Cheating. Death.

Source: Dreamstime

Edmund Deane pulled his Subaru up to the figure in the gray hoodie and baggie jeans hitchhiking on Rte. 9 and thought how you didn’t see much of that anymore.

“Where ya headed?” he asked when he rolled down the window.

“North,” came the faint reply. 

Now, Edmund didn’t like surprises when driving the back way through the Adirondacks, but the surprise of that voice and the face shrouded within that hood was one he felt he really didn’t need. They belonged to a pretty girl of no more than 18. And as Edmund was about to say he was heading west (Which he wasn’t; he just didn’t need some possibly underage girl in his car alone.), she opened the door and took a seat.

“Thanks, mister. I just gotta get as many miles as I can outta this shit hole before dark,” she said as she put her backpack between her feet.

“Um, okay. Any particular area you want to end up?”

“Plattsburgh, Montreal. At this point I’m in no position to be choosy,” she said, smiling an endearing but practiced smile.

“I can take you as far as Plattsburgh,” Edmund said. “After that, you’re on your own.” She twisted in the seat and looked back over her shoulder as the Subaru maneuvered through an S in the roadway.

“That’d be great.”

After that, she was silent, save for a “hmmm,” “yup,” or “nope.” Edmund guessed he just asked the wrong questions.

Finally, just south of Elizabethtown, the girl turned to him, pointed at his ring and said, “You ever cheat on your wife?” 

“What?!”

“Cheat, roam, cast your seed in distant fields, break your marital vows’s ’til death do us part’ part.”

“I don’t see as that’s anybody’s business but mine. And my wife’s, of course.”

“So should I take that non-denial as a Yes?” she said, studying Edmund’s eyes.

“Look, I’m doing you a favor here, and you haven’t exactly been conversational, let alone forthcoming, for the past forty miles,” he said.

“I kinda thought that’s what I’m doing. Starting a conversation.”

“One would usually expect to talk about the weather or the Yankees or where they’re from or school in a situation like this.”

“I have no control over the weather, I don’t like sports, I haven’t had a home in four years and I don’t go to school.”

“I see. Well, what is it you do then?”

“Fuck,” she said as matter-of-fact as she would, “I’m a checkout girl at Price Chopper.”

“Excuse me?” Edmund could feel his face redden and stomach tighten.

“You know, screw. For money. Though not enough around here. That’s why I’m headed north. To some cities where the markets and demand for my service might be stronger.”

“I see. Aren’t you a little young for such…”

“Are you shitting me? Don’t you read the papers? Listen to the news? I’m almost over the hill for what most of these bastards want these days. So I gotta strike while the iron, among other things, is still hot.”

“I see,” Edmund said. 

“By the way, Allysin.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name. Allysin. You never asked.”

“Thank you. I’d prefer that line of discourse rather than the preceding uncomfortable talk.”

“That’s not my real name, of course.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s my, shall we say, ‘stage name.’ I spell it A-L-L-Y-S-I-N. Get it? Ally’s Sin. Cute, huh?”

“Just darling,” Edmund said. 

“You never did answer my question, umm… Shit, you never gave me your name, either,” Allysin said.

“Edmund,” he said.

“Really?” she said with a laugh. “You go by Edmund?”

“It’s my name.” Now Edmund’s discomfort was nudging into annoyance. He thought about pulling over and tossing her the hell out near Deerhead.

“Well, Eddie, you still haven’t told me me yes or no about stepping out on the little woman,” she said.

“My wife’s dead. ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” he said, thinking the roadside here looked like as good a spot as any.

“Sorry, man. That’s rough. I understand those poor folks can just lay there and linger for quite a while.”

“She did.”

“So is that when you cheated?”

“That’s it.” Edmund said, pulling the car off to the side of the road and screeching to a stop. “Get the hell out of my car.”

“Okay. Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know more about the male mind. After all these years, it’s still tossing me some riddles I can’t answer. I got a lot to learn. It’s why I had to get out of town so fast back down there.”

“You certainly do have a lot to learn, young lady,” Edmund said, his pulse thumping in his temples.

“Really, I’m sorry. The Life tends to deaden a girl’s feelings for others sometimes. Since all anyone wants from you, on a good day, is what passes for lovin’. You could say your name was Beyoncé, or even be her for that matter, and they wouldn’t give a shit. They just want to get their rocks off. So, while I’m giving them a fair performance, I’m more than likely also thinking about what I’ll have for breakfast at the all-night diner,” Allysin said.

“But that doesn’t give you any right to hurt or insult people you don’t even know. I’m trying to remember my wife when we were young and she was a beautiful, vibrant girl. I don’t need your help in remembering the ugly parts of her last days.”

“Sorry, Edmund. Okay, I’ll get out here. I may not make it to Plattsburgh by dark now, but I’ve been in worst pinches. So, I’ll just leave you and …shit. Is that fucking snow?”

Sure enough, the first flakes of a snowfall rolling down the Champlain Valley settled on the hood and windshield of Edmund’s car and transformed into tiny puddles.

“Damn it. I wanted to be in town before the snow hit,” Edmund said. “I can’t just leave you out here in the middle of a snowstorm. Close the door, Allysin. I’ll get you to Plattsburgh, but that’s it. And no more questions.”

“Sure, Eddie. I owe you a solid, man. I’ve got a few bucks here you can have for some gas.”

“No. I was going this way anyway. You were just going to be a good deed I could do on a crap weather day in the North Country. You looked pretty forlorn there by the side of the road,” Edmund said.

“Well, I was,” Allysin said.

“Yes, you were. How’d you ever end up in this situation anyway?”

“I thought you said no questions.”

“You’re right. None of my business. Sorry. Radio silence from now on. Besides, this snow’s getting heavy and I should keep my mind on the driving,” Edmund said. 

“Nah, it’s no surprising story. Had a mother who drugged herself to death and a drunk ol’ grandma. Each of them had slimeball boyfriends, if you could call the motherfuckers boys. And, depending on the day and the amount of intoxicant they were havin’, I was either in the way or their idea of a guest towel,” Allysin said.

Now it was Edmund’s turn to “hmmm,” “yup,” or “nope.” 

The snowflakes were getting larger, clinging to one another. That combination of their size and the speed of Edmund’s car made them hit the windshield with a constant patter of dull splats. A sign said I-87, the main highway between Albany and the Canadian border was only two miles ahead.

“I think it would be a good idea if we left this road and got onto the Northway. They take care of that better in the snow the nearer we get to Plattsburgh,” Edmund said.

“Sure, Edmund. Quicker you get there, the sooner you’ll be rid of me,” Allysin said.

“Oh, I guess you’re not that bad a traveling companion, Allysin,” Edmund said. “You’ve had it rough. Too much hard life for someone so young. Like I said, I just didn’t need to be reminded of…that time.”

“Sure, Eddie.”

As Edmund pulled onto the main highway, twilight had pulled the curtains on that Thursday. The storm had taken care of the blinds. The headlights of the southbound vehicles glared brightly into northbound lanes of traffic.

“Wasn’t expecting it to get this bad this fast,” Edmund said.

“Well just keep the tires and your eyes on the road, man,” Allysin replied, her voice a little higher pitched, sounding more like the teenager she was than the woman she’d become.

From behind, a speeding Kenworth’s white-hot halogen lamps filled the interior of the Subaru with a harsh daylight, starling Edmund and Allysin.

And as the sliding semi bumped the back end of the car, they each looked at one another and, for a moment, Edmund saw Jill Bentley from work on that late night they had sex under a light in his office building’s empty parking lot.

Allysin looked and wondered if this is what her dad might look like had her mother not been such a party girl she knew who her little Alicia’s father really was. 

Edmund saw the light reflected in Allysin’s eyes and for the first time realized they were flecked with gold, just the way his Susan’s were. How they read his eyes from a face and body unmoving while a machine gasped air out and coughed air into her lungs. Those gold-flecked eyes he couldn’t look at for long because he knew she couldn’t know, yet was certain she did.

And Allysin blinked and saw Boomer Grandjean about to hit her again and again, just like he always did when he’d had a day’s worth of Spice. Okay, and whenever she cheated him on some of his cut of her take. The way Edmund’s eyes grew so large were just like Boomer’s after she’d stuck him four times in the chest that morning.

The Kenworth blew past them going about 80, swerving a little too and fro, while Edmund tried slowing the Subaru and his heart. With a sigh, they each knew they had cheated death at that moment. The truck had kicked up a cloud of white which now surrounded them like they were flying through a cloud, a whiteout illuminated in Edmund’s headlights.

Allysin grasped the dashboard and said, “Sweet, Jesus! I half expected I’d be seeing angels in this stuff a few seconds ago.” 

Edmund reached over and placed his hand on Allysin’s, taking his eye’s off the road for a second. In that moment, though, the trailer appeared out of the snow in front of them, jackknifed, ninety degrees to the roadway. 

And that was that. Two people, each cheaters in their own way, had cheated death together. Maybe Death has a moral code, though, recognizing there should be some kind of penance for such sins. Or maybe Death is a vindictive bitch who does not stand for being cheated at its own game. Ultimately, Death always wins.

First story-ish thing in a long time. This was supposed to be a response to writer Cara Michaels’ weekly Menage Monday feature. I was to write a flash fiction piece of no more than 250 words using three prompts: That photo up there, the phrase “can’t cheat death,” and the premise of a road trip. As you may know, I’ve been struggling lately with my creative life, so I just jumped in and kept writing until I thought I was done. I’m not, but this is as far as I’ll go with this first draft.

Advertisements

In Tennessee Whiskey Veritas

At Pete and Ginny’s cafe cum gin joint, the bar runs from the bright front window down to the shadows by the kitchen door. The light here gets progressively darker as you walk along the mahogany and brass path from our perky entrance to possible perdition, as if you’re diving deeper into the ocean.

Today, it looked like one of our regulars, Ben Frazee, was exploring the Marianas Trench of alcoholic melancholy. At the far end of the bar, Ben seemed to be sucking in darkness as much as booze, like he was hoping to suffocate — or drown — whatever lick of flame he still carried for his now-ex Kasie Dellasandro.

“Hey, Ben. What’s happening, brother? Pete been taking care of you?” I said as I came on shift. He merely raised his chin in greeting, mumbled something and then stared back into his glass, somehow deeper than the six inches of melted silica, Tennessee ethanol and frozen H2O that sat before him.

“Dude, if you looked any lower you’d be staring at the world from under those rocks,” I said.

“Does it matter? Maybe that’s what I need, a different point of view, like looking through the bottom of this glass. Even at six bucks a shot,” Ben said as he sucked down that last puddle of whiskey. Then he crunched on an ice cube and I shivered a little.

He pushed the glass toward me, saying, “Y’know? Things looked much better. Gimme another glass of enlightenment, Kenny.”

“Girl trouble?” I asked while shoveling him his Jack and Coke.

“Does it matter? All us birds perched on this mahogany are here for some sad reason, otherwise we wouldn’t start drinking at noon on a Tuesday. Now would we?”

“Well, that makes the boss glad. But even after five years of distributing liquid psychotherapy, sometimes serving the tail end of this early crowd makes me feel kinda guilty.”

“Don’t. I’m fine. We’re all fine. And no bitch will ever drive me to drink. Or that’s what SHE said. I can drive just fine on my own and if not, then there’s always Uber. Of course, then a bitch might be driving me FROM drink.” Ben, quieted for a second and then let out a laugh at his own drunk joke. But I couldn’t laugh at the poor guy.

“So maybe you might slow your roll for a while. Okay? Make me feel a little better.”

“Aw, okay, Kenny. You know, I always liked you. Straight shooter, good listener, you don’t overdo the ice , you don’t stick any fruity-ass fruit in my glass and you don’t chintz on the whiskey. You’re a saint, brother,” Ben said as he extended his hand to shake mine. When I let go, I noticed there was a ten-spot stuck to my palm. 

I told him the next one was on me, but that would be it for a while. I thought he was going to cry right there, but I wasn’t sure of the exact reason. Sometimes drunks are hard to figure out.

At my break I slipped away from the noise to call Kasie to tell her how Ben was handling their breakup.

“It doesn’t matter, baby. Don’t forget to pick up some milk on your way here after closing time. Gimme a call so I can…turn the on porch light for ya. Okay?” she said. Then hung up.

When I got back behind the bar, I noticed Ben was gone and never touched his last drink. I took a sip before I dumped it. That’s when I realized I forgot to ask Kasie what kind of milk she wanted. I decided it really didn’t matter. I’d go home to my place after work instead. 

Sometimes women are hard to figure out. Just like some drunks. Love is too. But what the hell does that matter, either?

 

Taken

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks.

In the evening she told me her name was Kahwihta. And when I asked how many in her basket, with what I figured was a universal kind of gesture, she held up two hands and shook all the fingers, then one hand with the thumb and first finger extended.

Tékeni iawén:re,” she said, which I guess meant a dozen.

“Well, now, that’s enough apples to make a fine pie,” I said. But I was sure flour and cinnamon were in short supply here near Ta-ra-jo-rees, the village of the Turtle Clan. I was camped on the south shore of their River Flowing Around the Mountain. We call it the Mohawk.

I’d been surveying there in the wilderness for three weeks. The geography was perfect for one supporting grazing and farming, which is what Mister Proctor, the land speculator, had sent me to assay.

Sir William Johnson, His Majesty’s agent among these people, had warned me off, lest I incur a deadly suspicion among his charges. I believe he was trying to keep this land for his own devices, since he has become almost one of the natives and keeps a Mohawk woman, who he calls his wife.

And if she looks anything like Kahwihta, I can understand why.

With what pieces of the language I’d learned, I said, “Konnòn:we’s,” which I think meant “I like you.” Since she dropped her head and giggled behind her hand, I surmised I must have said the right thing. So I reckoned I might as well try to be more like Johnson.

Kwah tokén:’en sén:ta’wh?” I said, which I believed meant to have a good sleep. I pointed at her and then to myself and then the soft fur robe on the floor of my tent.

Kahwihta giggled again and laid down, which surprised and encouraged me in a very fine manner. I was hoping the language of love was as universal as the poets say. I laid down next to her and pulled the robe over us. In the light from my campfire through the canvas, her skin glowed like polished bronze. 

Kahwihta turned toward me and repeated, “Kwah tokén:’en sén:ta’wh.” After that, I remember nothing of the night.

Next I know, I am waking, waking with this vicious pain behind my head, lying there in the open beneath the trees. My tent is gone, as well as my gun, powder and lead, surveying instruments, maps, ledgers, drawing tools, everything. Well, not quite everything.

I still had the clothes on my back and my knife. And there on the robe next to me were seven red apples. I surmised Kahwihta must have felt some remorse that probably one of her brothers entered the tent and tried to crush my skull with his warclub. That he failed was scant comfort in light of the bloody, swollen gash on the back of my head. 

I stumbled to my feet and felt a dizziness like I’d not known before. Thereafter I fell to my knees and spewed my previous day’s victuals on the ground next to me. 

I felt it wise to leave behind, in greatest haste, the village of Ta-ra-jo-rees as best I could, lest Kahwihta’s brothers returned to take my clothes and life, too. So I gathered up my robe, tying within it the seven apples of regret left by the comely Kahwihta. I then crawled on my hands and knees, like some beast of the wild, into the dense forest surrounding me.

It took me four days and every apple to reach Fort Hunter to the north by east. 

I should be quite grateful to Kahwihta, for I’m sure it was through her intercession that I am here today to tell my story of that verdant valley and the beautiful Mohawk girl. I blame myself, my arrogance and my poor language skills for all of this: my failed mission, the loss of my gun and the tools of my profession. and my near-death. 

You see, one of the old scouts at Fort Hunter told me what Kahwihta means in the Mohawk tongue. It means She Takes it With Her.

Indeed.

This story started out as a hoped-for 250-words or less piece of flash fiction for the weekly contest at Indies Unlimited website. But then, as usual, creative momentum and a too-long-dormant story-telling muscle went on a spree.  Yeah, it’s rough as a cob, but it’s just shy of 700 words, so it still qualifies as flash. And I feel better for having stuck with it.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Finally, after all the miles, the training, beatings I took as a kid, the beatings I handed out as I got bigger, I was here.

After all the amateur bouts for nothing but experience, the prelims for little more than bus money, the sparring, the body shots I’d take on purpose, the headshots I didn’t, the blood, the sweat, the loss of old friends, the making of new enemies, I was here.

Vegas, the big one, the championship of something more than a gym, a city, a state, some little pissant boxing fed, to the bigger ones, to this.

And now it’s all up to me. I’ve never been more fit, more excited, more ready for anything in my life. All the kid’s daydreams, the dreams I made, the dreams I had, the dreams I’d shattered, I’d seen it all on the way up. I saw it again before I left home.

“Daddy, you going to beat that guy?” my son Dakota said to me, breaking into the last little bit of positive thought meditation I had before I took my flight to Vegas.

“You know it, Ko. You and I worked really hard to get ready for this one, right?” I said. I’d kept Ko and his mother with me in my last weeks of training, even though old Eddie Marcin, my trainer, said it was bad business for a championship fight.

“You need to an absolute animal when you step into that ring, Jose,” he said. “That means on the bleeding edge of want, want for the belt, want for the fame, the money, want for your woman, your kid, want to put that guy on the canvas, but most of all, want to do anything to get out of there alive with your hand raised. Having your family here takes away some of that want, as far as I’m concerned.”

“C’mon, Eddie, you know I’ve never been sharper or fitter. I beat a guy better than this chump champ in five rounds at our last fight,” I said. Just as I saw it in my meditation, in my last dream before the bout.”

“You and that dreamy shit. I never had a fighter just sit and do nothing for a half hour like you do. Like you was taking a freaking nap or something, right there in the gym.”

“I’ve been doing it my whole life, since Mrs. Ito taught it to me back at Maria Regina in Gardena. It kept me from becoming a gang banger, kept me clean, kept me focused and kept me in touch with who I am and where I want to go. I’ve seen it all ahead of me along the way. And now I’m here. And you try telling me there’s no power in what you call napping?” We’d had this argument before. I think he was just trying to fire me up.

“Yeah, well now I want you to take a real nap if you can. I want you fresh as an eager virgin when you hit the ring,” Eddie said. He left the hotel room with the rest of the guys. And that left me alone with my thoughts again.

It started out as a meditation, but I must’ve fallen asleep, because this was as vivid a dream or whatever the hell it was as I’d had during all my training for the belt.

I felt myself sitting in the forest, like we were in Yosemite or someplace. With my eyes closed, I could hear Maria and Ko calling me. But I couldn’t open my eyes. It was like they were swollen shut, like I got stung by a bee or something.

But Maria and Ko were coming closer to me, so I just went with it. I mean the sun was warm on my face, I felt a great peace and I could hear what sounded like a roaring waterfall nearby.

“Jose, please be careful with this man,” I heard Maria say. “I never worry about you in the ring, but this is something different. Just make sure you come home tomorrow, okay?”

“Not a problem, honey. This is my dream, right? And I’ve been making dreams come true all my life.”

“I’m not worried, daddy,” Ko said. “I’m even giving you this for luck. Just to keep you safe and bring you home.”

And just as I could feel his hand touch mine…the dream ended. I was suddenly in a state of confusion because my dreams always have an ending. That’s when I heard the phone ringing next to me on the nightstand. The screen said Maria and Ko.

“Hello,” I said with must have sounded like fat, mushy lips.

“Hi, Daddy. You all ready?” I heard Ko say on the other end.

“You bet, Champ. Tomorrow we’ll be both be champions, right?”

“Jose?” I heard Maria say, “I couldn’t keep him from calling you. I’m sorry, I know you’re probably resting.”

“It’s okay, honey. Just had a little nap and now I’m ready to go. Even dreamed about you guys.”

“You did?” It was Ko again. “Was it a good dream?”

“Sure was. In fact, you were just about to give me a good luck charm in it when the phone rang.”

“Really? ‘Cause I did give you one. It’s in the pocket of your gear bag. Didn’t you find it yet?” Ko said, sounding a little disappointed.

“Oh, sorry Ko. Old Eddie, he took all that stuff and kept it with the other things I’ll need for tomorrow. I’ll look for it when I get to the arena. Under the brightest lights, little man!”

“Yeah! Well, what I gave you was just to keep you safe and bring you home.” Ko said.

“Jose? I’ll let you go and get ready now, baby. Be careful. And know we love you anyway you come home tomorrow, Champion or not. But you will be champion when you get home. I know you will,” Maria said.

“Thanks, sweetness. You and Ko just wait and I’ll bring you home the fanciest belt, and a check for about nine million to buy us an ever bigger house to come home to,” I said.

“Don’t want a bigger house. Just you. Buena suerte, mi amor,” Maria said. And then they were gone.

By the time Eddie, me and the boys got to the arena, all hell was breaking loose. I had all I could do to make sure my cup, as well as my sweet-ass trunks with Maria and Dakota embroidered in gold script, were each on in the right direction. But I was focussed, man. When they made the introductions, all I could see was that want Eddie talked about. I was on the bleeding edge of it and I was going to make sure I sliced this dude up and was the one whose hand was raised and walked out of that ring to go home the champion.

That guy across the ring, I didn’t even give him a name in training for him, he came at me like a bull, but I met him with enough jabs and counterpunches to keep him off me. We felt it each other out for three rounds and then I began to execute the plan I’d seen in my meditations. It was going as I planned. But my waking dreams never envisioned that sweaty slick spot on the canvas. My foot slipped just a bit, my guard dropped and that son of a bitch caught me a shot right between the eyes. I dropped to my knee and he caught me another one.

Now the whole world felt like a dream and I knew he’d hurt me, could feel my eyes swelling and blood dripping into them. What was it Tyson always said: “Everybody has a plan until you punch him in the mouth?” I got it in the eyes. But this wasn’t going to keep me from the sight I’d seen in my mind for twenty years. I’d seen my hand raised and that’s what was going to happen.

I came out the next round knowing I’d have to drop the guy fast before the ref stopped the fight because of my bleeding or I went blind from the swelling. The swelling, just like in my dream. I managed to step outside a couple of his jabs, each time popping him in the side of the head, a left hook and then a straight right, which I countered with a right uppercut to the button. And then it was his turn to go down on his ass.

But not for the count.

“Jose, man, you better get to this guy soon. I dunno if I can keep your cut together much more and, shit, your eyes are swelling fast,” my cut man Bobby Delaware said.

“You got him figured out, Jose. That punch he got you with was a fluke,” Eddie screamed above the crowd’s roar like it was a waterfall. “Now finish him. I don’t know how much longer you got, either. But I know it’s enough. Now put that sumbitch down!”

Bobby’s use of the chilled steel press on my brows had helped a little and even I knew this was probably my last shot at this guy before the ref called the TKO on me. SO went right at him. Threw everything I had at him while taking more shots to the body and head than I ever had in two and a half minutes. But with about thirty seconds left in the round, I caught him on the temple with a straight and hard a right as I’d ever thrown. And down he went like a sack of wet clothes.

And stayed down. They took him away in an ambulance. Me, they stitched up in the dressing room. Good doc in Vegas. I’d see the plastic surgeon on Monday.

I was the one who had his hand raised, who had his eyes closed, who heard the waterfall, who had done everything I’d seen in my dream, except for one thing. I reached into my gear bag and found something hard and in the corner of the pocket. When I pulled it out I saw it was one of Dakota’s Hot Wheel toys. The ambulance. I put it on the shelf and the last thing I remembered was seeing it there with the bloodstains from my hands from wiping my eyes. And then everything went black.

My dream had come true. Everything, like that last dream. Except for the abrupt wakeup. This was an abrupt sleep.

They took me home the next day in an ambulance, but I came home, safe for the most part.

This is my sixth and last story of this winter’s Six Weeks, Six Senses project from Sarah Salecky. This themed story is about the “sixth sense” some of us have. Maybe it’s instinct. Or maybe, like Jose, it’s the ability to meditate and dream of his future. And then make those dreams happen. The photo prompts were a young man (with some seriously knobby knuckles), a B&W scene of a club or arena full of people and bright lights shining from the ceiling and finally, a toy ambulance sitting on a white shelf with red smudges.

No, I never did do Week Four, but I’m working on it..from the neck up.

A Certain Light in the East

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

This was a Christmas unlike any Skyler Van ever experienced, so far removed from the small tree in the three-bedroom ranch back in Bethlehem, outside Albany. She had no memories with which to compare the way her boyfriend, Schuyler Hewson and his family made their season jolly.

But the Hewson’s celebration triggered one memory which sent Skyler to the back of their living room, with its red-flocked wallpaper, glittering eight-foot spruce and away from the huge hewn-stone fireplace with its mantle full of embroidered Christmas stockings. One of them read “Skyler.”

But she couldn’t stand there with the Hewsons next to the warming glow of their roaring Christmas fire. The pungent aroma of the burning kindling, dusted with a pinch of some sort of evergreen incense, the tang of which Schuyler said tasted of Christmas, tasted of something quite the opposite to her.

“You feeling okay, Sky?” her boyfriend asked, putting his arm around her shoulder.

“I think I might need some air, Schuyler. Maybe that Christmas punch of your grandmother’s was a little too potent for me after all.”

“Well, it’s been known to grow hair on your chest. But don’t tell my sister I just revealed her big secret,” he replied with a grin.

That grin was one of the things that drew Skyler to her now-boyfriend in the first place. That and his sense of humor and confidence.

They’d met a year before at the Starbucks on the Yale campus, each grabbing for the same cup when the barista called, “Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

Truth is, Schuyler never saw her there, since she barely came up to his armpit in height. And that’s where her arm came from–her left, his right. Each suffered from morning blindness and deafness until they had dipped into the mountain-grown elixir some Incan god gifted the Western Hemisphere.

She was an Asian girl in a knit cap and scarf. And she looked up at him and said, “I believe that’s my coffee”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He called my name and the drink I ordered.

That’s when the other barista walked over and called, ““Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

They each looked at the cup in their hands, then the one on the counter, then back at one another and then laughed.

“Here,” Schuyler said. “This is a coincidence for the ages.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The fact the names are the same is one thing, but who the heck orders the exact same oddball espresso drink as I do.”

“I guess I do. By the way I’m…”

“Schuyler, I’d imagine,” she said.

“And so are you, I gather. I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Well, since your eyes are way up there and your attention is even further up, I imagine I could be pretty hard to see little five-foot-nothing me down here,” Skyler said.

“You in a hurry? Anyone with our particular tastes in Starbucks drinks maybe should see what else they have in common,” the six-three Schuyler said.

“Not today, but I’ll be here tomorrow and I won’t have a class until 10:30. Maybe then.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to it, Skyler…?” The vacant name holder hung in the air by its interrogation mark.

“Van. I’m Skyler Van. And you’re…?” she said, hanging out her own opening.

“Hewson. Schuyler Hewson.”

And, starting the next day, their relationship built up to and including next Christmas Day. From eggnog lattes to strawberry smoothies, to Pumpkin Spice and back to eggnog. All with a little cinnamon.

Outside the Hewson house that evening, Schuyler followed his girlfriend. He found her leaning against a wall with her eyes closed and taking deep breaths.

“What’s the matter, Sky? You look so sad. I thought bringing you here to celebrate with us might make you happy, We do put on quite the ostentatious show, I grant you, but the spirit is universal,” Schuyler said.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful. Look, I’m even wearing Christmas lights, for Christ’s sake,” Skyler said, fingering the necklace of bulbs she wore.

“True, you make a very cute little tree. Much cuter than that behemoth in the living room.”

“Why thank you…I think,” Skyler said with a weak grin.

“Aw, man. You’re not feeling well, are you? I told Mom not to have the cook put so much pineapple, brown sugar, clove and ginger on the ham. Non-Hewsons might find that a little too much for their stomachs. Plus that damn punch. Ya see, that Manischewitz wine my grandfather slipped us when we were eight or ten was the gateway drug to this bacchanal…”

“No, Schuyler, I just felt….uncomfortable by the fire, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, the old man really builds that bad boy high, doesn’t he. I always wondered how the ell Santa was going to make it down the chimney with that thing going all night. Poor son a bitch would end up barbecued and…”

“Schuyler, stop,” Skyler cried, her voice cracking like the logs in the Hewson hearth.

“What? Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry, my family’s Christmas parties can be pretty overwhelm…”

“No, Schuyler. It’s not your family, nor the ham, nor the punch. It’s my family that’s putting this sickening taste in my mouth.”

“You mean the cultural difference? I thought Buddhists didn’t mind celebrating Christmas. Think Jesus was some kind of Bodhisattva or whatever,” Schuyler said.

“No, that’s not it, either. We even have a Christmas tree back home in Bethlehem. It’s another thing I don’t talk about, so…”

“C’mon, Sky. I thought we had a deal. If I did something to overstep my bounds with your Vietnamese culture or religion, you said you’d let me know so I could do better,” Schuyler said, pulling his girlfriend closer.

“I…I don’t know if I can this time, hon,” Skyler said. A tear clinging to the corner of her eye.

“Help me make it better, Sky. Really. Was it something I said?”

“Kinda.”

“Well, I’m sorry, whatever it was. But unless you tell me, I can make the same mistake twice. I never want to upset you like this again.”

“It really is the fire.”

“Like I said. The old man, he..”

“Not your father, Schuyler. My grandmother,” Skyler said with a sob.

“I don’t get it. Your grandmother died years ago back in Vietnam. Before your family came to the States, you told me.”

“It’s how she died. And what you said about the fire and Santa and the image was just too much. My family still can’t take the whole sensory panoply of a fireplace, a bonfire, even fireworks.”

“Oh, man. You mean she was killed by an explosion or in a fire during the Vietnam War?”

“No, Schuyler. She WAS the fire,” Skyler said, trembling in Schuyler’s arms.

“Was the fire? How does somebody… Oh! You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do. After my grandfather was killed in the war, she became even more devoutly Buddhist, especially when my dad came here to go to Cal. So he wasn’t there to help her until just before she and a few nuns sat in the street with their gasoline cans and…and…”

“Holy shit. Sky, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“Who could? Who really could understand how grief and faith and protest can intersect in such self-inflicted horror on a street corner in Hué?  Skyler said. She looked up into Schuyler’s eyes.

“No. I’m afraid I have no sense of that, I’m sorry. How can I help you, Sky?”

“Just hold me. It’s freakin’ cold out here. I don’t think I can go back in your living room for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the photos of that day and it made me very sick. Seeing your fire just triggered it again, Your parents think I’m some kind of Asian punk weirdo, Don’t they?”

“No, of course not. And screw them if they did. What do you say we go back inside to the kitchen and have something to drink to help wash that taste out of your mouth? No punch. Maybe I can make an eggnog latte?” Schuyler said with a grin.

“Okay. But how about a strawberry smoothie? Christmas is over anyway. And can you come to Albany for New Year’s? I think this is going to be Năm của kẻ si tình,” Skyler said and hugged her boyfriend close.

“What’s that mean, said the willing-to-learn-Vietnamese half-Jewish boy,” Schuyler said as they headed toward the back door.

“Year of the Love Birds. I love you, Schuyler.”

“And ‘Anh yêu em,’ Sky. Told you I was willing.”

After a holiday-induced break and creative malaise, I’ve jumped back into responding to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses feature. This past week’s theme was the sense of Taste. One of the photo prompts was of a forlorn young Asian girl in a knit hat and a light-bulb necklace, another of a pink drink, and the final of something aflame in the middle of a street. Not sure I did Taste all that much justice and my use of the pink drink is weak, but the other two photos evoked this story of two kids from different cultures – on many levels – whose love seems like the real deal.

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..