Table of Contents:
- Relieving the Itch: Essay/Non-Fiction by Jan Markley
- Sleep Apneic Down Under: Poetry by Gerard Sarnant
- Flat Shoals: Poetry by L. Ward Abel
- On the Edge of Sod and Goodbyes: Poetry By L. Ward Abel
- Careful Planing: Fiction by Glenn Bruce
- Me and Christopher Reeve: Fiction by J.L. Higgs
- The King on the Beer Bottle Throne: Fiction by Rob Bose
- The Knife: Fiction by Adriana White
Relieving the Itch
Essay by Jan Markley
“All anyone asks for is a chance to work with pride.” ~ W. Edwards Deming
A few years before the end of my federal public service career, when I was at the well-done stage of burn out, I went ‘glamping’ with a couple of long-time friends and one of their teenaged daughters. ‘Glamping’ is a word created by combining glamour and camping. In this instance, it was heavy on the camping and light on the glamour. The experience was awesome and at the same time, awful. Don’t get me wrong; the digs were great. A giant tent that would have made a Bedouin jealous — a full-size bed and a couch, which pulled out into the most comfortable futon I’ve ever slept on. This futon was like sleeping on velvet compared to my guest bed, which is as hard as a third-class sleeper train in China (future visitors beware). We stocked the fridge with Prosecco and peaches. The view was wonderful, the weather hot, and the only place quieter might have been the dark side of the moon. The accommodation wasn’t the problem so much as it was the outdoor bathroom, cooking every meal on a barbeque, and the mosquitoes. Well, mostly it was the mosquitoes. And other bugs that only an entomologist could identify in a line up. We were in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. I was trapped in a dystopian universe where dinosaurs used to roam the earth, which was now overrun by mosquitoes until the sun went down and the bats came out … relief, until I realized there was a chunk of roasted marshmallow stuck to my cheek.
I managed to create an anti-mosquito zone on the porch with a myriad of mosquito-repellent products. They all worked to some extent, but the volume of mosquitoes to repellents was way off. The second I walked off the porch I was fair game; ravaged by mosquitoes. There’s a new theory that mosquitoes killed the dinosaurs, and after spending less than 48 hours in Dinosaur Provincial Park I’d applaud that if my hands weren’t so busy scratching bites. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
The night I got home, the itching from my bites was so severe it felt like a scouring pad was trapped under my skin trying to get out. I tried every home remedy known to non-mosquito kind. I tore a leaf off my aloe vera plant, squeezed the clear gel out and smeared it on my arms and legs. That worked … for a while. Then I went to an old standby that I discovered in Asia when I had bedbug bites (don’t ask): Tiger Balm. Usually, I applied it with a Q-tip on the odd bite. This time I applied it with a makeup sponge, coating my arms and legs like I was giving my limbs a menthol facial. That worked for a couple of hours and when it stopped working the itch was worse than ever, and I scratched myself raw. The poisonous venom of the mosquito led me to drastic measures: googling even more home remedies. I used half a bottle of rubbing alcohol to clean off the Tiger Balm, and a host of other concoctions that had been on my skin for a couple of days, and that calmed the burn for a while. Then I tried the soothing oatmeal hand cream and that worked for a while. I don’t suffer from many allergies and I didn’t have any over the counter medicine because by this point I felt the itch was coming from the inside (it was the body version of the horror movie classic ‘I’m itching you from inside your body’). I settled for a gin and tonic.
I managed to get to sleep, only to wake up at two in the morning itching like I’d slept in a comforter stuffed with barbed wire. Desperate times called for desperate Googling: I settled on the ‘baking soda and warm water paste cure’ and spackled my arms and legs. This worked long enough for me to get some sleep and make it to the morning when I went to the pharmacy for some over the counter relief.
While I briefly lived in that world of mosquito pain, I realized that this is what it’s like working for the federal public service. Coping with the persistent and pervasive mind-body prison of frustration, mismanagement, and conflicting ethics. Existential angst bubbling up under the skin, which can’t be relieved by external balms.
Some days, I would meander in to work with the organic ‘it is what it is’ attitude and that would bring me some relief. Other days I would burn with fiery rage, like the menthol ointment, only to flare hot and burst out into a greater rash of frustration. I would speak up hoping that things would change only to be labeled disgruntled. Other times I would wipe my psyche clean and watch the craziness as if I were an interloper observing from the outside. There were days when it was fine and soothing to be in the embrace of my colleagues who understood the craziness, like communing with fellow inmates in the asylum. I tried Buddhist detachment but not having any expectations led me further into the not-giving-a-shit hole. I let myself see things from an absurd and sarcastic point of view and that was a tonic. All of these remedies worked for a while. Under certain circumstances. But like the sheer volume of mosquitoes and their relentless persistence, no one repellent worked. Same too with the volume of absurdities, no one response worked for very long. It was an almost daily battle to maintain my sanity and my will to live. Some days I had to pick one and go with it.
Other days the only tonic was paired with gin.
Jan Markley can spot a cliché at ten paces but never met a comma she didn’t splice. When not picking cat hair off her sweater, Jan can be found in her sasquatch writing cave with a mug of tea, eating sour ju jubes, and writing her next work in progress. Jan is author of two novels for young readers. This piece is an excerpt from Too Jaded to be Bitter: The Memoir of a Burnt-Out Bureaucrat, her first foray into memoir.
Sleep Apneic Down Under
Poetry by Gerard Sarnat
I am on it
Toe toward head
Hips plus two new
Aids topped off (so far)
With tortoise shell glasses
Which now set on nose CPAP
Like they was weighing a coupla
Tons that also rested on both brows
Till I got ungraded from somewhere
Between Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal
Bald but traded in a paunch cum haunches
To lift my lady for a Fancy Dan hair transplant.
Gerard Sarnat is a physician who’s built and staffed homeless clinics as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. He won the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry is published in academic-related journals including Stanford, Oberlin, Brown, Columbia, Virginia Commonwealth, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan and the University of Edinburgh. Gerry’s writing has also appeared widely including recently in such U.S. outlets as Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, MiPOesias, Margie, Blue Mountain Review, Danse Macabre, Canary Eco, Military Experience and the Arts, Cliterature, Brooklyn Review, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review and The New York Times. Pieces have also been accepted by Australian, Bangladeshi, Hong Kong, Singaporian, Canadian, English, French, German, Indian, Irish, Israeli and Swedish among other international publications. KADDISH FOR THE COUNTRY was selected for pamphlet distribution nationwide on Inauguration Day 2016. Amber Of Memory was chosen for the 50th Harvard reunion Dylan symposium. He’s also authored the collections Homeless Chronicles (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), and Melting the Ice King (2016). Gerry’s been married since 1969, with three kids plus four grandkids (and more on the way).
Poetry by L. Ward Abel
As I skim the pine top ridges and
occasional cell tower, it seems there
are ghosts in every clearing I pass over.
Between here and Flat Shoals
sleep ancestors of next-summer nights
before they resurrect.
They know there is nothing more quiet
than winter ink, but now the silence
is on a knife’s edge.
Maybe I’m wrong to think I can rise above
the longest night of the year
without addressing my own ghost
who sees me as I cross the cold sky
overhead. He already returns the stare
from those low waters.
On the Edge of Sod and Goodbyes
Poetry by L. Ward Abel
Incessant whirrs half-hide behind
a mile or so of distance beyond the ruined barn.
Somebody has left bottles and they haven’t
been broken on the widely scattered gravel.
Heaven accelerates away from dirt where some
used to park on the edge of sod and goodbyes.
And the field is frozen now,
the leaves all retired in a great dormancy.
And that sound from several clearings down
finally blends and evades attention.
L. Ward Abel, poet, composer, teacher, retired lawyer, lives in rural Georgia, has been published hundreds of times in print and online, and is the author of one full collection and eleven chapbooks of poetry, including Jonesing For Byzantium (UK Authors Press, 2006), American Bruise (Parallel Press, 2012), Cousins Over Colder Fields (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Little Town gods (Folded Word Press, 2016), A Jerusalem of Ponds (erbacce-Press, 2016), Digby Roundabout (Kelsay Books, 2017), and The Rainflock Sings Again (Unsolicited Press, 2019).
Fiction by Glenn Bruce
Martin Fuller was a purchaser by trade—grain, exclusively—but his heart was in wood. He felt a kinship to it that often surpassed the love he had for his family, which was powerful. He knew every tree in the forest—not just by species, but by sight; that is to say that at night, while waiting for sleep, Martin would walk through the forests surrounding his farm, his family’s home, and visualize the placement, size, volume, grain form, age, height, bark pattern, and current leaf-state (according to each season) as if he were standing right next to each tree in the glare of midday sun. He once blindfolded himself and walked through the woods feeling each tree, never stumbling, never missing one, always knowing where each and every living and dying tree stood, sensing its space. He respected each tree’s existence and felt that they returned the respect, knowing that he would never do them any wrong.
When Martin knew a particular tree was dead or dying, he would fell it—then and only then; so unless foul weather brought a living tree down, Martin only worked with the deceased in the forest. He felt he had no right to take the life of a living thing; if that thing was a tree.
When it came to people, he was not as discriminating.
Martin had been to war and killed men he couldn’t see as well as three he did—one with a bayonet through the enemy soldier’s throat. Martin watched the man gurgle and die and felt nothing other than his job. Martin wasn’t a patriot, but he was a soldier. If his job was to kill, he killed.
As a buyer of wheat and rye, barley and buckwheat, Martin employed the same brutal dispassion. His job was to get the best grain for the lowest price and that’s what he did. He never once considered the state of a man’s life, his poor conditions, his pregnant wife or ailing children; Martin offered the least amount per bushel that he thought he could get away with offering, straight-faced, and he was almost always right.
Because there was that one time.
A man named Ferris came to the grain exchange and said he had a field of bulgur ready for harvest. What was the best price he could get for it? Martin low-balled him as usual, expecting a signed contract in seconds. Instead, Ferris said, “No.” Nothing more. Just no.
Martin looked up at the new man and said, “What?”
Ferris said, “The wheat is worth three times that. You have insulted me beyond my ability to regard you as an honest man, a decent man, or a man at all. You are a scoundrel, sir. The lowest of the low, a usurper, an opportunist, a condescending hornet who would sting the life out of me and fly back to your nest under the ground, in the cold mud, to savor your honey. You, sir, are filth.”
With that pronouncement, Ferris walked away.
Such an encounter should not have affected Martin—he’d been turned down twice that he could remember—but the desultory seller, in both cases, just shook his head and walked away, selling his grain to another buyer for, what Martin was sure, was too much for him to pay.
But this man, this Ferris person, had berated Martin publicly, if quietly. Martin wasn’t certain anyone had heard a word of it, but it was the principle of the thing. Martin was just doing his job. This Ferris man should have done his job and sold his damn grain!
Martin mulled through this encounter for weeks into months—four full seasons of grain buying. He walked the woods at night, feeling his way through every familiar tree, touching the bark, feeling its life, knowing its heart, its age, its sometimes sad short life expectancy; but his pleasure was diminished with each venture into his beloved woodlands.
At one point, he became so enraged at this Ferris fool that he, Martin, cut down a living tree. Just to do it! Just to show the forest that he had been fair all of his life and never once desecrated his sacred love for the things that grew on the hillsides and ultimately gave themselves for the betterment of mankind.
Ferris, this bastard!
As Martin looked over the just-felled tree, he wept. He had broken a sacred vow, one he had created himself. Certainly he was no better than this Ferris person. Perhaps he was even as evil as Ferris told him he was. Perhaps he was worse.
On the first day of the next year’s grain-selling season, Martin spent more time searching the capacious warehouse space than buying grain. Twice, he even offered a seller twenty-percent more than he thought reasonable just to close the deal so that he could find this bastard Ferris and tell him what he thought of him.
Martin was not successful in his quest. Further, his employer was none too happy with his frivolous wasting of money. “Frivolous?” Martin complained. “Sixteen years of under-paying every farmer for 300-miles around and twice…”
He couldn’t even calculate the odds in his favor.
Martin considered quitting on the spot but knew that was foolish. Even if other buyers might well hire him, and happily so. Martin’s tough reputation was impeccable; but what if word had gotten around? What if other employers were thinking the same thing: that Martin Fuller was going soft?
Now, he had to find this heathen Ferris and give him a full dose of his own bitter medicine.
With grain season over, Martin set out to find this degenerate, greedy, grain-hoarder and settle up. Martin Fuller was not a man to go down without a fight, even if was going down on his own volition.
He thought about cutting down another green-sapped tree, but the notion turned his stomach. Instead, Martin returned to his shed filled with seasoned, special wood: red oak, white oak, chestnut oak, wormy chestnut, thick sassafras, even the difficult-to-work gum wood, known for its twisting inviolate grain. Of all the wood workers around, only Martin Fuller was able to make sense of gum wood; only Martin could make it sing on his saw, could turn it into anything other than firewood. Compared to yellow locust, which was nearly impossible to make straight—only Martin never erred—gum wood was like working with steel cable.
It fought back.
Just like Martin was going to do. This damned Ferris! Martin would fashion a coffin for this verbally abusive animal from the gnarliest gum wood he had saved for just such an occasion and bury the man in it!
Just let me know of his suffering and his death and I will make this awful wood his final resting place.
While working at his planer one sunless afternoon, carefully smoothing boards of soft pine for the idle pleasure of it (he would never keep such inferior wood; pine went to the shelf-maker), Martin became aware of his employer standing in the open door of his workshop.
Martin turned off the machine and faced his employer. “Yes?” Never a man of many words, Martin had ever fewer for the boorish monger before him.
The man regarded Martin and his unshielded enmity. He said, “That man you were looking for, Ferris. I have an address.”
Martin’s nostrils flared and his temperature rose; his heart pounded as if filled with snake venom; his hands craved to hold a bayonet again.
The house was small, made of river rock—which only fueled Martin’s hatred for the man—and had a slate roof, rather than cedar shingles! “Heathen,” Martin muttered as he marched to the rounded front door and demanded entry through the power of his fist.
And again. Open this damn door, Ferris! Or be damned!
After what seemed an eternity of quick seconds, the door came open, held by a frail woman who appeared to be at least a hundred years old, but was more likely sixty and ill. “Yes?” she asked weakly. “Are you here for the rent?”
She looked terrified.
Martin was bothered by such a ridiculous notion. A rent-collector? Martin Fuller the clever grain man and woodworker-beyond-compare! What an affront. Why, even Ferris’s womenfolk had no respect for a man’s solemn dedication to all that was right and honorable.
“No,” Martin said. “I am here to see this man named Ferris. Is he here? We have a score to settle.”
The woman’s eyes shifted to the ground; her hand shook.
“Well?” Martin demanded.
“He is here, sir. Come in. Please.”
The house seemed smaller inside than out, lit only by a kerosene lantern in one corner. Where was his electricity? Where was his great wealth from selling all of his over-priced bulgur?
Ferris, the withered man, sat on simple, straight-backed chair in the corner, likely made of yellow pine some decades ago. As Martin approached, Ferris looked up. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said.
“For five years.”
“Then why didn’t you open the door, yourself?”
“I’m having trouble walking.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“I didn’t offer it as one. Sit. Please.”
Ferris was pointing behind Martin. Martin had seen no other chairs, but here was the sad, little woman holding another chair—possibly white oak, this one.
Yes. Oak. White. Early last century, by its grain and design.
Deeming it worthy of his superior posterior, Martin sat. “You’re sick?” he said.
“No,” Ferris said. “I’m dead.”
Martin turned his head to one side like a dog hearing a strange pitch. “You don’t look dead.”
“I am dead in my soul.”
Martin sat, still and quiet.
Ferris went on, “I offended you for no good reason. I called you names because I needed money. No other purpose. I needed more money than my grain was worth because I am a bad farmer. In fact…” Ferris looked at the lone window, its soft light revealing a blur of wet in his yellow eyes, “…I had no grain to sell at all.”
“You what?” Martin had never heard anything so outrageous.
Such a notion was inconceivable to Martin Fuller. Surely, he would have found out when he went to collect the grain and pay the man, this Ferris. “Why?”
“Because I am a foolish man, a dishonorable man, a thief and a lout. I have…I had no excuse for belittling such a man of honor as yourself. You were only doing your job and doing it well. It was not your job to humor me, or try to understand me, or know anything about me at all. Your job was to buy my grain at the lowest possible price for your employer, for resale at the highest possible price. That is the nature of business, of your employment, and I denigrated a man who was doing but what he was paid to do. For that, I am eternally sorry. I offer my full apologies and retract every last vile word I uttered in your presence.”
Ferris hung his head.
Martin had never felt so uncomfortable in his years. He looked around the room to see where the old woman was, but she had left them alone.
His eyes came back to the man Ferris, the man he had hated for five years simply for telling the truth. He had told the truth, this Ferris, then and now. What was Martin to do?
“What was your situation?” Martin wondered.
Ferris waved his hand as if dismissing gnats. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” Ferris stated flatly and looked up directly into Martin’s eyes.
Later that evening, Martin left the unworkable gum wood on his planer and stumbled through the forest, unable to find a familiar tree.
Glenn A. Bruce, MFA, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review. He has published eight novels and two collections of short stories. He wrote Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch, and was a sketch-writer for Cinemax’s Assaulted Nuts. His stories, poems, and essays have been published internationally. He won About That’s “Down and Dirty” short story contest and was a two-time finalist in the Defenstrationism annual short story contest. He has judged shorts film contests, art shows, was the final judge for Brilliant Flash Fiction and Defenstrationism 2016-2019. Last year, Glenn left 12.5 wonderful years of teaching Screenwriting at Appalachian State University to concentrate on fiction
Me and Christopher Reeve
Fiction by J. L. Higgs
The word struck like a solid punch to the solar plexus. My heart momentarily stopped. Bowels nearly let loose. Brain short-circuited, showering sparks. Shutting down.
I’d known what the diagnosis would be. Still, I hadn’t wanted to admit the truth to myself despite my lifelong propensity for facts and logic. Hope? Denial was not hope, but delusion.
A barely visible pair of lips were moving at the far end of a dark tunnel. I was deaf to sound.
“Focus, listen, pay attention,” said a voice in my head. Shattered in pieces, I struggled to breathe, to hang on and survive.
“Walk,” they said. “Twice a day, 20 minutes per, minimum.”
Putting on my dead father’s black and white jacket and my hat, I was a ghost walking in a dead man’s clothes.
Step on a crack. My mother, dead at 62. Cancer. Me, 62. Cancer.
Walk… Walk… Walk… Walk… Walk… Walk…
“You can do this.”
Thoughts tumbling, I hadn’t heard anyone come up on me.
“You’re not real,” I said, shaking my head. “No way. You can’t be here.”
“Why not?” he asked, his wheelchair keeping pace alongside me.
“I’m dead?” he said as if it was the most natural thing.
“Yeah,” I replied, quickening my pace.
I was one beat shy of actually running, yet he still rolled along right beside me. Smiling. As if he was just out enjoying the day. It was maddening!
“This is nuts,” I said, stopping. “I’ve done most of what they say you should and I have cancer!”
He sat perfectly still, staring at me.
“Look. I’m sorry you fell off that horse, broke your neck, and are now confined to that wheelchair. But it’s not the same.”
Maintaining silence, he raised an eyebrow.
“OK. Fine,” I said, throwing up my hands. “Being a prisoner of that chair is probably worse.”
He nodded. “I can’t walk. Can’t feed myself. Can’t even wipe my own ass. This tube, this chair, this is my life.”
“I know, it’s gotta suck. Especially when you used to be…”
“Superman?” he laughed. “It’s OK. You can say it. My body is broken. My muscles have shrunken. But, there’s a lot more to being Superman.”
“And you’re OK with things this way?”
“I didn’t say that. This is the situation I’m in. Spending my days bitching, moaning, and groaning would be a waste of time. It wouldn’t change a thing.”
“So, just get on with it?”
“Might as well. What’s the alternative? Do what they say. Work hard at it and you’ll be fine.”
100, 99, 98… (Lights out, bye bye)
After a night with compression leg wraps inflating and deflating non-stop to keep blood circulating and prevent clots, I surveyed the damage. 5 scars and I wasn’t a Christ figure.
I ate. Green Jello, then red. I walked, ‘round and ‘round the hospital floor, IV stand, IV drip, beeping monitor, catheter setup, and flapping hospital gown.
Back home. Catheter leg bag. Humiliating. I’m a diaper-wearing adult male. Humiliating. Staring at my dead father’s limply hanging black and white jacket, I chose to put on mine instead. I Walk. Twice a day, 20 minutes per, minimum.
“Looking good,” he said, his wheelchair appearing alongside me. “Feeling like shit.”
“Think of yourself as an astronaut,” he said. “Going where few adults have gone, wearing a diaper.” He laughed.
“Don’t forget the catheter leg bag,” I replied.
“Have catheter will travel,” he said, accelerating his wheelchair.
I quickened my pace to catch up. He stopped and waited“It’s going to be all right,” he said. “Just a temporary period of inconvenience
“Unlike being paralyzed and stuck in a wheelchair,” I ad
Gazing at the browning blades of grass, falling leaves, birds heading south, and squirrels gathering acorns he said, “All things are temporary.”
I nodded. “Will you be here for the rest of my walks?”
“I’m wherever I’m needed,” he smiled.
“Because you’re Superman?”
He winked. “Damn right. Who knows? Perhaps someday you’ll be Superman too.”
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 30 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Rigorous, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.
The King on the Beer Bottle Throne
Fiction by Robert Bose
A hammer stained red.
The image brands my mind as I take a hesitant step into the darkness of the cellar. The hardwood creaks, each board a different width, a different length, worn by time and tread, each step bringing me deeper, closer to what I know best. What I fear most.
The final step is the hardest, requiring a leap of faith to find the pitted concrete that anchors this particular level of hell. Once down, a whisper, an invitation. I pause. I could go back, to the world above. But I don’t. I can’t, not yet.
The whisper, repeated. This way, it calls, this way to destiny, this way to doom. I stumble in the darkness, hands occupied, unable to catch myself when I trip over the bones of those who came before, unable to feel for walls that exist only in my mind. I reach the line, a circle of dirty light illuminated by a single naked bulb.
The King is there. He’s always there, sitting on a throne of stubby beer bottles. Dozens? Hundreds? Stacked in offset rows, offset columns, an ugly brown mosaic, a web from which only those without souls escape. The air is musty, sour, metallic. Expired malt. Laboured breath. Fresh blood.
I see the hammer in his hand, dripping. Tonight it’s a bottle. Vodka. The peppers float, bobbing, as he takes a long pull. His pale blue eyes, tiny and round in his flushed red face, stare straight ahead. Into the void. Always into the void.
The King of Death.
He knows I’m here, knows I’ve brought the offering. Not that he’s ever made a request, but then, he hasn’t had to. He knows me. With each swing of that bloody hammer, he made me.
I squirm, grasping, tearing at iron arms as he lifts me, laughing, and throws me into the steep sided slough. Swim, he says, or die. The weak perish.
I pound on the gate, tug at the handle. Locked. From the other side, the side I can’t reach. A twig snaps, a form stalks the thick weeds. It growls, charges, eyes like burning embers. Run, he says. Or fight. It makes no difference.
I open the glossy picture book, primate faces staring back at me. Abraham, Moses. Lies, he says, false prophets. There’s no heaven. Only the void, only oblivion.
God is dead.
I turn away but he forces my head back. Watch and learn, he says. He puts his foot on the dog’s neck. It strains, whimpers. Bad dog. The gun roars. Life isn’t sacred, nothing is.
Alone, at last, I listen to the song of the Meadowlark. It sits on the barbwire fence singing a song of joy under bluebird skies. I watch the sun rise. Feel the wind rustle my hair. The world is beautiful. But I’m not.
Choice. One I couldn’t make until I knew the truth. A truth. It didn’t take a mirror, didn’t take a wise word. Just a song, just a broken heart.
I place the dead bird on the floor and lean the gun against a wooden pillar. Turn my back on him.
Wait, he says, I know a song too.
I take the steps, two at a time, and flick the blood from my hands, my fists.
Two hammers stained red.
Robert Bose has a fondness for philosophy, absolute darkness, and Bourbon, though not necessarily in that order or at the same time. He’s the editor of numerous books and anthologies for Coffin Hop Press (including It’s a Weird Winter Wonderland and Baby, It’s Cold Outside) and the author of myriad short stories including the fiendish collection, Fishing with the Devil. When not writing, editing, and running unfathomable distances, he spends his time annoying his wife, pestering his three troublesome children, and working at becoming a madman.
Fiction by Adriana White
Bertram Crozier was a hundred years old. At least I thought so. His hair was thin on top and he always sported a week-old stubble, dark in the deep grooves around his mouth and the creases of his cheeks, but lighter around the bulge of his chin. Later I learned that Crozier was only thirty eight.
When I was seven, Bert Crozier was my friend. He taught me things my dad had no idea of, like how to strike a match on a brick wall and how to eat a fire-broiled smoky without dripping fat all over your shirt. Bert told me stories about the wild animals he fed behind his cabin and he even showed me a dead bat once. One afternoon Bert let me hold the knife he used to whittle wood into a pile of little slivers. I asked him why he whittled wood and he said, “It keeps your hands going while your brain works.” I thought that was a very smart answer, although Miss Jeffries at school probably wouldn’t go for it.
That spring I went to Bert’s cabin as often as I could. I listened to his stories about wild animals and watched him whittle. I told my mom I was checking on our mole traps, which I did on my way to the cabin, so it wasn’t really a lie. From our farm it was a five-minute walk to his cabin, three minutes if you were an adult.
One day, the day he let me hold the knife, I stayed at Bert’s longer than usual. We didn’t realize how late it was until the door of the cabin suddenly burst open and my dad stood on the doorstep. Behind him was our neighbour Jans, and beside Jans was an RCMP officer who must have come all the way from Silver Spruce.
Of course I told them I was sorry. I’d forgotten the time and it wasn’t Bert’s fault because I never told him that I had to be home before dark. Bert said he was sorry too. He’d been so caught up in his story-telling that he hadn’t looked at the clock.
So, neighbour Jans went back to his own place and the RCMP officer went back to Silver Spruce, about a twenty five minute drive from our farm. That was, of course, before they paved our road.
I didn’t think I’d been at the cabin that late, but my parents made a big deal of it. I was told I couldn’t visit Bert Crozier again. It wasn’t fair and nobody explained to me why I couldn’t see him, so, as soon as the fuss died down, I snuck out to the cabin one late afternoon.
Looking back now, forty years later, I can see why my parents were upset to have my friendship with Bert Crozier exposed to the community. It reflected badly on them to let their seven-year-old hang out with a criminal. As a thick necked, broad shouldered youth, Crozier had been involved in a high school brawl in which a student was badly hurt. Nothing had come of it, although the police came out to break up the melee. Crozier spent one night in the slammer to cool off, earning him the moniker ‘Jailbird’. I think Crozier was actually proud of that title.
Then, years later, there was an incident with Colin West, a wealthy neighbour, who wanted to buy Crozier’s acreage, burn down the eyesore of a cabin, fence the land properly and graze horses on it. Crozier refused to sell and West became obnoxious. He offered Crozier more, much more than the property was worth but Crozier laughed in the man’s face and – it was said – threatened him with a knife. I suspect it was the same knife he used to whittle pieces of wood into a pile of shavings. It earned him another night in jail.
Even so, my parents turned a blind eye to my visits with Bert as long as it suited their purpose. After all, me being the youngest, the so-called unexpected baby, the nestling when all the older siblings had already flown the coop, I restricted their freedom. Bert was a convenient baby-sitter, only a five minute walk down the road – three minutes if you were an adult – and he taught me things for which they didn’t have the time, nor the ambition anymore.
But all that didn’t matter the night I failed to come home for supper and neighbour Jans said he’d seen me on the road near the cabin and everything changed once the police got involved.
It was almost summer and Dad was out checking our cattle. Mom was busy with her ladies from the quilting club, so I took the five-minute walk down the road. Bert was not alone that day. He had a lady with him. Actually, she wasn’t a lady as such. She was a fat woman and her blouse was undone so I saw her big boobs spilling out of her bra. She’d taken her pantyhose off and thrown them on the floor but I pretended I hadn’t seen that.
“Hi buddy,” Bert said. “Where have you been?”
“Just here and there,” I said. “School mainly.”
“That’s good,” said Bert. “Let me introduce you. This here is Marie. She’s a friend of mine.”
“Hi Marie,” I said. “I’m Wally. I live up the road about five minutes.”
“Nice to’ve met you, Wally,” Marie replied. She buttoned her blouse, picked up her pantyhose and turned to Bert. She kissed his cheek. “I’m gone,” she said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Wow,” I said. Not because she was leaving so fast but because of the kiss.
Bert wiped his cheek with the back of his hand and said, “Don’t mind Marie. She’s a friend.”
I shrugged and said, “She’s okay, I guess,” even though I didn’t think so. We didn’t talk about her anymore that whole afternoon, which was fine with me. “Can you teach me to whittle?”
“Well, yes, I can,” Bert said. He seemed pleased that I asked. He let me hold the knife again. It really was a dandy. Solid wood heft with his initials burnt into it: BWC.
“What’s the W stand for?” I asked.
“William,” he said. “Yes, Bertram William Crozier, that’s me.” He showed me how to hold the knife, how to apply it to the wood, how to make the shavings curl. “Now let your mind go wild, think of things you’d like to do and how to go about doing them,” he said. “That’s what I do. That’s why I whittle.”
I tried it. It being my first time, I had to concentrate on the knife in my hand. It was a solid knife. Heavy, real good quality, I knew that much.
That summer I visited Bert as often as I could. Sometimes I went to the cabin and he was gone or I’d see Marie’s truck behind the cabin and Bert had told me not to show up when Marie’s truck was there.
“Come after she’s gone and we’ll have some men-talk,” he’d said. “Women don’t go much for the way men talk.”
In August Marie’s truck stopped coming. Bert never told me why and I didn’t ask because I didn’t care much for her anyway.
One afternoon I said, “Let’s do some whittling.”
“Can’t,” said Bert. “Lost my knife.”
“That beautiful knife?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said. “It’s gone. But never mind, I’ll teach you how to tie rope.” We made rope-halters for calves that afternoon.
Soon after, school started again. I was in grade three, with Miss Tammy. She gave us lots of homework, which I tried to do on the bus. That’s how I missed seeing why the bus made an unscheduled stop that September afternoon.
“What’s up?” I asked the girl beside me.
“Police cars up the road,” she said.
Our bus driver backed up into a farmer’s driveway and turned back the way we’d come. We took the highway past the slough and I was home fifteen minutes late.
I started telling Mom why I was late, but she knew already. The whole county knew: a body had been found in the marsh just off the highway. That wasn’t close to our farm, but Mom was nervous. The whole county was talking about it but nobody knew whose body it was, just that it was a woman and she was stabbed to death.
Two days later Dad came home with a newspaper. It had a picture of the woman they thought was the body they’d found in the marsh. They wanted to know if anybody knew who the woman was. That floored me. Really, it did.
“That’s Bert’s friend, Marie.” I think I snickered a bit when I said it. In my mind I could still see her big boobs and I’ll never forget that she kissed my friend Bert.
My dad jumped into action; he phoned the RCMP. Soon after my dad got off the phone a police car came bumping down our road, past our house and over to Bert’s cabin. Its light flashed orange and blue, but it didn’t use its siren. I figured they were going to the cabin to ask Bert where Marie lived so they could notify her family. I wondered briefly if they would mention it was me who identified her. I was upset when I heard they’d taken Bert to jail, but they let him go home after they’d interrogated him, so I figured everything was okay.
I was dying to see Bert and to hear about getting interrogated by the police, but it was impossible, ‘cause Mom and Dad became so demanding of me. They kept their eyes on me all the time for the next couple of days. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything or they had their big noses in it. So I moped around the house and got into things just to spite them. That’s how I found the knife. That’s right, I found Bertram Crozier’s whittling knife. It was right there in the garbage behind our barn. I thought, that’s really stupid of Bert, throwing out the knife with the shavings.
I carefully shook the dirt off the knife and carried it down the road. I didn’t care if Mom or Dad saw me going; I’d explain it to them later. I really wanted to give Bert his knife back. He was very attached to it that was clear; why else would he have burned his initials in it. I looked at the BWC on the wooden handle. There was gunk stuck in the grooves but I didn’t want to go back to the house to clean it off in case Mom would keep me from going out again. I just wanted to give my friend his knife back.
There was a police car in front of the cabin and I thought of turning around but it wasn’t Marie’s truck so I figured it was okay to go in. I knocked on the door and shouted, “Bert, look what I found.”
I walked past the cop who opened the door and I held up the knife.
“Whoa, little boy,” said the police officer. “Can I have a look at that?”
I shook my head. “No, this is Bert’s whittling knife.”
Bertram Crozier wasn’t as happy as I thought he’d be. He hung his head.
The RCMP officer was more interested in the knife than my friend seemed to be. He wrapped it in plastic as if he thought it was a treasure. That afternoon was the last time I saw Bertram Crozier. He died in prison some years later. It also was the last afternoon of my childhood. In the late fall of that year I turned eight.
Adriana White is a senior citizen living in the bustling hamlet of Torrington, Alberta, which is the home of the World Famous Gopher Hole Museum. When she isn’t wrangling cats, gardening, volunteering, or knitting up a storm she finds time to write the occasional story worth publishing.