Saturday, May 30, 2015

Returning

He walked along the side of the mountain behind his uncle’s cabin, where he’d spent a cold night shivering on the floor. He’d half expected the old man to still be there just as he was all those years ago, unapologetically broken toothed, waving away as his nephew walked down the long path toward the highway that led to the city. But the cabin stood empty now with only the unblinking eyes of two busted out windows to greet his return.
            It hadn’t occurred to him that his uncle wouldn’t be there, not once in over fifteen years and fifty thousand miles of riding shotgun with red white and blue truckers and old couples offering coffee and the gospel. Not once. His uncle had always been there to greet him as he’d lain on his dorm room bed and walked his way back up the trail, had been waiting as he’d lain on a bare floor. He’d lain on moldy bunkhouse mattresses, and squeaky camp cots, and in grassy ditches and walked his way back to his uncle. But only now that he had walked back for real, he found the old man gone.
            He didn’t know why he’d never made it back before. He’d wanted to. He’d wanted to until his body bled with rot gut whiskey and his lungs oozed constant streams of cigarette smoke. But how could he go back home without his dreams? Those dreams his uncle had tended like they were the seeds that would one day grow to crops to keep them both from starvation? The dreams the old guy’d packed in the rucksack like precious heirlooms and sent him down the road with? He’d lost those dreams. A quick glance in his eyes would have given away how hollow they now were—all that as lost.
It was shame really that had anchored him to the road.
            Somewhere along the way the dreams abandoned him like runaway lovers, and slowly he replaced them with the ghosts of old memories: a cabin on a mountain side, fly fishing with a patient old man, nights playing cards at the kitchen table by the light of a Coleman lantern and the whir of an airtight stove.
            He pulled a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and some papers, then crouched and set them on his lap. He pinched a little tobacco between his fingers and dropped it on a paper, before rolling it into a tight tube and sealing it closed. Surveying the land as he stood, he tucked the pouch away. The sky filtered through the bushes like deep blue berries, as he lit his rollie and started off again, not exactly sure where he was going. Not that he’d ever been sure where he was going. Not the day he walked down the mountainside. Not in coming back.
            After he’d lost his dreams, he’d chased after new ones. But every time he got near the gilding faded to show the facade: a girl, a job, a promising opportunity—none of them the real thing. And then when he’d seen there was nothing of substance behind the shiny lure, he’d run from them. Each and every one.
            He picked his way along a deer trail that snaked through the brush. He could hear the soft footfalls of his uncle just ahead of him. Hear his breath. He squinted his eyes and in the early morning fog, the outline of the old man’s broad shoulders in a red lumberjack coat came into focus.
            Gloria would be crying now, waking to find he hadn’t come back. He should have felt more guilt, but then he figured she should have seen it coming. The truth was, he had always left one foot on the road, had never been able to get it past her door, always knowing that the day would come when both feet would have to stand on the same side. Yesterday was that day. It was kind of a shame that things worked out like this, because she’d been a good woman. It was never that she wasn’t the marrying kind. It was just that when he looked at the back of her head in the dark of the night, it didn’t make him forget the dreams he’d lost.
            He dropped his cigarette into a deep indent made where the hooves of deer and the hands of time had worn through the moss, and snubbed it out with his boot. Uncle, where are you? 
            The wind answered with a rippling of pine boughs and a shaking of birch limbs.
            Why did I come back here?
            The harsh squawk of a raven stood the hair on the back of his neck on end.
            I lost them. I don’t know where they went. Wearily, he settled his weight on a fallen log. I had them, but I lost them. I don’t know where they went.
            Through the curtain of foliage came the whispering reply. They’re here. Bent-backed and marked with the heavy awl of time, the old man stepped out into the light. Well, damn! Been a long time. Didn’t expect much to ever see you again.
            The man rubbed his eyes. Uncle?
            Well who else did you come to see?
            His tongue tied itself in tangles leaving him speechless.
            So where do you think they went?
            I don’t know, the man said lowering his eyes and shaking his head. That’s what I came back to find out.
Sliding over, he made room for his uncle to set his crooked frame down. He took one of his uncle’s weathered hands and held it tightly. It was the type of connection he hadn’t reached for since he was a child, but he needed now. It was too much. Fifteen years of self-imposed emotional solitude had left him so starved out he couldn’t hardly get out of bed most days.
            The old man smiled. Come on, I got something to show you.
Still holding the time tanned hand, he followed silently through the bush.
So, you want to find your dreams? I looked for mine for a long time, too...looked out my window for you to come back here with your fancy degree and fat spoiled kids, and thought maybe I’d get one of those telephones installed and we’d talk on Sundays. Or maybe I’d move into town and play bingo on Wednesday nights and babysit for you and your misses on Saturdays. But…he turned back to face his nephew…you didn’t come back at all. And I got to realizing that morning, that morning when I packed those dreams up in your bag, I packed the wrong ones.  He stared deep into his nephew’s eyes. It was mine. I sent you down the road with mine. And, here I sat with yours. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get filled up with them, you know? Tell me son, you ever get filled up with mine?
            The man shook his head.
            Thought not.
They came to a clearing and the old man stopped.
            I don’t understand. How did I take your dreams away with me?
            Well, it’s like this... His uncle laid down in the tall grass. Beside him a rusty axe blade and grey worn handle protruded from a stump.
            Uncle, are you all right? The man bent and offered him a hand up.
            The old man waived off the help. See, you walked out of here with a rucksack full of wanting a fancy degree and a wife and a big home and all those big notions, and you left behind a life of trapping and fishing and hiking the back trails of this here mountain. And when a man’s carrying the wrong dreams, they can’t never be the right ones. Those wrong dreams, they got to be put to rest. New ones got to grow, the kind meant for the soil of a man’s own heart.
            He shook his head. No, I really wanted to make you proud. I really wanted to do it all for you.
            His uncle let out a deep guttural laugh. Horse shit. You never wanted to leave. I wanted to leave.
            He peered into his uncle’s eyes and the flecks of them became like tiny wood ants, scurrying along the surface. He reached again for one of his uncle’s hands, but it lost substance, crumbling like water logged timber. The old man’s mouth fell silently open and from it sprouted a tiger lily. Ferns grew up between his ribs, and mushrooms from his shoulders.
Desperate to hold on to his uncle, the man brushed aside the tall grass that surrounded the decaying debris of an old tree. Beneath it, the limbs were stripped bare, but for the scattered shreds of rags from a faded lumberjack coat, and the scattered dark patches of mildew freckles against bleached bones.
The man fell to his knees.
            He sat there for a time equal to fifteen years, smoking home rolled cigarettes beside the body of his uncle who had long ago met his end of the road.

When he felt he had no more tears left in him to cry or prayers left to make, he stood again and started back toward the cabin, gathering bits of dry brush along the way.
            He came to the place of his childhood home with its busted out windows, and carried the bundle inside, opened the ancient creaky door of the rusty airtight stove and placed the tinder and branches in its belly. He took his lighter from his pocket and lit the fire.


The End

Monday, May 18, 2015

Candy Smokes

It wasn’t that I normally walked to the store that late at night, but I couldn’t sleep and I was having one of those insane cereal cravings. I get them a lot so I’m usually good about keeping milk in the house but Jeff, that’s my son, went and put the empty carton back in the fridge. You know how teens are and how was I to know that the carton staring me back in the face as I made my shopping list that morning belonged in the trash, like I’ve told him a thousand times, and not on the top shelf between the pickles and the cheese deceiving me with the false promise that at the obscene hour when I wanted it, it would deliver me a god-damn bowl of cereal?
            I didn’t have to go to the corner store. There is an all-night grocery close by but it’s a little more than walking distance and lately I’ve been on this kick about driving less, doing my part for the environment and all, and Lord knows my thighs need the exercise. So I decided to walk and yes, they charge you twice what the milk is worth at the corner store but with the price of gas these days, well, same difference.
 I should have been in and out of the store in less than a minute. That’s how I shop. Enter. Zone-in. Retrieve. Pay. Exit. But as I got to the counter I realized I’d forgotten my purse and had to pick through the spare change in my pockets, and it turned out I had more lint than coins, so I had to put the half gallon back and got the quart instead.
I was handing over the last nickel to the clerk when the man with the gun came running in and I couldn’t believe it because I’ve never been that close to a man with a gun before and he touched me, I remember that clearly, well not that he touched me, rather that his hands touched my right arm as he pushed me aside… no not a shove, it was just a push, and even though he pushed me, when I caught my bearings again I found that I was the only other person, besides him, still standing.
The middle-aged Korean clerk was on the floor huddled against the bottom of the cigarette stand behind the counter, his hands over his head and sobbing, and the other late-night shoppers (an elderly man, two teen-agers and a lady in a suit) had starfished themselves against the dirty beach of  the floor.
The man with the gun seemed as unnerved by my lone uprightness as I was and I could see it in his mismatched eyes when he turned his masked face toward me… yes, mismatched eyes screaming through the holes of a balaclava. Like what the heck lady???
You know you can never say how you’ll react in those types of situations. Me? I just stared back my vision divided between the one blue and one brown eye… one blue…one brown... I’d seen that before, not that I could remember where but as I stood there my mind riffled through a plethora of memories—snapshots filed haphazardly under miscellaneous.
            One blue…one brown… it was that day I had a flat tire on the interstate five… no six years ago and I’d been all dressed up to make a big presentation to potential clients—clients my boss had reminded me no less than seven times that month that we needed if he was going to be able to keep everyone (meaning me) on staff, and there I was running late out of my Ativan anxiety medication, my sick and puking son probably in the school nurses’ room because I couldn’t find childcare... and then my tire blew… as in exploded. Not just a small leak. Exploded… and I had to extract myself from four lanes of traffic to pull over safely onto the shoulder.
My husband had died two years before and I’d spent those past two years having to learn to take care of a lot of things on my own— emptying mouse traps, cleaning gutters, and changing flats included, but this flat had the worst possible timing. I mean the rain was pouring and I was dressed in an expensive white blouse and even more expensive pale pink skirt, but the tire wasn’t going to change itself so I got out and popped the trunk and was just reaching in for the spare when a man in a blue Volkswagen pulled up behind me. Like you expect a guy in a Volkswagen to know how to change a tire.
            “No. Let me get that. Please? I wouldn’t want you to get dirty,” he’d said, as he pushed me gently aside. As he said it I noticed his mismatched eyes. One was deep cobalt blue. The other was a rusty brown.  
It all happened so quickly, really he’d had me back on the road in minutes and even as I sifted through the memories in my mind, the only one not face down on the corner store floor, I couldn’t remember a single detail about the man beyond his strange mismatched eyes.
What was his name…? I was sure he’d given it to me. Or had he…? Because I have to tell you I am horrible with names, so bad in fact that I actually once ordered a DVD off a late night infomercial because it promised to help me be more successful in the business world just by teaching me the tricks of Moniker Memory, but Moniker Memory, all eight dvds, were at home sitting on the kitchen counter where they’d been collecting dust in their cardboard wrapping for the past nine years.
I don’t know how much time passed, maybe ten minutes, maybe ten years— it sure felt like I’d been staring at the man with the gun for a long time but who knows? All I know is that it took an eternity for a single bead of sweat run down the length of his eyelid and drip from his left lash, because time always gets like that, all slowed down like you’re in another dimension inside a black hole or a wormhole or something.
He was scared. Hell I was scared, and the whole store was scared, and I don’t know why but I reached for a pack of candy. I think I was after gum but I just grabbed the first thing and really reaching for anything at all could have been enough to startle the guy and get me shot or something. But I took the pack in my hand and read the label that said Candy Crayons which is just the new pc marketing-ploy cheesy-ass name for them because I went through a lot of these when I was a kid, seriously how many times had I ridden around the neighborhood on a banana seat bike with one of these little sticks dangling from my lips? A cigarette. Not a crayon. The rest of the pack rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve like I was one bad ass eleven year old easy rider.
“Remember these?” I said holding them up to the man with the gun. “Wanna smoke?” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’d probably lost my mind. But if I was crazy I was owning it. “It’s OK. These ones won’t stunt your growth.”
            The gun shook in his outstretched hands, and I could tell my behavior was definitely alarming him by the twitch that jerked his shoulders as he turned back to the Korean clerk. “Get off your butt and give me the cash,” he told him.
             I opened the pack and shoved one in my mouth but when I exhaled no fine mist of candy powder came out where the red tip should have been. I mean really that was the best part but it probably saves the candy company a fortune in production though I wasn’t going to let a missing effect or two stop me. So I puffed it anyway trying not to look like some hipster vaping millennial ’cause that’s what society produces when it gives kids sugar crayons instead of real god damn candy smokes. And the guy with the gun? I figured him to be at least my age so I asked him, “Ever play cops and robbers? I always played the robber. You too I bet.”
            He stared hard at me with his mismatched eyes and I wasn’t sure if he wanted to hit me or laugh. “Cop. Now shut up!”
            “So what happened?”
            He lifted his forearm like he was going to pistol whip me, but I stood my ground. “Shut up lady! Just shut up!” he said refocusing his aim across the counter at the clerk. “You. I thought I told you give me the money in the till.”
            The middle-aged Korean man didn’t look capable of unfurling himself from a quivering ball on the floor and really who could blame him, but he rose slowly anyway.
            “You changed a flat for me once,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could manage, letting out a deep James Dean exhale.
            “Lady, shut up. Just shut up. I need to think.”
            I drew from my sweet faux cigarette. “So what happened? How does the guy who stopped to change a stranger’s flat or played the cop as a kid end up in a store with a gun?”
            The clerk had managed to make it unsteadily to his feet but his flustered jelly fingers produced no result as he banged on the till keys over and over again. 
            “Lady,” said the man with the gun stepping so close his black wool nose nearly touched mine, “what the hell is wrong with you? I have a gun.” He waved it around too just to make sure I saw.
            I cocked my head to the side and drew a deep McQueen inhalation.
            “You’re nuts lady. Flat tires and candy smokes? What the hell is your deal?”
“Come on. All the cool kids are doing it.” Yeah, I was Queen McQueen all royal and cool.
 “Lady...”
I don’t remember the thwack. Just the ting that echoed as I stepped back to let the silenced man fall to the floor.
A muscular Asian kid stepped forward, an aluminum bat now limp at his side. The kid had a pencil behind one ear. He wore a name tag with the moniker Chul-Moo stamped into it.
Blood flooded the floor through the back of the black balaclava.
The school of starfish became erect again and crowded curiously.  
            I reached for my cell phone to dial 9-1-1 but it was at home in my purse. My god-damn purse. If I’d remembered my purse, or driven to the all-night grocery store instead, or if my son could unplug from his iPod and plug back into the world long enough to throw an empty carton out, or if I’d just remembered the gunman’s name, Jake, which I only remembered after the twitching mismatched eyes were locked into a dull ceiling stare…
I gritted my teeth like Eastwood and threw the stub of my spent candy butt in the slowly creeping pool of a dead man’s blood, reached over the counter and grabbed a pack of Marlboros and book of matches, stuffed a bottle of bourbon in my pocket and stepped back out into the night.


The End