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Matthew C. Funk
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secondchance.jpg
Art by Mr. Byron 2010

 

Second Chances

 

Matthew C. Funk

 

Vic doesn’t try to run when I find him outside St. Charles Cathedral. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize me after all these years. He’s changed—lost the piercings, lost the spray-on tan, covers his tattoos in a tailored tux—but I’ve stayed the same.

“Jari.” It sounds like he’s been waiting to say it for a long, long time.

 

“Vic. Let’s have a talk.”

 

Even then, he doesn’t bolt. It could be that he’s in a crowd of kids and their beaming parents, gathered under the breezy pastels of crepe paper streamers for an Easter Sunday get-together. That wouldn’t have stopped him before, though. He’s got a girl in blond pigtails under one hand, and she only comes up his waist. It wouldn’t have stopped his other hand from grabbing some tricked-out German sidearm and opening up.

 

“I don’t really have time to catch up.”

 

“Time’s caught up with you, though.” I sound as serious as what I’ve got in my purse for him.

 

He still isn’t running and I can only blame human nature. I can only figure he thinks—like we all do, imagining ourselves immortal until life proves otherwise. He thinks he’ll have a second chance.

 

“I suppose,” Vic says with that reptilian grin, “we’ve got some things to work out.”

 

“Best we work them out in private.”

 

It is almost Easter after all. Everybody gets to come clean. Time for a confession. Time for expiation.

 

“Take care of Izzy,” Vic says to some floozy with spray-painted makeup. He urges the little girl toward her with a nudge of his hand. She peels away slow.

 

If only she knew what that hand did.

 

The Saturday before Easter has rolled out a sky to match those glittering decorations, but even in this light, I don’t want to look at Vic longer than I have to. I lead him into the green and black shadows of Pirate Alley next to the Cathedral.

 

Vic leans against the wrought iron fence. The bars make it almost bearable to set eyes on him.

 

“I heard you were doing time,” I tell him.

 

“You heard right. It gave me a lot of opportunity for meditation and for a sojourn into the core of who I am.”

 

I’d like to find that core myself. I’m in a mood to hold it in my hand until it bleeds out and stops beating. “You don’t say.”

 

“I found that I had been lost for a very long time, Jari.” Vic has lost the grin and found his soapbox. He’s got the rich shiver of a sermon in his voice. “Too long I had tried to be the father to the lost children of the projects, only to become as lost as they in the game of drugs and whoring that consumes our city.”

 

I’m already sick of the Shakespeare Vic pushes. I step close.

 

“Is that what you were? A father?”

 

“Yes—a father in wickedness to the children of a wicked place. And now, I am a good father to—“

 

“Is that what you were to me?”

 

“I was . . . cruel,” he growls out, like the word doesn’t quite fit in his throat. And that’s right—it doesn’t fit at all. It doesn’t come close.

 

“You’re worse than any pusher, Vic. You’re worse than a pimp.”

 

“I know. And knowing lets me change,” Vic says, sounding so certain as usual. And that’s where he’s wrong—men don’t change.

 

They just improve their old tricks.

 

“So you’re no longer the thug that hooked me on H.” I can sound certain, too. I’m as certain as a bullet in a chamber. I slot my stare in his and they go right through his shades and smooth, lizard-bright eyes. “You’re not the animal that got his men to do those things to me. You’re not the blackmailer with the video tapes, the needle in waiting and the bloody errands.”

 

“I’m not. And you settled that score.”

 

That brings my mind to what’s in my purse. I put my hand on it. It feels as heavy as the city and like it’s about to take flight, all at once.

 

“I broke your toys,” I tell him, almost wondering why. I almost care that he won’t actually hear a word I say. “I put those men of yours in wheelchairs and worse. But you, the one behind it all—you were still out there.”

 

“I was inside,” Vic says, trying to make that word as heavy as he can.

 

“Contemplating your navel and finding nirvana?” My fingers wrap around the shape in my purse. “Make me care. Just try it. Try it. I’ll show you what I’m carrying inside.”

 

“That is just my point, Jari. We have to abandon the past.”

 

“You going to sing me something pretty about healing now, Vic?”

 

“I wouldn’t try,” he says without sounding afraid. And that makes me fume. It makes the shape in my hand ache to soar. “I will tell you about having to let go.”

 

“And what did you let go of?”

 

“What I did.”

 

“How convenient.”

 

“It wasn’t anything of the sort. It was hard.” And as much as I don’t want to, I see his teeth grind with the memory of effort. He looks pained. Not afraid—not yet—but hurting. And I hurt worse for believing him. “But if I was going to do any good in this world, I had to. I had to let go of that evil—the evil I did and the evil done to me. I had to, for the sake of my daughter’s life.”

 

Now I don’t just hurt. I wince.

 

“That little girl’s yours.” I hate him all the worse for making me wince. For making me feel anything.

 

“Yes; she’s my life now. And my life is devoted to her. That means it is devoted to moving on.”

 

My next breath burns. But it isn’t hatred that’s burning in me. It’s the wish that I could move on, too.

 

“What you did . . .” I begin, trying to remember the camera, the craving for heroin, the crippling weakness I felt under his hand.

 

“Was evil and wrong and has to be in the past. It has to be, for both of us, if we’re going to live.”

 

And when my breath leaves me, it goes smooth. It goes and I feel lighter. I want that feeling.

 

“Is that what we’re going to do, Vic?” I spit what venom I have left in me at him. As I do, my fingers let go of the shape.

 

“It’s what we have to do.”

 

The bells in St. Charles are tolling again. The music of the children’s voices is on the wing. There’s no ceiling to the blue in this kind of sky. Everything feels lighter.

 

I don’t have anything to say to him. Not a curse. Not agreement. Not a look back. I have nothing. It feels like something I haven’t felt in a long string of scar-tissue days.

 

It feels good.

 

I turn for Royal Street and start walking. Every step I take, I feel the age of this city echoing up into me, dirty and bright and endless. It feels like the weight of years and like the lift of years to come. It does not smell clean—just like rinsed sickness—but that feels all right.

 

I make it to the edge of the alley.

 

“Jari,” Vic calls.

 

In one motion, I turn and take the brick from my purse at last and it flies on five-pound wings right for his face. Right between the shades, its impact cracks a neat cross on that reptilian face. Vic goes down in a pile of tailored tux and broken features.

 

I feel a lot more than five-pounds lighter as I stroll into the sunshine on Royal Street. I share a private smile with the Easter sun and think that maybe we do get second chances after all.

 

 

 

returnletter.jpg
Art by Mike Kerins 2011

Return Letter

 

Matthew C. Funk

 

Amanda’s letter arrived with the scent of pine and crimp marks as if it had been folded lovingly together by claws. It was not an old letter—it had a first-class stamp sporting the cracked Liberty Bell. All the same, it came from Marcus.

“I have missed you,” Marcus wrote in his distinctive splintered handwriting, “like rain misses the clouds. It is peaceful here, but it is a breathless peace. I need you close to my mouth to draw air worth breathing.”

Amanda sat on her bed, reading and re-reading the letter, and wondered how Marcus could breathe when he had been dead for twenty years.

“Leave the porch light on,” Marcus finished, “and I will find you.”

Amanda considered burning the letter. She tucked it under the folder of bills in her nightstand and went about her day as she always did.

 

* * *

 

David flicked her a smile over the edge of The Economist when she set the fresh daffodil in its slender glass vase by him on the table. Amanda set to cooking his eggs—over medium.

“Did you see what the noise was by the mailbox last night?” He asked.

“Probably just some kids.”

“Was it damaged?”

Amanda didn’t reply. David didn’t either. Joshua bounded in, late as usual, a growing stalk of carelessness as he swept through the kitchen and snatched his Cubs jersey from the pile of laundry she’d folded.

“You did great with the mustard stains, Momma.” Joshua said, slipping it on and shoveling in toast.

“You bet, sweetie.” Amanda’s smile took awhile to wake. “Just be more careful at today’s game.”

Joshua didn’t reply either.

And later, alone, when Amanda unfolded the letter, the scent of pine was waiting in vivid answer to her memory. It had been in the Pine Barrens where Marcus was lost. His car crumpled against a tree on its border. His combat boot tracks leading into the groves. An empty bottle of London Dry and no sign of Marcus, but no hope either.

Until now—until the letter.

Amanda didn’t like its smell, and held it as far away as she could as she read it the fifth time. Marcus’ words inspired feelings, as they always had—old, but fresher than anything she could remember feeling. They rustled through her like embers blown from burning leaves, letting Amanda glimpse their source: The times he had whispered such things to her behind the High School Theater, lips near enough to play her ear like an instrument. The times she’d woke in the back of his Coupe de Ville and heard them hiding in her hair and in the darkness. Other times—times she could remember hearing him, but not seeing him; only knowing that listening changed the colors of her world for the better.

She left the porch light on that night.

 

* * *

 

Marcus didn’t send another letter. Not the next day. The next day and the day after, Amanda cleaned the house and wrote e-mails and did shopping, moving with the quiet discomfort of one who pulled a muscle exercising. When David and Joshua were around, she drifted from one brief port of conversation to the next.

The second letter came just before the fourth evening. Amanda gasped to see it like she was breaking the surface of the water.

She read it in the bathroom, set on the fluffy toilet cover with her feet swinging.

“I saw you,” Marcus wrote. “How is it you look the same while the whole world changed around you? You must feel so lost. But I have found you. I remember who you are and I see who I remember.”

Amanda smiled at that. Inside, she felt like parts of her that had been held fists for years were unclenching.

 

“I have changed, but not how it matters. I only got better,” Marcus wrote. “As long as it is now, I wonder if my tongue can reach all the way down your throat, or deeper places.”

Amanda’s smile faded. The feeling inside didn’t.

“Leave the front door unlocked.” His words left her pale.

Amanda’s hand rattled the glass vase as she set the daffodil next to David. He didn’t notice. She set to cooking his eggs, over medium, without a word.

“Got a busy day?” David said after she served him.

“No.” Amanda said.

“Yeah. I sure do.” David went back to reading.

Amanda leaned against the sink and watched Joshua gather his jersey. He looked at where the newest mustard stain used to be. His arms thrashed as he slid on the clean shirt.

Amanda’s son seemed so vital to her and so large, even at thirteen. Joshua had no resemblance to the infant she’d dandled or the toddler she’d kept away from bees and streets and scraped knees. He hardly had any resemblance to life as she understood it—he was a creature of such energy and direction. Leaning on the sink, Amanda may as well have been watching from the fence of an enclosure.

Joshua didn’t say anything until he nicked Amanda’s cheek with a goodbye kiss.

The rest of the day, Amanda couldn’t recall if David had kissed her when he left too. She thought only on Marcus’ letter. It was more strange than frightening. And more exciting than strange.

Then there was the mention of the tongue. When Amanda thought about it that evening, staring into the sink as she washed the dinner dishes, a shudder licked through her.

What Marcus wrote of his tongue teased at how perverse this was. It was perverse that she would be getting letters from her dead, lost, first love. It was perverse that she was curious where they would lead.

More than curious, Amanda thought. But that made it no less sick and strange.

Amanda’s mind cycled in this course until she realized she had been staring into the draining water for almost ten minutes. Nobody had stopped her. The murmur of Joshua and David watching TV in the other room was unbroken. Nothing at all had happened.

Amanda wondered how many minutes, in total, over her thirteen years with Joshua and David, she had spent staring into a drain. A month of them? Three months? How many days spent sleeping?

Amanda shut off the water, unlocked the front door and sat to watch TV.

 

* * *

 

“I smelled you in the halls of this house,” Marcus’ latest letter said as Amanda read it the next morning. “It was like when I smelled your perfume that time in the boiler room. It is not just a contrast, Mandy; more like an incarceration. It does not belong.”

Amanda squeezed herself smaller in the linen closet. She squeezed her thighs together and there a tingle like a wet battery there. She crushed the letter closer, even though the smell of pine was smothering, hoping she would not be discovered—that no one would begin looking for her—before she could read it ten times.

She had been interrupted by Joshua in the bathroom the first time she tried to read it, and that had felt like being caught naked. It felt worse than just nudity. It felt like being caught with her body open.

Amanda bit her lower lip and licked where it bulged between her teeth. It distracted her from how cold her tears felt as she re-read the next part.

“Around every star in the sky,” Marcus wrote, “there are trillions of miles of empty distance. It is forty thousand miles around the Earth, so to get from one star to another means walking the Earth hundreds of millions of times over. All that darkness and falling and nothingness. I can tell you, Mandy, it does not matter. When we look into the night sky, we see only the destination. I see only you.”

Amanda wished she could read what came after with her eyes closed.

“My new sets of eyes can see you in so many ways, and you look just as beautiful without your skin.” Marcus’ writing slashed on. “I can be inside you in more ways now, too. They may not fit the first few times. When I infuse you, that will change.”

She made it through eight readings before bolting from the linen closet with her entire body banging inside.

Amanda slapped the letter in a skillet to be burned later. She clapped the cover over the skillet and knocked on the kitchen sink faucet. After splashing cold water on her face three times, Amanda stopped shaking.

It didn’t stop the echo of Marcus’ closing words:

“Leave the bedroom door open for me.”

 

Amanda wiped the water from her face and listened. Nobody was talking. David rustled The Economist. Joshua was stomping somewhere.

Amanda set down the vase without a daffodil in it.

“Our finances are looking great this year.” David gave her a sly look. Amanda set to cooking, looking back, watching to see if he noticed anything unusual about her—if he really saw.

“Really?” Amanda said.

“Really. We could put a vacation together.”

“A vacation.”

“A vacation would be nice.”

“Nice?”

“Really nice.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Got anywhere you’d like to go?”

“Hm,” David went back to The Economist. “Nothing comes to mind.”

“Yeah.” Amanda served him eggs over hard. David ate without complaint or compliment. When Joshua came in and slipped on his rumpled shirt with its mustard stain still on it, he bounded out just as quickly.

Amanda stopped Joshua with a hand on his chest. It was like holding back a flood that had only begun to build. He looked up at his mother with impatient eyes under the tawny fringe of his hair.

“Hey, you.” Amanda said.

“Hey.” Joshua said. “What’s up?”

Amanda didn’t know. She found words; they felt like trying to describe a feature on the horizon in exacting detail. “You know I love you, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Like, more than life itself.” She wondered if that was true.

“Yeah. Totes.”

“Yeah.” Amanda leaned in and gave him a kiss. Joshua took it like a bus ticket and was on his way.

She spent the day with the silence of her skin crawling. She cleaned the house wearing only the sheerest robe floating on her, thinking if that was what morning air in the pine woods felt like. Amanda cleaned the runners and under the mattresses and atop the windowsills. Each action just felt like crossing an endless distance, the cleanliness only like polishing outer space. She finished and wondered how long it would be before she did it all over again.

Never—it could be never. Amanda couldn’t stop herself from smiling at the thought.

She drummed her fingers on the skillet lid, thinking of the letter in it—of what was in the letter.

New eyes. Inside. Infuse.

The insect legs tickling under her skin sped up, dug in, multiplied. Amanda shook them off by setting out the ingredients for dinner:

Corn. Steaks. Potatoes to peel and slice. Popovers to bake. Spring salad to toss together. She laid it all out—laid out the tools, cleared all the counters, set the table. It would be so special.

Not as special as her letter, though.

Amanda bit her lip again and stared at the skillet. She should burn it. Burn it, and it would be gone forever. She lifted the lid.

She looked down at it sitting there—the crimps on it, so long and sharp and neat; the pine needles of his handwriting. His writing would never be there again. There would never be anything like this letter again.

But the dinner she would cook, she cook again the next month. She could cook something a little different the month after. And she could do it over and over, and then eat, and then watch TV until she slept, rested, woke, and did it again.

Amanda giggled as she hid all of the ingredients under the sink. Later, Joshua and David ate their Papa John’s pizza from china plates and wiped their hands on white cloth napkins.

“This is great, Momma,” Joshua said.

“Yeah, good idea, honey.” David said. “Good stuff.”

“I am just full of good ideas,” Amanda said.

She showered that night, scrubbing her legs and belly and breasts until she glowed pink. Still steaming, Amanda put Chanel on her naked skin, spraying her nipples and navel, and rubbed moisturizing cream over her limbs. The thought that Marcus talked about her skin like it was in the way opened a hornet nest of panic in her skull. She suffocated it by staring into the mirror, seeing her nudity surrounded by all the cosmetics David and she had stacked, by the narrow shower with its fading towels, by the chintzy puff of the toilet seat cover.

So much distance around the stars, Amanda thought. Then she turned out the bathroom light and spent time in the darkness and steam. It felt more real than the place she could see with the light on.

Amanda waited until David knocked to slip on her robe and leave.

She turned on the front light. She opened the front lock. It was like leaving a trail of bread crumbs, leading Marcus from the Pine Barrens woods—a constellation for him to find her by.

Amanda slid into bed next to David. The door was ajar behind her. She squirmed under the covers, she felt incandescent; radiant and fitful as a firefly.

David glanced at her, opening his eyes a bit wider.

“You feel all sexy tonight.” David said.

Amanda stared.

David turned off the light and rolled over to face the wall.

Amanda lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, looking beyond it. She wondered what the night sky above the Pine Barrens would look like and wondered if she’d come to know. So many stars, she figured.

After a time, Amanda grew tired of staring at the dark heavens with the crust of the ceiling in the way. She shut her eyes to view them clearer. A smile floated on her face as sleep put its hands on her.

 

* * *

 

In the morning, Amanda was gone. In her place, there was so much blood.

It bloomed from the center of the bed, the glossy red as thick as petals as it stretched to the walls; seemed to seep beyond. Blood stapled into the combat boot prints entering through the open door. Blood caped the ripped sheets, the window shattered in escape. Blood draped David where he lay, flesh crumpled like a discarded dish rag by the bathroom door.

But above the stink of all that blood, the cool glow of the scent of pine.

 

 

Matthew C. Funk is a professional marketing copywriter and social media consultant, a writing mentor and the author of several manuscripts that illuminate the beauty of human extremes. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, his online work is featured at sites such as Flash Fiction Offensive; ThugLit; Powder Burn Flash; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; A Twist of Noir; Pulp Metal Magazine; Spinetingler Magazine; Six Sentences and his Web domain

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