A Matter of Honor

They think I don’t hear them, but I do. Or at least I hear the hum of their talk with words bobbing up every now and then.

It certainly bests the sound of breathing, the crackle of my neck turning left and right on the cot, or the heartbeat that longs to feel hers, just to make some poetry that probably doesn’t rhyme anymore.

But out in the hallway, I’m pretty sure the guards are talking about me. I hear “bastard.” And maybe that was a “poor,” which I’d appreciate if this wasn’t the eve of the dawn we’ve been waiting for. Or dreading.

There! I’m pretty sure that was a “governor,” but it just as well could have been a “southerner,” or a “lovin’ her.” They all could apply to me. Though I’m not sure Yankees understand family and honor like we do.

I probably deserve the dance I’ll do when the sun clears the horizon. Eye for an eye and all. Carpetbaggin’ sumbitch deserved every last ball I put in him. Wish’d I had Daddy’s LeMat to wipe the grin off his face with a shotgun blast, too.

But some Yankee’s probably got that, too. Took everything, eventually, didn’t they? Saber, gun, horses, farm, Mama’s honor, my…

I heard the lock clank.

“All right, I’m afraid it’s time. Ya know, I’d have shot that scoundrel, too, Missy. If it’s any consolation. I take no solace in hangin’ a twelve year old girl,” the glossy-eyed, red-nosed sergeant said.

When there are no more of their culturally established defenders around, some women grow up fast to protect themselves and their own. Especially in a mid-19th Century rural society. This 250-word story reflects such a young woman doing what she decided needed to be done in a family whose men were erased by war. It’s in response to that first sentence up there, the prompt for this week’s Thursday Threads feature from author Siobhan Muir.

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.

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. 

Spatter of Memories, Fusillade of Regrets

Caleb Downey heard the sound and turned to see Edwin Howard’s head flung backwards and his body sag to drape the ground like a sack of rags. He felt the spatter of Ed’s memories on his face.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Caleb said, knowing the men to either side of him in the Union line couldn’t hear him. Just like they never heard the .50 caliber slugs from Rebel Enfields come fetch them to Jesus. Wide-eyed, Caleb skittered back from the makeshift breastwork of a rotten hickory as more Reb bullets chopped it to tinder, let alone kindling.

“Where’re you going, Downey?” he heard Captain Mayfield yell, the flat of his sword spanking Caleb like his Pa would with a switch back in Indiana. “You get back to your position and hold this line with your squad.”

“Cap’n, I ain’t got no more squad. The last of ‘em, ‘cept for me, just lost the top of his head not three feet from my own.”

“You mean…”

“Yessir. All dead.”

“…you completely abandoned that position?”

“Only of the living, sir.”

“You get back up there and hold that post while I find some men to fill in the line.”

“I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

“What? Think of what you’re fighting for, boy. Think of the Union, Indiana, think of your family,” Mayfield said.

“I am. The feller to my right was my cousin Edwin. On the left was my brother, Charles. They never signed up for this, neither,” Caleb said.

Wrote this 250-word mini-story in response to the prompt of using the phrase “I didn’t sign up for this,” for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads feature. Thanks, Siobhan and judge Silver James. Now, on to tomorrow. Another chance to climb into my desk chair and attempt staying there.

Act of Contrition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made a silent Act of Contrition to one.

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

Crumbs

Photo by Jody McKinney

Becky loved her brother, Ben, but hated how he’d chase guys off from dating her.

“He’s not good for you, Becks. You deserve so much better,” he’d say.

So Becky would look for solace in the kitchen, baking — and eating — cookies and cakes that would drive Ben crazy with their seductive aroma.

“Oh, man, Becks, that smells incredible. Lemme have a piece,” Ben would say.

And Becky would slap his hand, replying, “It’s not ready yet. It needs time before I can make it pretty.”

“But, Becks, it’s pretty enough now.”

“Sorry. And Coach Babbitt will pitch a fit if you can’t make weight this week. Besides, it’s not good for you,” Becky would remind her wrestler brother.

After a match, he’d burst through the door looking for whatever Becky had made. “Did you leave anything for me?” he’d always say. But, inevitably, he’d find Becky had finished most, if not all, of her creation.

In April, Becky started seeing Art Linski. He was looking for some of Becky’s delights, too. Just not the baked kind.

“No, Art, I’m just not ready,” she said.

But Art wasn’t to be denied and violently took what he could.

In an alley the next night, Art Linski looked up with his one good eye at Ben Stenson, and whined through swollen, bloody lips, “I’m sorry. Please, please, no more.”

Then Art heard a girl’s voice from the shadows. “Thanks, Ben. Did you leave anything for me?”

“Just a crumb, babe,” Ben said.

A super-quick flash story in response to this week’s Thursday’s Threads friendly competition on novelist Siobhan Muir’s website.  The story was prompted by, and must include, the phrase, “Did you leave anything for me?” I’d say not too bad a first draft batter of words. Fluffy, bittersweet and ready for a little more to make it pretty.

Before It’s Too Late

Father, mother, and brother Bill,
first love, some others, none named Jill,
upon my life’s way walk unfulfilled,
following me over another hill.

Old friend, best friend, only one,
I said “See ya, I gotta run.”
Next call I got was from his son,
so now my list of friends is none.

In every case, including romance,
we parted in some macabre danse.
When I look back it is askance.
You see, I never got that chance.

What chance you say? I thought you’d know,
at least by now in my tale of woe.
But in stringing rhymes I ain’t no Poe,
just a sad old poet name of Joe.

All these regrets have made me cry.
It’s too late, see, after they die.
But if you should go first, or I,
let me at least wish YOU goodbye.

Sorry, I threw some slant rhymes and extra beats here and there into this piece. But this poem came to me because recently I’ve had a closer brush with my own mortality than I cared to brush. It’s a small part of my relative absence (compared to the Prolific Joe you know) from this space for the past several months. I never got the chance to wish these people I loved goodbye before we parted, one way or another. Just my youngest brother. So I decided to get ahead of the possibilities, just in case one of us trips on a rainbow, so to speak.