KISSING HER KOWBELL
I met Hayley Kowbell when we were sixteen. We both went to Chippewa High School. Her father owned the Sweet Ridge Cattle Company.
I had seen Hayley around but I first officially met her in Honors Literature. I liked to read. Louis L’Amour was my favorite author. I loved frontier stories. I don’t know why but when I saw Hayley sitting there in class I just sat down at the desk next to her. It wasn’t like me at all. I only nodded hello to her at first.
I don’t say much, ever.
When our teacher, Mr. Sayers, called roll on that first day he called out, “Buxton Carter?” and I raised my hand but I quickly turned to Hayley and I said, “They call me ‘Buck’.”
Hayley had that half-smile and she just said, “OK.”
Hayley was a surprise. She looked like a Wisconsin cowgirl, her cornflower hair and freckles and the way she dressed in denim shirts and jeans. But she was real smart and I couldn’t believe how much she read books.
One day she just turned and asked me about our reading assignment, “How do you like A Farewell To Arms?”
I said, “I like it. The way Hemingway writes it’s like a clean-polished wood carving.”
I guess that was the right thing to say. She liked that.
Hayley said to me, “Who’s your favorite author?”
I told her, “Louis L’Amour. I love frontier stories.”
She gave me that half-smile and damn if I didn’t feel kind of embarrassed so I asked her, “Who’s your favorite author?”
Hayley said, “Camus.”
I heard “Kah-moo” and I thought she was teasing me. I must have looked perplexed to her and so she asked of me, “Albert Camus? He won the Nobel Prize for Literature? He was born in French Algeria.”
I said, “Oh, yeah.”
But damn if I didn’t know anything about Camus. And damn if I didn’t google him right after class.
Hayley was an athlete like me. She was on the swim team. She was real popular. Before I knew who she was I’d noticed her among all the girl swimmers. She was strong and graceful.
I was Cross-Country. I liked being alone, challenging myself. I would find my own harmony running and I would feel like I could run forever. They say that it’s because of en-dolphins, I think. I sure would feel like a dolphin.
So Hayley and I had things to talk about. Or more like as not she would talk and I would listen. I listened to her like she was music. Then I’d make a joke and she would laugh and I would feel funny like I wanted to kiss her face.
Hayley had a funny saying. Whenever she liked something she would say “That sure kisses my Kowbell”, and when she didn’t like something she’d say “That sure don’t kiss my Kowbell”.
I was only sixteen but soon enough I found myself thinking that Hayley’d be a perfect wife and then I’d daydream about what it would be like to have kids.
But she had a boyfriend. Gavin Hawke. Hawke the Jock. He was a senior and he was the Quarterback Hero and the Senior Class President. The real problem was: he was a nice guy. Well, I didn’t really hate him. I was jealous.
I knew I was in love with Hayley.
If Hayley suspected my feelings she sure didn’t let on. She even thought that Gavin and I should be friends. When we both shook hands at her say-so I could see the cold suspicion in Gavin’s eyes. He knew what I was all about. I couldn’t blame him. I marveled at Hayley’s hold over both of us. But Gavin would always find some excuse when Hayley would recommend that he and I hang out together some place.
Anyway, Hayley got me a job working at the Sweet Ridge Cattle Company, her family’s business. I was so lucky. Most other kids worked at Wal-Mart. Her family also bred horses and that’s where I worked: tending the horses.
Hayley was a great rider. I could tell that she was holding back when I went riding with her sometimes. That didn’t help my case any.
One day Hayley started talking about the Wisconsin High School Rodeo Association. But she was talking about bull riding! I didn’t get it at first but she was telling me that she wanted to learn how to Bull Ride.
Hayley said to me, “The Wisconsin High School Rodeo Association is sponsoring a three day bull riding school by Terry Don West. He’s one of the top five Bull Riders of all time.”
I asked, “Why the hell do you want to be a Bull Rider?”
Excited, Hayley replied, “I been reading about Maggie Parker and I found a interview with her on YouTube. She started riding bulls when she was my age. And she’s smaller than I am. Maggie talks a lot in that interview about the adrenaline rush. She says: ‘Bull riding is one of the most dangerous sports because you’re up against an animal and you don’t know what he is going to do or what he’s thinking.’ Maggie’s got no quit in her. That sure kisses my Kowbell.”
Hayley was out there like that in everything she did. And it wasn’t just sports. She won the Dolly Crockett Homemaker Award in her Home Economics class.
I walked home after school that day with my friends Travis and Flip. I put it out there: “How do you make a girl do what you want?”
Travis thought a minute and then he said, “Chocolate condom.”
Flip said, “What you want to ask is: how do you please a girl?”
Travis sneered, “Who cares? They’re supposed to please you.”
Flip eyed me and asked, “Growin’ antlers, Bucky-Boy? Who you got in mind?”
They were no help.
I got home and my Uncle Garrett asked me, “Learn anything today?”
I lived with my uncle. My mom died when I was a child. Head-on car crash. My dad survived but he was so fucked-up he has to live in a hospice. My uncle stepped-up to take care of me. My grandma is still amazed.
Grandma would tell me, “Your Uncle Garrett was always headed for trouble,” but she never told me what kind of trouble. Uncle Garrett never had any women over to our house. I figured he was being protective of me.
I showed Uncle Garrett the picture of Hayley which was in the school newspaper story about the Dolly Crockett Homemaker Award and he said, “Oh, yeah, cute as a bug, Buck,” and then he asked me, “Why don’t you just ask her out somewhere?”
I sighed, “She has a boyfriend. Gavin Hawke, the football hero.”
Uncle Garrett said, “I see. Well, why don’t you find an excuse to study with her if she’s in your literature class? Then you can take a break and go out to eat somewhere casual like. Seems to me you gotta think like you’re the quarterback of the opposing team, get it?”
I smile wryly and said, “That makes her the football.”
Uncle Garrett corrected me, “That makes her the goal.”
I clutched the hope and said, “Yeah. The ‘opposing team’. It’s a game, right? Thanks, Uncle Garrett. Thanks a lot. How’d you get to know so much about girls?”
Uncle Garrett said, “I don’t know about that. Affections are tricky varmints, Buck. You hunt varmints by their habits.”
I smiled, “I don’t know what that means, but thanks.”
My chance came when Mr. Sayers assigned us The Grapes of Wrath. I asked Hayley real casual-like, “Can we discuss tonight’s essay assignment?”
Hayley said, “Sure.”
I asked her, “Can we meet at the public library? It’s kind of distracting around school here.”
Hayley replied, “Sure. Meet you there after school.”
I couldn’t tell you what I did the rest of that day at school.
Later at the public library, after we were making fun of the way Mr. Sayers always dressed, with his bow tie and sweaters, Hayley got serious and asked me, “What do think those between-chapters are supposed to represent?”
I said, “I think they were Steinbeck’s original notes about the novel, but he used them like clips from newspapers.”
Hayley was engaging me, “But what did they do to move the story along?”
I said, “They were like, like what you call…foreshadowing. But Steinbeck used it to trick you sometimes and get you all worried about what was coming next for the family. Like the story about the bad accident and the dead children.”
Haley sat back and said, “Well, That sure kisses my Kowbell. Mr. Sayers should like that.”
I smiled. Then I was real smooth when I said, “Reading about Ma Joad cooking has made me hungry for biscuits and gravy.”
Hayley grinned and then she imitated Mr. Sayers, saying, “So you would say you were deeply moved by The Grapes of Wrath?”
I ran with it quick and I said, “Hey, Hayley. Why don’t we deeply move to Joey’s BBQ? Aren’t you getting hungry, too? I’ll buy.”
Hayley looked at me funny and said, “You’re buyin’? That sure kisses my Kowbell,” and she laughed and I wanted to kiss her face and then she said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
Joey’s BBQ was real informal and had great food. They made their hamburgers out of steak trimmin’s. And their salads had big slices of carrots, long-wise like bacon, and whole green onions and I always got extra pickled beets.
I don’t talk much, ever. But with Hayley all I had to do was strike a spark with most any question and she’d catch fire, she had something to say about everything. But right then I really had to ask her, “So, are you still serious about learning Bull Riding?”
Hayley answered while she grinned and exaggerated her cheek full of salad, “Hell, yeah!”
Uncle Garrett had told me that instead of trying to hold Haley back, which he forced me to admit I would never, ever, be able to do anyway, he said I should support her and why didn’t I go along and take the Bull Riding class, too.
Uncle Garrett had said, “How dangerous can a class be? I’ll pay. I can see what this girl means to you and I can be your ‘Offense Coach’, Buck,” then he had said, “Go long,” and he had laughed, motioning down an imaginary gridiron.
So, after Hayley had said, “Hell, yeah!” and was daring me to say something, I’m sure, like girl’s shouldn’t Bull Ride, I surprised her and I said, “It sounds like a rush to me, too. Thanks to you, I’m thinking about taking the Bull Riding class, too.”
Hayley pretended to choke and cough and she laughed and said, “You?” but then she touched my arm and said, “I’m kidding. I’ll be glad to have you there. Gavin is no support.”
And I thought to myself, “Yes!”
But then, wouldn’t you know it, I saw a couple of the guys from the football team come in and sit at a table across the room. One of them noticed us and said something to the others and then they all looked over at me and Hayley. One of them got on his cellphone. I could see the blitz formation.
Hayley followed my gaze and she saw the guys and she waved at them innocently.
I waved too. They were smiling at Hayley and they frowned at me.
Hayley turned back and she then was lost to me in thought and she said almost to herself, “Gavin is talking to some college recruiter tonight. He might get a football scholarship. His dad has connections. He’s getting ready for pre-med, you know.”
I said, reluctantly, “That’s great.”
Gavin’s dad was a doctor.
Hayley continued, “Gavin’s sweating every grade.”
The only thing I was sweating was Hayley. I suddenly felt like a bush league quarterback with fourth down and ten yards to go.
I said, “Hey, want desert? The Cowboy Cake will kiss your Kowbell.”
Hayley looked at me with doubt.
I enticed her, “It’s made with dark chocolate, coffee and cinnamon.”
Hayley slowly smiled and said, “Buck, you are evil. Sure, why not, but let’s split one, OK?”
There was one piece left when Gavin showed up.
Gavin startled us both when he appeared beside me and he said, “What’s this?” and he took the last piece of cake with his fingers and put it in his mouth and then he reached over and bent Hayley’s head back and kissed her.
Hayley laughed, embarrassed, and she said, sing-song like, “Ga-vin!”
Gavin was looking at me and he said, “Mmmm,” then he turned to Hayley and asked, “What’s going on?”
Hayley said, matter-of-factly, “Taking a break from studying.”
I said, “Hey, Gavin. How’d it go with the recruiter?”
Gavin said to me, curtly, “Good enough.”
Then he bent down and kissed Hayley again and he said to her sweetly, “Really good,” and then he glanced back at me with a crocodile smile.
I said, “That’s great.”
Gavin asked Hayley, “Are you about done here?”
Just then the check came and Gavin nabbed it and he paid.
I had to say, “Thanks” to him and he knew I would have to.
Hayley said as she kissed Gavin again, “Thanks, sweetie. We’re done,” and then she said to me, “See you tomorrow, Buck,”
Gavin wrapped his tentacles around her and pulled her away to his teammate’s table.
I plugged my sick stomach with a painful grin and I said, “Yeah, see you.”
Later, when I shuffled in the front door, Uncle Garrett asked me enthusiastically, “How’d your game go tonight?”
I said, “I got blown out.”
I told Uncle Garrett what happened.
Uncle Garrett said, “One game does not a season make. Sounds like you had a good game, though, Buck, until that final down.”
I grumbled, “Final downer, you mean. How many chances am I going to get?”
Uncle Garrett reminded me, “There’s Bull Riding school.”
I had to grin and say, “Yeah. What could possibly go wrong with that?”
We laughed and I went to my room. Later, laying on the bed I finally realized that it was a pretty good night.
The next day I told Travis and Flip about what had happened, expecting them to be impressed and to encourage me.
Travis said, “Nice moves but, dude, you will never make this happen. She’s a rich girl. He’s the fucking Man at school.”
Flip said, “You got balls, man, but you’re going lose them.”
Travis added, “Although, you know, fucking Hayley Kowbell might be worth losing your balls for. I know I’d consider it.”
They were no help.
Later that same week, Uncle Garrett had told me one morning that he was heading out that same evening for a while and that he wouldn’t be home when I got there after school.
And so the house was indeed empty. I put some tomato paste on a couple English Muffins and I added cheese and a few olives and I micro-waved what I called “mini-pizzas”. I sat on the porch listening to tunes on my iPod.
At sundown a full moon was rising and I felt agitated. I decided to go for a run. I put on a sweatshirt, my swimming trunks, and my running shoes. I stretched and warmed up. I never wore my iPod running. I believed: when you listen to music, listen to music; when you run, run.
I would become my own music.
I took a breath and then I suddenly exhaled like a starting gun and I set out down the road. I hit my harmony running and then I became pure motion and I was gliding up and down the waves of hills like a dolphin under the full moon.
Over an hour later I was slowing down to a trot approaching my home and I could feel my body heat radiating from my face. I felt purified.
The lights were on in my house. There was Uncle Garrett’s truck. I figured that Uncle Garrett must be home early. Whatever he went out to do must not have taken long. I wished again that he felt like he could go out and have a good time more often and not worry about me. I didn’t care if he brought a girl home.
I walked up the porch steps and I could see through the screen door into the kitchen.
I could see my Uncle Garrett standing over Mr. Sayers who was sitting at the kitchen table bent over.
They both looked at me when I entered. I started to say, “Mr. Sayers? What brings you here?” but I stopped when I saw Mr. Sayers’ bloody black and blue face and I realized his bow ties was gone and his sweater and shirt were torn.
I opened my mouth and looked at my Uncle Garrett. He was messed-up and bloody too!
I cried, “What happened?!”
Mr. Sayers looked up at my Uncle Garrett and then he looked back at me and said, “I got jumped and they were kicking the Jesus out of me. Your uncle saved me.”
Uncle Garrett was looking down at Mr. Sayers with his hand on Mr. Sawyer’s shoulder and his mouth pursed and his lip bleeding and his cheek torn and he glanced up at me and his eyes were glistening and they flashed.
I yelled, “Who did this?!”
Mr. Sayers stammered, “I, I’m not sure, but I think it, it was…”
Uncle Garrett growled, “We’re sure! It was fucking punks from your football team.”
I yelled, “What?! Why?!”
Then I suddenly got the sickening thought that it must have had something to do with the other night at Joey’s BBQ.
Mr. Sayers started to stand up and then he collapsed back into the chair with a yelp.
Uncle Garrett said, “That’s it. We’re going to the hospital. Now!” and he lifted Mr. Sayers out of the chair so he could stand up and he supported him and he told me, “Get the door, Buck.”
Uncle Garrett drove away with Mr. Sayers slumped in the truck.
They very next day Honors Literature was cancelled. The word was that Mr. Sayers had left suddenly to tend to his sick mother.
I had no excuse to talk to Hayley anymore.
I finally found Gavin and Hayley sitting together at a lunch table. I marched up behind them and I yelled just as nasty as I could, “Hey! Gavin!”
Gavin turned around and Hayley said, “Buck! What are you doing?”
Gavin stood up and he loomed over me and he asked me coldly, “What the fuck is it?”
I stuck my chin at him, “Mr. Sayers isn’t ‘visiting his sick mother’, is he?”
Gavin asked me contemptuously, “What is wrong with you?”
I was sure that Gavin was going to kill me but I was determined to hurt him.
I growled past him to Hayley, saying, “Someone from the football team fucked up Mr. Sayers!”
Hayley was aghast and she said, “What?!”
The Gavin seemed like he had taken a blow. He looked down and he turned to Hayley and he said quietly, “I know. Hayley, I didn’t tell you. I’m going to find out what the fuck…”
I yelled, “You know?! You know?! And just how the fuck do you know, Gavin?!”
Gavin turned to me and took a step toward me and Hayley called, “Gavin! Don’t!” and Gavin snarled at me, “My father is a doctor at the fucking hospital, you moron turd!” and then he said quietly, “Somebody beat-up your Mr. Sayers outside some gay hangout somewhere outside town.”
I didn’t fully grasp what Gavin had just revealed and I didn’t know what to say so I just said with righteous anger, “They bloodied up my uncle, too!”
Hayley asked, “Your Uncle Garrett?”
I said, “Yeah! My Uncle Garrett!”
Then Gavin asked me, “Your Uncle Garrett? What was he doing there?”
I replied proudly, “Saving Mr. Sayers!”
Both Gavin and Hayley just stared at me.
Hayley suddenly looked down and then the realization hit me like a sock on the jaw. My head jerked to the side and my eyes were wide open and I stared at nothing, stunned. My wits came back and I turned again to Gavin and Hayley and the two of them together were looking at me with fucking pity.
I yelled, “Fuck you both!” and I turned and I began to run and I ran and I ran and I ran back to my only home in the fucking world.
The most ancient scrolls are kept on: THE TABLE OF MALCONTENTS
TWILIGHT IN PARIS
By the April of this year Anno Domini 937 it has already been a long season of drought unpromising to the village of Paris. The Seine River has disavowed the Island of the Village, which is the archaic appellation of the Île de la Cité, and now it travels furtively past in veins of sandy banks.
Twilight has come for this day ending. Sister Alyssa emerges from the Couvent du Vaisseau Saint convent, crossing from that tomb of angels on toward the tumult of men. The nascent evening cooking fires are redeeming the pungent exhale of the village. Sister Alyssa walks carefully and gently as if balancing herself traversing that village of Paris and then she passes on down toward the desolation of the Seine River.
She touches the crucifix of lead suspended upon the hide strip around her neck. Sister Alyssa wears the habit of un-dyed lamb’s wool. She carries a small sack woven of rough cloth. Turning in the twilight she looks back toward the convent. Seeing no one, Sister Alyssa removes her coif to free her roughly shorn hair and then turns her face away from the convent once again. She now steps with intent toward the block of marble uncovered by the receding Seine near the edge of one small channel.
This block of marble is the remains of a Roman altar, as she has deduced during the previous evening pursuant the few archaic Latin figures exposed and eroding, “Romulus et Remus.” She seats herself upon those pagan remains and gazes upstream toward the forests of the Langres plateau, the dark womb of the Seine River.
Sister Alyssa is petite but her mind is grande. Flowing back to her youthful decision to become a nun, she remembers the suppliant men. She could never have given her mind in slavery to any such rough husband. But by that inability she was then left with only one other destiny in her humble and poor life: she married the Church to have protection and some solace. But the Church has proven to be a rough husband. Within the convent is the hierarchy ruled by women from the wealthy families. And the knowledge provided is carefully sieved by the Church hierarchy. It has become a distasteful diet to Sister Alyssa.
She places the rough cloth sack upon her lap and unfolds it. Thereupon are a small loaf of bread and a portion of roasted lamb tongue. It is because of the drought that the villagers are sacrificing their starving livestock in an ongoing pyrrhic festival and donating portions to the convent.
Sister Alyssa pinches a piece of the bread and purses her mouth and thinks without thinking, “Take, eat; this is My body.” She peals a strip of lamb tongue, “For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.”
Chewing the lamb tongue, Sister Alyssa finally thinks, “I thirst”. She arises, turning to set her repast upon the ruined altar. She then approaches the water. She lowers herself to both knees and bows onto her hands, closing her eyes for to sip, thinking, “The living water,” as her dangling crucifix dips unnoticed into the gentle vortex.
Still on her hands and knees she slowly opens her eyes and contentedly raises her head, when suddenly she utters, “But what is that?”, having spied a four-legged silhouette far up the sandy shore. She thinks without thinking, “A dog joins me.”
Out of the approaching silhouette now emerge two liquid yellow eyes that fix upon her. Sister Alyssa sits back stricken by a bolt of fear and clutches her damp dangling crucifix.
It is a black wolf.
Sister Alyssa’s mind observes through a frost of fear that the black wolf is thin and its coat is disheveled with hunger and thirst. It has followed the river down from the forest in desperation.
The relentless stare of those yellow eyes is suddenly averted and the wolf turns toward the water and bows to lap greedily at the water. His long fangs gleam under his curling lip. Sister Alyssa thaws her fear enough to rise cautiously and she steps backwards toward the exposed ruins of the pagan altar. She realizes now that she is clutching her dangling crucifix with one hand and a river stone with the other and her lips are fluttering in prayer.
The wolf has slaked the thirst but not the hunger and he lifts his head back toward Sister Alyssa. His lutescent gaze presses into her eyes as he approaches. She believes that she actually can feel his animal desires. With another jolt of fear she has the sensation of, of…surrender! Her mind is crying out for panic but she stands. She releases the river stone and then feels behind herself for the roasted lamb tongue. Touching upon the lamb’s tongue her fingers embrace it and her arm casts it toward the black wolf.
The wolf reacts with a frighteningly sanguinary skill and captures the lamb’s tongue in its jaws. With three chomps he has swallowed the offering. Sister Alyssa imagines that she can feel that carnivorous lust, hot, wet and like a dagger penetrating her own flesh. She wanes faint.
But the wolf abruptly turns back to the darkness up the river and departs. Sister Alyssa cannot see the motion of his silhouette any longer when suddenly the candles of those two yellow eyes alight back toward her one last time. After that she can no longer feel his presence at all. She closes her eyes as her fear shudders away.
Sister Alyssa replaces her coif and returns through the living darkness, proceeding up the bank toward her convent. A man’s voice calls to her and she turns. It is the young Reynard, on sentry duty for the Paris marshalcy. Sister Alyssa sees him as lofty and sinewy for a moment before she sacrifices forbidden perceptions.
Reynard speaks, “Sister, it is not safe to be down at the river in darkness.”
Alyssa answers, “Yes. You have told me before, jeune homme,” and she smiles.
Reynard smiles briefly and then puts back his professional façade of gravity, sternly saying, “Even a nun is not safe, Alyssa… Sister Alyssa.”
Alyssa juts her chin in mock defiance, “Sinner, do you not believe that the Lord will protect me?”
Reynard responds, “Sister Alyssa, I believe that we must carry Providence upon our own shoulders. But I am not much of a theologian…”
Sister Alyssa laughs involuntarily and touches Reynard’s elbow, “God’s Witness, Ma Dame Berthildis says the same of me.”
Reynard nods, “I shall accompany you to the parvis of Couvent du Vaisseau Saint.”
They walk slower than necessary together and Sister Alyssa thinks of the suppliant young men she once deflected. Arriving at the convent Reynard bows to her and then he continues jauntily on his patrol of the village.
Entering the candlelit parvis Sister Alyssa is startled to encounter Sister Superior Ma Dame Berthildis. Sister Alyssa bows and then trembles with an unrealized guilt.
Ma Dame Berthildis narrows her eyes, “Where have you been this evening, Sister Alyssa? And why are you blushing?”
Sister Alyssa speaks quickly, “Ma Dame Berthildis, I took my supper near the river so that I might pray for an end to this terrible drought. And a walk in the evening air can be invigorating.”
Ma Dame Berthildis says ominously, “Many things out in that sinful world can be invigorating, Sister Alyssa. Do not be concerned with appeasing your flesh. As for this drought, it is certainly God’s judgment upon Paris. Therefore be certain that you pray instead for your Compréhension, my dear, dear Sister Alyssa. And in so doing, ma novice impudent, leave to me and the other Sister Superiors the salvation of Paris. Sister Alyssa, know this also: I have been watching you.”
Sister Alyssa asks defensively, “Ma Dame Berthildis, what do you mean?”
Ma Dame Berthildis replies, “Why should you fear my watching you?”
Sister Alyssa qualifies, “Ma Dame Berthildis, no, it is not that I fear… I mean…”
Ma Dame Berthildis says with finality, “Sister Alyssa, you will not be the first wayward young nun I have cast back to her true desires. Compréhension, my dear, dear Sister Alyssa, Compréhension, yes?”
Sister Alyssa bows very deeply, saying, “Ma Dame Berthildis, I assure you it shall be as you wish, I mean as God wishes … but of course as you wish as well…”
Ma Dame Berthildis says with exasperation, “Good night, Sister Alyssa.”
And yet that same night upon her hard bed Sister Alyssa helplessly makes a vow to go to the pagan altar again upon the very next evening twilight.
And so it comes to be that she does this as if enchanted, retracing her steps and manners, assuring herself that she is unobserved in this profane rendezvous, telling herself again and again that only a fool wishing to dance with death would fain conjure a resurrection of the evening before, you foolish relapsing nun, and yet she does carry her communion of bread and meat.
Sister Alyssa seats herself again upon the ruined pagan altar. She listens for any sound above the furtive river, she impales the darkness with her eyes, and with her fingers shaking she uncovers her bread and roasted tongue of lamb. Thus she begins her twilight communion.
After a while Sister Alyssa whispers to herself, “Nothing good will come of this,” and at that moment she thinks she sees a ripple in the far darkness.
At the crepuscular threshold suddenly two yellow eyes ignite and Sister Alyssa gasps unintentionally. The black wolf is approaching her. She becomes fearful and flushed at the same time with vertiginous bewilderment, moaning softly, “What have I done?” then calling out in the face of the approaching beast, “What have I done!?”
But the black wolf halts instead and sits on his haunches merely a matter of steps away, his gaze unbroken into Sister Alyssa’s eyes. With trembling hands Sister Alyssa tosses the lamb’s tongue toward the beast and again the offering appears drawn into the agile jaws of the black wolf. He chomps three times with clashing teeth and he swallows. Yet the black wolf remains near as he was, with untamed patience.
Sister Alyssa is exhaling rapidly as she breaks the loaf of bread in half and tosses one ragged fragment to the black wolf. He receives it mid-air and gnashes it repeatedly until he takes a final swallow.
Sister Alyssa then holds her breath as she holds out the other half of the bread toward the black wolf. The black wolf slowly arises and takes a few steps, stops, and then stretches out his muzzle to gently grasp the remaining offering from the upheld palm of Sister Alyssa.
Sister Alyssa exhales, feeling close to tears of relief, when abruptly the black wolf bares his terrible fangs and rumbles his chest with a chilling growl. Sister Alyssa cries out at once, almost tumbling backwards, and then realizes that the black wolf is staring over her shoulder toward the slope of the Island of the Village. She quickly stands, snaps her head around in that direction, sees nothing, and then turns her face back to the black wolf. Sister Alyssa now realizes that she is breathing rapidly through her mouth.
The black wolf blinks several times and licks his fangs but he is calmly returning to his haunches.
Sister Alyssa sits down again upon the ruined altar and dares to extend her bare hand toward the black wolf. The black wolf hesitates, turns his head to one side, and then leans toward Sister Alyssa and miraculously merely licks her hand with a gentle intensity as if she is his pup. Sister Alyssa is suddenly giddy. She gently touches his muzzle and strokes it slowly. It is not unpleasant. The black wolf closes his eyes but there is a soft growl from his belly. Sister Alyssa closes her eyes.
With a shock Sister Alyssa opens her eyes and the black wolf is not to be seen though she scours the darkness. She hurriedly replaces her coif and bustles up the slope back toward the night fires of Paris. Those lights have never seemed so harmonious with the stars above. Yet Sister Alyssa herself burns with a peculiar shame.
Arriving at the top of the slope Sister Alyssa looks up and is startled by the sudden confrontation by Ma Dame Berthildis. Behind Ma Dame Berthildis is a menacing regiment of the Paris marshalcy.
Ma Dame Berthildis cries unto the sudden inability of Sister Alyssa to act, “Capture her! She is a witch! I swear and attest that I have witnessed her sorcery!”
Sister Alyssa is roughly seized and cries, “Ma Dame Berthildis, you have misconstrued me!”
Ma Dame Berthildis cries, “She confesses! So, you damned witch, we have caught you in a perverse consortium with that demon! So much is explained! I knew you were vexing but I did not know that you are evil! So evil! Know this, you foul witch: I shall open the mouth of Hell for you! You are going to burn!”
The deputy leader of the Paris marshalcy says, “Ma Dame Berthildis, I doubted you and would not believe your words and so you must forgive me! I am horrified at what my eyes have seen this night!”
Ma Dame Berthildis cries, “We must put an end to this demonic bargain immediately!”
The surrounding members of the marshalcy shout acquiescence. But Sister Alyssa then descries young Reynard, his eyes wide and his teeth clenched, and she cries, “Help me!”
Ma Dame Berthildis contorts at Sister Alyssa with vicious hatred chanting, “Burn! Burn! BURN!”
Sister Alyssa cries, “I have done nothing but befriend a wild animal! He was weak and starving! Is he too not one of God’s creatures!?”
Ma Dame Berthildis asks in reply, “Witch, do you offer your veiled bestiality as a venal acquittal for blasphemy?!”
Sister Alyssa now hears her Reynard’s voice cry out along with all the surrounding members of the marshalcy, “Burn! Burn! Burn!”
She plunges into despair.
Sister Alyssa’s wrists are then roughly bound together with a hide leash and she is yanked forward by the assigned deputy Reynard himself, who holds the leash over his shoulder, himself sickened by her alleged betrayal and newly fearful for his own alleged soul. Sister Alyssa begins to plead, over and over, louder and louder as this godlessly cruel fate inundates her mind with Compréhension.
Then like a stroke of lightning from dark heavens above the terrifying black wolf pounces upon Reynard, landing onto his shoulders, toppling Reynard forward while tearing out his throat in one mass of gore. The black wolf then leaps backwards in a snarling rage, dancing in a deadly perimeter around Sister Alyssa. The distress sends the marshalcy stumbling hindward, leaving Ma Dame Berthildis exposed, alone and in the grip of the most unholy horror, unable to command her fleeing mind, unable to summon a scream!
The black wolf astonishingly arises onto his hind legs and balances unsteadily, his slavering jaws holding inches from the face of Ma Dame Berthildis. Her mind has gone. The black wolf lunges, taking her entire neck into his mouth and with a violent series of shakes severs her head from her collapsing body. That severed head spews blood and rolls with opened eyes toward the rallying marshalcy. And so the regiment finally collapses as they all whirl about and hurtle away shrieking into the streets of the village of Paris.
The black wolf subsides to four legs and now turns slowly to Sister Alyssa. Blood still drips from his fangs. She has no will. She has only eyes with which to witness.
But the black wolf bows to take the loose end of her hide leash into his mouth tenderly and then he leads Sister Alyssa down the slope of the Island of the Village, into the sandy banks, toward the pagan altar and beyond into the darkness along the river, upstream into the unseen forest.
Comes the sound of distant thunder as the wind swiftly smells of rain.
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THE END OF YEARS
It was Monday night, New Year’s Eve. Arlen was at the mini-mall Lavanderia Laundromat loading a washing machine. He was alone under the fluorescent glare. He shut the washer lid and pushed the slotted tray of coins into the machine. The washer began to throb.
Arlen shuffled outside into the icy-cold evening. There was a lot of moonlight. He looked up at the great asteroid now looming brightly behind the full moon. The great asteroid made the moon look like the iris in a cosmic eyeball. It peered through the shimmering auroras in the upper atmosphere and it blinked behind the gauze of smoke from volcanoes far away.
“It’s actually beautiful,” said a voice behind Arlen.
“Aesthetics is dead,” replied Arlen curtly to the stranger. Arlen went back inside the Lavanderia Laundromat to watch the TV on the wall.
The stranger followed him inside and said, “Funny how the European Space Agency nick-named the asteroid Godot.”
Arlen muttered, “What’s a GUH-DOH, anyway?”
“Waiting for Godot?”
“The famous play: Waiting for Godot? Oh, Godot’s the pivotal character that you wait and wait for and never hear and never see,” replied the stranger.
“That’s probably why I never heard of it and never saw it.”
“It’s about waiting in faith, about the meaning of day to day existence, about God.”
Arlen looked over at the stranger and furrowed his brow, “What are you?”
“Oh, I was a Performing Arts major. Now there are no students left. It was a private school and they closed.”
On the TV a team of NASA administrators addressed the army of glaring cameras. “The prognosis remains the same: Godot will likely miss the earth but there is a slight chance that it could strike the moon and send it careening into… toward us… the earth.”
A reporter asked, “What does ‘a slight chance’ mean?”
A NASA administrator consulted with his colleagues and then answered, “We are working on an exact answer. Parameters are shifting as Godot approaches.”
Another NASA administrator said, “Even if it misses the moon, we know that the effects of Godot’s gravity will be…severe.”
The TV flickered and lost the satellite signal.
Arlen turned around to see if the wash was done. The washer rocked rhythmically with the spin dry cycle.
“Almost done,” observed the stranger behind him. That irritated Arlen for some reason.
Arlen said to the stranger, “The last wash allowed was at 9PM. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I just wanted to share this with somebody,” said the stranger as he reached into his oversized coat and withdrew a big squared bottle of Devil’s Cut, “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey,” he smacked, “Happy New Year!”
Arlen licked his lips involuntarily. “What’s your name?”
“Name’s Asher. And yours is…?”
“Arlen.” He instinctively put on his salesman’s smile.
“Can you believe that the Iranian guy in the liquor store next door just gave this to me?”
“Actually, he’s giving everything away. He’s leaving for Las Vegas.”
The TV reignited. A pale news anchor was blinking, “The migrations are continuing. This is the stream of vehicles going to Las Vegas, Nevada, as seen from SkyWatch-6.”
“And this is a scene of the Holy Repentance Tent City in the Canadian wilderness. It was taken by a viewer in a private plane crossing to Colorado.”
“Please remember to forward your pictures and videos to us at Channel Six…”
The picture became a dancing jig-saw puzzle rainbow. Then the TV lost signal completely.
“Arlen, let’s drink to the end of your spin cycle!” and Asher took a hot gulp. He winced and handed the bottle to Arlen.
“It was a flawless cycle, wasn’t it?” asked Arlen rhetorically as he dug out his damp compressed clothes and plopped them in the wheeled basket with the one hand and received the Devil’s Cut with the other hand. He halted and took a quick series of gulps. He sighed, “Flawless.” Arlen then bent over and wheeled the basket around the washers, “I only hope the dryer is half as good.”
Asher laid his palm on the round glass door of a dryer, “This one is still warm.”
Arlen loaded the dryer, “The owner of the Lavanderia Laundromat came in a while ago to collect coins and to refill the bill-changer. He is thinking about staying open around-the-clock now. He won’t leave his business. He doesn’t approve of Vegas, and he is not religious. He will stay open until the electricity and gas are gone. He told me that this business is all he has.”
“It is good to have something,” said Asher wisely.
Arlen shut the dryer door and nudged the coins into the slot. The dryer began to labor. The damp clothing leapt up and collapsed down, again and again.
The TV signal revived briefly, “Already there have been recurrent tidal inundations along all seaboards.”
Asher recalled thoughtfully, “There was an army truck up at the Food-4-Less. They told me that most of the military has deserted to be with their families. They said it’s the same in most other countries.”
“At least, at last, we have ‘peace in our time’,” observed Arlen reverently.
“Except the Middle East, of course,” amended Asher.
“War is all they have.” said Arlen.
The Devil’s Cut was shared between them like a gentleman’s game of tennis. Their understanding grew more and more incisive. Their minds became one.
“I am sure that the government has created a giant underground computer to back-up all our knowledge and understanding.”
“What will it run on when the power grid is gone?”
“Nuclear power. They have dozens of nuclear reactors underground that are cooled by underground streams. They will provide power for hundreds of years even if no one touches them again.”
“Well, by then the streams will have changed course. The reactors will have overheated and melted and fallen into the center of the earth.”
“Whoa! Then, when the computers are found by our descendants, or by the aliens, they’ll wonder why we carved those tiny silicone tablets, chips, and wonder what the strange patterns mean, and ask why we enshrined them in a catacomb of metal. There won’t be any Internet to search for understanding and meaning and truth.”
“So we will not even be a memory. We will not have existed in any way that can be proven except by God.”
“Except…by…God… thus proving the existence of God!!”
“You see? You understand.”
“I like to understand.”
“What else is there to strive for but to understand?”
“What about faith?”
“We must have the faith that we will be able to understand.”
“But.. when you understand then there is no longer faith.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Take this dryer here. I pretty much understand how it works and so do you. It doesn’t take faith, it takes money.”
“So, money is faith understood?”
“That’s a good way to think of it.”
“So that is why the money says ‘In God We Trust’.”
“Yes, the government understands God.”
“And we have faith in our government.”
“Your logic is like clockwork.”
“I’m not sure. I heard that even the atomic clock is undependable in Godot’s gravity field.”
Asher looked toward the large plate glass window of the harshly lit Lavanderia Laundromat. There was a ghostly Asher and a ghostly Arlen that seemed to be standing out in the empty parking lot.
“Is it the New Year yet?”
Arlen made a sour face, “What does it matter?”
“I have resolved to be more understanding. Won’t you join me?”
Arlen raised the diminished bottle of Devil’s Cut, “We still have a little Sweet Abandon left before our New Year’s Resolutions are in effect.”
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VAN DIEMEN’S LAND
The first day of the year was cold and rainy. I awakened onboard Marten’s yacht, confused. New Year’s Eve had been the usual balmy night in the middle of Melbourne’s summer.
I know I am alone now. I sit on the edge of the bed, naked. I light a clove cigarette, the nastiest habit I could conceive until last night. My eyes chase the edge of the storm inland. I see the illumination of distant lightning. All the moored boats are rolling with the thunder and the storm-swell in the bay.
Last night begins to creep back to me.
I had gone to The Spice Trade bar. I was joking with the voluptuous blonde bartendress. She was wearing a bronze name tag that said Real Sheila.
“Why ‘Real Sheila’?” I asked before I gulped my gin and tonic.
“Because all of the tourists used to ask me ‘Is your name really Sheila?’ and so my co-workers began to call me ‘Real Sheila’”.
She looked past me and smiled. I turned to look over my shoulder. Approaching was a lovely young woman with a dark complexion and wavy raven hair. She was wearing a short silk skirt. My first thought was about lifting that skirt over her head.
She sat down right next to me, so I was either sexy or insignificant. I gave her the most sang froid “Hello” I could restrain. “My name is…“
“Where is your wife?” she asked without looking at me.
That was like a kick in the coconuts. Without thinking I answered, “Fucking my best friend in California.”
I had picked the farthest point of civilization away from that previous life yet here was this stranger sticking it back to me.
She glanced at me and said, “I’m sorry. You still have that married look.”
I shriveled in bitter acquiescence. She glanced at me again, “I’m Dyanne.”
I said lifelessly, “I’m Allen”. Real Sheila put an elegant glass of champagne down in front of Dyanne without being asked.
Onstage, ContraBand began to blow a typhoon of music. I was actually relieved when this big swinging dick came up to Dyanne and spoke beside her cheek, over the music. She stood up to go with him to the dance floor. She turned back to me and spoke into my ear, under the music, “Will you watch my stuff for a minute, please?” Her breath validated my testosterone at least.
I looked at her purse and her glass of champagne and I soon felt like kicking my pride right out of there. I looked up. Real Sheila was setting down a tall dark iced drink in front of me. “I ordered gin and tonic,” I said with frustration. “What’s this?”
“This is a Taser. This is where you want to be, trust me. First one is free.” Real Sheila looked out onto the dance floor. I followed her eyes to Dyanne undulating in that short silk dress. Real Sheila’s eyes were reflecting my own animal cortex. I suddenly wondered which of us was more turned-on. How could I compete with that?
I sucked the Taser like it was a Coke. Where the ice displaced the liquid it was the color of blood. The surrounding liquid was black. I felt piquant flashes in my throat that were carried away by a savory effervescence. That Taser went down far too easily. I leaned toward Real Sheila and shouted through the music, “You’re right. Give me another one, ok?”
Finally, half-way through the second Taser, I was sure I heard a “click” and then everything about that night became cozy. I had a vision from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof where the tormented character Brick had waited for that same “click”. I never understood what it meant until that moment.
Dyanne returned, shining, “Thanks for watching my stuff.” Smiling, “What do I owe you?”
My mind gridlocked. I tried a sly grin.
“Oh, God, Sheila. You’re feeding him Tasers?” She sipped her champagne.
Real Sheila shrugged, “He was threatening to put a stick up his ass.”
I cringed but I was laughing. I didn’t care.
“What do you do, Allen?” asked Dyanne. I was enthralled by the logic of her inquiry.
“I work sales for an American company that sells veterinary medicines here. I just moved here, actually. May I ask what you do?”
Dyanne ignored my question and asked me, “Do you like it here?”
“I like visiting the ranches, I mean the ‘cattle stations’, in the countryside.”
Dyanne chuckled, “A real California jackeroo, eh?”
The thought of California was suddenly like being flushed down a toilet. It must have showed in my face. Real Sheila was there saying, “Here, I’ll trade you for that stick,” and she handed me another Taser.
After that, I just remember our conversations being so wrenchingly profound that I wanted to cry but I don’t think I did.
“She was everything to me. I was so devoted to her. Was it wrong? Is it unnatural?”
“Maybe you bored her by being such a slave.”
“My momma always used to say ‘Too thick don’t stick’”.
Around 10PM Real Sheila leaned toward Dyanne, saying, “I’m off. Let’s go to your place and watch the fireworks.” She winked at me, “You too, jackeroo.”
We navigated out of The Spice Trade. By then I had become a pair of eyes floating between them. I think they both had their arms around me. I was sure I was holding both of them around the hips.
We came to Dyanne’s car. It was a sporty little orange Tesla. There were only two tight seats inside. “Cool!” I said after considering the implications carefully. But instead they helped me to lie back upon the sculpted trunk, resting my head against the roof of the rear window.
We drove slowly down the crowded street. Faces passed steadily above me as if they were viewing an open casket. Why were they laughing? I was the Martyr of Love. I remembered being rocked side to side and trying to anchor my stomach to the unmoving stars above. I could hear Dyanne and Real Sheila laughing behind me inside the car. I must have dozed off. Eventually, I realized that we had arrived at the bay.
They helped me onto a long dock. “Why are we at the docks?” We stopped in front of a moored boat. As my eyes focused, it became a small yacht! On the stern was written the name VAN DIEMEN’S LAND.
Real Sheila giggled, “Permission to come onboard?”
“I will insist.” Dyanne then said to me, “This is where I live.”
I stammered, “On a boat? Why a boat? This must be really expensive. Dyanne, please, may I ask you what you do?”
She replied, “A rich Dutch bloke I know, Marten, is letting me stay here.”
Real Sheila asked Dyanne, “Where is Marten tonight, anyway?”
“Some-fucking-where in India.”
Once onboard, they sat me in a chair and they went below. I swiveled to look over the side. My mind bounced out into the bay with all the lights and commotion.
I heard Real Sheila and Dyanne returning and they giggled as they swiveled my chair back around. I swear they were now wearing only bra and panties. OK, why not? I found myself standing swiftly erect and undressing myself down to my shorts.
We embraced as a trio. Our kisses met at a point between the three of us. Real Sheila disengaged just enough to remove Dyanne’s bra. Then she let her own bra fall. My hands drifted down between their panties and their smooth cool bottoms. I knelt slowly, pulling the panties down with me. When the panties dropped below their knees and fell to the deck, Real Sheila and Dyanne both stepped out of them. The two of them embraced tightly and kissed.
Still crouching between them, I sipped nectar from one and then the other of them as they slowly gyrated. It was Dyanne who began to twirl her fingers into my hair. I slowly rose back up. Dyanne turned to face me and pulled down my shorts, taking hold of me. Real Sheila moved behind Dyanne, kissing her neck and helping to lift her onto me. I held Dyanne’s bottom while Real Sheila pressed against my hands. I began to caress Real Sheila with my knuckles.
And so we divided ourselves and shared everything.
I became aware of the New Year’s midnight by the thunderous crackling of the skies and the canopy of colorful fire that blossomed above us and reflected in the bay.
Last night has crept away again. That’s all I can remember right now.
The storm-swell is becoming stronger and VAN DIEMEN’S LAND is starting to roll so much that I must get out of here before my hangover reaches my stomach. I find my clothes and pull them on and step overboard to the dock, leaving VAN DIEMEN’S LAND.
In the smattering rainfall I start the long walk back to wherever I live now.
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My friends, listen to me.
The number of moons that had gone by is equal to the number of sands in two cupped hands
There was an island that can no longer be found in the Sea of Mataku.
This island was the home of the People of Mataku. Their Lord was King Ao and his Queen Poui.
Their Lord King Ao and Queen Poui had many royal children who would one day rule the many islands in the Sea of Mataku.
One day during his walk across his island, Their Lord King Ao seduced a young woman, the pearl diver Halatui.
Neither the pearl diver Halatui nor any other tabu People of Mataku were permitted to touch the shadows of their Lords, King Ao or his Queen Poui.
The penalty was death.
Only the priest Bone Tappers could touch the Lords. The priest Bone Tappers were the ones who kept the sacred spirits of the ancestors.
The spirits of the ancestors were tapped from the ancestors bones into sacred pearls gathered by the pearl divers.
The priest Bone Tappers silently feared that King Ao had corrupted his substance of power.
The priest Bone Tappers were now obliged to kill the pearl diver Halatui.
However, because the pearl diver Halatui now bore her Lord King Ao’s substance of power she knew she had to flee. The pearl diver Halatui sailed her outrigger canoe to a deserted island in the Sea of Mataku and there she dwelt.
There in that deserted island was a lagoon with a virgin bed of black-lipped pearl oysters. That lagoon was the sovereign realm of the great shark Mataku.
Because the pearl diver Halataui now bore substance of her Lord King Ao’s power she was able to gather those pearls, knowing with her magic whenever the great shark Mataku was gone away traveling in the Sea He Ruled.
Those pearls were magnificent and luminous and the size of sandpiper eggs.
The pearl diver Halataui hoped to buy with those sacred pearls her life and the life of her unborn child.
The unborn child grew like a pearl within the pearl diver Halatui.
One day the great shark Mataku knew that his pearls were being stolen. With his magic the great shark Mataku walked across the island, searching for his pearls.
The great shark Mataku found the pearl diver Halatui. The pearl diver Halatui was anointing the gathered sacred pearls with Tamanu oil and placing them in a basket.
Because the pearl diver Halatui was showing respect the great shark Mataku did not kill her immediately but he asked of her, “Why do you take my pearls?”
The pearl diver Halatui shook with fear and she bowed and confessed, “I was going to buy my life and the life of my unborn child from the Bone Tappers.”
The great shark Mataku took pity upon the pearl diver Halatui and said, “I will spare you and give to you my pearls with which to buy your life…”
The pearl diver Halatui fell prostrate with relief and gratitude but the great shark Mataku continued, “And in exchange you will give to me the pearl that grows within you.”
The pearl diver Halatui trembled with tears but she had no choice.
The pearl diver Halatui sailed her outrigger canoe back to her home.
On the beach the pearl diver Halatui was met by three priest Bone Tappers. They held carved sacrificial daggers inlaid with shark teeth.
The pearl diver Halatui held her basket up to the priest Bone Tappers and said, bowing her head, “I bring you magnificent pearls as an offering for my life and the life of my unborn child.”
The priest Bone Tappers smiled and slowly came close beside the pearl diver Halatui.
The priest Bone Tappers peered inside the pearl diver Halatui’s basket and then their eyes shone like pearls.
One of the priest Bone Tappers gently took from the pearl diver Halatui her offering. Then he nodded.
Suddenly two of the priest Bone Tappers slashed and stabbed the pearl diver Halatui with their sacrificial daggers. The inlaid shark teeth of the daggers devoured the life of the pearl diver Halatui!
Then the priest Bone Tappers knelt over the pearl diver Halatui. While the sand drank her blood the priest Bone Tappers prepared to cut out the unborn child within her.
The pearl diver Halatui’s round belly writhed from the unborn child within.
Suddenly the great shark Mataku appeared on the beach walking with his magic.
The three terrified priest Bone Tappers became stiff like clubbed fish. The great shark Mataku cracked the three priest Bone Tappers in half with three bites.
The great shark Mataku then continued walking across the island and devoured the People of Mataku. The great shark Mataku then swam and caught and devoured the People of Mataku who had fled in their outrigger canoes.
When the great shark Mataku’s anger was slaked he returned to the the body of the pearl diver Halatui. The great shark Mataku swallowed the basket of sacred pearls.
With his magic he raised the pearl diver Halatui’s dismembered belly, her own pearl, and he cast the unborn child above into the sea of stars.
The pearl diver Halatui’s own pearl now lived in the sky and became the moon and outshone all the brightest stars.
The face of the unborn child still grows dark when carved by sorrow for its mother. But then the face of the unborn child smiles down upon us fully and brightly once again when we honor our ancestors.
The winter sun crept up through the pine trees along Morro Bay. The parking lot of the Morro Bay Realty office was a Christmas tree lot for a few weeks during the holiday season. The Morro Bay Realty office was a long mobile home. Owner Bill Bloch would earn extra money selling Christmas trees during this slow-down in real estate sales.
Merry Christopher with her 15-year old daughter Christina drove onto the Morro Bay Realty parking lot, their backseat stuffed like Santa’s sack with blankets, clothes, bags, and suitcases all of which were obscuring their rear window. There was a folded tent lashed to the car’s roof.
Merry Christopher parked her car and got out and approached Bill Bloch who was surveying his little forest of Christmas trees from the steps of the mobile home-office.
Bill smiled down on Merry and said, “Doesn’t look like you’re here for a tree.”
Merry tried to smile and said, “Hello. I’m Merry Christopher. I was wondering: would you have any work for me? Any at all?”
Bill looked past the top of Merry’s head toward her car stuffed with belongings.
Merry followed his gaze and then explained, “That is my daughter Christina. She’s fifteen. We’re… moving here to Morro Bay. And I just need to find a job.”
Bill mulled, “Moving without a job? Jeez, pretty bold. You know,… Morro Bay is a pretty small town. There isn’t much work at this time…,” then he asked, “Where are you staying?”
Merry answered, “In our car, it seems like. There are no vacancies at any hotels around here. We’ll be camping out along the coast somewhere,” then she added softly, “We’re getting used to it.”
Bill said, “Hey, maybe the hotels can use help?”
Merry shook her head, “I’ve asked. It seems most of the locals grabbed the ‘extra’ seasonal jobs.”
Bill said, “Yeah… when fishing is slow the locals do odd-jobs.”
Merry’s shoulders slumped.
Bill looked up. Cottony clouds sailed southeastward overhead as the river of cold air flowed from the incoming North Pacific storm system.
Bill said after a few thoughtful moments, “Well… I’ve got an empty office in the back of the mobile home. I suppose you could sleep there a couple days, OK. But…it really is just a mangy little room.”
Merry’s eyes lit up, “Oh thank you, bless you,…?”
Bill smiled, “I’m Bill. Bill Bloch. This is my business here. Just making a little extra money this time of year, you know.”
Merry reached up and took Bill’s hand in both of her hands and shook it, “Thank you so much. I didn’t want my daughter sleeping in a wet tent. I mean, I don’t care about myself. But she…”
Bill said, “Sure. The room’s just back here on this side.”
Merry trotted to her car and nodded at Christina’s questioning face. Christina hopped in her seat and then covered her face as she began to cry with relief.
Merry spoke to Christina through the door window as Christina rolled it down, “I didn’t get a job but we have a place to sleep.”
Christina said, “Oh. OK…”, and then in unison with her mother she said, “Day by day it’ll be OK, Thank you Jesus.” and they both smiled.
As Merry and Christina carried in their overnight essentials into the mobile home, passing Bill who held the door open, they both thanked him again and again and their eyes were red and glistening.
Bill muttered, “I suppose there could be work here….”
The inside of the long mobile home was cold. Merry and Christina shuffled past the office desk and files and on down the hallway to the vacant little room. It even had a little window that you could open by cranking. And they were right next to a little bathroom. Christina dropped her armload on the floor. Merry did the same. They both laughed with nervous exhaustion. Then Merry began to spread the sleeping bags into the corner and to stack her boxes and bags of toiletries.
Christina said, “I don’t want to complain but I’m freezing.”
Merry went into the narrow hallway and found the thermostat. She called to Bill, “Excuse me, Mr. Bloch, would it be OK to turn up some heat? My daughter is cold.”
Bill couldn’t help calculating the increase in his heating bill but he said, “Sure. It’s going to be a cold storm tonight. Just close as many windows as you can…”
Merry went back into the little room and kneeled with Christina on their sleeping bags. They prayed. Then Merry hugged Christina and they both laid themselves next to each other on the sleeping bags, just to relax a minute, and Christina wept herself to sleep.
Merry got up carefully and went into the little kitchen area carrying a bag. In the kitchen she unpacked a jar of instant coffee and a little box of sugar and a box of powdered milk.
She asked Bill, “Do you mind if I boil some water for coffee?”
Bill said, “No. In fact make a pot.”
Merry found a stained coffee pot in the little cupboard and rinsed it out as best she could, then she filled it with water and turned on the little gas burner on the little stove. She stood and stared at the refraction of currents in the heating water.
When it began to boil Merry spooned-out instant coffee and stirred the coffee pot. She judged the strength of the coffee by the aroma it gave off. She could feel the current of warm air from the heating system upon her face and she began to feel cozy.
Outside a pick-up truck loaded with some more trees pulled into the parking lot.
Bill Bloch waved at the driver who was getting out of the truck, “Hey, Darius. Hey, ‘Dar he is’!”
The slender swarthy man getting out of the truck stood tall and said, “Yes, always amusing, my friend. These are the last of my trees.”
From the passenger side of the truck three young boys danced out. Darius said, “My sons, do not go far. We must unload these trees and then we are done.”
Bill waved, “Hello, boys.”
The three boys answered shyly, “Hello, Mr. Bloch.”
One boy said, “Can I have a drink of water?” the second boy said, “Me, too,” and the third boy, the youngest, said, “I need to use the bathroom.”
Bill nodded, “Sure,” and the three boys bounced up the steps of the mobile home-office and entered.
When the three boys saw Merry near the stove sipping coffee they halted and stared shyly.
Merry said, “Hello, there.”
The two older boys mumbled, “Hello, ma’am,” but the youngest boy cried, “I need to use the bathroom!” and he pushed past his brothers and Merry stood aside and waved him clear to proceed down the narrow hallway.
Darius entered the mobile home and upon seeing Merry he said, “Oh.”
Merry said, “Hello.”
Darius said, “I am Darius Rouhani,” then he grinned and said, “Dar he is,” and then he said, “I see you have met my sons.”
Merry said, “I am Merry Christopher.”
The elder boy snickered and said, “You sound like Merry Christmas.”
Darius scolded his son, “Don’t be rude like that, ever!”
Merry was conciliatory and bent down to the boy saying, “My parents named me ‘Merry’, M-E-R-R-Y, not ‘Mary’ M-A-R-Y. They were religious but they had a strange sense of humor.”
Darius smiled. His son grinned and looked away, saying, “OK. I am sorry I was rude.”
Merry smiled, “Oh, you weren’t rude. You were a boy,” and she looked up at Darius who made a wry face.
Darius said, “This rude boy is my eldest son. He is thirteen. His name is Hormi. His brother next to him is Yazdeg. He is ten. And the youngest, he is eight, wherever he is… Peroz! Where are you?”
Peroz cried from the bathroom, “I am making a peef!”
Darius covered his eyes as his two sons beside him giggled.
Merry said, “That is OK. I have a daughter who is fifteen. Her name is Christina.”
Darius said, “OK, Miss Merry, you win. One daughter is more trouble than three sons.”
Darius asked, “Are you working for Bill, if I may ask?”
Merry shrugged, “With the grace of God, yes.”
Darius nodded and intoned, “KHOH-dah-rah SHOH-kr (Praise the Lord).”
Merry said, “Oh, I’m sorry, would you like some coffee?”
Bill, who had just entered, said, “Don’t bother. Darius likes his coffee Turkish. He likes coffee you can chew.”
Darius’ youngest son Peroz emerged from the bathroom just as Merry’s daughter Christina was exiting the little make-shift bedroom. Almost wedging together, Peroz looked up at Christina and said, “I am sorry I stink.”
Christina, hands in the pockets of her bulky sweater, hugged herself and asked sleepily of her mother, “What is up?”
Merry said, “Christina, this is Darius and these are his three sons…uh, …,” and looking at Darius she said softly, “I’m sorry…”
Darius came to Merry’s aid and said, “This young man is Hormi. This young gentleman is Yazdeg. And this…stinker.. is Peroz.”
Peroz was embarrassed and he said as he twisted himself, “Daaa-ad.”
Darius scolded, “Well, I heard you name yourself just a moment ago in the hallway. In front of a young woman.”
Bill spoke up, “Hey, everyone. It’s gonna start pouring any minute. Darius, why don’t you stay here for awhile? You don’t want to be driving with your boys in what’s coming,” and he bent over to address Hormi, Yazdeg, and Peroz, saying, “Why don’t you pick a Christmas tree and bring it in. We can decorate it.”
The three boys yelled, “Yah!” and then they looked sheepishly at their father Darius who scolded them with his expression.
Merry said, “I can help.”
Christina said, “I can, too.”
Merry whispered to Christina, “I don’t know if that is a good idea.”
Christina said to the three boys, “Let’s go before the flood!”
They all together unloaded the last of the Christmas trees from the pick-up truck and then they selected by acclaim the plumpest one that would fit in the mobile home-office.
As they maneuvered the chosen Christmas tree through the mobile home-office doorway the waves of rain began to strafe loudly upon the parking lot and upon the mobile home roof.
The three boys squealed with excitement at the loud popping of raindrops on the metal roof of the mobile home.
Bill got a box out of a closet and boomed, “Here are some tree decorations,” and then more softly, “I haven’t seen these since I … my wife…”
Hormi nailed the wooden cross support into the base of the Christmas tree as Yazdeg and Peroz held it horizontal.
Peroz chimed, “Smells so gooood.”
Bill said, “I’ll make hot chocolate for our hard workers and we big kids can have some ‘Tennessee Coffee’,” then he began to sing comically, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Daniels nipping at your nose…”
Hormi, Yazdeg, and Peroz erected the Christmas tree. Merry, Darius, and Christina began to place ornaments upon the higher branches.
Merry said to Darius, “The boys are so cute. It is a shame that their mother is missing this.”
Darius pursed his lips and said, “Their mother is no longer with us.”
Bill explained for Merry’s sake, “Darius and his wife were teachers in Syria. Darius was… is a Professor of Linguistics…”
Darius said, “I am a ranch hand on the Rossini Ranch. Mr. Rossini lets me harvest Christmas trees from his ranch.”
Merry said, “It must be a good place to raise three boys.”
Darius answered, “It could be worse.”
Merry said, “They seem so bright.”
Darius said, “Yes. They will become Engineers to please the memory of their mother.”
Merry said, “May I ask what happened to their mother?”
Darius said, “A Muslim man is allowed to marry a Christian woman, but a Christian man is not permitted to marry a Muslim woman. Islam means equality and no discrimination, but we were not permitted to marry. Aabirah was a mathematician. We both taught at the University of Aleppo. We married anyway and we had three strong sons.”
Bill could see that Darius had choked-up and so he continued on his behalf, saying, “During the civil war in Syria his wife… Aabirah… was killed when the government used poison gas on a group of rebels.”
Darius could speak again, saying, “She was not a rebel, she was just standing in the market place when they took her hostage. I took my sons and I fled Syria. It was a miracle that I was allowed sanctuary in the United States…”
Merry could only say softly, “Praise the Lord,” and then she offered as a way to change the mood, “My Christina wants to be a Minister.”
Darius turned to Christina and said, “That is fine. Do you know that ‘Christopher’ means ‘bearing Christ’? In your heart.”
Christina smiled and nodded and then she whispered to her mother, “And even Jesus was homeless and persecuted.”
Bill handed Darius and Merry each a cup of ‘Tennessee Coffee’. Suddenly they were all again aware of the drumming rain.
Hormi, Yazdeg, and Peroz were watching the rain through the mobile home windows.
Peroz said, “I can see the Christmas tree in the window! It looks like it is out in the parking lot.”
Christina sat beside her mother as Merry, Darius, and Bill sat down to talk.
Bill said, “So, Merry. Moving here without a job…? What is your story?”
Merry glanced at Christina and said, “Not much. My second husband, Christina’s step-father, was a God-fearing man at first. Then he became mean to us. He was especially… mean… to Christina. I couldn’t take it anymore. I left with what I could cram in my car. We’ve been living like transients for months…”
Darius said, “I am so sorry. You are a good person. God can be so mysterious with his intentions.”
Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder. Hormi, Yazdeg, and Peroz squeeled loudly, “Whoa!”
Christina glanced over at the boys and nervously parted her bulky sweater and then she began to rub her little pot belly with both hands.
Darius saw this and he turned to Merry.
Merry was observing Christina with concern. Then Merry turned and met the eyes of Darius which held his question.
Merry returned the answer to him with her eyes.
Darius then realized just how ‘mean’ the step-father had been to Christina. Darius suddenly asked Merry, “Do you know anything about horses?”
Merry was surprised and answered, “Yes. My parents had horses. They were my responsibility for years.”
Darius continued thoughtfully, “Mr. Rossini needs someone to care for his horses now that Mrs. Rossini is… not able to give them the attention they need. There is even a small bunk-house next to the stables where you could live decently for a while. I could speak to Mr. Rossini…”
Bill was already a little drunk and he raised his coffee to Merry, saying, “You have risen!”
Merry scowled involuntarily at her benefactor, Bill, but she was thrilled and she tried to give a composed response to Darius, “That would be ideal, I think, … thank you…Praise the Lord…”
Darius continued, “In fact, on Christmas day Mr. Rossini hosts a big holiday Bab-A-Kew. You could come as my guest.”
Bill chuckled, “That’s Bar-B-Que.”
Darius said, “You come too, Bill.”
Merry turned to Christina and said, “Did you hear that?”
Bill was answering Darius, “Naw. On Christmas day they always hold a reservation for me at the Sassy Wok.”
Christina said quietly, “Day by day it’ll be OK, Thank you Jesus.”
Christina rubbed her little pot belly.