By Tony Rauch
She stomped out without a word, down the worn, faded back steps, across the dry street, and straight into the supermarket. The heat slapped the screen door, stopping the slap dead in the still, shallow air.
She stood stiffly in the cold of the produce section. The produce man in his white apron hosed off the lettuce. The cold licked up her arms. It rubbed her. A muddy faced kid in dirty clothes stood alone, bawling loudly a few feet away.
She leaned against the side of the cooler, with one arm supporting her in the mist of crisp, moist air. She flipped the pages of a fashion magazine from the magazine rack, trying to forget about him and that baseball game of his up there.
she broke it to me quickly, after she had been
out drinking, like I always thought she would
"Okay, okay," was about all I could think to say. I should've been better prepared for this moment. There had been some close calls, but this one took me by surprise. I just wasn't ready for it yet.
She was standing in the doorway. She was swaying, pieces of her body moving without thought. The door was wide open into the dark hall.
I rose from her mattress that lay tilted, spinning in the room with the tattered blankets spilled out all over the floor. I rose, leaving the book I had almost finished.
The weight of the moment began sinking in, growing on me. My legs weakened and I slowly began sinking to my knees as if I were melting into the floor. My arms tingled, then became numb, like a light going out. My throat evaporated to a dry roughness. The air stopped stirring. The air became dry and heavy and gritty too. My legs felt all noodley, as if liquefying. The hardwood floor stung my bare knees as my weight pressed down upon them - as all the weight pressed down.
I couldn’t breathe. I tried to gulp some air, tried to say something, tried to speak, but nothing was there. It was all gone now.
She turned her back on me and walked into the bathroom and unclipped her earrings. I turned away from the bathroom door, listening to them clink clink into her ceramic bowl by the sink. I just stood there for a moment listening to the echo ring. Finally, I reached over and pulled my quilt up, the light blue one my grandmother made. I rolled it over and over in my hands - too many times. The quilt was stitched together from pieces of old blankets and old clothing, from old times I remember, and those old places and times spun as I rolled them up in my arms.
I looked over at the mattress on the floor, such a simple thing. My almost finished book was now lost in the tangled rags of blankets.
“Why. . . Why don’t you like me anymore?” my voice cracked. My voice always quivered and cracked at this moment, as if I would have to go through this same thing with everyone I’ll ever meet. There was a long silence, but I persisted. “Why?” There were tears in my eyes and my voice creaked more.
“I don’t know,” she finally sighed, not even looking at me. “I . . I just don’t.”
I sat there, numb and empty all over. "I guess I can get the rest of my stuff tomorrow," I said, hitching up the blanket under my arm and searching the bare floor, trying to see more of my things, wishing I had more things in the $285-a-month one room.
"Okay," she said leaning against the bathroom door as I stood and turned to the hallway. The door to the hall was still wide open.
the bright, early morning of a very long, empty day
I could still smell him in the room, on my body and on my sheets and blankets and pillow. I could feel him here as I climbed out of my pajamas.
That ring we got at the pawn shop was next to me, laying on top of my grandmother's dresser. One of his work shirts hung on a wire hanger in the window, swaying in the morning's breath. It glowed an angelic, luminous white in the warmth of light shining through the veil of trees rubbing against the house.
I wished I could give him everything, I really did, but I can't even find what I want - whatever that could be.
And then I heard him, his tires crunching over the soft gravel.
I could barely see his car pull up. I watched from my window, my head swaying, searching for a better view through the leaves and his shirt. He pulled into the driveway lazily, and his car spit him out and he slipped under the leaves and into the black and white pitter-patter of hot and cold sun and shade. The air filled with circling thoughts, and all the sentences that never get finished.
And at that moment the world stopped with an abrupt halt, and I felt my life come to a screeching end. And then I felt two things: 1) By the way he quickly, carelessly half-parked, with the front half on the grass and the tail end sticking out into the drive, I could tell this would be the last time he would ever drive out this way. And 2) I knew I never wanted to feel this alone ever again.
I thought inviting her over would be the polite thing to do
Maybe it was better to just say hello, how are you, good luck, good bye, and move on, but she always did like my spaghetti . . .
"I see you still have that chair," she said smiling in the sun. The window was tall and thin, a small view of the driveway two stories up. The chair sat in front of it with a great view of all the jagged, colorful roofs and treetops that spread out as far as the eye could see. Red and green roofs. Gray and black roofs. A patch quilt of lives out there.
"That's your chair," I pointed while scooping the noodles. I was balancing the plates in my hands, standing across the room, the sun at my feet.
She was looking at the chair, sitting on the floor between me and the chair. Her back was to the door and to me, turned leaning more toward the chair but still looking back over her shoulder a bit at me.
It was worn and secondhand. She had stitched it up when we first got it. I renailed the arms.
"No, it's yours," she said plainly. “You fixed it. You fixed it up.”
"You paid for it," I said.
We were eating and watching t.v. so she didn't say so much after that, I mean she did say she couldn't stay long. After she left, I wiped the dishes and set them back on the shelf, then I walked across the empty room and sat in that chair for awhile. I watched the city, the roofs and the trees, knowing that she was out there somewhere.
lives of shallow murky gold
I got a call from an old friend late last night. I knew him for a while in grade school and then he moved away and I never saw him again. Gosh, I hadn't even thought of him in years. I remember a bunch of us used to play football all the time. We used to go down to the banks of the river and play army. We used to throw acorns at girls. We used to do all manner of kid things, guy things.
It was about 11:30 at night and I was ironing some pants and drinking a Surfers on Acid and listening to some old tapes - the Screaming Blue Messiah's "Clear View" and the Hoodoo Gurus "Death Defying" and The Magnolia's "Walkin' a Circle" and The Replacements’ "Left of the Dial." The cold spring wind blew against the window and the deep blue night churned with purple currents that made it feel like an ocean, and that I was looking down on it from above. And for a long while it felt like I was alone in a vast sailing ship, lost up in that quietly folding sky.
"Hello," I answered. An old western was on the t.v., Gunsmoke or Bonanza, one of those shows we used to watch a long time ago when we were kids, a long time ago when we were free, free from lonely thoughts. The color was all soft and washed out and the volume was down. Little Joe, or some such childhood cowboy, was riding off into the long grass on a bright sunny cowboy day.
"Ah, hi. This is Vern Bernbernbernbern, from Campus Lab. Do you remember me?"
"Yeah, ah, hi Vern, I remember. How's it goin'?" I sipped my drink and circled the iron.
"Remember that big pile of tires we used to play on? And making forts in the hay out in the field?"
"Yeah, sure Vern, I remember. . ." my voice was quiet and even, trying to calm that wind. ". . . Out by the granite sheds."
"Yeah, ah, they burned down. The tires did. About six years ago. . . In the middle of the summer. They burned for a week."
"Ya don't say. Hmm, that's a long time ta burn, Vern." I stopped moving my iron around.
"Anyway, I know it's late. . . . I just thought you should know."
"Oh, gosh, that was nice of you. Was there anything else, Vern?"
"Ah, nothing else. . . . Um, I was just wondering . . . I was wondering if you still needed me?"
The cold spring wind scratched against the window. And one of those songs hummed gently in the near distance.
I though for a moment, as the smoky sky stirred, looking down on me with contempt. "Of course I still do, Vern, of course I do."
"Oh, ah good. . . . Well, good night."
"Good night, Vern," and I set the phone down and continued to iron, swirling the iron around with the rolling clouds above and the wind in the grass.
It was late as hell by the time I finished ironing the pants. But I still put on my jacket and walked outside. The cool wind was blowing strong. I stood and looked up at that dark sky, almost challenging it. And as I stood there, I wished I had said more to Vern. I wished I would’ve said “Of course I still miss you.” It’s been years, and I miss my friends from long ago more than ever now. I stood there for a while, then I walked out to the tall grass at the edge of the field. I began walking in the field, walking a curving path out into the straw, working it down, starting to carve out a fort as an old record hummed quietly in the house.
you're a rippin’ (border line paint-sniffing) poet, dude
In the morning some children skip by a stuffed yellow duck that is laying in the blue street. the blue tires of cars are flowing around like water to avoid it. the sun is bright and attentive, and somewhere else blue rocks are getting pelted by an old evinrude's propellers operated by an old man in fishing gear in a misty blue morning in a flat mirror of dark blue water.
and a neighborhood girl i like is barely visible. she is walking away. down the street. through a small window.
and in seeing this in the street in the morning, framed in the small window of my basquiat cage, i wished that i was a big big star. so that girls like that and people would like and appreciate me. someday, maybe. i'll show all you dickheads. 8. but i just want to be left alone for now. 4. i pull the covers up, over my head. And I think of how i'm going to get out of here someday. i'm going to work really hard and i'm going to change, God, for once in my life i'm going to change and i'm going to work really hard - really hard. [and i think it's so sad that all of these things are just thoughts, just words.
And small words at that.]
lovers at the observatory
in the morning some children skip by me. i'm barefoot and shuffling down the street in my torn and dirty pajamas. "be gentlemen, assholes," i mumble as they skip by. they turn and look at me and then run away giggling. i continue shuffling down the walk, under the canopy of bright green leaves.
we used to play wiffle ball in the expansive dirt yard behind st. john cancious church, in the center of the worst part of town. a high chain link fence encircled it like a protective castle. the blue tar streets gleamed like a moat in the endless sun and the world moved around us - all blue sky and green grass. and we'd drink beer and watch the troubled people escape from the big clean white halfway houses across the street as big clean white clouds forced themselves by, and big clean white attendants chased after.
and we would stop our games and sit in the dirt and grass and sip our beers that unemployed older brothers who hung out at the gas station provided and we would watch the troubled break free, as large clouds forced themselves into our blue and green world.
as i sat in the sand i wondered if years later i would be gazing out one of those windows, through the trees and across the street at the children standing around, sitting on the bench, waiting for their turn.
occasionally we'd hit that cataclysmic home run that would sail over the castle wall and across the moat of street and into the clean crisp green lawns of those big white houses, as if falling through time. but we'd never run after any of those home runs. we'd all stop and look over at them for a moment, as if the entire world had come to a sudden end at that instant. And we’d always just leave them there, as large clouds forced themselves into our world.
"Jacky, do you think we'll be friends when we're older?" I said in a whistle, flatly looking past his girl and into his face.
Jack chewed this a moment, rolling it over and over in his plain stare. "Why not," he shrugged.
People were buzzing around the couch with their "Oh hi's" and their "I like those shoes." But I couldn't make any of them out as they were diffused in the dim light that back-lit them from the yard, blotting them like paper dolls into pale, looming, overcast shadows.
I exhaled, "I don't know," and shrugged.
I looked up at everybody. "I just had this feeling, that's all. Just a passing feeling." Everybody looked so strange somehow as they circled in front of the picture window with the light flickering in from the trees - like the fuzzy and buzzing grainy furry of an old filmstrip from third grade - flat with too much fading color, too much forgotten color - too many things forgotten. God, I haven't seen a filmstrip in years.
They sat across from me like tragic ghosts, like fading suggestions of old heroes. They didn't sit all that close, but they were close. She lit up and leaned forward, putting her elbows on her knees, close together, then set her chin into her cupped hands. She blew air out of her mouth and shrugged and her eyes got bigger.
"Well, you've got a lot going on and all . ." I explained, still trying to hold onto things somehow ". . . It's all bound to get in the way some."
They didn't have any response to this, nor should they I guess. They just sat there plain and still, like fraying cardboard with fraying cardboard lives. You take them out of the closet every now and then and somehow they manage to get themselves banged up some. But you don't really notice it all that often, that cardboard getting passed on and on and on.
I sat back, watching the others, their lives like their silhouettes in the window, milling about behind the couch - circling and swirling, clinging to the air like the leaves outside, clinging to the wind - like me.
- - -
Tony Rauch has three books of short stories published – “I’m right here” (spout press), “Laredo” (Eraserhead Press), “Eyeballs growing all over me . . . again” (Eraserhead Press). He is looking for a publisher for additional titles he has finished and are ready to go.