Friday, June 25, 2004

C.A.R.E. (Part II)

As a member of the editorial staff here at Fiction Daze, I'm proud to announce that Wendy has submitted the rest of her story. Or at least the part that's been completed so far — it's an excerpt from a longer story. If you didn't catch the first part, you can read Part I here.

C.A.R.E. (Part II)
By Wendy Fritzke

Spring Fling

Two weeks later was one of the semi-annual “big events” held at the Senior Center, the dinner-dance extravaganza known as the Spring Fling. Hugh had a full load that night. In addition to Mrs. Chen, Miss Gracie, Mr. Jack, and Mr. Turner, he also needed to pick up Mrs. Barrett.

Mrs. Barrett was a retired schoolteacher with a beautiful garden, full of flowers and birds. She still lived in the house where she grew up, just like Hugh, though she did move away for quite awhile and only came back when her parents passed away. Still, Hugh felt she understood his dread at leaving the place where he’d always lived. He felt more at ease with Mrs. Barrett than probably anyone else, other than his mother, of course, and was pleased whenever he saw her name on his ride sheet. Mrs. Barrett was a meteorologist, with a degree from Stanford, before becoming a schoolteacher, which paid a lot more money than telling the weather back in her day, she told him. She told Hugh long stories about how she was drafted out of college to go overseas and tell the weather for the Army during WWII. Hugh had never thought about such a thing before. But it made sense, once she explained it to him, how the weather was an important part of military strategy. Mrs. Barrett was often telling him interesting things he’d never thought of before.

Tonight, she looked very distinguished and elegant, her white hair swept up, with clip-on pearl earrings and a matching choker around her neck. She was wearing a dark red dress with matching jacket that made Hugh look down nervously at his own crumpled khakis and faded sweater. She was carrying an umbrella, since the winds were from the East and the barometric pressure was falling, she explained, as she locked up the house and Hugh escorted her down the steps. Sure signs of rain.

Hugh didn’t have to stay at the Senior Center. He could drop them off, make sure they were safely received by the women standing at the doors, then retreat to the video store or his room for the intervening hours between soup and the final waltz. There was nothing compelling him into that low-ceiling building with its faded linoleum floor and over-loud big band music blaring through cheap speakers. Nothing to force him to face those innumerable strangers, the women at the door, the inevitable food servers, the player of loud records.

But Mrs. Barrett asked for his arm walking to the door. Mr. Jack was right behind, continuing his one-sided argument with Hugh about the merits of pipe tobacco over cigarettes. Hugh hesitated at the door, then went in. He helped Mrs. Barrett with her coat, then became flustered, looking around for a place to deposit the wrap, now that he had it in his hands. He felt the old familiar tightening in his chest and his hands started to dampen the coat.

“I can take that from you,” one of the greeting women was talking to him. He turned and saw a rather pretty, somewhat plump woman in a calico dress smiling at him and holding out her hand. Hugh, with a somewhat dazed expression, handed her the coat. She had light brown hair which had been permed into tiny waves falling to her shoulders. But it was the fitted bodice of her dress that was most distracting him. He blushed and started to turn away. She had taken the coat, but now Hugh saw she was still smiling at him and extending her hand.

“Hi, I’m Ilene,” she said. Hugh noticed she was wearing a silver unicorn around her neck, the single horn pointing diagonally into one breast.

“I’m Hugh. I drive for C.A.R.E.” He motioned vaguely around at his regulars, all struggling with coats and canes. He retrieved Mr. Turner’s metal cane from the lobby floor and handed it to him. Mr. Turner grunted his thanks and started in toward the big room, where long tables covered in white paper tablecloths had been set up along both sides, little vases of silk flowers poking up festively at regular intervals.

“Yes, I’ve heard all about you,” she said, startling Hugh into looking round at her again. To his surprise, she seemed a bit flustered herself, and looked down at the coat she still held in her hands.

“You have?”

“Oh, yeah, Miss Gracie talks about you all the time. And Mrs. Chen. And Mr. Jack. Well, they all do. They just love you. They say you’re the best driver they’ve ever had.” She blushed.

Hugh was silent. A large part of him wished that he was at home watching the evening news with his mother. But then he heard some strange, foreign part of himself speaking, chatting, it seemed, with Ilene.

“Oh, they’re a great bunch of people themselves,” this stranger said with awkward enthusiasm. Then, astonished, Hugh heard him continuing. “Uh, do you need any help here? I mean, can I help you with anything? I don’t have to leave. I usually do. Leave I mean, go home or to the video store or… But I could stay…if you need any help here, that is.”

Ilene smiled at him again. “Yeah, that would be great. Thanks. If you could take the coats from the rest of your guests, then help them get seated, that would be super.”

Hugh felt the acrid burning at the back of his throat start to recede. With great relief, he turned to Mrs. Chen, who was struggling to hold her hat and her purse and remove her heavy black coat at the same time. Hugh took the hat and helped release her arm from the stubborn sleeve. Relief washed over him as she took his arm and he helped her into the dining hall.

“Ilene nice girl, yes?” Mrs. Chen said loudly as they were making their way across the carpeted lobby. “Good girl for Hu-boy.” Hugh looked down at her, feeling himself go red again. She was grinning broadly.

Hugh’s heart gave a small leap, but it wasn’t a leap of fear. It was more like the rush he felt when he went into the store and saw that there was a new Shaw Brothers shipment waiting to be entered into the computer and lovingly shelved. The box held promise of excitement, adventure, escape, and the possibility of a new all-time favorite. He glanced back over his shoulder at Ilene, who was still busy greeting people at the door. She looked over just then and smiled at him again. Hugh quickly turned back around and hurried Mrs. Chen into the hall.

After Hugh had seen each of the regulars safely deposited in a folding chair, he was a bit unsure how to proceed. He could slip away now and come back in a couple of hours for the pick up. Then again, he could stay and eat the mashed potatoes and pork roast. Hang out for a little while longer. As he hesitated, one of the volunteers stopped the music and started an official welcome into a screeching microphone. Hugh slipped out of the hall. He was almost to the door when he heard his name.

“Hugh?” He wheeled around and saw Ilene coming out of a side door, where Hugh assumed she’d been stashing more coats. “Hi. You leaving already?”

“Uh, well, yeah. I mean…I was just going to go out for awhile. I need, um, to go check on something at the, ah, Video Vault. But I’m going to come back. Why? Did you need me to help with something else? Or something?”

“Oh. No. I mean, I was kind of hoping we’d be able to talk a little bit more. Like I said, they’ve told me so much about you. But, it was super to meet you. I’m surprised we never ran into each other before. But I just started helping out here about six months ago, so maybe that’s why. After my nana passed away. She died of a stroke, all of a sudden one afternoon while she was watching TV. I looked after her. I was in the kitchen washing the lunch dishes, when I heard this thud in the living room. I came rushing back in, still carrying the dish towel, but it was too late. She went really peacefully, at least. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers slowly. Her talk finally died out, and the two stood in silence. Ilene staring off, Hugh looking down at his feet and rubbing his palms up and down his pants.

“So, I started working here,” Ilene started up again brightly with a smile, “a few months after that, to help out, you know. I have a lot of experience. And I really enjoy the elderly. They have such fascinating stories to tell, don’t you think?”

She paused again. Hugh’s heart pounded and his ears throbbed, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. “That’s nice,” he finally managed, then breathed a ragged breath. “So, I better get going,” he said and headed to the door again.

“Oh. Well. OK. See you around,” Ilene called after him.

Back in the van, Hugh sat with his hands shaking on the steering wheel for a long time. Then he turned on the radio. The classic rock station was playing “Feels Like the First Time.” He flushed with sudden anger and turned the radio off. Hugh started the car and drove up the street. His head felt like he’d been knocked up side the head with one of those big punching bags they had in the school gym. He wasn’t sure where he was going. He kept hearing Ilene’s voice in his head: “I’m so happy to meet you.…I’ve heard so much about you….You’re the best….” And miserably, his own inane replies: “Great bunch of people” — Stupid. “Don’t have to, uh, leave, that is, if you need anything, I mean…” — Moronic. “Gotta go check on something” — Dumb. And the worst, his idiotic parting remark after she’d told him about her grandmother dying and all: “That’s nice.” That’s nice? What kind of a person says “That’s nice” after hearing about someone dying?” A stupid moron, that’s what kind. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Miserably, Hugh looked around and saw that he was, in fact, parked in front of the Video Vault. He slowly opened the door of the van and went inside. Ralph was helping two teenage kids in baggy jeans at the counter. Hugh wandered over to the Kung Fu section, behind the stacks in the corner. He stared at the vintage poster of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, which Ralph had framed and hung prominently on the back wall. Her breasts were huge, round balls popping out of a tiny top. They made Hugh think of Ilene’s breasts, the soft flesh punctured by the unicorn horn. He imagined that necklace around Jane Fonda’s neck. He stared to reach up and touch the poster, right where the unicorn would press into Barbarella’s tight balloon breasts. Then he stopped, embarrassed, and looked around. He looked at his watch. 6:00. Still another hour at least before things would be done at the Senior Center. Maybe even two.

When the teenagers had gone, he went up to the counter and plopped onto the extra stool behind the counter. “Hey, what’s up?” Ralph asked.

“Nothing,” Hugh replied and stared up at the television, where Ralph was playing Cat Women of the Moon. Waiting to pick up the old people.”

“Oh, right.” Ralph replied, then returned his attention to the video and to eating the pepperoni pizza he had picked up from next door.

Hugh’s head felt like it was splitting apart. One part of him wanted to rush back to the Center and prove he wasn’t such a complete moron. He wanted to look at those breasts again and hear Ilene’s voice say nice things about him. He could say he’d finished what he needed to do and had come back to help out. Maybe dance with Miss Gracie, have coffee with Mr. Jack. He could ask the old people some questions about Ilene, since they obviously knew her well enough to talk about him with her. At this memory, his face flushed again, and he shifted uncomfortably on the vinyl stool, rubbing his wet palms on his wrinkled chinos.

Ralph looked over at him squirming on the stool. “Want some pizza, dude?” he asked, pushing the box toward Hugh.

Hugh took a slice and held it in his hands, staring at it blankly. Yeah, he could do that. That would seem natural enough. But just when he had resolved that this was exactly what he would do, he wavered. The other side of him wanted desperately to never show his face at the Senior Center again. He was mortified. He had run away, yes, but better that, than to stay and continue making a fool out of himself. He wondered if he could go home and get his mother to do the pick up. Would she believe him if he feigned sickness? He was feeling ill. His stomach was churning, his head was pounding, and his face was covered in a dry sweat. She would take his temperature and send him to bed. The image filled him with momentary happiness. But then he may never see Ilene again. He groaned.

“What’s wrong, man? You don’t look so hot,” Ralph asked.

“Nothing. I’m late. Gotta go. Thanks for the pizza.” Hugh put the uneaten slice back in the box and backed awkwardly out from behind the counter. “See ya,” he said and plunged out the door back into the cool night.

Hugh drove the van over to the Senior Center, but just as he was signaling to turn into the parking lot, a new wave of embarrassment swept over him and he kept driving. He drove around the block for 20 minutes, trying to get up the courage to go back inside. Finally, it was 7:00 and he knew he would have to go in soon. He parked the car and walked up to the door with a shaky step, half-hoping, half-dreading that Ilene would still be watching the door.

He didn’t see her through the glass door as he made his way up the sidewalk. He went in. The music was a nearly deafening polka. He stuck his head in the door of the rec hall. The tables had been pushed against the walls, and old people were bobbing madly around the room. He scanned the room for a familiar face. There was Mr. Jack and Mrs. Barrett, sitting in a corner. He went over to them.

“Well, hello there Hubert,” Mrs. Barrett said as he came up to them. Blessedly, the polka music stopped and a more subdued waltz took its place. “Mr. Jack and I have just been enjoying some dessert and coffee. Why don’t you join us?” She gestured to a nearby metal chair, which Hugh pulled over in front of them.

“We’ve just been sharing old war stories,” Mrs. Barrett said, and smiled up at Mr. Jack.

“Did you know, boy, that we were in France at the exact same time?” Mr. Jack exclaimed. “Imagine that.”

“We may have even seen each other in a coffeehouse or passed each other on the street and never knew it,” Mrs. Barrett added.

“Oh, I doubt that,” Mr. Jack said with a twinkle. “I would have made sure to introduce myself to a lovely lady like yourself,” and he raised his coffee cup in a small toast to Mrs. Barrett and her loveliness.

“So, Hubert, what have you been up to this evening? I didn’t see you during dinner,” Mrs. Barrett asked.

“Oh, I had to go run some errands,” Hugh said. His eyes had not stopped scanning the room since he came in, but he saw no sign of Ilene.

“So, I noticed you were talking to that pretty Parsons girl on the way in.”

“Nice girl,” Mr. Jack said. “But she talks a bit too much for my taste.”

“Yeah, I met her. We talked a bit,” Hugh said. “But I had to leave, and she said she wanted to talk to me. You haven’t seen her, have you?”

“Oh dear,” I believe she left after dinner,” said Mrs. Barrett. “She must have only been scheduled for the first shift. What did she want to talk with you about?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t really say she had something specific to talk about. Just that you all had maybe mentioned me to her and she was looking forward to meeting me or something.” Hugh blushed deep red and faltered.

Mrs. Barrett reached over and patted his clammy hand. “Well, I’m sure you’ll run into her again. She’s a very nice girl. She volunteers here at the Center at least once a week, I’d say.”

“There you go, boy. Chin up. Got to keep on fighting, you know. A good woman is worth hunting for. Nothing like a beautiful woman to lighten a man’s heart.” Mr. Jack offered his own encouragement. “Speaking of which, Mrs. Barrett, I believe you promised me another dance?” With this, he hoisted himself to his feet, handed Hugh his cane, and offered Mrs. Barrett his arm.

Hugh watched the old people shuffle about on the floor. Miss Gracie was dancing with, or rather around, Mr. Milberry who was in a wheelchair and therefore not on Hubert’s route— the van not being equipped with a chair lift. Mr. Turner was stiffly leading Mrs. Voeghts in a two-step. Hugh sat and tried to calm himself down. Ilene wasn’t there. That meant that he didn’t have to face her again tonight. That was good. But it also meant that he couldn’t talk to her again. Would maybe never talk to her again. That made him feel ill. How he wished he’d just dropped the regulars off at the door and gone home. He could be watching TV with his mother right now, with nary the blip in his blood pressure, enjoying a bowl of ice cream or maybe some pie. Instead, he was sitting here miserably.

After another waltz, a foxtrot and a final polka hurrah, the dancing was done and the exhausted guests ready to be shuttled home. Hugh was able to learn a bit more about Ilene on the way home without having to embarrass himself again, as Mrs. Chen especially was all too eager to talk. Apparently, Ilene had been her grandmother’s live-in help until she died last year. About the same time my father died, Hugh thought. Since then, she’d been working as a nurse’s aide at one of the retirement homes and volunteering at the Senior Center. She seemed to enjoy talking a lot and had a “chilly disposition.” This last statement puzzled Hugh until Mrs. Barrett clarified. Yes, she did seem to have a “cheery” disposition.

Hugh was greatly encouraged by the information the regulars had provided him about Ilene. Living with your grandmother was even weirder than living with your mom. Wasn’t it? He was certain most people would agree with him on this point. He felt a growing fondness for Ilene, thinking of her difficulties at having to find an apartment on her own, after living with her grandmother for so long. He imagined the suffering she must have endured over having this awkward and difficult task thrust on her by the untimely death of her “nana.” His heart filled with empathy and kinship.

When he got home, he found that he was suddenly quite ravenous. He consumed two huge bowls of Corn Chex, while watching Jay Leno with his mother. The evening was fine. Yes, he was fine. No, nothing very interesting. Hugh found he suddenly had little interest in this nightly ritual of theirs, and he retired to his room as soon as he’d finished eating.

He searched through the stacks of records lining two shelves in his room. Where was it? Where was it? Yes. There. His fingers shook slightly as he eased the vinyl out of its sleeve and positioned the record on the turntable. He moved the needle over the first track and let it fall slowly to the spinning disk. Then he lay back on his bed, arms bent under his head and enjoyed the words to their song:

I would climb any mountain, sail across the stormy sea
If that's what it takes me baby, to show how much you mean to me
And I guess that it's just the woman in you, that brings out the man in me
I know I can't help myself, you're all in the world to me

It feels like the first time, feels like the very first time
It feels like the first time, it feels like the very first time

He fell asleep to a dream of riding a white unicorn over a mountain of soft earth that gave with each hoof fall.

Unicorn Horn Penetration

Hugh had hoped that the previous evening’s torment would be resolved by a good night’s sleep. But it wasn’t to be. He was destined to be miserable, apparently forever. As he woke up, his first thoughts were of Ilene. He wanted to see her again, to smell her, to watch the unicorn on her breast and listen to her talk about anything in the world, for as long as she wanted.

He ate his morning cereal without enthusiasm, helped his mother with the dishes, then tried to distract himself with a Nintendo game until it was time for his shift at the video store. But it was no good. He felt itchy, restless. He pulled on a jacket and told his mother he was going out for a walk before work.

“Are you alright dear?” his mother asked from the kitchen table, where she was clipping coupons. “You don’t seem yourself. Are you upset at something?”

“No, no. Just a bit restless. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Hugh wandered the streets, musing. I wonder which retirement home she works for, he thought to himself. Maybe, I could volunteer to drive for them or something. They must need volunteers. Maybe I could read to the residents. He determined to get more specific information from the regulars as soon as possible.

Over the next few days, Hugh found that his route took him past the Senior Center more and more frequently. Each time, he slowed and peered through the glass door, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ilene’s curly hair. So far, he’d been unable to bring himself to ask for more information from his regulars, but he would soon. He was getting desperate. His waking moments were filled with fantasies about himself and Ilene — having witty and interesting conversations, watching a movie, taking a walk, going on the C.A.R.E. rounds together. He imagined touching her, and the electricity that shot through his stomach took his breath away.

One afternoon the following week, he picked up Mrs. Barrett for a hair appointment, and found himself driving slowly past the Senior Center. Suddenly, his heart gave a painful leap. He thought he saw a head of wavy brown hair through the glass. Could it be? He pulled into the parking lot.

“Hugh, what are you doing?” Mrs. Barrett cried out. “We’re not going to the Senior Center. I have an appointment at the beauty parlor.”

“Oh, sorry,” Hugh said. “Just got a bit confused for a minute.” He sat dumbly, making no attempts to leave the parking lot.

Mrs. Barrett looked at him carefully for a minute. Then, quite casually, she said, “You know, Hubert, now that we’re here, I was wondering if I might pop inside for a moment. I want to pick up an activities schedule for next month. I won’t be but a minute. I’m sure we have time. Do you mind terribly much?”

“No, that’s fine.” Hugh turned off the car and came around to help her out of the van. Since there was just the two of them, she was sitting up front next to him, which was nice, but the steps were harder to handle.

“Thank you, Hubert, I’m fine,” Mrs. Barrett said as Hugh offered his arm to her. She started up the sidewalk, then turned back to Hugh, who was standing, unmoving next to the van. “You know, on second thought, it would be lovely if you’d help me to the door. My hip is hurting me a bit today.”

Hugh took Mrs. Barrett’s arm and headed up the sidewalk. He was sure he was shaking more than she was as they got closer to the door. When they got inside, Mrs. Barrett thanked him and disappeared down the hallway. But Hugh barely noticed. Ilene was standing up on a chair in front of the big bulletin board on the right, a stapler in one hand, crepe paper flowers in the other. Ilene frightened him more than anything or anyone he’d ever run from in his entire life. More than Mr. Turner. More than strangers. More than finding an apartment and living on his own. Yet here he was, drawn to the place where they’d met, and incredibly happy at finding her there.

“Hugh? Hi!” she said, scrambling down from the chair. Today, she was wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt. Hugh looked hopefully for the unicorn necklace.

“Hi.” Hugh stood rocking back and forth a moment, hesitating, with a nervous grin, staring at Ilene. “Nice job,” he finally said, pointing over to the bulletin board.

Ilene looked around at the green-covered board. “Oh, thanks. Just putting up some new decorations. Help things look fresh. Springy.” Silence fell between them.

“It was nice meeting you—” they started in near unison. Hugh faltered, embarrassed. “—the other night,” Ilene finished, laughing, then looked down, shy and pretty. Hugh’s heart started pounding harder.

“So, what’s it going to be?” Hugh asked, gesturing to the bulletin board.

“Oh, a Spring meadow, I think,” said Ilene, turning back to look at her work. “And look, here, I’ve made a unicorn to add to it,” and she held up a prancing paper unicorn, much like the one Hugh remembered so well. “I love unicorns. Such beautiful creatures, don’t you think? I modeled it after this one,” she said, pulling the necklace out from under her shirt. “I wear it all the time. It’s my good luck charm.” She held the unicorn between two fingers, pressed it lightly to her lips, then let it fall.

“Yeah, beautiful.” Hugh stared at the silver unicorn, imagining where it had just been, under her shirt, touching her lips. He wrenched his eyes away from the charm and back to the paper unicorn Ilene still held in her hands. “Better be careful there. That horn looks awfully sharp. Looks like it could hurt someone,” he said suddenly. Hugh winced to hear the corny joke coming out of his mouth. Oh no. Not again. He was going to end up sounding completely ignorant and ruin this.

“Hmm, I wonder?” Ilene joked back. She playfully stuck her finger onto the end of the paper horn, then pulled it away quickly. “Ouch! You’re right!” she laughed and stuck the finger with the imaginary wound in her mouth, sucking away the imaginary blood.

Hugh was enthralled. She wasn’t wincing at his pathetic attempt at humor. She was laughing and joking and doing something very sexy with her fingers. He wanted to pull the offended finger from her mouth and put it in his own mouth and suck it and lick the wound closed.

Ilene laughed again and climbed back up on the chair. “So, maybe you can help me put this dangerous guy up on the board,” she said to Hugh as she positioned the unicorn among the flowers and the construction paper grass. “How’s that?”

Emboldened by his previous success, Hugh tried again. “Um, maybe a little further to the left. Don’t want that horn getting too close to the sun. That could really be a mess. Sunshine oozing everywhere. Ruin the entire display.” Hugh felt that sunshine oozing throughout his body right now, causing complete havoc.

Ilene giggled. “Hugh, you’re a riot. OK, how about there?” and she slid the creature a few inches to the left, away from the yellow circle at the top of the board.

“Yes, that’s it. Much better.” He was on a roll now, totally confident with no stuttering and almost no sweating.

“Can you hold it for me while I staple it up?” Ilene asked, peering over her shoulder.

“Sure.” Hugh’s heart raced as he moved over to the bulletin board. As he reached out to hold the paper in place, one of his arms brushed Ilene’s breasts. He felt his groin go hot. The sweet musky smell of her filled his nostrils. He looked down and stared hard at the paper flowers to keep himself from turning and burying his head in her thick-smelling warmth.

Ilene stapled the unicorn all around, then put a hand on Hugh’s shoulder and jumped down from the chair. She seemed a bit shaky. “Thank you,” she said, stepping back from the board a pace. “Well, what do you think? How’s it look?”

“It looks wonderful.”

“Yeah, it does.”

They were silent again, tired from the emotional and hormonal surge the stapling had required. They heard a noise down the hall. Mrs. Barrett was slowly making her way back to the foyer.

“Well, it looks like I’ve got to go,” Hugh said. “It was nice talking with you again.”

“Yeah, I’m really glad we ran into each other again,” Ilene responded. She bent down and fumbled in a box on the floor, then pressed a paper flower into Hugh’s hand just as Mrs. Barrett reached them. “A token of my appreciation,” she said, with mock seriousness. “Hi Mrs. Barrett. Look, Hugh has just helped me finish the bulletin board. What do you think?”

“Very lovely, my dear. Quite festive,” Mrs. Barrett replied. “Well, Hugh, shall we go? I’m afraid I might be a bit late if we don’t get going. Goodbye, Ilene. Nice to see you again, dear.”

“Bye,” Hugh said, longing already starting to rise in his chest. He pushed the door open, holding it wide with one arm for Mrs. Barrett to pass. Then he held out his arm for her, the crepe paper treasure in his other hand.

“Ilene is such a sweet girl,” Mrs. Barrett said as they made their way to the van. “How lucky you two ran into each other again.”

Hugh drove Mrs. Barrett to the beauty parlor, then went back out to the van to wait. He felt uncomfortable amidst the hairsprays, hairdryers, and curious, gossiping women inside the shop. Besides, he needed some time alone to think over what had just happened.

He picked the white and green flower up from the dashboard and twirled it in his hand, remembering with a smile her response to his dumb joke. He absently turned the flower in his hands, as he relived those few magical moments. He looked down and his heart stopped, then roared into his ears. She had written something on the back of the flower.

“Call me sometime! 426-9098 ☺”

Hugh was thunderstruck. He sat dazed for a moment, then let out a “Whoo-hoo!”

Never, in his 38 years, had a girl whom he liked willingly given him her number. He stopped and stared at the writing on the back of the flower again, reassuring himself that it was real. Something amazing was happening. She laughed at his jokes. She lived with her grandmother. She had beautiful sweet-smelling breasts. And she had given him her number. His head was humming.

Everything seemed cut in sharp relief. He could see the distinct outline of every leaf, the clear edges of each blade of grass. The world was suddenly crisp, as if it had been out of focus his entire life and only now was the lens adjusted so that he could see clearly.

Putting his newfound confidence to work, Hugh jumped out of the van and marched boldly into the Quik Qurl. He scanned the room for Mrs. Barrett, oblivious for once to the curious eyes upon him. He finally found her, sitting under one of those huge hairdryers that look like space helmets. He rushed toward her, upsetting a cart full of little multi-colored plastic rods. The woman using the rods looked at him with annoyance, then shooed him away with long purple nails when he bent over and started clumsily scooping up the plastic and replacing it in the bin. He hurried on to the hairdryers.

“Mrs. Barrett,” he said with agitated excitement. “Look!” and he thrust the flower in front of her.

Mrs. Barrett looked up, startled. She hadn’t noticed Hugh, what with the noise of the hairdryer and all. She pushed the dryer up from her head awkwardly, to shut the machine off. “Well, now, what’s this?” she asked, taking the flower from Hugh.

“Ilene gave me her number,” Hugh beamed proudly. “She wants me to call her.”

“Hugh, that’s wonderful. Ilene is such a nice girl. When are you going to call?”

“Um, I don’t know.” Hugh’s confidence started to waver a bit. “Maybe tonight?”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, his old demon started whispering. “So, now you actually have to call her,” it said. “What will you say? What if someone else answers the phone? It won’t be the same as it was today. You’ll just end up sounding stupid again.” It droned on and on. Its familiar rhythm reached his inner ear and made him pause for a moment. A blanket of familiar dullness started to cloud the world.

He remembered the sweet, deep smell of Ilene as he stood close to her and the thrill when his arm grazed her breasts. “Not this time,” he said aloud. “She gave me her number. And I will call her. Everything’s different,” he muttered to himself. He could feel himself staring his fear down, the rush of happiness returning, and strengthening his resolve. Felt it in his limbs and his shoulders, as they unhunched and straightened. He was a desirable person. Right now, in this moment, not some fantasy future, a real-life, attractive woman found him attractive.

He looked back at Mrs. Barrett. “Yes, tonight. I will call her tonight.”

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Flight

When I was much younger, I considered this my favorite short story. When I read it again recently, I remembered what I like about Steinbeck — he's an engaging storyteller who brings his characters to life — and I remembered what I dislike about Steinbeck — he can push his bizarre world view at odd angles. I still enjoy this story.

Flight
By John Steinbeck

Out fifteen miles below Monterey, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean. Behind the farm the stone mountains stood up against the sky. The farm buildings huddled like the clinging aphids on the mountain skirts, crouched low to the ground as though the wind might blow them into the sea. The little shack, the rattling, rotting barn were gray-bitten with sea salt, beaten by the damp wind until they had taken on the color of the granite hills. Two horses, a red cow and a red calf, half a dozen pigs and a flock of lean, multicolored chickens stocked the place. A little corn was raised on the sterile slope, and it grew short and thick under the wind, and all the cobs formed on the landward sides of the stalks.

Mama Torres, a lean, dry woman with ancient eyes, had ruled the farm for ten years, ever since her husband tripped over a stone in the field one day and fell full length on a rattlesnake. When one is bitten on the chest there is not much that can be done.

Mama Torres had three children, two undersized black ones of twelve and fourteen, Emilio and Rosy, whom Mama kept fishing on the rocks below the farm when the sea was kind and when the truant officer was in some distant part of Monterey County. And there was Pepe, the tall smiling son of nineteen, a gentle, affectionate boy, but very lazy. Pepe had a tall head, pointed at the top, and from its peak coarse black hair grew down like a thatch all around. Over his smiling little eyes Mama cut a straight bang so he could see. Pepe had sharp Indian cheekbones and an eagle nose, but his mouth was as sweet and shapely as a girl's mouth, and his chin was fragile and chiseled. He was loose and gangling, all legs and feet and wrists, and he was very lazy. Mama thought him fine and brave, but she never told him so. She said, "Some lazy cow must have got into thy father's family, else how could I have a son like thee." And she said, "When I carried thee, a sneaking lazy coyote came out of the brush and looked at me one day. That must have made thee so."

Pepe smiled sheepishly and stabbed at the ground with his knife to keep the blade sharp and free from rust. It was his inheritance, that knife, his father's knife. The long heavy blade folded back into the black handle. There was a button on the handle. When Pepe pressed the button, the blade leaped out ready for use. The knife was with Pepe always, for it had been his father's knife.

One sunny morning when the sea below the cliff was glinting and blue and the white surf creamed on the reef, when even the stone mountains looked kindly, Mama Torres called out the door of the shack, "Pepe, I have a labor for thee."

There was no answer. Mama listened. From behind the barn she heard a burst of laughter. She lifted her full long skirt and walked in the direction of the noise.

Pepe was sitting on the ground with his back against a box. His white teeth glistened. On either side of him stood the two black ones, tense and expectant. Fifteen feet away a redwood post was set in the ground. Pepe's right hand lay limply in his lap, and in the palm the big black knife rested. The blade was closed back into the handle. Pepe looked smiling at the sky.

Suddenly Emilio cried, "Ya!"

Pepe's wrist flicked like the head of a snake. The blade seemed to fly open in midair, and with a thump the point dug into the redwood post, and the black handle quivered. The three burst into excited laughter. Rosy ran to the post and pulled out the knife and brought it back to Pepe. He closed the blade and settled the knife carefully in his listless palm again. He grinned self-consciously at the sky.

"Ya! "

The heavy knife lanced out and sunk into the post again. Mama moved forward like a ship and scattered the play.

"All day you do foolish things with the knife, like a toy baby," she stormed. "Get up on thy huge feet that eat up shoes. Get up!" She took him by one loose shoulder and hoisted at him. Pepe grinned sheepishly and came halfheartedly to his feet. "Look!" Mama cried. "Big lazy, you must catch the horse and put on him thy father's saddle. You must ride to Monterey. The medicine bottle is empty. There is no salt. Go thou now, Peanut! Catch the horse."

A revolution took place in the relaxed figure of Pepe. "To Monterey, me? Alone? Si, Mama."

She scowled at him. "Do not think, big sheep, that you will buy candy. No, I will give you only enough for the medicine and the salt."

Pepe smiled. "Mama, you will put the hatband on the hat?"

She relented then. "Yes, Pepe. You may wear the hatband."

His voice grew insinuating. "And the green handkerchief, Mama?"

"Yes, if you go quickly and return with no trouble, the silk green handkerchief will go. If you make sure to take off the handkerchief when you eat so no spot may fall on it."

"Si, Mama. I will be careful. I am a man."

"Thou? A man? Thou art a peanut."

He went to the rickety barn and brought out a rope, and he walked agilely enough up the hill to catch the horse. When he was ready and mounted before the door, mounted on his father's saddle that was so old that the oaken frame showed through torn leather in many places, then Mama brought out the round black hat with the tooled leather band, and she reached up and knotted the green silk handkerchief about his neck. Pepe's blue denim coat was much darker than his jeans, for it had been washed much less often.

Mama handed up the big medicine bottle and the silver coins. "That for the medicine," she said, "and that for the salt. That for a candle to burn for the papa. That for dulces for the little ones. Our friend Mrs. Rodriguez will give you dinner and maybe a bed for the night. When you go to the church, say only ten paternosters and only twenty-five Ave Marias. Oh! I know, big coyote. You would sit there flapping your mouth over Aves all day while you looked at the candles and the holy pictures. That is not good devotion to stare at the pretty things."

The black hat, covering the high pointed head and black thatched hair of Pepe, gave him dignity and age. He sat the rangy horse well. Mama thought how handsome he was, dark and lean and tall. "I would not send thee now alone, thou little one, except for the medicine," she said softly. "It is not good to have no medicine, for who knows when the toothache will come, or the sadness of the stomach. These things are."

"Adios, Mama," Pepe cried. "I will come back soon. You may send me often alone. I am a man."

"Thou art a foolish chicken."

He straightened his shoulders, flipped the reins against the horse's shoulder, and rode away. He turned once and saw that they still watched him. Emilio and Rosy and Mama. Pepe grinned with pride and gladness and lifted the tough buckskin horse to a trot.

When he had dropped out of sight over a little dip in the road, Mama turned to the black ones, but she spoke to herself. "He is nearly a man now," she said. "It will be a nice thing to have a man in the house again." Her eyes sharpened on the children. "Go to the rocks now. The tide is going out. There will be abalones to be found." She put the iron hooks into their hands and saw them down the steep trail to the reefs. She brought the smooth stone metate to the doorway and sat grinding her corn to flour and looking occasionally at the road over which Pepe had gone. The noonday came and then the afternoon, when the little ones beat the abalones on a rock to make them tender and Mama patted the tortillas to make them thin. They ate dinner as the red sun was plunging down toward the ocean. They sat on the doorsteps and watched a big white moon come over the mountaintops.

Mama said, "He is now at the house of our friend Mrs. Rodriguez. She will give him nice things to eat and maybe a present."

Emilio said, "Someday I, too, will ride to Monterey for medicine. Did Pepe come to be a man today?"

Mama said wisely, "A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old because there was no need for a man:"

Soon afterward they retired, Mama in her big oak bed on one side of the room, Emilio and Rosy in their boxes full of straw and sheepskins on the other side of the room.

The moon went over the sky and the surf roared on the rocks. The roosters crowed the first call. The surf subsided to a whispering surge against the reef. The moon dropped toward the sea. The roosters crowed again.

The moon was near down to the water when Pepe rode on a winded horse to his home flat. His dog bounced out and. circled the horse, yelping-with pleasure. Pepe slid off the saddle to the ground. The weathered little shack was silver in the moonlight and the square shadow of it was black to the north and east. Against the east the piling mountains were misty with light; their tops melted into the sky.

Pepe walked wearily up the three steps and into the house. It was dark inside. There was a rustle in the comer.

Mama cried out from her bed. "Who comes? Pepe, is it thou?"

"Si, Mama:"

"Did you get the medicine?"

"Si, Mama"

"Well, go to sleep, then. I thought you would be sleeping at the house of Mrs. Rodriguez." Pepe stood silently in the dark room. "Why do you stand there, Pepe? Did you drink wine?"

"Si, Mama"

"Well, go to bed then and sleep out the wine."

His voice was tired and patient, but very firm. "'Light the candle, Mama. I must go away into the mountains."

"'What is this, Pepe? You are crazy." Mama struck a sulfur match and held the little blue burr until the flame spread up the stick. She set light to the candle on the floor beside her bed. "Now, Pepe, what is this you say?" She looked anxiously into his face.

He was changed. The fragile quality seemed to have gone from his chin. His mouth was less full than it had been, the lines of the lip were straighter, but in his eyes the greatest change had taken place. There was no laughter in them anymore, nor any bashfulness. They were sharp and bright and purposeful.

He told her in a tired monotone, told her everything just as it had happened. A few people came into the kitchen of Mrs. Rodriguez. There was wine to drink. Pepe drank wine The little quarrel — the man started toward Pepe and then the knife — it went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before Pepe knew it. As he talked, Mama's face grew stern, and it seemed to grow more lean. Pepe finished. I am a man now, Mama. The man said names to me I could not allow."

Mama nodded. "Yes, thou art a man, my poor little Pepe. Thou art a man. I have seen it coming on thee. I have watched you throwing the knife into the post, and I have been afraid." For a moment her face had softened, but now it grew stern again. "Come! We must get you ready. Go. Awaken Emilio and Rosy. Go quickly."

Pepe stepped over to the corner where his brother and sister slept among the sheepskins. He leaned down and shook them gently. "Come, Rosyl Come, Emilio! The Mama says you must arise."

The little black ones sat up and rubbed their eyes in the candlelight. Mama was out of bed now, her long black skirt over her nightgown. "Emilio," she cried. "Go up and catch the other horse for Pepe. Quickly, now! Quickly." Emilio put his legs in his overalls and stumbled sleepily out the door.

"You heard no one behind you on the road?" Mama demanded.

"No, Mama. I listened carefully. No one was on the road."

Mama darted like a bird about the room. From a nail on the wall she took a canvas bag and threw it on the floor. She stripped a blanket from her bed and rolled it into a tight tube and tied the ends with string. From a box beside the stove she lifted a flour sack half full of black string jerky. "Your father's black coat, Pepe. Here, put it on."

Pepe stood in the middle of the floor watching her activity. She reached behind the door and brought out the rifle, a long 38-56, worn shiny the whole length of the barrel. Pepe took it from her and held it in the crook of his elbow. Mama brought a little leather bag and counted the cartridges into his hand. "Only ten left," she warned. "You must not waste them."

Emilio put his head in the door. " 'Qui 'st 'l caballo, Mama."

"Put on the saddle from the other horse. Tie on the blanket. Here, tie the jerky to the saddle horn."

Still Pepe stood silently watching his mother's frantic activity. His chin looked hard, and his sweet mouth was drawn and thin. His little eyes followed Mama about the room almost suspiciously.

Rosy asked softly, "Where goes Pepe?"

Mama's eyes were fierce. "Pepe goes on a journey. Pepe is a man now. He has a man's thing to do."

Pepe straightened his shoulders. His mouth changed until he looked very much like Mama.

At last the preparation was finished. The loaded horse stood outside the door. The water bag dripped a line of moisture down the bay shoulder.

The moonlight was being thinned by the dawn, and the big white moon was near down to the sea. The family stood by the shack. Mama confronted Pepe. "Look, my son! Do not stop until it is dark again. Do not sleep even though you are tired. Take care of the horse in order that he may not stop of weariness. Remember to be careful with the bullets-there are only ten. Do not fill thy stomach with jerky or it will make thee sick. Eat a little jerky and fill thy stomach with grass. When thou comest to the high mountains, if thou seest any of the dark watching men, go not near to them nor try to speak to them. And forget not thy prayers." She put her lean hands on Pepe's shoulders, stood on her toes and kissed him formally on both cheeks, and Pepe kissed her on both cheeks. Then he went to Emilio and Rosy and kissed both of their cheeks.

Pepe turned back to Mama. He seemed to look for a little softness, a little weakness in her. His eyes were searching, but Mama's face remained fierce. "Go now," she said. "Do not wait to be caught like a chicken."

Pepe pulled himself into the saddle. "I am a man," he said.

It was the first dawn when he rode up the hill toward the little canyon which let a trail into the mountains. Moonlight and daylight fought with each other, and the two warring qualities made it difficult to see. Before Pepe had gone a hundred yards, the outlines of his figure were misty; and long before he entered the canyon, he had become a gray, indefinite shadow.

Mama stood stiffly in front of her doorstep, and on either side of her stood Emilio and Rosy. They cast furtive glances at Mama now and then.

When the gray shape of Pepe melted into the hillside and disappeared, Mama relaxed. She began the high, whining keen of the death wail. "Our beautiful — our brave," she cried. "Our protector, our son is gone." Emilio and Rosy moaned beside her. "Our beautiful — our brave, he is gone. " It was the formal wail. It rose to a high piercing whine and subsided to a moan. Mama raised it three times and then she turned and went into the house and shut the door.

Emilio and Rosy stood wondering in the dawn. They heard Mama whimpering in the house. They went out to sit on the cliff above the ocean. They touched shoulders. "When did Pepe come to be a man?" Emilio asked

"Last night," said Rosy. "Last night in Monterey." The ocean clouds turned red with the sun that was behind the mountains.

"We will have no breakfast," said Emilio. "Mama will not want to cook." Rosy did not answer him. "Where is Pepe gone?" he asked.

Rosy looked around at him. She drew her knowledge from the quiet air. "He has gone on a journey. He will never come back."

"Is he dead? Do you think he is dead?"

Rosy looked back at the ocean again. A little steamer, drawing a line of smoke, sat on the edge of the horizon. "He is not dead," Rosy explained. "Not yet."

Pepe rested the big rifle across the saddle in front of him. He let the horse walk up the hill and he didn't look back. The stony slope took on a coat of short brush so that Pepe found the entrance to a trail and entered it.

When he came to the canyon opening, he swung once in his saddle and looked back, but the houses were swallowed in the misty light. Pepe jerked forward again. The high shoulder of the canyon closed in on him. His horse stretched out its neck and sighed and settled to the trail.

It was a well-worn path, dark soft leaf-mold earth strewn with broken pieces of sandstone. The trail rounded the shoulder of the canyon and dropped steeply into the bed of the stream. In the shallows the water ran smoothly, glinting in the first morning sun. Small round stones on the bottom were as brown as rust with sun moss. In the sand along the edges of the stream the tall, rich wild mint grew, while in the water itself the cress, old and tough, had gone to heavy seed.

The path went into the stream and emerged on the other side. The horse sloshed into the water and stopped. Pepe dropped his bridle and let the beast drink of the running water.

Soon the canyon sides became steep and the first giant sentinel redwoods guarded the trail, great round red trunks bearing foliage as green and lacy as ferns. Once Pepe was among the trees, the sun was lost. A perfumed and purple light lay in the pale green of the underbrush. Gooseberry bushes and blackberries and tall ferns lined the stream, and overhead the branches of the redwoods met and cut off the sky.

Pepe drank from the water bag, and he reached into the flour sack and brought out a black string of jerky. His white teeth gnawed at the string until the tough meat parted. He chewed slowly and drank occasionally from the water bag. His little eyes were slumberous and tired, but the muscles of his face were hard-set. The earth of the trail was black now. It gave up a hollow sound under the walking hoofbeats.

The stream fell more sharply. Little waterfalls splashed on the stones. Five-fingered ferns hung over the water and dropped spray from their fingertips. Pepe rode half over his saddle, dangling one leg loosely. He picked a bay leaf from a tree beside the way and put it into his mouth for a moment to flavor the dry jerky. He held the gun loosely across the pommel.

Suddenly he squared in his saddle, swung the horse from the trail and kicked it hurriedly up behind a big redwood tree. He pulled up the reins tight against the bit to keep the horse from whinnying. His face was intent and his nostrils quivered a little.

A hollow pounding came down the trail, and a horseman rode by, a fat man with red cheeks and a white stubble beard. His horse put down his head and blubbered at the trail when it came to the place where Pepe had turned off. "Hold up!" said the man, and he pulled up his horse's head.

When the last sound of the hoofs died away, Pepe came back into the trail again. He did not relax in the saddle any more. He lifted the big rifle and swung the lever to throw a shell into the chamber, and then he let down the hammer to half cock.

The trail grew very steep. Now the redwood trees were smaller and their tops were dead, bitten dead where the wind reached them. The horse plodded on; the sun went slowly overhead and started down toward the afternoon.

Where the stream came out of a side canyon, the trail left it. Pepe dismounted and watered his horse and filled up his water bag. As soon as the trail had parted from the stream, the trees were gone and only the thick brittle sage and manzanita and the chaparral edged the trail. And the soft black earth was gone, too, leaving only the light tan broken rock for the trail bed. Lizards scampered away into the brush as the horse rattled over the little stones.

Pepe turned in his saddle and looked back. He was in the open now: he could be seen from a distance. As he ascended the trail the country grew more rough and terrible and dry. The way wound about the bases of great square rocks. Little gray rabbits skittered in the brush. A bird made a monotonous high creaking. Eastward the bare rock mountaintops were pale and powder-dry under the dropping sun. The horse plodded up and up the trail toward the little v in the ridge which was the pass.

Pepe looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.

The air was parched and full of light dust blown by the breeze from the eroding mountains. Pepe drank sparingly from his bag and corked it tightly and hung it on the horn again. The trail moved up the dry shale hillside, avoiding rocks, dropping under clefts, climbing in and out of old water scars. When he arrived at the little pass he stopped and looked back for a long time. No dark watchers were to be seen now. The trail behind was empty. Only the high tops of the redwoods indicated where the stream flowed.

Pepe rode on through the pass. His little eyes were nearly closed with weariness, but his face was stern, relentless, and manly. The high mountain wind coasted sighing through the pass and whistled on the edges of the big blocks of broken granite. In the air, a red-tailed hawk sailed over close to the ridge and screamed angrily. Pepe went slowly through the broken jagged pass and looked down on the other side.

The trail dropped quickly, staggering among broken rock. At the bottom of the slope there was a dark crease, thick with brush, and on the other side of the crease a little flat, in which a grove of oak trees grew. A scar of green grass cut across the flat. And behind the flat another mountain rose, desolate with dead rocks and starving little black bushes. Pepe drank from the bag again, for the air was so dry that it encrusted his nostrils and burned his lips. He put the horse down the trail. The hoofs slipped and struggled on the steep way, starting little stones that rolled off into the brush. The sun was gone behind the westward mountain now, but still it glowed brilliantly on the oaks and on the grassy flat. The rocks and the hillsides still sent up waves of the heat they had gathered from the day's sun.

Pepe looked up to the top of the next dry withered ridge. He saw a dark form against the sky, a man's figure standing on top of a rock, and he glanced away quickly not to appear curious. When a moment later he looked up again, the figure was gone.

Downward the trail was quickly covered. Sometimes the horse floundered for footing, sometimes set his feet and slid a little way. They came at last to the bottom where the dark chaparral was higher than Pepe's head. He held up his rifle on one side and his arm on the other to shield his face from the sharp brittle fingers of the brush.

Up and out of the crease he rode, and up a little cliff. The grassy flat was before him, and the round comfortable oaks. For a moment he studied the trail down which he had come, but there was no movement and no sound from it. Finally he rode out over the flat, to the green streak, and at the upper end of the damp he found a little spring welling out of the earth and dropping into a dug basin before it seeped out over the flat.

Pepe filled his bag first, and then he let the thirsty horse drink out of the pool. He led the horse to the clump of oaks, and in the middle of the grove, fairly protected from sight on all sides, he took off the saddle and the bridle and laid them on the ground. The horse stretched his jaws sideways and yawned. Pepe knotted the lead rope about the horse's neck and tied him to a sapling among the oaks, where he could graze in a fairly large circle.

When the horse was gnawing hungrily at the dry grass, Pepe went to the saddle and took a black string of jerky from the sack and strolled to an oak tree on the edge of the grove, from under which he could watch the trail. He sat down in the crisp dry oak leaves and automatically felt for his big black knife to cut the jerky, but he had no knife. He leaned back on his elbow and gnawed at the tough strong meat. His face was blank, but it was a man's face.

The bright evening light washed the eastern ridge, but the valley was darkening. Doves flew down from the hills to the spring, and the quail came running out of the brush and joined them, calling clearly to one another.

Out of the corner of his eye Pepe saw a shadow grow out of the bushy crease. He turned his head slowly. A big spotted wildcat was creeping toward the spring, belly to the ground, moving like thought.

Pepe cocked his rifle and edged the muzzle slowly around. Then he looked apprehensively up the trail and dropped the hammer again. From the ground beside him he picked an oak twig and threw it toward the spring. The quail flew up with a roar and the doves whistled away. The big cat stood up; for a long moment he looked at Pepe with cold yellow eyes, and then fearlessly walked back into the gulch.

The dusk gathered quickly in the deep valley. Pepe muttered his prayers, put his head down on his arm and went instantly to sleep.

The moon came up and filled the valley with cold blue light, and the wind swept rustling down from the peaks. The owls worked up and down the slopes looking for rabbits. Down in the brush of the gulch a coyote gabbled. The oak trees whispered softly in the night breeze.

Pepe started up, listening. His horse had whinnied. The moon was just slipping behind the western ridge, leaving the valley in darkness behind it. Pepe sat tensely gripping his rifle. From far up the trail he heard an answering whinny and the crash of shod hoofs on the broken rock. He jumped to his feet, ran to his horse and led it under the trees. He threw on the saddle and cinched it tight for the steep trail, caught the unwilling head and forced the bit into the mouth. He felt the saddle to make sure the water bag and the sack of jerky were there. Then he mounted and turned up the hill.

It was velvet-dark. The horse found the entrance to the trail where it left the flat, and started up, stumbling and slipping on the rocks. Pepe's hand rose up to his head. His hat was gone. He had left it under the oak tree.

The horse had struggled far up the trail when the first change of dawn came into the air, a steel grayness as light mixed thoroughly with dark. Gradually the sharp snaggled edge of the ridge stood out above them, rotten granite tortured and eaten by the winds of time. Pepe had dropped his reins on the horn, leaving direction to the horse. The brush grabbed at his legs in the dark until one knee of his jeans was ripped.

Gradually the light flowed down over the ridge. The starved brush and rocks stood out in the half-light, strange and lonely in high perspective. Then there came warmth into the light. Pepe drew up and looked back, but he could see nothing in the darker valley below. The sky turned blue over the coming sun. In the waste of the mountainside, the poor dry brush grew only three feet high. Here and there, big outcroppings of unrotted granite stood up like moldering houses. Pepe relaxed a little. He drank from his water bag and bit off a piece of jerky. A single eagle flew over, high in the light.

Without warning Pepe's horse screamed and fell on its side. He was almost down before the rifle crash echoed up from the valley. From a hole behind the struggling shoulder, a stream of bright crimson blood pumped and stopped and pumped and stopped. The hoofs threshed on the ground. Pepe lay half stunned beside the horse. He looked slowly down the hill. A piece of sage clipped off beside his head and another crash echoed up from side to side of the canyon. Pepe flung himself frantically behind a bush.

He crawled up the hill on his knees and one hand. His right hand held the rifle up off the ground and pushed it ahead of him. He moved with the instinctive care of an animal. Rapidly he wormed his way toward one of the big outcroppings of granite on the hill above him. Where the brush was high he doubled up and ran; but where the cover was slight he wriggled forward on his stomach, pushing the rifle ahead of him. In the last little distance there was no cover at all. Pepe poised and then he darted across the space and flashed around the corner of the rock.

He leaned panting against the stone. When his breath came easier he moved along behind the big rock until he came to a narrow split that offered a thin section of vision down the hill. Pepe lay on his stomach and pushed the rifle barrel through the slit and waited.

The sun reddened the western ridges now. Already the buzzards were settling down toward the place where the horse lay. A small brown bird scratched in the dead sage leaves directly in front of the rifle muzzle. The coasting eagle flew back toward the rising sun.

Pepe saw a little movement in the brush far below. His grip tightened on the gun. A little brown doe stepped daintily out on the trail and crossed it and disappeared into the brush again. For a long time Pepe waited. Far below he could see the little flat and the oak trees and the slash of green. Suddenly his eyes flashed back at the trail again. A quarter of a mile down there had been a quick movement in the chaparral. The rifle swung over. The front sight nestled in the v of the rear sight. Pepe studied for a moment and then raised the rear sight a notch. The little movement in the brush came again. The sight settled on it. Pepe squeezed the trigger. The explosion crashed down the mountain and up the other side, and came rattling back. The whole side of the slope grew still. No more movement. And then a white streak cut into the granite of the slit and a bullet whined away and a crash sounded up from below. Pepe felt a sharp pain in his right hand. A sliver of granite was sticking out from between his first and second knuckles and the point protruded from his palm. Carefully he pulled out the sliver of stone. The wound bled evenly and gently. No vein or artery was cut.

Pepe looked into a little dusty cave in the rock and gathered a handful of spider web, and he pressed the mass into the cut, plastering the soft web into the blood. The flow stopped almost at once.

The rifle was on the ground. Pepe picked it, up, levered a new shell into the chamber. And then he slid into the brush on his stomach. Far to the right he crawled, and then up the hill, moving slowly and carefully, crawling to cover and resting and then crawling again.

In the mountains the sun is high in its arc before it penetrates the gorges. The hot face looked over the hill and brought instant heat with it. The white light beat on the rocks and reflected from them and rose up quivering from the earth again, and the rocks and bushes seemed to quiver behind the air.

Pepe crawled in the general direction of the ridge peak, zigzagging for cover. The deep cut between his knuckles began to throb. He crawled close to a rattlesnake before he saw it, and when it raised its dry head and made a soft beginning whir, he backed up and took another way. The quick gray lizards flashed in front of him, raising a tiny line of dust. He found another mass of spider web and pressed it against his throbbing hand.

Pepe was pushing the rifle with his left hand now. Little drops of sweat ran to the ends of his coarse black hair and rolled down his cheeks. His lips and tongue were growing thick and heavy. His lips writhed to draw saliva into his mouth. His little dark eyes were uneasy and suspicious. Once when a gray lizard paused in front of him on the parched ground and turned its head sideways, he crushed it flat with a stone.

When the sun slid past noon he had not gone a mile. He crawled exhaustedly a last hundred yards to a patch of high sharp manzanita, crawled desperately, and when the patch was reached he wriggled in among the tough gnarly trunks and dropped his head on his left arm. There was little shade in the meager brush, but there was cover and safety. Pepe went to sleep as he lay and the sun beat on his back. A few little birds hopped close to him and peered and hopped away. Pepe squirmed in his sleep and he raised and dropped his wounded hand again and again.

The sun went down behind the peaks and the cool evening came, and then the dark. A coyote yelled from the hillside. Pepe started awake and looked about with misty eyes. His hand was swollen and heavy; a little thread of pain ran up the inside of his arm and settled in a pocket in his armpit. He peered about and then stood up, for the mountains were black and the moon had not yet risen. Pepe stood up in the dark. The coat of his father pressed on his arm. His tongue was swollen until it nearly filled his mouth. He wriggled out of the coat and dropped it in the brush, and then he struggled up the hill, falling over rocks and tearing his way through the brush. The rifle knocked against stones as he went. Little dry avalanches of gravel and shattered stone went whispering down the hill behind him.

After a while the old moon came up and showed the jagged ridgetop ahead of him. By moonlight Pepe, traveled more easily. He bent forward so that his throbbing arm hung away from his body. The journey uphill was made in dashes and rests, a frantic rush up a few yards and then a rest. The wind coasted down the slope, rattling the dry stems of the bushes.

The moon was at meridian when Pepe came at last to the sharp backbone of the ridgetop. On the last hundred yards of the rise no soil had clung under the wearing winds. The way was on solid rock. He clambered to the top and looked down on the other side. There was a draw like the last below him, misty with moonlight, brushed- with dry struggling sage and chaparral. On the other side the hill rose up sharply and at the top the jagged rotten teeth of the mountain showed against the sky. At the bottom of the cut the brush was thick and dark.

Pepe stumbled down the hill. His throat was almost closed with thirst. At first he tried to run, but immediately he fell and rolled. After that he went more carefully. The moon was just disappearing behind the mountains when he came to the bottom. He crawled into the heavy brush, feeling with his fingers for water. There was no water in the bed of the stream, only damp earth. Pepe laid his gun down and scooped up a handful of mud and put it in his mouth, and then he spluttered and scraped the earth from his tongue with his finger, for the mud drew at his mouth like a poultice. He dug a hole in the stream bed with his fingers, dug a little basin to catch water; but before it was very deep his head fell forward on the damp ground and he slept.

The dawn came and the heat of the day fell on the earth, and still Pepe slept. Late in the afternoon his head jerked up. He looked slowly around. His eyes were slits of weariness. Twenty feet away in the heavy brush a big tawny mountain lion stood looking at him. Its long thick tall waved gracefully; its ears were erect with interest, not laid back dangerously. The lion squatted down on its stomach and watched him.

Pepe looked at the hole he had dug in the earth. A half-inch of muddy water had collected in the bottom. He tore the sleeve from his hurt arm, with his teeth ripped out a little square, soaked it in the water and put it in his mouth. Over and over he filled the cloth and sucked it.

Still the lion sat and watched him. The evening came down but there was no movement on the hills. No birds visited the dry bottom of the cut. Pepe looked occasionally at the lion. The eyes of the yellow beast drooped as though he were about to sleep. He yawned and his long thin red tongue curled out. Suddenly his head jerked around and his nostrils quivered. His big tail lashed. He stood up and slunk like a tawny shadow into the thick brush.

A moment later Pepe heard the sound, the faint far crash of horses' hoofs on gravel. And he heard something else, a high whining yelp of a dog.

Pepe took his rifle in his left hand and he glided into the brush almost as quietly as the lion had. In the darkening evening he crouched up the hill toward the next ridge. Only when the dark came did he stand up. His energy was short. Once it was dark he fell over the rocks and slipped to his knees on the steep slope, but he moved on and on up the hill, climbing and scrambling over the broken hillside.

When he was far up toward the top, he lay down and slept for a little while. The withered moon, shining on his face, awakened him. He stood up and moved up the hill. Fifty yards away he stopped and turned back, for he had forgotten his rifle. He walked heavily down and poked about in the brush, but he could not find his gun. At last he lay down to rest. The pocket of pain in his armpit had grown more sharp. His arm seemed to swell out and fall with every heartbeat. There was no position lying down where the heavy arm did not press against his armpit.

With the effort of a hurt beast, Pepe got up and moved again toward the top of the ridge. He held his swollen arm away from his body with his left hand. Up the steep hill he dragged himself, a few steps and a rest, and a few more steps. At last he was nearing the top. The moon showed the uneven sharp back of it against the sky.

Pepe's brain spun in a big spiral up and away from him. He slumped to the ground and lay still. The rock ridgetop was only a hundred feet above him.

The moon moved over the sky. Pepe half turned on his back. His tongue tried to make words, but only a thick hissing came from between his lips.

When the dawn came, Pepe pulled himself up. His eyes were sane again. He drew his great puffed arm in front of him and looked at the angry wound. The black line ran up from his wrist to his armpit. Automatically he reached in his pocket for the big black knife, but it was not there. His eyes searched the ground. He picked up a sharp blade of stone and scraped at the wound, sawed at the proud flesh and then squeezed the green juice out in big drops. Instantly he threw back his head and whined like a dog. His whole right side shuddered at the pain, but the pain cleared his head.

In the gray light he struggled up the last slope to the ridge and crawled over and lay down behind a line of rocks. Below him lay a deep canyon exactly like the last, waterless and desolate. There was no flat, no oak trees, not even heavy brush in the bottom of it. And on the other side a sharp ridge stood up, thinly brushed with starving sage, littered with broken granite. Strewn over the hill there were giant outcroppings, and on the top the granite teeth stood out against the sky.

The new day was light now. The flame of the sun came over the ridge and fell on Pepe where he lay on the ground. His coarse black hair was littered with twigs and bits of spider web. His eyes had retreated back into his head. Between his lips the tip of his black tongue showed.

He sat up and dragged his great arm into his lap and nursed it, rocking his body and moaning in his throat. He threw back his head and looked up into the pale sky. A big black bird circled nearly out of sight, and far to the left another was sailing near.

He lifted his head to listen, for a familiar sound had come to him from the valley he had climbed out of; it was the crying yelp of hounds, excited and feverish, on a trail.

Pepe bowed his head quickly. He tried to speak rapid words but only a thick hiss carne from his lips. He drew a shaky cross on his breast with his left hand. It was a long struggle to get to his feet. He crawled slowly and mechanically to the top of a big rock on the ridge peak. Once there, he arose slowly, swaying to his feet, and stood erect. Far below he could see the dark brush where he had slept. He braced his feet and stood there, black against the morning sky.

There came a ripping sound at his feet. A piece of stone flew up and a bullet droned off into the next gorge. The hollow crash echoed up from below. Pepe looked down for a moment and then pulled himself straight again.

His body jarred back. His left hand fluttered helplessly toward his breast. The second crash sounded from below. Pepe swung forward arid toppled from the rock. His body struck and rolled over and over, starting a little avalanche. And when at last he stopped against a bush, the avalanche slid slowly down and covered up his head.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

David's Haircut

If Norman Rockwell wrote instead of painted, this is the kind of story he would have written. Sweet. Not for everyone. (Also, in case you haven't noticed, I have strayed from posting my favorite stories to posting short stories that I like.)

David's Haircut
By Ken Elkes

When David steps out of the front door he is blinded for a moment by the white, fizzing sunlight and reaches instinctively for his dad's hand.

It's the first really warm day of the year, an unexpected heat that bridges the cusp between spring and summer. Father and son are on their way to the barbershop, something they have always done together.

Always, the routine is the same. "It's about time we got that mop of yours cut," David's dad will say, pointing at him with two fingers, a cigarette wedged between them. "Perhaps I should do it. Where are those shears Janet?"

Sometimes his dad chases him round the living room, pretending to cut off his ears. When he was young David used to get too excited and start crying, scared that maybe he really would lose his ears, but he has long since grown out of that.

Mr Samuels' barbershop is in a long room above the chip shop, reached by a steep flight of stairs. There is a groove worn in each step by the men who climb and descend in a regular stream. David follows his father, annoyed that he cannot make each step creak like his old man can.

David loves the barbershop — it's like nowhere else he goes. It smells of cigarettes and men and hair oil. Sometimes the smell of chips will climb the stairs along with a customer and when the door opens the waiting men lift their noses together.

Black and white photographs of men with various out-of-fashion hairstyles hang above a picture rail at the end of the room, where two barber's chairs are bolted to the floor. They are heavy, old-fashioned chairs with foot pumps that hiss and chatter as Mr Samuels, the rolls of his plump neck squashing slightly, adjusts the height of the seat.

In front of the chairs are deep sinks with a showerhead and long metal hose attached to the taps, not that anyone seems to use them. Behind the sinks are mirrors and on either side of these, shelves overflowing with an mixture of plastic combs (some plunged into a glass bowl containing a blue liquid), shaving mugs, scissors, cut throat razors, hair brushes and, stacked neatly in a pyramid, 10 bright red tubs of Brylcreem.

At the back of the room sit the customers, silent for most of the time, except when Mr Samuels breaks off from cutting and takes a drag on his cigarette, sending a wisp of grey-blue smoke like the tail of kite twisting into the air.

When it is David's turn for a cut, Mr Samuels places a wooden board covered with a piece of oxblood red leather across the arms of the chair, so that the barber doesn't have to stoop to cut the boy's hair. David scrambles up onto the bench.

"The rate you're shooting up, you won't need this soon, you'll be sat in the chair," the barber says.

"Wow," says David, squirming round to look at his dad, forgetting that he can see him through the mirror. "Dad, Mr Samuels said I could be sitting in the chair soon, not just on the board!"

"So I hear," his father replies, not looking up from the paper. "I expect Mr Samuels will start charging me more for your hair then."

"At least double the price," said Mr Samuels, winking at David.

Finally David's dad looks up from his newspaper and glances into the mirror, seeing his son looking back at him. He smiles.

"Wasn't so long ago when I had to lift you onto that board because you couldn't climb up there yourself," he says.

"They don't stay young for long do they, kids," Mr Samuels declares. All the men in the shop nod in agreement. David nods too.

In the mirror he sees a little head sticking out of a long nylon cape that Mr Samuels has swirled around him and folded into his collar with a wedge of cotton wool. Occasionally he steals glances at the barber as he works. He smells a mixture of stale sweat and aftershave as the barber's moves around him, combing and snipping, combing and snipping.

David feels like he is in another world, noiseless except for the scuffing of the barber's shoes on the lino and the snap of his scissors. In the reflection from the window he could see through the window, a few small clouds moved slowly through the frame, moving to the sound of the scissors' click.

Sleepily, his eyes dropping to the front of the cape where his hair falls with the same softness as snow and he imagines sitting in the chair just like the men and older boys, the special bench left leaning against the wall in the corner.

He thinks about the picture book of bible stories his aunt gave him for Christmas, the one of Samson having his hair cut by Delilah. David wonders if his strength will go like Samson's.

When Mr Samuels has finished, David hops down from the seat, rubbing the itchy hair from his face. Looking down he sees his own thick, blonde hair scattered among the browns, greys and blacks of the men who have sat in the chair before him. For a moment he wants to reach down and gather up the broken blonde locks, to separate them from the others, but he does not have time.

The sun is still strong when they reach the pavement outside the shop, but it is less fiery now, already beginning to drop from its zenith.

"I tell you what, lad, let's get some fish and chips to take home, save your mum from cooking tea," says David's dad and turns up the street.

The youngster is excited and grabs his dad's hand. The thick-skinned fingers close gently around his and David is surprised to find, warming in his father's palm, a lock of his own hair.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Beggar

No time this morning to write about this story from the famous freedom writer, Guy de Maupassant. Maybe later.

The Beggar
By Guy de Maupassant

He had seen better days, despite his present misery and infirmities.

At the age of fifteen both his legs had been crushed by a carriage on the Varville highway. From that time forth he begged, dragging himself along the roads and through the farmyards, supported by crutches which forced his shoulders up to his ears. His head looked as if it were squeezed in between two mountains.

A foundling, picked up out of a ditch by the priest of Les Billettes on the eve of All Saints' Day and baptized, for that reason, Nicholas Toussaint, reared by charity, utterly without education, crippled in consequence of having drunk several glasses of brandy given him by the baker (such a funny story!) and a vagabond all his life afterward — the only thing he knew how to do was to hold out his hand for alms.

At one time the Baroness d'Avary allowed him to sleep in a kind of recess spread with straw, close to the poultry yard in the farm adjoining the chateau, and if he was in great need he was sure of getting a glass of cider and a crust of bread in the kitchen. Moreover, the old lady often threw him a few pennies from her window. But she was dead now.

In the villages people gave him scarcely anything — he was too well known. Everybody had grown tired of seeing him, day after day for forty years, dragging his deformed and tattered person from door to door on his wooden crutches. But he could not make up his mind to go elsewhere, because he knew no place on earth but this particular corner of the country, these three or four villages where he had spent the whole of his miserable existence. He had limited his begging operations and would not for worlds have passed his accustomed bounds.

He did not even know whether the world extended for any distance beyond the trees which had always bounded his vision. He did not ask himself the question. And when the peasants, tired of constantly meeting him in their fields or along their lanes, exclaimed: "Why don't you go to other villages instead of always limping about here?" he did not answer, but slunk away, possessed with a vague dread of the unknown — the dread of a poor wretch who fears confusedly a thousand things — new faces, taunts, insults, the suspicious glances of people who do not know him and the policemen walking in couples on the roads. These last he always instinctively avoided, taking refuge in the bushes or behind heaps of stones when he saw them coming.

When he perceived them in the distance, 'With uniforms gleaming in the sun, he was suddenly possessed with unwonted agility — the agility of a wild animal seeking its lair. He threw aside his crutches, fell to the ground like a limp rag, made himself as small as possible and crouched like a bare under cover, his tattered vestments blending in hue with the earth on which he cowered.

He had never had any trouble with the police, but the instinct to avoid them was in his blood. He seemed to have inherited it from the parents he had never known.

He had no refuge, no roof for his head, no shelter of any kind. In summer he slept out of doors and in winter he showed remarkable skill in slipping unperceived into barns and stables. He always decamped before his presence could be discovered. He knew all the holes through which one could creep into farm buildings, and the handling of his crutches having made his arms surprisingly muscular he often hauled himself up through sheer strength of wrist into hay-lofts, where he sometimes remained for four or five days at a time, provided he had collected a sufficient store of food beforehand.

He lived like the beasts of the field. He was in the midst of men, yet knew no one, loved no one, exciting in the breasts of the peasants only a sort of careless contempt and smoldering hostility. They nicknamed him "Bell," because he hung between his two crutches like a church bell between its supports.

For two days he had eaten nothing. No one gave him anything now. Every one's patience was exhausted. Women shouted to him from their doorsteps when they saw him coming:

"Be off with you, you good-for-nothing vagabond! Why, I gave you a piece of bread only three days ago!

And he turned on his crutches to the next house, where he was received in the same fashion.

The women declared to one another as they stood at their doors:

"We can't feed that lazy brute all the year round!"

And yet the "lazy brute" needed food every day.

He had exhausted Saint-Hilaire, Varville and Les Billettes without getting a single copper or so much as a dry crust. His only hope was in Tournolles, but to reach this place he would have to walk five miles along the highroad, and he felt so weary that he could hardly drag himself another yard. His stomach and his pocket were equally empty, but he started on his way.

It was December and a cold wind blew over the fields and whistled through the bare branches of the trees; the clouds careered madly across the black, threatening sky. The cripple dragged himself slowly along, raising one crutch after the other with a painful effort, propping himself on the one distorted leg which remained to him.

Now and then he sat down beside a ditch for a few moments' rest. Hunger was gnawing his vitals, and in his confused, slow-working mind he had only one idea-to eat-but how this was to be accomplished he did not know. For three hours he continued his painful journey. Then at last the sight of the trees of the village inspired him with new energy.

The first peasant he met, and of whom he asked alms, replied:

"So it's you again, is it, you old scamp? Shall I never be rid of you?"

And "Bell" went on his way. At every door he got nothing but hard words. He made the round of the whole village, but received not a halfpenny for his pains.

Then he visited the neighboring farms, toiling through the muddy land, so exhausted that he could hardly raise his crutches from the ground. He met with the same reception everywhere. It was one of those cold, bleak days, when the heart is frozen and the temper irritable, and hands do not open either to give money or food.

When he had visited all the houses he knew, "Bell" sank down in the corner of a ditch running across Chiquet's farmyard. Letting his crutches slip to the ground, he remained motionless, tortured by hunger, but hardly intelligent enough to realize to the full his unutterable misery.

He awaited he knew not what, possessed with that vague hope which persists in the human heart in spite of everything. He awaited in the corner of the farmyard in the biting December wind, some mysterious aid from Heaven or from men, without the least idea whence it was to arrive. A number of black hens ran hither and thither, seeking their food in the earth which supports all living things. Ever now and then they snapped up in their beaks a grain of corn or a tiny insect; then they continued their slow, sure search for nutriment.

"Bell" watched them at first without thinking of anything. Then a thought occurred rather to his stomach than to his mind — the thought that one of those fowls would be good to eat if it were cooked over a fire of dead wood.

He did not reflect that he was going to commit a theft. He took up a stone which lay within reach, and, being of skillful aim, killed at the first shot the fowl nearest to him. The bird fell on its side, flapping its wings. The others fled wildly hither and thither, and "Bell," picking up his crutches, limped across to where his victim lay.

Just as he reached the little black body with its crimsoned head he received a violent blow in his back which made him let go his hold of his crutches and sent him flying ten paces distant. And Farmer Chiquet, beside himself with rage, cuffed and kicked the marauder with all the fury of a plundered peasant as "Bell" lay defenceless before him.

The farm hands came up also and joined their master in cuffing the lame beggar. Then when they were tired of beating him they carried him off and shut him up in the woodshed, while they went to fetch the police.

"Bell," half dead, bleeding and perishing with hunger, lay on the floor. Evening came — then night — then dawn. And still he had not eaten.

About midday the police arrived. They opened the door of the woodshed with the utmost precaution, fearing resistance on the beggar's part, for Farmer Chiquet asserted that he had been attacked by him and had had great, difficulty in defending himself.

The sergeant cried:

"Come, get up!"

But "Bell" could not move. He did his best to raise himself on his crutches, but without success. The police, thinking his weakness feigned, pulled him up by main force and set him between the crutches.

Fear seized him — his native fear of a uniform, the fear of the game in presence of the sportsman, the fear of a mouse for a cat-and by the exercise of almost superhuman effort he succeeded in remaining upright.

"Forward!" said the sergeant. He walked. All the inmates of the farm watched his departure. The women shook their fists at him the men scoffed at and insulted him. He was taken at last! Good riddance! He went off between his two guards. He mustered sufficient energy — the energy of despair — to drag himself along until the evening, too dazed to know what was happening to him, too frightened to understand.

People whom he met on the road stopped to watch him go by and peasants muttered:

"It's some thief or other."

Toward evening he reached the country town. He had never been so far before. He did not realize in the least what he was there for or what was to become of him. All the terrible and unexpected events of the last two days, all these unfamiliar faces and houses struck dismay into his heart.

He said not a word, having nothing to say because he understood nothing. Besides, he had spoken to no one for so many years past that he had almost lost the use of his tongue, and his thoughts were too indeterminate to be put into words.

He was shut up in the town jail. It did not occur to the police that he might need food, and he was left alone until the following day. But when in the early morning they came to examine him he was found dead on the floor. Such an astonishing thing!

Monday, June 21, 2004

A Haunted House

What could be more appropriate on summer solstice than a horror story by Virginia Woolf?

A Haunted House
By Virginia Woolf

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.

"Here we left it," she said. And he added, "Oh, but here too!" "It's upstairs," she murmured. "And in the garden," he whispered. "Quietly," they said, "or we shall wake them."

But it wasn't that you woke us. Oh, no. "They're looking for it; they're drawing the curtain," one might say, and so read on a page or two. "Now they've found it," one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. "What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?" My hands were empty. "Perhaps it's upstairs then?" The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.

But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The windowpanes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling — what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. "Safe, safe, safe" the pulse of the house beat softly. "The treasure buried; the room . . ." the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?

A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burned behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us, coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. "Safe, safe, safe," the pulse of the house beat gladly. "The Treasure yours."

The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.

"Here we slept," she says. And he adds, "Kisses without number." "Waking in the morning—" "Silver between the trees—" "Upstairs—" "In the garden—" "When summer came—" "In winter snowtime—" "The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

Nearer they come, cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken, we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. "Look," he breathes. "Sound asleep. Love upon their lips."

Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.

"Safe, safe, safe," the heart of the house beats proudly. "Long years—" he sighs. "Again you found me." "Here," she murmurs, "sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—" Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. "Safe! safe! safe!" the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry "Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart."

Friday, June 18, 2004

The Round Tuit

As editor of Fiction Daze, I failed miserably to coax Wendy into finishing her story. She used a broken computer as an excuse. Robert has failed thus far to send me Les Deux Bobs and other stories, so I had to pull out one of my old Friday stories. I like the story, and it's short.

The Round Tuit
By Bob Bringhurst

Sister Christiansen experienced childlike giddiness for a brief moment in 1982. Her husband, Kirk, carried the first family VCR into the house. Before Kirk took the VCR out of the box, he called the family together and declared that he was the only member of the household entitled to rent videos. While Kirk warned the wife and children of the filth included in all R-rated movies and many of the PG-rated movies, Sister Christiansen feared that she might disobey him. Indeed, her fear was realized in the spring of 1983, when she rented The Parent Trap from Bob's Video Store a few blocks north of the BYU football stadium. She meant to return the video the next day, and again the next, but if there wasn't one thing, there was another. The video remained in the Christiansen home through two more childbirths, three home entertainment centers, one dog's life, and nine Christmases. Everyone in the family assumed that they owned the video, even though it was enclosed in a hard plastic case, but the wife knew that one day she must face the shame of returning the video and paying the late fee, which she figured to be anywhere between five and one-thousand dollars.

There was always something to distract her.

There was the preparing of baked goods for the Relief Society; there was the bearing of a child, and then the last; there was the home study course in Victorian poetry at BYU; there was the purchasing of tennis balls and wrist bands; there was the clipping of coupons; there was the endless list of thank-you notes to be written.

On a sabbath day in the summer of 1992, a Sunday that seemed like any other, Sister Christiansen was inspired to return the video. Her inspiration came in the form of a church lesson. The Relief Society instructor presented a lesson on procrastination in which she passed out Round Tuits and said, “Now you can never say, 'When I get around to it,' because you all have a Round Tuit!” As Sister Christiansen looked at the Round Tuit sitting on the Book of Mormon in her lap, she told herself that she would humble herself, confront her fears, and return the video the next morning. She even wrote it on her Do-It list. Here is what the source of her inspiration looked like:

   ___
 /      ( TUIT )
 \____/


After buying groceries at Food-4-Less the next day, Sister Christiansen forgot what her next chore was. In fact, for a brief moment she forgot which town she was in. The dull light shining through the windows of the Suburban made her dizzy, as if she had stood up too quickly. To her left and right cottonwood trees stood still on the breezeless summer morning; ahead of her a red signal dangled in front of the mountains; behind her glared the menace of slowly approaching cars. She closed her eyes. Nothing.

She opened her eyes and stared at the back of her hands. Her hands were the hands of an adult — leathery skin, dark freckles, protruding veins. On one of her fingernails she noticed a little white spot. All her life, she paid close attention to these little calcium deposits, as if they were participants in a race which began at the cuticle and finished at the end of the nail.

Her mind flashed images of her teenage years, when these little white spots seemed to take longer to make their way across her nails. When summer started after her 5th grade year, a particularly memorable white spot emerged from her cuticle, one that looked as majestic as a medieval jousting horse. Before her childhood calcium deposit could make its way to the end of the fingernail, she visited her maternal grandparents in Bountiful, where her grandmother taught her to mark the scriptures with color-coded tags, the home where she and her extended family sat around the breakfast table and prayed and read holy scriptures before the sun had risen, the home where she watched the carcass of a dead horse burn in an open field beneath the setting sun. She visited her paternal grandparents in Heber City, the town where she and her cousins jumped from a loft in the barn down into a haystack, the town where she collected telephone pole incinerators near the railroad tracks, the town where she took a mental snap shot of Darlene, her first and only real love, swinging her angular body on a rope above a dammed river, creating an image that would remain clear and accessible to her all her life. She learned to swim sidestroke. She was grounded for two weeks because she and Darlene floated down the Provo River on a Sunday. She returned to Bountiful to see her grandmother's corpse planted reverently in the earth. She started sixth grade and listened to Mrs. Johnson read Black Beauty to the class. She cross-stitched with her mother, who mentioned that her fingernails were getting long, at which time the girl who was to become known as Sister Christiansen clipped the last half — the hind legs — of the white spot.

Now 45, Sister Christiansen sat parked in front of a green light, looking at her most recent calcium deposit, wondering where on earth she was going. This white spot reminded her of nothing. A mere blob. Empty promises. Horns honked. She ran through her mind everything that had happened since the white spot first appeared on her nail. She attended church twelve or thirteen times. What else? She cleaned the refrigerator. What else? She did thirty or forty loads of laundry. What else? She took the girls to piano lessons a dozen times or so. What else? She cooked many, many meals. What else? She watched her husband win a tennis tournament in the 45-55 age division. Oh, and the Hansen's party! What else? She wrote a letter to Darlene that she never sent. What else? She aerobicized to the Jane Fonda videotape 43 times.

What else? What else? What else?

“The videotape!” she said. She looked down at the video in the back seat of her Suburban. There it was. Finally, this stupid thing will be off her mind forever. She drove with purpose now, past the shopping center, across University Avenue, right on North Canyon Road. Her eyes blinked as she passed in and out of the shadows of the cottonwood trees. Her heart pounded hard. She approached the place where she had rented the movie some nine years ago, easing the Suburban into a parking stall. To her alarm, she discovered that Bob's Video Store no longer existed — Don's Dry Cleaning had taken its place.

Sister Christiansen left the video on the doorstep of Don's Dry Cleaning and drove away. It was time to go home.