A Social Visit

“You were saying…” the strange woman prompted. 

Maggie sighed and shifted.  The woman had sat too close to her on the sofa.

“Come on, tell me what’s bothering you,” coaxed the unwanted guest.

Maggie had hidden from Another One the day before, but this lady had pounded the front door with her knock-knock-knocking. Maybe she’d go away if Maggie answered a few questions.

“My children don’t care about me,” said Maggie.

“That can’t be…completely true,” said the visitor.

“What’s your name again?  Why are you here?” Maggie demanded. “Are you with social services?”

“I’m Mary.  I sang with you in the choir.  Don’t you remember?”

“Oh yes, Mary.  Your boy ran off to New York,” said Maggie.

“That’s right.  He went to New York, but now he’s in New Orleans.  Do you remember the rest?” said Mary.

“He changed his name and danced on stage as a woman,” Maggie stated.  “He called himself Lulu.  Or was it Lola?”

“Lulu,” said Mary.

“And didn’t he go to jail?” asked Maggie.

“Lulu did a few bad things, but she’s turned everything around now,” said Mary.

“Lulu.  You actually call him that?  He’s always been Robert to me and he always will,” Maggie insisted.

“I do call her Lulu.  She prefers that.  I got used to the new name, and it suits her,” said Mary.

“I’m sure it does,” sneered Maggie.

Mary let the rudeness hang in the air for a minute.  She changed the subject:  “Did your husband leave you before or after your boys graduated from high school?”

“After,” muttered Maggie.

“Why did he leave?” Mary persisted.

“That’s none of your business,” Maggie rasped.

“I understand.  Sorry to intrude.  How are your two sons?”

“Fine.  They’re fine, but they never come to visit,” Maggie complained.

“Why is that?” asked Mary.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie.

Mary snorted a short burst and covered her mouth.

“You think that’s funny?” Maggie snarled.  “Wait till it’s your turn.  You’ll get old too.”

“But I am old,” Mary said.  “I’m older than you.  Don’t you remember?”

“Which Mary are you?  There were three Marys in the choir when I started.”

“Mary Schumacher.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“Oh, I thought you died.  We sang for your funeral.  The church was half empty, and I thought, ‘Doesn’t that lady have any family?’”

“That must have been some other Mary,” Mary said with a smile.

“No, I’m sure it was you.  You had that queer son and a trampy daughter with five kids by three men.  She only married the last one after she got sick.  Did she die from leukemia?”

“Why yes, she did.  And Tom raised all the kids after she was gone,” Mary said.

“I wondered about that.  Only one of them was his,” said Maggie.

“Two, actually,” said Mary.

“Are you all sure about that?” Maggie smirked.

“What does it matter now?” asked Mary.

“Matters to some more than others,” said Maggie.

“Two are Tom’s:  the cute little girls, Katie and Laura,” said Mary.

“Well, some think that Katie’s pretty, but Laura has a flat nose and mousy brown hair,” said Maggie.

Mary said, “That’s right.  But we all love Laura for her sweet personality.  Her kindness makes her beautiful.”

“And she’s fat,” Maggie contradicted.  “Fat girls have to be nice or no one pays attention to them.”

“And skinny girls can say anything they want?” Mary ventured.

“Only if they’ve got big boobs,” declared Maggie.

“I see.  And did you have big boobs?”  Mary inquired.

“Course, I did.  Still got ‘em.”  She placed her hands under her breasts and pushed them up.

“That must be wonderful for you,” said Mary.

“Would be if I weren’t 87.  Now I’m just dried up and old,” said Maggie.  She let her breasts drop and wobble on her stomach.

“You won’t be old…forever,” said Mary.

“ I’m not as old as you and I’ve kept my looks better than you have, but I’m old,” said Maggie.  “I’m so old I feel every year in my bones.  I tell Kevin that I’m ready to go, but I keep living on and on, miserable and more miserable.”

“Well, I feel better every day,” said Mary.

“But aren’t you dead?” said Maggie.  “I sang for your funeral, and the church was half empty.”

“So, your boys don’t visit.  Why is that?” Mary redirected.

“One says he’s busy.  He calls me every so often but gets off the phone as fast as he can.  And he cuts me off in midsentence whenever I say mention his ex-wife,” said Maggie.

“The one who cheated on him?” Mary inquired delicately.

“Yeah, that one.  He doesn’t want to know anything about her and acts as if his first marriage never happened.  She still lives in the neighborhood and I see her at Publix.  She tells me what she’s been up to, and I pass it along to Kevin,” said Maggie.  “You’d think he’d take an interest.”

“Didn’t Kevin remarry?” Mary asked.

“He did,” Maggie said.

“Is he happy now?”

“I guess.  But her family lives up in Jacksonville, and Kevin moved there.  Ursula’s Mom and Ursula’s Dad and her two brothers and her nieces and nephews are important,” Maggie growled.  “I’m not that important.  I only see him twice a month if that woman lets him out of her clutches.  And then he stays for an hour, keeps glancing at the clock like he’s got more important places to be, jumps into his car and races straight back to her.”

“I’ve heard that he comes every week and brings groceries,” Mary said.

“Where’d you hear that?” Maggie demanded.

“And doesn’t he mow your lawn and gas up your car?”  Mary asserted.

“Only when he feels like it,” Maggie groused.

Mary put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder, and the old woman shrank away.

“My God, your hand’s so cold!” Maggie cried.

“Really?” Mary replied.  “Your house is so warm I’d think my hand would feel toasty.”

“Your girl died of leukemia,” said Maggie.

“Why, yes she did.  You like to talk about that, don’t you?  I remember that you brought that up a lot after choir practice,” said Mary.

“Did I?  I don’t remember,” muttered Maggie.

“Oh yes, you did,” Mary said.  A pleasant smile played across her lips.  “You had a theory that you often shared about her illness.  Do you remember your idea?”

“No.  Theory?  No.” Maggie stammered.

“Oh yes, you do,” Mary insisted.  “You wondered whether her pill addiction caused the leukemia.  You passed me an article about drug abuse and hepatitis.”

“Hepa—”

“—titis.  You never seemed to be able to distinguish between hepatitis and leukemia, but you were very sure that Chrissy caught cancer from dirty needles,” said Mary.  “And you wouldn’t believe me when I told you that Chrissy never shot up.

“Needles…I don’t want to talk about that,” Maggie snapped.

“You seem sensitive about needles. Are you afraid of them?,” asked Mary.

“Kevin’s sensitive…I’m not sensitive about anything,” said Maggie.

“What’s your other boy up to these days?” Mary asked sweetly.

“Not much,” Maggie whispered.

“Brett’s been away for a long time, hasn’t he?” Mary nudged.

“Not so long.  It seems like he left yesterday,” replied Maggie.  “I sang—”

“I heard a rumor that the police found him in Miami.”

“Miami?  Brett’s in Miami?” asked Maggie.  Her eyes teared up.

“They found him in a dumpster in Little Haiti.”

“What was he doing in a dumpster?” asked Maggie.  A drop rolled down her cheek.

“Still had a tourniquet wrapped around his arm,” Mary continued. 

“Shut up!” barked Maggie.

“The needle was gone, but there was a fresh puncture wound.”

“Bitch!” Maggie screamed.

Mary patted Maggie’s shoulder and said, “There, there.  Did I say something to offend you?  I’m sorry.  Folks get so upset these days about the least little things.”  Mary smiled sweetly as if she truly felt apologetic.

Maggie tried to pull away, but Mary clenched a bony forearm and held tight.  Maggie began to shiver.

Maggie said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Mary Schumacher from the choir.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“But why are you here?”

“Just for a social visit.  You seem lonely,” Mary said gently as she tightened her grip. 

Maggie didn’t pull away.  Her arm felt numb, and the ice flowing through her veins had become soothing.  She nodded her head and began to slump.

“That’s right,” Mary soothed.  “You’ll feel better soon.”

“Didn’t you die?” slurred Mary.

“Not so much,” Mary offered.

Maggie straightened and swatted at Mary’s hand.  She couldn’t dislodge it from her arm.  She sank again and groaned.

“Leave me alone,” Maggie pleaded.

 Mary said nothing.

“Why did you come for me?” Maggie gasped.

Her voice faded on the last syllable.  Her eyes closed.

Mary held Maggie in her arms and rocked her until she stopped shivering.  A rattling sound briefly disturbed the settled quiet.  Mary stroked the white hair on Maggie’s scalp, put her blue lips close to Maggie’s ear and whispered, “Because no one else would.”

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The Instructor

Once upon a time there was a drawing student named Henry.  He worked at Disney and believed in Jesus.  He drew Bibles, crosses and mouse ears when given the chance, and he hated the instructor.  He knew, just knew that the man had no faith in Christ or Walt Disney.  And the instructor frowned every time Henry brought out his pictures of his lovely wife and two darling children.  Didn’t he like children?  Or didn’t he believe that Henry was their father?  Why couldn’t he be the father?  He had the right equipment and knew how to use it.  The instructor didn’t care that Henry did his absolute best, had put his past permanently behind him.  Jesus saved him, and then he found Lisa, and now he was happy.  Really, really happy…What did the instructor know about anything but drawing bottles and boxes?  He could talk all day about perspective, but did he have any?  Did he understand true suffering, the suffering of Jesus for mankind, the suffering of mankind trying to be like Jesus no matter how much it hurt?  That smug bastard was the king of his classroom, but not King of the Universe.  Henry wanted to be there when God gave the instructor his Final Grade.

Helen sat next to Henry.  She hated the instructor too, but wasn’t sure why until Henry told her that the instructor was arrogant.  Helen hated arrogant men, and this teacher (He wasn’t a real professor, was he?) was dirty minded too.  The instructor had asked her if Robert bothered her and didn’t believe it when she told him that she liked Robert.  Robert was funny.  The instructor said, “I saw you bend over to pick up your back pack off the floor, and Robert bent over your back, hugged you from behind, and whispered in your ear, ‘See you next Tuesday.’  You’re okay with that?”  Helen was fine with that.  Robert just kidded around, and she hadn’t felt anything sexual.  The hug had been funny and nice, and she didn’t care whether Robert had pressed up against her butt and his hands accidentally grazed her…The instructor was the real pervert imagining filth when grown people were just having a bit of fun, horsing around.  She wasn’t a weak woman like her mother who let men do what they wanted and pretended to like it.  Helen could take care of herself better than some fake professor who saw harassment in one harmless little hug.  Arrogant bastard.

Robert sat two easels away from Helen, but he’d already decided that she wasn’t the one for him.  Too old and lean.  Stringy blond hair.  There were several girls in the class, younger, juicier, who deserved his attention.    But one stood out:  Charlotte.  She was a tough chick who wore work boots, skinny jeans, tank tops, and pink lipstick.  She smoked cigarettes with him during break.  She liked his jokes, dirty girl, and paid close attention when he got close to her and touched her shoulder and told her about his mother, the artist.  Most girls thought that he was weird when he went on and on about Mom, but Charlotte listened…Mom knew that he was a special and had lots and lots of talent.  Robert didn’t care that the instructor gave him Cs.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he drew abstract textures while everyone else drew still lives.  Real artists didn’t bother with anything but abstraction and the human form.  He loved the human form.  And it didn’t matter that Charlotte asked him to stop touching her arm, her shoulder, to stop bumping his hip against hers (“Oops again, hah-hah!”) when he passed by her easel.  She pretended to be pure but acted like she had plenty of experience.  He could tell.  Girls liked to put up some resistance at first, but gave in eventually.  Most did.

Joseph knew that the instructor didn’t respect him.  The instructor was annoyingly tall and walked around like the giant god of the world.  But Joseph had talent, more talent than the instructor, and he would show the man how good he was once the instructor brought in models.  Joseph had signed up to draw nudes, but that man made him draw bottles and boxes, toys, a doll and a beach ball.  Junk didn’t inspire him, and an artist needs inspiration to do his best work.  At midterm that prick had given him a D and told him to do some homework in the second half.  He might get a B if he applied himself.  Joseph did not do B work, but he did choose what kind of work he did. And he didn’t do homework.   Homework was boring.  Homework was useless practice when he, Joseph, already knew how to draw his hand, a still life, the interior of a room.  Couldn’t the man see that?   Maybe he was too tall to look down and see Joseph.

Mary was tired, really tired of being told what to do.  She worked as an airline stewardess and took the class for fun, as an escape.  She spent the week slaving for people who acted as if she were a servant, and now she wanted things to follow her terms.  She’d paid good money for this class, and technically, though he’d never admit it, the instructor was her employee.  And he was so rude to her, never saying anything nice about her work when it was obvious that she was the best drawer in the class.  Oh, he gave her As on nearly every assignment, but he always slipped in some nitpicking criticism about any little mistake he could find.  He must spend hours finding a line that wobbled a sixteenth of an inch, a tone that smudged slightly.  Why couldn’t he tell her just once how good she was, and then shut up and go away?

The instructor could tell that half the class hated him.  Henry was meticulously polite but sneered at him when he thought that the instructor wasn’t looking.  He whispered like a conspirator with Helen during breaks.  Helen glared at him as if his very existence offended her.  Joseph stared stone faced whenever the instructor looked at his drawings.  Nothing he said made an impression on Joseph.  Mary thought that she was running the show.  She lectured him on his duties as an instructor.  She told him one day, “First you have to greet me, say ‘Good morning, Mary.’  Then you have to praise me.  Then you can tell me all the things you think I’ve done wrong!” Robert oddly enough, thought they were buddies.  But Robert was a loon and a lecher who had taken the class to harass women.  And Robert’s sketchbook had odd little poems about suicide, about using a piece of glass to slash his wrists.  The instructor had reported him to the dean’s office, but they were worried about legalities and seemed to think that the instructor showed a negative bias toward Robert.  Thank God there were a few students who took him seriously, who worked hard and tried to improve.

The instructor’s wife pretended to listen when he complained about the class.  He joked, but wasn’t really joking, when he said, “My quest to be loved by everyone at all times has failed once again!”  She sighed and said what she always said at times like these: “There’s always another class.  There’s always another semester.” Continue reading

The Witness

I first met my Great Uncle Adolph when I was a little boy.  He had a collie named Delilah that licked the back of my legs as I wandered through the garden behind his white, wood frame house. Adolph said that Delilah liked the salty taste of my sweat.  Flowering bushes and plants grew thickly on either side of a narrow path that meandered in lazy loops across the acre plot.  Bumble bees hummed deeply to themselves as they deliberately made their way from blossom to blossom.  Yellow and black butterflies flittered about unable to choose which flowers had the sweetest nectar.  There was a weathered, five foot high, carved angel that looked like ones I had seen in Woodlawn Cemetery where my family buried my older sister.  She had died of pneumonia the winter before.

The marble seraphim rested on a low, concrete plinth amidst three Japanese maples that had been trimmed back and kept short.  The gleaming white wings could be seen in the gaps between the overlapping branches, but her face was obscured.  When I asked my uncle who was buried there he said, “Nobody. But I can see a few ghosts lingering.”  I thought that he was kidding me, but when I looked up at his face there wasn’t a glimmer of humor in the set lines around his mouth.

He took me inside and got me a plate of anise cookies and a cup of milk.  The cookies were hard enough to break a tooth, and I had to dip them in the milk to soften them before I could take a bite. They tasted like licorice: bitter first then sweet.  We sat at the dark stained, oak table in his dining room, and Uncle Adolph said that he had a secret to tell me when I got older.  He had been keeping an eye on me and saw that I was a special boy, a young man of intent serious beyond my years.  I had no idea what he was talking about, but was pleased to know that he had singled me out over my younger brother, the boy in the family who everyone liked better than I.

My mother came to pick me up, and as we drove home I asked about Adolph. My mother was silent for a long time, and I noticed that she gripped the steering wheel so hard that the tendons stood out on the back of her hand. Finally she said, “Uncle Adolph is a sad man.  He’s had a hard life, and there’s been little good luck for him.”  I asked a few more questions, but she changed the subject and then turned on the radio.  I overheard her talking to my father later that evening when they thought that I was in bed.  She said, “I shouldn’t have let him visit that man, but I felt that I couldn’t say no.”  Father said, “What are you all afraid of when it comes to Adolph?”  My mother didn’t answer.

I saw Great Uncle Adolph once more at a family reunion when I was fifteen.  He sat by himself at the end of a picnic table.  My aunts and uncles didn’t seem to notice that he was there, but kept a marked distance between themselves and him.  He held a chicken leg up for inspection and seemed to be considering its provenance with philosophical detachment.  He barely acknowledged me when I walked up to him to say hello, and I assumed that he had forgotten who I was. But I often caught him staring at me as I messed about with my cousins.

Adolph invited me to visit him when I graduated from college.  The note had a friendly, familiar tone and was accompanied by a twenty dollar bill, his graduation present to me. I was surprised to get the invitation.  He had gradually cut off ties with all his friends, and only received my mother’s older brother Richard when Richard insisted on inquiring about my great uncle’s health.  Adolph lived in the family’s ancestral home on a valuable piece of land.  Richard reported back from time to time to the rest of the family that Adolph seemed to be in phenomenally good shape, and that he hardly seemed to age.  At the age of seventy-seven he appeared to have barely passed fifty.  The news was usually greeted with silence tinged with disappointment. I was mortified by their apparent greed. I didn’t tell anyone about the invitation from Adolph.  I feared that Richard would recruit me to spy.

I knocked on the old man’s front door and he ushered me into his living room.  There were doilies on the coffee tables, old fashioned, cut-glass ash trays mounted on ornate, metal stands, leather armchairs, and lace curtains pulled shut over all but one of the windows.  It took my eyes a while to adjust to the dim light, but when I took a good look at him I was surprised by his youthful appearance.  He moved slowly and carefully like an old man, but his face was creased by a few shallow lines and his hair had only a sprinkling of gray.

He poured me a tumbler of whiskey neat and asked if I wanted a cigar.  “They go together,” he said.  His voice was lower and gruffer than I remembered.  He cut the ends off of two long, thick stogies and passed one to me.  He struck a match and held it under the end of mine, and told me to turn the cigar as I puffed.  I coughed on the second puff, but he didn’t grace me with the patronizing smile I expected. He lit his own cigar and let out a long stream of smoke as he settled back in his chair.  I didn’t like the flavor of my cigar—it was too bitter and harsh at first—but as I continued to sip my whiskey and puff on the stogie I felt like I was cushioned within a warm, mellow glow. It was late afternoon and a golden light flooded in from the window at the end of the room.  I could see a glimpse of the garden beyond, and was pleased that it was still full of flowers.  The room, the light and the garden gave me a feeling that I was seeing a glimpse of eternity.

Uncle Adolph poured me a second tumbler of whiskey and relit my cigar.  I had let it go out while I dozed off for a minute or two.  I realized that I needed coffee more than another dram, but the whiskey was poured before my thoughts connected with my tongue.  “What the hell,” I thought as I raised my glass and drank.

My uncle sat in his chair beside mine and stared out at the garden.  I got the impression that we were waiting for something. When it was nearly sunset he motioned for me to follow him outside.  We stepped into the garden and the grass was already wet with dew.  He led me to the three Japanese maples, and we ducked beneath the low branches and stood before the stone angel.  She gleamed in the failing light as if softly lit from within.  I studied her face carefully having never seen it before, and I never saw a sadder countenance.  I marveled at the ability of the stone carver to capture such depth of grief in the angel’s features, and such compassion and tenderness.  The angel appeared to weep for every want, hurt and loss experienced by human kind, and to mourn for me as well. Death had not taken anyone from my immediate family yet, but as I looked at the angel’s face I knew that she was grieving for me too. I was overtaken by an almost intolerable wave of despair.

Adolph put my arm over his shoulder and walked me back to the house.  I staggered and nearly fell when we came to a trellis that arched over the path near his back door, but after we passed beneath it I began to feel better again.  When we took our chairs in his living room once more he did not turn on a light and we sat in darkness.  The cigar smoke hung in a stale, bitter fog, and I suddenly longed to be free of my uncle’s company.  He sat opposite me and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.  He seemed to be waiting for me to speak, but I had no idea what he expected me to say.  I still felt weak and strangely vulnerable.  The anguish that overwhelmed me when we stood before the angel still lingered like a bitter after taste.

Adolph sensed that I was about to leave and chose that moment to begin telling me why he had invited me to visit after twelve years had passed.  I tried several times to get up and leave while he spoke, but something in his voice kept me pinned to the seat of my chair.

“Did they tell you that I’m bad luck?”

“No.  They say that you had bad luck and a hard life.”

“That’s one way of putting it…Do you know that I’m your mother’s last uncle on the Stauffer side?”

“Yes.”

“My brother Norbert died at the Battle of the Bulge.  They told us that he froze to death in a foxhole.  My younger brother Fred was killed by the Chinese in Korea.  They wore tennis shoes and would sneak across the lines at night.  They cut his throat.”

“That must have been horrible for your mother.”

“I thought that she would die of grief each time she got the telegram.  She collapsed on the porch when she heard about Fred and spent a week in the hospital. But then she got stronger.”

“Stronger?”

“Grief seemed to make her grow more vital, somehow.  It put a bloom in her cheeks after the first shock passed.”

“Grief made her happy?  That doesn’t make sense.”

“She wasn’t happy.  She was just more alive.”

“I don’t understand.”

He nodded gravely and said, “No, but you will.”  I pushed up from my chair–I suddenly felt like a rabbit caught in a snare–but he reached out and grabbed hold of my arm and said, “Don’t go.  You can’t run away from this.”

Before I could move or say another word I felt a tiny lurch in my chest, and then my mind flooded with a dreadful black substance, a viscous sludge. It was my first immersion in my uncle’s sorrow.  A deep hollow opened up within as if I had been gutted and clumsily sewn back together. Grief trickled from my head down into my emptied chest, and I became a sack of flesh incapable of feeling any other sensation beyond the dull slosh of an unspeakable sadness. I wanted to die.  I wanted darkness to overwhelm me and make everything come to an end.

I managed to knock his hand off my arm and staggered back to my chair.  I felt warmth and a sense of normalcy slowly displacing the soul killing blackness, but I was too weak to do more than stare at my great uncle.  At that point I somehow knew that this evening with him had been inevitable.

Have you ever started to read a book and realized after a few pages that you had read it long ago?  If you bother to read on you can predict what will happen next, and familiar story images appear in your mind like forgotten dreams.  I saw such images as I sat pathetically weak and quiescent in the darkness of Uncle Adolph’s living room, but the images were of my own life.  I could see a progression of events, a chain of cause and effect as my movement from past to present to future was laid out before me.  Adolph was right.  There was no escape.

He turned on a small lamp on the end table beside him saying, “It’s too dark in here.”  Then he gave me a bitter smile and said, “My mother was eighty-nine when she died.  She was in perfect health and looked much younger than her age.  But her voice sounded tired and faint when she called me and asked me to come for a visit.  We had become estranged after Fred’s death.  I couldn’t forgive her for the way she drew sustenance from misfortune, for her ability to thrive as everyone she knew grew sick and died.  There seemed to be no end to her. But when I found her lying in bed I knew that I was wrong. At first glance she showed no sign of illness or that she had finally conceded defeat to the slow decimations of old age, but her eyes were sunk in gray hollows.  When I looked into them I could see that she was already dead in some ways.”

He turned to face me directly and stared into my eyes.  I understood what he meant about his mother. No hope, no spark still lived in the man.  He swung his gaze away from me when he was satisfied that I knew him.

“She grabbed my arm just like I took yours, and she told me that she had a secret to tell.  I didn’t want to hear it, but she wouldn’t spare me.  I was the least favorite of her children as I most closely resembled my father.  He was a drunk and a wife beater, and when she looked at me she saw the same potential for evil.  It didn’t matter that everyone said that I was just like her. She only saw me as a copy of my father.  Maybe she needed that form of blindness to make it easier for her to do what she did to me.”

He got up and walked to the door that opened on the garden.  He motioned to me to follow him again, and I obeyed him though my feet felt heavy and my body limp. I was his reluctant puppet as he guided me through the garden until we reached the three maples. I could smell the musky scent of flowers, but could not see them in the dim starlight. He pushed some branches aside and made me sit on the damp ground at the base of the angel.  I could feel the wetness soaking through my pants.  A car turned a nearby corner and I briefly saw Adolph’s bitter smile once more in the passing headlights.

“Do you know that this is my mother’s house?  This angel is hers too.  When I was a little boy she scraped together enough money to commission it from a local stone cutter.  She badgered him until he got it right.  She told me that her father had an angel and she needed one too.  She wouldn’t say why. She put it in our garden and planned to be buried beneath it when she died, but in 1962 a city ordinance was passed forbidding burial on private property.  The angel has stood here for fifty years.  I don’t think that it’s been waiting for anyone.  It just watches and grieves.”

He clamped his hand on my arm again and I nearly fainted.  A strong current of despair and anguish flowed from him to me, and I felt the same sensation that a thick, oily fluid was filling my chest.  When it became unbearable he released me and sat down next to me.  I tried to shrink away from him, but I was too weak and had to rest my head on the shins of the angel to remain upright.  He glanced at me and nodded as if my condition met his expectations, and he plucked a small bottle out of his shirt pocket.  He pulled out the stopper with his teeth, spat the cork away and took a swig.

“My mother got up from her bed and led me here.  She told me that the angel had sung to her and that it was time. She had a little bottle in her hand, but wouldn’t tell me what was in it.  She sat me down here and took a drink.  Within minutes she was dead.  The death certificate said she had a heart attack, but I knew better.  Before she died she told me that she was a Witness, and that that I was one too.”

“Witness?” I managed to gurgle.

“She told me that her father was a Witness, and that our family had it in our bloodline.  ‘We are chosen by God,’ she said. I had the signs:  I was a serious man, intelligent, a bit detached but still capable of empathy.  I had the gift of feeling another person’s thoughts and emotions, and the blessing of not feeling them too much.  She had me pegged: I suffered somewhat when others suffered, but wasn’t overcome by pity.  As she died she sat down next to me and laid a hand on my arm, and I could feel her power and misery flowing to me.  I could feel all her sorrows and the sorrows of others I had never met. I could see death beds, hearses and wakes, battles, disease, poverty and waste.  I could see fearful eyes, anxious glances, and troubled faces. I could feel bones breaking and taste bloody vomit. I could feel centuries of heartbreak march like a defeated army across my heart.”

Uncle Adolph sat next to me and leaned against my shoulder.  His voice grew softer as he spoke, and at the end he whispered in my ear.

“Now you’re a Witness.  I have no right, any more than my mother did, to do this to you, but I can’t bear to live any more. I don’t have any choice.”

I tried to push him away, but he seized my arm and I couldn’t break free.  His grip weakened me and I surrendered to the inevitable.  He was still for a long time and I hoped for a moment that he had died and I would be released, but he raised his head and pressed his lips to my ear.  When the memory of that night comes back to me I can still hear the hiss of his voice.

“You’ll see their sorrow and it will be yours; you’ll feel their pain and it will cut you too; you’ll wither when they grieve.  But in the end it will make you stronger.  You can live forever, if you want to, but you’ll have to choose to bear up under the burden.  With every year it will grow heavier and heavier, but you’ll just go on living with the weight pressing down harder.  I tried to avoid it by shutting myself away in this house.  I thought that if I removed myself from all human contact I could shield myself from misery.  But the sorrow seeped in through the walls.  It wouldn’t let me alone.”

He released me from his grip and I fell on the ground.  I tried to crawl away from him, but some force of morbid attraction drew me back. I sat down beside him and listened. I couldn’t help it.

“There’ll come a time when you’ll feel full to bursting with it, but then you’ll stretch and grow.  Your capacity to suffer will expand and then you’ll feel even more alive.  The pain will see to that.  It owns you. You become it. The moments when a little happiness comes your way will feel strange…”

He paused to catch his breath.  He had begun to wheeze.

“There’s no escape unless you pass the gift on to another Witness.  You’ll know when it’s time.  The angel will tell you.  When you hear her sing it means that you can die.”

His head nodded on his chest and he fell over on his side. I heard a murmuring sound like water gently passing over a shoal.  It came from above me and when I listened carefully I heard a beautiful voice singing a dirge. And then I felt a sudden surge of energy run from the top of my head down to the base of my spine, and my every nerve tingled with fresh vitality and abundant life. I knew that he was dead.

I took the bottle from his fingers and placed in my pants pocket.  When I called an ambulance I told them that Adolph had a heart attack and that he was unresponsive.  I told them to hurry.

Sirens wailed and lights flashed out front. I led a paramedic up the garden path to my fallen uncle and knelt nearby as she checked for his pulse.  She was anxious to help him, and felt discouraged when it became apparent that she had failed. It was the second time that day that someone had died under her care.   A police officer came and took a statement from me, and as he wrote I knew that he had shot an unarmed man two months before.  The derelict had suddenly raised his hand and the cop saw a gun that wasn’t there.  It had all been covered up, but he still felt haunted by what he had done.  And then I saw the derelict standing in the garden by the angel.  He fingered the hole in his chest.  I knew that he had abandoned his wife and daughter when drugs and liquor consumed him, and he regretted that he had not done more to take care of them.  And then I saw his little girl standing by his grave in a cemetery across town.  She grew from a seven year old to an adult in seconds, and now was a twenty year old woman wearing black.  She dropped a small bouquet of wild flowers on his grave but felt nearly nothing for him.  And yet she was burdened by guilt for the shallowness of her grief because she remembered a sunny day at a park when her father pushed her on the swings, bought her an ice cream cone and told her she was pretty.

Richard was angry when he found out that Adolph bequeathed the house and property to me, and grew irate at the reading of the will when the lawyer revealed that I had also inherited a large sum of money.  My mother cried when I moved in, and her tears added to the burden that I already felt.  I took in stray dogs until I found one that felt comfortable with my company.  The others ran away after a few days.

I spend my time gardening and reading trashy novels with plots so unbelievable and characters so shallow that I can remain emotionally detached.  I have all the emotion I can handle and try not to volunteer for more.

The angel hasn’t sung to me yet, and I have a feeling that I have a long way to go. I swear that its face gets sadder by the day. It gets very lonely for me at times, but I prefer that form of suffering to the intensity of the pain I feel when I let anyone get close to me.  The exception is my little sister’s youngest child, Alice.  Whenever she visits her sweetness brightens my day.  As I watch her pet my dog and scratch his ears I feel some of the weight lift off of my shoulders.

Alice doesn’t frighten me, but some find her unsettling. She can look right through you and see into your soul.  It’s like she knows you better than you know yourself. Her father, a superstitious fool and a man of narrow understanding doesn’t like her all that much.  He neglects her.  I feel that it is my responsibility to show her some attention if her father won’t.  I let her pick flowers from my garden, and if she’s a good, I give her anise cookies and a glass of milk.

The End.

 

Postal

Rich saw the white and blue painted jeep pull up at the bottom of his driveway. He heard a metallic clang, and the vehicle drove away. To steel his nerves he took a sip from a flask he kept hidden in his inner coat pocket, and then he said, “I’ll get the mail.” No one answered. He lived alone.

It took forty-two steps to walk from his door to the mail box by the road, and he knew every crack and oil stain in his driveway along the way. The roots from a maple in the neighbor’s yard had pushed up the cement four inches above its original bed in a section near the end of the driveway, and he carefully stepped down when he came to the rift. He had been meaning to tear up the concrete, dig out the roots and patch the hole, but kept putting off the job. He would have to work with his back to mail box at some point during the repairs, and he didn’t want to tempt an ambush.

And a level driveway meant that more visitors from work and church would nose their cars up the slope to his house. He didn’t have time to entertain guests when he needed all his vigilance to keep an eye on the mail box. And he sometimes suspected that the postal service might have already infiltrated his circle of acquaintances. Bob, the fat, fortyish guy who manned the cubicle next to Rich’s, often spoke with genuine disgust about UPS and Fed Ex when a package arrived with damaged goods inside. Rich knew where his allegiance lay. Louise, the choir director at Aloma Methodist, hoarded booklets of stamps in her purse. She abruptly snapped it shut if she thought that someone was looking too intently at the treasure within. She was a postal junkie.

As Rich approached the mail box he studied the wooden post and the dings on its metal shell. He had given a neighborhood punk with a bad case of acne and greasy hair twenty bucks to destroy it last week. Joey was supposed to wait until 3:35 in the morning to bash in the box with a hammer and set fire to the wooden post. If he had followed directions he wouldn’t have been interrupted by the patrol car making its nightly rounds at 3:05. So now the box was waiting for him with a partially crushed carapace and a blackened but intact post, and Rich was afraid that it knew who was to blame for its damage.

Rich picked up a fallen stick from beneath the maple’s overarching branches and used it to gingerly open the lid. It creaked on rusty hinges in an accusing tone. There wasn’t an explosion. He pushed the stick into the gaping opening and gently probed. Nothing attacked and no traps snapped. He pulled rubber gloves from his back pocket, tugged them on nervously and tentatively reached inside. He found two envelopes, one from a cable company and one from his daughter. His hands trembled as he slowly and respectfully closed the mail box.

He backed away from it in a half crouch ready to run if necessary. But it stayed rooted to its spot, and the lid remained shut. He turned and scurried away after he had gained a safe distance of five feet, and trotted back to his front door. He was brave enough that day to look over his shoulder just once during his retreat.

He tossed the two envelopes into a metal box on a bookshelf by the door, shut the lid, turned the lock, and stripped the gloves off his fingers and into a trash can. He took a seat in his recliner and took another pull from his flask…and another. He had to regain some composure before he faced the delicate and dangerous task of opening his mail. But he fell asleep without warning as he often did these days, and when he woke up the letters were gone from the box by the door. He frantically searched the house desperate to know the location of the infiltrators, and when he sat down again in his recliner he squealed with terror when he saw them on the end table at his elbow. When he had calmed down somewhat he recalled that he had stumbled to the bathroom before fully awakening. Perhaps he had opened the box and transferred the envelopes himself before dozing off again. Perhaps…

He fought the urge to snatch them up, shred and burn them. But he didn’t. He had made that mistake once before. He pulled on another pair of rubber gloves, took out a pocket knife dedicated for this one purpose from a clear, plastic container on the coffee table, and used it to delicately slit open what purported to be an advertisement from a cable company. A new copy of his credit card fell out and landed on the floor. The accompanying letter congratulated the bank’s cleverness in disguising the delivery, but Rich knew better. The mail box wanted him to lose the card.

The handwritten note in the second envelope was from his daughter. She informed him that she and her two young daughters would be arriving for a visit on the 23rd. That was only three days away, not nearly enough time for him to change the locks on all the doors and escape to a distant, inaccessible location. Little Lauren and Brooke liked to play a game called, “Scream at Grandpa”. The last time they had invaded his sanctuary they nearly put him in the hospital by “accidentally” running into him as he stood on a step stool, and he suspected that his daughter encouraged them to endanger his life. She still assumed that she was the primary beneficiary in his will. And what seemed worse to Rich was that she had filled out a civil service exam just before leaving town. She claimed to have become an insurance saleswoman in Tennessee, but that could just be the false identity that she had been given. Maybe those brats weren’t hers—Rich had never met the father and she certainly had little control over them and they looked like no one else in the family with their fat cheeks and piggy little eyes.

Rich pocketed the credit card and threw the letters and envelopes down the disposal in the kitchen. He realized, as he listened to the growling blades in his sink, that the box had figured who was ultimately responsible for the attack. His recent mail up until Joey’s aborted mission had mostly been benign come-ons from real estate agents and flyers from evangelical pastors who wanted to save his soul and lighten his wallet. He had enjoyed the lull in hostilities, an armistice from postal mayhem. But this letter from his daughter was all too transparent in its malignancy. Only the box in league with the postal service could have plotted such a subtle and ingenious scheme, so innocent on the surface and so deadly beneath. He knew that this was the opening shot of another campaign against him.

He wanted to call his friend Bill, but doubted if he would find any comfort from that quarter. He knew that Bill thought that he was losing his mind. He listened with condescending amusement whenever Rich explained his theories about the collusion of the mail box and the postal service to ruin his life. Bill worked for the St. John’s water management agency, a state bureaucracy that had nothing to do with the mail. But state and federal organizations were linked by computer, and subtle propaganda and subliminal messages could be sent by e-mail, and a person reading that corruption could be influenced and not know it and Bill might be a sleeper agent who would spring into action when a code word was sent to him by the postal service and…

Rich traced the initial moment of his downward turn into misery and confusion to an evening 11 months ago when he made the mistake of turning on the nightly news. A talking head named Ridge Rockwell reported that Congress had drastically cut funding for the Postal Service. The service had begun to lay off older workers drawing higher salaries while recruiting scabs willing to work for low wages and no pension. A recently appointed spokesman wearing a patched and stained uniform stepped up to the microphone when a reporter asked him, “What segment of the population is the service targeting in its search for new workers?” He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks and he had a nervous tic in one eye. The press agent began to laugh hysterically and seemed unable to regain control of his composure until a stern man at his elbow nudged him hard in the ribs. The bedraggled man wiped tears from his eyes and finally answered: “Oh, from all walks of life…You’d be surprised.”

One morning a few weeks after the broadcast Rich waited by the mail box for the mailman to pull up and hand him his mail. He had been out raking leaves when he heard the jeep approach. The carrier wasn’t John, the happy, bald guy who normally worked the route. His replacement had a thick head of black hair and a sour attitude. The postman slung the mail into the box and slammed the lid shut instead of handing it to him. Rich sarcastically said, “Thanks, buddy.” The surly carrier glowered and said, “Nice shirt, buddy!” Further down the block the postman intentionally rammed into a trash can that had been left in the road after the garbage pick-up. It eventually bounced free of the jeep’s bumper and lay dented and scraped in a yard one block east of its starting point.

Rich glanced down at his shirt and saw that it was soaked with sweat and stained with smears of dirt. When he thumbed through the stack of mail he found two late notices for bills that he swore he had already paid.

Two months later his wife Tina was bitten by a brown widow spider that had nested inside the mailbox. She spent a week in the hospital, almost lost her thumb, ran out of sick time while recuperating at home and was fired. The surly postman made a point of walking up to their door to deliver the envelope containing the news that her unemployment had been denied. Her former company’s legal department claimed that she had repeatedly broken company policies. She went into a depression when she couldn’t land a new job, and when the money got tight she ran away. On the day she left she told Rich that she going out to buy stamps, but never returned. She eventually mailed him a postcard from Toledo, Ohio (“Come visit the beautiful shores of Lake Erie!!), and wrote in a script that looked strangely unfamiliar that she had left Florida for good. Tina didn’t invite him to join her or give him the address of the place where she was currently staying. Divorce papers arrived shortly thereafter along with three flyers from local divorce attorneys.

Rich missed Tina, but bowed to the inevitable and signed on the bottom line without contesting the terms. Outside the courthouse his lawyer pocketed his check and told him that he was a free man. Rich asked him why Tina hadn’t showed up for the hearing, and the attorney smiled mysteriously and said, “She did everything by mail.”

When Rich returned home he decided to take action to start a new chapter in his life. He called the number on an advertisement he found lurking in his mail box. It connected him to a Christian dating service. A perky and sincere sounding woman named Joyce took down his profile information, and he was eventually matched with a thirty something divorcee who invited him back to her place at the end of their first date. Mary ripped off his clothes and jumped on top of him, and he thought that he had found his piece of heaven on earth. But after the final throes of their passion she made him kneel by the bed and pray with her for the forgiveness of their sins. Hers was a vengeful God in need of lengthy appeasement, and his knees were sore by the time she finally let him get up and put his pants back on.

Mary called him every day until he blocked her phone calls. She didn’t give up. She mailed him home made cards with pictures of kittens glued on construction paper with kiddy paste. She invited him in the messages (written with crayon and glitter in the margins) to attend prayer meetings with her. Then, when he didn’t respond, she became concerned about his soul. Finally, after sending ten cards to him without any response, she wrote a long letter describing the tortures of hell. The kitten on the enclosed card was given this speech bubble: “Jesus is your Savior or your Judge–choose wisely!”

The only contact with her that he had initiated had been on their first date, but that didn’t stop the mail box from presenting him with a restraining order from the Seminole County Courthouse and a notice that he was banned for life from the Christian dating service.

He wasn’t a suspicious man by nature and attributed the spate of bad mail and personal misfortune to a string of rotten luck. He still believed that people were basically good at heart. But he grew concerned one day when he saw the friendly mail carrier with the bald head in the back of the surly postman’s jeep. Rich called out to John as he passed by, and the man’s eyes twitched in his direction. The jeep was a half block away from Rich, but he thought that he saw a flesh colored bandage over John’s mouth.

Rich made the mistake of calling his local post office to report what he saw. The clerk on the other end growled into Rich’s ear, asked for his address and hung up on him. The next day he received an audit notice from the IRS and a bulky envelope from his insurance company. A complicated document informed him that he wouldn’t receive compensation for the damage done by a laurel cherry tree that had twisted and fallen on his garage roof during a recent storm. A hole had been punched through the shingles, and the roof had started to rot around the opening. As he picked through the double negatives and sentences with varied tenses and multiple clauses that appeared to contradict each other, he discovered that the insurance company had changed the definition of what constituted a “tree” and a “roof”. According to his “case manager” his claim had been denied because his “vehicular shelter toppage” had been struck by an “arboreal agent” that was not recognized as “culpable species of tree” in his policy.

Rich couldn’t tell if the world or he had gone mad, but began to suspect that the mail box was the source of all his trouble. He stayed home more often when he wasn’t at work, and his social circle narrowed as he spent his free time keeping the mail box and postman under surveillance.

The final straw came the day after the mail mysteriously moved from the strong box to his night stand. He got a notice from his savings and loan stating that he had automatically been signed up for a life insurance policy, and that $300 would deducted from his savings account each month starting two months before. As his current funds were now minus $237, he would be fined an additional $50 for each day he was delinquent in paying for said service.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. If the mail box was the source of his trouble, he would try to circumvent it. He jumped into his car and drove down to his local post office. He hadn’t been there for months, and had even skirted the streets in its vicinity when an errand took him in that direction. He bought his stamps at the grocery store check out. He sent packages via UPS.

Now he tightly gripped the steering wheel of his car for several minutes after backing into a space closest to the lot exit. He wanted an easy route of escape if necessary. He longed for a sip of whiskey before going in, but had left the flask at home. He forced himself to open the car door and walk into the building. He thought he heard the doors click shut and lock behind him, but was too afraid to go back and check. He waited in line behind a fat woman and a man with a cane. When he was called to the counter the clerk looked at him suspiciously and snarled, “What do you want?”

“I’d like a post office box.”

“You would…” the clerk sneered.

“Yes, please,” Rich answered.

“And why do you want that?”

“Uh, I’d just like one, please.”

“Fill out the form and we’ll do a background check and put you on our list.”

“A list? What kind of list?”

“We tell your kind that it’s a waiting list.”

“My kind?”

“Your kind. Don’t play dumb.”

“Is it…a waiting list?”

“You’ll find out.”

“Uh, no thanks. I’ve changed my mind.”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“My name?”

“We have to put your name on a list of people who have changed their minds. Your name?”

When Rich backed away and tried to run to his car the clerk leaped over the counter, tackled him and held him in a choke hold. Rich stopped struggling but heard the clerk call out, “Tase him! He’s got a knife!” A jolt of electricity shot through his body and pain sizzled through every nerve ending. His eyeballs gave him the impression that they were trying to pop out of their sockets and roll away. And then there was blackness.

Rich woke up in a cinder block walled holding cell. A tiny window in a steel door sent a thin shaft of light into the narrow space. He saw that he wore nothing but his boxers, a gray t-shirt and black socks. He heard footsteps in the corridor and looked out of the slit. He saw three heavy set women wearing postal uniforms trudging down the hall. They stopped outside the door opposite his cell, and one of them tapped a night stick on the metal frame. A tough sounding guard called out in deep, mannish voice, “It’s time, Tina.” Rich heard a woman sobbing inside, and then his wife cried out, “No, you can’t make me!”

The guards opened the door and the biggest, meanest looking one pulled Tina out by the hair. Tina fought and bit until she was struck on the head with the truncheon. They dragged her unconscious form by her feet through a door at the end of the corridor.

Rich had been too terrified to call out her name during the assault, but before he had a chance to reflect on his cowardice he saw a troop of male guards coming for him. They threw open his cell door, grabbed him on either side by the arms and frog-marched him out of the cell block. They threw him into a small, windowless room with a bench and a bundle of clothes. A short, fat guard said, “Put these on. You’ve got two minutes.”

Rich opened the bundle and found black shorts and a powder blue shirt and a dark, blue baseball cap. He got dressed as quickly as he could, but was still buttoning the shirt when the door opened and Fatty threw a pair of black shoes at his head. Seconds later the door opened again and two guards took him in hand and pushed and shoved him into a room divided up into gray painted, metal cubicles. Chutes shaped like mail boxes were bolted to the ceiling. They opened at irregular intervals and dropped parcels and bundles of mail onto the heads of the prisoners below, and Rich saw that the men and women all wore the uniform that had been given to him and were chained to their seats. The guards roughly pushed him into an open cubicle, sat him down on a chair and manacled an ankle to the leg of a sorting table. Fatty spoke into cell phone and mail began to shower down onto Rich.

Fatty slapped him on the back of the head and pointed to five slots in the table. Each was labeled with a local zip code number. Fatty picked up a letter from Cleveland, pointed to the zip on the envelope and pointed to a slot. Rich nodded his head. He understood. He began to file letters, and although he made a show of diligence the guard didn’t move away. Fatty stood at his elbow as if willing his prisoner to look up. Rich finally succumbed.

Fatty looked contemptuous as he pulled an envelope out of his back pocket and handed it to Rich. It was addressed to him. Fatty told him to open it. Inside was an eviction notice. The county had seized Rich’s home by eminent domain, and a new sewage pumping station was going to be built in his garden. Fatty took the form from his trembling fingers, stuffed it into a new envelope, licked the glue along the flap with his fat, pink tongue and handed it to Rich. A bitter tear rolled down Rich’s cheek as he pushed it into the appropriate slot.

“Congratulations,” Fatty said. “You’ve just joined the postal service.

Black Birds (A Short Story)

She had planned it poorly when she agreed to let Tony pick her up for lunch. Linda had a nagging feeling when they sat down to eat that she would soon be dumping him. But she was more surprised than he was when she blurted, “I wanna break up with you,” right after their bony young waitress laid their meal on the table and walked away.

Linda got up and left him sitting there staring at their food: her taco salad, his giant beef and bean burrito, her sweet tea and his Dr. Pepper. She briefly returned to the table to grab her sweet tea, but walked away quickly before he had a chance to argue with her or plead. She hated when he did that.

Her glow of satisfaction faded quickly when she stepped outside into a sauna of damp heat. The August sun bore down with vindictive energy on her particular spot in Winter Park, Florida, and she squinted as she struggled to pull her shades from the bulky, white purse slung on her arm. She realized that she would have to call her sister for a ride, and saw that her sense of timing had been exquisitely poor.

Her cell phone pulsed and throbbed in her hand before she had a chance to flick it open. It was a text from Tony: “Want a ride?” Linda glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t see past the reflections on the plate glass window of the restaurant into the interior. She assumed that he was staring at her smugly from the coolness inside, and she texted “No!” She wandered down the length of the shopping strip and decided to hide inside Whole Foods. She wasn’t going to discuss anything with Tony, and certainly wouldn’t ride with him in his car. He might trick her.

Tony closed his phone and put it back into his coat pocket. He wanted to track her down and make her explain, but decided to let her go. If this latest episode in their series of break ups was just a product of one of her moods, then it would be smarter to let her work her way through it without any guidance (“interference” was her term) from him. If she really wanted to break up, then he’d let her. He was tired of making the effort to keep her happy.

He glumly ate a few taco chips and started on the burrito. He put too much hot sauce on it and had to ask Melissa, the waitress, for an extra soda. He mopped his forehead and watched his server’s hips sway as she walked away. She swiveled around and smiled at him as if she knew that he was studying her curves in action, and he turned away in embarrassment and looked out the window. He picked just the right moment to see Linda pass by. She was wearing heels and looked hot and uncomfortable as she impatiently walked back and forth on the sidewalk.

Linda’s torso was shaped like a pear with narrow shoulders and a wide ass, and her short, floral print dress with loud, tropical colors did little to hide the fat accumulating on the back of her thighs just above her knees. Today she had pulled her frizzy, brown hair into a pony tail on one side of her head, and she looked like a refugee from the eighties, an aging material girl who was getting too old to “just wanna have fun”. Tony finished his burrito and burped. He began to eye her taco salad. Break ups with Linda always made him hungry.

She couldn’t get Bobbi to answer the phone. Her sister was forever hauling her brats back and forth from the doctor, the supermarket and school, and she never picked up when she was driving. Linda debated between waiting at the bus stop at Lakemont and Aloma and walking home. The bus service was notoriously bad, and she didn’t know if she’d have to circle down town Orlando twice before finally traveling in the right direction to get home. It had to be 95 degrees out and her feet were already killing her. She needed a ride.

And she was getting hungry–she had been too nervous to drink her diet shake at breakfast–and now she felt a little woozy. She began to long for the taco salad waiting at Tony’s table for her to devour, but resisted the urge to go inside. She went back to the Whole Foods to buy something to nibble.

Linda wandered through the narrow aisles amongst aging hippies and New Age wannabes, and couldn’t seem to find anything appealing. She got trapped between two grocery carts blocking her path at the meat counter. A 30 year old blonde couldn’t decide between ground buffalo and free-range beefsteaks. She had a baby in a papoose slung across her chest and wore Birkenstock sandals. Earth Mama asked the clerk whether the methane emissions of cattle were more detrimental to the environment than buffaloes’, and Linda forced her way past when the clerk began a long winded spiel about bovine digestion. She was accosted at the grain bins by a sixty year old man wearing a golf cap and sporting a white goatee. He asked her if she like to bake bread while he stared at her breasts.

Her phone lit up as she backed away from the creep, and she told him that her fiancée was calling. She snapped the phone open and cried, “Hi, Tony!”

Tony was surprised when she answered, and her tone of voice sounded too friendly even for a good day when they were getting along. It usually took at least a week for her to respond after a break up, and he had expected his call to go straight to voice mail.

Linda said, “Sit tight. I’ll be right there!” and hung up before he could say a word. Tony raised two fingers to get Melissa’s attention, and he ordered another taco salad for Linda and a beer for himself. He knew that the drink would make his belly feel more bloated than it all ready did, but the restaurant didn’t serve hard liquor.

She breezed in a few minutes later and sat down across from him. She picked at the scraps of the first salad left on the plate in the middle of the table, and seemed surprised when Melissa arrived with a fresh order. Tony waited in silence as she chattered about her sister, the hot weather and a shopping trip that she planned to take with her mother. When she had chewed and talked her way through her meal she wiped the grease off her lips, paused, and nervously smiled at him without making eye contact. He decided to show her some mercy and said, “Do you need a ride home?”

“Would you give me a lift? Thank you, Tony.”

“No problem.”

He went up to the cashier and paid, and they walked together in silence to his car. He didn’t open up her door for her, and drove faster than usual down Aloma toward Semoran.

They got stuck at a light. A sunburned, homeless man with dirty pants and the scraggly beginnings of a beard stood on the curb next to them and held a cardboard sign. The letters were too small to read, and when she stared too long as she tried to decipher the message, the man came over with a tentatively hopeful look on his face. She rolled down her window and gave him two quarters she hurriedly dug out of the bottom of her purse. And when he took them and said, “God Bless,” she was too flustered to notice the sarcastic note in his voice.

They pulled up to her house, and Tony didn’t respond when she leaned against and kissed him on the cheek. She no longer knew whether or not they had broken up, but he had made up his mind about something. He seemed to be made of stone as he sat gripping the steering wheel with both hands.

She got out of the car and walked to her door, but she didn’t hear him start the motor and drive away. She looked back and saw him staring straight ahead. Nothing remarkable caught her eye when she surveyed her neighborhood. There were parked cars, puddles in the curbs, cinder block, ranch houses and trees. Her neighbor, an anorexic twenty year old named Tammi, wasn’t out sunbathing in her pink bikini. Tony kept staring.  Her curiosity was piqued.

Linda got back into the car. He glanced at her long enough to register her return, and went back to staring straight ahead. She said, “What are you looking at?”

“The black birds,” he said.

She squinted up past the rear view mirror and saw a row of bedraggled starlings perched on a telephone line. They crowded against each other, rustled their wings and looked wet and miserable. There must have been a sun shower in the neighborhood while they were at the restaurant. A black bird occasionally took off to stretch its wings, but soon returned. His spot might be taken, and if it was the prodigal just shouldered his way back into the line at another spot. The starlings mostly ignored each other, but made sure that they remained huddled together with wings touching.

“Do you like the birds?” she asked.

“They’re okay,” he said, and then he took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

She wanted to remove it, but instead she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. When the car got too hot they went inside and made love in her bed. Their post coital drowsiness slid into a nap, and when she woke up Linda discovered that she was huddled tight against his hairy, sweaty body.

She gradually separated herself from him and rolled off the bed without waking him. He farted in his sleep, and she knew that she had made a timely escape. The faint whiff she got was familiar—she knew from ten years of experience that the man couldn’t handle beef, beer and beans at one go.

She padded in bare feet to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and as she shook ice cubes from a tray she made a mental note: the next time they went out on a date she would drive herself to their rendezvous.  He wouldn’t fool her again.