Category: Literary Writings

Porcelain

Porcelain

Porcelain

A short story by Phil Cline

 

She climbed up on his lap, snuggling her little bottom right down on him, her arms around his neck, giggling “my big, big man, my big sweetie O.”

 

Sonisay is happy today.  A little flushed.  Happy and indulgent.  Again. Free with her kisses, her snuggles, her shy smiles, her little laughs at nothings.

 

He never said it out loud, but he always thought of her as his little porcelain doll. Oriental, fragile and prettily painted, artistically though, nothing natural about her. They met in San Francisco at one of the weekly street fairs. She appeared shy. He, worldly.  He offered to buy her a cool drink at one of the sidewalk vendors. Then he offered to spike it with something a little stronger. She giggled and then scrunched up her face at the strong taste.  Cute.  That smile again.

 

She was magic for him given his time of life.  And his being alone again.  Took him back to the time before the troubles. All the way back to Saigon. Just a boy. Eighteen-year-old Marine. And the dark bars and all the little dolls sitting at the tables talking to soldiers.  Then the countryside and the jungle and the secret patrols across the border and the bullets and bombs and boobytraps.  Before he rotated back stateside.  And the years passed.  Then the loss.  And the wandering after his wife passed.  The bitterness.  And then he found Sonisay.  And she had worked for a while.

 

But then he started to sense things behind her delicate little happy moods.

 

Gary sometimes regretted his sensibilities. He had a way of picking up on patterns in people. He always knew when something had happened, and he knew if he just waited and watched, listened, it would not be too long until he figured out what they had done or suffered or endured. And what they might do.  Even if he really didn’t care to know.

 

This extra sense in him had, since he was a child, operated independently of his wishes or his ambitions.  In school it allowed him to avoid bullies and trouble.  He just knew what was coming.  It helped him stay out of the principal’s office.  He did the bad things, the same bad things, as the other kids. But he was never caught.  He often watched, curiously as they endured the sanctions for their misbehavior. They did the same as he but were almost always caught.  He never was.

 

His anticipation, his reads, had made him a good center fielder in high school. He always knew where the ball would be as soon as the batter stepped into the pitch, the bat swinging.  Even before the crack of the ball hitting the bat, he was racing in the direction he knew the ball would be hit.

 

And in the war, when a rustle in some bushes, having to move fast without thinking, and a step in the wrong direction could mean getting his legs blown off, he had always instinctively chosen the right direction. And made it back home.  Intact.

 

Later in life, after the war, it had made him a good lawyer. He could read witnesses and other lawyers like a poker player reading the “tells” of an opponent.  He could anticipate and follow their actions from their patterns. It gave him extra time and the confidence to adjust his own approach.  They were inevitably surprised, often angry, forever resentful, at how he always seemed to be prepared for their tactics, for what they had thought were such clever strategies.

 

He also knew this sense of his could be a curse.  Some things others were doing, one didn’t need or want to know.   In fact, often if things were just left unknown, it made for a happier life.  He had worked on suppressing, sometimes, what he was picking up on.  He was older now and could live with a lot of things. Just take the good from a situation and not dwell on the undercurrents too much.  Ignore them.  “Be happy”, the song said. Don’t pay close attention and “Be Happy”, he repeated to himself, in the lilting cadence of the tune.

 

He smelled Sonisay’s hair.  Always so clean, but still retaining the musky smells of the dishes she cooked.  Cambodia. The home country.

 

In profile her lashes, subtly enhanced, blinked as if in a slow-motion film, the little glitter she affected on the eyelids flicking in the light.  Her make-up made her more pale than natural, it was barely there, but there nevertheless, carefully restrained.  Her lips had no fullness to them. None.  Almost like they were the scars of a hungry childhood before the boats, and the endless paths and journeys from Asia to the dream, this land a dream, a fantasy, from the stories repeated to her so many times in the hungry transient huts, the warehouses, the docks. Dream and survive.

 

His hand strayed to her waist and she moved it up to her breast and burrowed down in his embrace.  Looking at a small envelope in her hands.

 

“What is that?” Gary inquired, as he squeezed her small breast once and then returned his hand to her waist.”

 

“Just my tickets.”

 

“Tickets?”

 

“Ankle Chains. They have their concert tonight. Tonight’s the night.  Going with Linda and Madison.  They’ll pick me up about Eight. I have to go back to my bungalow now. I need to get ready.”

 

“Yes, I remember.  You really like the music that well?  All that loud screaming?  I can give you all the albums.  You don’t have to go to a concert. Lots of gang guys there.  Tough crowds follow that band. Could get rough.”

 

“It will be fun!  And you buy me so much already.  I got these tickets on my own.  From the office pool.  You said it would be okay.”

 

“I did. But you should be careful.”

 

“I will, I will. I promise!”

 

There it was. A little panic in her voice as she sprang to her rebuttal.  A little too anxious.  She’s twenty-eight. School girls panic over the danger of missing concerts, not grown women, even little flowers like Sonisay.

 

He knew. He had been ignoring the signs for a couple of weeks, now. But he knew.  His sense had noted the pattern, mapped the signs.  His mind had been disciplined enough to ignore what he knew. But it was there.  Now it was just figuring out who it was. Did he really want to know?  What would it matter?  She was going to move in with him next week.  Be with him all the time.  Be his, he supposed.  Did it really matter?

 

“Well, get going.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

She jumped up and giggled as he gave her little rump a firm slap.

 

“But don’t come over too early,” she said.  “We will be late with all the parking and driving and talking.”

 

And she was gone.

 

He picked up the phone.  Dianne. Healthy, farm fed, brought up on a dairy in the central valley.  Dianne. It had been over a year.

 

“You doing anything tonight?
”

 

“Nothing at all.  How about I come over.  Fix you some spaghetti?”

 

“Sounds great.”

 

Dianne was no hassle.  Good at talking and good at shutting up sometimes. No sitting on laps.  No giggles or long eye lashes.

 

She showed up. She went right to the kitchen.    She prepared the food quickly and efficiently. Banging some pans, loudly mixing up the sauce, big spoon scraping the bowl.  Serving it with slap and dash.  Big hunk of French bread.  Hard crust. Toasted a touch.  The food was good. She gathered the dishes, dumped them in the sink.  Ran water for them to soak and then plopped down next to him on the couch to watch T.V.

 

Later they undressed and made love. Mostly satisfying.  Unhurried and without pressure and then she dozed off, her head resting in the crook of his arm, snoring quietly. She had said nothing about herself.  He had not asked.  He knew she worked hard at the store. Check-out clerk.  Had a little girl at home probably being babysat by the grandmother. But he hadn’t inquired, and she hadn’t offered.  He woke at three to use the rest room.  The bed was colder.  She had left without waking him.

 

At ten the next day, he drove across town.  Parked on the street.  Six bungalows arranged along a sidewalk, three on each side.  Hers was the first on the right.  He walked into Sonisay’s kitchen.  Jess, from the bungalow across the way, was there eating a donut and drinking coffee.  Good guy. A tour in Afghanistan.  Would be going to the police academy in the fall. Gary had written him a letter to help him get in.  He and Sonisay were both laughing.

 

She jumped up and leaped up into Gary’s arms.  He was still strong.  Could hold her up, but certainly not forever.  He let her slip down his arms and she pressed her body to his as she slid down and gave him a quick kiss on the chin.

 

Jess watched, amused, a pleasant smile on his young face.

 

“Good time at the concert?”  Gary asked Sonisay, as he moved to the refrigerator, got a glass of orange juice and joined Jess at the kitchen table.

 

“Oh God, we had such a great time!  We laughed and sang, it was great.”

 

And she went on for some time, describing the band, the shouts, the cheers, the songs and the rock of the place.  He waited patiently, watching Jess tapping the edge of his cup with the nail of his forefinger all the while nodding his head almost imperceptibly at Sonisay’s description. And her enthusiasm.

 

Finally, she ran down.

 

“So, who was there?”

 

“Oh, you know. Everybody.  The girls and all the ones from work. And Linda and Madison got kind of bombed but we were all so laughing  . . .”

 

Jess had stayed quiet.

 

Gary looked over at him.  The nail quit tapping. He knew.

 

“You go, Jess?”

 

No answer.

 

Sonisay paused in the middle of the kitchen. Then moved on to the counter. It was quick. But Gary knew.

 

“So, what did you do afterwards, did you dance?”  And he saw Jess glance at her then back to the coffee mug. Tap twice on the edge.

 

“We danced a little, but we were home so early,” she said.

 

“You guys? You dance together?  You two went dancing?”

 

“We were all dancing.”

 

But he knew now.  And he felt tired of it all.  Tired of her. Sweet. Young. Exciting. Exotic. But not anymore. That part had gotten old.

 

Gary got up, left his glass on the table, and walked out the side door just off the kitchen. Sonisay followed.

 

“Gary,” she called.  “Gary, where you going? You all right?  Come back in. We need to talk about the move.  To your house.  I’ve got the boxes. They’re in the other bedroom.”

 

Gary didn’t reply.  He just kept walking.   He had always preferred to disengage this way. Just leave.  Just walk away in the middle of the conversation.  Like leaving friends in a war zone and going home.  Everyone knew their time together was over.  And the reason.  So why prolong it?

 

He just kept walking. She was still calling him.  Jess was now standing just behind her.  Careful not to be too close.  In his mind, perhaps, it was still secret.  Gary got in his car.  Looked at her standing in driveway next to the side porch.  He saw the tears filming her eyes.  Jess looking at him, then her, then him again.  Not quite sure what had happened yet.  Gary just didn’t care that much anymore.  He seemed to feel that way about lots of things these days.

 

He put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb.  Never looked at them again. Just left. That was best.

 

At Dianne’s place he walked in the back door and there she was, bent over, wearing some old pair of blue panties and a tee shirt. Reaching in the washer retrieving items, separating them and slinging some of them in the open dryer next to the washer.  An old Maytag.  Its white paint scratched and peeling.  Reliable. The sound of wet thumps hitting inside the steel tub.

 

She stood up and looked at him.  She smiled. A little sweaty.  No shower yet this morning.  Hair dirty and a mess.  She looked good to him.  He could hear the T.V. loud in the living room.  Cartoons with some inane song, kid’s voices, about turtles, he thought.

 

“Coffee’s on the stove, she said.  Go on in the kitchen.  Get your cup. I’ll finish this washin’ and be right in.

 

And she bent back over.  He contemplated her big ass for a moment.  No suspicious patterns over here. No feeling of knowing something was unsaid.  He looked at her ass again and then walked in the kitchen to find his coffee cup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning Moon

Morning Moon

Morning Moon

by Phil Cline

 

Mist surrounds the morning moon

Hovering above night’s remainder,

Heaven’s pale reflection of regret.

 

Dawn waits wet residue to dry,

Moist women asleep, their legs languid,

Carelessly spread, left apart-by the departed.

 

The raucous evening’s promises redeemed

Foolish jocularity shortened by haste of

Dreaded day.  Here any moment now.

 

Friends hurry home,

New enemies scurry away,

Excess devolved to lonely stillness

 

The tinkling music of clinking glasses gone,

Dark wood bar wiped, band packed, smokes lit.

All’s mute, wary of another horizon.

 

Windows shuttered, doors locked,

Gates of iron bars chained and secure.

The night’s celebration contained.

 

We, the last souls out,

Standing on the street

Respectful of the silence.

 

A dog pats by on gentle paws,

Suspicious of what he smells,

Cautious of what he might disturb.

 

The Old Stone Bridge

The Old Stone Bridge

The Old Stone Bridge

 

 

It had not been a good morning.  As Nick approached the narrow, single lane, bridge, he slowed his pick-up and pulled to the side of the road.  He opened the door, slid off the seat, let his feet hit the ground and walked out onto the dirt shoulder of the road. Tiny puffs of dust were thrown up from the hard heels of his cowboy boots.  Hooking his thumb in his belt, cocking one hip out he affected what he styled his personal pose, the same one he saw his dad take so many times over the years.  It could have been genetics or imitation, maybe something his Dad took from the movies.  He didn’t know.  And it didn’t matter.  It just seemed to help him think better.

 

He looked over to the other bank of the dry river bed spanned by the Old Stone Bridge.  Before he left that morning, his son had said, “It’s ok, Dad, no big deal.”

 

Well, it felt like a big deal.  All-star games for 12-year olds don’t come that often.  Nick had said all the right things, the encouraging things, the praise and platitudes about what a great accomplishment to be picked for a team of the county’s best players.  And, yes, he told his boy he wanted to be there, really wanted to be there, but the big ranch accounts, all those orchards, the thousands of trees, had to be served and it was just a “have to take care of it” thing he couldn’t get out of and he wished he could, but he couldn’t.

 

And his son, nodded again.  “It’s okay, Dad, seriously.” and then the boy had walked off to his room.  And closed the door.

 

Nick had looked helplessly at his wife.  Without raising her head from clearing the breakfast dishes, she smiled sympathetically. “He’ll be okay.  He understands.”

 

So here he was. Leaving on a trip he didn’t want to take.  And this evening, he would be hours away and his son would be playing an all-star game. He would be the starting pitcher for the county all-stars.  And Nick would be meeting with his accounts supervisor and planning the inspections, the spraying, and pruning schedules by the dozen crews he would be overseeing for the next several weeks in every corner of the San Joaquin Valley.  But right now, here he was just south of town standing by himself along the side of the road. He had taken this route because the other way was much quicker and more efficient, and he didn’t feel like being quick or efficient right now.

 

Nick looked at the Old Stone Bridge. Not much of one.  A simple stone and rock structure spanning a creek or what maybe once was a creek before they put up the dam thirty miles to the East.  Not much more than a trickle at the bottom of a dry river bed now.

 

There was nothing ornate about the bridge.  It was serviceable enough to allow cars, trucks, an occasional hiker, one at a time, to traverse the gorge from either direction.  Nick didn’t know if the county maintained the bridge or whether inspectors regularly examined it for defects or faults.  Neither he nor anyone, he suspected, knew if all the bolts on the bridge’s understructure were tightened (were there any bolts?) and in good shape after having stood sentry over the gap through decades of hot afternoons and freezing nights, storms and rain and humidity. The bridge was still standing after having been repeatedly battered. Sometimes by drunks bouncing their Fords or Chevys or Buicks into its sides; other times absorbing the rumbles, screeches and squeaks from rogue trucks hauling weight in excess of the state allowed maximums and using backroads to avoid weigh stations and the highway patrol.

 

It was just there.  Always. Everyone just accepted the bridge as part of the landscape.  Predating all of us.  Like the huge boulders lining the creek and from which the bridge may have been quarried.  No maintenance, no governance and no officious inspectors, probing this pylon, testing that span.  If the bridge swayed, cracked, fell, it would simply be part of the natural order.  And everyone knew that too.  Inevitable, inspected or not, repaired or not, it must end someday at the bottom of the gorge.

 

Nick, stepped back, opened the door to his pick up and grabbing the side of the steering wheel pulled himself up on the running board and to the seat.  Starting the engine up, he idled forward and drove slowly across the old bridge, listening to the creaks and the thumping of the tires on the wood pilings.

 

That morning, when his wife said his son would be okay, she wasn’t looking at him.  She never looked directly at him much anymore. Not unless she was telling him again about her mother. These days it seemed to be all she talked about.  and Nick didn’t like talking about mothers.  Not hers. Not his.

 

Her mother had died when she was a child.  Left her with a Dad who cared deeply for her and did his best to make sure she had a full life. He largely succeeded.  But lately, she had been haunted by memories, vague, inchoate, but there, of a mother figure. At times her mother was a faded memory. Other times, she said, her face seemed so clear and so near. As if his wife was again a little girl sitting on the floor playing with dolls and there was her mother’s face as she bent to pick up an errant doll shoe and place it gently on her little play table. And how she smiled.

 

“I just wish I could have known her more.  What she thought was funny.  What she liked the most.  I mean Dad just always avoided any detail.  I’m not sure if it hurt him too much to talk about her or if he just thought, it would make me sad.  I just never asked.  I don’t know anything about her.  I wish I did.”

 

“Everybody says she was a nice lady.  Real classy person.”

 

“I know. It makes me feel proud.  But then I think how can I feel pride in someone I only vaguely remember?  Maybe I’m supposed to feel this way because we shared DNA or something.”

 

Nick knew this was bothering his wife much more than she said.  There were too many times he saw her standing in the kitchen and staring into space or found her next to the hutch she inherited from her mother and looking out the big living room picture window. At nothing.  Her eyes unfocused.  Her vision directed inward at some interior landscape, he couldn’t see.

 

All the wondering and questioning was starting to affect their relationship.  It had become an obsession.  And her distraction was leading to misunderstandings and the misunderstandings were leading to corrections and corrections to arguments. Over things they had never argued about before. Over things that did not matter before but seemed to matter now. Things that seemed to generate sharp voices, clipped, sarcastic words and hurt deep enough in the soul not to see, but which wounded and felt like a dull ache for days and weeks. But this morning, at this place, feeling alone, he wondered if the conflicts were rooted in his memories not hers. Of his own mother, not hers.

 

As his wheels touched the blacktop on the other side of the bridge, the ride smoothed out and he accelerated toward a far corner of the road as it turned back into the forest. Nick thought how all the country around these parts seemed just the same as it must have always been.  Unlike all the new development back on the other side of the bridge, where he lived and from where he had just come.

 

He had been driving through this area at least once every couple of months for the three years they had lived near the bridge.  They had moved to the small house on two acres next to the river, having sold their home which had once been out in the county, but recently had been annexed, along with neighboring parcels, into the city boundaries.  Most of his business accounts took him back to the part of the county where he used to live. In the direction away from the bridge. He usually took the highway.  It wasn’t that often that he came in this direction.

 

This way was a slower, the roads and bridges slowed you down.  Made you’re your trip longer. The state highway on the other side of the county and now bisecting the city made travel faster, easier and more convenient.  Certainly, Nick had never stopped on a drive-through in this part of the county. It was poor, sparsely populated and, of course, no orchards to speak of, certainly none as large as the accounts he serviced. There was never a reason to stop.  No business here and no customers.  He had no acquaintances on this side of the bridge.

 

But the rare times he came this way, each time he passed over the Old Stone Bridge and down this road, he thought it was like a memory or a dream.  It was similar to a place he knew. He couldn’t place it for a while and then it came to him. Last month.

 

Arkansas. This country reminded him of Arkansas.  The woods coming right up to the road.  The abundance of water with creeks and ponds and lakes visible in the distance off through the trees.

 

Nick had visited the state. Arkansas was where all his folks, his parents, had grown up, got married.  On the visit he made, Nick had stayed with his stepsister.  He was glad he had the opportunity.  She had passed away a year later. And he was glad he got to explore the country around her place with her as a guide.  The falling down buildings, the dirt roads, the woods, all places which held, he learned, a lot of his family history.

 

He had been impressed with the beauty of the place.  And the wildness.  It was not like California, where even the national forests had a planned community feel to them.  Where the fields of the great San Joaquin Valley, viewed from a high hill or from the sky, were a mosaic of farming factories. Like the orchards, walnuts, pistachios, citrus, all operated by big multi-national companies, all accounts he serviced.  Family farms in California existed only in someone’s imagination or as a scam for tax breaks.

 

But here on this side of the bridge the trees, woods, and thick impenetrable undergrowth were not ordered at all.  Creeping right out to and onto the road.  No matter which way he looked, critters moved in his peripheral vision too quick to observe. But the shakes and and moves in the underbrush and the flash of furry legs confirmed their presence.

 

Wondering why he never just stopped and looked over the similarities before on his infrequent drives through the area, he pulled his pick-up to the side of the road, by a rotting fence, which appeared like the bridge, to have grown out of the ground in some natural process.  He got out and wandered around the back of the pick-up and over to the fence and put his right boot up on the bottom rung of the fence, rested his elbows on the top of the fence and looked across a meadow into the trees, thinking about his dead father.  Twelve years gone now.

 

In Arkansas, his Dad had grown up in a place just like this.  He left home when he was fourteen.  Bummed jobs around the country, came home, got married and fathered children.  Two dead wives and a dead son before his marriage to Nick’s mother.  Nick’s mother had been younger than the other wives. Ten he said, (she always said fifteen) years younger than his father. Tall and slim, not like the diet obsessed women Nick knew from town but slim and angular from never having quite enough to eat, always being a little hungry.  His mother had a full head of hair and, though her mouth, even in repose, always had some tension, she was capable of a hearty loud laugh at a joke or saying, especially if a little off color or tinted with a touch of irony.

 

As a girl, she had wanted away from her own family and out of the house where she grew up and Nick’s Dad, older, worldly to her from tramping around the South, was the ticket out.  At home, the only girl of ten kids the drudgery mostly fell to her.  Drudgery she longed to escape, but which as long as she stayed home, imprisoned her.  It was a girl’s lot back in those days to be relegated to the kitchen, laundry, hoeing in the garden patch.  It was work, hard work, performed unendingly by the women in a large family back up in the woods. Still, she could run and climb and fight as good as her brothers.

 

He thought about the pictures of her from those times, framed on the wall in the living room, so skinny.  All bones, arms and legs.  Like, he thought, the woman he could now see in the distance across the meadow by an old weathered barn.

 

The woman seemed to be pulling hay off a stack and throwing it over a fence into a trough. He was perplexed. He had not noticed her or the barn behind her before.  It was like they had not existed before he looked, but they had, they were just coming out in the light against the dark woods behind and the lake just beyond. With the sun at its peak this time of day everything became clear and visible.

 

“Aren’t you Art’s boy?”  The voice startled him.  Standing just a few feet away, a man in coveralls and a farmer’s hat, wide droopy rim, leaving the face partly in shadows.  The voice was familiar, and he looked closer as the man stepped forward and the high sun caught more of his face.

 

“Uncle Silas? I didn’t know you still lived around here.”  Nick had a vague memory of hearing that Silas got cancer, moved from California back to Arkansas, and passed away a couple of years ago.  Whoever told him that must have been mistaken for here he was leaning on the fence.

 

“Why sure. I’ve been right here most of this life on God’s green earth.  Lots of time I’ve spent in these parts.  Lots of memories. Heard about Art’s passing.  Sorry I couldn’t make the funeral.”

 

“That was some time ago.”

 

“Tell you what though, everyone can still remember what a ball player your Dad was. Could throw the ball harder than anyone I ever knowed or heard tell of.  And he was strong.  Not big or at least not tall, but I seen him throw both games of a double header one time, middle of summer.  They got one hit, never scored a run.   He just kept winding up and letting it fly.  One of those Canton hill boys started razing him from the dugout. Trying to get him distracted. Then he came up to bat and got too close to the plate and your Dad put a fastball right between the eyes.  Ball bounced right over the backstop.  He was out of ’t cold.  They carried him off and Art, he just keeps winding up and let ‘in ‘re fly.”

 

“Yes, I’ve heard that story.”

 

Nick turned his eyes back to the woman.  She was next to a well, with a pulley and rope and was lifting a bucket off the pulley and splashing the contents in a washtub.  She turned in profile to him, conjuring up the memories, reminding him of the pictures of his mother, young, so pensive.  He had wondered sometimes, if the ironic smile on her face in some of those old faded pictures was from escaping from the washing and cleaning for nine brothers only to find herself doing the same work for her new husband father and his parents, and his kids he had by the wives now dead and buried.

 

And that was the other thing.  Still a girl herself, inheriting two daughters, Nick’s stepsisters, two girls, one seven, the other nine, from the deceased wives that preceded her.  She was too young, just two young to be a mother to two girls half grown.

 

She once said that was harder because Dad’s farm was even more poor than the one she left when she married him.

 

He looked back at uncle Silas who had now moved over to the fence and was leaning his arms on the top rail, looking at Nick with amused eyes.

 

“Did you ever know my mom back in those days?”

 

“Now she was a corker, your mother.  She coulda’ been in track and field that one. Never knew anyone could beat her in foot race. Never knew anyone who could even stay even with her.  Hair would stand straight back from her head she was running so fast.”

 

“One time, her brother Joe, was worrying her over some Bo of hers.  May have been old Art for all I can ‘member.  Anyways, Joe, he was pushin’ and pullin’ at her, being mean and ornery and laughing out loud about Art being too old to “plant a post in soft ground” and all. And she just up and grabbed a bucket like she’s hoisting over there by the barn and she hit him right between the eyes.  And he went down like a sack of feed being throw’d from a truck.  And the blood spurtin’ everywhere.  And here come old Pappey George and the rest of the boys out of the house and across the porch. And George hollerin’ and Joe moanin’ on the ground . . .”

 

Nick listened fascinated.  But had he heard him right when he said she was over there?  Mistaken.  He turned his attention back to his uncle.

 

“And she was howling out laughing and hollered “the bastard had it comin’, he had it comin” and old George, he hollerin’ “and you got a beaten comin’” and the boys all started running at her and she took off.  Whoosh! Those feet like they were never even touching the ground.  The old man just stopped. He knew she couldn’t be caught.  The boys chased after her for a while, but they gave up soon enough.  And you could hear her for an hour out there hollerin’ “how it feel there, Joe.  You gonna plant that big knot I give your noggin’ in the soft dirt.  You bastard.  All you bastards.”

 

“She ever come in?”

 

“Oh yeah, sure, after a few hours.  She was tough though.  Scratching and biting and crying as old George give her a good beating.  Smacked her around pretty good.  She left those folks soon enough after that. Married your Pop. Moved in with him and hissin’.”

 

Nick looked across the meadow. The barn, the well, and now, he could see, a little way behind, an old run down ramshackle shack with a wide wood porch like the rest of it, at first unnoticed, but now in the mid-day sun all appeared to be closer. As he watched, the slender woman turned full face to him and there was that pensive smile from those pictures of her taken so many years before he was born.  He had seen that smile a few times in his own life.   When she spoke of the baby, Dobie, the dead brother he never knew.

 

Dobie, was a tow head, prettier than any baby from those parts, she said, who would sit on his Daddy’s lap and sing nonsensical songs. And in her eyes, in that half smile turned back in on herself, he could see nothing but regret and resignation for the future awaiting her.

 

“Uncle, tell me, I’ve heard stories, but never really wanted to ask too many questions, how did Baby Dobie die?”

 

“Sad. Everybody loved that kid.  Always running after Art. Hanging on him. Climbing on him.  And your mom. She doted on that child.  He was her’s own.  Oh, man, how she would laugh at his cut-ups.  Every care seemed to leave her when she was laughin’ at somethin’ he done.  And the little boy knew it and would cut-up just to get her laughing.”

 

Nick said, “She always got quiet when she talked of him. Never remember her laughing about the things he did.”  Nick didn’t say what he mostly remembered was bitterness.

 

“Oh, she’d laugh alright right up until that time he came down with the croup.  We all thought it was pneumonia.  He couged so bad.  Poor little fella.  They said it was the diabetes.  Wasn’t though. Anyways, one night he’s just sitting there on the porch, kinda sittin’. More like half sittin’.  Leanin’ sideways.  Anyways, he starts throwing up.  Coughin’ and throwin” up.  Your mom yelled at your Dad, we got to get him to the hospital.  The only hospital was over in Mr. Ida.  Twenty Six miles away.  Your Dad never liked to ask for help so he doesn’t say anything.  He got no way of gettin’ him over there.  Few around these parts had cars then. So he doesn’t say anything.

 

Ignoring the reference to location, Nick asked, ”So what happened. What did they do?”

 

“Art is ignoring her sayin stuff, and suggesting this or that.  A cold compress, some tobacco they tried on his chest. Don‘t recall.  Anyways, she starts in getting loud and its “By God this” and “By God that”, so pretty soon he sees the writin’ on the wall.  “OK, he says, I’ll go see if Uncle Moses will take us in his car.” And she says, “do it now. Dobie is sick, he’s real sick.”

 

“So your Dad, takes out walkin.  It’s a mile or two over that hill there,” Silas said, pointing off in the distance. Nick looked that way, and saw he thought, but not so sure, a rise in the land.

 

“Anyways, he crosses over and finds old Uncle Moses out the back of his place.  He tells him, “Moses, my boy’s sick.  Can we get you to take him over to Mt. Ida to the hospital?”

 

“Moses, as most folks around here will testify, is a tight old man and he tells Art,  “My car gotta’ have gas to get that far. I’ll need a dollar for the gas to get there.”

 

“That’s the story I heard”, says Nick, “when I was little.”

 

“Anyways, he says got to have that dollar.  Art doesn’t have anything, no money at all.  And he tells Moses that.  But he tells him he will work it out or go over and work the dam project and will pay him back, it’s just that Dobie is sick now and he got to go now.”

 

“Old Moses just looked at him, spit out a little tobacco off the porch, puts his hands down low in his pockets of his overalls and stares at your Dad.  Didn’t say a word back.  Art told me later, he knew then, there was no help and he said that walk back over the hill to tell your mother was the longest, and worst he ever took.”

 

“Well, anyways, it didn’t take long. Little Dobie was gone two mornings later. County coroner came out.  He said it was the croup that got him.  Not sure anymore, but he was gone, died trying to get a breath, and over the lack of a dollar for gas. That’s for sure a thing.”

 

“How did Mom take it?” Nick asked. While he waited for Uncle Silas to spit his tobacco juice and prepare his reply, he looked back at the woman who now was lugging the bucket of water toward the house.  And as he watched a little boy with yellow almost white hair boy come running out of the house to take hold of the handle of the bucket like he was going to help his Momma.  She looked down at him and her shoulders seemed like the weight lightened up a little.

 

“She took it bad.” Uncle Silas said.  “Blamed it on Art for the longest time.  He had to leave home a while.  But he come back after a few months.  They still had the other two kids. And that was before they moved to California and you came along.”

 

“Well, anyways,” Silas said, “I need to get over and see my Missus’. before she sends out the county sheriff.  You all take it easy and fine and let your kin’ know I said, Hey.”

 

“Will do.”

 

NIck watched Uncle Silas amble off toward the woods. As the old man stepped into the trees, Nick couldn’t see him anymore.  He turned back and looked across the meadow.  The sun had moved behind some clouds and the old ramshackle house and barn, set back up against the trees of the forest, just this side of the lake was barely visible in the shadows beyond the rise, it all appeared abandoned and empty.

 

Through the dimming light, he could just make out the figure of a young boy, a tow head, standing silently just inside the door frame, looking his way, and just behind him, the figure of a slender woman in the shadows, her hand just visible in the sun as it rested on the boy’s shoulder.

 

Nick walked back to his pickup, fished the keys out of his pocket and swung up into the seat. He looked again off through the woods. Maybe it was the long afternoon shadows from the trees and the hills, but almost nothing was visible anymore across the meadow except the trees and the lake just beyond

 

He started his pick-up truck, sat and listened to it idle for a few moments, thinking of Dobie, the dead brother he never knew.  It made him feel sick inside.  There was a longing there, something desperate about it, something compelling, that made him need to go home to his kids and his wife.

 

This business trip could be delayed a few hours.  He could wait until after the game.  He could watch his boy play ball and then go do the business late.  He would call ahead.  The supervisor could meet him later tonight or early in the morning. He could make up the time lost by going the other way, by taking the new highway.  He pulled out, turned the pick up around and drove back across the Old Stone Bridge and toward home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before Life

Before Life

Before Life

 

Afloat snug in warm fluid for untold time

Awaiting mine own age to emerge,

Innocent, perfect, ready

To preen, to pretend, to prance

 

In seed plenum; shell, fossil, rock entombed

An eternity. Inanimate to animate by a bit of water,

A trowel, an earthquake shaking boulders loose

To gambol, smash, crush, to disclose

 

Life. Here. Come to Earth. Sent? Lost?

A tree to branch, to wish straight, symmetrical.

Yet defiant.  Grown awkward, gnarled, prickly thorns, scratching nails

Pruned and shaped by chance, by evil, by tragedy, by happenstance

 

By danger cowed until final ascension, up through the clouds, to

Where? Airy, ethereal, reclined on a cloud maybe, lazy, sublime

Yet haunted by life’s memories of travail, loss, unrequited pain.

Heaven won’t absolve regret though should have to

 

And all this fight, and, too, poetry and song,

These mathematics, glass beakers, computers, infinitesimal.

Great heroes flawed and fallen, forgotten.

Wicked villains redeemed. No less worth in

 

An Afterlife

Pined for, prayed for InLife,

Though BeforeLife, I think, must be

What we

Desire

To return

to

 

 

 

The Preacher on the Other Side of My Window Pane

The Preacher on the Other Side of My Window Pane

The Preacher on The Other Side of My Window Pane

At his farthest touch, beyond

A cold, translucent window pane,

Smudged, scratched, etched by those

Who passed this way many times ago

He bends, squints to peer past

Diaphanous curtains. At curious figures

Moving, gamboling; busy on the other side

At what he doesn’t know. Or why.

Echoes off the wall of his chest,

Rhythms. Blood beats Thumping, Pumping

In bursts up through chutes

Toward the residence of his soul

And around, down, back to 

His center seat of existence. And those

Reverberations travel outside his border,

Beyond his body’s jurisdiction

And on. Like a smell, fresh or foul, remembered,

Found, among broken shards in a melon field

Culled in summer; Spoiled remnants of fruit

Harvested, left for those compelled to survive.

The taste on his tongue, sweet or bitter or bland

And the linger afterwards, ineffable as a memory,

Concrete as a Soldier’s memorial,

Wispy as a fragrance butterflied on the air.

His aged sight, blurring the form of People,

Movements, appearances and disappearances,

Their existence other, separate, forever apart

From his body and imagination; from his unit,

But the outlines of worlds remain

Among the scattered, overturned furniture of memory,

Like the memory in a dream from

Other dreams, fleeting misunderstandings

Beyond the studies of science, literature,

Beyond our own sculpted rock,

Beyond these days,

Numbered and Checked off.

And if, as he says, he’s not bound alone by physicality,

He asks, how can the Unknowable be?

No matter what and where it be. And now

You know I know he believes

 

  

The General, a poem by Phil Cline

The General, a poem by Phil Cline

My General

 

Up along the hill

On worn and weathered knees

He strived headlong, stubborn,

Leading us to our destiny.

 

Our Captain shouted No! to him,

Warning of shocks and shoals,

Of arrows, pins, shards and blades,

Of bent, broken flags and escutcheons.

 

And all us foolish boys

Who marked his words,

Respected his histories,

Who stepped from platform to train

 

And left our fair loves

Huddled down against the rain,

Who laughed cadence to each other

Loud, hearty and brave,

 

Only to be vanquished

On this foreign hill,

To lie red in the mud, to stretch crooked

Across these rocks in death and misery.

 

 

 

 

The Intercession, a short story by Phil Cline

The Intercession, a short story by Phil Cline

Intercession

 

Miles to the north another man was just arriving at the peak of the coastal mountain Range. He, like Jeff Davalos back at Dorn’s restaurant, also knew the identity of the man killed on Morro Rock. The victim was his brother.

 

The man was tired from the drive. He had been fast asleep at his apartment in Sacramento when the phone rang at four in the morning.

 

After the long drive, the ocean was a welcome sight. The crest presented a panoramic view of the entire coastline. From there the road began its descent toward Highway One, the Pacific Coast Highway. Keeping his eye on the winding mountain road, he hazarded a glance south. Morro Rock, emerging out of the ocean in the early morning sun, was visible to him even at that great distance,

 

Like Nick Easley, Wayne Caster was a lawyer. Unlike Nick he was a very ambitious and wealthy.

 

He knew his brother was dead. It had been Jeff Davalos who had called him. Jeff was an old acquaintance.   As a child Wayne, along with the rest of the family, part of the dust bowl migration from the Oklahoma, worked on the Davalos farm in the central valley. It was obvious during the call that Jeff had been drinking. He had handed the phone to his housekeeper, Maria, who explained to Wayne what she knew. She had a name of a police officer from the Morro Bay police department. Wayne had called the officer. Although the officer had been evasive about what had happened, the words, “possible homicide” did slip out. Wayne had gotten dressed, packed a bag, got in his car and now he was at the coast to see why his brother had died.

 

He had known this day was coming for a long time. Ever since the intercession.

 

In the 1950s, Wayne, his brother Andy, his sister Kathyrn, and the rest of their family lived in a small wooden house in the crossroads migrant town of Farmersville. A family of farm workers had originally occupied the house. They had abandoned the shack and followed the seasonal fruit picking on up the coast to Oregon.

 

His father had watched the house for 2 weeks after the farm worker family left. He had a plan. One day the house was picked up, balanced between two flat bed trailers and moved to an open dirt lot by their father and some of his mother’s brothers. No one ever said anything outside the family, but there was plenty of joking among his uncles about the Caster house being stolen property.

 

Purloined or not, the house sat on concrete blocks about a foot off the bare ground. There was no indoor plumbing, no running water. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. Their father and mother slept in one of the bedrooms; he and his older brother Andy, shared the other bedroom. His younger sister, Kathyrn, slept on a fold out couch in the living room.

 

When Andy, was twelve, he contracted the measles. In the Fifties it was a serious disease. It could scar and cripple and even kill. Large pink welts started first on his back and shoulder, spreading up his neck and on to his face where they became red and angry. He was miserable and demanding. And he and his mother, who could do nothing to make him comfortable, became combative.

 

They were at war from morning until night. He was insulting and demanding and she was cutting and pitiless. They fought over everything. Their words were harsh and unforgiving. But then, as the days passed with no respite from the sickness, Andy weakened. He became less combative. He became more compliant. And somehow that was scarier, more serious. But still the days were filled with plenty of noise from their arguments and his complaints. But he couldn’t keep it up.

 

At the end of the day as the dusk turned to darkness, silence and an uneasy peace finally, thankfully descended on the house.

 

And that is when his brother, Andy, normally, the most self-assured, the bravest of the family was at his weakest. His usual singular determination was always just below the surface during the day, However, when the darkness came, his brother whimpered and cried in his sleep, other times cowering down in his blankets, fully awake. He would whisper “they are here” and Wayne, would reluctantly look to where Andy pointed. He didn’t want to look. But when he did nothing was there.

 

“They are trying to steal something from me.”

 

“Huh, what? And what’s trying to get it?”

 

“Please stay over here.”

 

And Wayne would crawl in bed beside Andy, scared too, but not seeing anything at all at the place, the corner, where Andy’s eyes were focused. Wayne was kept to his own side of the bed. He didn’t want to touch his brother. He was also afraid of the red bumps and welts.

 

And then there were times Andy would scream out, like he was being stung and trying to fight off something.

 

That’s when his mother, so tired from lack of sleep at night and mentally warring with Andy during the day, would call their grandmother and knowing it was on the party line whisper, “Please come,” without saying more.

 

Wayne’s grandmother lived just up the street. She was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Or so people said. Wayne use to be skeptical, but the pictures he found of her as a young girl and which Wayne kept in a plastic box on the top shelf of his closet, seemed to verify her lineage. They showed a firm, stocky woman with a dark, ruddy complexion. She had stern, slanted, Mongolian eyes.

 

His grandmother maintained she was a devout Christian. She enthusiastically shouted her testimony in church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. She quoted the Bible copiously, if a little inaccurately. None of that mattered since her beliefs and superstitions were of such variety that Wayne, looking back, wondered if her true religion was something other than Christianity.

 

The night before the intercession, Wayne’s mother had called. And thirty minutes later, their grandmother was walking through the front door, carrying bags and her Bible. She stayed the night, sitting next to Andy’s bed, holding a cool cloth to his forehead.

 

The next morning, she sat at the kitchen table as Wayne’s mother bustled around making coffee and cleaning the breakfast dishes.

 

“The Nightgoers want his days”, she quietly told his mother.

 

Neither knew Wayne was behind the door, listening

 

“You need to protect him from them. Only you can do it. I lost the power. It never lasts to my age.”

 

“I can’t.   It still scares me. I can’t move. I hear him whine and still I can’t move. I don’t want to see them again. I saw them when I was little. Never all of them, just shadows. I closed my eyes. I wouldn’t look. Your vision, yours’ to see. I never wanted the sight. I never wanted to look. I never wanted to see. I wouldn’t look; I hid under the covers and kept my eyes closed. I still want to hide.”

 

“It’s in you. Only you,” the grandmother said. Then she paused, thinking. “And one other besides. Among all the children. One other. You know this. One other. But, not yet. She’s not ready. I don’t think so anyway. But you need to do this. You know you can do this.”

 

“No. I’ve never seen like you. To me they are just shadows, mists, half there.I hate it. All of it. I won’t do it. I can’t.”

 

“You can. You never did as I tell you. Talk them verses I gave you. You have to sing the verses. The devils must obey. They have always obeyed when we are say the words.”

 

“Then let her do it.   She’s old enough. Teach her the words. I’m not going to do it.”

 

Out grandmother didn’t say anything for a few moments.

 

“Maybe you’re right. The power must be passed on to others in line. It could die out if we don’t give it over.”

 

“I was the wrong one. It shouldn’t have fallen to me. They scare me. I hate them. I don’t want to see. I saw. I saw plenty and I don’t want to see ever again.”

 

“Someone must. They are here now. In the next room. You son suffers. He is tortured. It happens. Men sometimes see what we see. They can’t handle it. We have to make them believe the things are gone. If we don’t they end up in the crazy house, the asylum. It falls to us. It’s our lot. Tonight they will be here to take more of his days. His life is already shortened.”

 

A movement caught Wayne’s eye. His sister, Kathryn was on the other side of the door, hiding and listening. He glared at her and stiffly shook his head and mouthed “NO!”   She just sneered her upper lip at him and pointed outside.

 

He quietly, stealthy, followed her. The conversation Wayne was eavesdropping on fell to a murmur as he moved father away and eventually through the screen door, it slamming shut behind him. He walked into the yard where his sister stood, a hand on her hip, still sneering.

 

“Sneaky. You sneak! I’m going to tell.” she called out.

 

He was about to punch her, but she laughed suddenly out loud and slapped him hard on the side of his head, knocking off his ball cap and fled. Wayne followed in hot pursuit.

 

Fast on her feet, she was easily fleeing out of his reach, but as he always did, he spotted something in her gate, her pace, something that told him which way she would veer off. He never figured out what it was that always told him such a thing about Kathryn, but he knew all right and he went that way, cutting the angle before she made her turn and was suddenly on her grabbing her waist and taking her to the ground, she flailing at him with both fists and him knowing which hand was coming first, He seized her wrists and held her and pinned her back on the ground. Straddling her, he continued holding her until the fight and the struggle went out of her.

 

“Stop it. Let me up. I’m telling.   What were you doing? What were they talking about? What’s a Nightgoer?”

 

So she had heard.

 

“Do you see those things?”, she asked, “I’ve never seen those things. Sarah says grandma is just a crazy old Indian coot and Mom’s crazy just like here. She said that’s what her mother said.”

 

“Just you never mind. Andy is sick. Real sick. He could die. He sees things. Things that aren’t there. Maybe grandma can help him.”

 

“She is crazy.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“She calls me names and tells me, if I let boys play with me I will get rot sickness and die with boils and sores all over me. And no one will come to my funeral because I will be so disgusting, so ugly, and they will leave me out for the owls and wolves to eat. She’s crazy.”

 

“Kathryn, you just make that shit up. Grandma always treated you special. You know that. She’s got something special in her mind about you. Besides you really are already ugly and disgusting.”

 

“Do you think Andy will die?” she asked, no longer interested in continuing a conversation where she was the disgusting subject.

 

“Are those things going to eat him? Do you see them? What are they?”

 

“I don’t see them. Sometimes Andy will start talking about them before he does see. I don’t know how, I just know he will and then he starts whispering and whimpering like when the dog’s alone and afraid locked in the chicken coop back of the lot.”

 

“I want to see them. Can I see them? Tonight. I will sneak in you guy’s room tonight.”

“No! We will get in trouble. Mom will yell at us. Besides, Andy doesn’t want anyone to know he’s scared of ‘em. He won’t talk about it during the day, but he dreads the nighttime. I know he does.”

 

“Okay”, she said, but Wayne could tell she did not mean it. He knew right then, she would come that night and there was nothing he could say to keep her from doing so. Kathryn did what she wanted to do. Always. And usually she managed to figure out how to escape punishment. Even though she was the youngest of the three, she was the smartest when it came to avoiding consequences. She seemed to know most times what other people would do, even grown ups. She didn’t care, she did exactly what she wanted.

 

That night he and his father went next door to watch the fights on Television. The neighbors were a Mexican family. They were also the first on the street to get a T.V.

 

The family was friendly, gracious and he and his Dad appreciated being asked over to watch the Tube. Wayne’s mother didn’t like “foreigners” as she called them and would always say No. But not his Dad. He liked the Friday Night Fights.

 

He would sit on the edge of a chair and flinch like he was taking the punches himself as he watched the blows of the Heavy Weights land to ribcage, forehead and sometimes below the belt. Between rounds, the Gillette commercials would play. Snappy jingles that stayed with you, bouncing around in your head. During the commercials the fathers would talk of work, cars, and sometimes, if the wife wasn’t within earshot, of women.

 

After the fights, Wayne would watch Disneyland with Margie, the 12-year-old girl. She was his girlfriend sometimes. Once, sitting on a blanket playing canasta, she undid the top of her swimsuit and let him see, furtively glancing around to make sure no one was watching. On fight night, she sat at the kitchen table as his father and him and the Mexican man and his wife watched the fights. Margie glanced at him often. While his Dad flinched and simulated a punch or two Wayne smiled back at her. He never forgot that little secret smile. It warmed him to this day like no other woman’s smile had ever warmed him.

 

After Disneyland was over, after Tinkerbelle made her last sprinkle of fairy dust from her magic wand, he and his father went back to their house. It was time for bed and Wayne went to the bedroom. Andy, his brother was there, quiet, lying facing the wall, the blanket lying lightly over his shoulders. Wayne couldn’t tell if he was asleep. He doubted he was.

 

As usual, Wayne faded off into a sleep, but came awake, knowing it was about to begin. He felt a presence next to him in the bed; it was Kathyrn lying there beside him, watching Andy. She had crawled into Wayne’s bed and under the covers, her back toward Wayne. He could feel the bare skin of her legs. She was watching Andy intensely.

 

Andy’s breathing had started getting deeper like he was trying to catch his breath and then his legs began moving under the bed, like he was running. He was sighing. Suddenly, he sat straight up and looked to the furthest corner of the room. Wayne noticed Kathryn was already looking at the same spot. He looked too. It was hidden in the shadows. He couldn’t tell if anything was there.

 

Kathryn slowly pushed the covers back and got off his bed and walked toward the corner with a small box of some kind in her hand. She was naked. Andy saw her and watched her, but didn’t say anything. She looked over at him once without expression and moved on to the corner.

 

She opened the box and Wayne could hear her mumbling, chanting singsong indistinguishable words. He couldn’t make out what they were.

 

Andy looked, his eyes wide, wild, the whites showing, flicking back and forth between Kathryn and the corner. She took something out of the box and held up her hand. He couldn’t make out what was in her hand. All the while, she was still mumbling words. The moonlight through the uncovered window was reflecting off her skin. It didn’t look like the skin of a little girl. More translucent. After a few moments she became still. Then all was quiet and the moments passed without any sound or movement.

 

Finally, Kathryn turned away from the corner walked back across the middle of the room and stood next to Andy’s bed.

 

She said quietly to Andy, “They are gone.”

 

“For good?”

 

“Gone. They took some from you.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s okay. You have many. If it had gone on longer that would have been bad. Burning years. The next deep is many years. Some is gone and that’s too bad, but it’s not so many and you have many left. Many years left.”

 

“Okay.” He nodded. “It’s better. I feel smaller somehow. Less. But it’s not too bad. They won’t come back? You sure, they won’t be back?”

 

“I don’t think so; they are gone. They’ve gone hunting someone else.”

 

Kathryn’s eyes found Wayne’s. He was still sitting there on the side of the bed in his underwear. She looked at him, but the way she looked at him, he thought, was different. She was more serious now. She was more distant. She had changed. He looked at her body. He had seen her naked before, but even that was different now. Her body was that of a kid, but wasn’t. He knew then there would never be anymore times when they chased each other and wrestled and fought and made up for no other reason, than that they were kids. She didn’t smile. She didn’t frown. She just looked at him. Like there was regret there, a missing, already a longing for a happy innocence they just had that afternoon, but which for her was gone now. Gone forever.

 

She turned then and walked through the door and just as she crossed the threshold, Wayne saw his grandmother. He hadn’t realized the Grandma had been there in the hallway watching the whole time. She looked at him, smiled and turned to follow his sister into the other room. She was carrying Kathryn’s nightgown. She paused in the doorway for just a moment. Her head turned slightly as she looked back over her shoulder at Wayne before she gently closed the door. The latch clicked.

As he drove down the mountain and on toward the Pacific, Wayne was thinking of how, as a kid one looked across the endless time of youth, when the decades stretch out before you, time lost at the end, even years never seem too many. If you’re young, brief decades are forever. But now that Wayne was older and his brother was dead, those long years from the time when he was twelve until now had passed like a snap of one’s fingers. He thought of his brother, who he had been told might have had his life taken from him on Morro Rock, and he thought of the many miles and years they had traveled from the house where his sister Kathryn had interceded with whatever was tormenting him.

 

The last time he had seen Andy, he was composed but sad; he seemed to often stare elsewhere at something unseen. He wore a look of resignation. Like something was coming he wished to avoid; something inevitable he couldn’t stop. When he questioned Kathryn about it, she had shrugged her shoulders. She looked off in the distance, but Wayne had the feeling she was seeing something much closer. Something internal. Her only comment was, “Andy has been troubled for a long time now.”

 

He thought back to that night Kathryn had opened the mysterious little box and mumbled her incantation. And he remembered after it was over, what was said. Kathryn had used the words. She had said the words to Andy “not so many”.

 

Back when they were kids it didn’t seem like so much. But now his brother was dead. And yes, the years taken from him were not so much in the arc of a life. Unless you were at the end. Unless you had none left. Unless some evil had, at an appointed hour, come to take you. And all along you knew it would happen. What would you do then? If you knew?

 

 

 

Just Once, a poem by Phil Cline

Just Once, a poem by Phil Cline

Just Once

 

Just once watching the tides at play

A wave cut fiercely left to right,

Never topping nor breaking to white,

 

A green watery blade it was

Rising and rending the wind,

Scattering the screaming gulls,

 

Then calmed to mere swell,

It withdrew seaward

Never crashing to shore.

 

I did not know oceans could do that.

I do not know if it’s something

I need to fear.

 

 

The Leaving, A Short Story by Phil Cline

The Leaving, A Short Story by Phil Cline

A Leaving

 

When he called, the investigator from the District Attorney’s office gave Wayne directions to a small private mortuary. He found it just off the coastal highway in San Simeon. The investigator met him in the parking lot and led him to a side door. The investigator stayed outside as Wayne walked into the quiet little chapel.

 

The lights in the chapel were dim, as one would expect, an adjustment after the bright morning sunlight that greeted him as he had driven north from Morro Bay. There were no windows in the chapel, but rather little fake stained glass triangles high up on the walls with a Christmas bulb of some kind behind them. They gave the false impression of heavenly light passing through the walls.

 

Sitting at the front of the chapel, fit tightly between a podium and the empty seven rows of pews, a casket sat on an uncovered aluminum cart. The wheels of the cart were oversized. Wayne supposed one just didn’t usually notice them during funerals. He would be sitting some distance away and the casket would frequently covered with a drape or, maybe a flag. The casket was dark wood and clashed with the shiny metal of the cart. The metal and wood didn’t go together.

 

Wayne sat down in the middle of the front pew and looked around the cramped Chapel. His knees were almost touching the cart. He studied all the little incongruities in the room because he was reluctant to think about the implications of the body in the casket.

 

Looking at your brother’s casket brings to mind all the deaths that have gone before, the funerals, the “celebrations of life”, the parades past the caskets, the songs, the remembrance books, the flower arrangements, the family room to the side of the sanctuary behind the wispy curtains or the empty roped off front benches as the church fills up, then the twitching and waiting until there is a stir and the deceased’s family is lead down the aisle and directed to their seats by like a bride’s family by the ushers. They were the last to be seated in the honored place so that finally the burying ceremony could begin.

 

When Wayne was a kid, a funeral was a time to dress up in slacks and bow tie, and his one pair of dress shoes. They didn’t fit. Weddings and funerals he supposed were places where such dress was still expected of the poor. Even in a casual Friday society, there were still expectations concerning dress at weddings and funerals. And courts.

 

The last funeral he had attended with his brother Andy was his grandmother’s funeral. That was so many years ago now.

 

She died in1960 and her funeral had all the trappings of poor “Free Will” Baptists. The whole family and most of their neighbors were “Free Will” back then.

 

As the family arrived at the funeral home, they were directed to park their cars in a line along the driveway that circled around the back of the mortuary. The cars were lined up behind a long white Cadillac, stretched out like a station wagon. It was fancy. Later in life, one of his first clients had been a pimp. The first time Wayne saw the pimp’s car it reminded him of the white Cadillac, all the chrome, shining paint and curved darkened windows engraved with white curls at the edges.

 

There was a protocol for the order of the procession of cars though none of them knew to call it that back then. After the service and on the trip to the graveyard, his family would be allowed to ride in the great white car. There would be room only for immediate family, no more than four, one by the driver, and three in the back seat just ahead of the casket.

 

Driving the car behind the Cadillac would be his brother, Andy. Since Andy was the oldest, the plan was he would drive the family Chevrolet to the graveyard. It would be the car his mother and father as well as Wayne and his sister, Kathryn, would ride home in after the internment was complete. The White Cadillac would return to the mortuary empty of its burden and its passengers as soon as the casket was unloaded and wheeled to the gravesite.

 

On the way to the cemetery the luxurious white Cadillac would be the first in line. Next would come Andy in the family Chevrolet and after him the preacher’s car and his wife. Then Wayne’s uncles and their families would follow as the cars pulled away in a stately pace their lights on in the middle of the day. Other cars using the roads would pull to the side to allow the procession to pass out of respect for the grieving family.

 

Wayne mused it was something that would not happened today without some impatient traveller pulling out right through the procession and speeding ahead impatient to get on with their journey. Or someone would shout an obscenity or honk their horn. Little in life or death was devoid of vulgarity anymore.

 

Waiting for his grandmother’s funeral to begin, the family and guests all sat in their assigned places. As the clock ticked toward 10 a.m., the crowd of onlookers gradually became quieter. Upon arriving they had respectfully greeted each other and squeezed over to allow the next person to be seated. Courtesies were observed. A slight smile and a greeting could be made, but it was always discrete. There were no full smiles. It would not be fit for the serious occasion of burying the dead. But a handshake, a half smile, and then a saddened turning down at the corners of the mouth were appropriate.

 

The attendees took their seats and respectfully gazed forward toward the casket and flower arrangements even as they continued to quietly exchange pleasantries while they waited. They spoke quietly, but kept their eyes to the front where their concern and interest should lie.

 

The flowers at his Grandmother’s funeral were extensive and artfully arranged. Each of her children’s families, after they were seated, first examined the overall placements of the wreaths, the flower stands and the ribbons across the hearts made of roses, a particular favorite and the specialty of the local flower shop. Each family would first locate then consider the look and placement of the flower display they couldn’t afford, but had ordered and paid for anyway. None of the families had seen the flowers they purchased before arriving the day of the funeral so they were naturally curious. The flowers were way too expensive, but such things had to be done.

 

Wayne disapproved of the modern custom of announcing, “in lieu of flowers, donations are welcome” to this or that favorite non-profit or charity. The front of churches or funeral homes could, nowadays, be downright bare. And worse, the perfume of real flowers was lost, a perfume he remembered as being so overwhelming that it would cover the smell of the dead and, thankfully, the formaldehyde that emanated from the back rooms where the embalming took place and which seeped through the air conditioners into the carpet and fabric of every mortuary.

 

Back in those times, the smell of the dead was there when one arrived at the funeral home the evening after the death for “Visitation.” But as time passed leading to the day of burial, the delivery of flowers gradually subdued the odor and replaced it with the thick smell of lilacs and roses.

 

Wayne’s mother was the first child born of the family. Ostensibly, that was the reason they were first in the line for the funeral procession, and in the front of the viewing room during the funeral. His grandfather had passed a couple of years before so the place of honor was his mother’s.

 

Wayne knew there were other reasons. In his youth, as the first generation among the displaced Midwesterners began dying away, the old ways of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri still had life. They had all come “Out West” in the great migration after the Depression of the 1930s. Traditions were brought with them. And funerals were something that folks in the South and Mid-West thought through.

 

Though a hardy people, the work they did in the factories and fields was arduous and dangerous. Most of them didn’t live long lives. Many died as infants, others as young men and women in their prime. There had been plenty of funerals to attend and, as one watched a friend or relative buried, you couldn’t help but think of how to arrange one’s own funeral. What hymns would they select, what clothes would they be dressed in, who would give the invocation, what Bible verses would be read?

 

And with families like Wayne’s, there would be notes somewhere, usually written out long hand. Education levels were primitive but the effort was made. The wishes of the deceased would be Block printed laboriously on pages of the cheap lined tablets. They would be set down in writing, months, sometimes years before.

 

His grandmother couldn’t read or write. But Wayne could. And over a period of time it became her habit when he visited her alone, to ask him to get out her tablet and pen. She repeatedly admonished him to remember where it was when she passed on. It was never “if”, it was always “when”. She would point him to the big rough walnut hutch and he would undo the small delicate hasp binding the glass doors, and reach up to the top shelf and withdraw the tablet. He would sit down with her at the Formica topped kitchen table. Wayne could still remember the quite pride he felt at being able to do this important task. As a little boy he felt adult serious as he bent over the table to print it all out long hand as she dictated how she wanted matters arranged for her funeral. Some times she made changes. Other times there were additions to be made.

 

The day she died the whole family had gone to her house. She had been taken away in the hearse, but the family members all stood around quietly talking or sat on the worn couches and chairs, the thin crocheted coverings dusty and smelling of mildew. Wayne went to the hutch and retrieved the tablet from where his grandmother kept it wrapped in a delicate lace doily. He handed it to his mother who, recognizing what it was, unwrapped it, flipped it open and began reading.

 

There would be no question that the instructions scrawled on the pages of the tablet in a child’s handwriting would be followed precisely and without variation. And it contained every detail; from the hymms to be played at the service to the dress in which she would be laid out and which she had wrapped in plastic and hung in the back of her bedroom closet. She had even envisioned where everyone would sit. She also dictated the coffin she wanted and the color of the lining and where she would be buried. In the front of the tablet was a carefully folded receipt for the burial plot she had purchased. She meant to spend eternity at rest in a grave next to Wayne’s grandpa under a tall and shady pine tree at the cemetery north of town.

 

The tablet was all there was. In that time and place, one didn’t write a will. There was little to pass along to survivors anyway. And certainly there was no need and no money for lawyers to contest or challenge a probate. The families worked it out themselves. Occasionally they fought over a few sentimental or prized possessions, which seldom had any intrinsic worth. Sometimes those battles caused resentment. And those resentments could last lifetimes. But it was worked out (or not), without the intervention of a remote justice system of little practical use to poor people.

 

That part hadn’t really changed much, thought Wayne.

 

But his grandmother’s burial notes did contain a few simple bequests. Her dishes were to go to Uncle Joe’s wife. He was the second oldest. Her ring, a simple gold band, would go to Wayne’s mother. Everyone suspected that funeral directors were thieves. Which meant there were always clear instructions for disposing of anything valuable or sentimental before the funeral so there would be nothing for the embalmers to steal from the dead.

 

Wayne had sat next to his sister at the funeral. He thought of the bequest his grandma had made to her. He knew where it had been hidden as did his mother. His grandma had told him, reminded him a number of times. She had twice showed it to him, even let him touch the little delicate box.

 

The sides looked slick like dark enamel. It was so polished it felt wet. It had gold embossed designs, curls and swirls with little spike like leaves, but harsher; delicate yet sharp like thorns. It was locked. He imagined it could be forced open but not without breaking the fastener and Wayne had been told many times not to open or look inside. There were clear unstated threats that went with those admonitions. There was a serious tone in her warnings. There was no kidding around or smiling when she told him not to examine the box too closely.

 

He had held the box in his hands and turned it over, looked at all its sides, but he obeyed and never shook it to see if he could hear anything rattle inside, nor did he put it near his face. Instead he handled it gently. It just felt like inside the box there was something dangerous, like if you touched the contents, it could burn you.

 

Wayne had known the relationship his sister, Kathryn, had developed with his grandmother had changed since the days of his brother’s sickness. The day Kathryn had intervened.

 

Since then the young girl and the elderly lady had spent many hours together at his grandmother’s house. Ironically, Wayne still felt he was the grandchild closest to his grandma. There was something special between his sister and his grandmother, but it was not born of affection. There was a relationship, but it was not a loving one. It always seemed like they were working instead of visiting. They were teacher and student, journeyman and apprentice.

 

Wayne was still the one that received the hugs, the prized little sugar pastries she made. They had often engaged in a giggling conspiracy to deprive others in the family those little treats. Including his grandfather. She made them all for Wayne. He never had to share them with the other kids. And she and he would eat them alone at her kitchen table and they were all the more delicious because neither his brother nor sister got any. Not even his mother.

 

The gulf between his mother and grandmother had grown over the years dating from the night of his sisters’ intercession in his brother’s illness. Wayne never heard the two of them speak of his grandma’s superstitions again, nor any of his mother’s Christian beliefs.

 

It was right after that time that his mother had fled to religion. She became a born again Christian. She frequented the little Baptist church held Sundays in the back of the Freeman’s grocery store, where the small congregation sat at long pine tables on folding chairs. She even began going to Wednesday night “singings”, where many of the ladies and a few of the men sang lustily the old time hymns.

 

His grandmother ever more frequently missed church altogether. She still talked about Jesus and the angels, but she also, just as often, spoke of the Devil and demons. The context was usually biblical, but it was the only time Wayne would hear the Devil and his doings discussed. The tales were scary. They frightened him. Even as an adult some of his nightmares could be traced to those stories.

 

His grandmother would speak to him about such things when they were alone, but it was not like she was speaking directly to him, It was more like she was reciting, chanting incantations, and he was inanimate, like a piece of her furniture. In her way, it seemed to him now, it was a means for her to articulate, turn over in her mind, study and analyze mysteries and conundrums. As a boy, he never listened too closely. Not because he didn’t believe her. He did. But he didn’t listen because he felt reluctant to consider his grandmother’s musings too closely. It was frightening. Such matters scared him.

 

In many of those discussions his Grandmother would reference her own upbringing. She spoke of those long ago times when she was a girl back in Oklahoma on the Reservation. She spoke of the brief years when she was young until she was considered an old maid at eighteen and her grandfather had married her to a man who took her off the Reservation.

 

She had talked of her own brothers and how they hunted and tested themselves as young men, but had succumbed to drink and despair over the years and eventually migrated off the Reservation and away from those bad lands in Oklahoma. They were scattered now. The diaspora of the entire tribe was complete. It had started before the Depression and was accelerated by the famine most histories of the Dust Bowl forgot had rolled through Reservation land and ended with the abject poverty and hopelessness of life where a culture finally died.

 

Those left behind on the Reservation were not the strong ones, the ones’ with spirit. Only the weak were left. Leaderless, idle, on welfare, on drugs or drink, they let the days and years pass and the memories of better days fade or become, at heart, unbelievable. No plantings were made; no animals captured, or killed or bred, raised and traded. The Indians of Oklahoma were ashamed of their lives and their shame caused them to hide on the Reservation, away from the world they stared at and admired on the little black and white televisions in the unkempt living rooms of their government houses.

 

Wayne could remember sitting in the funeral home and looking at his grandmother’s casket as he now looked at another in which his brother lay. From the perspective of the years that had passed since then, it seemed that with his grandmother’s death, and with the death of her generation, the last real links to the culture of the Cherokee Indian had died. His brother had wanted to reestablish at least one link to the Indian past, even if it was with a different tribe. But now he too was dead.

 

All that remained of Indian culture was a representation. It had the signs, the symbols, the words and dances, like a child’s dress up game, but always the symbols were a little too exaggerated, defensive. Now it was all a television commercial, not real. What had come after the diaspora was a fraudulent imitation of a people who once had faiths and beliefs. The magic of the Cherokee had been lost forever, the way all things are lost: with death and the grave.

 

Wayne had sat next to his sister, Kathryn, as their grandmother’s funeral began. Hymns were sung and the entire gathering participated. The songs were familiar enough: “Bringing in the Sheaves”, “Amazing Grace”, others. And they watched from the side room through the opaque curtain and studied the family members and the friends of the family who packed the small funeral home. The women were attired in modest dresses and, uncomfortably, in hose. The men were clad in slacks, white shirts and ties, also uncomfortably tight at the neck. The fingers of the men and women sitting on the hard wooden pews made frequent pulls and adjustments at the neck, the thighs, and the hips.

 

The friends there were not all friends of his grandma. Many of her contemporaries had been called away, in the words of the song, “called up yonder”, before her demise. She had in her final years withdrawn from most of the one’s who lived as long as she. Instead the attendees at the funeral were friends of her children’s family, there to show their respects to the lady they still referenced as Mrs. Caster.

 

The preacher had his turn at the podium. His readings of the bible were given as he held the bible open in his hand like a delicate fruit that must not be squeezed too hard lest it be bruised or damaged and a rotting process started. His sermon, with its promises and mysteries, went on much too long as the shifting and tugging at the uncomfortable clothes increased. Everyone there was itching to be released.

 

Wayne, his brother, Andy, and his sister, Kathryn, listened and watched. They unaccountably had a set of giggles descend on them at one point in the service. The giggles were brought on by an especially bad rendition of “Bringing in the Sheaves”, joined in a little too enthusiastically by the Preachers’ wife who had a truly screechy voice and no sense of tone. Her off-key singing was incongruous to the seriousness of the event and, therefore, terribly funny.

 

Wayne smiled to himself as he remembered how the giggles were welling up into all out laughter, but were swallowed back down in the face of their mother’s wilting glare.

 

Laughter was possible but not tears. Neither he nor Kathryn had been moved to sadness with their grandmother’s passing. Certainly Andy would not have cried. He would not have felt any sorrow. His trepidation toward their grandmother had never abated. He stayed away from her.

 

But Wayne wondered why he, personally, never felt her loss more profoundly. He would miss her he guessed. There would be an empty place in his life, which she had filled. She was mysterious. He took pleasure in even the fearsome creatures and occurrences she related as part of her existence. He was like a kid at a Halloween party. But now she lay dead. He would think about all the rest later.

 

He knew that Kathryn, upon being told of her grandmother’s dearth had nodded her head in understanding and then gone and sat by the front window of the house. For the next couple of hours she just sat and stared up the road to where their grandmother lived and where she could see the uncles and family members were gathering. She never made any effort to rouse herself and walk the three blocks to the house. She didn’t look sad. There were no tears. She was focused on thoughts Wayne didn’t care to inquire about.

 

Kathryn’s outward expression of emotions had for some time been controlled. Wayne, who used to be the target of some of her outbursts, knew the difference. She could still work up an angry fit if she was in the mood, but it seemed to Wayne that now she was conscious of what she was doing and could stop, change instantly if she chose to or realized it would be better for her.

 

Finally, it was time for the parade by the casket. One last hymn was played, this time on a recorder, and projected through speakers in the top corners of the funeral home. The assistant funeral directors starting in the back of the parlor released the rows of attendees one row at a time to walk down the middle aisle, past the casket and then back down the side aisles to the sunshine outside. Some people would dutifully look on the face of the dead woman, certainly all kids looked, if nothing else, out of curiosity. Others, the squeamish or superstitious, would pass by the casket but not look. A few would pat the side of the coffin as if giving solace and reassurance to the dead.

 

Gradually the funeral home emptied and it was time for Wayne and his family to come out of the side viewing room and pass by the coffin themselves after which the lid would be closed and the coffin rolled out the back door to be loaded into the back of the long white Cadillac limousine.

 

Wayne and Kathryn were behind his mother in the line. As she passed the casket she reached in and rested her hand on the forehead of his grandmother. Wayne had expected her to do the touching. He had overheard his mother and other women talk from time to time about death and how the forehead of the dead always felt like cold wood. His mother had said this a number of times. He never knew why. But because she had, he figured, his mother almost was compelled to touch his dead grandmother.

 

It was one of those inexplicable acts of courage she evinced over her life, while in other actions she obeyed the dictates of her fears. As she felt the forehead, her knees weakened and she almost fell, Wayne’s father grabbed her under the arms to prop her up. She quickly regained her balance and weeping, for the first time since the death, she shuffled away. Wayne’s father and his brother, Andy, walked by the casket after her without looking down at the body.

 

Wayne stopped in front of the casket to take a last look at his grandma. His sister, who had been following him in line, stopped next to him. They both looked at her face. The lines of her mouth, jaw, nose seemed unnaturally straight, too bitter. And the thick, too thick, make up and powder spread on her face gave a whitish blue hue to her naturally dark Indian skin tone. Lipstick had been applied to her lips and, while it was discreet enough, he and Kathryn knew she never wore lipstick so on her it looked unnatural. Her dress was light and airy and the folds were tucked in around her so that the outline of her bony frame was visible.

 

Their Grandmother had been bigger and stronger in life. This small body wasn’t her. It was something else in that casket. Their grandmother was elsewhere or, maybe, nowhere, but she wasn’t in that disintegrating coil. Wayne didn’t feel her presence. There was no sign, no hovering, and no smell of her, no feeling of her being there. There was only a thing in the coffin, composed and made up, and the odor of death, not from her, but from the work of death, other deaths, many deaths, in the mortuary itself. Maybe that was why he never felt anything at her funeral. She was gone already.

 

“I’m leaving”, Kathryn said.

 

“Huh, what, what do you mean?” Wayne asked.

 

“I’m going now. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

 

“I thought you were starting at the J.C. College, you applied, you did the application.”

 

“Yes, but I applied somewhere else too. I didn’t tell anyone. Except her.” She nodded toward their grandmother’s body. “She knew. She knew I was going. She died two days later. After I told her.”

 

“Where, where are you going? Why?”

 

“It’s over at the coast. Cuesta Community College. It’s by Morro Bay. My friend told me about it. She’s going there. We are going over there together.”

 

“But why? How come?”

 

“We visited there. And there is a special place. It is a big rock, like a mountain, in the middle of a bay. I walked on the sand around it and I touched it. I didn’t want to leave. I felt it was where I belonged.”

 

“But this is home. Don’t you feel you belong here?”

 

But they both knew the answer to that question already and she just continued to look at the dead body that had been their Grandmother and didn’t answer. Wayne looked up and saw that his brother Andy had returned to the door and was watching them. He didn’t say anything.

 

It was time to go. Wayne turned away from his grandmother’s casket to leave. He felt movement behind him and turned back. Kathryn had her hand on their Grandma’s forehead. Kathryn nodded as if in confirmation of the cold wood feeling. Wayne and Andy watched her. She pulled her hand out of the casket and unconsciously wiped it on the side of her skirt. She looked up and away from what had been their grandma and followed Wayne to where Andy was waiting for them. The three of them walked out of the funeral home to the waiting cars. The only sound was the engines idling. None of them looked back.

 

It was time for Wayne to leave again. This time he was leaving a dead brother. But he knew over the next several weeks there would be many times he would need to look back.

 

 

 

The intercession

 

Chapter 10 – The Intercession

 

Miles to the north another man was just arriving at the peak of the coastal mountain Range. He, like Jeff Davalos back at Dorn’s restaurant, also knew the identity of the man killed on Morro Rock. The victim, Andy Caster, was his brother.

 

He was tired from the drive. He had been at his apartment in Sacramento when the phone rang at 4 a.m. And now here he was.

 

The ocean was a welcome sight. From there the road began its descent toward Highway One, the Pacific Coast Highway. The crest presented a panoramic view of the entire coastline. Keeping his eye on the winding mountain road, he hazarded a glance south. Morro Rock, emerging out of the ocean in the early morning sun, was visible to him even at that great distance,

 

Like Nick Wayne Caster was a lawyer. Unlike Nick he was a very ambitious and wealthy.

 

He knew his brother was dead. It had been Jeff Davalos who had called him at 4 a.m. Jeff was an old acquaintance.   As a child Wayne, along with the rest of the family, worked on the Davalos farm in the central valley. It was obvious during the call that Jeff had been drinking. He had handed the phone to his housekeeper, Maria, who explained to Wayne what she knew. She had a name of a police officer from the Morro Bay police department. Wayne had called the officer. Although the officer had been evasive about what had happened, the words, “possible homicide” did slip out. Wayne had gotten dressed, packed a bag, got in his car and now he was at the coast to see why his brother had died.

He had known this day was coming for a long time. Ever since the intercession.

 

In the 1950s, Wayne, his brother Andy, his sister Kathyrn, and the rest of their family lived in a small wooden house in the crossroads migrant town of Farmersville. A family of farm workers had originally occupied the house. They had abandoned the shack and followed the seasonal fruit picking on up the coast to Oregon.

 

His father had watched the house for 2 weeks after the farm worker family left. He had a plan. One day the house was picked up, balanced between two flat bed trailers and moved to an open dirt lot by their father and some of his mother’s brothers. No one ever said anything outside the family, but there was plenty of joking among his uncles about the Caster house being stolen property.

 

Purloined or not, the house sat on concrete blocks about a foot off the bare ground. There was no indoor plumbing, no running water. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. His younger sister, Kathyrn, had one of the bedrooms; he and his older brother Andy, shared the other bedroom. Their father and mother slept on a fold out bed in the living room.

 

When his bother, Andy, was twelve he contracted the measles. In those days it was a serious disease. It could scar and cripple and even kill. Large pink welts started first on his back and shoulder, migrating up his neck and on to his face where they became red and angry and stinging. He was miserable and demanding and his mother, from whom he inherited his personality, and he became combative.

 

They were at war from morning until night. He was insulting and demanding and she was cutting and pitiless. They fought over everything. Their words were harsh and unforgiving. But then, as the days passed with no respite from the sickness, Andy weakened. He became less combative. He became more compliant. And somehow that was scarier, more serious. But still the days were filled with plenty of noise from their arguments and his complaints. But he couldn’t keep it up.

 

At the end of the day as the dusk turned to darkness, silence and an uneasy truce finally, thankfully descended on the house.

 

And that is when his brother, Andy, normally, the most self-assured, the bravest of the family was at his weakest. His usual singular determination was always just below the surface during the day, However, when the darkness came, his brother whimpered and cried often in his sleep, other times cowering under his covers, fully awake. He would whisper “they are here” and Wayne, who shared his room, would reluctantly look to where Andy pointed. He didn’t want to look lest he see something that he didn’t want to see, but when he did look, nothing was there.

 

“They are trying to steal something from me.”

 

“Huh, what? And what’s trying to get it?”

 

“The little ones, they are. They burn me, they drag at me, and scratch at my skin. I hate their black nails. And the burns hurt. Please stay over here.”

 

And Wayne would crawl in bed beside Andy, scared too, but not seeing anything at all in the corner, where Andy’s eyes were focused. And Wayne was careful to keep to his own side of the bed, not wanting to touch his brother, also afraid of the red bumps and welts.

 

And then there were times Andy would scream out, like he was being stung and trying to fight off something. Well, who knows what.

 

That’s when his mother, so tired from lack of sleep at night and mentally warring with Andy during the day, would call their grandmother and knowing it was on the party line whisper, “Please come,” without saying more.

 

Wayne’s grandmother lived up the street. She was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, or so people said.

 

The pictures Wayne kept in a plastic box on the top shelf of his closet and which he pulled off ever so often seemed to verify her lineage. They showed a firm, stocky woman with a dark, ruddy complexion. She had stern, slanted, Mongolian eyes.

 

His grandmother maintained she was a devout Christian. She enthusiastically shouted her testimony in church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. She quoted the Bible copiously, if a little inaccurately. But that little mattered since her beliefs and superstitions were of such variety that Wayne sometimes wondered if her true religion was something other than Christianity.

 

His mother would not explain over the phone why she wanted the grandmother to come, knowing someone, either Mrs. Ellison or her little nosy daughter, Sarah, would be listening in on the party line, and would spread rumors.

 

But the grandmother needed no explanation. She knew already.

 

The night before the intercession, Wayne’s mother had called. And thirty minutes later, she was walking through the front door, carrying bags and her Bible. She stayed the night, sitting next to Andy’s bed, holding a cool cloth to his forehead, until he finally drifted off to sleep.

 

The next morning, she sat at the kitchen table as Wayne’s mother bustled around making coffee and cleaning the breakfast dishes.

 

“The Nightgoers want his days”, she quietly told his mother. “They want to steal his life days so they can build the strength of the other’s years.”

 

Neither knew Wayne was behind the door, listening

 

“Worry at the sick is what they do.” The grandmother said, “ You need to protect him from them. Only you can do it.”

 

“I can’t.   It still scares me. I can’t move. I hear him whine and scream and still I can’t move. His father just sleeps on. No one hears. I don’t want to see them again. I saw them when I was little. Never all of them, just shadows and little half bodies, fading in and out. I closed my eyes. I wouldn’t look. It was your vision, yours’ to see. I never wanted the sight. I never wanted to look. I never wanted to see. I wouldn’t look; I hid under the covers and kept my eyes closed. I still want to.”

 

“It’s in you. Only you,” the grandmother said. Then she paused, thinking. “And one other besides. Among all the children of you and your brothers. One other you know. You know this. One other. But not now. Not yet. She’s not ready. I don’t think so anyway. But you should do this. You know you can do this.”

 

“But I’ve never seen like you. To me they are just shadows, mists, half there. Unless they open their mouths. The fire patches. Sure as hell, can see those clearly enough. I hate it. All of it. I won’t do it. Can’t.”

 

“You never did as I tell you. Talk them verses I gave you. Those Nighters won’t hurt you. You are special like I said. They don’t want the days of the blessed ones. You have to sing the verses. The devils must obey as they have always obeyed when one like we are say the words. The words passed to us by others. The Nighters will obey. And we must take our next in line, the girl, the one girl, and teach the words of our power over them or the power will be no more. It will go. Be gone from the world forever. And they will win. The power must be passed on to others in line. It could die out if we don’t.”

 

“I was the wrong one. It shouldn’t have fallen to me. They scare me. I hate them. I don’t want to see. I saw. I saw plenty and I don’t want to see ever again.”

 

“You must. They are here now. In the next room. You son suffers. He is tortured. It happens. Men sometimes see what we see. They can’t handle it. We have to make them believe the Nighters are gone. If we don’t they end up in the crazy house, the asylum. It’s our lot. Tonight they will be here to take his days. So that the grave will take him before his number of years are up. His life shortened. They will steal his life days.”

 

A movement caught Wayne’s eye. His sister, Kathryn was on the other side of the door, hiding and listening. He glared at her and stiffly shook his head and mouthed “NO!”   She just sneered her upper lip at him and pointed outside.

 

He quietly, stealthy, followed her. The conversation Wayne was eavesdropping on fell to a murmur as he moved father away and eventually through the screen door, it slamming shut behind him, into the yard where his sister stood, a hand on her hip, still sneering.

 

“Sneaky. You sneak! I’m going to tell.” she called out.

 

He was about to punch her, but she laughed suddenly out loud and slapped him hard on the side of his head, knocking off his ball cap and fled. Wayne followed in hot pursuit.

 

Fast on her feet, she was easily fleeing out of his reach, but as he always did, he spotted something in her gate, her pace, something that told him which way she would veer off. He never figured out what it was that always told him such a thing about Kathryn, but he knew all right and he went that way, cutting the angle before she made her turn and was suddenly on her grabbing her waist and taking her to the ground, she flailing at him with both fists and him knowing which hand was coming first, He seized her wrists and held her and pinned her back on the ground. Straddling her, he continued holding her until the fight and the struggle went out of her.

 

“Stop it. Let me up. I’m telling.   What were you doing? What were they talking about? What’s a Nightgoer”?

 

So she had heard.

 

“Do you see those things?”, she asked, “I’ve never seen those things. Sarah says grandma is just a crazy old Indian coot and Mom’s crazy just like here. She said that’s what her mother said.”

 

“Just you never mind. Andy is sick. Real sick. He could die. He sees things. Things that aren’t there. Maybe grandma can help him.”

 

“She is crazy. She touches me sometimes.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“She touches me rough. Not nice. Grabs me. Calls me names and tells me, if I let boys play with me I will get rot sickness and die with boils and sores all over me. And no one will come to my funeral because I will be so disgusting, so ugly, and they will leave me out for the owls and wolves to eat. She’s crazy.”

 

“Kathryn, you just make that shit up. Grandma always treated you special. You know that. She’s got something special in her mind about you. Besides you really are already ugly and disgusting.”

 

“Do you think Andy will die?” she asked, no longer interested in continuing a conversation where she was the disgusting subject.

 

“Are those things with the teeth going to eat him? Do you see them? What are they?”

 

“I don’t see them. Sometimes Andy will start talking about them before he does see. I don’t know how, I just know he will and then he starts whispering and whimpering like when the dog’s alone and afraid locked in the chicken coop at the back of the lot.”

 

“I want to see them. Can I see them? Tonight. I will sneak in you guy’s room tonight.”

“No! We will get in trouble. Mom will yell at us. Besides, Andy doesn’t want anyone to know he’s scared of ‘em. He won’t talk about it during the day, but he dreads the nighttime. I know he does.”

 

“Okay”, she said, but Wayne could tell she did not mean it. He knew right then, she would come that night and there was nothing he could say to keep her from doing so. Kathryn did what she wanted to do. Always. And usually she managed to figure out how to escape punishment. Even though she was the youngest she was the smartest when it came to avoiding consequences. She seemed to know most times what other people would do, even grown ups, but regardless she did exactly what she wanted.

 

That night he and his father went next door to watch the fights on Television. The neighbors were a Mexican family. They were also the first on the street to get a T.V.

 

The family was friendly, gracious and he and his Dad appreciated being asked over to watch the Tube. Wayne’s mother didn’t like “foreigners” as she called them and would always say No. But not his Dad. He liked the Friday Night Fights.

 

He would sit on the edge of a chair and flinch like he was taking the punches himself as he watched the blows of the Heavy Weights land to ribcage, forehead and sometimes below the belt. Between rounds, the Gillette commercials would play. Snappy jingles that stayed with you, bouncing around in your head. During the commercials the fathers would talk of work, cars, and sometimes, if the wife wasn’t within earshot, of women.

 

After the fights, Wayne would watch Disneyland with Margie, the 12-year-old girl. She was his girlfriend sometimes. Once, sitting on a blanket playing canasta, she undid the top of her swimsuit and let him see, furtively glancing around to make sure no one was watching. On fight night, she sat at the kitchen table as his father and him and the Mexican man and his wife watched the fights. Margie glanced at him often. While his Dad flinched and simulated a punch or two Wayne smiled back at her. He never forgot that little secret smile. It warmed him to this day like no other woman’s smile had ever warmed him.

 

After Disneyland was over, after Tinkerbelle made her last sprinkle of fairy dust from her magic wand, he and his father went back to their house. It was time for bed and Wayne went to the bedroom. Andy, his brother was there, quiet, lying facing the wall, the blanket lying lightly over his shoulders. Wayne couldn’t tell if he was asleep. He doubted he was.

 

As usual, Wayne faded off into a sleep, but came awake, knowing it was about to begin. He felt a presence next to him in the bed; it was Kathyrn lying there beside him, watching Andy. She had crawled into Wayne’s bed and under the covers, her back toward Wayne. He could feel the bare skin of her legs. She was watching Andy intensely.

 

Andy’s breathing had started getting deeper like he was trying to catch his breath and then his legs began moving under the bed, like he was running. He was sighing. Suddenly, he sat straight up and looked to the furthest corner of the room. Wayne noticed Kathryn was already looking at the same spot. He looked too. It was hidden in the shadows. He couldn’t tell if anything was there.

 

Kathryn slowly pushed the covers back and got off his bed and walked toward the corner with a small box of some kind in her hand. She was naked. Andy saw her and watched her, but didn’t say anything. She looked over at him once without expression and moved on to the corner.

 

She opened the box and Wayne could hear her mumbling, chanting singsong indistinguishable words. He couldn’t make out what they were.

 

Andy looked, his eyes wide, wild, the whites showing, back and forth between Kathryn and the corner. She took something out of the box and held up her hand. He couldn’t make out what was in her hand. All the while, she was still mumbling her words. The moonlight through the uncovered window was reflecting off her skin. It didn’t like the skin of a little girl. After a few moments she became still. Then all was quiet and the moments passed without any sound or movement.

 

Finally, Kathryn turned away from the corner walked back into the middle of the room and said quietly to Andy.

 

“They are gone.”

 

“For good?”

 

“Gone. They took some from you.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s okay. You have many. If it had gone on longer that would have been bad. Burning years. The next deep is many years. Some is gone and that’s too bad, but it’s not so many and you have many left. Many years left.”

 

“Okay.” He nodded. “It’s better. I feel smaller somehow. Less. But it’s not too bad. They won’t come back? You sure, they won’t be back?”

 

“I don’t think so; they are gone. They’ve gone hunting someone else.”

 

Kathryn’s eyes found Wayne’s. He was still sitting there on the side of the bed in his underwear. She looked at him, but the way she looked at him, he thought, was different. She was more serious now. She was more distant. She had changed. He looked at her body. He had seen her naked before, but even that was different now. Her body was not that of a kid. He knew then there would never be anymore times when they chased each other and wrestled and fought and made up for no other reason, than that they were kids. She didn’t smile. She didn’t frown. She just looked at him. Like there was regret there, a missing, already a longing for a happy innocence they just had that afternoon, but which for her was gone now. Gone forever.

 

She turned then and walked through the door toward her own bedroom and just as she crossed the threshold, Wayne saw his grandmother. He hadn’t realized the Grandma had been there in the hallway watching the whole time. She looked at him, smiled and turned to follow his sister into her room. She was carrying Kathryn’s nightgown. She paused in the doorway for just a moment. Her head turned slightly as she looked back over her shoulder at Wayne before she gently closed the door. The latch clicked.

As he drove down the mountain and on toward the Pacific, Wayne was thinking of how, as a kid one looked across the endless time of youth, when the decades stretch out before you, time lost at the end, even years never seem too many. If you’re young, brief decades are forever. But now that Wayne was older and his brother was dead, those long years from the time when he was twelve until now had passed like a snap of one’s fingers. He thought of his brother, who he had been told might have had his life taken from him on Morro Rock, and he thought of the many miles and years they had traveled from the house where his sister Kathryn had interceded with whatever was tormenting him.

 

The last time he had seen Andy, his manly face was composed but sad; he seemed to often stare elsewhere at something unseen. He wore a look of resignation. Like something was coming he wished to avoid; something inevitable he couldn’t stop. When he questioned Kathryn about it, she had shrugged her shoulders. She looked off in the distance, but Wayne had the feeling she was seeing something much closer. Something internal. Her only comment was, “Andy has been troubled for a long time now.”

 

He thought back to that night Kathryn had opened the mysterious little box and mumbled her incantation. And he remembered after it was over, what was said. Kathryn had used the words. She had said the words to Andy “not so many”.

 

Back when they were kids it didn’t seem like so much. But now his brother was dead. And yes, the years taken from him were not so much in the arc of a life. Unless you were at the end. Unless you had none left. Unless some evil had, at an appointed hour, come to take you. And all along you knew it would happen. What would you do then? If you knew?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dry Grass at the Beach, a poem by Phil Cline

Dry Grass at the Beach, a poem by Phil Cline

Dry Grass at the Beach

 

Dry grass at the beach house

Beneath rainless clouds,

Thirsting next to eternal acres of sea,

The drought remains, piteous, aloof.

 

The fog’s damp mist wet insufficient

To reach down, nourish, resurrect

Dead roots and parched strands

Of sun burned grass.

 

The retired captain peered outward

At an ocean of wavering memories.

He watched their white caps peak, glance, roll under,

Returning to their watery depths forever.

 

Gone now, those Wet years of Plenty,

A Frolic of time expended freely,

The Loud discordant Songs,

The Drinks, The Dances, The One Regret.

 

The Captain cupped his callused hands,

Against the warm wind, lit his cigarette,

Deeply inhaled, swallowed really,

The cancer didn’t matter now anyway.

 

He dropped the smoldering match

On the dry grass.

And ground the final ember to death

Under his boot.

 

He resolved

There would be no more tears.

She was right not to wait for the rain.

It won’t return.