Tiana, Searching for Something Good

Tiana bent over low to peer under the orange pick-up truck, aha! She skittered away fast when the fat bearded guy walked up, slung his groceries in the back and yanked the driver’s door open. She kept a keen eye on anyone coming and going in the parking lot as the noisy thing finally left. The she went over and picked up the can of Cherry Pie Filling where he’d been, no dents or nothing.

Safely in her backpack, she patrolled the IGA lot for more dropped goodies, more stuff not recovered from busted bags, dropped money (seldom). Too bad they took away the Salvation Army donation box that used to be on the far corner of the lot, too bad. She wore a nice warm coat from there until she had to give it to her little sister.  They had a church pretty close but she was afraid they’d chase her away like the church on the other side of the lot did. They’d called her ‘filth’.

‘Sheesh, one good thing all morning.’ Her thoughts darted between vigilance and wondering if her mother’s asshole boyfriend was gone yet. He was mean and evil and she hoped her puppy he killed would haunt him. She loved her pup, but put him under the seat of his car anyway because Star Baby would really haunt him with stink pretty soon.

The sound of a busting grocery bag arrested her attention. She raced over to the elderly lady and picked up everything that fell for her. Yes she honestly did, everything. The lady did not want the jar of bread and butter pickles with the crack down the side. Tiana did, and thanked her for it. She went over to the ditch to get a spare bag out of her backpack. She tied the bag tight with the jar securely inside. She had a pickle jar saved at home to transfer the pickles into. Win!

The old lady hadn’t driven away. Why not? She went over to check on her. The driver door was open.

“Hi there, young lady.”

“Hi, I thought maybe something was wrong cuz’ you didn’t leave. Are you okay?”

“I was thinking about you, child. Why you out here scroungin’ like this?”

Just as Tiana started feeling self-conscious, she noticed the woman had a Salvation Army jacket across the passenger seat. “I gotta be gone while Mama’s boyfriend is there, he’s very mean.”

“Mean to you, your Mama or both y’all?”

“Both, and he killed my puppy too.”

“Why does your Mama let him in?”

“I promised I’d never ever tell.”

“He sells her dope so she has no money for groceries or clothes or anything else.”

Tiana said nothing but nodded slowly.

“We can help you child. I got this here food to supplement an open picnic we’re having today. You are welcome to be there. You know where our church is? Good. Be there early and put some shoes on if you can. Okay?”

Tiana felt a bright light of love shining into her heart! “Yes ma’am! Can I bring my little sister?”

Flyin’ Low

He bought a one way ticket

On and airplane made of snow

Flyin’ low

Dyin’ slow

Out Of Rehab. Again. Pong opened the trunk to get his duffle of a thousand patches out. He’d sold his house and most everything in it for his addiction to Happy Herry. His and Lili’s house, with little Po. Yeah, little Po had lived with his brother for a few years, since the rehab before last. Now he’d live here at Pete’s too, or under a bridge with the other cracked up vets. They’d flown him to Laos while the new love of his life went on to Saigon. Oh Lili.

Pong realized he stared at Lili’s patch from Afghanistan, the official one from the Hagibi Hospital where she worked putting people’s faces back together. She used to work there as she’d stayed in after he was discharged.  She’d sent Po to him with a note saying they were a real family now, with this little boy. He yanked on the duffle strap and dragged it to his brother’s front door.

“I got the tea straight from Singapore. Great isn’t it” Pete grinned and topped off Pong’s mug.

The kitchen table was supposed to be a cozy, comforting family place to ease anxieties. Crap. “Yeah, great.” Pete had set him up in the rec room, too much room. Pong had nearly collapsed to see a new drawing table, paints, markers and a stack of poster boards. Not anymore, no more cutesy art, not without Lili. He walked outside the room and leaned against the wall in the hallway.

Po burst into the front door singing out “I’m home!” The kid stopped cold when he saw Pong. “Hi Pong.”

Jeez, the kid had grown! “Hey sport. What did you learn in school today?” God forbid if the kid wanted a hug – that was Lili’s  job.

In a much subdued tone, Po said, “I have to do a report on a pet. But I don’t have a pet.”

The kid stood as if in the choir, in church.  At least the single time Pong had attended church. He’d seen the boy trail up to stand on the stage with a dozen other kids and belt out some hymn. He remembered the grand days where he and Pete had belted out harmonies at some of the big shows. Jimi Hendrix got top billing but there were instant venues all throughout the milling crowds. He’d met Lili at the Pixly Farm show, where it rained the whole time. They let her sleep in their tent.

Pong jerked. “What?”

Pete patiently said, “I told Po that we could go to the Dog Pound and get a pet.”

Pong saw Po’s eyes dart from his nominal daddy to his own mug of tea. He’d had missed the kid sitting down. Annoyed, he blurted, “You could make up a pet.”

Po took a deep breath. “I read that the Dog Pound mostly kills the big dogs and the black cats.” His eyes lifted toward Pete. “If you don’t want a big dog maybe we could get a black kitten.”

The hope in the boy’s plea would have broken Pong’s heart if the still had one. But he gazed at Pete. Apparently, he’d lost his adopted son as well as his wife, each gone quite a while before he ever knew it for certain. He sipped his tea and remembered how he and Lili talked about getting a dog right before her unit sent her over to Afghanistan.

A jacket thrust into his face made him jump. Automatically standing to put his jacket on, he asked, “Where to?”

“You stay in outer space most of the time, dude. The Dog Pound. That’s what we’ve been jawing about, right? They close at five so we’d best be movin’ along.”

In the back seat Pong vividly recalled his favorite poster, ‘Movin’ Along!’, the one he’d got prints made of, the one that had people coming up to get their copies autographed. The cool air in his face and opened door clued him they’d arrived.

At the counter Po explained that they needed to see the process from the end to the beginning. The woman in charge frowned, saying the public was not allowed in the euthanasia area. Struggling to pay attention, Pong asked, “Can we see Death Row?”

The woman screwed her mouth up for another access denial, but Pete saved the day by asking, “He’s troubled. Can we visit the pets that have been here the longest?”

Pete stopped at the Cat Room that was indeed populated with a preponderance of black kitties. Pong went on to the last chance Dog Room, Po at his heels. Huh. He glanced back again, not a hallucination.

The dog room felt so weird, almost electrically frizzy. Maybe because there were now a hundred eyes on him? A neon rainbow sprang from Po to a shaggy auburn Irish Setter-like mutt. Pong blinked and it disappeared yet the affect remained. The mutt looked intently his way. Pong thought about how long he’d tried to draw somebody making the “Tck-Tck” sound you make with one side of your face pulled back, like when you wanted a dog to come. He’d messed up too many poster boards trying, no luck. Luck? Really? He shook his head hard to keep in this time and space.

He stretched one side of his lips back and “Tck-Tck” erupted. The mutt bounded up and over until his paws on each shoulder nearly bowled him over.  Once he caught his breath, he knew this was HIS dog. Or maybe his and Po’s? ” Hey son, what you want to name this giant hairy creature?”

His son’s face lit bright. “Angel.”

“Down, Angel”. The dog sat obediently, tail wagging like a windshield wiper.  He remembered that leaving Pixly Farm he had to get new wiper blades before they got to the interstate. Angel brought his attention back to the here and now. He saw Po lean forward to check out Daddy’s demeanor. Pong flung his arms out. That hug felt better than he ever thought one could.

Stupid or Cupid?

The 60’s style flamboyance made his ‘Save a Pet’ posters a big hit, in the restaurants, in vet’s offices, grocery stores, lots of places. One of Pete’s cats, couldn’t tell Stupid from Cupid, had knocked over a bottle of black ink, stepped in it and walked across the top left corner of Pong’ s first effort. Now they all had black cat paw prints stamped there, like the seal of approval.

He shook his head and turned away from the framed posters on the wall. “Lemonade. I came in to get lemonade. He took a Minute Maid out of the freezer and stirred it with water. He heard Po shouting something and laughing. He walked to the screen door and watched Po try to toss the tennis ball again except the dog sat on this hind legs right in front of the boy, begging. Pong opened the door and aimed for his lounge chair. Po ran over and took the lemonade from him just a second before Angel knocked him over, licking his face and arms until he felt like a slobber doll. That Angel could wear a guy out! That Angel was a blessing.

Free Story From Take-A-Break Shorts!

I have a new series of short stories going our to the wide world soon. Most are longer that postable, but here’s one that fits pretty good:

 

1989

He bought a one way ticket

On an airplane made of snow

Flyin’ low

Dyin’ slow

 

Out Of Rehab. Again. He opened the trunk to get his duffel of a thousand patches out. He’d sold his house and most everything in it for Happy Harry. His and Lili’s house, with little Po. Now he’d live here at Pete’s or under a bridge. With the other cracked up Nam vets. He’d flown secret Air Force missions in Laos while she went to Saigon’s medical facilities. He’d got wasted every day. She worked her ass off to be a real doctor. Did it, too.

Pong realized he stared at Lili’s patch from Afghanistan, the official one from the Hagibi Hospital where she worked putting people’s faces back together. Where she adopted that kid. She used to work there. He yanked on the strap and dragged it to his brother’s front door.

***

“I got the tea straight from Singapore. Great isn’t it” Pete topped off Pong’s mug. The kitchen table was supposed to be a cozy, comforting family place to ease anxieties. Crap.

“Yeah, great.” Pete had set him up in the rec room, too much room. Pong had nearly collapsed to see a new drawing table, paints, markers and a stack of poster boards. Not anymore, not without Lili. He remembered being in a little boat in Singapore, with Lili.

Po burst into the front door singing out “I’m home!” The kid stopped cold when he saw Pong. “Hi Pong.”

“Hey kid. What did you learn in school today?” He felt Lili smile, he’d asked about school like she wanted him to. God forbid if the kid wanted a hug – that was Lili’s job.

In a much subdued tone, Po said, “I have to do a report on a pet. But I don’t have a pet.”

Pong blinked. The kid stood like at the choir in church.  At least the one time Pong had attended church with Lili. He’d seen the kid trail up to stand on the stage with a dozen other kids and belt out some hymn. He remembered the grand days where he and his brother had belted out harmonies at some of the big shows. Jimi Hendrix got top billing but there were instant venues all throughout the milling crowds. He’d met Lili at the Pixly Farm show, where it rained the whole time. They let her sleep in their tent.

“Hey Pong!”

Pete was staring at him. “What?”

Pete patiently said, “I told Po that we could go to the Dog Pound and get a pet.”

Pong saw Po’s eyes dart from his nominal daddy to his own mug of tea. He’d had missed the kid sitting down. Annoyed, he blurted, “You could make up a pet.”

Po took a deep breath. “I read that the Dog Pound mostly kills the big dogs and the black cats.” His eyes lifted toward Pete. “If you don’t want a big dog maybe we could get a black kitten.”

The hope in the boy’s plea would have broken Pong’s heart if the still had one. Apparently, he’d lost his adopted son as well as his wife. He sipped his tea and remembered how he and Lili talked about getting a dog right before her Guard unit dragged her to Afghanistan. She laughed and told him to get a watchdog ’cause she wouldn’t be there to protect him.

A jacket thrust into his face made him jump. Automatically standing to put his jacket on, he asked, “Where to?”

“You stay in outer space most of the time, dude. The Dog Pound. That’s what we’ve been jawing about, right? They close at five so we’d best be movin’ along.”

In the back seat Pong vividly recalled his favorite poster, ‘Movin’ Along!’, the one he’d got prints made of and people came up to get their copies autographed. The cool air in his face via the opened door clued him they’d arrived.

At the counter Po explained that they needed to see the process from the end to the beginning. The woman in charge frowned, saying the public was not allowed in the euthanasia area. Struggling to pay attention, Pong asked, “Can we see Death Row?”

The woman screwed her mouth up for another access denial, but Pete saved the day by asking, “He’s troubled. Can we visit the pets that have been here the longest?”

Pete stopped at the Cat Room that was indeed populated with a preponderance of black kitties. Pong went on to the last chance Dog Room, Po at his heels. Huh.

The room felt so weird, almost electrically frizzy. A neon rainbow sprang from Po to a shaggy auburn double-wide Irish Setter-ish mutt. The mutt looked intently his way. Pong thought about how long he’d tried to draw somebody making the “Tck-Tck” sound you make with one side of your face pulled back when you want a dog to come. He’d messed up too many poster boards trying, no luck. Luck? Really?

He stretched one side of his lips back and “Tck-Tck” erupted. The mutt bounded up and over until giant paws on each shoulder nearly bowled him over.  Once he caught his breath, he knew this was HIS dog. His watchdog.  Or maybe his and Po’s?  Lili had begged him to stop calling Po ‘kid’. “Hey son, what you want to name this colossal creature?”

His son’s face lit bright. “Angel.”

“Down, Angel”. The dog sat obediently, tail wagging like a windshield wiper.  Leaving Pixly he had to get new wiper blades before they got to the interstate. Angel brought his attention back to the here and now with a reverberating bark. He saw Po lean forward to check out Daddy’s demeanor. Pong flung his arms out. That hug felt better than he ever thought one could. Could something go right this time?

The 60’s style flamboyance made his ‘Save a Pet’ posters a big hit, in the restaurants, in vet’s offices, grocery stores, lots of places. One of Pete’s black cats, couldn’t tell Stupid from Cupid, had knocked over a bottle of black ink, stepped in it and walked across the top left corner of Pong’ s first effort. Now they all had black cat paw prints stamped there, like the seal of approval. He shook his head and turned away from the framed posters on the wall. “Lemonade. I came in to get lemonade. He took a Minute Maid out of the freezer and stirred it with water. He heard Po shouting something and squealing. That Angel could wear a guy out! That Angel was a blessing.

Three Fingers

Marika cut her eyes low, away from the damnable blank canvas. The blasted thing had preyed on her mind for two weeks now. She’d vowed to get a least one spot of paint on it before she removed her butt from the stool. She shifted to stare at the inert jars of paint that could have been an image on a screen for all the good they were.

Cabin June 2015 055

Ilya had meant well, sure. “Get the big one,” he said. “Don’t pick out two or three brushes, get the whole set!” He’d seen one of her checks from the print sales of Krakow Sunset and got a gleam in his eye. Was she his skinny cash cow there for the milking?

Krakow was the last decent painting she’d done before her idiotic suicide attempt. Or attempt to touch heaven. Whatever it was that had her in treatment for so long. The fleeting memory of feeling and seeing her puny limbs disintegrate into the eternal, the intensely emotional longing for the dissociation to reach her brain, the red ecstasy….

Marika caught herself leaving her seat just in time. Screwing her butt back onto the wooden seat, she clenched her teeth and enunciated, “Stop the lunatic star trip! It was not real!” Her breathing evened out after a few minutes. She calmed a bit and eased her jaws.

One glance at the 30″ X 40″ canvas and her anger ignited. An arm grabbed the first paint jar in reach. She spun the lid off and scooped out three fingers of thick aquamarine paint. In a fluid motion she flung it across the deathly white surface. She smeared it around the awful surface in jagged streaks with those living fingers.

She stopped abruptly, breathless and wide-eyed. Automatically her hand reached for the towel so she could recap the paint jar without making a mess. The act of placing the capped jar back in place brought her closer to her soul, further from the starry precipice.

A tilt of her head showed her that the central figures must be iridescent white. Figures? Yes, she nodded, three figures. Tentatively at first, she painted thin white fingers within the widest smears. With greater command she thinned some bright hues on her palette and adorned the perimeter of the upper left of the canvas with translucent yet vibrant blossoms. On the lower right she drew empty, misshapen black stars. They crouched there, waiting for her to stumble.

Her eyes were swept to the flowered garden, making her smile. Now what? If only she could see more clearly! Cleaning the black from her brush, Marika saw Ilya leaning back on the table saw, watching her.  She ignored him and sat with her hands folded in her lap.

“Sweetie, if I’m bothering you, I’ll go.” He waited for a reply. “Marika? I wanted to make sure you were okay, that’s all. Do you want some lunch?”

She shoved the stool back with her foot and stooped to add strategically placed chaotic arrows in magenta. Standing, she faced him silently.

He stepped toward her. “Your studio upstairs is all cleaned up and ready. Do you want me to help you take this up there? The light is so much better there. I can carry your painting.”

Gut roiling, she answered, “Yes.”

With tears on his face, he whispered, “Hallelujah” and followed his wife out of the garage and onward to the sunlit studio, one step at a time.

Terp, the Record Scout

Strolling down Gardner Street that warm evening in Opikwa Idaho, Terp listened to the distant train and smelled the mélange of roses, leather, sweaty people and those chattering people eating their grilled steaks. He’d ventured back down to Earth because he wanted to breathe the rarefied mountain air and adored the sound of passionately sung gospel. Alas, this staid little town featured equally staid services. Why had he felt such a pull from this place? He could have alit anywhere, but something told him he needed to be here. So he walked about.

He both smelled and heard the steaks on the hoof at the rodeo grounds. The odor of manure got a bit strong, so he turned off onto Pitt Street. After a couple blocks of light industry, all closed for the day, he picked up the sound of a fine tenor singing. He angled over to Ott Avenue to find out where it came from.

He loved ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’! He yearned to enjoy it inside but couldn’t knock on the shed’s door and interrupt them. When it was over he did knock. Voices inside sounded worried. Soon a young man cracked the door open and asked, “Who is it?”

“Tom Jenkins. I heard you folks singing and wondered if I might come in and listen.”Snoball Mike

“Look, we don’t want no trouble. Why can’t you let us be?”

“Honest sir, I’m from out of town. I thought you might be having a service and I do love the singing.”

The door opened wider. “You don’t know who we are?”

“Brilliant singers!”

The door clicked shut. Terp couldn’t make out the discussion inside. About to give up, a big man with dark hair and long sideburns opened up. “Ricky says you want to hear us singing. Is that really all you want? We’re a bunch of queers and nobody comes around us.”

“Sir, I feel the Lord led me here. Yes, that’s really all I’m asking.”

“I’m Burt.” He frowned and looked Terp over, perhaps searching for weapons. “If you say so. Come on in. We’re recording, so keep quiet.”

The five men of various ages watched as Terp unfolded a chair and sat. “I’m Tom, and I’m very sorry I disturbed you all. I simply couldn’t turn away after that last song. Please continue and I’ll be quiet as a church mouse.”

They resumed with ‘Farther Along’ followed by ‘The Glory Land Train’ using the same sublime harmonies accompanied by guitar and an electronic keyboard. They altered just enough in each song to make each sound fresh and alive. Right after starting ‘He Touched Me’, something twanged and they all stopped. As Burt began changing a guitar string, they all heard a muffled curse through the north wall. They heard a giggle and running feet.

Terp felt a strong foreboding. “Get over here quick and cover your heads!” He raced over to a row of saddles on a rail and pile of tack jumbled behind them on the south wall. “Hurry!”

They all looked to Burt; when he sped over with his guitar they hurried behind him. Most of them made it to the sheltering tack pile when the north wall exploded. Sharp wood shards and nails flew at them like missiles. Dust and dirt. Smoke and flame. Ringing ears. They sat up and immediate called out for Ricky; he had not reached the protective saddle rail in time.

Terp and the others leapt up to see Ricky on the floor bleeding from a dozens of places, blood pooling on his back. With smoke thickening and sirens approaching, the men lifted Ricky gently and took him outside, out of the choking smoke. Terp rocked Ricky in his arms. Burt knelt by the unresponsive Ricky and prayed.

In the confusion of the ambulance, the police and the firemen, Terp slipped away and went back home to clean up and be seen where he should be.

The next morning, Terp found Ricky in a hospital bed talking to Burt. Burt looked up and stood. “We stood there like idiots. Thanks for trying to get us going. Speaking of going, Tommy, Raul and Arlo are heading back to Coeur d’Alene today.” He glanced down at Ricky. “Maybe we’ll go with them if you get out of here in time.”

Leaving? Terp’s alarm made him blurt, “You’re going to finish your recording?”

Burt shook his head slowly. “Half my equipment is ruined. I doubt it.”

“Please tell the rest of the boys you will; your music needs to be heard far and wide. I will do what I can to help. Please.”

Burt shrugged and sat back down.

Terp knelt by him. “The apostles were beaten and chased many times and never quit. They blew up your church, a building. You’re all still alive. Keep singing.”

“It was a shed, not a church. We’re not welcome in church.”

“Where two or more gather in my name, I am there says the Lord. That’s church enough for me. What’s your phone number? And can I get a copy of something you’ve recorded?”

Burt reached into his satchel and wrote his number on the disc case. “Here, from last night. Take it.”

Terp considered doing his research via the Guardian network, but he had no names to cross-reference the appropriate angels. The phone book did not help. He had neither a computer nor the skills to use one. That left the big database upstairs. He hesitated to tap the venerable repository of accumulated knowledge since he’d leave a suggestive trail. He bit his lip and soon got an excellent lead in McAllister, Colorado where an established if small recording studio published gospel music.

He chalked landing amid several elks up to being distracted. After an hour of walking around and asking at a few stores to no avail, he noticed a weathered, arrowed road sign that stated deliveries for Gospel Ship Records … something too faded to read. The little brick building a half mile down the road seemed rather small for a studio but Terp went inside regardless.

Terp used the boom box on the counter to play the CD for the owner, Mr. Dunstan. Dunstan wordlessly took the CD back into the studio and Terp saw him listening intently on headphones. Dunstan returned to the counter and handed the CD back.

“The business my grandfather established will go belly-up without a miracle. Son, if these boys are for real they just might be that miracle.”

Terp called Burt.

Terp and the Twister

Terp swayed with the rhythm of the pounding piano, the well-melded bass voices and the ethereal sweeter-than-birdsong women’s voices. As they began the jubilant Hallelujah part of the refrain, an angry roar swooped in. Singing stopped and children screamed as the freight train roar deafened them. They watched the roof over their heads lift and swirl away into the yellow-tinged black sky as they held hands and prayed aloud. Easter Program announcement flyers flutter down among them. Hail started stinging faces, hopping and popping on the littered paper.

The tornado twisted up into the ominous clouds and soon the adventurous folks of the congregation went outside as others swept and assessed the interior. Terp joined the outside crew and they found the only damage to the church was the missing roof. He stared at the broad car-less strip across the middle of the parking lot, with intact cars and pick-ups on either side. The Preacher’s house, the two beyond it and the little post office were piles of splinters and porcelain fixtures with clothing strewn everywhere like bizarre ornaments.

Terp wiped tears with the swipe of his sleeve. He jerked from the destruction and walked behind the church to look past the cemetery. The farmhouse across the dale looked untouched. A ray of sun shined on a brown and white cow that returned his gaze. He heard the Preacher and his wife walking among their wrecked home sobbing with the twin girls held at the edge, screaming that they needed to find their Nintendo games. His mind felt blown to the four winds at the same terrific force as the tornado; he could not think. There seemed to be nobody hurt, a miracle. He said a few goodbyes and walked swiftly up the road until out of sight. He went home.

Argento, the Choir Master, appeared at the pavilion arch and marched over. “Terpsander, you missed the singing in of the newest Archangel. You know your voice is unmistakable and quite conspicuous by its absence. The effrontery!” He crossed his arms and tapped a toe. “Have you naught to say?”

Terp had sat on the cold, hard stone floor too long anyway. He arose stiffly and bowed to the shorter man. “I apologize Master Argento, I got lost in thinking about something that happened recently. I missed the event without malice or hubris, only from carelessness.” He stood straight. “Do you think I should go tell Yownay how sorry I am?”

“Your attitude is uncalled for. I doubt she’d appreciate your brazen mockery.”

He shrugged; he’d been sincere. “I honor her promotion. May I make amends some way?”

Argento started to pace on the tessellated paving. He stopped abruptly in front of Terp. “I have been granted permission to go down and aid a small group of Kentucky faithful. Seems their church is missing a roof and some houses are kindling. Do you know anything about that?”

Terp peered into his eyes seeking evidence of a cruel ruse or tease. “I do, yes. I held hands with the others in that church as it happened. You knew?”

Argento relaxed a little. “Terp, I cannot reveal my source. We may go help.”

“We? That’s a real surprise.”

“The one who is aware of your above-the-law activities suggested it.”

“Are you going to supervise me?”

“You are going to clue me in on how to move, how to communicate, the vernacular in use. I have never been down there, not anywhere. I trust you are willing?”

Grinning, Terp held out his hand and they made the deal.

 

Cabin march 008On a beautifully cool and sunny Spring Wednesday morning, two angels descended to Earth, stuck their hands into their brown jacket pockets and hiked toward the church in question. They heard the commotion before they saw it. Rounding the corner, Terp saw ladders lined up on the wall of the building. Each ladder had somebody on it with a rock in one fist, clutching the top rung with the other. The rocks appeared to be tethered to a huge blue tarp bunched up in front of them.

Terp recognized the Preacher running the activity. “Not until I say ‘throw’, okay? We all have our rocks back? Great. Over the top and all the way across, right? Like pitching baseball! One, two, three, throw!”

They’d erected rudimentary truss over the roof that might hold the weight of the tarp. Terp and Argento strolled up and joined in the applause as the tossers climbed down.

“Excuse me, Reverend Barlow, I don’t know if you remember but I got hailed in the face with the rest of you last Sunday, I’m Tom. This is my friend Gene. We came by to see if you needed any help.”

“Let me get this cover pulled over and fastened down and we’ll have a chance to talk. Don’t go away!”

As he trotted to the far side of the building, the woman with a silver-gray braid to her waist that had played the piano waved at them, motioning them to the food table.

“Sister Dolores! Meet Gene, a friend from school. Gene, you should hear this woman make one piano sound like six.” Terp nodded toward the roof work. “The money is spread too thin ’cause of the extensive damage from Pikeville to St. Louis, isn’t it?”

Dolores held out a tray with a few cinnamon rolls left on it, but the men shook their heads. “You know it, son. Y’all get any damage up your way?”

“No ma’am, you wouldn’t know there’d been a storm. Isn’t that right, Gene?”

“Right.”

“We were thinking about having a big fundraiser. Gene’s a great singer and I can carry a tune, so we can join in if you allow us.” Terp’s smile fell as she poked her bottom lip out.

“Boys, where you going to have that fundraiser? How you going to get the word out? What can we do that everybody around here hasn’t heard before? Have you ever run something like this? I played session in Nashville for years and I know good and well that you can’t wish a show into reality. Do you have a real plan or just pie in the sky?” She gave them a ‘you idiots’ look when they didn’t reply and shouted, “Verna! Verna, we need you!”

A magenta-haired young woman in a bright pink pair of overalls left the clothes gathering excitement at the Preacher’s house and put her phone in her front pocket before getting very close. “Dolores, I can text and look for panties in the woodpile at the same time. And gentlemen, how do you do?” She took Terp’s hand and held it. “I remember you, Tommy.”

Dolores persuaded a connection in Nashville to bring up their outdoor soundstage package. They set it up with the pine green backdrop between the tarped church and the house remains such that when the camera pulled back to view the crowd, both would be in the frame. KET set up the filming, and said the show might be shown on public stations across the country. Verna arranged for seventeen church groups from all over the state to get transportation and coordinated twelve local church groups. Four local restaurants and seven chains with banners that fought for attention provided food for all starting on Good Friday.

“Well, Gene, have you learned anything about these folks yet?” The church grounds were kept clear for the eager audience. The farmer across the way allowed his fields to be filled with rows and rows of tents. Terp and the Choir Master sat behind the church on the pews that had been taken from inside for the singers.

“Do you think all the ones who committed to be here will actually make it here?”

“Sure. Verna’s posting all the names and places and progress, and most groups are posting from where they are. She said she had over 1200 followers as of dinner. Who would renege with all of that?”

“So many services and businesses have donated. Where did the speakers from here to Farmer Bob’s come from? The Red Cross is here, the National Guard for security, and the money for rebuilding is pouring in. We did nothing!”

“I heard a children’s choir sing a song once, it was about how a mere spark can get a fire going. That’s how it is with love, my friend.” He leaned back and surveyed the grand arrangements. “The weather report forecasts a magnificent sunrise.”

“I’d love to see them sing in the dawn on Easter morn. Alas, we must get back and attend our own duties. I have to coordinate the transmissions of worldwide Easter celebrations for the Archangels’ grand exhibit at the Promenade.”

Oh, how Terp resisted that awful thought. In a few scant hours one church after another would sing about their love of Jesus Christ, all with joy and energy. He wanted the visceral experience of the wind and the laughter and the miscues that always accompanied live performances, not an edited set-piece. “You go ahead; I’ll come back in plenty of time for our next service.”

Argento raised a pointed finger at Terp. “I’ve been warned that you come down here and get into trouble. Don’t! And we had best not see you on exhibit!”

 

Terp, the Choir Boy

He’d visited many churches over the ages, but had no memory of such a passionate collection of rustic voices. They shouted to glory! The singers held nothing back, the exuberance of the spirited women and men, the divine harmonies between them strummed his inner lyre with joy! He loved a full church and this one had every pew filled.

His limbs tingled with energy, his grin felt permanent. Scanning the rapt faces in the chorus, one face switched the light streaming into his soul off. This sable-haired, acne-faced boy had a dark and forbidding aura. Terp had decided to come to a country church for the music; some other influence may have helped him choose this church. The offering plate went around and the preacher released the youth to their Sunday School classes. That one boy did not go with the other teens. Noting which room the kid went he sidetracked to the Office and left a note for the Preacher.

He opened the door slowly to avoid scaring the young man.

He darted a hand to slide an open bible behind his back and tried to appear casual, leaning back on the kitchenette counter to hide it. “Who are you and why’d you follow me here?”

“You need help.”

“I need you to get outta here and leave me the hell alone.” The boy’s agitated, jerky movements made it clear that the contents of the hollowed out bible were vitally important to him. To have profaned the Word bothered Terp, but he made himself let it go so he could address the person who did it.

Terp looked back over his many other interactions with troubled persons and found nothing solid to guide him. Sailors with opium in snuffboxes. Lawyers with cocaine in gutted fountain pens. Just as he began a pitch designed to make the kid understand his problem was an age-old one, someone pounded on the door to the outside. The boy turned and clutched his bible secretively and told the man at the door they had to leave quick. A loud car sped away.

As he’d supposed when he hid under the table against the wall and napped, someone crept into the room from that unlocked door a couple hours later. Two someones. The kid and the man he’d driven away with. The man carried a long metal bar as if it were a sword. He followed them to the church office. He saw the man pry the door open with the metal rod. As they gawked into the empty strongbox, Terp stepped inside.

“Gentlemen, it’s over. We can pray for forgiveness and repent or we can call the police. You decide.”

The man swung the metal bar wildly. Terp had no difficulty grabbing it and increasing the momentum along the vector such that the man fell forward and hit the floor face first, right in the doorway. Terp put a boot on the man’s neck to hold him. He waved to get the kid’s attention. “Son, you can get help. The Grace of God is all-powerful and can lift you up from this deep hole. There are good people who can help keep you on the straight and narrow path. Jesus without any doubt loves you no matter what you’ve done.”

As he spoke, the boy opened his bible and loaded a syringe full, past the ragged tape that marked a spot about half way. All the while he held Terp’s eye. The kid knew a full syringe would be his last one. The kid knew Terp would not risk the violent man’s wrath by stepping off the guy’s neck to stop him. Those hopeless eyes understood self-preservation, looking out for number one.

Terp clearly stated, “I know who and what is most important here.” In two strides Terp held the boy’s arm inches from completing the mortal injection. The boy still kept Terp’s eye as he said, “I don’t know who you are and I guess it don’t matter. I repent and beg Jesus for forgiveness.” The kid dropped the syringe and shoved Terp backwards, to one side. He hit the Preacher’s desk and fell to his hands and knees.

The heavy metal bar meant for Terp cracked the kid’s collarbone and more, making the young man collapse. Without thought or volition, Terp snatched up the syringe and jabbed it into the demon-infested man’s thigh.

Terp held the boy whose name he never knew and sang his soul into the loving arms of his guardian angel Denis. He watched the murderer on the floor writhe in fatal ecstasy with two thoughts prominent. One, ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord’. He had not willed his hand to slay this person, but his hand had done it. This would haunt him, but now was not the time to linger. The other thought urged him to get back, that choir practice would begin soon and he needed to clean up. He heard an approaching siren. A silent alarm at the office door?

Hours later he sat at the long table careful to pull his jacket close, having no time to clean up after all. “Hello, Yownay. I didn’t expect to see you away from your friends.”

“Oh look, the above-the-law choir boy. I didn’t expect to see you at all.” She rose and walked away serenely.

Altus hurried in and took her spot. “Is that blood on your shirt? Where did you go?”

“Hello Altus. Have you a spare robe? I’ve forgotten mine.” He tugged at his jacket.

Altus tapped his own collar. “Benna said she’d bring one up, said she saw you race by.”

The older man’s bright manner did lighten his mood some. “I went to check on a few things. I hope Benna hurries, we’re due over yonder.”

“Yonder this.” When he turned, Benna tossed the white robe at his face. “Is that blood yours?”

“No.” He turned his shirt collar to the inside and slipped the robe on.

“I covered for you but Yownay came asking specifically for you. She said fooling around those Humans and getting arrested was not a game. Were you arrested?”

“No.”

Altus stood and shook his head. “You should be concerned about what Yownay says and who she says it to. You don’t want the Archangels on your case.”

Terp stopped and looked at his companions with incredulity. “Do either of you seriously think I am attempting to deceive the Archangels?”

Benna smirked. What’s the difference between discreet and furtive? You go down there with no permission and no authority.”

“I need to go. Can we get on before we hold up the entire practice?”

They followed him toward the choir chamber. Just before entering the vast hall, Benna tugged his shoulder and rubbed something off his face. “You do look worried. It’s the high notes in the big solo, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes, that’s it.” His smile might be interpreted otherwise, but it was really for the boy he’d sung the highest notes of all for. True, if he hadn’t interfered both of them would be alive, perhaps. Would surviving in ruin and danger under the horror of an ever-engorging addiction be called living? The kid nearly suicided. How many more children would that devil have destroyed? ‘Vengeance is mine says the Lord.’ Might the criminal have experienced an epiphany and been a force for good? Could his soul have been saved? Terp had eliminated the man’s choices. But not by will.

The Choir Master tapped for attention and Terp joined in on the opening stanza.

Diana, Drain Queen

Diana rang the doorbell as Max rolled the snake unit up the cobblestoned walkway.

A pudgy red-nosed man in golfing attire opened the door. “What do you want? Damn it, I’m going to be late!”

Max pointed at the ‘Drain Queen’ logo embroidered on his jacket. “Sir, we’re the plumbers. Your wife called to say the upstairs bathroom sink had stopped up.”

“Damn near flooded the damned the bathroom and bedroom fooling around with the plunger.” He turned and yelled. “Margaret, the damned plumbers are here. Come see to it, damn it. If I miss tee time that bitch Lorelei will take my spot.” He charged between them, head down and muttering, the golf clubs sounding like yapping chihuahuas chasing after him.

A woman in pencil thin denim jeans and a silky white blouse with wet blotches came to the door. She looked at Max and said, “The guest bath sink upstairs clogged up because my daughter stays up there when she’s home from school and washes her sweaters in the sink. I told her to use a basin but she never listens to her mother. She learned that from her father, not me, I guarantee you.”

Diana leaned toward the woman. “I’m the master plumber, ma’am. Can you take us to the scene of the crime?”

That startled the old thing in the overstuffed jeans. “You? A girl?”

Diana had to stop staring at dear Margaret’s face; it looked like somebody had stretched plastic from ear to ear. She tapped her badge that stated ‘Master Plumber Lic. 5763PP82’ and smiled. “Yes, ma’am, I am fully qualified and would love to see that awful sink.”

Margaret snorted and led them upstairs, Max carrying the snake unit.

Back at the Drain Queen office, Diana flopped into her chair and swiveled to wake up the computer. “Why wouldn’t she pay up? Invoice! I hate writing up invoices; no pay for a month if then because the customer forgets how nasty that plugged toilet looked.”

“You’re upset about that ‘girl’ comment and being told to mop the floor.”

“I’m upset because we have four accounts over 60 days already and the rent on this dump is due. I need the cash, my friend.” She drummed her closely trimmed fingers on the desk. “I’ll have to change the name. Pete’s Plumbing , Butz and Sons, The Clog King, Walter the Water Master, Clog Killer. People would pay up then.”

“No they wouldn’t. They’re not stiffing you because you’re female, it’s because they can. Use the friendly dun letters I made up for you. I emphasize again that getting a signed contract first would make recovering payments owed much easier.”

“Nobody else does that, so please stop bringing it up. What name strikes you as manly and professional?”

“I’m going to Colorado.”drain-illusion

“That wasn’t a choice.” She slumped. “When?”

“Today is my last day, I left you a letter two weeks ago.”

“You did not!”

“See that unopened envelope under your coffee cup? It’s for a big pot grower. I can finally use my Plant Physiology degree.”

Deadpan, she replied, “Max, I’m deliriously happy for you. It’s lunch time, out you go so I can get some work done. Take the rest of the day paid as my gesture of appreciation for your kind assistance over the last few months.” Neither over them waved as he snagged his backpack and left.

She would have the money she would have been paying him, but no help. At a customer, she’d have no man standing there to convince him or her that at least one of the two would know what they were doing. Head in hands, she said, “Stop blaming everything on gender. Get off your ass and ask Mathieu’s Heating, Cooling and Plumbing for some work because you know they get more than they can handle. Do it. Off ass.” Tears. She hated crying, a sign of weakness. Looking up, she watched a tow truck drive on by; no repossession of their nice van today. Tomorrow?

Diana pulled open her desk drawer and picked the hankie off of the gleaming black revolver with the illegal ivory handle. It had been her Daddy’s. She had apprenticed with him after her eight years in the Navy as a Machinist’s Mate. He’d encouraged her to get that Master Plumber license as he battled emphysema. On the day she got it, he shot himself and left her the business with the stipulation she remove his name from it. About to touch it, an old man in a picnic-checkered shirt came in.

She shut the drawer. “Can I help you, sir?”

“I hear you looking for a plumber’s helper. Please consider me for that job. I got lots of experience.”

Her heart leapt and she felt foolish for it. Had Max spread the word?  “I can only pay $15 an hour to start. Do you have a resume?”

He hesitated, came to an internal decision, and handed it to her. “You’ll see I learned plumbing in prison. A long time ago I accidently killed my girlfriend while high as a kite. I got out back in May and cain’t find no job; nobody hire somebody with such a record.”

“Can you get around? I mean, sometimes we have to get into crawl spaces and into attics.”

“I look old, but I’m just 54. I can work hard and get anywhere I need to, I promise you.”

“If one customer after another assumes you can’t be as good as the fat white guy down the road, what would you do?”

“I wouldn’t take it to heart; I’d just do the job the best way I know how. You got to build up a good reputation, that’s solid gold it is. We build up that reputation, we up easy street.”

Why she felt such an instant kinship with this rail-thin man, this man that that apprenticed in prison, she could not say. This man would never give up; she saw it in his auburn eyes. He didn’t look for others to blame. The desk phone rang. “Drain Queen Plumbing, how can we help you?” She smiled. “Yes sir, we’ll be right there.” Hanging up, she looked over to Gregory Payne. “A water pipe broke at Jemison’s Art Supply. Let’s hustle over there and see what you can do.”

 

The Cave of Living Smoke

The grayness all around us appeared as ephemeral, wide wisps of varying chiaroscuro tones, as might fine smoke from a fire composed of a variety of combustible items seem on a clouded night. Darkness prevails, only a dim glow coming from the stuff guides our way. Pressing with force through any section of it leaves us on our knees, panting, in tears. Jenny holds up better than I in that regard, quicker recovery, yet she has a feral look about her.

The vertical striations of the dimly lit ribbons and sheets of the stuff mock me as I rock back on my heels. I don’t look twice and assume ‘twas an illusion as I did at first. Now with certainty I know the fibers, flush with the main material, are alive and usually move in exceedingly slow undulations. They had attacked in concert when once early on I attempted to use my saber to carve my way. They vibrated at an ear-piercing pitch that melted the fine steel blade while my hand felt frozen to the hilt. I needed many hours to recover.

Jenny hoisted the satchel to her lap and extracted another Chanticleer bar, passing it to me. What would I not give for plain water! “Jen, can you fetch up my bottle from there as well?” I waggled the so-called ‘energy bar’ at her. “Thanks so for this lavish feast, all I need is the wine to ease it down!” The endeavor to lighten the benighted atmosphere failed.

Silently, she passed the effervescent drink to me. Though clear to sight, it tasted cloyingly sweet. Still, it was wet. The jumbled skeletons we’d liberated the satchel from must have acquired some strange tastes to carry such goods. “Well my girl, let’s not take a holiday to any country that considers these to be normal fare, eh?” Her lack of propriety with the deceased had taken him aback until she told him she’d survived untold months here by harvesting thusly. The implication, what she must have endured, had stunned me.

Instead of either ignoring me or at least smiling, she focused her blue eyes on me with great severity. “Fall through the next barrier. Fighting is not only damned painful, but it’s the exact wrong thing to do. These things feed off of your manly exertion. Try to be less of a tasty treat for them for once!”

I’d found her on the far side of a particularly nasty section. I nearly fell across her as she sat Hindu-style and was inordinately pleased to not only find another person but for that person to be a pretty woman, a welcome bonus. Now she desired me to give myself up to the freak curtains? “I could be entrapped that way, not a preferred end.”

“I’ve seen lots of scattered bones and bet you monopoly money those guys fought so eerie-curtaindeliciously hard that the gray meanies held on and drained them. How do you think they get the energy for that low-watt radiance? So fight ever more heroically until the gruesome conclusion occurs or follow meek little me.” She rose in one fluid motion and shifted the satchel to her shoulder. “I have done it many, many times buckaroo. I have only tried to muscle through since I met your eminence because you are alive. I mean, I’m alive too, but I haven’t found a way out. I thought, since you were still alive, your way might lead us out of this accursed place. Not.” She walked up to a wavy wall, thick with those dangerous striations. She turned to face me, closed her eyes and fell backwards. She vanished.

I panicked. Not alone again, oh God please no, I beseech you! As I sensed my form starting to collapse in despair, a blazingly bright thought flamed through my berserk brain: She is from far into the future and knows about this! Perhaps these fiendish mazes are known and studied in her time! I would be an infinite fool to reject her lead!

I watched for her as I fell forward. She had learnt to stand aside, and better, caught my limp form. Once I achieved balance, I bowed in gratitude. “You, madam, are not from a far-off country as I ‘til recently supposed. Or you may be, whatever. The point being that you are a wise woman from the far future!”

Her outright hilarity for the notion rebounded from me. “I know I’m right. Did you not understand how to traverse these barriers with no harm?”

She sobered instantly. “I didn’t come in here knowing a damned thing. On Day One I observed a group of half a dozen Pygmies in feathers all jump in with spears at one time and get fried before my head even believed I was in a cave with Pygmies. Then two shogun-looking guys came at ‘em with some kind of karate crap and made the stuff pulse with light. A granny jabbed with her cane and cussed for way too long. I’ve heard thrashing children’s screaming abruptly stop.” She halted to calm herself. After a few deep breaths, she resumed less vehemently, “Mostly I have heard not one thing, not an echo, no hiss, not any noise but my own whimpering. Plan A doesn’t work, try Plan B; simple as that.” She sat on the cool stone floor in her odd manner, head hanging.

“Oh Jen, were I home I would call you Lady Genevieve and ply you with your every desire. As befalls many a feminine genius, you underrate yourself. Think, Lady Genevieve, what is the method to thwart our torment? What alchemic knowledge does your beautiful face hide?”

“Alchemic? I go around with you for a month or so and suddenly I’m a magical genius because I can fall. Okay renaissance man, I’ll play along.” She stood and spread her arms high and wide. “Oh mighty foe, we have wandered to and fro. We have paid a high cost and are tired of being lost. We each are not a lowly ape. Show us true light so we may escape! Abracadabra!”

She dropped her arms and stood agog. I turned toward her gaze and indeed, there beckoned a faint light on high. The smoky veils parted as the Red Sea did for Moses. Hand in hand, we walked to the strengthening luminosity though it hurt our tender eyes. ’Twas the dear sun we saw as a crown atop a vast forest! Freedom at last!

Cabin June 2015 029We clung together lest we be returned to our own times by some nefarious means. Who contrived that awful game? Why were we chosen? What demonic art could enable such a thing? She claims no act or invocation of hers played a part in our rescue though I protest to the contrary. Lady Genevieve bade me leave off the questions. We have made a life for ourselves in this hospitable paradise, not our cherished Earth. Others have made their way out and we have created a small hamlet where we share our skills and of course, always wonder. Our family thrives. We do not approach the Cave of Living Smoke.

 

 

Dreaming of Better Days

green-paper-fileTamika Lamar keyed in and trudged to the same desk she’d written the factory’s procedures from for four years. What a dead end job. The place seemed to attract pale faced automatons like a robot magnet; the image of an electromagnet on a crane at a junkyard flashed in her mind. Opening her satchel wide, she filled it with her bag of Dove chocolates, her various lip glosses, her ink pens that looked like Crayolas, refills for the pens and her personal box of tissues. Her satchel wouldn’t fasten, so she put the tissues back.

Gaither Crumb, her boss, rushed up. “You’re late! Where is the zip seal application instruction? I sent you the pictures for it yesterday.”

At the anxious, reddened face she replied, “I dreamed a clear lake beckoned me and I drifted across it in a baby blue boat. I saw a golden trunk and opened it. A walnut tree popped out and a duck gave me walnuts to eat. They were really good. A young, handsome fella popped out of the trunk and we ate some of those giant campfire marshmallows. You never sent me any pictures.”

Crumb held his phone out and searched for a number. “Lisa, I got Tamika down here, she needs a drug test. Yes, Tamika Lamar. On a trip right now, or drunk or something. Well as soon as you get in; I’ll keep her here.” He looked back at her with his bottom lip poked out. “You sit tight. I’ll get Marvin to do up that procedure. I did too send you those pictures.” Hands in pockets, he stalked away.

“Tammy, why’d Old Ugly act like you took his teddy bear out of his sweaty hands and set it on fire?”

“Hi, Bev. I had a really lucid dream last night. I drifted across a peaceful, clear lake in a tiny blue boat and a white duck gave me walnuts to eat. Then me and Hambone ate some of those giant campfire marshmallows.”

“I think the new ones are too big, like they have a whole cup of sugar in each one. I thought you were allergic to walnuts.”

“No, I just said that to deter the awful coffeecake Crumb’s wife makes; it’s gaggable.”

“I know, I always wish there was a dog under the lunch table. Are you high?”

She sighed, letting her shoulders sag. “Because I told you a dream?”

“Nah, because you couldn’t care less that Ugly called in a drug test on you.”

Crumb appeared, his arms crossed. “Beverly, get back to work and mind your own business.” He motioned with his chin, saying, “You, come with me up to the Dispensary.”

Nurse Lisa shooed Crumb to end of the room with the audio test booth. In a hushed voice, she asked, “Tammy, why does your boss want you to have a drug test?”

“I dreamed I came up to a lake with a little skiff. I got in it and drifted across it. I saw a trunk and a tree popped out and a fella popped out and we ate some of those giant campfire marshmallows. Oh yeah, I ate some of the walnuts.”

“Blow into this tube as hard as you can.” Nurse Lisa went to fetch a pee cup. “Here,dispensary I’ll take that. Leave your pack in here and take off your jacket. Pee into this cup and bring it out right away. Don’t flush.”

When Tamika came back out, Crumb shoved her satchel away and snatched the foil wrapper off the table. “Dear Mr. Crumb, if you wanted some of that candy, you should have asked.”

Crumb smirked. “You’re on company property and I have a right to search for contraband.”

“Nurse Lisa, how can you not burn bridges if your boss is an arsonist?” The Twilight Zone theme emanated from her satchel. “This is Tammy. Yes, imminently. Okay.” She slipped the phone back in the satchel pocket. She peered directly at Crumb. “You did not send me those pictures.” Satchel and jacket tucked under her arm, she signed the custody label on the pee bottle and left.

A lanky guy leaned on his classic Camaro. “Say all your good-byes?” He opened the door for her.

As he started backing out of the Visitor’s spot, she said, “I told them my dream about a beautifully placid lake on which I drifting across in a shiny blue single-bench boat and how I saw a trunk made of gold with thick leather straps. A full-sized walnut tree popped out and walnuts went all over the place like soda pop fizz. A really smart-looking duck floated right up and  gathered up lots of nuts with his wings. The duck gave me the walnuts to eat; he must have cracked them. Anyway, they were super good. Then you popped out of the trunk wearing a Tarzan loincloth and we ate up a whole bag of marshmallows.”

“You didn’t throw they bag in the water, did you?”

“You won’t see me trashing the environment.”

He grinned, showing lots of teeth. “Sweetheart, you won’t regret moving to Lexington. Us both getting jobs in the same area is some kind of Karma payback or something.”

iga-bag-002“And it will be easier for your folks to come to the wedding. Can we stop at the IGA up here? I can’t get that dream out of my head and think some rocky road might do the trick.”

“Nuts and puffs in a chocolate matrix.” He pulled into the lot. “I dreamed we were in spacesuits, ballroom dancing to Mozart. Decipher that one for me.”

“I think it’s good. Anything for you?”

“I want to share the dances and boats and ducks with nuts and all our dreams. Get enough rocky road for both of us!”