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Blackbird

Short Fiction by CASSANDRA ROBISON

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Contents A Garden, A Blizzard ................................................................................................................................................. 3 Where You Are........................................................................................................................................................ 13 The Toad Boy .......................................................................................................................................................... 21

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Photograph by Ariane Anderson AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY:

Born in Jamestown, New York, of Swedish ancestry, Cassandra Johnson Robison taught English, American Literature, and creative writing for 20 years, ten years at the College of Central Florida. Dr. Robison’s poems have been published in various online and print literary magazines, including but not limited to the following: Avocet: A Journal of Nature Poetry, Clapboard House, The Cortland Review, Mannequin Envy, and The Tonopah Review. For seven years, she was mentor and faculty advisor for the awardwinning student literary magazine Imprints. She has two chapbooks of poetry, Leaving the Pony (Finishing Line Press, 2009) and Tundra Heart (Pudding House Press, 2009). She lives and works in Central Florida and upstate New York. “She hadn’t put head in oven, gun to head; she hadn’t left those babies alone nor thrown her soul away. No. It was okay. It was okay now. It was the redolent and curiously metallic smell of snow, it was a whiff of chrysanthemums, heady and vertiginous. It was a garden and a blizzard, a snowridge of self. It was all right.” A Garden, A Blizzard

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A Garden, A Blizzard

All morning long she had been lost in the scent of past. Maybe it was the change of season, fall cutting its swath through time, or maybe it was the smell of summer letting go in the wind. The chrysanthemums were in bloom, and they reminded her of Cleveland in the fall, of her mother in law dead now, of her youth. On the drive from Erie to Cleveland along route 90, Lake Erie a flood of Army green to the north as far and wide as the eye could see, a chrysanthemum farm grew thousands and thousands of blooms; every October, she and Madeleine would drive there, 90 miles east in the green Cadillac, Madeleine at the wheel smoking Newport after Newport, opening the window an inch to let out the smoke, going 100 miles an hour most of the way, just to buy a trunk full of flowers of all colors: yellow of course, but burnt orange, sienna and white, purple, an array of chrysanthemums so stunning her heart still recalled them. Their scent filled the car the whole trip back. Madeleine could buy as many chrysanthemums as she wanted, and she did, every year. This fact alone seemed amazing to Miranda whose own mother, Scandinavian frugal, would never have spent a hundred dollars on flowers even had she the money. Those plants came to represent the Calvin’s great wealth, and with it that house full of anger and wild stories and secrets. October would always remind her of chrysanthemums and Chagrin Falls. At the chrysanthemum farm, Miranda would follow her mother in law through the fields of flowers, the children following happily, smiling; she would fill up her arms with plants handed to her as if she were the valet, but she didn’t care, not really. What was there to be done? She was the nobody wife of the only son. It was clearly her place to hold the flowers, to do as she was told. To take the snide looks and the well intentioned criticism and thank them all for it. This very morning, Miranda had bought two pots of chrysanthemums at the local Publix. She drove home with them in the back of her Jeep, their scent acrid in the air conditioned air wafting up from the back. When she got home, one had fallen over, spilled its brown soil like memories. It was the smell of chrysanthemums that called up old mourning, a scent both sweet and bitter. The smell hung around her all week; it wasn’t just this morning or yesterday morning but morning after morning. Desolation, despair—were they the same? She tried to nitpick them apart, pull at their threads. Grief has a smell, raw and perilous, terrible and cold. That was a fact. These are the kinds of feelings she had, the stupid questions she asked herself all day long. It wasn’t now because now was pretty good, pretty darn good if you knew the truth of it. Nope. Not now but long ago in her rush of youth, her first marriage, her coming of age with that young husband with icy eyes and the mean mouth, the hands that turned ugly, the mocking smile. He had gold eyes, hazel perhaps, but gold really like a cat or a lion, with brown flecks, but when he got angry, really anger, when the meanness swept into him like a fog, those eyes turned color, a stale green, a warning green. He would lean into her, stealing her breath, taking

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her space, letting her know that in one second he could bat her down to the ground. He was the God of Deuteronomy, of reckoning, this young husband pitiless in his power and swagger and nonchalant wickedness as if he whispered in her ear, your foot shall slide in due time, and I alone have the power to keep you in or out of hell. He had no sense of God, though, no sense of anything much though once he had seemed so debonair. A golden boy who could ski barefoot and monoski better than anyone, who was the quarterback and the basketball center and the scholarship winner, the class president, the guy who won the best scholarship—Dartmouth, for Chrissakes—the guy who had read so many books, just like she had, by the time they were teenagers, and who could and did stay up all night talking about those books, ideas, things, no other companions had the wit to offer. So of course, it was he she fell for, her Roark (they were still young and shallow enough to not even understand the difference between freedom and selfishness), who would build them a home across a stream in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, a house whose every inch would be utile, beautiful in its simplicity and function. He was the guy who drove too fast in his red Chevy convertible—well, his parents’ car, of course—and hit a horse who had fled his paddock on the Stockton Centralia Road only to run smack into death on Cal’s windshield, flung across that engine like a slingshot bull, dead on impact, the glass shattering and the head of that horse dropping right into Josh Pillard’s lap before that car spun and spun and ended up right side up, which is why they were alive, those boys, in the field near Ellery Center. Of course she fell in love with him. Of course. She couldn’t be blamed for that. But what was it? Why now? Why? Somehow the scent of desolation got into her lungs that fall, and it crawled through her bones and her blood, and every morning she woke up with the taste of it on her tongue; she’d be driving down some lovely rural road, on the way to Publix or PetSmart, and wham, it rose like smoke, roiling up to choke her, that desolation thick and sour and fetid, the way she felt the two years or so they lived together whether at his parents’ sprawling ranch house in Chagrin Falls or their own little place—always some sad rooms, sparsely furnished, poorly heated. Oh God, that old pain wafted up out of nowhere to spoil her day and she wondered, wondered, what the fuck? Why now? It’s been 40 years? He’s no threat to me anymore; he can’t hurt me. It wasn’t fear though, don’t mistake it, but desolation, that vacuum of goodwill, that emptiness one drowns in, the kind of loneliness nobody can live through and not be changed forever. And so she was changed. Forever. She was. It colored her then, and it was back to reclaim her for no particular reason other than merciless memory, which had its own wiles. She was 60 now with two marriages behind her. She hadn’t allowed a gentleman caller into her house for more than 17 years. So she had married her job, her professorship, her students, her love of literature and let it be her house of self. It had been adequate; it had been sustaining. Now after retiring early, she slept late, had coffee on the back porch, and poked around her gardens, planting this and that, rearranging the blooms, growing trees from avocado seeds. The days were heady with salt breeze from the Gulf, 30 miles west. Miranda sat with her cat on

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the porch, noting how far the honeysuckle had wound its way up the trellis overnight like little hands reaching out for sunlight. It was a good life. So why lately had she been plagued with memories? And so she went back and forth in time and memory every morning. She sniffed out the past and listened and plucked and pulled at it. Whoever she was now went back to that young wife she once was, that Miranda the beautiful and the shamed. In the fine white house in Chagrin Falls that sat way up the hill backed into the woods and the hidden gorge—maybe that was it, that damn gorge, that wet odd place, clammy and dim—where her mother in law painted the rooms all gold; where there were dual sided stone fireplaces and rooms big as ballrooms; where there were two Cadillacs in the garage; where she lived for months at a time with her small boys. The in-laws loved those boys, so they tolerated her. Miranda loved her boys more than her own life. That wasn’t hyperbole like her mother used to say, I love you more than life, which always prefaced some complaint, some remonstration. Their upturned faces gave her hope as a young woman, a young mother. They were the roadmap of her life. She liked to place her hands against their foreheads, one by one, looking into their blue eyes and kiss them on the cheek. She would smell their mittens; she would hold their scarfs to her face. The scent of their winter scarves was still with her now, forty years later. Every day now she still talked to or texted each son…the tall bear of a man younger son with the deep gray eyes and the older son, always impeccable with his neat lists and his sea blue eyes. Oh, they were her joy still. And they were good men. Miranda’s mother in law, a Mississippian by birth and nature, syrupy tongued called her Meh-ra-ann-daw, four syllables with the first nothing like the short i or short a sound it should have been; her father in law—six and half feet of him with a head and chest like a Holstein bull—called her, the gal, that’s all, just the gal. Is the gal comin then? he’d ask when nobody else wanted to accompany him to the Browns’ game on Sunday. Is the gal doin the flyin then? he’d ask when he’d seat me up front in the Cesna 310 just to piss off his son and his wife and turn over the controls to me once we airborne somewhere out over Lake Erie. You jest keep following that shoreline, gal. He said it calmly. You jest watch this little old dial here—he’d smack the altimeter with his forefinger—to make sure you’re level and follow that shoreline all the way to Erie now. That’s right. Just like that. His voice was terrifying even when it was low; more so maybe. He was a fierce man raised Mormon but without God now, fifth son whose daddy made a fortune in the Cadillac business in Norman, Oklahoma. His accent was thick and Western, slow and deliberate. It had meanness in it. Coldness. It was a voice you didn’t want to hear alone. And there she would be flying that damn two engine plane all by herself. He would sit back in his seat and fold his arms over that barrel chest looking straight ahead. He never seemed to breathe. He was smiling a little but it wasn’t a smile you wanted. Miranda was afraid of him anyway and for good reason though he never once threatened her because he was a monster when drunk, a wife slugger, a slam you in the 5


goddam mouth with a glass of gin kind of ex Marine pilot that nobody fucked with if they had a brain. Madeleine, pronounced with a long i like eye, still called him Big Cal, adoration in the very syllables of it: oh Big Cal, she’d say, didya know he was the best pilot the Marines evah had? He was, ya know, Miranda, so fearless. I could tell ya stories… And of course she did, endless stories, and now looking back, she knew they were damn good narratives, Madeleine was a clever woman. No dummy. No idiot though those were her eponyns when Big Cal got drunk. He’d shout them loud enough to hear from outside the house or from upstairs if he was down. Dummy. It sounded like Dumb-heeh. He rolled it off his tongue slow and mean and loud. That Western drawl drawing out the syllables to nearly three, holding on to the vowel sound of duhhhhmee. No, the woman was no duhhmee. But she and her son Little Cal were in league, and it gave him permission to beat her beyond her own self respect, not just with his fists but with his meanness, the kind of meanness she recognizes now is just dumb bullying, nothing special about it, banal even, that kind of truly evil banal cruelty, and which now she might stop cold, one way or another, (what the hell, I’m a college professor, I’m a gifted person, surely I could stop him now). But it was a kind of bullying that made her ashamed. A kind that made her embarrassed to be alive because of this man, the one who on his knees with his face buried in her skirt, crying and mumbling, could treat her like that with the tacit permission of his mother, who knew most of it, who saw it and heard it, but then, she had her own bag of nightmares, didn’t she? what was she worth anyway? Who was coming to rescue her? Nobody, thank you. Not a goddam soul. That’s the loneliness, the one that smothers you, and makes you want to stick your head in the oven thank you, Sylvia, the one that drowns you as you lie slumped into a cold mattress with a back to you, shoulder blades spine skin hair turned away from you, the one that rots your guts and stinks up your soul. ***** In November of their last year together, Miranda and Cal rented a house in Olmstead Falls near Cal’s college. It was a precious Cape Cod, brick and mortar, with ten acres and a barn for Miranda’s horse. Miranda couldn’t believe her luck, this was her first house as a young mother and wife, and it was a good house that sat on good property. She had her old Ford station wagon to drive, all her own, and though it had no heat and needed new tires, it gave her hope. Cal drove his own, an awful little Opel his parents had bought for him; in it his parents’ disdain for Cal’s carelessness with vehicles. He had ruined or totaled several by the time he was—a Cadillac, a Chevy convertible, and his purple van that was his nod at playing hippie. All three wound up in the junkyards of Ohio. So Big Cal bought his son an Opel. Hah.

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Cal was enrolled full time at Berea College nearby though Miranda had no idea if he actually attended classes or just fooled around, both probably. She wrote some of his papers— one on the Niebelungenlied and one on Joyce because she loved the reading and the writing and he couldn’t care less. The boys shared one of the two bedrooms, each in his own twin bed with football comforters. The floors throughout were hardwood. The living room had a fine stone fireplace, which they lit once or twice in December before Christmas. For awhile…always for awhile with Cal…things were good. Not perfect. But good enough. Still Miranda did not bring her horse; something held her back. Cal never got the fence repairs done, for one thing. Fall turned into winter. The horse she had loved since childhood stayed at her friend’s barn back in New York state. Cal took to wearing tall brown boots over his jeans, a horseman’s boots, and dressed in various wool turtlenecks his mother bought for him. Miranda had little to wear, nothing new in years; her winter wardrobe was slim. She was okay with that though. It wasn’t a big thing. He was wearing the orange one, the burnt orange turtleneck that Miranda hated—orange, she thought, who could like that awful color?—on a Thursday night near semester’s end. The boys were in bed. Miranda and Cal sat in the living room and perhaps they would light a fire, play Scrabble or chess. They did that sometimes. Cal stood and moved across the room in a way Miranda recognized. They signaled a change of mood, in this case, a leaving He looked at her hard.

“What? You got something to say?

Ah, there it was, that hard edge, that rudeness. What had she done to call up that Cal? “I thought we were going to play chess maybe?” She said, trying to keep her voice strong. Cal didn’t like weakness. He didn’t like crying. He didn’t’ like wives who clung to him or asked where he was going. or where he had been. Okay. She was careful. He gave her the look. It said simply, I’m leaving, too bad, don’t bother me. “Cal?” she asked softly. “Where are you going at this time of night?” The hush was priceless. He loved the drama of it, she could tell. It always came down to this and she always asked, damn fool, stupid little wife that she was. “Out.” That’s it, the thud of it a bootheel. His upper lip flinched. He was adroit with a sneer. He had it down, she had to give him that. What she never got was where this other Cal came from. One minute he was Cal, her husband, distant but sometimes fun, sometimes loving even, and the next, out of nowhere, this guy, this son of a bitch. “Cal?” the word came out before she could stop it. And his hand came across the room like a snake, clutching at her throat just under her jaw. “What?” he hissed leaning in close. “What?” He was 6’4” against her foot smaller frame. He leaned into her space, shoved his head into her nose. She stayed absolutely still. It was the only thing to do. She had learned that. He

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loosened his grip then let his hand fall. He turned his back and strode across the wood floors, each step harsh and defiant. The door slammed behind him. Good then. But the house was bleak after that, and she lay alone in the forlorn Ohio darkness, in winter, the cold seeping through the panes by the double bed. He was gone three days that time. On the first night, the phone rang three times an hour apart. It was a laughing woman, a girl, who asked for Cal. Miranda could hear bottles clinking, music, laughter. She had the feeling Cal was actually right there on the other end of the phone with the woman too. She was quite sure he was so she just said, he’s not here. I don’t know where he is, and hung up, but the third time the woman retorted, “You don’t know? Why the fuck don’t you know, you stupid bitch?” The woman laughed; other laughter joined it. Miranda hung up. She looked at the fireplace, cold in its hearth. She looked around that sweet little house and felt the chill of it, the absence of love there, the hostility that felt like sleet, the despair smelled like sleet. They could have been all right here. All the ingredients were there. He came back on Saturday around 7 p.m. when the boys had just come out of the bath. They stood in their flannel pajamas, looking flushed and helpless. Boyd was three and Wyatt two. They were handsome boys that looked like Miranda and looked like Cal, depending on who was standing next to them. Miranda was on her knees wiping down the tub; Boyd and Wyatt were lingering around her, sleepy now, ready for bed. The mist clung to the walls and to their faces. Miranda was prepared for anything—mean Cal or normal Cal; she just had to wait until his footsteps rounded the hallway and his face peered in at her and the boys. She could tell from the heaviness of his steps that it was mean Cal still. Damn. Boyd‘s dark eyes were moon round and fixed; Wyatt stuck his thumb in his mouth, something he rarely did. Boyd’s eyelids widened. His dad took up the entire doorway. “What are you doin still up? What are you lookin at?” his father demanded. Both questions ran into the eachother and in second, Cal twisted Boy’s arm and took him bawling down the hallway. Miranda heard the slam of the little boy hitting the wall by his bed. She almost could not move; her legs were lead. She could deal with Cal and anything he pulled on her. She outwaited his meanness. She kept still and never reacted. It was her rabbit ticket to safety every time. The time he gripped her by the throat and held her under the shower head, the time she asked too many times for him to come to the table and eat the baked chicken when he slammed her into the wall and threw the bowl of mashed potatoes to the floor, smashing the bowl, sending little Wyatt into shrieks as he sat in his high chair, his cheeks red with fear. But Cal had never been rough with the kids until this moment. She knew he loved that little boy with his whole cold heart, but that no longer mattered, it made no difference. Miranda swept Wyatt into her arms. Boyd was on the side of his bed, sitting up, his face red and puffy. He did not cry. His fists were hard balls. He looked down at them and not at her or anything else. She thought, you tough little darling, you angel, you smart boy. Cal stood over his bed, but he had lost his muster. Miranda brushed past him and gave him nothing. She slid

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Boyd into his bed and kissed his face. She pulled up the red, white and blue comforter with the footballs on it that Boyd loved so well and tucked it under his chin. She cupped his face and smiled at him with her eyes so Cal couldn’t see. She saw her boy take strength from that. She tucked Wyatt in too. Neither boy made a sound. They were their mother’s boys, god bless them. Miranda saw Cal still standing there by the bedroom door. His back sagged, his jaw hung awkwardly somehow, stupidly. He left the room and the house before she had to figure a way past him. *** On Sunday morning, one of the great storms of the decade landed on Cleveland and points east, hovering over the northern shore of Ohio and howling down towards Buffalo. Miranda did not see the forecast nor know this. If she had, it would have made no difference anyway. By 11 a.m. an ice chill had settled into the air and sky and her own lungs, turning the air metal; the snow was nothing yet, just a sort of ominous white, the sky washed out, the horizon gone. She had packed every piece of their clothing into three bags: carefully, tightly, smoothing down all pieces of their wardrobes into manageable parts. The cat went into a cage, quitting her Siamese yeowling as if she too knew this was serious business. The boys were silent and ate their oatmeal sullenly. Miranda stood at the kitchen sink and looked out over that vast pasture, past the red barn that stood horseless and closed. She touched the aqua oven. Twice that fall she had stood in that spot, thinking of putting her head into the oven, how soothing that would be, how all this fear and sadness would be gone. But of course not. How could she leave those babies to awaken to such a house, to such a moment? No. She touched the calico curtains she had sewn herself, their orange and yellow flowers blooming in the midst of a dead season. She recalled each stitch. In the end, that old Ford was packed solid, the suitcases covered with her father’s old Army blankets. Just in case he came home. She bundled into their snowsuits so that their noses and eyes only peeked out at this new landscape; she wrapped woolen scarves around their necks tenderly, covering their mouths. Wyatt’s nose dripped a little. His cheeks were bright red, feverish, the way he looked when he fretted. Outside the weather began to close in. There was cold and there was cold, brutal cold. It was that kind of day, Miranda knew. She turned from the sink. She walked through the house she had begun to love, each step echoing. Finally, on that Sunday morning the last day in Ohio, the last day in that washed out world, she stood in the driveway on the driver’s side, the boys inside, Boyd standing and

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clutching the seat, Wyatt seated and staring blankly at her. The cat was quiet. The suitcases were concealed. Cal pulled in. She turned sharply and regarded him. The air was beyond cold. To breathe in hurt. His car closed in. He bullied it right up to the back of her Ford. Before he turned off his engine, his eyes held her. He knew. She could tell. He knew something was up. His long legs stepped out of the car like a gunfighter unfolding from a poker table, slow, anticipating trouble. Cal strode up and leaned into her as he did in such moments; his breath snorted in her face. She could see it waft like hate. She did not blink. “Where are you going?” She let the silence talk for a moment. “I’m going to visit my mother in Buffalo.” Nothing moved—not her eyes, not his, not the boys. Nothing. The gray snow seemed to stop in mid air, stuck like lint. The odd flecks in his green eyes flickered. She knew that signal. Curiously, her chin stayed firm. He saw it . He bent down and stared into the back of the station wagon. “Huh,” he said. Then he turned back to face her slowly. He said slowly, softly, staring at her. “So why did you take the cat?” Somehow those words hissed. There it was. She was afraid to breathe. She didn’t breathe. For an instant, she felt his great hand around her throat as she had so many times, lifting her up to her toes. She felt her own nostrils flare. Her voice came out steady. “I didn’t know when you would be home.” She held his gaze. Nothing. For a second, nothing, ten seconds, nothing. “Huh.” He pushed by her but she did not step back. He moved towards the house, and she got into the car, turned on the ignition, pulled forward ten feet and backed around his car. She did not look back. For the next four hours, her attention remained screwed to the windshield, she fought that snowstorm 150 miles on route 90, the world utterly white. She lost sight of every marker. The road first glazed with ice and wet snow and later—by Geneva on the Lake— the lanes rutted with a foot or more of heavy snow. She stayed in those ruts, driving 30 miles per hour much of the way. Once a semi blew past her in the outside lane; his wheels threw up the snow and sleet. She held tight and drove blind. The truck pulled in front of her and for the last 70 miles, she followed the red safety marker on his bumper. The truck’s huge wheels flattened the snow. The wall of snow blowing sideways towards them was broken by the truck’s presence. At Ripley, the New York state line, she pulled into a Keystone gas station and found she had 37 cents, enough for one gallon of gas. The car floated to a stop, the brakes frozen and tight, the tires slick and spare. She paid for the gallon. Over the final hour, she drove that heatless old Ford full of her whole life over the snow ridge past Westfield, past Dewitville, past Bemus Point, through a world washed out with snow. Just before dark, she turned the corner to her mother’s home in South Buffalo. It was the first time she let go her grip. 10


*** Now forty years later, she could still smell Calvin. It was a smell she hated and loved. He was still there standing in that Ohio driveway in the snow. She knew they had had their chance as so many lovers do, so many couples do. Once, in their house, their beautiful house, where they should have been so happy, why the happiest in life, with those two sweet little boys, their perfect faces smiling and handsome and happy. But there in his parents’ grand house, in that sweet little Cape Cod in Olmstead Falls, Ohio, desolation gripped her and never quite let her go. She smelled it today, the dregs of it. Was it Cal or that? It ground in her teeth like sand. It hung like a headache in the back of her skull. But you know, she thought as she watered her own pair of yellow chrysanthemums on the front porch, the difference is I am free. I am safe. She would say to herself, Safe from that husband who would stay out all night, two nights, three nights, and come home and throw me into the wall. Safe from that Madeleine who would call six times a day and who would say, when I revealed those griefs to her, Boys will be boys, you know, Miranda. Boy-ez is how she said it. I hear it still, Boyez will be boyez. Now it was half a century ago. Madeleine was gone, this year, after a lifetime of Newports did in her lungs, but two decades past the tumored death of that Marine pilot husband. Now it was safe time, this long stretch of days, this season of love and rain, as Styron wrote in some book, this washing out of middle age, the commencement of age. It was reconciliation of sorts. A cool season; a fine season. In the mornings, she sat with her cats on the screened porch where the sun filtered through the screen and the honeysuckle danced the trellis. Sometimes she could smell the sea. She lived alone, yes, it’s true, alone now 40 years. Despair permeates, can’t quite be cleansed. It’s the daughter of shame. Why at this moment was she filled with it? She cracked the screen door and stepped out barefoot onto the grass. She bent down and began to deadhead the bittersweet chrysanthemums, pulling off each spent bud. They were remarkable, these chrysanthemums. The flowers would deaden and brown but once pruned, the entire plant would rebloom with endless new tiny suns. She put her hand up to her face and breathed in that familiar scent flowers in autumn, of children’s foreheads, of love and loss. And to herself she thought, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t matter. Everyone feels it, everyone smells it, everyone fears its return, it’s a whiff on the wind from some perilous journey, something mighty and tremulous they once survived. Here was the thing: She hadn’t put head in oven, gun to head; she hadn’t left those babies alone nor thrown her soul away. No. It was okay. It was okay now. It was the redolent and curiously metallic smell of snow, it was a whiff of chrysanthemums, heady and vertiginous. It was a garden and a blizzard, a snowridge of self. It was all right.

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Where You Are

Southern California was a foreign land to a New England teenager—skinny elegant palm trees with their fronds clacking in the breeze, invisible insects whirring in the bushes, and everywhere concrete, from Hollywood east to Pomona each concrete town ran smack into the next one: Alhambra, Rosemead, El Monte, West Covina. There was nothing pretty about those towns but their vibrant hues of sherbet colored houses and popsicle buildings. It was the summer my life unwound, strand by strand, until nothing remained of what had been. It was the year my father left and my mother came undone. It was the summer I ran away from home, and when you run away it is because you can no longer bear to be where you are. This I know, running away means preferring temporary quarters, and liking the sound of semis rolling past motel walls, needing that innocuous space between past and future— somewhere impermanent and anonymous. You run from where you are, which is no distance at all. I had abandoned my mother and sister back in Connecticut, my mother's tortured face become a stranger's face, and my sister, still a child, with eyes turned on me like violet wounds. Guilt for leaving them sought me later, years later, though long before I tell you this and reconciled it. Then I was sixteen. I bought a Greyhound ticket in New Haven with my summer savings as a lifeguard and spent four days crossing the country in that bus. When I got off, stiff and hungry, in L.A., I had 46 cents and a transistor radio some G.I. had left on the seat next to me when he got off back in Phoenix. I was sixteen and my friend Lonnie was waiting there at the bus depot smoking one of her Tareytons. Lonnie lived in an unfurnished one bedroom apartment in El Monte that summer of 1966—by unfurnished I mean she had no furniture at all—so for the next few weeks we slept on her green wall to wall carpeting, ate up her absent husband's Navy government check and ended up hungry most of the time. Her first husband was a sailor out of Long Beach, though I never met him. He was always out to sea. I think back now and realize I should have thanked him, or Lonnie, too, but I guess I never did. You take what you need at sixteen. The Case Del Sol Apartments were a U-shaped concrete, two-story motel-looking complex with a homely pool in the center surrounded by concrete. Lonnie had made friends fast, as she always did, with her generous grin and her casual talk. Of the assortment of characters at the Casa Del Sol when I arrived most of them I see now were lonely, older widows who stayed out of the sun and kept their doors locked, a couple of single guys in their twenties—Jeff and Pete— who introduced us to the sweet, heady smoke of pot, and Con Adair, an ex-marine. Conrad Adair must have been forty or so, with a square head of gray hair cropped in a crew cut. A short man but sturdy and visibly strong, he performed his calisthenics daily at pool edge for all to witness. He was a man full of stories and humor when sober, but everyone in the complex learned quickly that when he drank became a creature of a different kind who shouted at no one and everyone, kicked furniture into the pool at three A.M. and swore at the moon. By the final week of August, the money ran out, all the money, and after that we depended on friends to feed us which they did at painfully irregular intervals. We took to wandering through the cavernous super market—the first of its kind that I saw—across Ramona

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Boulevard, drinking little pints of chocolate milk and eating grapes and crackers, anything easy to open and throw way, and walking out again. I was just young enough to think that if we were caught, any manager would understand we were really hungry and let it go at that. That's sixteen for you. On the last Wednesday of August when mother was losing her mind in El Paso, getting a divorce lost and alone, and Lonnie and I were eating and drinking for free at the Handy Dan Super Market, my right sandal broke and I became shoeless for I had brought no other shoes. They were brown leather sandals and I had liked them very much. If you're from the north like me you can't imagine, simply can not imagine, how hot the pavement gets in southern California in August. It burns the soles of your feet. I couldn't even run across Ramona Boulevard to the super market. I couldn't walk on the concrete poolside during the afternoon. When my sandal broke, I sat on the floor of our empty apartment and just stared at those useless shoes. Perhaps something broke inside me with the strap of that leather shoe because until that moment something better had seemed possible, some other life. You could not say I had had hope until that moment, but something kin to it. No money and no food had not frightened me, but no shoes was a problem I could not solve. I would steal food to live but never shoes. I had run to the edge of the continent as far west as far away as I could run, fearless maybe or traumatized into movement, but fueled by will. I look back now from this safe place thirty years beyond and still smell the dolor of that instant, a gray soot, but more importantly see that the edge of the continent whereon I stood shoeless in L.A. became at that moment a rubble of soul. It must have been then I began to think of dying. Sometime in the middle of that night, I rose from the floor, slipped out of the apartment and went down to pool's edge. I sat on the concrete side dangling my legs and contemplating the water for a good long while before I plunged in, diving deep and remaining there, opening my eyes to the chlorine and staring up at the blackness of night. When I shot to the surface finally sucking in the night air, Lonnie spoke very calmly out of the darkness from where she sat in a lounge chair, "Pretty silly way to do yourself in, kid—you're a lifeguard, remember?" she said. Ah, Lonnie. She had followed me soundlessly out into the darkness. She did not intrude, did not question, watched me dive into my silent despair, dignified it with humor, never spoke of it again. How could she have been only a year older than I? That next night around eight o'clock a Con Adair came out of his apartment and swaggered slowly across to Lonnie and me. We were sitting by the pool like two girls on vacation. "Hey gals," he winks. "There's a party in Newport Beach—beautiful beach house and all. Want to come with me?" It was a bad idea, but sometimes you just do things anyway. Lonnie looks at me, I smile back. Hey, whatever Lonnie says, goes, that was my motto by then. Lonnie's face broke into a great wide grin, said of course we would, love to see the Pacific Ocean—live so close and yet never see it—something like that.. Like we were normal people living a normal life. Jesus. We were out there. I ran up and pulled a denim shirt over my bikini, Lonnie pulled on a pair of shorts. She yelled, "Bring your guitar!" which I played at, strumming badly, singing worse. So I grabbed that old Silvertone, my first and treasured guitar, and we ran down we ran to the concrete parking lot and into Con's open-sided jeep. Con was sober, and Lonnie whispered, Long as he stays that way, no problem. 14


I really didn't know where Newport Beach was, but I had a good sort of photographic sense of geography: I knew it was southwest, below L.A. I didn't yet drive, or I would have realized it was some distance in miles and a good long drive depending on traffic. Still, I don't remember anything about that trip except the wind blowing through that jeep, and as we neared the ocean the salted wind, and just as we pulled into the driveway of a beach house, a coral sun lowered itself into the horizon just like a postcard. It's funny, isn't it? How sometimes in life the physical world plays at such odds with the inner world of self? Lonnie and I ran right to the water's edge and played awhile in the waves like children. Back in the house, we found Con Adair shaking up some drinks in a frosty pitcher and his friend, Dwayne Cox, leaning against the kitchen counter watching him. Lonnie said, "Hey, man, where's the party?" We all said "man," in 1966, all desperate to be cool. Con and Dwayne exchanged a glance. Dwayne's eyes narrowed to slits. He said, "Why we're the party! Whassa' matter, don't you like us?" Dwayne stood a shoulder taller than Con Adair, though he didn't look like he would be a friend of his. Dwayne was another type of man—a man gone to seed early, just the opposite of the well-preserved Con. Dwayne's Hawaiian print shirt flapped open and dark chest hair spilled out like fur. He took a step forward, or tried to, and lurched against the bar, his eyes glazed. "Better get yourself together, boy!" Con roared. "I'm aimin to, Con. Hey, there, Blondie, wanna dance?" He looked from one of us to the other, since we were both blond, I skinny and small, Lonnie tall and strong. I felt the tiny hairs at the nape of my neck quiver. "It'll be okay," Lonnie whispered at me in her calmest voice. "That Adair wouldn't do anything too bad, after all, we know where he lives!" She grinned. I raised my eyebrows and puckered my lips in answer. "So where's the party?" Lonnie asked again, her voice deliberate, calm. Lonnie never freaked, or it never showed. It was one of the traits I admired most about her. "This was supposed to be a party. Con, what's the story?" Lonnie could talk like a cop on duty. Con poured out two glasses of whatever he had mixed (pina coladas, I think, because I recall they smelled fruity) and with emotive courtesy brought one to each of us. "There now, drink up, darlins. Don't you worry. People will be coming soon. I told you it would be a nice party. Don't you worry your pretty little heads about it." Dwayne choked out a sort of dark little laugh, as if that were the cleverest thing he had ever heard and wasn't it the truth? Con winked. "That boy over there just got a head start on us, so we got to catch up, right? Bottoms up, girls! Here's to ya!" Lonnie stood up and shrugged at me. She walked carefully across the room and took her time selecting an album and put it on. The Rolling Stones. We sat back and drank those fruity drinks, everything silent but the waves smacking the beach, wild thrashing waves so unlike those I knew at home on the Long Island Sound. Mick Jagger spit out his angry lyrics; I could see him gyrating to that music, microphone in hand, looking vicious. It made me feel mean, but not for long. The music changed to a ballad so dark and sad I blinked back stinging tears. It wouldn't be cool to cry. No one knows, she comes and goes. Lonnie and I mouthed the words and sank back, a little high, a little relaxed now. 15


Con Adair had been leaning across the bar speaking softly to Dwayne, but just then he raised his voice, punched the counter, shouted, "You don't know, you asshole! You don't know about nothin at all. You had to be there to know." Dwayne, lewdly drunk by now—belly hanging over the unbuttoned top of his shorts, farting loudly, oblivious to anything at the moment but Con's shouting, nodded his head, "You're right, Con. Hey, man, no problem. You're absolutely fuckin right." He gazed around the room, though he didn't seem to see us at all, and said again, "It's cool, man. I said you're right." "Cool! You asshole! What do you know? What the hell do you know?" Adair's face twisted into meanness. In those few minutes, a half hour no more, Con Adair had turned ugly. When you are sixteen you do not expect the worst to happen. You know there are mean things, ugly things, in the world, but they will not touch you. But when they do it is swiftly as a doorknob turned, irrevocable. It can come like an earthquake with no warning until the ground shakes beneath your feet where the land was solid just the moment before and, in an instant, all the previously safe ground wobbles and dissolves where you were before. He was on a roll now, we had seen it before, half listening to his tirades, but this time he was dead in front of us, in the same room, and we were riveted to attention. "Do you know how many we left in there?" he shouted. "Guys I knew? In that fuckin jungle? Not dead, either, probably not dead, who knows if they were dead, we just left 'em. A dozen maybe. At least a dozen that I know of. Who knows how many then in the whole offensive? Now all their mama's got is a piece of paper saying, missing in action. Missing in action." He gulped huge swallows from his glass between phrases of an icy voice. We had heard some of his stories of the jungle, of what he called action he had seen, in some war we didn't know much about yet. Con Adair, for all his swagger and anger, his drunkenness and coarseness, struck me as a man who had something redeemable about him. Maybe it was this, this wound somewhere inside, and some part of him left half a world away. Or maybe I just had no judgment left at all. Lonnie and I instinctively sat absolutely still. Menace rises from men like fetid air. We could smell it. Lonnie asked him a question finally just to show we were politely listening, and he sneered back at her, "Don't you know anything about this goddam world at all? Asia, southeast Asia. There's stuff going down there you mama's girls can't even dream of. You know anything at all about death, little girl?" He sprang up and across the room towards her in one motion, blowing his fierce boozy breath into Lonnie's face. "I've seen things you've only seen in your nightmares, little girl. I've done things you only saw in horror movies, in your nightmares, girl. I done things you get the gas chamber for here in sunny California, all orders of the U.S. government..." He sank against the doorway, spent, and wavered there. Lonnie stood then, and said quietly over her shoulder to me, "Come on, we're gonna find the little girls' room, okay?" Both men had fallen silent. Adair leaned still against the door jamb, staring into nothing. Dwayne fingered his drink, nodding his head. We did not go upstairs to find the bathroom, but sat down still as birds in darkness on the stairs. We heard Adair move across the kitchen to the bar again. First, then, their voices were just mumbles, drunken noises, senseless; We could just 16


make out pieces of their talk to each other. "You take the little one. I like that long legged blondy." "Huh? Hey man, I don't know..." "Nobody'll know nothin, fool. No family. Tall blondy's husband's out to sea!" Their laughter hung dark and angry in the air. Dwayne mumbled something, no words, an acquiescence. Lonnie grabbed my forearm hard in her hand. "We have to get out of here, now," she whispered. She pointed at my guitar which lay against the wall next to the front doorway. We crept down the steps. As my fingers closed on the fret board of my old guitar, Con yelled from the kitchen, tossing his head back so we could just see his face at the end of the long hallway. "Hey, missy, where you been? We're missin you in here. Get the hell down here!" Dwayne murmured back to Con and they must have put their heads close together to talk low. Lonnie's eyes opened wide as circles, and she moved with the odd discombobulated slowness of a nightmare toward the door. She turned the knob without a sound and we both tiptoed out into the California night. We ran, wildly, me dragging that old Silvertone, smacking it on the ground, on a post, on a fence, running through the moonless blackness of back yards in a beach town we had never seen in daylight. I ran breathless, shoeless, shirt flying, trying to catch that long-legged friend of mine who was faster, across one backyard, diagonally across another, past barking dogs, knocking over garbage cans, falling once on cinders, running until we found Highway 101, running too across the southbound lanes and then the north, and still moving fast, hitchhiking backwards, looking over our shoulders through the eerie street lamp glow on the beach side of 101. Maybe five minutes passed when a long brown Chevrolet pulling a trailer with a motorcycle in it, slowed to check us out, then pulled over in front of us. We threw open that Chevy's doors and plunged inside without a second thought. Maybe when you're running , anywhere seems safer, better, than where you are. I don't know. Lonnie takes the front seat and as the car pulls back out onto 101 headed north, she says, "Thanks, man. It was cool of you to stop. We were in a mess back there." She doesn't explain and the guy doesn't ask. We check him out then, speeding up 101 in the middle of the nigh: a thin, bearded man, maybe fifty, hard to tell. He's quiet, solemn even, you can't see his teeth when he does speak. All he asks is, Where are you headed? Lonnie tells him, I guess, and I hear him say he is on his way to San Francisco to race, but I can't remember— I drift off into a stupor of relief. When I awake, we are in front of the Casa Del Sol. I had expected to be dropped off downtown, twenty miles away, since he had been headed north to San Fran. This stranger had driven us to our apartment, maybe eighty miles out of his way, round trip, so Lonnie says, Come in for some coffee, though I'm sure we had none. And he does come in, this raw boned man, finds we have no food or drink, goes out and returns with beer, pizza, donuts. We sit up on the floor all night eating and talking. Or they do, anyway. I have grown quiet and surround myself with silence. It feels like a blanket. He says he is a motorcycle racer (whatever that is, I never ask) and his name is Hans Hoch. We laugh at that—who's ever met a guy named Hans? I am still me, but I am dazed. I begin to unwind inside, strand by strand, and I feel it happening. 17


Lonnie smiles at me; she is tough. But I am no longer tough, or brave, or much of anything at all. At five p.m. we hear Con Adair's jeep pull in and watch Con stagger across through the lawn furniture in his usual fury kicking it this way and that, swearing. We all walk out and stare down at him from our second floor apartment; he looks up without any expression, turns his lock and goes in. We never speak to him again during the few days that remain of our California life. We have forged our fate with this new stranger, this odd gangling Hans, who has a pocket full of credit cards and no cash, a new car, and nowhere he must be. Who do you trust when the people your parents were disappear? When the earth you knew so well has shifted and slid away? Nobody, and everybody. You are out there. When Lonnie tells him we're out of cash and she thinks it's time to head back east to Connecticut, he doesn't say much. But the next morning says, "I've been thinking about going East—thought you might like a ride home." And Lonnie turns to me, "Pack up, kid. It's about that time." Lonnie does all the talking now because I have ceased to talk. I have slid down into another running place, sliding inward, a cool stone. We leave the empty apartment with our few things in two suitcases, and we go. I leave shoeless, and something about that drains me of memory or feeling. I tell you this now from so far away, so much life gone by, and I can see, as I do, that what had until that night in Newport Beach been a desperate world but perhaps survivable had become a void. An alien place. The world as I had known it for sixteen years had finally unwound. I spoke none of this to Lonnie, and I don't know to this day if she understood. I could not in any case have spoken it because my entire awareness shifted inward to the voiceless place. So we left with the stranger named Hans the very next morning, and he drove us on a queer journey south and then east, some senseless itinerary but to him, and we never asked why. Oh, man we were out there. First down to Tijuana where he meets some guys, buys us green beer, offers to buy us pinatas, but we say no. Why Tijuana? Why Mexico first? We don't ask. I don't care. I awake that first night in the back seat just before dawn, and cannot imagine where I am, then realize I simply do not know. As dawn lifts a wan sky, I see our car is parked on the side of a road in brown dirt amidst brown hills. No trees. Grey sky, brown hills. I know I have never been here before. It's a desolate spot bereft of any softness or beauty. Lonnie is sleeping with her head on the front passenger's door, and Hans Hoch, too, but his arms are crossed and his head drops rudely on his shoulder. My own head hurts, my throat feels raw, and I stare out into an alien landscape that looks like the surface of the moon. It is northwest Mexico, I find out later that morning, but at that moment I am utterly forlorn, as foreign to myself as this wild brown country looks to me. A face looms into the window. I startle, gasp, pull back into the middle of the back seat. But it is just an old Mexican, I think, a very old man, grizzled, with skin like tanned rawhide. He grins at me, a mirthless grin, and I see one missing tooth in the front. In an instant, he is gone, and the sun rises imperceptibly, the car fills with light. I never tell them about the old man because I am not sure he was really there and because I do not understand how he disappeared so swiftly on the wing of that gray and ruthless dawn. I do not know what it means or what anything means anymore. Hans gets out and urinates by the side of the car; I can hear it and that embarrasses me. Lonnie stirs, turns her head, and smiles at me. "We're okay, kid," she says, "We're on our way home." I stare at her, through her, though her voice soothes me. But I do not believe we are on 18


our way home. I can not recall safe, can find no where called safe. I know from some desolate space within that I am not on my way home, or that home is a place on no map I can find any longer. I am hollow, barren, brown dirt, a lost heart in a wild land just like that place. I smile at Lonnie, though, because she is kind, and curl into a ball of hollowness in a stranger named Hans' back seat and drift off again into a dreamless oblivion, a black void where nothing can touch me. The next days blur, even now, even after all these years and all that talking it out with Lonnie. Or did we talk it out, really? Some parts of it are just blank. I guess I went crazy. Crazy is where you are, girl, I whisper inside my head. The whole weird ride reappears to me in glimpses now, short takes, moments of mind video: Tucson, getting out of the car at a gas station and feeling the heat smack me in the lungs and face like a coiled fist; I look around and people are pumping gas, walking around, as if life is normal, despite that heat. To me, the heat has become unbearable and I retreat to the back seat of the air conditioned Chevy where I curl in the back like a child. A diner on Route 66 somewhere near Amarillo where the air smells like cow dung and a waitress puts down a plate of something called chicken fried steak which I eat like I'm starving. There are white grits, too, with butter floating in the center like gold. Hans pays for it all with another credit card at the counter, picking his teeth, looking cool. And in the car again, whooshing through and past St. Louis across a vast bridge looking down at the mud brown Mississippi. On into the flat green farmland of southern Illinois, southern Indiana, Ohio, finally, and then the dark, sad greens of Pennsylvania. Green, green, green, is another stranger. I have forgotten green and I just stare at it for hundreds of miles, or else I sleep. All the while my throat is raw, my head burning. I am sick, that's it, sick with some fever, some virus, some brain tumor, cancer of the heart. I do not talk of this, not even to Lonnie. I think I stop talking, but I am not sure, even now, thirty years away. Three thousand miles across the U.S.A., the first week of September, 1966, with a stranger named Hans who drives fast and sure, talking sometimes about racing, telling us he was once fat, very fat, over three hundred pounds he says, and I think, ah, yes, that's why he seems to awkward now as if parts of him are missing. Still in all, he doesn't say much, just drives. We sleep on roadsides, in diner parking lots, in truck stop parking lots. Sometimes Lonnie drives. I just sleep or stare out the windows of the air conditioned brown Chevy. Hans is cool, but not cool. He will steal from Lonnie's parents eventually, and disappear in that car with his pocket of credit cards. Of course, at that moment, I know nothing of this. They drop me off, finally, at the bottom of the hill by my house on Wild Cat Road in Guilford, Connecticut, the second week of September, 1966. I unfold myself from the back seat of the Chevrolet penniless, shoeless, unwashed. I wander up the steep hill of my driveway like a lost dog. I reach the front door and open it to find I no longer live there, my mother no longer lives there, my sister no longer lives there. They are gone, whisked away like the past, and in their place my father's new family stares at me. My handsome father shakes his head. I know I am somehow become an embarrassment. Where is this place? Bedraggled, ghostlike, I go where my father drives me, across New York State, back to Point Seneca, where he deposits me to my empty-eyed mother in her parents' house by the lake. I wondered even then how they could recognize me, as I could not, for certain, recognize them. We are left there, we three, mother daughter and daughter in a space where men 19


disappear to other lives, where nothing lasts and nothing is safe, where men we know become only strangers after all, where women cry, go crazy, and go on. I had been running shoeless and empty for so long, but there was no place left to run except deep within myself where I had discovered a narrow refuge, that wild desolate place in my own heart where we abide when everywhere else is lost, when the world quakes, where we all go and where we all are.

20


The Toad Boy

He's homely as a blister and mean fat. That's what the other waitress said every time she saw him. Besides, he looks just like a toad, she said. And it was true. His hands and feet were too small for his grossly overweight frame and stuck out at odd angles. What could be seen of his flesh, his hands and neck and face, for instance, resembled the too-soft skin of a toad's belly: pale, cold and peculiarly elastic. He squatted at the counter of the Cool Whip All-Nite Restaurant, elbows on the formica. The first waitress walked briskly up and refilled his coffee cup for the third time. She smiled and asked if he wanted anything else. He did not answer or look up but offered her a grunt. When he did glance up, only for a second, his eyes were small and hard and amphibious behind his taped together black-framed glasses. The first waitress, the nice one--Debbie-- kept smiling. It was three A.M. and she smiled all night or all morning, to be precise, and served coffee and scrambled eggs and toast with untiring twenty-year old enthusiasm. It was her second job. Debbie Hallenbeck's regular job was down at the Allegheny Center by the river where she worked with retarded adults. Exceptional adults, Debbie always said. She went to the community college, too, part time, and planned to eventually take a degree in the Human Services division. She was a good kid. Debbie smiled at the ugly, rude boy not only because it was her job to be friendly to an assortment of generally obnoxious truckers, drunk drivers and late-nighters, but because she was just young and nice enough to still be truly kind. To her, the toad boy seemed pathetic. She thought he might be a marginal case, some guy with a low IQ. who might get help down at the Allegheny Center. He was around eighteen, she thought, just a kid really. She smiled at him because it was her job and she was good at it and because she was still young enough to be indiscriminately kind. Besides, she thought, he was a challenge. He came in to the Cool Whip All-Nite Restaurant on Route 17 at least twice a week, mumbling his orders for cokes and coffee, and she could never get him to smile back at her. She wanted him to smile, as she wanted everyone to smile, as she herself always smiled. Debbie Hallenbeck was a tireless worker and a tireless smiler, plain and simple. She looked like she had been born that smile on her broad-jawed face. In high school, she had been only cute. But now, her face began to promise beauty, after all. Some people told her she looked a little like Jane Fonda. That was true. She wanted to break through to the ugly boy. To find out if he really was a marginal case. To find out why he wouldn't smile. He always came in alone, and he always wore that dirty red-plaid shirt, untucked over a grimy white tee shirt. Even when it was zero degrees in western New York, right there 70 miles south of Canada just off Lake Erie blown frigid white from lake effect snow, he wore only that red-plaid shirt. It was shapeless and much too large and hung over stove-leg Levi's that bagged below the knee. It was 1975. Sometimes when he squatted over at the counter the pink rounded flesh of his buttocks slid out and over his belt and showed between the hem of the tee shirt under the red-plaid shirt and the dirty blue jeans. He no doubt wore the oversized shirt to camouflage his grossness.

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Actually, it only accentuated his size. The toad boy always ordered coffee first and then cokes -- at least three or four large size -- but every coke was ordered deliberately and separately. With the final coke he would order a slice of lemon meringue pie. Always lemon meringue pie. Debbie Hallenbeck was waiting for him to change from coffee to cokes which he did the fourth time she returned to stand in front of him, behind the counter, smiling. "How're ya' doing?" she smiled. "One large coke," he responded, as if she might instead bring him three or four all at once and line them up glass to glass on the counter in front of him. His high, fragile voice always surprised her. It was incongruous. And the tone, well. That was something else. He gave a food order like a threat. Debbie was used to that tone; it didn't bother her anymore. "Okay, " she answered briskly. "Coming right up." When she returned a minute later with the coke, she ventured, "Cold out there tonight?" "What?" he mumbled, looking down at the counter, his right hand grasping for the glass with putty fat fingers. For an instant, she felt the touch of his skin as their fingers accidentally brushed together just as she let go of the glass and he took it. Every piece of food or drink he grabbed quickly, almost surreptitiously, as if he expected someone else to grab it away from him, as if it wasn't really his. Involuntarily, as their flesh touched, Debbie jerked back. For an instant, the smile vanished. She was terrified he would notice her revulsion, embarrassed, ashamed at herself. He was just a friendless fat boy, after all. Where did she get off? But the truth was she wanted to wipe her fingers off on the cleaning rag she held in her other hand right then and there. He smelled just enough to waft across the counter. Cows, she thought, it had to be cows. He must be a farm boy. Farm boys, probably not dirty, probably with nice clean shirts on, had asked her to dance at high school dances, and they had smelled just like that, she remembered. That unremitting taint of cow manure that nestled into clothing, maybe into flesh. She was horrified at the smell yet determined not to show it. "Cold out tonight?" she repeated as if nothing had happened at all. But she was thinking as she spoke I've got to wash my hands. He looked up accusingly from the lip of the coke glass, the pupils of his eyes dark and dilated. Had he seen her fingers jerk away? The young waitress paused, waiting for an answer, wondering if maybe this time her friendliness would break through his barrier. He kept his eyes directly on hers though for too long, and she looked down, pretending to reach for a cup. The jukebox played some over-vibratoed country western tune. The pedal steel guitar wailed, and the drummer played his only beat, boom cha cha, boom cha cha. Debbie Hallenbeck had just turned to walk away when the toad boy finally grunted a response. She turned back and saw he was laughing. There was no sound at all, but his fat rounded shoulders shook and his belly moved up and down. She tried not to look at it. No, it was not laughter, but grunting, a dark chuckling, a sick sad sound. She turned again and walked quickly away, out from behind the counter and across the room as far away from him as she could get. The fluorescent lights of the Cool Whip All-Nite Restaurant seemed just for a moment unreal, like the lights at a night time carnival seen from high up in a swaying Ferris wheel seat. She felt vaguely nauseous. 22


She put a quarter in the jukebox and punched D-27 and D-28, Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra's better than that whining country western crap, she whispered to herself. Why can't that Busty Castaloni get a decent record on this thing? But she knew Busty wouldn't. He didn't know a thing about music, and besides he played what his clientele wanted, and they wanted country western music. It was 1975 and there was a craze of country western music even in Point Seneca, New York. All the factory workers went from hard-hats to cowboy hats and drove pickup trucks with black and white foam dice hanging from the mirror and cassette decks playing Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr. It was another era, another time. There were a lot of those factory cowboys in the restaurant tonight and every weekend night. All these western New York cowboys who had never smelled a horse much less ridden one. It made Debbie laugh. But only to herself. Debbie sighed and returned to her customers. She dreaded returning to the fat boy again. His laugh had growled up from somewhere foul. She decided, while scribbling an order for a trucker and his gun-chewing female companion, not to talk to the toad boy any more than was absolutely necessary from now on. It wasn't like her, she conceded, to give up on people, but this time she would make an exception. He was too weird. He was simply too weird and besides, he smelled. She grabbed Melody, the other all night waitress, and pulled her behind the milk machine. "Will you wait on him, please? Please, Melody? I'll take over two tables in your section if you will wait on him." Melody was thirty-eight hard years old and each one of them showed. She had always been a waitress and raised her three kids on a waitress's salary. She was a hard woman, you would have to say, and proud of it. Her favorite expression, to Debbie Hallenbeck's horror, was "B F'n D." "B F'n D!" she'd sneer, loud enough for half the customers to overhear. Sometimes she even said the words, if she was mad enough. Debbie had never heard that expression before, and it both appalled and delighted her. She thought Melody was deliciously brazen. She even admired her. Busty Castaloni ever fired Melody for her foul mouth because she was the best waitress he had ever had, and besides he wasn't much of an expert on manners. He owned a grungy bowling alley down by the boat landing and the Cool Whip restaurant. It was all the same to him. Melody said she would wait on the creep. "Big F’n deal," she said. "He don't bother me one bit." Melody liked country western music and gave up part of her hard earned tips to the juke every night just to hear those whining, lonesome tunes. She liked the truckers, too, and the factory cowboys. She really liked them. Debbie breathed a sigh of relief and returned to her station, still squirming a little inside remembering the touch of the toad boy's fingers. She had felt that revulsion before. At the Center, sometimes, when one of the residents wanted to hold her hand. She was embarrassed and ashamed at her own revulsion. Still, there it was. Couldn't be helped. Actually, she had always been that way, ever since she was a child. The truth was, she didn't want to hold anybody's hand. Other people's hands had always felt too damp, too cold, too dry. And the toad boy's hand had been worse. The worst of all. When she glanced up the counter, expecting to see his coke glass empty and waiting for a refill, he was gone. 23


He had only had three coffees, one coke and no lemon meringue pie. That was a first. She figured maybe he had just gone to the restroom but realized ten minutes later that he had indeed left the restaurant. Now there was no need for Melody to wait on him. Again, she felt shame. Had she made him feel bad? She walked back up to the place where his empty glass with its smudged fingerprints sat on the counter. The money was there all right, a dirty, wrinkled wad of bills. Two bucks. She used the wet rag to pick up the glass and then rang up his tab, pocketing her tip. At least he's honest, she said to herself. He didn't come back to the Cool Whip All-Nite Restaurant, and after awhile, Debbie Hallenbeck forgot about him altogether. Her job at the Allegheny Center was demanding and rewarding, her college schedule and her social life enjoyable. She was a popular, happy, nice girl. In March, she got a call from a woman representing the French Run Women's Club, asking Debbie to speak the following Friday evening on "Working with Exceptional Adults." Debbie felt honored to be so singled out. She grinned when she got off the telephone and told her mother about it. "Gosh," she gushed. "They want me to give a speech!" Her mother and father were impressed. Debbie Hallenbeck was nervous all week and worked every night on her speech, writing her notes on three by five white note cards in large block letters. She planned to bring a slide projector and slides she had taken herself at the center and show them as she spoke. "I'll keep it informal but interesting!" she kept telling her mom. On Friday night, March 19, 1976, she loaded the projector into her white Mustang, kissed her mother goodbye and began the drive down to French Run. French Run was a country road, partly gravel, near a small town called French Creek just south of Point Seneca. Debbie's father had pulled out his map of Chautauqua County, spread it on the kitchen table and marked the road in red ink. "There, " he pointed carefully with the pen tip. "Right there. Do you see it? You've got to drive to French Creek, first. Then follow Route 60 south a few miles and turn towards Kinzua. Are you sure you've got it?" He asked her over and over. Debbie was sure she got it. Five miles south of Point Seneca, it began to snow. She had prayed it wouldn't snow because it was March, after all, late in the season, but it snowed anyway. Any distance can become impossible in western New York during a heavy snow or a white-out, and this wasn't just snow, it was sleet, wet and impossibly slippery. Anybody else would probably have turned around, but not Debbie Hallenbeck. I've made a commitment and I will get there, she kept repeating to herself through clenched teeth. Her fingers grew numb inside her gloves from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. Just past French Creek on the darkest portion of her drive, the night seemed to open its throat and spew out a thick watery ice onto her windshield that froze before her wipers could even clear it. Thirty degrees, she thought, thirty degrees. Like dad always says, the most dangerous temperature of all. Damn. Oh, gosh damn. The sleet froze into a thick opaque sheet across her windshield until she was forced to a halt, pulling her mustang over as far as she dared to the side of the road. She sat there for a while with the motor running. Finally, she got out and struggled to scrape off the ice so that she could drive on. But it was no use. It was 24


impossible. Still, ten minutes later she pulled out and tried to continue peering through a small round spot on the windshield she had cleared. This time, however, she began to feel confused. It was so dark. The clock on her dashboard glowed yellow. She saw she was already late. It was past eight o'clock now. It was twenty past. She turned the car around, thinking she had missed Fenner Road, the cut-off that should have led her to French Run. She drove a mile back and turned once more around, searching for the right turn towards Kinzua. She stopped at every rural mailbox looking for the name "O'Pray" though by this time she was so disoriented she didn't even know if she was on French Run or some other lonely and very dark country road. Finally, at nine P.M., she gave up and turned around, heading back towards French Creek at 20 miles an hour, perilously slipping at every dip in the road, careening without brakes and without gas down valleys, holding her breath until her head ached with strain. She pulled into a diner that looked like a silver boxcar and went inside intending to use the phone, to telephone Mrs. O'Pray and explain what had happened. Near tears now and feeling stupid, clumsy, guilty, she thought, All I need to do is call Mrs. O'Pray, That's all I need to do. It'll be okay. She'll understand. She was certain the group would understand what had happened and why she couldn't make it that night, sure they would understand. An old black wall telephone hung just inside the door as she entered. She took off her gloves, fumbled for a dime and dialed the number Mrs. O'Pray had given her. It rang and rang. Debbie blinked back tears, turning towards the wall to hide her face. The waitress stood with a sassy hand on her hip behind the counter. She was smoking a cigarette and blowing huge circles of smoke into the air. Debbie could see from across the room the rim of red lipstick on that filter. The waitress stared sullenly at Debbie's camel-hair coat. One man sat on a stool drinking coffee, and he swiveled to stare at Debbie, too. Debbie dialed again. Still, the phone rang on and on, echoing in her ear. She asked the waitress and the customer if they knew Mrs. O'Pray. Both of them looked at her for a few seconds before answering at all. "Not me," the waitress said. The man just shook his head. Debbie asked them if they knew where the French Run Women's Club met. The two grinned at each other and shook their heads in unison as if Debbie were the stupidest girl they had ever seen. By this time, Debbie Hallenbeck was beginning to feel sick. . She was cold, she was frustrated, and she had been so afraid driving on those dark and frozen back roads. She had no choice now but to give up and drive home. Give up, she whispered to herself. I just hate to give up. Halfway home, the sleet and snow ceased. She tested the macadam and her mustang's tires caught dry road. Twenty minutes later, she was safe at home. For the next month, it was just a story for dinner discussion around the kitchen table. "Say, Deb," her dad would ask. "Did you ever hear from that woman at the French Run Women's Club?" And Debbie would answer, "No. She never called me back, and I never could get through on that number she gave me. The Women's Club isn't listed in the phone book, either. I don't know, Dad. It's a little weird." Debbie felt bad about the whole thing. Nothing like that had ever happened to her before. She was a responsible girl. She could be counted on. If she said she would show up, she would. But this time there was nothing to be done about it. Truth was, she felt vaguely uncomfortable about it, as if she had failed to live up to expectations. 25


But by the middle of a wet April, the bad memory had begun to fade. Debbie Hallenbeck rarely thought of the incident. It had left her mind entirely. She could smell spring in the wind, and that very morning she had seen a cluster of yellow daffodils poking their heads out from a remaining patch of snow. When she did think about the French Run incident, she could now push it away, like sleet on a windshield shoved aside by wipers. On April 10th, just after dinner, the phone rang for her. It was Melody, the other waitress. Melody had never before called her at home. "Honey, you sittin' down?" Melody asked. "What?" "You got you the newspaper?" Melody asked. "Well, we get the newspaper. I haven't read it yet, though. Why?" Something queer happened to Debbie's nerves as she stood there with the phone pressed to her ear. Her voice was calm, but her hands got clammy. Her spine felt somehow wiggly and unstable. She sat down, reaching for the chair with her hand like an old person to steady herself. "Why?" she asked again. Melody's voice sounded unusual, too. Too gentle for Melody. Too mannerly. "Honey, just read the headline on the front page. I wanted to warn you before you did, though." The line was dead silent for a moment. Then Melody added, "Hon, you call me if you need me." She hung up. Debbie stared across the room to the coffee table where she could see the Point Seneca Post lying still rolled up and unread. She took a breath, walked across the room and unrolled it. The headline read: AREA WOMAN BRUTALLY SLAIN NEAR FRENCH CREEK A Point Seneca woman apparently lured to a phony address on the Fenner Road in rural French Creek was stabbed and killed on Friday evening at approximately nine P.M. The victim, identified as a Mary Williams of 34 Lake Road, was pronounced dead on arrival at Point Seneca Memorial Hospital. Ms. Williams, 23, a nurse at said hospital, had apparently been lured to the rural address by a telephone call requesting her presence at a fictitious "French Run Women's Club,� reported the victim's mother, Mrs. Luralee Anderson of Celoron. "A woman called and asked Mary to give a talk about working as a nurse," Mrs. Anderson said. "Mary was always happy to help anyone. She said she would go," added the grieving mother. The victim was found by a passing motorist who saw her body lying at the end of an unpaved driveway on a desolate and unpaved portion of Fenner Road. Cattaraugus County Sheriff's deputy Todd Wilson reported that the victim had allegedly been left for dead following the attack but managed to crawl some fifty yards out onto the road before lapsing into unconsciousness. The unidentified motorist notified the Sheriff's Department and called an ambulance. Arrested in connection with the murder is Dennis De Milo, 19, of Williamstown. Authorities say the suspect was nabbed within minutes of the incident as he sat in a parked van in front of a diner in French Creek. 26


A Sheriff’s department spokesman told the Post that the suspect offered no resistance and has made a full confession. At the time of the arrest, De Milo' s clothing, a red-plaid woolen shirt and jeans, was allegedly soaked with the victim's blood. De Milo still had the weapon, an Army knife, in his possession. De Milo, a 1974 graduate of Williamstown High School, was described by school officials as a model student who earned straight A's but who was a loner and who rarely got involved in school activities. Principal Carl Rosher told the Post, "His IQ is high, really high, but he was a strange kid. He never really fit in. We wanted him to play football because of his size, but he just laughed at us."

The photograph of the suspect in the right hand column of the Post told the rest of the story to young Debbie Hallenbeck. It was the toad boy.

27

Blackbird  

Short fiction, 3 stories by C Robison

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