The Unblinking Moon at Dawn

Young woman looking at herself in the mirror
It was 5:45 AM, or so his old Honda’s notoriously inaccurate clock glowed, poking Ben to a more lucid wakefulness and the question of where the night had gone.

Even with the windows fogged from the warm breaths inside and the chill pre-dawn air outside, Ben could still make out Paula’s features by the light of the full moon hanging over the western horizon as they parked there at the overlook. Ben noticed how her face took on its own aura when she turned toward him in her sleep and the still-white moonlight caught something he hadn’t noticed before on her skin——an almost imperceptible dusting of fuzz.

For reasons even he didn’t understand, he found this discovery, and its prismatic phenomenon, both exciting and oddly disturbing, and he squirmed in his seat to more intimately examine this girl with whom he had been deeply, and apparently blindly intimate with since Friday night.

The sound of the squeaking leather driver’s seat stirred Paula from her slumber. As she turned toward Ben, she opened her eyes to find him staring closely at her face.

“Wha…? What are you doing?” she said as her eyes opened wide and heart raced as her first waking sight was Ben’s face not ten inches away, tilted to the right and staring with what felt like rapacious intent.

They both snapped into upright positions in their seats. Paula’s fear-startled eyes canting to a more severe expression.

“You scared the hell out of me. What’s your problem?” she said.

Ben, his own face grown red as if she’d caught him with her right hand, rather than red-handed, said, “Oh, um, I was…I mean, I just discovered…You have…I mean, in the moonlight, your face, your skin…um, stunning. I was transfixed by how beautiful you are.”

“Wow, thank you. Such fright and bullshit to wake to,” Paula said. The previously cream-in-a-saucer angelic tranquility of her face at rest had turned into a half-shattered mirror. One side serene, while its no-longer twin side clenched around a disbelieving eye.

“No, I’m serious. You’re just stunning. I couldn’t take my eyes off you.” Ben half-truthed.

“Ben, there’s no need to polish my ego and its connected parts. What were you staring at? What do you find so disturbing about my face that you wake me with this…this…inspection?” Paula said.

Ben turned and traced his finger around the leather-wrapped steering wheel, noting for the first time how its surface went from slick where his hands tended to grip it to soft in the spots he didn’t.

“Okay, but promise you won’t get mad. It only adds to my fascination with you.”

“What?” Paula said in a tone her English teacher mother would have called imperative more than interrogative.

“Your cheeks, your skin so soft and perfect, but…”

“But what?” Paula said, her hand flashing to cover her right cheek.

“Um, there’s a little bit of fuzz on them,” Ben replied.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Fuzz, super tiny hairs. I noticed it when the moonlight shined on your face. That’s all,” Ben said as he looked up at Paula’s face, though focused upon the area below her eyes.

“Are you telling me I have a hairy face?” Paula said, nearly shouting.

“No. No. I just noticed it because of the moonlight  and because I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You’re so….”

“Hairy? Like a guy hairy? Like I need a shave hairy?” Paula’s hand left her cheek and found an abrupt landing spot on Ben’s left cheek.

“No. Hell no. It’s just that I’m so fascinated by everything about you. Can’t get enough of you. You’re the most beautiful…”

“And hairy.”

“…girl I’ve ever met,” Ben said.

Through the car’s back window, sunrise cast its first rays on the couple, while the moon still hung in the western sky. The combined glows filled the car with a rainbow aura in which dust mites spun and tiny prisms of spit flew between Paula and Ben when she said, “Take me home now, Ben. I’m tired and want to go home. Now.”

“There. You see? I knew I should have lied and just said you’re so beautiful I couldn’t taker my eyes off you. Which is so true it almost hurts,” Ben said, still rubbing his cheek where Paula had left a rosy print of three fingers and her palm, almost magenta in the combined glow of the newly risen sun and tenacious evening moon.

“Home, please,” Paula said, only now with a catch in her throat. She turned her face away from Ben toward the window.

“Okay. I’m sorry if I offended you. Ben said. “It’s just that…” He stopped and gave a whisper of a gasp. In the morning glow, he saw the tiny blond hairs on Paula’s neck, running from the hairline of her stylishly cropped ‘do down into and beneath the collar of her blouse.

He saw her shoulders rise and fall rise and fall, rise and fall once he brought his focus back from that singular point to the whole girl.

“I’m sorry, Paula. Offending you is the last ting I wanted to do,” he said.

“Ben, please, before I get out and start walking,” she said and gave a slight snuffle.

Ben turned the key in the ignition and slowly pulled away from the spot where lovers gathered to share intimacy, lust and lies. Even lies of omission like the one Paula had wrapped in ego-stroking compliments the whole time she was with Ben that weekend.

She thought of telling him how, not once, had she appeared to notice, let alone mention, the extra lift in his left shoe, his tiny fingers, the way he snorted when he laughed, how his eyeglasses were so strong his eyes looked owl-like, almost twice their size to any observer, how his clothes were straight out of Miami Vice or how his manly bravado was cover for his true feelings of inferiority to other men.

No, she wouldn’t say anything until she quickly opened the car door and looked down on him like the moon at morning, when the lies she silently told in the night were stripped away and truth hurt like staring into the morning sun. She would only say “Good-bye” and “Thank you.” The she’d walk into her house, ascend to her bedroom slam the door behind her and sit to gaze at her newest imperfections in her make-up mirror for the better part of an hour.

It added one more to the list she chronicled each day that began with her too-close set eyes, how they were a muddy brown color she hid under blue contact lenses, how one side of her face was fatter than the other (something her mother noted when Paula was twelve), how weak her chin was, how one ear sat higher than the other, how large that freckle was above her lip, how her teeth still didn’t seem straight enough, how blatantly that tiny scar at the top of her left cheek stood out  framed by all that hair she could now clearly see under the make-up mirror’s circle of lights. Lights that stared flat, unblinking and stark upon her, like the Ben did and so, too, the face of the accusing moon at dawn.

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First draft of a story based on this photo prompt from Annie Fuller I used for my poem A Handshake of Penumbral Equilibrium.  My thanks to Annie for the little shove back into my chair.

The Flicker of Better Angels

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Needless to say, they didn’t knock.

“Stay where you are. On your knees with your hands on your head,” the biggest one said.

“This is my home. What are you doing? What do you want?” I said as two more pushed me to the floor.

“You know exactly what we’re after, man. Where are they?” the big one said towering over me, his knee bumping my left eye.

“Where are who? Why are you doing this?” I said, wincing as his two partners wrenched my shoulders. I knew who they were and what they were after.

“The books, man. Where are the goddamn books? Our informant ID’d you as a subversive and told us you had a fucking library here. Hundreds, she said. Now where are they?”

It came to this as I’d predicted after He Who Shall Not Be Named was elected our leader and then turned everything over, spilling our constitutional rights onto the floor and, in essence, burning them. We no longer could peacefully gather to discuss, let alone debate, the state of affairs in which our land now found itself. Besides, you never knew who of the people you talked with might be one of their informants.

Within just a few months of taking power, HWSNBN ordered all news organizations to cease operations except for his sycophantic bootlicks at the renamed Supreme Network. He also shuttered all newspapers, except for The Truth and Our Democracy, now our two national newspapers. He had his cyber-cops monitoring all online interaction, again causing fear, anger and doubt among the half of the citizenry who voted for the other side. The First Amendment—-marketed by the government as The Worst Amendment, a true threat to national security—was stricken from the Constitution by ell-armed executive order. And everyone just watched.

Next came book banning, kowtowing to the conservative religious zealots instrumental in getting the Supreme Commander elected. That part was easy, just emptying Libraries, bookstores and even schools of everything from Huckleberry Finn to To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Seuss to, of course, Fahrenheit 451.

With the precedent set, the government decided to remove other sources of education, entertainment and enlightenment from the public. Anything not given an imprimatur by HWSNBN was taken from the owner and destroyed.

I was a teacher, a writer of children’s books teaching youngsters to respect one another, always keep an open mind about someone and not base our opinions on the way they look, speak or pray. Yeah, I was one of their subversives.
“One more time, man. Where are you hiding the books?” the big one hissed in my ear, spritzing it with spit when he pronounced the evil word. The click of his pistol hammer cocking into place may have been the loudest sound I ever heard.

“They’re gone, all gone,” I said.

“You lyin’ son of a bitch. I’m counting to three and you better come clean or I’ll blow your faggot brains all over your nice baby blue carpet. Guys, who in their right mind would have a baby blue carpet in their place?” He laughed the laugh of someone who knew not of freedoms other than his now-inalienable rights to bully, beat and burn.

“I gave some away and destroyed the rest,” I said, half-expecting the next sound I heard, a blast, to be my last.

“Search this place, Lou. Who’d you give ‘em to, author?” He stretched that last word out like it was a vile taffy.

“The school libraries in Beekmantown and Green Island. They had so little to offer their kids and…”

He swung the barrel of his pistol against my cheek, I saw a flash and down I went. But I was till alive.

“You want any more of that, you’ll stop bullshitting us and tell us where they are. The next time I pull the trigger.”

“I’m telling you the truth. Then other books, my collection of histories and classics, I destroyed them with the dignity they deserved. Instead of the brutish methods you…”

The pistol swung again, but a roar accompanied the flash this time. But again I was till alive. I reeled in pain and disorientation from the discharge by my ear as the bullet destroyed the glass door in the empty bookcase across the room my wife gave me on our last anniversary.

“Last chance, asshole. Next time, right in your ear,” the big one said, and I was fairly sure he meant it. I could see that from the barely contained manic anger in his piglike eyes peering from above the black mask covering the lower half of his face.

“There’s nothing in the basement, attic or shed out back,” the one called Lou said as he reentered what was until a fortnight before my study.
“I’m not lying,” I said above the pounding ring in my right ear. They’re all gone.”

“Computer. Where’s your goddamn computer, faggot,” the big one shouted into my left ear.

“One of your colleagues visited me last week and confiscated it at the behest of your informant across the street. The one who used to spend her days listening to talk radio and watching me from behind her curtains,” I said, preparing for the next blow.

“Is that so… You got any other devices you can use to spread your subversive lies with, writer boy?” the one called Lou asked.

“No, your people are quite…thorough.” I had five manuscripts on that computer and another two on my old iPad, which now were chewed up bits of plastic, glass and magnetic inspiration in some government scrap pile.

The one holding me down released his grip and I once again fell to the floor.

“All right, Andrews, we’ll be leaving now. But recognize this is only a warning. We’re keeping you under surveillance on the regular. If you so much as shit we’ll know what color. You get me? I shoulda taken that shot when I had the chance. You elites sicken me,” the big one said, giving me one more punch in the head.

And then they were gone.

That night, after cleaning up the mess as best I could, the blood would always be a reminder of that day, I went to the basement and made sure the curtains were shut tightly. With my penlight, I found the drain in the floor and unscrewed its cover.

Reaching into the pipe, I snagged the hook in the wire from which I’d suspended the plastic bag and pulled it up into the tiny circle of light. My Kindle hadn’t been dislodged in the search. I removed it from the bag and carried up into my darkened study, where I had digitized my library and transferred all my books to this glorious instrument.

I thumbed through the virtual pages and found the volume I was searching. I tapped it open and selected the words from March, 1861 and read them as I had many nights since the election and division of our nation. They gave me hope, as they will so many of us, even those who merely watched while all this happened. Your words once again inspired me:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The next morning the big guy broke in again, kicked open my bedroom door and saw my Kindle on the nightstand. You don’t really hear the shot, do you, Mr. Lincoln?

Some people don’t have better angels. Some maybe don’t have angels at all.

This story was inspired by the quote from Mary Oliver I used for the previously posted poem. This first draft came in a rush and I can’t say it’s my usual theme (if I even have one it would never be politics), but here it came and here it is.

The Oak, the Man and the Mighty Weed

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Even the regal oak,
the mightiest tree
in this forest,
can be felled
by a man,
if he has enough friends or
he’s resolute or arrogant enough
to keep hacking away
until the erstwhile acorn
cries out in its wrenching
death song and,
like its

autumn

leaf,

drops.

But the simple weed
bent by wind,
starved for food and water,
cut off at its knees,
pulled from its home,
even poisoned, still
manages to come back
to stand up to
he who can best
the majestic oak,
vexing Man until
he might drop
like the

autumn

leaf.

Be the weed.

A bit of verse that reminds us to always question authority, always stand up for your rights, always, as the Quakers say, speak truth to power. As individuals or group, we have more dominion and strength than you might think.

Enough Rope

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All my life, I’ve braided
my feelings of confusion and
confusion of feelings into
ropes long enough to hang me.
Each line from which I
counterbalanced better judgment
inevitably tangled around me,
sometimes only tripping me, spilling
my dignity ass over teakettle,
like my shoelaces were tied together.
Others, it hurled me avalanche-like
into the crowd, where I hurt others.
Almost always, the rope tightened,
snaking around me, squeezing light
and life from me, giving me
little choice but to cut it,
dropping me into a thin heap
of compassion, tenderness, love,
pity and sorrow. Scarred by
shattered notions, suspicions,
beliefs and guesses, I limped away,
certain I’d soon begin gathering
new fibers of feelings, blindly
tying different knots of confusion,
seeking another out-of-reach limb
over which to toss my new rope.
I’ve always known how to fashion
such strong, dangerous lines.
I just never figured out why I do.

 

Under the Big Top

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Marjorie Detweiller heard the clowns’ raucous approach before they burst through the trailer door in a cascade of noise and laughter like they were falling out of a tiny car, arms full of six packs and Doritos.

The other girls who lived with Marjorie had been with the Scorzelli Family Circus for at least a year. Marjorie was a First of May, new to the circus life, having signed on with the troupe only one month before. During that time she’d worked the ticket booth, hawked as a candy butcher, and had just been given a chance to stand still and look pretty in a hand-me-down sparkly costume during the finale.

She heard her bunkmate Cody whisper, “It’s Augie,” and the bubbly, boozy girl talk hushed.

“Hello, girls, can we play through?” Riley Lajoie, a golfer character clown, said.

The other clowns hooted and moaned. Big Jack Scorzelli, leader of the clown crew and the circus owner’s son, slugged Riley on the shoulder.

“Nothing like living your gimmick, Riles. Next thing, you’ll be wearing your face all the time like Augie here,” he said.

Marjorie couldn’t help noticing Augie stiffen, as did the other clowns. She noticed almost everything she could about him, and she wasn’t sure why. In her short time with the show, she had never seen Augie not wearing his makeup. He played the part of the Auguste clown in the crew, the trickster and instigator, the larger than larger-than-life bad boy.

Other than during the show, though, Marjorie never saw Augie display such behavior. When he wasn’t eating at the lunch wagon or dressing with the others in Clown Alley, Augie kept to himself, reading or keeping to his own trailer. Some thought him aloof at worst, eccentric at best. And it was hard to stand out as eccentric in the circus. But the other clowns loved him.
Cody noticed Marjorie staring at Augie.

“You know, Augie Pinto’s not his real name. Riley told me Augie made it up from his character and from the nickname Jack’s father gave him six years ago when he appeared at the door looking for a job and a way out of Indiana.”

“Indiana?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think he went off the reservation like you did after that Rummysprinkle…”

“Rumspringa.”

“After that Rumspinga thing you Amish kids…”

“Mennonite, Plain People, Cody.”

“…Mennonite kids do. If your folks could see you now. Do you think they’d allow bedazzled fishnets with your dark dress and bonnet, Margie?”

“Ha, well, we wear plain clothes, but not that bonnet stuff. However, I’m sure they wouldn’t allow me to hang with a bad influence like you, either, Cody.”

Marjorie looked over at Augie again.

“Why is he like that, do you think?” she said. Augie stood apart from his partners, taking a pull from a bottle of Bud and staring around the trailer at nothing.

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s hiding out, running from the law. Maybe he killed his parents, fed them to the hogs on the farm back in Podunkville, and now he’s repenting by making people laugh,” Cody said.

“And who cares? I saw Riley working out with the aerialists the other day and let’s just say he’s got more than a putter in his bag.”

“Cody!” Marjorie said. “You are so bad. Stop, he’ll hear you.”

“I hope so. What about you? You want to get to know one of these guys any better?”

“Well…you know.”

“You’re a big girl now, Margie. High time to spread those…wings.” Cody laughed.

“I’ll be okay, Cody. You go enjoy yourself.”

“Mingle, honey, mingle.” Cody wiggled her fingers and flipped her hands in a shooing motion. Cody was right, Marjorie thought, taking a deep breath and walking over by the beer cooler and Augie.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Margie. Thanks for coming by tonight.”

“Uh, hello. You’re welcome. I know who you are. New girl. Riles was talking about you as much as he was Cody all day. He kept saying, ‘How am I gonna get Cody away from that little holy roller roommate of hers?'” Augie said.

“Oh.” Marjorie said with a blink.

“From the looks of things over there,” Augie nodded at Riley and Cody, “that really wasn’t anything he needed to worry about.”

Augie turned for the door.

“Please don’t leave. I’m glad you could come. I was hoping you would.” Marjorie said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I just feel… I don’t know. I was hoping you could come and I could just talk with you.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, really. I’ve wanted to meet you.”

“Is that why the guys wanted me to come over here tonight?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Riley and Cody…”

“I really should go…”

“Please don’t,” Marjorie said.

“Okay, but can we go outside? I don’t like crowds. Funny for an entertainer to say, but….”
Augie and Marjorie slid past the milling zanies, flyers, and wire-walking fumnambulists and stepped out into the darkness. Most of the other trailers were dark, their owners either sleeping or looking for someone with whom to sleep.

Moths swirling around the bare light above the trailer door drove Augie and Marjorie further into the dark.

“This is better,” Augie said. But he didn’t look at Marjorie when he said it, instead looking toward her left. “What would you like to talk about?”

“I don’t know. Stuff. What’s it going to be like when we really hit the road? The big swing through the rest of the country for the rest of the year?”

“Tiring, boring, lonely, sometimes painful, every now and then broken up by bright lights and the terror that people won’t like you. Your act, I mean.”

“That doesn’t sound as appealing as I thought it would, but I like it so far. If it’s so bad, why do you keep doing it?” Marjorie asked.

“Eh, it’s what I do or what I’ve become. Not many options for me in the straight world.”

“Why? You wanted by the law?” Marjorie giggled and tried to look Augie in the eyes, to let him see she was kidding.

Augie turned his face toward Marjorie, but looked down at his feet.

“Those rumors start among you First of Mays already? No, I’m not running from the law. What’re you running from?”

“I’m not running. I’m just trying to find … me, I guess.” Now Marjorie turned to shoe gazing.

“With a circus? Maybe you’ve noticed, nothing around here is real, except the tawdriness, the hard work, the ennui, and the smell.”

“Tawdry? Ennui? You know, for a clown, you use pretty big words. Have you been to Clown College or something?”

For the first time that evening, Augie grinned. Or at least Marjorie thought he grinned. It was hard to tell in the dim light and when he had a perpetual smile painted on his face.

“No, no college, clown or otherwise. Like I said, there’s a lot of down time between shows, the travel and all. I’ve read a lot. Picked up words like I picked up gags from other zanies.”

“They all really respect you, don’t they?”

“I guess so. It’s a team thing and we’re all in it together. I’m kind of out front, but if one guys fucks…I mean one guy screws up…sorry, we all could end up looking bad. I never want to let them down and they know it. I’ll never let them down. They’re my family.”

“Do you have a family, a real family? Wife? Brothers or sisters? Mother?”

“No,” Augie snapped. “No I don’t.”

“Oh, okay. I do, but I decided to leave them back in Kentucky. Mom, Dad and my brother, I mean.”

“You running from the law?” Augie said.

Marjorie was sure he grinned this time. In fact, he looked directly at her, then quickly shifted his attention ever-so-slightly over her left shoulder toward the trailer again. She wondered what he was looking for.

“No, not hardly. I come from a Mennonite family. God’s law is what we do. Very well. Most of us. Can we sit down over there?” she said. She pointed to a couple of folding chairs just outside the edge of the semicircle of light in front of her trailer.

“I guess, so,” Augie said.

Marjorie pulled the chair on the left closer to Augie’s. Now they were closer to eye-to-eye. Augie fidgeted under her benign scrutiny, but this time didn’t seem like he was looking for an exit. He leaned toward Marjorie and then pulled back.

“Look, Marjorie, you’re very nice. I’ve enjoyed talking to you, but I think I’d better get back to my RV and maybe you should get talking to some of the boys in there. You’ve turned a couple of heads in the last month.”

“Speaking of turning heads, Augie Pinto, I think I better let you know you may be turning mine.”

“What? Look, Margie, you don’t know what you’re saying. How many beers did that little twist Cody give you?”

“I’m not used to being so bold,” Marjorie said. “I wasn’t brought up that way.”

“What way were you brought up?”

“To not do this.” Marjorie pulled Augie’s face to hers and kissed him. Augie tried pulling away, but didn’t. He kissed back. Then he stood up and backed into the light.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” Augie said.

“Done what? Which of us are you talking about?”

“Ahh, who am I kidding? I’m not used kissing or being being kissed by a woman.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry. You’re not…”

“Gay? No. Just have trouble with people, especially women.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know if that’s any of your business, Miss Marjorie.”

“You’re a fabulous performer. From what I can see through that silly makeup, you’re a good looking man. Your peers respect you. I think you’re…”

“I think you should go back to the party.”

Augie took Marjorie’s arm and led her back toward the door. Marjorie wanted to pull away, but she just looked up at Augie. Where she had held his face was a smeared handprint. She had wiped some of his makeup away. It was then she saw the purple skin.

“Augie, what’s that on your face?”

Augie reached up and covered his right cheek.

“Nothing, just get inside.”

“No, I don’t want to be with them. Right now, I want to be with you. Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong. Look, you really don’t want to know. It’s one of those things I don’t let people know.”

“It certainly can’t be that bad.”

“Maybe not to you right now, Marjorie, but to most other people it is and it is to me.”

“Hey, where have you two been?”

Riley Lajoie sat on the steps beneath the bare lightbulb outside the door of Margie and Cody’s trailer. His voice was full of anger and booze and something Margie wasn’t sure of but frightened her.

“You know what, Miss Prissy Britches, that roommate of yours is nothing but a friggin’ tease. Invites me over here and gets my motor humming and when I finally make the move, she tells me I’m drunk and disgusting and to get the hell out of her trailer,” he said.

“Well, from the looks of you, Riles, she was right,” Augie said. “Did you piss your pants?”

“Shut the fuck up, Chief Spotted Owl. This little tease know your big bad secret?”

“Get inside, Margie. I’ll take care of Riley. Thanks for the invitation and conversation.”

“That what you Amish girls call it?” Riley said. “I knew you’d screw up my night. C’mere.”

As Marjorie tried to slide by Riley and open the trailer door, he grabbed her by the hair, pulling her against his body.

“Ow, stop. You’re hurting me. Stop.” The fear in Marjorie’s tone went beyond the fright of some drunk grabbing her and she suddenly began screaming, terrified.

“Why don’t you give ol’ Riles a little of that scrapple, hon…”

Riley never finished the sentence. No sound escaped his throat because a large left hand had clasped around it.

“Let her go, Riley,” Augie said, squeezing his hand around Riley’s neck.

As Marjorie pulled away, so did Riley. She pressed her back against the trailer door and continued screaming.

“Back off, man.” Riley wheezed. “I don’t give a shit who you are. I’m tired of these bitches playing me. You may not be getting any, but I’m gonna.”

Riley turned toward Marjorie, just as the trailer door opened a crack and hit her in the back, sending her sprawling. He reached for her again, but only managed one step before he was jerked back like he was attached to an acrobat’s safety line.

Augie held Riley with his left hand and punched him in the face with his right. He wouldn’t stop. As revelers poured out of the trailer the same way they had entered, they heard Augie say through clenched teeth, “No more, no more, no more.”

It took three men to pull Augie off Riley, whose bloody face was already swelling. Augie broke free and two more men, Ed Slezak, the catcher for the aerialists, and big Jack Scorzelli tackled him.

“Get that piece of shit off my lot,” Scorzelli yelled in the direction of Riley.

“I wunt doin’ nuf’n,” Riley said through bloody lips as a pair of clowns hauled him toward Clown Alley and all the other partiers decided to make themselves scarce.

“Cool off, Augie. Cool the fuck off,” Scorzelli hissed into his top clown’s ear.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Augie said. “How’s the girl?”

Marjorie had her head buried against Cody’s shoulder, still shaking and sobbing.

“I think she’ll be okay,” Cody said. “What did that perv do to her? She doesn’t need this shit.”

“He never got the chance,” Augie calmly said, as Slezak and Scorzelli helped him up but continued to hold him by his arms. “Sorry, boss, I lost it. Never happened before. Want me to clear out?”

“Circus fight, Augie. You been around long enough to see plenty of ‘em. We’ll see plenty more before we get back to Florida. You’ll still be my top hand then, too.”

Marjorie turned from Cody and said, “Thank you, Augie. I’m sorry I’m such a baby. He scared me so much and I…”

“It’s okay, Margie. I don’t think he’ll be bothering you girls for a while. And neither will I.” Augie turned toward his RV.

“Don’t leave!” Marjorie yelled and pulled away from Cody. “Please, I’m still feeling a little scared. What if he comes back?”

“He won’t be coming back,” Scorzelli said.

“It’s okay, Jack, I’ll stay here for a few minutes until Margie calms down a little. Okay, with you, Cody?”

“Sure, I’m tired and I’m pissed that none of those other clowns thought enough to be my hero when that drunk started trying to peel me like a banana right in front of the queso dip,” Cody said. “See you in a little while, okay, honey?”

“Yes, Cody, thank you,” Margie said.

Augie and Marjorie sat on the trailer steps in the dark. Cody had flipped off the outside light and was tossing empties into a bag inside.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong? Why don’t you share anything with anyone, other than your act? The boys know something, I’m sure, but they don’t tell anyone even when they’re drunk. Well, except for that creep Riley. I’ve felt a connection with you, Augie, from the first time I saw you. I don’t know what it is and it’s driving me crazy.”

“You’re obsessed with a dream, Margie. I’m not who or what you think I am. We all have secrets and some of us have big ones and want to keep them to ourselves. Now, I think you should go back into the trailer.”

“What if I tell you a secret? What if I tell you something no one around here but Cody knows? Tell you why I’m here, why Riley scared me so?”

“No…”

“I was … I was … when I was a little girl, someone…” Now Marjorie looked away. But she wouldn’t let go of Augie’s arm.

“Stop.”

“I was just a girl and he was, uh, a family friend.”

“Margie…”

“My parents didn’t believe me when I told them. But then he did it again and my father caught him.”

“Okay, please, enough. I’m you don’t have to do this.”

“It’s a closed little world in Marion, Kentucky, you know? Rumors like this get around. Things were never the same for me. When I got to senior high, it was almost a joke. Only nobody laughed. We all got smushed together in our little religious group. Except I wasn’t accepted with the Plain People or the other students. When I was 18, they sent a bunch of us out in the world to see if the life back home was what we wanted. I knew it wasn’t since I was 12.”

Marjorie began crying, leaning her head to Augie’s chest. Augie looked around and saw he couldn’t escape. Her arms around him reminded him of that trapped feeling he would often get.

“Marjorie, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me any more,” Augie said.

“I met a girl at the laundromat in Cincinnati who worked with the circus,” she said. “I wanted different from Marion, from the my people. I took the bus to Chillicothe and asked Mr. Scorzelli for a job. He said he didn’t want to hire me. But I was getting out on my terms. I followed you all to Florida last winter and asked again. I’m…persistent. And here we are, Augie. You and I. And I still feel something about you that I can’t explain,” she said.

Augie bent down and held Marjorie’s hand. For the first time, he looked into her eyes.

“Okay, okay, I get it. I…I understand. Really, I do,” he said. “It’s just that… Look, we clowns are a divisive lot. No one is ambivalent about us. They either love us or they’re unnerved by us. Then there are the freak chicks who just want to boff JoJo. And that’s a sick and unfortunate fact of our lives.”

“I’m not one of those women, Augie. You heard the story. I would never force myself on someone,” Marjorie said.

Augie took a deep breath.

“Okay, here’s a secret for you. I’ve never been with a woman. How’s that euphemism for the average adult American male to use? And now you know my makeup does more than just make me a zany. You know I’ve got a secret under this paint.”

“Everybody’s got secrets, Augie, you told me that,” Marjorie said.

“Yeah, I did. Now you know that I was born with a pretty nasty port wine stain covering my right eye and cheek. That’s a tough thing for a kid to grow up with. By the time I got to junior high, I began losing pigment on other parts of my skin. Including a spot on the left side of my face.”

“Un-hmm,”

“You know how mean teenagers can be. So can a mom who has too many kids from too many boyfriends. Her last guy made my classmates seem like angels. When he wasn’t belting my mom, he was smacking me, and then he’d wash his hands for fear that he might catch something off my face. It certainly wasn’t out of guilt.”

“Oh, Augie, I’m so…”

“I left home and tried to find a job where people wouldn’t look at me like a freak. So I went where the freaks are. I was a pretty good athlete, a gymnast in school, so I saw old man Scorzelli’s signs and wandered over to the midway. Told them I was a budding aerialist. The old man said, ‘Not with that mug you ain’t, pinto pony’.”

“How mean!” Marjorie said.

“Heard worse before that. Anyway, here we are. I’m Augie Pinto now. Top zany with a shit-heel circus wandering the country. I’m happy being a clown in a family of clowns. And I’m lonely and that’s just how it is.”

“Can we just talk for a little while longer, Augie? I promise not to be so … clingy.”

“All right,” he sighed. Their conversation went on for another hour. Once, Augie even laughed.
When Marjorie went into the trailer for more beer, Augie was waiting for her when she came back out. This made her smile.

Later that night, holding Augie, feeling so safe in his trailer, made Marjorie happier. She would tell him it was really her brother who did it some other day.

That same night Augie had the dream again. It was the dream where a woman whose face he can’t see is sitting on the edge of his bed in a dark room.

She reaches out to touch his cheek and he turns away, just as he’s done in all the other dreams. The woman shifts around on the bed so the light shining past the edge of the not-quite-shut hallway door illuminates her face.

Augie looks up to see her and that’s when he always wakes up. Other times he’s gasped, or cried out, bolting upright or flat-out jumped out of bed with his heart pounding. Tonight, though, he hugged Marjorie closer.

It’s this woman’s face. In the dream, he thinks he knows her, but her face is hidden behind all that makeup. The pasty, powdered face. The high-arched brows. The painted red lips. And then she reaches beneath his comforter and…

He always hated it when his mother came back alone from the bars.

Okay, so today, Day 9 of my September story-a-day challenge, I was supposed to write an Ugly Duckling plot. Well, like Cinderella from yesterday, I tried and failed three times. So I dredged up this l-o-o-o-n-g one, which might be an Ugly Duckling story if you squint and hold it sideways. I’ve always intended to include it in my first collection of stories, which has the working title of “…But Don’t Touch,” stories about men who are awkward, oblivious, fearful or indifferent to intimacy. Augie’s was to be one of my tentpole stories, but it needs a ton of revision and polish. Sigh…I hope someday these ducklings of mine will become swans.

Fixing the Fixer

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They say I was a fixer
who too often broke his share.
I left a trail of shattered
promises, mirrors, expectations,
dreams behind me. I’d ask
your forgiveness and permission
to attempt to repair them.
But they never go back
to their original condition.
And for that, you turn from me,
lash out at me, ignore me,
hate me, maybe even secretly
wish I could fix myself.
But this fixer’s lost so many
of his pieces over these years.
Left behind or misplaced memories,
bonds, friendships, loves,
feelings and sensations
none of which I could rebuild
as they once were. Maybe that’s
why my gimpy body now limps
in vain hope of bringing pieces
of us back together again. I know
it’s not my legs that are broken,
but this heart we shattered together.

Whispers on an April Morning Breeze

“What if the world is holding its breath —
waiting for you to take the place that only you can fill?”
David Whyte

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The standoff had not gone on for long, just after the sun began coming up over the meeting house, the far steeples of Boston and the ocean between us and who we wanted to be.

But the Regulars didn’t care if it was day or night. They could kill us with their eyes closed, if their commander, or we, let them.

A few hours before, most all of us were in the Buckman Publick House, drinking ale and rum, some smoking pipes. The rest of us, mostly lads like me, got our first real tastes of adult courage off the drink, the smoke and the rhetoric of our elders that night.

“Gentlemen, let there be no great fear of the regulars should they enter our town,” said Captain Parker, his own red coat hanging from the back of a chair. “We shall stand our ground and show them our resolve to hold onto what is rightly ours as lawful citizens of His Majesty,” he whispered and then coughed.

The Captain has the consumption, I’m told by Mother, his cousin, so all the smoke in the room from the hearth and the men’s pipes harmed his breathing quite sorely. That and his harsh coughs practically choked the great man, making him difficult to hear. So I edged up close to him. That seemed to make me feel braver. He’d fought for the Crown in the late war against the French and knew well the tactics and propensities of the Redcoat soldier. If he didn’t sound like he would die by next harvest, I would have had a run at Gage’s whole bloody army by myself.

At sunrise, Thaddeus Bowman, the last scout the Captain had sent out, come bursting into the tavern.

“They’re here, they’re here,” he said in a voice nearly as choked as Captain Parker’s, though not from the consumption. “They’re right behind me, Sir, and this time they are coming in force. Maybe three, four hundred of ‘em,” I heard him tell the Captain. I grabbed my Papa’s old fowler and headed for the door.

About half of us unknotted ourselves from the doorway and ran out into the front yard of the tavern. Everything had an eerie glow to it, ourselves included, from the combined moon’s and sun’s lights shining upon us. I took this as an omen of what lay ahead for us this day and said to my cousin Amos, “The Lord is with us, cuz. He most surely is. We have right on our side and will not be bullied from our own field by redcoated tavern scum.”

The fact that our whole company had spent the night in a tavern, many tasting its wares, and were blinking in the new day’s smoldering light, suddenly arose upon me and I’m sure my face took on a wholly different glow, the hue of a boiled lobster.

All eighty of us men and boys who had been in the tavern began to form ranks on the village common. It was a damned ragged line compared to the ones of the approaching Regulars. They looked like they had been formed buy some great carpenter’s square. We, while most resolute, took on the form of a snake-rail fence.

Over by the road, I could see my grandfather and sister out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look and wave a greeting, but our sergeant, William Munro, gave me a strike from his musket barrel and whispered hot blasphemy and spit in my red ear. But now Grandfather and Deliverance could see where I stood.

Captain Parker walked down our column and looked like Grandfather when he had to dispatch poor old Benedict, his sorrel, when the gelding’s time had come. This did knock all those mugs of my previous courage from my head past my heart and from there to my feet.

“Men, we shall stand our ground, but not provoke the Regulars. Most of our militias’ powder and supplies at Concord have already been safely hidden away,” Captain Parker said. “We’ve all seen the Regulars on such fishing expeditions before. Once they find nothing, they will march back to Boston and we can get back to our lives until the next time.”

Sergeant Munro stalked up and down our lines out there on the Common, truing us up into a more respectable looking force.

“We’re not here to block their advance to Concord, lads,” he said. “We’re just going to show them we shall not be cowed by their brutish arrogance. And to insure we do that to our best abilities, I want you, boy, to move to the rear of our lines. Or better yet, across the road to your family. You are at heart a coward. You have no character and don’t deserve to stand with these honorable men.”

Mister Munro never did have much truck with me. Not since he caught me talking to his daughter, Abigail, behind the Meeting House without an adult family member within arm’s length. He pushed me backwards with the butt of his musket, but I just lined up behind Prince, the Estabrooks’ towering Negro, where he stood in the back row.

Now that Sergeant Munro had squared us up, I could peer through the gaps between men and see the Redcoats approach, their leader riding a fine black.

The sun had climbed high enough for us to see the Regulars advancing on the road to Concord now. They marched as one, dully, with little life to their strides and less to those faces we could make out. They looked for all the world like they were marching in their sleep, their shoes and gaiters caked with drying mud. The only liveliness to this red mass on the road to Concord were their drumbeats, the clinking metal of their equipment and the glint of dawn light on their buttons and weapons.

I felt a chill beyond the normal cold of an April morning and shivered as I stood with Papa’s fowler in my hands. I’d loaded it yesterday with birdshot and a ball, reckoning, if need be, my aim was poor with the rifle ball, I’d at least get a piece of one of the Regulars like he was a pheasant. Instinctively, I pulled the hammer to half-cock. My knees shook and I knew not if it was a shiver from that chill or from something I didn’t wish to admit. Perhaps Munro was right after all. Maybe I was a coward.

But I held my ground. I would not let Munro or the Redcoats run me off. No more.

Just as the wind shifted into our faces, Captain Parker raised his short sword and his rasp wafted over us, saying something like, ”Stand your ground, men. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Or so Amos told me later.

I heard another click.

A murmur went through the men ahead of me. Out on the road, the column’s advance guard, rather than taking the left fork to Concord, turned to right and then toward us. I could hear the shouted orders run down their column. I saw the big black horse of their commander turn from the road, leading even more Regulars to the left, close enough for me to throw a rock and hit one. They now formed a solid wall of red before our motley line of farmers and tradesmen.

The officer on the black then rode forward, waving his sword, and called out for us disperse. On the breeze I heard him shout, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!”

More orders were yelled down the lines of Regulars. Men within our company began to look at one another, talking all at once. The line looked like it was a row of rye waving in that breeze in our faces.

I could see our Captain Parker say something. I could barely hear his voice, it was now so faint. He lowered his sword and pointed it to the ground. Many in the front line began to back away from the regulars, others stood in alert position as if waiting for someone to say something like an order, show them what to do beside stand as statues.

At the shout of “Poise firelocks,” the Redcoats brought their muskets, bayonets shining in threat at their muzzles, to a position upright in front of them. Most of our men stood stock still.

Next across from us we heard, “Cock firelocks,” and saw the mounted officer shouting at his men and waving his sword, as angry at them as at us. Our line held as Captain Parker shouted in his consumptive whisper.

The breeze died and suddenly the whole world went quiet as the grave. Neither side appeared like it was going to move and no one wanted to stay. Sergeant Munro had left his position at the left end of our first rank. He walked back from the killing ground between the lines and came trotting toward the road with a fearful look as he stared right past me. I, the coward who couldn’t stand like a man to request permission to speak with his daughter. I, the boy who he wished was standing on the other side of the Boston Road.

I took a deep breath and let it out. This impasse between us all would end today.

I touched off my fowler over his head and watched Munro drop to the ground as if he was a baby cowering from a thunderstorm. Or he thought himself dead. Almost instantly there came a roar of a different kind. Red coated men advanced like lions, growling and howling like wild beasts, some firing their muskets. All of them thrusting forward their bayonets.

Some of our men fell like empty grain sacks where they stood, huge holes in their heads and bodies. Others spun like tops, choking on blood and prayers.

We ran for the trees, over rock walls and newly blossoming shrubs. More fell around me. Behind me all I could see was a cloud of sulfurous smoke with glimpses of shadow men, some in pink coats, and shiny metal within. But I could hear the screams of men so unluckily slow as to taste the steel of Sheffield, and not on their tongues.

Ahead lie the road to Concord, along which I last hunted turkey. That day, April 19, 1775, I hunted my fellow man. That night, I wept, my head upon Mother’s lap, and then gathered my things and marched toward Boston.

No one ever again thought me a coward, even though I don’t believe I took another full breath for the next six years. Not at Breed’s, Quebec, Valcour, Saratoga nor any other of the horrible places I never spoke of to Abigail Munro, who became my wife and the mother of our eight children.

They never met their grandfather, but know he was there with their father the day the War for Independence began. That was the day his war ended and I began ours.

First draft of a short story based upon that quote at the top of the page. I wrote it this evening for Annie’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.