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serials Maybe thirty children attended my fifth grade class. We all sat in groups of four, desks pushed together in little clusters, facing each other. We kept the desks clean and the insides neatly arranged. The room was very organized. Rulers, crayons, markers, poster paper, construction paper, and other assorted items that have slipped through the cracks in my memory were stacked and lined up on the counter by the window or stored in the cabinets at the back of the room. We hung our coats neatly to the side, on hooks fashioned into the walls. We hung our backpacks there also. Our teacher made sure of this. He would kick backpacks and coats around that students left on the floor. “Who’s is this?” he’d ask. “You need to come and pick this up.” Sometimes, on bad days, he would sweep all the papers off the top of a kid’s messy desk and make that kid clean it up in front of the class. He’d say, “You think you’re going to make it in life being disorganized like this?” And Leanne looked up and saw the dark Cowboy standing in the doorway of the farmhouse. His eyes caused spiked ice to form down her backside. He gazed at her with colorless eyes and she knew that this was not a pleasant visitor passing through the prairie. Next to the chalk board hung a poster covered in packets. In each little packet sat four colored slips. The first color was blue, the second was green, the third was orange, and the last was red. If a child misbehaved, let’s say he left his coat on the floor, or he talked when the teacher was talking, or was loud, or didn’t do his homework, or did something the teacher didn’t care for in general, the child had to go up to the board and change the card. Green was a warning, orange meant the child had to stand in the corner; sometimes they’d stand there for a long time, almost completely ignored and forgotten by the teacher. Red meant the child had to stay behind after school, for what? I never found out. “In life there are rules,” he’d say. “It’s best you learned now how to follow them.” The classroom was very white and bare of things you might find in other fifth grade classes, posters, student art projects, those long strips of paper that had the alphabet in cursive printed on them. “What do you want?” Leanne asked. “Take out your math homework,” my teacher said one day, as he had done many times before. The cowboy smiled, sneered, crookedly. His teeth were yellow and brown. He stepped forward and his jacket moved, revealing the axe. Nine year old Joe saw the man out of the corner of his eye, heard his mother scream and the loud thud as the cowboy brought down the axe on her. Joe thought to run to his mother but instead turned and slid under the bed as she screamed and another loud thump sounded from the falling axe. Our teacher had heavy wrinkles on his forehead and no smile lines. Everyone got into their desks and took out the math worksheets they had received the day before. I didn’t. I sat at my desk writing a little story on a single sheet of paper. In the story a traveler in the Wild West slaughters a homesteader family. I sat at my desk writing down the details of the traveler. He stood, tall and dark, with grey stringy hair. He had skin like leather, made that way from hours in the prairie sun. I called him the Skeleton Cowboy and he was thinner than thin, hardly there at all. He peered out from under his beaten cowboy hat with a cold gaze. He wore just tattered pants and a long tattered jacket. He wore a necklace laced with teeth. The cowboy used an axe to kill the family. With each blow he slung streams of blood over the bare wood of the farmhouse, a dark crooked grin across his face. “Take out your math homework,” my teacher repeated. 88 80


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serials Joe’s mother stopped screaming. Only the sound of the falling axe remained. “Momma!” Joe heard his brother say. Joe heard his older brother’s footsteps. Then a loud crash and more thuds and cracks and grunts from the cowboy as he worked the axe. The sound reminded Joe of when his father killed and butchered one of the pigs the previous fall. I wrote on and on. The story was just a child’s story, bad, but good in a way, for me as I wrote it. A creature born of late night horror and western movies I watched after my parents went to bed. In writing the story, it was as if I had found some strange room in my house that no one knew of and it became like my own little exit off to the side. I could smell the prairie, could see the man in the tattered clothes, feel the coldness of his gaze, and know the fear of the boy under the bed as that was also the fear I sometimes felt when my father was angry. The sound of the axe ended and Joe lay under the bed, frozen with fear. He worked up the courage to look. He leaned over a little and peered through the doorway of the bedroom. The room beyond was red. Of his mother, Joe saw only her outstretched arm, the white sleeve of her dress stained with blood. Across the room near the front door the Cowboy knelt over Joe’s brother. The cowboy had his back to Joe and was fiddling with his brother’s head. Joe could see his brother’s forehead peek around the Cowboy’s shoulder and wiggle. Joe looked to the front door. He climbed out from under the bed and ran. He heard the Cowboy yell: “Goddamnit!” and then something else. But little Joe was running quickly into the night and thought not of listening, only of fleeing. The teacher said my name. After my name he said, “take out your math homework.” He had said my name with emphasis and punctuation, but I hadn’t heard him. I sat writing. People shuffled papers about and sat their homework in front of them. I wrote that the boy in the story reached the river and felt the cool mist coming from it. I wrote that he raised a fist into the air. Just at the moment where the boy vowed revenge against the killer, my teacher came over. He grabbed the sheet of paper I was writing the story on and jerked it away. My pencil made a long black scar across it. I looked up at him. “You’re wasting your time,” he said, “take out your homework.” He crumpled up my story and threw it in the trash.

2 Then, fourteen years later, I caught the reflection of myself in the large dark windows of a bar. In the reflection a cigarette hung from my mouth, strands of my hair had come unfurled from my pony tail. My gut poked over my belt. My beard needed to be trimmed. I stood there, drunk, staring, holding the flame of a lighter halfway up to the cigarette. For a split second, in my drunken haze, I wondered if this was going to be the rest of my life. “Hey,” someone shouted. “You kissed my girl!” I turned from my thoughts. A tall guy stood at the entrance of the bar, glaring at me. He was about six four and his chest probably measured two good feet across. His arms resembled logs and they were covered in thick black hair. A Darwin short image flashed in my head. He marched over to me, passing Elliot, Brent, and Charlie. “You kissed my girl!” the guy shouted again. 90 82


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serials “Yeah I did,” I said, my unlit cigarette falling from my mouth to the ground, “got a hold of one of her big floppy titties too.” Still too angry about being laid off and Holly not talking to me and too drunk to be scared, I continued talking. I simply needed to blow off steam. “She tasted like butt hole, man,” I lied. “I can’t believe you would hump a dime store cunt like that,” I shouted. After saying it, I tried to recall at what point in time I started using my father’s words. “I need to smoke a cigarette just to get her taste,” I began to say as he reared back and then smashed a fist into my face. Charlie, Elliot, and Brent stood there as I hit the ground behind me. I brought my hand up to my mouth. I pulled it away red. I felt the blood flow over my chin and down my neck. “You hit like an old fuckin woman, dude,” I said. The guy swore and then kicked me repeatedly in the side. He got on top of me and brought his fist down on my head several times. I remember thinking that this guy smelled like beer and stale sweat. Strange, the things you think when you’re drunk and angry. This man’s rage reminded me of when my father and I would fight in my teen years. I got my legs under the guy and flipped him over. I kneed him in the crotch twice and punched him in the face. I’m sure he ended up with a black eye. We rolled around on the sidewalk for a few minutes. My blood streaked across his white shirt. He got back on top and punched me three more times before I lay limp and he stood. “If I see you in this bar again I’m going to rip you in half,” the guy said and then stomped away. I laid there for a moment. The clouds that hung in the night sky were orange from the light pollution of the city. They seemed like rusted clouds to me. The girl had smelt like peaches and tasted like rum. Elliot, Charlie, and Brent came over. Charlie kneeled down and helped me sit up. “Jesus, man,” Charlie said, “are you alright?” I brought a hand up to my face. My left eye swelled. “I’m going to have a black eye,” I said. “I hope it goes away before my job interview.” “Sorry, man,” Elliot said. “It all happened so fast. I was a little too stunned to step in. Wanna go in there and go a second round? We’ll be right behind you.” I shook my head. “It’s cool. This’ll give me something good to write about later,” I said. I looked up at Elliot and winked at him with my good eye but it probably just looked like I was blinking. “Besides,” I said, raising my hand. “I got his wallet. Let’s head up to Shanahan’s. Next rounds on him.” I dropped the wallet. I looked at it lying on the concrete between my legs and again I wondered if this was going to be the rest of my life. I wondered if my father had also pondered this same thing about his life when he was my age. After that, I passed out.

3 “Mr. Dempsey,” the circus man said, “I’m giving this opportunity to you because you are different.” The circus man strolled a few feet in front of Shane. He twirled his cane around with his fingers. As they walked, Shane took in the sight of the back stage circus area. 92 84


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Collaborating with Angels Part Four