Act of Contrition

In the deep-rooted shadows upon which the forest stands, where nothing grows but moss and the debris of winter-felled branches, Scott Lang and his brother Tony heard the stuttering k-r-r-r-k like someone opening the door to a derelict shack.

But near all around them, there were no such homes except last spring’s birds’s nests and the torn-up insect domicile buried within a pine upon which a woodpecker hammered another k-r-r-r-k.

“This noise where there’s nothing around creeps me out, man,” Tony said.

“Some of us, little brother, find such ‘noise’ a blanket of comfort, the caress of natural music far from the crash and soul-crunching violence in city life, the promise of peace,” said Scott.

“Okay, I get it, but does it take sloshing all the way out here just to find your precious quiet? Besides, it’s so damn dark here, how the hell am I supposed to see anything well enough to shoot it?” Tony said, swinging his rifle in carefree arcs.

“Your life always comes down to noisy violence. It killed Mom. I don’t want to know who else. Can’t you just enjoy some serenity for once?”

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? Now where to something I can enjoy?”

“You’ll never get it, will… Wait, what was that?” Scott said.

“Where?” Tony said, swinging the muzzle of the 30.06 toward the shadows.

When the echo of the k-r-r-r-k made by four rapid shots from the .22 Scott pulled from his pocket faded, he sighed. After a few seconds, he heard the birds begin singing again. He could actually hear his heartbeat settle down as the wind strummed the tall pines like harp strings. And he was pretty sure there had been only two witnesses to what he’d done.

He made a silent Act of Contrition to one.

“Peace, Mom, just like I promised. At last, some peace,” he whispered to the other.

Just Enough

“Think she’ll answer?”

“I don’t know. It’s been so long since we talked. At least with a civil tone.”

“Then why the hell are you calling her in the first place?”

“To hear her voice again, I guess.”

“A voice you haven’t heard in…”

“Fifteen years or so.”

“Lotta things can change in fifteen years.”

“Or so.”

“Yeah. Like maybe she won’t recognize your name, let alone your voice.”

“Sometimes you just have to take the leap.”

“And all this leaping and listening serves what purpose?”

“Closure.”

“Closure of something for which there never was an open-sure.”

“That’s because I never tried knocking.”

“Oh, is that what they called it in the 90s?”

“Shut up. I’m serious. I never admitted my, my…”

“Infatuation? Obsession? Hallucination?”

“You can always leave, you know. You’re not helping my anxiety about this one bit.”

“And rightly so. Do you seriously believe that a woman you knew as barely a friend will be interested in talking to you for the first time in fifteen years, let alone being open to your ‘knocking’ her?”

“No. I don’t. But if I don’t try, even just saying hi, I’ll never have that moment like at the near end of ‘Love, Actually.’ You know, when Keira Knightley comes running out of her house, with her husband — Chiwetel Ejiofor no less — back inside waiting for her, to chase after Andrew Lincoln, since he professed his pretty much undying love for her.”

“Yeah, and she kissed him and gave him a sigh and a look like, ‘too late, but maybe if you tried hitting on me before MY HUSBAND did, I’d have been down with you being the male half of this It Couple in hip London circles. So maybe…’ Is that what you want?”

“Well, maybe. But actually, I’d be happy with what happens next.”

“Which was?”

“He walks away from his great love feeling somewhat like he’s found a kind of closure. And he says what I want to feel, one way or another.”

“I repeat: Which was?”

“He says, ‘Enough. Enough now.’ I just want that.”

“What?”

“Just…Enough.”

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a bit of flash fiction I cobbled together selected to win a weekly competition, Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. At 250 words or less, I think I may have just ‘cobbed’ it together. I was stunned and heartened by that honor. To say I needed that approbation of late can’t be overstated. I’m hurting in the creative part of my life as much as the others. So this week, folks were supposed to take a snippet of words from my story (the first line up there) to write a new one. I couldn’t get to it then, but felt the urge today to try. I’m afraid I just let the voices go and this is what happened. First draft, free write., too long for the competition. But for my writing muscles and creative needs? And my heart? Just Enough.

Fig Newtons and Café Au Lait

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Never in a million years, would I have thought I would someday be wrestling a seven-year-old’s hair into an acceptable level of neat confinement. But then I never figured Jen might die before I did. I never expected our daughter Melissa to have a baby by “that guy.” Never dreamed that child would become my day job and one of my only reasons to get up each morning, once I retired.

Yet here I was running a spiky brush through Mimi’s coarse, tightly curled hair, as she wriggled and whined that I hurt her when my brushing would slide and stop with the discovery of yet another snarl.

“I’m sorry, Mimi. I’m trying not to hurt you, but your mother would kill me if I let you out of the house with your hair full of knots,“ I said as I worked the brush with my right hand and held onto my neat harvest of frizzled hair. The hair she inherited from her father, but her sweet little face was a café au lait version of her mother’s at her age.

“I hate my stupid hair, Grandpa,” Mimi said as I finally contained most of the subject of her dismay with four twists of a hair band at the back of her head. 

As I withdrew my finger from that elastic mini-tourniquet, I said, “Now why on the world would you say that?” 

I know, at that moment I wasn’t too fond of her hair either. But it was the perfect crown to her angel face.

“It’s just…just…all over the place. I hate it. I want hair like Taylor’s,” Mimi said.

“Taylor?”

“You know, Taylor. She’s the most beautiful girl in my class. Everybody loves her and she’s really nice and I want long straight, shiny blond hair like Taylor’s,” Mimi said with a defiant stamp of her foot on the floor that I felt through my slippers. Yes, I’m retired, so now I wear slippers, moccasins, around the house.

“Mimi, everybody loves you, too. You’re sweet and smart and musical and you look just like my little girl, which means I think you’re absolutely beautiful,” I said with a touch of my hand on her chin. Which was sticky.

“What the heck is on your face?” I asked her while I went to fetch a wet wipe from the white plastic container on the counter. She smiled. And that’s when I saw the brown stain on her tooth.

“Fig Newtons, Grandpa. I traded with Taylor. She wanted my ‘Nilla Wafers.”

“And when did you eat these Fig Newtons? You took your shower last night. I cleaned up the water after you were done, Miss Squeaky Clean.”

“In bed. I snuck ‘em under my pillow. Some of the crumbs got kinda itchy, but I still slept okay.”

“I see. Well, why don’t we both march to the bathroom and you can brush your teeth,” I said with a gentle hand on her warm little shoulder. Though I could see she was getting bigger every day.

“Okay, but I still hate my hair. I want to be as beautiful as Taylor, beautiful like a flower,” Mimi said.

“You already ARE beautiful. Here, let me load up your toothbrush. Now brush, and listen.”

“Mmm-mummmph”

“I know you think you’re not as ‘beautiful,’ as Taylor,” I said, emphasizing beautiful with air quotes. I’m sure they were wasted on a seven-year-old, but I was out of practice with that age. Boy, with Melissa at work, did I miss Jen (again) right then.

“But sometimes beauty is more than only looks, of which you have plenty, little lady. There’s a city on the other side of the world called Singapore. And in Singapore is this stunningly beautiful park. EVERYBODY says it’s one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Now at the center of this beautiful park are these giant metal frames that look like trees. They’re made of twisted bars of steel that reach way up like redwoods and spread out at the top like another tree I’ll tell you about in a second.”

Mimi spit into the sink and said, “Is this gonna be another long story, Grandpa?”

“Keep brushing and listen. Now on these frames of metal trees, beautiful vines and flowers climb and grow. Just like the grapes do every year on Grandma’s arbor in the yard. But inside these phony trees that everyone says are so beautiful are these concrete towers, just like you’d see in Charlotte or Raleigh or even Washington. They aren’t beautiful but the beautiful phony trees cover that up,. Sometimes outside beauty isn’t the whole story about something. It’s just…outside.” I said, hoping I could get this next part through to her.

“Uh huh.”

“These metal trees branch out at the top something like a fig tree, the kind of tree that made the fruit in the sticky and sweet middle of your Newtons. You have to agree that a fig is a pretty sweet thing, right?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Well, did you know that the fig is the only fruit, sweet as it is, that doesn’t grow from a pretty blossom or flower first? Nope, the fig’s blossoms grow on the inside and help make it sweet and different in a very good way. Just like you. Beautiful, sweet and different from any other girl in the world. Except maybe your Mommy. Now rinse and spit,” I said.

“Thbbbbb… But I don’t want to be different,” Mimi said.

“Are you kidding? Do watch TV? These blond news bunnies all over the air are like dandelions in my crappy lawn. All pretty and yellow when they pop up, then BOOM, they turn into those white floating seed thingies that make you sneeze. And, by the way, dandelions are a weed.”

“Are you saying Taylor’s a weed, Grandpa?  That’s not a nice thing to say. Taylor’s my friend,” Mimi said. And I realized that my half-assed parable had merely served to pass the time that it took for her to focus on what made her my sweet girl.

“Can you call Taylor’s mom and ask her if she can come over today? She’s got this new American Girl doll we can play with. It looks like her,“ Mimi said, half hopeful and a still a little down.

“Of course. You tell her she can bring her doll over to play with yours.”

“But I don’t have one. Mommy said maybe for Christmas.”

“Mommy has yet to learn that Grandpa’s don’t need Christmas to spoil their granddaughters. C’mere,” I said, leading her into my little office space downstairs.”

“Grandpas who don’t have too much to do sometimes just sit around and think what they can do to make their beautiful granddaughters happier. With Grandma gone, I needed help, so I enlisted the aid of Kendall here.” I pulled the box with the slick plastic window on its front from behind my desk and handed it to Mimi. Inside was one of those American Girl dolls, only this one had tight curly hair pulled back in two puffy pigtails and her pretty face was the color of Jen’s coffee, when I got it right. Sure it was for her birthday in two weeks, but now I could get her even more stuff.

“Oh, Grandpa, she’s beautiful,” Mimi squealed.

“Say that again.”

“She’s beautiful, she looks just like…”

“You.”

I think I got it right this time, Jen. 

Another Six Senses, Six Weeks assignment. This one was to center on the sense of touch, which i didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. But I enjoyed writing this little story. It kept revealing more things to me as I went along. That photo was one of the prompts, as was a photo of that park and a halved fig in a glass dish. Used the prompts, just gagged on the theme, unless it touches someone’s heart.

Taps

Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash

“Why do you always do that, Great-grandpa Bill?” Ginny Benson asked

“Do what, Ginny?” replied old Bill Frye.

“Take off your glasses and tap them on the table when you look out that window?”

“Do I do that? Hmmm…I guess I do. Didn’t even notice the tapping. Here, let me put them back on so I see your pretty face,” Bill said with a smile.

“So why do you do that? And always when you look out the window on the ocean side of the house,” Ginny said.

“My, you do notice a lot for someone so young. Just the ocean side, you say?”

“Yep. Hardly ever when you look out the road side of your house.”

“Hmmm…maybe because I’ve seen the ocean long enough in my life that I know what she looks like? Don’t even need my glasses,” old Bill said.

“Uh huh. But you always tell me how the ocean’s a living thing, changing every second and you have to keep your eyes on it. So why…?”

“My, my, but you’re a tight listener, Ginny. With a memory like your great-grandmother’s, God rest her sweet soul. And you favor her more each and every day.”

“Okay. But you still didn’t answer my question. Why do you take them off and tap them on your table like that,” Ginny said as she sat at the window seat next to Bill.

“…and in your stubborn lines of inquiry, I might add.”

“I guess.”

“So let’s see, why do I take off my glasses when I look out at the ocean? Well, like I said, I was a seaman for more than sixty years, even if you’ve only ever seen me live on shore. I’ve probably spent more time at sea than ashore.”

“Mommy and Grandma say they’ve seen more of you since Great-grandma June died than they ever did.”

“Yeah, well, making up for lost time, I guess. And I regret that loss. That’s what old seamen do, Ginny. We sit around, stare out windows and listen to the clock tick as we look back, remember how lucky we’ve been and then regret,” Bill said, looking out the window again.

“Regret? You’ve lived a long time, made a successful career in commercial fishing for six decades. You even survived Pearl Harbor, Grandpa told me,” Ginny said, her voice rising.

“He did, did he? What’d he tell you?” Bill’s eyes narrowed.

“He said you escaped from a ship after it was torpedoed by the Japanese. He told me it capsized and you got off. But he told me that’s all he knew. Even Grandma doesn’t know what happened.”

“I survived, honey, when a lot of other men didn’t. Isn’t that enough to know?”

“I suppose. But you still didn’t answer my questions.”

“How old are you now, Ginny?”

“Thirteen. Fourteen in two weeks.”

“My you’re growing up so fast. So bright, so mature for your young age. You know what I was doing when I was about your age?”

“I don’t know. Paper route?”

“At fifteen I was working on my uncle Frank’s boat off Port Orford. I hauled in Dungeness crab for him every day until I turned 17, when I decided I’d seen enough of crabs and the Oregon coast. Told myself I never wanted to see no crab pots or fishing nets again. I wanted to see what the rest of the world looked like from the deck of a real vessel. So I joined the Navy.”

“Still waiting on tapping your glasses, Grampy Bill.”

“I admire your persistence, Ginny. Must’ve gotten that from me. So I signed up and they sent me to basic training and then to a ship called the USS Oklahoma, which was moored in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. I never seen any place so beautiful in my life. It was a sweet time, let me tell you. All that warm sunshine, the sweet smell of hibiscus and Island girls. After standing in cold water and smelling of crab and whiting for two years, this was heaven,” Bill said, a softer tone to his voice. 

“I met a girl there named Missy Kochiyama. This is before I met your Great-grandmother. Japanese-American girl, born in Hawaii. Nisei they called kids whose folks had come from Japan. For whatever reason, we hit it right off when a buddy of mine asked me to tag along to meet some girls he knew. After that, whenever I got shore leave, which happened more times than you might think, we’d meet up and have us a sweet time. We were real close.”

“Did you love her?”

“Yep, honey, I did. And she loved me, too. I even gave her my Mom’s watch, which your great-great-grandma gifted to me before she passed. And she gave me a watch with Japanese characters that her dad used as a student in Kyoto. We told each other that our watches were each other’s beating hearts. And whenever we wished we could be near one another, to just put the watch to our ear and there the other would be.”

“That’s so sweet! So how’s this fit into…”

“Oh, yeah. Well, the Oklahoma was one of the biggest and best battleships in the fleet. And to stay that way, we trained and drilled and had inspections to keep us sharp. In fact, we were preparing to have an inspection on Monday, December eighth, so we had a lot of our doors and hatches wide open when the Japs hit us. Three torpedoes, bang-bang-bang, in our port side right off.” 

“That must have been so frightening, Grampy Bill!”

“That was the second most frightening thing ever happened to me, Ginny. Water began pouring in from the holes those fish made and with all those hatches open, the Okie took on water faster than anyone could close and dog them. The ship began to list to port and a lot of boys found themselves trapped before they could get above decks. Then five more fish hit her and the Okie really began sinking and over she went.”

“Oh my God!”

“Me and a bunch of fellas were trapped in a compartment underneath the No. 4 gun turret, which, when she went keel-over-teakettle, was then underwater. We were stuck in there for 25 hours, with no power, thinning air, and water starting to come over my feet like on that old trawler of my uncle’s,” Bill said.

Ginny leaned forward and grasped her great-grandfather’s crooked hands.

“So what did you do? What happened?” she said.

“We all took turns banging on the bulkhead above us with a wrench. Clang-clang, clang-clang! Like a horrible heartbeat. It was an awful racket and with everyone’s nerves shot, it became almost too much to bear. We could hear the same thing going on in the Number 4 Radio Room next to us. Some of the guys were ready to die after eighteen hours of this stuff. I knew exactly how long we were locked in that box because I kept looking Missy’s dad’s watch. When one of the guys saw the Japanese figures on its face, he tried grabbing it from me and I dropped it into the water, which was rising higher all the time. I found it and put back in my pocket. The air pressure getting tighter and the continuous clanging made my ears hurt so bad. I was pretty sure I was gonna be deaf before I was gonna be dead.”

“Then what happened, Great-grandpa?”

“Other sailors and civilian workers from the Navy Yard brought in air compressors, pumps, chipping tools and torches alongside the part of our hull still above water. We had no idea this was going on, of course. It wasn’t until we heard the first sounds of an air hammer a full day after the attack. One of the guys in Number 4 Radio Room, on his way out, told a fella from the Navy Yard we were still alive on the other side of the bulkhead. He banged on the steel and yelled to tell us he was gonna get us out.”

“And he did. Wow!” 

“It wasn’t that simple, Ginny. See, we had water rising and if they just cut a hole in that bulkhead, willy-nilly, all the air that was in our compartment would blow out that hole and water would take its place. We knew this because as soon as we saw a drill bit come through the wall, we could hear the hiss of the air going out and watch the water begin coming in. So four of us went under the water and horsed the hatch shut. That gave us a chance, I guess. But it wasn’t going to be that simple.”

“What do you mean?”

“The water was still rising as the construction crew started at the bulkhead with an air hammer. I heard later that when they tried cutting through another place on the ship with an acetylene torch it sucked the air right out of the compartment. The water rushed in and all those fellas died on the spot. So with the water rising in our compartment and that air hammer gnawing away at the bulkhead, it was a race to see if we’d get out in time, if at all. And now I can tell you what was the most scared I’ve ever been. Right there.”

“I…I can’t imagine, Grampy Bill.”

“I hope you never try, Ginny. After about an hour of this stuff, the big fella who was hammering into the wall had finished the third side of a square he was cutting for us. But time was running out for him, too. Water was up to his knees and rising as fast as it was for us. We were ready to tear into that slab of steel with our fingers by then. This fella knew none of us had too long left, so he says, ‘Look out for your hands, boys,’ and he takes a sledgehammer and begins wanging away at that steel. He bent it back toward us until there was this triangular space we could shimmy through. We got out of that ship as fast as we could, let me tell you. But found out later more than 400 of our shipmates weren’t so lucky. That’ll gnaw on you for a long time, Ginny.”

“What a story! So when you look out at the ocean you take your glasses off and tap them like those wrenches and hammers and stuff you heard that day?” Ginny said.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Bill sighed.

Just as she was about to get up, Ginny asked, “Whatever happened to that girl, Missy, Grampy?”

“I never saw her again. Even went down to where they kept all the bigshot Japanese residents. Like those internment camps they had back on the mainland. She wasn’t there either.”

“How sad. Well, thank you Grampy Bill. I’m honored you shared that story with me.” Ginny kissed Bill’s forehead.

“You’re welcome, honey. But let’s just keep it between us, okay? Our secret. Just some of those things old men think about when our real last day grows near.” Bill gave Ginny a wink.

“You bet. Love you, Grampy Bill.”

“Love you, Ginny.”

As she left the room, Bill stared out at the ocean again and sighed. 

“Couldn’t tell her. Just couldn’t,” he whispered to himself.

Once more he felt for the old tarnished watch in his breast pocket, its hands pointing to about 8:30 AM, when the salt water stopped it on December 9, 1941. That was two days after Missy Kochiyama took her father’s car out to Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning in hope of waving to young Billy Frye, when he said he would be above deck.

With his fingers touching the old watch, old Bill gazed toward the southwest, removed his glasses and tapped heartbeats on the table with them as the sun set in the Pacific behind Neahkahnie Point on the Oregon coast.

Another first-and-a-half draft based on Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses project. This week’s theme was the Sense of Sound. I was presented with three photos for inspiration: one showed an old man staring into the camera, a pair of eyeglasses, and, finally, a photo of the ocean at sunset . The fact that today is the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed me in that direction. And another prompt I read today suggested I try writing a story all in dialogue. I came close, but I couldn’t finish it the way I wanted that way…today..

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Photo by Namroud Gorguis on Unsplash

The road from Plattsburgh to Chateaugay wound through the Adirondacks, past farms and little clusters of gas stations and McDonalds and such, just as it always did. But now there was a Dunkin Donuts where the old Dairy Queen would tempt me with deep-fried and soft-serve goodies. I had to laugh at that, as I passed the sign signaling the turnoff to the Dunkin Reserve State Forest outside Cadyville.

“Even the North Country’s got to change, I guess,” I said to the static-filled radio voices out of Plattsburgh. Soon enough, static would be all I’d hear.

I’d decided to take the long way, Rte. 374 West, just for the scenery and the time to remember. But a rainstorm was watering down or washing out whatever of the old sights I had wanted to see. And my memory wasn’t as good as it was the last time I passed through. The trip should’ve taken me something like an hour to complete. Though in my head, it was taking years. One, because of the weather, and Two, because it was taking me back forty-some years.

As if the weather wasn’t dreary enough, one place I really didn’t need seeing was the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Even with the rain turning some of the scenery into an Impressionist watercolor, Dannemora is perpetually dreary. Its drab and chipped painted walls sit right there, not ten feet from the curbside. The exterior gave only a small taste of the depressing and dangerous world within those walls.

Passing the final tower, I took a look at the prison in my rearview mirror, like one would a traffic accident, when I hit one of Dannemora’s year-round potholes. I should have remembered how the town grew potholes like weeds and drivers were always going hub-deep in some of them when they hid beneath the shiny surface of a puddle that filled and camouflaged them. Taking another peek at my rearview mirror, to see the size of the crater my car just crashed through, I almost hit a young guy with his thumb out, who was walking by the side of the road. He dove into some weeds.

“You okay, man?” I asked after I’d pulled by the side of the road and jumped out. I found him wiping mud from his glasses, his faded denim jacket and pants covered in wet and sticky dead leaves.

“I think so. What the hell were you doin’, mister? You coulda killed me,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I hit one of those damned potholes and I guess I lost control of my car.”

“I’d say you sure did. What’re you one of those people who spend their days staring into a damn phone? Ow, my ankle,” he said as he took a step toward the road. “Jesus, bad enough I gotta hoof or hitch my way to Brainardsville, now I’ve gotta do it on a twisted ankle.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry. Um, maybe I can give you a lift. Brainardsville is on my way. Let’s get you out of the rain at least,” I said.

“That’d be cool. Thanks. Let me get my bag,” he said. He pulled an Army surplus backpack from beneath the autumn-dead bush that had shed its yellowed leaves on just about everything he wore. After he brushed most of the leaves off, he sat with his bag between his feet in the seat next to me.

“I don’t know whether to thank you or cuss you out,” the young guy said. “But a lift’s a lift, so I shouldn’t complain too much, I guess.”

“No. Anytime you can put Dannemora in your rearview mirror is a good thing, I always say.”

“You been inside?” he asked, his blue eyes widening a little. I wasn’t sure if that was in surprise or actual interest.

“A few times. Back when I worked for the newspaper in Plattsburgh. Now I’m a freshly retired guy and I figured I’d sort of retrace my steps in life while I still have the time. Now I can slow down to see the scenery I missed while I was hustling to make a deadline or blindly running for some other dumb reason,” I said.

“Apparently that’s not working out so good for you…or me,” he said, as he rubbed his ankle.

“Yeah, sorry again. By the way, my names James, but folks call me Jamie…even at my advanced age,” I said with a chuckle, extending my hand.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, mister…Jamie. I don’t need my Grandma losing another of her own before she passes,” he said. “And my name’s Loyal.”

“Wow, now that’s a North Country name if I ever heard one. And I’ve not heard it in over forty years. Knew a guy from these parts by that name…”

“Yeah, well named for my Grandpa and there’s a lot of us around here living under that curse even today,” said.

“So where are you comin’ from?” I asked him. We still had twenty or so miles to go and WIRY lost its crackling voice a ways back. I figured small talk was all I had. Cellular service had even gone flat here in this section of the mountains, so I couldn’t even stream anything from my phone.

“The prison.”

“Oh, you work there?”

“No.”

“Oh…I see,” I said, dividing my vision between the highway and him. “Sorry.”

“Meh, it is what it is. I only did three of five to fifteen. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd, if you know what I mean,” he said. He stared out the window. His words turned to steam, clouding the view until he wiped them away with his hand.

“You got any music to play? I mean real music? I’ve had too much hip-hop and country since I been inside,” Loyal said, changing the subject.

“I’m afraid not. WIRY still sucks and cellular sucks and I didn’t bring any CDs. I’m a forgetful old cuss, I guess.”

“This car doesn’t have a tape player?” Loyal asked. It sounded like he’d been away for a hell of lot longer than he’d been on earth. “My family’s truck still does.”

“No, afraid not. Why’d you ask?” I said. Now I was interested.

‘Cause I got this here tape my Grandma sorta gave me when I went inside. It’s tunes she used to play and sing for me when my Mom was alive and even after. This old tape has seen a lot of wear and tear, but I’ve fixed it with Scotch tape every time it breaks,” Loyal said as he fished in the between his feet.

“Would you mind if I played it on this?” he asked, pulling an old portable cassette player from the backpack.

“Jeez, how old did you say you are? I haven’t seen one of those in twenty years,” I said with a little laugh. “Here comes Lyon Mountain, by the way. I’d say another twenty minutes to Brainardsville.”

“Yeah. So do you care if I play this or not? It’s old stuff, tunes my Grandma loved and my Grandpa hated. Ol’ Loyal would pitch a fit and head for the bar if she played or even hummed them.”

“Sure, since I’m driving down Memory Lane today, might as well have the right music to set the mood.”

Loyal pushed the PLAY button and turned up the volume so I could hear the pops and gaps in the tape that began with the harmonized hmmmm-hmm-ummm-hmmmm-hmmmm-hmmm-ummm-hmmm-ummm of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, just before Simon laid down one of my favorite acoustic riffs that kicked off his song “America.”

I heard, “Let us be lovers, we’ll gather our fortunes together…” and I got that same cold sinking feeling I always did when I heard that song.

“Man, Loyal, you’re playing one of my favorites. Your Grandma has good taste.

“Yeah, she loves every song on this cassette, A-side and B.”

The sky began to brighten and I could see Chateaugay Lake to my left. I couldn’t help humming along myself. And then came the Moody Blues placing their stamp on what I always called Art Rock with “Nights in White Satin.”

“Wow, been a long time since I’ve heard this one, too.”

“Yup, my Grandma says this is Art Rock, whoever he was. I went to school with some LaRocks, though none of them was named Art.”

That cold dip from Simon and Garfunkel tired into an iceberg in my gut.

“Say, Loyal, you never told me your Grandmother’s name,” I said, almost dreading the answer.

“Her name’s Mary Grandjean,” he said.

“Oh, don’t know her.”

“But she goes by Sandy. She used to have sorta blond hair, so everyone calls her Sandy. Sandy Benson Grandjean,” Loyal said as he hit FAST FORWARD. “I really like this next one. So’s my Grandma and so did my mom.”

I closed my eyes for a second. I was afraid I knew what was coming up. I was as sure of it as I was that around the next bend was the intersection where I’d leave Loyal off for Brainardsville.

Before it even began, I started humming the intro to “Looking at the Rain.” The strings came up and then the oh-so-Canadian baritone of Gordon Lightfoot. My heart pounded and my hands sweat on the wheel.

How old are you, Loyal?” I asked.

“Twenty-three,” he replied.

“You say your Mom has passed?”

“Yep, when I was five. She ran with one of those wrong crowds, too. Driving home drunk, she went off 374 and…that was that.” Loyal sighed against the window. I mouthed the words, “Wishing this was all a dream…and I’d find you sleeping when I wake…”

“You say somethin’, Jamie?” Loyal asked.

“No, son, just love the words to this song. Always meant a lot to me,” I said.

“Yeah, sometimes poor old Grandma wipes her eyes when she hears it. Well, here’s where I get off I guess,” Loyal said. He seemed so much calmer just from playing those songs.

“Let me drive you to your Grandma’s. I don’t want you making that ankle any worse.”

“No, really, it’s okay.”

“Please, let me. It’s the least I can do,” I said. Was I sounding frantic?

“Okay, just hang a right on 190 and then your first left onto Church Road. It’s the first house on the right,” Loyal said. I could see the excitement in his eyes, could sense his heart beginning to beat harder, faster, too.

If he felt my chest, I’m sure he’d ask to be let out now.

“This is it right here. That’s my Grandma’s place with the redwood porch.”

A woman in her late fifties or early sixties hurried out the door, off the steps and trotted to the road as I slowed the car to a stop and Loyal jumped out into her tearful hug.

“Oh, Loy, I’ve missed you so. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to pick you up, but the battery went on the truck again and I didn’t have someone who could jump it or change it,” she said.

She looked a little rounder, shorter, and tired. But that voice I’d never forget.

“Well, it’s okay. I got a ride just a couple of blocks from the prison from Jamie here. Jamie, this is my Grandma, Sandy Grandjean,” Loyal said. His grandmother leaned to look at my face through the passenger side window. Her joyous expression quieted, but her eyes widened to their old sapphire glory.

“Thank you. I‘ve been so worried about him. Even getting home today. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?” she said. Sandy turned her head to get a better look at my face.

“No thank you, ma’am. I’ve got to be up the road in Chateaugay in about a half-hour. See an old friend. But I appreciate it. And, by the way, I also appreciate your taste in music. That old cassette brought back a lot of memories,” I said.

“Cassette? Loyal?”

“Sorry, Grandma. Grandpa got it for me before he passed,” Loyal said.

“I thought he threw it out after all these years,” Sandy said. “Well, I’ve lived the past couple of years without it. It’s the second copy of the original. But I’m a hundred times happier that I have you back than that old tape. Oh, I’m sorry, Mister…Jamie?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Hey Grandma, we were just listening to this when we drove up,” Loyal said as he hit PLAY again. Lightfoot sang:
Waiting for a line to fall
Telling you it’s all a big mistake
But the words won’t come
I know I’d feel the same
Looking at the rain

Sandy just stood silent for a second and then leaned back into my window, and said, “Thank you, Jamie, for giving me my grandson…again. And that old music, too. God bless you.”

“You’re welcome, Sandy. God bless you, too. Best of luck, Loy,” I said. I slowly pulled away, but looked back in the rearview mirror. There Sandy stood, watching me drive off like the last time I saw her.

I shook my head at how life winds and winds, but sometimes brings you back to people and places you missed from your first time.

It was then I recalled what the next song was on that old cassette, a mix-tape before mix-tapes got that name. I knew it because I put it there, as well as on the CD I replaced it with years ago, the one my wife hated hearing because I’d get all quiet, distant she said, when I played it. And I started hearing that old Fairport Convention song, the one I replaced on my CD with the solo Sandy Denny version, because…Sandy.

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then
The birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

Indeed.

This is an afternoon’s work (or joy, since that’s what I experienced writing it). It was inspired by three photos from Canadian writer and teacher Sarah Salecky. I used one of them as the illustration. I was supposed to center on the sense of sight, but I think hearing barged in, too. But so much of this story is found between the lines in the things Jamie sees in the rearview mirror of his mind. At least that’s my story…

Happy Birthday, Lacey Spaczinski

Photo by Prince Abid

Lacey Spaczinski wasn’t sure she could carry it all onto the school bus, but she knew she had to. She couldn’t look bad to the other girls. Not on her birthday.

With great care, she began to climb the three steps from her stop on the corner of Route 9 and Harris Road, where she was the only child picked up. There was no way she was going to let anything happen to the artfully decorated box she held in front of her like it was filled with high explosive.

Lacey peered up at the windows on the bus and saw heads bobbing up from their phones to see who was coming on, but also to see what the colorful thing the farm girl was bringing on this time. The bobbing heads reminded Lacey of the Wack-a-Mole game at the county fair last summer. Sometimes she wished she had one of those rubber hammers to play it while she walked down the aisle to an open seat.

Or at least an open seat where she would be allowed to sit.

“‘Morning, Lacey. What ya got in that pretty box? Here, lemme help ya,” said Mrs. Heim, the driver of the school bus that had this route on the very fringe of Lacey’s district.

“Thank you, Mrs. Heim. Lacey said, carefully handing over the box. These are cupcakes my Grandma made for my class. Today’s my birthday.”

“Oh my, well happy birthday, Lacey. How old are you now” Mrs. Heim said as she held the box so Lacey could do the slip-slide-turn in order to get her heavy backpack around the corner and ready to begin the gauntlet to a seat somewhere near the back half of the bus.

Mrs. Heim handed Lacey her round box and returned to her driver’s seat while Lacey took a deep breath and began her trek down the aisle.

As the bus lurched out into traffic, Lacey fought to keep her balance, her backpack weighing nearly half of what she did, all the while keeping her box level and steady in front of her.

Inside the bus always reminded Lacey of one of her Grandpa’s old truck, the air tasting of fuel oil, leather and sweat. The truck still stood, its wheels resting on concrete blocks, behind the farmhouse where she lived with her Grandma. And she recalled it was on her birthday three years before that she moved there from Des Moines.

“Whatcha got in the hat box, Spaz? Some Little Fairy on the Prairie bonnet from back in Iowa?” sneered Brian Phalen, who was two years older than Lacey, yet in her class.

“You’ll see later, Brian. I promise.”

“What if I wanna see now, Spaz?”

The bus slowed as it was about to make another stop and Lacey almost lost her balance again.

“Lacey, honey, I thought you’d already found a seat. Will you please sit now so we can get rolling?” Mrs. Heim said as two more kids climbed on the bus and headed her way toward friends holding seats for them.

“Will you move it, Spaz? You’re in my way,” said Schuyler Shields, the queen of the bus, whose pubescent ladies in waiting were holding her throne in their section at the rear of the bus.

Schuyler pushed Lacey toward an empty seat on her right and she toppled on top of another student who was studiously ignoring the daily push and pull of rampant preteen, compressed, neo-hormonal conflict there on bus #31.

Lacey’s festive yellow box toppled with her. It’s colorful round top she had worked so hard to decorate with rolled and folded paper strips flipped off and four pink-frosted cupcakes came rolling out onto the lap and phone screen of Jerry O’Rourke.

“Jesus Christ, Spaz. What’re you doing? Look at my screen now. It’s a freaking mess. And, hey…cupcakes!”

Jerry grabbed one of the birthday cupcakes and shoved it into his mouth, paper wrapper and all, biting off about half of it.

“Hey, she’s got cupcakes. I hope you brought enough for the whole bus, Spaz,” Schuyler said, pulling the box from Lacey’s hands. Lacey couldn’t fight the theft. She lay facing up, her legs dangling out in the aisle, trapped between two seats by the weight of her own backpack, as helpless to resist as a turtle on its back.

“Stop! Don’t, those are for my…”

But no one was listening, except Mrs. Heim, who saw the aisle behind her clogged with students and pink balls or something being tossed from seat to seat.

“Hey, that’s enough back there,” Mrs Heim shouted as she made her way down the aisle. “Everyone get into a seat. Now!”

And, as the scrum halfway down the bus began to clear, she saw Lacey’s legs still out in the aisle and her pretty yellow box, empty and bent, between her feet.

“Oh, honey. What happened” Mrs. Heim said as she helped slip the straps of the backpack off Lacey’s shoulders, and pulling her to her feet.

“She pushed me and I fell and my cupcakes, my birthday cupcakes, they took them all.”

“Well, not this one,” Jerry O’Rourke said as he held a lopsided cupcake, it’s festive decoration as smeared and distorted as the expression on Lacey’s face.

“Who pushed her?” Mrs. Heim said, scanning the bus. “Was it you, Brian?”

“Why’s everyone always blamin’ me? We don’t just call her Spaz because her name’s Spaczinski, ya know. Clumsy bitch just tripped and they all came out. I can’t help it if they scattered all over the bus.”

“No, it was…it was…Schuyler pushed me,” Lacey said.

“Wasn’t me, Mrs. Heim. I was just going back to my seat and she just tripped. Amiright?” Schuyler said, looking at the nodding heads of her retinue.

“Okay, I don’t want to hear one sound the rest of the way to school. I’ll be making a report to the assistant super about this,” Mrs. Heim said and headed back to her seat at the front of the bus.

Lacey sat in the seat next to Jerry, her backpack lying at her feet, her yellow box, or what was left of it, on her lap. The salt of her tears mingled with the sweet smudge of frosting on her lips. If she wasn’t so distressed, it would have reminded her of the kettle corn her Grandma would buy her at the fair.

Lacey looked into the box and saw those interior yellow walls now wore smears of pink and white frosting. Not a cupcake left to share with her new classmates. Not a chance to make herself a bit more popular, at least for one day, when they tasted the love she and her Grandma had put into their baking and decorating. Not a chance to be anything other than ‘that new girl from Iowa.”

At school, her teacher, Mr. Smithson, wished her a happy birthday and led the class in a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” that sounded as empty and warped as the yellow hat box in her locker.

She thought the day would never end. Or it couldn’t quickly enough.

At dismissal, she boarded her bus and sat in the only seat left to her, backpack at her feet, mangled box on her lap. Once again she was next to Jerry O’Rourke.

“Oh, hi and happy birthday, Spa…I mean Lacey,” he said, looking up from his phone. “Sorry about what happened this morning. Didn’t mean to start a feeding frenzy and all.”

But Lacey only sat there, here head down, staring at her box, looking neither left nor right, up nor down.

“I really am sorry. Last year I was the new kid. And they treated me like shit until they found out I was the guy kicking everyone’s ass on Madden, Minecraft and now Fortnite. Now they treat me with a little respect and some fear when they see me online. I think I know what might bring you a little respect, too,” Jerry said.

“I don’t do video games, Jerry. I do art and bake.”

“Exactly!”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Here,” Jerry said, and pulled that last cupcake, the one he showed Mrs. Heim that morning, from his shoulder bag. “I want you to taste this.”

“I’ve tasted my cupcakes before, Jerry.”

“No, I want you to taste it like you’ve never had one before.”

“What do you…”

“Just do it.”

Lacey dipped her finger into the lopsided frosting and brought it to her mouth for a lick. It wasn’t sweet like cotton candy, nor like sugar from the bag. The butter from which she made it had imparted a slight saltiness to it, though nowhere near like her combined tears and frosting taste from the morning.

“C’mon, Lacey, bite into it with your eyes closed.”

“Oh, all right,” Lacey said, and took a small bite from her cupcake. It still held the moisture and bounce to her bite it would have while it still sat safely in her yellow box. If someone could turn vanilla ice cream into something soft, spongy and warm as the inside of a shoulder bag, that’s what she was cupcake’s flavor spoke to her. That and…

“Hey, is that one of those cupcakes from this morning?”

It was Brian Phelan’s voice.

“Let me tell you, Spaz. Those things were un-freaking-believeable. Best breakfast I ever had. Did you make those?”

“Uh huh,” Lacey said, still with a mouthful of cupcake.

“Well, if you ever make any more, I’d love to have some,” he said, without a crumb of insincerity.

“Lacey, I think we found your hook for respect,” Jerry said. “It’s your baking.”

“And Spaz, I mean Lacey, if you get me some of those cupcakes or whatever you wanna bake, I’ll make sure those bitches leave you alone,” Brian said. “Just sayin’.”

“See what I mean? And I heard two of those ugly step-sisters in the back talking about how pretty this box you decorated was. They’ll never admit it to Schuyler, but don’t be surprised if one of them sneaks up and talks to you about it in art class,” Jerry said.

“So you think that baking to finance Brian’s protection racket and being only acceptable to be spoken to in secret is respect?” Lacey said.

“Baby steps, Grasshopper. At least they know you by more than Spaz now. You gonna finish that cupcake?” Jerry said.

When she got off the bus and walked into her grandmother’s house, Lacey was met by the aroma of cake wafting from the kitchen.

“Welcome home, honey. Did everyone enjoy your cupcakes?” her grandmother said.

“Um, they went fast, Grandma. Everyone loved them.”

“Good. Thought I’d make us a little cake, too. Plus, I left out the bowl if you want to lick some leftover frosting,” Grandma said, pointing to the silver bowl on the kitchen counter.

“Thank you, Grandma.”

“You’re welcome, Lacey.”

“Grandma? Since Mommy went away I haven’t felt like anyone likes me. No one wants me around ‘cept you. I don’t think I could make it without you.”

“Oh, don’t be silly, honey. It just takes time. None of the boys and girls talk to you? Not one?”

“Well, there is one boy. But I think he was just being nice.”

“That’s how it starts, honey. They’ll come around. Just be Lacey. You’re a lovely girl. Cute, smart, have a good heart and you’re…”

“A great baker,” they said in unison and laughed.

“I had a great teacher, Grandma. The best,” Lacey said. She grabbed her grandmother in a hug and planted a kiss on her cheek. It was then she recalled that special something she couldn’t place when she tasted the cupcake Jerry gave her.

It tasted like Grandma, she thought.

This piece is in response to Week Five of Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses Summer Writing Project. This week, we were asked to use the sense of taste, basing it one three photos. One of them is the fancy box up top of the story. This one was harder than the others, but I was determined to write something. I think I wrote “something,” what it is I have yet to figure out.

The Duke of Tryon Court

Dave Clemente would walk around the neighborhood, ostensibly for exercise, but really he was inspecting everyone’s curb appeal, like he was the Duke of Tryon Court and we neighbors his vassals.

If your lawn was a little shaggy, or some dandelions decided to pop their little butter pat knobs above the grass, Dave would be like, “Off with their heads.” And he would pretty much tell you exactly that.

“You know, Ben, you’d better get control of those dandelions before they go to seed. I don’t need any parts of those little puffy tops finding their way to my lawn,” he told me two years in a row. The fact that I lived six doors downwind from his place didn’t matter. I and my lawn were just one of the invasive species that had taken over his verdant domain.

In truth, no one took better care of his lawn than Dave. Or more interest in everyone else’s. I would see him when I would go out to fetch the paper at dawn, positioning his sprinklers for maximum coverage, one inch of water in the ground per day, each day a third of the lawn catching his godlike decree of showers that kept his greensward looking like a billiard table straight from the factory.

I’d wave to him later as I walked out to the car on my way to work, but he didn’t notice very often. You could see him eyeballing the arc of the sprinklers’ spray, nodding approvingly at the way, if the sun’s angle was just right, it would drape a rainbow across his lawn. His head would follow each sweep of the sprinkler, left to right, right to left, mesmerized by the gift of life he was imparting to the organism that his house wore as a mantle.

If grass was supposed to be purple instead of green, Dave’s lawn would be the most royal of purples.

I sometimes would imagine what it would be like to be in his head, gauging everyone else in the neighborhood’s lawns against his own. I would watch him stalk the sidewalks, turning his head a bit sideways to observe if any of our lawn’s had grown irregularly over the past week since mowed on Saturday or Sunday.

“You need to check the level of you blade deck, Ben,” he’d say. “Look how unequal your cuts are. Lopsided and, well, trashy. And you really should stick to one kind of seed instead of those cheap blends. See how the rye grows faster in this weather than the fescue?”

“Um, no.”

“Here,” he’d say and pull me down to knee level and then tilt his head to the side again like he was sighting a sniper rifle. “See how those rye blades are popping up like moles out of their hole in relation to the red fescue? Makes it look shaggy as hell. And speaking of moles…”

“I gotta go, Dave. I think I left the tub running.”

“Okay, and that reminds me. One inch of water over the whole lawn. Gotta water deep to keep those roots well hydrated. Can’t let your lawn turn brown when everyone else is trying for green,” he shouted over my shoulder.

Like I said, Dave practiced what he preached to the nth degree. He treated his lawn as well, if not better, than he treated his kids. Which, if I had his kids, so would I. Wild little buggers, but probably since he wouldn’t let them play on his precious grass.

You’d see little Marisa doing cartwheels on everyone’s front lawns all the way down to the Cramers’ place, where she’d play tag with their kids. All around the outside of their house, including the front lawn. I’d find Dave Jr. running under the spray from my lawn sprinkler on those days I remembered to give it fifteen or twenty minutes of shower time. Kid would leave the lawn a muddy mess. But my son would join him, so I couldn’t bitch too much. I’d join, too, on those hot evenings.
Besides, what’s the sense of having grass around your house if you can’t enjoy it?

And where was their Dad? More often than not, he would be peering down the breadth of his lawn, flat on his stomach on the driveway, ruler in his hand, making sure the height never deviated more than a quarter of an inch from three and three-quarter inches. Then he would move to the middle, lie on his belly again, and do the same thing for all 360 degrees of that island of hoped-for fescue perfection. And he’d see to it with a pair of surgeon’s scissors.

I once wondered where his obsessive-compulsive bent in turf grass science came from. Dave hadn’t attended agricultural school, he was an IT guy. His father was an accountant and his mom stayed at home with the kids. I did notice some old family photos on his hallway walls once at a Christmas party. One showed young Dave and his Mom and Dad and brothers—all wearing the same little outfits with matching bow ties and two-tone shoes—seated on the couch. On the clear plastic-sheathed couch. Next to the clear plastic covered lamps. Feet dangling above the snow white carpet with the clear plastic runners leading back to the camera and across the whole living room.

I once played golf with Dave and instead of shooting the breeze as we walked the course, he would point out how the greenskeeper had done this to fix this part of the course and how he should have used that to keep a certain green from having darker green spots. I asked him how he knew that and he said his Uncle Carmine, who was a greenskeeper at a public course in Jersey, had taught him all this.

I once asked Gracie Clemente if Dave’s Uncle Carmine had ever been to their house.

“I imagine he’d be proud to see the efforts of his nephew.

“Carmine? Dave doesn’t have an Uncle Carmine. Oh, you mean Carmine Verducci. He was just a friend of the family. Sort of a surrogate father for the Clemente boys, since their dad was always working late hours. Dave and his Mom took Carmine’s death really hard,” she said.

After that, I didn’t begrudge Dave his idiosyncrasies as much. I may keep a shitty lawn, but I’m not exactly an unfeeling barbarian.

And I felt kind of sorry the day Dave died. We found him out in his backyard, lying on his stomach, his head up, looking and reaching out toward the back of his house.

“Poor man. he must’ve been looking for help from inside,” my wife said.

“Yeah. Sad.”

I say I felt kind of sorry because I knew Dave Clemente died doing what made him happiest. In fact, there was this calm and…I don’t know…accomplished look on his face when we found him. I didn’t have the heart to tell my wife about that few rogue blades of grass in front of him and how the Duke of Tryon Court already had his scissors in his hand.

This story — since I seem to be incapable of digging up sufficient emotion to write poetry lately — was prompted by Canadian writer and writing instructor Sarah Salecky for her “Six Weeks, Six Sense” writing feature. This week, we were supposed to use the sense of sight as a theme. I’m sure I blew the assignment altogether, but this thing just took off on me. I saw that one of her prompt photos and this story jumped out of my head to the page.