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Rob Crandall
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eyesore.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan

The Nautical Eyesore

Rob Crandall

 

The Nautical Eyesore left port on June 29, 1902, and she sank that same day in one of the worst storms the sea had seen in a decade.

 

          The name, “Nautical Eyesore,” was a sort of joke—sailor’s humor—because the ship was a beauty.  She was a pleasure cruiser, but the 101 passengers received anything but on that day.  When the rains came and the winds rose, they longed for a captain like the disciples had in their time of trouble.  One who could calm the storm with a word.  But all they had was a slightly paunchy, middle-aged wine connoisseur who had snuck himself a wee nip, and, with his cap tipped just enough to cast a shadow over his eyes, had fallen asleep without a care, not waking up until it was too late to do anything about it.

 

          But, this account is not of the captain—though he would have gladly regaled you with this tale behind veiny cheeks and through bloodshot eyes, had the fish not supped on them long ago.

 

          This story is about me, Blesedale, and a girl named Victoria.  Both twelve years old we were.  Twelve years probably doesn’t seem like much to you, but when it’s all  you’ve got, it seems to stretch out in your mind after it’s over.  Does to me, anyway.  Time is funny that way.  Has no beginning and no end.  But you’ll find that out.

 

          You also might think that twelve years old is too old for a boy to be playing with a spinning top, but not when your granddad had just carved you one . . . and hand painted it, too.  It had the face of a joker on it.  Spooky in a way of sorts, but craftily done.  My granddad was an artist, see.  A master with a brush.  And with a pencil too.  He used to draw me pictures of horses, because I loved horses.  They looked so real, as to gallop off the page.

 

          I was making a game out of it.  I was seeing how long I could keep the top going without it bumping into anyone’s feet.  I would time it with my pocket watch, and then try to beat the time.  I was tireless, as young boys are about those things.

 

          The adults on the deck didn’t really seem to notice, and if they did, they didn’t seem to mind.  Annoying things like that didn’t bother people when they were on vacation.  Things like screaming children were a delight, and things like spinning tops bumping into your shoes were pleasant aversions.  I often thought that it would be nice if the real world was like that.

 

          I was up to twenty-two seconds, when the toe of her boot sent my top sailing, inches above the ground, over to the edge of the boat, where it tottered a moment, and then lay still.  The joker leered.

 

          It hadn’t gone overboard, but with one look in that girl’s eyes, I knew that’s where it was going next.  And that’s exactly what happened.  She picked up my top . . . my brand new top, mind you . . . held it up by her face to taunt me, and then with the admirable throwing fashion of any boy, launched it upward and outward, and into the water, where it made a soundless entry.  I saw it float among the whitecaps briefly, and then it was lost.

 

          I looked at her, wide-eyed, and she squinted at me, and rubbed her hands together.  Good riddance to bad rubbish.

 

          I thought about all the time that my granddad had spent making that toy perfect for me, even if the face did scare me.  I thought about him painting it with a fine brush.  Spending good money on the oil paints.  Just so I could have something for the trip.

 

          I wiped the dust off of my knees and marched right on over to that girl, who was now smiling in a know-it-all kind of way.  I crossed my arms, and pointed out to the water with a finger.

 

          “You know my granddad made that for me,” I said.

 

          She smiled victoriously then, and I was a bit befuddled to find that I found something stirring in me when I saw her smile.

 

          “Your granddad is a lousy carpenter, and a hack with a paintbrush,” she said.

 

          “He could give Da Vinci a run for his money.  You don’t know nothing!”

 

          “I know he’s an old fool.  Just like you’ll be.”

 

          The wind blew her hair back a touch then—I didn’t realize it then, but the storm had already started hatching.

 

          I uncrossed my arms.  “Well, I want you to know that I think you’re the meanest person on this boat.”  I looked around and saw an older woman reprimanding her daughter.  I pointed.  “You’re meaner than her!”

 

          She looked around desperately for a comeback, and I saw her face get resolute when she found one.  She pointed to an unfortunate-looking man, who was eating out of a can of tuna with a small gold fork.

 

          “Well, you’re uglier than him.” 

 

          The man glanced up, but pretended not to hear.  He shifted his feet and dug into his tuna with more intention.

          “I bet you don’t have any friends, do you?”  I said then, flatly.  And I saw a flicker in her eyes then, and for a second I felt bad for her.  Really bad for her.  And I wished I hadn’t said it, because somehow, that statement was worse than all the rest.

 

          But she only lost a beat for a moment.  “In my school, all the girls want to be me,”  she said stubbornly, but the far-off look in her eyes told just the opposite.

 

          I relaxed my shoulders.  “Well, nice to make your acquaintance,” I said with a slight roll of my eyes.

 

          She looked alarmed then.  Alarmed because I was leaving her.  Like I supposed everyone else had.

 

          I waved a hand limply and walked away.  “You sure do give up easy,” she said after me.  I didn’t look back.  “Quitter!” I heard her yell.

 

          It was about ten minutes later that the first fat droplets of rain started to pelt my forehead.  They were cold.  I remember that distinctly.  Like ice.

 

          All of the folks on the deck began to clamor down below deck then, in a semi-hurried rush.  It was a clatter of high heels and Buster Brown dress shoes.  But everyone still seemed in an amiable mood then.  No one knew the extent of what was to come.

 

          I followed the crowd, just wanting to get away from that girl and that cold, cold rain.  To find my parents, and maybe have some lunch.

 

          It didn’t take long to find my mom and dad.  My dad was always easy to find because he was generally five inches taller than all the other men, and never wore a hat like the other dads did.  He just let his bald pate shine up there like a welcoming beacon.  And my mom was always right there on his arm.  They rarely parted, especially in public.

 

          When I spotted my dad, head and shoulders above the rest, he was ordering a few hotdogs and sodas, presumably for my mom and me.  That made me happy because I was starting to get that hollow stomach feeling, and a hotdog with onions and relish would really hit the spot.

 

          I walked up to them, and was greeted with their customary warm smiles.  My dad put an arm around me.

 

          “Hiya, kiddo.  Have fun up there?”

 

          “Yeah, sorta.”

 

          He ruffled my hair. “Atta boy.”

 

          The hotdog was heavenly.  If I’d have known that it was to be my last meal, I couldn’t have picked a better one.  Truly.

 

          The Nautical Eyesore began to rock then, and that was the first moment that I remember being scared.  I looked at my dad, but his eyes were calm and reaffirming, like always.  They looked the same when the boat was going down.  I love him for that.

 

          I’d say it was only another ten minutes or so when we all began to know that something was really wrong.  That was about when the lightning started, and I could hear the people’s voices getting nervous, and louder.  The man that was eating the tuna with the gold fork was tapping his foot and raking his palm over his chin over and over.  An ancient-looking woman in the corner was counting out rosary beads with her eyes closed.  And my mom was studying her fingernails with a little too much intensity.

 

          And that’s when I looked across the room, and saw the girl, with what must’ve been her father.  The man looked cold and detached.  He was in a stark gray suit with nary a wrinkle.  His hair was oiled heavily and parted precisely down the middle in a perfect pink scalped line.  He had tiny round spectacles that were polished to a gleaming shine.  He was looking straight ahead, thin-lipped.

 

          The girl looked miserable, no longer showing her rough exterior, but now her true self.  One foot was crossed over the other and every five seconds or so she would wipe a tear away.

 

          So, I motioned with my hand and my dad nodded his head.  I walked over to the girl, having no idea what I was going to say, but knowing that it would come all the same.  She saw me coming and she made no effort to hide her tears.  In fact, I saw relief in those eyes.

 

          I rubbed my elbow.  “My name’s Blesedale,” I said.

 

          “That’s a stupid name,” she said, but she was smiling.  She sniffed hard. “Victoria.”

 

          If her father noticed that we were talking, he didn’t show it.

 

          “It’s probably just a squall,” I said, pointing out the window.

 

          She wiped her nose.  “What’s a squall?”

 

          “Just means that we’ll be all right is what I mean to say.”

 

          Her smile lit up her face.  “Oh, OK.”  But there was a sad knowing in her eyes because we both knew better.

 

          Just then a man in a white sailor-type suit came down the stairs and said in a loud voice, “OK, folks. We got a bit of a nor’easter blowing in.”  He wiped his brow.  “Things are going to get a little bit choppy . . .”

 

          Gonna get?”  A man yelled out.

 

          “Just bear with us.  We’ve been through this sort of thing before.  Under no circumstances is anyone to go above deck.  Is that clear?”  He nodded.  “All right then.”  And then he disappeared back up the stairs.

 

          I turned back to Victoria.  “Some way to spend summer vacation, huh?” And she started to cry harder then, shoulders bunching up and down. 

 

          “I don’t want to die, Blesedale,” she said simply.  Her father gave her a curt glance as if he were embarrassed by the word.

 

          “Nobody does,” I said.

 

          “I’m sorry I threw your top overboard.”

 

          “It was nothing.”

 

          “Your granddad will never know.”

 

          “It’s best that way.”

 

          The boat really reeled then, and a huge wave of water rushed in and down the stairs.  A few of the ladies screamed, and then came an impossibly loud crack of thunder that made my heart stop just for a moment.  Then the water hit my shoes, and it was cold.  So cold.

 

          At that moment I didn’t know which would be worse:  Being encased in that freezing water or finally giving up and taking it into my lungs.  But in the end it was nothing like that.

 

After that, the crashing waves came in more frequently and with greater force.  I looked over at my parents, and saw my mom coming to get me, and then saw my dad hold her back.  Another thing I love him for.

 

          And when it finally began to happen, it happened fast.  The water began to rise, and of course, everyone rushed to the upper deck although we were strictly told not to.  I grabbed onto Victoria’s hand so she wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, and we went up.  And the rain beat on us with relentless force.  It was like it was raining nickels. The wind tore through our hair and whipped at our clothes.  And lightning lit up the skies in a wondrous splendor.  Her hand clasped mine so tightly, I thought she would break my fingers.

 

          And now my parents were standing near us, and my dad put his hand on my shoulder.  We never spoke again, on that side of heaven.

 

The wave came then.  The biggest one I’ve ever seen.  I remember thinking that it looked like a wall and sounded like a train.  I looked at it in awestruck wonder, and had no last thoughts other than, “She won’t survive this one.”  There were lots of screams, I remember that, but Victoria never screamed.

 

          And then it happened.  The Nautical Eyesore was struck with a violent crash that shook it to the core and filled the deck with sea water.  With that and the help of a final gust of wind, she capsized and went under.  And Victoria and I went down with it, holding onto each other with desperate death grips.  There was no way I was letting go of her even if it meant dislocating my shoulder or worse.  Call it a dying boy’s last promise.

 

          But like I said the end wasn’t bad.  See, before the wave—before we went under, I told Victoria how it was going to be.  And once under the water, I could see her clear as day.  The lights from the boat lit up the sea like an aquarium.

 

          Her hair floated above her in a beautiful twist, and she blinked at me.  The eyes were scared but sure.  We had both hands clasped, but then we broke our hands free . . . my left and her right.  That’s what I told her: “Remember the right hand.”

 

          And then we did just like we said we would.  We counted down on our fingers from 5 down to 1, and then we re-clasped our hands.  And then we took in our last breath, which was not air, but water.  And there was peace when we did.  And it hurt, but we didn’t let go of each other.  And then slowly, our lights went out.

 

          And that’s when the wonder really began, but I wouldn’t dare ruin that for you.  That’s for every man to experience on his own.  But I will say this:  It is a blessing not to die alone. 

 

Everyone gets a gift from God.  That was Victoria’s and mine.    

 

 

winthrop.jpg
Art by Gordon Purkis 2009

A Walk With Winthrop

Rob Crandall

 

 

          Jake stared down into his glass of beer.  Bubbles rose, but not many because the beer was flat.  It was flat because he had been nursing it for the last hour.  He had even lost enthusiasm for the one thing that he still got excited for.  Getting drunk.

 

          Even the numbing effects of alcohol couldn’t squeeze out a drop of joy from his pickled brain.  He was an emotional flatline.

 

          He looked around him.  People were smiling, laughing, talking loudly, playing pool.  To him, it all looked washed-out.  Drab.  Like he was looking through gray-tinted glasses.  The laughter sounded like it was coming from a laugh track.  Meaningless.

 

          There were always the pills, of course.  Antidepressants.  He could take them.  Maybe they would help.  But he knew better.  He knew that that particular Band-Aid just gave him a temporary false sense of calm.  It was just more anesthetic.

 

          He took a slow swill of beer and grimaced at the staleness of it.  It was wretched, but still better than drinking a Coke.  With a Coke there was no chance of escape.  At least, with the beer, he had hope . . . as thin as it was.

 

          He gazed at the surface of the bar, which was coated in copper.  He saw dents and nicks, and the reflections that they caused.  It was hypnotizing.  He thought if he had a hammer and a screwdriver that he would etch something in the bar.  Perhaps something like, “Here sat Jake.  He wasted his days in a horrible haze.”  Some legacy.

 

          But it was the truth.  Besides going to the factory, where he soldered headlights in his own terribly lonely corner, and watching TV in his recliner at home, eating pork rinds, what else did he do besides sip on beer, here at the bar?  Nothing, that’s what.

 

          His life was not even worth calling a life.  It was an existence.  A taking up of space.  He was a beer receptacle.  A living vehicle that walked around, squinting at the sun, and staving off hangovers with fists of aspirin and 9:00AM Budweisers.  The “hair of the dog that bit ya,” they called it.

 

          The floor was covered with peanut shells.  It made the bar look dingy, but also homey, the way that a messy car is sometimes homey.  And it was somehow satisfying to crunch them underneath your shoes on the way to the bathroom or the jukebox.  Sort of like popping Bubble Wrap.  But right now they just added to Jake’s overwhelming sense of chaos and disorder.

 

          And there was the thought that kept creeping back into his awareness like dust reappearing on a tabletop even after the hundreds of bouts with Pledge and a dust rag.  The thought was this:  He could take all of the pills.  Take them all at once.  It would be like falling asleep.  No fuss, no muss.  No mess for the police to clean up.  Just a body to be efficiently disposed of.

 

          It was the coward’s way out.  He knew that.  But he had long ago accepted that fact that he was a coward.  It meant nothing to him anymore.  Self-contempt was just another facet of his mottled psyche.

 

          There was a time that it would have bothered him to be called a coward.  A time when he would have punched someone’s lights out for saying something like that.  But were it to happen now, he would just raise his glass and nod in agreement.  “Cheers to that, friend,” he would say.

 

          He could do it tonight.  He could do it before bed.  He had a bag of M&M’s on his night table.  He could trade off.  One pill, one M&M, one pill, one M&M.  And finish them both off that way.  It would be a nice way to go, tasting chocolate. A comforting way to go.  And then he could rest his head on his pillow and just . . .

 

          “Put a head on that for ya, buddy?”

 

          With a questioning look, the bartender stood poised with the tap in his hand, ready to spray on command.  The beer cobra.  That’s what he and Skip Hanson used to call those taps with the metal hoses.  He wondered if ol’ Skip would miss him.  If he would even hear about it.  Probably no on both counts.

 

          “Just my tab, please,” he said, pushing his glass away.

 

          A few moments later he paid his tab, put on his coat, and headed for the door.  A woman with too much hairspray in her hair squeezed his bicep on his way out.  She smelled like smoke and cheap perfume.  He ignored her.

 

          As soon as the wooden door and its rickety screen companion closed behind him, a wall of bitter wind stung Jake’s face.  He should have brought his scarf, but scarves were like little kids—you always had to keep an eye on them or they got lost.  And, besides, whenever he wore it, he felt uncomfortable, like he was a model in some fancy magazine.  Still, though, he would give anything for it now. 

 

          It wasn’t much of a walk home though.  Just three blocks or so.  That was good.  He could stand that.  He pulled at the leather collars of his coat as if they would stretch, but of course it made no difference.

 

          Cigarette.  That would make things better.  That always made things better.  He reached into his inside coat pocket, pulled out a pack of Camels, and shook it.  Two or three left.  He shook one out, grasping it with fingers that were already becoming numb, and perched it between his lips.

 

          He patted at his pants pockets, and then remembered:  He’d told himself to pick up matches at the bar, because his lighter was cashed.  Great.

 

          He was about to toss the cigarette into the snow when a small flame came to life in front of his face.

 

          “Things will kill you,” a man’s voice said.  Jake leaned forward and let the man light his smoke.

 

          “Why do you carry a lighter then?” Jake took a deep drag.

 

          “A good thing to have,” the man said.

 

          “Right.  Well, thanks.”

 

          The man stuck the lighter in his coat pocket and then pulled out a long black scarf. He handed it to Jake, who looked at it like it was a wad of money.

 

          “Go ahead,” the man said. “It’ll take off some of the edge.”

 

          Jake wrapped the scarf around his neck, and had to admit that it was heavenly.  Even in his depressed state, he was thankful for it.  He took another hit from the cigarette.

 

          “I don’t suppose you have the answer to all life’s problems in there, too,” Jake said.  “And don’t you dare pull out a Bible.”

 

          The man laughed.  “Another good thing to have.”

 

          “Well, you can keep it.  I don’t need a book full of gibberish.”

 

          The man put his hands in his pockets, and looked at Jake.  “You really gonna do it?”

 

          Jake stopped.  He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and squinted at the man, really looking at him for the first time. From his bottom lip, Jake blew a stream of smoke up into the air.

 

          “Do what?” he said, flicking his ash.  A shiver ran through him.  It might have been from the wind.

 

          “Maybe I should go,” the man said.  “I’ve bothered you enough.”

 

          As the man began walking away, Jake heard something.  Just a small whisper in his mind.  It was faint but unmistakable.  It said: This is your last chance. 

 

          Jake paused.  “Wait!”

 

          The man stopped, and looked back over his shoulder. 

 

          “Yeah.  I’m thinking about it.” Jake looked off into the distance, and then straight into the man‘s eyes. “I’m thinking about it.”

 

          The man came back over to Jake and they began walking again.

 

          “I want you to do something,” the man said.

 

          “Nnhh?”

 

          “I want you to think back to summer, 1989.  The time in your Aunt Ira’s field.  By the stream.”

 

          A smile crossed Jake’s face.  It came so naturally, he didn’t even know it was there.

 

          Summer, 1989.  Aunt Ira’s field.  Now that was a time. He was fourteen that summer.  The age when a young man thinks about two things and two things only: cars and girls.

 

          It was midmorning when he had walked out into the field by himself in search of a little peace.  A little time away from his aunt.  Not that she was a bad lady.  On the contrary . . . she was the best.  But you’d even need a break from Santa Claus if you were around him enough.

 

          The sun had risen just enough to have burned off the dew from the grass, but not enough to make him uncomfortable.  It was bright, and blinding, in a most pleasant way.

 

          Fourteen-year-old Jake thought that he would go down by the stream.  Maybe kick his sneakers off, roll up his jeans, and dip his feet in up to his ankles.  Maybe take a swim if the water was warm.

 

          A heady breeze tickled his ears, and blew at his hair, which was cut into a flat-top that year.  He breathed it in, and smiled.  It was the kind of smile that was embarrassing, but not when you were by yourself.  When you were by yourself, that kind of smile was freeing.

 

          As he got closer to the brook, he could hear the tinkling of the water rushing over the rocks.  It was its own kind of music.  Music that had one purpose: to calm.

 

          When he got there, he sat down, and put his arms around his knees.  He aimed his face at the sun, and closed his eyes.  He might have even drifted off into a midmorning nap if it hadn’t happened.

 

          And what did happen shocked him.  As he sat there, with his head cocked, he felt the most gentle kiss caress his lips.  His eyes sprang open to view one of the most beautiful creatures that he had ever seen.  She had long brown hair, parted in the middle.  Wide green eyes with impossibly long eyelashes.  And lips that were tinged with gloss.  Strawberry, he tasted.

 

          She was still leaning over him with a lazy smirk, when he began to speak.  But she put a finger to his lips and stopped him.

 

          He didn’t know her.  He had never seen her before, but for the next half hour, they kissed by the water’s edge without saying one single word . . . and somehow that was the best part.

 

          And then, just as mysteriously as she had appeared, she ran off, never even looking back once.  And he never saw her again.  It was the single best memory of Jake’s life.  The kind that keeps you sane in bad times. 

 

Jake had often thought of that day in Aunt Ira’s field.  When he thought of it now, his face flushed with good health. 

 

          “Yeah . . .” He looked at the man inquisitively.

 

          “Winthrop.”

 

          “Yeah, Winthrop.  Now that was a time.”

 

          “She still thinks about it, too,” Winthrop said.  “Now I want to ask you something.”

 

          “Eh?”

 

          “Do you still believe in times like that?”

 

          Jake’s smile vanished.  He took another drag from his cigarette.  “Winthrop?  You ever heard of John Mellencamp?”

 

          “Cougar?”

 

          Jake laughed.  “Right.  I suppose you’ve heard of everyone.  Well Cougar said it best when he said, ‘Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.’”

 

          “He felt kind of like you do the day that he wrote that.  I remember.”  Winthrop scratched his chin. “Jake, do you think that I would lie to you?”

 

          Jake looked at him.  “No.  I suppose I don’t.”

 

          “Then I’m going to let you in on something.  God has good things in store for you.  Great things.  He has days of peace for you.  Days like the day by the stream.  And when you pass on . . . Jake you can’t imagine it!  But, taking the pills tonight, Jake, it’s not the way.  I’m not saying that He can’t circumvent that and make it right, but it will mess up the plan.  Your plan.  Please don’t do it.  I’m begging you.”

 

          Jake flicked the used-up cigarette into a snow bank, and put his hands in his pockets.  He looked down at the sidewalk, and then up at Winthrop.

 

          “I’ll consider what you said, buddy.  I will.”

 

          Winthrop looked deep into Jake’s eyes. “I hope that you do.”  Then he broke the stare, and rubbed his hands together.  “Well, I best be going now.  I’m needed elsewhere.”

 

          “Cougar having another off day?”

 

          Winthrop smiled. “No.  Wendy Freeman, South Carolina.”

 

          “Give her my best.”

 

          Winthrop gave Jake a salute, and then walked off into the night, still rubbing his hands together.

 

          “They should at least give those angels gloves,”  Jake said to himself.

 

          Angel.  Did he really believe that?  Why not?  When things got really bad, it was possible to believe in anything, wasn’t it?

 

          The rest of the walk home was a reflective one for Jake.  He thought about the girl by the stream.  She still thinks about it, too.  He thought about days of peace.  He thought about pills and M&M’s.  About Winthrop.

 

          Before he knew it, he was turning the key to his front door, and then he was in out of the cold, thankful for the heater.  He stripped off his coat, and flipped his boots to the side.  He thought it would be nice to have a dog, and then he realized that he was thinking about the future . . . a future past tonight . . . and he smiled.  Maybe he would name it “Winthrop.”

 

          He walked into the bedroom, and the pills and the bag of M&M’s still sat on his night side table.  He picked up the pill bottle, and took off the cap.  He stared into the bottle. Then he went into the bathroom and flushed the pills down the toilet. 

 

          Not tonight.  He would give things a chance.  Then his eyes traveled to his bookshelf, where a dusty, worn-out Bible—one that used to be his Aunt Ira’s—sat. 

 

          Maybe someday he would even give gibberish a chance.  After all, when things got good, wasn’t it possible to believe in anything? 

           

           

           

 

chance.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2010

A Chance Meeting

 

Rob Crandall

 

 

          It was cold. Not biting cold, but cold enough where Ben wished he would have put on one more shirt, or a spring jacket.  The T-shirt, which had a picture of a rainbow-colored horse and said, “Steve Miller Band” underneath, was threadbare and had worn right through in spots. But he wore it because he liked the band, and, when it got down to it, he really wore it so that people would see that he liked the band, and, in turn, think he was cool.

 

          He rubbed his arms, which were covered in goose flesh, and shivered quickly and violently. His teeth clattered together once, hard. He kept walking.

 

          The mere distance that he knew was ahead made it seem colder. That was an illusion of course. Ben had read in a book once, that if you asked someone to close their eyes, and told them you were going to touch them with a recently burned-out match, but then really touched them with an ice cube, that they would draw back in pain. Illusions were funny that way.

 

          He had about two miles to go. On a sunny day, that would be a relaxing little jaunt. It would be enjoyable. The sun would be his companion. Today, it was hidden behind a bank of clouds so thick that no sign of it showed through. It was like it had never even been there. If there had not been light, Ben would have wondered. 

 

          There hadn’t been a car for ten minutes or more. The last one was a truck full of teenaged girls that had whistled and screamed at him. He didn’t know if they were serious or just making fun of him. Probably drunk.

 

          He didn’t mind being alone, though. That was all right. It was the cold. Or how he was magnifying it in his mind. That reminded him of another story: The one about the lady that froze to death in her home because her heat had been turned off and her thermostat had read 40 degrees. In reality, it had been 55 degrees in there.  The thermostat was broken, but she had talked herself into it.

 

          Stories like that were fun when you were warm. You felt sorry for the lady and shook your head at the thought of it. Then you adjusted your fan, took another sip of Coke, and continued to play poker. But right now that story rang true in an eerie way.

 

          Now that his mind was whirring, he remembered something in that same vein that he’d thought about a lot. If he was starving to death on an island, with only his dog, would he eventually kill the dog and eat it? The thought of it always made him cringe. But he had read in the Bible about starving women that killed, cooked, and ate their own babies.

 

          Which brought him to the really big question: Would he die for Jesus? The answer never took long. He knew he wouldn’t and he was deeply ashamed of it. The thought made him shiver again.

 

          There was always the “Peter” excuse. Peter had denied even knowing Jesus, and Jesus still loved him. But Peter had died for Him in the end.

 

          Why did God always present you with scenarios that were uncomfortable? That was a bummer. Maybe it was to abolish pride.  God had lots of methods like that.

 

          A mile and a half, now.

 

          Ben saw a man walking from a perpendicular side street. He didn’t think much of it, except that he might have to say “Hi,” which was always a bit weird with a stranger. You never knew what you were going to get.

 

          As the man drew closer, Ben saw that a meeting, however brief, was going to be inevitable. Though he tried to deny it, his back was up just a bit. It reminded him of when his dog, Ruby, walked past Grover the bulldog’s, fence. The fur on her back stood straight up every time. 

 

I wouldn’t eat ya, Ruby. He swallowed hard at the lie.

 

          As the man came closer, Ben noted his gait. You could tell a lot about a person by the way he walked. This man had a relaxed stride. Non-threatening. A small wave of relief washed through Ben. 

 

A moment later, they met.

 

          Before Ben could say his customary “Hello,” the man pulled off his sweatshirt and handed it to him.

 

          “Keep it,” he said, with a humble, crooked smile.

 

          Ben thought of politely denying it, but seeing the look on the man’s face, he gratefully took it and put it on. Warmth enveloped him immediately. It was wonderful.

 

          “Thanks, man.” He stuck out his hand, and the man shook it.

 

          Feeling awkward, Ben began to turn away, with a small wave, but the man called out to him.

 

          “Where you off to?” the man asked.

 

          Ben looked back. “Oh, just walking home from a friend’s.  We went to a concert last night. He had to go to work early, so I figured I’d walk home instead of waiting the whole day at his house, twiddling my thumbs, you know?”

 

          The man smiled.

 

          “Didn’t know it’d be this cold, though. Thanks again for the sweatshirt.”

 

          Just then the breeze picked up and whirled about some leaves nearby. The man held up his hand, and the leaves settled. Ben swallowed, and mentally shrugged it off.

 

          “Where you headed?” Ben asked.

 

          “Just going about,” he said. “Mind if I walk with you for apiece?”

 

          “Free country,” Ben said, and both men smiled at the colloquialism.

 

          They began to walk and soon they were walking in step.

 

          “You have any pets?” the man asked.

 

          Ben thought guiltily about Ruby. He saw himself around a campfire, taking ravenous bites from a charbroiled thigh.

 

          “Yeah, got a dog. She’s a sweetheart. Ruby’s her name.  Boston Terrier.”

 

          “One of my favorite breeds,” the man said. “Of course, I love them all.”

 

          He sounded like he really meant it. Ben looked over at him, and saw just a hint of tears in his eyes. Ben thought that kind of odd.  Maybe the man was one of those PETA guys or something.

 

          “But I’m really a people person,” the man said finally.

 

          They walked in comfortable silence for awhile. Ben’s back was no longer up. In fact, he felt at home. At peace. 

 

And that’s why he felt he could ask the man the real question on his mind. That and how he thought he’d never see him again.

 

          Ben studied his fingernails. “Can I ask you something?”

 

          The man’s eyes beckoned.

 

          Ben looked out across a field. “Would you die for Jesus?”

 

          The man laughed hard at that, and it caught Ben off guard, but the laugh was friendly so Ben simply waited it out.

 

          “I’d die for a lot of people.” the man said, seriously, with no more laughter.

 

          Ben knew that he meant it, but he wasn’t satisfied.

 

          “Sure.  People, you can see. People, you know. But would you die for Jesus?”

 

          The man smiled quizzically, and said, “That’s a tough question. “Would you, Ben?”

 

          The question made Ben want to cry. Maybe it was the way that the man asked it . . . And he hadn’t remembered telling the man his name, though he supposed he could have.

 

          He looked the man square in the eyes and said, “I don’t think I could.” Then he did start crying. “Hell, I’d eat my own dog if I was starving.” 

 

The cries were jagged now. The man put his arm around Ben’s shoulder and that just made Ben cry harder.

 

          “I understand,” the man said, gently.

 

          Ben looked up at him. “S-so, you wouldn’t do it either?”

 

          “I understand,” the man said again. 

 

Ben looked down at the road. “Do you think I’d still go to heaven?”

 

          “With God, all things are possible.” 

 

          Ben was still looking down, and the crying jag was beginning to wane. He looked over at the man’s feet.

 

          “Hey, man . . . you don’t have any shoes on! Aren’t you freezing?”

 

          And then Ben saw them. The holes. The holes in the man’s feet that went straight through to the road. 

 

Ben looked up at the man, gawking. The man smiled gently and began to vanish, but his eyes, locked into Ben’s, never faltered.  It was the eyes themselves that vanished last.

 

          In stunned silence, Ben continued walking. A passage from the Bible was playing itself over and over in his mind. It was the part where the disciples had met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus, only they hadn’t known it was Him. Later, they had said, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us when He talked to us?”

 

          Yes, his heart had been burning too. Ben looked down at the sweatshirt. It was of an odd material. Almost like hair. Camel hair.  He held it up to his nose and sniffed deeply. It smelled of a musky, ancient perfume.

 

          His house was in sight now. And as he walked closer to it, a funny thing happened in his heart. He thought that maybe he could die for Jesus. It wasn’t something that he knew for sure, but he felt different.

 

          When he came to the front gate, Ruby came running up with those eyes looking in two different directions, as they always did. Ben picked her up and pulled her close. She sniffed madly at his sweatshirt, and licked his face with blatant affection.

 

          “I love you, girl,” Ben said, and, carrying her, he made his way to the front door.  

 

 

 

premiumlocksmiths2.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees

 

“Premium Locksmiths”

by Rob Crandall

         

 

He wouldn’t call himself a shut-in, though that’s exactly what he was.  And he didn’t like the word “Home-body” either.  It reminded him of the word, “Wallflower,” which he also hated because he used to be one of those too, when he used to go to parties.  He would always find himself over on a lonely chair somewhere, sipping his ginger-ale, blinking rapidly.  Ginger-ale because he wanted it to look like he had a beer.  Not a beer because he didn’t want to get out of control.  One gave away secrets when they were out of control.

          Of course, he hadn’t been to a party in years.  He had given up such fruitless pursuits.  Truth was, he hadn’t been much of anywhere in the better part of a decade.  Except the house.  “Lonesome Acres” he called it in his mind.  He hated that name.  He hadn’t named it that for fun.  It was just something that kept reoccurring in his mind.  Something he would never repeat out loud.  Something he wanted to blot out.

          He’d gotten the inheritance in his early twenties.  His father had been one of the big-wigs of the airline industry.  Jonas Mayweather didn’t know what his father did really.  He only knew that whenever he got toys, they were always airplane related.  The family notepads always had airplane emblems on them, and all of his dad’s good shirts had little airplanes where most others had little alligators.

          But, one day, ironically, his parents were on a plane that went down over the Pacific.  Into the deep.  “Glub glub” he always thought involuntarily.  It was another phrase he wanted to blot out of his thinking but couldn’t.  The scars about his parents went deep, but he refused to think about it.  That was one thing that he could refuse.

          To say he was “set for life” was a good way to put it.  And, therefore, he had never really tried to get any type of job.  What was the point of that?  No, not when he had money in the bank, a Lexus out front, which he never used, and a nice two story home in the country.  No, he had everything that he needed.

 With the Internet, he could order everything by mail.  For food, he went on one of those diet plans.  Not because he was particularly overweight, but because they shipped the meals to your house, and they were already in meal form.  Healthy and microwavable.  For entertainment, Jonas watched sports.  He hated sports.  With a passion.  But they were relatively safe.  No drama.  For music, it was classical.  No words, that was good.  No loud beat and no screaming.  But, most of the time what he did for entertainment was read.  He read manuals.  Manuals for anything and everything.  “How to’s.”  They were also safe.  Very safe.

Every day, Jonas did make one trek outside.  To get the mail.  He had a long winding driveway.  Gravel.  It was 1012 steps there and back.  Crunch.  Crunch.  The walk made him nervous.  Everything was so BIG.  The sky seemed to go up forever, and the horizon went in every direction for miles.  It reminded him of the world beyond the walls of “Lonesome Acres.”  The BIG world.  The scary world that was filled with people and drama.  Once in a while, he would catch sight of an airplane while he was on his way to the mailbox.  “Glub glub” he would think and cringe.  Sometimes he ran when he saw an airplane, but still counted the steps.  And then it was back into his house.

On June 5th, he was expecting a package.  It was his manual on shortwave radios.  It would be a perfect one to keep his mind in a safe place.  All those circuits and wires.  Yes, it would be a good day. 

Jonas Mayweather reached for the door handle, and took a deep breath.  He pulled.  And something odd happened that made his stomach lurch.  When Jonas pulled the oak door open, there behind it, was ANOTHER oak door, only a bit smaller.  He felt sweat break out on his palm.  It was impossible, but there was only one logical thing to do.  He opened the second door.  Another oak door was behind it, smaller yet.  A small squeak came up from Jonas’ windpipe.  He frantically opened door after door, until all that was left was a tiny wooden door about a foot high and a foot wide. 

He felt like crying, but Jonas didn’t cry.  It wasn’t safe.  He looked at the tiny door hopelessly, and then he noticed something scrawled there in black.  He adjusted his glasses and got down in close for a better view.  “Feeling boxed in?”  it said.  “Call Premium Locksmiths.  1-800-GET-FREE.”  That was all it said.

Well, that was dumb.  He would just find another way out.  He went to every other door and window in the house, and repeated the same thing over and over.  On the last door and window was always the same scrawled message.

A panic tried to rise.  The panic that he had so painstakingly set up a bulwark against all these years.  No, he wouldn’t give in to THAT feeling.  So what if he couldn’t leave the house?  It wasn’t so bad.  But, what about food?  And his manuals?  He picked up the remote control with a shaky hand.  He hated the shaking.  It reminded him of the panic that was trying to bubble up.  He pressed “power.”  On the screen it said, in white block letters, “Feeling boxed in?  Call Premium Locksmiths. 1-800-GET-FREE.”  “No!”  Jonas raised his voice.  It felt unsafe and he lowered it again. “No.” He whispered.

He ran to the bookshelf.  Manuals.  That would calm him down.  He would just read for a while.  “How to change spark plugs.”  That was good.  Spark plugs were bland.  He opened the book, and saw what he somehow knew that he would see.  Every page had the same message.  “Feeling boxed in?  Call Premium Locksmiths. 1-800-GET-FREE.”

Jonas tried to sleep but sleep wouldn’t come.  He gazed at the phone.  It was dumb to call that number.  It was illogical.  It was admitting his situation. 

And so he ate up all of his diet meals during the next week, and slept when he could, fitfully dreaming about things he couldn’t remember.  Things he didn’t want to remember.  And then it came down to it:  Call or starve.

So he picked up the phone and dialed the number: 1-800-GET-FREE.  And the panic rose again.  He had a distant memory of calling a girl that he liked once in the 5th grade.  It made him feel small, and inadequate.

It rang twice.

“Premium Locksmiths?”

It was a normal voice.  A man’s voice.  Jonas swallowed.

“Uh …yes.”  His voice sounded high and girly.  “I’m having a problem with my door.”

“What sort of problem sir?”

There it was.  The question.  How could he answer it without sounding totally nuts?  He almost hung up, but didn’t.  He was hungry.  He wanted his TV back and his books.

“I can’t get out of my house.  I’m locked in.”

“Do you want to get out of your house, Jonas?”

It was what he wanted more than anything.  To be normal.  To live a life outside of “Lonesome Acres.”  To be alive again.

“Yes sir.”  He said, and meant it.

“We’ll get someone out to help you directly, Jonas.  We know where you live.”

The man’s voice sounded nice.  Jonas didn’t care how he knew his name or where he lived. He only knew that help was on the way.

Ten minutes later, there was a knock on the tiny door.  Jonas felt foolish but he turned the tiny doorknob.  It opened to a man crouching down with his elbows on his knees.  He was wearing a blue uniform.  On the pocket, it said, “Premium Locksmiths.”  Right next to an emblem of a small airplane.

“Went down over the Pacific, didn’t they, Jonas?”  The man said kindly.

Jonas felt the panic rising again but this time it was a little bit different.  There was comfort with the panic.  A hotness behind his eyes and in his throat.

“Yes sir, they did.”  He croaked.

“Why don’t you try opening that door, Jonas?”

Jonas opened the tiny door, to find a door just slightly bigger.  The man’s face was clearer now.  He smiled gently.

“You never did feel comfortable at those parties did you?”

A hot tear went down Jonas’ cheek and he wiped it away quickly.

“No sir.  Not at all.”

“Go ahead, try that next knob.”

Jonas opened the next door, to a slightly bigger door.  The man was looking at him with compassion.  It was a look that was foreign to Jonas.  Talking to people was foreign to Jonas.

“Your parents didn’t suffer, Jonas.  They were unconscious before the crash.  I made sure of it.”

Jonas looked at the man, and the man blinked slowly and affirmingly.  Jonas looked down, and his shoulders began to convulse.

“I know about that too, Jonas.”  The man said.

And all the fear and dread and anxiety and panic all came out at once, and Jonas fell to the ground sobbing.  In a far off way, he heard the rattle of a key, and several doors opening.  In a moment, the last door opened.  Jonas looked up, and the man was holding out the key.

“This is yours now.  To use as you please.” 

Jonas reached out to a badly scarred hand and took the golden key.

“Thank you.”  He whispered.  “What happened to your hand?”  He said.

“Oh,”  The man smiled.  “Incident with a nail.  I used to be a carpenter.  I’m always on-call, Jonas.”  The man said, and walked away.  Jonas heard his sandals crunch the gravel.  That would be 506 steps to the end of the driveway, Jonas knew, but who was counting?   

THE END.

 

 

ifidaonly.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe

“Ifidaonly”

 

Rob Crandall

 

 

John Billings shot and killed a man in 1976.  Over a drug.  Crack cocaine.

It was bad enough that the crack had rotted his brain, but the guilt was worse.   That accusing voice, every day.  Always in the back of his mind, and usually in the forefront.  He’d read that Satan was called, “The accuser of the brethren,” but he wondered if it wasn’t God Himself, reminding him, even in his dreams.  He had come to the conclusion that it probably was.

It played out again and again in his mind.  How many times in the last 36 years?  Could one count?  Could you count the stars? 

“I aint playin’, Butch.”  That’s what he had said.  Right before he pulled out the gun and shot Butch in the stomach.  God, the blood spread so quickly.  It was like when you spilled ink on fabric.  But red.  But the look in Butch’s eyes was what haunted him.  Disbelief at first, and then, forgiveness.  John often thought that hate would have been somehow better than forgiveness.

John went to prison for shooting Butch Crawford.  He thought the punishment might ease his conscience, but it didn’t.  He thought getting clean from drugs might do the trick, but that didn’t fly either.

So, one day, John got it into his mind that if he could drop a nickel and have it land on its edge and stay that way, that maybe he could go back in time.  He got the idea from an old episode of the Twilight Zone.  Only in the episode, the guy could read minds.  John didn’t want to read minds.  He had enough on his own mind.

So, day after day, every hour on the hour, John would take the same nickel from his pocket, hold it waist high, and drop it on his cell floor.  He started that in 1979.  Burt Finny, his cell mate, began to say, “Well?” in 1982.  John always said “Nope.”

In 2012, Burt Finny said, “Well, I’ll be!”  And John Billings smiled a gapped tooth grin.

He didn’t go back in time, of course.  He sure closed his eyes tight and tried though.  But after a minute, he picked up the standing nickel, rolled it out the cell door, and said, “Well, that’s that.” 

Burt Finny echoed, “Yep.  That’s that.”

Burt Finny had done something awful to his wife…too awful to name.  And his guilt was bad, too.  They didn’t talk about it much, but they knew.  They could see it in each other’s eyes.  And so they talked about baseball, but without much fervor.  And they played poker, but neither one cared much who won.

Later that year, Burt Finny had a heart attack in his bunk.  When John found him, he had just a hint of a smile on his face.  And that gave John some hope.  It was that hint of a smile that kept him going.

He didn’t have a cell mate after that.  And so he lay awake at night thinking about Butch.  Butch’s eyes.  John’s face would contort, but he barely noticed it anymore.  But he never cried.  He was too hard-hearted.

It was always Butch.  John’s favorite word was one he made up: “Ifidaonly.”  Ifidaonly taken the bullets out of the gun.  Ifidaonly never done drugs.  Ifidaonly.  It was a funny word, but it didn’t make John laugh.  Nothing had ever made John laugh except the stuff he wasn’t supposed to laugh at.  He often wondered why that was so.

Sometimes he wondered what he would think about if he didn’t think about Butch all the time.  But that didn’t much matter because it would never be so.  But he sometimes wondered just the same.

In June of 2012, John got it into his mind that if he could count the holes in the ceiling, that he could go back in time.  Maybe then he could make things right.  Maybe then.    

THE END.

 

Rob Crandall has had several stories published both online and in print.  He edits his own webzine, called Einstein's Pocket Watch, which you can access at:  www.peafant.wordpress.com  Rob also enjoys art and music.  His latest painting, will be hanging at his church during Easter service.  You can view Rob's art and hire him if you visit "ifreelance.com" and look under "EinsteinsPocketWatch"

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