Panther Sighting

(A short draft of fiction inspired by 1) the true story of a cougar that had wandered all the way from South Dakota through Wisconsin only to be shot by police in Chicago and 2) the song “Panther in Michigan” by Michael Smith)

Looking down at the pile of feathers next to his chicken coop, Ben’s first thought was coyotes again. Coyotes are very common around here; if you listen, late at night, you can often hear them, yipping and yapping at the moon or in response to some distant police or fire siren.  They live in the remaining farm fields and little patches of woods that carve up the urban sprawl, and it isn’t uncommon for people who raise chickens to wake up to find a trail of feathers and hair (you’d be surprised how many suburbanites raise live chickens) from an undetected nocturnal raid. Some people who have small dogs are nervous about coyote attacks, but I’m not familiar with any documented instance of somebody around here losing a dog to a coyote. They primarily feed on small rodents, field mice and moles and shrews, and cottontail rabbits.

So when the young couple across the street woke up that January morning to find a pile of feathers outside of their coop, they presumed the culprit to be a coyote.  Or foxes.  We’ve had a family of red foxes denning in the neighborhood for the past couple of years.  One year they seemed to be living in the culvert under the driveway of the house three doors to the north of us.

Then Ben saw the tracks of a large cat in the mud.

For the past three months or so, we’d been hearing the stories about locals seeing a cougar in the farmlands around the Illinois border, to the west and south of here, about twenty or thirty miles away.  Then one late afternoon in December it made the local Chicago television news, how drivers on the Illinois toll way saw a cougar chasing a deer in a forest preserve field.

Ben seeing the tracks meant the cougar had been just across the street from me.  I walked the two and a half acres of my property, looking for sign in my back and side yards. Just to the south of my barn, in the patches of un-melted snow, I saw the unmistakable tracks of a large cat.  There were small traces of blood on the tracks, and I followed them, stopping when they led into the barn, through the open door that years ago horses were let out of their stalls through.  The stalls, three of them, were still there, but empty for the past five years, ever since we sold Bessie, my wife’s quarter horse mare.  There were still about a dozen old bales of hay stacked in the spare stall. I looked at the blood speckled tracks of the large cat leading into the barn and didn’t see any leading out, and I thought, what if it’s still in there, what if it’s wounded and angry.

I backed away from the barn and crossed the side yard and went inside and called the local DNR agent, a big guy named Andy who was just out of college.  It was dark by the time he made it out. He was carrying a service revolver and a big flashlight as I took him to the tracks.  “Well, you got a cougar, all right,” Andy said, his flashlight illuminating the tracks.  We followed them into the barn.  He asked if there were any lights, and I explained that the switch was on the other side, the front, of the barn. I walked across the darkened barn, my heart pounding, waiting for a mountain lion to leap out of the darkness at me, until I finally reached the front of the barn and the light switch. I turned it on and everything lit up.

Andy was still inspecting the area, having followed the tracks into the spare stall. He looked at the stack of old bales of hay and said, “Looks like he used this for his daybed. You can see here on top of the hay where it’s flattened out a little bit. And there’s traces of blood up here – see?”  He showed me where the blood was and where the hay was matted down.

“What about the blood?

“My guess is it’s from a superficial wound, maybe he stepped on a nail or something. Anyways, I’ll take a sample back with me and see if they can do DNA testing.  Plus there has to be some scat somewhere around here.”

“Is this the same cougar that’s been on the news?”

“Almost undoubtedly, yes.”

“Will he come back to my barn?”

“That’s hard to say.  He might show up again, but for some reason we haven’t figured out yet, this guy’s on the move. He doesn’t stay in one place very long. We have reason to believe he’s come all the way from South Dakota.  But he did bed down in here yesterday, after killing your neighbor’s chicken. If there is easy food available around here, he might use your barn as home base for up to a week or so.  But my guess is he’s already gone.”

Andy collected a sample of blood and some fine hairs he found in the hay. He asked me if he could mount a trail camera in my barn, saying that he didn’t expect the cat to return but just in case. I said sure, and he promised he’d be out every day to check on whether it picked up anything or not.

I went to bed that night thinking about the cougar in my barn. Thank God my kids were grown and out of the house. Thirty years of being a parent conditions you to think about your kids when something like this happens.

I fell asleep and dreamed about the cougar, about me stepping into the barn in the middle of the day and it leaping off of the hay onto me, its claws ripping into my coat, its teeth penetrating my neck. I woke up in a cold sweat and went to the window.  There was a full moon that lit up the night, my yard was a series of white patches of snow and hard gray turf, and from my second story view I looked down on it, on the shadows cast by the trees, and I looked for the cougar. I imagined what it’d look like, its shoulder muscles rippling and flexing as it walked that slow cat walk, its eyes glowing green in the dark.

In the upcoming weeks and months, there was no word about any other sightings until mid-April, when it was seen carrying away a small dog in its mouth in Lake Bluff, Illinois, about twenty five miles south of me.  I never saw any more sign of the big cat, and after a couple of weeks, Andy came by and removed the trail camera from my barn.

Then in May came the news accounts about the Chicago policeman who shot a cougar that was trapped in an alley in the middle of the day.  Andy called me the next day to tell me that DNA testing confirmed that it was the same animal that had spent a day in my barn, and that it had, incredibly, come all the way from the badlands of South Dakota to end up shot to death by a police officer in a Chicago alley.

Three years later, and I’m still reluctant to enter the old horse barn. I still see, in its darkened corners, the glowing green eyes of a monster that could rip me to shreds, the same eyes that visit me from time to time in nightmares.

My wife says we should tear the barn down if we’re not going to use if for anything, but for some reason I silently resist.

Sometimes, late at night, I get up and I look out my bedroom window, and I swear I can see the black shadow of a large cat, stealthily stalking its unsuspecting prey.

Main Street

(a very rough draft of a short piece of fiction – needs a lot of work)

I’d see him from time to time, his black hair thick and matted, his beard a gnarled hornet’s nest. He looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. He wore a quilted acrylic vest over a faded flannel shirt, even on the warmest days of August.  He wasn’t small, standing about six foot, with a stomach that protruded beyond his belt.  He would shuffle down the sidewalks, muttering to himself.  Stepping off of or up onto the curb while crossing the street was always a challenge.  He’d get to the end of the sidewalk and stand motionless before lifting a leg and raising a foot to knee level, then take an exaggerated step down onto the street, often times stumbling onto the pavement.  I’d never seen him fall, but his worn and weathered face usually had a scar or contusion on his nose or beneath one of his eyes.

He’d shuffle up and down the Main Street sidewalks on the north side of the street from their beginning at the stop sign at Highway 67 to the west to the A & W that marked the end of the business district to the east. He walked so slowly that it would take him a couple of hours to complete the mile long trek.  He’d sit in the inside dining area of the restaurant for a couple of hours, then he’d leave, cross the street, and walk the mile back to Highway 67, walking west this time, on the south side of Main Street, the whole time mumbling an incomprehensible murmur.

I asked my co-workers at the window factory about the man, and they’d all seen him, but no one knew who he was.  He just appeared in town sometime between June and July, about a month before I moved in to the Mayflower Hotel.  Someone had given him the name “Mister Stinky,” and that seemed to stick. I’d describe him to people and they’d scratch their heads, but when I said “Mister Stinky” everyone knew who I was talking about.

August turned to September and I started dating Amy, the girl who worked in the office. She had dishwater blonde hair and big breasts. She worked days and I worked nights, second shift, so the only real time we had together was on the weekend, Saturday nights.  We spent most of them in Gene’s Place, a neighborhood bar near the factory where a lot of the workers hung out, or The Uptown, the new place on the east side of town that had a dance floor and catered to the eighteen to twenty one year olds.  They had big speakers and an impressive sound system and a DJ who would play the top forty hits of the day, everything from the Bee Gees and Donna Summer to The Cars and The Knack. It was 1978, the time in Wisconsin of the eighteen year old drinking age. I was nineteen and new to town, Amy was twenty and had lived in Neil all her life. She still lived at home and the manager of the Mayflower, Mr. Williams, didn’t allow unmarried tenants to bring girls in, so our intimate time was spent parked in my 1976 Chevy Nova outside the town limits in the dark of County Highway T.

Meanwhile, as far as I could tell, Mister Stinky was gone, just as mysteriously as he’d appeared.  No one knew exactly when he left.  The day came when everyone realized they hadn’t seen him for a while.  I think I saw him once in October, I seem to remember the trees having changed, but it’s fuzzy.

Amy and I started growing apart. Turns out we didn’t have that much in common, and it became apparent that our episodes out on Highway T didn’t have the same impact on her that they had on me. The week of Thanksgiving came and I spent it with my dad at our cabin deer hunting.

She broke up with me on the Monday after Thanksgiving, over the phone, which was ironic, as my apartment in the Mayflower didn’t have a phone.  It started during the day, when I tried to call her at work from the payphone on Main Street.  She said we had to talk, and asked me to call her at home that night from the factory when I was on break.  I did, and she told me it was over, that she wasn’t happy anymore, and that she wanted to date other people.

It was cold that night, around fifteen degrees when my shift was over and I walked out into the parking lot. I was tired and pissed off and feeling sorry for myself, and things only got worse when I tried to start my car and got the clicking sound of a dead battery.  I finally gave up and decided I’d take the thirty minute walk home to the Mayflower, thinking that the cold fresh air would clear the debris Amy and my car had clouded my head with.  It was already 12:45. I turned the collar of my army fatigue coat up and headed up hill on Mill Road into town.

The air was cold and heavy with unfallen snow, but it felt clean and pure. I turned onto Badger Avenue. All of the houses were dark. The sound of my feet on the sidewalks echoed between the gusts of wind from the north.  I was thinking about Amy, about the shape of her breasts and the cool smoothness of her skin, and how that was over, how my fingers would never trace the curve of her back again. We weren’t in love, even in the cold midnight darkness I knew that, but I loved the feel of her body, the scent of her neck.  I’d never experienced such heightened physicality before Amy, and now I couldn’t help but wonder if I ever would again. As I approached the A & W, it started to softly snow.  I turned onto the beginning of Main Street, the sidewalk on the north side. From the A & W, looking out to the west, in the streetlights’ soft glow, I could see all of Main Street stretched out before me.  It was empty, the wind blowing snow dust around on the sidewalks.

I made my way past the auto parts store and the pharmacy, the empty storefronts shielding me from the cold north wind. The clock on the bank said it was 1:15. I was a block away from the Mayflower and home. I was tired and cold and all alone on the sidewalk. I thrust my hands deeper into my coat pocket and studied the accumulating snow on the sidewalk, when to my right, my eyes caught the sight of a shapeless dark mass on the ground in the doorway to Richardson’s Appliances.  I stopped and realized it was a person, a human being, curled up in a ball, his legs and shoes sticking out from under the wool coat he’d tried to cover up with.  I could make out enough of his face underneath the stocking cap to see Mister Stinky, sound asleep in the cold. Curled up like he was in the cold doorway he looked small and slight.  I didn’t know what to do, my first thought was to wake him, but it occurred to me that might be dangerous, there’s no telling how he’d react.

I decided to go back to my apartment and get some warm things.  I ran the rest of the way to the Mayflower and climbed the stairs up to my apartment.  I took the extra blanket off of my bed and my blaze orange deer hunting coat and bundled them up in my arms and ran back down the stairs and out the door, under the red neon of the sign that said “Mayflower Hotel.”

Main Street was still and empty and silent, the snow coming down harder now. I thought I’d let him sleep, and lay the blanket and my hunting coat across him, and then I’d call the police from the pay phone, and he’d be warm while we waited for them.

I got to Richardson’s Appliances, and the doorway was empty. It’d been no more than five minutes since I’d left Mister Stinky there.  I must have woke him, I thought.  I looked up and down Main Street but there was nothing. The snow was coming down harder and coating the sidewalks.  I looked down and I could see my footprints and it occurred to me that wherever Mister Stinky went, in that slow and shuffling walk of his, he’d leave tracks, too.  But the only tracks I saw were my own.

I ran up and down Main Street, looking into every doorway of every locked and darkened storefront, cradling the blanket and hunting coat in my arms, but I never found a track, not a single footprint.  I looked in every alley, every nook and cranny. I stayed out for what felt like another hour, the snow coming down harder, but I never found a trace of him.  Finally, with the bank clock reading 2:00 and the blanket and coat in my arms wet and covered with a fresh layer of snow, I gave up.

I went home and crawled into bed, exhausted and confused, thinking about Mister Stinky, wondering what had happened to him. Did I really see him? I’d decided not to call the cops, knowing that the town’s two officers were off duty at that time of night, and that without any evidence of Mister Stinky it wasn’t worth rousing one of them out of a warm bed to look for an apparition. But as I laid there in the darkness of my apartment, I wondered if I’d done the right thing, if I should have called them. If I really did see Mister Stinky, he was still out there, and it was still snowing and cold.

The next thing I knew it was light out. I looked out my third floor window, and the town had awakened. It was still snowing. People were digging out, clearing driveways and scraping car windows, and out over the river cars were crossing the bridge. The day had begun, and the streets that had been so silent and empty a few hours ago were bustling with life, and I knew that out there, in the middle of it, there was my parked and dead car, and Amy, and Mister Stinky.

I never saw Mister Stinky again, and as far as I’m aware, neither did anyone else.  But I swear in that lonely night he was there, huddled in the doorway of Richardson’s Appliances, and then he was gone. I looked for him in that cold and snowy night, and I’ve looked for him in every darkened doorway in the almost forty years since.

Someday I’ll find him.

The Silence

(I shared this short story at the Kenosha Writers’ Guild meeting last night.  Still very much a work in progress, I want to thank everybody who provided their input)

Ever since the tornado hit and leveled most of Main Street in June of 1963, the Mayflower Hotel, about a block away and untouched by the storm’s path of destruction, has been the tallest building in the small town of Neil, Wisconsin. Standing high on the banks of the Ojibway River at the corner of Mayflower Avenue and Columbus Street, it’s been an imposing sight since its construction in 1884. The windows in the fourth floor dormers protrude from the hotel like gun turrets in a fortress, guarding the residents from phantom marauding enemy boats approaching up river from the east.  In the morning, the warmth of the sun lifts fog off of the cold river that rises and floats on the morning air until it spills over the banks and encircles the bottom of the hotel, making the top three floors appear to float like a ghost on a bed of mist.

Most mornings, the sun over the river is bright, and if you look up from the street to the fourth floor windows, all you can see is its reflection in the glass.  About thirty years ago, though, by the late afternoon, after the sun vacated the east, particularly on gray and dimly lit days, if you looked up you’d see the outline of her, frail and small, sitting in the third window from the left, watching the cars crossing the bridge or the fishing boats on the river, her hair as white as the shawl she wore around her shoulders.

In October of 1987, it’d already been eleven years since Mr. and Mrs. Boswell moved into Apartment 2E, the small three-room on the east side of the fourth floor.  Precious little was known about them.  They came from somewhere down state, presumably Milwaukee, and they were already in their mid seventies when they arrived. They were both deaf mutes.   They rarely left their apartment, having their groceries delivered in via a service offered by the local IGA.  The only mail that the hotel manager, Mr. Williams, received for them and placed in their box behind the front counter was their monthly social security checks and the occasional anonymous sales flyer.  They didn’t have children, and no one knew of any family they might have had. The deliveries from the current IGA delivery boy were their only contact with anyone from the outside world.  About one morning every other week or so, Mr. Williams would find a filled out form, with a “12” written neatly in the column besides “eggs” or “1/2 gal.” written next to “milk.” The form was always left on the front desk sometime over night for Mr. Williams to find first thing in the morning.

Nobody remembered the last time a human voice was heard from the Boswells’ apartment. They didn’t own a television or a radio, and they never joined the other tenants who’d sit out on the rocking chairs on the porch on warm summer evenings, or gather to watch television together in the lounge off of the lobby once the days grew shorter and the nights cooler.  They were forgotten by many of the tenants, and completely unknown of by others, who’d never seen them or even knew about their existence until the day they’d innocuously glance up to the fourth floor window on the way in and see the unmoving sight of Mrs. Boswell staring out her window.  Mr. Williams had to explain to more than one tenant that it wasn’t a ghost that they’d seen, it was in fact Mrs. Boswell, while other tenants weren’t so sure, while still others shrugged their shoulders and said, what’s the difference, they may as well be ghosts, given that they spent all their time in the shadowy silence of their little three room apartment.

They pre-dated even Mr. Williams, having arrived and taken up residence in Apartment 2E when the hotel was still under the management of his predecessor, Mr. Johnson.  All Mr. Johnson, in that usual cryptic style of his, ever told Mr. Williams about the Boswells was that they weren’t any trouble.  In his early days as manager, Mr. Williams always tried to engage Mr. Boswell in conversation whenever he stopped by the front desk to pay their rent or pick up his mail, but Mr. Boswell would just smile pleasantly and shake his head that he couldn’t understand Mr. Williams, and he’d politely wave and venture back up the stairs. Mr. Boswell was thin and short, stooped, always well dressed with clean and unwrinkled clothes.  He was always clean shaven and his white hair was always neatly trimmed.  He seemed nice enough, Mr. Williams thought. Dignified.

The passing of time, after experiencing the usual problems dealing with the younger tenants that comprised the bulk of the Mayflower’s clientele, made Mr. Williams appreciate Mr. Johnson’s simple and succinct summary of the Boswells.  Compared to the endless complaints about loud music and problems with drug and alcohol abuse and Mr. Williams’ personal crusade to rid the Mayflower of the presence of the aging whores and their johns that Mr. Johnson had profited from, he grew to appreciate the Boswell’s silent existence for what Mr. Johnson said it was: No trouble.

One Tuesday night, not too long after he and his wife, Evelyn, had taken up residence in the manager’s apartment on the first floor, Mr. Williams woke from another occurrence of what had become a recurring nightmare at two in the morning.  In his dream he was young, in the war again, and it was spring.  He was standing by himself in an abandoned railroad yard and he could hear the muffled sound of something moving, something alive, from behind the locked door of a lone railroad boxcar. He woke to a faint thumping sound coming from the basement.  He put his robe on and stealthily crept down the stairs.  The sounds were coming from the coin operated washers and dryers the hotel had installed for the tenants.  He paused at the open doorway of the laundry room and looked in and there, still and silent, sat Mr. Boswell, reading an issue of Time Magazine as the washer and dryer hummed and thumped away.  There was nothing wrong with doing laundry at 2:00 A.M. if one so chose, there were no hours posted.  Mr. Williams just found it odd that Mr. Boswell, with all the time in the world available to do his laundry, would choose Tuesday at two in the morning.  He stood at the doorway for a moment and quickly studied Mr. Boswell, who was as always neatly dressed and the picture of dignity as he sat there, reading his magazine. By this time, Mr. Williams already knew that any attempt to communicate with him would be pointless, so he turned and went back to his apartment, leaving Mr. Boswell alone with the sounds of the washer and dryer that he couldn’t hear.

It’d been six years, 1981, since the last time Mr. Williams was in the Boswells’ apartment. The worn and fading orange carpet that covered the entire fourth floor was being replaced.  Mr. Williams sent the fourth floor residents a note detailing the schedule for the change out, and that each tenant would have to be out of their apartment for about a three hour period while the old carpeting would be pulled up and the new carpeting installed.  For the Boswells, Mr. Williams was sensitive to their handicap and how difficult being displaced for even three hours would be to them, so he wrote them a personalized note inviting them to lunch with him and his wife the day of the change out.

Mr. Williams knocked on their door at 11:30, the time he specified in the note. The door opened and Mr. Boswell was standing there, his jacket already on.  It was unzipped enough for Mr. Williams to see that underneath he was wearing a white dress shirt and a necktie.  He had on neatly pressed slacks.  Mrs. Boswell was seated at the kitchen table.  She was wearing a blue dress dotted with a pattern of small white flowers under a black sweater. Her white hair was tied up in a bun.  Mr. Boswell motioned for Mr. Williams to come in.  Mr. Williams stepped in and without thinking said, “Good  morning.”  When neither one answered he remembered that they were both deaf, and felt foolish for having spoken.  He stood in the tiny apartment’s doorway and quickly took inventory.  It was immaculate, not a trace of dirt or even dust.  To his left the bedroom door was open.  The bed was neatly made, on top of the dresser sat framed and fading black and white photographs of them on their wedding day, individual head shots, Mr. Boswell unwrinkled in his tuxedo with slick, dark hair parted down the middle and a confident smile, and Mrs. Boswell in her wedding gown, young and pretty with her dark hair curled under a white lace veil. There was a larger photograph of the two of them together holding the wedding bouquet, she leaning her head on his shoulder, both smiling. Mr. Williams looked for clues in the photos that would tell him when they were taken. They both looked so young, in their mid twenties, which he guessed would have been about fifty five years earlier. Doing he math, subtracting fifty five from 1981, he guessed their wedding to have occurred sometime around 1925. He wondered, were they both already deaf and mute at that time? Or did something happen to cause one or both of them to lose their ability to speak and hear?  He couldn’t imagine what type of calamity could have impacted them both in the same way, and he figured that the odds were they’d always been deaf mutes, and had lived all those years together in silence.

Mr. Boswell helped his wife to her feet and she grabbed her purse from the kitchen table.  They were ready, they both smiled at Mr. Williams, and Mr. Boswell held the apartment door open as his wife and Mr. Williams exited. He shut the door behind them and joined them at the top of the stairs

They picked up Mrs.. Williams at the bottom of the stairs and exited the hotel, getting in Mr. Williams’ enormous maroon Buck, the Boswells in the back and the Williams up front. He drove the five blocks across town to Gustafson’s, an old-style northern Wisconsin supper club that on Friday nights was the most popular place in the area for all you can eat fish fry.  They served good lunches, too, from a variety of burgers, melts and club sandwiches to fresh salads and homemade casserole dishes.  They sat in a big three sided booth in the back, Mr. and Mrs. Boswell in the center, Mr. and Mrs. Williams on the outside, one on either side of the Boswells.

Mrs. Williams had taken a basic sign language course at the local community college and tried signing some of the simplest and most basic conversation starters, but to no use.  Mrs. Boswell just sat there with a confused frown, while Mr. Boswell smiled politely, waved his hands and shrugged his shoulders, indicating that they didn’t understand. Mrs. Williams, with a hand over her mouth, muttered softly to Mr. Williams, “They don’t know any sign language at all.”

The four studied their menus in silence, and when the waitress came to take their order, when it was Mr. Boswell’s turn, he pointed to the turkey club sandwich and pointed to Mrs. Boswell, then pointed to a tuna melt for himself. It took a while, the waitress working with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, to figure out if the Boswells wanted fries or chips and what beverages they wanted, but eventually they got through it, and the waitress left.  Then the silence fell, heavy and dark. Finally, Mr. Williams reached in his back pocket and pulled out a small notebook.  He pulled a pen out of the breast pocket of his olive green work shirt, and started writing.  He scribbled, looks like rain this afternoon, doesn’t it?  He slid the notebook and pen to Mr. Boswell, who read it and nodded enthusiastically in response. Mr. Boswell wrote yes, those clouds are quite dark, aren’t they, and pushed the notebook back to Mr. Williams, who nodded yes in response.  Then Mrs. Williams took the pad and pen and wrote, “Mrs. Boswell, I just love your dress,” and slid the notebook to Mrs. Boswell.  She read it and blushed visibly, writing “Thank you,” and returning the notepad to Mrs. Williams.

They ate their lunch, finishing just as the restaurant started filling up with the noon lunch crowd.  As more people came in, Mr. Williams could sense traces of anxiety appear on both of the Boswells’ faces, especially Mrs. Boswell, and he noticed that Mrs. Boswell slid closer to Mr. Boswell.  He noted how they communicated, how they’d learned to read what the other was saying with their eyes, hers dark and deep, his blue and watery.

He also observed that Mrs. Boswell seemed even more uncomfortable than Mr. Boswell, and that she relied upon him to shelter her from the imposing outside world they found themselves in. Mr. Boswell was protective of his wife, helping her off and later on with her coat, making sure she understood the scribbled lines on the notebook Mr. and Mrs. Williams used to communicate with them, and wrapping his arm around her shoulder as they left, navigating the tables and the chairs and the people sitting in them, and helping her into the back seat of the Buick for the ride back to the hotel.

It was only one o’clock when they returned to the Mayflower. The carpet installers still had another hour and a half until they were finished with the Boswells’ apartment, so Mr. Williams invited them into his apartment behind the front desk for coffee,.  The Boswells nervously accepted, and the four of them sat in the living room, sipping from cups of coffee, Mr. Boswell looking surreptitiously at his watch. They made more small “talk,” making further use of the notebook, but it was slow and painful, and never got past the most innocent and superficial of topics. Mr. Williams noticed again the way they’d look at each other and he became convinced they were communicating, somehow, imperceptible to anyone else, but it was there, in their eyes, on their faces.  If Mr. Williams had hoped the event would remove the aura of mystery that always surrounded the Boswells, he had to be deeply disappointed. When it was over, when the new carpet .was installed and the Boswells were returned to their apartment, the only thing that Mr. Williams knew about them that he didn’t before was that they loved each other with a depth that he previously hadn’t appreciated.

The final time that Mr. Williams was in the Boswells’ apartment was on a Saturday morning in early October of 1987. A front moved in from the north, dropping the temperature nearly twenty degrees to the mid thirties within a fifteen minute span, causing the Hotel’s furnace to kick on for the first time in months, pushing warm air thru the vents.  Mr. Williams was at the front desk when Jim Hayward, the resident in the fourth floor Apartment 1E, next to the Boswells, came down the stairs.

“There’s a bad smell coming from the Boswell’a apartment,” he said.  Mr. Williams grabbed his passkey and ran upstairs with Jim. “It started when the furnace kicked on,” he added.  As they approached the top of the stairs, Mr. Williams instantly recognized the strong and pungent odor. It’d been more than forty years since he and the rest of the 45th Infantry Division of the Seventh Army approached the abandoned railroad cars on the outskirts of the town of Dachau, but the acrid odor that permeated the fourth floor air brought it all back as if it’d been yesterday, and he was filled with an overwhelming dread of what he knew waited behind the Boswell’s door.

He buried his nose in his shirt. Jim Hayward did the same. He inserted the passkey and opened the door.  The stench was unbearable as he stood in the dim light of the Boswell’s apartment.  Looking across the kitchen, he could see Mrs. Boswell, seated on her chair at the dormer window, with her back to him, looking out at the river, her white shawl wrapped around her shoulders and her white hair neatly brushed and flowing down to her upper back. As Mr. Williams approached her, the smell grew stronger, and he knew what he’d find, but that didn’t prepare him for the rotting flesh, the bulging eyes, and the death mask grin.

Turning back to the door, he saw Jim Hayward, still standing in the doorway, the color drained from his face, as he started retching.  He ran out of the apartment to vomit somewhere safe.  Mr. Williams turned and stood at the closed door to the bedroom, and he knew that Mr. Boswell was in there.  He opened the door and scanned the room before entering. He didn’t see anything amiss.  The bed was neatly made.  He entered, and looked again at the wedding pictures on top of the dresser at the foot of the bed, taking the photo of Mrs. Boswell in his hand.  He heard the faint sound of something moving, and his eyes caught a slight flash of motion, a shadow, on the floor on the other side of the bed, and he looked, and there laying on the floor was Mr. Boswell, crumpled and naked, his ribs and hips sticking sharply out of gray flesh, his eyes vacant but alive in boney eye sockets.  He was still alive, barely, waiting for death, in the relentless silence of Apartment 2E on the fourth floor of the Mayflower Hotel.




(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.”