Making Faces

Photo by Scott Webb

Otto Schneider worked to the natural music of the wind off the Baltic. Since the war, it became a more pronounced tune as it hummed and whistled through the ruins of what once was the Prora Kamp resort on Rügen Island.

It wasn’t quite the Strauss symphonies or accordions and brass of the folk bands the Nazis would pump through the speakers up and down the island, but it served its purpose as musical accompaniment for his efforts as well as it did for theirs. 

He recalled how Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” organizers came to the island and told locals like Otto how they would build their spare hotels in an effort to provide affordable vacation space for the average German worker. 

“Every working German deserves a day at the beach,” they told Otto and his neighbors. So he and other local business owners quickly mobilized their meager concerns to support the coming throngs seeking a seaside holiday from their smoky factory towns, the packed cities and boring farms. 

His oldest son, young Otto, and the younger boy, Kurt, became his second pair of craftsman’s hands, carving little boats, guns and doll heads, doubling his production of those toys. His wife Magda and older daughter Maria, sewed the little outfits for the dolls. In addition to the carving, Otto painted the faces of the dolls, giving them life and a certain sparkling magic that rivaled the sunlight on the waves of the Baltic.

“How do you do that, Father?” his youngest daughter Dorothea would ask as she watched every step of her father turning blocks of wood into lively kindchen and frauleins. “It’s like magic.”

“It is, in a way, Dotte,” Otto would say. “And perhaps one day you will make such magic, turning the plain into the amazing.”

“Really, Father,” she would say. “When?”

“In time, liebchen. When you a get just a little older and the Kamp opens.”

“I will make dolls magical, Father. Just you wait and see.”

But the Prora Kamp never opened. It’s building slowed as Strength Through Joy became superseded by the Aufrüstung rearmament. And by 1939 young Otto left Rügen Island to become part of the Wehrmacht, followed in two years by Kurt.

“Otto!” Magda screamed in her sleep one night in December of 1942. 

“What, my darling? I’m here.”

“No, Papa, our Otto, our boy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s gone, I just know it,” Magda said, burying her head into her husband’s chest and sobbing.

“How do you know that, Magda. The last word we had, he was safely in reserve of the major armies. Here, you just rest upon me and go back to sleep. I’m sure you’ve had the fright of any mother of a soldier.” 

“He’s dead, Otto. Our boy is dead,” Magda said and quietly cried for the rest of the night.

The word came to the island two months later. Otto died that winter night of 1942 outside Stalingrad. 

Meanwhile, Otto kept making his dolls. 

Magda never was the same. Maria left Rügen Island to be near her fiancé’s family in Dresden in summer of 1943. Then letters stopped coming home from Kurt after the Allied invasion of France in 1944. He became just another German soldier who disappeared without a trace.

With the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, Magda’s heart finally gave out. Dorothea found her mother at her sewing machine where she had been mending and old dress of Maria’s for her younger daughter.

“Father, what will we do? It is only you and I left. No one is ever coming to this stupid island on holiday. There’s never going to be another holiday. There are no men, no husbands, no fathers. There will be no ladies and children coming to this ghost Kamp sitting on the shore,” Dorothea said. 

“We will do as we always have, Dotte. We will make or toys, give magic to our dolls, bring them to life. Someday, I know not when, the people will come back and our lives will be better. Look how well you can paint the dolls’ faces now. You have become better than I at giving them their special magic,” Otto said as he held up the spectacularly painted head of a doll Otto had carved the day before.

“Father, this a waste of our time. We must leave Germany. Perhaps to America. That is where the future lies, even for toymakers and their daughters.”

“Don’t be silly, Dorothea. What could we do there? I am an Old World craftsman. Americans have no need for that skill. And you are only seventeen. Who would hire a girl whose only skill is painting doll faces? No, we’re staying here,” Otto said with finality, taking Dorothea’s latest creation back into his shop.

“I will not sit here waiting for something to happen that never will like you, Father. I will not die here like Mother, waiting for someone to come back here that I know never will. I will go to America and make a new life for myself,” Dorothea said. But her father didn’t hear her. He only hummed along with the winds coming off the Baltic.

Otto was sure Dorothea would always be what he was, what his father had been and his father before him. She was a Schneider and that’s what Schneiders did.

Five years later, as she just finished painting the magical face on another of her dolls, Dot Snyder felt a chill as she thought of the man who had taught her the skill she now used to make a living in America. And she knew, she just knew as her mother knew, that Otto was gone.

But before she could give it another thought, one of her dolls called her from across the dressing room at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

“Dot, can you fix my face?” she said.

“Coming, Dolly. Can’t let you go out there without your magic, can we?” Otto Schneider’s daughter replied.

Here’s the final story from my Six Weeks, Six Senses project in concert with prompts from Canadian writer and teacher Sarah Salecky. This final week was to write about a sixth sense — the magic of intuition. I had a choice of photos to help guide me in terms of a character, a setting and an object. I write this today while crippled up with a painfully messed up back. Been down with it since Saturday. But I had to do this, even if I didn’t feel like it, or even feel like I could or not. So here you go. The story is a first draft flash fiction that may or may not grow up or grow better. But it grew. Thanks, Sarah.

Advertisements

Metamorphosed

This thing that grips my heart
in its gentle hands,
massaging it just to make sure
it’s fresh, was so useless to me
in the old days. Back then,
it could squeeze as hard as it liked
and I doubt this metaphoric ticker
would yield a bit, poured and cast
as it was from some Bessemer vessel
roaring with great light and
sparking bits of molten steel.
But something I never expected
changed that, with the warmest touch.
Now, my heart pours its own sparks,
pyrotechnics composed of joy,
sadness, anger, even love,
all bound together molecularly
by the wonder called emotion.
I would ask how a heart of cold steel
could accept and give its feelings
like a grape gives up its juice.
But does it really matter?
All I have to worry about is that
I have enough to fill the sippy cups
of the little ones who metamorphosed
hardened metal into such human flesh.

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.

…But Don’t Touch

Photo by Luke Braswell

There she was, wearing nothing but slippers, a loosely tied white house coat, turquoise panties, a chunky necklace with big stones blue as her eyes, and a smile. I froze at the “nothing but” part of her wardrobe, but her smile put me sort of at ease.  

She answered my knock on the red door of the yellow three-story in West Albany.  The year was 1967. The house had to be eighty years old. It had red doors, shutters and windows.  Not just the window trim was red.  The glass in the first-floor windows wore a streaky coat of dark red paint, as well.  

“What can I do for you, cutie?” she said, opening her door wider and stepping back from the view of passersby.

“P-paperboy,” I stammered, not believing what my then-14-year-old eyes were seeing.  “Dollar twenty-five for the week, ma’am.”  She couldn’t have been much older than twenty.

“Okay, honey.  Where’d Danny go?”  The lady fished in from her house coat, pulled out a tennis ball, opened it like an egg and handed me two dollar bills from the wad she had inside.  “Keep it, sweetie.”

“Um, he told me he got his license and a job delivering office supplies after school.  Thank you.”  

As I started to leave the red entryway, the lady touched my cheek and asked, “What’s your name, honey?” 

That feeling was extraordinary.  Touch was not something we shared in my family.  At least not like that.  With five kids under the age of 15, touches at my house were fleeting, at best.  There was no time for lingering, to express warmth, even to feel warmth.  Most touches we felt were the back of a hand—some accidental, more often calloused and abrupt.  They weren’t placed on you long enough to feel warmth and, once they departed, you more often felt heat.

“Um, I’m James Burke, Jay…uh, Jay,” I said, glancing along the lines of her center-parted hair, past a face that was all eyelashes and practiced smile. Past that necklace. My stare eventually settled, like sand down an hourglass, resting on her scuffed slippers.

“Nice to meet you, Jay-Jay.  I’m Lo, Lola, Lolita, whatever you like.”  

“Close that door and get that brat out of here,” another woman screeched from across the dark front room.  Her face was all scarlet from the red window glow and, I guess, from anger.  “Little bastard’s scarin’ away business.” 

“What business, Kat?” a voice from the kitchen asked.  “Ain’t seen no more’n the same three johns here in the last three weeks.  An’ you givin’ it ‘way to that punk Ollie down the street.”  

I already knew who Ollie was.  Ollie St. Denis lived in one of the tenements five doors down the block.  He had beaten the hell out of Danny a few times, I’d learned. And two years ago he walked right into the flat where my Gram lived, right across the street. Walked out with her radio.  Gram died not too long after that.  

“Shut up, bitch.  You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have a strong man takin’ care you.  Just your retard brother, and who’s takin’ care who?” the chubby lady yelled into the kitchen.  Her eyes bulged all pink like babies’ rattles. She had her hair pulled back in a greasy rat-tail—so tightly that I don’t think she could have closed those scary eyes all the way anyhow.

A tall girl roared out of the kitchen.  She must have been close to six feet tall and wore platform heels that sounded like hammers on the linoleum floor.  They also put the crown of her head near the top of the low door jamb, which she clipped on her way to the front of the house.

“God … dammit!”  She teetered for a second, which allowed Chubby to bolt up the stairs to the left and slam a door at the end of the hallway.  

“Honey, I gotta get Nan some ice for her head.  Maybe help cool her down, too.  See ya ‘round, Jay-Jay,” Lola said.

I’d seen people get angry before, especially my Old Man, who could be as loud and profane as anybody in this neighborhood. But this scene shocked me to shivers.  What really confused me, though, was what else I was feeling besides that chill down my back.  I had seen that much skin before at the beach. But there it never gave me the same warm gooey feeling I got from peeking at Lo.  It felt good, I guess, probably because I thought it was bad

 “G’bye, thanks,” I whispered, and backpedaled out the door, out into the street, nearly being nailed by a passing Freihofer Bakery truck. When I got the honk of the truck and the screaming of that fat lady and the picture of Ollie out of my head, I was almost ready to collect at the last house on my route—the one with the boxer that bit Danny.  Twice.  

No, maybe next time. 

The following week, I had finished the U-shaped route and was doubling back toward home. I decided to step into the pharmacy on Ontario Street to check the comic books and get some ice cream. I always liked the smell of the place, particularly there near the ice cream freezer, sweet and creamy but with a buzz of freon. I was kneeling in front of the magazine rack when an old lady reeking of that old lady kid of perfume over leaky old lady drawers stepped over my feet and hmmph’d. 

“I don’t know what’s happening to this neighborhood,” she whined.  “Getting so decent people can’t even go to the drugstore anymore.  And no respect.  No respect.”

That last bit was aimed at me, I was pretty sure. 

I looked toward the direction of the pharmacist’s counter, where she came from. I saw just one customer.  Long dark hair, bell-bottoms, big chunky necklace, platform shoe tapping indignantly.

“Well, now that your respectable customers are taken care of, can I get some help here?”

It was Lola.  She handed the pharmacist a slip of paper.  He looked at them and I think I heard him say, “Who is this Emily Mastroianni on this prescription?”

“It’s my aunt, she’s got a wicked bad cough, they think it may be emphysema, and the doctor wants her to have that special cough medicine,” Lola replied, looking him straight in the eye and working those fake lashes so hard I think the papers fluttered on the counter. 

“Please wait.  Down there,” the pharmacist nodded toward the aisle where I knelt.  Lola turned toward the magazine racks, saw me and beamed, “Hiya, hon.  Jay-Jay, right?’

“Uh, hi. Yeah, hello.” 

As she clopped down the aisle, I tried to stop staring at her enormous blue eyes. Self-consciousness brought me down to the stretched scoop neck of her rib-knit sweater and embarrassment chased me from there to where the sweater hugged just below her hips.  I got those squishy feelings again and snapped back to looking at her eyes, now directly above me.  And fell on my butt.

“Whoa, there, Perfessor.  Whatcha readin’? Playboy?”

I stuffed the comic back in the rack and jumped up.

“I seen you around here before, haven’t I, Jay-Jay?”

“Um, I guess.  My Gram used to live around the corner across the street from your house.”

“No kiddin’!  Small world.”

“Yeah.”

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, ‘bout a mile back up Third, off’a Watervliet.”

“I been there.  There’s a couple bars an’ a drugstore on Watervliet, right?”

“Uh-huh, guess so.”

“I was thinkin’ I seen you before, when you stopped by the house the other day.  Prob’ly when you use’ta visit your Gram or around Watervliet Avenue, huh?”

“I guess.”

“Yeah.  Know what?  This’ll sound funny, but you really remind me of my first boyfriend back in Utica.  God, what a sweetie.”

“Oh, Utica?”

“Yeah, I was s’posed to go to school here, but … things happened,” she kind of drifted off.

“Mmm.”

The pharmacist called, “Miss!”

“Hold on, honey, while take care of my overhead,” Lo said, “I’ll walk ya partway.”

On that walk she told me that the girl who hit her head storming out of the kitchen was Nan.  Lo said Nan and her brother George came to Albany from down in Hudson to live with her Dad’s mother. She said their Mom, a white lady, was a prostitute and she didn’t want Nan to be one, too. 

About two months after Nan and George got off the Greyhound, their grandmother up and died and Nan took over mothering George.  Not long after she lost her job at the Public Market for stealing Bisquick and a couple cans of soup, Nan entered the family business.  

Lo said she and Nan first met one night outside a bar on Clinton Avenue.  She said they understood that there was safety in numbers.  They decided to partner up and arranged to move in with Kat, another girl in the neighborhood.  They pooled their cash and government checks to rent the yellow house with the red door.

I thought I knew what it was they did for money, but I didn’t want to be sure. 

For some reason, Lo ran into me lots of times after that.  She’d ask me about my family.  She’d tell me things about her life. Her flapping eyelashes were so sincere, I mostly believed her.  But I soon realized that Lo didn’t always tell all the truth.  Her words needed to be set aside, walked around and sniffed from all different angles before you took them all the way in.  

I felt that way about Lo, the person, too.  I especially liked the sniffing part.  She walked in a cloud that snapped my whole body to attention.  She smelled of citrus and spice and winter mornings and my lungs froze and I shivered when she was close enough to inhale.   

One afternoon in October, I ran into Lo at the drugstore again and she caught me sniffing her hair.  She laughed and said she got what she called her fray-grahnce from a head shop downtown.

“Oh, it’s not just your everyday pitchy-hoolie,” I remember her saying.  “It’s got other natural ingredients, oils an’ … um, attractants.”

“Uh-humm.”

Suddenly, I froze and Lola’s eyes snapped up when somebody yelled, “Hey boy, your mamma know you hangin’ wit whores?”  The remark  was chucked at me like a busted brick from across the street. 

It was Ollie St. Denis on the stoop of the tenement where his Grams lived.  His Grams, Mrs. Simpson, got the paper, but I almost never collected for it because Ollie scared me.  He’d get in my face and say stuff like, “Gimme dollar, boy,” or “Why you stealin’ from a poor black woman for dat shit, boy?”

“Least he got a job, Ollie St. Denis,” Lo yelled back, sounding more like Nan than Nan.  Meaner, tougher, though.

Across the street, Ollie growled, “I make money, bitch, and I don’t hafta lay down wit no stinkin’ drunk to get it.”

“No, you steal from your Grams and rob ol’ white ladies, don’t you, you punk?”

“Bitch!”  Ollie jumped up from the stoop, all red eyes, pointy black shoes and fists.  He hadn’t yet hit the curb when the whole neighborhood rattled, “Oliver!”  It was the voice of his Jamaican grandma, freezing him in his tracks.  “What you doin’?” 

“Nothin, Mamma Paulie, just playin’ wit da paperboy and his girrll-frannd.”  He stretched out the last word and snapped it off like a big rubber band.  Stung like one, too, for some reason. 

“Sen’ dat boy up here.  I sure I owe him money.  Why dat boy not collect?”

“Yes, Mamma.”

I wanted to keep walking with Lola, even though the change in her scared me a little bit, too.  But the lady wanted to pay and I didn’t need her yelling at me like she yelled at “Oliver.”

Ollie had returned to the stoop and stood in the paint-chipped, otherwise open doorway, so I had to skinny my way past.  When I bumped against him, it felt like one of those Home touches.

“You best watch you ass, boy,” he hissed, still squinting payback at Lo.

“Um-hm.” I mumbled as I slid by and walked into the narrow and dimly lit hallway, half of which was crowded by the stairway to the landing above. I bounced up the stairs, two at a time, to the third floor and, as always was socked in the face by the air up there, thick with the odor of over-cooked cabbage, marijuana and soggy diapers. I knocked and Mrs. Pauline Simpson creaked open the door.

“Come in, honey.  Where you been?  You not come by in a long time.  I like to pay my bills every week.  I can’t ‘ford no month’s worth of paper in one poke.”

“Oh, it’s just one week, dollar twenty-five, ma’am.  Uh, your grandson’s been taking care of me.”

Just like Lo always told me, you weren’t exactly lying when you told only the good part of the truth.

“Oh, he’s a good boy.  He just miss his mommy and friends in Mt. Vernon’s all.”

She fished in a purse atop a shiny cherry dining room table, the only decent piece of furniture I could see.  Nan said Ollie had sold some of his Grams’ things, which must have been the job he and Lo yelled about.

“Thank you, Miz Simpson,” I said.

“Take care, Baby Boy.  Don’t be a stranger.  I miss you Gramma ‘cross the street.”  She pinched my cheek, her fingers bony but warm.

“Yes’m, me too.  ‘Bye.”  I tugged away.

I found Ollie sitting across the bottom stairs, his feet wedged between the railings, blocking my way to the door.  The afternoon light came from outside through the open doors.

“Gimme the money she paid you, boy.  You got plenty.”

I could see the hems of Lola’s bell-bottoms outside through the doorway.  I was pretty sure she could see my sneakers on the stairs from the sidewalk, especially when I heard, “C’mon, Jay-Jay, let’s go.”

“The money, boy.  Now.”

“Jay!”

Ollie reached for my leg and …

“Oliver, come up here, baby, I need you.”

I jumped over Ollie’s legs and the railing, slipped on the mat and fell on the sidewalk at Lo’s feet.

“Don’t run, stand up and walk towards my place,” she said.  “Keep your head up and walk like you’re the biggest swingin’ dick in the neighborhood.  Everybody needs to see you ain’t scared.”

A couple of weeks later Lo and I met at the drugstore again and she walked me partway home and I told her that my Old Man was laid up with a bad back from his construction job.  She seemed really interested in if he was taking anything for it.  I told her he didn’t like taking medicine.  Something about being tougher than the next guy.  That didn’t mean he didn’t take painkiller with a head on it, though.  Sudsy head, not a skull and crossbones head.  She asked me what he did with the bottles of medicine he got.  

“They usually just sit in the back of the medicine cabinet until Mom flushes ‘em down the toilet.  She worries about the babies getting into things.”

“I’ll take ‘em.  Since they’re just gonna get flushed anyway, why don’t you give ‘em to me?”

“Ummm.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey,” she said, resting her hand on my cheek.  “I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Just like always, my head started spinning.  For an instant, I didn’t even see her.  That intoxicating perfume hit me like it was one of those painkillers and I felt flashes of maybes, could-bes, risks and rewards in my head.

“Uh, I s’pose I could get you some of the pills.  You know, from way in the back.”

She put her arm around me and pressed her mouth to my ear.

“Jay-Jay, thank you.”

She gave me a little kiss and suddenly started crying, just like that.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted.  “Did I do something wrong.”

She rubbed her eyes, smudging black stuff on her cheeks and flashed me that steel smile.  

“It’s okay, I’m better now, honey,” she said.

 “What do you need all this medicine for?”

“Pain, honey.  Pain”

I brought her two full bottles of codeine which I saw her empty them into her hollowed out tennis ball. I found she always kept in her purse or a coat pocket. We never talked about medicine again on our walks.  I asked Nan why Lo was taking all that stuff and Nan said that Lo used the same cough medicine prescription at the drugstore around the corner from my house, and at Honikel’s on Central, and the Delaware Avenue Pharmacy.

“She hurts, baby. But she ain’t harmin’ nobody else.  Jus’ herself, I guess. She ain’t even tippin’ the needle like that motherfuckin’ ex of hers.  The one what turned her out.  She don’t hurt nobody.  An’ she gives the world a lotta love, baby.  She’s jus’ tryin’ to not feel much of today so she can get to tomorrow.”

After dinner one night late that December I was collecting and Lo invited me all the way in past the red door.  I felt that she must have been celebrating the holidays pretty friskily. She hugged me and kissed me and thanked me for being her friend.  She sat me on her couch, gave me a glass of wine, and put her hand on my thigh.  For a second I actually thought we were gonna.  You know…gonna.

On  the table next to her was that tennis ball, lying in two pieces, neither of which held anything but drowsy memories, I guess. She asked me if my Dad had any more medicine at home.  Then it hit me.  It hit me and it hurt me like the Old Man had hit me.

I grabbed her hand from my thing and held it in front of me.  I looked her right in those blue eyes.  For the first time I was actually looking at what might be really her, whoever she was.  I saw past the false lashes, past the almosts, the “Honey’s,” the warm touches.  She knew I saw her whole truth, not just the good stuff.  

Lo got quiet again and she put her hands into my back and pushed me to the door, saying I’d better get out before somebody happened by.  When I exited the heat of the yellow house I discovered two five-dollar bills hanging from my jacket pocket—her Christmas presents to me or just more of her overhead, I didn’t know.   

As I stumbled into the dark outside, a gentle snow had laid its hands over the street, stoops and parked cars, covering the decay that became more obvious every day inside and outside these homes.  It was pretty, the cars looked like wedding cakes. It even made the dying neighborhood smell better, like an air freshener for a whole four square blocks, but it was another lie.  Another …

“Whadda you doin’ here? I told you never to go in my house.”

I didn’t need to turn; I knew it was Kat.

“Merry Christmas, paper-b-o-y.  Santa give you any presents ‘cause you such a good b-o-o-y-y?”  

Ollie.  I whirled to see him and Kat, each holding up the other.

“No, you ain’t been a good boy.  You been hangin’ wit whores again.”

The fact that he was hanging on a whore, or one was hanging from him, was lost on Ollie.  But the five-spot sticking out of my pocket was not.  

“Gimme that money, boy.”  He pushed Kat down in the snow and grabbed my arm.  

He fumbled for my pocket, missed, and smacked me in the mouth. All I saw then was a bright green light and his face under a cap.  I grabbed his arm, he smacked me again and we slipped on the snow to the sidewalk, Ollie on top of me.  Ollie’s weight knocked the wind out me.  Everywhere I looked was colored lights.  Some were red and yellow and green and hung on the fronts of houses.  Some were there even when I closed my eyes as he hit me again.

Ollie pushed his hand down against my face—it smelled like an ashtray and weed—and punched me with his other hand. Then I couldn’t catch my breath at all.  It felt like Ollie had gained a hundred more pounds.  It turned out he had.

“Get off him, you fuck.”

It was Lo.  She had pounced on his back, wrapped her legs around the pile and was scratching his eyes with one hand while the other beat his head with the heel of her clunky shoe.  I can’t say I wasn’t grateful for the rescue, but then she missed Ollie and hit me in the forehead, too. A white flash of light dimmed to yellow.

Next thing, Kat jumped on top of Lo, trying to get her off Ollie.  Then I heard Nan’s voice and apparently she grabbed Kat and I thought I was going to die right there, suffocated in a pile of over-perfumed prostitutes.

As the lights began fading to black, I had a sense that I was floating, everything felt lighter.  It turns out George had heard the ruckus from upstairs and had rushed to the street and started peeling bodies off my chest.  When he was done, he held Ollie at arm’s length. Nan cinched her arms around Kat’s waist, lifting her flailing legs above sidewalk.  Kat kicked snow and spit steam and cuss words at the only two characters left on the ground.

“I warned you!  I told you to stay away from that kid,” her eyes about to pop.  “But no, you had to take him in, like a fuckin’ puppy.  Used him like some dumb john or somebody from that mobbed-up guinea family of yours.  Yeah, Miss Mob Princess.  Wouldn’t they be happy to hear about you now?  A hooker. Princess Cocksucker.” 

Lo stood up, her house coat and hair wet from melted snow and stuck to her.  She had changed in a second.  Still kind of pretty, but more vacant, sick, pathetic.

Two cop cars, lights flashing, slid around the corner.  Another one roared down Livingston from the other direction, schussing to a stop there on the corner. Its windshield-mounted searchlight trained on us like we were center-stage of a risqué dance recital.

“Awright, everybody stay where you are. What the hell’s goin’ on here?” the first cop out of his car bellowed.  His hand was on his gun.  Mine was on my head.

“Well, Ollie, what a surprise to see you in the middle of something like this.”

“Officer, I was walkin’ my girlfriend here home when this crazy bitch jumped me and started hitting me wit’ that shoe,” he whined. 

What a lying puss, I thought.

“Wait a minute, hold on,” a bony sergeant got out of one of the cars and approached us with a long black flashlight in his hand. “I know you,” he said, poking it into Ollie’s chest.  He turned on the light and flashed it in the faces of each of the ladies from the yellow house.  

“Girls,” he nodded as he lit each of them, “we’ve all met before, I believe.  And you, big boy, I’m seein’ way too much of you on the street these days.”  

“And now who the fu… the paperboy?  Oh, how I love the holidays.” 

“That little bastard’s been trying to rob my house,” Kat screamed.

“I see,” the cop said.  “Then who beat the hell out him?  Your boyfriend said he was walking you home when the Christmas Angel over there jumped him.  Nobody said anything about anybody breakin’ in here.  You ladies have anything to say?  No, no, wait. Kid?”

“I was collecting for my route, officer,” I mumbled through already puffy lips, wincing into the interrogating flashlight beam.  I could feel the blood dripping from my mouth, tasting of salt and steel. I wiped my mouth and noticed the blood smelled nothing like a raw steak, more tangy.

“I was finishin’ up when he came an’ tried to take my money.  Lola tried to stop him and everything went … crazy.”

Lo said nothing.  She wrapped her house coat tighter around herself, kept her head down and shivered.  She appeared to be looking at nothing, like her eyes had turned backwards and stared down the hollow of her.  

Just then, a pickup truck came hauling down Livingston and slid up to the curb behind the police cruiser.  One of the cops put his hand to his hip.  I looked up, saw my Dad jump out of the truck with an expression so dark it scared me more than Ollie.  How the hell did he…?  I turned away, choosing to look across the street, where I saw a skinny woman’s silhouette in the window, a telephone stuck to her ear.

In that house, next door to my grandma’s old place, lived Mrs. Mason.  She sometimes remembered me as the little kid who used to chase down the Wiffle ball I fouled into her yard.  I could still remember crawling under her rose bushes, the sweet and green aroma and thorns that’d jab into my hand and head. Outside of her garden, her life’s work was to sit in a wing chair close to her front window and serve as sentinel for her neighborhood and all its changing life. 

“Officers, that’s my kid there.  What’s he done?”

What had I done?  Jesus Christ on a bicycle, look at my goddam face will ya?  Yeah, I kept hitting that guy over there’s fist over and over with my face. 

“From what we can tell, nothin’,” the sergeant said.  “And we’d like to keep it that way.”

“Hey, Jimmy,” one of the cops yelled from his position at the end of Ollie’s right arm.  “This your kid?”

“Hey, Eddie,” the Old Man growled to what was probably one of his bar buddies from the old neighborhood.  “Yeah.  You takin’ him?  His mother’s going bat-shit at home.”

“Nah.  Sarge, this kid’s okay.  Let’s just take the hookers and Ollie and the big kid and sort ‘em out at the house.  ’Sides, it’s almost time for my 10-20.”

“But Lo and Nan and George were tryin’ to help me,” I yelled.

“Shut up, Jay,” my old man hissed, as he grabbed my shoulder.  “Get in the truck.”

Ollie and Kat and Nan started howling about fairness and justice and white this and pig that.  As my old man pushed me into his truck, I turned to see George braced against the cops’ efforts to get him in the patrol car.  Two of the cops wrestled with him and he shook one off and another one belted him behind the knees with his big flashlight.  With George down, the first cop kicked him in the gut and whacked him in the neck with his flashlight. I tried to yell to make them stop, but the Old Man clamped his hand around the back of my neck and manhandled me back to his truck.  The cops handcuffed George and threw him like a sack of wet laundry on the back seat of their cruiser.

My father punched the accelerator as he put the truck in reverse and whipped the steering wheel.  I looked out the rear window as the cops loaded Nan and Lola into one of the patrol cars.  Lo still was staring at nothing.

That was the last time I ever saw her.

When we got home, Mom was crying.  She hugged me then pushed me away to sob in my face that Mrs. Mason had called and asked did my Mom know that I was hanging out in whorehouses.  And then she told Mom that she had called the cops about the whorehouse across the street and because I was about to be killed by a “nigger with a knife.”  

“What’s wrong with you?” Mom wailed.  I thought the swelling on my forehead and mouth and the blood on my chin and jacket made that pretty clear, but she didn’t see it that way.  “You have to work. You’re supposed to be an example to all your brothers and sisters.  You’re the oldest. How do you think this looks to them?  What do you have to say for yourself, James?”

“I think … I’m goin’ to bed.  G’night.”  

At which, my Old Man belted me in the back of the head.

I actually thought about swinging right back.  But what good would it do?  Nothing would change.  I’d still hurt, no doubt worse when he got done with me.  And Mom and the Old Man didn’t even realize the real trouble I was in.  How could I go back into the neighborhood after what had happened tonight?

I walked out of the living room into the kitchen.  I pulled some ice from the freezer and wrapped it in a dishtowel.  I turned on the faucet and let the water run until it was really cold.  I wet the towel and ice, put them to my mouth and closed myself in my chilly bedroom off the kitchen. 

A cop came to the house the next morning, Christmas Eve, and took a statement from me.  He said that this wasn’t Ollie’s “first time to the fair,” whatever that means.  Other witnesses confirmed Mrs. Mason’s story, so Ollie probably was going to be headed away for a few years, according to the cop.  I kind of felt bad for Mrs. Simpson, so I decided to give her the paper for free from now on, even without Ollie there to rob me. 

The detective said that since the yellow house was rented in Kat’s name, she was charged with solicitation and fostering prostitution and a bunch of other beefs.  It looked like she wasn’t going back to the neighborhood for a while either.

He said Miss Mastroianni, Miss Brown and her brother faced assault charges and were being held because they apparently they didn’t have anyplace to live anymore.  

That afternoon, the Old Man drove along with me on the route, slowly shadowing my steps in his pickup.  I didn’t want him around, the feeling of his eyes on me just made me angrier.  I just wanted to deliver the papers and get warm.  Whether that was at home or not didn’t matter.  Not anymore.

Even though there was no sign of the girls at the yellow house, I placed the folded newspaper in the vestibule just as I always had, leaning against the inner door.  Nobody had shoveled the snow and it still looked like a wrestling mat for fallen snow angels.  Nobody cared.  Why should we?  It was the way of the neighborhood. It was my way now, too.

I didn’t care at all.  The lesson didn’t take me too long to learn, or maybe it did.  When somebody puts their hand, their skin, themselves on you, it seems that it’s just to control you.  I wasn’t going to be controlled anymore.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’ll keep you from being hurt too often.  One way or another.

I spotted some blood on the snow near the house’s yellow wall.  My blood.

Same color as the window, I thought.  I kicked some snow over it.

Lo’s shoe stuck out of a dirty pile of snow by the curb.  A dog had drilled a yellow-rimmed piss hole next to it. Same color as the house.  A fitting, final punctuation to my lesson.  

I kicked the shoe into Livingston and ditched the Old Man by walking home, alone, against traffic, on a one-way street.  

Alone. Felt kind of good.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything.

I’ll keep this story up only for a week or so. Sorry it’s so long. It’s always been meant to be the title and tent pole piece of a story collection based on men who have difficulty with intimacy. I revised it and added some more sensory detail, particularly smells, in response to the latest prompt from Canadian writer Sarah Salecky’s Six Week’s, Six Senses summer writing project. This is also one of my Albany stories, based on my hometown at various points in its history.

Once Upon a Time There Was a Writer…

Still Life with Lemons on a Plate. Vincent van Gogh, 1887

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to write a new story for my kids collection.”

“What’s it about?”

“I don’t know yet because I haven’t been able to start it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I keep getting distracted.”

“I only just came into the room. You’ve been in here for over an hour.”

“I’m blocked, Jeannie, okay?” 

“What does that even mean?”

“It means I can’t find anything to write about, or can’t get started for some odd reason…like being distracted by my daughter.”

“So this is my fault again. Here, let me help you begin.”

“No, really, I’d prefer it if you’d…”

“Once upon a time, there lived a shoemaker who couldn’t make shoes anymore.”

“Seriously, would you please…”

“So this shoemaker had a daughter, who was the most beautiful and intelligent girl in the kingdom.

“Where’s this going? I’d like to get to my work.”

“One day, the shoemaker’s daughter found her father staring at his work table, where he had all kinds of leather and tools that he had acquired from all over the world.”

“Go on if you must. Just…go on.”

“Don’t sigh so. So the shoemaker’s daughter said, ‘Don’t despair, Father dear. You just need to get away from all your shoe forms and glue pots and laces and come walk with me through the lemon groves.”

“Lemon groves?”

“Don’t stop me now. While they walked, the brilliant daughter filled her apron with the sour lemons. Her father said, ‘What do you propose to do with so many of those?’ And she replied, ‘I’ll crush these, taking their sour essence, add the sweetness of my sugar and make lemon tarts and lemon curd.”

“Lemon curd?”

“Shhh, I’m trying to help here. So the shoemaker and his beautiful and brilliant daughter returned to their house, where she did as she said she would, leaving a dozen untouched lemons left there on her counter. ‘You can have these, father. Perhaps you can think of something else to do with them,’ she said. Just then, a handsome young man was riding past the shoemaker’s house and smelled the lemon tarts the shoemaker’s angelic daughter had left on the window sill to cool.”

“No. You’re not going to say…”

“The handsome young man reined in his horse and walked to the window, drawn by the aroma of the sweetened sour lemons in their flaky pastry glory. At the window, he peered inside and saw the shoemaker’s daughter and was smitten by her beauty, intelligence and extraordinary housekeeping skills.”

“That’s a real stretch.”

“Please, I’m coming to the climax. As I said, the handsome young man was smitten by the shoemaker’s daughter. Let’s call her Jeanne Rose…”

“Convenient.”

“I repeat: Jeanne Rose. And the young man asked if her if he could sample her tarts. The oh-so-sweet Jeanne Rose said he could, but that she had no suitable libation for the young man to drink with his tart. Her father, seeing the young man and daughter setting off sparks between them, and knowing you can’t get rid of a daughter fast enough back in these fairy tale times, said, ‘Handsome young man, if you would be so kind as to fetch me a bucket of water from the well, I shall provide you with libation that you might even take with you on the road if you wish.’ So the young man brought a bucket into the house. The shoemaker crushed the dozen lemons into the water, added  enough sugar to make it ALMOST as sweet as Jeanne Rose, and presented it to the smitten young man.”

“Oh…kayyy…”

“Shhh, let me finish. Suitably puckered from this king’s ransom of citric goodness, the young man revealed—through  his tightly pursed lips—that he was the Prince, scouring the kingdom for the perfect bride to one day share his throne. Then the Prince placed said pucker on the lips of the pluperfect, might-as-well-be-a-princess Jeanne Rose, kissed her with a gentle passion and asked her to be his bride. ‘Yes, oh yes, my prince,’ she said. And they lived happily ever after.”

“Wait a minute. What about that poor bastard shoemaker?”

“Oh, yeah. Ummm, the King seeing his fine handiwork, though already having his own Italian shoemaker, named now-Princess Jeanne Rose’s father Master Saddlemaker of the Royal Tack for all his fine steeds and carriages. Which reminds me, could you give me a ride to the mall? I’m supposed to meet my prince at Starbucks in about fifteen minutes. Daddy? Daddy, did you hear me?”

“You could’ve just asked for the keys, Jeannie. They’re on the kitchen counter next to the lemons. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I may have found a way to turn this pile of chicken shit into Chicken Kiev. Or at least chicken salad.”

“Thank you, Daddy. Have fun. See you later.”

“Um-hmmm. Thank you, Princess. Enjoy your tarts. Hmmm. ‘Once upon a time, there was a…shoemaker…’?”

So I just sat to writing table today, much as the writer/shoemaker in this story. And, since my daughters are far, far away, I just started writing. And here’s what I came up with. Just dialogue. And I thought, “That was fun. Now what?” Back to the groves, I guess.

Dreams at Angels-30

When I was a kid, I’d
lie on the grass, look up
and wish I could fly
to those billowing bundles
of sun-bleached linen some
otherworldly launderer
piled across the sky.
When I became older,
I finally flew there,
and it was then I wished
I could step off my silver wings
to trek those seemingly solid
wintry plains and mountains.
I’d be careful not to venture
near their thin ice edges, though.
I wouldn’t wish to shatter
some other boy’s aspirations
to one day reach his lofty dreams
only to find new ones down below
at Angels-30.

For what it’s worth, “Angels” is old aviation slang for altitude measured in thousands of feet. Therefore, Angels-30 is 30,000 feet in altitude. Photo ©2016 Joseph Hesch

The View From the Precipice Through Gray Eyes

As I sit with her sleeping on my chest,
I wonder how her world will be
if she gets the chance to be my age.
Will she ever be able to swim
in a clean lake, hide beneath a dock
where you can clearly see all the way
to the shore from beneath the water?

Will she ever return from a visit
to The Great White North and be greeted
by border protectors who only mildly mistrust her
because she might be hiding duty-free booze
in the trunk, rather than meeting scowling guys
who mistrust everyone coming across
the Rainbow Bridge who have the dark tan
and jet black hair I did at 18?

Will she be free to read, write and speak
about anything, in any manner, for and against,
as I have my whole communicative life?
She makes a wiggle and opens her gray eyes
for a second, sees someone who loves her
holding her close, safe and warm, and I wonder.

Will she one day hold her grandkid and realize
what a special thing we had in this little town,
in her Grandpa’s old big-hug country
I once thought was full of possibilities,
back before the precipitous fall into
a land of Not Anymore?

I’ve always wondered, with both my granddaughters, the blue-eyed and the gray, how the future will be for them. It’s always been windy at the top of this mountain, but these days I worry more than I ever have a rank gust could blow us off.