could do me. But then I met King Benny and my life changed. He set me up in a nice place and he even gave me a ring with a real diamond in it. And when I can get my drivers license, King Benny promises me a smooth ride. I thank God every night for sending me my king. But I still do it in the dark. 9 Winter Break Home from college for his first winter break, Travis felt like everything had changed. But he soon realized the opposite was true. Nothing had changed. The hedges in front of the house still measured exactly three feet tall; his father used a yardstick. The house was still painted white with a red front door. Each room remained exactly the same as when he left. Yet nothing felt comfortable. He had planned on hanging out with his friends his first Sunday home, but his mother had invited the family to see him. He had forgotten how stuffy the house got when she cooked. She was making turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole with melted marshmallows because Aunt Julia liked it that way, green beans, some with garlic and some without, corn for Uncle Ernie and, of course, macaroni and cheese because he’d liked it when he was six. 10 “You know, Mom, most people don’t have six starches with their meat.” “What? You’re too good for us now that you’re in college?” His father had already wanted to know if there were any blacks living on his floor in the dorm. “Of course.” “You better watch your stuff, then.” Travis chose not to comment. He once enjoyed retreating to his room when he felt overwhelmed, but now the autographed poster of Derek Jeter seemed as corny as the baseball-shaped telephone next to his bed. Even the Playboys in the back of his closet had lost their appeal now that he’d experienced the real thing. He missed Amber. He wanted to call her, but didn’t want to explain her to everyone. His father would want to know what her dad did for a living and his mother would want to see a picture. Worse, his mom would tell the family how he had a girlfriend in college and on his first day home he had to call her. “That’s so cute,” Aunt Ethel would say. “I remember when I used to want to talk to your Uncle Harold.” Uncle Ernie would whisper to him out of the side of his mouth, kernels of corn still clinging to his teeth, “Does she have big knockers? You can’t go wrong if she has big ones.” “So,” his mother said, entering his room without knocking. “I bet it feels good being home.” “Sure does,” he said, trying not to roll his eyes. 11 Climbing High Peter slams the back door and runs, bare foot, to the safety of the old oak tree. He climbs it as fast as he can. His father, stumbling, shouts, “Get down from that goddamn tree, boy!” Peter hugs the trunk with his skinny arms and keeps climbing. When he gets to the first strong branch, he looks down at his father who is standing directly below him. He can still see the red in his father’s eyes. He reaches for a higher branch. Peter keeps climbing while his father shouts and curses. The old man removes his belt and snaps it like a lion tamer’s whip against the trunk of the tree. “Damn you, boy! When you get down from there, I’ll tan your hide!” Peter climbs to the next branch. His father looks small now, but the snap of the belt still resonates through the crisp autumn air. Peter inhales deeply, recalling how bad his father’s breath smells since he lost his job and stays home all day. He 12 wishes school lasted until nighttime when his father snores on the couch and he and his mother play cards on the kitchen table. Peter turns quickly at the sound of a sharp crack. His father is throwing rocks at him. He tries to hide behind a leafy branch. A large rock bounces off a limb just inches from his face and falls straight down, hitting his father on the head. His father crumples to the ground, and Peter sees a small red circle forming on the green grass. His father’s arm, still clutching the belt, twitches. Peter’s eyes widen. He hugs the tree and waits for his mother to come home from work. 13 Don’t Laugh At Me My name is Madeline. But on the school bus the first day of kindergarten, some boy called me “Fatty Maddie.” Everyone laughed. At first, I laughed too. I thought they’d stop. But they just kept laughing. By the time I got to the second grade, I was always getting into fights. When I get mad I get red all over and that makes them laugh even harder. “Look out,” Billy Landers shouted. “Fatty Maddie’s gonna explode!” I kicked him between the legs. Even Angelica laughed at me when she was with her friends. We used to play together before we started going to school. She called me her play sister. And told me she liked my blond hair. But when her friends were around she acted like she didn’t know me. Worse, she made fun of me, too. 14 One day during recess, I threw her to the ground. I sat on her stomach and screamed, “Don’t laugh at me.” “Get off me, Godzilla!” she shouted. I hit her in the face as hard as I could. Then I hit her again. And again. There was blood pouring from her nose and she was crying. They sent me to this special class in a different wing of the school where we have our own separate playground. I didn’t want to go there, but they said I had to. Some of the kids don’t talk and others just make funny noises. One kid says bad words for no reason. The teachers, especially Miss Hanson, say we’re all special. I’m not special. I’m just fat and I don’t like it when people laugh at me. The teachers tell me I have to learn to control myself. I do, I tell them. I only hit Angelica three times. 15 The First Wife I want to be the first wife. Even when my dad said nasty things about his first wife, he’d get this faraway look in his eyes, as if an old movie were playing inside his head and he didn’t want to miss certain scenes. I never saw that look when he was with my mom, his second wife. A few years ago, I asked him if he heard from wife Number Three. I liked her; she was almost my age. He just shrugged, said he ran into her in the city a while back. He sounded like he was talking about an old suit he’d given to Salvation Army. The present wife seems nice enough, but soon he’ll tire of her and she’ll become another painting he once bought, but can’t recall why. But he’ll always get that faraway look when he thinks of his first wife. 16 All You Need Is Love It was the night before his wedding and Tom was trying to sleep. He and Angela had been dating for two years, but he understood that by this time tomorrow his life would never be the same. It would be better, of course. Tomorrow night he’d be in bed with Angela beside him. He’d never again lie awake alone wondering if anyone would ever love him. Would he make a good husband? He knew he was selfish. He liked his privacy and he enjoyed being alone. It’s not that he didn’t love being with Angie, it’s just that he needed quiet time while she loved people and commotion. She walked into a silent room and immediately turned on the TV or stereo. He didn’t even own a television. Angie said she loved his solitude, respected his space. But would she still love him when she wanted to go to a party 17 on a Saturday night and he wanted to stay home and read? Would she grow bored with him? Would he grow bored with her? Already little things about her bothered him, like the way her eyes glazed over when he talked politics or her disappointed look when he tried to dance. Despite their differences, maybe because of them, they’d talk for hours. And never fight. He recalled how they discussed marriage on their second or third date. He never even proposed to her. It was understood. One day, they told their parents, and the next they were booking a caterer and sending out invitations. It all happened so fast. He turned over his pillow and rearranged the blanket. This was probably nothing more than typical pre-marriage jitters. Perfectly normal. Angie had shared her doubts. She worried about finishing nursing school. She didn’t want to have children right away, and he agreed. Now he worried: was this her way of expressing doubt? He remembered his mother warning him, “You never know a person until you live with them.” He knew she was talking about his father. But he wasn’t like that. He’d never leave Angie and she’d never leave him. They loved each other. Besides, it was too late to change the plans now. He thought of family and friends, mostly on Angie’s side, who had flown in from all over the country. His own cousin and his wife were arriving from New Zealand in the morning. Tom lay awake, wondering if love was enough. 18 Crossing the Line After three years of marriage, Mike and Trish understood the difference between a skirmish and an all-out war. There was an imaginary line. They could tip-toe to the edge, but stepping over it meant the end of civilized discourse. The disagreement leading to their latest conflict was more about problems they faced at work than Mike not listening to Trish while they ate breakfast. Still, they held their ground, tossing verbal smoke bombs to camouflage their true feelings. Then it happened. Mike lobbed a live grenade. “Damn it,” Mike shouted. “You’re as bad as your mother!” As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he had crossed the line. Trish’s eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. She didn’t move a muscle. 19 Mike held his breath. Even the overhead fan seemed to cease its reassuring hum. He considered his options. An apology would appear arrogant, like offering medical aid after unleashing biological weapons. An apology would show weakness and likely open him to further attack. Although the woman he loved remained silent, he knew she was arming herself with deadly invectives. Deciding against an immediate offensive attack, he hunkered down to plan an exit strategy. A few motionless moments passed. “I love you,” he whispered, hoping for at least a temporary cease-fire. Ignoring his olive branch, she aimed and fired. “Maybe my mother was right about you all along.” With no boundaries separating them, a full-out battle for dominance followed. Memories of past indiscretions led to mutual exhaustion and, finally, to an uneasy peace. An eerie quiet hovered over them like a napalm cloud. Mike and Trish redrew their imaginary boundaries, stepping carefully to avoid landmines left from battle. They hugged, exchanged apologies, and kisses. But now that they knew what the other was capable of, a lasting peace would be more difficult to sustain, for emotional wounds heal far more slowly than physical ones. 20 The Storm Thunder blasted us awake. Lightning momentarily brightened our bedroom, allowing me to see the panic on my wife’s face before darkness returned. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to calm both of us. “It’s just a storm. It’ll pass.” The clock behind our bed blinked 12:00 and then went blank. The wind roared like a conquering army pushing toward us with inevitable force. Rain battered the windows and assaulted the roof. At first we fought the onslaught, lighting candles and checking our cell phones for the correct time, as if such knowledge would orient us against the invading power of nature. Eventually we surrendered, making peace with our powerlessness. As the storm howled, we blew out the candles and returned to bed to hold each other close and make gentle love amidst nature’s chaos. 21 Pig Roast Carolyn watched as the men in her family roasted a fat pig over an open fire. Although these roasts were an autumn tradition, this year something bothered her. She stared at the animal impaled on the spit with a red apple stuck in its mouth. Its skin crackled and sizzled, as fat dripped into the flames. She ran her hand over her rounded belly, feeling her baby kick. The men stood around the open fire talking sports and cursing politicians. Her father took a swig from a liter bottle of coke, shook what was left, and sprayed it over the pig’s body. The brown liquid bubbled and burned. “Tenderizes,” he said to Newell, Carolyn’s husband. “Sweetens the meat.” Her brothers added more soda. “You might want to squirt some Carolyn’s way,” Newell said, laughing with his mouth wide open and showing how few teeth he had left. “She sure could use some tenderizin’ her 22 own self.” To show he meant no harm, he wrapped a fleshy arm around her shoulders. The men laughed as she wriggled free. “That’s a fine looking pig,” Newell said, walking away and slapping the animal’s butt. Taking out his pocket knife, he cut a slice of skin, shook it like a rattle to cool it off, and stuffed it into his mouth. “Oo-ee, that’s some good eats.” Wiping the grease on his overalls, he gave the spit a turn. Flames shot up as if hell had sprung a leak. When the men declared the pig fit to eat, the women carried out huge pots of mashed potatoes and gravy, black eyed peas and steaming greens. Carolyn went back for a platter of biscuits. When she returned, the men were already sampling slices of meat. “I do believe this is the best pig I ever et,” Newell declared. “Must be the Coke Cola.” Her father beamed with pride. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said to his daughter. “You want the apple?” 23 Spring Training Mac opened his eyes as the first ray of light filtered into his room. His mind slowly focused. It was the final week of spring training and he had a good shot at making it. He had played a great game yesterday. Three hits, including an opposite field double. Fooled by the pitch, he still got good wood on it. If he continued showing that kind of bat control, they’d have to take him with them to the bigs. At the start of spring, reporters tagged him a long shot. With two power hitters in front of him for one open outfield position, they got the press. But he stayed in his game, knowing what he could do and what he couldn’t. Singles and doubles were his specialty. Getting on base. Stealing. Running down balls in the outfield. He liked pulling the ball down the third base line now and then, just to show them he could. But his game involved making contact and running like hell. Led Double A in hits two years consecutive. It took him a while 24 to adjust to Triple A pitching. All those damn breaking balls. But he managed a respectable average and then last year, his breakout season – .323 with 35 doubles and 40 stolen bases. Even popped ten homers. Still, the scouts called him a career minor leaguer. But this spring, Jenks got hurt and Rags acted the fool trying to go long with each at bat. Major league pitchers knew how to take advantage of a guy like that with off speed stuff. Now centerfield belonged to him. Mac tried rolling out of bed, but his body ached. His legs felt like two sacks of cement; his arms felt tied to the bed. For a moment, he doubted himself. Maybe he was too old to play this young man’s game? His back ached like someone had danced on it in spikes. He recalled his slide into second towards the end of the game, the pounding of his body meeting the rock hard dirt of the base path, his left leg slamming into the base like ramming into a tree, the nasty tag he took to his chest. But he got the call. Another steal to show what he could do. “Mr. Lewis,” he heard the heavy-set woman in white say. “How’s my favorite patient?” He watched her adjust the tubes attached to his arm. “It’s almost time for your granddaughter to get here. Let’s clean you up.” Mac tried to speak. All he could manage was a gurgling sound. 25 Life-Support The telephone rang and Sarah heard Dr. Jacoby’s calm monotone inform her that her mother had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. “Your mother was conscious before drifting into a coma. She cannot breathe on her own.” The inflection in his voice never changed. Sarah couldn’t speak. The back of her throat burned. She had spoken with her mother only yesterday and made vague plans to visit this weekend or next. “How long will it take you to get here, Ms. Ryles?” “It’s a four hour drive.” “Then I need to ask. Is it your choice for us to continue using extraordinary means to keep her alive?” He explained that her mother could be kept alive on machines for the time being. “However, if her heart stops, it is your decision as to whether we resuscitate her.” He paused. “There’s nothing in her records to indicate your mother’s wish.” 26 He spoke so matter-of-factly, Sarah didn’t know whether to hate him or trust his objectivity. “I don’t know. What would you do?” she finally asked. “I’d recommend keeping her on life-support until you get here, but as for resuscitating her – that is your decision as her next of kin.” “Okay,” she said, as if agreeing to a dinner date. “Keep her on the machines. But do not resuscitate her.” As the words passed her lips, Sarah realized she might have just condemned her mother to death. Driving to the hospital, she wondered what “extraordinary means” must cost. She tried blocking the thought from her mind. What kind of person thinks of money at a time like this? She pulled over to the side of the road and wept. When she arrived at Intensive Care, she barely recognized her mother. Attached by tubes to clicking, pulsating machines, she looked like a collapsed marionette. Above her bed, in large block letters, were the words “DO NOT RESUSCITATE.” Dr. Jacoby said there was no change and he predicted it would take at least a day before tests could determine the extent of brain damage. “Once we have more information, we’ll decide the next move.” “The next move?” “Whether or not to remove her from life-support.” Sarah held her breath, trying not to cry. He escorted her to a couch in an empty waiting room. She noticed his gold wedding band. He probably has no idea what it’s like to be alone, she thought. When did she become her mother’s guardian? For a moment, she hated her father for dying five years earlier. She thought of calling her ex-husband, but feared his new wife would answer. “I’ll get back to you if there’s any change,” Dr. Jacoby said, handing her a paper cup full of water. “I’m terribly sorry.” 27 Grasping the cup with both hands, she recalled her mother saying, “Make good choices,” before she left for school each morning. “How do I know what’s a good choice?” she’d ask. “You’ll know, dear. I trust you.” Sarah exhaled for what felt like the first time since her telephone rang. 28 The Old Oak Tree Jack stared at the old oak tree at the edge of his property, recalling the tree house he had built for his two daughters. Ellen, older by a year, loved to pretend she was a bird flying off to search for new worlds. Susan, on the other hand, outgrew the house the day it was built. She preferred solid ground, holding tea parties for her dolls and creating elaborate rituals for putting each one to bed. Later, Jack built a swing under the tree. He recalled sitting on it with Susan, who shared her plans to marry Ben as soon as she graduated high school. She was young, too young, Jack worried. She pouted when he suggested she wait and consider taking courses at the local community college. He finally gave in. What else could he do? They married under the oak tree while Jack fretted over the threatening rain clouds. None of that mattered now that his Little Susie and Ben had grown children of their own. 29 Ellen eventually flew off to explore new worlds. When she’d return, they’d sit on the swing, shaded by the oak, and she’d tell him wondrous stories about her adventures in Turkey where she had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. Married and divorced, Jack feared domestic happiness was as elusive to her as the birds she once sought. Recently, she returned to Turkey to teach English in the same town she had worked as a volunteer. Jack missed her and her stories. He was proud of his daughters and wished his wife had known them as grown women. The two girls were just ten and eight when he and Marianne sat beneath the stoic oak and cried over the news Dr. Harris had delivered that afternoon. He tried imagining what life would have been like had Marianne lived and the girls been raised with a mother. Should he have remarried when he had the opportunity? Grace Tolliver would have made a fine companion, but he couldn’t divide his allegiance between his girls and a new wife. Jack stared at the old oak tree at the edge of his property. It was autumn now. The oak would soon offer no shade, and its leaves, as scattered as an old man’s memories, would be little more than a nuisance. 30 Scented Candles Susan loved candles, the scented kind. When she and Alan first married, their little apartment always smelled like lilacs or apple cinnamon. He used to complain, saying the smell was too perfumy. She, of course, ignored him. She lit candles at dinnertime and had a special scent for bedtime. On Sundays, she arranged candles around the bathtub, all vanilla, and took a leisurely bubble bath. He’d give her time to relax alone in the warm water. Then he’d strip naked and join her, stepping over the candles while doing his best Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation: “Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!” In time, children replaced candles. There was no time for Sunday morning baths. Occasionally, she’d light a candle and they’d share a glass of wine after the children were asleep. 31 More often, they’d fall asleep themselves in front of the TV. Mornings came early with a house full of children. By the time the children grew up and married, Susan had forgotten how much she once loved candles. Career concerns and doctor bills replaced the luxury of scented candles and leisurely baths. Alan brought a candle to Susan’s hospice room. When he lit it, the aroma of vanilla allowed them to forget where they were. She smiled and whispered, “Goodness gracious.” He held her hand as they watched the candle burn to a smoky, sweet-scented memory. 32 Final Wish Karla sat on the edge of her husband’s hospital bed, massaging his swollen fingers. A yellowed foot stuck out from under the sheet. She covered it and resumed massaging his hand. “I love you,” she whispered. She thought she felt his fingers twitch. “It’s all right, sweetheart.” There was so much more she wanted to say. Ted had wanted to die in his own bed. After each hospital visit he would say, “When the time comes, please let me die at home.” She had promised. And she tried. Lord only knows how much she tried. But when he collapsed in the bathroom earlier in the morning, she panicked and called 911. She couldn’t pick him up, although his once two-hundred pound frame now weighed nearly half that. 33 He had been getting weaker and they decided no more dialysis, no more emergency resuscitation. Ted had fought the cancer for over two years, but it continued to spread. The chemotherapy was terrible, yet he managed. He even kept his sense of humor. At the hospital, he became friendly with a man who was undergoing the same treatment. Ted called him his “chemosabe.” Karla understood that Ted could not last much longer. Understanding was one thing, watching him die another. She had asked the emergency medical people to carry him to his own bed, but they said they had to take him to the hospital. She didn’t have the energy to argue. The truth is she felt relieved. She tried explaining this to Ted in the back of the ambulance, to apologize for breaking her promise. She thought he nodded, as if he understood. At the hospital, she showed everyone concerned his Living Will and the Do Not Resuscitate order. They gave her papers to sign and took him to a separate wing of the hospital for terminal patients. “It won’t be long now,” the doctor said after examining him. All she could do was massage her husband’s hand and hope he understood. 34 A Carefully Planned Evening When Karla arrived home from the hospital the evening Ted died, the house seemed emptier than ever. She bolted the front door. Although she and Ted had lived in the house for over twenty years, she had never listened to the bolt snap and spring into place. Tonight, she found the sound soothing. Kicking off her shoes, Karla thumbed through the mail. Mostly medical bills. She closed her eyes and let her stocking feet sink into the soft carpet. For a moment she was a little girl playing in her backyard sandbox, enjoying the tickle and scratch of the sand on her skin before her mother called her in for dinner. She missed her parents. She already missed Ted. She had spent every day for the past six months driving him to the hospital, sitting with him through dialysis, watch- 35 ing him wither away. The last week, after he denied dialysis and further treatment, had been almost a relief. Still, when the doctor pronounced him dead, she felt stunned, as if her own life had ended. The shrill ring of the telephone pierced the silence of the house. Karla shook, as if jolted out of a dream. The caller ID showed it was her friend, Jayna. Jayna would listen to her, cry with her and help her make calls, but not now, not yet. She pressed the mute button and let the machine accept a message in silence. A bottle of pinot grigio rested on its side in the fridge. She had bought it on the way home from the hospital a couple of days earlier in preparation for this evening. Taking it out, she wrapped both hands around the cold bottle until her palms ached. Karla held back tears. She had carefully planned this evening. She would change into a loose sweatshirt and pants, pour herself a drink, curl up into the deep, overstuffed couch in the family room, cover her bare feet with the afghan Ted had bought her as a birthday present, and cry like a baby. 36 Morning Routine Seven o’clock meant sleeping late to Raymond while Lizzie always wanted another hour. He wanted to wake Lizzie with a kiss, as he’d done for most of the past fifty-two years. Instead, he whispered, “I love you,” and flat-footed his way to the bathroom. He knew if he stayed in bed too long his back ached. Lizzie’s back never seemed to bother her. ‘Wonder Woman,’ he started calling her after his own body parts began failing: first his thyroid, then his heart. Except to have babies, she’d spent only one night in a hospital. Just one night, he repeated, worried that he was beginning to talk to himself. He prepared the morning coffee. Even after she had switched to tea, he still made a full pot every morning. “Don’t know how to brew half a pot,” he’d tell her. He’d spill the remaining coffee into the sink every night. 37 “You could save it for the next day,” she’d say. “I squeeze out the last bit of toothpaste and add water to the shampoo bottle when it seems empty. I turn off lights and recycle. If I want to waste a couple cups of coffee, I deserve it.” She never argued with him. At least not about that. Raymond chuckled, and made his way to the front porch. Two things he could count on every morning – the newspaper thrown onto the front porch and Lizzie wanting to sleep late. He placed the paper on his rocking chair, the one next to hers, and shuffled back to the kitchen for the first coffee of the day. The full pot wasn’t ready yet, but he poured a cup anyway. Greatest invention of modern times, he remembered telling Lizzie, the dripless coffee maker. He made it back to the porch, sipping as he walked and proud not to have spilled a drop. He placed the cup on the small table between the two rockers and read the paper. Nearly an hour, and two cups of coffee later, Raymond glanced at the empty rocking chair and shuffled back to the bedroom. Sighing, he pulled the covers off her side of the bed, exposing two pillows. He moved the pillows to the head of the bed next to his and smoothed out the blanket. He added the small quilt Lizzie had sewn with fabric remnants and scraps. The green floral swath he remembered from a favorite dress. More than ever, he wished he could wake her with a kiss. 38 Maybe Next Year At the stroke of midnight at the Evergreen Pines Retirement Village’s New Year’s Eve party, Herb Rousch kissed his wife, Florence. Then he turned to a friend and said, “The best thing about being married is you always have a date for New Year’s Eve.” Florence laughed with her whole body. “So what am I going to do with him?” She asked, wheeling her oxygen tank behind her. “After fifty-three years, I’m just a date for New Year’s Eve.” The doctor had told them Florence’s heart was failing, breathing had become a conscious effort. Still, she felt determined to attend the New Year’s Eve party. After the party, as they prepared for bed, he remembered her saying, “Do me a favor. When I go, find someone to tell your jokes to.” 39 Herb took her hand in his, afraid to squeeze too hard. “You think it’ll be easy replacing you after all these years? It’ll take me at least a week.” Later that night she was rushed to the hospital. Three days later the children made funeral arrangements. Almost a year has passed and Herb sits on his overstuffed chair in his overheated condo fighting back tears. “Ahhh,” he waves his arm as if someone might see. After some time, he realizes the telephone is ringing. It takes two tries to push himself off the chair. Martha Horowitz is on the phone asking how he feels. “With my hands. How else should I feel?” She laughs a little too much, Herb thinks. But it’s a good, hearty laugh. Herb starts telling her an old joke about a rabbi and a priest in a whorehouse. He remembers telling it to her years ago. Or was it yesterday? He tells it anyway and Martha laughs like she had never heard it before. When Herb and Florence first moved to Evergreen Pines, Martha and her husband, Jake, had introduced them around and made them feel welcome. They even joined a bowling league together and took a trip to Atlantic City. But when Jake died, Martha said she felt like a third wheel going out with the two of them. They didn’t see much of her after that and Herb missed her laugh. Now she called nearly every day. Martha asks, “The New Year’s Eve party at the clubhouse, are you going?” Herb thinks how nice it would be to get out of his little apartment and be with people. Martha is a good friend. He always liked her. Florence would want him to get out and tell his jokes. Then he remembers how at midnight everyone is expected to kiss. “No, Martha. Maybe next year.” 40 What’s Wrong With Me? “What’s wrong with me, Doc?” I ask, sprawled out on the couch, one leg dangling above the floor. The dark, oak-paneled room filled with books and magazines is quiet, except for the hum of the fan overhead. “I’m sixty-three, Doc. I should have messed up my life by now. I mean, at the very least I should be having an affair with a woman younger than some of the shirts in my closet. My children from previous marriages should hate me and my blood pressure should be through the roof. Instead, I’m hopelessly in love with my own wife after forty years and, as far as I know, my son doesn’t hate me.” I turn to Doc. “He and his wife find me mildly amusing.” Doc, a turtle, hisses and jerks his head into his shell. “We’re very much alike, aren’t we, Doc?” I rise from the couch, exuding an obligatory sigh as my joints snap into place. I walk to the turtle tank and look in. “You spend a little time 41 looking around, exploring your limited environment, but at the first sign of risk you withdraw to your shell.” I tap on the glass. Doc hisses and retreats deeper into his world. “It would be sad if you weren’t so content.” I take a few floating fish logs from the can beside the tank, drop them in, and watch Doc snap at them with the gusto of a teenager attacking a Big Mac. “I bet it wasn’t always like that with you, was it, Doc? I bet you had dreams of living off nature, frolicking with other turtles, venturing wherever the creeks and rivers of life took you.” Doc finishes his appetizer and signals for more by sticking his neck out. I oblige by dropping a few more logs into the water. “Did you settle, Doc? I remember when I first got you, you used to stand on your back legs, leaning against the glass, reaching out as high as you could as if you were trying to escape. Now you seem content to just climb out of your water, sun yourself on a rock, or just stare out at the green plant on the ledge beside your tank.” I bend down to look into Doc’s tank and see my own reflection. “Have you gotten lazy, Doc? Do you have everything you need, so you don’t try for more? Have you lost your ability to imagine?” “Or are you simply content?” I hear a noise coming from the front of the house. “Honey, are you home?” “Hey sweetheart. I’m glad you’re home.” “How’s the life of the newly retired?” “Great day. I took a good walk, worked in the garden, wrote the first draft of a story and had a good talk with Doc.” “Say what?” “Never mind,” I said, hugging her. Some things should stay between a man and his turtle. 42 Hemingway Be Damned As soon as I began unfolding my middle-aged body from my sleeping bag, I regretted having ever read Hemingway. A mist covered the ground making me want to check my navel for mushrooms. My back felt like a train had driven over it during the night and my feet stung from bloody blisters I had developed after two days hiking the Chattahoochee. It seemed like a good idea when my friend Paul asked if I wanted to join him on a short camping trip. “Three days,” he said. “Just enough to get a feel for it.” Ever since reading “A Big, Two-Hearted River,” I hankered for adventure, but, being raised in Brooklyn, my idea of nature involved a picnic lunch in Prospect Park. My wife scoffed at my plans. “Three days without your computer? You’ll go crazy.” “I’m rugged,” I assured her. “I play handball.” 43 Paul hiked Tibetan mountain trails. I avoided dog poop on my daily trek to Brooklyn College. Paul ice-climbed in Alaska. I struggled through piles of student essays. Where Paul had added muscle since our college days, I had added pounds. I felt each ounce as I looked up and saw the moon still lingering in the morning sky like a dish left in the sink overnight. “Why can’t adventures start later in the day?” I mumbled. “Shh,” Paul said, gesturing with an open hand for me to stay still. I wanted to pee and stretch my back, but I froze instantly. “What’s wrong?” I whispered. He motioned towards a patch of trees less than twenty yards away. I squinted at a slight movement in the vegetation. Then what seemed like a shadow took form. A bear! “Don’t look it in the eye.” “Don’t worry.” I was still kneeling on the damp ground. My knees ached. My heart pounded. My bladder felt like it was going to burst open. Slowly, Paul reached into the side pocket of his khakis and pulled out a whistle. He shouted, “Hyyyeah,” and started blowing it like a high school gym teacher on speed. “Are you crazy?” I jumped to my feet. I tried to run, but my knees were too wobbly. He grabbed my shoulder to hold me in place. The bear turned towards the noise, letting out a terrifying growl. I swear I felt the earth move, although it may have still been my knees. Slowly, as if to remind us this was his choice, the bear disappeared into the woods. “Black bear, “ Paul finally said. “Curious, but not very brave.” He resumed preparing coffee like nothing had happened. I searched for a tree near our campsite, afraid to stray too far. 44 “By the way,” he said, as I trudged off. “Never try to outrun a bear.” “At least I didn’t wet myself,” I said, eager to return home to my computer and throw away all things Hemingway. My debt to Papa had been paid. 45 It’s Not That Funny I have this dream where Penelope Cruz is coming towards me totally naked, arms outstretched, pink tongue circling her lips. I say, “No, no. I’m married,” and she tells me how she doesn’t care. She must have me now. I grab her by the shoulders and explain that I’m a one-woman man. She breaks down sobbing, and I take her into my arms feeling the warmth of her breasts on my chest. I hold her as her tears dry, slipping my hand downward to pat her rear: I’m only human, after all. She smiles bravely to show she’ll be all right, and I peck her on the forehead in my best fatherly manner. I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling, realizing I have an erection that would make a sixteen-year old boy proud. Vickie is sleeping soundly on her side, her naked butt facing me. I pat it gently. 46 “Do you know your ass feels remarkably like Penelope Cruz’s rear end?” “Huh?” I roll towards her and poke her. “You have that dream again?” she asks. “Uh-huh,” I say as I snuggle as close as is possible. “The one where…you imagine you have the erection of a teenager?” “No! The one where…” I hear Vickie snoring peacefully, and although I can’t see her face I know she’s smiling. 47 Choreographed by Time Ours is not the sex of X-rated movies. You know, the ones where the couple barely waits for the front door to close before shirts, pants, bra and panties are tossed like breadcrumbs in a forest, as they scramble to the bedroom. They fuck standing up: she with her back pressed against the wall, legs snaked around her man; he with his buttocks glistening and tightening, thrusting to an ancient, primordial rhythm. No. Ours is the kind of sex where clothes are folded neatly beforehand. We pull down the bedspread and slip into bed, letting our bodies adjust to the coolness of the sheets. Choreographed by time, I lay on my back as you nestle your head on my shoulder, tracing your fingers over my once-dark chest hair. We talk of the day’s events – a misunderstood comment by a colleague, a flowerbed that needed weeding. I pull you close, delighting in the sensuality of your naked body pressed against mine. 48 Slowly, I rise on my elbow, allowing you to find a comfortable spot on the pillow. We kiss, then kiss again, our mouths opening a bit more each time as our tongues, like bashful children peeking from behind a fence, become more brazen with each outing. I caress your breasts, you massage me gently, animating my desire. Our bodies aren’t as supple as they once were. Still, we fold ourselves into familiar patterns, like complex origami, with each part interlocked and in place. Moans and sighs filter out of our mouths like echoes connecting the past to the present. I kiss you now and memories of first kisses sweep by like a warm breeze; I see the birthmark just below your navel, and I’m viewing that same spot for the first time in the back of my father’s Buick. We share a history – our Peace Corps plans, raising our son, careers that mattered and didn’t matter, the death of our parents, the marriage of our son, heart disease and fears of breast cancer, backs that ache, and the birth of our grandchildren. A lifetime of love flashes by as we hold tight and finally release tears of joy and profound sadness. But mostly joy. We hold each other afterwards: I, on my back; you tracing your finger along the surgical scar on my chest. We huddle under the covers that warm us from the post-coital chill and protect us from an unknown future. In each other’s arms, we allow the past to once again settle into the present. We close our eyes and drift into that netherworld where reality melts into the imagination, like a Salvador Dali painting, and only the familiarity of each other’s nakedness grounds us in the moment. 49 An Old Lady in a Faded Dress “I like your dress, Miss Emma,” the children taunt. One of them reaches out to touch the azaleas growing along the street in front of my house. “Be careful,” I shout back, hearing my old lady voice crackle like that of a Halloween witch. I know they’re making fun of me. Why shouldn’t they? I’m just an old lady in a faded dress and a floppy hat tending to her flowers. The children, what do they know? They’re as ripe and full of hope as spring tulips dazzling with color. I’m like the daffodil stems, littering the garden, left after the sunny flowers are long gone. But I flowered once. I had my summer. I danced in the wind and young men fancied after me like butterflies to violets. I gave my sweetness to them and brought them joy. Now I offer only faint memories of past summers. 50 Autumn offers one last chance, one final burst of beauty before the long sleep of winter. I want to shout, like the Crepe Myrtle leaves turning bright yellow in fall: “I’m still here! Look at me! Don’t forget me!” I want to offer a grand gesture. Something extraordinary. I long to rip off my old lady clothes and dance naked. I want to make a final impression. But how? I’m an old lady in a faded dress and a floppy hat tending to her flowers. My time has passed like the pale, spent blooms of the hydrangea. I had my chance. But I was so taken by my own beauty, I never learned to complement the other flowers, only to dominate them. Like a rose in full bloom, I thought I’d last forever. With my sweet scent and my perfect blossom, I thought I’d always be the focus of the garden, always attract the eye of anyone wandering my way. Now I’m just an old lady tending to her flowers. I hear the neighbors talk: “It’s so sad,” they say. “Alone in that big house. At least she has her garden.” “But what will she do come winter?” they ask. What will I do, indeed? When the winds from the north blow cold and the ground freezes solid, will I cover myself in a bed of down like the ones I prepare of leaves and straw for the tender coreopsis and coral bells? Will I again arise, like the crocus, as the sun thaws the earth to begin the cycle once more? Or will I remain in my downy bed, forever replaced by other, more hardy blooms? I watch two young lovers walk by, holding hands and laughing as they share secrets. I nod to them, but they see only each other. I snip a rose about to open and offer it to the young woman. She accepts my gift graciously. “Thank you,” she says. “It’s so beautiful.” “Watch the thorns, dear,” I warn her as I step aside. 51 Wayne Scheer Wayne Scheer retired from teaching literature to follow his own advice and write. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize, his work has appeared in numerous journals and webzines including The Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Review, and The Pedestal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fiction / Stories In these tales of hope and despair, childhood and old age, a woman decides her mother’s fate, two strippers discuss plans for the future, and a young boy watches his father die from the top of a tree. Filled with humor and cynicism, Revealing Moments offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an accomplished “miniaturist.“ Wayne Scheer’s stories are both tender and heartbreaking, and their subject is the range of human experience. “Wayne Scheer writes sad stories. Not always, but mostly… His stories are about real life. About you. About me.” – Carter Jefferson, The Internet Review of Books “Wayne Scheer has honed the vignette to an art form that mirrors life and lets the reader see how it evolves. Evocative images show people and their emotions as life plays out.” – Nell DuVall, author of The Train to Yesterday “Two dozen gems, sparkling with insight.” – Bob Sanchez, author of When Pigs Fly Thumbscrews Press