Listening to Alison

The meeting began as I always expected it would. Awkwardly. And with something akin to pain, though perhaps only because whatever it was attacking my nervous system made me wince like I’d closed a dresser drawer on my fingers.

I never expected such a meeting to occur, but here I was, sitting in a suburban Starbucks, not really hearing the bustle and hubbub clattering and whirring around me. I was more listening to the voices in my head. Mine and what I remembered of hers.

“Hello, Jason,” I heard a voice say. It sounded just like Alison, so I knew my memory might be getting better. Then this somewhat familiar looking woman walked from behind my chair into my daydream-shrunken field of vision and I knew the voice I thought I heard was actually the real thing. Though different.

“You’ve changed,” she said.

“Well, hello to you, too,” I said. She was always one to knock you back a bit, never letting you get too close, even in friendly conversation. I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to be one of those.

“No, I can see it in your eyes,” Alison said.

“Perhaps. No, you’re right. I’m sure I have,” I replied.

“You’ve aged, too.”

“No, I’ve gotten old. But that’s not the biggest change, now that I’ve thought about it. Oh, and I can see how you’ve changed, as well.” Touché.

Alison brought her hands to her hair, which had become wiry and gray, then to her hips, which she shimmied in exaggerated defense of an unspoken observation from me.

I rose from my seat and motioned her to the chair opposite me where I’d placed my jacket to hold her spot for whatever it was she wanted to tell me.

Inevitably, such resurfacing into my humdrum life was never a good thing. Not that it didn’t make the world a little more exciting. As I said, I always kept those old memories. But Alison usually only surfaced to make me feel badly, which I guess made her feel better for a spell by comparison.

“I got you a coffee,” I said, pushing the cardboard cup next to mine toward her. “I’m not sure how you take it these days, so I left it black. But it’s still hot as hell. I can attest to that.”

“Oh, thanks. I’ll be right back after I put in some sugar and half and half,” she said. And once again she lit off for something to temper and sweeten her here and now.

Alison was right, though. I’d changed in my old age. I was thicker around the middle, had an extra chin, silver hair with a sunroof and wasn’t so ostensibly cocksure and snarky as I had been when last we met.

Now that I looked at her, though, all of her, I saw her changes even more clearly. She looked shorter. I wasn’t sure if that was age or the illusion created by her widened hips and the weight she’d put on elsewhere. I’m sure my old 5’10” must’ve looked about 5’3” by now. But I also noticed how her clothes looked baggy on her, too.

“Okay, now where’d we leave off?” Alison said as she woke me from another reverie with the squeak of her chair and the wobble of the little table.

“We hadn’t yet. Nothing to leave off from. First, how are you? Are you doing okay?” I always worried about her, even when she cold-cocked, cock-blocked and outright shocked me over the years.

“Oh, I guess things are the same as always. Fucking miserable,” she said. There was a tone of defeat in her voice I’d not heard before. “What about you?”

“Probably the same, only with some new physical ailments that you earn along with your Social Security benefits. Perhaps some day you’ll earn your own.

“Oh, I hope so. Though I’ve got more than I can handle now.”

Even if I tried hard as I might, I couldn’t help but allow my feelings for her to ask.

“What do you mean? Are you all right? Oh, I’m sorry. None of my goddamn business.”

“No, no. It’s okay. A lump here and a bump there and if they cut ‘em out and start the chemo in time, which I hope they did, you get most of you your health and hair back. Only neither of them as shiny as they were before.”

“Jesus, Alison, I’m sorry. Are you doing okay now?”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m looking to leave a legacy for when I go, whenever it is I go. Something that my kids and whoever else wants to can read and learn about life and the roads some of us have taken, I’ve taken, to all ultimately get to the same place,” she said as she rolled the coffee cup between her hands as if trying to warm them.

“And you want me to…”

“Write it? Yeah, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ve started it but it just sounds like whining to a damn therapist. Clinical, accusatory and bitchy. And you’ve always had that way with words. So, maybe, I thought I could ask if you’d…”

“Edit it? Or ghost it for you? Aw, I don’t know. I’ve never done any memoir or biography or anything close to that, except for obits I wrote in my early days,” I said.

“I’ll bet you were really good at them, too,” Alison said, as I saw her eyes brightening for the first time tonight. Or was it in twenty years?

I was, but this was not the assignment I ever wanted either. I knew this was going to be the ultimate obituary for someone I once cared for. And she knew it.

“Let’s slow down a minute and talk about this, Alison.”

“I don’t know if I have a minute, Jason. I get the latest test results back Friday.”

“So what are you telling me? You believe your cancer’s back and you have a short time to live?” I said, leaning forward and tilting the table her way with a bump.

“Basically, yes. I know how my body works, how it feels. And I know it doesn’t feel, oh…let’s say doesn’t feel right.” she said.

“Jesus Christ. Sure. You know I’d do most anything if you asked me to help. Do you want me to come to your place, wherever that is, or what?” I said, my voice getting a little louder than it probably should. Even in a semi-crowded Starbucks.

“No! I don’t want you coming over to my place. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call, either. Here,” she said, and pulled two USB drives from her bag, as well as some pages ripped out of a spiral bound notebook. She pushed the pile across the table to me.

“Pretty confident in yourself, I see. You figured I’d never say no, even after all those times you used me as you sounding board, your chew toy, the target for your anger at everyone else,” I said, because it had to be said.

“No. I was hoping, because hope’s all I might have left. And because I trust you. You never told anyone about any of the things I told you, even though we’d have those blowups. Now I want you to,” she said.

That was true. Even after she’d scalded me so many times, knocked me down like one of those blowup clowns with the sand weighing their bottoms. I’d pop back up when she’d call. I had the sleepless nights, the wrinkles, the choked-down guilt and anger to prove it.

She admitted to being a cheat long ago. But I’d come to realize she was a recidivist thief, too. Time and again, she stole my heart. But what else should I expect, always leaving it hanging out there for her like that? My question I always had been why she insisted on giving it back to me only to steal it again, each time returning it more busted than the last. I guess she was a vandal, too. And I was her abettor.

“Okay, I’ll do my best,” I said. And now I was aiding as well as abetting.

“Thank you, Jason. Thank you, my friend, my dear Jason,” Alison said, all the brightness leaving her eyes as she reached her once-soft hand across the table and touched my cheek. Even after rolling her cup, her hand felt so cold. And then she was gone.

I began listening to her recordings that night. A lot of the stories she’d told me or intimated years ago. Nothing about her shocked me anymore. I made some notes and went to bed but didn’t sleep very well. Not for the two weeks thereafter, as I worked on Alison’s memoir.

One night, as I was typing away, the phone rang and it was Alison’s number on the screen.

“Allie! I’m glad you called. I’ve been working away here and have a few…”

“Hi. Jason? This is Gregory, Alison’s son. Mom died this afternoon. Pancreatic cancer. She went fast and in the end we were all there and there was no pain. She just drifted away.”

“Oh, my God! No. This… I… I’m so sorry, Greg. I just have no words,” I choked out.

“Thank you. One of the last things she said while she was still with it was to make sure I called you when she was gone and say thank you for all you’ve done for her and what you’re doing now. Whatever that is,” Greg said, a little puzzlement in his voice.

“Just a little project she asked me to handle for her. I guess maybe she won’t need it now,” I said, mostly to myself. I really didn’t know what to do with her story now.

“There’s one more thing,” Greg said.

“Yeah?”

“She wanted me to tell you she loved you.”

“Oh…”

The next day I handed Greg the most beautiful obit I’d ever written. I left out the hurt, but left in the true. And I cried for three days and for three months and now  three years since then.

Each time I listen her voice again.

A desperate two hours spent trying to write a story. Here’s the first draft. In life, most of us only get a first draft, so try to make it better than what Hemingway allegedly called them. (Shit.) Or what this one probably is. But at least it’s written and that’s the best part. I guess my lesson is to never stop trying to do my best at writing, whether it be a story or my life.

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Huzzah for Private Hutchinson

In his patched and soot-stained tent, Colonel Elihu Leslie, his arm draped over his eyes, heard the single muffled drum outside in the twilight.

“Oh, Lord, already?” he said, for he knew what was about to occur. Colonel Leslie arose from his cot, bumping into his field desk where the letter to his wife lay. He pulled up his braces, buttoned on his tunic and stepped outside just as the seven soldiers and a lieutenant were about to march past. He raised his hand and the twenty-two-year-old lieutenant called “Halt!”

“Good morning, sir,” said the pink-cheeked lieutenant, who a year before had clerked at his father’s mercantile in Columbus, Georgia. “Firing party ready to execute your command, Sir.”

Colonel Leslie returned the young officer’s salute and looked at the single soldier, his arms bound and his hands tied in front of his waist, standing between the two files of soldiers with rifles. In the gathering light, Leslie could see the young soldier’s eyes darting right and left, his entire body shaking as if they were back in the snow at Fredericksburg last December.

With a look of pity in his eyes, Colonel Leslie approached the man.

“Soldier, you do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” Colonel Leslie said.

“‘Cause I left my sentry post two nights ago, sir? But nothing bad happened. No Yankees or spies came through. I just needed some coffee to shake off the cold and keep me awake, sir. We been marching for three days straight an’ I ain’t slept since…”

“None of us have, son. But your comrades all managed to stay awake.”

“Yessir. But do that mean I have to die? I been with this army since the bells rang in Atlanta calling us all to defend Georgia and the Confederate states. Why do I have to die this way, sir? I’m a decent soldier,” the condemned man said.

“Son we do this because we have to. Military discipline and all that. But I feel you’re missing the point of this procedure. You shouldn’t look at this as punishment, but as your sacred duty,” the Colonel said in a flat tone.

“Sir, I don’t rightly understand. How’s me gettin’ shot by my own boys line up with my duty?”

“Private, the execution of deserters, and you are by definition a deserter, has been a tenet of strong military discipline since the time of Joshua, the time of the great Assyrian kings, why even the great legions of Rome knew that skirting their assigned duties was punishable by death,” the Colonel said, his voice rising and a crowd of soldiers beginning to mill around the firing party.

“Sir, I don’t know about no Legions from Rome, just a couple of fellers from elsewhere in Floyd County. The Benteen brothers. And I still don’t think I should be shot,” the soldier said.

Leslie bowed his head and smoothed his mustache with his fingers. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then put his hand on the condemned soldier’s shoulder.

“I see your point son, but let me explain some more about what you’ll be accomplishing today. You will not be dying because you left your post, leaving a section of our line without guard. No, you will be going to our Creator as a sign of your fealty to our Cause, protecting your home and family, since all these men here you’ll be leaving behind will see your demise and understand that such a fate awaits them, should they desert their comrades. That is a noble thing, son,” Leslie said.

“Really, sir?” the soldier said, his shoulders straightening and their shaking subsiding.

“Brave soldier, you will be laying down your life for your comrades, as much as if you fell with them in battle. Your name will be spoken of as the impetus of their never shirking their orders, never challenging the authority of their officers, nay, never giving an inch in retreat unless so ordered. Son, if I could, I would give you a medal for this brave act you’re about to commit,” Leslie said as he placed his hand on the soldier’s now-steady shoulder.

“I think I understand now, sir. I’m gonna die so my friends will be better soldiers, makin’ them better able to protect our state and country from the Yankee invaders.”

“Exactly, Private, Private, uh…”

“Hutchinson, sir. Ezra Hutch…”

“Private Hutchinson. Young warrior, I cannot salute you, but allow me to shake your hand, wish you Godspeed and send you on your way to obey your final orders,” the Colonel said.

“Yessir. Thank you, sir,” Hutchinson said, his bound hands clutching the Colonel’s hand. He squared his shoulders and stared straight ahead.

“Let’s get this over with, boys,” he said.

“Firing party, shoulder arms. Forward march,” the Lieutenant ordered. The small group marched down the remaining row of tents and through a treeline to a field outside of camp. About a hundred other soldiers who had witnessed Leslie and Hutchinson’s exchange followed in ranks as if marching on parade.

Leslie watched them until the last soldier disappeared behind the trees, then he reentered his tent and stared at the letter to his wife he had almost finished. He dipped his pen into his inkwell and scratched out a final sentence and signed it, “Your loving and devoted husband, Elihu.”

He unholstered the Navy Colt he had used during his days on the prairie with the 2nd US Cavalry before the war and sat on his cot. He thought of all the men he had ordered into the hail of steel and lead at battles for the past year and a half. Thought of his son, killed at Chancellorsville, who had thrilled at the chance to serve with his father, leading other young Georgians in battle against the Federals. He recalled his brother Josiah falling at his side at Gettysburg. He remembered a few of the faces and names, but the rest had become a blur, and that vexed him sorely for the past three weeks.

Leslie heard the volley of six Enfield rifles crack through the trees. There followed the cheers of one hundred men who had witnessed Private Ezra Hutchinson’s passing into the oblivion of a bastardized heroism of the Colonel’s own devise.

As the cheers echoed and faded, he carried out the last of the executions he’d ordered for that day, in that camp, in a war he never wanted to fight. In light of all his decisions, he knew his joining Private Hutchinson in honorable dishonor was an order he could never disobey.

Man, this was a long time coming. First draft, but it gives me a feeling of accomplishment I didn’t think I’d feel for some time. In any revision, I’m not sure if it would get bigger into a more full short story or pruned down into official flash fiction (1000 words or less) territory. I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve written us a story that feels like something different…and that’s a good thing. Be safe out there, erstwhile CSA friends!

Never Again

I often find it fitting,
on the day after my birthday,
that the skies are gray,
gray enough to match my mood.
It’s not that I lament
yet another year passed
of what ever-dwindling,
shabby grab-bag few circles
the fates have left for me
like pieces of day-old cake.
No, I’ll admit preferring
the dark clouds, even rain,
so the heavens would not
remind me even more of the sky
I marveled at on that day-after.
It just seems more apropos
to shroud the sky, since the sight
of that endless September
Carolina Blue hue will forever
be shattered in my memory
by streamers of smoke,
ghastly blasts of flame and
sights I’d prefer to recall in
a dimmer light, but will full-lit.
And whenever on this date I lament
my piddling old aches and regrets,
I yank my head out of those clouds
and give thanks for whatever light
by which I see this day-after,
when others will not. And so many
never will again. Never again.

Just because.

Be Well, Dear Heart

If I had the sun and moon
as flashlights to plumb the depth
of our well of sorrows,
would you be able to see its bottom?
And if I had a line as long
as all the ones I’ve written
put together, could we reach it?
Why would we want to, though?
There’s nothing there but
choking sadness, such that
even if we stood on the bones
covering its floor, neither the dead
nor the living could hear us call.

So I think it’s time we climbed
above our despairing memories,
not hiding them, but keeping them
near as reminders of what love,
even unspoken, looks like.
We could try to fill that space
of sunken dreams with all that love
we shared with the lost.
So be well, dear heart, look to
your right, left, ahead and behind.
We’re together in this, and not
so alone as you think.

Sunrise on Beargrass Creek

“Been staring into that dark so long now everything’s moving. When’s sunup?” Cleve Bentley said, turning away from the clearing east of Beargrass Creek.

“S’posed to be a while ago,” said his partner, Israel Keene.

“Then where’s the sun?” Cleve said

“Damned if I know, but keep watching that tree line. Shawnee’ll be coming first light.”

“If there is any. That old hag Ben killed said we’d never see sunrise. She was just tryin’ to scare us, right?”

“She was’,” Israel said.

“Well, Ben sure ain’t gonna see it. I turned around and he was gone.”

“They probably saw the old lady’s hair on his belt and knew he was the one killed her. I’d’a killed him, too.”

“Israel, something is happening out there,” Cleve said.

“Damn, maybe they ain’t waiting.”

“I see one!”

“Settle down. I’ll move around and…”

But Cleve’s rifle flared and spit a slug at the approaching form.

“I got him,” Cleve shouted. “Gotta make sure he’s dead.”

”Wait!” Israel said, but Cleve had already crept away to where he thought he saw someone seconds before.

“Oh Christ! It’s Ben. I gone and killed…” Cleve said just before arrows pierced his ribs.

“Cleve?” Israel whispered. Two bodies lay outlined in something like a promise of day as the moon’s shadow began edging away from the sun.

A Shawnee man also emerged from the new shadows, ensuring his grandmother’s predictions — of an eclipse and the white mens’ fate — with a blow from his warclub.

Sunrise finally had come.

Here’s a 250-word flash fiction piece I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s weekly Thursday Threads feature. I felt the need to do a new story from my old genre, frontier and western.  Had to use the phrase “something is happening.” So I envisioned this scene in 1770s Kentucky. It needs a hell of a lot more character depth, setting description and, oh I don’t know, a plot? But I wrote it, which is a big deal for me these days.

Feathers in the Grass

Whenever feathers lying in the grass I spy
they remind me of my dwindling days.
For all too soon I too could fall and die
and how would you know I passed though this maze?
Each quill is the scar of a leaving behind,
the remnant of some bird’s flying away.
And when I find one I hope Life may be so kind
that you might find mine when I fly one day.
So I leave these feathers of a heart taken wing
and a soul that never found a nest.
They’re dipped in black and songs they sing,
so you might know my soul’s finally at rest.

I said goodbye to my oldest and best friend today. And on top of everything else going on in my little life, it’s left me shattered. But it reminded me that anyone’s time could come in the next week, day, hour, or minute. And in those seconds, however many we’re gifted, I hope we can leave something behind (doesn’t have to be a silly poem) for our friends to remember us. Maybe just to let them know in some way you loved them. BTW, love you. 

Photo © Joseph Hesch, 2017

The Spider

Slept here, watched here,
leapt here, fed here
in the window of this house
we’ve built for one another.
As you scurry past my watchtower,
solitary, I’ve seen your
comings and goings,
your joys and sorrows,
your yesterdays, todays
and hoped-for tomorrows.
With every turn, you rip away
a corner of this Web I’ve stretched
to sense the quickening
and ceasing pulses of things
I can’t see with my many eyes.
Once torn, I spin a new yarn
to memorialize your passing.
But the foundation has failed
and our house is falling, blowing me
away upon its final exhalation.
I am suspended in air without wings
and the great descent it comes.
For this moment, though, I see
all our lives spread beneath me,
the ever solitary spider…
And never have I felt so alone.