Short Stories

Warren R. B. Dixon's short stories have been on the margin and consist today of two works in progress. Crazy Quilt, a Book of Short Stories and Vignettes, is of this world but a farrago without a leit motif, as its title implies. Of its twenty tales and twenty vignettes, it includes two already published stories that won literary prizes in the author's checkered youth. A second book does have a theme and is not entirely of this world. Empresses and Leprechauns, a Book of Political Fairy Tales, runs the same gauntlet as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen but with an eerie light cast on the political realities of America's past century, much in the spirit of the king's magic suit. The leading fairy tale has been published, another is finished, the rest are not soup yet. After time passes while the lentils boil, news of commercial availability will be announced here. But do not hold your breath. After all, these are flowers from the crannied wall.

Below, as a herald of what is coming down the mountain, take a look at the lead off fairy tale of Empresses and Leprechauns, which is a parallel world to the Politically Correct movement that trivialized college campuses in late Twentieth Century America. Following that, see the first of the twenty vignettes (one-page short stories that precede the dozen longer ones) in Crazy Quilt. It has the title “Adam and Evening”. Finally, this section closes with one example from the twenty regular short stories. Entitled “The Ungrafted Tree,” the example is typical only in length to the other nineteen being written.



THE PRINCE AND THE WIZARD

By Warren R. B. Dixon

Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, a handsome prince lived in a castle high on a velvet hill. From the white stone ramparts and the gleaming turrets and from the mullioned windows of his room, he could look out across a deep green forest where the king’s dragons nested in the crags and where witches lived in thatched cottages. He could see the dusty roads that led through quaint villages and past little farms where the farmers named their cows, and where in most of the haystacks children played. He could see distant mountains with huge silver meadows wherein, it was said, the deer were six inches tall and trolls lived among the rocks. He could see the far-off ocean of green and blue events. He glimpsed griffins soaring on wings of sunlit glass above wooden ships, lateen-rigged, their sails swollen like fat white bellies. The ships made him wonder at the world. They would dock at the King’s Town, bearing home from Ishtar and Samarkand and Shangri-la and Xanadu cargoes of incense and spices, dyes and eagle eggs, and rare silks that looked like moonlight.

Nobody thought the fat and jolly king to be beautiful — as the prince was. Even the queen was an ordinary looking woman. They both doted on their only son, dressed him in fine clothes, sometimes even in that very moonlit silk from Ishtar, and set a jewel in his ear (as was the fashion) when he became a student at the King’s College. Because the prince had never had to work, from early childhood he read and thought a lot. All the beautiful women loved him, and loved him even more so as he got older. Most young men would have been spoiled, but the prince remained sensible and good. Also he had a great teacher.
The Grand Wizard, an old, old man who had lived longer than kings, even longer than oak trees and sea turtles, had taught the king as a boy, and the king’s father, and so on, time out of mind. In some reigns, he had been of great importance, but the jolly fat king did not like him and had reduced him from royal counselor to the mere office of teacher. Even so, out of respect for his ancient wisdom and service, the king had first offered to appoint him to a chair at King’s College. This frightened and silenced the Wizard. He remained quietly at the castle, in a back room overlooking the horse stalls, and continued his endless studies in alchemy and magic. But during those years he did one significant thing. He taught the young prince throughout his royal childhood.

When the prince became a student with a bejeweled ear, he continued to rely upon the Wizard. He came home often from the university town beyond the mountains at the foggier end of the kingdom. Then the Wizard would point out the errors, which were numerous, in the lectures of eminent professors. In summer, the old man and the young prince would talk and talk — and talk some more, for the prince revered the sage and loved the life of the mind. He knew that he would some day become a great king, not fat and jolly and careless like his father, who was a lazy king, if the truth be told. So in preparation the prince studied Latin and alchemy and phrenology and much that was esoteric and exotic and obscure and ever so wise. He could write sonnets and could do square roots in his head. Finally, to top it all off, he married the most beautiful woman in all the land. He was determined to become a great king.

Time passed because it did not know what else to do. The fat jolly king became old and died, as other men do. When this happened, the prince was still young enough. He grieved for his father, who had always been kind. He was genuinely grateful to the king for this latest example of considerateness — dying soon enough to save his son from becoming an old prince. After the coronation, which was the most glittering and perfect in all the kingdom’s history, the prince restored the Wizard to his Grandness. Now the old man moved into a sunny suite at the front of the castle, fed the white doves on the window ledges, read a book of mirrors through six times, and gave wise advice to the young king. That was his job.

But the young king was very worried. For all his ambition to be great, he did not know exactly what to do in order to become a great king. Somehow, doing square roots in his head and writing sonnets did not seem enough. So he called the Grand Wizard before him and set him a puzzle. “How shall I become a great king?” The Wizartd consulted his book of mirrors and fed the white doves on his window ledges and thought for three day. Then finally, while taking a bath, he suddenly shouted “Akerue!” and ran naked through the halls to the throne room, where the young king was busy playing chess with his Chief of Staff, for the best chess player always headed the king’s army. Next to them, the beautiful queen kibitzed while knitting for her husband out of bumblebee wings a silver vest with little buttons that had once been the beaks of hummingbirds. The queen modestly lowered her eyes from the sight of the Grand Wizard. The astonished monarch quickly wrapped his revered mentor in a cloak. Then he listened carefully to the excited old man, who all the while dripped water onto the royal carpet of beagle ears and smeared fingerprints onto the lapis lazuli of the imperial chess table. So high was the status of the Wizard that he could freely commit these offenses, which would have cost at least a little finger — if not a big toe — of a lesser man. “Your majesty, I know what you must do! You must have a good cause! For only if you have a good cause can you hope to become a great king.”

The throne accepted the advice with relief and gratitude, but his majesty set the Wizard another puzzle — namely what should this good cause be? Before going back to his sunny suite to think about it, the Wizard lingered a moment, staring at the chess board, stroking his long white beard. Finally, he leaned down to whisper into the royal ear, “Your highness, never, never take the king’s bishop pawn,” and so became the ancient source of an old chess joke. He then departed, quite pleased with himself for having given the young king two deeply wise bits of advice in one day. He could see that he was on a roll. After thinking about it all night, when the morrow came he added his last and perhaps best advice of all. He had noticed that, in the kingdom by the sea, the people were only what people are, and not what they should be. “Your majesty, make your people be good. If your cause is goodness itself, then you will surely be a great king.” So wise was this advice that he would never again need to think that hard. Thus well-advised, the king set out to become a great king.

In order that the people be good, the king placed watchers over them, a special cadre of young idealists with good eyes and with feathers in their caps. He set up special judges to put the crooked straight. Slowly he brought order where there had been a certain looseness. He worked hard at it until not a stone was out of place and all the poetry in the kingdom rhymed. The watchers watched and judges judged until all mean things were harried from the land and life was no longer unfair. To the ends of the earth, his kingdom became known for its justice. Scholars came to study his society, all the way from Samarkand and Timbuktu, from the head of the While Nile and Tierra del Fuego and from Hoboken. The king became a very great king. Everyone acknowledged his greatness and stood in awe of him. He lived to be as old as a Queen of England might and died full of honors and glory. The state funeral was the most glittering and perfect in all history. Then a strange thing happened.

The people began to dance in the streets, to sing bawdy songs, and to drink too much ale. They chased the watchers and tore the feathers from the watchers’ caps and, to further humiliate them, made the watchers keep the minutes at committee meetings. They judged the special judges from their benches and put them to work peeling potatoes. The scholars from far lands shook their heads in amazement. In only forty-two day, five hours, and eighteen minutes, all that the great king had done in his long reign turned to dust. His people became imperfect again and life became unfair. Elves suffered. Whales and elephants lost their lives. Mean things happened. Worse, the new king was fat and jolly, like his grandfather. And like his grandfather, he sent the Wizard back to live above the horse stalls and do experiments in alchemy. As the Wizard got closer and closer to turning base metals into gold, time passed because it did not know what else to do. Then one day the wise old man, in his spare time, began to tutor the shy youngster with a lisp who had come into the world as the new prince.




Adam and Evening

By Warren R. B. Dixon


He worked that summer next to a window that looked down on a shabby street corner. He left the window open, even when it rained. The city had been especially hot all of August, humid enough to swelter the one-room apartment.  The room had a bed, a table, two chairs, a kitchen sink and a john in a closet. It had a mini-fridge where he kept milk and lunchmeat and a loaf of bread. He had a hotplate and a toaster by the sink. Usually he ate out once a day at a neighborhood greasy spoon or at a fast-food. He worked at the table next to the one window where he kept his Apple laptop. Often he was up all night at the table and fell across the bed at dawn.

His mother had been dead for a decade. When his father died three years ago, Adam dropped out of a Community College and used the funds from the sale of the home to spend four years at the work he felt was his destiny. He was right enough about that to make a little money out of his first surprising novel but went unpaid for a book of vivid short stories that the world ignored. His third work was coming to an end that evening after two years of struggle with a vision more real than his own life of midnight walks, cans of Campbell soup, and waking at noon in a sweaty bed. Adam had a barren sex life of unmet girls that he noticed going by in miniskirts of summer, or at indoor winter tables with their hair let down and labels showing from their coats on the backs of chairs, or even in October afternoons, jeaned tightly and wearing bosomed sweaters in the nearby park. He noticed them, long-haired girls that were not for him. A few of them noticed him as well, for he was twenty-three, thin and clean-cut with sandy hair and hazel eyes, strangely good-looking although as pathetic as the poor man’s nobody in his wrinkled casual clothes, kept half clean at the laundromat.
 

His true life was better than that. He lived in twelve-hour runs at the Apple keyboard next to the window in afternoons and nights. Carl Sandburg had once asked Adam by way of a lyric, “Whatever happened to Chick Lorimer after she went away?” She was a wild girl, a dancer and lover hugging a dream. Nobody knew where she had gone, leaving town without a word. Adam was telling the story about what had happened to Chick Lorimer after she had packed a few old things and left town. He called the novel Gone and told in five hundred pages her young and incredible story. He had fallen in love with her, this fictional real girl whom he had lived with night after night for two years next to a window. She was so real he would know her if he should run into her on the street. He finished the last word of the novel right after a hot August afternoon had turned into a blue evening. He sat in a daze from what he had done. Looking out the window at the evening sidewalks, his heart skipped a beat. There was Chick Lorimer, looking up at him from the front of Casey’s Café. She was waiting for him. He hurriedly rolled down his shirt sleeves and ran downstairs to be with the woman he loved.



The Ungrafted Tree[1]

By Warren R. B. Dixon

     The rain in the winter in the North Country always falls as an icy rain. After the snowfall at the first of the year, the snow usually stays on the ground making dirty rags, sometimes all the way to the mud days of late March. The snow on the lake in front of Big Jack’s house would remain for a while on the frozen surface until the wind blew it onto the land, making a false blizzard. The brief springs, always late, the golden summers with rows of tall blue queens, and the long slow dying of the year made some people call it God’s Country.

On a Monday in late and godless February, Big Jack’s divorced wife, Thelma, slipped into a cheap thin raincoat over her sweatshirt that had Wiggle Town Walmart printed on the front. A misty ice-cold rain was falling. The rabbit-fur hat with an earflap missing, ratty now from ten years use, did not hide all the mop of once cold-black hair, now streaked with gray, that hung down to her shoulders. She wore long-johns under her jeans and wore army boots.

She went out from her cottage to take a look at the lake and think about what was happening. From the dooryard the ground sloped toward a lakeside road.  She could see across solid ice for a mile or so to Vermont. She knew that Big Jack, not long for this world, was flat on his back in his house only a five-minute walk from where she stood. She lived that close because Big Jack owned her cottage and let her stay there paying only for the electricity and the chords of wood she fed into the Buck stove. The free rent was all she could show for the twenty-two years of marriage.  She called those years her Catch 22. She had a rusted VW with the safety sticker expired. Monday was her day off, her one day of freedom in the week. She drove to work the six other days where she was fry-cook at a Michigan Stand on Route Nine. The chili dogs are called “Michigans” in the North Country.

Neither Thelma nor Big Jack had finished high school. They had been drop-outs, brought up in Wiggle Town shanties by jumbled families flirting with paychecks and food stamps. Big Jack had a younger sister called Little Jack because her name was Jackie, so spelled. “Jacqueline” had looked too fancy to their mom.

Thelma had spent her childhood with a bathtub Mary in the family front yard. Big Jack’s somewhat wealthier family kept three parked machines worth more than their house—a pickup truck with giant tires, a snowmobile and a dirt bike. Thelma had first dealt with Jack in classrooms where he teased her for being so skinny and homely and for the way she often hitched up her cotton stockings while walking in the halls. He would pass close to her in the moving crowd between classes.  He would bump her and say, “Look in the mirror.” He would then give her a grunt laugh. She was plain-faced with a hawkish bump on the bridge of her nose. She had Orphan Annie eyes, round and wide-open brown, often looking surprised as though not understanding what she saw. The one beautiful thing about her in her teenage was her long black hair. The banter with Big Jack, a kind of flirtation, had gone to and fro in high school as she gave the talk back to him, making fun of his straw hair and lantern jaw and pug nose and for wearing coke-bottle glasses that were fixed to his ears by rawhide strings. He was short and stocky and musclebound and tangle-footed. Outside the schoolhouse he was most often in a T-shirt with a pack of Newport cigarettes folded into a short sleeve. He had been smoking Newports since he was eight, old enough to sneak them one at a time from the family supply. Big Jack was sullen and alone. Thelma was a wallflower who grew in a corner. Their sandpaper flirting fitted a need.

Education of the book kind was not one of their interests. In their schoolwork, they had trouble getting a passing grade except in shop classes where they worked with their hands. They were unpopular among the other kids. Jack was “dumb ox” when they would say of him such as, “He can’t get out of his own way.” The kids called Thelma “Mirror Face” from the phrase picked up from Big Jack. The nickname reminded her how plain she was. Her nickname also fit the event of Big Jack getting caught in the study hall flashing the sunlight from a pocket mirror in her face. Even though Thelma had not complained at such schoolboy flirting, the young fogey who ran the study hall raised hell about it, grabbed the mirror and broke it into bad-luck pieces, or so Thelma whispered into her hands about a bad seven years to come. She and Big Jack were nobodies at the school. They both dropped out at seventeen. By then they had begun to hang around together. Their companionship had started at a softball game.

The homeroom class clown was a cross-eyed boy from North Country trailer trash—a term actually used by youngsters who lived in the better houses and did not smell of wood smoke like the Wiggle Town kids. In the ball game, Big Jack had come to bat. Thelma was watching and called out one of their flirty insults. “You gonna get on first OK, Jack, cause they walk their dogs.” Hearing this, the cross-eyed boy at her side railed at her. “Stop this bothering-Jack stuff, Mirror Face. Why you think he wanna likes a you? Look at you. Skinny legs. Titless freak with a bumped nose. Look at you! Pig-shit Irish! Who cares for likes a you?” Big Jack walked over to Cross-Eyes and slapped him on the head with the aluminum bat. It went bong loud enough that people laughed. Big Jack went back to the batter’s box and struck out as he usually did except now and then knocking it out of the field. Slapping Cross-Eyes with a bat started Thelma and Jack hanging around together.

“Why did he call me pig-shit Irish”

“We’re Irish ain’t we.”

“Why the pig stuff?”

“Well, Cross-Eyes, he’s German. It’s what they call us.”

“He never called you that.”

“He’s scared a me.” Then Big Jack told her something Irish to be proud of. She had never heard it before. “Where we come from, they got fairy trees there. They’re magical. They only grow in Ireland.”

They dropped out of high school to go to work. Big Jack looked older and got a job doing the heavy lifting with a state road construction crew. State construction was the only job he ever had, and he kept such work the rest of his life. Big muscled and contemptuous of laziness, he worked hard. Even Thelma worked with the same road crew for a while, holding stop signs for traffic. She was already a fry-cook when she and Jack got married by a Route Nine Justice of the Peace. Because the JP was a dairy farmer as well as an official, the brief ceremony was held in the heavy odor of cow manure from the nearby barn. Thelma would later say that it had been the first sign of a shitty marriage.

 On that day in godless late February with a fine mist rain falling, Thelma went to Big Jack’s house where he lay dying at the age of forty. Next to the front door were stacks of crockery and ruined household utensils. A black crow with one bad wing startled her. It fluttered out of a meal barrel into a butter-tub and out again on the way to the woodshed loft.

“Funny,” she said aloud, thinking it strange to see a crow where it should not be. With its bad wing, maybe it was a bird that Jack had been fooling with. Big Jack had always been oddly gentle with birds. She went into the house without knocking. She knew his sister, Little Jack, would be there.

Thelma called out “Jackie!” No answer. She was probably still asleep on the daybed in the storeroom. Thelma paused a moment in the messy kitchen that she had kept in order for years. Now it was lazy Jackie’s. Thelma went to the daybed to wake her.  She found it unoccupied and unmade. She must be in Big Jack’s disgusting sick room with its smell of life being over. Thelma paused at its doorway, hearing for the first time the death rattle. She took a deep breath and went in.

“Jackie, what the hell are you doing?”

What Jackie was doing was lying stark naked with an arm and a leg—the one with a snake tattoo winding around it— thrown across Big Jack, who was unconscious and rattling as he breathed. Several slats under the bedspring were broken and the bed sagged in the middle. Pulling Little Jack to her feet, she said, “Get your damned clothes on.” She was answered by a silent glare, but Jackie began to dress. Thelma looked at the dying man she had long since stopped loving and bit her lip pensively. The room was heavy with a deathbed smell, acrid and funky. “How long has he been this way?”

“All night.”

Little Jack Hoffenmueller was no beauty. Hopeless even in her go-to-church best, she looked worse out of clothes than in them. Her greatest compliment from one of the men who had been there was, “You’re built like a brick shithouse” and because of the dozen tattoos on her torso, “It’s like fucking the Sunday funnies.” Jackie had the family resemblance: straw hair, pug nose, lantern jaw. their surname, Hoffenmueller, sometimes called huffin’ mule by Big Jack’s roadwork buddies, compared badly to Thelma’s simple Johnson that she was still trying to retrieve. “I want my name back, damn it.” She had always hated the huffing mule.

She tried to call an ambulance but the telephone was dead. She told Jackie, “That’s what happens when you don’t pay the bill.”

“Why should I? I got a cell.”

“No wall phone at my house neither.”

 “It ain’t your house. It’s hisn.”

Thelma fished her pocket for her own cheapest version of a cell phone. That was one of her two luxuries, the other being cable TV.

“Lend me your cell, Jackie. I left mine at home.”

“No.”

“You can’t just leave him lying here like this.” In order to call, she had to make the five-minute walk back to the cottage. When the ambulance came, Jackie followed it to the hospital in Big Jack’s jeep that she had been using the long while he was down in bed, sick, sicker, and finally dying for sure. “It’s my jeep now,” she said.

Thelma had been looking in now-and-then from her cottage to see what was going on. She had said just last week, “For the tenth time, Jackie, let’s get him to a hospital. You can’t keep on taking care of him here at his house.”

“Yes, I can. He don wanna no hospital. Whatchew care?” That was a week ago. And now this. Thelma met the ambulance at Big Jack’s. She watched it going down to the main road with the jeep following. Then she saw something she did not want to see: The delivery truck from Charlie’s Grocery was signaling to turn in. That was lazy Jackie’s doing, having groceries brought to Big Jack’s, especially on Mondays to spite Thelma, who was avoiding Charlie. He would walk to the cottage after every delivery. On his last walk to the cottage, he had pinned to her door a $50 gift certificate for Friendly’s with a note that said, “Love, Charlie.”

Seeing his delivery van now approaching, she ducked back into the house before Charlie spotted her. When she heard the wheel of the van crunch the gravel at the corner of the house, she opened the cellar door to stand in the dark of the stairs with the door closed behind her. She heard Charlie come into the house, doubtless with brown paper bags of groceries. He called Jackie’s name, took the bags into the kitchen, and slammed the door on his way out. She listened but did not hear the delivery truck leave. She knew that Charlie was walking the five minutes to her cottage to bang on her door for another five, mutter a few god damns, then walk back to his truck. It took the expected quarter hour before she heard the delivery van drive away. She had spent the time sitting in the dark on the funky-smelling stairs, just thinking about how things were going with her. Some of the funkiness had been coming from her own body, the smell of Big Jack’s deathbed. It was in her clothing, on her hands, and in her hair.

Before going home, she went into the messy kitchen that in its spotless days had been hers. She put in the fridge the milk and butter and the ham. The rest was Jackie’s favorite junk food and a loaf of raisin bread. She was glad to get out into the February cold with its bracing win to head for home on the five-minute walk with the solid ice of the lake down the slope below her. At home she would change every item of clothing including the long johns and even the rabbit hat with an earflap missing. She would take twenty minutes in a warm shower and wash her hair and wash away the smell of death.

 The Michigan Stand on busy Route 9 where Thelma worked had located on too small a lot for customer parking. Carhops served napkins, paper Michigan boats, straws, plastic cups, et cetera, onto trays attached to car windows. These items blew across the highway to a filling station and onto the grounds of the next-door motel. When complaints were brought to Thelma, she made a joke of it. “How do you know it’s ours? People throw their own trash out of their cars.” The owner of the Michigan Stand was a deadbeat who finagled out of things by constant effort. The Stand should have had a restroom, but he sent people to the toilet at the top of the stairs in his own apartment on the second floor.

“How does he get away with that stuff?” asked Sally, the best of the carhops.

“He works at it. That’s Mart’s job.” Martin was a dirty old man and looked it. He was a grass widower. His undivorced wife had left him years ago for California and had not been heard from since. Thelma fought him down about putting his hands on the girls.

“One more time and I quit.” She had been a fry-cook here-and-there for twenty years or so. She was good at it and worked for low pay. She kept her marginal job and Marty kept his hands off the carhops except for sneaking an occasional quick feel on Thelma’s day off. He knew better than do that to Sally. She was a student in the business school at the local college.

“I’m gonna be a CPA,” she told Thelma.

“Yeah, a bookkeeper.”

“More’n that.”

“Yeah, a fancy bookkeeper.”

Sally laughed. “Close enough.”

Thelma had taken a liking to this eighteen-year-old carhop, a student with a dream. Sally was tall and slender, maybe five-eleven with a fetching figure that was just right but with a face that would stop a church bell. She was wall-eyed. She kept her short silky hair oddly spiked.

“What’s with your eyes, girl?”

“Blue twenty-twenty.”

“Yeah? Why’s one looking at me and the other looking for me?”

She pronounced slowly, “Ha, ha!”

“You comb your hair with a wagon wheel?”

“Like old Dan Tucker?”

“Who?”

“Guy in a song.”

“What song?” Sally carried a tray out to a car, singing a few words of the Dan Tucker tune, tossing it back at the fry-cook. She would put on a car-side manner so fetching when a guy was at the wheel that she got the best tips at the Michigan Stand. This time it was a woman driver, alone in the car.

“Go tell Thelma her husband finally died today at the hospital.”

“What do you mean?”

“Any word there you don unnerstand?” asked Little Jack.

“Yeah. The word husband. She’s not married. And who are you?”

“She’ll know who. Just tell her.”

It turned out to be a lot of worry for Thelma. Later that day she said to Big Jack’s doctor, “I don’t know what to do with dead people. Why am I responsible?”

“You’re his wife.”

“Ex-wife. I don’t have the money. Besides, he died without a will.”

“Uh-oh,” said the doc. “Even Stevenson died with a will.”

“Who?”

“You know. Home is the sailor. I laid me down with a will.” The doctor chuckled.

That was a funny way of talking, showing off book-learning. Thelma figured she was being put down and didn’t like it. Still, she had done the same to Little Jack. A flash of hatred between the two women had contained the bad news of the missing will.

“Damn it, Thelma, Jack died intesticle.” That was Little Jack talking.

“What?”

 “You know. When a guy dies without a will like that word says. He died with no balls.”

That is how she learned he had died intestate. “You’re a shithead, Jackie, an ignoramus.”

Jackie glared and snarled, “Oh yeah?”

It was one day of worry until a jake-leg lawyer with an office in a garage showed up almost sober at Thelma’s cottage with Big Jack’s will. The bank accounts with a few thousand dollars went to Little Jack. The cottage and the house with his sickbed in it went to Thelma, along with the title to the jeep that Jackie was driving around.

“Of course, this’ll cost you money some,” said the jake-leg lawyer as he started to explain what she had to do.

Thelma was nearly speechless at this unexpected act from a dead unloved ex-husband. Smelling the morning booze on the lawyer’s breath, all she said was, “Bottle of good brandy in the cabinet. Help yourself.”

Propertied or not, she had little cash on hand. Big Jack had left no special burying fund. Thelma could not afford a fancy casket. She had to borrow to pay for the cheapest coffin and the simplest service. The funeral was attended by half a dozen highway construction workers who had known Big Jack for years. Also came Wiggle Town relatives, including Little Jack, who leaned near Thelma and growled, “Don you ever call me ignorant Amos again.” Two outsiders were there: Sally, the carhop and Charlie, the guy who owned Charlie’s Grocery.

Sally said, “Why didn’t you tell me about Charlie?”

“I did.”

“I thought he was some potbellied old letch on the make for you. Look at him. He’s a hunk.” Charlie was tall and looked like an athlete. He was in his middle twenties. Dark-eyed and sandy-haired, he had a black patch over his left eye. He was formally dressed in black suit and tie. Even so, Sally saw a dashing and handsome male.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Hush, Sally.”

Before the visitors had arrived at the funeral parlor, Thelma had stood by the open coffin and looked at what was left of Big Jack. Here lay the man who had come into her life at a time she needed someone so badly she would have let in almost any guy that wanted her. Now she saw only his straw-like hair combed neatly as it never had been, only his now waxen face and the back of shaven hands with their rough callused palms out of sight. He lay in formal garb, even wearing a necktie, a thing he had never owned in life, not even one. Looking down now on a dead cold man, it seemed unreal that she had spent over six thousand nights sleeping with him in a dead cold bed. A thousand times he would grunt ten minutes above her, his thick chest hair sanding her naked breasts, his heavy weight on her making it hard to breathe. And half that many times he would drag her head down his torso, growling, “Smoke me! Smoke me!” When he rolled over toward the window side of the bed, he would fall asleep right away between her and the season beyond the panes. She would take the tin clock that ticked on her side of the bed, wind it tightly and put it at the edge of the pillow so that its ticking could keep her company through the night. Now in the coffin, even with his eyes shut he did not look like a man sleeping. She thought of Tussaud’s at Times Square, where she had gone a summer ago. He looked like one of Tussaud’s wax people now. In the North Country winter, the body would lie in a vault until being buried in the spring.

Sally had asked, “Why not cremation?”

“The family objects.”

“What family? Jackie?”

“His Wiggle Town bunch. More’n you think. Their family tree don’t fork.”

“Then why do you have to pay?”

“Somebody has to.”

Not until after the funeral that night alone at her cottage did Thelma think of Big Jack, the actual man who was gone, not the thing left behind in a box. With the Buck stove only warmish and the cottage cold, she brought in firewood from a chord in a lean-to. She held the overload in place with her chin and noted the spider crawling up her sleeve. To get the Buck stove glowing she wadded into its mouth an issue of the Press-Republican and added birch bark for kindling. She loaded in the snow-damp firewood. When the heat came, she turned out the light and took to a rocking chair next to the Buck, watching the fire with the stove’s door ajar. She sat in the firelight remembering Big Jack.

It had been years since she had thought of that First Time. While still high schoolers, they had gone naked at night into Lake Champlain. They were both good swimmers enough to lose sight of the shore under a gibbous moon, which she thought of as the moon with a bun in the oven. Lost in the water, she was guided by Big Jack’s voice to know the right direction back to land and the bush among the trees where they had hung their jeans. That first time happened in the moonless dark beneath an Irish fairy tree, which was what she called a spruce because of what happened under it with her lilting cries and with Big Jack grunting. Why had she wanted so badly something that scared her and hurt like hell and made her feel like another person afterward?

Before she was twenty, her marriage had undone who she had been and who she could become. In the twenty houses in which they had lived during the twenty-two years, starting with a shack in Wiggle Town and ending at their own summer camp year-round on the changeling lake, there had always been a bitter bed. At night between her and the stars was a window pane and something or other snoring.

At the end of the first year, she had asked Big Jack, “Why ain’t we got a baby.”

“Don’t want one.”

“That ain’t birth control.”

“I won’t put nothin’ over Oscar.” That was the name he called his phallus. At the end of the second year, she asked again. “Where’s the baby.”

In reply she heard one of the rare outbursts of philosophy from Jack. “Life’s more than just raising a bunch of snot-nosed brats. What’s the point a one generation after another, raising kids, who raise kids, who raise kids, on and on? Life’s got more to it than that.”

The babies never came, and even by the third year, she said to herself, “Maybe it’s just as well.” She wondered which one of them was sterile. She never knew and eventually did not care.

 She felt rich now that she owned two former summer camps overlooking the lake. She had lived in the bigger one for several years with Big Jack. She had lived alone in the cottage ever since the divorce. She had never had property before. She would sell the bigger house and put the money in the bank. She would go on living in the cottage, her own real home now.

 “I’m the richest fry-cook in Clinton County.” She said so, looking out a snowy window toward the frozen lake where March had come in like Leo, blowing the lake-snow onto her cottage. Just then her Captain Kirk style of cell phone played the star-spangle banner. She flipped it open.

“Yeah?”

“It’s Sally. He tore it up.”

“Who tore up what?”

“I did like you said and took Charlie back his gift certificate. He tore it into a dozen pieces right in front of me.”

“Tell him to shove the pieces where the sun don’t shine.”

“What’s gone on with you and him?”

“Nothing worth a conversation.”

“He took it funny, all red in the face. And another thing you should know. Jackie was there.”

“So what?”

When Thelma closed the phone half a minute later, she knew a hundred bucks worth of junk food was on the way to the cottage from Charlie’s Grocery, thanks to Little Jack.

Sally had said, “She charged it to your account.”

“I got no account at Charlie’s.”

“You got one now.”

The news came too late. She could hear the delivery van parking outback next to her VW. He would know she was home. If he came inside, even if she hid in the closet, he would notice the hot Buck stove. She slipped into the closet anyway. Maybe he would think she had gone for a walk. Soon she heard his knock at the unlocked door. He was calling her name. She kept still.

She heard him come into the cottage. She heard the rustle of bags as he left Jackie’s malicious junk food order on a table. She hoped he might leave. Right away the closet door flew open. He said, “Your rocking chair was still rocking a little. Where else could you be?”

“Maybe the john?”

“Your john door was open. Nowhere else to hide but here. Why you do this?”

“Figure it out.”

Charlie just stood there, half gazing at her with his one good eye, his black eye patch on the other. At the age of twenty-five, he was tall and thin and handsome enough. He was wearing his canvas delivery apron over work clothes.

“We gotta talk.”

“Just cause you fucked me don’t mean I want to talk to you.”

“I know you love me, Thelma.”

“I don’t even like you. Go home to your wife.”

“She’s in a wheel chair.”

“She was that way when you married her.”

“She’s worse now.”

“And you’ve spent all her money starting your store.”

“That ain’t fair.”

“What ain’t fair is you harassing me. I want you to stop this, Charley.”

He left and took Jackie’s junk food with him and never came back. She never knew why this time it worked. She had told him the same thing a dozen times before. Maybe she had especially looked her plain-faced hawk-nosed self, aging and stale there in the closet.

Why had she, just after the divorce from the bitter bed, let Charlie into her cottage and into her pants? He was the first truly handsome man who had ever hit on her. She knew only Big Jack. She wanted to know what lyric love in bed felt like. Plain as she was, still being Mirror Face with her life creeping toward forty, her warm blood had befuddled her mind at finding him wanting her. Seeing him fare of body, she gave into a frenzy, enjoyed the madness this one time but scorned the man too much for listening to his talk, much less having him hanging around.

The war over Big Jack’s property turned eloquent. Jackie furiously clung to the jeep. “It’s mine! Nine points a law!” Thelma had to seize it with a tow truck and had to change the ignition. As for Big Jack’s house, Little Jack left on the walls obscene graffiti copied from the men’s room at Lamb & Abner’s Bar in Plattsburgh where Jackie was the cleanup lady. Before vacating Thelma’s property, she took a hammer to toilets and the kitchen sink. It took until late April to get the house in shining order.

Sally was about to quit her job at the Michigan Stand. The fry-cook did not want to lose her best carhop.

“Kid, why you doing this?”

“Gotta. No way to get to work. Gutsy died.” Sally had pulled Gutsy off the road out in the country and knocked the bottom of the car on a boulder. The oil ran out. She tried to make it to the nearest help and destroyed the engine. Gutsy was an old rattle trap that was not worth a new engine.

 “You can have my VW.”

“That rust bucket?”

“It still runs. I’ll get a safety sticker for it.”

“Sorry, Thel. I’m also out of a place to stay.”

“Oh? You live with your family down the street from the college.”

“Yeah, but now I’m graduating. I’m getting out of there. I hate my family.”

Thelma, who hated her own family, had no problem with that. Sarah’s mother was a surgeon with a good reputation and a bad story. She loved her handsome son who was studying at the Yale-New Haven Medical Center on his way to being a psychiatrist and a credit to his illustrious mama. Even so, the surgeon had married downward to a good-looking stud who had helped her through med school, gave her the handsome son and claimed Sally could not be his, which she maybe was not. He now worked in a paper mill and hung out almost every night at Lamb & Abner’s bar.

Sarah said, “Things are bad at home.”

Thelma rolled her eyes up at such common news. “One good thing. Home is where they can’t kick you out.”

“Yes, they can. I’m their ugly duckling. Mom’s a beauty queen. Brother Bob is a lady killer.” She added wistfully, “My bod’s OK maybe.”

“Yeah, you’re eye candy from the neck down. I see you got boyfriends enough.”

“Three beaver hounds. Tom’s Dick is Harry.”

“What you talk?”

“Look at my face.”

“So you’re wall-eyed. So what?”

“Dad said my face would stop a clock.”

“A wrist watch maybe.”

“You should talk.”

“I’m forty. My face don’t matter no more.”

“Brother Bob says mine would stop Big Ben. That’s the family joke about me.”

Thelma hesitated, scowled, and said, “Maybe you should stop combing your hair with an egg beater.”

“Think that’d help? I’m the family joke.”

Thelma shrugged. “Still, it’s just a joke.”

“More’n a joke. Brother Bob went to Harvard. I got sent to state school a few minutes away. Mom charged me rent for the room all the way through college.”

“Why’d you stay then?’

“Cheaper. Doctor Mama gave me a discount.”

“So you’re leaving?”

“Yeah, for a better job than this. I’ll go look in Albany. Right now no money.”

“I think I can help.”

“You gonna lend me a few hundred?”

“No, but I got an idea.”

“Financial advice from a fry-cook?”

“Don’t get smart. I’m selling Big Jack’s house, the one I’m not living in. You can stay there and show it until it sells. All summer no doubt. Use my VW getting around.”

“Work here at the Michigan Stand?”

“Where else?”

“A carhop college grad? That sucks.”

“It’s only for the summer.”

Sarah moved in at Big Jack’s house that belonged to Thelma now. She had left it furnished, changing only one thing. She got rid of the broken-down bed where Big Jack had lain dying. She replaced it with a secondhand bedframe from Hopalong’s Flea Market and a brand new Beauty Rest mattress on sale at the mall. It was where Sally slept.

In spite of the carhop income and putting off a job in Albany, Sally loved the space of the house on the lake, the freedom from her family, and hearing the V of geese coming up from the south, talking to the wind. They were so low she could even hear their wings. Summer came in for her and Thelma. They did things together, cooking dinner or going to McDonald’s and even to a couple of movies. There was no TV at the house but she would walk five minutes over to Thelma’s to watch a rerun episode of Seinfeld or a House of Cards. Thelma did two big things for her. One was getting rid of the worst of her three loveless but horny boyfriends. Dick and Harry had gone home for the summer. Tom was still around and coming out to the lakeside house. A big red-faced hockey player, he had date-raped her the one time they went out in his car during her final semester at college.

“Date-raped you? Never heard of it. What’d you do about it?”

“Thelma, you’re the first I even told.”

“And you let him come out to this house.”

“He behaved here that once, maybe cause the VW was running and I was on my way to work. But he felt me up and acted rough. He’s coming back.”

When he did, Thelma went after him like a buzzing wasp, her eyes blazing, calling him a raping piece of shit and a few other obscene names. She was waving a butcher knife and daring him ever to darken the door again. Not knowing what to do with this crazy old woman, Tom backed away, gave her the finger and called her a bitch, but he did not return.

Thelma’s second favor concerned Sally’s surgeon mother. How she managed that favor would take half a dozen pages. It is enough to say she brought a thousand-dollar check to the penniless barhop. “Here’s from Doctor Mama. Now you can go to Albany and be a fancy bookkeeper.” That second favor had happened on the same day Big Jack’s house sold in July. The sale left Sally with no place to stay.

“Just stay with me till you leave for Albany. You can sleep on the couch a few days.”

The very first night, Sally said, “Do you know how lumpy this couch is?”

“You can sleep with me then, if you like.”

The bed had a Beauty Rest mattress like the one she had bought at the mall for big Jack’s house. These two unusual women, one middle-aged and one reaching for her twenties, found out for the first time in their loveless lives why so many good things were said about love. For Thelma, this was the last day of her past. For Sally, it was the first day of her future.


[1] This title comes from a 17-sequence of sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay that tells a distant cousin to this story.