Wall of Scars

I got this scar,
the one you can’t see,
when the wall
around my heart
cracked and fell.
Trust me, the wall,
the crack, the debris
and even the heart
exist in there.
I got this scar,
along with the dent
in my forehead,
when I ignored
the wall that jumped
in my path while
I pondered my heart
and damage we did.
I got this scar,
the one running
down this page,
a shadow running
from behind my
new wall I built
not to lock me
away from you,
nor you from me.
No, to keep my
heart to myself.

Up in the Air

Her foot slipped and she started to fall.

Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board.  She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.

I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill.  In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay.  But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless.  Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.

The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water.  She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me.  As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder.  I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.

The girl – she was probably eighteen or nineteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.

“Oh, you scared me.  I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.

“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.”  I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.

“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair.  At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.

“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.

“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said.  “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death.  And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”

“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine.  Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped.  Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.

“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula.  The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.

“Can I get you something?  For the dizziness, I mean.  A bottle of water maybe?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes.  Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water.  I know I have at least that much in my ears.”  Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.

“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair.  “Well, that’s one of ‘em.  But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”

Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought.  I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.

“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.

“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there.  I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”

“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”

“No, I don’t like fireworks.  They make me real nervous.  That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board.  Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash.  I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”

“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said.  “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this.  Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”

“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.

“Mom thought so, too.  But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end.  Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me.  Other times…”

I shrugged.  “I still have a thing about heights.  You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes.  That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year.  My junior year – that’s of college, Paula.  And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself.  Won’t fly.  Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”

“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things.  With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise.  I just can’t take the booming.  You should see me during thunderstorms.  I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”

More chiming giggles.

“You’re very nice,” she said.  “Thanks.  Are you here by yourself, too?”

“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”

“Oh, the boomers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk.  That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”

“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise?  Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”

Paula frowned for a second.  Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.

“How are you going to manage that?” she said.

“Um, well, I have an idea.  C’mon, what do you say?”

Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True.  She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.

“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice.  Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky.  They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”

“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”

“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”

“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”

I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.

“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.

“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.

Paula giggled again.

I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.

“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”

“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.

“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.

“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”

“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”

“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”

“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”

“Sure,” I moaned.

“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”

“Yeah, lovely.”

“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”

Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.

She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.

“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”

“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”

She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”

For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”

I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.

Stall, William.

“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.

“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”

Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four others severely injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”

I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.

“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.

She twisted from my grasp.

“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”

What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.

I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.

More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.

I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.

The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.

Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.

And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.

“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.

I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.

I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.

I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.

“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”

I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.

And then I slipped and fell.

She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.

She was also right about it stinging like hell.

I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.

I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.

“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.

I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.

“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”

The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.

“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.

I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.

But never again.

Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.

“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”

I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.

A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.

Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet, as before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.

This shocked me. But just for a second.

Then I squeezed back.

So, I thought. Flying.

I found that first sentence somewhere and it intrigued me. The rest of the story just spread like the rings of ripples growing from someone hitting the water from sixteen feet above the surface.  

On Grafton Lake

“What’s her name?” Matt asked, smiling his practiced interested smile, yet dreading the answer.

“Does it really matter?” Andi said, her eyes losing focus on his as she gazed through her ever-rosy haze her new lover’s perfection in her mind’s eye.

“No, not really,” escaped around Matt’s smiling shield, the one he had built and buttressed since Andi and he were twelve. That was the day they walked into the woods above his parent’s place on Grafton Lake—Andi and her parents were visiting for the weekend from home in Albany—and Andi kissed him full on the mouth.

“I think I’m in love with you, Matthew,” young Andrea Mezaluna said after pulling her lips away from Matt Harkin’s beet-red face. And then she stuck them right back as if he was a powerful magnet and she a piece of hot steel.

Matt’s hazy pre-teen confusion over Andi’s surprise and surprisingly abrupt pronouncement of her heart’s desire eventually burned off, like morning fog of the lake’s surface, by Sunday afternoon. Their hand-holding and long walks had not gone unnoticed by both sets of parents, who thought it was borderline inevitable, since the two had been playmates, fast friends and classmates since kindergarten.

Before the Mezaluna’s said goodbye to the Harkins for the remaining two weeks of their summer vacation, Matt and Andi walked to the spot where they first kissed. Sitting close, her head on his shoulder, they one last time took in this view of the lake, boats sailing or motoring by on its surface, framed by the pines, maples and birches, and the azure sky flocked with clouds that would gather into a thunderstorm later that evening.

No longer confused nor embarrassed, Matt took Andi’s face in his hands and kissed her as clumsily passionate as a twelve-year-old boy could muster and then said, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you…”

“Andrea! Time for us to go,” Mrs. Mezaluna called from below.

“…Andrea,” Matt finished. He wasn’t sure if she recognized the significance of the fact he never called her Andrea.

Andi gave him one more kiss, hard, hugging him so close he could feel her heart beat. Or maybe it was an echo of his, he was never sure.

When they walked hand-in-hand out of the woods, the Mezaluna’s were saying their thank you’s and goodbyes to the Harkins from within their car, waiting for their daughter before they’d head for home.

Andi turned toward Matt, hugged him close one more time, kissing him on the cheek and whispering, “Please hurry home, Matt. I don’t think I can stand waiting two whole weeks until I see you again.”

And then she was gone.

When the Harkins returned to their Albany home that Labor Day weekend Sunday, the Mezalunas popped over from next door to invite them to a barbecue in their yard. That’s where Matt saw Andi holding hands with Richie Bischoff, who was thirteen hoping on fourteen, and he got a new understanding for what Andi Mezaluna meant when she said she couldn’t stand waiting two weeks for him.

That was Matt’s first inkling that for Andi, falling in love — which he later felt was her falling into obsession — was what she loved most.

“So she’s The One?” he said in her ear over the din of bar.

“Oh, yes. And she’s crazy about me,” she said, her eyes as shiny and earnest as they always were when her heart was ablaze with a new love.

Reflexively, the corners of Matt’s mouth bowed up, as he recalled all the times she’d run to him with that same expression he fell in love with in sixth grade, flashing that same spark he saw above Grafton Lake that melted his heart, yet ever since then burning down his hopes with it.

He never thought to tell her the truth each time she’d run to him like a little girl excitedly showing a new doll to her best friend. Because he recognized that her best friend was who he was.

He couldn’t bear losing her smiling face, the intimate warmth of how she’d whisper to him, bringing to flaming life any embers of his remaining hope, even knowing they’d burn his heart to ash once more.

This was the procedure she followed throughout high school and into college, where she discovered her attraction to dolls was more than just to the American Girls that still lined her bedroom, but to real American girls, along with one Pakistani and a girl she met in Montreal. Then there’d come the hockey player from Watertown.

Matt had tossed his heart at his share of dolls, too, one even Andi had even dated for a couple of weeks. But none of them worked out in the long term. They would give him either the “It’s not you, Matt, it’s me,” speech, or just realizing they couldn’t connect with a guy who had but one carefully tooled connection.

“So, tell me about this mystery woman, Andrea,” he said, that contented smile on his face, drawing close enough to feel her warm breath against his cheek one more time, feeding more fuel to the torch he’d compulsively raise in these dark moments, just to ensure he’d be able to share the only intimacy he ever would with the love of his life.

“Oh, Mattie, I love you,” Andi said with her bubbly laugh, hugging him so close he felt her heart beat just as perhaps she could have felt his heart, breaking, one more time. And it was the moment two twelve-year olds shared above an upstate New York lake and a hope Matt would always have that would glue it back together until the next time Andi fell in love.

On Day 27 of my story-a-day in May quest, I was challenged to write a story of a non-traditional love. I’ve written about men having an intense bond with their dogs, their jobs, the land, you name it, I’ve written a story or poem about that love. But a poem I wrote during April’s Poem-a-day challenge inspired this tale of a love that probably will never come to fruition in a traditional sense, but is as intensely felt by its principals as any. Just not in the same way.

And Crown Thy Good…

At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.

After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.

“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.

Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”

“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….

“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.

“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.

“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where
the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.

“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass  Great White (absentee) Father over the years.

“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.

“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.

A poor pass at my Day 24 effort for Story-A-Day May. The prompt was to write a “Sonnet Story,” one with 14 sentences and carried the sonnet structure, save for no rhyming or anything like that. Just twelve sentences of any length, with or without rhyme or meter. I don’t think I hit the mark of a Petrarchan nor Shakespearean sonnet, but at least it’s written and the data is absolutely correct…and shameful. 

To Dream, Perchance to Sleep

I don’t dream.

But tonight, I bolted upright and shouted “No,” drenched in sweat, heart pounding, shaking like I had fever chills. I had a nightmare and I couldn’t remember a thing about it.

My wife, Cody, popped up, too, frightened by my reaction to my hazy nightmare. She switched on the bedside light.

“What is it, Rich? Are you all right?” Cody said, placing a shaking hand on my arm.

“I think so. I don’t know what happened. I think it was a dream, I guess a nightmare,” I said, still pumped and confused.

“What was it about?”

“I don’t know. I honestly can’t remember.”

“Will you be all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be okay. I’m gonna go get a glass go water and calm down. You go back to sleep. I’ll be back in a little while,” told Cody.

“Okay, Rich. You sure you’re all right?”

“Yep, fine. Get some sleep, okay?”

Cody turned out the light, rolled over and pulled the covers back atop her shoulders. I headed to the kitchen, grabbed a drink and ran the faucet on a dish towel, wrung out the cold water and put it over my eyes after I parked myself in my desk chair.

What had scared me so much? Did it really matter now?

I wasn’t fearless in the blank darkness of the hood it places over me, of its smothering dark hand. Darkness had always been my friend, my forever bedmate.

Always, the dreamless monster steals my night, robbing me of sense and senses, sending me to stagger through another day hating the Sun for dropping from its apogee, a golden chanticleer crowing the dawn of another dread sundown.

My every-night nightmare had become a killer of men, of knowledge, of thought. It hid in the darkness of my slumber, the destroyer of light, color, joy. It had come to affect my work as a writer. I’d come up dry on my last two manuscript attempts. Publishers don’t like contracted novelists who don’t provide them books to sell. I hated what I’d become, too.

This nightmare is a dreamless night that tears at the dreams of my day. I pulled the compress and stared into the darkness, wondering why I even bother to close my eyes anymore.

Each evening I climb under the covers, fluff my pillows, kiss Cody good night and lay my head on the pillows in hope for what everyone else slept like. Instead, I blink once and night becomes day.

My weak flesh craved to have its raveled sleeve mended, even knowing my true nightmare monster of dreamlessness rips away the threads, stealing all my hope of a healing night’s sleep. It had driven me mad, no doubt.

And here tonight I had a dream, one so vivid, frightening me so much that it woke me in a state of breathless terror. And I couldn’t remember it. A fruitless fright, another empty night.

So I decided to kill off my dreamless monster by killing off the sleeper. No great loss. What good is a writer who cannot dream? It would be my ultimate creation. An anti-creation.

I sat and wrote it all out for myself, for you, a 600-word bit of flash fiction——or non-fiction, I couldn’t tell anymore——of a man finally achieving his dream. I started to write my note to Cody. But I stopped when I realized she’d left me a year ago. She couldn’t take my depression, my walking-dead wandering through life, my violent outbursts because I didn’t understand awake, asleep or in between.

Then I took all the pills.

Here it is, my first and final dream, a lyrical piece of sweet release. My good night after all.

Day 14’s effort in my Story-a-Day quest through May. Today’s prompt, from novelist Maria Hazen Lewis, was devilishly simple, but gave me fits. Here it is: 

I had a nightmare last night. I woke up and started writing….

What the River Says, That Is What I Say

A deer walks across the Hudson River north of the 112th Street Bridge near Cohoes

On that Sunday afternoon, Ashley and Sam strolled along the riverside walkway. It was he first day above freezing in a week and the Hudson stretched like a white highway of ice from Cohoes to Poughkeepsie.

“I bet you could skate all the way downriver for maybe a hundred miles on this stuff. It’s gotta be at least a foot or more thick,” Ashley said.

“Yeah, that’d be pretty cool. If you knew how to skate. You’d either punk out by Rensselaer or break your ankle in the first hundred yards,” Sam said.

“I was just thinking out loud, Sam. That’s all.”

“Why do you do that?” Sam asked.

“What?”

“Think out loud. Do you believe people really want to hear what another person thinks?”

“I…I don’t know. I was just talking to myself, I guess. Sorry if it disturbs you so much,” Ashley said, as looked out toward the river and saw nothing, but heard the voices again.

“It doesn’t disturb me, it’s just annoying sometimes. ‘Oh, Sam, wouldn’t it be great if we could skate downriver? Oh, Sam, it’d be wonderful to go back in time and see what it was like here three hundred years ago. Oh, Sam, I hope our grandchildren will have a safer world to live in then we do now.’ You’re always dreaming, Ashley. Time to wake up and see the world for what it is, cold and heartless and only too willing to stomp you into dust. Can’t you see that no one cares what anybody else thinks in this world? That’s real life, Ashley. Not your little dream world,” Sam said.

“You believe that? That the world is such a dark place? That we’re all our own little islands, all alone against everything else conspiring against us?”

“I’d say that’s pretty damn close to how it is. At least they one I see every day,” Sam said.

“Not everyone is a cop and sees people at their most vulnerable, most desperate, most…”

“Violent? Animalistic? Evil? I’m out there every day protecting the sheep from the wolves and the wolves from the sheep, Ash. That’s the real world. Not the bubbles and seashells and angels you think it is.”

“Why do you do that?” Ashley said.

“Do what? Clue you in to the truth of the way of the world? How it really is survival of the fittest and we should keep our own counsel or have it thrown back in our faces?”

“That and always put down anything I have to say as being naive or stupid. I have a right to speak my mind same as you do. And you always do,” Ashley said, her voicing rising and beginning to quiver.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sam said.

“I guess it means that you think you always know more than anyone else and that their opinions, their feelings, don’t matter to you.”

“Are you gonna start this again? Look Ashley, all I mean to say is that you’ve lived a sheltered life, girls’ school, private college, teacher working in your old grammar school. You’ve practically never left the womb. I can respect your decisions. That’s just who you are, a quiet, gentle, kinda naive angel who I love and want to protect from this jungle. But you’ve gotta open your eyes and poke your head out the cloister sometimes. It’s mean out here and you need to get a thicker skin, like that river ice,” Sam said as he put his ands on her shoulders.

“Cold and hard, eh? You don’t think I’ve got a tough shell?” Ashley said, pulling away.

“Now don’t be getting all emotional. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,”

Ashley turned and started walking back upriver toward the parking lot of the river walk.

“C’mon, Ash, its been a tough week for me. I had to go into too many dark places full of dark beasts. Eddie Barnes got shot and I got my ass chewed by my watch commander because I was doing my job two blocks away when it happened. Like I’m supposed to be everywhere, maybe even to take a bullet for someone else. I should’ve kept my mouth shut,” Sam said.

“You mean be hard like that river ice?”

“Maybe, yeah.”

“Not tell me that you’re hurting so I can understand and not just think you’re angry at me because I become the target of your anger?”

“Aw, c’mon, you know I’d never…”

“I think we need some time off, Sam. Maybe it’s time you sat back and thought about what’s going on inside of you and how it affects everyone else you come in contact with, especially me,” Ashley said over her shoulder.

“Have I hurt you? No. I just…I don’t know maybe blow off steam and you’re close to me when I do it.”

“Then I won’t be so close maybe,” she said, picking up her pace.

Sam rushed to her side and took her shoulder, spinning her to face him.

“Are you breaking up with me?” he said.

“Break up? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting harder, like that ice, a thicker skin. Isn’t that what you said I needed?”

“I was just…”

“Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt me, that I don’t feel or I’m not moved to anger or tears, or the joy I feel when you’re merely nice to me. If I’m quiet on the outside it doesn’t mean I can’t be a tiger or a landslide or a bomb on the inside. Some things are best kept on the inside, just so they don’t hurt others, even if they might hurt me. And sometimes, just like your angry pronouncements, they find their way out of me.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean, Ashley?” Sam said.

“It means, just like that river out there, underneath this gentle shell that you’ve calloused and scarred, I’m moving, thinking, loving, hating, understanding, confused, but always moving. Not standing there like some frozen little statue for you to curse or cuddle at your whim. Underneath, I’m moving. All the time.”

She pulled away and dialed her girlfriend, Jen.

“I’m ready now,” she said, as Sue’s car pulled from a parking slot in the lot ahead and pulled up by the beginning of the river walk.

“Ashley, c’mon. Don’t be like this. I’m sorry. I just didn’t understand. Not if you don’t tell me,” Sam half-shouted at her back as she reached for Jen’s car door.

“I did, Sam. But all you ever think to see of me and everyone else is the outside shell and never think that there’s a river running all the time just beneath it,” Ashley said to the cold wind blowing off the ice. The ice she would always dream of skating on for a hundred miles as the river ran with her.

For Day 12 of my May Story-a-Day challenge I responded to a prompt from writer and editor Elise Howard, who asked me to select a poem that resonates with me, and let it inspire me as you write my next short story! If you’ve read my work for any length of time, you’ll remember how my favorite poet is William Stafford and how among my favorites of his is “Ask Me.” With little time and no energy, I sat down and rapped out this piece with that subtle yet more-beneath-the-surface poem in mind. Here’s, that poem:

Ask Me by William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Long Time Between

 

I’d felt nerves in her presence before, but I was just a kid then and she was the nonpareil, the Mt. Everest, the Hope Diamond of my nascent horn-doggedness, if not feelings of love.

I’m sure it was such fear, coupled with that raging hormonal confusion of mine that broke the lines of communication between us. Garbled communication—the staticky two-way expression of thought and opinion—and one or both parties can say to themselves “He’s/she’s not interested” or “What a douche/bitch,” and break off before the climax of their story.

Take “climax” as you will. I took it rather poorly, no matter which definition you prefer using. And on I fell to the denouement. No reviews. No sequel.

One day we went from best chums, the next to inseparable and huggy boy/girl combo to “I love you, but…” to incommunicado one-time acquaintance to “I don’t want to see you anymore” to silence of the grave. Not even crickets. A desert of emotion with no winds to temper the heat nor provide the merest of soundtracks. Only the sound of one broken heart strumming a shuffle beat of the blues.

So here I was, in this little restaurant not too far from the last place I saw her, waiting to meet Melanie. I say I saw her because she deftly avoid making eye contact with me. Maybe she forgot what I looked like. Or maybe she was embarrassed about something else. I saw nothing to be embarrassed about. I was the left waving at the air, my joyful expression at running into an old friend falling like a red-faced avalanche into the figurative pants around my ankles.

It hurt. It hurt worse than the day she told me goodbye. Worse than the years of not knowing what I’d done, if anything, to cause such a rift.

And then came the messages out of the blue from someone on Facebook calling themselves Lainie the Cat whose profile pic was a gray and black tabby. Cryptic things, gauzy innuendo and allusion to some forgotten connection that even I, the now-sensitive emotion-spilling writer, couldn’t fathom. I’d received messages and friend requests like this before from people——perhaps they were women, I’m pretty sure they weren’t cats——who were would turn out to be trolls trying to fracture my testicles. I’d learned my lesson and it only cost me these two scars.

But making, or just as importantly, re-establishing such connections was what God, Zuckerburg or God in the guise of Zuckerberg, made Facebook for.

I know I shouldn’t have, my shrink, my songwriting partner and my bartender all warning I shouldn’t, but I ended up responding to this hazy Nigerian diplomat of the heart.

No reply. I should have listened to that baritone Greek chorus.

Months go by and up pops another mysterious message that poked awake my curiosity, but jangled alarm bells from my balding head to my arthritic knees, as well.

I was back in full confusion mode, a place I hadn’t inhabited since my last days as friends with Melanie. I had an inkling by now, but didn’t want to know, just to go. I’d even stopped listening to old favorite bands because they reminded me too much of her. I stopped writing anything that could even have been informed by our erstwhile relationship.

The next time, she flat out identified herself as Melanie. I would have liked to have said “my Melanie,” but that ship had sailed, gotten scuttled and sank to the stygian bottom of some uncharted ocean.

So this ghost ship of a woman begins with small talk to which I was even shyer than clumsy younger me. But I was ever the alloy with the melting point of chocolate Easter bunny for her. I couldn’t help myself, even after all these years and all my experiences. There are just some people who vibrate at the same frequency you do, you dial in, connect and whoever has the stronger signal calls what station you’ll listen to.

I listened to hers.

“Let’s meet up somewhere to talk about old times,” she wrote, for I refused to hear her voice on the phone.

“I don’t know, Melanie,” I replied. “Don’t you think we’ve gone our separate ways, taken new paths, broken new bones, bled out a few times, for a good reason?”

“I just think we should clear the air about what happened between us,” she said.

“We can’t do that here? I’m a fair expresser of ideas and emotion—and much younger and taller—in black and white,” I said.

“Okay. I just thought you’d like it if we saw each other, even if it was one last time, just to talk. I’d like to see you and talk to you.”

“Okay, you win. Again. You’re right. The late in the game, I guess I should swap out my wimpy tighty whities for a sturdy pair of boxers.”

“Or, better yet, go commando. LOL”

She always knew how to push my buttons.

And so I sit here, waiting for she who set me on my path to easy access to emotions and a fragile heart. I owed her for that. Owe her for some hit songs I wrote, too. Like Harlan Howard said, “I’m always collecting emotions for future reference.” And I guess she owed me an explanation. Though I wasn’t holding my breath for one. Melanie was never one to shift blame, but wasn’t known for taking any either.

I was lost in thought, as is my usual state of being, when I felt the tap on my shoulder, to which I jerked and spun my head around to see who broke my self-absorbed concentration.

The woman looked familiar, like a faded old photo of your grandmother looks when you pull it out of your late Mom’s shoebox. But the puffy cheeks, sallow skin and hat covering her baldness rang more alarm bells than lit light bulbs above my head.

“Jay?” she said in a voice raspier than the one I heard telling me to beat it forty years before.

“Melanie?” I said, quickly rising from my seat, bumping the table and spilling what was left of my glass of bubbling courage. “Shit, some things never change do they?”

As I reached for some napkins to mop up what little beer left in the glass I’d spilled, she reached for me and gave me a gentle hug. It felt the same temperature of the spilled beer.

“Please, sit. I ca’t tell you how great it is to…”

“See me? Please. The look on your face when you turned… Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t,” I said. “It was a very good idea.”

The waitress interrupted us to finish cleaning up my mess and asked if she could get me another and anything for the lady.

“Yeah, please, another IPA would be great. Melanie? I’m buying.”

“Oh, nothing for me, thank you. Haven’t had one in a while now. Doctor’s orders.”

The waitress slipped away and we each turned to look at the other, gauging the damages done by the years and whatever mileage we’d put on our bodies.

“Your hair, so silver. I wish I had it,” Melanie said with a laugh, touching her hat.

“Your laugh,” I said. “I wish I had it.”

“You always were a silver-tongued Yankee,” the Virgina-born woman across from me said. “So, tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine.”

“Oh, no. Your party and ladies first, always.”

“I’m not much of a lady anymore, Jay. Never really was. Please, indulge me, old friend,” she said.

“Okay. Still writing, though retired from the old gig after thirty years. Widowed. Three kids and four grandkids. I won’t bore you with the proud grandpa portfolio,” I said.

“Oh, please,” she said, genuinely interested.

“No, your tun. Indulge me this once.”

“Okay. Probably retired. Divorced. One daughter with one grand daughter. Long term relationship. I guess you can say widowed there. More than a few short-term relationships and affairs. Only one ever meant anything,” she said.

“Afraid I lost my head a couple of times sniffing trails other than the one to my door, too. Not too proud of it, but I’ll cop to it. Sorry, Melanie, go ahead.”

“Well, as you can…”

The waitress arrived with my ale and asked if we needed a few more minutes to order.

“Just a few. Thank you,” I said. “Now, as I can what, Mel?”

She sighed.

“As you can see, I’m not well. Liver. Alcoholic. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said. But I did.

“I’m in AA now. I know, too late to the fair. But I wanted to make things right in my life before… Well, before. And one of the twelve steps is to…”

“Make direct amends to all persons we’ve harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step 9. Yeah, I know,” I said.

“You’re a friend of Bill?” she asked, eying my IPA.

“No, just a close friend of a friend of Bill.”

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you. To explain why I chased you off all those years ago. I was a drunk and wanted to be with other drunks. And you scared me with your honest, naive, altarboy-next-door on a testosterone bender ways. So I cut you out of my life. But I never forgot how you tried to stay in touch, until I…”

“Yeah, but you’re here now and that’s what matters,” said and reached across the table to take her cool hand.

“Not for long, Jay. And that’s the other reason I wanted to see you. I wanted to see you and talk with you and feel you looking at me that way one more time before…”

“The salad arrives? They make a mean Caesar here, I understand. Look, I found out long ago all we really have is living right now. And right now we’re living three feet away from one another. At some point tonight and I hope for many nights ahead, we’ll be closer than that. No strings, just friend sitting with a friend. I’m too old to get all twitterpated over a woman again anyway.”

I waved the waitress down and said, “We’d like two Caesar salads to start off, please. And could you please take this back to the bar and get me a club soda with lime? I want a wet whistle and a sharp mind while I’m catching up with this lovely lady tonight.”

“At least,” Melanie said, and laughed that laugh that always reminded of the glass wind chimes on her front porch thirty-some years ago.

My much-too-long Day 7 story for Story-a-Day May. The prompt, from author Stuart Horwitz, was to think back to a time earlier in life, and a person from then with whom you’ve fallen out of touch. The writer was to turn himself and that person into characters and get them together and see what happens. How does it reflect on the protagonist’s journey? Well, this story kept on going. Good thing I tend to write poems of only around 100 words most days or you’d never visit anymore.