Dream Cycle – A Short Story

 

Dream Cycle

by Joel Howard

Lizzie was a girl constantly dodging abuse, so she scoffed when some well-meaning adult asked her about dreams.  But though she would never admit to it, Lizzie at times managed the smallest of them. It was such infrequent mental doodling that served as a life preserver among the treacherous currents of her upbringing.

As her great-aunt had once noted, filling Lizzie’s head with dreams was “like lying to her, building up her hopes for nothin’. What’s to be gained by asking a horse what it’s like to fly among the clouds? Waste of time, that’s what it is.”

Today, at 52 years of tumult and sadness, she’s called Betty. In a fit of grandiosity her mother had named her Elizabeth Taylor. Now, the name of gilded Hollywood and star-riddled hope squatted like an albatross on Betty’s potato sack life, where around every curve of her ample body was found the sagging of despair. Hers is a life that has gone as her mothers had, existing of hours of hard work, with joy so scant as to often be immeasurable. An outsider, someone not of her life, of her particular milieu, would say she should just pick herself up and leave, get the hell out of her situation and create (as if by magic) a better one. While that might seem the ideal, it’s a premise that is not just superficial, but simplistic to the point of flippant disregard. For Betty, any such change would necessitate money, friends, and family, all of which were few, and what existed of those three was scattered as surely as autumn leaves in a gust of chilled wind.

Betty and Al were more adversarial roommates than husband and wife. In their seven years together, packed hard into a small, frame home filled with enough items to crowd a house twice the size, they yet managed to find room for their stagnant mounds of emotional offal. Betty lived a life of ragged, hair-trigger emotions, a woman always knowing the other shoe will soon fall  –  and fall hard. Al, morose and uncaring, managed better, as he had a well-honed talent of either ignoring those around him, or insulting them so that they hurried to leave him in peace. Al’s past had bested Betty by one, being able to claim three ex-wives to her two exes, and along the divorce-strewn road, he’d better crafted the ability to either disengage or make a sport of arguing.

 “Al, turn that damned thing down! I can’t concentrate on my book.” Betty was in the early pages of a romance novel, having stationed herself at a hard-backed dining room chair. Her preferred chair, a recliner with a vibrating mode and integrated cupholders, sat in the living room, positioned next to Al’s, directly in front of the one window, a place of good natural light and offering Betty a perfect view of their neighbors’ comings and goings. Around the corner from where she then sat, the football game seemingly hurled itself from the television, echoing across her thoughts. The large flat screen and its accompanying stand and speaker system stood as a shrine to pixels and plastic. It seemed at times the room’s knickknacks and trinkets jittered in unison with the vibration of the pounding plays and piercing whistles.

She remained momentarily silent, her gaze focused on the profile of her husband, her facial expression giving evidence of a simmering disgust. An ongoing ticker tape of Al’s failings continued in her thoughts, his aversion to touching her chief among them, and his impotence an ongoing failure that she felt spoke to his deeper, even visceral, dislike of his wife.

Again, she called out, “Turn that thing down!” Her head hurt, the aching deep behind her eyes a condition that afflicted her sporadically over most of her adult life. She often wondered if she might have a tumor of some kind, it having grown so immense as to push the insides of her skull to near fracturing, then forcing its dark presence into the depths of her soul.

“Go to another room if you don’t like the noise. My Saints is playin’.” His eyes remained riveted to the screen, his head pitched forward on his thin neck, while his right hand moved in a repetitive motion as he conveyor-belted popcorn to his mouth. A can of beer sat in the holder situated in the left armrest. Over his shoulder, he added, “Them stupid, sappy books you read are all the same crap anyways.” Then, in a comical falsetto, he continued, ‘Oh, my dearest love, I feel your hardness down there, please take me here, take me now’ bullshit. I’m not going anywhere, so you best go someplace else if you ain’t happy.”

“Whadda you know ‘bout hardness, anyhow? Take a pack of pills and a prayer answered to get you hard” She scoffed and let her gaze drift. “’Sides, this was my house before it was yours.” To the air and walls she spoke her mind.

There was nowhere else for Betty to go. The three postage stamp bedrooms were sized as to be like Russian nesting dolls, each a bit tinier than the next. They stood overfilled with just having a bed and dresser and a nightstand, leaving no room for a chair. As for sitting on the porch, the dank chill of an unusually cold Louisiana October day hung steady. Al was aware of the difficulty his advice posed, yet he couldn’t concern himself with such things, especially when there’d just been an interception by the opposing team. He continued feeding himself, bits of popcorn occasionally falling to the carpet, like flakes of dandruff littering someone’s shoulder. It carried Betty’s thoughts to the winter it snowed almost an entire inch, when her second husband Curtis built the saddest little snowman she’d ever laid eyes on, looking like the counterpart to Charlie Brown’s forever pathetic Christmas tree.

With a voluminous heave, Betty stood, pausing to catch her breath before reaching down to dogear page twelve before closing her book. “He’s right about one thing,” she thought. “These romance books are all pretty much alike. But I like ‘em anyways. They ain’t the here and now of things, and that’s a goddamn good thing of itself.” She toddled down the short hallway to a closet, retrieving a canister vacuum and its various attachments. Returning to the living room in a heavy sigh, she and the vacuum were soon both humming, the beater attachment flaying hard against the carpet. In tidying up, Betty found a small measure of calm, and in the resultant cleanliness she found some solace.

Al offered no protest to the noise, staying in his recliner and gulping a long swig of beer, small rivulets running from his bottom lip to his unshaven chin. Occasionally, he swiped the back of either hand across his jaw line. The game had given way to a commercial break, and, having hit the mute button, Al offered his help, prefaced by an extended, phlegmy belch. “Hey, there’s some popcorn right here on the floor.” He made no effort to move other than using his right hand to wave toward the bits of popcorn littered around him. A bit of beer sloshed from the can as he directed her.

Betty steered the vacuum toward the offending bits of popcorn, the powerful appliance snatching the pieces up like an aardvark feasting upon an ant hill. She banged up against the side of the recliner, eliciting a smirk and a second, resonant belch from husband number three. She backed the beater up and rammed his chair again. Over and over, back and forth – bam, bam, bam – she rammed his chair. Al’s response was to restore the volume, opting for the din of commercials over any possible discussion with his wife.

The vacuum had been a gift on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary, which came with advice in lieu of a flowery card. “They say it’ll make housekeepin’ easier, especia’ly for anyone up in years or a bit heavy. You sure ring the bell on both of them counts.”

For that same occasion, having fallen into a rare moment of romantic sway, Betty had gotten Al a fishing reel he’d had his eye on for some time. She’d put it on layaway nine months earlier, slowly paying it off in secret, using money from her part-time job at the dry cleaners. Al had used their joint VISA card to buy the vacuum, almost six hundred dollars, a sum they were still paying on via minimum monthly payments.

“He’s no better than the first two,” she mumbled, morose at the continued realization she’d managed to marry the same man three times over. “Every one of ‘em a lazy bag of useless. A dog’d be better than any one of ‘em. A hunnerd times better. And at least a dog’d have some manners.”

Betty stood down from her assault on the recliner, redeploying her rage and laying siege  to the television. Positioned directly in Al’s line of vision, she now slammed the beater against the lower edges of the tee-vee stand. Al ran the volume up to its highest level, the crescendo of vacuum and an athletic wear commercial ricocheting against the hard walls of marital regrets. Finally, sensing his wife hadn’t any inclination to stop, he slammed the recliner’s footrest down and hoisted himself from the chair. Finding the cord, he yanked hard, slaying the bleating appliance with one shot. Returning to his chair, he slightly lowered the volume of the game, then reclined the seatback.

“You bonkers or what? Stupid woman. Game’s come back on.” His menacing glare served to further entrench his wife’s anger, his stubbled jowls and yellowed teeth serving notice of a future dreary and fatigued.  

“Plug it back in.” She stepped toward Al.  “I said: Plug. It. Back. In. Curtis, I damned well mean it.” She continued toward her husband, face set in grim determination, the beater now held crossways across her body. Al fell into uncontrollable laughter, collapsing back into his chair, pounding the armrests with his fists as he roared in amusement. Beer sloshed its way onto the armrest.

“What? You so lost that you’re calling me by your dead husband’s name. I ain’t Curtis. He died, remember, fell from a ladder? Prolly happy to be gone. Prolly jumped off that ladder, smilin’ as he said so long to your mountain of crazy. I swear to God, you’re insane. ‘Sides, whatcha gonna do, put me on a ladder and hope I jump, too?”

She paused to reflect on the prospect of life without a husband, a quiet life, one of solitude to be had anytime, and solely at her discretion. She wondered what kind of dog she’d get. The idea of no more blaring television, no belching of stale beer and spicy nachos. A dream of life without suffering condescension from a man who claimed as his sole financial contribution a small disability allowance for a badly healed ankle fracture, leaving Betty as the breadwinner.

“One pittance plus another pittance just adds up to deeper kind of poor,” she’d often said, hoping to cajole Al into finding at least a part-time job. To which he invariably replied, “if it weren’t for this damned ankle of mine…”

Now though, she fell into mental revelry, thinking of a change that would allow her to read or dance or roll naked on the floor  –  anytime she wanted. “Hell, the dog won’t mind. And it’ll be a girl dog, too.” Al stared at her, her outburst and far-away grin causing him to shake his head.

She laughed out loud at the scene she’d created in her mind. No more suffering his vile flatulence, what Al called the Scent of Love. Never again his mocking her as he pointed to a woman tall and thin, a woman half her age and possessing a casual beauty so foreign to Betty as to be gibberish. And she would get a cat, too. Why not? Al claimed allergies to all pets, but she felt certain it was simply that he didn’t want her to be happy. Yes, she realized at last, he found joy in her unhappiness. She knew from past relationships that such a thing just worsened over time. The fists that were now shaking at her, the same hands that littered popcorn and commanded the volume so screechingly loud, might soon come to visit her flesh in shades of black and blue. She shook at the memory of past abuses heaped upon her.  

Reinserting the plug into the outlet, she called out, “who says my Curtis jumped off that ladder?” She then brought the roaring beast back to life.

As Al again raised the volume to ear-shattering decibels, the smirk on his face was the last thing she saw before raising the beater and slamming it down exactly at the bald spot on the top of his head. The jarring force of impact and the resultant kickback of his skull both surprised and delighted Betty, a warm sense of satisfaction enveloping her, cradling her in a pool of possibilities.

“I’ll name the dog Greta,” she thought, again raising her weapon.

Again and again, she wielded the piece as one would a hatchet, lowering it with a force great enough to split a log, belying both her age and physical condition. The beater bucked and leapt as she continually maneuvered it, serving as a third arm, an appendage of brawn that pulsed with indignation and anger. She felt energized, and as Al slumped to one side she simply adjusted her position and continued with the chore of again becoming a widow. Eventually Al slid from the chair, his face turning upward as a seismic grunt escaped his body. She gave him one last whack, the crack of his nose and left eye socket breaking elicited a grin that spread wide across her dreamy state.

She paused for one deep breath, heaved the beater over her shoulder, and in a final gesture of freedom hurled it at the television, silencing the game. Feeling that she had finally wrested control of her life, an ensuing calm draped itself about the house, providing Betty with a sense of profound peace.

After a short pause, Betty strode to the kitchen and returned with a dishtowel, one of her favorites, depicting a Parisian café scene. Approaching Al, she placed it carefully across his distorted face, further silencing the past seven years. Back in the kitchen, she phoned emergency services, where she reported the incident as an accident.

“My husband, he fell. The ladder, he’s at the bottom of it. Not movin’, not breathin’. Nothin’. Nothin’ at all.” Then, in the same robotic tone, she stated the address before gently replacing the receiver, treating the device as one would a fine piece of crystal.

Looking at the crumpled heap of Al’s body, she spoke in a tiny whisper. “My poor baby. Tsk-tsk, you done asked for it, though. You know you went and asked for it. You men sure ask for it, all of you.”

The police cruiser and ambulance pulled to the curb simultaneously, one from either direction, emergency lights flickering, their bright colors bringing color to the drab neighborhood of cracked paint and broken sidewalks. The two cops headed to the front door first, while the two paramedics, having each retrieved a bag from their rig, followed up behind.

“There’s no answer. Is that a vacuum cleaner I hear in there?” It was the younger cop, who, having banged on the door with the might of a rookie’s bravado, had stopped and turned to his partner.

“Try the knob,” the older cop said, his hand on his holster, belying his expression of sustained boredom. He ran his tongue deliberately across his upper teeth, having sensed a bit of his lunch – barbequed ribs and a buttery baked potato –  still there.

Inside, they found Betty, the vacuum wand in her hand. She’d left the beater attachment lying among the shards of teevee screen, and was using the nozzle by itself, poking it around Al’s lifeless body, stabbing at bits of popcorn comingled in his blood. She was also sucking bits off his clothes, before then attacking the corpse, seemingly in an attempt to vacuum away the obscenity of death. Jab, jab, jab, her motions were practiced and steady, as was her breathing.

In maneuvering her to the same chair she’d earlier occupied, the two cops found her to be malleable as putty. She acquiesced to their every movement, looking down at her romance novel as if she’d never before seen it.

The paramedics soon pronounced Al beyond hope and returned to the ambulance. Betty mumbled incoherently at first, unable to explain why she’d mentioned a ladder in her call for help. The cops had looked one to the other, the older one shrugging his shoulders as one who’s seen many oddities in the course of twenty years dealing with the public.

The coroner had been called, in addition to detectives. Betty couldn’t recall the last time she’d had that many people over. She was thankful she’d tidied up before their arrival, and said as much, even offering to get her guests something to drink. Once the body had been removed, she spoke as a woman both buoyant and hospitable.

Having removed Betty to the front porch and seated her on a small bench, a recently arrived policewoman watched over her. Betty continued with mostly unintelligible meanderings, posing questions that she herself then answered, her voice shifting as she did so.

“Ma’am, what happened here?” It was a dapperly dressed detective, having stepped outside and bent down to address Betty as one would a small child. Finding in his blue eyes a refuge of comfort and understanding, she smiled.

“He fell. Simple as that.” She had gone flat, both in voice and expression, as if someone had dialed back her life force. Her gaze was then as a hawk, fixed forward, unflinching, focused upon something on the far horizon.

“Perhaps you could go over the events for us. Maybe start a bit before your husband  –  he was your husband, right?  –  okay then, just before your husband ended up on the floor there.”

Finally blinking her eyes, Betty appeared to collect her thoughts, mumbling for a moment before regaining the animation she’d had upon the initial cops’ arrival.

“Floor? No, that’s not how it was. See, Curtis had been puttin’ up the Christmas lights, just like always. Oh, my Curt was a real fan of Christmas. Like a little kid he was, jolly as Santa hisself. I seen him out here and I waved at him as he went on up the ladder. Then I switched on the Hoover. That old thing is loud like you wouldn’t believe.

“Anyways, I get the vacuum cranked up and damn if my Curt doesn’t start yelling about somethin’ or other. He just had to wait ‘til I couldn’t hear him good to holler after me. Always inconsiderate, Curt was, ‘specially when it come to his own wife. So, I shut off the Hoover and head out here to the porch where he’s swearin’ up a storm. He’d lost his ho-ho-ho spirit just ‘cause the lights were tangled up down on the ground here.”

“You mean out here? Today? And his name’s Curtis you said?”

“Why yes, what else would I be meanin’? Anyways, he swore a blue streak at me and I felt my head poundin’, like there was someone hammerin’ away inside my skull. Then I set to tremblin’. Like a sheet of ice swept over me. And then lickety-split, I got all hot real fast like. Like a furnace. Next thing I know, my Curt’s layin’ on the ground at the bottom of the ladder. Right over there.”

Betty pointed to a piece of brown lawn that lay empty save a garden hose left uncoiled, a green snake lolling about in hopes of the sun appearing. There was no ladder to be seen, nor any Christmas lights.

“You should ask my Al. Maybe he saw what happened, or at least heard it. Is he still in there in front of his teevee? Always watchin’ his shows and sports, but he had to have seen or heard somethin’. Man’s as useless as pockets on panties, but his hearin’s all right. ”

The detective sighed, finally standing from his crouched position in front of Betty. “Okay then. Maybe you can come with us and explain it in detail.” He looked over to the older cop, who simply shrugged before using a fingernail to dislodge a final piece of barbeque rib stuck between his teeth. He then put that same finger up to his temple and made circular motions, mouthing “Cuckoo”, before asking of the detective, “Ever been to Isaac’s Ribs and More over on Crenshaw? Now they know how to do ribs right.”

As they led Betty to the patrol car, she spoke of her childhood, reveling in a dreamed existence of forty years past, never once loosening her grip on a broad smile. Her words were laden with hope, as if days long gone could be reinvented to suit her dreams, and as if this was an existence she’d spent years formulating, placing every detail with the finest accuracy. Money and travel figured prominently in her ramblings, as did a loving husband. Those very wishes she’d learned to pack away so early in life were emerging again, this time in an attempt to greet the struggling light of the chilly fall day. Her birth name, Elizabeth Taylor, seemed now to hold for her the promise her mother wished at first breath.

As they neared the jail, she spoke from the back seat, in a velvety soft voice, each syllable delicate, as she detailed a romantic life that never was, and surely would never be. She’d put an eraser to the past she so loathed, leaving it as mere smudges of graphite and grief.

“I’ll be happy, ‘cause I’ll have everything I want, everything I need. Love and devotion will be with me every single day. And I’ll love him back, and be true to him always.” On she went, her words as a luxurious scarf being wrapped around a delicate and pure version of herself. She hummed then, her body vibrating on the strength of her dream. But then, in a voice that devolved into one rife with menace, she spoke again, addressing the back of the two heads.

“I ever tell you ‘bout my first husband?  His name was Earl. We were sweethearts from the ninth grade, got married when we was seventeen. Boy, was he a looker. And the women  –  ooh, hoo, they sure loved him. It was his getting caught lovin’ the ladies back that was the end of him. I ain’t gonna be done that way, don’t care if you’s Elvis Presley hisself.”

The silence from the two cops then became her unseen enemy, and she yearned to fill the car with words, anything upon which her dreams could remain float.  

“Either one of y’all got a dog? I’m gonna get me one. A cat, too, maybe. Pets help keep your brain healthy. Y’all know that?”

At the behest of the cop’s burning silence, she lay her head to one side, resting it against the cool seat vinyl. Exhausted, fifty-two years of fear and anger seemed at that moment to release themselves from her body, floating as a cloud unseen. Gazing into the world through the side window’s metal grate, she saw upon each of its several bars so many new horizons, all resplendent with fairy tale endings. A high-pitched, girlish laugh, tee-hee, tee-hee, tee-hee, erupted from the hollow where fear and anger had long resided, having entrenched themselves and grown immense like some raging tumor, and cradled herself among the possibilities of a small girl’s persistent dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woman with a Wheelbarrow, a Short Story

Woman with a Wheelbarrow

by Joel Howard

The occupiers paid little notice to the peasant woman, and when they did, she served as a target for their cruel words and untoward gestures. The woman was bland like the gray of the sky and the mud of the war-fed trenches, her roundness that of a silo, devoid of nuance. On her right jaw line, there stood a mole from which two long hairs erupted, like antenna on a rooftop.  In the eyes of the occupiers, she was a creature who blended with ease into the common rhythm of local life, a has-been that yet lived, a woman easily left unstudied.

In the previous war, she had lost her only child. Her grieving had never stopped, but had been at least partially dulled by the thought of her son having died in ‘the war to end all wars’. It gave his ultimate sacrifice  –  and her enduring pain  –  a sense of purpose, even nobility. In the lines creasing her face there were found equal parts stoicism and sorrow. Now war again raged, and this time the enemy had laid siege to her small French village, defiling the place where her son had once played carefree among the narrow streets and open fields. This time there was also to be considered the Nazi persecution of the Jews, an idea that she could not fully grasp, yet knew to be a horrible piece of a larger, sinister plan. Her hatred of Germans grew, from that initial seed planted at her son Alain’s death, to the occupiers’ current decimation of the paltry bits of existence she had left. 

A fiercely proud woman, she at first had no thought or understanding of being a member of any organized resistance, rather she resisted any evil that touched near her home and heritage as a matter of course, especially anything that threatened to diminish her son’s sacrifice. Through the past few months of occupation, the pain of loss never dulled her sense of patriotism, nor did poverty cause her eye to stray from the flag of her country. Rather, such emotions served only to further intensify her anger toward the German occupants.

Her defiance intensified as such feelings are wont to do in times of extreme duress, when circumstances call a person to either buckle under misery’s numbing weight, or gird themselves for sustained battle. What had until recently been a dull loathing was soon the catalyst that saw her cottage becoming known as a safe place, a home that offered sanctuary to the persecuted and sustenance for those fighting on France’s behalf.  First, she worked to repurpose a disused root cellar, digging for weeks, stopping only when she’d removed enough soil to allow room for several people. As she labored, she at times spoke to mother earth as one would an ally, and to her son as if he stood proudly at her side. Always, she remained dull in appearance and unobtrusive in deed, continuing in her daily routines. Behind such a façade, she planned to provide a small bit of promise that would, she prayed, result in freeing France from the Germans.

Alongside the cellar, which was accessed from the kitchen, she’d kept her wood pile in the same place it’d always been, directly across from the large fireplace used for cooking. It appeared quite natural; after all, it had been such for decades, and it was a plausible arrangement that had for the previous four months never caught the eyes of the Nazis that conducted surprise inspections. In short order, she’d become adept at quickly accessing the secret space, ushering people in with deft aplomb. To date, she had shepherded twenty-two Jews on their journey to freedom. Her hope was to shepherd many more.

When forced by displays of guns and disdain to feed the enemy, she did so with barely contained animus that swelled to fill every crevice of her being, and enough of her spit applied as seasoning to settle small joy upon her heart. They openly mocked her, some grabbing at her ass in gest. She remained for them nothing more than a means to an end: a full stomach and a few laughs.

Several blocks from her home stood a bridge, where at all times guards were posted to each end. Their orders were simple: ensure the safety of the bridge at all costs and by any means necessary.  Once one of several bridges that spanned the country river, it was now one of only two bridges within sixty miles, the others having fallen at war’s brutal insistence. The wooden structure’s importance to troop and supply movements  –  and prisoner relocation  –  was such that it merited a minimum of eight guards on site around the clock. Lamps had been positioned at critical points so that monitoring of the over 100 foot span could continue through the night.

It had been one month since she’d sheltered the two British soldiers that would forever change her life and add one small footnote to the war. Upon first meeting them, they quickly explained in fluent French that they were intelligence officers sent to investigate the feasibility of rendering the bridge useless utilizing whatever means at their disposal. Their hostess was eager to help. She related in detail the bridge itself, it having been present during all of her sixty-four years. As for how it was guarded, she described in an amusing, animated fashion the process she endured when seeking to cross the bridge.

“First, they put their filthy hands all over a person, up and down they go, their fingers prying and pushing, checking to see there is no bomb or weapon or secret papers. Animals! Then they stab everything  –  bags of flour, loads of hay, everything  –  that we move across the bridge. Their bayonets jab in and out fast like.” She made a quick motion to show the two men how it was done, her squat legs and gyrating arms giving her the appearance of an animated garden gnome. Her voice belied her appearance, with an alluring femininity that fell upon the ear with an almost seductive edge.

“What use do you have of the bridge?”, one soldier asked.

“Oh well, I avoid it mostly, as I want to punch those Nazis, them being so smug, so rude. I hate them.” She spat into the fireplace. “If they all die, I’d be happy. Oh, yes, well, I only use the bridge to move my shit across.”

She went on to explain as the confused look on the men’s faces pushed her for more information.

“See, I trade the shit from my cows and goats for firewood. Guy Cerzone, he has a farm with many plants and not enough manure. He also has very much firewood. So I load the wheelbarrow, and with my shovel I go to Guy’s, whose farm lies just the other side of the river. My animal shit for his cut wood, that is our deal for many years. Now that’s one time those Nazis don’t poke, poke, poke around so much. They think their noses are too good for the smell of shit. Hah!”

She sensed an immediate and positive reaction from the two Brits, which pleased her immensely. One soldier made his way to the secret hiding place and quickly returned with a satchel, one she remembered them having when they arrived at her small way station. The second officer opened the bag and retrieved the bomb. She recoiled at the sight of wires attached to a timepiece. It was indeed an ugly device, one that she knew from recent enemy atrocities could serve to destroy what beauty currently existed, leaving in its wake the ruble of dreams while upending any hope of familial continuity. The three of them then developed a scheme whereby the bomb would serve the greater good of France and her allies.

So it was that on a bright and breezy September day she went forth on a reconnaissance mission. Laden with a load of manure of an amount as she usually transported, and dressed as she normally would for such a chore, she set out toward the bridge, her eyes and ears attuned as never before, her senses serving as receptors for victory. She noted every detail, studying everything in mere seconds. Each step provided further opportunity to glean information to take back with her. Within one hour, she again crossed the bridge, this time heading home with a load of firewood.

“The bridge has rough places, places patched with pieces of new wood,” she told the British officers upon her return. For this was what they particularly wanted to know, the details and idiosyncrasies of its construction. About midway across, she explained,  there was a place about so big – here she moved her gnarled hands, first to indicate the width and then the height  –  that was open to the beams directly below it. “See, the ones you notice on top run crossways like. But underneath them is more wood, this all on a diagonal. Makes for a stronger bridge, no?”

As she spoke, the two men focused their eyes on the bomb, with one of them holding his hands at the size she’d just demonstrated to them. A nod passed between the soldiers, and the woman knew instinctively what they had in mind. She reached out haltingly, and the one soldier, smiling, willed her to take the device. “It is not armed. Just don’t throw it.”

 

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A Jewish family of five were brought to her back door late on the day of her having handled the bomb. During their overnight stay, the two soldiers and family of five never spent one second hidden away, as no one ever came to the door, neither neighbor nor Nazi. The bomb and the plans of the three plotters were never mentioned.

Gone the next day was the family, having been moved during morning’s dark hours to the next hiding place, to another stepping stone on a path to safety and freedom. Then, two days later, the British officers departed. Both groups left with bread and cheese and wine in abundance, all wrapped tight in old rags she’d long ago fashioned from her son’s clothes. The bundles of sustenance were given with the old lady’s blessings, as she in turn took the hands of her guests and wished upon their souls good luck and long life. Three nights after the British officers had left, on a day when unseasonable heat and humidity rolled out across the village like a heavy blanket, the woman set out with a slightly larger load of manure than was usual, her worn shovel lying precariously across it. Her English guests had assured her that the train on that particular day promised to be laden with supplies for the enemy, and perhaps Nazi troops, but no prisoners.

So full was the wheelbarrow that she had to occasionally steady the load. This too was a part of the detailed plan the three co-conspirators had agreed upon. As she approached the last corner before being in sight of the Nazi guards, she stopped and, using the shovel, quickly turned the top layers of manure. The odor wafted stronger, as she had known it would. The steamy conditions held the stench in the air, creating an affront so bold as to aggravate all five senses. She replaced the shovel and, with unwavering certainty, wheeled toward the soldiers, wobbling side to side.

Upon seeing her, she heard them yelling in broken French. “Oh hey, look there! The shit lady is here this morning. Hey there old lady, you moving your shit across the river again?” The soldiers, imbued with youthful energy and a sense of invincibility, laughed uproariously. She held her head low, nodding slightly in answer to the question.

“Go on, laugh, you bastards”, she thought, “I hope you all die when the bomb goes ‘BOOM’!”  Yet at that moment, she gave them what they wanted  –  a stupid, old, French peasant woman, as quiet as she was subservient.

The lead soldier, a blond of towering height and erect bearing, bent with acute precision, peering into the wheelbarrow. “My God, but that stinks! Or is that you I smell, fair lady?”

“It is shit, so of course it stinks, you damned fool.” Again though, she kept the thought to herself while continuing to hold herself in a cowed manner, as her feigned acquiescence to the occupiers remained intact. She caught a whispered glimpse from one soldier, evoking memories of her son, as the Nazi’s eyes had the same greenish hue  –  like dewy, ripe grapes  –  as those of her Alain. She saw the similarity as an affront, causing anger to momentarily swell in her chest, forcing her to call upon a deep well of willpower that scarcely held her rage at bay.

“Oh, go on! Get that damned stench away from me!,” the man in charge bellowed, waving his arms to keep the odor from his nose, his frenzied movements like those of a  sapling caught in a wind storm. On his order she lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and pushed on across the bridge, the tracks’ cross timbers bouncing the load in a steady rhythm, up-down, up-down, bom-bom-bom-bom. At the halfway mark of the span, she appeared to have increased trouble with the heavy load. She had it teetering side-to-side until finally, having hit the sweet spot on the bridge where the previously discovered gap was, she let the load tip to one side. Manure cascaded in a great heap of stench. Acting quickly, she righted the wheelbarrow before falling to the ground and setting her hands upon the largest mound of manure. She squeezed her hands together, confirming that yes, she was holding the sealed box which housed the explosive.

From each end of the bridge roars of laughter arose, a cacophony of the youth’s sense of righteous superiority. “Look at her! So stupid! Use the shovel, you damned old hag!”, she heard.

At that moment on the bridge, the soldiers on either end remained at their positions, only offering continued laughter and catcalls. The woman purposely hid her activities from the guards, her ample body serving to block the view from one end, the strategically positioned wheelbarrow blocking her work from the other. After wiping her hands on her apron, she reached into her apron pocket, peeking at her father’s pocket watch that she’d carefully set and wound that morning. The bomb’s actuator had been preset for exactly 2:11.

“And the train”, she’d explained the day of the plot’s planning, “it runs always exactly on schedule! 2:11  –  not earlier, not later – it is crossing the bridge. The Germans insist my people are lazy about schedules and that they, being Germans, are an exacting people who’d set things right, as if they are bestowing upon us this great favor. Bah! So they are always on time. In the end, perhaps we will thank them for being so rigid with their precious minutes and seconds. Boom!” She laughed with child-like abandon.  

Having replaced the pocket watch, she wedged the boxed explosives tightly into the small niche of opportunity the gap afforded. She allowed enough of the manure to remain as a means of further hiding the device, and then gathered herself, rising from her handiwork as a beacon of hope, much as an early bud answering the call of spring’s welcoming warmth.  She further amused the Nazis by finally fetching her shovel and, with exaggerated effort, scooping heaps into the righted wheelbarrow. Soon she had crossed the bridge, exchanged her manure for a load of firewood, and found herself back at the bridge. Before crossing, two of the Nazis took their time lifting various logs before waving her on across. “Still stinks so much!”, one of them yelled, blowing a kiss and a wink her way.

Back home, she didn’t bother to unload the firewood, just parking the loaded wheelbarrow under a jutting, low eave on the far side of her cottage. Returning inside, she paced the kitchen floor, repeatedly checking the time as she nervously pulled at the two hairs sprouting from her facial mole.

“Oh! Please let this be successful! Let the devils all die!” She looked to the ceiling and wrung her hands, crying aloud in strange moans of anticipation. As the time neared 2:11, she went outside and walked with purpose back toward the bridge from which she’d just come. Halfway back, she paused momentarily and again looked upward, this time allowing the clear sky to soothe her nerves much as a mother’s touch calms a fussy newborn. She began silently praying as she resumed her march. Her prayers included a plea that the two British officers would forgive her for any deviations from their agreed upon plan.

The sound of the train’s whistle announced its approach to the village. The shrill blast pierced straight into the woman’s heart, as she worried – not for the first time –  about any bystanders being hurt.

“No! It will be a train run by Nazis and my people will stand clear of the train as they always do, avoiding the diseased thoughts and misery it brings to our village!” She heard another whistle, this one held longer, an indication of its nearing the bridge. Her heart beat in ways she’d never before experienced, so heavy was the blood as it coursed through her body, as if she were at that moment being carried forward upon the turmoil of the river’s tumultuous and capricious whims.

The rumble of the train grew, its beastly sounds swallowing the stagnate air. She knew from years of the tracks being her neighbor, that the locomotive was seconds away from the bridge. She neared the guards, passed them, now unhearing of their cruelty as she strode down the cobblestone path to the river itself, where the bridge overhead cast its shadows upon the quiet bank. Over the noise of the train, she heard the clamor of the jack-booted guards as they chased after her. The area under the bridge was forbidden territory. Running as fast as her compact body and years would allow, she at last ducked behind one of the bridge’s worn, wooden support pillars. This forced the soldiers to come close to confront her, where she knew their duty would call them to either arrest her or put a bullet in her brain.

“Crazy old woman!”

They were now at her side, two guards, both pointing their handguns at her. Her eyes met theirs, and the one guard met her smile with one of his own, a delicious look of revenge passing between them. The vibration of the bridge as the train’s first few cars passed over them soon sang in unison with the cacophony of the bomb igniting. In that slivered second where all meaning and matter passes into darkness, she saw his smile slip away as she felt hers grow in unchecked strength.

A Sky Sometimes Blue – a short story

A Sky Sometimes Blue

by Joel Howard

I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of evil bein’ among us. Thinkin’ evil doesn’t walk right along beside us may serve to keep a person calm, but it doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s a story that happened here in town that tests the idea of evil, leastways it did with me.

It started when Loretta, my second cousin  –  she’s the one who works part time at Food Fair, pretty little thing with strikin’ red hair and green eyes that’ll take a person right in. I mean, she’s no bigger round than my pinkie finger and just a deep breath of sparkle. So what started the whole thing was Loretta’s mother-in-law movin’ in on top of her and her husband. I don’t really know her husband Teddy very well, but I do know men, and I sure as hell know husbands – had three of ‘em myself. Whether Teddy asked Loretta about his mama movin’ in with ‘em, or it was just presented as a done deal, I’m not sure. I do know Loretta well enough to know she probably didn’t even put up a fuss at all. She’s meek as a rule, folds quicker than a dollar store umbrella in a breeze, so she like as not said “whatever you think is best, dear” or somethin’ similar to Ted when he asked her about it. That is, if he even bothered to ask her what she thought about the situation, like I said. You know men and their frustratin’ ways.

So Vessy  –  that’s Loretta’s mother-in-law, Vessy Lu Douglas  –  moved into the spare bedroom of Loretta and Teddy’s tiny two bedroom house (and with but one small bath, too!). Loretta swears the woman moved in with more stuff than the house could handle, sendin’ the walls bulging out and the floorboards creakin’, the whole house prayin’ for mercy. But she just pushed her way in, moved things around as she pleased, and generally made herself at home. From the beginnin’, there never was what you’d call any love lost between Loretta and Vessy, for what reason I can’t rightly say. Maybe no particular reason at all, or maybe for a hundred little annoyances and bothers.

So after just seven months of Vessy plantin’ her ornery self on the sofa and demandin’ this, that, and the other from Loretta, the pot boiled over and the lid went a flyin’. At least that’s how some folks interpreted what happened. Others said it was all a tragic accident. Loretta never did go to jail, but ask me, the cloud that’s hung forever over her is its own prison. People’l talk, and talk about poor Loretta they did. As I see it, too many still do.

Vessy hardly ever let her daughter-in-law go anywhere without havin’ to drag herself along. Vessy liked to control things, includin’ other folks’ lives. Hell, that’s what she loved most, kind of her hobby you could say. So being right in the thick of Loretta’s comin’s and goin’s was a must do for her. That’s how it was when one day Vessy tagged along with Loretta to the DMV. ‘Cause they never had any money, Loretta waited ‘til the very last day of the month, just before the tags expired, meanin’ that even though it was as crowded as a liquor store on New Year’s Eve, she had to get in there and just wait her turn.

Well, Vessy went to haranguin’ Loretta somethin’ fierce from the get go. A couple of folks I know was there and witnessed the whole ordeal, tellin’ me she was all afire, screamin’, “this line! What did you expect would greet us with you waitin’ til the last second and all?,” and “You gotta get organized, but then that’s not your long suit, now is it, Loretta?”, and such. On and on she prattled as they took their number and waited in them hard-as-a-rock chairs they got down there. Those damn chairs are just torture on a body.

Things was made all the worse ‘cause Loretta knew Vessy was aware that she and Teddy was always broke. Add the fact that Vessy had a decent pension check comin’ in the mail every month, along with Social Security, and what with both of them envelopes passin’ right under Loretta’s nose, and it’ll try anyone’s kindness. All that money comin’ in and never once did the old lady offer to buy so much as a stick of butter. Well, as you can imagine, poor Loretta was bein’ pushed to the edge.  And Ted, he was too scared of his mother to ask her to help out, or so I’m told. Husbands and their mamas, a stranger relationship I can’t think of.

So finally Loretta’s number is called. And sure enough Vessy was right in Loretta’s shadow, followin’ her up to the counter, stuck to her backside like gum to a shoe. And you know how them employees down at the DMV are, all dour and such. Lord knows how low and frustrated Loretta must have been by that point.

Oh, now, I forgot to tell you one of the stickin’ points between Vessy and Loretta. Vessy fancied herself God’s own best warrior, always quotin’ scriptures and sayin’, well, more shoutin’ really, “amen” and “glory” and “hallelujah” all the time. A real nut for the church, that Vessy was. Truth was she got her scriptures wrong half the time. I myself heard her say “the weak shall inherit the earth” when Tommy Giddens lost all that weight ‘cause a cancer. But I doubt Loretta ever pointed them errors out to her mother-in-law. Why ask for trouble when she’s already got so much on order? On top of that, Vessy had it in her head that Ted’s not goin’ to church was Loretta’s doin’. True or not, I don’t know, but to Vessy’s way of thinkin’, it was just another strike against her war-weary daughter-in-law.

Now that I think on it, maybe it was all that bible shoutin’ that likely got Loretta dislikin’ Vessy so much. You know, I always say there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy. Vessy was of the bad variety, and with a helpin’ of irritatin’ to go with it.

There they was, both at the counter, and right off the bat Loretta is told she’s gotta have new plates, ‘cause hers are so old that the law says so. No extra charge or anythin’, which was like as not Loretta’s fear upon hearin’ such a thing. The young girl helpin’ ‘em, she just plops a set of plates on the counter like they do, kind of on autopilot as they mostly are down there, and goes to punchin’ on her keyboard, doin’ her thing. Loretta was probably feelin’ pretty darn good about then, thinkin’ she’d be back home soon, maybe at least able to put a wall between her and Vessy.

Well, Vessy had other ideas. She was like as not leanin’ over her daughter-in-law’s shoulder, keepin’ herself in the mix. Where better for her to stir the pot?  What she saw there caused her to all a sudden send up a holler, which no doubt had everyone in the place starin’ at ‘em.

“Loretta Jean Douglas – Vessy was partial to using all a person’s names  –  you’re not thinkin’ of takin’ them plates?” She was right up in Loretta’s face by then, so I’m told. Vessy was like an invasive weed sometimes, forcin’ herself into your otherwise what-they-call harmonious space. Plus, she had this high-pitched whine of a voice, like a jet engine stuck up next to your ear.

Loretta said something to the effect of, “Why wouldn’t I take ‘em?” I can just imagine the expression on my poor cousin’s face! I’m a Christian lady, but like as not I would’ve told Vessy where to put them license plates.

Anyway, here’s the upshot of it: them license plates  – which by the way Loretta ended up takin’ –  they were, now let me see, oh yeah, they read ‘LCF666’. To Vessy’s bibled-up brand of crazy, that was just Lucifer followed by the mark of the beast, 6- 6- 6. So Vessy gets to clamorin’ about the devil and Satan and hotter-than-hell fires and Loretta bein’ a heathen. All this, mind you, done right in front of that crowd of people. Suppose it give them folks sittin’ in them chairs somethin’ to think about other than their sore butts.

Loretta musta told the clerk that the plates would serve her needs just fine, which spun Vessy right into a bigger fit. She went to caterwaulin’, quotin’ scriptures at Loretta and the crowd of people, no doubt flailin’ about like she’d stepped on a downed power line. I’m sure that DMV girl moved like lightnin’ to get on to the next customer. Now there’s a trick to get them movin’ faster down there  –  just talk crazier than a March hare and they’ll scoot you along fast as that!

This all sent Vessy turnin’ on her heels, and she marched herself out of there. She made it known from earth to the heavens above that she’d sooner walk all the way to China than ride shotgun with the devil. Just more craziness, Vessy style.

When her transaction was all done, Loretta walked herself out to the parkin’ lot, thinkin’ she’d catch up to her mother-in-law soon enough and get her in the car. Loretta was kind enough to put them new plates in the trunk, where Vessy wouldn’t have to see ‘em and Teddy could switch ‘em out with the old ones that evening. Surely even Vessy would see that plates locked in the dark of the trunk couldn’t cause no harm, or so one might think. I know I used to woulda believed such a thing.

So Loretta gets that old jalopy goin’, drivin’ in the direction of home. She sees Vessy not two blocks along, head down and movin’ as quick as she could. Now, you gotta know, bein’ poor like Teddy and Loretta, they’d patch things rather than buy new, all as a matter of financial survival, which, of course, was made all the more dire with Vessy’s mouth to feed. So they was watchin’ their money with that rattle trap car of theirs, too. Teddy’d had one of the front tires patched, tryin’ to get a few more miles out of it, save a few pennies.

Back on the street, Vessy had stopped at the light down there at Horton Avenue and Second, where that new McDonald’s was goin’ up. Now Vessy’s still mostly lookin’ down, probably mutterin’ mixed-up scriptures for all anyone knows. The witnesses said there was a young kid stopped on the sidewalk with her, and like most teenagers I ever have known, he ignores the light and makes a run against the crossin’ signal. Just a bad accident waitin’ to happen, ask me. Vessy, well, she must’ve though it was okay to go, ‘cause she never looked up, just stepped off the curb thinkin’ she had the signal, followin’ that kid.

Meanwhile, Loretta is comin’ along thinkin’ she’ll go on straight through the light there and just pull on up to the curb. You know, get out and try to reason with her mother-in-law, tell her the plates are tucked away in the trunk where they’ll do no harm. It all went haywire just when Vessy was but a couple of steps off the curb. The police aren’t sure if the tire blew out first, causin’ Loretta to lose control of the car, or maybe, as she’s tryin’ to maneuver the car close along the curb, she gets too close and that makes the tire go kablooey. Either way, the car makes a bee line for the crosswalk and poor Vessy, Loretta havin’ had the steering wheel jerked from her hands.

That particular day Vessy was wearin’ this lovely sweater of Loretta’s, kind of a sky blue with little pearl-like buttons on it and a rolled collar. Loretta’d got it at a garage sale over in Springfield the fall before, and then wore it all the time ‘cause everyone complemented her on it. And then she wore it to work a lot as she wanted to look her best, hoping to get moved up to a full-time position. Vessy probably borrowed it without askin’, as was her way. Loretta told me the last thing she remembered is the loud bang of that tire blowin’ and then that pretty blue sweater tumblin’ through the air and smashin’ the windshield. Then Vessy just rolled forward off the hood and got herself pinned up between the front of that car and a light pole, like a rag doll squashed up in the back of an old toy chest.

And just like that, no more Vessy.

Loretta, well she was tore up somethin’ awful. Told she just boo-hooed and paced around like a hungry cat. For ages afterward, she wouldn’t take comfort no matter what anyone said or did. And what with the cops investigatin’ things, it had to weigh on her somethin’ awful. It never went anywhere like her being charged. Along the way, Loretta had said she did remember that her foot went right from the brake to the gas pedal when the tire blew, the force of it and all jarrin’ her whole leg. I mean, that does seem natural enough, but I suppose no one can ever be for certain.

Not two months after the accident, Teddy and Loretta went their own ways. Loretta lives over in those new apartments, the ones out on the north edge of town. I’m not sure on the amount, but Vessy left them a bit of money, which half went to Loretta in the divorce. Helped her set up house, plus she got a new car, which now has Vessy’s devil plates on it. Maybe Loretta’s thnkin’ there’s nothin’ to them license plates, but it makes me wonder, them devil plates being in the trunk of that old car just before the tire blew, givin’ that old Pontiac just enough oomph to run Vessy right to death.