Tag Archives: short story

Leverage

Leverage 

by Joel Howard

 

Hypoplastic. Left. Heart. Syndrome.

The words clung in some measure to Tim’s every thought, weighting life’s every turn with its dark aura. He held himself hostage, the angst fed by guilt and self-doubt serving as an implacable warden. The realization that he himself held the keys to his emotional freedom – or at least a one-day pass –  was itself another ill-fitting burden.

Born prematurely, each day for his daughter was a struggle, every elapsed second presenting itself as another opportunity for death to announce an end to six-month-old Faith’s life. As his emotions paced in feverish anguish, the young father sensed the world was openly mocking his ability to cope on any level  –  financially, emotionally, or physically. Worry and despair had settled into his existence as unwanted guests, both giving no indication of leaving anytime soon.

The heart transplant Faith had required had been completed, and she had so far not rejected the new organ. Yet every aspect of the disease  –  the surgeries, the tests, the uncertainty,  everything –  continued to wrestle ownership of his thoughts and emotions, as much a part of him as the sinew connecting bone to muscle. In time, he’d grown to feel that even the tiniest moment of joy  –  even emotional calm  –  on his part would be a betrayal of his daughter, that it could somehow cause her death. All things in his life stood on a dark, lonely precipice. He saw in that inky abyss below a future of certain doom, but for him or his daughter – even his entire family  –  he was not sure.

Upon his arrival to work one morning, Tim was handed a sealed envelope inscribed with the company logo, his manager having simply said ‘this is for you’. He’d been smiling as he handed it over, causing in Tim a rise of that turmoil that centered itself safely in his gut. Was this to be the day he was given the heave-ho, the company tired of his many absences from work? And yet, any ill feelings quickly abated when thoughts of freedom overcame him. No more drudgery under the filthy chassis of Buicks and Nissans. The pervasive stench of grease, belching mufflers, the hissing sounds of the machines at the oil change facility  –  all gone. And just like that, that glimmer of blue had him silently berating himself, ruing his brief release of pain.

He’d lately fallen into fits of self-recrimination, as countless people had reminded him that he should be thankful for having a job, especially one with such handsome benefits. Such comments had an ill effect on Tim, as it reflected back to him the scepter of himself as a cold, unfeeling bastard, a man so shallow as to be unable to give thanks for such things. The health insurance alone was generous in scope, and his co-workers and the company itself had been more than supportive. It left Tim filled with self-loathing. The support had become its own burden, as heavy as it was debilitating. None of it made Faith better. None of it released her or his family from the enormous weight of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

With his manager’s eyes following him, Tim carefully tore the envelope open, treating the whole exercise as one of delicate, exploratory surgery. His finesse in opening the flap and extracting the enclosed single page stood out of place amongst the garage’s ambience of petroleum and tires, fluids and batteries.

The letter, from the company’s human resources department, informed Tim he was being given an additional four weeks of paid vacation, adding that the additional time off was available due to the generosity of employees giving from their own accrued vacation time. These co-workers, it added, came from every division and location of the company, and all wished to remain anonymous.

Tim had, during times of distress, begun to have something akin to out-of-body experiences. At that moment, his entire field of vision was overwhelmed with a kaleidoscope of bright colors, almost neon in their intensity, each dazzling in luminous shards, as if a beam of a nearby sun stood off to the side. He shook his head, and the colors left, leaving him to imagine them lying all about the manager’s office.

Anonymous generosity, Tim had learned, can be its own form of bother. Certainly, he believed in charity, yet the overabundance he’d received had made him feel inadequacies he might otherwise never have been forced to confront. He saw himself as a grifter, a street corner bum with his hand constantly held out.

Tim could sense his bosses’ continued stare and for that reason did not look up. He refolded the letter and neatly placed it back in the envelope before repositioning the flap to its original place, suturing the surgical site with precision. It appeared as if the envelope remained unopened.

“Pretty nice of those people to give up their vacation days for you, huh Tim?”

Tim muttered a slight “yes” and then shuffled his life’s burden to his station, where he then hid the letter in a lower drawer beneath an array of adjustable wrenches. He concentrated on avoiding others, as he couldn’t know to whom he was indebted, who may have been a donor of their own vacation time. It seemed to him as if the whole of the world knew of his personal problems, forcing him to dwell in the long shadows cast by others’ uninvited benevolence.

Tim had once dreamt of a career as a graphic artist. Drawing and sketching had been his one salvation. He’d investigated various art schools, hoping to achieve a different life than he’d thus far known. Art was to be his means of escape, a way to step into a future rid of his small hometown and what he saw as pervasive mediocrity. Pencil and paper were to craft a magical transport that would whisk him to untold bliss, his wife Lauren at his side.

His recent drawings of Faith were taped to the brick wall along the side of his work bay, many of them depicting her in bed anchored with a myriad of spidery tubes and fierce illness. All were in black and white, seeming to pose a symbolic struggle between evil and good. These sketches, unlike his others, were done so that they depicted every item in sharp relief –  except for Faith. His daughter was drawn completely penciled in, with rounded shades of gray that undulated across the paper as if to imbue the tiny girl with a robust and permanent energy. In having the drawings close to him all day, Tim brought the reality of his family’s heartache to work with him, such normalcy in the darkness they depicted oddly comforting.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

 

Just before noon Tuesday, an employee from home office came in to replace the safety lever that operated the lift in Tim’s bay. The state mandated that the lever be replaced annually, as well as the electrical relay inside the control box. The system was then thoroughly checked and the process documented. The lever required constant pressure, either up or down, to operate the lift. Tim watched idly as the man did his job, a line of cars forming outside the adjoining bay.

“Name’s Jon Campbell,” the man said. The man’s idle chatter seemingly had no end. Tim had seen Jon’s name stitched on the breast pocket of his work shirt, and now just stared at the man’s hands as he deftly disassembled the control box and went about his work. At one point, Jon looked up at Tim and smiled, now taking notice of the name stitched on Tim’s work shirt.

“Tim? You by any chance the Tim who’s got the sick baby?” Before he received an answer, Jon averted his eyes back to his task at hand, the question he’d posed suddenly seeming to him as an invasion into a stranger’s heart. He didn’t see the look of irritation on Tim’s face. Silence enveloped them both before Jon again spoke.

“Guess not, huh? I just knew there was a Tim something-or-other that was having a tough go of it with his new baby. Brannigan or something like that.”

“Branford.”

“How’s that?” Jon stopped his work and looked up at Tim..

“Branford. The last name is Branford. And yeah, that’s me. I mean, it’s my little girl who’s been sick.”

Jon stood stiff and tall, as if the occasion deserved a measure of respect given a trial judge. Surprise was writ large in his wide, hazel eyes as he carefully put his test light aside. “Oh man, well, I’m sorry. I mean, it ain’t right a young kid being sick like that. Bad enough for anybody to be sick like that, but a little baby. No, it just ain’t right.”

Tim responded with a tepid smile.

“I know it’s tough. Must be,” Jon said, scratching at the thick stubble on his throat. “And I know them days off you’ve been getting from everyone’s gotta be a big help to you. I’d have given some but I got four kids and a wife who rides me close. If I’d of given my vacation time to you she’d have squawked to high heaven, not that she’s mean-hearted or nothing. It’s just, well, as it is, I ain’t got enough days to satisfy the kids softball and camps and going to see my damned in-laws half way across the country. If I coulda, I woulda give you a day or two. But I just…”

“Don’t apologize. I know it’s hard out there and all.” Both men stared at the cement floor, finding there a disinterested place from which the awkward moment could pass.

“Sure, sure.” Jon bent again to work on the safety lever.” I just wanted you to know and all, we’re all pulling for you. Sad thing your little girl is going through. All the way around, just terrible.”

Tim watched in silence as Jon finished his task. The man hurried, quickly replacing the last of the screws securing the cover to the panel. So fast was he that Tim was left wondering if he actually got everything inside the control box back to its proper place. Jon smiled toward Tim. “I’ll keep your family in my prayers.”

Silence again enveloped them, hanging about as a sad and desperate fixture.

“You know, my mom wanted to name me Jonathan.” Jon at last broke the quiet, fighting the awkward feelings that yet held him as he simultaneously packed his tools away. He stopped to wipe non-existent sweat from his brow. “My dad sad it was too hoity-toity, that John was more to their station in life, plus it was his dad’s middle name. So what’d mom do? She said okay, but made it ‘J-O-N’, leaving the ‘h’ out. Dad always sad it was a dig at his not wanting ‘Jonathan’, that she was mad and wanted to one-up him. Funny how things that’ll directly affect your life happen before you’re even born.”

To Tim’s ears Jon’s words then became mere babble, Jon’s goodbye and kind wishes lost to Tim. For a moment, Tim was awash in pain, despair lapping at his frayed edges, flooding his soul with recriminations. His thoughts had given completely over to Faith and Lauren, hoping that today was a day of positive progress for his daughter. The time apart was always excruciating, leaving him to worry about his daughter’s condition on a minute by minute basis.

 

>  >  >  >  >  >

 

Hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

They had been told it was genetic, and that the disease was most often passed down paternally. Surgery was vital to her survival. Little Faith, born five weeks early, was so tiny that Tim had thought it impossible for any operation to be performed. She’ll splinter into a million pieces, he’d told Lauren.

“We perform surgery on lab rats, and they’re smaller than your baby.” The doctor’s words of attempted comfort had not set well with Tim. True, the baby was tiny and wrinkled, wizened much as his and Lauren’s youthful dreams now appeared in the face of their daughter’s troubles. Yet the one thing Tim always noted above all else when looking at her was the valiant struggle she waged, unabated, unyielding.

Lauren had quit her job as a cashier at Food Giant, the demands of their daughter’s illness having necessitated it. Tim was their sole source of income, already spent years into the future from what Tim could figure. Yet it didn’t take a calculator to see that the family had fallen into an inky-red abyss, their future stained with crushing debt.

Just nineteen years old at Faith’s birth, Tim and Lauren had been ill-prepared for parenthood. They’d had a future planned: college, marriage, a house  –  and then a family, an orderly progression along well-placed stepping stones. The pregnancy had upended things, and with Faith’s birth, any plans they’d made were shattered, scattering bits of dreams as the fine hairs of a windblown dandelion.

“If only I could switch places with her.” This was Lauren’s constant lament. Tim never thought such a thing, sometimes thinking instead that it’d be nice if he were just gone, a blank space, his physicality disappearing like steam brushed aside from a boiling pot.  Such a wish was at least realistic, he thought, whereas his wife’s idea of trading one life for another was nothing but foolish dreaming.

Tim soon availed himself of two of the donated vacation days. Faith was to have a series of tests to be certain the transplanted heart was functioning properly. Through the ordeal of waiting for one test and then another, hoping for positive news, he felt continued pangs of guilt as regarded his coworkers’ generosity. There was scant space for these feelings, but that made them all the more powerful, sandwiched as they were between all of the other emotions swirling helter-skelter in and about him. These feelings of guilt stood ever tall, becoming the ominously dark cloud among whatever perilously frail pieces of blue sky that might be found. No matter how much he willed these sensations to leave, guilt demanded its due.

After this latest round of tests  –  which provided mostly positive results  –  Tim felt more lost, more ineffectual than he’d previously experienced. Joy had become a taunting mistress, always threatening her pendulumlike swing to the darkness of bad news and its inherent sadness . The costs of the tests and co-pays loomed ever larger as the number of procedures increased, and no amount of donated vacation days or medical benefits could scour away such a looming truth. Life’s ills slurred together as one diabolical albatross whose weight Tim could not offload, not even for one moment of tranquility.

 

  • >   >   >   >   >

The baby’s sputtered breathing set off the alarm that blared less than two feet from Lauren’s ear. It was just after 2 a.m., and the alarm sent she and Tim racing into Faith’s tiny, pink bedroom. Their blood coursed in throbbing anxiety as, in the overhead light, they saw Faith struggling. Her every breath was erratic, her tiny chest spasming in fits of up and down motion.

Having grabbed her mobile phone from her nightstand (she’d been presented with this emergency twice before), Faith dialed 9-1-1. Words stumbled fitfully from her mouth: baby, heart, God, breathing, hurry, alarms, hurry, help, fast, God. And more than once: hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The operator knew the address and the situation from history, and she dispatched help before Lauren had spoken but a few words.

As they awaited the paramedics, with time teasing and taunting them, Tim and Lauren each , two traced their fingers across their daughter’s brow, the baby’s labored breathing seeming to calm ever so slightly.

 

<  <  <  <  <  <  <  <

 

Faith had been stabilized, yet to Tim’s weary ears the doctor’s words hadn’t the same sense of hope as times past. Lauren, however, seemed to accept the doctors’ words of encouragement, but perhaps, Tim thought, she chose to believe because the alternative was simply too much to bear. For him, second guessing  – Faith’s condition, his abilities to provide, life’s purpose  – had become a sport, his own Russian roulette.

Tim had initially taken two additional days off. At Lauren’s pleading, he agreed to take a third day. Fatigue had wracked their minds and bodies, leaving them to lean heavily one upon the other to remain upright in facing the situation, two trees felled in a storm. It was midday into the third day that Tim stepped out to call the garage and update them on Faith’s condition. Lauren followed him, intertwining her hand with his as they went to the hospital’s central courtyard, resting in the open air, the sunlight scissoring through high branches of the potted trees.

The call was never to be placed. As they settled their weariness one against the other on a wooden bench, the door they’d just passed through again opened. Tim sensed someone having come up behind them, a shadow trespassing upon their agony.

“Sorry to bother you. How’s your daughter doing? Better, I hope.”

Tim and Lauren’s faces were awash in surprise, their eyebrows arched and their mouths agape. They’d never expected to see Tim’s boss’ boss, Mr. Jensen  –  the man who managed the state’s 29 locations. Unease quickly settled upon the parents, fearing this as the moment of Tim’s termination. They were mindless of the public relations nightmare such an action would create for the company.

“Is she holding her own?”

The first two times Tim opened his mouth, a tired, dry croak came from deep within. On the third try, coherency took a frail grasp on his words. “She’s, well, we’re waiting. We wait a lot. They said it’d be a bit later today before they knew if they’d caught things in time. An infection. She got an infection.”

“Well, we’re all praying for her, for all of you. Family is important. Most important.”

A tall man, Mr. Jensen towered over the two on the bench. He stooped, using his hands to steady himself, looking like a wind-whipped airplane landing in strong winds, tilting side to side. As he lowered himself, the young couple felt him pulling their lives down with him, a weight as unwieldy as it was determined in reaching its destination.

“I’ll only be a minute. I hate coming here and telling you this, but you’re going to hear it soon. And I wanted it to be from me, just so you know the truth of what we know, which isn’t a whole lot, actually. Of course, I wanted to check on little Faith as well. We all keep her close to our hearts.”

Lauren whimpered, a nestling’s cry for nourishment, for life. Her hand squeezed hard around her husband’s arm.

“Anyway, I have the sad task of telling you that we lost an employee today. His name was Teddy Anderson. I’m not sure if you knew him or not, Tim. Anyway, he works  –  rather worked  –  at one of our garages over in Springfield. He’d agreed – volunteered actually  – to come over and fill in for you while you’re out. And earlier today, well, right after opening, he had an accident.”

Tim couldn’t recall ever having met him. His head just kept shaking  –  left, right, left, right  –  a metronome of fatigue and incomprehension.

“He was at your station, Tim,” continued Mr. Jensen, “and something went wrong. He was sweeping up the area, keeping things nice and clean, that was Tim’s way. He must’ve bumped the safety lever on the lift switch, maybe with the broom’s handle. We’re just not sure. All we know is that he was under the lift and it came down. The safety switch, it must have somehow failed. It caught him underneath there while he was sweeping. And, well, he didn’t make it.”

Mr. Jensen didn’t tell them of the details, of how it knocked Teddy to the ground after hitting his head, likely rendering him unconscious. One of the four giant arms then compressed his chest, crushing it, squeezing it until the ribs and organs were huddled impossibly tight, finally giving way in an avalanche of life-ending insistence.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, here and now. It’s just I knew you’d get word of it, there’s no escaping that fact. None of us want you to be loaded down with any more pain than you already have. You two just take all the time you need, focus on your baby and her getting strong and back home. The garage is going be closed for a while anyway, inspections and lawyers and all.

“Tim, here’s my business card. Take it. I’ve put my cell number on the back. You call me anytime  –  anytime at all  –  if you need anything. I mean it.

“Oh, and they’ll have to interview you, it having been your station. Just asking about any problems you may have noticed. I’ll try to hold them off for a couple of days. They can interview Jon Campbell first, maybe find out what he might have seen before he gave that lift a clean bill of health just a few days back.”

Mr. Jensen disappeared, the scepter of the violent death lingering over Tim, hanging as an angry cloud portending a violent release. The two young parents again leaned into each other, their linked hands transmitting anguish one to the other like static electricity.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<

 

A fleeting image of Teddy Anderson skipped across Tim’s thoughts as he watched the speedometer inch past the midway point. Air poured through the open windows, buffeting him in a cool cascade of freedom. At seventy-three miles per hour, the Civic started to shimmy, quickly falling into the shakes, the tremors of an old car quickly protesting as it is pushed from its comfort zone.

Three days had passed since Mr. Jensen had visited the couple. Faith had been stabilized, but would remain in the hospital for an indefinite period of time. They had to be vigilant for infections.

Tim had found a picture of Teddy on a social media site. It showed a sandy haired man with a slightly darker beard, smiling into the camera. He was posed with a striking woman, her hair a thick auburn tangle that framed an angular face with blue eyes. Two small children  –  a boy and a girl  –  sat serenely at either side of the couple. The family looked happy, their smiles natural, the sparkle in their eyes a sign of deep satisfaction with life, the very life for which Tim had prayed – begged – of God.

His picture of Jon Campbell was imagined only, as he’d been unable to find a trace of the maintenance man online. He’d conjured up a hectic family, the four kids Jon had mentioned so active that they hadn’t the time to gather for a family photograph. Jon and his wife would be breathless from chasing their children, waging a constant battle against chaos, never certain what constituted normalcy under their roof.

Tim had left Lauren as she slept in Faith’s hospital room, taking the family car for a ride in hopes of clearing his head. However, he soon found himself deep in despair. His state inspector’s interview was scheduled for the next morning, a thought that elicited within him waves of paranoia. No doubt police and attorney interviews would populate his next several days.

He pushed the Civic to eighty-four miles per hour. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. “Why us, why Faith?”, Tim wondered aloud, the rush of wind placing it in an echo chamber about his ears.

Soon the rusted sedan reached eighty-seven miles per hour. He recalled the shriek of Faith’s home heart monitor. The pain of his inadequacy gripped him in cold shivers.

Ninety even on the speedometer. The bills piled high at home, familial red ink to infinity.

In death, Teddy had left behind fifty thousand dollars for his family. The life insurance was a company benefit, another perk for which Tim was to to be thankful. Tim had been told of it upon being hired, and it was his recollection of that knowledge, coupled with his other agonies, which led him to think about tampering with the up/down safety lever of the spidery car lift. If, he reasoned, he disabled the spring that forced the unattended lever to default to the OFF position, he could make the future brighter for his wife and daughter.

Ninety-two. A raucous noise of complaint from the front of the Civic. The dull vapor of the streetlamps whizzed past in an eerie fog of indifference. Poor Jon, almost Jonathan. Perhaps he’d be blamed for the tragedy, having just worked on the safety lever and blessed its fitness for daily use.

Tim couldn’t think his way through the situation. That Teddy had died due to the safety lever having been rendered inoperable was a weight so crushing to Tim that he’d been unable to take even one full breath since being told of his death. His mind reeled uncontrollably.

Ninety-five miles per hour. The gas pedal hitting the carpeted floorboard behind it. Lauren and Tim’s first illicit kiss behind the school, him pressing himself into her, pushing her back and shoulders into the brick wall, teenage urgency urging him onward. Her high laughter  –  a giggle really  –  so delicious to his senses.

A concrete abutment of an overpass fast approached, illuminated by the headlights which Tim flicked to high beam. He studied the grey buttress of impenetrable stoicism, unyielding to man’s foibles, unconcerned with any conflictions of mortals.

The car shook uncontrollably. Ninety-nine. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. A family curse, father to child. Flickering red light.

If he’d wanted to stop things, to undue things, to make things not what they were, it was not to be. Those things now in motion would not be denied their outcome. The world, Tim realized, was going to go on about its business  –  good and bad  –  no matter. Indifference enveloped him. Heavy inhale, powerful exhale. He relaxed his body, the finality of the situation allowing him to at last complete a full breath, an intoxicating breath. A howling laugh parted his lips as the cool air soothed the darkness, calming the uncertainty, allowing joy to settle within.

The implosion of faded metal, angry at being forced to make room for Tim’s desperation, the final crescendo of shattering noise so like the alarm of Faith’s heart monitor.  Without the aid of a seat belt, his body hurtled forward as the car itself jolted backwards from the impact, the two seemingly on opposing sides of a standoff. Catapulted through the windshield, then dancing with shards of glass, he stopped only when he was as one with the abutment that held his future in smug silence. In one transformational moment, Tim saw reflected his own image in fragmented, dazzling pieces, each one but a sliver of a future to which he’d once aspired.

He’d arrived where life dances with death, a place of familiarity if only through his daughter’s unending struggle. Blankness could now swallow his place on earth, for he’d happened upon the precise spot where the mind ceases to distinguish between hope and despair, where physicality has no standing.

Such were his thoughts as the faintest wails of the ambulance roared toward him. Then, on the way to the hospital, the clamor of the sirens remained so immense that it easily broke through his thoughts of death with an insistence that he remain in life. He was at that moment incredulous, having never thought that once dead a person could yet hear. Surely, he mused, to be gone from the world, this world, meant also to be deaf, as one must go with the other as sin with forgiveness.

 

 

Blue & Mrs. Throop

Blue and Mrs. Throop

by Joel Howard

 

She gave scant thought to how the police interpreted the scene before them. For one thing, she was in shock, and for another, she had piddling confidence in the police. If they were at all competent, they’d have had her in handcuffs already.

The hell with you imbeciles, she found herself thinking. Michael’s right, cops are as useless as tits on a nun.

“Mrs. Throop, shall I call you that, or do you prefer Nancy?” It was the cop who seemed to be in charge, a doughy man stuffed haphazardly into an ill-fitting suit. Detective Smith she recalled. He had bad breath. The breath of habitually bad habits.

“Mrs. Throop will do. I am Mrs. Michael Throop.” She adjusted the collar on her blouse as she spoke, her words conveying an imperious manner, delivered in a voice rarely used, but which gave her a sense of unexpected satisfaction, of superiority. It was reminiscent of the tone Michael so often employed when speaking to his wife, the delivery alone alerting her to his grievances toward some actions or words of hers. She shook at the recollection, twisting the gold cross draped loosely around her neck.

Smith peered, his eyes squinting across the upper rim of his dollar store reading glasses. Mrs. Throop avoided his glance and looked down at her shoes, where she noticed a scuff mark on the leather of the left one.

Clearing his throat, Smith failed to gain her eye. “Right, right. Well, then, please know that you call tell us anything. Anything at all.”

She found his manner overly ingratiating. Such kindness irked her, as if he was the teacher and she a pupil arriving at the first day of first grade, as if she were part of some remedial course for the slow-witted. Having raised her gaze, she focused on the detective. It was her norm to hold up every man – real or imaginary –  in comparison to Michael. And while she met few people outside of their home, those men she did meet invariably paled in comparison to her husband. Looks, intelligence, bearing – no matter, they all failed. Smith, she quickly surmised, doubly so.

The detective had earlier made the mistake of mentioning prior visits to the Throop home, putting her on alert, shrinking her already shallow well of trust. Sure, the police had been called out before, but that hadn’t happened in well over six months. Well, she thought, almost six months, a record absence of uniformed officers on their front steps.

It took me a while, she thought, but I learned not to call. And I tried to speak to Mrs. Baines, tried to tell her not to call the cops on us, but she’s a nasty neighbor. Telling me to ‘get help’ and ‘have some respect for yourself, Mrs. Throop’ just made me scream at her, to lose all control.

Involving the police invariably stoked her husband’s emotions at a time when he already stood as a tinder box of barely contained fury. Besides, in the end, she had always dropped any charges that might have been brought against her Michael. He’d return home from jail, his rage fast igniting into an inferno of berating fists.

No, nothing good comes of dialing 9-1-1. First responders are sent no matter how much one might try to dissuade the dispatcher. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call. Cancel it, please.” No such luck there. Begging was as futile as pleading with Michael about calming his mercurial temper. Once the call was connected, the law stated that help must be dispatched. They’d send cops and ambulances and maybe even a fire truck, leaving Nancy to surmise that firemen were either bored or nosey. They would all arrive quickly and remain insistent on knowing what exactly precipitated the call, demanding answers, logical ones. And if Nancy had even the smallest visible bruise or red mark, if her hair looked disheveled or her teary eyes gave pause to the cops, things would get uglier. It all served to further infuriate Michael.

You’re going to get me put in jail again, stupid cow. You’d probably like that, wouldn’t you? Yeah, I just bet you would, he’d wail at her as she vehemently shook her head, becoming dizzy from the effort.

Today’s events had been her fault, after all. She admitted as much to the police, telling Detective Smith exactly how it came to be that Michael lay dead on their kitchen floor, how his death stood firmly  –  and to her mind obviously  –  upon her shoulders. Oddly, when Smith asked her for details, it was as if his words came swimming to her consciousness from some unseen place, somewhere far below her, whereas when Michael spoke to her, it always, invariably, came from a place high up, some lofty heaven overhead.

As she explained to the detective, she’d frittered away too much time that afternoon in the bathroom mirror, fussing over a bruise on her left cheek, one which persisted in heralding its blue-black testimony to one of her recent failures. She’d managed to add concealer to both cheeks, layer upon layer, adding some rouge on top, trying to get them to appear even. In the end, she found her appearance to be that of a half-made clown. Michael had asked of her many times before that she simply be ‘half-ass presentable’ when he came home from making a living for them both. But she couldn’t even get that right, not today at least.

“That was but the first of my stupid, stupid mistakes. What could I have been thinking? I wasn’t thinking. Not thinking at all. That was the problem. And so my husband now lies dead on the kitchen floor. Murdered by his wife, by me.”

Couple her clownish appearance, she further explained, with the mess she’d made of dinner, and it was little wonder that her husband had been upset with her. If she’d gotten herself presentable faster, she could’ve focused more on dinner and having it properly presented on the table when her husband walked through the door from work. There was also the simple rule that Nancy have a double shot of whiskey to hand him when he came home, “to sooth my fucking nerves”, he’d tell her. This, too, she’d mucked up.

Why doesn’t this simple and odorous detective understand my fault in Michael’s death? His ineptitude is both amazing and exasperating. Tits on a nun, tits on a nun.

“I mismanaged my schedule, causing me to rush in the kitchen, sending the evening spiraling into a crushing chaos which I was too stupid to contain. The bowl of green beans we’re of course hot, but hotter than I’d expected, and I’d dropped it, shattering glass and sending green, watery rivers out across the tile floor. How inept can I be?”

Then, she went on, the garage door motor could be heard, sending her into a panic. Michael soon entered the kitchen, sighed in heavy grunts of displeasure, and come at her in anger. As the smooth soles of his dress shoes met the slippery tile, he was sent into a spin. The crack she’d heard as his skull met the unforgiving edge of the granite counter yet echoed in her mind, as did the thud of his weight falling upon the floor.

“Oh Nancy, you foolish woman! Now you’ve gone and done it worse than ever before.”, she’d chided herself. “Is it any wonder he grows impatient with you?”

Her husband lay akimbo on the tile floor, the image reminding Nancy of the ominous chalk outlines one sees in a noir detective movie. But she thought then that he was alive, death being an impossibility in her mind. Michael was her rock, her beacon. He would not falter, couldn’t leave her alone.

Unable to rouse him, she’d finally called for help, this time begging they come quickly, wailing,  “I’ve hurt my husband.” Upon the paramedic pronouncing him deceased, she’d screamed, launching herself at the man, hitting him, biting at his clothes, refusing to accept his determination of death.

Once calmed, she realized it was an unarguable case of murder. Why she hadn’t been arrested was unfathomable in her mind. The entire story leading to Michael’s death she’d relayed to the detective in run-on emotions, an avalanche of words more spewed than spoken. Perhaps her words had traveled too quickly for Smith to comprehend.

“Who’ll take care of Blue?”, she’d finally asked, having come up from the depths of despair for air. The detective had tilted his head, looking at her as if he didn’t understand. “I can’t just leave him here. He’s a real lap cat. He’ll need someone to be with him. Michael would be upset if Blue wasn’t being properly seen to. He adores Blue.”

Nancy had affection for Blue as well, but not as Michael had. The cat had served at times as a furry buffer between her and her husband’s anger.

Now, though, she’d hoped the detective wouldn’t say that Blue would be taken to a shelter. Perhaps he’d tell her to call a friend, but where’d that leave her, a woman of no friends? As for relatives, she had few, and the nearest one was her crazy sister in Topeka, some 300 miles away. Rather Blue be put down than go to her! Michael loved Blue as much as he hated “that meddling, busybody bitch of a sister of yours.”

It was just such family interference that had made Michael leave a better paying position and move them all this way. Her family had caused enough trouble. To stay in Topeka would have meant such a burden on their marriage, all at the hands of her intrusive sister and silly, now deceased, mother. That was eight years ago, and she’d found, much to her dismay, that the cops in Ridgedale were almost as bad as those back in their hometown  –  they could be as insistent on interfering in their private lives as the Topeka police.

Detective Smith didn’t say anything for the longest time, looking upon her as if he had, what, genuine concern for her? It brought to her mind the thinnest bit of kindness toward the man, only to dissipate when his utterance of a heavy sigh recalled to her nose the ugliness of his breath. Finally, realizing that Mrs. Throop was speaking under a false impression in regards to the cat  –  and the situation as a whole  –  he spoke to her in softness. “Mrs. Throop, you’re not going to jail, if that’s what you think. No, I see this as an accident. And from what you’ve told me, the DA will likely see it the same way. I mean, I can’t guarantee that, but still. I’ll just ask that you not leave town until I give you the okay.”

“Oh, what a foolish, silly man you are, detective.” The sentiment was so deeply sincere that she was but a breath away from having said it aloud. The detective still seemed not to understand: her ineptitude was the weapon of her husband’s demise.

“Might as well have plunged a steak knife through his heart!”, she’d wailed at last. Yet none of this amounted to her arrest.  The police just did not understand, or were being willfully obstinate, a trait Michael said his wife had in abundance. This would go far in explaining why they seemed not to understand her having cleaned up the kitchen before finally doing that one thing she most dreaded: dialing 9-1-1.

“Why,” she’d said incredulously, “did I clean the kitchen before calling you? If I hadn’t, how’d that make me look? You’d have thought I didn’t love my husband. I mean, coming in and seeing spilled green beans and blood and all, well, I couldn’t let that happen, could I? Michael would be so disappointed in me.” All of this she spoke as tears ran along her cheeks, the only time she’d cried during the interview. As she wiped at first one and then the other cheek, the bruise on the left side of her face, previously covered in rouge, emerged, as if seeking to have a say in the matter at hand.

Detective Smith tsk-tsked the story and offered her a tepid smile. “I see, Mrs. Throop. I surely do.”

^   ^   ^   ^   ^

She noticed the day – the one of Michael’s demise – was coming to a close. The earliest hour of a new day stood at the ready, a mere hour after the police and others had left her home, It would be, she realized heavily, the first minutes of the first day without her Michael. She rose from the living room floor where she’d been curled tight in a ball, laboring to get erect, the heavy load of grief and guilt working against her.

Wandering aimlessly about the house, she had the glimmer of realization that what she’d had for the past several years was an existence rather than a life. Michael had provided a measure of certainty, much as a crate can do for a dog. Shuddering at the thought, feeling guilty for such ideas, she went to the den, Michael’s place. At Michael’s recliner, she crawled onto the seat where he’d spent countless hours, remote in one hand, his whiskey in the other. The leather’s aroma, the whoosh of her body settling back, the pronounced clunk-thunk of the footrest being engaged, it all caused memories of her husband to crash down upon her. She lamented her loss perhaps as much as the uncertainty suddenly smothering her. Even having Detective Smith back would have been some odd form of solace. Heavy sobs took control of her body.

“Oh Blue, I’m so sorry I took him away from us.”

Clicking on the television, she found that it was on Michael’s favorite sports channel. Blue jumped to her chest, kneading her with his front paws, crying out with loud, broken mewling, seeking his master. Nancy reached out to extinguish the floor lamp, allowing the glow of the television to cast a pall across the two as their breathing fell into a steady rhythm. Rolling to her side, she pulled Blue against her. She felt isolated, as Michael had always enveloped her life within his own, serving as a belt cinched tight around her own emotions, tamping her desires. He’d choked out the very essence of Nancy’s personal being, leaving her dependent on him even for emotional direction. She hadn’t the center, or compass, that guides a person, being rather like a broken weathervane seeking direction, any direction. Life’s simplest undertakings hadn’t even the most rudimentary baseline from which she could launch herself.

She mumbled incoherently, trying desperately to address the emptiness, before sleep-tumbling for a moment into deep uncertainty. Suddenly, Blue swatted softly at her chin, as if to bring her to the present. Reaching her left hand to her face, she felt the warmth of her own blood. A small trickle was making its way from Blue’s scratch, seeking her jawline.

Her jump to a standing position sent the cat flying to the center of the room. As she took a step forward, Blue ran from the den, a flash of anxious fur and guttural meows. She ran after him, calling his name. As she came into the kitchen, her stockings slid on the tile floor, sending her reeling in a dance that had her bounce from one countertop to the one opposite. She managed to right herself, but not before slamming her left elbow into the counter and her left foot hard into the baseboard.

Panting, she screamed, “Blue! Damn you, Blue! Damn you, damn you, damn you!”

Stumbling, she found the cat backed into the small hallway which led to the garage. Keeping her distance, she leaned over the animal and opened the door. Blue darted into the garage. Nancy, fumbling in the darkness, press the automatic door opener. As the light came on, the rumble of the door echoed, and she caught just his tail as her husband’s pet ran from the tidy space into the thick dark of the early morning hour.

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.