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By David Lee Caudill

I never got to hunt with my father. As far back as I can remember I would watch my father, along with his brothers and their father, come home from hunting trips. They would show off their deer, explaining every detail that led to the kill. Then they would describe how the deer felt, how far he had run after the shot. I was never there for the fall, the shot, the first step into the woods before the sun sparkled on the frostbitten fields of tall grass and dormant wheat. But I was always there when they came home.

I would wait by the front door for hours, and when I saw the truck coming down the street I would run as fast as I could, coatless, bouncing through the snow, to throw myself into his arms and watch them wrap around me as I looked at the deer blood that was smeared on his camouflage coat sleeve. “Got me one, son,” he would say. Or, “Not this time. Maybe next year.” Either way, his grin was on display and the embrace was just as powerful. My father was never more alive than after returning from a hunting trip.

He had said for years that he wanted to take me hunting. From a very young age, I was good with a gun, especially a shotgun. I could hit any target, still or moving. Clay birds never landed wholly after flight, falling piece-fully to the ground a split second after I yelled ‘pull.’ But hunting, I never did. I was always working toward some sporting event or athletic scholarship.

Still, hunting was more than a sport for my family. We lived in Dayton, Ohio, where my father worked in a paper mill, and though industry was more present than nature, we relied on them equally. Often times, a deer meant that my family could eat through winter. I would ride to the butcher with my father to pick up our venison, and on the way home we would stop at the houses of friends and family, sharing what we had, offering as much as they desired. I wondered how we would have any left after giving so much away, but there always seemed to be just enough to get us through the winter. It was my father who provided this, to us, to others. I never wanted to be more like my father than during those moments.

By the time I was 14, my father couldn’t hunt anymore. Walking was a chore for him, therefore hiking was impossible. He couldn’t handle the cold seeping into his degenerating joints, his knees locking up as if in a vice. I tended to post-surgical wounds and listened to his cries in the night. In the morning, he would reach for the window sill near his bed, pulling with all his might just to get himself upright before hobbling to the bathroom and then the living room. But somehow, he was at every baseball game, every school event. His pain stopped him from living in every way, except vicariously.

The year after he died at the age of thirty-nine, I finally went hunting. I was twenty-one. I went with two of my dad’s brothers, Dan and Dwight, as well as my two grandfathers. We decided to go to my father’s favorite hunting place in Fallsville, Ohio, about 90 minutes southeast of where we lived. We stopped at the same Citgo station I had heard of so many times, getting a cup of coffee, a biscuit, extra hand warmers just in case. I thought about my father’s hands touching the same coffee pot I was pouring from. I touched the metal rack that held the biscuits, just in case my father’s hands had grazed them as he passed by over the years. Then I went to the truck and began drinking my coffee and watched my uncles and grandfathers as they walked out of the station, and I pictured my father walking with them, his wide-eyed anticipation of the hunt. When they reached the truck, I imagined his wraith sitting down beside me, grabbing my knee with a strength he only knew in his youth, in moments of bliss. Then I realized I had simply taken my father’s place in their adventure, and if only for one day, I became my father.

When we reached the gravel road that parted the woods, uncle Dwight turned off the headlights, let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then continued to their favorite parking nook and slowly pulled off the road. We got out quietly and let our bodies get used to the cold, and as we reached for our coats we heard a stirring in the distance. Ahead, we saw a buck and five doe following behind him. It was the first time I had ever seen a deer while sharing the woods with them. I watched their white tails bobbing as they entered a thicker set of woods, and into the darkness.

“Davey,” whispered Dwight, “those deer are headed straight for where we are going. This is going to be a good day.”

I pulled my hunting pants over my jeans, laced up my boots and reached for my father’s camouflaged coat, the blood from his last deer still visible on the sleeve. I put on my gloves, my orange toboggan, and reached for my father’s shotgun. It was a Remington Wingmaster. “This is the Rolls Royce of shotguns,” my father used to say. That was a stretch, but it was his favorite nonetheless.

We started to walk into the woods slowly, letting our feet make contact with the ground before shifting our full weight to the leading foot. I walked between my grandfathers. I looked at my mother’s father in front of me, his white hair reaching just below his orange toboggan, blending with the snow falling lightly. I looked back and saw my father’s father, and he nodded slowly, as if to tell me everything would be alright. These are the two most beautiful men in the world, I thought. My grandfathers had no intentions of shooting their guns that day – I could see it in their eyes. They were simply there for me, to see their grandson’s first hunt, his first chance at bringing a deer home to his family.

We walked for maybe 20 minutes, reaching our desired location at first light. It was a beautiful spot, atop a hill that led straight down to a creek, then a field beyond. The trees were bare, still. The ground, covered with a light dusting of snow, was crisp under our boots and offered the only sound of the morning. Dwight pointed out a log to me and said, “That was your daddy’s favorite spot. Maybe he’s still close by and can send you some luck.” I sat down on my father’s log, watched Dwight walk away, and for the first time, I realized what it felt like to be alone in the woods.

As the sun began to rise toward the cloudless sky, the woods awoke. I could hear the creek below as if it had just begun to flow, and I heard a squirrel in front of me, bouncing in the snow looking for a lost nut or a forgotten friend. Beyond the creek, I could see the field of dry wheat stalks and paths from hunters past. The field seemed endless, and I wondered if my father had walked those paths, if it was the end of the woods or the beginning of the rest of the world. Sitting on this log, did he think of me as I thought of him then? Did he imagine me smiling as I saw his truck coming down the road toward home? Did he think of nothing at all, as if this very spot was his escape from the world of bills, from heartache, from arthritic deterioration? His wraith had reappeared, and I could hear his voice. He said, “It’s the rest of the world. Out there, beyond the field. That world is yours, whatever it may be. You just have to want it.”

Suddenly I heard a splash from the creek. I had only been on my father’s log for a few minutes; it couldn’t be a deer. I clutched the Wingmaster to my chest and as I looked down towards the water, I saw the doe as she crossed, reaching the base of the hill and starting to climb upward, toward me, toward my father’s log. She climbed the hill as if it were no hill at all, as if it was flat ground. She reached the top of the hill, still running full speed, and as I stood and clicked off the safety to my gun she heard me and stopped. She was broadside, maybe ten yards in front of me, completely motionless.

As I raised my gun, I heard my father as if he was looking over my shoulder: “See where her front leg meets her chest? Six inches to the right. You can’t miss. Bring her home, son. Nice and easy.” I thought of how he would have already fired, but I was patient, just looking at the doe, looking into her eyes as she looked into mine. She turned her head and looked around, pondering her next move, but I kept her in my sites as my finger caressed the trigger and readied for the shot.

Then I watched the doe as she slowly turned away, took a step, then two, and burst into a sprint. And when she was no longer in sight, I sat back down on my father’s log, his wraith long gone, and I smiled, for I had just been graced by the miracle of one of God’s creatures. I thought of my father being angry that I didn’t take the shot, but I was pleased that I didn’t. Somehow, another death just didn’t seem necessary.

____

David Lee Caudill resides in Canton, Ga., with his wife and children. He currently works as a mortgage underwriter and is an author of one book of poetry. Contact him at caudill_david19@yahoo.com

 

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By Frank Deese

“Don’t be a tourist.  Be a traveler.”

Karen seemed to get what Min Thant meant while I stood nearby distracted by the round eyes of Phoebe Cates, wondering what could possibly merit her poster being the only decoration on the bare walls of this dirt-floored Burmese home.  Phoebe Cates was certainly pretty and spank-worthy enough for Judge Reinhold in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – but why would Min’s family worship her like a foreign goddess?

My girlfriend back then possessed all the adventurous impulses I lacked.  They had taken her to Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Rangoon, and now into the home of Min Thant, a schoolteacher we met at an open market while trading our smuggled whisky and cigarettes for local currency and laquerware.  I was here in October of 1985 only because I followed Karen, and now nodded my head to mimic her understanding.   “Don’t be a tourist.  Be a traveler.”

We bowed good-bye to Min; and I quickly asked about his unusual wall poster.  He smiled sagely, answered knowingly:  “Phoebe Cates!”

“Okay…  But why her?”  Min maintained his smile.  It was either self-evident, or would need to remain, like the tourist/traveler thing, a mystery of the Orient.

We rushed to join our new American friends at Rangoon Central Station for the night train into the heart of Burma.  We had met George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally the night before over an indescribably horrible dinner (prepared, no doubt, from a hundred year-old British cookbook with missing pages) at the colonial-era Strand Hotel.  After weeks away from home, real American conversation felt luxurious, even over bad food.  It was a pleasure and relief to once again understand and be understood in native nuance and sentiment.

The windows of the humid night train had no glass and at every station stop, local hawkers stretched in deep to loudly sell strange drinks and unknown meats wrapped in exotic leaves.   Insects buzzed around the dim lights in the car’s center, and the “bathroom” on the train was nothing more than a dark room with a hole in the floor rushing over the rising and falling tracks that made the trip like an amusement park ride without any assurance it “must be safe.”  I was vaguely aware this rocking train was, up to then, the most foreign place I’d ever been; but that appreciation didn’t penetrate the loud, opinionated company of George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally.  We were three American couples on facing wooden train benches trading travel anecdotes, arguing movies and sports, insulated by continuous conversation from the strange world that became less and less comfortable as we traveled further back in time.

The tiny hamlet of Pagan, with its immense scattering of stone temples held inside a sharp curve in the Irrawaddy River, remained very much the place it was a thousand years ago.  With one tuk-tuk driver per couple (a tuk-tuk is like a two-passenger motorized tricycle), we shot from Buddha to Buddha, more focused on the conversation than the beauty and timelessness of the brown temples rising from the semi-verdant landscape.  George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally had forceful (and sometimes knowlegeable) opinions on every detail of what to see, what to do, where best to eat and not get sick; and, being travel-weary, Karen and I temporarily surrendered to not discovering for ourselves.  For three days, we took comfort inside this four-person American tour bus whose final stop was an open-air cafe for bottled beer and “the best Chinese food in Pagan.”

Karen’s contact lenses hurt from the long day so she and I left early.  We collected our things from the cheap plastic dinner table and headed to the rustic guesthouse to pack our bags on the mosquito-netted bed for the long and early journey back to Rangoon.  It was hardly an hour later when George, Marcia, Leon and Sally thundered in, angry and indignant.

A tuk-tuk driver stole George’s flashlight!

George and Leon had noticed him looking at it earlier – then it was gone.  Despite the young driver’s pleas of innocence, they planned to alert the local authorities.

What did George’s flashlight look like,” I asked.  “Was it gold plated?  Diamond encrusted?”

“It’s not the value, Frank Deese, it’s the principle.  The man stole and can’t get away with it.”

“It’s a two dollar Duracell flashlight,” Karen offered. “I have one just like it.  You can have mine.”

But there seemed no way to stop them from sending this young man to the police in a police state – that is, until Karen discovered in her bag a second Duracell flashlight.  She had two.

Uh oh…  Our burst of private laughter faded quickly as we both realized how Karen’s mistake of taking from the table a flashlight that looked exactly like hers (but wasn’t hers) led to the abuse by angry Amercians of an innocent Burmese tuk-tuk driver.

We crossed the guesthouse courtyard to confess the mistake to George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally.  We apologized, returned the flashlight and solicited from them anything we could do to make this as if it had never happened.  But there was nothing.  George focused all his anger, all the pompous self-assuredness we had surrendered to before, directly at us now, and quickly concocted a new truth.  Marcia explained to us tearfully in our room that her husband believed we planned this all along, engineered it to embarrass him, but only confessed because our hearts bled for a hapless local.  It was ridiculous and Marcia clearly didn’t believe it, but the weight in her expression suggested a much longer fight she had never been able to win.  Leon and Sally were already in line with official account of our treachery.  Karen and I were as good as foreigners – we could not be trusted.

“I’m sorry,” she wept.  “I really liked you guys.”

As we sat close and alone on the train car heaving to and fro on the curvy tracks to Rangoon, we looked quietly out at the huts and rice farms in the rainy landscape.  Exile hurt, as did the ugliness unleashed on the innocent by Karen’s simple mistake.

Karen reached deep into her bag for a Cadbury “Fruit and Nut Bar” she kept in a zippered compartment in case of severe homesickness.  We ate it slowly, savoring each square, but barely noticing when it was gone as we were long into our own conversation about what we’d seen, the remainder of our trip, why Min Thant had Phoebe Cates on his wall – we still had no clue – and our lives back home.  We noticed a Burmese family preparing dinner on the floor across the aisle and a group of loud teenage boys at the end of the car.  As daylight dimmed behind the rain clouds, Karen fell asleep on the bench next to me and I now felt grateful those other Americans were two train cars away.  But then, in the darkening train, I realized something troubling:  I had to pee badly – and (out of spite) the night before I’d tossed my own flashlight into George’s suitcase to pathetically prove he was wrong about us.

There was still the faintest glow of dusk.  Maybe my eyes could adjust enough to find that hole in the floor.  But the “bathroom” was completely dark; and even with my pupils wide open, I could get little more than complete blindness in the face of a dire need.  Did I dare step in and risk my leg falling through the dirty hole and breaking off on the moving track?   I stood there helpless, clearly the best entertainment of the evening to the giggling Burmese teenagers nearby.

One of the laughing shadows reached into his knit bag, fiddling with something:  D-Cell batteries? He slipped them into something else I couldn’t see, then switched on a cheap chrome flashlight handing it to me like Lady Liberty.

“Thank you,” I said loudly.  “Thank you.  Thank you.”

As I peed through the exrement-rimmed hole in the floor, the light in my left hand illuminating my golden stream splashing off the wood of the rushing track ties, I realized that – at least for this moment – I was not a tourist.  I was a traveler.

And I sure as hell better not drop that flashlight.

______

Frank Deese is a screenwriter, teacher, and former traveler living in Los Angeles. Contact him at fdeese@aol.com.

 

 

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By Matthew Loflin Davis

After getting back from Thailand without my score, I wound up on the streets of Ann Arbor — the homeless shelter on Huron to be exact. I had built up a sizable habit in Asia and now was sweating it out cold turkey in bunk beds with a bunch of other junkies, drunks and thieves who swept through the room at night going through the pockets of the destitute, stealing what they could, and pretending to be friends in the day.

I got to know quite a few of the fuckers there as we slept together in the two big rooms provided for us, ate breakfast at the church together, and saw each other on the easy streets of U of M every day.

I still had my interest in photography and was able to hold on to my Minolta X-700 but had to steal the 35mm film from Krogers when I needed to create some art so I had something to keep me feeling like I wasn’t a complete low-life. My old instructor at Eastern Michigan University would let me use the darkroom so I was able to keep shooting film on the streets.

Carrying that camera around actually got me laid once in a while with the U of M college hotties while I looked like a photographer with a job. Getting small jobs was easier too as I played the starving artist, which is exactly what I was. Carrying a camera around my neck and the knowledge to use it gave me gave me an air of decency.

I was in the church eating my free breakfast of Honey Nut Cherrios with all my buddies and I decided to start taking some pics of my favorites: the scared and the scarred, the ancient drunks and crippled. The shelter was a host of subjects to record. The women’s shelter was different from the men’s but we all ate together in the morning so I had the gamut of the streets all in one place to photograph, as I’ve always been a street photographer.

I snapped a few pics of the locals eating their cereal while kids worked off their community service for getting caught with a bag of weed by serving the Kool-Aid and day-old doughnuts to the homeless and the nuns poured powdered milk on your bowl of cereal. After a minute or so I had a black man, slightly younger than me, in my face asking me what the hell I was doing taking pics. He knew me; most everyone in the church knew me by then. Black was in my face questioning my motives. I explained my usual rant that I’m a street photographer, as well as being on the streets. He got in my face some more but seemed surprised when no one had his back. They seemed tired of his BS partly, and they seemed to know I was one of them. I stood my ground and stayed calm, not giving him a chance to go off. I’m sure my size over him had something to do with it.

Black and I had another run in or two, usually when he was drunk but he seemed to know exactly when to stop. He was a kid not much younger than me. Black wasn’t a bad kid; he just wanted to be bad.

A month or so later, I was hanging out in the shelters office with Malik, one of the workers I had made friends with. I had done some photo/graphics work for one of his poetry-reading fliers, so we had a decent rapport. As I was leaving the office, Black was limping around the corner, his legs bowed and face pummeled black and blue. It looked as if someone took a two by four to his face in a fit of rage. His arm was in a sling and his other hand held his ribs. I don’t think he could even see me through his two swollen eyes and he walked right by me. Instead of his usual stone stare and bad ass demeanor, he just turned the corner and limped into the office.

Later, I asked Makik, Black had been raped; I never heard the details but the understanding was he had snitched on someone and that person had finally gotten out of prison and came back for revenge. I believe Black had been hiding out in the shelter which is often times common practice. His past had caught up with him.

Sometime later, I heard that before I was in the shelter Black had noticed an Ann Arbor News photographer taking pics in the church during breakfast. Black had rallied the people while they ate their doughnuts and he started asking some aggressive questions. Who was this employed man who thinks he can come down here and exploit the poor? Black, I heard, had a following that day, the folks at the church didn’t wanted to be treated like objects for fodder and they chased that photographer out the church.

He had that power to point out a wrong and rally the people.

____

*When he wrote this story, Matthew Loflin Davis was an artist and recovering addict living in Detroit. “Black” was his second story for TYTT. Sadly he died of an overdose in 2015. I never knew him personally but wish I had. His blog remains: www.junkysays.blogspot.com,

 

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By Helen Weatherell-Bay*

I remember being really sad this day.  Sad enough to be sitting on a beach alone and crying.

This is a low point, Helen, I thought.   I am not,  and have never been, suicidal.  Homicide was always a more comfortable feeling for me.  But this day, I was just damn sad and needed a cry.   Then suddenly, all I could think was  “Get up! YOU’RE DONE.” I knew I was lying. But it was okay.

I got up and started a long walk in the hot sand back to boardwalk.  Every step felt heavy and uncomfortable.  I reached the boardwalk before the tears returned.  As I leaned up against a tree to wipe my feet, I heard a voice.

“That is the saddest face on a pretty girl that I have ever seen. Why?”

He was a handsome, cherubic, elderly man—well dressed and even using a cane.

“My name is Stanley Sadowsky—and who are you?”

I was thinking “Who am I? I am a Lifetime Channel Movie!!”  Life is just not like this.  Bad days are not resolved by cheery little Jewish saviors that come in little cuddly old-man packages and hug away dreary with one liners that make you wish you had a bat mitzvah.

“I’m not having the best day,” I said.  “Just walking back to my hotel.”

I am now sucking back every potential feeling of dread, fear, loneliness and just plain loss of will to live … because clearly Stan’s cataracts couldn’t hide my pain. I’m pathetic,  and my brave front did not fool him.  He continued.

“Okay!! Good, let’s walk together than—you sound like you have a good story to tell. So tell me … why the tears?”

“I caught my husband cheating on me … well, not really my husband, but my boyfriend and…well…but we have a child together and he has two children as well and ummm, they are two little girls whose mother had died in a car accident and… anyway, we lived together for nine years … along with my son and daughter from my previous marriage.”

I am now feeling like some backwoods trailer trash—banjo and all. I am sure Stan is about to advise me that I should be grateful that I am no longer incarcerated and life out of the joint has so much to offer.

“Oh my dear!  How sad! So you were the mommy…to ALL five of these children?  And he left you anyway?” was his reply.  Honest to God—that’s what he said. He got me.  In one sentence I had found my soul mate—well, soul mate from a past life. Life was making more sense to me at that moment and I was rolling with it.

But all I could say was  “I am having a hard time right now.”  I really did not want to cry any more that day. I swallowed every tear as if it were my favorite Dim Sum.  Not now, I thought.   I changed the subject.

“How about you Stan? “ I asked,    “What’s your story? Why did I find you walking this boardwalk?”  This was a sincere question regardless of my motives.  As I said, I really don’t believe in the airy-fairy crap—but still.

“Hah!”  Stan chuckled.  “It is simple Helen.”

Stan stopped walking just then and looked at me.  I needed this now; I needed something simple to explain it all.  I wanted to drink the Kool-Aid, smoke the pipe in a sweat lodge, and believe that that goddamn book really had The Secret.  I looked at Stan for a long while before he said:  “My wife, Faye and I walked nearly every night of our life together — 53 years we did this.  And the last 10 years were on this very boardwalk.”

“Really?”  I replied, knowing she had passed.  Maybe this was it, I thought.  It’s that simple.  I felt a bright light coming on.  It’s loyalty. Really—just loyalty.  Not the hot body, fun sex and crazy nights that you had with this horrid man who left you—but loyalty.   Real loyalty.  Real love.  Stan continued.

“Yes,   Rose [FAYE?]and I were married for 53 years…we had a good life and three beautiful children.   We moved here to  Santa Barbara when I retired. We liked to walk and talk every evening….”   He paused, but I knew he had more to say.

“I miss her every day. Every day.”

And so it was.  I found some meaning in my pain.

Just as Stan and I were approaching the corner that I needed to cross the highway to get to my hotel, I was feeling as if this man could be my friend for the rest of my life—or the rest of his. In any case, I turned to him and said, “Well, Stan, this is where I need to cross the street.” I wanted to race across the highway without losing this feeling—I needed it so.

Stan smiled and said, “Oh Helen, okay.  Can I give you a hug?”

“Of course,” I said, pushing my arms out, to gather a little more happiness from this day.

Stan put his arms around me and kissed my cheek.  I stopped myself from crying again.   Stan’s arms were so tight that it was a few seconds before I noticed that they had moved near my boobs.  When I realized this, I reassured myself that he was just trying to steady himself as he said goodbye to me.  Then Stan looked up at me and whispered…

“ Oh my, you feel so good.” I was still certain that I misunderstood and replied,

“So do you, Stan.”

“I like holding your hot tits,” I heard him say in my ear.  I was both shocked and mildly turned on. Come on, I thought, this could never happen again, now that I’d been dumped.

I came to my senses and said, “Okay, Stan, I really need to cross the street and get back to my hotel,” as I pulled his crippled hands off my hot tits and pushed the button to cross the street.

“Really?” he asked.

“Oh yes, Stan, really,” I said, as I kissed his bald head.  “Maybe we will meet again on the boardwalk.” I began to have thoughts of choking this ancient little pervert if he carried on like this.

“Goodbye, Helen,” was all he said.

The light changed and the green “Go” sign to cross came up just before my thoughts of choking turned to something much more dark.  I ran across the street while looking back at him.   I suddenly began to laugh—really laugh out loud.  Life is so absurd, I thought, as I neared the center of the highway.

As I was shaking my head, I could hear a strange “tweeting” sound.   This sound was meant to notify the blind to let them know it was safe to go to the other side of the street.  I knew this because it was posted on the crosswalks. I could have used just that kind of warning that day, if not my entire life.  I wondered if it would have made any difference. When I finally crossed the road, I knew. Probably not.

__________

Shortly after her break-up, Helen Weatherell-Bay sold her house and most of her worldly goods and bought a bar in Mexico–near the beach.  When not mixing margaritas or frying chicken wings, she enjoys the surf, sun and occasionally documenting her new and bizarre life on her Apple laptop.   Contact her at  helenbaysandbar@gmail.com

 

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By Gerry Hadden

I’m idling at a red light on a Mexico City street when my car starts to rise onto two wheels.  A stubby green and white public bus is trying to squeeze ever so slowly between me and another car.   It’s not working.  The bus’s driver side door handle scrapes sickeningly along the right side of my little Volkswagen GT.  I watch my side-view mirror twist and pop, then fall from sight.   Then he’s past and I’m back on four wheels.

The light turns green and I pull out in front of the bus, blocking its path.

Hiiiiiiijole manito,” calls the bus driver.   “That was my fault back there.”  He orders his passengers off his bus but I am tired and do not recognize this for the clue it is.

“We’ll have to call the police,” I say.

“Of course,” says the driver.  Then he says, “Hermano?  We should pull over past the intersection.  So we’re not blocking traffic.”

“Good idea,” I say.  We climb back in our vehicles and moved forward.  And that’s when the clue I’ve missed begins to bother me.  I am halfway across the intersection when I think, a bus driver who’s emptied his bus is not going to pull over anywhere.   I have him in my rear view mirror and am already leaning on my brakes as I see him swerve sharply to the right and speed off down a side street.

As I slam into second gear I figure I’ll catch his top-heavy green vehicle within a block.   But I’ve underestimated his skill behind the wheel.  He’s already crossing oncoming traffic to the left and disappearing down another street.  As he takes the turn the left wheels of his bus come off the pavement and several cars skid to avoid him.  When I reach the intersection I hesitate.  My car is new.  I’ve had it for three days.

Soon the bus driver has put three full blocks between us.  When I glimpse him banging a right on a street far ahead of me I think, I’ve lost him.  I speed to the corner and take it hard.  Then I brake.  It’s a dead end.  At the end of the cul-de-sac sits the bus, lights out, parked behind a light pole, facing us.  An elephant hiding behind a tree.  I swing my car around to block his exit.

“You’re trapped now, you bastard!” I yell.

He pulls out from behind the pole, but has nowhere to go.   He revs his engine, the grill of his green vehicle just inches from my car.

“Move your car or I’ll plough straight over it!”  he yells.

After a long moment it must become clear to him that the dramatic effect is waning.  He turns the bus off, jumps down to the sidewalk and starts off down the street in a wobbly arc and disappears.

(Click to buy Gerry’s book)

Several people from the large surrounding houses watch from their stoops.  One man, dressed in khaki pants and a polo style shirt, approaches.

“Do not call the police,” he counsels.  “They will only arrest you.  The other man is already gone.”

“But he left a small piece of evidence behind,” I say, pointing toward the bus.

I’m not worried about the cops.  I have my press credential issued by the Mexican Interior Ministry.  The Interior Minister is the cops’ boss.  When the police come I hand it to them.  They discuss the situation in murmurs.

A captain tells me I’ll have to accompany them to the precinct headquarters.   Then two officers come walking around the corner with none other than my friend the bus driver. He is sweaty now and looks displeased.

“That’s the bus driver,” I say.

“I can call my lawyer,” the neighbor whispers.

At the precinct house I am told to wait in the crowded lobby of the station.  A  representative from my insurance company shows up.  He urges me to settle with the driver.  But the driver is nowhere to be seen.  At dawn an officer leads me to a desk in a corner of the great hall.  The bus driver is already there, seated.   A policewoman sits behind the desk, typing on a computer.   She asks me to explain what happened.  She gives me a sheet of blank paper and asks me to draw the accident scene.

I make a hasty sketch of the street.  She asks me how many lanes it had.

“Four, I think,” I say.

“You think.”

“Or six.”

“What sorts of buildings were nearby.”

“They had doors and windows,” I say.

“Were they restaurants, homes?”

“I can’t remember,” I say.  “But I don’t see how that matters.”

“We need to establish where the accident took place.”

“But I told you the name of the cross street.”

“Yes, but if you cannot remember what it looks like…”

(Watch the trailer to Gerry’s book, Never the Hope Itself.)

“Look,” I interrupt.  “I was waiting at a red light right here.”  I draw a little squiggle on my road map.  “Then this guy comes along in his bus and scrapes the entire length of my car.”  I push the pen along my drawing, ripping the paper in the process.

“Is this what happened?”  the policewoman asks the bus driver.

“No, señora,” the man says.  “El señor hit my bus.”

“That’s a lie,” I say.

Then two men in long white smocks come out through a door behind her desk:  they are car crash forensics specialists. Their conclusion:  the bus hit me.  One of them cuffs the bus driver lightly on the back of his head and laughs.

“Listen up, fool.   You might as well settle with the Gringo.”

“I agree,” says the policewoman. Then to me:  “I implore you to reach an agreement with this man.  If you file charges you will regret it.”

I turn to my adversary.   “My insurance rep tells me there’s about 4 thousand pesos (400 dollars) worth of damage to my car.  Pay me and our business is finished.”

The driver fishes through his pockets.

“I have 400 pesos,” he says.

“Arrest this man,” I say.

The bus driver asks the policewoman if he can speak with his boss who’s arrived at the station.  She assents.

“Please settle with the man,” she says.

“If he won’t pay for the damage I’m not going to settle.”

“But it could take years,” she insists.  “And I think it will end badly for you.”

“I don’t see how,” I say.

My insurance representative interrupts.

“I have just spoken to the driver’s boss,” he says.  “They are going to offer four thousand pesos.  Do not accept it.”

“Why not?”

“Because the owner is offering to meet with you tomorrow to settle this.  But he will never show up.”

The insurance rep leaves me his card and leaves.  The policewoman and I finish the details of the report.  She gives me my car keys and says I can go.  Outside it is already light.  Sticking to my guns has cost me half a day of red tape but it’s worth it.  I swear to myself that I will get the entire four thousand pesos from that drunken son of a whore liar.

A week later the policewoman calls to say that I have won.  I know, I say, how do I collect the money?  She tells me that I will first need a copy of the favorable decision.

“Shall I give you my mailing address?”

“It must be picked up in person,” she says.

“You’re joking.  What’s the exact address of the police station?”

“Your insurance rep has it.”

“But I need it.  To pick up the document.”

“You cannot pick it up.”

“I cannot?”

“Your insurance rep must claim it for you.”

Fine, I say.  I hang up and dig about for the business card the young man left me the night before.  But I can’t find it.  After searching in every conceivable place I give up and call the insurance company.  Two days pass before I get through.  I explain to the customer service person that I need the name of the rep who has responded to my case.

“Who was he?” she asks.

“That’s what I am asking you,” I say.  She says she can find no record of the incident.

The following night I dine out with friends.  I arrive home about midnight.  As I pull on to my street I notice an old model Buick double parked and idling under a tree just before my house.  To squeeze past it I have to slow considerably.  I make eye contact with the two men sitting in it.  They are scruffy but alert-looking and appear very interested in how I look.  I decide to continue down the street. The idling car pulls out.  This time I’m the chased.  After 10 minutes I manage to shake them.  I drive home, my heart racing.

The next morning I call the policewoman.

“You said that my insurance rep was the only one who could claim a copy of the police report, right?”

“Correct.”

“Did the bus guys pick up a copy?”

“Yes. Yesterday morning.”

“How were they able to do that?”

“They came down and picked it up.”

“What?  How could they?  Do our addresses figure in the report?”

“Yes.  The addresses of both parties appear in the report.”

I hang up.  I call back the insurance company’s toll free line.  When I get through later in the day they still cannot locate my case.

Several weeks pass without word either from the insurance company or the police.  No more goons have returned to stake out my house. But the incident has shaken me.  Then quite unexpectedly my insurance agent calls.

“I’m sorry to inform you that we’ve lost the case,” he says.

“Come again?”

“The police have found in favor of the bus driver.”

“First of all, where have you been?  Second, that’s impossible.  You must have your cases confused.”

“I’ll look into it,” he says.

Two more months pass.   One afternoon my front doorbell rings.  I peek down from the roof terrace.   A Mexico City police cruiser is parked in front of my door.  Two officers in brown uniforms and caps stand on the sidewalk.

“Si?” I yell.

Don Gerald Hadden?”

“Who are you?”

Don Gerald?”

“Who are you?” I repeat.

Don Gerald?” says one of the two cops.  “We need to take you with us.”

I go outside.  I have my cell phone on with the number of the U.S. Embassy ready to be dialed.

“What is this about?” I ask.

“You, sir, filed a traffic complaint following an accident involving a bus.”

“Several months ago, yes.”

“Your testimony is apparently filled with inconsistencies,” he says.  “Contradicciones.  You must come with us to the station to clear this matter up.”

I stare incredulously into the man’s dark eyes.  There’s hatred or indifference hidden in them, who can tell.  He is a frog playing poker.  But it’s his voice.   It has suddenly and most powerfully deflated me.  The sham seriousness of his tone, the all too familiar deadpan absurdity of a shake-down in progress. I look at the other cop, nonchalantly chewing gum, his eyes fixed on his partner.   And I give up.  I have no fight left in me.

Sabes que?” I say.  “I drop the case.  You win.”

The officer watches me.

“I’ve had enough,” I say, waving my hand before his eyes.  “Hello?  Case closed.”

The cop smiles wryly, then places a hand on my shoulder.

“Better for you,” he says softly, “Much better.”

And he is right.  He and his partner do not ask for a penny and I never hear from them again.  And I never get back through to my insurance rep.  Nor does the case ever appear in the company’s system.  I stop calling.  Because the truth is I feel relieved to have gotten all these crooks off my back.   It’s painful to admit because I criticize Mexicans all the time for the same passivity.  I won’t anymore, because now I get it.  Accommodating injustice here is a hell of a lot easier than fighting it.

____

Gerry Hadden is an author and radio foreign correspondent. For several years, he worked NPR’s Mexico, Central America and Caribbean correspondent. He now lives with his family in Barcelona, where he is Europe correspondent for Public Radio International’s The World. Contact him at www.gerryhadden.com.

 

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By Cynthia Butler

Laurie and I had been friends since the moment she looked up at me on that first day of kindergarten and asked, “Are you really five?”

Her brother got married and her sister got pregnant when Laurie was six years old and each moved out of their parents’ house shortly after that. Laurie became kind of an only child. Her mother once warned her that she had better skip adolescence. They were just too worn out to deal with another one. Since both of Laurie’s parents worked, we preferred spending most of our time at her house where we could do anything we wanted.

On the evenings when I slept over at Laurie’s house, her parents would often retreat with their gin and tonics to their bedroom upstairs and we would have the downstairs to ourselves. Sometimes we cooked fried baloney or oatmeal cookies. Other times we listened to music and played board games. If the weather was nice we camped out on her back patio in our sleeping bags. We loved the feeling of waking up on the cold bricks with the trees and sky above us.

I can’t remember whose idea it was that summer night to ride our bikes across town to the 7-11 store. It was 2 a.m., we were 14 years old, and we wanted rainbow popsicles. It seemed like the thing to do. We rode down the middle of the streets as fast as we could, zigzagging over the yellow and white lines, rushing through stop signs and laughing hysterically. The cool night air felt wonderful in our hair. Everyone else seemed to be in their neat suburban homes fast asleep.

So when we arrived at the 7-11 we were surprised to see people hanging out in the parking lot. There were men with trucks and motorcycles and they looked at us. For the first time this plan of ours seemed dangerous. We leaned our bikes against the large ice machine and walked toward the florescent interior like we knew what we were doing. The sight of the rainbow popsicles with their swirls of blue and yellow and red made us feel better. We handed over our money at the counter. Dodging our way through the men back to our bikes, we silently agreed that it would be best to eat the popsicles while riding back to Laurie’s house. As the bright glass front of the 7-11 faded behind us, the freedom we had felt riding our bikes in the middle of the night returned.

The next summer Laurie began dating guys from the local university but I continued to be more interested in riding my bike. I can still remember the feel of the night breeze in my hair as we rode through the dark streets. That is why I really hate wearing a bike helmet today.

_____

Cynthia Butler has worked as a nonprofit fundraiser in San Francisco and Boston.  She lives in Berkeley, California.
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By Kristi DeMeester

I gave up sleeping in the same bed as my grandmother after the first night she moved into my bedroom. That first night, I stretched my body along the corner of the sagging mattress, my calf muscles cramping; the thin quilt tucked tightly beneath me so that her sagging, yellowed skin would not touch mine. Her chest rose and fell, and I timed my inhalations against her tobacco stained exhalations.

“It’s just until she gets back on her feet. It’s not easy being evicted,” my mother said.

For the next four years, my mother recited her truth. “It’s only for a little while, Kristi.”

Like anything worth hating, it took time to learn how to do it just right.

But before I hated my grandmother, I loved her. Every Thursday I waited for what she called our “nature walks.” From the porch swing, I searched for her faded blue station wagon and rubbed my feet together with impatience.

She’d sweep in smelling of sweat and tobacco; her dark hair teased and sprayed into an immovable coiffure. She wore her makeup like a shield, layering on foundation, blush, and mascara, but no lipstick.  “Chapstick is all I need,” she said.

If a handsome man passed us, she smiled and winked. “When you get a little older, I’ll teach you how to flirt,” she said.

“I’ve always loved tulips,” she said as we stopped to admire the yellow petals. I sniffed them while she lit a cigarette. “Prettiest things I ever saw.” As the scent of tulips and cigarette smoke washed over me, she led me home.

Every year on my birthday she drove me to Shoney’s for breakfast. “It’s my oldest grandbaby’s birthday,” she told the waitress when she raised her eyebrows at my bacon filled plate, “If it’s bacon she wants, she can have it.” In kindergarten, I wrote my first sentences about her. I called her my best friend.

Then, in 1991 her younger sister was diagnosed with lung cancer and was dead four months later.

The next week, I waited on the porch for my grandmother, but she didn’t come. My mother told me, “Grandma is sad right now. Give her some time, okay?” Pretty soon, I stopped waiting.

I imagine she’d hoped she could drown her sadness in a man, and a few months after her sister’s death, she started dating. Three months after meeting Jimmy Head, my grandmother made him her third husband. He laughed easily and loudly, played with me and my brother like he was a child, too. I loved him as a grandfather.

When her marriage didn’t alleviate the sadness of her sister’s death, she began drinking. She hid plastic bottles of vodka under the kitchen sink and drank until she couldn’t stand. “Don’t you touch me,” she hissed when Jimmy tried to lift her.

He hovered, waited for her depression to lift, for the hurt of losing her younger sister to dissipate. When she left him, I cried. Something inside my grandmother had broken in the face of losing a sister with whom she shared so many secrets.

To survive, she waitressed at the Waffle House and weaned herself off of the vodka, only taking a nip every now and again. “To take the edge off,” she said.

On a day my mother couldn’t find a babysitter, my grandmother took me to the Waffle House and sat me at the counter with a dish rag and ketchup bottles that needed wiping. I watched as she delivered coffee and winks to her male regulars.

When her shift ended, she collapsed beside me and pulled her tip money from her apron.

“Count that out for me, hon” she said as she ordered lunch: a double cheeseburger with hashbrowns followed by a honey bun, which she slathered in butter.

“Don’t you ever eat like this,” she warned.

“Why do you?”

“I have a high metabolism, but you’re like your momma and will get bigger than a house,” she pinched my thigh, “and you can’t afford to get much chunkier.”

After that, I jogged in place for twenty minutes before bed each night for the next three years.

In late 1994 my parents divorced, and my grandmother offered us temporary shelter in her three-bedroom home.

No longer married, my grandmother gave up the façade of the tidy housewife and lived in squalor. The kitchen sink crusted under her unwashed dishes; flies ventured into the cool depths of the refrigerator to die in piles around rotting meatloaf. Dirty clothes covered the floor.

Watching her sit in her own filth disgusted me. Often I stared at her and imagined what it would feel like to kick her, or pinch her, or place the dead cockroach I’d found in the kitchen inside her snoring mouth. Even better would be to throw away all of her lottery tickets, but I knew better.  Nothing came between my grandmother and her love of gambling.

When she wasn’t sleeping or working, we could find her at Grand’s gas station feeding her tip money to a slot machine. With her mouth open and eyes glazed, she drank Diet Pepsi and chain smoked as she tapped her darkened fingernails against the buttons.

My mother met a nice man and married him in February, 1996. After three years of saving, my stepfather closed on a house he’d had built for us. For the first time, I had my own bedroom and bathroom.

Then on Christmas Eve of 1999, my grandmother came home from work to find her things scattered on the icy front lawn and an eviction notice taped to the door.

“She’ll only be here for a little while,” my mother said as I shouted, cried, and threw small items. My grandmother moved into my bedroom that weekend. What remained of her life was stuffed into plastic grocery sacks.

“Which side is mine?”

“Next to the window,” I said, pushing the grocery sacks she’d placed on my bed onto the floor.

On the hand-me-down pine dresser, she’d laid out her essentials: her makeup bag, Rave Ultra hairspray, half a bottle of Benadryl. My grandmother had quit drinking, but she took long pulls from that bottle before bed.

I spent the next four years sleeping on the floor and growing to hate her. I had dreams of being a writer. The chirping of the television or her wheezing in the background didn’t allow that.

Sometimes, she caught me on a Sunday morning, a cup of coffee in her hand.

“So who is this Chris boy you’ve been talking about?”

“Just a boy I know at school.”

She sipped her coffee, tilted her head, “So when did he kiss you?”

“Last night.” I clapped a hand over my mouth, “How did you know?”

“I figured somebody had kissed you. You came in this house last night glowing like a lightning bug.”

She told me she loved me every day, and I couldn’t stand her for that.

For my sixteenth birthday my mother and grandmother promised me a sleepover. I’d never hosted a slumber party and was embarrassed at sharing a room with my grandmother.

“You’re sure you won’t be here, Grandma?”

“I’m sure, hon.”

When the day finally came, I raced home and flung open the door only to find her sitting on the bed.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m at overtime, and Craig says I can’t work any more hours this week.”

“Can’t you stay somewhere else?”

“I’ll sleep on the couch tonight. It’ll be like I’m not even here.”

She hovered on the outskirts of the party, entering the bedroom because she had forgotten something. “Don’t ya’ll mind me! Oh aren’t you just the prettiest thing? If you were any skinnier, you’d just blow away.”

At one point, she stumbled into our bathroom. Her Benadryl had worked its magic because she proceeded to urinate with the force of a Thoroughbred.

At school the next day, word spread about my crazy grandmother. When I sat down at lunch, my friends picked up their trays and moved to a new table.

At home, as I stared at my grandmother’s mess, rage boiled in my belly.

Walking into the bathroom, I grabbed my grandmother’s toothbrush. Our toilet hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, and a blackish green mold sprouted across the white porcelain.

Taking care to push the bristles deep into the mold, I scrubbed every inch of that toilet with my grandmother’s toothbrush. For the next two weeks, I secretly laughed every time she brushed her teeth.

My grandmother bought a trailer and moved out shortly before I turned eighteen. I celebrated by sleeping naked in a new set of bed sheets, but soon I found I was behaving like her. Coming home after my undergraduate classes and job as a waitress, I’d fall into bed still wearing my smelly uniform. Doing laundry meant dousing a t-shirt in perfume and popping it in the dryer. If I ran out of underwear, I’d turn them inside out and wear them anyway.

“Why am I like this?” I asked my mother. “If Justin’s out of town, I won’t change out of my pajamas for days. I leave food containers just lying out. Oh God, I’m just like grandma.”

To offset the periods of sloth, I cleaned every surface until I bled and felt at peace.

At night, I tried to write, but I’d sit instead in front of the television. Paper threatened to consume my desk, reminding me of the pages I hadn’t written. “You’ll never actually peel yourself off of this couch and finish your novel,” I thought, “because you are just like her.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was leaving us. When the doctor diagnosed her with emphysema, she joked, “At least it’s not cancer, right?”

She swore to get more exercise, to eat better, to stop smoking. The oxygen tank hissed as she drew breath from the cord looped over her ears. Each of us scolded her like a child when we’d catch her smoking.

“Are you trying to kill yourself? You shouldn’t be smoking any way, much less next to the oxygen tank!”

Every week, she called me. “I miss you, baby girl,” she said. Too often, I ignored the call.

The last time we spoke was on my twenty-sixth birthday. “Remember when I used to take you to Shoney’s on your birthday?”

“I remember. Listen, I’m really busy.” I never spoke with her again.

Three months later, my grandmother was found dead in her mobile home. While we waited for the attendants to take her body, my brother sat on the ground picking at his cuticles, his hat pulled low. My mother walked in slow circles. I bowed my head so my hair covered my eyes.

“I need to see her,” my mother said, pausing at the rickety front steps. She placed her hand on the door knob then took it off before turning back to me. I couldn’t look at her.

“Oh, Mom,” she said as the door clicked behind her.

Moments later, she called for me. “Kristi, can you please help me? I need to send clothes.”

I turned from the body when I entered.

“Is this nice enough?” my mother held up a cream colored pantsuit. “Can you look in her dresser for socks? She hates to be cold.”

I touched everything with my fingertips, ashamed that even now I was squeamish around her things.

Inside the trailer I held my mother as we cried.

This spring a tulip in my garden flamed out in vibrant pink among the white blooms I’d planted in the fall. I hadn’t planted it. But its petals remained long after the others faded and dropped.

____

Kristi DeMeester lives, teaches, and writes fiction in the Southern Gothic vein in Atlanta, Georgia. Her article “Why I am Not a Luddite” was published in Free Inquiry magazine, and she is currently working on a novel. She blogs about everything she sees at www.oneperfectword.blogspot.com.

 

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