Yellow Mama Archives II

Steve Carr

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Acuff, Gale
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Zumpe, Lee Clark

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Art by Bernice Holtzman © 2022

THE BEETLEMEYER EXALTATION

by

Steve Carr

I was once told by a girlfriend that I was an “experience junkie, willing to try anything new because of the adrenaline rush I got from it.” I admit there’s truth to that. “You’re an addict to thrills,” she told me.

My drug-of-choice wasn’t anything like the heroin I’d shot into my veins or the coke I snorted up my nose. I never had the fortitude, or the patience, it takes to be addicted to substances. That takes more time and effort than I was willing to put into any experience. Most of my thrills – but not all of them – were obtained in the same way others got theirs, parachuting from a plane, jumping from a bridge with bungee cords tied to my ankles, swimming in shark-infested water. Those sorts of things.

Up until my encounter with Gail Hunnington, any crime I committed didn’t involve doing something that involved violence toward another person. It had never been a thrill I sought out. When I saw her standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change so that she could cross the street, I didn’t know who she was. She was just a little old lady with a purse hanging from her arm. My response to seeing how vulnerable she looked was impulsive and immediate. How was I supposed to know she had enough strength in her scrawny arms to hold onto the purse all the while being swung around by me as I tried to snatch it? When the straps on the purse snapped free sending her flying into the lamp post headfirst, she looked as surprised as I was. I hadn’t anticipated bloodshed as part of the thrill of theft. I tucked her purse under my shirt and ran off, leaving her crumpled body lying on the curb. I ran down the subway stairs taking three of them at a time. It’s a golden rule that the trains always run the slowest when you most want them to run ahead of schedule. I leapt into the first train that came along, not even certain where it was going. When I plopped down on a seat, my heart was nearly pounding out of my chest. I clutched Gail Hunnington’s purse against my body. Was I thinking about her at that moment? No. I didn’t even know who she was. Did I feel more alive than I had ever felt in my entire life? Yes. 

#

It wasn’t until a couple of hours later and transferring to different trains several times that I arrived at the station near my apartment building. It was the same station where I once stood on the tracks deep inside the tunnel and waited until a train was only yards from where I stood before I jumped out of the way. The whoosh of the train as it sped by and the echoing of its whistle were exciting, but anticlimactic. It left me wanting to experience actually being hit by the train. Did I have a death wish? There’s no thrill in being dead.

When I got to my apartment, I tossed Gail Hunnington’s purse onto the sofa, stripped off my clothes and got in the shower. It took nearly half an hour of standing in the spray of nearly scalding hot water that I felt I had washed the stench of sweat and fear from my body. Have I forgotten to mention that fear was essential in order to feel what I experienced was real? Fear is an intoxicant and I could get drunk from it. The smell of it clinging to my skin was both real and imagined. It was nearly dark and I could see the purples, reds and blues of twilight spreading out across the sky; a bruise expanding to the horizon. I sat down on the sofa and opened the purse and took out a wallet. It was then, when looking at her social security card, I discovered her name. Gail Hunnington. There was nineteen dollars in the wallet and a small change purse that contained ninety-five cents. Also in the wallet was her subway pass card, an identification card with her address and a photo of her face on it, a debit card, and pictures of children and several photographs of a large cat. The purse also contained a package of Kleenex, keys on a ring, and a prescription bottle of tablets. Lasix. The only thing of interest to me were her keys that I jingled in front of my face. I had her address.

And her keys.

#   

They burned a hole in my pocket. Those keys. I carried them around for a week, going to and from my place of work at a travel agency, when I went out with friends, or just walked about at night in the darkest and most dangerous parts of the city, tempting the fates, looking for an adrenaline rush. When I was a kid I would spread my arms and jump from top of the garage, waiting for that moment when I would suddenly begin to fly. Each time I hit the pavement, usually injuring myself in one way or another, it wasn’t the danger of the jump that I remembered, it was the excitement that at any moment I would rise into the air. The anticipation of flying.

On those streets at night, while carrying Gail Hunnington’s keys, could I escape a mugger or worse? Could I fly away?

A few times I took the subway to the part of town where she lived and walked up and down her street, past her apartment building, checked her name on the mailboxes, and gazed up at what I thought were her windows. They were always dark. There was nothing to prevent me from walking up the steps and going into the building. That would have been too easy, though. There was no excitement to just opening the door to her apartment with her keys.

I once went to the zoo and climbed over a fence, landing in the rhinoceros paddock, but I made certain I did it while there were others watching me. The rhinos ignored me and I got out before the zoo security guards showed up, but like a man who exposes himself on a crowded street, I had gotten my addict’s fix.

I had decided if I was going to enter Gail Huntington’s apartment, it had to have that same feel. It needed to be risky and border on the dangerous.

On the night just before my twenty-sixth birthday I stood on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from her building. It was still early, around 7 PM, and there were people walking past me, returning from work or going out for the evening. The air was balmy. That sensation – an electric current that surged through my body before I would feed my addiction – had not begun, but I knew it was coming. I only needed the right opportunity, some moment of serendipity, to present itself. The excitement about illegally entering Gail Hunnington’s apartment, wasn’t just about being seen doing it, but going in, getting out, and getting away. In the back of my mind, whatever happened with this minor crime might very well determine the course of the rest of my life.

When a yellow Taxi pulled up to the curb in front of Gail Hunnington’s building I didn’t realize its significance until two people got out of the back. As it pulled away, standing on the sidewalk were none other Gail Hunnington herself, looking frail and leaning on a cane, and a young woman in a blue nurse’s aide uniform. It took no longer than a few seconds for the adrenaline to pump through my entire system. I ran across the street, stopped briefly in front of the two women, so that the old woman, in particular, would see who it was dangling her keys in front of her face. She only smiled, a smile so full of knowing and awareness that I wanted to slug her. What did she know that I didn’t? What gave her the right to look at me with such pity?  I turned and dashed up the steps, into her building, bypassed the elevator, and ran up the stairs to the third floor where she lived.

Nearly delirious with excitement I unlocked her door, stood still for a moment as the aromas of dust, age and the unmistakable scent of old books wafted out, and then went in. It was like a small library. Every wall in the living room was lined with shelves overflowing with books. In her bedroom a twin bed sat in the middle of the floor surrounded by stacks of books.

At the sound of police sirens my excitement reached a feverish pitch. I quickly looked about, but saw nothing of value to take. To leave empty-handed would have dampened the thrill. From a stack of books in her bedroom I hastily grabbed a book without looking at its cover.

I ran from her apartment, down the back stairs, and into the alley. Getting home from there only required me to take one step after another.

#

The book I had taken from Gail Hunnington was a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The book jacket was ripped, and the pages were yellow with age. On the inside cover was a stamp that said the book was the property of the city’s library. A goddamn library book! It was worthless. Worse yet, she seemed like the type who would never keep a library book without good reason or forget to return it. She had probably bought it at a charity sale to raise money for the library. Her name wasn’t on or in it anywhere. In all likelihood, with as many books as she had, she’d never notice the one I took was gone. I flung it out my apartment window as I cursed Gail Hunnington’s name. I had been robbed of my fix. I opened a new travel brochure that I had gotten at the office. It offered a tour of a live volcano that could erupt at any time, a chance to walk in the crater with molten, boiling lava only a short distance below. By the time I went to bed at midnight I had decided to book my tickets to the volcano the next morning as soon as I got into the office.

That night I dreamt of Gail Hunnington’s face, the subtle mockery in her expression.

A goddamned useless book of all things!

The feeling of need for revenge, I discovered, was as powerful as the shock from having live electrical wires attached to my balls. At work I forgot all about the volcano and went through the day as if in a fog that I couldn’t see through or make sense of. The after-effect of an unsatisfactory thrill was, like always, to feel as if the earth dropped out from under me. This time I had fallen all the way to China. I had uppers in my desk drawer, and gave thought to standing on the ledge of the roof above the twenty-first floor and seeing how far I could lean out, as I always did when I needed a quick pick-me-up, but the idea of taking pills or the thought of placing myself in danger did nothing to elevate my mood. As much as I tried to suppress the thought, the only thing I wanted was for Gail Hunnington to pay the price for killing my buzz.

I left work early and slowly meandered across the city, arriving at the spot I had stood less than twenty-four hours earlier, across the street from Gail Hunnington’s apartment building. I stood there waiting for the juice to kick in, for the surge of excitement to begin to rise from deep inside me, for the hunger for a fix that would eat at my insides. Nothing came. I was empty, except for the revenge. I looked up at her windows and shoved aside the thoughts that my feelings about the old woman were irrational.  What fault was it of hers that I had chosen to steal her purse and then break into her apartment? 

When I was a boy, I heard lots of “no.”

“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t touch the stove. You’ll burn your hand.”

“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t play ball in the street. You’ll get hit by a car.”

“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t pull the dog’s tail. He’ll bite you.”

Childhood, as I remember it, was a long period of being held back from doing the things I wanted to do the most. If Gail Hunnington hadn’t tried to keep me from taking her purse, she wouldn’t have gotten hurt. When she looked at me as I dangled her keys in front of her face, just before I entered her apartment, I saw that look also. She was telling me “no.” No to what? She had just gotten out of the hospital and was in no physical condition to stop me from doing anything.

Standing there, I showed her an answer to her “no.” I picked up a rock and busted out one of her windows with it. It didn’t give me the adrenaline jolt I was hoping for, but it was something.

#

During the next week I walked across a wire strung fifty feet above the ground between two buildings, wrestled an alligator in an illegal wildlife wrestling event held in a warehouse on the docks, allowed myself to be forcibly raped by two gang members, and on Friday night I entered Gail Hunnington’s apartment and strangled her with my own two hands.

# # #

Before I get a lethal injection, I, Jacob Beetlemeyer, offer my life as a cautionary tale. I’m not being given the opportunity to sit in the electric chair and have a final thrill, the ultimate in being jolted with electricity. Other than feeling the mild responses to the drugs they give me that will ultimately put me to sleep for good, I’m being robbed of a last exaltation. It is the final “no.”

The End

“The Beetlemeyer Exaltation” originally appeared in the 2020 Issue of Weird Mask.

 


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Art by Kevin Duncan © 2021

THE BOY WITH THE STRAW HAT

by

Steve Carr

 

I was abducted. Stolen. I was only four when I was lifted out of the stroller by Pearl and carried off while my parents had turned to buy fruit flavored ice cones at a stand at the county fair. I didn’t really comprehend as I was carried away in Pearl’s arms that it wasn’t part of the plan for the day, to be smuggled off among hundreds of strangers who all seemed to be having a good time. They were mostly smiling and laughing, so as I was carried off, I laughed also. Pearl bought me a large pink cotton candy swirled around a white paper cone just before we left the fairgrounds. It didn’t occur to me as I stuffed the spun sugar into my mouth that I should protest in some way as I was carried to the parking lot where we got into a car that sat idling. In the driver’s seat, Henry nervously drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“It a boy or girl?” he asked Pearl.

“A boy, I think,” she replied. She lifted the straw hat my mom had just bought for me from a vendor at the fair and stared at my mop of thick, blonde curls. “We’ll find out later.” She put the hat back on my head.

Henry slowly drove out of the lot, careful not to draw attention from the security guards at the exit who apparently hadn’t been alerted yet that a child had been abducted.

That was thirty years ago.

Two days after entering the home of my birth parents I sat on their sofa with both my mother and father gazing at me wordlessly from overstuffed chairs on the other side of a glass coffee table. They had welcomed me in the same way most people do an insurance salesman. They politely shook my hand, offered me something to drink, and showed me the way to the sofa. It was several moments before anyone said anything.

“Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?” my mother asked.

“I’m not really into holidays,” I replied.

She had put too many ice cubes in the glass of lemonade she had given me and the liquid was slowly seeping over the rim of the glass and sliding over my fingers. I took a sip from it and started to put the glass on the coffee table.

She jumped up from her chair. “Oh my, I forgot to put out the coasters,” she squealed. She hurried into the kitchen and quickly returned holding a stack of round, cork coasters. She placed them on the coffee table in front of me. “A neat home is a happy home,” she said as she sat back down.

I took the top coaster from the stack, placed it on the coffee table, and then sat the lemonade on the coaster. As nonchalantly as I could, I licked the lemonade from my fingers.

“You’re looking healthy,” my father said, abruptly.

Who are these people?  I thought, dismayed and dumbfounded. It made sense that I had forgotten them, but it came as a shock to me that not only did they seem to have forgotten I was their child, but they didn’t really have any interest in what had happened to me from the time I had been taken. When the probation officer called them to let them know I had located them and wanted to see them, he forgot to tell me after the call that they really didn’t give a fuck.

“In prison there isn’t much to do other than workout and read. I like Zane Grey.” I said.

There was a moment of silence before my father cleared his throat and said, “We’re not ones much for reading.” He glanced over at my mother who was anxiously playing with the string of beads around her neck. “Are we sweetheart?”

She shook her head making the layers of skin under her chin wobble. She twisted the beads so tightly they looked like a pearl noose.

“That probation officer said you had been in prison for the past ten years,” my father said as if I needed to be reminded of it.

“Yes, that’s right.”

My mother looked up as if suddenly caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. “Did you get raped while you were in prison,” she asked. “By other men, I mean.”

“A few times.”

  The string of beads broke as she gave them a shocked, sudden tug, sending the beads across the floor and under the coffee table. She slowly rose from her chair and averted her eyes as she said, “You’ll have to excuse me, Kyle, but I need to go lie down.” She left the room and went up the stairs.

It was the first time either of them had called me by my birth name, or any name at all. I hadn’t been called Kyle since that day at the county fair.

My father waited until there was the sound of their bedroom door being closed before he stood up, crossed his arms, and glared at me menacingly. “What right do you have to come in here, into our home, and talk about having sex with other men?”

“She asked . . .” I started.

“I want you to leave and never let your shadow darken our doorsteps again,” he cut in.

As I left, my business there done, I wish I could say I felt something, even a little sadness, or anger, but a lot happened to me during the thirty years I had been separated from them, and in place of any feelings, was the foggy memory of the time I tried to hang myself. I had the same reaction then as I was having as I walked away from their house; the struggle to breathe. 

It was several blocks to a street with restaurants and businesses where I figured I could find a phone or use someone’s cellphone. I needed to call my probation officer, Kevin Yardley, to tell him I would need to return to the halfway house where I had been staying since my release from prison two weeks earlier. The brisk, chill November breeze seeped through the worn, thin material of my jacket, my gloved hand holding the broken zipper closed. The gloves were the only purchase I made since being released from prison with the little money they gave me upon my release. Gloves were an essential item; they had been from the time I choked my first human victim to death.

The street was tree-lined, where dead leaves clung to the branches, shaking and rustling like the pom-poms of frenetic cheerleaders. I stopped at the corner, leaned against a stop sign and lit a cigarette.  I knew from my days on the streets of San Francisco that if a car slows down before moving on, then returns a few minutes later and slows again, the driver has something on their mind that usually isn’t legal. The car was a brand new one – a make I wouldn’t be able to identify even if a gun was put to my head – and painted a dark green. The driver was a teenage male nearing his twentieth birthday, nondescript other than the straw hat he was wearing.

Instinctually I reached to the top of my head, and remembered, I hadn’t worn a straw hat in years.

The car stopped and the passenger-side window glided down, noiselessly. The teenager leaned across the seat. “That weed you’re smoking?”

“No, it’s a cigarette.”

“I thought it might be a joint,” he said. “You look like a guy who’d smoke pot.”

I never liked pot but this wouldn’t be the first time that someone made assumptions based on my looks. I was six before my hair started turning black and people on the street stopped telling Pearl what a pretty girl I was. It was then that she stopped putting ribbons in my hair and quit dressing me as girl to keep me from being recognized. Cutting my shoulder-length hair took a little longer. The time spent dressed as and looking like a girl didn’t influence my sexual orientation, but it did make clear how much others respond to what we wear, not who we are.

I flicked the butt of the cigarette into the gutter. “You got a cellphone I could borrow for a couple of minutes?” I asked.

“Yeah, I got a phone you can use,” he replied. “If I can have one of your cigarettes.”

“Sure, but I need to get out of the cold.”

“Okay.” He opened the car door and slid back behind the steering wheel.

I got in, closed the door, and handed him the pack. “Find a place to park and hand over the phone.”

   Parked in in the shadows of a tree with branches still heavily loaded with leaves, the kid took his time lighting and smoking one of the cigarettes, which gave me time to get hold of Kevin and try to explain what had happened at my parents’ home without it sounding like they had caught me stuffing their silver into my pockets. I told him I was on a nearby street and needed for him to come get me. The phone call ended and the teenager finished smoking at the same time. I handed him his phone—and then choked him to death. Easy-peasy. Walking away from the car I dropped the cellphone through a sewer grate and heard the splash of water.

Kevin showed up a half hour later. When I got in his car, he looked at the kid’s straw hat that sat askew on my shaved head, but said nothing about it. “It’s past supper time at the halfway house, did your folks give you anything to eat?”

I held back a sarcastic guffaw that begged to be set free from the confines of my throat. “No, but my mother inquired into my Thanksgiving.”

This struck Kevin as funny. We drove to a nearby McDonald’s with him chuckling all the way. At the drive-thru he told me to order whatever I wanted, he was paying for it. Everything comes with some kind of price—a lesson I learned the first few days in prison—but as we drove away from the restaurant I thought there was nothing Kevin could possibly want from me. As I tore into the bag of food, my mind was on the smell of the French fries that filled the inside of the car, like a cloud of greasy perfume. 

At the house, before I got out of the car, he reminded me to check in with him on the scheduled days and told me to stay out of trouble. I had attempted to do that for most of my life with little success. He drove off as I pushed the buzzer on the front door. The evening resident counselor, Mrs. Sothby, opened the door. She reminded me of what little I remembered of Pearl.

In size, Pearl was a huge woman who stuffed her body into tight fitting sweatshirts and leggings. She was oblivious to how she looked, like a stack of jiggling water balloons, every part of her one movement away from bursting through her clothing. She took good care of me, keeping me fed and cleaned, but she kept her distance emotionally. Whenever I tried to express any kind of affection, she’d push me away and say, “Don’t get attached.”  She once slapped me when I called her ‘mama.’ It was the only time I made that mistake and the only time she struck me.

Henry was no better. He was a brutish man with a mean streak. I learned how to choke a living thing to death by watching him do it to stray dogs that wandered onto the property. My first kill was a large German Shepherd.

If truth be told, I was glad when Pearl and Henry sold me to drug smugglers for a hefty price when I was eight years old to be used as mule to carry cocaine and heroin into the U.S. From Mexico. After all, it was why they had taken me in the first place. They had taught me well how to be obedient, cold and fearless. In the last six months with them they fed me small latex packets filled with powdered sugar to train me how to swallow and crap out what I would be carrying as a drug mule.

“My probation officer called you and said I need to come back,” I said to Mrs. Sothby who was staring at me as if looking at a case of walking, breathing cancer.

“Yeah, he said you’d be returning. Smart of you not to take your things with you.”

I tapped the brim of the straw hat. “I picked up new belongings.”

#

Danny was sitting on the commode, his boxers down around his ankles. “How long were you a mule?” he asked. The prison cell smelled like shit.

“Eight years,” I replied. “Surprisingly, I was well taken care of by one of the largest cartels in Northwestern Mexico, but I knew that if I made one mistake my life wouldn’t be worth the gum on the bottom of my shoes.” I lifted my foot and pushed the springs under Danny’s mattress on the top bunk making it bounce up and down. “If I hadn’t run away, I would have been shot at some point anyway. Everyone who stays with a drug cartel is killed by a bullet in one way or another, eventually. By age fourteen I had already strangled at least a dozen people, mostly innocent Mexican farmers who were standing up to the cartel, but gloves on my hands wouldn’t have stood up to even one bullet killing me if it struck the right body part.”

In the dim light outside the prison cell, I saw Harper, one of the night shift prison guards walk slowly by. He briefly glanced in and continued on.

“The fragrance of Anna’s shampoo still follows me around like a kind of ghost,” I said.

“Who’s Anna?”

“The woman who posed as my mother each time we drove across the border and back. She was the one who taught me how to read and write, both in English and Spanish. She provided the only schooling I ever got. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d be one stupid bastard.”

“You’re still a stupid bastard,” he replied with a laugh. “What happened to her?”

What did happen to her? I’ve wondered about that ever since she suddenly disappeared while coming home from the market. I made myself disappear within hours after finding out she had vanished. Crossing the border legally between Mexico to the US in the middle of the night was easy. I had fake papers and despite my black hair which suggested I was Mexican, there was no mistaking that I had Anglo white skin, Caucasian facial features and blue eyes. I got as far away from Mexico as I could without any money in my pocket, carrying my gloves in a back pocket with a straw hat on my head. I hitched a ride to San Francisco and choked the driver to death while in his car in Golden Gate Park, where he insisted we had to stop so that he could take a leak. Blocks away, I crawled into the bushes with his wallet full of money tucked into the waistband of my pants. The park became my new home and it cost nothing to stay there, so for the first time in my life I had free and easy money to spend however I wanted to. That lasted for about three weeks before I had spent the money on food, a new pair of gloves and a new straw hat, followed by three days sitting on a picnic table watching the tourists walk by and scavenging the park trash cans for scraps of food. Then I began wandering the streets in search of food and choking to death homeless men and women who were sleeping by themselves in the alleys.

A month later I was lucky enough to find a job washing pots and pans at a Chinese restaurant. The owner, Mr. Ling, rented me a room in the back of the restaurant. Eight years turned out to be a long time washing pots and pans. Out of maddening boredom, I first tried to hang myself from a rod in the closet, but just before I passed out, the belt around my neck broke. Lying in the bottom of the closet I came up with another scheme. I put rat poison in the Won Ton soup that was served to about a dozen patrons. Most of them ended up in the emergency room or spent a few days in the hospital, but they all recovered. I was found out to be the perpetrator of the crime and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for attempted murder, but was paroled after ten years for good behavior.

#

It was the middle of the night when the door to the room in the halfway house where I was sleeping opened and the lights turned on. In the doorway stood Mrs. Sothby, Kevin, and behind them about half a dozen cops with their guns drawn.

“When you went to see your parents, you killed them, didn’t you?” Kevin said, his voice filled with anger and disappointment. He may be the only really decent human being I ever met.

How could I deny it? I sat up and put the straw hat on my head. “Yes, they had it coming for the life I’ve led.”

The End


A Song for Christmas


by


Steve Carr

 

I was sixteen.

Ma’s upright piano stood against the wall in the dining room where it had been since Ma and Pa were married. It was Grandma’s piano, but she gave it to my Ma as a wedding present. It was made of mahogany and Ma polished it almost every day. I was sitting at it just plucking randomly on the black keys when Ma placed a bright red runner across the top of the piano and, a few minutes later, placed the crèche on the runner. She arranged the figures of Mary and Joseph around the baby Jesus lying in a manger.

“You’re late puttin’ that out this year, Ma,” I said.

“Each year there are more and more boxes of Christmas decorations to sort through,” she said.

I strummed several keys with an unmelodic result and heaved a loud sigh.   

“Have you decided yet which song you’re going to do for the Christmas service?” she asked.

I rapidly tapped the D flat key three times, producing a discordant sound. “Not yet, Ma,” I said.

This was going to be my first solo in front of the congregation of the Piney Creek Baptist Church, and on Christmas morning to boot, so I wanted it to be perfect, something everyone would remember. 

“Christmas is only two days away,” she said.

“I know, Ma,” I said. I closed the cover over the keys and got up from the stool. “Where’s Pa?”

“He’s out in the barn gettin’ the wagon ready for tonight’s hayride,” she said. “If you’re not going to practice your music, you should go help him.”

“Yes, Ma,” I said.

Sitting on the coffee table was the three-tiered candy dish Ma set out every Christmas. It looked fancy, like it was made of etched glass, but it was plastic. Pa had given it to Ma their first Christmas together as a married couple, back when, as Pa always liked to say, “They didn’t have two sticks to rub together to make a fire.” They still didn’t have much money, but me and my little sister, Kaylee, never went without. Starting on the twelfth day before Christmas, Ma loaded all three tiers of the candy dish with homemade chocolate fudge; sugar cookies topped with icing made from powdered sugar and colored with blue, green and red food dyes; and possibly every kind of nut known to mankind. I took a cookie from the top tier, stuck it between my teeth, and held it there while I put on my coat, hat, and gloves.

I bit into the cookie as I opened the door. The front yard was covered with a light dusting of snow. On the other side of the road, our corn fields looked bleak and barren, with broken, brown stalks sticking up here and there out of the frozen ground. I swallowed the piece of cookie and marveled at how the icing tasted like their color, although Ma never added flavoring to it. The red tasted like cherry, the green like mint, and the blue like berries.

I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me. As I ate the rest of the cookie, I watched Canadian geese flying in a V-formation as they crossed the sky. Kaylee came around the side of the house and ran up the porch steps. She had our pet Manx cat, Stinky, in her arms. Stinky was the same age as Kaylee, ten. Kaylee had tied a large silver bow to Stinky’s collar. The cat was used to being decorated for the Christmas holidays. Kaylee had been doing it to her since both of them were four.

“Pa says I can go on the hayride tonight,” she said excitedly. “If Ma says it’s okay.”

She nuzzled Stinky’s light gray fur. “Do you know what song you’re going to sing?”

I brushed cookie crumbs from my coat front. “Not yet,” I said. “Why?”

“I like that song about the drummer boy,” she said. “Bum, bum, bumty, bum, bum,” she intoned. “That one.”

“Yeah, I know it,” I said. “I’ll think about it.” I started down the steps.

“Do you think Ma is going to say no?” she asked.

I looked over my shoulder at the worried, gloomy look on her face. “I’ll talk to her if she does.”

“You’re the best brother ever,” she shouted. She went into the house loudly humming the tune to “The Little Drummer Boy.”

I walked around the house and to the barn. The ground crunched beneath the soles of my sneakers.  The warmth inside the barn enveloped me as I walked in and closed the door. Pa was up in the loft and pitching hay into the wagon positioned beneath the loft. He was wearing his favorite blue flannel shirt, the one Ma had given him two Christmases before.

“I’m here to help,” I yelled up to him.

He dumped a pitchfork full of hay into the wagon. “Shouldn’t you be workin’ on your song?”

“I’ll do it tomorrow,” I said. “I just have to decide which song I’m going to do.”

“I’ve always been partial to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’” he said as he leaned on the handle of the pitchfork.

“I can’t sing that in church,” I said.

“I guess not,” he said.

As Pa dropped hay into the wagon, I spread it out, building a comfortable bed. Pa did the hayride during Easter and Christmas for the teenagers in Piney Creek. Being a small town, there was usually no more than twenty teenagers who participated. Pa started doing it when I turned thirteen, and I suspected he enjoyed it more than I did.

#

Ann Chernay sat with me huddled under a quilt with cloth cut-outs of Christmas trees, candy canes and reindeer sewn onto the squares. She had her head on my shoulder and the coconut fragrance of her shampoo filled my senses. I was certain I was in love.

Between the clouds, bright stars glittered in the night sky. When the crescent moon appeared, its glow blanketed the fields in pale moonlight. The rhythmic clip-clop from the hooves of the horses was as relaxing as a lullaby. Pa had strung small, silver bells on the sides of the wagon. They tinkled gently as the wagon rocked and swayed.

We sang “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Kaylee sat on the seat next to Pa, snuggled against his side.

Ann didn’t attend Piney Creek Baptist Church. I don’t know how she found out I was going to sing a solo in church, but she asked, “Are you nervous about singing at your church on Christmas?”

“I can’t decide what song to sing,” I said.

“Do you know ‘Ave Maria?’” she asked.

“That’s not a Christmas song.” I sighed. “I’m beginnin’ to wish I had never told Reverend Smith I’d do a song at all.”

When Pa pulled the wagon into our driveway, everyone quickly jumped down and rushed into the warmth of our house. Ma had placed trays of sandwiches, cookies in the shape of Christmas wreaths with green butter cream frosting, and chewy Rice Krispy Treats on the dining room table. The entire house smelled like hot apple cider Ma served to everyone in red plastic cups

When her parents arrived to take her home, Ann kissed me on the cheek before she went out the door. “I’ll be at your church Christmas morning just to hear what song you select.”

“Oh, great,” I said. My stomach quickly tied itself into a knot.

#

The morning before Christmas day, Ma and Pa cleared the place in front of the living room window where the Christmas tree would go. Ma placed a white sheet on the floor and scattered silver glitter on it. Pa placed the tree stand in the center of the sheet and Ma bunched it up around the edges to give it the likeness of miniature snow drifts. Boxes of tree ornaments were stacked against the wall.

“You comin’ with me to get the tree or are you practicin’ your song?” Pa asked me.

I glanced at the piano and was overcome with a sense of dread. “I’ll go with you,” I answered.

I was happy Ma didn’t insist that I practice my song, or any song for that matter.

Pa and I put on our boots, coats, hats, and gloves and went out the back door. The ice crystals on the frozen ground shimmered in the dull morning sunlight that was filtered through thin, wispy clouds. Inside the barn, Pa hitched our mare, Gertie, to the sleigh. Before leaving the barn, Pa handed me the axe. He led Gertie down the driveway and into the woods while I walked alongside him. The runners of the sled glided easily over the icy ground. The air was heavily scented with pine.

“Your Ma says you’re still strugglin’ with findin’ the right song to sing,” he said.

I grunted. “Nothin’ I think of is what I want to sing.”

“Nothin’ will gum up the works worse than over-thinkin’ somethin’,” he said. “Sing whatever you think the baby Jesus would want to hear. It’s his birthday, after all.”

We didn’t go very far into the woods before we found the right tree.

“It looks like it grew specially to stand in our living room,” Pa said.

For the second year in a row, I cut down our Christmas tree. We tied it on the sled and Gertie pulled it back to the barn.

#

For Christmas Eve, Ma fixed a ham topped with pineapple rings for dinner. Ma always said the Christmas Eve dinner was “light,” which it never was. Along with the ham, it included mashed sweet potatoes topped with miniature marshmallows, steamed asparagus, homemade applesauce, yeast rolls, and for dessert a Yule log smothered with chocolate icing. She covered the table with the white lace tablecloth that my grandmother passed on to her and set candles in silver candlesticks on each end of the table. Before dinner began, I played “O Holy Night” on the piano while my family stood around me and we sang it.

Ma timed it so that we began decorating the tree at the same time the movie White Christmas started on the television. Pa strung the lights on the tree, and then Kaylee and Ma hung the strands of popcorn and cranberries. We all hung the ornaments while Stinky lurked about under the tree and swatted at the hanging bulbs. Kaylee had attached a large green bow to the cat’s collar. Pa put the antique golden angel on the top of the tree. It had a small key on the back, that when turned the tune to the song “Angels We Have Heard on High” played.  He turned the tree lights on just as Bing Crosby sang “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Like every Christmas Eve, Ma and Pa brought out one gift for my sister and me. Kaylee tore apart the shiny blue paper wrapped around a large box Pa had placed on her lap. When she opened the box, she screamed with delight. She pulled out a large stuffed gorilla, the one she had seen in the window of Tiswell’s Department Store. As she hugged it, I said, “I thought you said you were getting too old for dolls.”

“This isn’t a doll,” she replied curtly.

Stinky hopped up onto the sofa, sniffed the gorilla, meowed softly, and then laid down against Kaylee’s leg.

For several minutes, I stared at the flat package wrapped in red tissue paper Ma had set on my knees before I opened it. It was a framed photograph of Grandma sitting at the piano. She was the first person to tell me I had musical talent.  The smile on her face in the photograph was inscrutable. There was an envelope attached to the back. The words “For Music School” were written on it. Inside there was a hundred-dollar bill.

Before we went to bed, we went out on the porch and watched as large snowflakes began to fall.

#

I awoke Christmas morning not thinking about the presents under the tree, or the aroma wafting from the kitchen of Dutch baby pancakes, something Ma only made on Christmas mornings. Tunes of Christmas songs cluttered my brain. Most of the night my dreams had been filled with panicky scenarios where my voice was gone or I forgot how to play the piano. I climbed out of bed with a headache. I dressed in my best pants, put on the tie Pa had given me for my birthday, and joined the rest of my family in the kitchen. Ma had placed a large Dutch baby heavily sprinkled with powdered sugar on my plate. I sat down at the table, avoiding looking at anyone, although I could feel their eyes on me.

“Merry Christmas,” Ma said as she kissed me on the forehead. She put a glass of orange juice by my plate.

“Merry Christmas, Ma,” I said, staring at the puffed-up pancake in front of me.

Peripherally, I could see Kaylee stuffing large forkfuls of her Dutch baby into her mouth, hoping to speed breakfast along in order to get to the business of tearing open the gifts.

“Don’t let this singin’ at the church ruin Christmas for you,” Pa said to me after several minutes of silence from everyone.

It had been a long time since I had done it, but right there, while staring at my Dutch baby, I began to sob. It surprised my family as much as it surprised me. They affectionately huddled around me as if I had just told them I was dying from a terminal illness.

“Let’s go open the gifts,” Pa said. “That’ll make you feel a little better.”

“Yay!” Kaylee exclaimed as she ran from the kitchen.

In the living room, gifts had been placed under the tree during the night by Ma and Pa. Kaylee passed them out, and as we opened them, for that little while, I forgot all about singing at the church service.

Afterward, leaving wrapping, ribbons, bows, and our gifts, strewn about the room, we put on our boots, coats, hats and gloves, and left the house. There was about a foot of soft snow on the ground and our boots sunk in it as we walked to the car. I helped Pa clear the snow from the windows and then got in the back seat with Kaylee.

“Here we go,” Pa said as he started the car.

Kaylee grabbed my hand and held it all the way to the church.

#

The pews were full as they always were for the Christmas service, but we found a pew near the front of the church. Reverend Smith’s pulpit was wrapped in gold foil with a large red bow in the front.

Reverend Smith was a tall, lanky man, who moved very slowly despite not being very old. As he crossed the podium, he glanced at me and smiled warmly. Once behind the pulpit, he gazed out at the congregation. “This morning, instead of starting the service with a prayer, we’re going to begin it with a gift to our Lord and Savior. Most of you know has a song prepared for the occasion of the miracle of the Christ Child’s birth.” He nodded to me and then gestured for me to come up onto the podium.

My mouth was dry and the palms of my hands were sweaty. I could hear the thumping of my heart.

“Sing what your heart tells you to sing,” Pa whispered to me as I stood up.

I passed by the piano and walked up to the podium. I looked at the expectant expressions on Ma and Kaylee’s faces. And then I looked at Pa who winked at me. I heard his voice echoing in my head, “It’s his birthday, after all.”

I opened my mouth, and sang.

“Happy Birthday to you,

“Happy Birthday to you,

“Happy Birthday, dear Jesus,

“Happy Birthday to you.”

The End





“A Song for Christmas” originally appeared in the Galway Review in November 2021.


Craps

 

Steve Carr

 



Leon Manzetti was backed into a corner, a corner he found himself in when there was nowhere else to go. The door was locked and on the other side of the room. Standing between him and the door was Lester Earnings.

Leon had been in another corner, but he left it and, with his back pressed against the wall, he slid to the corner he was now in. Lester hadn’t moved; he didn’t need to. The corners that Leon occupied were equidistant from where Lester stood. Leon was terrified; the look in his eyes of a trapped mongrel said it all. Sweat poured down his face and formed stains in the underarms of his white shirt. The room smelled of urine—his—that flowed down his leg, acrid and warm, almost hot; it stung.

Lester was dangling a nylon rope that was tied like a hangman’s noose.

Leon’s teeth chattered. He could barely get his words out. “Whaddya goin’ to do with that?”

Lester had his eyes locked on Leon’s. “You know what I’m goin’ to do,” he said, softly, as if whispering sweet-nothings. The voice and the pronounced veins in his forehead and the way his nostrils flared didn’t match. He continued swinging the noose.

“I said I’d give it back. All of it,” Leon said, his voice as high pitched and tight as a plucked violin string.

“It’s not the money. You cheated. Your dice were loaded.”

“I made a mistake. I’ll never play again.” He pointed north, as if he could see beyond the room. “I’ll leave town and never come back.”

“Once a cheater, always a cheater,” Lester intoned. “There’s no room for cheaters in craps.” He finished the last knot and then held up the noose. He dangled it from his hand, swinging it slightly.

“You have any last words?”

“Please don’t do this,” Leon screamed.

#



Thick fog shrouded Seattle. Lester got out of the Uber and entered the northern end of Pike Place Market. He made his way through the gaggle of tourists and mostly upscale Seattleites milling about the large trays of carnations, roses and assortments of herbs sitting on large tables, and then past cases of candies and finally past the cases of fish on ice, where salesmen standing behind them yelled out the daily specials. He went out the door with the sign “Employees Only” and proceeded down the wooden stairs past doorways leading to offices and storage rooms. He wondered how the entire market had escaped going up in flames long before this; the entire structure was mostly wood.

At the base of the stairs, he stopped at the last door before the exit and a set of steps that led down to the restricted beach.  He knocked and waited a minute before turning the knob and going in.

Sitting at the back of the large room, visible through a narrow aisle crowded on both sides with crates and boxes, sat Marge Turnbull. The bare, dim lightbulb that dangled on an exposed wire from the ceiling to about a foot above her head cast her fleshy face half in shadow, hiding her eyes in darkness. She was fifty-four but in the lighting, looked over a hundred, easy. She was sitting at a table she used as a desk. Her hands were resting on it, clasped tightly.

He knew she was watching him, like a hawk watches its prey. She watched everyone that way.

He closed the door, returning the room to its usual darkness, except for that lightbulb, which was always on whether Marge was sitting there or not.

“The job is done?” Her baritone voice was raspy. A heavy smoker’s voice, masculine.

“Yeah, it’s done,” Lester replied. “He pissed himself.”

“He know why he had to die?”

“He knew.”

She let out a loud fart and waved away the smell. “We gotta get back to my games being clean and aboveboard and weed out the cheaters. “You know who to see next?”

“Not exactly.”

“See if you can find Pat Luzi. That weasel gets around.” She opened a tin box and took out a wad of hundred-dollar bills and summoned him with a wave of the hand to come get it. “This should cover your expenses.”

It was then he noticed a teenager, ragged and unkempt, obviously fresh off the streets, standing in the shadows among stacks of boxes watching him and Marge.

Lester took the cash and walked out of the room without looking back to see if she was watching him, because, of course, she was.

#

In the Capitol Hill area of Seattle, Lester had an early dinner at the upscale Italian restaurant Altura. He left on top of a linen napkin a $100 tip. The napkin was twisted into a cord, not that it meant anything, but it had become a habit. He did the same thing at every restaurant. He walked down Broadway, stopping in front of the only vacant shop on the street, and looked around before surreptitiously slipping down the narrow walkway between it and the building next to it. The heat of the day had warmed the tight space between the buildings, perfuming the air with the scent of bricks. Around the back of the shop, the crapshoot was already in progress. Six players were assembled in a semi-circle around the shooter. Bills – mostly tens and twenties – were being laid down as fast as the dice were being rolled. The shooter was having a run of luck.

Lester recognized only one of the men, Pat Luzi, a small-time thief, mostly purse snatching and dime store burglaries. Pat was skinny to the point of looking emaciated, and tall, as if his body had been shaped in a noodle-making machine. The bright pink scar that ran down his left cheek was put there courtesy of Lester. That was back in the days when Lester was a master with the switchblade, before he took up the noose which he found to be cleaner, less bloody; he also liked watching how, with the noose, his victims squirmed. Pat had made a crack about Marge that didn’t sit well with Lester. Say what you will about him, but be careful what you say about Marge. It was the last time Pat made a crack of any kind about Marge. He was lucky that Lester hadn’t killed him.

Lester could feel the dice in their royal purple felt case inside his back pocket wanting to get out and join the game, and he was salivating to get in on the action.  But the crapshoot would have to wait. He tapped Pat on the shoulder, leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “Marge says you know who’s been using loaded dice at her high stakes crapshoots.”

When Lester breathed on you, it wasn’t just warm air that came out of his mouth; it was hot, like having a lit match applied to your skin. Pat stood bolt upright, and, without looking at Lester and still watching the dice being rolled, said, “I didn’t know anyone was cheating.”

“Marge is losing money, and as you know, Marge doesn’t like to lose money.”

Pat gulped audibly. “ I don’t know nothing, I swear.”

Lester patted him on the back. In any other circumstances, it would have been seen as a friendly gesture. Lester wasn’t the back-patting friendly type.

Pat’s knees buckled slightly. “I know nothing first-hand, just rumors, you know, street chatter.”

“Tell me about the chatter.”

The two of them stepped back from the others. Pat told Lester everything he had heard. Lester gave him a hundred dollar bill—“for your trouble”—and made his way back out to the street.  It was growing dark. In the back, the boys would soon be rolling the dice by flashlight until the middle of the night.

#

“A cheater at dice, a cheater at everything else,” Marge once told him. Her husband had just deserted her for his girlfriend and headed East. Marge found in his sock drawer a box of loaded dice, some of the spots on them changed in such an obvious way that she wondered how he had gotten away with it. For the next ten years, Marge played the craps, cleanly, not even a hint of cheating, and amassed a lot of money. She was good. Lucky. When she found Lester trying to hustle tourists out of a few dollars and looking as wild as a feral cat, she took him under her wing and taught him everything she knew about rolling the dice. He was sixteen at the time. She was forty. There was nothing sordid or sexual about their relationship. They regarded each other the same as a patron of the arts regards a protege.

The salted taffy and pecan bon bon export company that she ran from Pike’s Place Market was just a front for her crapshoot activities that involved some of the wealthiest dice players in Seattle and men and women who came to Seattle from all over the world just to play in one of her games.

Lester was her chief lieutenant. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do if she asked him. She paid him handsomely and had taught him everything she knew about shooting craps. If he ever set out on his own, she had prepared him for it. He was better at rolling the dice than anyone knew, including her. He played craps all over Seattle but managed to keep his skill with the dice a secret.

Connie Mateo was one of those people who embodied what Marge thought about cheaters and cheating. She had money to burn and played in one of Marge’s games on those occasions when a man she was interested in was also going to be there. Her husband was too busy running an international tech software company out of Vancouver to worry about what his wife was up to.

Lester had called her earlier to arrange to meet her at her mansion in the Medina suburb, the wealthiest part of Seattle. He didn’t need to tell her why he wanted to see her. She made her own assumptions about the reason.

She opened the door, dressed in an expensive flesh colored negligee. It was tight, revealing and practically see-through. It was hard to tell where the negligee left off and her skin took over. “I gave the staff the evening off,” she cooed. “The place is all ours.”

“That’s good,” he replied. “I don’t think we want word getting around that I paid you a visit.”

“I’ve had my eye on you for some time,” she said. “I was wondering when you’d come to see me.”

He walked in, closed the door, and after a moment of  being stunned by the garish lavishness of the foyer and winding glass steps leading to the second floor, he adjusted the gloves he was wearing and said, “Word has it you’re not always on the up and up with the dice you been rolling.”

She looked stunned. “That’s a lie. I know better than try to cheat in one of Marge’s games.”

“Do you? I have a reliable source that says otherwise.”

“Hey, what’s this all about? I thought you came here so that we could become better acquainted.”

“We’re getting acquainted,” he replied. He had a thin nylon cord noose tied around his waist, the loop hidden in the back. He deftly took it off and held it up, the loop dangling at the end of the rope. “You know what this is?”

She knew exactly what it was and what it meant. “Okay, you’re right. I have used loaded dice on a couple of occasions. Just for kicks. I can give the money back to Marge. There’s no reason to threaten me.”

“This isn’t a threat. It’s a death sentence.”

 She screamed, turned and ran up the steps. He wasn’t going to give her a chance to get her cellphone, and took off after her. He caught up with her at the top of the stairs, lassoing her with the noose. He tightened the noose as he pulled her close.

“Please don’t do this,” she begged. “I’m sorry. Please stop and tell Marge it won’t happen again. I don’t know why I did it.”

“Some people just can’t help themselves.”

Strangling her was easy. She struggled and clawed at him at first, but with her windpipe cut off, she dropped to her knees and remained there until she died. He removed the noose and threw her body over the railing. It landed with a soft thud on the marble floor.

#

His name was Cooper. Marge had saved him from being arrested for vagrancy, giving the cop about to arrest him a bribe to hand the teenager over to her. “You ever shoot craps?” was the first thing she asked him.

“No.”

“I’ll teach you how,” she said. “You do everything I ask and you can lead a very comfortable life.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He had watched when Lester arrived the first time, curious about the guy who Marge said would teach him everything he needed to know about shooting craps in Seattle.

Lester entered Marge’s “office” in Pike’s Place Market to report to her that another cheater had been eliminated. She introduced him to Cooper who was casually sitting on the end of her desk.

“I found Cooper on the streets just like I found you,” she said. “Show him the ropes.”

“What’s he going to be doing?” Lester asked.

“Eventually the same thing as you.”

Cooper followed Lester out of the market and stood back while Lester hailed a taxi.

“Where we going?” Cooper asked as they got in the back seat.

“Alki Beach,” Lester told the driver.

They rode in silence all the way there. Lester led Cooper to one of the trails.

“We haven’t done it yet, but you must know. Does she like her sex kinky?” Cooper asked, trailing behind Lester.

Lester had already made up his mind what was going to happen to this punk, this nobody, this kid who Marge threw in his face and had now insulted her. He knew cheaters and cheating and this had all the earmarks of that. He removed the cord from around his waist, turned, and in a matter of moments he had the noose around the kid’s neck. “Marge is too good for the likes of you,” he said to Cooper as the teen’s eyes bulged out, his face turned bright red, and then he stopped breathing.

Two hikers told police everything they had witnessed.

#

A year later, as Lester was led to the gallows, escorted by two guards, each holding on to one of Lester’s arms, he couldn’t help but smile at the conversation they were having.

“We’ll use my dice,” one guard said. “I don’t trust you.”

“I don’t cheat when it comes to rolling the dice,” the other one replied.

“What you guys rolling for?” Lester asked.

“High roller gets the stuff you leave behind. It’s crazy what people will pay just for a smelly pair of your underwear.”

“Since Washington is one of the last states that allows hanging, your things will bring in higher prices,” the other guard interjected.

In the courtyard where the gallows had been erected, the guards marched Lester up the gallows stairs, stood him on the trap door, and lowered the noose. Lester refused to have his head covered, preferring to see the noose slide down past his eyes to his neck. One of the guards rolled the dice; Lester watched them intently as they tumbled near his feet.  They came to rest a second before the trapdoor opened.

Snake eyes.





Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 600 short stories— new and reprints— published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers, came out in January 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.

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