(I wrote this a couple of nights ago, with no idea where it’s going, but it feels like it might be the start of something – who knows?)

Even after Aunt Nancy and Uncle Leon moved into town, they still hosted Thanksgiving, just like they did every year after grandma died.   Instead of their old farmhouse out on Highway C, they had it in the finished basement of their new house, which meant someone, usually Uncle Leon unless he’d already had too much to drink, had to maneuver Clifford and his wheelchair down the steps. Uncle Leon was round everywhere, in his stomach and in his face, and he was always smiling, a genuine, real smile, even when he was sober, although the smile grew bigger and Leon grew happier with each Korbel and water he drank.

Aunt Nancy would prepare all the tables, covering them with tasteful and festive holiday tablecloths, with little bowls of dry roasted peanuts or M & Ms in their center, long before anyone arrived.  She always had a table set up next to the northwest wall with extension cords all ready for my mom and Aunt Lynn to plug their crock pots and roasters into.   Every year, just as we were arriving, Aunt Nancy would get in her van and leave to go to the nursing home and pick up Clifford and bring him over. She’d wheel him out of the van into the garage, where Leon would greet him with his big grin and say, “Clifford, how the Hell are you?”

Clifford never responded to Leon. It’d been almost forty years since the last time Clifford responded to anybody.  But that didn’t bother Leon, who’d slap Clifford on the shoulder and then get behind his wheelchair, pushing him up  the step in the garage and thru the doorway into the house, and then round the corner to the carpeted stairs that lead down to the basement. Leon was a big man, but he always navigated the stairs with gentleness and grace, pushing Clifford one step at a time until he was at the bottom.

Once they’d made it to the bottom, Leon would bend over Clifford and unzip his jacket.  Then he’d gently and patiently take the jacket off, pulling it off one arm at a time, revealing a nice holiday sweater that Clifford had been given the previous Christmas, the sweater that one of the nurses at the nursing home dressed him in earlier in the day.  Clifford was fifty years old, with short bushy brown hair that had already turned mostly grey.  His face was lined with wrinkles, especially around his eyes, and he had a soft and plump belly.

Aunt Nancy, my mom, and Aunt Lynn were sisters, in that order, from oldest to youngest. Their dad, Grandpa Ray, was always the first to get there, around noon, driving over early in his Dodge Ram from his place on the lake so he and Uncle Leon would have time to have a drink or two together before everybody got there.  Grandpa Ray was a retired farmer, a small guy, about five foot seven, and by the time he hit his mid seventies, was even thinner than he’d always been.  He had a full head of white hair and there was nothing to him, he looked frail but there was something about him that was still physically imposing, something in the way he carried his slight frame that still said “don’t fuck with me.”

Aunt Lynn and her husband, Uncle Dale, had two boys that were three years apart, just like me and my sister, with Eddie a year younger than me and Jimmy a year younger than Eileen.   They lived in Kennan, over in Price County, about an hour east from Aunt Nancy’s house in the town of Neil.  Aunt Nancy and Uncle Leon didn’t have any kids.  Uncle Dale and Aunt Lynn usually had to leave early, in time for Dale and Eddie to set up deer camp in their cabin east of Phillips, so they could be out in the woods bright and early Friday morning.

Last April, at my dad’s funeral, Uncle Dale invited me to deer hunt with him and Eddie.  Jimmy was still too little to go. “You don’t have to give me an answer now,” he said, “Whenever you’re ready, it’s up to you.  I just want you to know you’re always welcome with us.”

I appreciated the offer.  Uncle Dale was a good guy, and I liked Eddie and Jimmy, even though sometimes Jimmy could be a pain the ass.  It was just that deer hunting was something I always did with my dad, and without him, it just didn’t make sense.  I think Uncle Dale understood this when I told him up at the lake last summer that I didn’t think I wanted to go deer hunting this year.  We were out on his pontoon boat, him and Aunt Lynn and Grandpa Ray and my mom and Eileen and me. Uncle Dale was sitting next to me, at the steering wheel, and he just nodded his head and took another drink from his beer and tousled my hair and said, “That’s okay.” I was fifteen years old, too old to have my hair tousled, but for some reason it felt right, for some reason I liked it.  I looked up and from across the boat my mom was staring at me, her eyes watery.

My mom and her siters Nancy and Lynn had a brother, Conrad, who lived out west somewhere, I think in California.  He never got back to Wisconsin, not even for dad’s funeral, and whenever my aunts got together, if his name was mentioned, they’d all roll their eyes and sigh. I had only vague and distant memories of Connie, as my mom and her sisters called him. I seem to remember him at my grandma’s funeral, I remember him as tall and thin and nervous, but I can’t be sure.  I was only six years old, so that was nine years ago.

We hung around for a while, killing time before the meal was served, the adults drinking beer or mixed drinks, us kids drinking the discount soda Aunt Nancy always stocked up on for the occasion.  Football was on the old console television set, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles.  All of the guys were sitting on the sofa and love seats in front of the television, watching the game, while my sister, Eileen, was upstairs in the kitchen with my mom and my aunts. Uncle Leon had already pushed Clifford up to his spot at the main table.  He sat there, alone, next to the head of the table, between where Uncle Leon and Aunt Nancy were going to sit, the same place he sat every year. His expression never changed, he never moved, he just stared into space, like he was a statue that had been sculpted out of flesh and blood.

It didn’t take long before Aunt Nancy came back downstairs and told Uncle Leon to get everybody to the table.  I should say tables, because there were still two eating tables, an adults table and a kids table.  Even though I was the oldest, even though I was fifteen and almost six foot tall, I still had to sit at the kids table. I felt like saying they should move Clifford to the kids table, it wouldn’t make no difference to him, he doesn’t eat anything anyhow, but I knew better.

I’d thought of asking if I could take my dad’s place at the big table, but for some reason I didn’t. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t know how to ask without it feeling wrong, but now, as I sat with my sister and my cousins at the kids’ table and looked at the chair at the adults’ table next to my mom, it was so empty that I almost wanted to cry.

“I wonder if old Clifford’s going to pee his pants again,” Jimmy snickered in hushed tones. He’d just turned ten years old and his hair was still the same reddish brown that his brother Eddie’s used to be until he outgrew the red and it was just brown.  Eddie also grew out of his freckles, but he never had as many as Jimmy does.  I think Jimmy will always have freckles.

“Grow up, Jimmy,” Eddie said

Jimmy wasn’t done.  “My mom says he wears a big diaper under his pants.”

“What’s wrong with Clifford?” Eileen asked. “Mom told us, but I can’t remember.”

“My dad says he’s a gin and tonic,” Jimmy said. Eddie and I both laughed out loud.

“Not a gin and tonic,” Eddie corrected his little brother. “He’s a cat and tonic.”

“Well, he don’t look like no kitty to me,” Jimmy said.  We all laughed.  Jimmy was smiling that goofy freckled red-haired smile of his that made everything he said even funnier.

I was sitting at the left side of the kids’ table, across from Jimmy. Looking past Jimmy I could see the adults’ table, and I could see Clifford, sitting as still and motionless as always, with the plate Aunt Nancy had fixed for him, with turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit sitting untouched in front of him. Every year Aunt Nancy would heap a plate full of food and place it in front of Clifford, and every year Clifford just sat there, staring out into space, his big blue eyes moist and expressionless.  I looked at my mom and the empty place beside her.  No one fixed a plate up for my dad. It didn’t seem fair, Clifford being too far gone to appreciate Thanksgiving yet getting a plate filled with food while my dad, who always loved Thanksgiving and leftover turkey sandwiches so much, not even getting a whiff of Aunt Nancy’s turkey or any of the other casserole or vegetable dishes steaming in the empty air above the table.  It’d been only seven months since he jackknifed his semi and tipped it over on a rural highway in Ohio. It was night, he came around a curve and there was a cow, a calf, really, standing in the middle of the road.  He hit the brakes and swerved, and then he was dead.  They said he died of “massive brain trauma,” which was a fancy way of saying his brains were smashed and crushed against the black pavement.

After we were done eating dinner, Uncle Leon wheeled Clifford upstairs, and Aunt Nancy put him in her van and took him back to the nursing home.  Uncle Leon came back downstairs.   He was standing behind the bar he’d built. Uncle Dale, Grandpa Ray, and Aunt Lynn were sitting across from him on stools, drinking and talking grown up stuff and laughing grown up laughs. Uncle Dale and Grandpa Ray were smoking; the smoke from their cigarettes hung like clouds in the air above their heads and beneath the basement’s dropped ceiling.  Eddie and Jimmy and Eileen had gotten into Aunt Nancy’s collection of board games and were playing the game of Life.  Being fifteen and too old for board games, I sat out and watched, until I lost interest.

Bored, I wandered upstairs, to the kitchen, where I expected to see Aunt Nancy and mom washing dishes, but instead the kitchen was empty. Dirty dishes were piled high on the counter.  I walked through the living room and Uncle Leon’s office, but they were both empty, too.  I started down the hallway when I heard them, the sounds coming from Aunt Nancy’s bedroom.  One of them was crying, and the other one was talking soft and soothing.  I’d heard this before, when my dad died, only then it was my mom who was crying.  This time I recognized my mom’s voice, and I could tell it was Aunt Nancy crying. I heard the words “cancer” and “pancreatic,” and I decided I’d heard too much and went back downstairs.  Eddie and Jimmy and Eileen had finished their game of Life, and were setting up for a game of Clue, when Eddie asked me if I wanted to play.

“Sure,” I said, and sat down with them at the kids’ table, where words like cancer and pancreatic had no power or meaning.


One Headlight

He was awakened by the sound of the car leaving the road, the crunch of the tires in the snow, and he opened his eyes just in time to see the tree a split second before the car struck it.   He turned the steering wheel as hard as he could to the left, but it was too late. The air bag blew up in his face as the car tipped to its left side, and he felt something hard hit him, on the left side of his head.

He woke up again on his side, the air bag pressing on him, the dashboard and steering wheel caved in, leaving him barely enough room to move.  He got his bearings and realized the car was on its side, the passenger door up in the air above him.  He reached for it but it was difficult moving, with the air bag and the steering wheel pressing in on him, and with the angle of the car.   He was finally able to wiggle up the seat just enough that he could lunge and grab the side of the passenger seat closest to the passenger door.  His chest came to rest on the shift stick in the center console, and it hurt, and it made him aware that everything hurt.

He hung on to the passenger seat with one hand and pulled himself up and with the other hand he reached for the doorknob, but the door wouldn’t open.    It was locked shut, and he had no way of unlocking it – the power locks weren’t working.  It took him a long time to reposition his body so that his feet were over him, pointed toward the passenger door, and his hands were underneath him.  He bent his knees above him and kicked at the passenger window, both feet at the same time.  On the fourth kick, his steel toed hiking boots were finally able to break the window.  Shards and nuggets of glass rained down upon him, on his face and his flannel shirt and on the seat around him.  He closed his eyes and his mouth tight as he scooted his torso up closer to the window and stuck his legs out, bending them at the knees, the back of the joints resting on sharp shards of glass.  He tried to ignore the pain and lifted himself up until he could grab the top of the window with his hands.  It took every ounce of strength he had left to pull his body up and out of the window, and he laid against the side of the car for a moment before he dropped down into the snow.

The snow was cold and wet, but he didn’t feel it at first.   Gradually he became aware of his surroundings, and the blood on his hands and the wet dampness under his knees, from where he cut them on the glass crawling out, and then he felt the cold wind and the snow on his bare arms.  He became aware of the black emptiness that surrounded him, and of the one headlight that silently shone into the forest, week and inconsequential against the blackness that consumed its narrow beam.

He stood up and tried to remember where he was.  He looked at the highway for a clue but there was none, not even a sign telling him what road he was on or what direction he was pointed.  He looked for the light from a house or a town or another car or anything, but there was nothing.  He searched his pockets for his cell phone but it wasn’t there, it was in the car somewhere, and he knew, with the car tipped on its side like it was, that there’d be no retrieving it.

There’d be no retrieving his coat, either, and he stood there, in his flannel shirt, in the sub zero temperature.  There was no traffic on the highway.  He was unable to remember where he was before he fell asleep, and what time it was the last time he looked at the dashboard.  All of the information that his brain had recorded in the hour or so before the crash was inaccessible.

He started walking down the highway, looking for a house or a farm somewhere.   After about fifty yards, he reached to scratch an itch on the left side of his head when he felt thick goo tangled up in his hair.  He put his hand to his face but it was too dark out for him to see the blood.  It annoyed him, and he kept putting his hand to his head, absent mindedly rubbing the matted hair and the rough surface.

He walked in the black.  In the absence of light, he relied upon the sound of his feet on the pavement to keep him on the highway, to keep him on track.   After a couple of minutes he collapsed, and he lay in the middle of the highway in a crumpled heap.   His eyes were open and he could see the snow off to the side of the highway, and he looked up, and could see the night sky, thousands of stars shimmering in the blackness.  He stared at the sky and the stars and they gave way to the house he raised his children in. and he was sitting in the living room on the couch reading to his son, five years old again, sitting by his side.  It was a Dr. Seuss book, “Fox in Socks,” a series of tongue twisters, and he got to the page that always gave him trouble.  “Chicks with bricks come, chicks with blocks come,                          chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.”

Then he was up again, standing in the cold darkness.   He became aware of how alone he was, and how cold and empty the highway was.  He put his hand to his head again and he realized it was bleeding, it was blood that was all matted and tangled up in his hair, and it kept coming.  For the first time, he became aware that he could die. For the first time he felt panic.

He looked back to the car, silent and still, resting against the tree, its headlight still beaming into the forest.  He didn’t know what to do, should he continue walking down the road, or should he walk back and stay by the car?  Eventually someone would have to come down this highway.  Whatever he did, he knew he had to keep moving, to stay warm, to stay awake.  If he was moving he was alive, he wasn’t dead.

He pulled himself up and looked around.   His eyes had adjusted to the darkness to the point he could make out the silhouettes of trees and the contours of rolling knolls and hills, but there were still no lights, no signs of life.  He still couldn’t remember before the crash, where he was or what time it was.  He decided to head back to the car.  Somehow, the beam of the headlight, the only light, looked warm and safe.

As he walked back to the car, he became increasingly tired, cold and exhausted.  He got to the car and stumbled off the road into the white that was lit up by the headlight and he collapsed, in the snow.   In the beam of light he laid looking up at the sky.  Soon he was back in his living room, with his five year old son again.  They were reading when he saw someone approaching from the light of the hallway.  He turned to his son.

The state trooper ran to him in time to hear him clearly say:  “Chicks with bricks come, chicks with blocks come, chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.”  He lay there, still and silent in the headlight’s beam, his mouth turned upwards in a smile, his eyes open and lifeless.

Her Eyes Were Deep Green Puddles

It had rained during the night. The black pavement of the driveway was wet. She was standing at the window, looking out. Her eyes were deep green puddles. From the bottom of the stairway, in the dim early morning light, he could see her reflection in the window.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

She dabbed at her eyes with her shirt sleeve, turned to him and, trying to smile, nodded yes. He shuffled across the room to her.

“Let’s go, then,” he said, barely louder than a whisper. He reached out his arms and she slid between them and buried her head in his chest, her right hand coming to rest on his left shoulder. His hands around her waist, he pulled her close. Outside it was clear to the east and the sky was lighting up, but they both knew that more rain was on the way. She started to cry.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, each word punctuated by harsh and loud sobs. She could feel his body shaking. “I never dreamed it’d come to this …”

“Now, now, we’ll have none of that.”  He was still taller than her, that hadn’t changed. That may have been the only thing that hadn’t changed.

He held her tight. Finally, she pulled back, still in his arms but not as tight. She looked up at his face. His eyes were staring at the hallway behind her, urgent and unblinking.

“Is it …” she started.

He nodded yes, his gaze never leaving the hallway.

She slowly and carefully pulled back, and he released her from their embrace, his eyes still fixated on the hallway. She looked at the hallway, even though she knew it was empty. She couldn’t help it, every time he saw him, she had to look, even though she knew he wasn’t there. Maybe it’s because every time, something deep inside her, against all logic and reason, made her hope that this time he’d be there, that she would see him, too. But she never would, and each time she felt foolish for having looked.

“We’d better get going,” he finally said, his eyes still fixed on the empty hallway.

“Okay,” she said, as she picked up his bag and moved toward the front door. He remained in the same spot in the living room, still staring at the empty hallway. Her hand on the doorknob, she turned to him.

“How does he look today?” she asked.

“He looks good,” he replied. “He looks good.”

He turned his head and looked at the door, at his wife, and forced a feeble smile around his mouth. His eyes didn’t participate. They remained empty. Then, with a sudden jerk, he became unfrozen, and turned and shuffled across the living room to the door. As she opened it, he took one last look towards the hallway, then he took her hand, and they walked out to the driveway, to the parked car. She put his bag in the trunk, then she opened the passenger door. As he folded up his stiff and creaking body and got in, it started to rain, a slight drizzle. Tiny drops of water bounced off of the pavement.

Her eyes were deep green puddles.

November Gray

Around here, November is a symphony of grays, its clouds hanging low and clutching the landscape by its throat, suffocating the color from the trees until they are as gray and lifeless as the sky, its winds too icy cold to breathe any life into the dead leaves that cover the hard and barren ground.

For fifty years, since he was fourteen, the fourth week of November meant deer hunting, on the same eighty acres of woods, first with his father and brother, later with his son, and for the past few years now, by himself.    His joints, arthritic and aching, creaked loudly as he walked the trail that bordered the northern edge of the property, and leaves crunched noisily under each slow and heavy step.   It was the last hour of the last day of what he sensed would be the last year.    He hadn’t seen a buck the whole season, and it had been five days since he’d seen the last doe.

He found the old five gallon oil bucket on top of the ridge at the end of the trail that had marked his spot for longer than he could remember.   He sat on the bucket and waited, like he had countless times before.  He was never fond of tree stands; they weren’t popular when he learned to hunt, and with his arthritis and balance issues, climbing up in a tree was a painful and risky proposition.  He knew he was old fashioned, but it was how he hunted, sitting on a bucket on top of a ridge, his dad’s 30.06 cradled in his arms, scanning the underbrush for movement, for solid patches of gray that stood out amongst the network of branches and twigs, listening for the distinctive sound of a branch breaking that the wind was incapable of making.  It was a style of hunting that at one time served him well, as he pulled in his share of bucks and does, although he never shot a buck bigger than eight points.  There were other hunters who seemed to nail a ten pointer every year, but that had always eluded him.  The past few years had been a complete drought, and as he took his seat on the bucket, he tried to calculate how many years since his last deer, a T-Zone doe.  The best he could come up with was that it was somewhere between five and seven years ago, well after the last time his son had hunted with him.

It was cold when he started out that afternoon, in the mid teens, and as he sat there, the wind picked up and the late afternoon shadows lengthened, and it started to snow, first big flakes falling gently, picking up momentum and growing smaller and denser, until they were blowing sideways, giving color to the wind.  It pelted him in the back of his neck, and he turned  his collar up, and after fifteen minutes, not only was he cold and aching, he realized the wind was blowing the wrong way, at his back, into the nose of any deer within range of where he sat watching.  Screw this, he said to himself, and he decided that he was cold and achy enough, it was too late in the season, and that he was done.  He stood up and started down the trail to the west, when he heard a snort and then, just over the edge of a knoll ahead of him, he saw a mass of gray against the fresh white backdrop silently bound away from him, dipping into a slight draw behind the knoll and out of site.   He couldn’t be sure but he thought he saw antlers.  His heart started pumping the familiar adrenalin that was always, since the first time he experienced it as a kid, his favorite part of hunting.

The snow had accumulated enough to coat and dampen the leaves, making walking quieter, and he slowly and silently walked the trail until he came to the tracks where the deer had crossed.   He stood still, following the tracks as far as his eyes could see, then looking up past them to the south, he saw the deer, stopped, frozen, looking back at him, not moving.  It was a buck, not the trophy that had always eluded him, but a nice buck, at least six, maybe eight points.  He slowly raised his rifle, but before he could get it to his shoulder, the buck was off, to the south, and all he could see was the white of its tail as it silently disappeared over a small hill.

He waited a second and then, without thinking, started tailing the deer, following the general direction of its tracks but flanking it a bit to the west, where he knew the bigger hills rested, where if he moved quickly and quietly enough he might get in position to catch enough of a glimpse to pull off a shot.  He moved silently over the snow covered terrain, and he became aware of the lost grace he’d suddenly found, and how for the first time in a long time his knees and ankles were free of pain.

He came to the top of the first rise and, just as he expected, he saw the buck, running away and over the next rise, towards the big hill, the hill where first his father used to sit, then later, his son.  He was unable to get a shot off; the buck was running faster now.  His only chance was to make it to the top of the second rise before the buck got around the bottom of the big hill; he didn’t have much time, so he ran.  He started running, not even realizing that he hadn’t run, not this fast or this far, for years, yet there he was, sprinting through the woods.  He was halfway up the second rise when the still of the woods was shattered by the deafening boom of a rifle, nearby, from the top of the big hill.  He finished his ascent to the top of the second rise and looked to the bottom of the big hill.

There, the buck laid, lifeless in the opening at the bottom of the hill, blood dripping from his mouth, leaving a small red dot in the snow.  He looked to the top of the hill and he saw the unmistakable figure of his son, fifteen years old again, standing  in the white snow, wearing the same hooded blaze orange sweatshirt he used to wear, his lever action Marlin .3030 in his arms, beaming from ear to ear.  His eyes moistened, he closed them, and when he opened them again, the top of the hill was gray and empty.   He looked to the bottom of the hill, where a moment ago the buck lay dead, bleeding in the snow, and there was only dead and dry leaves.

The wind howled through the still and empty woods, icy and cold against his neck in the darkening November gray.


Indian Summer

(This is a short piece of fiction I wrote today – it’s pretty rough and not very good, but what the Hell …)

For two weeks, all anybody would talk about was the weather. It was mid October and unseasonably sunny and warm, into the seventies almost every day. The courtyard of Silver Creek Care Center was shaded by the ancient and immense sugar maple that rose from its center. In the early afternoon sunlight, its leaves were a brilliant gold and falling, a thin layer already covering the red brick walkway that lead to the front door.

Dad was holding a little album Dean had put together with photos from last year’s trip. In them we were sitting at the picnic table, cluttered with bottles of Makers Mark and Crown Royal and Rolling Rock and plastic red cups. We were all wearing jackets and sweatshirts. It was gray and damp and cold. If October this year felt more like September, last year it felt like November. Dad was wearing his hokey blue fishing cap, beaming in every snapshot, proud and happy to be with his sons. I was surprised by how much younger he looked only a year ago. You wouldn’t think there’d be that much difference between seventy seven and seventy eight, but it was striking. His face still had good color and he looked strong and substantial under his black windbreaker. It was quite a contrast to the ashen gray his complexion had turned since, and now there were lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth that weren’t evident in the photos.

Looking out the window I could see Dennis pull in to the parking lot and park his red Ford F150. I watched as he and Dean got out and approached the entrance. I motioned to Dad, and he watched them, too, my older brothers, in their fifties now but still looking fit and strong. They were talking in the early afternoon sunlight, and Dennis laughed at something Dean said, and Dean was grinning, the same laughs and grins that had always come so easy and natural to us.

We’d been doing the October trip to the cabin by the lake for the past twenty five years, just dad and his three sons, just like Fred MacMurray on that old television show. In those twenty five years, we’d evolved from a middle aged man and his young adult boys to an elderly fellow and his three middle aged sons. We hadn’t felt the changes, at least, not before this year. Dad always seemed as vital as ever, and as the three of us navigated the fifty years old meridian, we all felt the same as we ever had. None of us had ever missed a single year. Aside from dad slowing down a little bit, our regime remained the same. For three days we’d drink and fish and play poker, and then we’d help dad close the cabin for the winter. We’d leave Thursday night after we got off work and kissed our wives goodbye, and get to the cabin around 11:00. We’d start a fire in the wood stove and play cards and drink until five in the morning, when we’d finally hit our bunks for a couple of hours of shut eye. Late Friday morning we’d take dad’s boat out on the lake and fish for the last time of the season, stopping around 2:00 in the afternoon at Leon’s Lakeshore Lodge for drinks and a hamburger, then we’d hit it again and come in right before dark. We’d fry the fish we caught over an open fire and eat. Then we’d walk down to Leon’s again and drink ourselves stupid. The last few years dad stayed in, and the three of us would get shitfaced and come back drunk at one in the morning and wake dad up and we’d play cards again until about three, regaling him with stories from the bar. One year, our brains poisoned by alcohol and Leon’s juke box, the three of us came in singing the song “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys at the top of our lungs. I’ve been told, though I don’t remember, that we were continuing a performance we’d began an hour earlier at the bar. I’ve also been told that that our voices didn’t meld together nearly as well as we thought they did.

Saturday was always spent all day at the cabin, recovering from Friday night, playing cards, drinking, and cooking out. Saturday night we’d stay in and play more cards and drink. Dennis would find the radio station from the Indian reservation that played folk and old, old, country music, from dad’s time, Hank Williams and Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins. We’d have a fire going in the stove and we’d sit there, the four of us, playing cards and shooting the shit, making up for the rest of the year, when we were too preoccupied with our wives and children and our careers to spend much time with each other.

Sunday morning we’d wake up, clean up the cabin, wash dishes, take out the garbage, shut the water off and drain and winterize the pipes. Then we’d be in dad’s car, always dad’s car, a big Buick most of the years. The past couple of years, after mom died, dad was driving a little Ford Explorer. We’d split up the five to six hour drive home, dropping Dennis off first in West Allis, then Dean in Racine, and finally me in Kenosha. Dad lived in Kenosha, too, in the house he raised us in, only about ten minutes from me.

We’d decided a long time ago that if one of us couldn’t make the trip, none of us would go. For one thing, three handed poker isn’t any fun. But mainly, it was all for one and one for all. We were the three musketeers, reminding anybody who’d say “but there are four of you” that the book was about four, D’Artagnan joining forces with the three. Of course, we’d all argue endlessly about which one of us was D’Artagnan.

Dennis and Dean entered the room, and pulled up chairs next to dad. I’d seen them all last weekend, one at a time. This was the first time we were all together again. It was Thursday afternoon, the Thursday that we’d usually depart for our fishing trip up north. We’d known for about two months that there wouldn’t be any more trips. We decided we’d get together anyways, at the Silver Creek Care center.

We sat there and visited, reminiscing about past fishing trips, about wives and children, for about half an hour. Dennis and Dean were getting wound up, like they always do, but dad was withdrawing, getting quiet. We all noticed it, but pretended we didn’t, hoping that one of the stories would bring him out of his funk, but nothing worked.

Finally, he broke down, and started sobbing. Dean reached out and put his arms around him.

“I’m sorry, guys,” dad said. “It’s just that I never imagined things would turn out this way.”

“It’s okay,” Dean said. “It’s okay.” Dean looked at me. Dennis did, too. I tried to smile, to indicate that everything was okay, that at least we were all together. That’s what I wanted to say, that we were all together, and that I loved them all. But with that damn feeding tube shoved down my throat, I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was lie there and listen to the beeps and clicks of the machines that were keeping me alive.

Dad stopped crying and tried to change the subject. “Supposed to turn colder this weekend,” he said.

“Yeah,” Dennis said. “Maybe even snow some.”

“That’s Indian summer for you, “dad said. “It’s nice while it lasts, but it’s a son of a bitch when it’s over.”

First Deer

It was the biggest thing he’d ever done.  Standing over the carcass in the snow and staring into the blankness of the eye that looked back up at him he saw the enormity of the cosmos.  It’d all been summoned by his right index finger.   He looked down at it, the glove removed from his hand, and he slowly moved it back and forth, up and down, and he got down on his knees, still staring at his right index finger, the all powerful and omnipotent, master of even time and space.  It had made time stop and stand still, and he watched his finger and waited for it to give some indication that time could start again.  Then he felt the icy November wind blow in his face, and it reminded him that your finger might be master of time and space, but I am the wind, and I am blind and cold and unfeeling, and your finger is just a finger, nothing more, and life is only life, and death is only death, but I am perpetual and unending.

July 4th

(This is a little scene involving some characters from the novel I am writing.  Don’t know yet if I’ll be able to fit it in or not,  so I’m posting it here)

Fireflies blinked on and off in the front yard as Bernard slipped through the screen door onto the front porch.   It was almost dark, headlights winding down Ojibway Valley Road toward the Mighty Casey’s.   Everybody else was inside, in the family room, silently staring at the television, their minds wandering to wherever their minds took them, numb from the news they were still trying to absorb.  The Fourth of July was the last thing on their mind.

Outside a warm breeze blew from the south.   Bernard had his jacket on but knew it wouldn’t be required as he got to the road and started walking towards the bridge.  The plan was for him to wear his American Legion uniform, being the 50th Fourth of July since the end of World War One.  Bernard was to stand with the other two surviving veterans of the war living in the valley.  But that didn’t seem important anymore.

What was important to Bernard was to trace the steps he had taken fifteen years earlier.  He walked along the road, and before it got to the junction with County Highway H, where the bridge was closed down, where cars were already lined on both sides of the road, where parents sat in lawn chairs along the river bank and on the bridge, where kids ran in the tall grass waving sparklers, the sounds of their shouts and laughter echoing in the warm night air, Bernard, like he did fifteen years earlier, stepped off the road into the quiet shadows cast by the trees and onto the rutted tractor path that led into the rolling hay fields.  He ducked under the barbed wire fence and walked on the path parallel to the highway until it turned to the west and went up hill.   He climbed the hill, feeling a slight tightness in his 73 year old thighs, until he got to the top.  It was almost completely dark as he sat down in the tall grass and looked through the opening in the trees to the river and the bridge and the spot on the far banks where Jack Casey and his crew were getting ready to start the fireworks.

He sat in the weeds, alone in the dark, the warm breeze in his face, his hands clasped around his knees, and watched as the fireworks started to explode.  They lit up the sky, right above him, and they were close enough that they lit up the empty grasses that surrounded him.

“Wow,” his four year old grandson said, and after about the fifth explosion, he added “this is the best place, isn’t it, grandpa?”

He could see his grandson, his little shadow, in the empty red and yellow flashes of light beside him.  He thought of the trenches in the Argonne he’d made it home from, and he thought of the jungles in Vietnam his grandson didn’t, and he remembered the answer he gave fifteen years ago.

“Yes it is,” he replied, “it’s the best place in the whole world.”

Night Watchman

Night moves at a different pace than the day, not slower or faster, but wider, or narrower, I’m not sure how to describe it.  It’s as if each night takes long enough to reveal whatever it has to reveal.  It’s the way the dark can feel infinite and claustrophobic at the same time, its endlessness pressing down on you.

I rise in the dark.   Out here, in the country, beyond the town limits, there are no streetlights.   I put my uniform on and join the rest of the people working in the night, people baking bread, occupying toll booths, lifting and lowering gates, driving 18 wheelers on the interstate.   We wake and we work for those who are sleeping.   Our real job is to be unnoticed, to get our work done without disturbing them while they sleep, so they wake up refreshed and well rested, with their morning papers on their doorstep and their freight delivered.

Tonight when I start my rounds, before I make it into town, it’s cloudy and black and still.   It’s still March, too early for the summer chorus of crickets, and there is no moon for the coyotes to yip and yap at.  You’d think that by now I’d be used to nights like this, but I still feel apprehension as I make my way past the silent fields and woods and farms and into the lighted streets of town.

On the west side, my first stop is Bob’s rental.   The gates to the wire fence that encloses the yard are chained and padlocked, and the door to the store is locked and secure.  Bob is an ornery and cranky old fart, but I like him.   Before I took the night shift, he’d been hit three times in four months. 

Then I patrol the neighborhood near the elementary school.   There is the occasional porch or yard light left on.   I pass where Jack lives.  Tonight they remembered to shut the garage door, I don’t know how many times he’s left it open.  I’ve told him over and over, you may as well be extending a written invitation to criminals, just because you haven’t been hit yet doesn’t mean you’re not going to be.  I shouldn’t waste my time or breath, though, because he just doesn’t listen.   I may as well talk to the wall.

After I check out the school and the auto parts store and the junkyard, I make my way down Main Street.  It’s after two now, all the bars are closed.   At the furniture store they forgot to turn off the lights again, I don’t know who they have closing but it’s the third time in the past week.  I make a note of it in my log.

At about three thirty I check out the lumber yard.  I stop on the west side of the wire chain link fence that surrounds it and pour a cup of coffee from my thermos and pull the roast beef and cheese sandwich from the brown paper bag.    I take a sip and from the corner of my eye, I detect movement, shifting shadows, from the stacks of treated four by fours in the middle of the yard.  I walk over to check it out, moving in and out of the yard lights, and as I approach the four by fours, I sense movement behind me, and as I turn I see more movement, the dark trace of shadows shifting and dissolving on the black pavement.    I finger the butt of my piece in its holster.   Then I think I hear something, and I pivot, and behind me, on a stack of two by fours, I see a splash of blood, and a feeling something like déjà vu and something like dread overwhelms me, until I realize it isn’t blood at all but the red dash of lettering they stamp on the ends of each board.   Then I hear a crash of something falling over from the north side of the yard.  I draw my revolver and put a stack of two by fours between me and where I heard the sound come from, and I can hear the rustle of something moving, it’s only about 10 yards from me, and I pull the hammer back on my revolver and step out of the shadows into the light.  “Halt!” I yell, my pistol cocked and aimed at the bundle of meshed gardening fence that had been knocked over, and then I see movement, this time three dimensional, not just shadows, and I see two yellow eyes glowing at me from the darkness, and I realize my hardened criminal is a stray cat, and I lower my gun, my heart still pounding, sweat on my brow.  I am relieved and I try to laugh it off, but then my eyes detect another splash of blood, this one the red stamps on a stack of two by sixes, and I know it is nothing but red ink, but I have difficulty processing that, I can’t get the image of blood splashed and stained across a stack of fresh lumber out of my mind.

It’s four thirty as I leave the lumber yard, and I have one last stop to finish my rounds.  It’s on the southern outskirts of town, on a dead end street.  As I approach, the two story house is dark.   I check out the perimeter, the yard, the tool shed, the garage, and then I check the doors.  They are all locked, the windows are all shut.  I silently enter.  I make my way up the stairs.  It’s a big house for her, with her children all grown now, to live in alone.  She is in bed, lying on her side like she always did with one leg under the covers and one sticking out.  My eyes are used to the dark, and I can tell she is wearing a blue t-shirt, her brown hair spread out across her pillow.  She is breathing, soft and rhythmically.  Her eyes are closed, and she looks so calm and content and peaceful.  I want so badly to lean over and touch her, to kiss her on the cheek, but I can’t, she’d be afraid, she wouldn’t understand, that I still love her, that I’ll always love her, and that I could never hurt her, and even though we aren’t together anymore, I will still look out for her, I will protect her.  It’s what I do.

The clock radio on the headboard says it is five fifteen.   My shift is over, and the sun will be up in less than an hour.  I let myself out and head for home.   It’s starting to warm up.  The grass is thick with dew, and I can hear the waking sound of the first of the morning songbirds.   I’m tired as a faint pink line lights up the eastern horizon.  It’s just bright enough for me to make out my name on the stone.  I’m home, and it’s time to sleep again.



If the Fates Allow

(I’m going to quickly post this overly sentimental  short story before I come to my senses ….)

He sat in his recliner in the glow of the lights of the Christmas tree, listening to the radio, sipping the Crown Royal and 7-Up he had poured himself.  He wasn’t in the habit of drinking alone, but it was Christmas Eve.   Outside it was dark and cold.  It had snowed about a week before; about two inches was left on the ground.  The package sat wrapped in plain brown paper under the tree.

The radio was playing Christmas songs.    Between songs the deejay would give an update on Santa Claus’s status.   It felt like a long time since Santa Claus had played a role in his Christmas.  From beyond his door he could hear the pounding of little feet running up and down the hallway.   Those little Williams boys are worked up tonight, he thought.   And why shouldn’t they be, it’s the night before Christmas.  They were annoying and wild and disruptive as ever, but tonight he felt pity and hoped for the best for them.  They’re not so bad, he thought, they’re just little kids.   He hoped their father would remain sober long enough for them to have the Christmas every kid deserved.  He thought about his own son and model trains and hot wheels and matchbox cars, and the old house, then he closed his eyes and thought about the house he grew up in, the Christmases of his childhood, and the endless bounty that would lie under the tree in the grey light of the early Christmas morning, and his Mom, and his Dad.

He opened his eyes and saw the small tree with the single solitary package wrapped in plain brown paper underneath it.  He could hear the wind gusting outside and suddenly he felt cold and alone.  He emptied his drink and went to the kitchen counter and poured himself another.  He looked at the clock on the stove.  It was a quarter past eleven.  Forty five more minutes.  He had promised himself that he’d wait until it was Christmas.  Staying up wasn’t a problem; after all, he could sleep late in the morning.

He looked out the window to the parking lot, three stories down.   The moon was shining on the snow and reflecting off of the parked cars.  It looked cold and barren outside.   There’s something about a cold winter night that makes you appreciate being home, warm and with no place you had to go.  Home.   This was home now, this downtown three room apartment on the third floor.   He swished the drink in its glass, making the ice cubes rattle.  He raised his glass and softly said out loud, “Here’s to home”, and then he took a long drink.

He sat back down in his recliner.  The radio was between songs, and the deejay was giving a weather report.  He became aware of the silence from down the hallway and the absence of little feet in the hallway.  The Williams boys must finally be in bed.  Now if that drunk of a father and that sow of a mother got their act together, they’d be getting the presents out, setting them under the tree, getting everything ready for that magical morning.    He waited to hear them fighting again, because that would be just like them, fighting on Christmas Eve, too stupid to realize how important this night was.  Those boys, those bratty and obnoxious boys, who rode their bikes too close last fall and scratched his car, who were always running up and down the stairs, actually knocking him over that one time, if he hadn’t had a firm grasp of the railing he would have surely tumbled all the way down.  They had no decent upbringing, they were only seven and five, and their Mom couldn’t be bothered with them, holed up in her apartment all day, probably eating, while their Dad was out all the time, probably drinking.  What a pair, he thought, her eating and him drinking – they were made for each other.   Stupid kids are what they are.  Stupid kids who were raising stupid kids.  He waited to hear them fighting, but there was nothing.

He then looked at the display case he had built.  He was proud of the work, of his craftsmanship, of the wood inlays and the glass paneled doors that opened and shut.  It was a quarter to twelve now, only fifteen minutes before he could open the package from Handelman’s engravers.    He was getting excited now, and he went to the closet.   He was shaking when he took the duffel bag out.   He hadn’t looked at it in months, since he had the idea, since he ordered the engraving, since he talked to the owner of the land, since before he began working on the display case in the shop at work.

The radio had quit playing Christmas songs and was now broadcasting some news show.  A man’s voice droned on and on.  Down the hallway it was still quiet.    He became aware, as he removed the Louisville Slugger from the bag, that he couldn’t stop thinking about how quiet it was.   He took out the glove and the small case that held the ball with Robin Yount’s signature on it.  He looked at the package, then at the display case he had built, but his mind was still preoccupied with the couple down the hall.  He wondered if they were still awake.   He went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway.   Down the hall, under their doorway, he could see a sliver of light.  They were still up.

He went back inside his apartment.  Suddenly, for the first time, he questioned his plans.  Why a memorial?   Who was it for?    What would it change?  He looked at the clock on the stove.   It was five minutes before midnight.   He didn’t have time to answer these questions, to think these things through.  His gut was telling him what to do now.   He put the items back in the duffel bag and in what felt like the same motion, he went down the hallway.    He gently knocked on the door.   The father opened it; he was wearing a two day growth of whiskers and a ratty flannel shirt, but he appeared to be sober.

“Oh, hello”, the father cautiously greeted.

“I’m sorry to disturb you”, he muttered.  “May I come in?  It’ll only take a second.”

“Sure, sure”, he said.  Beckoning to his wife, he said “Honey, it’s Mr. Johnson, from down the hall.”  She got up from where she was kneeling under the tree.

“Merry Christmas”, she said.  Apprehension leaked out of her forced smile.

“Merry Christmas”, he replied.  “I’m sorry to interrupt your Christmas Eve, but I was going through some old things, and I thought maybe your sons would enjoy them.   Lord knows I’ll get no use out of them”  He handed the duffel bag to the father.  “It’s just some baseball stuff, a bat and a glove and a ball.”

“Thank you”, the father said, starting to go through the things.

“I hope they like baseball.   They’re getting to that age.”

“Oh, they do, or, they will”, the father said.  Examining the ball, he said “Who’s Robin Ount?”

“Yount”, he corrected, his opinion of the man as a moron now confirmed.  He was just about to explain when the mother interjected,

“Robin Yount, you must have heard of him, dear.  He was a famous Milwaukee Brewer.”

“Oh, right, right, Robin Yount”   It was pathetically unconvincing.

“Mr. Johnson”, she said, “thank you so much, but we couldn’t take these things.  That ball is probably worth some money.”

“No, no, please take it.  I’d rather see the bat and glove come to some use.  I think your boys would enjoy it.  As for the ball, please, do with it what you want.”

“But we couldn’t”

“You don’t understand.  These were things I bought for my son, a long time ago.  He never got to use them.   So please, it’d mean so much to me to see your boys playing with them next spring.  Please.”  He became aware of the tears that were beginning to form behind his eyes.

“I don’t know what to say.  Let us pay you something.”   Her eyes were moist now.

“Don’t even think about that.  This is a Christmas gift.  To your boys”

They thanked him, and offered him some hot chocolate.   He was surprised to see that that was all the father was drinking.  Maybe they got it after all, he thought, even if the husband was too stupid to know who Robin Yount is, maybe they understood what he didn’t all those years ago, that Christmases are numbered.   He declined their offer and they exchanged pleasant good nights.

He went back to his apartment.  Satisfied and content, he went to bed and slept soundly.  Under his small Christmas tree, the plain brown package from Handelman’s engravers remained unopened.

Snow at Christmas

(Another experiment with short fiction – a first draft, not sure if I have something or not)

December is cold and gray and black.  Days are shorter and nights are longer, and we become nocturnal creatures, living in the dark.  Days and nights blur and blend and run into each other.  But December is also Christmas, and Christmas is a promise.   Snow is a hope.   There’s something about snow at Christmas.

That year it hadn’t snowed at all until two nights before.  It was cold, in the mid teens.   We were downtown, walking on the sidewalks, finishing our shopping.  Christmas music was playing through loudspeakers, “Silver Bells” when it started to come down.   At first the flakes fell big and soft and slow, sticking to the sidewalk, shining and glistening like stardust in the glow of the streetlights.  Then it came faster and harder and steadier, coating the sidewalks, the ground a blanket of white.  It was getting late, but neither one of us was tired.  We went into the all night diner and sat in a booth next to a window.  We took our coats off and laid them alongside our bags on the benches next to us.   She ordered a coffee, me a hot chocolate, and we each ordered a sandwich.  We settled in, warming up and laughing and watching the snow pile up outside, watching the dwindling crowds with their collars turned up and stocking caps on.     

As we waited for our food, I became immersed in reading the back cover jackets of the paperbacks I had bought at the used book store.   I was reading the blurbs on the inside copy of Catch-22 I had purchased for my younger brother when I happened to look up at her face.  She looked distracted and sad.  I pretended not to notice and looked back down at the book, and then back up at her again.   She was looking at the diner’s counter, where a few random stragglers sat.  When she looked down at her coffee, I snuck a glance, and I saw him.  I recognized him right away.  I looked at the book , pretending I was still reading, and snuck another look back up at her, and caught her looking at him again.  From the corner of my eye I could make out movement from where he was sitting.  He was getting up, putting his coat on.   I put my head down, and as he walked by us, I looked up, and she was looking at him.  It was only for a moment, I saw their eyes meet, I saw the look in her eyes, and I saw the look in his eyes, and I knew.

I watched him walk out the door, not caring any more about whether she saw me or not. Through the window I watched him move silently down the white blanket on the sidewalk.   When he was out of sight, I stopped watching, and looked at her, and she was looking at me, her eyes wide and wet, and it took no more than a split second for us to process the information we now both knew.  At the same time the waitress arrived with our food.  As she put it on the table, we sat there in stoned silence, and I looked out the window, up at the street lights, at the snow swirling and tumbling like a white kaleidoscope, my insides spinning and turning and churning the blend of cold hurt and white rage that consumed me. 

She tried to talk, tried to explain, but there was no explanation.  I just sat there, dipping French fries into the puddle of ketchup I had poured on my plate, processing the betrayal, barely hearing her inadequate reasons.   She was crying when the waitress finally brought the check.   I pulled some paper out of my wallet, still silent, refusing to speak, as we put our coats on.

“Talk to me”, she kept saying, begging, pleading, “please, just talk to me.  Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Then we were outside.  The air was cold and crisp.  The streets were nearly empty now. Everything was a smooth and pure blanket of white.   “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was playing through the speakers.   The wind had picked up and would gust and stop.

We turned down 57th street, into the wind.  She was still pleading with me to talk to her, and she kept saying she was sorry.   A strong gust blew into our faces as she said, “please, don’t treat me like this.”  The wind was cold and icy.  I felt it fill my lungs and I felt my arm rise up, and then I saw, in the street light’s glow, on the silent and white blanket at my feet, three small red circles.   I don’t know how long I stood there, cold and frozen and motionless, staring at the three red circles, but when I looked up she was gone.   I looked down again, and even though the snow and wind had covered up the three red dots, I could still see them, and I see them now, all these years later, whenever I see a fresh blanket of snow under the glow of downtown streetlights.