Jesus. 4:45 a.m. I’m sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark. Sucking down the first cigarette of the day. This whole thing started two days ago. But let’s start with the start.
“Marion, you’re too damn fat,” said Dr. Bower.
“I’m big boned.”
“Bullshit. How old are you? Thirty? Thirty-five?”
“Be thirty-four this year.”
“And I’ve been your doctor for every one of those years. You were a fat baby, a fat child, a fat teen, and now a fat man. You don’t take it off you’ll never see forty.”
“What ya got in mind?” I asked.
“Quit smoking, eat right, and exercise. I’m sending you to Phillip Frank. He’s a fitness trainer. He’ll help you out.”
My appointment at Phillip Frank’s Fitness Center was at noon which gave me time to grab a burger and beer at Walt’s French Bistro. The only thing Walt served that could remotely be considered French were the fries. Walt thought the name gave his ten stool lunch counter class.
“Hold the fries, Walt. Doc Bower’s got me on a diet. Said I’m too fat.”
“You ain’t fat, Marion. You’re just big boned,” Walt said as he slapped the patty on the grill.
“That’s what I tried to tell ‘em. He said nobody’s bones add up to 329 lbs.”
I ate the burger, drank the beer, light beer, and was at Phillip Frank’s Fitness Center by noon. Phillip personally met me at the reception desk. He stood about six-two and maybe weighed in at 130 lbs. including gym suit and running shoes. Phillip gave me a look of disgust and offered a limp handshake.
“You have workout clothes?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll give you a tour of our facility and you can pick up your gear this afternoon.
We’ll start tomorrow.”
“Gotta meet with my publisher.”
“You’re a writer?”
“More of a hack. Pays the bills.”
“Okay, day after. 5:30.”
“Boy, I don’t know. Afternoon traffic’s a bitch at that hour.”
“Mr.… ah…” Phillip consulted his clipboard.
“Marion,” I said.
“Yes. Here it is. Marion. Marion, I’m talking morning.”
“5:30 in the a.m.?” I said.
“Only time I can schedule you.” He pronounced schedule, ‘shed-jul’.
Phillip gave me the cook’s tour, pointing out various contraptions that would take the pounds off. One of the first things I noticed was everyone on, in, or by these machines were the Beautiful People. The men and the women were Phillip clones. They were pushing, pulling, and running on various devices. They strained, grunted, sucked breath in, blew breath out. Some with eyes closed, others with eyes bugged out. Another thing all had in common, they were drenched in sweat.
Phillip told me he’d have my fitness plan worked up along with a nutrition package when I reported back for training.
“You’ll need shorts, sweatshirt, gym shoes, socks, and… ah… you know.”
“No, I don’t ah know.”
“Athletic supporter. Jock strap, to use the vernacular. Surely you know what that is?”
“Of course.” This guy wasn’t going to get one over on me. “I told you I was a writer. I work with words.” Then recited the definition of vernacular.
Phil gave me his disgusted look again, told me I could get everything I needed at Crosstown Sports, and disappeared among his sweaty Beautiful People.
Crosstown Sports. The Sax Fifth Avenue of workout clothing. Designer everything. Again, nothing but Beautiful People beautifully shopping.
“Can I help you?” the Beautiful People sales girl asked.
“I need workout clothes.”
She gave me the same look Phillip offered and told me she’d have to special order for my size. That it would take a week. No returns, payment in advance.
“I gotta have this stuff day after tomorrow,” I told her.
“Sorry, can’t help you.”
“Could you tell me what it’s gonna cost?”
She went over my list glancing from list to me and back to the list.
“About three hundred dollars.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
I left Crosstown Sports and headed for the local Salvation Army store mumbling, “Three hundred dollars my ass.” They didn’t have shorts in my size but I found a pair of brown pin stripe suite pants that fit. Just needed the legs cut off. No gym shoes either. Picked up an almost new pair of white nurse shoes, the kind with thick crepe soles. Musta been one hell of a big nurse. Buried deep down in the sweatshirt pile was a green 4Xer with a lecherous looking Santa on the front asking if you’ve been naughty or nice. I had socks at home and didn’t inquire about a second-hand jock strap. Total bill, four dollars. Congratulating myself on the two hundred ninety-six dollar saving, I drove to a K-Mart store. Found the sporting goods aisle but not the athletic supporter section.
“Can I help you, sir?” the young Hispanic sales girl asked.
“Yeah. Need an athletic supporter.”
The sales girl looked at me quizzically and lapsed into Spanish, “¿Perdone?”
“El jock-o-strap-a-lone,” I said in my flawless Spanish.
“No comprendo, Señor.”
“Look, thanks anyway. I’ll just scout around a little more. Gracias.”
“De nada.” And she trotted off.
I couldn’t find anything. Instead, bought a pair of men’s medium jockey shorts, reasoning that, being about a hundred times too small, they should hold the old huevos in place.
So, this is why I’m grudgingly up at this ungodly hour. Forty-five minutes to the start of a new me. A life change, if you will. Actually I started last night. Picked up a pack of Camel Lights instead of Camel straights.
When I arrived at the Center, there were seven or eight Beautiful People waiting for the doors to open. All dressed in Beautiful People workout clothes. Each had a gigantic gym bag slung over a shoulder. I couldn’t imagine what they could have in those things. All my stuff fit in a Piggly Wiggly shopping bag. Piggly Wiggly has the best bags. The handles don’t rip out. The door opened and we filed into the reception area. When my turn came to check in, the reception lady said I had to wait for my group. Didn’t know I had a group.
Five minutes later a big boned woman and a big boned man came waddling in. Ah, my peers. My comrades of the gastric pleasures. My group. At least, I think three people with a combined weight nearing half a ton constitutes a group. Phil met our group and told us to go to the locker rooms and change. Then meet him in the gym.
“Name’s Marion,” I said to the man changing next to me.
“Dale,” said the big boned guy.
We’re the only ones in the locker room. Phil probably wants to keep us segregated so the others don’t catch our disease. I think the American Medical Association has determined obesity to be a disease.
“How long you in for, Dale?”
“What?” he said.
“I said, how long you in for? My doctor said I gotta loose a buncha fat. Figure I’ll have to do a year.”
Dale laughed. “I guess I’m about the same, unless I have a growth spurt. Right now I’m about the same weight as Shaquille O’Neal. He’s just taller.”
“Come on, people!” Phil yelled into the locker room.
Our group assembled in the gym. The far end of the gym. All the Beautiful People on their Stair Masters, rowing machines, stationary bikes, and other medieval torture devices, eyed us as we passed by. Some actually drew back, as the people drew back from the lepers in the Bible. Unclean! Unclean!
The woman in our group was dressed in a sweat suit. Dale had managed to find the appropriate uniform. I stood in my cut off suit pants, Santa Claus sweatshirt, white nurse shoes, and mid-calf black socks. I was having trouble with the jockey shorts. Maybe not that good of an idea after all. Phil gave me a critical appraisal but didn’t say anything.
“These,” he said, pointing, “are the electronic treadmills,” and demonstrated how one worked. “Push this button and it will start.” He pushed, it started. “This other button,” he continued, “is the speed button. Each time you push this button the mill speed increases.” Phil demonstrated until he was running, what I guessed to be, a sub four minute mile. He then pushed the stop button and dismounted. Dismounted like one of those eighty-five pound Russian girls dismount the balance beam in the Olympics. He stood a moment, as though waiting for us to applaud. We didn’t.
“Okay,” said Phil, “if you want to get on your treadmills…” We got on our treadmills.
“Now,” he said, “let’s start our machines.”
Just like the Indianapolis 500, ‘ladies and gentleman, start your engines.’ We did and the things started at a creep.
“Alright,” Phil instructed, “push the speed button six times. This will give you a brisk walk.”
“Why can’t we just walk around the gym?” the woman in our three person group asked. She was a rather pretty thing. About my age. Looked like Mama Cass. Well, Mama Cass then. Not Mama Cass now. ‘Dream a little dream of me.’
“Because,” Phil, who thought he knew the answer, said. “Look at yourselves. You people have no discipline. That’s why you’re in the shape you’re in. The treadmill won’t let you slack off. I’ll be back in thirty minutes,” and went to join his Chosen People at the other end of the gym.
“What a prick,” the Mama Cass woman said under her breath, as she sped up her treadmill.
My treadmill was sandwiched between her and Dale’s. “Pard’me?” I said, puffing a little.
“Prick! I said what a prick!”
“Name’s Jean. I’m a lawyer and we ought to class action that skinny S.O.B. for defamation.”
“Marion,” I said, now huffing with my puffing. “Nice to meet ya. What you here for?”
Jean punched her off button and stared at me like I was the dumbest thing she’d ever seen.
“Can’t get laid,” she said, punching her machine back on. “Haven’t had any in three years. Guys don’t want to screw fat chicks. So I’ve got to do something about it.”
“How much you gonna drop?” I asked.
“Don’t know. Just enough to get back in the game. How about you?”
“Outside of my doctor’s reason, no reason. But I think I like your reason.”
We were now both huffing and puffing along so the conversation trailed off.
CABLOOM! BLAM! What the… Dale had fallen off his treadmill. Was lying on the floor. Chin bouncing on the rotating track. I reached over and punched the off button on his machine.
“What happened, Dale? You all right?” I said.
“Not sure what happened. Must of got my feet tangled up. I can’t see them you know.”
I did know. Haven’t seen mine in years.
“I’m okay though. Give a hand up will you, Marion?” I helped him up as Jean came over.
“We should sue the manufacturer of this goddamn thing,” she said. “It should have an automatic cutoff or something.”
We all sat down on the edge of Dale’s treadmill and I introduced Jean to Dale. Phil came over, threading his way through the scattered exercise equipment.
“What are you people doing? You have another fifteen minutes,” he said.
“Dale fell,” said Jean.
“Is he alright?”
“Why don’t you ask him? Phil.”
“I’m fine,’ said Dale.
“Well, jump back on, people. Give me fifteen more minutes.” And Phil hurried back to the safety of his now sweaty Beautiful People. We punched our machines on and treadmilled a little slower for the remainder of our time.
“That guy’s a dork,” said Jean.
“Ah, he’s probably okay. Just doesn’t understand fat folks,” I said.
“Yeah, well I’m paying for a service and, fat or not, I’d like a little respect.”
When we finished our treadmilling (rat laps, Jean called them), Phil showed us how to use some of the other equipment. My favorite was the stationary bicycle. Like the treadmill, it teaches a lesson in life. Walk like hell, peddle like hell, and get nowhere.
When we were done with our workouts, Phil told us to grab showers and meet him in the reception area where he would give us our individual nutrition programs.
“I can’t live on this,” Jean said when she read the prescribed menus. “Everything is broccoli or skinless chicken breasts. Is this the best you can do?”
“Well,” said Phil, “as you can see, there’s also two power shakes a day. Quite good when you get used to them. Full of protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can also have all the coffee and tea you wish. See you day after. Same time. Ciao.” And Phil hustled back to the gym.
“Yeah. Ciao,” said Jean. “That’s what I want, chow. You guys wanna get a coffee? I don’t have to be in my office for another couple of hours.” We easily found a coffee shop and settled in.
“Ah, Jean,” said Dale. “I don’t think Phil meant a double latté with whipped cream.”
“You’re missing the point,” I said. “You’re the one who wants to get screwed.”
“And you?” said Jean.
"I just need to get rid of this fat.”
"Me too,” said Dale. “You know I’m only thirty-one and move around like I’m sixty-one. I sell cars for a living. Subarus. Can hardly get my fat ass in those little Jap bastards.”
“Maybe you should consider selling Cadillacs,” said Jean.
“Maybe we should all cut the crap and face it.” Dale said. “We’re unhealthy. You wanna pack it in after the first day, fine by me. I’m sticking. But, damn it; I could use your help. Not having to go it alone. You saw how all the skinny people hang together. Why can’t we?” Dale earnestly looked at us.
“Sorta like the 12 steps,” I said.
“If you wanna look at it that way. Juiceheads meet in church basements, we meet in gyms.”
Jean put down her half finished latté, signaled the waitress, and ordered a cup of black coffee. “Okay,” she said and held her coffee cup as a salute. We clinked cups. “To getting laid,” she said.
“To getting into Subarus,” said Dale.
“To getting back to smoking Camel straights,” I said. DSS
Matt LeShay, 71, of Culebra, Puerto Rico, is a writer whose work has been published in the San Juan Daily Star and Down in the Dirt magazine. He's also been a farmer.
Good story, right? Sounds true, with the names changed to protect the guilty. Keep Downstate Story finding and publishing these fascinating stories. Donate here.
It’s so hot that even the flies are staying in the shade and not attacking the platter of barbeque ribs my sister put out in the middle of the picnic table. Their sauce glistens in the sun as slick and shiny as my forehead.
I fan myself with a folded newspaper and wonder what I’m doing here. Since my mother died, I hardly visit. Two months ago it seemed like a good idea to come down to southern Illinois for a short vacation, to reconnect with twice-removed cousins and vague “aunties” whose blood ties to me are very diluted.
My sister, Cheryl, is big on reunions and I came back mainly not to disappoint her. She organized everything but, sadly, couldn’t control the weather and we all sit on lawn chairs, motionless except for the steady flick of our wrists as we try to fan a breeze. The day has peaked with a heat index of 106.
I’ve forgotten the oppressively hot, humid summers in southern Illinois. It’s a heat that slows the blood, quickens tempers and frays relationships. I tell myself I’m not going to succumb to it.
My sister chose Cahokia Mounds State Park for the reunion. It’s become a fancy historical site with an interpretive museum. Our tables are spread in the shade at the foot of Monks Mound, the largest mound in the park. It’s shorn of trees and high grasses with a well-constructed staircase leading to the bald top but we’re all too hot and too old to be climbing ten stories just to overlook corn fields and get a glimpse of the Mississippi.
When we were kids our church picnics were held here and I wonder if that’s why my sister chose this place. The mound wasn’t manicured then and my friends and I would scramble up its steep sides, pushing through the tall grasses, avoiding the young saplings, the thorny shrubs and the snakes sunning themselves on rocks. I’m seven years older than my sister and what I remember most clearly about those picnics is how often I ditched her, not wanting to be slowed down by a five year old and how hard she tried to keep up with me.
I watch her now as she flips veggie burgers on the grill and chats with Vida Mea, who may be our fourth cousin, twice removed and whose son is a vegetarian.
“I just can’t imagine not eating meat,” Cheryl says. “Why, my sister makes the best bacon buns --- buns to die for.”
It’s at the tip of my tongue to ask her, “Do we have a sister I know nothing about?” But she stares straight at me and continues. “I was going to ask you to make some for the reunion but I know they wouldn’t keep for the trip and all. But they really are the best thing I ever ate.”
I almost blurt out, “I’ve never made a bacon bun in my life” when I realize what’s happened.
As my mother got older, she came to stay with me for the winters and fell in love with bacon buns made by a local bakery. When she returned to southern Illinois, I would freeze packages of the buns and send them to her with other baked goods. I realize she told my sister that I made them, not bought them, but made them.
That’s just the way Mom was. She unwrapped the poppy seed coffee cakes I sent and took them to church as her own creation. For years, she served a delicious pound cake with fresh fruit and whipped cream. When we asked for her recipe she was vague and we backed off thinking we had time to get it.
It was only after she died and I was cleaning out her house that I found five packages of store bought pound cake buried under the steaks and chickens at the bottom of the freezer.
In a small way they represented the deceptions that peppered my mother’s life. My sister could not tolerate them and they cast a shadow of contention between them. She always saw them as lies.
"Oh, they’re social white lies” I’d excuse Mom.
“No,” she’d answer. “They’re lies.”
After every holiday they spent together, I’d receive a flurry of calls and petty complaints from each of them.
From my mother: “You won’t believe Cheryl’s tone of voice when she speaks to me. I know she hates to have me visit. The house is a mess – cat hair all over the place. I get up early and sit there until they crawl out of bed at eleven. Why she takes her shower at noon!”
I tried to mollify the complaints, “Cheryl’s got a clipped tone – it’s just the way she talks. You’re there to spend time with them - don’t worry about the house. They both work and like to sleep in on week-ends; you can make coffee and read the paper until they get up.” All my attempts would be greeted with a long sigh.
Then from my sister: “She just gets here and she rarin’ to go home. It’s like I’m holdin’ her prisoner. I made a really nice beef tenderloin with that there horseradish sauce – you know how much she likes beef – and she’s picking at the sauce saying it’s curdled. I just can’t never do anything to please her.”
I’d answer: “Well, mom’s old. She’s most comfortable sleeping in her own bed. And you know she takes pride in her cooking; she can’t admit to any competition. Maybe you should just not try so hard to please her.” And there’d be a grunt at the other end of the phone.
I watch my sister now and she’s in her glory. She’s wearing a powder-blue sleeveless top and pedal pushers with the front crease ironed to military precision. Her long hair shines with that Merlo wine color that you can only get by using a good hairdresser. The paper plates, napkins and cups all match and she’s even made blue glass bead bracelets as favors for the women to take home. She’s cooked all the food and sets out ice packs for the potato and the macaroni salads. The coconut cake is on the table but the mile-high lemon meringue pies are still in the cooler.
Vida Mae slides up to me and asks, “So, how do you make your bacon buns? Can I get the recipe?” I shrug and vaguely mumble, “Oh, you just fry the bacon not too crisp, drain it and then wrap it in a buttery dough.”
My face wrinkles in a frown. What am I doing? I ask myself.
“Is that so?” Vida Mae says as she steps back and reaches for an icy Dr. Pepper. I can tell she’s convinced I’m hoarding the recipe and I realize that our family dynamics roll on. DSS
Grazina Smith, 72, of Chicago, IL., is a law office manager whose work has been published in several magazines and books, including Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul. She was born in Lithuania, and didn't learn English until she was eight years old.
This story about family relationships has an interesting twist. To keep these good stories coming, donate here to Downstate Story.
As I twisted the key in the front door lock the phone was ringing.
"Is this Martin Abramson, the lawyer?" The man sounded like he was crying.
"This is James Molina." No, the voice sounded more drunk than crying. Maudlin drunk.
"James Molina?" The question mark in my voice was unmistakable.
"Yes, Judge," he accented the word 'judge,' "James Molina."
"Oh, Judge." What do I say to a judge I knew only because I argued one insignificant case before him. That was in Detroit. That was six years ago. Now here he was on the phone. It was Friday night. Ten p.m. And he was calling me at home in Ann Arbor. He sounded drunk, well, almost drunk. I wasn't quite sure.
"Martin, I was in Ann Arbor tonight." There was a long pause.
"How are you, judge?"
"Fine, Martin, fine. Really I'm fine. You know, Martin, you're very good attorney. A good attorney and a good man, too. I wanted to tell you that."
"Thank you, Judge." Was I supposed to call him James? Certainly not, Jim. I don't think he heard me anyway. He kept talking.
"I wanted to tell you that. There's something else I wanted to tell you, too. I hope you don't mind."
* * * * *
I'd only been out of law school about a year. Art, my boss, had arranged the meeting with Molina. That was six years ago.
"I lunched with Judge Molina today," Art had said.
I said nothing.
"He wants to give you a case. It's a First Amendment case and he asked me who could handle that kind of legal issue."
"He wants to meet you first to be sure. He wants to see for himself if you're smart enough. Don't be intimated by the guy. He puts on a tough-guy act, but he's really a lamb, a very decent one-time civil liberties guy.
I nodded. Art continued.
"His First Amendment issue is bullshit. Twenty years ago he was president of the National Lawyers Guild. Never grown up. So he still believes in bullshit, bullshit issues.
"Thanks for the case, Art. Thanks for getting me the case. You're a good man."
I sat in the back of the courtroom. Molina was a small man. Very small but with a handsome chiseled brown face, Ricardo Montleban in miniature. His raspy voice sounded about six feet two. He was presiding over a jury trial and after he finished instructing the jury, he invited me into his chambers. He asked me what I thought about a particular case which he cited by name. I didn't know exactly what he was trying to determine by the question but as our meeting continued, it was clear he'd prepared for it. His questions were tart, pointed, and they were hurled at me in an unrelenting stream. At the end of it all, he just stood there looking at me dead in the eye saying nothing until I felt so uncomfortable that the only course open to me was to stumble backward out of his courtroom.
Almost two weeks later, Art called me into his office. The case assignment had come in the mail. It said: Pierre Saint Jean-Bey (Appeal). Art handed it to me, said "You passed the Molina I.Q. test," told me to sign the appearance of counsel affidavit, and go over to the courthouse and get Molina's signature as well as a copy of the trial transcripts.
I went during the lunch hour when I knew Molina would not be on the bench, but probably in chambers. He shook my hand warmly.
"The First Amendment is one of the most important in a free society and even this stupid asshole Saint Jean-Bey deserves its protection."
Molina wove his First Amendment theory to me. Saint Jean-Bey was a black separatist, a member of some obscure religious sect that believed the courts of the United States had no jurisdiction over its members. Molina referred to some early nineteenth century treaty that seemed to support the claim.
Saint Jean-Bey had been tried in Molina's courtroom for rape – the statutory rape of his very beautiful thirteen-year old stepdaughter.
At trial, Saint Jean-Bey had refused to let a lawyer represent him. Molina had even offered to appoint the lawyer of Jean-Bey's choice. Saint Jean-Bey had refused to state whether he wanted a jury trial or whether he wanted to waive one. His response to any question asked him in the court was always the same:
"This proceeding means nothing to me."
Though the proceeding meant nothing to Bey, there was a trial.
The prosecution presented his evidence. Saint Jean-Bey sat silent. The jury found Bey guilty. Molina never could figure out whether Saint Jean-Bey wanted to be tried by the jury or the judge alone, so to "protect" the record in the event of appeal, he stated after the jury reached its verdict:
"I have listened carefully to all the evidence presented. I have evaluated it carefully. I have considered only the evidence presented in open court. I find as the jury found. I believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Pierre Saint Jean-Bey is guilty of the rape of Tiara Saint Jean Bey."
That way Molina figured Saint Jean-Bey had had both a jury trial and a bench trial – both concluding guilt.
By the time I was standing there talking to Molina, Saint Jean-Bey had been in Jackson Prison for eight months.
"Look, Mr. Abramson, maybe Saint Jean-Bey is tired of Jackson Prison. Maybe he doesn't like it so much. Maybe he's a little less religious now. I don't know. I don't care. Don't you come back here and ask me for a new trial because he didn't get to put on his defense. He didn't get to put on his case because he wouldn't accept a lawyer. I begged the guy to take a lawyer. I told him the state would pay for a lawyer. I told him I would let him pick any lawyer he wanted. I told him if he wanted to dig up Clarence Darrow out of his grave, I'd appoint him Darrow. Anybody he wanted. Hear me. Anybody. He waived it. He waived his right to an attorney. He knowingly waived his Constitutional right. I gave him the opportunity. The record is clear. I won't give him a new trial now. Don't come here. And the Court of Appeals will uphold me. I have no doubt about it."
I had read the record. The judge was right.
Molina continued. "He's got one issue, Mr. Abramson. It's for the Court of Appeals. That's where you'll take it. Don't come here with that one either. I won't decide a Constitutional issue. It wouldn't be right. This is a trial court. I don't know how good an issue it is but it's an issue. Take it to the Court of Appeals."
I hadn't researched it yet but it didn't sound like much of an issue to me. My intuitive sense told me that. When I did research it, I agreed with Art's more seasoned intuition: it was bullshit. Even if I argued it before a Court of Appeals comprised of three radical ex-Lawyer's Guild presidents, it was bullshit. Since Courts of Appeal were typically peopled by right wingers, I'd probably be happy if they would stop laughing soon enough for me to retire from the legal profession with some dignity intact in about twenty-five or thirty years.
I visited Saint Jean-Bey at Jackson Prison. He was wearing a white robe and a little round embroidered cap, the clothes that separated him from us. To my surprise, Saint Jean-Bey was a refined, handsome, forty-five year old man who was articulate and consciously soft-spoken. Without the white robe, the cap, and the black skin, he looked a whole lot more like a judge than Molina.
From our first meeting I began to implant in Bey's mind that he should accept an attorney if he got a new trial – which I believed a very unlikely possibility. He wanted to explain his religion to me. I didn't let him. He tried to tell me about the treaty that made the courts without jurisdiction. I cut him off. He did say, "I am a religious man. I am a good man. I have instilled my family with belief. In my religion, Mr. Abramson, we do not rape small children."
"And Tiara is lying." A slow serene smile whispered across Saint Jean-Bey's face. He leaned back, not forward. "She is my daughter. I have married her mother and I have accepted Tiara as though she came of my own flesh. I would not slander my own flesh."
I knew a jury would like this man.
His First Amendment issue was bullshit. Molina wouldn't listen to an argument that he didn't get to present his case at trial. That's what Molina had said . . . but would he? I had the original police reports delivered to my office. Since I knew I had no chance at the Court of Appeals, I was looking for some hook so that I could approach Molina. Among those reports was a medical examination conducted by a Doctor Bernard two weeks after the rape occurred.
"Tiara Saint Jean-Bey is a light complected, physically mature black girl of 13. Upon examination, no sperm was found in the vaginal area. She has a small marital hymen."
I had no idea what a small marital hymen was, but I knew Doctor Bernard could tell me.
It was evidence, not conclusive evidence, but evidence that two weeks after the rape, Tiara Saint Jean-Bey was a virgin. Doctor Bernard signed an affidavit saying just that.
I asked Art, "Well, should I go ask Molina for a new trial – even though Saint Jean-Bey didn't defend himself at the first trial?"
"Sure, you should. Don't believe it when Molina says 'Don’t come back to me.' He'll listen to your argument. He does what is right."
I briefed Molina's First Amendment issue. Fourteen typed pages of abstruse intellectual nonsense decorated with the correct high-falutin constitutional phrases. Maybe Molina would, after all, like to decide the case on Constitutional grounds.
I also gave him Bernard's affidavit and the newly discovered-evidence-my-client-therefore-didn't-get-a-far-trial dance. I argued that the prosecutor – knowing Saint Jean-Bey didn't have an attorney – had a "higher duty" than in other cases. He had evidence in the police report "tending to show" that Tiara Saint Jean-Bey was a virgin and that he, the prosecutor, had a duty in this particular case to present that evidence to the jury.
The prosecutor bristled when I presented that argument to Molina. And the prosecutor responded:
"Prosecutors do not have a duty to go to extraordinary efforts to produce and introduce misleading evidence that might help a jury to free an obviously guilty man."
He half-turned toward me and lowered his voice only a little. "There are facts about this case of which defense counsel is unaware." He turned back to face the judge full-front. "Saint Jean-Bey waived counsel. He is an intelligent man. He did so knowingly. He did so for religious reasons. Perhaps his religion also instructed him penance was owed and Jackson Prison was the best place to pay off society's debt and . . . assuming he is the religious man he claims to be . . . God's debt. Good prosecutors don't help guilty child rapists avoid their punishment. . . . the punishment they themselves believe is due and in fact not only want but actively seek."
"Anything further from either counsel?"
"No, your honor."
"No, your honor."
Mr. Abramson, would you please approach the bench?" Molina turned toward his court reported. "Let's go off the record." She took her hands off the keys. The prosecutor followed me to the bench.
"Mr. Abramson, I'm not telling you how I will rule. I haven't made up my mind. But if I were to accept your argument . . . well . . . some of your arguments . . . if I do grant Mr. Bey a new trial . . .would Saint Jean-Bey accept the appointment of counsel? If I do decide to grant your motion, I'll give him a good one. If I do rule in your favor, you and I can decide who?"
"I think so, your Honor. I've been working on him." Herman simmered.
"I think so isn't good enough, Mr. Abramson." Herman looked hopeful. "No counsel, no new trial. I won't even take the time to consider whether I'd grant the man a new trial. I'll tell you what I won't do. I will not force this prosecutor to introduce your doctor's report. Mr. Herman conducted himself properly in the first trial. His point is valid. Evidence, which might appear to be credible on its face, may not, in fact, be credible. There are things about this case you do not know. Doctor Bernard has not stated that the girl is a virgin. He said she might be a virgin. If Saint Jean-Bey – through his own attorney – wants to introduce that report, that is his right. Mr. Herman can then cross-examine the good doctor. But I will not force Mr. Herman to introduce that report."
Molina turned toward the court reporter. "Back on the record. Mr. Abramson, I'm going to grant your motion for a continuance of this hearing. Even though you have not made such a motion, I know you were about to. I'm going to adjourn the matter for two weeks at which time you can present further argument . . . if you wish."
* * * * *
I was back in two weeks. Saint Jean-Bey had agreed to an attorney, and I felt pretty sure the new trial would be granted. The trial would automatically be assigned to Molina as he had conducted the first trial. It would be a fair trial . . . . fair in the sense that defense attorneys used that word . . . . that is that debatable questions of law would be resolved in favor of the defendant. Molina was about as liberal as judges could be and still get appointed to the bench.
Molina made his ruling:
"Had the jury been presented with Doctor Bernard's testimony, they might have reached a different result. It is the jury's province to determine what is true. That is done through competent evidence presented in open court. I have my own beliefs as to what is or is not true, but my personal beliefs are irrelevant. That is as it should be."
Further, I appoint as attorney for Pierre Saint Jean-Bey: Larry Schwartz. I have been informed by Mr. Abramson that Mr. Schwartz will accept the assignment."
I smiled broadly. It was wired. Schwartz was the lawyer. Molina was the judge. Saint Jean-Bey would walk.
As I began to walk out of the courtroom, Molina's words stopped me.
"Finally, I am disqualifying myself from any further proceedings in this case. The case is assigned for trial to Department 12, Judge Sullivan."
I didn't know Sullivan.
"Who's he," I later asked new counsel Larry Schwartz.
"Sullivan, who's he. You really want to know? He's a pig. That's who he is; 100% pure pork. Pig meat. Every ruling will go against the defense. He thinks a fair trial is one where the defendant isn't lynched until after the trial is over. That's fair. You get hung at the end, not the beginning. Fair is that if a trial is held, the defendant is found guilty."
Larry's office was in an old building in Greektown. Rundown. Shabby. Winos did not hesitate to sleep in the doorway. It was an office, though, with history. Assignment of the case to Larry was, in reality, assignment to Larry and Irv. Irv was the grizzled old man – age 36. Larry was the rising star. The office had an apprenticeship history; always one grizzled old man and one rising star. In time, the grizzled old man would move to California, become a judge, disappear into the Canadian wilderness, do a little time in prison with his former clients, or wind up stuffed into the trunk of a Cadillac out at the airport.
The rising star he sired would replace him and sire a new rising star. For almost 50 years it had been that way. Stars rose very fast and grizzled old men didn't last very long. It was that kind of business. Very serious stuff.
No matter who a trial was assigned to, no matter who would actually conducted the trial, Irv and Larry prepared every case together. I watched as they went at each other.
"The girl is a whore. That is the picture. Got it. That's how you paint her. If she weren't a whore, she wouldn't have gotten raped, right? That's how to try this case."
"But, Irv, this is a sweet-looking little thirteen year old girl. I've seen her. Checked her out. She looks sweet." I think I want to play it subtle . . . just suggest she may be a little wild, a little trampy underneath that sweetness. Let them conclude . . . ."
"Juries don't conclude, Larry. You conclude. And you tell them what truth is. You conclude for them. Don't make them think. Do you know just how fucking dumb a jury is? You're not talking to actual people in that courtroom. You're talking to jurors. That's twelve ignoramuses. Do you know what you get when you take one stupid juror and multiply by twelve? Twelve ignoramuses. Wrong. Not twelve ignoramuses. No. You get twelve-prime ignoramuses. Prime like in numbers – one hundred forty-four. May that's square. Square, prime, who gives a flying. The point is . . . what I'm telling you is that there is a geometric principle at work here. Collective ignorance. You understand. No addition. That's not what we're talking about here. We are talking multiplication. She's a whore, I say. Simple, no? Girls who get raped are whores. If she weren't a whore, she wouldn't have gotten raped."
"Irv, this is statutory rape. It doesn't matter if she consented. She can't consent. She's underage. He'd be guilty anyway."
"Better. She's a whore and . . . and he didn't do it. Got it. You appeal to their emotions, Larry, their emotions. Don't tell me what the law it. It's the best defense there is . . . that he didn’t' do it and so what if he did. You want be subtle. You subtle get the "so what defense" past that prick fascist judge. That's how you be subtle."
Back and forth it went. In the end, it was Larry's case to try and he would do it his way: low key, don't attack the girl. She was beautiful and believable but so was Saint Jean-Bey, and Larry would be betting that Saint Jean-Bey would at least break even in the "who do you believe contest" and then he would argue reasonable doubt. That is if you, you jurors, are unsure then the close call goes in favor of the defendant. And he knew the judge – even Sullivan – had to instruct that way.
I went to the trial, sat at counsel table with Larry. As expected, Tiara Saint Jean-Bey was lovely, demure . . . believable. Her direct testimony ended. Larry sat at counsel table studying her for one dramatic slow minute. He rose.
"I have no questions for this witness, Your Honor." It was the hardest thing for an attorney to do – ask a witness no questions at all. It required the humbling recognition that no points could be scored against the witness.
Sullivan hammered his gavel against the bench.
"The court will recess until 1:00 p.m. for lunch. We will resume promptly at 1:00 o'clock for testimony from the defense."
Larry disappeared with his client for the final primping before Saint Jean-Bey would take the stand to deny his guilt. It would then be his credibility versus her credibility plus the doubt-casting small marital hymen and the presumption of innocence on his side of the scoreboard. Not great odds but pretty good odds. I ate a withered courthouse cafeteria salad. I was the first one back at counsel table, wanting to watch the jurors as they entered the courtroom. Larry gave me a hard poke in the ribs. His client was not with him.
"That asshole," Larry seethed quietly, shutting out the jury with his back. Larry pulled me into the hall with him, away from the eyes of the jury.
"He isn't going to testify."
I looked at Larry with baffled shock.
"You want to know why, I suppose. Well, I don't know why. I'll tell you what he said. I'll bet you'd like to know what that asshole said. I didn't believe it, so I said would you please repeat that for me. He did. And so I said would you say that again please for me, asshole. And I wrote down what he said. Just to be sure I got it right." Here.
Larry slammed a crumpled up piece of yellow legal pad into my hand.
"What did you get me into with this asshole?
Good attorneys hated to lose.
I uncrumpled the yellow legal paper. In Larry's angriest handwriting it said: 'I will not slander my own flesh.'
Larry was absolutely crazed. "There you are. That's why. I hope that asshole likes my closing argument: 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Let me get right to the point. My client is an asshole. In fact, the biggest asshole I have ever met in my life. I think you should convict this asshole. Whether or not he rapes little children . . . is . . . irrelevant. This man, the accused, is an asshole. He belongs in Jackson Prison. I stand before you now, begging you: Please convict this asshole."
Saint Jean-Bey strolled right up calm as candy, opened his hand palm upward, gesturing us through the courtroom door. He held it delicately open for us.
"Your Honor, my client will not be testifying. Defense rests. We are ready to present closing argument."
It was not the closing argument he gave in the hall. He argued the skeptical hymen and reasonable doubt. Didn't even mention Tiara Saint Jean-Bey. Never cast doubt upon her testimony. Didn't even say her name.
When Larry returned to counsel table, Pierre Saint Jean-Bey rose. The handsome black man grasped Larry's hand in both his and said sonorously "Thank you." The jury saw it, heard it. That, plus his good looks and calm bearing was Bey's "testimony."
The jury returned to the courtroom less than twenty-five minutes after instructions from the bench. Legal lore has it that the longer a jury is out, the greater the likelihood of acquittal. Larry glanced at Saint Jean-Bey. He leaned over and whispered to me: "Here it comes."
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdict?" asked Judge Sullivan. The collective breath holding in the courtroom was always the same after those words got spoken.
"How then say you?"
"Your Honor. We find the defendant . . . . . not guilty."
Larry looked in shock. Saint Jean-Bey rose up slowly. Piously. Almost as though he knew all along.
Outside the courtroom Saint Jean-Bey and Larry were in quiet rapt conversation. Bey shoved his hand hastily, nervously into his pants pocket looking through the tiny courtroom window into the now empty jury box.
"Congratulations, counsel," I said to Larry.
"Screw you. That phony just hit me up for fifty bucks. All the shit he gave me prepping this trial. All the time I spent. Court appointed. Wonderful. State pays me $12 an hour and then I lend that two-bit hustler fifty bucks. I'll never see that fifty again. He's a phony and he's a rapist. I say he did it." Larry was still angry at Bey for not taking the stand but soon he would be back at his office and proud of victory.
I don't usually touch men but I put my arm around Larry's shoulder. "Congratulations. Good job. You're a good man." And, I believed that.
* * * * *
"David, I hope I'm not disturbing your weekend." Molina continued our phone conversation.
"No, Judge, not at all."
"Well, David. You do read the daily Free Press, don't you?"
"Yes, I do, Judge."
"Well, I just wanted to tell you there's something in tomorrow's Free Press . . . well, I'm sure you'll see it tomorrow. That case we had together? There were two other children. A few years older. Two more stepdaughters. They wouldn't testify against him. Jenkins – from Family Services – did the investigation. He couldn't get the older ones to testify. And, Jenkins, he's a good man. Good with youngsters. Well, anyway, sorry to bother you at home like this on a Friday evening. Hope I didn't disrupt your weekend.
The article was short, buried on the third page: I started to read
The body of 51-year old Pierre Saint Jean-Bey was found in a pool of blood late last night. He apparently died of multiple stab wounds inflicted with a kitchen knife. The police have arrested 20-year old Tiara Saint Jean-Bey who neighbors say has lived with Pierre Saint Jean-Bey for at least three years at the address where the body was found. Police have not yet determined whether the victim and the accused were legally married and . . .
I put the paper down. DSS
David Alan Goldstein, 69, of West Linn, Oregon, is a retired trial and appellate attorney. His award winning short stories and poetry have appeared in many publications.This one is based on a true event, he stated.
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They say that some relationships are like sausages, you don’t want to look too closely at what’s inside them.
So when Chicago homicide detective, Paddy Morgan, asked me to help him with a murder a block away from my mother’s house on north Milwaukee Avenue, I was reluctant to get involved. I, Detective Joseph Bielack of the NYPD, was on vacation and visiting my mother. What did the CPD want with me?
“Come on, Joey,” Paddy explained, “it’s summer, and the worst time for murders, and besides, you grew up in the neighborhood. You know these people.”
After much persuasion by Morgan, I agreed to walk down the block to the Kazmerski house, the crime scene, and look it over – just on a consulting basis. Morgan would still be working the case.
North Milwaukee Avenue in the city of Chicago is largely a Polish community with a few other ethnic groups, such as Latvian, Ukrainian and Puerto Rican. It is a poor neighborhood with older frame and brick homes, small shops and businesses, but proud of its heritage. It has its own Polish newspaper, Polska Chicagaska, and every summer, the Polish Constitution Day Parade.
As the New York cop walked down the block, he tried to recall the local gossip his mother had related to him about the victim, Francis Kazmerski, an elderly man, and his young wife, Sonia.
Mr. Kazmerski had worked in a nearby printing factory until he retired, frugally saving every penny. When he retired, he bought a brick bungalow on Milwaukee Avenue.
He also arranged to marry a young Polish girl, an 18-year-old brunette named Sonia. He was in his sixties, and the differences in their ages made for a stormy marriage.
Also, he stayed home and puttered around the house while Sonia worked at a Polish delicatessen to supplement their savings. The gossip was that more-than-friendly attentions were paid the girl by the strong and hard-working construction men in the neighborhood.
The two detectives moved under the crime scene tape blocking off the Kazmerski house and went inside. The frail old husband was sprawled face down on the living room rug, while Sonia sat quietly at a dining room table, drinking water from a glass. The coroner stood up and greeted Paddy, and was introduced to Joey Bielack.
“Not enough murders in New York, you want to borrow some of ours, Detective?”
“That’s what I told him,” I said, jerking a thumb toward Morgan. “That’s a nasty wound on his head.”
“Yes indeed,” the pathologist replied. “It might have been from a weapon, or it could come from falling and smacking his head on the coffee table.”
“Any other trauma?” Paddy inquired.
“Small bumps and bruises all over his head. I can’t quite make out what from.”
I glanced over at Sonia. She wore a blue housedress and her brown hair was tied in a pony tail. She sat smoking a cigarette and watched them without interest. She looked more like a daughter than a spouse of the elderly gentleman.
“What’s her story?” I asked Morgan.
“Says she went grocery shopping this morning. When she came back, the door was ajar, and she found him like this.” Paddy gestured at a bag in the kitchen. “All bought this morning, just like she says. Patrolman we sent to the deli confirms her story.”
“Search for the weapon?” I asked.
“Negative,” Paddy replied, “all the kitchen utensils would have her prints, of course. Luminol on them shows no blood stains. Right now, the evidence (or lack of it) seems to support her version. Intruder comes to the door, maybe looking for money, gets angry and pushing the old gent inside, bashes him.”
“She’s an awfully cool customer,” Joey remarked.
“You told me it was a marriage of convenience,” Morgan said.
“Ah huh,” I replied, “and who wouldn’t want to believe a sweet young thing forced into marriage by old-country customs to an old coot! Mind if I look around?”
“Be my guest, that’s why we asked you here.”
I walked slowly through the house, as Sonia glanced up, eyeing me coolly. I checked the bedroom, bathroom, and wandered around the dining room. No red flags—no sign of a struggle. But the more I watched the young widow, the more uneasy I felt. In the kitchen, I looked into the shopping bag, which contained lettuce, pierogi, bread, butter, and a long Polish sausage, called a kielbasa. On the stove was a large pot filled with water, and one dish stood in the drainer. On a hunch, I pressed on the foot pedal of the garbage can, and looked inside. What I saw made me smile.
Paddy ambled over to where I was standing. “Find something?”
I put on latex gloves and, reaching inside the garbage can, pulled out a long, crumpled outer skin of a Polish sausage. “Paddy, test this skin for her prints and her husband’s blood, and I bet you have your murder weapon, plus enough to charge her. Here’s what happened. She comes home with her groceries, and she sees a way out of her marriage. Maybe she’s already spotted a likely husband number two. The current guy is so old, this ain’t gonna be too hard. She wallops him from behind several times with the kielbasa, and he falls and busts his head open on the coffee room table.”
I saw Paddy looking at me with a raised eyebrow. “Oh yeah,” I continued, “she’s one smart cookie. So, she’s figured out how to get rid of the murder weapon.”
“No,” Paddy said, “you’re kiddin’!”
“Not at all.” I examined the sticky sausage skin. “She eats the kielbasa after cooking it, but before she can cook it, she has to peel off the outer skin; she can’t eat that with the old guy’s blood and sweat—she’s hygienic, see? So the skin goes into the garbage. She cooks and eats the skinned Polish sausage, and the murder weapon is gone. Unfortunately for her, the crime lab will find enough to link her to the killing.”
Poking their heads into the dining room, the detectives looked at Sonia, who stared back with cold disdain. Paddy leaned over to me. “You know, she’ll still be a looker when she gets out of the joint in about 20 years.”
“Why, you interested?” I asked the Chicago cop.
“Maybe,” he smiled. “She knows how to cook Polish kielbasa.”
“Sure,” I replied. DSS
Mardelle L. Fortier, 67, of Lisle, IL., is a writer and college instructor at College of DuPage and Benedictine University. She is the author of numerous published stories.
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“What’ll it be, Mac?”
“Scotch’n rocks. Name’s Mike.”
“Right,” says the bartender, his shirt unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up to, I suppose, to reveal his biceps. I’m sure we’re all really impressed.
I lay a twenty on the bar, loosen my tie and turn to watch as two couples work their way towards the piano clanging out a melody at the far end of the room.
I guess this is actually a lounge, although I’m not sure how you make that distinction, but the sign on the door says ‘Easy’s Lounge.’ So? So, who really cares?
“Here ya go, Mac.” He sets down my drink and I notice a tattoo on his forearm a black dagger encased in a red arrowhead.
As he scoops up my twenty, I point to the tattoo. “Delta Force?”
He makes a quick assessment of me, gives me a cold, solitary look and says, “In another life.”
Delta is the United States’ primary counter-terrorism unit. Makes me wonder why a Delta Force operative is schlepping drinks in Louisville.
An old man with suspenders and a cigar shuffles up to the bar and says, “Hey, Steve, beer.” He looks down the two stools at me and nods. I nod and turn away. The last thing I need is to get into a conversation with an old Kentuckian chewing a cigar.
Steve draws the old guy’s draft and brings me back a stack of ones. A goodbarkeep will always leave you cash for the tip. I take a sip. Not bad…
Who the hell has their corporate office in Louisville anyway? I should be home in Seattle with Sue. Bobby’s pitching tonight, and here I sit in GOD DAMN Louisville! I slam my empty glass down on the bar.
The old man turns my way. Steve is talking to the waitress and jerks his head around. “You alright down there, Mac?”
“Yeah sure, sorry about that, Steve.” I hold up my glass. “I’ll have another.” I learned a long time ago, if I stick with scotch I can last all night.
The place does look pretty nice; all done in light oak with what looks like walnut inlays, indirect lighting, glasses clean and hung all around. Steve keeps a nice bar. Oh Shit! Get a load of these guys: white shoes, no socks, chains, and, oh, that walk. Couple gay blades, if I ever saw any.
Steve sets my drink down. “Hey, Steve.” His eyes are always moving. I get the feeling he is searching for something he knows isn’t here. “You have anything to eat here?”
“I got a menu from the restaurant next door. We pass drinks and food back and forth.”
He smiles as he hands me a menu and says, “Pork chops are good.”
Hmmm, pork chops, but since it’s on the expense account I might as well have a steak. I look at the menu a second. “Why don’t you get me a rib-eye, medium rare, baked potato, and salad with Italian. And, Steve I think I’ll move down here to one of these tables.” I point to one of the small round tables near the wall.
“Sure, no problem, Mac. I‘ll tell Savanna.” He moves on down the bar.
“Uh . . . it’s Mike.” Oh, never mind. I leave the stack of ones on the bar, take my drink and the little cork coaster and move to one of the tables. There’s a pretty good crowd starting to form back around the piano.
Steve talks to the waitress. She looks at me, smiles and heads my way. Wow, she is cute. Short blond hair, blouse way too tight and skirt way too short. She’s what I’d call a tip magnet. She smiles and I notice an old scar on her cheek. Just enough to make her seem a little dangerous.
Hi, I’m Savanna,” she says, with a sweet southern drawl that somehow makes her seem even more adorable. “Steve says you’re a waitin’ on a meal.”
“And now you’ve made the wait worthwhile. I’m Mike.”
She twists a little and smiles even bigger. Now the scar is more obvious. “Well then, Mike, are you ready for another scotch-rocks?”
Holding up my half full glass, I reply, “I think I’m fine right now, but I’d appreciate it if you’d take this five and ask the piano man if he knows any Elton John.”
She turns a little, takes the five and gives me a wink. “Sure enough, sugar, I love him.” She leaves with a little hop. Just enough to give me a peek at her sweet little ass.
Three guys in tuxes come in. Hey, you guys late to the prom? They seem to know Steve. Before they even speak he’s setting them up drafts at a big table.
Oh shit, look at this coming through the door. Too much makeup, clothes too tight, wonder bra and six inch heels. Working girl. They got’em in Louisville, too. She glances down at me as she struts past. I smile and look away. Sorry, baby, that shit ain’t ever gonna happen. I stare down at my glass. The ice always seems so clean.
I feel my pocket vibrate. My cell. Maybe it’s Sue... Oh great, it’s the boss and he’s texting me. Now we text. He’s probably at his kid’s ballgame and too busy to call. See what he wants. Reading the message. Yeah. Yeah. I text back. Everything went fine today. Louisville is great, wish you were here.
What pisses me off is, we could have done this entire thing with conference calls and e-mails, but no, these rubes had to have a man on the scene. “Hey, Savanna, sweetheart, another scotch. Make it a double.” Let’s see-three hours difference, Bobby should be maybe into the second inning. Why the hell hasn’t Sue called? She could at least text. Hell, even Jack took time to text. God damn Louisville!
“Here’s your double, Mac, and I think ya’ll’s steak’s ready.” Savanna sets the drink down and turns back to get the food.
“Thanks, and it’s Mike.”
She returns with a covered plate and begins arranging the table. “Savanna, if you don’t mind my asking. Uh, how old are you?”
She straightens up, hands me a napkin and cocks her head like a puppy. “Why, I’m twenty-three.”
“Aw, well then, you don‘t have kids.”
“I have a little boy.”
“Oh, I didn’t see a ring, so I . . .”
The scar disappears as the smile runs away from her face, “Yeah.” Her eyes drift away. “Well, he’s gone.”
“Hey, look, I’m sorry. I. . . . I’m just away from home, I miss my family, and my twelve-year-old boy is pitching right now and . . . well, shit . . .”
She smiles. “That’s okay, Mac, I get asked a lot worse questions. Your steak’s a gettin’ cold.” She quickly moves away.
“Hey, it’s . . .uh . . .Mike.” Aw, what the hell.
I’m battling my steak when I notice the old guy from the bar standing in front of me. “Real smooth, Mac.”
I finish a bite and stare up at him for a second. I didn‘t notice before; the huge bags under his eyes and the absence of two front teeth. Obviously a NASCAR fan.
“Savanna,” He nods his head towards the waitress. “Real smooth.”
“Oh.” I smile. “That. You got me wrong, Pal. I wasn’t hitting on that kid. I’m not hitting on anybody. I’m just, kinda’, like a guy in prison; all I want is to do my time here and get back to Seattle. Sit down, I‘ll buy you a drink.”
“No, that’s okay. I just come here every evening, have two beers, go home, pat the old lady and watch TV. How’s the steak?”
“Ah, should a got the pork chop.”
“Yeah, I think when a horse loses at the track he ends up on one of these here plates.”
“Ha, that explains it. Sure you won’t have another beer?”
“Nah, two’s my limit and anyway, the old lady will be expecting her pat. And for the record. I didn’t think you looked like the type to be chasein' after a kid like Savanna.”
“Yeah, the only thing I’m interested in right now is chasing down old Seabiscuit here with some scotch.”
He turns, throws up a little wave and says, “Well, good luck with that.” He disappears out the big glass door.
Well, that’s enough of this also-ran steak. Think I’ll try and call Sue. Damn it, she should have called me. No answer. I’ll leave her a message. “Sue I’m sitting here in a bar in Louisville surrounded by beautiful women. I’m waiting on your call… What’s going on, pumpkin?”
I glance up and it’s Savanna, “How’s his game going?”
“Oh, I can’t get Sue and it’s killin’ me.”
“I‘m sure there’s a good reason.” She points to my plate. “Done with this?”
“Yeah, not that hungry, but I’ll have another double.”
She clears the table in one stroke, “Maybe she just forgot her phone.”
“More than likely didn’t charge it. She’s not good at remembering stuff like that.”
“There ya go. Be right back with your scotch.”
A cloud of brown smoke hangs just off the floor as the crowd around the piano seems to have mushroomed. Savanna works the room like a politician, smiling and talking with everybody. She navigates her way through the swarm of empty-glass patrons, keeping just out of reach of the few that may have been over-served. Arriving back at the bar she relays the orders to Steve from memory, picks up my scotch and hustles it to me, “Here ya go, Darlin’. Any word from Sue?”
“Nothing. Hey, you are getting a pretty good crowd back there.”
“Yeah, Berry really pulls ’em in.” She raises her head to listen, “Aw, Time in a Bottle, I love that one. I’ll be back.” And she’s gone.
Now what is this? She must have come in while I was watching Savanna walk away. Or could it be, I have had too much scotch? But it seems from out of nowhere, standing at the end of the bar, a goddess has appeared. Not a nymph like Savanna, but a gorgeous, seductive woman with dark, shoulder-length hair and dark wide-set eyes that seem to smolder. The almost transparent skirt that stops just above her knees rises slightly as she raises on tip-toes to whisper something to Steve. He quickly prepares a martini. She takes it and moves to the table next to me. I sit, mouth open, totally mesmerized by this queen of womanhood. What a babe.
I should say something to her. I mean we are both sitting here alone, not more than two feet apart. I’ll keep glancing at her. Maybe she’ll look my way. There now. Aw,Man, she looked right through me. Am I that bad, you can’t even acknowledge me as a person? I’ll just keep an eye on her.
She’s looking at her watch. Oh, that’s it, she’s waiting for someone. I should have known anyone who looks like that wouldn’t be just sitting in a bar all alone. Not somebody like that.
“Hey, Savanna.” She looks my way and I give her a little wave. She holds up one finger and carries drinks to the back of the room. I toss back the last of my double and turn to look at the enchantress to my left. She’s looking at her watch again. Man, she is so hot.
After several minutes Savanna shows up. “Another scotch, Mac?”
“Yeah, and get the lady here a martini, too.”
The babe looks at Savanna, shakes her head and says, “I’m fine, Honey.”
I just look at Savanna and shrug. She puts her hand on my shoulder and says, “How many have you had, Mac?”
"Oh, I’m fine, sweetheart. I can drink scotch all night.”
“Heard anything about the game?”
"No. God damn it. I otta be there!”
“I’ll get your scotch, but we need to slow down. Okay?"
I turn and the doll is looking at me. “My kid is pitching his first game tonight in Seattle and damn-it, I should be there.” She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t turn away either. “But, NOO, I have to be in Louisville because these ass-holes are too dumb to do a conference call or a tele-conference. They want a man on the scene, for two weeks. That’s all, just two weeks. Two weeks of holding their hands.” Oh shit, my big mouth. She is still looking at me. “Look, I’m sorry about that. Please excuse me.”
Not saying anything, she just glances at her watch and turns away. Now, that’s cold, but I suppose I had it coming.
The door swings open and she is silhouetted against the lights from the street. Now, this is a Hollywood profile and I’m pretty sure she knows it. Through the open door two Marines enter, both sporting artificial limbs. They march past us without looking around. As they near the rear of the bar the piano player bangs out the Marine Hymn and the patrons break into applause. A bald, black guy with no neck, sitting at the bar, announces, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Hey, Steve, whatever they want is on me.” Again the crowd claps.
I turn back to my fantasy girl and she is looking past me to the piano-bar. I can’t say that I have ever seen eyes that dark brown, that exciting. She is still sitting here all alone, but unlike me, she doesn’t look lonely. “Are you ready for that Martini yet?”
Without looking at me she glances at her watch again, shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not.”
I look around, “As soon as Savanna gets back up here.”
“Name’s Monica. You might as well join me at my table.”
“Yeah, sure. I’m, uh . . . Mac.” I pick up my glass and discreetly slide to a chair at her table.
“So, I hear you’re from Seattle.”
“Yeah, Seattle. It‘s in . . . uh . . .Washington.”
“Heard of it. Rains there a lot. Right?”
"Yeah, like almost everyday.”
“Wow. All that rain. What do you do?”
“Aw, well, we pretty much just let it rain.”
Her eyes sparkle as she laughs, a sexy laugh. “Oh that‘s pretty good. Are all the men in Seattle so funny?”
“No. I . . . uh . . . I think it is just me.”
“Oh, Mac.” As she laughs she puts her hand on my knee.
“Well, Mac, I see ya’ll found a friend.” Savanna is standing at our table.
“Savanna. Yeah, another double and a martini for the lady.”
Without taking her eyes off me, Monica says, “Make that with two olives, Honey.”
"Got ya.” Savanna turns quickly away.
“So, what brings Seattle’s funniest man to Louisville?”
Ten minutes ago she didn’t want to breathe the same air as I do, now she can’t get enough of me. Oh, well, it’s kind of nice. “I work for this big corporation and we are merging with a small company here. And, well, I’m the guy that does that kind of stuff.”
“So, I guess you’re a pretty important man?”
“Oh, I don’t . . .” She squeezes my leg. “YEAH, I guess you could say that.”
Savanna sets our drinks down and turns to leave. “Oh wait, Savanna.” Getting out a five I ask, “Monica, is there anything you’d like to hear from the piano?”
Her eyes focus on mine as she says, “How about the song by Rod Stewart, Have I Told You Lately that I Love You.”
Holding up the five, I swallow hard and say, “Savanna, uh . . . Have I . . .”
Savanna snatches away the five, “I heard her.”
I look around, “What’s the matter with her?”
I feel Monica’s soft finger on my cheek as she directs my face back towards hers.
Her perfume is enthralling as her face is only inches away. Her lips part gradually. My head is spinning, I’m dizzy and warm in places I had forgotten about. Should I kiss her? No. “Maybe we could go someplace.” I can’t believe I said that. “I . . .I have a room at the Hilton.” Who is this talking?
“Ooh.” Her voice seems deeper, more sultry. “That sounds wonderful.”
I dig out my company card, look around. “Savanna, check please.”
With the same soft finger, Monica pulls my face back around. “That’ll be five hundred for the night, sweetie.”
“What? What was that?”
"I promise, it will be a night you’ll remember the rest of your life and we can put it on that card.” Her tongue slips out and makes an ever-so-slow circle, causing her lips to glisten. At the same time her hand moves slowly up my thigh.
My mind is doing calculations, expanding on repercussions, evaluating options, as her hand reaches the top of my thigh. “How . . . How will it show up on the statement?”
“Stress Relief Workout. Now don’t you think your big corporation would want your stress relieved?” She moves closer and whispers in my ear, “And I promise, it will be the best you’ve ever had.”
My pocket starts vibrating. My phone. I check the number, it’s Sue. I look up at Monica, pause a second. As the phone continues to buzz. I turn away and press the button, “Sue. Bobby? Son, I’ve been trying to call. She left it in the car? Oh. Well, how did the game go? You struck out seven! Oh, man, I’m so proud, Bob. Listen, son, I woulda’ been there if I could. What? What? Let me call you when I get back to the hotel . . . Okay? Okay. Love you, Son, bye.” Son of a bitch, he struck out seven guys . . . Son of a bitch.
I’m sitting with my head down and I hear Savanna, “Did you get that call, Mac?”
“Yeah . . .I did . . .Just in the nick of time, too. Who in the hell asked Berry to play Cats in the Cradle?” I look around. “And where’s Monica?”
“I told her to take a hike.” She hands me a tissue. “Here. Wipe your eyes, Sport. Want me to put everything on this card?”
"I do. And hey, my name is Mike.”
She raises one eyebrow as she turns away. “Yeah, and so is Monica’s.” DSS
Tom Graham, 67, of Greenfield, Indiana, is retired from work in construction and as a Realtor. He has coached baseball and played Santa Claus.
This is a fascinating, well written story, and if you liked it, donate here to keep Downstate Story publishing other fine fiction.
Kathy left the doctor’s office with the prescription in her hand, wondering if she would get it filled. The thought of taking antidepressant medication was depressing. She was already depressed so the shift in mood wasn’t that big of a deal but even so, she didn’t like it. Her family wouldn’t like it either.
Dad would say, “There’s nothing wrong with you. Why do you need pills?”
Mom would say, “Once you start you’ll be an addict for the rest of your life.”
Her sister would say, “You’ll mask the symptoms and never get better.”
Her brother would say, “Pills are for sissies.”
But Kathy had tried everything else under the sun for the pain: Tylenol, aspirin, surgery, acupuncture, muscle relaxers, vitamins, shark cartilage, Chinese herbs, no wheat, no dairy, no food at all, physical therapy, talk therapy, massage therapy, therapy, therapy, therapy. Psycho-tropic meds seemed like the last resort before jumping off a cliff seemed like a good option.
Kathy threw the scribbled note for Zoloft on the passenger seat and headed home. Passing a Walgreens she found herself making a sudden right turn into the parking lot. The car behind her slammed on its brakes and the driver honked at the reckless driving. “F-you,” she shouted even though she knew he couldn’t hear.
She pulled into a parking spot and waited for her nerves to calm a bit then grabbed the prescription and headed into the store. After wandering around a bit to make sure no one in the store knew her, she slunk over to the pharmacy counter.
Fifteen minutes later the pharmacist rung up the purchase and asked politely, “Any questions about your medication today?”
“Uh, yeah,” she thought. “What the hell is this stuff going to do to my brain?”
Out loud she said, “No, thanks,” grabbed the white paper bag and practically ran out of the store.
Back in the car, Kathy ripped the bag open and pulled out the yellowish bottle of pills. Pushing down and turning, she took off the cap and pulled out a giant wad of cotton. She peered into the bottle apprehensively. Finally she tipped a few into her hand. They were a cheerful, pretty pink—the color of pillow-shaped mints in trays at fancy restaurants. Not scary at all. Even so, she was scared.
“Let’s think about the pros and cons,” she said to herself. Logic was always helpful in emotional situations like this.
On the pro side, if she took the pills the chronic pain in her lower back and left knee might go away. Maybe the stabbing pain in her right shoulder would go away, too. It would be great if she could carry the groceries to the car without the help of a sullen, pimple-faced bag-boy.
Maybe she could go for walks although she didn’t hold out much hope for ever being able to run again. Maybe she wouldn’t have five days a month where a migraine made her sick to her stomach.
That all sounded good.
On the con side was the fear of what it would do to her personality. The doc told her the medication wasn’t an opiate and wasn’t addictive, but she thought morphine might be preferable to something that messed with her mind. OK, morphine would probably mess with her mind, too, but still, an anti-depressant sounded really bad.
What if the drugs made her stupid? If she wasn’t Kathy-goody-two-shoes, ace curve-breaker, who would she be? In fact, what made Kathy “Kathy”?
Kathy had always been cranky and easy to anger; even before she had developed the chronic aches and pains. She had won the “Best Smile” award at summer camp because she never did. Her roommate in college told her to kill herself because everyone hated her. Kathy knew she didn’t have a great personality but at least it was hers.
It was getting stuffy in the car so Kathy cracked the windows and continued the debate with herself.
There seemed to be two options for the rest of her life. On the one hand, she could remain a geeky, anti-social, misfit in constant pain. On the other hand, she could be a pain-free, average person who might even smile sometimes. Put that way it seemed like a no-brainer. But still, option two seemed not much different from Kathy jumping off a cliff into the ocean; Kathy as Kathy knew her would be gone and some new, unpredictable creature would rise up from the water to replace her.
That did not sound good.
Still wondering what to do, Kathy shifted in the car seat to relieve the cramp in her back. As she stretched she twisted her shoulder, causing pain to shoot down her arm. Her hand started tingling as a trigger point pinched a nerve.
“Oh, what the hell,” she said to herself and swallowed a pretty pink pill, washing it down with bottled water.
The next two weeks were a blur. Kathy was drowsy at work and crawled into bed as soon as she got home, falling asleep in her clothes. Then, on the way out of work one day, she took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. On its own this was remarkable because she usually had her head down and her eyes fixed firmly on her feet in order to avoid unwanted eye contact and conversation. Even more strange, however, was that she noticed the beautiful blue of the sky. She felt the air on her cheeks, warm and soft. She smiled.
Over the next few weeks everything changed for Kathy. It was as if a medieval, chain-link cloak fell off her shoulders, leaving her feeling lighter than ever before. She stood up straighter and held her head high. Her dismal, shades-of-gray world suddenly turned Technicolor.
She found herself smiling at babies and dogs when she went for walks around the neighborhood. Granted, she forgot where she put her keys and she wasn’t able to concentrate on her full-factorial design of experiments for hours at a time, but it seemed like a fair trade-off. Generally things were looking up.
Kathy was, for the most part, gone. She would still erupt when someone pushed her buttons—like the idiots at work who dismissed her experimental results because they didn’t know the difference between a mean and a median—but most of the time Kathy was gone. In her place was someone else. This new persona decided that since she wasn’t Kathy, she needed a new name. She decided that starting tomorrow she would call herself Kathryn.
The next morning Kathryn showered, dressed, and put on her makeup. She opened the pill bottle and swallowed a pretty pink pill. It was as easy as jumping off a cliff to kill Kathy for one more day. DSS
Cathryn Goodman, 55, of Glen Ellyn, IL has been a technical writer, portfolio manager and engineering manager. This is her first fiction publication.
This story is likely a real truth teller. Keep these stories coming by donating to Downstate Story.
After lighting charcoal in an old Webber grill, Woods poured himself the first finger of bourbon and sat in the shade on the porch. It was just a matter of time now. Time and patience.
A thick and bloody T-bone sat in the dented Coleman cooler. The table in the corner was set. He left nothing to chance. He’d be finishing his supper just as the sun set. The bottle too—it had to be empty then. And, since his thinking was apt to be muddled at that point, everything had to be ready, here at the end of the road.
He gazed south across the cornfield. The color had drained out of the stalks this past week, silently slipped away when no one was looking. A cool evening breeze rustled across the dry blades. If he looked east, he could see the old cemetery where, at sunset this time of year, the rows of standing grave stones glowed like fire.
To the west, just past the corn field, the gravel road dead-ended at the entrance to the town dump. It officially closed years ago, but on occasion Woods would still see a pickup hauling a mattress, or a van going to dispose of who knew what, pass by. Whatever. He minded his own business.
His grandma would have made a fuss all the way to city hall, but she was long gone. Her garden beds were a tangle of thorns and weeds now; the trees, planted the day of her wedding, a cathedral of shade. His army fatigues flapped on her wire clothesline. It was private here, just past the edge of town.
Woods poured himself two more fingers of bourbon. He rocked back on the wooden chair legs until his head and shoulders rested against the rotten siding. The paint had begun its departure while Woods was still a kid—his grandpa had just stopped caring for things somehow after grandma died. And then, while Woods was off to war, his grandpa hung up his cane and died, leaving the place empty.
The bourbon warmed Woods as it went down, but it couldn’t touch the part of him that never thawed.
He got up to check on the coals and remembered to use a pot holder to grab the bare handle of the kettle lid. Halfway to gray from black. Not yet. He lowered the lid into place. He had time. Patience, too.
He filled his glass to the brim this time and sat on the porch steps. Supper would be simple. A rare steak. A sliced tomato. He would have finished it off with a fine cigar, but he couldn’t stand them. Peaches. That would be the finishing touch. Nothing like tree-ripened peaches. He wasn’t going to slice them; just bite right in and let the sticky juice dribble down his wrists.
His ears tuned to the sound of a vehicle coming down the road. His eyes found the trail of dust and followed it. A silver pickup drove slowly past his place. Not one he recognized, but that didn’t mean much anymore. He heard it stop, and a door open. Just another son of a bitch trash-dumper.
Not that Woods minded in particular, just in general. Used to care, he reminded himself sharply. But then, he had to admit, there was bounty to be had in dumpster diving, and it was a bonus when it was delivered practically to your door step. Hence, the chair on the porch, the dented cooler, even the Webber without an ash catcher. But still....
The truck door shut and the crunch of gravel began again. Woods held up his glass in a sarcastic salute as the driver slunk by.
Shadows stretched farther along the ground now. With a sigh, Woods set his empty glass on the step. Time to spread the coals. He could feel the warmth in his hands when he set the rack over them. Fall evenings sure cool down fast, he thought. Would it maybe frost tonight? Don’t matter.
He stomped out a spark that glowed in the dry grass under the kettle. He went inside for his army jacket and tongs to flip the steak.
He pulled the jacket on as he stepped back outside. From the porch he surveyed the tarp spread on the ground below. Laid out at perfect compass points were a rope, a knife, a revolver and five bottles of pills, none of which ever took away the pain. There was plenty of room in the middle of the tarp to spin the empty bottle. Just so.
Time to get this party started. Woods grabbed the thick steak and walked it down the steps to the grill. He glanced at the cemetery, stones aglow now, before he slapped the meat down and listened to it sear. In the quiet that followed, his thoughts returned to his childhood visits to this place, this refuge from ....
Behind him, there was a rustle in the corn. Reflexively, he dropped to the ground and reached for his sidearm, the sidearm that lay out of reach on the tarp.
"Shit. I’m letting myself get spooked and it ain’t even Halloween yet." He got up and dusted himself off.
He steadied his hands, then refilled his glass. The bottle was almost empty. He sat on the steps once again, where he could be closer to the heat of the grill.
The shadows of the trees were longest now, just before the sun set. Soon their bottoms would be in a dark mist while sunlight yet struck the upper crowns, a spectacular sight in the orange leaves of autumn, a sight he’d treasured once.
Again, there was a rustle in the corn. Woods dove for his gun this time. He rolled and came up with it aimed at the dusky innocent cornfield. His hand was shaking.
"Son of a bitch. Get ahold of yourself, Woods." He lowered the gun once he’d convinced himself there was nothing out there but the wind, but he kept a firm grip on it, just the same. He found the tongs and, left-handed, turned the steak over. The juices sizzled and the aroma stirred a memory of appetite.
He had dropped his glass in his leap from the porch, and the burnished liquid had spilled on the ground. He reached for the bottle, took the last swig, and stood, as on guard against the approaching night.
A noise. He raised the gun toward the sound. A whimpering? He could see something in the dark space between the rows of corn now, crawling on the ground. A child? Brown. Dirty. A pack taped to its chest. Or a bandage. Decide. Quick. He took aim down the barrel at the life that took shape before him. “Son of a bitch.”
He stepped forward, gun aimed.
“You dog.” Woods took another step toward the animal, sighting between its eyes. It was a young dog, maybe a year, maybe less. Its belly was on the ground. “I ought to ....”
Woods paused. He lowered the gun. “Go on. Get outta here.”
But the dog never stopped. It crawled in the dirt like it was in basic training. His eyes never left Woods." Any second now, Woods was going to have to kick it in the teeth with his no-nonsense army boots.
It was then, in a bright spot in the dusk, that he saw what was missing. Between the weepy eyes and the wagging tail were only three legs. The short stump of an ugly amputation signaled some painful trauma in its past, its dog’s life.
“Shit.” A small voice in Wood’s head told him the decent thing would be to shoot it, put it out of its misery. Another voice in his head told him to do the decent thing.
“Go on, git. You can’t stay around here.” He kicked some dirt at it.
It wasn’t until a small crack opened in his chest and his melting heart started seeping out in tears that Woods deviated from the mission.
“You son of a bitch.”
And then, even Woods had to laugh at the sheer truth of his utterance. He lowered the gun.
The dog, belly squirming on the ground, kept its eyes locked on Woods.’
“Oh, what the hell.”
He tossed the empty bourbon bottle onto the tarp.
“You hungry, boy? Come here. Come on, now. Let’s see if we can’t rescue that steak.”
Woods grabbed the still red beef and threw it on his plate to cool. He sat on the steps and coaxed the pup over until it was within petting reach. He rubbed it behind the ears and was rewarded with nuzzling and dog talk.
“You sure picked a hell of a time to show up, mutt. Doesn’t look like you had much say in it, though, getting dumped at the dump and all.”
Woods had both arms around the dog now and was getting the tears licked off his face as fast as they were falling.
“Well, I gotta call you something other than sonovabitch. How ‘bout Scooter?”
The dog whined.
“Nah, you’re right. No dignity in that. Makes me think of all those lazy ass people cruising around the Walmart.”
The sun slipped below the horizon and dark descended on the yard. Light from the kitchen spilled through a small window onto the porch. It was enough. Woods found the knife on the tarp and started slicing the steak, feeding most of it to the hungry dog. He went into the kitchen and came out with an overfull bowl,water splashing out as he navigated the screen door. Somewhere along the way, it came to him.
“Here you go, Tripod.”
Woods set the bowl down and the dog lapped it up in great gulps. When he’d had enough, he went back to Woods, who was sitting on the ground and leaning back against the porch steps. The dog nuzzled up next to Woods, who petted him steadily as he watched the lights fade out on the tombstones.
“You and me, Tripe . . .” Here his voice caught. “We both got some balance issues. We’re going to have to work on that.”
He dropped his gaze and saw the dog looking up at him, really looking at him, in a way no person had in years. DSS
Barbara Schmidt, of Laura, IL raises organic produce and eggs. She's written two novels, poetry and short stories, some prize winners.
It’s still snowing. If you were living in Point Barrow, Alaska, this constant snowfall wouldn’t be surprising, but on a downstate Illinois farm, these weather conditions were unusual to say the least.
No, wrong again. Point Barrow never had this much snowfall in a two week period. The temperature there is too cold for any sustained blizzard. Wait, that’s misleading. It isn’t a blizzard at all. The snowfall is gentle and beautiful. The pine trees edging the road would make a great Christmas card photo, if you had anyone to send it to.
It seemed a good idea to live isolated from humanity—a mile and a half to the closest neighbor, twelve miles to the nearest small town and forty-five miles to any resemblance to a bastion of humanity. That’ll teach you to be rereading Emerson and Thoreau. “Get back in touch with nature,” and “Live simply,” are good philosophical tenets, but not so good for practical guidelines for living. Even Thoreau was only a short path from civilization, having visitors almost daily.
You enjoy the solitude . . . at first, for about ten days, until restlessness sets in, until you start talking to yourself and answering, until you need some help when your car slides off the road into the ditch.
Part of the cabin’s appeal was being the last house at the end of this road, but that means also, the last one to get plowed out. You’ve got enough food to last another month if you don’t overeat, which usually isn’t a problem, but during the day there is not much to do, but overeat. You’ve got to be smart and not gobble up all your vittles, as grandma used to say, in more innocent times. That would be cause to panic.
No. Panicking is what did you the last time and the time before that. This time it’s going to be different. It’s not such a bad situation. You’ve got a cord and a half of wood on the porch, maybe a month’s worth of food.
It’s getting colder, not a day above freezing for at least a month.
But the snow is beautiful, floating gently down, glistening on the trees, giving a kind of pale blue sheen to the acres of the harvested corn fields. You can’t even see the chopped off corn plants any more. Even the tallest ones are covered. Some drifts cover the top of the fence posts.
You might be living in Antarctica except there are no penguins around. Some penguins would be nice, cavorting around the field, popping out of the pond to land standing on their feet. You can’t help but be happy to see those little guys waddling around or sliding on their bellies. It sure would break up the tedium.
When the snow reached three feet, the Post Office lady called to apologize for not being able to get the mail through and promised that they’d deliver it as soon as possible. Quite a change from the big city. On the other hand, so much for the “neither rain, nor sleet nor snow” business. Not that there ever was anything but bills and advertisements.
Occasionally, some of those ad models looked familiar, like some girl you knew or at least recognized from a class, or more likely from some bar. No big deal. It’s not like you were some big ladies man or something.
Calling to check on your neighbor would be the friendly thing to do, asking how he’s doing and so on, but since you never talked to him before, what would be the point? As far as that goes, he could call on yours truly if he wanted to. Aren’t you supposed to welcome new people to the neighborhood? He was probably mad that this “outsider” encroached on his privacy, and besides, what kind of kook would choose to live way out here in the boonies? Some kind of hermit? A misanthrope? He’s probably a creep. A friendly visit? Not gonna happen.
Wind’s picked up. Can’t even see the road, just a total white out. Getting dark in here, better turn on some lights.
What? Great, just what you need –no power. At least there’s no problem with the food in the refrigerator defrosting; just put it out on the porch. For sure, nobody will be making any house calls at this hour, so no sense calling Ameren till morning, but you do anyway and get a friendly voice on a non-user-friendly menu. Leave a message. Maybe that’ll move you higher on the priority list.
You might as well call it a day. Tomorrow’s got to be better. Plenty of blankets and a soft bed, you can’t ask for more than that.
Next morning seemed a bit chilly, but that’s to be expected with the power off. Might be a good idea to bring some of that firewood in just in case. Damn door won’t open. Looking out the window, you can see it’s still snowing, and the wind has got some good drifts building, maybe three and a half feet tall up against the door.
Better call someone, but who? Finally, 911 seems to be the logical choice. A very nice, but tired sounding, apologetic lady eventually answers, but “because you are safe in your house, we’ll get to you as soon as we can, but it won’t be today or probably not even tomorrow.” You leave your phone on, as she suggests, just in case.
The snow seems to be coming down heavier. You seem to remember reading somewhere that snow can act as insulation. Let’s hope so. You don’t have a lot of wood left inside, but decide to build a small fire, not only to warm the place, but to roast some hot dogs. Not a great meal, but it tastes pretty good with some potato chips. It’s almost like going back in time and having a picnic in the back yard. A little warmth in the belly makes everything seem more optimistic. Funny how food, no matter how simple, can make you feel better.
Next two or three days are much the same. The snow has covered the windows, so you can’t tell if it’s still snowing or even if it’s day or night. Without any way to charge it, the cell phone died. It seemed like a good idea at the time to leave it on, but now it’s dead.
There’s no more wood, but while rummaging around, you find a table grill or maybe it’s a hibachi, and some charcoal way back in the bottom of one of the kitchen cabinet drawers. It must have belonged to the last inhabitants, and they didn’t think it was worth hauling to their new house, or maybe their kids when they were divvying up all their parents’ worldly possessions, decided none of them wanted it.
A good omen for the lonely guy stuck in the old cabin?
You’ve been saving a steak for a special occasion. Now seems about as special as it was going to get. You load the grill with charcoal, fire it up and look forward to a real feast. Half an hour later the Café de Snowbound serves up the special of the house, steak and potato chips, even presented in a sexy, smoky atmosphere, kind of like a nightclub. Throw in a few dancing girls and it would be heaven.
That grill poured out a surprising amount of heat. Just a few more briquettes makes it almost cozy. You know the feeling how when a full meal makes you drowsy, there’s nothing better to do than climb under the covers and rest.
You’re still feeling so sublime the next morning, it doesn’t even seem cold. Lying there inert, at peace with the world, staring at the ceiling seems to be the most attractive option for the rest of the day’s activities. People have spent the rest of their lives doing worse.
Later, when the rescue squad finally comes, you just ignore them, smiling enigmatically and don’t even give ‘em hell for being so late. DSS
Gordon Petry, 72, of Pekin, IL. teaches English at Bradley University in Peoria, IL. He has been a high school and junior high English Teacher, a tennis coach, choir director and accompanist, and taught creative writing at the federal prison in Pekin. He has six grandchildren.
What a fascinating story!Snowbound in the 21st century. Keep Downstate Story publishing stories like these by donating here.
He waits until she’s finished congratulating the bride and groom before approaching with open arms.
"Ana,” he says. “You're still beautiful."
“I’m sorry, you’ve mistaken me . . . ,” she says, struggling out of his embrace.
Britney, one of the bridesmaids, greets Ana before looping her arm around his waist.
“You know Zoe’s Aunt Ana?” she asks.
“Introduce us, Brit,” he says, putting his arm around the beautiful bridesmaid who’s pierced, tattooed, and more than twenty years younger than either Ana or Billy.
“Billy, Zoe’s Aunt Ana. Aunt Ana, Billy Timbers.”
“Billy?” Ana can’t believe it.
“You two know each other?”
“Oh, Ana and I go way back,” he says, and Brittany shakes her head to physically dislodge the idea.
Ana excuses herself, hoping to escape the unfolding nightmare, and hobbles up the stairs of the cathedral. She knows her left leg doesn’t actually shrink whenever she has to walk away from someone she’s trying to impress, but she can’t seem to rid herself of the psychological limp.
She’d been twenty-two when she met the charismatic Billy. What followed was a summer of love, or at least two-and-a-half months of it. By mid-August, she was begging him not to leave her.
The first time Ana laid eyes on Billy Timbers, he was on stage, a handsome rogue of a singer who had singled her out of the crowd. Later that night, for the first time in her life, she’d felt beautiful. But not just beautiful. Billy had made her feel like the most beautiful woman alive. How could it be that in the blink of twenty years, he’d evolved into this debonair old man?
Using a visualization technique she learned in a recent seminar, Ana turns herself into an owl and spins her head around to look back at Billy Timbers, much changed but alive and breathing, with eyesight good enough to recognize her, yet weak enough to tell her she was beautiful.
Most of the guests have migrated to the ballroom when Billy joins Ana’s immediate family, turning a chair around to straddle it.
“I came to ask you for the next dance,” he says before she introduces him as someone she’d met years ago while interning in Chicago. Billy doffs an invisible hat, unaware he’s being studied like a map to the New World.
After he guides her into the pack of dancers and takes her in his arms, she leans back to look at him. Laying one image on top of the other, the twenty-year-old memory with the one in front of her, she loses herself trying to make the pieces fit.
“Your nephew told me you have an indoor swimming pool,” he says, breaking the spell.
“James. He kept me company at the bar last night." Billy leads her into a left box turn. "Don’t look so surprised, Ana. I asked if you were related. You have a unique last name.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“You almost got married. Broke it off days before the wedding.”
“And you. Still playing guitar?”
His wide grin gives her a fleeting glimpse of the old Billy. “Yeah. Still have a band. Britney’s father’s the bassist.”
They turn to see Britney dancing with the best man but her eyes are following Billy. So, Ana thinks, he still needs watching.
"What else?” she says. “Fill me in on the last twenty years of your life."
“Divorced twice, two kids, no pool.” He pulls her close to get around some dancers and she discovers Billy still smokes, cigarettes anyway, but that now he’s camouflaging it with a cologne that smells like leaves burning in autumn.
Her phone rings as she’s getting ready for bed.
"I just called to say I've got a free afternoon,” he says. “Britney has to help with yet another get-together."
“The gift opening.”
“Right on. You going?”
“I’d rather attend my own hanging.”
“That’s the Ana I remember.”
Billy's in a talkative mood and Ana wonders where he’s stashed Britney. He starts telling her about his two kids.
“I see them once a year if I’m lucky. Their mother left me. She’s still with the guy. Remember Wiley the drummer?”
That summer was so long ago and so foreign to the rest of her life, Ana sometimes wonders if she’s imagined it.
“They live in California. The kids consider him their dad. They’re seventeen. No wait, eighteen.”
“We’re getting old, Ana. No, not you. You haven’t changed.”
“How long were you married?”
“What?” He inhales and does that combination sneeze-cough thing, trying to keep the smoke he’d just inhaled inside. “Less than a year.” He’s still holding his breath. “Alice left me because of Christine.”
Ana does remember Christine.
Billy finally exhales. “Christine hasn’t aged so well. Not like you.” He sighs, then does that sneeze-cough thing again. “You knew me when I’d hit my peak. Everyone thought I was going to make it as a singer, remember?”
She does not suppress a yawn.
“Oh, right,” he says. “Sorry, Ana, I forget not everyone’s a night owl like me. Night Ana, sweet sweet Ana.”
They disconnect and Ana thinks he did remember what happened twenty years ago, or else sweet was a word that naturally accompanied his good nights.
A week before her own big wedding, Ana and Tim were seated in the formal dining room with his parents and his older brother. Since John, with his Hollywood looks, had lost his job in California and moved back home, he spent the majority of his time at the university library or locked up in his room.
At the table, John's head ticked back-and-forth like a metronome set low while the food his mother put on his plate remained untouched. Although Tim and his parents ignored him, Ana found his dreamy isolation unnerving. Near the end of the meal, she attempted to include him in the conversation and he gave her a goofy smile, then got up and walked around to stand behind her chair. When she turned, he embraced her and the room went still. After he released her and returned to his place, he sat looking down at his plate with his hands in his lap until everyone got up from the table. When Tim and his father sat down to play their customary game of chess, John invited her to go for a walk.
Afterwards, during the drive home, Ana tried to work out what she was going to say to Tim. When they got in the house, he sat down at the piano and began doodling on the keys.
"Tim,” she began. “I think John needs professional help, he . . ."
Tim’s hands came down hard, hitting dissonant chords.
"Ana," he said with an air of condescension he'd been using more and more often lately. "Our family's been dealing with John for thirty-one years. I think we know what's best."
"But he was telling me . . ."
In a tone he’d inherited from his father, a tone he knew she hated, he said, "Ana, don't you have enough to worry about? Aren't there lots of loose ends that need your attention? Your dress, the flowers, Mother says . . ."
At the time, ordering him out of her house seemed her only option. She canceled the engagement and assumed the responsibility of sending back all the gifts they’d been given, even the ones she could have delivered personally. With each gift she sent a note thanking the giver for their good wishes and saying that the wedding had been canceled. Although every note was handwritten, they were as identical as if they’d been spit out by a modern-day copier or bled upon by an old-time mimeograph machine.
The next morning, after a five-mile jog followed by a big breakfast with her running group, Ana lays down in the living room to get rid of a kink in her back and falls asleep. The doorbell wakes her and she gets up to find Billy Timbers on her doorstep.
“Hey Ana,” he says, showing her a rolled-up towel. “I thought we could go for a swim.”
Weed, wedding cake, Billy Timbers, and the intoxicating scent of chlorine, Ana thinks. She hadn’t smoked in years and she’d been careful about inhaling but it didn’t make any difference. She was soon craving sweets and invited Billy to follow her into the kitchen where she retrieved the box of wedding cake her brother had foisted on her the night before. Now they were floating in the pool.
“I could get used to this, Ana.”
“Yeah, I know. Everybody thought I was crazy when I bid on this house, but I’d always wanted an indoor pool.”
“Yeah, and what else?”
“I always wished I could sing.”
“Anyone can sing, Ana.”
To prove him wrong, she clears her throat and begins the song Billy wrote for her more than twenty years ago.
“I can’t believe you remember that thing,” he says before she’s finished the first verse. Then he starts singing and even with twenty years of smoke damage, his voice is irresistible. Floating on her back, she basks in the sound until his phone starts to chirp and he leaves the pool to answer it.
“I have to go,” he says after he finishes the call.
“It was time to get out anyway, I’m getting angel fingers.” He shows her his dimpled hand.
"Want a shower?"
"What're you suggesting, Ana?"
"A shower. To wash off the chlorine."
"I think I'll just change."
Fifteen minutes later, he joins her in the kitchen.
“I like your hair down, Ana,” he says. “It looks nice."
“Come on,” she says. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
In the driveway, Billy moves in closer and Ana steps back. His phone chirps again.
"Yo," he says, giving her a look. "You'll never guess where I am." He laughs at the reply.
When he turns his back to have a quick mumbled conversation, Ana realizes she’s stopped trying to merge the two Billys. She’d given her heart to Billy the younger.
They exchange a sweet powdery-dry kiss before he gets into his rusty convertible, and when she leans down to say a last goodbye, the car’s interior transports her back in time. Sticking out of his ashtray is a familiar roach clip, and a plastic statue of Jerry Garcia still graces his dashboard. The déjà vu continues as he turns the key in the ignition and bass-laden speakers remind her of the decrepit muffler that always heralded his arrivals and departures.
He waves as he backs out of the driveway and toots his horn before driving away. Ana thinks about her first impression of Billy outside the church yesterday and how he’d looked in his baggy swim trunks. Feeling as if she’s just returned from the funeral of a dear friend, Ana’s unsure of who or what she’s mourning.
Back inside the house, she gets a beer out of the refrigerator and returns to the living room. Looking out the bay window at the empty driveway, she begins a solemn rendition of the song Billy wrote for her more than twenty years ago. But to sing it true she has to pick up the tempo, because it’s pure rock-and-roll. DSS
Mary Rodriguez, 63, of McFarland,, Wisc., is a retired electrical engineer. She's also been a secretary, waitress and nanny. Her short fiction has appeared in Wisconsin People & Ideas and other publications, while her poems can be found in Verse Wisconsin.
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