Yellow Mama Archives

Paul Newman
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vacancy.jpg
Art by Brian Beardsley 2009

Vacancy

Paul Newman

 

John let out a deep breath as he lowered his frame into the worn blue nylon of the folding camp chair. He sat on his patio, enjoying the shade and slight breeze. There was a gas grill on his left, taking up too much space, and a plastic lounge chair. It was a little cluttered but a perfect place to relax on a warm day.

The view wasn’t impressive: mostly the other buildings of the apartment complex. There were twelve of them, all identical. The only differences were whatever small attempts the tenants made at making the patios livable. Cheap wind chimes jangled beside electric bug zappers and bird feeders.

Beyond his second floor seat was a small, dirty parking area. Past the parking lot, maybe twenty yards from where John sat, was a squat, blue dumpster. Weather and time had scraped away sections of paint like small sores, exposing dull grey metal and flecks of rust. There was an unpainted wooden privacy fence built around the eyesore but John’s second floor view was unobstructed.

His reverie was interrupted by a staccato tapping of high-heeled shoes on the sidewalk below. Sighing, John rolled his eyes as he recognized the sound. 

With short, angry strides, his neighbor Heidi walked past on the way to her car. As she started the engine, Heidi noticed John relaxing on the patio. She greeted him with a middle finger gesture.

Typical, John thought. She was an unhappy person and let everyone else know it. 

As she pulled out of the parking lot, John heard the thunder of metal crashing against metal as one of the dumpster lids swung open.

A man, obviously homeless, pulled open the other lid and started rummaging. He wore ragged jeans and an Army surplus jacket with no shirt underneath. At his bare feet were two ripped plastic trash bags: one of cans, one of plastic bottles. The man was scavenging for recyclables to return for the deposit.

John debated whether to go inside and get the telephone. Homeless or not, this guy shouldn’t be here. The sign was clearly posted next to the dumpster. Still, did he really want to hassle the poor guy? 

The debate ended abruptly as he was surprised by loud rustling and banging coming from the dumpster. John turned in time to see a pair of ragged filthy pant legs wriggling their way up over the metal lip, into the box, followed by a muffled scream and a bright red spray. There was another moment or two of shuffling, crunching sounds, then all was still.

John collapsed back into his chair, his mind grinding to explain what he had just seen.  Obviously, he hadn’t seen things clearly.  The man had just climbed in the dumpster after a can or something. Maybe he’d cut himself? The guy would stand up any second and crawl right back out of there.

John hesitated, unsure whether to get up and investigate or mind his own business. Then he saw his neighbor Matt headed for the dumpster carrying a pizza box and some McDonalds bags. Matt had lived in the unit downstairs for a couple of years now. Matt was young, in his mid-twenties, and a pretty good neighbor.

John waited for Matt to confront the man. John was content to let him deal with the guy; Matt was ten years younger and in a lot better shape.

He waited in vain as Matt opened the weathered gate and dumped his load of cardboard and greasy paper. The two tattered garbage bags by Matt’s feet were the only proof of the vagrant’s existence only moments before. 

At first John thought it was a pair of large snakes like pythons or anacondas that lashed out of the dumpster and wrapped themselves around Matt’s neck and lower face, choking off his horrified scream. There was a sickening crunch and a series of snaps as John heard Matt’s jawbone shatter from the tremendous crushing pressure. Slowly, as the still struggling man was dragged back into the dumpster, John saw that the snakes were actually tentacles. The realization struck John numb as blood rushed to his face and nausea gripped at his midsection. 

The twin appendages were similar in size; at least eight feet long apiece, tapering from an inch or two around at the tips to bigger than sign posts at the point they disappeared into the dumpster. They were a dusty gray color and pulsed as they moved. From this distance, he couldn’t be sure but they seemed to be covered with small toothy stomas gnawing their way into the man’s neck and face. 

The limbs patiently pulled their quarry back into the metal dumpster. There were some loud bangs, then a few moments of thrashing, rustling sounds as the dying man’s struggle slowly came to an end. 

Moments later, when John could control his legs, he stood and lurched toward the door to call the police. He knew the dispatcher wouldn’t believe him but, once the officers arrived, they’d have all the evidence they could handle. 

Out of the corner of his eye, John glimpsed another figure heading toward the dumpster.  He turned his head, a warning on his lips, and saw Heidi. Apparently, she had returned.

As he recognized her, John stopped. The call died into his hand as a cough as he turned and watched her walk.

Heidi moved the bag she had been carrying to one hip and reached to grab the gate swinging loose in front of her. Looking up, she saw John watching from his patio. Her face twisted into a scornful look and her lips began to move as she muttered to herself. John couldn’t read lips but he got the idea. 

With a friendly smile, he waved at her. He grabbed a fresh beer, and leisurely headed inside for the telephone. The heavy sliding glass door closed behind him with a thud. 

 

 

fatherchristmas.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2010

 

Father Christmas

 

Paul Newman

 

          The bell was heavy in Danny’s hand. His elbow and wrist did most of the work but the long muscles in his arms still felt the weight. It had to work hard to be heard over the cars as they splashed through the parking lot and the low roar of the shoppers as they passed by.

 

          Sidewalk and pavement and mud all looked the same under a dirty grey layer of half-frozen slush. Soon it would freeze into a sharp crust that crunched underfoot but for now it was still wet. The damp cold seeped in through the stitching on Danny’s black plastic boots. He felt his sock squelch when he wiggled his numb toes in their ice-water bath. 

 

          The black boots went with the rest of the suit: red pants and jacket, red cap with a white puffball, and a scraggly white beard. The sleeves of the jacket showed little brown pinhole burns from cigarette breaks. The beard was cotton or spun polyester. It was stained and worn like the grey stuffing pulled out of a sofa cushion but at least it kept his face warm.  

 

          A stream of shoppers flowed past. Most of them ignored Danny and his bell as they pushed past him left and right; passing in and out of the electric doors just a few feet in front of him. 

 

          He stood in front of a tripod, almost as tall as himself, with thin black legs.  A metal pot, the size of a coffee can, hung from it on a chain. A hand-lettered sign in red asked; “Please Give.” Most didn’t. He rang the bell, anyway.

 

          Someone broke out of the pack. A woman, a young woman, shopping alone.  She slowed and shoved something in the kettle as she passed. Danny heard the metallic jingle as pocket change bounced off the inside of the pot. She didn’t stop, didn’t look at him, didn’t say a word. Danny smiled anyway. “Thank You!  Thank you very much!  Ho! Ho! Ho!” It was part of the show; like the suit, beard, and bell, and people expected it. Danny didn’t mind.

 

          Something hit him hard from behind. Then he was face down on the wet sidewalk, panting to suck air back into his lungs. Behind him he heard a heavy crash as the tripod hit the ground. He rolled over in time to see a man running away across the frozen parking lot. A young man: he looked tall, wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket. No one stopped him. The flow of bodies parted to let him pass. 

 

          Danny felt the dirty ice water soak through his pants. His lungs worked again,;the cold air seared his chest but tasted delicious. A knot of people had started to gather around him;

 

          “My God, did you see that? He took all the money!”

 

          “Where’s the damned security guard?”   

 

          “Can you believe it? Right in plain day!”

 

          “Oh, that poor man. Is he OK?”

 

          Someone finally reached down and helped pull him to his feet. 

 

          Danny ignored the questions. He brushed off the front of his jacket and then the knees of his pants. Both showed dark red where the icy water had soaked through. He stretched his back and winced. Damn, it would ache tomorrow.

 

           He stood the tripod back on its feet and re-hung the now-empty kettle. The ink on the sign had bled through with pink streaks but he replaced it anyway.  Please Give.”

 

          This time they did.

 

          Danny didn’t bother with the bell; there was no room to swing it as they swarmed closer. All he could do was thank them. “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!  Thank you, thank you all!” 

 

          The feeding frenzy lasted less than a minute but when it was over, the kettle was full of cash and soothed consciences and the flow of bodies was back to normal; passing him by, ignoring him.

 

          Danny checked his watch: close enough. He was cold and wet and his back hurt. He took down the tripod and sign and bundled them across the parking lot to where his car waited. His back ached the entire drive home.

 

          The front door was unlocked. He walked in and saw Spider already sitting at the dingy metal dinette table. Danny was still wearing the suit but he held the hat and beard balled up in one hand. Spider was smoking and tapping his ash into an empty beer can. He looked up and grinned when he saw Danny walk in.

 

          “Beer?”

 

          “Sure.”

 

          Spider opened the mini fridge in the corner of their kitchenette and pulled out a fresh one. He tossed it to Danny, then sat back down.

 

          Danny opened it and took a long pull. It was good and cold and lasted forever. “How was the take?” he asked.

 

          Spider pulled a handful of change and small bills out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. “Barely enough for the beer. How ’bout you?”

 

          “A little better than that.” Danny dumped the pot over on the table. A mound of bills spilled out followed by a pile of change.

 

          Spider grinned. “I knew it! I told ya! No way all those suckers would ignore Santa gettin’ knocked on his ass.” He started sorting the bills into stacks.  “Tomorrow let’s try that new strip-mall up on Hamilton! Lots of money up there!”

 

          Danny nodded and covered up by taking another swallow. He smiled but it was only for himself. He knew something that Spider hadn’t thought of yet and it made his back hurt just a little less. 

 

          Tomorrow was going to be Spider’s turn to wear the damned suit. 

 

 

 

happilyeverafter.jpg
Art by Jeff Fallow 2011

happily ever after

Paul Newman

 

          Hank walked into the coffee shop and looked around.  He didn’t see her.  He found an empty table in the corner and sat down in the overstuffed easy chair.

          A coffee shop.  Last time it had been a McDonalds.  The time before that it had been a Denny’s.  He couldn’t remember the last time she’d been alone with him.  He told himself it didn’t matter.  He was happy just to see her again.

          He saw Gretchen walk in.  It had been a long time but it was her, it had to be.  Some things never change.  Her high cheekbones looked leaner, her hair was longer, her eyes a little more tired but it was her. 

          Hank smiled and stood so she could see him.  He brought his arm up to wave but changed his mind and dropped it back in a hurry.  He didn’t want to look desperate.  It had been a long time.

          She moved out of the doorway and looked around the small coffee shop.  Her eyes locked on his, she recognized him instantly and her shoulders slumped.  A sad little smile twitched up from the corners of her mouth.  She made her way to their table.  Was she glad to see him?  Hank couldn’t tell.  It was always like this; it took a while to get used to each other again.  They sat down at the same time.  She started talking right away.  It came out rushed, like she had been rehearsing what to say.

          “You know I don’t like this.  Meeting this way.”

          So that’s how it was going to be.

          “Hey, don’t start!  You called this little get together, not me!”  He tried to look her in the eyes but she wouldn’t let him.  She covered it by waving at their waitress as she hurried by.  Neither of them had to talk to the other as long as the waitress stood there, they played nice until she left with their order.  Two coffee’s; black.  Just an excuse to rent the table.

          Gretchen tried again.

          “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to start like that.  It’s just that seeing you again, it still brings back those memories.  You know?”

          He knew.  He remembered too.  The nightmares after all these years proved it.  When he answered her, his voice was rough.  “Yeah, I know.  I was there too.”  The waitress showed up with their coffee’s and broke their momentum.  It took a while for either to talk again. 

          “It’s been a long time.”  He said it with that little smile she remembered.  He could still look eight years old when he wanted to.  She couldn’t help but smile back.  It felt odd, it had been so long her face had forgotten how.

          “Yeah.  Years.  You haven’t changed at all.”  It was untrue but she said it anyway.  He was still there, that little boy; just buried below new layers.  Winking back at her from under the missing years. 

          “I haven’t heard a thing from you since the funeral.”  He wasn’t accusing her, just stating fact; bringing them up to date.  She understood.

          “It was hard for me, losing daddy that way.  It was so much worse than when mom died, so long ago.  I never thought anything would hurt worse than that memory but the sight of his coffin and that woman standing there pretending to cry, wearing black.  I couldn’t take it.  I needed to get away.  You understand, don’t you?”

          He sighed.  “I guess I do.  I miss him too, you know.  And I hate Elsa just as much as you do.”

          “Dammit, why do you have to bring her into it?”  She hissed it at him under her breath. 

          Hank leaned back in his chair and took a drink of coffee.  He smiled to himself and shook his head while Gretchen glared at him.  Just like old times.

          “If she had her way, we’d both be dead right now!  She didn’t even want daddy to go looking for us.  Think what would have happened!”

          Hank shook his head; they’d been through this before.  “Right or wrong, that was a long time ago.  She’s an old woman now, she can’t hurt us anymore.  When are you going to let it go?”  His voice was too loud; the man at the next table over moved the screen of his laptop to hide his face.  Hank lowered his voice.  “It’s not like she’s the one to worry about anyway.”  That shut her up but it didn’t calm her down. 

          Hank reached into his jacket pocket and placed something on the table between them.  A Christmas card.  It was made of heavy card stock, cream colored, with a cheerful gingerbread house on the front.  It smelled faintly of nutmeg.  On the inside, it was blank.

          Gretchen didn’t say a word.  Her eyes found his and she reached into her purse without looking away.  One shaking hand pulled out an identical card.  Neither could speak for a few minutes.  The waitress came by and refilled their cups.

          “Oh, what a darling Christmas card!  I just love Gingerbread houses don’t you?  They remind me of when I was a little girl.”  The waitress moved off to another table without even stopping.

          Gretchen leaned in over the table and whispered.  “When did you get yours?”

          “It came a couple days ago.  You?”

          “Saturday.  With all the junk mail.”  She giggled to herself like she thought it was funny.  Hank liked that she could still laugh a little.

          “How do you think she found us?”

          It was Gretchen’s turn to sigh.  “Who knows?  Same way as last time I guess.  That damned crystal ball of hers.”

          “We should have tossed it in the oven with her.”  His laugh was brittle; he swallowed it with a deep gulp of coffee.  Both sat quietly for a few minutes, lost in different memories of the same day.

          Hank went first.  “So where you headed this time?”

          Gretchen shook her head.  “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.  I just can’t believe it’s happening again.”

          He looked up to get the waitresses attention for the check then turned back to her.  “We should have known that you can’t kill something like her.  Not even in an oven.  She just keeps coming back.  I think I’m just going to point the car west and start driving.  When I get somewhere that looks good, I’ll let you know.”

          She wouldn’t look at him.  “I don’t think so, Hank.  Not this time.  Maybe it’s better this way.  Split up, you know.  Make it twice as hard to find us.”

          He hadn’t expected it, so it hurt; but he didn’t let it show.  “Good idea.  Twice as hard.  I like it.”  The waitress came over with a big smile.  She carried two steaming latte mugs.

          “Hey you two.  It must be your lucky day!”

          Hank knew better.  “What do you mean?”

          “That old lady over there, she just paid for your coffee and sent you these.  She insisted; Gingerbread Latte’s!”  She sat down the new drinks and turned to point at an empty booth.  “Huh, that’s weird, she was just there.  A little wrinkled old lady.  Looked like somebody’s grandma.  She sure must have left in a hurry!  Well, anyway; enjoy!”  The waitress paused with a hand on her hip for a moment before she wandered off to the next table, talking to herself the whole way.  Too busy to think about it anymore.

          Neither of them reached out for the drinks, their hands wouldn’t move.  A pungent vapor trail of nutmeg and ginger rose in the steam.  It was sickeningly sweet and cheerful and terrifying and hung in the air like an awkward pause.            Gretchen shrunk back into her chair.  She hunched her shoulders low and drew her arms in to her sides, trying to make herself too small to see.  Her eyes wouldn’t budge from the two steaming mugs waiting on the table. 

          Hank sat up tall on the edge of his chair.  He didn’t want to stand and attract attention but he had to see.  Nothing.  He scanned the whole room. She wasn’t there.  The old bitch was playing with them, all over again. Always; the fucking gingerbread.

          Hank and Gretchen looked at each other one last time before they both left.  It would be a long time before they saw each other again and there wasn’t much left to say. 

 

 


fridaynight.jpg
Art by Steve cartwright 2014

Friday night at seventh and mission


by Paul Newman


         


I first saw him curled up on the cold sidewalk under a thin cotton hospital blanket.  He was up against a cinderblock wall and well out of the dim ring of light spilling down from the streetlamp.  In the shadows, all I could see was the dirty blanket and a grey beard.  I asked Lizzy to hand me the stadium blanket we carried with us.  It was brown and orange polar fleece, big and soft and warm.  Perfect for a ballgame on a cold San Francisco summer night.


          When I came closer, I saw he was wearing a dark stocking cap to keep his head warm and was using a lumpy black trash bag as a pillow.  He had a tall can of malt liquor next to his head.  His hand was busy under the blanket, back and forth, up and down in quick motion like he was trying to rub one out.  He must have heard my footsteps; I saw him open his eyes and look up at me and his hand stopped what it was doing.


          The only part of his face that showed was his eyes.  Everything else was covered in dirt and wiry grey whiskers that were stained yellow at the corners of his mouth.  He just looked up at me like he was waiting.  Waiting for me to kick him, or walk over the top of him, or just go away and leave him the fuck alone.


          I asked him if he'd like another blanket. 


“God, would I ever.”  His voice was busted up and tired.  Tired of talking, tired of the cold, maybe just tired of trying.


          I shook the blanket out and spread it over him.  I think He mumbled “bless you” but it sounded like a sob.


          I didn’t want to be blessed, I didn't deserve it.  “Naw man.  It's cold out here.  You try to stay warm.”  I fished in my pocket for some cash but I was broke so I smoothed out the blanket a little bit then I turned and walked back to the end of the alley where Amber and Lizzy waited for me. 


All the way back to the hotel room, none of us said anything.  It was late and cold and everybody was tired.


The room was up on the third floor.  I slid open the window for some air and bitched about the screen that was screwed shut and kept me from leaning out for a smoke.  I looked down and I saw him again, a couple floors below me, he was stretched out under the warm Giant's blanket with his hand sticking out from under the edge.  I thought he clenched at the fabric, but then I saw he was stroking it.  Petting it like a puppy.  I wondered about the last time he'd felt something that soft.  I could tell he was muttering to himself but I couldn't catch what he was saying.


A cop showed up.  He looked like a transit cop; he was out of shape, tall and fat and his uniform was sloppy, like it wasn't worth the time to iron it for the overnight shift.  Over his light blue uniform shirt he wore a safety-green vest like the ones the road crews wear when they clean up trash on the side of the freeway.


I couldn't hear what he said.  It sounded like he asked the man on the sidewalk a couple questions.  I thought he was going to roust the guy.  I wanted to shout; "leave him alone!  Leave the poor bastard alone!" but I didn’t.  I froze.  I stood at the window and watched and no one knew I was there.  I couldn’t say anything or make any sound at all or they would see me.


Eventually, the cop left on his own.  He must have been okay with what the guy had to say, or maybe it just wasn’t worth the paperwork.


As soon as the cop left, the man on the ground started to vomit.  He turned his head just enough to aim the splatter into the gutter, away from his new blanket.  After a few heaves, he sat up and cried into his hands.  His weak, empty sobs were worse than the wet sounds of sick.


He stood and rolled up his blankets and picked up his trash bag pillow and walked out of the alley up towards Seventh Street.  Right then, it dawned on me that I should have given him my sweatshirt too.  It was a grey zip-up with a hood to keep your ears warm and I had a blue one just like it hanging in my closet at home.




Bedroom Eyes

 

by Paul Newman

 

 

Stevie tilted Gloria's face up in the light so she could take a look. It was bad.  It was real bad.

          “That son-of-a-bitch!  He worked you over good!” Stevie tried to light up a fresh smoke but her hand shook too much. She kept at the lighter with both hands and finally got it lit. “What are you gonna do about it?”

          Gloria smiled wide enough that her bottom lip cracked back open.  “Everybody’s gotta sleep sometime. It’s the great equalizer, sugar. Everybody’s gotta sleep sometime and when that son-of-a-bitch goes to sleep . . . I don’t think he's ever gonna wake back up.”

          The door banged open and it was him. Mac had a dopey drunk grin on his face and one of those three-dollar liquor-store rosebuds in his fist.

          He looked through Stevie like she wasn’t even there and came around the back of the sofa behind Gloria. He handed her the rose and buried his face in the hollow where her neck met her shoulder. "I'm sorry baby. You know I love you, don’t you? You just get me all ape-shit sometimes." His eyes were closed and he smiled as he nuzzled at her.  Gloria smelled the cloud of hooch that came off of him like kerosene; he was drunker now than he was when he left.

          Stevie found Gloria's eyes burning at her from all the way on the other side of the room; one of them was just about swollen up shut but they were still shiny hard and faraway empty.

          When Gloria finally answered Mac, she purred like Eartha Kitt, but her eyes never changed; never looked away from Stevie. "Sure, lover. It was my own stupid fault, I shoulda known not to piss you off so bad." 

          She reached her hands up and started stroking Mac behind his ears with her fingernails, the way he liked it. She felt his lips open up and kiss her neck and his hot breath run down the front of her shirt. "You gotta be tired, why don’t we get you put to bed, huh, baby?" 

          She pulled out from under his kisses and took his hand and led him around the couch and toward the bedroom. Mac followed with a shit-eating grin.

          "Stevie, you let yourself out, all right, sugar?  Now remember what we talked about; I'll call you later." Gloria turned and disappeared in the bedroom with Mac right behind.

          Stevie finished her beer in one long swallow, then grabbed her smokes off the table. She pulled the door shut behind herself, then headed back down the hallway. 

          By now, the kids would be screamin' for supper and Hector was sure-as-shit drunk in front of the TV. She smiled while she walked, though; once word got out about Mac, all the men in the building would be walking real light. Maybe Hector would even take her out to the movies, like he used to do. 

          Stevie put the smile away for later and went inside to cook the damned fish sticks and wait for the phone to ring.

 

 

 

Paul Newman lives in Northern California with his wife and a neurotic beagle.  He sleeps with the closet light on and keeps a cricket bat next to the bed . . . just in case. You can follow him on twitter as @Logicalvoodoo and see more of his work at Logicalvoodoo.com.


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