Sister Grim

‘Sister Grim’ was originally published by the venerable Canada’s Storyteller Magazine. Sadly, CST is now gone, so here’s a re-print of my story about Ms. Grim….

 

office-building-and-trees

 

On the cul-de-sac at the end of Alyssum drive, in the green suburb of Still Creek, IrisTech Corporate Headquarters stood alone and dominant. Islands of purple snapdragons decorated the peaceful, manicured grounds that surrounded the imposing graystone; a row of oaks stood reverently behind them. Tuesday morning’s sunlight fought through the oaks’ branches and made shadows on the building’s eastern face that looked like fingers trying to reach into the windows.

Just another day at IrisTech. Office staff rushed, technicians chatted, clerks typed. Phones rang and keyboards clicked. I bent down to pick a copper paper-clip off the floor as an agitated Paula-From-Sales stood in front of her copier and asked, “Has anyone seen Sister Grim?” Her stiletto-heeled foot rocked back and forth like a manic, black ferret.

“I’M IN A HURRY!” she bellowed. “I have to be somewhere! Where the hell is that pathetic fart? The stupid copier cabinet is locked!  I’d better not have to go somewhere else to get paper, I have other things to do, y’ know!” Paula-From-Sales sold more computers at IrisTech than any other sales-rep, but having to run down supplies and make copies on her own, personal copier was beneath her. She put her crimson-tipped hands on her hips and kicked the cabinet door.

Paula sought Sophia Graham, known to all of IrisTech as “Sister Grim” of the clerical staff. “Where is that friggin’ SISTER GRIM when you need her?” she whined. “If I don’t have the little clerks backing me up, doing THEIR jobs, then I don’t have enough time to sell HALF the computers that get sold at this place, and you know what THAT means!” Her loud, melodramatic speech was performed for anyone in earshot, an annoying ritual.

I was fooling around near the copier, pouring hot water into my teacup. “I’ll look for her,” I offered. Volunteering to search for Sophia let me escape Paula-From-Sales (a name she fostered by introducing herself using the three-word moniker instead of simply ‘Paula’) before an actual conversation began between us. I never liked Paula very much.

Who did Paula remind me of…a murderess…that woman that killed her neighbor with a knife and fork last year? Or was it a movie villainess…someone like that.

***

Sophia Graham had worked for the company for three years and three months. (As the human resources manager, I knew everyone’s duration of employment.) She was chronically sad; no bonus smiles from Sophia. She’d tell anyone that would listen that she had “unresolved issues” from her childhood, that men sought her out only as an object, that her life was going nowhere.

I once brought up our tuition re-imbursement program with her. “Move up in the company; meet some new, different people at college,” I suggested. “You’re industrious. You could really go far here if you put your mind to it.” I lied a bit.

I tried to be upbeat but she wasn’t very interested in my suggestion. “I’m one of those people,” she moaned, “doomed to the proverbial, eternal rut.” The brow on her flat, square-ish face never wrinkled a bit when she said it. I felt for a twenty-eight year old that would trudge through life convinced it held so little promise.

At a Friday happy hour, Sophia was the topic of a tipsy, laughter filled conversation. “Her life is no fairy-tale,” mused Glen, a service-tech. The “fairy-tale” remark led Paula-From-Sales to make the “Sister Grim” double-entendre, and unfortunately, it stuck. It grew tired and mean-spirited, but so common around the office I even caught myself saying it once.

***

I set my “I Love IrisTech” cup of steaming water next to the coffee maker, grinding it into the grit of the morning’s spilled sugar. Over my shoulder I shouted, “I’ll send her back when I find her!” Successful, I fled and began my extended break. When I found Sophia, I’d make it a point to chat and keep Paula-From-Sales waiting.

I lollygagged down the hall and turned left, toward the lobby.  I couldn’t blame Sophia for her momentary absence. She had a crummy job; thankless, menial tasks from eight in the morning until five, copying and filing all day. Enough to make any normal human being flat-line.  She wasn’t in the habit of just vanishing, though. Arguably, she was the most dependable person at IrisTech. She’d even won the office’s October “Attention to Detail” award.

One lunch-hour not long ago, I found Sophia alone, sorting account-payables files as she ate a brown-spotted banana. “Go to lunch, Sophia, get out of here!  It’s not good to stay in a building all day. Do you like to walk?” I asked. “Or bring a book, read outside. At the lunch tables by the flowers when the weather’s nice, huh? I make it a point to get out of here when I can,” I emphasized.

She shifted in her seat and stopped sipping from the tiny straw inserted in her boxed soy-drink. “Nowhere to go,” she said. “Someone’s just going to yell, ‘Hey, Sister Grim! What’s up?’ No thank-you. The files and staplers and copiers are better company than that.” She smiled an obligatory, little twitch, not even a smile really, then returned, unemotionally, to her aged banana and folders.

***

I kept walking, looking around corners, in offices. No luck. I wanted to get to Sophia before Paula-From-Sales did, tell her: don’t sweat it, Paula’s a jerk, you’ll be here longer than she will…say, how are your cats? I passed by stacks of boxes that had been organized and labeled by her, years of files that no one ever wanted to tackle until systematic Sophia arrived.

A familiar, resonant click came over the speakers in the hall, the sound of the office’s public address system being switched on. Paula’s voice, as brittle and venomous as I’d ever heard it, came across at maximum volume. “Sister Grim, get your useless butt to the sales office immediately! COME!  NOW!”  I couldn’t stand Paula as it was, but that was too much. Her unparalleled sales performance, though, reduced my options regarding what I could effectively do about her.

I never really understood why Paula had set out after Sophia so deliberately all those years. The bully-jackal chewing at the runt’s hind-end, I suppose; the cruel order of the pack. She was lucky Sophia wasn’t vindictive, just plugged along, filing and copying, filing and copying….

“Of course, Sophia’s in the bathroom,” I muttered. “Carol, could you see if Sophia’s in the ladies’ room?” The receptionist, still giggling at the announcement that had just come over the intercom, was gone for barely ten seconds, returning and shaking her head.

Would she have just left? I headed for the subfloor basement, taking the cement stairs. Knowing Sophia, she was probably down there fetching supplies. She liked to keep the copiers well-stocked and, as she mentioned the day before, “ready to go.”

“Sophia!” I flicked a light on; no one in the musty basement besides myself. I looked around some boxes and – I don’t know why – behind the hot-water heater. Just dust. I stood on my tiptoes and looked out the ground-level window, toward the east. Maybe she was running away, through the row of oaks; she’d finally had it. I imagined her facing the building, angrily shaking her fist at her “Sister Grim” existence at IrisTech and everyone that had a part in it.

The sun over Still Creek had warmed the offices upstairs but not the basement. I folded my short-sleeved arms and rubbed away the goosebumps.

I continued poking around downstairs and found more organized boxes, courtesy of our busy, enterprising Sophia. There was a coffee-stained newspaper bearing the headline: ’28 Car Pile-Up Halts Commute.’ An ashtray full of stubbed-out cigarettes was atop an old, green file cabinet. Christmas decorations were in bags and boxes, including Paula’s favorite: a life-size poster of a Chippendale’s dancer barely disguised as Santa Claus that she faithfully put up next to her desk, g-string at tongue-level, every December.

A piercing, window-rattling CRACK made the building jump. I started sweating; my throat tightened. I galloped upstairs three steps at a time and followed a frantic crowd of about twelve people toward the copy-and-coffee room. I smelled something burning. A woman screamed and someone yelled my name.

People bunched up around the doorway, shoulder to shoulder, tilting their heads to see around other heads in front. No one wanted to commit to crossing the threshold into the room. I forced my way between over-perfumed Elaine and un-deoderized Horace from maintenance. Brown smoke hovered near the ceiling. I could see a five-foot-high black mark, like a splash of copier toner, on the area of the wall usually covered up by the huge IrisTech 5000 CopyMaster.

The copier had exploded out its back and violently pushed itself into Paula-From-Sales, knocking her out. She landed under a queen palm, her head cracking the plant’s ceramic pot. A female voice whispered she’d decided to find some paper and make her own copies after all, not willing to wait any longer. “When she pressed the button,” the voice said, “it blew.”

Carol called 9-1-1. Horace ran in and put his folded, fragrant “I Love IrisTech” wind-breaker under Paula’s head. In minutes, groggy Paula-From-Sales was rolled away on a gurney and sped to the hospital in a shiny, red-and-white-striped Still Creek Fire Department ambulance. Two high-heeled, black-stocking clad sales assistants, Tiffani and Kelli, the ‘mini-Paulas’ we called them, grabbed their matching purses and rode with her to the hospital.

Sophia was dead, found bent into a fetal position in the storage compartment of the copier, there since the previous night police later said, behind the locked cabinet door. She’d taken the back off the cabinet, crawled in and removed a panel that opened into the electronic controls of the copier. She was completely dressed in black; the security guards never saw her. She’d attempted to wire a device that would make the copier explode when the “start” button was pressed, but stayed too long into the morning, hidden and not able to leave once office staff began arriving.

I pictured Sophia curled up in the aloneness of night, fingers reaching through the maze of wires. Her last shift at IrisTech. Industrious Sophia, busy until the end.

Police found a photo of Paula in Sophia’s jacket pocket, the missing keys to the copier cabinet, along with a cassette of Debbie Boone’s ‘You Light Up My Life’ and a half-eaten banana in a baggie. The melted tendons of her right hand were fused to needle-nose pliers. The pliers still held two electrical wires from the copier and another wire that had been connected to an ounce of plastic explosive. An F.B.I. bomb expert later declared that she’d deliberately made a manual, kamikaze connection, no doubt when she heard Paula standing inches away.

I was numb as I stared at the pink and black corpse that used to be Sophia Graham, now burned almost hairless and missing both eyelids and lips.  Her dead-awake gaze seemed aimed directly at me.  She smiled a lipless-corpse grin, a frozen image of victorious insanity as she squeezed the wires together while she listened to her own, personal devil-incarnate screaming her name.

***

I pulled Sophia’s personnel file and found her application. I thought someone should call her family before they heard the story on the news.  However, on the “In case of emergency contact” line, it was blank.

Instead of taking a lunch, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the IrisTech complex. Alone, I watched the EMT’s casually load Sophia’s scorched body into a dented, older-model coroner’s van. They slammed the double-doors shut and left for the city morgue, and I heard their laughter as they drove away, out of the shadowy grasp of the oaks’ branches.

I turned around to face the building and angrily shook my fist as Sophia Graham escaped IrisTech forever, past the snapdragons and down sunny Alyssum Drive, away from what she hated most of all. Sister Grim.

***

It’s been two years since the explosion.

Paula never returned to IrisTech. She suffers from severe amnesia and doesn’t remember anyone here.  Not Sophia, not her boyfriend, not a damned soul.  She doesn’t die her hair anymore, and it’s long and gray. She’s put on about eighty pounds, last I heard. She found work as a laundry worker at Still Creek Hospital.

Tiffany and Kelli were arrested last year in a drug-and-prostitution sting. Kelli ratted out Tiffani and received probation. Tiffany has ten months left on her sentence and now goes by the nickname “Gristle.”

By virtue of the explosion, the ensuing negative press and no more Paula-from-Sales, IrisTech went under. Unrecoverable losses in the tens of millions of dollars, and you know what THAT means.

I wrote a book about Sophia and her exploits titled: Sister Grim – Not a Fairy Tale. It did very well and is about to be made into a television movie.  Be sure to check your local listings.

Right after I received my advance for the book, I had Sophia dug up from her unmarked, county grave and buried with a proper funeral at Willowbrook, a posh cemetery in the cool pines north of Still Creek. The stone reads: “Sophia Luanne Graham. Industrious and appreciated. Busy until the end.” I think she’d like that.

Every once in a while I drive by the old IrisTech complex. It’s vacant now and about a dozen of its windows have been broken out. The purple snapdragons have been overtaken by fat, thorned weeds. But the morning sun still fights through the branches of the oak trees and the shadows they cast on the building look like a ghost’s hands that just won’t let go.

I think Sophia would like that, too.

 

© copyright Robert Louis Bartlett

Advertisements

Lincoln

50014603-1

Out the little window above the kitchen sink I watch traffic speed north and south on Clark Street.  No one stops. If someone slowed, pulled into our dirt driveway, knocked, I might get out of washing the dishes. Because mom’s wheelchair-bound and can’t answer the door very well.

“Are you gettin’ ’em clean, Jeanie?” she asks. My hair is stuck to my damp forehead and neck; a drop of sweat hangs from the tip of my nose as I scrub a chipped plate striped with hardened, yellow egg. I focus on the faces in the cars, imagine who they are, and how far away from here they’re going.

Clark Street is part of the highway; I never see anyone twice. I practice sending them telepathic messages, try to make one of the drivers stop at our house. Someone, something. Anything.

There are no birds outside. As they approach Exton, it must hit them: there are no trees, the corn fields are dried up.  Exton must bore or depress them to death, though I’ve never seen a dead bird. There are over ninety billion of them; where do they all go to die?  Away from here, evidently. I wipe the lukewarm drop of sweat off my nose with the back of my bent wrist. Just a lot of silverware left now, mostly spoons.

“Where’s dad?” I ask.

“Donny’s,” my mom shouts back. “Are you gettin’ ’em clean, Jeanie?”

***

Donny’s is the only tavern in town and a hangout for the local racists.  My father is not yet a full-fledged racist, but he’s trying it on for size; he’s racist-light.  He’s been a drunk for years, and has a long-running relationship with Donny. His rusted pickup is parked in its regular spot: under the oval window that frames the blue-neon Jim Beam sign.

The motorcycle next to my dad’s truck belongs to Jake Merit; another drunk, a confirmed racist. There’s a swastika on the gas-tank of Jake’s bike. My dad hasn’t painted any symbols or put any stickers on his truck, but that’s coming, I can feel it. It’s the state of things here in Exton.

I park the car at the side of the building, under a small billboard that reads: Donny’s – A Friendly Place. I’m only seventeen, but I walk inside, no one will care; kids come and fetch their liquored-up parents all the time. You’re doing Donny a favor because he won’t have to take them home or come back in the morning to find them asleep in their own vomit on the pool table.

“Hi, dad.” He tilts his head back and squints, peers down his nose at me like he doesn’t recognize me right off. This is a deliberate, transparent stall; I’ve seen it before. It allows the drunk that extra second or two to work up something to say, to collect his thoughts so he won’t come off like a sauced loser.

“We-ell, lookie here,” he mumbles. Drunks love the word “well,” too; they draw it out, it’s another time-buyer. Jake Merit is on a stool on the other side of my dad; they must remain in the same order they park. Past Jake is Clyde Diddow, who doesn’t own a car or a motorcycle, but he’s a drunk and a racist, too. Clyde Diddow gives me the creeps, has eyeballed me up and down since I’ve been about twelve. He’s doing it now, leaning away from the bar, gaping at my bare legs. Good ol’ Clyde, subtle as a freight train. Come and get it, buster. Clyde doesn’t know I keep a Buck knife in my purse; I’d gut him like a trout. But five-foot-five Clyde’s afraid of my six-foot-four dad, not me, so he stays put.

The chocolate-brown bar and the flicker of orange and amber candles remind me of Halloween, and my dad’s friends are the monsters. “Watcha’ doin’ down he-ere, little lady?” he asks.

“Mom and I want you to come home, dad, y’ haven’t been home for supper for a few days,” I say.

***

My dad, Jake, Clyde and several others that get stewed at Donny’s are racists, they contend, because of Jerry Roland. Jerry was the only black person in town when he lived here. He was working at Olsen’s Feed Store when an ancient, rickety grain loader that should have been replaced years ago fell on him and hurt his back. Tore it up. Old man Olsen didn’t carry medical insurance for his workers, didn’t have liability insurance on his business, and wouldn’t step up and pay for Jerry’s medical bills, so Jerry sued him. Mercy Hospital up in Ashley wanted their money, so they hired Jerry’s lawyers. “Jew lawyers from Chicago,” my dad said. I don’t know if Jerry’s lawyers were Jewish, but they were better than old man Olsen’s pin-striped gentile. The jury in Lincoln awarded Jerry enough money to square up with the hospital, and the doctors, plus two-hundred thousand for pain and suffering. Wiped out Olsen’s Feed and the Olsen farm; wiped out everyone’s jobs, too. Dad’s, Jake’s, Clyde’s, nineteen others. That’s why they’re racists, they say, because of the blacks, and the Jews, how they screwed over the working, white men of Exton.

“C’mon home, dad,” I say.  “Mom and I will fix you a nice sit-down supper, meat and potatoes, the whole sha-bang.”

I just want to see if I can persuade my father to do something, like I used to be able to when I was a little girl.  When he didn’t think so crazy. It’s the only reason I came down here.

***

Two black men enter Donny’s.  One of them sits at a table and the other walks to the end of the bar.  “Two Budweisers, please,” the man at the bar says to Donny. I can tell Donny doesn’t want to serve them. He does, though, because most people run tabs here and good luck getting them to settle up, but these guys are one-timers and will pay cash, and might even leave a tip. The man puts a ten on the counter, says keep it, and takes the beers to his table.

“Shee-it,” Jake grumbles, “you gotta be kiddin’ me!  I’ll be damned!”

Cool it,” Donny hisses, “just drink your beer and shut up.” Clyde giggles and my dad burps. Then, clear as crystal, we all hear one of the black men laugh.

“Whad’ ‘ja say?” Jake growls, then pulls a pistol from under his shirt and points it at their table.

“Jake, Jake,” my dad whispers, “you don’t wanna’ do this, put that gun away.”

“He’s right, Jake,” Donny says, “put the damn gun away.” Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’ is playing on the juke-box.  The black men stand up and put their hands in the air like they’re being held up.

“We don’t want any trouble, mister,” the man that paid for the beers says. But his friend whips out a gun, too, and points it at Jake; in the dark haze, all I can tell is that it’s dull gray.  “Mine’s a semi-auto,” the man with the gun says, “one shot goes off from yours and I’ll reel off ten, you just leave us alone and we’ll be on our way.”

“Oughta’ blast both your asses right here, both of ya’!” Jake roars. Clyde’s pale as pie dough and can’t take his eyes off the other man’s gun; he looks like he’s going to pass out. My dad has reached down, grabbed my wrist; I think he’s planning to yank me to the floor once the shooting starts.

***

It’s true, about your life passing before you once you’re convinced you’re about to die. My mom, before the wheelchair, chasing after me in the snow . . . my dad, spinning me around and around in the front yard until I was dizzy . . . the shimmering, gold wristwatch my parents gave me for junior-high graduation . . . that cute boy that lived on the same street as my grandma in Little Rock . . . my pet mouse Rocket that liked to get out of her cage and run under my bed . . . .

***

I recognize the two men! They drove past the house while I was doing dishes. They were in one of the cars I sent a telepathic message to, to slow down, to knock on the door. Wrong place, guys – you missed the house by a couple miles.

Jake has both hands on his gun now; the vein on his temple is as big as a pencil. “WHAT’S IT GONNA’ BE!” he screams; he’s all worked up. The black man with the gun is still aiming straight at Jake’s head as his friend keeps an eye on the rest of us.

I glance over my shoulder at Jake. I twist my wrist out of my dad’s grasp, step in front of Jake’s gun, wrap my hand around its barrel and point it at my chest. “What the hell you doin’, Jeanie?” Jake whines.

“Go,” I say to the two men, but I don’t take my eyes off Jake. “He won’t shoot me,” I yell, “GO!” They step backwards out of the bar, the man with the gun doesn’t lower his aim.

The blinding, afternoon sun invades the dark world of Donny’s through the opened door, and I see in the man’s hand that it’s not a gun after all, but one of those little all-in-one folding ratchets. Jake doesn’t attempt to move his gun as they leave. His mouth hangs open, like an empty sack, and he storms out the back of the bar, shrieking, cussing.

My father clumsily runs his rough fingers through my hair, kisses me on the cheek, returns to his beer.  Clyde smokes a cigarette down in three drags. “Not a word of this,” Donny says, “or they’ll sure as hell yank my liquor license, then y’all will have to drive to the V.F.W. in Middleton, so just keep your mouths shut, we’ll act like it never happened. Jeanie, take your father home. You too, Clyde, go the hell home.”

“You’re a brave girl, honey,” my dad whispers.

“Let’s just leave your truck and come back for it tomorrow,” I say.

We get in the car to pull away from Donny’s, but I’m having trouble shifting into reverse because my shaking hand is cramped, frozen in the shape of Jake’s gun barrel, and I can’t make my fingers open up.

***

I hear Jerry Roland is living in Lincoln now; maybe I’ll look him up. The elderly woman seated in front of me on the bus has frayed, crimson ribbons and a piece of lint in her gray and purple hair. A small girl with a porcelain-perfect face stands in the aisle under  a straw bonnet and grins at me.

Dad saw a doctor, was diagnosed with a bad back, depression and chronic alcoholism, and is on disability now. His check combined with mom’s makes sixteen-hundred a month coming in. He pushes mom to the market on cool days and stays home for dinner every night.

Jake Merit moved to Akron and may have found other nazis to hang out with. Clyde Diddow was arrested for indecent exposure near Exton Elementary School and is doing a hard deuce in the state penitentiary.

I’m taking a list with me to Lincoln. It reads: do not send any more telepathic messages, always use disposable plastic silverware and paper plates, cut hair very short. It is folded up, in my pocket, next to my ticket that cost sixty-one dollars even, which leaves me forty-two dollars and seventy-five cents.

I’m really going to look up Jerry Roland in Lincoln, if he’s there. Thank him for killing off Exton; it was terminal anyway, he just hastened the inevitable. Donny’s has closed and the skeletal building that was Olsen’s Feed has burned to the ground.

The bus moves; I stare at my sandals. There’s nothing to look at outside; there are no trees in Exton.

***

I crack my window on the bus and inhale city smells – a hamburger joint, asphalt, exhaust. My dad warned me: be careful, there are people in the city that will take advantage of a pretty girl; he said this with a straight face.

My plan is to find a neighborhood church, ask them nicely if I might stay just long enough to find a place; I will clean for them at night, wipe the windows and the toilets, get a job, maybe punching little holes in the buttons at the button factory. Unlikely as it is, if I become homesick, I’ll unpack my old wristwatch and a miniature brass bell that once hung around Rocket’s neck.

I will find a nice man, perhaps someone with whom I can have a beautiful, little girl with a tea-and-cream complexion and a honey-brown afro; she will smell like baby lotion and lilac powder and be soft as silk. I’ll tell her she lives in a city named for someone wonderful who was called Abraham.

I put my hand out the window and laugh. We travel slowly through Lincoln’s wide streets and there are trees full of birds, hundreds of trees, and if I stretch out my fingers, I can just touch their leaves.

 

© copyright Robert Louis Bartlett, 2019

Teach Me How To Dance To The Blues

‘Teach Me How To Dance To The Blues’ was originally published in the best literary mag in LaLa, 34th Parallel, and I dedicated it to my favorite poet…

asdf

Would you like to know what first drew me to you last night? That you didn’t fall backwards, rocking back and forth in that ancient, cane chair. You and that teetering, squeaky relic defied gravity and physics. He might be a little drunk, I thought, or perhaps he’s a magician, a shaman.  You were damned mysterious, regardless, alone in your dimly lit corner of the bar, and curiosity got the better of me.

I noticed, happily, you weren’t a beer drinker. I’ve grown leery of beer drinkers – loud college students, wannabe jocks posturing in snug t-shirts. You had one, little glass in front of you, though, half-filled with amber, no ice. It glowed like a fortune teller’s candle.

 “Hear that song?” you asked. I glanced at the jukebox, then returned to your don’t-lie-to-me eyes. “It’s ‘Mean Old World,’ by T-Bone Walker. I picked it out. Nice, yeah?”

 A half-grin snuck its way to my lips. I shrugged, admitting I preferred the Beatles and Chopin to the blues, that I’d simply stopped in for a drink.

 “Maybe I can change your mind,” you replied, smirking like Elvis. “It’s the only music in the history of the planet that makes any sense to me.”

 “Listen,” you said. “That’s Mighty Joe Young. It’s called ‘Bring It On.'” You asked me if I danced. If I would be willing to dance with you.

I stirred my drink with a red, plastic miniature of Boudica’s bloodied sword before I answered, smiling, “Teach me, I dare you. Teach me how to dance to the blues.”

 We walked onto the floor, holding hands, and our fingerprints identified each other. At least that’s my theory. That we’re all programmed for love, our minds and bodies waiting for the correct person, the right second. When a chorus of chemistry takes us over, when felicity drenches the soul and salient, white sparks brighten that needful hollow in the heart.

 As it happened, you weren’t drunk; I was glad of that. I knew when you held me you were sober, that all your movements were deliberate. You told me you’d never danced with a woman that swayed as smoothly as a pendulum, or with hair exactly the same color as yours. Then you whispered in my ear: “Destiny is a funny thing, isn’t it?”

 Incidentally, I think the dance floor of Isaac’s Friendly Lincoln Street Club might be one of the galaxy’s black holes, a place where the traditional laws of time and space don’t apply. How else do two people dance so slowly to a plaintive Victoria Spivey and a sobbing harmonica, yet speed so quickly toward each other? Now, however, it’s morning, and I must go.

 I’m writing this why? It’s a chronicle, a keepsake. A souvenir for us to look at tomorrow, or in fifty years. Something to lean against your bottle of cologne (which I’ve opened and taken a whif of before leaving for work), a small surprise for you to find when you open your eyes, written in my best penmanship. A moment of me for you to wake up to.

In answer to the last question you asked before we fell asleep: I don’t know what made me wander into a blues bar, versus someplace else.  Destiny is a funny thing, isn’t it?

You say you are an artist. And a pianist. Tonight, show me a picture you’ve painted. Play me a song on that upright in your living room. I’ll bring you fresh, crisp carnations and some exotic take-out. I want to feel that fire again, too, mister – just like last night.  But first, I’d like to set the galaxy on its ear and have another dance.

 

©copyright RobertBartlett, 2019

An Unexpected Remedy

The Pretty Trees Podcast recently put my story An Unexpected Remedy on their wonderful site.

An Unexpected Remedy

There were far too many people stuffed into the musty waiting area of Desert Sage Medical Clinic for my good.  The packed room was an agonizing cacophony of raspy coughing, melodramatic sneezing and crying children. Everyone sought a cure, an end to their pain.

I nervously patted my front pocket, making my last two pills rattle in their plastic container.  Okay, I still have two, I thought . . . I’ll have sixty more in an hour.  All I had to do was suffer the irritating crowd, see the doc, then: adios.

Squished into the arm of a worn, naugahyde couch, I was getting a little too cozy with the woman seated next to me.  “Excuse me,” she said, “could you be so kind as to hand me that magazine, the one with Roseanne on it?” Her large thigh was mating with mine.  She nodded toward the end-table at my right, patting at her nose with a weary, tattered tissue.

I reached for the old magazine and wondered: How many millions of germs are growing in these pages?  “There ya’ go,” I said, forcing a smile.  I set the magazine on my neighbor’s pink-polyester lap while she sniff-sniffed into her shredded ball of paper.

Quickly looking away, I was afraid I’d said too much. I folded my arms and focused on the stained baseboard across the room.

—–

I hadn’t spoken to my daughter Chrissy or my wife Helen that morning; they were gone when I crawled out of bed at eleven.  I hadn’t spoken to them the day before, either. They’d learned to keep a safe distance during my bad weeks. That distance is long; one can scream and not be heard across it.  Voices don’t carry there.

I was an accountant.  Until last year, when I fell off the roof of our house.  I was up there getting Chrissy’s kite when a sudden wind came up, then I was in the front yard, flat on my back, unconscious as a rock.

The headaches started a week later.  They grew so intense I wasn’t able to work.  I was eating over-the-counter pain medication like other people eat peanuts. Eventually, I found Doc Shapiro and his prescription for blessed, powerful, tablets that are atom-bombs compared to the cap-pistols ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

The depression came on about a month after the fall.  My psychiatrist fixes me up with teal capsulets, intended to “keep one’s range of emotions in the middle, away from the scary edges,” she says with a practiced wink.

Understand, being farther away from Helen and Chrissy is the worst part.  People get smaller at a distance. It is an affliction that is beyond medicine, an incurable unfairness.

All I was doing, you see, was getting Chrissy’s kite.

—–

It was a typical, early August in Everton: wet, dusty monsoon air had overtaken the valley.  The crowd at the clinic was a human smorgasbord of summer colds and allergies.

They were all waiting . . . waiting . . . breathing heavily, filling the room with dozens of viruses.  They’d taken time out from their dismal lives to see the doc, get a shot and a dose of sympathy, and make each other a little more ill in the process.  Probably a welcome break in their respective routines. And there I was with them.  I was a regular customer, however, and convinced I deserved better service.

The seat in front of me was occupied by a family of five – an apathetic young mother and her four children, three boys and a young girl.  They would no doubt go ahead of me.

I concentrated, willing the receptionist to call my name and simply say: “you may see the doctor now.”  Please call my name, I silently pleaded, let me get this month’s scribbled, little note from the nice man so I can get the hell out of here.

I glanced up, at the couch in front of me with the young mother. The family was minus the little, four-year-oldish blonde girl.  Dressed in frayed, white denim pants, she was ambling around the perimeter of the waiting room, dragging her hand on the salmon-colored wall as she walked.  She looked a little bit like Chrissy had at that age.

A uniformed assistant behind the glass cleared her throat.  “Mrs. Perkins? Please come back.”

Hoisting her purse-strap, pink-pants stood up and tossed the magazine with Rosanne’s  smiling face into the wide canyon she’d left in the couch cushion.  Still wiping at her raw nose with fibers that used to be her tissue, she straightened herself regally and adjusted her beige blouse. She was, after all, getting ready for her big moment with the doctor.  She walked away, proudly erect, making whisking sounds as her thighs met.

That was almost as good as my name being called.  I was at least four feet away from my new neighbor – an elderly, hacking man in sweatpants and an oversized pajama shirt.  He looked more sour-tempered than me. There would be no more conversation on the couch.

The little girl was working her way around the waiting area, stopping once to look out the window at the overcast world.  She was only ten feet from me and getting closer. I wouldn’t pay attention to her and she would go right past me.

Muzak coming out of the wall-speaker was an impotent, syrupy rendition of an old disco song.  I felt a headache waltzing into me to the music.

The blonde girl had encountered a roadblock: the end-table next to me.  She stopped and stared at me with eyes that looked like powder-blue dimes.  She stole a glimpse at the old, hacking man whose chin rested on the top of his cane.  Then she turned her gaze back on me.

That morning’s headache started like all the others, in the back of my neck.  The trick is to identify the first thread of pain; the pills are more effective earlier than later.  Then my little atom-bombs don’t take long to hit; the pain recedes blissfully, melting like ice and pouring out of my head.

“Hi.”  She stood in front of me waiting for a response.  I scanned the room for her family, but they were beyond the receptionist, seeing my doc.

“Where are the people you were with?” I asked.  I gave her my best glare – annoyed, uninterested adult – but she wasn’t about to be deterred.

She poked her straight forefinger into her wrist three times.  “They’re getting shocks for being sick.” She dropped her arms to her side.  “I’m not sick this time, so no shock for me!”

Her whole family was ill and getting the needle, but she wasn’t and that was, by her reckoning, a good thing indeed.

“Are you getting a shock?” she asked.

“No shock for me,” I replied quietly.

She looked at my arm and smiled.  I saw in her eyes that she was delighted at our mutual good fortune.  I’d seen that same look in Chrissy’s eyes, in better days. Then, to my astonishment and mild horror, she climbed into my lap.

I was about to take that pill when she asked, “You wanna’ know somethin’?”

She told me all about her family’s trip to the clinic, how their car radio hadn’t worked, that she’d eaten a toaster waffle for breakfast and that she “adored” them . . . how she’d discovered a shortcut in her backyard and it was a secret; how she missed her daddy but might see him at Christmas.

In answer to my question: yes, she did like kites, how high they fly, because “they’re magic.”  Then she asked me: “Do you have a little girl?”

—–

When her mother returned, the girl had been asleep about fifteen minutes.  Mom blew her bangs off her forehead and grinned at me as her sons hurried out of the waiting room without her.

“Thank you,” she said.  “She has this talent for latching onto people.”

I stood slowly and hoisted her snoring daughter to her.  “What’s her name?”

“Willow.  I’m Nan. Thanks again.  Sorry for the bother.”

“I’m Jack.  No bother at all.”  I watched as she arranged sleeping Willow’s head over her shoulder.

The clouds outside were gone; sunlight came through the large window in soft, thick beams of yellow.  I realized I couldn’t wait to see Helen and Chrissy. I felt surprisingly well and wanted to be with them.

Willow went away softly, quietly, making less noise than my tapping had on the plastic container in my front pocket.

The assistant slid open her glass panel and said, “Jack, the doctor is ready for you.”  Mrs. Perkins emerged from the back and we exchanged smiles.

Not as needful, I strolled toward my appointment with Doc Shapiro.  Afterward, I would travel the lessened distance home, having already been escorted part of the way there.

© copyright RobertBartlett, 2019

Butterfly

thBG50IHG5

‘Butterfly’ is a story of mine published a while ago at Verdad Magazine, the respected online lit mag of Long Beach City College. Thanks to Verdad and LBCC for leaving it online – and for creating the accompanying artwork.

http://verdadmagazine.org/vol7/fiction/bartlett.html

Butterfly

The large, oval sign above the main entrance announces WELCOME, but that isn’t what entices people to walk inside this place.  They come here, in fact, to receive a payment for their presence and participation: twenty-five dollars each.  To this cavernous, pale-green room, its air toxic with a strain of desperation that emits from people living life one and two hours at a time.

Even so, almost everyone here is spending the nicest part of their day.  This is their respite—a moment to hide, relax, babble with each other like a community of gulls in a safely tucked-away bay.  They rest in shabby, vinyl recliners; they daydream, or invent pictures out of the stains on the faded wallpaper.  Some of them fall asleep.  A few of them silently promise to repent and never return, to change their lives forever after they leave here.

All of them so badly in need of twenty-five dollars they let themselves be seen here, the days of caring about appearances long gone.  Entering this notorious, cement-block building on North Warden Street, in the revealing brightness of early afternoon.

So destitute they let themselves be entered with that long, shining needle.  Longer than one would expect, a sharpened, hollow tube of gleaming steel.  Right up one’s vein it slides, cold and smooth, like an oiled sword.  Then away one’s blood flows, through the needle, down the tube, into the bag.  Like giving birth to a little bag-baby of blood that gets whisked off to the cooler, full, fat and red.

Julia is here for the twenty-five dollars—though she comes here for the girl, too.  Marisa is the girl’s name, displayed clearly and evenly in white letters on her black name-tag.  “Butterfly,” Julia mutters, not moving her lips, as she observes her float from one weathered arm to the next.

Marisa always offers an appropriate greeting, something soft to put the skittish at ease.  Letting one see her unwrap the needle.  Very clever, very efficient, Julia approves, so one doesn’t worry about the needle, where it has been.

Julia tilts her head back and remembers the neighborhood cat she forgot to set food out for today, a lean puff of gray fur she has deliberately not named because she doesn’t want to mourn the animal once it’s gone.  That it will leave or die is inevitable, she knows.  The urchin perches shamelessly in her window every morning; the sun shines through its pink ears and makes them look like two tiny, brilliant flowers . . . she resists naming it ‘Fleur’ or ‘Rosebud.’

“Butterfly,” she whispers as she watches the brown-haired, olive-skinned phlebotomist.  The old woman truly doesn’t realize she comes here mostly for the girl she has given the private nickname.  It’s just for the money, she reminds herself.  I am old, I need the money.  Disgrace be damned, I am just like the cat.

Underneath the flickering, fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, Marisa darts from blue vein to blue vein.  To Julia, these young ones all look so sad and worn for their ages—matted, wrinkled, sorrowful street people—but Marisa pierces the crooks of their arms with a smile, and they smile back.  She draws their blood, stays with each person a few seconds, instructs them to clench and unclench their fists.  Checks the flow into the bag, smiles, flies on.  Hovers, greets, unwraps, pokes.  An angel!  Not an actual nurse, but she could be, Julia is sure.

How the French and Dutch Resistance fighters would have loved this girl, she thinks.  “Butterfly,” she mouths again. The British and American soldiers would have loved Marisa, too.

She can still faintly hear their voices calling her by that name . . . .

The men spoke to Julia in a dozen different languages.  “Vlinder,” “papillon” or “butterfly” she was called in another world.  She was their precious embodiment of kindness that flew silently from bed to bed, lighter than air, gently administering to the wounded—and they christened her with her special alias.

They were missing feet, or an eye, or one or both legs.  Some were mending; others were sick, dying.  She was the object of their appreciation and love, in spite of her invasive thermometers and needles.  Many of the men convalesced at the charity hospital, started in France at the end of the war, for months, years.  “No one,” she proudly told a teenaged girl on the bus last week, “was ever swept to the street.”

Soldiers reached out their bloody, bandaged limbs, just to touch, but sometimes to grab! Julia would jump back and laugh, holding up her forefinger, shaking it left and right.  It was necessary, unfortunately, for her to spurn them, regardless of how flattered she was by their attentions.

The soldiers adored her because she was beautiful, because she comforted them.  They dreamt about her at night; some of them confessed this to her.  Many nights, a Frenchman named DeLuc called her name in his sleep.  Some of them peered down the top of her nurse’s uniform as she bent over them.  An American, Sergeant Ross, admitted on the day of his release, “I know where that little birthmark is that your bra doesn’t hide, butterfly,” then he winked.

Au revoir, monsieur,” was all she replied, but she grinned, and blushed, once she turned her back.

§

Julia is convinced impatience has replaced charity and profit is worshipped above beauty, that money always wins the day and is more important to most than what happens to their souls. “Money, money, money,” she hisses under her breath.  “Food, rent and electric.  Twenty-five damned dollars.”

“We certainly never sold our blood.” she moans disdainfully.  “But one must eat!”

At least the girl is here for her.  If Julia had a daughter, she would want her to be just like Marisa.  No: she would want her to be Marisa….

Julia has a sudden inspiration.  Invite Marisa to her apartment next Tuesday – her eightieth birthday.  A guest for my birthday!  Use the money from today . . . a bottle of inexpensive wine, a lemon cake . . . how many times does one turn eighty?  It is worth skipping one or two days’ meals for!  She raises her hand and calls her over, that is the rule: do not leave the chair while you are still “attached.”

They have never exchanged anything but simple pleasantries, thus Julia rehearses in her thoughts: Marisa, would you like to stop by my apartment?  The twelfth will be my birthday and I would like to have you over for a glass of wine, so we can toast, have some cake to celebrate, it would be very sweet of you if you could, after work; I live on East Enola Road  . . . .

Marisa’s eyes meet hers; the young woman waves back and starts across the room.  Julia smoothes out her frayed, ankle-length skirt and adjusts her blouse; she feels her heart pumping high in her chest.  My birthday!  It will be the nicest day I have had since France, she revels silently.

After three steps, however, Marisa stops.  An unshaven, sun-baked man in his thirties that could pass for fifty has begun swatting at the air, speaking loudly to no one in particular, something about “They’re here,” and, “I can see them, but you can’t!”  Things like this happen, albeit rarely, when a troubled donor succumbs to an invisible affliction.  These times have the potential to become very bad, even dangerous, if someone becomes violent or starts flailing about, unfastening tubes, knocking over chairs, blood raining everywhere.

Julia is more offended than frightened.  She regards what he does as an inexcusable trespass.  Marisa was on her way to see me, she broods.  Not you, insolent man.  Me!

Marisa changes directions and walks toward him, an alcohol wipe ready in her gloved hand.  She’ll attempt to remove the needle, disengage him as quickly as possible, before he jerks it out, but it’s too late—he leaps from his seat.  Only the needle remains in his arm; it becomes a vent, allowing blood to pump out of his excited heart, down his arm and off the tips of his fingers. The tube hooked to the plastic bladder dangles and bleeds like a freshly-cut umbilical cord onto the beige linoleum floor.  Drips, drips the darkest, purest crimson until the bag is empty.

“Stay away, all of ya’!” the man yells.  Drops of sweat fall freely off his forehead, landing on the floor in his estranged blood.

Marisa approaches him, extending both of her hands.  “Easy, Allen.  Just take it easy and we’ll get you a doctor, alright?”  She glances at a male attendant behind the counter.  The attendant opens a cell-phone and steps into a back room.

“My guts are gonna’ explode,” Allen shouts, folding his arms, shuddering like a wet child in a freezing wind.

Everyone that is not asleep sits an inch higher than normal in their squeaky, vinyl chairs, their muscles tightened.  All eyes follow Marisa and the agitated man with the messy, bent hair.

The western sun fills the cold room with stripes of yellow light and thin, flat shadows of telephone poles.  An ambulance’s siren screams, then grows distant, until it recedes completely into the infinite drone of traffic on North Warden Street.

“Allen,” someone says..  “Allen,” repeats the scratchy, old voice, thick with an accent.  “You are afraid, but you must not be.  You will be fine, believe me.”

Allen looks to his left and sees Julia clip off her bag and remove her needle.  She presses a lace handkerchief to the red dot on her left arm. “You see?  We are all fine.”  She leaves her chair and steps toward him.  “There is no reason to be afraid.  Let Marisa help you.”

Marisa’s focus alternates between Julia and Allen.  The other employees have stopped working and watch; the old woman exerts a calm on the man, on the entire room.  Julia steps closer to him.  “If I may,” she says quietly, and reaches out to stroke the hair from his eyes, then rests her hand on the back of his neck.  She massages him like she’d pet a scared puppy and he melts into a sitting position on the floor.  “There, there, everything will begin to make sense in a moment.  Breathe.  You are doing very well.  That’s it . . . you are so brave.  Breathe, now.” Continuing to hold the handkerchief over the bend in her arm, she sits next to Allen and moves her free hand down to his.  “We will hold hands until you feel better,” she says with a nod, “until your sickness passes.”

Marisa squats next to Allen and slips the needle from his vein.  Frenetic splashes of maroon surround them.  She rests the alcohol wipe on his arm and bandages it, but he doesn’t acknowledge her.

Allen sits motionless and stares at the dignified, violet-eyed woman holding his hand, whose slender, sympathetic face is framed by straight, silver hair.

§

Later, Allen is given medication by a doctor in the back room.  Julia rests in a chair by the sign-in desk and sips orange juice from a small paper cup.  Several people have stopped to speak to her, telling her how she settled the man was “amazing,” “wonderful,” “really something.”  As she rolls down the sleeve on her bandaged arm, Marisa sits next to her and says, “Don’t you have a way.  I’d be envious if I wasn’t so grateful.”

“Oh!” she laughs, patting the young woman’s wrist.  She breaks Julia’s heart.  “You would have done just as well.”  She begins to tell her that she was once a nurse, that Marisa reminds her of herself at that age, how she came to America after the war, but stops her story when the young woman abruptly holds out a piece of paper.

“The manager wants you to have your money this afternoon, all of it.”  Marisa hands Julia a check.  “I’ll draw a little extra blood next time, to make up for today,” she jokes.  “And let us pay for a cab to take you home.  Is there anything else we can do for you?” she asks distractedly, already scanning the room for new walk-ins, arms not entered, half-filled bags to monitor.

Julia leans forward and pulls her sweater over her shoulders, buttoning it at the top.  “No, my dear.  It is late.”  She inhales deeply and clears her throat, but abandons the notion of the invitation.  She takes the check from Marisa, who is no longer looking at her.

On her way home, the wine and cake no longer seem very important to Julia.  She sees the reflection of a young nurse in the in the taxi’s rear-view mirror.  “Butterfly!” she proclaims delightedly and feels nowhere near eighty.

Smiling, Julia marvels at the strange mechanics of nature, how she has been given an early birthday present.  She cannot wait to get home, to tell the gray cat about the nervous, young man who, for a few minutes, was a young soldier.  She will inform the cat that its name, on her premises, is Fleur.  She will tell Fleur how it felt, once again, to float—and that there is no shame standing in a sunlit window or taking twenty-five dollars.

 

BIO:  Robert Bartlett’s writing has been published in print and online in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. His short fiction was recently featured in 34th Parallel, currently appears in Cantaraville 6, and is forthcoming in SER Magazine. His short-film script “A Sort Of Delivery” is scheduled to be filmed in New York later this year.