Quite Put Out

Quite Put Out

Within the foyer, and sitting prim and proper in a high-backed chair—her spine as straight as a poker and her shadow constant and unwavering in the flickering light of the hearth—was Lady Agnes Ironside, her hair a fiery brand of curls atop an ashen face and her gown black as soot.  Her freckles flared like cinders as she spoke.
“Undoubtedly the duke is exceedingly put upon by that presumptuous woman,” she said, her red-lipped smile stiff and sharp.  “His patience will fray, given time, and with its unraveling will come the consolidation of his feelings in regard to other persons more deserving of the station and status of his especial acquaintance.”
The other ladies sat to one side of the table, their three shadows trembling among the velvet-and-white wallpaper.  They were as ash, too, but were not so constant in countenance; rather, had a window been opened late in that Winter’s night a breeze would have blown them to utter dissolution.
“And, of course, his truer feelings will bear upon him in time,” Lady Ironside said, taking a sip of tea from her teacup.  The teacup was smeared with shadows on one side, and gleamed white on the other side, like a heathen’s bone exhumed in an ancient temple.  “He will not abandon himself or his truer feelings, nor will he dishonor himself or the more deserving among his considerations by protracting this foolish infatuation.  That presumptuous naif cannot dissuade him from his better sensibilities.  Society, rank, and expectation shall all prevail.”
The three women shivered in the airy foyer, despite the hearth.  Lady Ironside remained unmoved, however.  Not one patch of skin betrayed the heat of her conviction with goosebumps or tautness.  Winter himself might whisper down her corset and she would melt him with her most languid shrug.  Or so she fancied.
“And do not think that I am unaware of his previous attachments,” Lady Ironside said to those shades in her foyer.  “Each of you enjoyed his special attentions for a time, and each of you suffered for his capricious nature.  Yet, I evince a certain defiance in my own circumstances, for I am—unlike the three of you—peerless in my pedigree and accomplishments.  For instance, not one of you were ever sufficient in the art of the piano.  I have been regarded as singular pianist distinguished by my interpretations of Mozart.  Moreover, I am a soprano that— had necessity in life existed and privilege been absent—I could have sustained a life with the lofty heights of my voice.  To these obvious virtues there must be added my natural charms, of course, and my sensibility as a friend and confidante.  In all circles of society I flourish with natural acumen, and would do so whether in a small soiree of friends or, indeed, the castle of the Queen Victoria herself.  No man would find a superior consort anywhere in all of England for the diversity of societies one encounters here.  And, being naturally adaptive, I would be the superior consort anywhere else in the world.  I am, if anything, quick to learn and overcome.  I am as a fish to water, as you all well know.” 
Lady Ironside did not flush in embarrassment as she proclaimed her attributes, but sipped between each trait as if outlining the basic facts of a ledger’s contents.   The three shades nodded sympathetically, but said nothing.
“The Duke will see the error in his estimation soon enough,” she continued.  “With more temperate reflection he will come to understand that he has taken to a lowly, common oil lamp to illuminate his nights while the fires of Mt. Olympus await him here.  With me.  What warmth is there among the common hearths of England compared to the hearths of Hera and Aphrodite combined?  He is chilled in her company, I assure you.  Absolutely chilled.”
Lady Ironside sipped again from her teacup, coolly eyeing the three women before her.  A door opened within her manor, and with it came the tendrils of a cool night breeze.  The three pale shades quivered and then dissipated like ash into shadow.  Lady Ironside sat alone, untouched by the coldness.  There was a sharply needled fire in her heart, and atop the head of this needle danced fallen angels all afire with the host of the Inferno, burning with all of its hope and hurt and betrayal and embittered love.
“That must be William returning,” Lady Ironside announced.  She set her teacup aside and crossed her hands, one atop the other, in her lap.  She listened for the footsteps of her messenger as they approached.  They seemed slow; reluctant.
At length, his figure appeared in the door, bringing with it the smells of horses and sweat and the countryside.  He cleared his throat.
“Come in, William,” she said.  “Report to me at once.”
“As you wish, Miss Ironside,” he said.  He hesitated nonetheless, clearing his throat once again, and then stepped into the foyer.  He was a lean, middle-aged man in a rider’s coat with long tails.  He stood before her with his hands behind his back and his eyes averted into the fire of the hearth.  “The Duke...” he began to say, but hesitated.
“Come, come, William,” the lady said.  “Do not vex my nerves with suspense.”
“He is to be married to the young maiden,” William said.  He looked as a dog awaiting a strike upon the nose.  Instead, to his astonishment, his ear was struck with something ever the more unsettling than a spiteful hand.  Lady Ironside giggled.
“She is no maiden,” Lady Ironside said, wry amusement playing about her lips.  “No more than any of my guests here.”  She gestured to the empty couch.
William did not glance at the empty couch, but kept his eyes in the fire.
“Do you not agree, ladies?” Lady Ironside said.  “All of you were fooled by your own complacency.  The Duke would not have kept to his word for any of you, for you gave away your honor so easily.”
William went to the hearth and used the iron poker to stir the fire to a greater flame.  The night’s ride had been a frigid one.
“The Duke will abandon his newest tart as he has these three tarts past,” Lady Ironside said, her tongue prodding the air more sharply than the poker in William’s hand.  “And then he will apply to my sympathies.  Naturally, I will forgive him with majestic magnanimity, and we will be married, but there will be an interim when he must offer his pride in sincere totality to me.  I am not a hard woman, but my passions are to be cloyed for the rigors they have endured during these three weeks of cold distance.  I am not simply another shade in exile on the River Styx.  I am Aphrodite and Hera.  I am Diana and Athena.  I am not some common crumpet with a disproportional sense of self.  My vanity is meted accordingly and my virtue remains intact and intractable, regardless of what some circles may claim.”  Her lips quivered in a sneer for a moment, and her whole being was aglow with the cinders of resentment.  “There is no doubting the incumbency placed upon his good will, nor the inducement I provoke in him toward his own honor as a gentleman of noble station.  My three friends here could not have, in good faith, expected any reciprocation of obligation in regard to the Duke and their own improprieties.  No, indeed, they were grand fools to think otherwise.  I am no such fool.”
William cleared his throat in the silence, and stirred the fire in the hearth.  Lady Ironside’s shadow loomed large in the foyer, and did not flicker or flag as the flames swayed with the intrusion of the poker.
“William,” she said, her voice suddenly tremulous.  “When can I expect the Duke’s arrival?”
William paused in his labor, dumbfounded as the light from the hearth flared and subsided as if rallying for its own death throes.  His mouth gawped, the words needed for the moment escaping amorphously from between his floundering lips.  Silence was master of the household, then, and his decree was brutal.  The moment of his reign passed, however, as did the tremor in Lady Ironside’s voice as she resumed.
“In a fortnight, naturally,” she said with her habitual confidence.  “That will be more than sufficient time to travel the short distance in comfort of his carriage.  Yet, I fear dispensing with the tart will require more time, and so a fortnight will suffice exceedingly well.  Though a tart, she should be afforded an honorable discharge from his company, as he condescended to do for the other three ladies here gathered.  The Duke is a considerate gentleman and must placate such sensitive situations, however inconvenient they may be to the superior affections between the two of us.”
Lady Ironside lifted her teacup again to her lips, sipped, and set the teacup down.  The porcelain trembled as it touched the plate.
“And this interval of separation shall only stoke the love between us.  Absence makes the heart fonder, and my Duke is beyond fond of me now.”  She suddenly paused and turned to look at William’s shadowy figure stooping in front of the fire.  “Pray, in what spirit did you find the Duke?”
William mechanically stirred the kindling.  “Pleasant,” he said.  “Most pleasant, I presume.  I was not granted an audience, but I was assured by his butler that the Duke was in high spirits.  His household was bustling with preparations for a ball.”
“Indeed?” Lady Ironside said, a confusion in her green eyes.  “A ball?”  She sighed, and her freckles seemed to flare across her cheeks and bosom.  “To amuse himself in light of my absence, no doubt.  He feels it keenly and must exact extravagant distractions to diverge his forlorn disposition.  Whereas those other tarts amounted to little more than a seasonal romance—no, a holiday of fickle distraction finished before evening Mass might begin—his affection for me is a lodestar without which he would be adrift and aimless.”
William stifled a cough as the hearth’s fire belched smoke and cinder into his face.
“Miss Ironside,” he said, “should you not be retiring to bed?  The hour grows late...and cold.”
“I feel no coldness, William,” she said.  “I am a pillar of flame against such natural caprices.”
“Even so,” William said, hesitantly, “it is not good for a lady’s constitution to linger so late in the Wintertime.”
“The Spring will be here soon enough,” she said.
William grimaced at his own words.  “Not afore a fortnight, my lady.  Nor, I fear, thereafter.”
Her mouth twisted—but with the strain of anger or despair, he could not discern—and she rose from her high-backed chair.  She did not bid her servant a good night, nor the three guests haunting her with their pitiful expressions.  Instead, she turned and retreated from the foyer with a torpid stride.  Her voice quavered in the hall.
“This house is too hot.  I should like to winter someplace cooler.”

                    ***

Later that night, in the depths of the witching hour, William coughed, startling himself awake.  Sighing, he sat up in his bed and blinked into the uniform darkness of his quarters.  The fire in his hearth was nothing but smoldering embers.  He found himself drawn to the singular window serving the room with its prospect.  Pulling his robe about him, he attended the window with bleary eyes that smeared the orange moon along the cataracts of the window.  A few blinks and the cold moonlit landscape crystallized.  The garden sprawled below, its hedges buried with the supple powder of the year’s first snow.  The gazebo was as a white beehive.  The latticework of the arbor was bereft of its vines and flowers.  This was all to be expected, and yet he felt a revelation soon to be at hand.  For a moment he stared, not knowing what had drawn him from bed.  He was turning back to bed when he glimpsed a figure dancing in the snow.  The figure’s nakedness burned with flecks of cinders beneath her fiery red tresses.  He was reminded of the old tales his Irish grandmother once told him of the Leanan Sidhe, that monstrous fairy that would lure unwary men to their deaths.  Or was the figure a Bean Sidhe, portending death in the Ironside estate?
William shivered, blinked, and then saw the figure no more.  Thinking the figure a conjuration of drink, dreaminess, and his own desires, William staggered back to bed, surrendering the vision to the darkness of sleep.

                    *** 

Upon the morning the housekeeper set about the manor to rekindle the hearths.  She found Lady Ironside laying in bed, a pallor snuffing out her freckles.  Her fiery red hair had gone gray as ash and lay as lax as soot.  Though heavily laden with blankets, and having a hearth that had never extinguished throughout the night, the once radiant mistress was now cold and clammy and colorless.  Before the close of the morning she had given over the ghost from her frigid vessel.
The Duke, it must be said, married the fifth woman to have enkindled his fancy, and was no more put out by the news of the death of the fourth than news of the third, second, or first.

Clear-Eyed, Silent

 The man in the black robe stood at the end of the long driveway, across the yellowing field where the bales of hay huddled in the shrapnel stalks.  The man leaned on his long-handled scythe, his face cowled in shadow.  The scythe’s blade gleamed, even in the predawn murk.  Billy sat upon the front porch of the farmhouse, squinting his eyes as the flash of the blade leapt out at intervals, watching the man as the man watched his older brother, Thomas.  Thomas did not see the robed man as he helped his father with the tractor.  Billy could not tell Thomas because his head did not work right, and so his mouth did not work right.  Instead, Billy pointed at the man with one hand—the hand that did not hold the toy soldier.  Even so, no one paid any mind to Billy, and so they paid no mind to the robed man.  At length, the robed man continued down the road.  Along the distant hills behind the robed man were trees.  The trees were bare and black like charred hands stretched out in vain to protect against the coming sunrise.

 Billy did not play with the toy soldier in his hand.  He held it gently, reverently, as if it might break at any moment.

 “Hey, Duckbill,” Thomas said, ruffling his little brother’s hair as he and his father stepped up onto the porch.  “You going to help daddy with the tractor while I’m gone?”

 “If he can milk Betty without being kicked he’ll be doin’ good,” their father said.  He did not pat his youngest son’s head, but grumpily took hold of the rocking chair and sat down.  “But maybe someday he’ll be strong.  A lot of them that are weak in the head prove to be strong in the arm.  Maybe then he’ll earn his keep.”

 Thomas did not sit in the other rocking chair, but stood with his arms folded.  “Wish you wouldn’t say that about him.  It’ll hurt his feelings.”

 Their father shook his head.  “He don’t understand anyhow,” he said.  “And the truth never hurt nobody.  I’ve been tellin’ you the truth for years, Tom, and you grew up big and strong and good.  No harm done, all in all.”

 In reply, Thomas crouched down beside his little brother.  “You’ll learn to talk eventually, Duckbill.  I know you will.  When I come back you’ll be here to greet me, and you’ll tell me with your own mouth how your daddy’s the sorriest son of a buck there ever was this side of Crabapple County.”

 Billy continued to stare at the distant hills, the distant trees, and the coming sunrise.  Their father chuckled.

 “I may be the sorriest son of a buck in this county,” their father said, “but I feel sorry for the sorriest son of a buck over there.  You’ve got a talent with a rifle.  I’m sure whoever you’ll have in your sights will be as a clay pigeon still on the flywheel.”

 The sun rose and set the trees afire with napalm bombardment.  The horizon burned in an apocalyptic inferno.  Billy began to sob.

 “What’s wrong, Duckbill?” Thomas asked, tenderly.  He put a hand on the little boy’s shoulder, but the boy just shook his head.

 “That boy ain’t right,” their father said, grimacing.  “What’re you cryin’ about, boy?  You ain’t got nothin’ to cry about.”

 “Lay off the boy,” said their mother.  She stood behind the screen-door, her hands on her aproned hips.  “Breakfast is ready.  Come get you something to eat.  All of you.”

 Their father shot bolt-up from the rocking chair and went in.

 “Come on, Duckbill,” Thomas said.  “You’ll feel better once you’ve had something for breakfast.”

 Reluctantly, Bill rose from the porch, careful not to drop the toy soldier.  His eyes blurred with tears and the glare of the sun.  Letting his eyes fall to the hay bales, he saw them anew.  There were minced men rolled up and bound together in amongst the straw.  He rubbed his eyes clear of the tears, but not the vision.

 Billy followed his older brother inside the house.

 Sitting at the table, the family said Grace and then began to eat.  There were biscuits, sausage, eggs, and gravy on each plate.  The tablecloth was checkered red and white.  The grandfather clock ticked off seconds, slicing Now from Nevermore one sliver with each swing of its pendulum.  The radio was on the kitchen counter, near the dirty pans.  It was turned down low, but Billy listened to it intently as he held his idle fork with one hand.  The other hand retained its gentle, but firm, grip on the toy soldier.  The radio host spoke of the Viet Cong and deadly jungle diseases.

 Still, their father spoke casually; easily.  Pridefully.

 “You’re doin’ a good thing, Tom,” his father said, beaming.  “Stoppin’ them Commies is the most important thing right now.  It’s either them or us.  You’re gonna’ make sure it’s them.”

 “I know, daddy,” Thomas said.

 “This ain’t goin’ to be another Korea,” his father said resolutely through a mouth full of gravy-laden biscuit.  “We just come off the Big War and nobody had the stomach for it.  Now, though, you are goin’ to put those Commies in their place.  And that place is six feet under.  Or head-down in the rice paddies.  To hell with ‘em.  They don’t deserve a Christian burial.”

 Thomas nodded, but said no more.  He ate his breakfast in silence.

 Billy ate nothing.  He stared emptily at his full plate.

 “Bill,” his mother said.  “You need to eat something.  You got a full day ahead of you and you aren’t going to be able to do nothing on an empty stomach.”

 “You better eat that food, boy,” his father said, “or I’m takin’ its cost out of your hide.”

 Billy pushed the plate toward his brother, his eyes and mouth agape with meaning they could not convey.

 “It’s all right, Duckbill,” Thomas said.  “I got enough to eat.”

 The radio announcer spoke confidently of the military, but his words were gnawed with screaming static.

 Gunpowder clouds floated in from the East, darkening the caustic white sky.  The winds cut across the heartland like cold metal blades sweeping side to side.  

 Billy followed his brother and father out to the gate.  Opening it, they went through.  They said nothing of the blood and ragged skin and meat hanging along the barbed wire fence, or the bodies entangled in the coils.  The herd gathered around obediently as the men went to the barn.  The old barn had a gambrel roof, like a casket, and overflowed as they approached it.  The hay loft brimmed with heaped corpses and entrails and dismembered limbs as they began to pitch hay down to the cows.  Billy could say nothing at all.  He only moaned a little.

 “Jesus, boy,” his father growled.  “You ain’t even doin’ nothin’!  We’re the ones throwing this hay out.”

 They worked at the heaps of hay while the herd eagerly gathered around to eat.  Billy watched the dumb beasts chew, their heedless lips splattered with blood.  Billy’s eyes itched and brimmed as they always did when he was near hay.  The world was blurry, but he could see more than most.

 “Daddy, I’ve been thinkin’,” Thomas said as he pitched the hay.  “You need to teach Bill how to shoot.  Who knows how long this war might last.”

 “The boy doesn’t understand nothin’,” his father said.  “You honestly think they’d accept him?  He’s…half-finished.  Course, it’s our fault.  We waited too long to have him.  And now…well, he’ll be lucky if he can look at a gun without runnin’ off in terror.”

 “Daddy, you’re being mean,” Thomas said, halting his pitchfork.

 His father halted, too.  He stabbed his pitchfork’s teeth into the floor of the barn like a bayonet into bowels, leaning on it and rubbing his lower back with one hand.  He affixed his youngest son with a shrewd, merciless stare.  “I ain’t bein’ mean.  I am bein’ honest.”  He turned toward his eldest son.  “Don’t you remember how he reacted when I tried to get him to shoot that little ol’ .22?  He ran as if the Devil was after him!  He’s scared shitless of guns now.  I can’t even clean a gun in my own living room without him becoming a blubbering mess.”

 “That’s not his fault, daddy,” Thomas said, looking to his little brother with a mixture of sadness and pity.

 “I know it,” his father said gruffly.  “That’s why I said we should never have tried at our age.  And now look at him!  Playing with dolls and cryin’ when a gun goes off.  It’s not…manly.”

 “He’s still a boy,” Thomas said.  “He has some growing to do.”

 “At his age you were shootin’ ducks, Tom,” his father said.  “All on your own with no say-so from me or nobody else.”  He smiled with pride.  “I remember back then.  You were so proud when you brought those ducks in for supper.  Your momma already had made some soup, but when I saw what you’d done, I said, ‘To hell with the soup!  Let’s have some roasted duck!’” His wrinkles smoothed with youthful joy.  “And I’ll be damned if that wasn’t some of the best meat I’ve ever had.  And you never ruined anything you shot with a bad aim.  You got the Eye for shootin’.  I’d wager to say your enemies will call it the Evil Eye before long.  Or the Eye of God.  Where you aim, Death follows.  Those slant-eyes will be like fish in a barrel.  They won’t know what hit ‘em.”

 They continued pitching the hay as the clouds rolled in.

 Billy wandered away, unnoticed.  He looked out across the yellowing fields that undulated heavenward, the bales silent amongst the splintered stalks.  He was startled at the roar of the tractor engine.  The tractor rolled out of the shed, his father a shadowy outline atop it.  Billy watched the bold, black tires of the machine deploying forward to the day’s work, its ridged tires cutting trenches in the fallow earth.

 Billy walked farther away.  He came to the tobacco barn where the stalks hung from the crossbeams.  Bodies hung there, too.  He walked inside and saw the man in the black robe, sharpening his sickle.  Billy stared at him.  He could not see the man’s face beneath his hood.  The whetstone slid slickly across the cold white crescent blade in a pendulous motion.  The sibilance struck something primal in Billy’s spine, begging flight.  But he did not flee.  He stood and stared at the man.  The man looked up, but his hand never stopped swiping the whetstone across the long blade.  Its curvature reminded Billy of a raven’s beak.  Bill began to cry.

 ‘Silence,’ the man said, his voice sharper than the blade he whetted.  ‘You have chores to do.  As do I.’

 Bill ran away from the tobacco barn, catching up to Thomas in the field.  He hugged him around his leg.

 “Whoa, Duckbill,” Thomas said, almost falling over.  He looked down at the trembling boy that clutched at his thigh.  “Come on, now.  You don’t need to get upset over it.  I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll be coming back.  Don’t you worry none.”

 Billy continued to weep, shaking his head as the tears came.

 They drove the shaky, sputtering old truck to the bus stop and waited with the other families for the military bus to come to pick up the young men assembled there.  There were lots of kisses and handshakes, hugs and shoulder pats.  There was bravado, and not just from the young men.  Fathers and brothers and uncles spoke with grinning complacency.

 “Give ‘em hell, boys.”

 “Shoot to kill.”

 “Kick their asses so hard you knock their slant-eyes straight!”

 While the others talked and boasted and bragged on their sons, Billy stared at Thomas through tears.  Thomas was tall, like his father, only Time had not whittled him thin yet, and his shoulders were broad, his chest burley, his arms muscled from tools and chores.  His smile was easy and kind.  He had the loudest laugh, spreading seeds of laughter all around him.  He was the gentlest and the strongest young man among all those gathered from every end of the county.

 But Billy knew that none of that mattered to the man in the black robe as he, too, waited by the bus stop, leaning patiently on his scythe.

 “Be good while I’m gone, Duckbill,” Thomas said.  “Grow bigger and stronger than me, okay?  Momma and daddy are going to need your help.”

 Billy tried to speak, but, as always, the words did not come.

 When Billy and his mother and father arrived home, without Thomas, Billy stared out toward the East where the dark clouds flashed here and there with lightning.

 “Get on inside, boy,” his father said.  “And go to bed early.  Don’t stay up all night playin’ with toys.  Tomorrow I’m goin’ to have to show you how to milk the cows.  You’re goin’ to be busy for the Winter.”

 Billy went upstairs, but did not go into his own room.  Instead, he carried the toy soldier into Thomas’s room.  The little boy sat on Thomas’s bed, looking out through Thomas’s window.  Beyond the distant fields, toward the East, a storm was readying its front-line offensive.  Billy opened the window and a warm breeze blew in, as if from some other part of the world that was warmer and moister.  It felt like a monsoon was coming to the heartland of America.

Careful What You Wish For

 Tony struck the rearview mirror with the palm of his hand, slamming it sideways so the high-beams of the truck behind him could no longer slash at him with a blade of blinding brightness.

 “Stupid cocksucker,” Tony growled.  “Turn off your brights!”

 Raindrops popped on the windshield of his old, brown Ford Pinto.  Tony felt like it was his blood bubbling and popping.  The truck had been tailgating Tony for five miles along Highway 62.  Beyond the highway lay the Sticks, and beyond them rose the knobs.  All around them the wet darkness crouched closely like a cat atop its prey.  It was New Year’s Eve, and the joker in the truck behind Tony must have thought that the dark and the rain and Tony’s steady 35 mph were reason enough to blind him from behind and blow his horn.

 “Go around, asshole!” Tony roared.  “Pass me if you don’t like it!”

 The motorist could not hear Tony, nor did Tony believe the driver would have heeded him.  The driver seemed hellbent on tormenting Tony.

 “Pass now! Go ahead and do it already!”

 The Highway was a straight stretch for a good mile, though there was a bridge with railings here and there.  Trees and lowlands stretched into darkness on either side of the highway.  There was little traffic on this side of the County.

 Yet, the driver did not pass Tony.

 “I wish you’d fucking wreck,” Tony said, grinding his teeth.

 Tony had to drive slowly, not only because of the rain and darkness, but because his rear passenger tire was a small doughnut.  The full-sized tire had gone flat a week ago, from a nail in the wall of the tire, and Tony didn’t have the money for a replacement.

 “I swear to God, if I could, I’d fucking smash your truck into a goddamn ravine,” Tony swore.

 At length, Tony saw the liquor store and slowed down, his blinker not working.  He eased the Pinto into a turn, pulling into the big parking lot.  A pot hole’s water puddle ruptured like a hemorrhage and the Pinto jerked sideways, but came to a stop.  Meanwhile the truck blasted its horn.  Tony glanced back only once and saw, within the glow of the parking lot lamppost, the side of the truck.  There was a faded Confederate battle flag painted on the door.

 “Go home and fuck your sister,” Tony grumbled.  He sighed, irritably, then turned off the Pinto.  Groaning now, he climbed out of the car, which was difficult for him since he was so tall, his legs so long, and the Pinto so small and low to the ground.  He did not know which was worse: falling in or tumbling out.  Standing up was like coming up from a game of Limbo.  The old, familiar ache in his hip proclaimed it was still alive and well and had, much to his misery, learned new agonies.

 “Christ Almighty!”

 Limping now from sciatic pain, Tony headed into the front door of Mike’s Liquor Store to start his shift.

 Robbie, the second-shift clerk, eagerly abounded from behind the counter as Tony hobbled into the bleaching light of the store.

 “Finally,” Robbie said in a low, disgruntled voice.  “What took you so long?”

 “I am on time!” Tony growled, glaring at the young twenty-two year old’s face-piercings.  Even if Tony wasn’t angry at Robbie, he would still have been staring at the piercings.  The silver rings glistened like Christmas ornaments and the chains that linked them swayed with the slightest movement.  There were times when Tony wanted to tear them out.  “I still have five minutes until it’s Eleven.”

 “But I told you I needed to leave by Ten-Thirty,” Robbie complained in that monotone that never changed pitch, even when more robust emotions were meant to be conveyed.  “I got a gig tonight with my band.”

 Tony walked past Robbie, nearly getting hooked by the chains that dangled from his black pants and black shirt.

 “I never agreed to come in early,” Tony said.  “But I’m here now, so get lost.”

 Robbie opened his three-ringed lips to say something, then closed them and headed out into the parking lot.  He looked like a pale set of arms and a head as his black shirt and pants melded with the outer blackness of the night.

 Tony assumed his place behind the counter.  He noticed there were Cheeto crumbs on the counter.  He raised a hand to sweep it off, but then grumbled.

 “I’m not his momma,” he said.  He looked out at the aisles of booze, wondering how many of them Robbie had filched.  It didn’t matter, he realized.  Mike’s Liquor Store had a terminal illness, and its last days were approaching fast.

 He felt something like white noise in his ears.  He heard it, too, but the radio was so loud that it had a tactile roughness, like sandpaper.  After a moment of vegetated nonthought, he realized that it was the radio.  He walked over to it, by the drive-thru window, and turned it off.  It was the Metal music that Robbie listened to.  Naturally, Tony hated it, just like the fact that he hated Robbie’s long hair.  Tony was balding, and he thought that the only good music that ever existed, existed in the Seventies.  Everything else— like the world at large—was expendable.

 “Stupid crap,” he said.

 He stood in the silence of the empty liquor store.  He hated the bright lights.  They reminded him of the driver in the truck who had been shining his high-beams and tailgating.  He wanted to turn the lights off, or at least half of them.  Why would it matter anyway?  The liquor store was going to close soon because nobody came out this way for booze.  Once upon a time, when Boone County next-door was Dry, its citizens would venture out here on Highway 62 and purchase all of their alcoholic needs.  Business was going well back then.  Mike, the owner, sometimes had a hard time keeping the store fully stocked since so many customers were coming here.  The big parking lot was full, even in the late hours.

 But then Boone County voted to go Wet, and sure enough the majority of Mike’s customer base dried up.  Tony was surprised at Mike’s denial, though, thinking that if Mike was sensible he would have fired both Tony and Robbie and liquidated his remaining stock, or at the least opening another store somewhere else, on the outer edge of another Dry county.  But Mike was in denial, and so long as Mike was in denial, Tony had a job.

 And yet, Tony did not care for the job much.  It was merely a means of buying booze to drown himself from day to day.  Nothing more.

 The door banged open and the little bell ding-a-ling-a-linged pathetically.  A young guy in a hoodie and sweatpants walked in, followed by a young woman.  She was in a hoodie, too, and both of them had their hoodies up over their heads, shielding their eyes, and most of their faces, from the bright fluorescence of the store.  She had an oversized purse and wore a short skirt, the latter of which would not have been justified even by Summer temperatures.  A tattoo of Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid smiled coyly from the inner thigh of one leg.  A hookah trailed smoke up the other leg, disappearing into the skirt.  Tony could have hazarded a guess as to where it ended.

 “What’s up?” the young man said.

 Tony merely nodded, watching them like a sheriff at the entrance of a new cowboy posse.

 “Wet fucking night, am I right?” the young man offered.

 “That’s what umbrellas are for,” Tony said, mirthlessly.

 The young man pointed a finger-gun at Tony.  “Good advice,” he said.

 The young man and woman split apart, going down different aisles.  Tony knew their routine better than they did.  They thought they were being slick, separating to divide his attention while they filched whatever they could from the shelves.  And they almost succeeded, but Tony was wise to the ruse because it was a ruse he knew well.

 The young man tripped loudly over a display, making a dramatic show of knocking over a stack of Mad Dog beer.  The beer cans rolled everywhere like aggrieved animals on the run.

 “Oh man!” the young man said, gawping up at Tony with mock-embarrassment while bending over to try to pick up the cans.  “Dude, I am so sorry!”

 The young man scrambled to reassemble the display stack.  He kept his face concealed beneath his hoodie; all except that dog-eat-shit-grin—it glittered in the fluorescence.  Meanwhile the young woman stuck a bottle of Captain Morgan Rum into her oversized purse.  She walked around with a hastened step, emboldened by her presumed success.

 The young man made a show of looking around the store for a while longer before finally picking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the coolers.  He brought it to the counter and, while he busily fished out his ID, his girl walked out the door, her purse swinging ponderously against her upper thigh.

 “Just the PBR,” the young man said, handing over the PBR and a five-dollar bill.

 Tony rang up the PBR, and the Captain Morgan Rum.

 “Whoa, whoa, whoa, man,” the young man said.  His dog-eat-shit-grin twisted into a snarl.  “What’s that shit you added there?”

 “The rum your girl put in her purse,” Tony said.

 “She didn’t do not fucking thing,” the young man said.

 It never ceased to amaze Tony how petty thieves could become so outraged at suspicion, especially when they were caught.

 “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” the thief demanded.

 “The guy who caught your bitch stealing on camera,” Tony said.  He hooked a thumb back toward the camera on the wall behind him.  “So either pay for the rum or she can go to jail or juvie.  To be honest, I’m not sure how old she is.  Maybe her dad will want a word with you before the police do.”

 The outrage did not subside from the thief’s face, but it was fractured with alarm.

 “Camera?” he said.  “There ain’t no fuckin’ camera.  You’re fuckin’ lying.”

 Tony gave the thief an indifferent, nonchalant shrug of the shoulder.  “You’re the one risking everything.  I just work here.”

 The thief glowered at Tony.

 “You don’t even know who we are,” the thief said.

 “I have your ID right here,” Tony said.

 “It’s fake, bitch,” the thief said.

 “All the better,” Tony said.  “More jail time for using a fake ID.”

 The two men glared for a time longer.  The younger man, at last, relented.

 “Fine, motherfucker,” the thief said.  “I’ll bring it back.”

 The thief went outside for a minute.  He came back with the bottle of rum.

 “Here, you fuckin’ snitch!”

 The thief slammed the bottle of rum on the floor, smashing it all over the scuffed-up linoleum tiles.

 “Fuck you, you punk-ass bitch!” the thief shouted, flicking Tony the bird and shouldering through the door.  A few beats later a car door slammed, an engine revved, tires squealed, and wailed down the road in impotent rage.

 Tony scowled at the rum and broken glass.  After a few seconds of trying to recalibrate his anger to a lower setting, he fetched a dust pan, broom, mop and bucket.  He cleaned away the mess.

 The camera inside the liquor store was, in actuality, nonfunctional and Mike did not have the money to fix it.  Still, the broken camera could be seen by anyone glancing up while paying for their booze.  It was a one-eyed alien from a bygone era.  The only other camera was the parking lot camera.  Tony occasionally glanced at its monitor behind the counter.  Right now it was black and white and half-blinded by the parking lot light and the rain that slashed through the darkness like shooting stars of white streaks.  There were no cars in the parking lot.  The highway stretched between two counties, both sprawling boondocks riddled with the Sticks and underbrush and flooded swampland.

 The radio, which Tony had turned off, turned itself on.  It did this from time to time.  The off/on switch was broken and only worked one way or the other for so long before switching itself.  When it turned on, the chugging guitar of a Jimi Hendrix song blasted through the store.

 “‘There must be some way outta here,’ said the joker to the thief…”

 Tony yanked the radio’s plug from the wall.  He should have unplugged it earlier, he thought.  One day he would throw that radio in the dumpster.

 There must be some way out of here…

 The voice of Jimi Hendrix taunted him over and over again.  He knew it was a desperate lie.  There was no way out of here.  Life was a prison all around him, and it had closed in on him with claustrophobic closeness over the years.

 Feeling suddenly very moody, Tony took out his wallet and slowly pulled out a photo, extracting it with all of the cautious care of a surgeon conducting a perilous operation.  The photo slipped out, at length, with minimal creasing.  Old and crumpled and faded, it was a photo of a younger version of Tony, with a full head of blonde hair—healthy, shiny hair—and a pretty, young woman beside him, holding a baby.  All three members of the family were smiling in the photo.  It was a photo miracle, the portrait photographer said; a picture-perfect arrangement of smiles all at the same time.  But what a contrast it cruelly displayed for Tony now.  Nowadays, he had no hair, never smiled, and was raked head to toe with wrinkles.  His wife—ex-wife, he told himself—had remarried and had aged a little better than Tony because she did not drink or smoke.  She also wore makeup nowadays, or had been the last time Tony had seen her.  He hated the makeup on her.  It looked unnatural.

 And the baby…the baby was now a grown woman.  She had gone to college, and became a Veterinarian, and had gotten married.  She had small children of her own now—two, in fact—but she had not allowed Tony to see them.  He was a stranger to them, and a stranger to her.

 “Ungrateful,” he muttered.  “Without me…she wouldn’t even exist…”

 Nothing had gone well in life for Tony.  And the things that seemed to have been going well were just rotten bits of luck in disguise.  They were the opposite of “blessings in disguise”.  They were curses in disguise.  It was like Luck apportioned by circumstance so as to provoke optimism only as a catalyst for the disappointments to come.   Like a Leprechaun’s pot of gold that turns out to be stolen from Fort Knox, the pot tagged with a tracking device.  The best example of such a curse was his ex-wife, Laverne.  He had thought he won the Jackpot when he married her.  In truth, he had won hot lead in a game of Russian Roulette.

 It was just like that insurance scheme.  He had it all lined up right, and would have made a hundred thousand off of it.  But a fraudster was only as good as the victim let him be, and if the victim was an insurance company, then he was not good at all.  Insurance companies were the kings of fraud, equaled only by celebrities and politicians.  In the end, Tony had served jail time for the ploy.

 Worse, he had ruined his life.

 A couple of hours passed, crawling by with all the swiftness of a slug across a cheek.  Tony felt the sliminess of Time lingering on him, like a triggered nerve that would not stop twitching his face just below his right eye.  The fluorescent lights bothered him, and the booze.  He wanted to drink a beer.  But if he drank a beer he would want to drink another beer.  And another.  And then a shot of whiskey.  Maybe a shot of Bluegrass Bourbon.  And then, before long, he would have drained several cans and bottles and thrown them on the floor alongside his own slovenly, sloppy-drunk self.  He did not want to betray Mike’s trust like that.  Sure, he thought, Mike was fighting a hopeless battle, but Tony would have never forgiven himself for betraying Mike.  Just like he never forgave himself for saying the terrible things he had said to his ex-wife during the Custody battle.

 And so Tony went outside for a smoke.  He stood under the eave of the liquor store, peering through the smoke of his cigarette and the veil of heavy rain and stared at nothing.  Highway 62 was empty.  No cars passed along that desolate stretch of hillbilly backwoods.

 Tony’s preferred brand of cigarettes was Monkey’s Paw.  They were cheap and they gave his body the amount of nicotine it thought it needed.  And so he lit a cigarette, puffing his lungs to ash and tar and coughing occasionally, the Monkey’s Paw choking him like a garroter at times, and generally feeling sardonic about the world.

 He smoked until there were flecks of ashes in the untrimmed scatter of mustache hair over his top lip.  Flicking the cigarette butt out into the black glaze of the parking lot, he headed back inside.  The chill followed him inside.

 The alcohol still beckoned to Tony.  He wanted to turn half of the store’s lights off and conceal the booze in darkness.  Actually, he wanted to turn all of them off and just sit in the dark, staring at nothing.  As a compromise, he turned off only the lights illuminating the counter and himself.  He told himself that it would have save Mike some money, at least, since the store had bled too much money through the lights as it was.  No customers at that late of an hour would have cared if the lights were on or not.  But his eyes and tongue cared.  Wherever he looked the amber gleam of whiskey and rum and the friendly glimmer of silver beer cans all enticed him over.  It was like an ambush from old lovers with their legs all spread out and ready.

 One addiction did not help, and the other was too inappropriate, so Tony opted for his last addiction, which was the most dangerous of all three.  He walked around the counter and picked up the phone.  After a moment’s hesitation, he dialed the familiar number.  There was no ring tone.  His ex-wife must have blocked the store’s number, too.  It was the only phone he had access to, and now it was a dead-end as well, just like their marriage.

 “I wish…I wish things had been different,” Tony said to the dead receiver.  He hung up and stood in the darkness, grim as a gargoyle.  The silence of the store, the highway, and the surrounding countryside met his confession with merciless immutability.

 Tony started for the nearest aisle, hand aiming toward the nearest alcohol without any consideration of what it was.  But his shoestrings were loose and he nearly fell as he stepped on them with one foot and tried to step forward with the other.  Catching himself on the counter, a breathed breath of relief, then bent over to tie his shoestrings.  When he straightened up—with a groan and a jolting agony in his leg—there was a man standing before him.  The man had appeared seemingly out of thin air.  At first, Tony blinked, thinking that the figure before him was a result of the conspiring efforts of his graveyard shift, drowsiness, cataracts, and the half-light in the liquor store.  After staring at the man, and gawping like a monkey, Tony concluded that he was, himself, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

 “Evening, sir,” the man said.

 He was short and had dark black eyebrows, a dark black beard, and dark black eyes like coal.  His skin was burnt umber and the large turban topping his head was wound into a purple plume with a fist-sized diamond in the center of it.  The man wore a black tunic and red, puffy pantaloons.  He had a single earring in one ear, gleaming gold.  Despite the rain, his strange clothes and turban were completely dry.  Desert dry.

 “I didn’t think you Muslims drank,” Tony remarked, after finding his tongue.

 “I am not a Muslim,” the man said, his accent thick.  “I am a Djinni.”

 “Well,” Tony said, “whatever your religion is, I don’t care.  If you want to buy some booze, you need to use the almighty American dollar.”

 “I do not want to buy booze, either,” the stranger said.

 “Then what do you want?” Tony demanded, growing irritable.  “A lottery ticket?  A lighter?”

 The stranger’s lips creased at the edges, suggesting a smile.  “I want to buy your soul,” he said.

 Tony grimaced.  “I’m a Presbyterian.  I’m not converting to anything else.”  He sighed, suddenly feeling despondent.  “I’m too old to change now.  Just ask my ex-wife.  The most I can change nowadays is a tire.”

 The stranger’s eyes were not black.  They were afire.

 “For your soul, Tony Gable, I will grant you wishes.”

 The mention of his name gave Tony pause.  “Who are you?” he said.  “Did my ex-wife send you?”  He grew irate.  “Are you here to serve me papers?  We had an agreement that I didn’t have to pay child support so long as she was married to that fucking car dealer…”

 The stranger waved aside Tony’s furious words.  “I know your name, Tony Gable, because I know your life.”  His eyes blazed brighter and the fluorescence of the liquor store flickered out, leaving only darkness and the eyes that burned within that darkness.  “I know that you wish for things.  All mortals do.  I am willing to make your wishes come true.  All you need do is sell me your soul.”

 Tony winced and then blinked.  All at once the liquor store was alight with its stark fluorescence.  The stranger was standing before Tony again, eyes dark as he waited patiently.

 Tony’s mouth was dry.  He moved his tongue and it rasped like a receipt in a pocket.  “How…how do I know you are telling me the truth?”

 The stranger raised a hand.  There were bangles and jewelry dangling from his wrist.  “Would you like me to give you a wish for free as a sign of good faith?”

 Tony had not realized how much he was sweating until an itch brought his hand to his forehead.  “Could you…could you cure my sciatica?”

 The stranger bowed his head slightly.  “Only wish it so.”

 “I wish that my sciatica was cured,” Tony said.

 The stranger fluttered the fingers of his raised hand, then lowered the hand, letting it fall at his side.  Nearly instantly Tony felt his sciatic pain—that javelin that impaled him from hip to toe—melt, subside, and then disappear altogether from his leg.  His disbelief was but a moment.  After that moment, he stepped side to side, did a jumping-jack, and even lunged; left and right, left and right.  The sparkle of joy in his eyes glimmered, but soon disappeared within a shade of apprehension.

 “My soul?” he said.  “My soul for always?  Or is it just…slavery for a while?”

 The Djinni said nothing.  The dreadful silence, and his smile, said all that needed to be said.

 Tony’s eyes fell to the scuffed tile as the scales of his mind teeter-tottered back and forth with their fateful weights.

 “How many wishes do I get?” he asked.

 “As many as you want until the moment you die,” the Djinni said.

 A cunning and excitement scintillated in Tony’s eyes, but before he could speak, the Djinni spoke, snuffing it out.

 “Remember that you are mortal,” he said, “that you were born mortal and you will die mortal, as is the Celestial Law.  I may bend that Law, but I may not break it.  Mortal you are and mortal you will remain until your death, and no wish may change that.”

 Tony nodded reluctantly, his face veiled in dark thoughts.  His brow creased with conflicted desire and fear.  The wrinkles of his face became deeper, as if freshly sliced by a scalpel, the blood not yet ready to run.  He cast his eyes over the liquor store, and out the window at his old Pinto in the parking lot.  He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the windowpane.  The reflection was dark, and his eye sockets appeared hollow and ghoulish.  He clenched his teeth like an ape confronted by a challenger.

 “Fine!” he burst out, flinging an arm in a simian motion.  “I will sell you my soul!  Not that it is worth much.”

 The stranger vanished at once, like a candle’s flame winking out.  Tony looked left and he looked right, searching the store for the turbaned man.  There was not a trace of him; neither hair nor footprint or distant footfall.  For a moment Tony thought he had hallucinated the whole visit.  But after he turned on all of the lights, and as he walked around the store, looking for the short man, he was more and more convinced that the man had been real, for the ache in his hip and leg was utterly gone.

 “He was a liar,” Tony told himself.  “Wasn’t he?”

 Pausing by the window, Tony gazed out into the parking lot.  The only car in the rain-drenched lot was his own: that ugly, beat-up Ford Pinto.  His eyes focused on what was nearest: his own reflection.

 “I wish I had a full head of hair,” he said, “like when I was a teenager.”

 Smooth, shiny hair sprouted from Tony’s head, growing thick to cover his bald spot and then spreading outward, forming the Devil-may-care parted shape of his teenage years.  He could scarcely believe it, and ran his fingers through his hair and scalp several times while looking at himself in the window.

 “Holy shit!” he exclaimed.  He nearly hopped up and down with joy.  Looking now at the Pinto beyond his reflection, he grinned.  “I wish I had a Ferrari instead.”

 The Pinto transmogrified at once, stretching and broadening and smoothing itself out into a red Ferrari.  Tony did not know the year or model, but he loved it, running out into the parking lot to walk around it and behold the glory of his new vehicle.  He did not even notice the rain.  At first.  But as the downpour strengthened, he decided to test the interior of his new car.  The door opened vertically, at the touch of the key fob that was suddenly in his hand.  With his sciatica gone, he had no trouble bending down and slipping into the black leather interior of the car.  He pushed the fob again and the door lowered on its own.  He started to put the key in the ignition, but paused.

 “I wish I had a cell-phone,” he said.  “A good cell-phone.  And not that Apple shit, either. An Asian phone.”

 A Samsung Galaxy 10 appeared in Tony’s hand, gleaming with its slick black design.  He fumbled with it for a moment, trying to figure it out.

 “I wish to call my ex-wife,” he said aloud, having given up on figuring the phone out enough to do it himself.  The phone dialed the familiar number and, much to his joy, his wife answered.

 “Hello?” she ventured apprehensively.

 “Laverne, it’s me, Tony…” he began.

 She hung up immediately.

 Tony groaned and struck the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.  Rain ran down the windshield of the Ferrari like teardrops down a cheek.  After a moment, however, he brightened.

 “I wish Laverne would call me and want to talk to me,” Tony said.

 The cell-phone began to ring.  Tony knew enough intuitively to swipe green on the touchscreen.

 “Tony, are you there?” Laverne said hesitantly.

 “It’s me!” Tony said, louder than he needed to.

 “Yeah, well…it’s been a while since I spoke to you about the grandchildren.  So I thought it was only fair that I tell you how they are doing.”

 Tony sat up eagerly in the seat, leaning his body toward the phone he held against his ear.  But instead of waiting for Laverne to inform him about their grandchildren, he spoke first.

 “I wish Laverne still loved me!” he barked.

 “…I miss you, Tony,” she said.  “I still have feelings for you.  I still…love you…”

 “I wish she would want to get back together!”

 “…and I think we should try to work it out…for the grandkids, but also for ourselves…we should try again…”

 “I wish that she hated her used car salesman husband!”

 “…and I hate Frank.  He was not a good husband or father.  Or a good salesman.  I made a mistake.”

 “I wish that she would beg for my forgiveness!”

 “…Can you forgive me?  Please?  I need you to forgive me, Tony!  Please forgive me and tell me you love me!”

 Tony amended this conversation several more times until Laverne was sobbing on her end and promising to leave straightaway and meet Tony at his current residence.  By the time the conversation ended, Tony could hear the baffled protests of Frank himself.  Tony grinned, glad to hear it the salesman losing, at last, the deal of a lifetime.

 Feeling quite pleased, Tony abandoned the liquor store to the rain and darkness and the pleasure of whatever thieves might visit it.  He started for home, expecting to find his ex-wife awaiting him there.  It was very dark still, and rainy, and it was the witching hour.  His Ferrari cut through the darkness and the rain like a red blade.  He felt good driving it, but he did not drive overly fast.  He felt paranoid that he would lose control of it and wreck it.  And he did not want to damage such a fine vehicle.

 Tony had been ruminating on how he would break the deal with the turbaned stranger, and he was satisfied that he had found a loophole in the arrangement.  He would simply wish that the deal was moot.  First, however, he would reconcile with his wife, and he would sell the Ferrari for money, his reasoning being that the stranger could take the Ferrari away from the new owner, but not the money the Ferrari had brought to Tony.  He felt optimistic about this ploy.  He felt invincible.  He would make several such wishes and then pawn them off for a dragon’s hoard of wealth.  It was a transactional con, and he knew about them well.

 Only, this one would work.  He knew it would work.

 Tony was halfway home when the headlights approached from behind.  The high-beams flooded his Ferrari with blinding bright light.  Tony cringed and shielded his eyes with his arm, then pushed the rearview mirror aside.

 “I bet it’s the same cocksucker from before,” Tony swore.

 The truck began honking its horn in rapid succession, keeping its brights on the Ferrari.

 “Pass me, you dumb-ass,” Tony growled.  “Or better yet…”

 Tony hit the gas, accelerating down the straight, but wet and dark, highway.  At first the headlights behind him began to lag behind, receding, but they, too, accelerated, catching up to him.  Tony did not dare go faster or risk losing control of his new car.  So he relented, slowing down, now, and hoping that the belligerent tailgater would finally pass him.  The motorist did not.  The truck’s high-beams flooded the Ferrari again, and the driver hammered the horn incessantly.  Tony would have pulled off the highway, but there was no shoulder, nor any driveways or exits to take advantage of.  It was a branchless road for miles.

 The truck finally pulled into the opposite lane, revving its engine and driving up alongside Tony.  But it did not pass.  Instead, one of the passengers leaned out of the window and yelled at Tony.

 “Fuckin’ faggoty foreign car!” the drunk slurred into the rain.  He flung an empty bottle can, striking the Ferrari’s hood.  The bottle shattered and scattered across the Ferrari.  “Think you’re better than us?  Buy American!”

 Tony seethed.  He recognized the truck, and its Confederate battle flag on the door.  The truck kept abreast of the Ferrari, if only because Tony was too cautious to drive any faster.  The rain fell harder, as if it, too, wished to damage the Ferrari like the bottle had.  The driver of the truck blew his horn for one long, strident note.  All the while Tony ground his teeth together in rage.

 “You think you can outrun us?!” the drunk yelled.  He slapped the Confederate battle flag for emphasis.  “You goddamn Yankee!

 “I wish that bastard would fucking wreck,” Tony growled.

 The truck suddenly lurched forward in a burst of speed, and tried to maneuver in front of Tony’s Ferrari.  But instead of gaining enough speed, and distance, it slid with a jerk to the right as a tire blew out, slamming into the Ferrari.  Before Tony could utter a word, the truck and the Ferrari careened sideways, slamming into the rails that ran along Highway 62.  The truck bounded off in the opposite direction, diving off the highway while Tony’s car overcorrected, hydroplaning.  Tony screamed as the sports car flipped and then somersaulted down the road with its chaotic momentum.

 In his excitement, Tony had not buckled his seatbelt.  He flew through the windshield and tumbled along the asphalt as a broken tangle of limbs.  The car followed after him, and after it followed the stranger in the purple turban.

The Lowly Holy

It is the thought of some people

that the grandest part of a church

is, in fact, the skyward steeple,

that tall symbol which does so perch

to watch over the flock each day

and to remind the flock of the cost

of salvation, and why they pray,

so their souls will not be thus lost;

yet, what would be any building

without support from pagan earth?

What foundation is unyielding

when winds test its structural worth?

Try to build the church upright, strong,

on the steeple so respected

and it tumbles at once, ere long

what little will be erected,

for the bedrock of all belief

(no matter how skyward-gazing)

requires the lowly earth beneath

to support a temple’s raising.

The Boardwalk And The Labyrinth

 Ray Bradbury was a natural storyteller.  The path of his plots were as boardwalks that led from one direction to another —sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes overborne with a storm from the sea — yet always in a straightforward direction as Bradbury led the reader through his homemade carnivals along the dynamic panorama of the beach.  Bradbury, therefore, is an excellent example of traditional storytelling that takes aim and hits the mark with deft precision, clarity, and economy.  His stories aim for nothing except a good story and fully realized characters, for Bradbury was a writer with a story to tell, and the story was all that mattered to him.

 Contrarily, Gene Wolfe was an engineer who reverse-engineered plot and pretense within his own stories to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of narratives and conceits.  He wrote labyrinths and dropped the reader into them with shrewdness and aplomb, like mice in a maze.  Often the reader is lost in a Wolfe story, even as the reader thinks he knows where the story is going.  Often the reader even misunderstands where he has been, the wanderer lost not only because of the many-cornered plot that Gene Wolfe angles askew from the center, but the presumptions the reader takes into the labyrinth with him as a reader given to credulity and trust of the author.  Gene Wolfe, therefore, was a deft maze-maker of stories, revealing greater truths through his puzzle-constructs which force the reader to question everything that he sees within the unfolding passages.  His stories aim at bewildering the reader, but never cruelly.  There are signposts everywhere, if the reader is observant enough to learn to read them.

 For these reasons, both Bradbury and Wolfe are good storytellers, but they are very different from one another.  Between the twain there is much to be recommended, and much to be learned from, as a writer of fiction.  Whether one writes a boardwalk or a labyrinth, it should always be well-constructed in its passages, and the journey should always be entertaining

Some Poems

True Love

Listen—is not true love

alike to a well?

Fed from pure rains above

and full without fail?

Yet, such wells are earned

by devout effort,

by spade and shovel turned

to move stone and dirt

and deepen it the more,

then bolster with bricks—

to dig to the earth’s core

requires more than tricks.

But it shall not go dry

if quite respected,

and if by careful eye

never neglected;

whether in desert heat

or in arctic cold,

it will quench quite complete

when one’s young or old.

My love for you, Falon,

knows no arid drought,

gallon upon gallon

never running out,

nor will it spoil with slime

or grasping willow,

or the meddling of Time

or the chill of snow;

bottomless is this well,

bottomless this heart,

come and drink yourself hale—-

let us never part.

“Free Will”

A spider among the trees,

on its thread,

swaying in the breeze,

just overhead,

going to and fro, just so,

dangling high,

whichever way the winds blow

by and by,

still weaving its silk pattern

despite gales

from the thunderstorms that turn

like ship sails

the web it spins for itself,

that silk net

that feeds and sustains its health—

a vignette

to its will, to its own drives,

yet written

like all other spider lives

as writ when

born, inheriting instincts

without thought,

their patterns woven in links

just-so wrought.

And, so, when headwinds unwind

arachnid

weaves as ordained, its own mind

bound as bid

by the web of Fate, of Cause

which, unfurled,

determines all forms and laws

of the world.

Solipsism

A fool could be under reign of thunder

and think it his cravings yet satisfied,

taking to feast as a pig to plunder

and to drink, as rainfall, much gratified

that rain should fall only in his favor

to help wash down his solitary meal,

as he eats till grown tired of each flavor,

still thinking to give the thunder his fill.