It is late and the temperature is dropping fast but he would rather be out walking than be home. No one will notice if he is not home. They will, however, notice if he is there and the key is not to be noticed.
He doesn’t have a winter coat. The teacher asked him about it and he lied. He told her he left it at his father’s house. The teacher is new this year or she would know he hasn’t seen his father in more years than he can remember.
He buries his hands deep in the pockets of the sweatshirt he is wearing. The hood is pulled up over his head but he has just about grown out of the jacket so it is stretched tight and makes his neck feel funny and gives his shoulders a deformed look.
His little brother walks a pace or two behind him. He can hear him sniffling and yells back at him to just wipe is nose on his sleeve already and quit making that sound.
The younger boy grumbles. He just got this jacket and even though it hangs past his hips and the sleeves need to be rolled up so his fingertips can peek out the cuffs, it is the nicest jacket he has ever owned and he doesn’t want snot on it. He inhales hard and swallows.
The older boy’s face fixes in a scowl at the sound, but he says nothing. He just keeps moving forward. It is important, he thinks, to just keep moving, keep walking. The further away he gets from home, the more the constriction he always feels in his chest eases.
It has snowed for the last several days and they have been house bond for too long and if it weren’t for the fact his brother would not be able to keep up, he would run to try to ease the tension he feels in every muscle in his small body.
As they enter the parking lot of the strip mall, he sees a massive pile of snow in the center of the lot. Since the last shop closed, they don’t need to plow the snow to the corners anymore to allow for parking. The maintenance people have gotten lazy and plowed the recent snowfall all to the center and it is the most amazing thing he has ever seen. He wonders if this is what mountains look like.
He takes a running start and begins to climb the snow. He feet slide out from under him and he digs his hands into the snow and ice. Ignoring the pain in his chilled fingers, he pulls himself forward, his feet working to find a hold. All he can think is he has to get to the top.
His brother stands on the pavement, watching, making worried sounds.
He yells for the little boy to stop whining and follow him. He is almost at the top, his breath is coming in ragged gasps and he is sweating. His heart is pounding so hard in his chest that it is the only thing he can hear.
He pulls himself up the last little bit, flips over onto his back, chest heaving. When he can breath again, he sits up. His little brother is struggling up the slippery slope. He tells the boy to follow his tracks, use the holds his hands and feet made.
He stands and surveys the parking lot. His kingdom. He made it to the top; he is king of this mountain. He feels free and lets out a deep sigh of satisfaction.
There is a fly buzzing around. This would not be all that noteworthy were it not for the fact that it is the dead of winter and I usually don’t see flies at this time of year.
It distracts me from my book. I watch its random flight. It stops on the ceiling fan pull, on the curtains, on the TV screen. It flies to each corner of the room and in the cold light I see a spider’s web both it and I have avoided.
I now watch the web, seeing a small black speck move from the top of the crown molding into the heart of the web. It seems to be checking its work, shoring up some loose threads and I haven’t the heart to brush it all away.
I remember suddenly sitting with my brother in the farmhouse we rented when I was a child. I was two or so, my brother was four. We sat with our legs dangling through the rails on the attic staircase landing. I am not sure what we were doing up there, watching something or someone down below. I don’t remember now.
What I do remember is the thin rays of sunlight falling on the top of the banister. I remember watching the dust dance in the light and laughing. My brother was making me laugh and I giggled until I opened my mouth in peels of belly laughs.
It was at this moment, he reached down between the rails, brought up a four year old’s fist full of spider webs and dead flies and shoved them into my open, laughing mouth.
There was nothing malicious intended in the act. As he spoke to me, his fingers found the dandelion fluff like webbing and he had played with it, gathering it all up. He only wanted to see what I would do.
I gagged, tears of surprise stinging my eyes. I fumbled getting up, trying to swallow back my gag reflex without swallowing the contents of my mouth. I remember finding my way to the sink in the bathroom and jamming a bar of Zest soap in my mouth.
My brother followed me, watching me wash my mouth out with soap. He was not sure if he should be sorry or pleased as soap bubbles released themselves from my lips and floated upwards.
Sitting in my living room, book in hand, I shudder at the memory. I can still remember the softness of the web on my tongue, the small nuggets of flies, shriveled and abandoned along with the snare.
This moment sums up life with my brother – laughing and crying. Each moment seems to be tinged with almost equal parts horror and euphoria.
I consider the web in the corner of the room again and again, I reject the idea to wipe it away. Perhaps tomorrow, may be the next day. Today I will choose to leave it alone. May be the spider will luck out now that it has repaired the silk and the fly that is so carelessly buzzing around will be brunch.
Smiling, I turn back to my book.
One summer when I was growing up, we had a severe thunderstorm every Thursday for six or so weeks. We were in some kind of cycle and we appear to be doing that again this fall. I say fall because it won’t be officially winter yet for another few days.
The cycle we are in now is freezing rain, then snow. I don’t mind the snow. I hate the freezing rain. Beautiful though it may be when the sun comes back out and shines on the encased branches and icicles hanging off gutters, it causes too much damage.
I live on one of the busiest streets in my city, but even with all the traffic, I am one house away from a sprawling cemetery and kitty-cornered from a public golf course. Two things that always bring silence to mind to me.
Both places are heavily wooded and there are prey birds such as owls and hawks along with foxes, raccoons and even a few deer that have managed to make it through the traffic. It is an odd combination of rural and urban at the cross roads in front of my house.
I don’t mind the snow because it adds to the silence, dampening the sound of traffic and at night when I am driving home, the trees seem to crowd in and shield my car as though I were driving through a tunnel rather than a city street.
To my left out the car window is the plot of land of the cemetery getting the most action these days. I will see the backhoe in place having dug a fresh grave, the mounded dirt covered with Astroturf. During in climate weather such as we are having these days, they will put up an awning. It is not a tent. It has no sides.
It, like the Astroturf, seem to be an inside joke for the cemetery folk. Fake grass, garishly green in the dead of winter, and a structure erected to give shelter that does not spare the mourners from the harsh winter winds.
I used to wonder about the deceased. If there was a large group of people I would wonder what made him so popular. Did he have money? Was a he just a genuinely nice person? Did he have a huge family? Were most of them showing up just to be sure he was truly dead?
When the crowd was sparse, I would wonder if he had outlived everyone he knew. Was he a mean old bastard that no one wanted anything to do with? Was he a kindly soul who just kept to himself and whose passing made only the tiniest of ripples?
I haven’t wonder about anyone in a long time until a week ago. I am not sure how long it had been there, I only noticed it on the night of the first ice storm. It shined out like a cheery little beacon and I was not sure I had really seen it. By it I mean a tiny little Christmas tree set up on an unmarked grave.
I have looked for it every night since then, and sure enough, there it sits. Red, green, and blue lights glowing in the darkness. Now I wonder whose grave it marks. It seems like a child-like thing to do. A gesture so pure and innocent.
It makes me wonder. I wonder if a child resides in that grave, the tree marking the first Christmas he will not be anxiously awaiting Santa. Or may be a child wanted it put there to mark someone else who would not be there for this holiday season.
It was raining the day she was born. Sheets of rain fell on freshly plowed fields. It had been such a dry winter the rain was desperately needed. She didn’t remember this, of course, but she had heard the story for so long she felt as though she did.
Her father made it seem that it was her birth alone that had saved the spring planting. That the rain had come to rejoice in her life and spring rains had always been special to her because of it.
When she was the only one left to tell the story, she passed it down to her grandchildren. Telling them of the bleak, frigid winter that preceded her birth, and how just as her mother’s contractions started, the rain began and did not stop until she was two days old. It was a steady, drenching rain, the earth was so grateful for it that there was no flooding.
It was raining the day they put her into the ground. It began the moment she died. Her family stood around her hospital bed and she asked for them to raise the blinds so she could see the sky. She looked out at the gray winter day, breathed her last breath and the skies opened up.
The earth so grateful for the rain at her birth had a hard coat of ice over it as the men worked to dig her grave, almost as though it were trying to deny her entry.
So, he clears his throat, you don’t like sex with me much, huh?
He is lying on his back, his hands under his head and he is staring at the ceiling.
He knows better than to look at her. He can feel the glare without turning his face. When she looks at him like this, he remembers being in Sunday school reading about Sodom and Gomorrah and people being turned into a pillars of salt for daring to look.
She had been lying with her back to him, grateful for the king sized bed that allowed them enough distance where she could almost pretend he wasn’t there. At his words, she rolled to face him, glaring, and propped her head up by folding the pillow in half.
Plucking absent-mindedly at the sheet, she asks, Why do you say that?
You know, you just didn’t seem all that into it and well, you know, you don’t, well, you know…
No, I don’t, she says, sitting up. As she does so, the pillow springs open and one end smacks him in the face softly.
He waves the pillow off and looks at her. She is sitting cross legged. The moonlight coming through the gap in the curtains makes her skin glow.
He has always loved this about her, her complete lack of insecurity being naked in front of him. Most of the women he has been with cover themselves after sex, wrap themselves in a sheet or hurriedly putting on a shirt.
He never understood it. He had just been with them, just been inside them and yet they were embarrassed to have him really look at them.
Not her, though. Never her.
You never look at me, he says finally.
She cocks her head to one side, looks him up and down smiling at him and lets out a small laugh, Yes, I do.
No, you don’t. I mean, yeah, you look at me, but you don’t look me in the eyes. You either close your eyes or you look right past me. You never let me connect with you.
You just fucked me, how much more connection do you need, she asks.
She drops her head a little, though, letting her hair fall across her face hiding her eyes from him. She shifts, bringing her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees hugging herself.
He waits out the silence for awhile. The traffic sounds from the street out front seem amplified.
Why won’t you ever look at me, he whispers.
She flinches ever so slightly, as though the whisper were a slap and shakes her head. I can’t. I never have.
I know, I know you never have, why though?
I don’t mean just you, I mean, I can’t, I never have, not with anyone. Her voice is small, child-like.
He didn’t expect this. He expected more bravado from her, for her to kick him out, to tell him to fuck off. He thinks how small she seems now, sitting there in the moonlight hugging herself, so vulnerable.
He sits up slowly, wanting to take her in his arms and hold her, something she has never allowed before but as soon as he moves she is off the bed, walking away from him to the bathroom.
Don’t you have to be to work soon, she calls over her shoulder.
He hears the door shut and knows he will never see her again.
He will call and she won’t answer the phone, won’t return his messages. He has seen something she never meant to reveal.
His hospital bed is set up in the living room. It runs the length of the wall where the sofa used to be. His breathing machine, oxygen tank, and his walker are positioned around an old wooden crate that serves as a bedside table where he has Q-Tips, Kleenex, and the TV remote.
The head of the bed is elevated and the metal frame and slats are the color of used Silly Putty. The kitten runs under the bed with his oxygen hose, leaps up through the slats and sits, taunting the dog.
The yellow sheets are rumpled, pulling away from the mattress because this bed is slightly longer and wider than a twin but not as big as a full. There is a safety pin vainly trying to keep the fitted sheet in place in one of the corners.
My dad sits on the side of the bed, his upper plate in his hand. He is cleaning it with a Kleenex and as I cannot focus on his face, I stare at his perfect teeth. I think about the Kleenex on the pink plastic and remember when I wore a retainer and know the tissue will stick and tear.
His legs are swollen. They are always swollen. They are encased from the knees down in compression stockings that are flesh colored – but not his flesh color. His legs stopped being that color a long time ago and look like raw meat to me – a reddish purple that looks like it should hurt and I suppose it does. He doesn’t say.
His breathing is labored, he is telling me I need to find someone to work on my car. He can’t do it anymore. Changing the battery just about killed him. Literally.
I nod my agreement, unable to meet his gaze. He and I have the same eyes. Blue and green compete for which will be the primary color. Blue when we are stressed or angry, green when we are laughing and relaxed. Both our eyes are dark blue right now.
I mean it now, he says, I am not saying you have to date anyone, but find someone you can trust to work on your car. You could, I dare you, walk into a bar with a sign on your back that says ‘I need an oil change’ and see what happens.
I say I have heard enough dipstick jokes already.
He is still cleaning his teeth. The plate is clean; he just can’t look at me anymore than I can look at him.
We both know we if our eyes meet, there will be an understanding of what is happening to him and we will cry, and we will not allow that to happen.
I had driven so long that my eyes were burning and my legs felt a bit numb so I started to look for someplace to pull over for a little while. My gaze went right past all the flashy neon and easily recognizable chain restaurants and went straight to a dingy building with blistered paint.
It sat in the middle of a gravel parking lot and the vehicles surrounding it were caked in dust. There was a Pabst Blue Ribbon light flickering in the window and a plastic ‘open’ sign hanging askew in the screen door that slammed shut hard behind me marking me as a newbie, the regulars would all have known to catch the door before it hit.
There was a bar to the left, a row of booths to the right and a handful of tables with mix-matched chairs. I headed for a table away from the door so that I could have a full view of the place. The Formica reminded me of the table my parent’s had when I was a kid, white with a metallic star burst pattern and the corners were even chipped.
A waitress in her mid 50s turned over the red plastic orange peel textured tumbler on the table, filled it with ice water from a clear plastic pitcher and handed me a laminated menu without a word. I turned the coffee cup over signaling I would like a cup when she had a moment.
I have always loved dives. I feel more comfortable in these surroundings. The cigarette smoke hanging in the air along with the smell of stale beer and cooking grease. I sighed deeply and smiled slightly.
The waitress came back and filled my coffee cup, automatically putting down an ashtray filled with little plastic creamers and asked if I knew what I wanted. I ordered a burger and fries, thanked her for the coffee and the creamer and our exchange was done.
I had brought a book in with me as camouflage, I wanted to be able to people watch and listen to the conversations without standing out and my eyes were lowered to the page when I heard the scrape of a chair. I looked up and saw I was being joined.
He had on brown coveralls, dark stains on the knees to the calves. He was wearing a baseball cap clamped down on unruly curly hair and the kind of beard/mustache combination that always makes me want to bury both hands in it and scratch like you would a dog’s face.
His eyes were pitch black, and when he grinned at me, I could see one of his front teeth was chipped.
Do you mind, he asked.
The bar was full and a couple of the booths were taken but there was plenty of space left for him to find a seat elsewhere.
Nope, you’re fine.
He sat watching me intently as I continued to pretend to read my book. I glanced at him every so often but I didn’t know what to say to him so I said nothing.
You got a storm brewing in them eyes, I see it.
I closed the book, laid it down slowly and looked at him. Really? You can see that, huh?
Yep. A hurricane, tornado, a tsunami even, a real wrath of God kind of storm a brewing.
I could only smile at him. I could feel a bit of a lump growing in my throat and I was afraid to speak, afraid my voice would catch and then my eyes would well and I would be crying in front of a stranger, in some roadside dive.
You know what you need?
Ah, here it comes, I thought.
You need a man who thinks you are worth diamonds.
I don’t like diamonds, I said. Diamonds mean commitment to me, and I am not good at that.
I didn’t say a man to buy you diamonds, I said a man who thinks you are worth diamonds, there’s a big difference. You need a man who knows your value.
The waitress came with my food just then and as she set my plate down, he touched the brim of his hat with his thumb and forefinger as though he were tipping it to me, slid out of the chair, waved to a couple guys sitting at the bar and left, make sure to catch the door so that it didn’t slam behind him.
I wanted to ask the waitress if she saw the guy who was sitting with me, not to get his name but to find out if he was real or a hallucination but I just sat there.
Get you anything else,hon?
Um, no. Thanks
I could only sit, my food going cold in front of me and stare at the door, wishing he would come back and knowing he wouldn’t.