Category Archives: Jack Bates

Closed Doors on the Cul de Sac

Sunday evening. No kids on the street. Few lawn mowers buzzing in neighboring yards; got to start the week manicured. Grills cool. Moms sneak out onto the deck for a glass of wine and a cigarette. Dads go downstairs into their caves and put on the game, open a beer, doze. Idyllic lives.
+++++And then the scream.
+++++Jessica drops her cigarette. Watches it slip through the gaps in the boards. She sits very still.
+++++“This is over!”
+++++Jessica knows the man’s voice. It’s Bobby Rhadigan. Big guy. Former jock who plays like he still is. Keeps his edge by teaching world history to ninth graders. Coaches football. He and Allison just had their first baby. A little girl. Sheryl Ann.
+++++“We are no longer involved with any of you!”
+++++Allison screams. Begs Bobby to stop. Begs him to be quiet. Begs him to go inside. She promises him it’ll stop. She promises him she’s through. She promises him.
+++++“Shut your whorin’ mouth!”
+++++Bobby is pissed. Jessica twitches. So much raw power in him. His hand on her back as he walked around her at deck party almost launched her over the rail. Days later, alone with him, that power filled her.
+++++Jessica slips out of her reverie.
+++++Odd sounds. Smack. Uhnn. Hands striking flesh. Dazed response.
+++++Jessica wants to look. Wants to look. Wants.
+++++“Jesus, Bobby, stop it!”
+++++New voice. Jessica stays in her plastic Adirondack. Strains her ears.  It’s Mikey Prough. Lives in the house between Jessica’s and the Rhadigans. He’s telling Bobby to stop something.
+++++“Go to hell, Mikey.”
+++++Bobby tells Allison to go inside. Allison screams. Tells Bobby to stop hitting Mikey. Mikey yells for help. No one shows. Mikey curses his neighbors.
+++++“I’m warning all of you. This. Is. Over!”

+++++Quieter voices. Bobby tells Allison to get in the house.
+++++Jessica’s glass of wine trembles in her shaking hand. Two houses down Allison steps out on her deck. She hasn’t bothered to do more than smear the blood from her nose. It makes her mouth look like a child tried to apply lipstick. She lights a joint. Looks over at Jessica. Flips her off.
+++++Bobby steps out onto the deck. “Get your ass in here, Alli.” He looks around at Jessica just as Mikey and Kylie step out onto their deck. Kylie is trying to put a bag of ice on her husband’s eye.
+++++“Kylie, stop it.”
+++++“But your eye.”
+++++“It’s fine.”
+++++Kylie turns her wrath on Bobby. Throws the bag of ice at him. “It didn’t have to be like this.”
+++++“How else was it going to be, Kylie? The people on this court have a fucked up understanding of bedroom community.”
+++++“It was ending,” Kylie said.
+++++Bobby looks directly at Jessica. “Was it?”
+++++Jessica sits paralyzed by Bobby’s glare. Those dark, menacing eyes. Eyes she knows hides who he is when the neighbors aren’t around. Eyes that Brad doesn’t have.
+++++The screen door behind her slides open. Brad steps out with his own drink in hand. He stares at his neighbors then looks at his wife and asks. “So tonight’s off I take it?”
+++++The doors on the cul de sac close.
+++++At least for now.

Jake’s On A Plane

Jake’s on a plane and he’s heading into Palatka. He’s excited. Not about Palatka. Palatka is a humid and dusty spot not far from Florida’s armpit. Call it a mole on Florida’s chest. Call it whatever you wish. Jake’s on a plane and he’s headed for his college roommate’s wedding in Palatka. Florida.
+++++It’s been four years since Jake’s seen Dave. Four years since they tore it up in Mt. Pleasant. Four years since they graduated from Central Michigan University. Four years since that senior trip to Daytona where Dave met Maggie and he was gone, baby, gone. How could he not be? She wore the skimpiest of bikinis. Her skin was the color of a Thanksgiving Day turkey breast. And her tots were as big. Long black hair, deep brown eyes, and an ass he could curl up on like a cat on a pillow.
+++++Jake would know.
+++++Jake’s on a plane and he’s flying back into trouble.
+++++He doubted Maggie told Dave anything. Why would she tell Dave anything? It was just that one time. Two years ago. Hell, Dave and Maggie were barely an item. She lived in Ohio still finishing her studies towards a Master’s degree in reading. On her way to being a Highly Qualified Master Teacher with a national endorsement. Whatever the hell that was. Jake drove down with another buddy to go to the Michigan State game, the one where the Spartans beat the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. A hundred thousand people in scarlet and grey jerseys and who does he run into?
+++++Maggie Upton.
+++++He saw her three rows in front of him in the alumni section. He cupped his hands around his mouth, yelled her name, and finger-whistled. She turned around, recognized him, and drove a line right through the crowd to hug him. Jake can still feel that hug. Feel her tots dressed and undressed. Jake remembers all of it.
+++++Jake’s on a plane and he’s heading to Palatka, Florida to stand up in his college roommates wedding. A wedding he is actually surprised is happening. That day in Columbus, when he bumped into Maggie he was sure, so very sure, well, maybe not completely certain Maggie and Dave were all but kaput. She never actually came out and said it. They were on a break, maybe. Or maybe she didn’t say that as much as the Tequila Sunrise bangers convinced him she’d said that. Whatever. There they were. She gave him the tour of Columbus and later her apartment and later her bed. It concluded with a tour of her erogenous zones.
+++++And why not? He’d seen her first in his version of the story. Dave sabotaged him. Dave went behind Jake’s back that night at Big Daddy’s in Daytona Beach and—
+++++What had it mattered?
+++++He had Maggie on her back, his shaft between her hot tots. She let him finish on her face.
+++++Jake’s on a plane and he is flying into Jacksonville to drive two hours west to Palatka. Tomorrow is the rehearsal dinner. When Dave first told him he was getting married—to Maggie—Jake anticipated being the Best Man. A Groom’s Man was still cool. He almost asked Dave why he wasn’t the best man. He had anticipated Dave telling him, ‘Fuck off, twat. I know about you and Maggie. You still think I sabotaged you.’
+++++‘You did.’
+++++‘I waited for you to make your move. You never made it.’
+++++‘You went behind my back.’
+++++It was bullshit. Jake opened the door with women all the time. Maybe he got tired of being the wingman. Maybe he figured he was making up for missed opportunity in Daytona. Maggie was into it that night. Not so much the next morning but what the hell it happened.
+++++Jake’s on a plane about to land in Jacksonville. He’ll rent a car and drive two hours west to Palatka where he’ll be Groom’s Man Number Two at his college buddy’s wedding with a woman they both slept with. He’s really not feeling it any more. He contemplates telling Dave about the events surrounding the Michigan State-Ohio State game.
+++++A hot blonde flight attendant named Katie tells everyone to put on their seatbelts, place their trays in the locked and upright position, and prepare for landing. Jake hates this part of the flight. The screech of rubber, the bounce, the vibration. He’d take any other form of death other than dying in a plane crash. All that fuel. All that fire.
+++++The landing could be smoother. The exit could be faster. The overheads could be emptier.
+++++Jake wheels his own luggage down the aisle. He passes a smiling Katie the Flight Attendant.
+++++“Have a good visit,” she says.
+++++“I’m going to a wedding. Want to be my Plus One?”
+++++“Sorry. I have to fly back to Detroit in an hour.”
+++++“Yeah, well, I might be on the same flight.”
+++++Jake walks down the exit ramp. Airports used to be a hotbed of hello hugs and goodbye tears. Now the gates are mostly empty once everyone boards. Those who are there have gathered around monitors watching local reports of a wild fire near Gainsville.
+++++Jake heads for the car rentals. Ignores the news.
+++++Up ahead there’s a balding man, dark tinted glasses, navy blue jacket and khaki pants holding a sign with Jake’s last name on it. The sign flaps in the holder’s left hand. He switches it to his right.
+++++“You waiting for a Jake Robinson?”
+++++The man with the sign nods. “I have a car right outside those doors. Would you care to use the men’s room before we leave?”
+++++“No, I’m good.”
+++++“It’s a long ride to Palatka.”
+++++“Then let’s go.”
+++++“I’m going to use the restroom.”
+++++“You do that, buddy.”
+++++“It’s Charlie. Hock. Charlie Hock is my name.”
+++++“I’ll be right here, Charlie.”
+++++“You sure you don’t have to go?”
+++++“Fine. I’ll go.”
+++++The two men go into the restroom. Ten minutes later they walk out together. Charlie Hock’s car is a silver and grey Traverse.
+++++“You work for Uber or something?” Jake asks.
+++++“Or something.”
+++++“Do I ride in the back?”
+++++“If you don’t mind. It’s just under two hours from here to Palatka on a normal day.”
+++++“Isn’t this a normal day?”
+++++“Wild fires. Parts of Interstate Ten are closed from smoke or the fire is too close to the road.”
+++++“How long now?”
+++++“Three. Four hours. You want to pee again?”
+++++“Let’s just get on the road.”
+++++Jake’s on his way to Palatka in the backseat of a Chevy Traverse when he falls asleep. It’s a good sleep. He’s never been able to sleep on a plane. Riding in the back of the Traverse he feels safe. He relaxes. He dreams about making love to Maggie and Katie the Flight Attendant aboard the plane. It’s a really, really good dream until Katie pulls away. She has a puzzled expression.
+++++“Do you smell smoke?”
+++++Jake wakes up. The car has stopped. He does smell smoke. Burning trees. It makes him jump.
+++++Charlie Hock is not in the driver’s seat. Charlie Hock sits on the hood of the car. Eating a meatball sub. Watching the fire.
+++++Jake gets out of the car. “Are you fucking nuts? There’s a wild fire coming at us. You’re eating a meatball sub.”
+++++“It’s called a hoagie down here.”
+++++“I don’t give a shit. Get back in the car and get us out of here.”
+++++“You want some?” Charlie Hock holds out the meatball hoagie to Jake. His hand jerks.
+++++“No I don’t want some. I want to get out of here before that fire flashes us into charcoal.”
+++++Charlie Hock puts the uneaten portion of the sub back in the bag. He rolls the opening down then crimps the seam. After a moment he stands and cracks his back and walks the sandwich to the cooler in his hatch. He presses the Lock button on his key fob.
+++++“Hey. You locked me out.”
+++++“Step away from the car, Mr. Robinson.”
+++++“Excuse me?”
+++++“I said step away from the car.”
+++++A pine tree crackles. It breaks in half. The burning portion falls to the ground in an explosion of orange sparks zigzagging away before they cool and die.
+++++“All right, motherfucker. Give me the keys.”
+++++“You want the keys? Here you go.”
+++++Charlie Hock winds up like he’s playing centerfield for the Marlins and pitches the keys into the fire.
+++++“You fuckin’ dipshit. What the fuck are you—”
+++++Jake stops. He’s looking down the barrel of a nine millimeter. It jerks left. Charlie Hock shifts it to his right hand.
+++++“What’s wrong with your hand?”
+++++“Nothing’s wrong with my hand.”
+++++“Are you scared or something?”
+++++“I’m not scared.”
+++++“I am. We’re in the middle of a fire and you’ve got a gun on me and I have no idea what the fuck is going on.” Jake stops. “Dave found out.”
+++++Charlie Hock looks surprised. “Who the hell is Dave?”
+++++“The guy who hired you to kill me.”
+++++Charlie Hock shakes his head. “You got it wrong.”
+++++“Yeah? I slept with Dave’s fiancé.”
+++++“Oh yeah. Maggie sends her love.”
+++++“Maggie? Why would Maggie hire you?”
+++++“I don’t do a lot of talking with my clients. And actually, motive only counts in cop dramas. My guess is she doesn’t want your friend Dave ever finding out about the two of you.”
+++++“I’d never tell anyone.”
+++++“Well, you told me.”
+++++“So you’re going to kill me?”
+++++“I’m going to give you a chance. You can run into the fire and see if you can find the keys and I’ll let you drive out of here or I’ll shoot you.”
+++++“And you’ll just walk out of here?”
+++++“Oh yeah. Hadn’t thought about that.”
+++++Charlie Hock raises the gun again. Jake Robinson runs into the fire. His frightened mind shows him paths through the fire. Flames don’t touch him. Heat envelopes him. He breathes it in scorching his mouth, esophagus, lungs. At one point he stumbles over a burning branch.
+++++Jake’s on a plain that is burning like hell’s backyard. It’s getting harder to breathe. If he doesn’t find the keys soon, he’ll die in a fire which is why he never wanted to die in a plane crash.
+++++All that fuel.
+++++All that fire.
+++++He runs on then doubles back. Charlie Hock didn’t throw them that far. Did he throw them at all?
+++++Something sparkles in the fire. It’s the keys. Jake scoops them up. The keys are warm. Hot. They burn his hand but he holds on to them. He carries them to the clearing but the car is gone. How can the car be gone if Jake holds the keys?
+++++A second set of keys.
+++++Jake’s mind snaps. He looks to the smoke filled sky and laughs.
+++++A plane flies overhead. It ascends and follows an unseen point. The smoke blocks his vision. It’ll clear in a moment but it won’t matter because Jake will be dead. Smoke inhalation will knock him out and then the fire will consume him.
+++++Something hard and hot hits Jake in the head. He dies before hearing the rapport of a gun. Dies before he sees Charlie Hock aim a rifle over the roof of the Traverse. Dies before the fire consumes him. Dies before he tells Dave all about Maggie.
+++++Just as well.
+++++Tomorrow is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives.

Entry 6 – A Winter’s Night Full Of Pigs

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Listen instead!

Argyle’s not much of a town. Almost in the middle of the peninsula’s knuckle. Lake Huron to the east. Saginaw Bay to the west. Catches all the lake effect snow. Once winter settles in, Argyle all but disappears.
+++++It’s the kind of place you want to avoid.
+++++The kind of place you need to avoid.
+++++The kind of place where, when a guy walks into the Git Gas’s convenient mart wearing mirrored aviator glasses people take notice.  Especially if it’s either or both of the Timmons brothers taking notice. Residents of Sanilac County know better than to make eye contact with Orlo or GT Timmons. A guy doesn’t want to cross paths with the Timmons brothers.
+++++February in Sanilac County is called the Lonesome Month. Days are short. Nights are long. And there’s always the bone gnawing cold blowing in from two bodies of water. Not a lot to do in Argyle except drink, smoke, and screw.
+++++Or kill.
+++++The kid and his girl didn’t know any better not being from around there. The girl went into the Argyle Inn while the kid went into the Git Gas to get smokes. No more than ten minutes. Just enough time for her to get carded and settle in at the bar while he was across the two lanes of blacktop.
+++++The kid wore the silver aviator sunglasses. He dropped a ten on the counter. “Marlboro Reds. Box.”
+++++The clerk grabbed one from the shelf behind him. “Just get back into town, Maverick?”
+++++The kid ignored the jab. He nodded at a flier announcing a President’s Day Wild Pig Roast. “Heard about the feral pigs up here.”
+++++“Oh, yeah. ‘Bout ten years ago a truck crashed and a dozen got loose and well, they fuck like rabbits. So we got about three dozen running ‘round up here.”
+++++“My girlfriend works for Michigan Wild Lands magazine. She wants to take some pictures.”
+++++“She doing that now? It’s almost dark.”
+++++“Sitting at the bar waiting for her smokes.” The kid grabbed the Marlboros. Got his change. Walked the forty feet to the Argyle Inn.
+++++Red and white and black diamonds were painted on the Argyle Inn’s exterior walls. No windows. A banner announced beer specials. The kid went inside, walked up to the bar, stood between the center stools.
+++++A tired, old man leaning his weight on an elbow eyed the kid. Smoke billowed from the old guy’s hairy nostrils.”Get you something?”
+++++“Did a girl come in here about ten minutes ago?”
+++++The old man took a drag from his cigarette. Smoke rolled out of his mouth in puffs. “Anyone here seen a short, blonde gal?”
+++++Three men at a table stared at their beers. A waitress sat in a booth having a smoke. A woman watching the Keno draw shook her head. No one said anything.
+++++The old man stubbed out his cigarette. “No one here like that.”
+++++“Then how did you know Melinda’s short with blonde hair if she’s not here?”
+++++“Maybe you told me.”
+++++“I didn’t tell you shit.”
+++++“Maybe you should get in your car and go.”
+++++“Not till I find Melinda.”
+++++A bathroom door opened. GTTimmons stepped out tucking in his shirt. In the mirror behind GT the kid saw Melinda. Nose broken. Shirt ripped. Eyes pleading.
+++++The kid grabbed a pool stick. Made some tough talk. Brought the stick up.
+++++It wasn’t enough.
+++++GT caught the cue stick mid swing. Twisted it from the kid’s hand. Snapped it over his knee. Smashed the aviators from the kid’s head with the first swing. Broke the kid’s jaw with the second. Blood drained from the kid’s slack mouth.
+++++The bartender, the three men, and the two women made for the door.
+++++GT pointed the bloody nub of the pool stick at the crowd. “Sit your asses down.”
+++++Everyone did. No one crossed the Timmons. Cross them now pay for it later.
+++++With interest.
+++++Orlo came out doing up his pants. “What the hell is going on out here?” He looked down. “Oh. He with her?”
+++++“All right, smart ass. Relax.”
+++++GT pointed at the others with the pool stick handle.
+++++Orlo looked. “Christ.”
+++++The Timmons brothers made the three men and the bartender carry the kid and the girl out behind the Argyle. Out where the old guy kept a couple of the feral pigs he’d trapped for a winter pig roast. The sows grunted at the prospect of fresh meat.
+++++Everyone watched Orlo and GT beat the kid and his girl with the busted pool cue. Nothing they could do.
+++++“And if any of you fucks say anything to the cops, this’ll happen to you.” He brought the bat down on the kid’s head one more time.
+++++GT nudged thegirl with his toe. She moaned. “They ain’t dead yet.”
+++++“Fuck ‘em. Let the wild pigs feast.”Orlo pointed the bloody end of the cue stickat the pigs. The sows squealed with desire and delight.
+++++“And the car?”
+++++“Jesus, GT. Lose it. I got to think of everything?”
+++++“Hey fuck you Orlo.”
+++++“Fuck me?” He raised the club.’
+++++“Oh? What? You gonna go after me now? Fucking limp dick.”
+++++Orlo’s eyes narrowed. “Shut it.”
+++++“She was right there in front of you and you couldn’t do a goddamn thing. Maybe if he had been there it would have been a different story.”
+++++Orlo swung the handle. GT dropped. Orlo pummeled GT.
+++++The stench of fresh hot blood drove those feral pigs mad. They slammed their tandem bodies into the pen’s gate. The padlock held. The gate’s frame did not. The pigs charged. Orlo swung the club catching one in its flank. Pissed it off. She bit him where GT called him limp. Brought Orlo down. The other pig snapped his neck with a single clamp of its jaws.
+++++They pulled away the kid and his girl.
+++++As for the Timmons boys?
+++++Everyone agreed they would not be eating those pigs at the next roast.

The Last Scarecrow

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Listen instead!

+++++“Yes, Grandma?”
+++++“You know what sound a scarecrow makes when it walks?”
+++++“Scarecrows don’t walk, Grandma.”
+++++“They don’t?”
+++++“You know they don’t.”
+++++“I know they do. Come to the edge of the porch where the porchlight’s glow ends. Where the dark begins. Come down off the porch and take a listen. Come along, child. Listen to the scarecrows walk.”
+++++Jonah wraps an arm around a column holding up the roof over the porch. Listens into the night.
+++++“Hear that, Jonah?”
+++++“Yes, ma’am.”
+++++“That’s a scarecrow walking.”
+++++“Ain’t it the wind, Grandma?”
+++++“Wind don’t walk. It glides. It glides and whistles.”
+++++“When you coming onto the porch, Grandma?”
+++++“We’re not supposed to go on the porch.”
+++++“Grandpa don’t mind. Come up here on the porch.”
+++++“You know I can’t, Jonah, on account of what I done.”
+++++“He don’t blame you, Grandma.”
+++++“Oh, but he does, Jonah. This my doing. I got to be out in the fields. I got to keep the crows off the corn and the raccoons away from the sugar beets and the scarecrows away from you.”
+++++“Come up on the porch, Grandma. Come out of the night.”
+++++“Come down off the porch, Jonah. You’re not supposed to be up there. The scarecrows are coming. Do you hear them scarecrows coming?”
+++++“I hear them.”
+++++Scarecrows shuffle-run in the night. Run rampant. The straw stuffing rubbing against itself. Scarecrows don’t just scare away the crows, they look for souls to steal to give themselves life. When the sun comes up they return to their posts. But at night, as soon as the sun falls behind the last row of corn, they come down off their T-posts, go looking for souls like kids going house to house for candy. No tricks. Just treats.
+++++Jonah gets no answer. He hugs the column, presses his face against the cracked and peeling white paint, brushes the paint chips from his lips with the back of his gloved hand. He no longer likes being on the porch at night. The front door, just ten feet behind him, might as well be a hundred miles away. If he keeps one arm wrapped around the post and reaches with the other, well, there’s just no way he can reach the old, dented, brass door knob, tarnished by the touch of generations.
+++++He’ll have to let go of the post. He’ll have to run for the door. He’ll have to get inside before the scarecrows can get him.
+++++Jonah grabs for the door. Legs buckle. Feet tangle. He trips, falls face first to the boards. A scarecrow leaps over the rail on the far end, catches the toe of an old boot its leg got stuffed into on the edge of the wood, falls face first onto the same boards. It lifts its burlap sack of a head. Beetles pour out of a jagged rip. They crawl over the back of Jonah’s hands. Jonah jumps to his feet, brushes away the beetles he feels along his legs and on his belly.
+++++He has to get inside. The beetles will die in the house. These aren’t regular beetles. These are corpse beetles. They eat the flesh off those who lose their souls to the scarecrow’s touch. He has to get inside.
+++++Hand on the doorknob.
+++++Small shadow on the wall diverts his attention. Corpse beetle burrowing into the clapboard siding. The flesheater turns gray, drops to the porch. Jonah kicks it away out of spite. The beetle crumples into dust.
+++++Jonah puts two hands on the knob. Still can’t turn it. He rattles it until the door swings into the house. A frightened old man stands inside the door, an over-and-under, double barreled, shotgun in his grasp.
+++++Jonah throws open his arms. “Grandpa!”
+++++The old man racks in the shots. Levels the gun at Jonah’s chest. “Get back to the field.”
+++++“Grandpa! It’s me. It’s Jonah.”
+++++Jonah takes a step. Something pulls him away as the old man fires bird pellets into the night. Jonah kicks and screams and cries for his grandfather until he hears a familiar voice.
+++++“Sun’s coming up, Jonah. Time to come back to the fields.”
+++++“Time to come back to the fields.”
+++++“I don’t want to come back. I want to play.”
+++++“You can play tomorrow.”
+++++“You always say that.”
+++++The fallen scarecrow lifts Jonah from the boards. It stares at the man inside the house.
+++++“You done this,” he says. “You done this with your conjurin’.”
+++++Out in the fields, Jonah and the scarecrow ascend a platform, take up opposite sides of the T-frame, slips their raggedy wrists through rope loops. The chill of the night floats away under the morning sun’s glow.
+++++Overhead the crows circle. Refuse to land. Jonah looks out at the fields.
+++++The old man pours gas over the corn.
+++++“Corn’s no good anymore,” the old man says. He sets down the old, rusty, gas can. Pulls a crumpled pack of Chesterfields from his shirt pocket, fishes out the last cigarette. He pushes it between his lips. “Corn’s no good anymore because you had to conjure so I told you all to stay in the field. I can’t sit up every night keeping you in the fields. I can’t do this anymore.”
+++++The old man strikes a match on the sole of his boot. Lights his cigarette. Drinks in the heat.
+++++“No, sir. Can’t do it anymore.” He drops the match to the gas soaked field. “He was a good boy until you went and conjured.”
+++++Smoldering fields. Smoke. Flames.
+++++“Grandpa. Come up here.”
+++++The old man hangs his head. His shoulders raise and drop as he sobs.
+++++Jonah pulls his hands out of the loops. He jumps down, puts his arms around the old man. After a moment, the old man returns the gesture.
+++++“Look at the sky, Grandpa. This’ll keep the birds away.”
+++++And the fire burns and the crows squawk at the loss.

Flexing Her Bitch Muscle

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Listen instead

The semester has barely started and Darlene is already flexing her bitch muscle. She’s back in her little brick room inside a larger brick building standing in front of people even her colleagues say are ‘as dumb as a brick.’
+++++Darlene doesn’t see it that way.
+++++She sees the potential.
+++++She sees the magic.
+++++She sees the struggle.
+++++She rolls up her sleeves. Digs her trench. Puts them in line. One by one. Builds a future with those so called bricks.
+++++The foundation is laid. Education is the mortar. Darlene flexes her bitch muscle so none of those bricks crumble.
+++++Second day of school. Darlene wants to get to her car. Smoke. Drink the coffee she drained from the glass pot in the teachers’ lounge. Three class sets of senior quick writes on a ‘moment in life that had a profound effect on you.’ She assigns it early to get a feel for what she’ll be dealing with for the term. A glance at the top sheet beneath a pink paperclip of the first stack catches her eye.
+++++Clean penmanship. Bonus. Shows the writer’s intelligent. No overly loopy lettering. No hearts or balloons over small case letter Is. Paragraphs indented. Quote marks for dialogue. Who is this kid and why is she in Dar’s class? Darlene always gets the third tiers. The ones with special needs. The ones lugging emotional loadstones.
+++++Standing behind her desk, Jerry Garcia smiling down upon her from the painting on cinder blocks done by a kid who later ran off never to be heard from again, Dar reads.
+++++Two bullets. One for him. One for me. It’s the way it has to be. That’s the American way, right? Self-inflicted justice.
+++++Dar looks at the name. Stephanie Crawford. Doesn’t recognize it. Doesn’t know the face. Too soon. Odds are it belongs to the pretty girl in the next to last seat nearest the door. Easy in easy out seat. She looked a little more secure of herself. Light makeup, straight blond hair, rose tat on her left shoulder.
+++++Too soon for Dar to be sure.
+++++I get the gun from a friend of mine. Tell her I want to learn to shoot. She offers to take me to a range to shoot at targets. I make up a lie about my mom’s boyfriend taking me that afternoon.
+++++‘Doesn’t he have one?’ she asks.
+++++“‘It’s broken,’” I say and she buys the lie.
+++++‘Cool,’ she says. ‘I have to work anyway.’
+++++It’s that easy.
+++++She carries a nine millimeter. Diamond ribbed polymer grip. Purple frame. Sleek, blue barrel. Magazine holds ten but I only need two. One for him and one for me.
+++++Dar reads fast. It’s the kind of writing that flows, doesn’t make the reader trudge. The body of the paper shares the story of a young woman scorned. A broken trust. A boyfriend who two timed her.
+++++With the friend who lent her the gun.
+++++Dar sits down in her chair. Puts her head in her hands. Reads on knowing every word commits her to the crime. She will be complicit if she doesn’t pick up her phone, call the cops right then- right now.
+++++I wait for Jeremy outside his job. The gas station closes at ten. It’s in a bad area. Another homicide for the local cops but one they’ll be able to wrap up for a change. I’ll go in just as he locks up. I’ll put one in his head and one in mine and that’ll be the end of this whole effed-up life. Two bullets. One for him. One for me.
+++++Dar looks at the empty desk she thinks Stephanie Crawford sat in to write this essay. She was here. She didn’t go through with it. With all of it, at least.
+++++She’s there. My ‘friend’ is there. She’s sitting behind the counter, flipping her hair, laughing, seducing him. I hate them both. Two bullets. One for him. One for her.
+++++Dar leans back, hand over her mouth.
+++++The bell above the door tink-tink-tinkles. Abbie looks up, smiles, says, ‘Oh, hey.’ and I shoot her. Jeremy jumps back, looks at me, says, ‘What the fuck, Steph?’ and I shoot him. I drop the gun, leave. Two bullets. One for him. One for her. None for me.’
+++++Finger on the nine, Dar puts down the phone. Takes her lighter. Burns the essay. Has to be fiction or else—
+++++Or else the girl flexed her bitch muscle.

The Hard Screw

Listen instead
Listen instead

My neighbor.
+++++She of the boney hips. Sparkling green eyes beneath narrowed lids. Thin lips inviting behaviors I might not otherwise exhibit. She does tai chi on her backyard deck. Yoga pants. Sports bra. Both reveal desires.
+++++I want her.
+++++Summer afternoon. Senior year of college.
+++++Rope hammock poolside. The book I read doesn’t hold my interest. She does. Sitting on her deck in her two piece peeking out of her wrap. Her having a brown bottle beer. Thin lips smiling around the neck. She holds the bottle up inviting me to join her.
+++++I would if I could, I want to tell her. I raise my book to stare at strings of words. Run my eyes over sentence garlands until my arm aches from holding it in one position. I lower it to sneak a peek.
+++++Her top is off. The sun falls on her like the lover I want to be to her. Covering her. Warming her skin. Our skin. Touching. Rubbing.
+++++I can’t help myself.
+++++I slide a hand beneath my swim trunks. The hammock sways.
+++++She watches. Pinches her nipples. Shudders.
+++++Her husband grills chicken. She comes out with martinis. She’s dressed now. White summer dress that covers her legs. Flows in the evening breeze.
+++++“Hey, kid,” the husband yells to me. “You have to do that now?”
+++++I shut off the weed-whacker. Tiny grass clippings cover my ankles. Sweat covers my brow. The husband turns his back to me to flip his chicken breasts. His wife stares straight ahead then turns to me. I want to know what she’s thinking. She senses this. Looks back at her husband. He snaps metal tongs around the cooked meat and moves the meal to a plate. They go inside.
+++++A girl I met at school last term visits. She’s brought some wine. I have a taste. She has the bottle. We laugh about our Profs. The laughs settle. In the quiet of the night she presses her wine soaked mouth against mine. It’s warm and sweet. I close my eyes and I’m kissing my neighbor.
+++++“There’s something I want to do for you,” the girl from class says.
+++++I let her open my pants. She kisses me as if asking for permission as she holds me in her hand. I lean my head back on the chaise lounge cushion as her mouth slides over me. It feels wonderful.
+++++But it’s not her. It’s my neighbor and I let her drink from me.
+++++A sliding door whisks open. I lift my head.
+++++My neighbor stands on her deck having a cigarette. She watches us. Opens her robe. Touches herself in the shadowy area between her legs.
+++++“The fuck?” her husband yells from inside the house. She flicks away the cigarette. Closes her robe. The door slides shut. Hushed voices through a screen. A frightened yelp.
+++++The girl from class stops, looks up. “What was that?”
+++++I guide her back down onto me.
+++++“Where are your parents?” she asks afterwards.
+++++I tell her they’re retired and in Florida for the summer. She coos.
+++++The girl from class finally leaves. I go out to the pool for a morning swim. At the end of the third lap my neighbor stands at the fence. White tank top, yellow short shorts, sunglasses.
+++++“We need to talk,” she says.
+++++I climb out of the pool. Grab my towel. Pat it over my hair. Drape it around my neck. We meet at the fence. Neither of us speaks. She grabs the towel and pulls me to her mouth.
+++++Coffee. Cigarette. Lip gloss.
+++++My hand cups her breast. No bra. She gasps when my thumb brushes over the tip.
+++++I raise a hand to lift away her sunglasses. Her hand stops me but not before I see the bruise that wasn’t there yesterday.
+++++“He hit me,” she says. Voice hitches. “Last night. He saw me. Out here. My robe…”
+++++I put a hand behind her head. Pull her face to me. Kiss her. I want the fence to be gone. I want nothing more between us. For two years I’ve watched her loveless marriage destroy her. I want her to feel all the compassion I have for her, all the lust I’ve hidden since she first moved in next door. I reach over the fence, wrap an arm around her. She steps back.
+++++I see my reflection in her sunglasses. Hesitating. On the fence.
+++++I brace and push myself over into her yard. She rushes to me. Our hands and arms are all over one another. She pulls down my swim trunks, playfully kisses at my bobbing cock as I step out of the wet suit. She laughs and throws the trunks back into my yard. I don’t care that I’m naked in hers. I press my dick against her. Rip open her tank top. Her nipples stand as erect as I do.
+++++“Not out here,” she says. Giggles. Takes my hand. Leads me up the three steps of her deck. Takes me in. Takes me into her bedroom. Takes me into her bedroom where her husband lies dead. Where he husband lies dead, a bloody pillow over his face.
+++++I turn around.
+++++She’s there.
+++++Gun in her hand.
+++++Shirt ripped open.
+++++Blackened eye.
+++++Cold, calculating stare.
+++++And that’s when I know how hard she’s screwed me.

Sleep Tight

I hear the guy next door snoring through my wall every night. Tonight it drives me out of my apartment. His wife, leaning on the flimsy metal railing of their balcony unit, a cigarette tucked between her slender fingers, tells me he has apnea and she can’t get her husband to wear the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, mask at night. She’s out because her husband won’t wear a rubber cup over his nose. I’m out for the same reason, having a beer.
+++++She blows a pillow of smoke the wind pushes back over her pretty face. I think about how thirty years of smoking is going to soften those beautiful features into a mask of crags and wrinkles. Right now, she is nothing but cute in an extra long tee-shirt and bed hair she has to keep pulling back from her face.
+++++“He says it ruins our love life,” she says. She laughs. “Believe me, it was ruined before that.”
+++++I smile, pull a drink off the bottle. “How long you been married?”
+++++“Year. You got another one of those?”
+++++I pull one out of the cooler next to me, stand up to hand it over. Her fingers brush my hand. It isn’t an accident.
+++++“Thanks,” she says. “Maybe if I drink enough I’ll pass out and won’t hear him.”
+++++“Doesn’t work,” I say. She laughs. We clink the necks of our bottles against one another. When she drinks, she turns her head and shows me how her lips fit over the opening. She watches me watch her.
+++++“I’m Shelly,” she says. She holds her hand out over her balcony. I shake it.
+++++“Hello, Brian.”
+++++“Hello, Shelly.”
+++++We drink a bit more in the cool evening. The stars are out. A fat opossum from the field behind our units waddles down to the manmade pond and drinks from it. Shelly grimaces.
+++++“I wouldn’t drink that water,” she says.
+++++“I see guys catching and releasing from it all the time.”
+++++“All those chemicals.” She shudders.
+++++From inside her apartment I hear a panicked gulping, cry. It’s followed by a sudden storm of gagging coughs. It ends with a whistle. Shelly turns and slides the door to her patio closed.
+++++“Your husband okay?” I ask.
+++++“He does it all the time. He’s been told he stops breathing something like a hundred or so times a night. It’s why he has the mask. It pushes air into his nose to remind him to breath. But he won’t use it.”
+++++“Could he die without it?”
+++++She finishes her beer. “That was good. You think I could bum another?”
+++++“You caught my last one.”
+++++Shelly studies me. She smiles. “Hold on.” She slides open her door. “We’ve got some. I’m coming around.”
+++++“No, that’s okay,” I say.
+++++“I insist. Tom isn’t supposed to drink anymore. Alcohol and apnea apparently don’t mix.” She shoos her hand at me. I finish my beer and go inside. I don’t really want to go inside. The walls of the apartment are too antiseptic for me. I feel like I’m in a vacuum when I’m inside.
+++++I unlock my door and it opens. Shelly stands there with a six of Sam. Summer Wheat. I’m good with that. She holds it up and removes one. I take the six, putting it in my fridge, and take one for myself. We once again clink the necks of our bottles.
+++++“You single?” she asks looking around my place.
+++++“Can’t you tell?”
+++++I have NASCAR posters in plastic frames. There’s a cushy plaid couch heavy in red. I’ve got a couple of uncomfortable green chairs that I always feel like I’m slouching in when I sit in them. Everything faces the flat screen on the wall I don’t share with Shelly’s place.
+++++Shelly smiles around the bottle as she drinks. She walks past me and sits down on the couch. In the center of the couch. It leaves me four options: one of the two chairs, or either side of her. I sit next to her. We make very small talk. It’s difficult to keep a conversation going because I can clearly see she’s not wearing anything under the long tee-shirt.
+++++“So is Tom really that loud?” she asks.
+++++“You should know.”
+++++“I mean when you try to sleep. Our bedrooms share a wall, too. Like this one.” She raps her knuckles on the plaster. I put my hand on hers. “Relax, we won’t wake him. Nothing wakes him. I mean, sometimes I’m laying in bed wide awake because he’s snoring or your over here screwing someone and I’m caught in between.”
+++++I spit up a little beer. She laughs. “Here.” She lifts up on the hem of her tee-shirt and now I know how naked she is she is under it. She wipes the beer dribble from my chin. Our eyes meet and then we’re embracing. We fall back onto the couch and start kissing, exploring with hands.
+++++“I hear you,” she says. “I hear you over his snoring. I hear how happy those women feel and it makes me realize how miserable I am. It makes me think how I want to feel like them again, feel wild and out of control. It makes me want to be in that bed with you.”
+++++We can hear her husband snoring even as we make love in my bedroom.
+++++Shelly is a screamer. Straddling me, she seems to direct her ecstasy at the bedroom wall. She shudders and explodes and falls down on top of me. We lie there, breathing heavily. It slows. The room grows quiet. The world grows quiet.
+++++Even from the other side of the bedroom wall it is quiet.
+++++Shelly rolls her eyes up at the wall behind us.
+++++“Shouldn’t you go check on him?” I ask.
+++++Shelly rolls onto her stomach. She reaches out to the wall and gently touches it. The blankets slide down off her naked back.
+++++“Sleep tight,” she whispers.