“They used to say, ‘If we find a good Black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”
—Cool Papa Bell
They tell me Pop Pop was some ballplayer.
Copper toned, tan as the leather of his glove;
squinting on a dirt mound under Virginia skies.
A southpaw they tell us.
Tall and slight—the way a pitcher has to be.
Lanky arms made his wind and release like a slingshot.
Fingers in a question mark for a knuckler.
A bit of tobacco spit made sinkers spiral and drop
over the plate like a yo-yo. His mud ball
would have put the Babe on his ass they say.
At grand mom’s sometimes I stare at his creased
photo fading in the family album and think to myself
He sure don’t look like much
tattered uniform, sleeves coming apart at the shoulders.
Pullman-porters clanking dishware on sleeping cars,
barnstorming every city from Tupelo to Hackensack;
warming up in bullpens beside chicken fence.
Cheers from the crowds became the
cries of eleven children and the docks
at the Navy Yard along the Delaware
where ship stacks blackened the sky.
We played peek-a-boo at his funeral
beneath the pews of 19th St. Baptist.
Too little to care anything about the cancer
he coughed for months.
They say he always joked that when he went,
he would haunt them ballparks the way they did
in the days when him and his tribe were just
shadows of the game.
AFTER WAKING FROM A SEVEN-YEAR DREAM
It comes in my sleep and then it comes up the river,
a tiger shark with its young in its mouth
all singing the same commandment—Thou shalt kiss
thy mistress’ Song of Solomon thighs and belly
and the star tattoo on her left areola. I kiss the pear hanging
between her breasts and every link of the chain
that holds it there. I kiss ghosts in her ears, the ones
who whisper as she enters sleep, that last
wilderness, to escape my wrathful appetites. I tongue
the pillowcase, nibble the headboard, laugh
as I take each pair of panties from her drawer
and treat them to the most abiding pleasures.
I worship the shark until I’m no longer afraid of it,
pull out its teeth, carve my name into confessionals
and bathroom stalls. I kiss the teeth. I kiss my name.
I kiss every woman who accepts my last dream
as payment. We who are about to bind ourselves to trees.
I kiss doorknobs and empty soda bottles, trap
thunder in my mouth and give it to every child
I can catch. We who are about to see God’s wet hair.
I lick cobwebs beneath the saint’s skirt, kiss his legs free
of dust, slander his mortality with my tongue until
I come into the godscape, blind and spitting live flies.
Emergency, I’ll be your siren. Imagination, I’ll be your figment.
Fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.
Meanwhile, the dead trample the psalmic grass as they line up
to ride bald angels like horses through the graveyard.
Lazarused but not yet rising, their bodies crowd the fence
waiting for news of the hereafter while the undertaker collects
a toll from pallbearers. Blame the congregation tithing
wisdom teeth, or the moon which has been full for weeks.
Lunacy, I’m already yours. I made my truth. Consequence,
I’ll be your whipping girl, your pulled hair and burning nerve.
I will help pry open the oracle’s casket. Out of her
whitening mouth, a bright nothing will aerialize, ascend.
That kiss I failed to give you.
How can you forgive me?
The kiss I would have spent on you is still
there, within me. It will probably die there.
But it will be the last of me to die.
“After Kurt’s passing, I was asked by editors of literary reviews to send poems by him, so that they could publish some of his new work in memoriam. At the same time, Tiger Bark Press asked me for all of Kurt’s poems to start working on a collection entitled: I’ve Come This Far to Say Hello: New and Selected Poems by Kurt Brown. So I very reluctantly went into Kurt’s computer — something I never thought I’d have to do — in search of all those poems. In a file entitled “Almost Poems,” I found about fifty poems in different stages of completion, filed in alphabetical order by title. I read, and read those poems for a long, sad afternoon. Then, under the letter “T”, I found “The Kiss” — written a month and a half before he passed away.” ~ Laure-Anne Bosselaar
For a week in the middle of March, Paul Haberman felt increasingly out of sorts. Not much appetite, lousy sleep. In meetings he’d find himself absently chewing a knuckle. When the phone rang after nine at night, he braced for calamity. The wind blew hard against his bedroom window, and he imagined his neighbor’s oak tipping onto the roof. Lying in bed, with Cynthia huffing peacefully beside him, he asked himself what could be the matter and then did his best to answer. Maybe he’d been working too hard. Maybe he was troubled by the state of the world. Maybe by the fact that his stepchildren were growing up too fast. Or maybe it had been two months since he’d taken his car to the Baron. As soon as it grew light enough outside, he picked up the phone and dialed.
“Dr. H!” the Baron shouted on the other end of the line. “Why’s it been so long?”
“Lost track of time,” Paul said.
“You, maybe. But not that big beauty of yours. She needs a man who’s regular.”
“Any chance I can bring it—her—tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, huh? Pretty busy, doc. But for your sweet lady, sure.”
The Baron always called Paul doctor, and Paul never corrected him. At first he’d held back out of caution; maybe all the Baron’s clients were doctors, and if he found out Paul was only a lawyer, he might turn him away. Paul had since crossed paths with others of the Baron’s clients, and among them were a pharmaceutical executive, a stock analyst, the president of a pest company. But now they’d known each other more than three years, far too long to set things straight without embarrassment. Still, Paul hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea of the Baron picturing him in a white coat, peering into people’s ears. When the Baron said, “Better cancel all your patients before noon,” it took Paul a moment to answer, and when he finally did, he could only murmur, “They won’t miss me.”
“I doubt that,” the Baron said. “But it’s what I appreciate about you, doc. Most of these guys, they think a medical degree turns their turds into bonbons.”
The misunderstanding had likely come about because it was a doctor who’d first sent Paul to the Baron—a podiatrist, who’d talked for an hour about his Alfa Romeo while digging a plantar wart out of Paul’s heel. As it turned out, he had a hard time talking and working at the same time, and he’d often pause to make a point, bloody scalpel jabbing the air above Paul’s toes. “I thought the whole transmission was blown. But the Baron talked me down. Cost me a couple grand, but she runs better than ever.” Paul worried the novocaine would wear off before he’d finished so refrained from asking questions. But after the third mention of the Baron he couldn’t resist. The Baron of what? By then, in any case, the doctor was cauterizing the hole in his foot, and he wanted distraction from the smell of his burning flesh.
“You don’t use a dealership, do you?” the doctor asked. “Might as well have my two-year-old change your oil.” Then he lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder to be sure the nurse wasn’t lurking in the doorway. “Don’t tell him you’re a patient. Just say I sent you.”
He slipped Paul a card. The Flarin’ Baron, it read. Italian and American cars only! Underneath the phone number was a drawing of a hot-rod with flames bursting out of its rear. Was this meant to inspire confidence? After the doctor finished, Paul hobbled across the parking lot on his still-numb foot. He had no interest in Alfa Romeos that could take a hairpin turn at eighty miles an hour, without braking. But all the way home he thought he heard something rattling under his Imperial’s hood. That afternoon he called the number.
The truth was, he always believed something was wrong with his car. Within a few weeks of having it serviced he’d imagine his tires were going bald on one side, or his brake pads were wearing thin, or his radiator had cracked. The more time passed, the more convinced he became that a complete breakdown was imminent. Not having learned to drive until he was in his late thirties, he was still amazed that a person could sit behind the wheel of a metal box and careen down the freeway without exploding into flames as fierce as those on the Baron’s card. Every so often he’d open his hood and gaze into the tangle of pipes and wires, belts and filters, and understanding nothing of what he saw, experience an odd palpitation in his chest, along with a flash of heat in his face. How could this mess get him down the street, much less across state lines? How could it keep him from stalling on the Turnpike or from skidding into a semi on the George Washington Bridge?
Driving into downtown Denville, where the Baron’s garage was tucked between the old library, abandoned for a larger and less convenient space to the north, and an imposing Methodist church, Paul already noted a loosening in his neck muscles and jaw. The blustery weather had calmed, and though the sky was still overcast, through the dashboard vents he caught an anticipatory whiff of spring. He breathed it in and promised himself he’d come here more often. So what if it meant taking a morning off work once a month?
The garage was a nondescript building made of cinder blocks painted blue, with two sliding aluminum doors that were always closed, and set to one side, a fiberglass garden shed that served as an office. There was no sign to mark it, nothing in the way of advertising or welcome. Paul knew to pull around back, where a pair of pick-up trucks from the fifties sat on blocks, rusting beside a metal fence topped with sagging barbed wire. There he honked three times, and with the engine still running, he waited. Five minutes passed, ten. Finally, a windowless door—too small, it seemed, for the size of the building—sprang open, and out stepped the Baron, in dark blue coveralls and safety goggles, unruly tufts of black hair above both ears and centered over his forehead. Clear scalp everywhere else.
“Doc!” he called, arms spread, palms up, as he made his way across the yard, a void of cracked concrete and discarded exhaust pipes. “Why you treating this baby so bad? She needs some lovin’.”
When he reached the Imperial, he stroked its hood and cocked an ear to listen to the hum of its belts. Then he walked around it twice, kicking tires, signaling Paul to turn on headlights and blinkers, pointing up to indicate he should step on the gas. “Shove over,” he said, and Paul slid into the passenger seat. With the Baron came the smell of singed fabric or hair. For another few minutes, he fiddled with turn signals, wipers, heat controls, radio knobs, frowning the entire time, and Paul readied himself for bad news. But the Baron only nodded, caressed the steering wheel, leaned close to the dashboard, whispered something Paul couldn’t hear. Then he straightened, smacked his hands together, tipped his head to the side. “Off you go.”
Paul slipped out and watched him roll the Imperial around to the front of the building. By the time he made it there himself, the car had already disappeared inside, and the sliding door was closed. In three years he’d never once glimpsed what went on behind it.
Instead he waited in the little office, on the only chair, which was really just a stool on wheels in front of the folding table that served as the Baron’s desk. The only other furniture in the shed was a filing cabinet, either full or unused, stacks of papers leaning against it. On one wall hung two flags, Italian and American. The others were covered in posters of cars—Maserati and Mustang, Fiat and Firebird—none of them framed, several hanging loose at one corner, a smudged loop of tape showing where it drooped forward. The only image not automotive was a photograph of the Baron, whose real name was Ronnie Gianella, with his wife and three mostly grown boys, the oldest twenty-three, the youngest seventeen. The photo, also unframed, had been shot on a cruise ship. In the background, calm Caribbean water an impossible blue, a lumpy ridge of coral visible in the distance. On deck, everyone was looking in a different direction, one of the boys leaning over the railing, another scowling at the camera, the youngest laughing at something out of sight. When it was taken, the Baron, five years younger, had had more hair but looked otherwise unchanged, broad squashed nose and skin the color of smoked pork, little eyes that seemed to have trouble peering out of their deep sockets.
Of them all, only his wife appeared content, a few steps removed form the group, smiling serenely at her boys, head covered in a silk scarf that didn’t hide the absence of hair underneath. When Paul had first come to the Baron she’d just finished her second round of chemo. “Seems to be doing the job,” the Baron had said. But then, slicing both hands down his chest, added, “Didn’t save her beauties, though. Went from Delray curves to flat as a Caprice.”
It was half an hour before the Baron joined him in the office, and when he did, he was frowning again, shaking his head, safety goggles reflecting the overhead light. Before he could open his mouth, Paul stood and said, “I know I should have come sooner—”
“You got that right.”
“It’s been a busy time.”
“No excuse,” the Baron said. “Great girl like that, you shouldn’t neglect her.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“She needs attention. You know how it goes—she starts feeling like she’s being taken for granted, then she gets cranky.”
“Is it bad?”
The Baron’s expression shifted from disapproval to sympathy, and he put an arm around Paul’s shoulder. “Could be worse,” he said. “Could be a lot worse. Be thankful for that.”
He led Paul to the table, where he penciled out a list of services, adjustments, replacement parts. Paul understood little of it—didn’t tires rotate automatically whenever he drove?—but he agreed to each of the Baron’s suggestions. Cooling fan? Okay. Oil pan gasket? Sure. Wiper blades and fluid? Yes, yes. Only when the Baron mentioned an evaporator coil for the air conditioning did Paul hesitate. “Something’s wrong with the air?” he asked. “Seemed to be working just fine.”
The Baron frowned again and took a step away. “Sure it works,” he said, voice inflected with insult. “But efficiently? Hell no. Chews through all our girl’s gas. Notice how often you been filling the tank?”
Paul hadn’t. Nor had he turned on the air since last summer. But he gave an apologetic shrug and gestured at the list. “Whatever you think it—she needs.”
“Can’t do things halfway,” the Baron said. He leaned back on his heels, thumbs tucked into cloth loops on the coveralls. Pinched brows shadowed the whole of his eyes. “Not here.”
“You’re right. I know.”
“Come to me, it means you’re all in.”
“Of course,” Paul said.
“She worth it to you?”
“Okay, then,” the Baron said. His brows relaxed, and he touched the tip of his pencil to his lips. “So. We finish off with some new spark plugs, grease the drive shaft, and she’s a girl who feels pampered.”
For a minute the Baron scrutinized the list, tapping the pencil on the tuft of wiry hair above his right ear. Then, without itemizing anything or making any calculations, he came up with a number, scrawling it quickly at the bottom of the page. He circled it, slapped the pencil on the table, shoved the paper at Paul, and turned his back, attending to a piece of mail he pulled from the top of a nearby stack. Paul knew to wait a moment before picking up the pencil and adding his initials. After he did, he cleared his throat and asked, “How’s Janelle?”
When the Baron turned back to him, he was grinning a tired grin, the goggles propped on top of his head. “Thanks for asking, doc.”
“Last time I was in she was getting ready for radiation.”
“Seems like it took. We’ll know more next month.”
“I’ll be thinking about her.”
“Could be worse, you know? Two years, total remission. And they got it early this time.”
“And the boys?” Paul asked. “Doing any better?”
The Baron blinked his little eyes and wiped his palms on the front of his coveralls. “Up and down, I guess. Mike’s working again, but his marriage, forget it. John and me, we just do better when we don’t talk at all. He’s good to his mom, anyway. And Jeremy, I think he’s learned his lesson. He’ll stay out of trouble, for the most part. But he’ll never have a normal life, not now. I’ll be taking care of him until they put me in the ground. But you know, could be—” He ran a hand down his face, recharging his grin, and let out an awkward little shout of laughter. “How ’bout you? Aside from your beauty out there? Things been good?”
Paul rubbed a thumb over his knuckle, chapped where he’d bitten it. “No complaints,” he said.
“I’d swap places with you in a heartbeat, doc,” the Baron said. Then he backhanded the air in front of him, as if swatting away clinging fingers. “Now get lost so I can take care of your girl.”
For an hour Paul walked around the little town center, poking his head into a magazine and cigar shop, a jeweler’s, a bakery where he came away with a cheese danish. He ate it on a bench in the riverside park, watching mallards paddle around the shallows, dipping green heads into murky water. The sun had begun breaking through clouds, and though the air was still crisp, he was comfortable enough to lean back and stretch an arm across wooden slats, two fingers picking idly at flaking paint.
No complaints. Wasn’t it true? Sure, there were the long hours at work, the traveling that wore him out, the sore throat that had nagged him much of the winter. There was his stepdaughter Joy, fifteen, spending afternoons with a rodent-faced boyfriend—her first—who lived with his grandmother in a dilapidated bungalow just off Route 10. Where the parents were Paul had no idea. He wore shirts that hung lopsided, jeans rolled above filthy sneakers. Whenever Paul answered his calls, which always came at odd hours—ten-thirty on a weeknight, seven on a Sunday morning—he didn’t say hello or announce himself but just grunted, “Can you put her on?” A month ago Joy had come home with mouth-sized bruises on her neck. Last week, while folding laundry, Paul picked up a pair of silk underwear, blue and trimmed with lace, far too small for Cynthia.
And then there was his stepson Kyle, two years younger, recently hammering sheets of plywood into a sprawling maple at the edge of the backyard. Wasn’t he too old for a treehouse? Paul asked, and in response, Kyle spit in the grass and said, “It’s not a treehouse. It’s a fort.” To keep out marauders? “Man, I just need my own space,” Kyle said. He’d swiped the wood, it turned out, from a construction site at the top of the ridge, and a few evenings later a contractor knocked on the front door. He’ been up and down half the streets in the neighborhood so far and had found his supplies at every house with a kid in junior high. Paul led him out back and helped him carry away what wasn’t already nailed down. He wrote a check for the rest, while Kyle sulked in the half-built fort, a pair of boards leaning crookedly across two limbs, a rickety ladder of two-by-fours spiraling up the maple’s trunk. “He’s not really mine,” Paul told the contractor, who tucked the check in his pocket and said, “Know what you mean. I’ve got two. Most days I’d happily sell them to the fucking circus.”
These were things he might have complained about, but not to the Baron. They weren’t the same as having a son unemployed and breaking up his marriage, another who wouldn’t speak to you, a third who’d broken into a liquor store and gone to jail. They certainly weren’t the same as having a wife who’d lost her breasts and hair to cancer, who was having radiation treatment after a two-year remission. They were things he could keep to himself, though now they seemed to drift with the ducks crossing to the far bank, the current carrying their opalescent heads and sooty backs a dozen yards downstream. Janelle Gianella. It was a lovely name, one of the loveliest he’d ever heard. He’d always wondered if she’d married the Baron just so she could have it. On his third or fourth visit, the Baron had insisted Paul call him Ronnie, but Paul had never been able to, not even in his thoughts. It was too silly a name for an adult. Why not go by Ron or Ronald? A few visits later, he’d asked Paul if he might take a peek at his wife’s latest PET scan, see if he agreed that she needed another round of Cytoxan. “We like our doctors fine,” the Baron said. “But you know, sometimes it’s good to get another look.” He’d be happy to, Paul muttered, but it wasn’t his specialty, and he didn’t know if he’d really be able to help… “I understand, doc. You’re a busy man. Forget I asked.”
Janelle Gianella. He found himself repeating the name silently, the sound of it as lulling as that of the water easing past. What had he been so anxious about all month? Why chew on knuckles and fret over kids whose mother only shrugged and said, “They’re not half as bad as I was when I was their age.”
Overhead, crows squawked at something nearing their nest—a squirrel? a hawk?—and leaves rustled though there was no breeze. It was warm enough now to take off his jacket, which was scattered with flakes of paint and pastry. He checked his watch. Two hours had slipped by as swiftly as a sign on the freeway. When he made it back to the garage, the Imperial was back outside, parked on the street in front, hubcaps shining in the fresh sunlight. The Baron was waiting for him in the office, sitting on the stool, arms folded across his chest. If he had any other cars to work on today, they didn’t seem to be here now. Paul had his checkbook in hand but had learned not to have filled anything out ahead of time, or at least not to have entered the figure the Baron had written down.
“You look relaxed,” the Baron said. He picked up the pencil again and began tapping it once more on his lips.
“I don’t get too many mornings off.”
“Patients don’t give you much of a break, I bet.”
“I’ll pay for it later,” Paul said. “But it’s worth it.”
“Good to put yourself first every once in a while.”
“Everything go smoothly?”
“She’s a tough girl. Hardly any tears.”
“There’s always something.”
“Nothing too bad, I hope.”
“Well, doc,” the Baron said. His sympathetic look was back, though this time he didn’t put an arm around Paul’s shoulder, didn’t rise from the stool. “Considering the possibilities, no, not too bad.”
“What was it? What did she have this time?”
“Of course I couldn’t know until I got in there. Not just the evaporator coil, but the housing, too, and the housing cover. But you’re lucky. The condenser, that’s the big one. No problems there. Be grateful for that.”
He wanted to be. There was plenty to be grateful for. But hearing the Baron say so irritated him, and he couldn’t keep himself from saying, “I never noticed any trouble with the air.”
This time the Baron’s expression wasn’t insulted but injured. Without goggles on, his eyes had a precarious quality, always on the verge of weeping, it seemed, and usually the sight of them made Paul turn away. But now he found himself waiting to see if tears would really fall. “Any time you want a second opinion—”
“I trust you,” he said, more sharply than he meant to. “What’s the damage?”
The Baron, looking no less hurt, squinted and tapped the pencil. He thought for a minute, two, and then wrote. The number he finally passed along was three hundred dollars more than the original. Paul filled in the check and handed it over without a word. “She did just fine,” the Baron said. “Treat her well, and she’ll take care of you for a long time.”
“Appreciate it, Baron,” Paul said, catching sight once more of the photograph of Janelle and the boys, her smile less peaceful than chilling, he thought now, so removed from the distress of everyone around her. Why couldn’t he call him Ronnie, just this once? After all he’d been through, why not give him that one small thing, instead of begrudging him a few hundred bucks? “I’ll be thinking good thoughts,” he said, and then, knowing he shouldn’t, added, “When the results of the next scan come in—”
“All right,” the Baron said, standing abruptly and waving the check at the door. “Now get back to your patients before they start thinking you skipped out to play golf.”
He followed Paul out to the curb, watched as he opened the Imperial’s door and slid inside. The sunlight set him blinking, and he couldn’t seem to stop. He had Paul rev the engine several times, run the windshield wipers, press on the brakes while he checked the rear lights. Then he patted the trunk and said, “You’ve got a keeper here. We should all be so blessed.”
He stayed where he was as Paul put the car in gear and rolled down the street. He was still there, in the rearview mirror, by the time Paul made it to the intersection and began to turn. There was no question the Baron was taking him for a ride. He’d known that for some time now. What bothered him wasn’t going along with it so much as realizing how badly he needed it. He couldn’t wait to hear the Baron say, “Your life sounds all right, doc,” only then believing it. It didn’t matter that the Baron knew nothing about him, not even what he did for a living. Why couldn’t he decide his life was all right for himself, without having to compare it to someone’s whose wasn’t? Why did he have to do so over and over again, every other month? There was probably something unethical about it, or maybe immoral, and one day he might decide to stop.
For now, though, he let himself enjoy gliding down the quiet, late-morning freeway, floating on rotated tires, all parts greased and slipping across each other without friction. Before he made it to the train station, he turned on the air conditioning and bathed in the cool breeze, knowing that for a short while—the rest of the day, the next week or two—he’d trust metal and rubber and the mostly smooth pavement underneath.
The first time with Dean, I was on a couch and he knelt beside me on the floor. He parted my lips with two fingers and slid them into my mouth. Something moved inside, a snake in a basket. He ran his fingers along the edges of my teeth and pushed them open. His fingers were salty. It was unpleasant.
He pushed my teeth father apart, inserting a third finger. I wanted to laugh. In and out the fingers slid. I closed my mouth. He pushed my teeth open. He was a swimmer. When we kissed, he kept his fingers in my mouth and pinned my hands over my head.
He had a girlfriend, and I was with another man. I didn’t understand how if you liked the sex you wouldn’t always want to keep doing it. He was an architect. He said when we met I had acted superior. I didn’t remember.
The first time he drew me across his lap, light streamed into the room. I said, “There’s fat on my ass.” He said, “I like the fat on your ass.” He would make me come, and then he would come and afterward drape his limbs around me as we breathed. I would slide my hand along his backbone, counting the ridges. When he withdrew from me, I would slip his penis between my fingers, one at a time. There were scars on his hands he said were from playing with a compass as a kid. He said, “I like hurting you.” I took him to a posh store and egged him to buy an expensive shirt he wore until the collar and cuffs frayed.
Occasionally I would call him, and he would tell me to come over, or he would call me, and I would agree to go. Before the meeting, I would sit in the sauna at the gym, imagining the night ahead, wearing perfume, a dress, heels. I wasn’t worried about what he would do, only that I might not enjoy it enough. Most of the time, we had sex by chance. I would become aroused by seeing him. I would wait for him to speak, and when he did I would wait for him to ask me to do something. If he didn’t, I would pretend to myself we were done. Sometimes in the middle of a scene, I would be indifferent to his pressure, and he would accept it. Sometimes, he said he felt close, and I could see from his perspective it seemed I had given him something. I felt a little false in that understanding, but I didn’t correct it and I did not arrive at a point of wanting it to end.
The dog smelled and was ugly, a Yorkshire terrier with two snaggle teeth and the baleful underbite of a deep water fish. It had a breathing disorder and hacked loudly until it was picked up and slung over a shoulder like a colicky baby or the pig in Alice in Wonderland. The owner of the dog was dying, and Rachel took it home. Rachel was lonely, and after a week she forgot the dog’s smell and ugliness. If you said the dog smelled, she said she had bought special shampoo and you must be imagining it. She styled the dog’s hair in a spiky variation of her own and carried it everywhere in a tote bag. In time her friend Paul said he could not bear another word about the dog. He didn’t want it thrust at him when he visited nor dragged to his apartment when Rachel went there for dinner. Their relationship ended.
The dog outlasted other attachments. By the time it was 14, it was deaf and almost blind, and it had developed thick cataracts that made it look like a small, crazy-haired zombie dog. The hacking was incessant. Still, Rachel was stricken at the thought of losing her companion, and I realized I would never understand her attraction to the most hapless and stricken creatures that came her way, although I might be counted among them. I moved in with her after construction outside my apartment made it impossible to live there. At this point, the dog was listless and uninterested in food. In the course of a week, Rachel visited the vet three times, and again, frantic, she placed the Yorkie in the basket of her bike and pedaled from the West Village to 34th Street. When she returned, she didn’t see any responsiveness in her pet. She called out to me, and I went to the back room. Rachel said, “Look at Pepper. I’m afraid to.” My friend looked shrunken, huddled against the closet door. I opened the blanket that smelled of the dog and saw a motionless rag. Pepper was dead, and as I announced this to Rachel, she collapsed in my arms and sobbed. The dog’s legs were stiff. Its tongue was hanging loose, and I had the hardest time not laughing.
On our way to a café, I said to Richard, “You love me.” He said, “Not as much as you think I do.” I was silent as we neared a grove of palms, and shadows crossed the path. I said, “I wish you would take that back.” He said, “What?” His hair was spiking up and catching the falling light. I repeated what he had said, and he said, “I don’t know how you can take back something like that.” I said, “It hurt my feelings and I would like you to say you didn’t mean it, even if you did.” He said, “I was joking. It was a joke. I don’t know how much you think I love you. How could I know something like that?” But I thought he did know. On our return from the café, he said, “I’m sorry I said that. I don’t know why I did.” I said, “Thank-you,” and the world grew a little flatter, duller.
Where are you? I need to tell you something. It’s very important. Call me as soon as you get this message. I want to give you money. As soon as I get out of here I will. But that’s not what I want to tell you. I’m afraid I’ll forget. They talk about neural pathways. What are neural pathways? They say I can relearn things. I don’t know what I used to know. How could I know something like that? Are you in this country?
I was in the backyard, trimming the mulberry bush, and as I leaned over, two starlings pecked my butt. I shouted, “Stop it.” What did they want? It was my garden, my bush. At the time, I was living with a man who disparaged my mind. He had disparaged my mind when we married, and maybe that was why he had proposed. Why I said yes is a question I am pondering. I don’t mind my father’s decline. The ill temper has fallen out of him. He did not recover from exile, and you cannot trust a person in a state of deprivation. We used to be afraid to cross him. Now we slide him around the chess board. My mother knows a foolproof form of murder. You place a bowl of dry ice in the room of a sleeping person. The dry ice sucks out the oxygen from the air, and no one can determine the cause of death. In the backyard, as I looked closer at the bush, I saw baby birds in a nest. The starlings were a mother and father, and I realized it was not my garden and not my bush. I felt I could let go of my house. I could leave my husband.
With every mile Johnny drives, Lester Cronin is closer to dead. Nobody knows this yet but me. Nobody ever talks about what happened to Grandpa Eddie anymore, like the whole family just forgot all about it. But I never will. The last four years, my whole time in the Army, I’ve been planning and working toward revenge, waiting for the chance to set things right. Once I finish off Lester, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill—move on and live a respectable life. I’m just coming home to take care of business first.
Officially I’m on active duty until September, but I had enough leave time left to out-process two months early. Dad and Johnny picked me up at Detroit Metro in Johnny’s Delta 88. We get the first view of the Mackinac bridge coming up from I-75 and the sky stretches out around the ivory suspension arches. The blue of the lakes blends together with the blue of the sky, reaching up toward the clouds. Our windows are down and the damp, dense air tastes cool and fresh, not like the thick Georgia heat I just left.
Dad sits in the middle of the backseat, crowded in by Johnny’s blue sweatpants, duffel bags and two pairs of basketball shoes. Johnny got a scholarship to play at Hillsdale but he spends the summer at home, up north with the rest of the family. There’s only three beers left in the case of Busch that Dad bought at the Shell station in Pontiac. He cracks one for himself and passes another up to me.
“Bet you’d like one of these, eh Johnny?”
Johnny jerks the wheel just hard enough to wet Dad’s t-shirt with Busch.
“Colonel Henry ain’t doing so good, Buck,” Dad says. “The hard life’s finally catching up with him. Walks with a cane now.”
“What’s he, ninety-two?” Johnny asks.
“Ninety-four in November,” Dad says.
“Might still have a good run left in him,” I say.
“Looks rough since the last time you seen him, Buck,” Dad says. “Something in his eyes, like the fight just ain’t there.”
“I’ll never count Henry down ‘til he’s out for good,” I say.
“Your Grandma Clio’s doing great, though,” he says. “Women get the better end.”
Grandma Clio’s a good thirty years younger than Henry and she had a rough time keeping up with him until a few years ago.
I didn’t see Grandma Clio or Henry last year when I came up for Christmas. Spent Christmas Eve with Grandma Gloria. The old two-story farm house looked more faded and beat-up than I remembered. The white outside walls are stained with time and weather and the barn is in even worse shape—a cold wind blowing down from Ontario would take it down. It was good to see family but it’s not the same as it used to be. Dad’s side used to be close, now everybody’s doing their own thing. Cousin Gwen spent Christmas Eve with her boyfriend’s family, something nobody would’ve done when Grandpa was alive. After Grandma downed her fifth shot of Kessler’s she told Aunt Alexa that Gwen could forget about spending next Christmas Eve with us.
There’s not much room in the old house anyway, with all the new grandkids running around. It’s a big enough house for a regular family, but not for us Metzgers. It gets really loud with all the little shits running around with jingle bells and crying to open their presents. I had to step outside every ten minutes or so just to clear my head. Right before dinner, Dad, Uncle Karl, and I all sat out on the porch a good half hour in sixteen degrees and wind. We passed around the Seagram’s and chopped beef ’til they called us in for dinner at ten. Uncle Karl couldn’t hardly walk by then and the raw beef and cracker crumbs were frozen to his moustache. Aunt Julie was so embarrassed that she grabbed him by the ear and drug him into the back room. Later on, Karl kept telling me, “See what happens when you get married? Don’t do it, Buck.” He must’ve said it about twelve times and Aunt Julie kept giving him a look like he murdered her sister or something. I bet Karl got it good back home. Sure as hell didn’t get laid.
We’re still a half hour from the house but I can taste the cedars and the evergreens, the fresh Lake Huron water. Down below Johnny’s side of the bridge is Fort Michilimackinac and on my side the public access beach; at least a hundred people are running around with coolers, beach balls and beer. There’s sailboats and freight ships under the bridge where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan and the ferries spray white foam from their engines on route to Mackinac Island.
“Ever wonder why Mackinaw is spelled with a “W” in Mackinaw City and every time you see Mackinac on the other side of the bridge, it’s spelled with a ‘C’?”
“It’s so the Buckeyes, Fudgies, and Trolls learn how to say it right ‘fore they cross the bridge,” says Dad.
I’ve been a lot of places in the last four years and there’s nothing so clean, nothing so green and fresh as the U.P. shoreline. In some towns around here, like ours, they got no-franchise laws. It keeps everything like it was in the old days, but there’s not many new jobs and no new business. When I was a kid, places like St. Ignace seemed big, but across the bridge all we’ll see is a town smothered in spruce and birch, no city sprawl, just small blue or white houses scattered in the dark green hills.
“See that cement support there,” says Dad. “There’s a body in there. Under the tower. Mason fell in when they were pouring cement. Nothing they could do but keep on pouring. My old man worked with a guy, Steve Pitt. He seen it happen.”
Dad’s been moonlighting—working construction and at the loading docks again. There’s been steady work there for a few years now. When me and Johnny were kids, he used to do a lot of odd jobs on the side. For a couple years, he worked the woods steady. He’d pay Johnny and me five dollars each to go with him and trim the limbs off the big trees with a bow saw and stack the wood. One summer he was working out by Bear Creek. Johnny and I would bring our poles and flies and go after trout when we finished the work. A couple times, Dad’s chainsaw dulled and he set it down and joined us at the creek. Mom always said you could never shut him up before he got drafted, but that’s the first time he really started talking to us.
“It’s your first day of freedom. We should keep this buzz going. Hit the Skunk House or the Channel Marker. It’s still happy hour.”
“Maybe we should get back and see everybody,” I tell him.
“Your Mom’s working ‘til late and your brother Tommy’s fishing with your uncle Karl. You’ll see everybody else soon enough. Plenty of time.”
“We should go to the casino,” says Johnny.
“How you gonna get in?” Dad asks. “You ain’t twenty-one yet.”
“What casino?” I ask.
“I got it covered,” Johnny says.
“There’s casinos up here now. At the reservations.” Dad grabs Johnny by the sweatshirt sleeve. “Where’d you get a fake ID you little son of a bitch?” Dad lifts his hand to cuff him but he slaps his own knee and starts to laugh. “Just like your old man.”
We take the scenic route through St. Ignace, downtown, past the bus stop where I left for the Army almost four years ago. We stop at the IGA for a twelve pack and sandwiches.
“Just enough to get us there,” says Dad. “They got free drinks in the casino.” He turns to Johnny. “Made it past the bridge—guess you can have a couple now.”
Johnny cracks his second Busch by the time we pass the exit for home. He keeps the Oldsmobile on a straight course north to the Sault.
When I was nineteen, we did a training mission out in Death Valley, at the NTC. It was my second trip out there. First time we flew, the second time we came back on busses. We stopped in Vegas for a few hours and most of the guys hit the casinos or the whorehouses. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t get into the casinos, but there were slot machines everywhere. I played some at a McDonalds and a couple in a gas station. Sergeant Sullivan said it wasn’t a problem unless I won a big jackpot. Then I’d need somebody to claim it for me. If that happened, he said we’d split it. I lost my last twenty-five bucks, except for a quarter. I bet that last quarter and won back five bucks. When the busses lined up to leave for Georgia, Sergeant Morgan didn’t make it back to the convoy in time. They said he was with some red-haired midget prostitute. Next time we saw him he was Private Morgan.
The Sault casino is darker than the ones in Vegas, but there’s enough glass and bright lights to make it glow purple in the night sky. The hotel that’s connected is bigger than any I’ve seen in this city, even though it’s half the size of the smaller Vegas casino hotels. The electric beams around the lower section light the outer doors like gold.
“Who’s feeling the luck tonight?” Dad asks.
“I’m gonna tell you guys something, but don’t get pissed,” says Johnny.
He shows us the fake ID and it’s my real drivers license that I thought I lost two summers ago when we were swimming out at Detour State Park.
“You little cocksucker.” I grab his collar and Dad grabs my arm.
“What’s done’s done,” he says. “Johnny, you’re gonna sit your ass in the car a good hour, then you try to get in. You get arrested, we ain’t bailing you out till we got our fill of free drinks, got it—dumbass.”
The casino is bigger inside than I thought it would be. Except for the cigarette smoke, it smells clean and new, like cedar and carpet shampoo. The floor is red, gold, flat and hard. The entry looks like the fancy hotels where we had our battalion Christmas parties. Instead of dress blues there’s workers all around in their white shirts and dark red bowties. Most the gamblers wear t-shirts, ball caps, jeans and flannels. The security guard stares at my ID and looks back at my face a few times before he lets us in. Johnny might have a problem when he tries to get in. There’s animal mounts all around the front area and a statue of a Chippewa warrior next to some steel-framed display cases with old black and white pictures of Ojibwa Indians fishing the St. Mary’s. Besides that, it’s not much different than the Vegas casinos. What I saw of them from the lobbies.
“Let’s hit the blackjack table,” Dad says. “Don’t tell the old lady, but I lost my overtime check on those quarter slots last week. Slot machines are for suckers. Least with blackjack you got a fighting chance.”
Soon as we sit down, there’s Johnny beside us at the blackjack table.
“Told you to wait a while,” says Dad.
“It’s cool. Heather works here. Saw her coming in for her shift and we walked in together from a side door. Lend me a couple twenties. I’ll double it in an hour.”
“I’ll give you twenty. Only got forty here. Need to hit the ATM.”
Dad and I both change twenty and bet the two dollar minimum. Johnny goes straight to a dollar machine. It’s not long before Dad’s down to his last four bucks. He gets a pair of sevens and the dealer’s showing a four.
“Split ’em,” he says. He draws fours on both. “I need to double down on these. Johnny, give me back my twenty, you motherfucker,” he yells out toward the dollar slots. Johnny can’t hear him through the Bob Seger cranking from the lounge speakers and the ringing of the machines.
“Sir, we’re gonna need you to calm down,” says the dealer. He waves in the security guard.
“What you need, four bucks? Here.” I slide the tokens toward him.
“Sir, there’s no exchange of tokens at the table. This is your warning.”
Dad cracks his knuckles. “I see how it is. You don’t want me to double down. Just hit ’em you little prick.”
A fat security guard with greasy hair taps Dad on the shoulder. “You’re cut off sir. Any more language like that and we’re gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Dad draws a jack and an eight. The dealer busts. “You motherfucker,” Dad says. “I should’ve won double.”
The guard grabs Dad’s shirt collar and jerks him out of his chair. Three more security guards come running over. Dad’s chair falls to the floor and his beer pours out all over the felt.
“Look what you done,” says a second guard, this one female. “Get his ass out of here before I call the cops.”
“He didn’t do shit. It was your boy here,” I tell her.
“You need to leave too,” she tells me.
“What did I do?” She doesn’t answer. I look at the dealer and he just he looks away. “You can’t do this—it’s not right,” I say.
“Are you gonna leave the premises or do we need to escort you out?”
“Check the cameras,” I say. The dealer and the guards ignore me.
I grab what’s left of my tokens and join Dad in the parking lot. Johnny’s nowhere around. The two guards are still walking back to the door.
“I’ll be seeing you around, you fat bitch,” I tell the fat one. He reaches for his club but the other guard stops him.
“And I’ll be looking for you,” he tells me. His body starts to shake but he’s not afraid. Wants to prove something here and now.
“It’s not worth it,” says the female guard. “They’re not worth it.”
One night, down in Columbus, Georgia, a couple fat-fuck bouncers like this guy kicked my friend Doug out of Ernie’s Roadhouse. Opened the door with Doug’s head. Me, Roberts, Morgan, Diaz and Rizzoli waited till they closed up and then we followed one of them to his apartment. We put his bald head through the window of his own Camaro. His scalp was hamburger by the time the glass cracked and shattered. He curled up on the sidewalk like a baby and just started crying.
When all the apartment lights started coming on, I thought we’d be busted for sure but we squealed out in Rizzoli’s truck just when somebody opened the door and started yelling at us. My chest got real tight and I had a hard time breathing. My hand was cut and bleeding from the window glass. On the way back to Fort Benning, we passed a state trooper and I thought for sure we’d get pulled over. Somebody must’ve seen the truck and the plates. By the time we got back, my buzz was gone and I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t slept right since. The bouncer had it coming. I never felt bad about what we did. It’s just scary to think how easy it is for somebody to come after you when you don’t expect it.
That’s how it is too, like that kid in Bosnia, Samson. He was alert to everything in the field, but he didn’t see it coming when that fuel truck ran him over. A few feet here or there, could’ve been any one of our sleeping bags. There’s just too much shit like that to think about. Most the time, I have to drink myself to sleep if I can sleep at all. Then I wake up sudden like the time the blue Kevlar fell from the ammo shelf in that Bradley, right on my forehead and damned near knocked me unconscious. I’m shaking good now, and breathing heavy, but it’s not fear—more like adrenaline.
Dad and I wait by the car for a good half hour but Johnny never comes out.
“Let’s get a drink,” Dad says.
There’s still a mismatched seven pack of Busch and Old Milwaukee in the backseat of Johnny’s car but we don’t have the keys. We walk out to the gas station across the road from the parking lot. Dad wants Kessler’s but they don’t sell liquor.
“Let’s go into town and get a pint,” he says. “We ain’t got nothing better to do.”
It’s at least a couple miles to downtown, but we head out into the dark down Shunk Road.
“Your Ma gets home in an hour,” Dad tells me. “Gonna be pissed we’re not there yet.”
“Maybe the casino wasn’t such a good idea,” I tell him. “Johnny might be in there all night. What’s that on your arm?” It’s the first I notice of the blood on his sleeve. It looks purple on his faded red t-shirt.
“Must’ve happened when that fat fuck pushed me out the door. He’s lucky I’m so drunk or I would’ve kicked his ass.”
“We could give him some payback.”
“When we get back to the casino parking lot, we’ll stake out the place, figure out what car is his. Then we . . .”
“I ain’t sitting around all night trying to find his car. Loser like that ain’t worth that kind of payback. Should’ve knocked his ass out in the parking lot. That’s what he deserves.”
It’s not too long before we come across a party store. There’s no houses around, just the flashing neon sign and a flood light in front of a garage door. Looks like someone just turned an old house into a store. The purple-green light from a bug zapper shines over the rotted screen door entrance.
“Evening, gentlemen,” says a white-haired lady with brown oval frames. She’s only about five foot two but must weigh close to two hundred pounds.
“Hey there,” says the old man. “Don’t suppose you got a pint of Kessler’s for me?”
“It’s Saturday night. Sold out the pints but I got a fifth if that’ll do you.”
Dad grabs a brown paper bag of venison jerky and a box of Swishers. The lady puts it all in a bigger brown bag with the fifth. Dad snags his red t-shirt on the screen door latch. It rips a good size hole before the door springs back against the frame. The sound echoes like a rifle shot over the field and the neon sign shakes above us.
We finish off more than half the Kessler’s by the time we make it to the St. Mary’s river, ducking into alleys and side streets along the way for shots. Somehow we end up on Portage between the Edison plant and the country club.
“We should probably head back and find Johnny,” I say.
“Let’s take a break here. Just for five minutes,” Dad says. He starts walking toward a bench when a blue Chevy Silverado pulls up.
“William, is that really you?”
Most people who know me call me Buck. A handful of friends call me Billy or Billy Buck. Only people who ever called me William were Great Grandma Aideen, Mrs. Gurov and Stacey Larson. I’m a couple years older than Stacey, but we used to hang out. Met her at a baseball game about ten years ago. Her brother Ben was the catcher on my team, little league through high school, ever since they moved here from Marquette.
“What are you doing out here, William?”
“Came with Johnny. He’s still at the casino. The old man and I got tired of blackjack so we took a walk. What are you doing?”
“Dinner at the club. They asked me to play in a quintet. Hey, you guys want a ride somewhere?”
“Which way you headed?”
“Just on my way home. Kind of hungry though. Want to grab some food?”
“Alright.” Dad’s slouched over the park bench. I help him to the truck.
“Is he okay? You guys had a few,” Stacey says when she gets a good whiff.
“It’s those free drinks at the casino,” Dad says.
Mom must be back from work by now. She’ll be pissed off for sure that we’re not home, but we can’t do much about it since Johnny’s our ride. More than anybody, Mom was there for me while I was on active duty, sending me letters and taking care of my business back home. Last time I talked to her, it was from a phone booth in Columbus. The whole time I was riled up, trying to handle the idea of going back to civilian life. She was trying to calm me down with all her logic, but I just got more frustrated. She put up with me until I mentioned getting payback for Grandpa Eddie, then she told me I was acting just like him and Lester Cronin so I hung up. When we get home, I’ll try to explain everything—that it wasn’t her, just the stress. Then I’ll never mention what I’m thinking again. People don’t seem to like the truth much, especially mothers.
Stacey wanted to eat at the Palace but it was too full, so we decided to go across the street to Frank’s Diner. Dad’s passed out in the truck. “Just let me rest a couple minutes,” he told us three times. “Then I’ll come in for a burger.” He’s done for the night.
We cross the street by Maloney’s and turn left toward Frank’s. There’s a group of young stoners in flannels and black sock caps. Must be college guys, but they’re trying to act gangster. They eye up Stacey when we walk past. The one with the nose piercing gives me a bad look. I feel their stares from behind us until we get to the glass door of the diner. It’s hot inside. Steam rolls out from the kitchen. A table of old men laugh over the clanking pots and pans and the clinks of real glass cups. There’s a yellow wet floor sign just past the door mat and our shoes stick to the stained white tile when we walk up to the hostess. There’s lard and Clorox in the air and I taste the damp of summer heat and wet air from the fan mixed together while a brunette in a short black dress walks us to a booth.
“Ever eat here before?” Stacey asks me. She sniffs in the greasy air and cringes.
“All the time before I left. Food’s great here.”
“Just be the two of you,” the hostess says. She’s cute but has a pudgy face and braces that make her look younger when she smiles. Her brown hair is tucked into a dark hair net and her face is spotted with acne.
“Your Dad okay out there? I feel bad,” Stacey says.
“That’s what you get when you pass out early in my family.”
“He looked really tired. Didn’t get much sleep?”
The waitress sets down two glasses of ice water and two plastic-covered menus.
“They got up early to pick me up at Detroit,” I tell her. Truth is, it’s the Kessler’s that knocked him out. I’m tired as hell too, but I can’t sleep lately. Last three days I slept one hour.
“What’ll you have?” the waitress is blonde. She’s about Mom’s age and looks familiar. With our family you never know.
“I’ll have the Fat Frankie,” I say. Stacey squints at me.
“Great choice,” says the waitress.
“Sounds real healthy,” Stacey says, “but I’ll have the roasted turkey, I guess.”
“Nothing wrong with a Fat Frankie,” I tell her when the waitress is gone.
“So you just got back today,” Stacey says. “How does it feel to be a free man again?”
Her eyes are hungry and locked into mine but they’re glossier than I noticed ‘til now. She must’ve had a few drinks at the club or maybe toked it up with the other musicians. I kissed Stacey at a party in high school and she even wrote me a few letters when I was gone, but not much ever came of it. Something will come out of this situation, though, the way she’s looking at me.
“I saw Blake Braune the other day,” she tells me. “Asked me if I knew how you were doing. I didn’t realize you’d be getting out so soon.”
“Me either,” I tell her. “I took all the leave time I had left so I could get back in time for the fall semester. How’s Blake? Only seen him once in the last four years.”
Most people think Blake and I are close since we played on the same teams together, hung out with the same crowd. Truth is, I haven’t been thinking much about him or the old crowd for the last couple of years. While I was gone, the platoon brothers were my family.
“I don’t see him much, she says. Seems fine. Last week I had to pick up a hammer for my Dad at Cronin’s hardware and I ran into him and Jason.”
“That place is still open. I was kind of hoping they burned it down by now.” She gives me a funny look and I realize she doesn’t know the rumors about Lester Cronin killing Grandpa Eddie. She doesn’t know how much I hate old man Cronin so she must think I’m crazy. The name Cronin makes all the hair on my body stand up and I feel a tingling over my scalp. We don’t say a word until the waitress comes back with our plates. Stacey might still be looking at me the same way, but I can’t focus on her eyes. Faraway places and people and times I’ll never see again flash through my mind. Sitting down at the booth made my buzz more intense and the room starts to spin around us.
“Here’s your dinner,” says the waitress. “You want light mayo for that turkey?”
“How about mustard?” Stacey asks.
The waitress nods. “Be right back with that. Enjoy.”
Stacey stares down my Fat Frankie and fake gags before she smiles at me.
“Hey, this is good shit,” I tell her. “Want to try it?”
“I don’t eat red meat,” she says.
“Your loss. Don’t tell me you don’t like a good burger once in a while.”
“When I was a kid. Now it just makes me sick to think about it. Red meat comes from smart animals. Chickens and turkeys don’t feel as much pain, right?”
It’s the kind of bullshit we tell ourselves to justify our stupid theories about life. It’s the kind of lie we tell to sleep better at night. Most people don’t bother calling other people’s bullshit for a lot of reasons. I’d be stupid to call bullshit when a beautiful girl like Stacey looks at me the way she’s looking at me now, so what I tell her is, “You might be right.”
Her lips curl. I feel her leg brush mine under the table. She reaches out to touch my arm and it calms me as much as I can calm. There’s a loud noise from the kitchen, like the chop of an axe or the sound of a mortar fragment on metal. I jump up from the booth enough to bang my right knee on the wood. First she looks at me, scared, then we both laugh like it’s some kind of joke. I feel the cold in my chest and sweat over my whole body while I nod and watch those beautiful red lips move.
That Janet Williams hadn’t liked children all that much she blamed on the boy’s mother. Children annoyed her, frankly—all that incessant energy, the enthusiasm for obnoxious music and inedible food, their general and relentless neediness. When pressed, however, she would admit there was something special about this one, this Danny, her five-year-old grandson. On that day—that god-awful day—he’d mostly amused himself, trying out all of the chairs in the living room, plopping himself on the new loveseat and scootching his little bottom around, testing it for comfort, twisting his face around like a bad actor portraying a food critic. Goldilocks with nappy hair.
“There’s not a thing wrong with that sofa,” she’d admonished him as the phone rang. He’d blown a quiet raspberry to demonstrate his immunity to her goading.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, boy.”
The call had been from Keisha, the second of the day from her, her voice reminding Janet of some other time, although just then she had been unable to put her finger on when that might have been.
“Mama,” her daughter had sighed—a happy sigh. “Mama, His will be done, has been done. All praises, all praises.”
“None of your foolishness tonight,” had been Janet’s response. That girl, her sanctimonious ravings. Who needed it? She never knew what it might be with her daughter, had never known. The new thermostat didn’t work. Cryptic passages in obscure books of the Bible needed interpretation RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Mama, please how do I crisp these collars? He wants them just so, like all the deacons have. You know how Jerrold gets.
Me, me, me, me, me.
“What do you want, Keisha?”
“I’ve sent them across, Mama. My angels. Sent them across to Him.”
The boy in Janet’s house made sputtering noises and blew spit bubbles. Maybe this was normal for boys. She reminded her daughter that another of her angels happened to be right here in her face, right this very minute thank you very much, and that all day long he had been giving her the fish eye and various other exotic expressions.
“Damn boy’s about to eat me out of house and home,” she told her. Danny mugged shoveling handfuls of food in his mouth. Janet tossed him another pack of Skittles, which he caught with his teeth. No lie! He tore the packet open and dumped what looked like half into his mouth. You’ll choke, she mouthed—wondered if that sounded less like worry and more like a wish.
Through the phone she heard something that might have been singing, but it was hard to tell. When Keisha had been the age of her son, she “sang” entire operas to herself, part Diana Ross, part screaming banshee. Janet heard something about tempests raging and peace, the phone line flattening all of it to a sad monotone.
Keisha’s earlier call, before noon, Janet remembered. Same phone, here on this counter, beside it, a to-do list—things to be accomplished before the trip to Rend Lake with Wes. She’d warned this girl (hadn’t she?) that she had no time for mess, that a weekend away with her (potential) new stepfather was more important than anything that she, her sorry-ass husband or any of their crumbsnatchers had cooked up. It would have been the weekend that Janet closed the deal, and on the list had been the tools of her trade: the makings for a knockout supper, fine champagne, a sexy CD. Wes enjoyed a soprano sax.
What became of that list? That boy had better not be over there scribbling on it.
Now, across the wire, her daughter sang something about being here and how because of that the rest of us need not worry.
“Keisha,” Janet prompted.
“We are bathed in His glory,” came the reply.
Enough! Honestly these people and their drama. What hope did Janet have but to snag this man (any man!) and convince him to move as far away from this crew as they could find. Tasmania. Tuvalu. Some place with bad phone service.
“Wes and I want to be on the road early, so I need to go to bed. Is one of you coming to get this child? Or I could send him in a cab.”
I’ll bill you.
Danny hummed and sang and pretended to draw. Mostly he looked around the room at nothing in particular, a million miles away, no doubt. Couldn’t be more like his mama. Sometimes.
For what it’s worth his mama had been lucid during the earlier call.
I need you to pick Daniel up after kindergarten. Keisha, classic demand mode—damn anyone else’s needs. Another childhood trait, it had been. Get me a new dress for school. Eggs for breakfast, and they better not be runny.
Please, Janet would remind her. Puh-leeze. Again and again and again, she’d remind her, and Keisha would always look at her as if she had been speaking another language.
“They’re like angels, Mama. Wrapped in white, that He may receive them.”
Miriam, Sarah, and baby Hosea—and they had been angels, too. Bundles of brown beauty, perched on their parents’ laps in some Sears photo studio, dressed to the nines, posed in front of a neutral backdrop, muted earth tone smears. Big brother, bigheaded Danny, beaming, down on his knees, in front.
“Keisha?” Janet insisted. The girl just hadn’t sounded right, but when had she ever, really. “What’s the matter, Baby? Talk to mother.”
Just then Janet remembered what the air-thin whispers put her in mind of. Years ago (time passed so quickly!) she had dropped Keisha off at some teenage friend’s house. (And who knew what that girl’s name could have been. Since she had married Jerrold Davis and joined New Purpose she had cut off her friends from “the world.”) Keisha had called from the party, pointedly whispering into the receiver. “Mother, they’re doing things here.” “Things?” Janet had prompted, and in reply all Keisha had said was, “You know. Things.” Her voice had been full of both fascination and horror. The rest of the call had been mostly breathing and giggling from Keisha’s end. “Do you want me to pick you up?” “Are (whatever her name had been)’s parents there?” More giggling and wheezing. “I can be there in five minutes. Keisha?”
“Talk to me, Baby.” She’d said it back then, and she’d said it on the terrible day, too.
“It’s Jerrold, Mama. He’s so heavy. I must prepare him to be received.”
“Keisha? OK, sweetie, mother’s coming right over. I’ll get the boy together and . . .”
“Uh-uh. Don’t bring that boy over here. Don’t.”
“You heard me, Mama. Do not bring that boy over here.”
“All right, Baby. It’s all right. Mother will do whatever you need. Just talk to me. Keisha?”
Some nasal humming. (Could that have been a sob?)
“There’s someone at the door, Mama. The deacon. I called him.”
“Keisha, don’t hang up. I’ll wait. Don’t hang up.”
“Blessings, Mama, on you and your son.”
Keisha? Baby? Keisha.
The phone clicked off.
They waited and the boy spun on the barstool. What a compellingly odd person he was—even back then he had been so. Butterscotch-colored with a large blocky head that he would grow into when he inherited his father’s good looks—which he would. He’d grow into the strangeness, too. He’d use it to attract people, to endear them.
On that night he had hummed and he’d spun and he’d hummed. Hadn’t he been listening to her conversation? Hearing his mother’s name called in alarm by her mother: Wouldn’t a normal child know to be alarmed?
She paced. Now and again she’d look down and there he’d be, right up next to her, head tilted back like a turkey in the rain, ear-to-ear insipid smile like a primitive cartoon.
Then again it had been a good thing, after all. Certainly on some days oblivion is a form of grace.
Hadn’t she herself packed it all away since that night? Press clippings. Memorial cards. A tiny teddy bear she’d plucked from atop the mountain in front of his family home, black button eyes, its bow of white ribbon crumpled and stained with blood-brown chocolate.
Words lingered: Premeditation. Cyanide. Insanity.
Images, too. Three tiny coffins (So small! Who imagined such things?) arrayed around a large one. Cameras—dozens upon dozens—aimed at her and at the boy. She’d layered a shawl across his face.
More than anything: the blank-eyed bliss on her daughter’s face. Try forgetting that.
When the doorbell rang, it, as expected, had not been her daughter.
“Ms. Williams? Ms. Janet Williams?” A policeman. That deacon, the young one, from their church.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid . . .”
She’d put her hand up—the universal sign for just-one-damn-minute. They reeled back, as if her fingers contained lightning bolts.
“Danny. Daniel!” Sometimes he didn’t seem to know his own name. Keisha had that, too: selective deafness. The boy stopped his spinning and humming and dropped from his most recent stool, staggering like a drunk, overcome by the sudden motion of the room. When the spinning stopped he seemed to recognize the deacon and made to rush for the door.
Get him out of here. That had been her instinct. Go take a bath. Fish through the smutty books in my underwear drawer. Find my purse and steal me blind. Just get the hell away from here. Now.
She held up the same hand that had stopped the officer to stop the boy in his tracks. She concocted some errand—some picture to be torn from Essence.
“Leave the magazine on the bed when you’re through.”
The boy had called out something to the deacon, but on her life she cannot remember what he had said. He knew something was up (don’t they always) but considered the look on her face and decided to comply. She had set her jaw and affected the slightest of squints; it was the face she used on recalcitrant employees at the phone company. Foolproof, dependably so.
“That’s a good boy,” she encouraged. God, how she hated easy compliance. They’d work on that, the two of them would.
She turned and faced the men.
What she remembers most from that night was feeling sorry for them. What an awful thing, what a grim business: the giving of bad news. The officer had been young—perhaps barely out of the academy. Peach-fuzzy, he was. Blond, chunky build, ex-military—his haircut announced that.
The other man, the deacon, she had seen glowering self-importantly next to the pastor of New Purpose. A friend of Jerrold’s, she remembered, but she couldn’t retrieve a name. Something Germanic perhaps. Barely out of his teens, clean as a whistle and self-righteous as a snake. Good Lord, could there be anything more smug than a handsome young man who thought he had God’s ear. That night he had a bruised quality about him, like someone off an all-night flight from Tokyo.
Instead of sadness she saw fear in their eyes; and she was the cause of that fear, she knew. What, after all, would she do when they told her what Keisha had done?
As it turned out, not much. Hang her head. Accept a hug from the boy deacon. Note the probable next steps: autopsy, funeral arrangements, jurisprudence for her daughter. Lots and lots of media, they warned, and she agreed that would be the hard part.
But, really, until they spoke their truth, these men had no idea how she might respond. None. And for a moment—just for a moment—she savored her power, the sheer deliciousness of it. How often in life did you have a man—two men—at your absolute disposal? What wouldn’t a man do for you in a moment like this—and she could see in their eyes that the longer she held them off, the harder it pained. Once, maybe twice in her life she’d had this power. Sex with her now long-dead husband. He’d be helpless—she’d stun him, he’d buy her the moon. And then there was that nasty piece of work down at the office—a lineman—up to his whiskers in gambling debt, rude and evil, him sniveling in a chair in her office, his fate in her hands. Beg me, she’d thought to herself. Beg me and maybe I’ll save your worthless behind from the unemployment line. She’d stared the bastard down while he cried like a little girl—the same way Keisha would always do, in fact—swearing, as would Keisha, off his bad behavior, promising to be good forever. She had reared up, slightly, up over the worm. Who cowered. She’d had to dispose of that chair (one indiscernibly shorter than her own that she’d kept across from her desk—for the little people). He’d peed his pants a little, ruined the damn thing.
The eyes of the frightened: They were peerless. In front of her, these two men: Waiting for my fangs, boys? You! Blondie: in that kitchen and clean up the mess my grandson left on the counter. Preacher boy! Yes, you, hot stuff: Up on that roof and clean those leaves from the gutter. In the bedroom when you finish, the both of you. I’ll be waiting—and I’d better not be disappointed.
On occasion over the years—rarely—she revisited this moment in the doorway. She’d entertained the identical pedestrian fantasies that all her fellow humans did: She’d frozen time right there. Wouldn’t life be . . .
Except Janet, good determinist that she was, could never finish that sentence. Janet had been nine when she had settled on the stoicism that would shape her entire life, and she had told her mother that her path in life contained no choices. Her proof had been the fact that all of the things that had happened to her had in fact happened to her. The other choices had not. Her mother—who had as much as made a religion out of resolute common sense—had ordered Janet to stop talking nonsense. Frequently and never with anything remotely resembling tolerance she would cut off Janet’s little pseudo-philosophical ramblings at the nub, handing her a clean dishtowel and ordering her to get on with the matter at hand—another philosophy that had always served Janet well. So be it, then. She’d put these men off as long as a person decently ought to.
Like the big girl she’d always demanded her own crazy-ass daughter be, Janet squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and nodded to the men, signaling that it was time for them to take their best shot.
Cecelia stole it. It was my Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake recipe and she walked away with the win. I normally wouldn’t make such a fuss. I’m not one to complain or point fingers. But in this case, I can’t keep quiet. I just can’t shut my big mouth. That blue ribbon means my winning recipe is going to the Minnesota State Fair, and going without me. That ribbon, and all that came with it, should have been mine and mine alone.
Let me tell you a thing or two about Cecelia Bentz. She was my best friend for twenty-two years so I think I can speak freely. Cecelia Bentz is no baker. She can cook a very nice Thanksgiving dinner—turkey, potatoes, the whole nine yards. Sure, she can cook, but she cannot bake. Cecelia uses all-purpose flour for almost everything and pre-made mixes for everything else. Once I began to bake, I asked her kindly to make the sides. Leave the desserts to me, dear. And up until one week ago, she did.
What makes her deceit so hard to swallow is that Cecelia was my only rock in the whole world when Roger died this winter. She was at our home when his heart gave out, and lucky, too, because I was away for a few hours, bargain shopping at the outlet mall. Later in the hospital, when his heart beat fast, trying to recover, she stayed right by my side, right by his bed, the whole time. She took the rotating shift at night to let me sleep. When I needed black coffee from the cafeteria or a hot shower at home, she stayed with Roger until I returned, never leaving him alone, not for one minute. She was such a true, kind friend.
“He likes it when you hold his hand,” she said and took his left, smoothing the frail skin with her fingers.
“He does,” I said. On my side of the bed, an IV pierced the top of his hand. I rubbed his forearm, slowly smoothing the black hair.
When it was time, when my Roger passed out of this world and his soul took up communion with the angels in heaven, she sobbed and I sobbed and we held onto each other there in the hospital room.
Cecelia’s the only reason I got through all of that. I’m still getting through.
This whole horrible ordeal with the recipe happened a week ago at the Cyrus County Fair. The fair has been a constant in this part of the state for over one-hundred and twenty-two years. I am proud to say that I have attended thirty-seven of those years and my Roger, thirty-six.
Roger was a man of many passions. In the beginning, he was interested in classic cars. He spent hours with them, admiring long lines of buffed pick-ups and shiny convertibles. I’d often find him under the hood, studying the parts that made them hum. If it wasn’t there, I’d catch him in line, waiting on some kind of sugar. He had an insatiable sweet tooth. I liked the corndogs, myself. But not Roger. He ate funnel cakes and elephant ears and any color of snow cone. He ate roasted almonds and honeyed fruit and miles and miles of pink cotton candy.
A few years after the car shows, Roger took up the banjo and put together a small band. They played on the bandstand, which in those days was more like a houseless porch than a stage. They played for four nights in a row, and it was crowded each and every night. Another year he decided to buy an old junker. He tore the doors off, gave it a spray with cheap green paint, and entered himself into the demolition derby. I was less than pleased, saying Hail Mary’s in the stands while I balanced two babies on my knees, trying to soothe them during the crashes and the cheering. He didn’t win but he didn’t hurt himself either, thank the Lord.
When the kids were older, we took them to the Midway. They twirled in fat strawberries until they were almost sick, then ran over to the dragon trains for a quick bounce up and down along the track. The two were terrified by the ghosts inside the haunted houses, but they walked through them over and over again. The Midway isn’t what it used to be, I’m disappointed to say. After I accepted my red ribbon this year (or I should say, after I was denied the blue), I found myself wandering around the fair in a sort of daze, seeing everything differently. The rides looked worn, used. They had chipped paint and stiff gear shifts. They were all plugged in, with enormous hose-like extension cords, to small electrical boxes throughout the fairgrounds that sat in puddles of mud.
I walked home through the cemetery and stopped to visit Roger’s grave. It was the brightest one in the whole yard, newly planted. There was a small splay of red flowers on the stone, no doubt from a close friend. Roger was loved by everyone, but no one as much as me. I left a snow-cone there that matched the flowers. His favorite flavor—cherry. I walked away before I could see it melt.
I loved the fair but never cared much for rides, so when Roger and the kids were off spending our summer allowance zipping and zapping around the place, I would sit on a straw bale outside the Midway or on an empty bench under the bingo tent, and watch people. That was always my favorite thing. You learn so much about people just by watching them. An otherwise miserly old man will give his granddaughter ten dollars just for a funnel cake and fries. A frazzled mother will finally find peace as her children wait in line after line after line. A young couple will take each other’s hand, but not before looking around to make sure no one else is watching. I could sit and watch for hours. And for many summers, I did just that.
This was all long before I had any idea that the kitchen could be an enjoyable place, one not just for mashing potatoes and washing dishes. I remember the first time I tried to bake a pie, when Roger’s mother came to visit. It was a disaster. A right disaster. Imagine this: mother-in-law and my bawling new baby rushing into the street while the whole kitchen is thick with black smoke. And me, trying to fight it off with a dish rag, burning my eyes out. A wet, sopping mess. I know now that I misread the baking temperature and my pie boiled over. Much over.
Roger didn’t encourage much baking after that, bless his heart. He learned to satisfy that sweet-tooth somewhere else. He came home with a box of doughnuts or a sweet pie or cookies by the bakers dozen.
It wasn’t until about ten or so years ago that I took another swing at it. I wanted a hobby. Roger had yet another one, cross-stitch this time. He sat in the living room, bent over the tiny needle and thread, wearing his reading glasses—the ones that made me smile every time he put them on because they were purple and made him look so young and so handsome. He stitched each little ‘x’ perfectly. He had patience like a saint. I was better with trial and error. I think that’s why, when it came, baking came so naturally.
I began with cookies. These were simple because you could burn a whole batch and still have something more to work with. Fool proof. After mastering cookies, I tried pies again. In the summertime, northern Minnesota overflows with berries. Blackberries are my favorite, and raspberries. The pies went well. And when one boiled over and black smoke started to rise out of the stove, I didn’t panic like I had done when I was younger. I simply asked Roger to please stop sewing and take the batteries out of the fire alarm and open a window.
I made bars, too, the staple of any picnic or potluck. I was quite inventive. Spiced Pumpkin Praline Bars in the fall. Sweet and Sassy Lemon Bars in the summer. Orange Blossom and Lavender-Scented Cheesecakes in the spring. Double-Fudge Devil Brownies in the winter.
People said, Oh Ellen, these date bars are divine, and These lemon drop cookies are better than anything my grandmother ever made, and This angel food cake makes me feel like I’ve died and gone right straight up to heaven. I always smiled and thanked them. It is important to be humble, especially when one knows she has a gift.
At Easter one year, after eating my Christ is Risen Coconut Cake, my Baptist cousin Mindy suggested that I share my God-given talent by entering into a competition. At first, I thought, No, I couldn’t possibly. Then I asked Roger, and he said, Do it. So I did. Roger got sick that spring, but he was still a great sport. He tried eleven different kinds of bars, small portions, of course (careful of his heart), before I settled on the one I would enter. I remember it to this day. Chocolate Potato Chip Jumblers. A fat brownie bottom with a creamy peanut butter middle and chocolate-covered potato chips crunched on top. The judges loved it. I won first place.
I’ve won plenty of blue ribbons since then. Let me make it clear, once again, that this whole thing isn’t about the ribbons or the title. Or the fact that the winning cake this year from the Cyrus County Fair is entered not only into competition at the Minnesota State Fair, but also has the chance to launch the baker onto a segment of a weekday edition of “Morning Brew with Mark and Emiline,” the most popular morning talk show out of Minneapolis. It isn’t about any of the prizes or the prestige. It is about honesty and truthfulness and what is good in the world. It is about being straight and owning up to one’s wrong-doings, one’s lies, one’s deceits. It is about my cake.
Last summer I entered my Sauerkraut Surprise Cake in the competition. I was hesitant at first, but Roger convinced me. His new thing was Pilates and he stretched and curved his spine into a “u” and said, Do it. The sauerkraut is meant to be a novelty, you see, something to tickle the eater’s imagination. You can’t actually taste it. The judges thought it was clever and delicious and gave me a red ribbon, second place. Adeline Sumner won the blue with the same German Chocolate Cake she had entered for the last five years. I heard someone say she won first because she had severe pneumonia and wouldn’t last through the winter (which she didn’t) but I paid no mind to those rumors, nor did I spread them along. I do not approve of gossip—it’s just secrets spread around and around in mean little circles.
This year, though, I was sure I’d found it. The winning recipe, the perfect dessert. Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Pound Cake. Rich. Delicious. Baked to perfection. An easy win. Had it not been for Cecelia’s stolen dessert, my cake would have shown supreme.
The Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake was one I tried on Roger a year ago. He loved it. I remember watching him take the first bite, licking homemade raspberry jam from the fork. He asked me to make it again the next week. And I did. I made it for one month straight, anything he wanted, then, when he wasn’t feeling well. After that, I didn’t bake it again until the funeral.
The night before Roger’s funeral, the house was full and all asleep with family and friends from out of town. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t spend one more minute lying in my bed alone. So I went to the kitchen. My hands moved as if from memory, pulling the flour and the sugar and the baking soda out of the cupboards, sifting and measuring and cutting cubes of butter. I made that cake from memory alone. And I believe Roger was there, beside me, helping me get it right, just how he liked it. When I drew it out of the oven, golden brown, perfectly risen, I began again. I mixed another batch and then another. I must have pulled three more out of the oven when I was startled. It was Cecelia, in the door of my kitchen. It was 4:15 am.
“You’re already awake,” she said.
“How long have you been there?”
“What are you doing, Ellen?”
I looked around my kitchen.
“It was his favorite,” I said, and then sobbed into the batter.
Cecelia stood firm in the doorway. I kept mixing, and I was crying, too, faster and faster. The fourth cake was overcooking in the oven. I could smell it.
“Stop it,” she said.
Then louder. “Stop it.” Again.
And just like that, he wasn’t there anymore with me, Roger, his spirit. It was as if he had simply gotten up and left out the door into the early morning. I stopped stirring.
“He’s gone,” I said.
Cecelia’s eyes filled. She came out of the doorway and hugged me, so tight, as if I would fall down to the floor if she let me go. When I finally pulled the last cake out of the oven, it was black in the pan.
Cecelia was there for me again, early this summer when I felt the clutter of the house pressing in on me, and I asked her to come over and help me get rid of some things.
“What should I do with his crossword puzzles?” she asked, and handled them gently.
“Don’t you do it, dear? Any patterns you like, just go ahead and grab.”
“His Pilates tapes?”
“Take ‘em if you want, or get rid of them.”
“The pressure cooker?”
“You’re much better with jams and jellies than me, it’s all yours.”
Cecelia made small piles around the room. She worked slowly. I could see she was still upset for me, the way her eyes watered.
She held up his eyeglasses. Those special purple spectacles.
“Those I need,” I said. “Those I’ll keep.”
I held them in my hand for a long time before setting back to work.
“What about the miniature tractor and trailer made of green spray-painted nuts and bolts?” she said.
I snapped my head back over a heaping stack of Sunday papers and cocked an eyebrow. We laughed and laughed together amidst the piles of Roger’s things.
We met last Wednesday for coffee, Cecelia and I, like every Wednesday since we became friends. I was telling her all about my Peanut Butter Swirl Cake when she ran out of coffee filters and walked down to the grocer for more. While she was gone, I decided to make myself useful, folding some laundry and washing up a few dishes. When I was putting away the crystal, I found a pair of glasses sitting in a small bowl in a tall cupboard. I nearly crushed them with the gravy boat. When I took a closer look, I saw that they were Roger’s. The same silly purple frames. I was so happy to find them. I thought they were lost. I had cried for two whole hours on the floor of my bedroom thinking about them being gone.
When Cecelia came home, I told her how I found them bunched in with some dishes, accidently packed away with the canning supplies from earlier that summer. I hugged and thanked her, with a happy tear still in my eye. We didn’t get to have coffee after all that morning. Cecelia didn’t feel well once she got back from the store. I fixed her some tea and filled up a hot water bottle. I tucked Roger’s glasses into a pocket in my purse and went home.
We haven’t spoken about the cake incident. She hasn’t called to apologize. I’m not about to make the first move. I am too upset. Hurt, really. I suppose she’ll say she forgot it wasn’t hers, even though it was written on a card that said, “From the Kitchen of Mrs. Roger Ellroy.” Last time I checked, that was me.
I have spoken with Cecelia twice though, since the fair. Not by choice, but by the good Lord’s will and intervention. We belong to the same prayer chain. The first time she called about a prayer for Mrs. Baker, the diabetic. She tried to get me to say something, explain why it was I hadn’t called, hadn’t accused, hadn’t asked her for an answer.
“What did I do?” Cecelia pleaded over the phone. “Tell me, Ellen! Tell me what I have done?”
I just kept right on with my Hail Mary’s. I prayed extra loudly. The prayer chain is no place for that conversation. The second time she called—when Timothy Niles broke his leg jumping off a wet trampoline—it was much colder. We said our prayers and hung up like we didn’t even know each other, like we had picked up the phone for a wrong number, an unfamiliar voice down a long distance line.
It doesn’t make me happy to say these things, to tell what I know, and say what I’m saying. Cecelia was my friend, my real true best friend. And to me, that means something. I can’t shut up, not this time, can’t allow her to get away with taking something that doesn’t belong to her. I can’t just allow her to parade around as if it were hers, as if I had never been there, behind the whole thing, all along. That recipe was mine. It was mine, you can see that now.