Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No Country

He looked across the street at the headquarters of the magazine. A music magazine, yes, but so much more. He found himself wishing they'd never moved from San Francisco to New York. It always seemed easier to get away with things in San Francisco.

It was foolish for him to stand in one place for so long, disguise or no, but he kept peering toward the building. If he made it through the front door, they wouldn't kill him, but they would arrest him. For starters. If they were there.

He felt his pants sagging, and cinched his belt buckle a notch. He guessed that he was down to about ten percent body fat, the lowest since college two decades earlier. The silver lining of life on the run.

Although he'd spent three years in the field before taking a higher position with the agency, he knew that his ability to evade capture or death was more a matter of dumb luck than knowledge or skill. His field missions were mainly low-risk, ticket-punching endeavors to retain credibility later, when perhaps he would be in a position to have people jump when he told them to move. It worked that way when your dad was a high-level agency type.

He thought of his dad's friend and mentor Al, who'd been a staff member under Eisenhower, both during his time as a five-star and as president. He remembered standing by Al's death bed, and how Al focused on him after his dad went to the restroom.

"David, all of them are true."
"All of what, Uncle Al?"
"All of those conspiracy theories."

Al mentioned one name, a mid-level type in the agency, and fell silent.

The woman told him. Indeed, most of those conspiracy theories were true. He already knew about the big-money plot to overthrow FDR in 1930; it was well-documented, if largely ignored. So too the JFK assassination. But the other revelations left him reeling: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, RFK, the take-down of Nixon by the CIA via the Watergate scandal, The Jonestown Massacre, the stolen elections, and the plan to end democracy.

David willed his feet to move, but they wouldn't. Strangely, he felt less afraid of death than the possibility that he wouldn't be taken seriously. It didn't help that he'd spent a half-hour wedged between a wall and a dumpster, waiting for his senses to stop rattling.

He walked across the street, and through the door. A journalist he recognized--only his beard and hair were longer than in his magazine photo--was walking out.

David met his eyes. The journalist stopped.

"Say man, it looks like you've been on the lam."
"I have," David said.
The journalist looked him up and down. "If I had to guess, I'd say you were an agency type gone to seed."
"You'd be right."

They walked to the elevator. Once inside, he held his hand out to David. "Name's Stan," he said.

"I know. Stan, did you ever play 'connect the dots' as a kid?"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Demise

He idled at the side of the road, looking at the revival tent. He shut off the engine. He imagined running into the tent and screaming at all those people to get away from that used-car salesman who offered them packaged hope and contrived conditions for reaching heaven. He didn't, because he also imagined getting hauled off in cuffs by a sheriff's deputy.
Funny thing. He believed in God, now more than ever. But he was angry at God. Very angry.
He started the car, and drove to the supermarket to restock his empty refrigerator. He stopped at the booze aisle and pondered the numbness promised by a bottle of V.O. "No thanks," he said to the bottle, and walked on. He stopped by the beer coolers. "No thanks," he said to the cases of brew. He saw his reflection in the glass door. "You look like crap," he said to the reflection. 
He drove home, put the groceries away, and looked at the calendar. Ten more days of what he used to think of as his real life. Ten more days, and then he would drive away from the Houston suburb to a dock in Louisiana, where he would spend twenty-eight days captaining an offshore work boat, taking supplies to offshore oil rigs. His stint on the vessel felt like his real life now, since she left the earth.
He looked out the kitchen window in time to see her husband and son arrive across the street. It was Thursday, and normally, the eight year-old Bobby would be knocking on his door, telling him that his mom and dad were inviting him to dinner.
That was before Bobby's mom was taken from them by a drunk driver. She was coming home from a PTA meeting with an ice cream cake in the back seat.
He would never tell Bobby or his dad how much he loved her. There was nothing sneaky or underhanded about her, and never had there been more than a hug between them, but those hugs nourished his soul. He would never tell her husband and son that either.
He hadn't talked to Bobby or his dad since the funeral, but tomorrow, he would ask them to dinner. He would try to get them to talk. He would do his best to fill just a little of the vacuum in their lives. He would look in Bobby's eyes, those eyes so much like her's, and try not to cry.

Three Word Wednesday

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pennies in a Well

He did the zombie-like terminal shuffle through the airport. Another book signing on the other side of the country, another too-long layover in San Francisco.

He took out his phone and accessed his bank account. He pondered the balance, ballooned by an honest-to-God advance from one of the few major publishers left. And now, they were looking at his previous ebooks, and talking more advances.

So now he had an editor to answer to, a man who already seemed bent on pushing him to the edge of pandering to an audience. A man who didn't seem to appreciate that his first successful ebook, a collection of short stories, had been titled, "We Don't Need No Stinking Genre."

He was scared, and sad. His dream had come true. He was a successful author now. And yet, he couldn't embrace success. Instead, he wrapped himself in regret over the life he was leaving behind.

His friends were treating him differently. He missed his job. He missed his coworkers, even the buttheads.

He never dreamed that success could be such a curse.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One Last Earthset

He sat in the dome in the control room, monitoring the mining bots, pondering his future.

There wasn't much future to ponder. He'd been on the moon for seven months. Three months left on his contract. Williams and Deming were dead, killed while in a rover by the same meteorite storm that had taken out the oxygen-producing facility and the CO2 scrubbers.

Houston Control had been a contract facility for several years, owned by a corporation focused on the bottom line. He'd been surprised how long it took them to abandon rescue efforts after the aborted shuttle rescue. They held on to hope for quite a while longer than the bottom line would suggest was sensible.

They held on to hope, while at the same time, he gradually gained a purchase on reality. He wasn't going home.

He cycled through the outside monitors, watching the precise movements of the bots. He checked on the CO2 levels in the dome. Getting high. Soon, it would be time to suit up. With the oxygen available in the suits, he could hold out for another day or so, but not long enough for rescue.

He cued up the transmission from his son, watched it for the fiftieth time, and cried.

He decided to suit up early. He downloaded his son's video to his suit. He went through the airlocks, and outside.

He thought about taking one of the rovers to Mazatlan, the golf course, but he'd left his clubs inside. Instead, he walked south for several minutes to the first hole, and sat down, leaning back against a nearby boulder.

He thought about his divorce. He thought about that old line: "But it didn't MEAN anything!" It was true, really. That woman in Pensacola had meant nothing to him; she was nothing more than a way to scratch an itch. But she'd meant a lot to Cathy, oh yeah. Enough to end a marriage.

Tommy had been but seven years old when he moved out. For the first year, Tommy was brave, trying to act as if everything were normal, as if Daddy had just gone away temporarily. But by the time he was nine, he began distancing himself, and by twelve, he hated his father and wanted nothing to do with him.

He left for the moon on Tommy's twenty-third birthday.

He leaned more fully against the boulder, and watched the half-earth settling toward the horizon. He could see North America.

With a start, he realized he'd donned the wrong suit. He'd chosen the one with little oxygen left. He began to get up, intending to trudge back to the dome to get a suit with a full supply. But he stopped, and settled back against the boulder.

It just felt like the right time.

As earth touched the horizon, he brought Tommy's video up on his visor.

He saw Tommy's face, with his longish light brown hair and that silly little smile, the one he'd hardly seen through his teen years.

"Hi, Dad," he began. But tears filled his eyes, and he hung his head for a half-minute.

"I heard the news." He paused again to compose himself.

"I don't know if I can get through this, Dad, but I'm gonna try. I've been mad at you for a long time. When you hurt mom, I tried to deny it. But then I got to the stage where I was mad at you. Then I hated you. Then I tried to forget you."

Tears from Tommy again. Another pause.

"But when I heard the news, I found myself remembering what a wonderful dad you were during our time together. You always had time to play with me, you always had time to talk to me, and you always made me feel important. I wish I could have told you this before . . . the news, but I was still wrapped in anger."

"Dad, I know now that you left me with more than you took away. You screwed up. You hurt Mom, more than you know. But Dad . . ."

More tears.

"But Dad, you made me who I am. I'll always have you with me. Dad, I love you, and I'm sorry I ever quit telling you that."

He replayed the last part several times, until his breathing grew labored. He looked at the gauge. Zero.

He looked back toward the earthset. He reached to replay the video, but he couldn't move his arm. Soon, he realized he could no longer see.

But, he could still feel. He could feel himself smiling.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Best Friend's Girl

I expected Dave to be pissed, but I didn't expect him to lurch through the door and knock me on my ass. "STAY AWAY FROM HER," he shouted. He slammed the door, and in a few moments, I heard his car speed away.

My dad came halfway down the stairs. "Doug, you okay?"
"Everything's okay, Dad."
He paused for a few moments, but went back upstairs.

Dave was my best friend. He was our star quarterback; I was his favorite receiver.

The hell of it was, Dave had caught Gwen and I hugging. That's it. Hell, I'd hugged her in front of him lots of times. She'd come to my house crying after she'd caught Dave kissing a cheerleader.

I'd never done more than hug Gwen. I wish I could say that it was out of loyalty to Dave. It wasn't. Dave boinked every girl he could get his hands on. Gwen was an amazing girl, and Dave was blind to her warmth, her intelligence, and her old-soul wisdom. The truth was that I never made a move on Gwen because I didn't want to risk losing her trust.

I was in love with Gwen. She was my real best friend, and the only person on earth who knew that I wrote poetry. She was also, to me, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Dave's parents called about eleven that night. Dave never made it home. Dad and I drove out toward the old mill, where Dave liked to go when he wanted to be alone. I felt frantic, fearful that something awful had happened.

We came upon Dave's Nova a half mile from the turnoff to the mill. It was wrapped around a telephone pole. Dad told me to stay in the car, but I followed him anyway. It was my first experience with the odor of death.

I went to pieces at Dave's funeral. Dad hugged me close, and I called him "Daddy." I hadn't called him that since I was eight.

The light went from Gwen's eyes. She was just as cordial and kind as ever, but her unique spark seemed to evaporate. We went to different colleges, and we lost contact, as if losing contact was the decent thing to do.

I thought about her during our high school ten year reunion. When she never showed up, I felt a strange combination of relief and disappointment.

Our twentieth reunion was different. I'd been divorced for three years, and I wanted to see her, to see if that spark she held in her eyes had returned. I was leaving when she walked in. At first, she looked different, but then she didn't. We talked for three hours there in the foyer, until nearly all of our classmates had left.

"I got divorced four years ago," she said.
"Three for me. Any kids?"
"No," she answered. "My ex didn't want kids."
"Mine either."

We talked until the hotel folks started giving us dirty looks. I walked her to her car, and she gave me her parents' number. I remembered it.

"You busy tomorrow?" she asked.
"Not at all," I answered.
"Want to go to brunch at the golf course?"
"I'd like that," I said.

We hugged a rather chaste hug, and I walked away.

"Doug?" I turned.
She walked toward me, slowly. She took my hands in hers for a moment, then put one hand behind my neck, and pulled me down to her.

She kissed me. It was not a chaste kiss.

It's four in the morning now. I'm meeting her in five hours, and I haven't slept a wink, because that kiss keeps replaying in my mind, over and over.

I'm not complaining.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday. Today's words are frantic, lurch, and odor.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


There he was, standing in the boy's restroom, leaning against a sink, smoking. The restroom was otherwise eerily empty.

I remembered the seventh grade. He was a grade ahead, taller, bigger, and stronger. He had a friend who was nearly as big, and together they would terrorize me, once even holding a knife to my throat.

I'd glimpsed him now and then in high school, but now, we were face-to-face.

He no longer scared me. I'd grown to six-four, I outweighed him by at least twenty pounds, and by God, he no longer scared me. I stood in the doorway, locking eyes with him. He didn't look scared, but he did look, well, concerned.

It was the ideal opportunity for revenge. I moved closer.

"Shit man, you got big." Now he looked just a little scared.

I remembered his knife against my neck. I felt my throat constrict. I heard my own blood pumping in my ears. I measured the distance to his nose, and imagined smashing it with the heel of my hand. I teetered on the edge of losing control.

"Still got the knife you held against my throat, asshole?" The voice coming out of me sounded guttural, primitive.
"No," he answered.
"You have a knife on you?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"Good," I said. "Try to hold it against my throat now, asshole."
He said nothing, but now he looked scared, good and scared.

"I'm sorry," he said, finally. His eyes were tearing up. He was slumped, defeated, looking like a whipped dog.

I looked at him for a moment, and something changed in me. Try as I might, I couldn't hold on to the rage I felt. It left my body like an outgoing tide.

"I can't believe I was ever afraid of a pussy like you," I said. He said nothing. He stood there, eyes downcast, looking nothing like the blond-haired boogeyman of my seventh grade year.

He graduated a month later, and I never saw him again. Not in person, anyway. But, ten years later, I would read about him in the newspaper.

He'd come out of a supermarket, where he came upon an elderly couple being accosted outside their car by a knife-welding transient. He grappled with the man while the old couple escaped back to the store. The store people called the police, but they arrived to find the transient gone, and the blond-haired boogeyman from my junior high on the pavement with multiple stab wounds.

He died in the ambulance. I wish he hadn't. I wish he would have lived, and I wish I would have known him as the man he became.

I would never have let him buy the beer. Heroes shouldn't have to buy their own beer.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday. Today's words are ideal, measure, and teeter.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Under the Bed

I woke to hear my wife groaning in pain. Her neck again. I got up to get the heating pad, stepping at least a foot from the bed frame. I've done that since I was five or so. If you step at least a foot from the edge of the bed, the thing under the bed can't grab you.

Don't laugh. Don't scoff. Don't sneer. Those things live under beds, and you know it. If you'll be honest with yourself, really honest with yourself, so honest that you're once again in touch with the child within, you'll admit that it's always in the back of your mind when you have to step out of bed during the middle of the night.

I got back in bed with my wife, and put the heating pad on her neck for a while. I started kneading her neck and upper back, but after a few minutes, I decided I needed a better position. I grabbed a chair and pulled it next to the bed. Preoccupied with my wife's discomfort, I stuck my feet under the box spring.

I'd been working on her neck for just a few minutes when I felt the dry tentacle wrap around my ankle. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn't, especially when I felt a nibble on my big toe.

"Honey, has it been a week?"
"Yeah, I think he's due to surface tonight."

Sometimes we didn't see him for eight or nine days at a stretch, but usually he emerged at weekly intervals. Thoughts of getting back to sleep went down the drain. I wondered if he just wanted to visit, or engage in one of his epic wrestling matches.

They can only come out from under the bed once a week, at most. I guess it's some kind of rule. I pushed the chair back and leaned to the floor. "C'mon, Barney."

He slithered up to the crook of my elbow, and I could tell that he wasn't in the mood to wrestle. I cradled him in my arms and placed him next to my wife. "Hi, Barney," she said, petting the blob that passed for his head. Barney looks a bit like an octopus, but not as pretty.

He purred a bed monster purr, and as I returned to tending to my wife's pains, she purred too.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday. Today's words are drain, epic, and nibble.