Circling the Herd In a Time of Social Distance

When you’re a kid and you get sick,
most times you’re lucky enough
to have the strength of many around
to tend to you and help you through it.
Or at least that’s how it was
during most of my life.
Oh, we’d run up against quarantines
for measles and chicken pox
and even polio (because I’m old).
The nation was a herd taking care of our own.
Now doctors tell me that a bunch of us
are going to get sick. But the herd
can’t take care of me because it seems
most of our horns have been sawn off
by the wolves in the food chain’s penthouse.
So, with almost seven decades
seasoning my once brown and shaggy coat,
it feels like I might be facing
a predator with no one of any muscle
having my back, at my shoulder,
over my wounded body. Sure seems like
it’s time to circle the herd for protection.
But it’s hard to feel safe while keeping
six feet of distance between each of us.

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Who’s The Man?

“Where the hell’s Rosalie?” Pat Bowman asked as he peered over his son Mark’s shoulder toward the front door.

“She was here this morning, Dad,” Mark said with a sigh. He sighed a lot these days, though he tried not to.

“Wasn’t that Becca?” Pat said. 

“Well, yeah. Becca was here, too. A little while ago. Rosalie came this morning, though.”

“I would’ve sworn…” Pat’s attention refocused on the television.

“She’s the one who came earlier, Dad. Trust me.” Mark decided to hold his big inhale this time. Sighing didn’t make Mark feel any better about his father or his own role as Pat’s health proxy and primary caregiver.

Besides, what good would sighing now do? The doctors and therapists explained to him how his father’s condition would become frustrating. Then would come the hard part. Mark closed his eyes and tried not to think of what the hard part would be like in light of the past three months.

“Who the hell thought this stupid ostrich was a good idea to sell insurance,” his father, a retired business executive, said. 

“It’s an emu, Dad. But you’re right. It sucks. Annoying as hell.”

“Stupid fucking bird. Assholes must think we’re idiots. If some ad man brought me this concept I’d throw him out the window. See if he could fly as well as some damn ostrich.”

“Relax, Dad. It’s only a commercial.” Mark was seeing more of these tirades all the time. And they hurt.

He recalled how when they were kids, his sisters Rosalie and Rebecca and he couldn’t go to sleep without listening to their father tell them a silly story.  Never the same one, unless they asked for one. Pat Bowman put the “gentle” in “gentleman.”

Mark thought of the time back at Yale when he the cops hauled him in after trying to score some weed off an undercover. Pat drove from Albany to New Haven in a blizzard to bail Mark out and drive him home. Not once did he raise his voice or issue a profanity. Not one “damn,” let alone a “fuck.”

“You’re better than this, Mark. You know the difference between right and wrong, and the law says what you were trying to do is wrong,” Pat said. 

“It’s a stupid law, Dad. But, yeah. Sorry. I fucked up,” Mark said, his chin to his chest as he stared at the floor board.

“Careful of your language, Mark. Words have power I don’t think you fully understand yet. How you use them communicate as much as what you’re trying to say. I tried my whole life to set a good example for you. Maybe I slipped up — slipped up — somewhere. Always remember, you’re my main man, pal. When I go, I want to say ‘My boy Mark is The Man.’ Not ‘The *blanking* Man. MY Man.”

And so he was.

Mark’s mouth twisted into something between a grin and a grimace thinking of that night. “MY Man.”

“When the hell is Rosalie coming? Was that a car?” Pat said, trying to rise.

“Sit! Yep, It’s Rosalie,” Mark said with touch of relief.

“Hi, Mark. You get some rest. Hi, Dad,” Rosalie said as she breezed into the living room.

“Thanks, Ro. Later, Dad.” Mark said, and kissed his father’s forehead.

“So, is there anything I can do for you, Dad? Need a drink, something to eat?” Rosalie said. Just so she knew she’d have his attention, Rosalie stepped between her father and the television screen.

“Yeah, get outta the way. And can you tell me who that guy was who just left?”

This is a larger version of a 250-word story I wrote (Yes, I WROTE!) Thursday in response to Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads  flash fiction mini-competition. It was probably better at 250. Somehow, though, my piece won. Never ceases to floor me when one of my simplistic, minimalist stories garners some bit of approbation. It’s humbling and encouraging. Those are two ingredients any writer needs to make his or her next bit of creative sustenance. 

Our Side of the Fence

“Can I touch one, Mama?” Cody asked.

“I don’t know if that would be wise,” I told her as I pushed the hair back from her eyes.

“But she’s so beautiful. Look how the wind blows her hair just like mine.”

I looked them over, watching how they moved around the enclosure and finally said, “We don’t know if we can trust how tame they are. There’s a good reason they’re behind this four-wire fence. I’ve heard the mothers can be pretty protective of their babies.”

“Pleeeze, can’t I just once? I’ll be careful,” Cody pleaded in that whiney way of hers. I noticed her edging closer to the fence, just as one of the colts ambled nearer to us.

“Cody, I said wait. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. It’s like we’re from different planets, far from home. Lord knows we are.”

I never liked it when we went on these summer trips, even when I was younger. I remember one year my cousin…

“Look, she likes me,” Cody said as she and one of the young ones reached through the fence for one another.

“Cody!” I screamed, just as the colt’s mother came running over. Both kids jumped and scratched themselves on the fence. The mare pushed her little one away favoring a cut on her floppy little white forehoof.

“See? And that’s why they keep them on the other side of the fence,” I told Cody as I licked the blood off her nose.

Here’s a tortured (and whinnied) 250-word first draft bit of flash fiction written for Cara Michaels’ #MondayMenage thingy. A triple-header of prompts here. One: that photo. Two: the phrase “far from home.” And three: The concept of Trust. Someday I’ll figure out if there’s something deeper involved in what my imagination spit out in these words. (I think there might be.) Well see, if I ever cross its fenceline for a proper revision.

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.

If I Recall, That’s the Spirit

 

I hope someday you reach that point in your life, as I have, when you recognize Christmas doesn’t march up to you like a balloon-festooned Fifth Avenue parade anymore, one whose colors, sounds and corporate sponsorships you can see from blocks away. Nor does it sneak up on you on little mouse feet in the snow. Christmas has become like old age to me now. One day I’m humming along to the rustle of life’s green leaves, all the while ignoring the gifts of my black hair, firm chin and memory like a 100-terabyte computer. The next blink, I’m shaving silver filings off the lower chin of some barely recognizable guy in the mirror. And suddenly I hear (and need to turn up the volume on) a song I think might be called “Silver Bells.” And that’s OK, because the tree downstairs today is always green, and somewhere inside me a little kid is coiled in bed — quiet as the whispers of angels’ wings — for that sunrise when I can charge into the living room in an explosion of torn paper and cardboard before we three brothers trek to church and back. These days, Christmas just IS. And, should you reach my tinsel-topped, Santa-in-training-bodied and memory-leaking station in life, you might recognize it doesn’t need to come at you but once a year. You can charge into it every sunrise, tearing open the gift of that new day and giving it to all you meet. If I recall, that’s the spirit!

A mid-December rambling. Now back to our regular programming.

In Voce Completa

When I was in my teens, I’d walk home
from my best friend Tom’s house at night,
whistling my way through his good Neighborhood
and then into one which was losing a bit
of its neighborliness — my ‘Hood.
Sometimes, if it was late enough, I’d swivel
my head to see who might be on the street and,
if I discerned my sojourn suitably solitary,
I’d break into song, solo, in sotto voce.
I thought I sounded pretty good in my
circular role as vocalist and audience, though
I could never replicate this level
of musical expression to an audience.

Maybe I was kidding myself, as kids are wont to do,
but even today I find it interesting how great
I sound in the car warbling in mezzo voce
to the vast audience of commuters around me
as the radio bathes my soul in music.
To tell you the truth, since this confession’s
already gone on as long as a Grateful Dead set,
I’ll even break into song while I have
the lawn tractor roaring beneath me. But still,
I can’t sing for you, except like this,
in this full-throttle expression of my soul.
Maybe not full-throated, but quite unafraid.

I’ll bet you think you sound pretty good, too. Don’t ask me to dance, though. That was my Mom’s gig.