Sam’s relationship with her father was complicated. There was an intensity so deep and corroded that each small moment became monumental. Some times that was good, and others it was hell.
On any given day, the stories told about Sam’s relationship with Gerry could be different. Their love was apathetic, instrumental, menial, delusional, rotten, fluorescent, angelic, demonic. It was whatever it was. It just was.
By the time Gerry passed, he was a lonely soul. Him and Sam’s mother, Tricia, had parted ways years before, and ties were cut with Sam. He died alone in a small home along a river listening to Springsteen’s serenades for the disenfranchised.
When Sam received the call about funeral arrangements, she hadn’t the slightest clue what to say. Her answers were unintelligible, and she was shaking and nodding her head to a cell phone, as though movements as a form of language could be understood through sound waves. Shock, happiness, disaster were all formulating in her head like a twister. She hung up and cried deeper than she had since she was a child.
The next time the funeral home called, Sam said to cremate him. Why she said that, she didn’t know, but it seemed right. In her mind, they were walking up Sugarloaf Mountain on those quiet Sundays when the world seemed molded for them. Two people who always envisioned an idealized world that never materialised. A dream told through a bedtime whisper. But on those mornings when the world slept off a nasty Saturday hangover, they took to the mountain. They smiled at each other. Talked about things that never in a million years would be uttered to anyone else on God’s green earth. Because on those days there were no secrets. Just two half-souls becoming whole.
It took them close to an hour to reach the summit, and there they would overlook their town. A town that told their story like a Greek Pathos. What they saw filled them both with regret, and the possibility of restitching all the torn seams that seemed so viable a few hundred feet above the ground. Then Monday would arrive. And with it, the true realities of life would rear its ugly face, and the resentment of what life could have been if not for the other, would again erase the peaceful Sunday’s magic spell.
But when he died, Sam just thought about the Sundays. The past had a way of enlarging the good and deflating the bad. Sam supposed that’s what nostalgia was. A past-fantasy that never really existed, but maybe, in some ways, it did.
Her father was sitting on the tallest rock with a spray painted heart and the initials of two young lovers. Sam was standing in front of him. Those moments where he wore a face of deep thought. Deep intellect. A side of himself that he never revealed in front of his family, or his coworkers, in fear of ridicule. Ridicule that he was trying to be someone he was not. He was a labourer in an industrial town. That was all. That was it. But in front of Sam, on those trips, he was whoever he wanted to be. And on the mountain he was a Sunday philosopher.
“You know, Sam. The mountains, the wilderness, the breeze coming off the river. That’s how people are supposed to live. The freedom to be amongst nature. You’re not a slave to anyone except the elements. And even those you can overcome. The world wasn’t supposed to be smokestacks, polluting towns. Chemicals giving people cancer. People telling people who they are without a clue. Ya know? It was supposed to be freedom. The freedom of the wind in the air. The path paved just for you. Not for everyone else”
Sam would nod and agree. Agree with the idea of a world without borders. A world without judgment and suppression. A world where people were allowed to be free. A world on top of a mountain on Sunday. It was perfect. But perfection was such a small flame that in Sam’s experience, always burned out before it could grow large enough to light the sky.
She would sit on that mountaintop, praying to a God she never believed in, to please freeze time. “Please, God, just let me savour this moment. Let me live inside of it. Let me die here, in the company of the only one who ever truly understood me.”
“Sam, can I ask you a favour?” The voice of her father echoed inside her head. “When I die. I want to be free. Free amongst nature. Not in a coffin. Please. Never a coffin. Can you do that for your imperfect old man?”
Then, she realized why she had said to cremate her father. There was no way to tell if that memory was real, or just her imagination creating answers to questions that she could never answer otherwise. But she knew she had to go back home. She had to go back to the top of the mountain.
And that’s what Sam did. On a hot mid-July Sunday, a bottle of water, a backpack with the ashes of her father in a spiraling flower urn, and heavy thoughts of days gone by, she climbed the mountain for the first time in fifteen years.
The maple trees rising above her head like old friends. The snakes slithering through the fallen leaves, and the skittering squirrels and chipmunks, provided a comfort she had forgotten about. A comfort that the city, an office, a cubicle never provided. A life she had run away from out of fear. Fear of something she didn’t understand. Fear out of becoming her father, when she already knew that location wouldn’t change that fate.
As she reached the summit, the familiarity of it all nearly brought on a fit of panic. Sam looked around and saw nothing had changed. Nothing, except for her father being in her backpack instead of on that rock. That rock with the initials still carved into it. LJ loves PT. Sam wondered if they were still together now. Still in love. She actually felt like she would die if they weren’t. She needed them to be, so she told herself they were.
Sam placed the backpack on the steel grate on the edge of the mountain, looking over a town that hadn’t changed much except for the diminishing clouds from the smokestacks. “I’m sorry, dad,” she said to the urn, feeling silly, and saddened by the fact that she was speaking to a clay pot. Feeling saddened that inside of it was filled with sand. Sand like the beach of New Haven, except it was her father. A man who was larger than life. The biggest man she’d ever known, in stature and presence. Now he was grains of sand. “I’m sorry, dad.”
Then Sam raised the urn up above her shoulders and looked down at the town. The town filled with ghosts and demons of the past. But the same town filled with the biggest love she’d ever known. A feeling of wanting to stay and never see this place again played an evenly matched game of chess inside her heart.
“Dad. I know now. That I was you. And you were me. And that was a problem. We hated so deeply, but loved so deeply. The problem was that we could never find that middle ground. That place where most people live,” Sam said. “Our gift, our curse, was that we loved too much. We hated too much. We needed life to provide what we knew it never would. At least not in the long term. In short, sporadic spurts, it would. And in those, I’ll live, dad. In those, you will too. I love you. I hate you. I am you. I hope that you find peace amongst the trees. Amongst the sky. Amongst the freedom that nature brings. I love you.”
After the ashes fell over Sugarloaf like the sands of time, she slung her bag over her shoulder and took off down the mountainside.
A Real Stand-Up Guy
Scattered images in the purgatory between dream and consciousness pierced my aching head as I awoke, sore and disoriented. Cow shit like smelling salts bringing me back to the land of the living.
I looked around at the wide open enclosure of what looked to be a barn. Hay piled to the rusted steel roof on all four sides. Old John Deere tractors that looked as though they hadn’t been touched in decades sitting between two old dirty work stations with saws, screwdrivers, and nails sprawled like the after-effect of a mid-west tornado.
“Where the fuck am I?” I thought. “Jesus, what happened?”
The images were still like white noise coming from a TV with barely any reception. The figures were there. So were movements. But the details weren’t clear. Christ, my head was splitting. I got up and walked like a 3 a.m drunk after being thrown out of a bar, all the way to the two large barn doors. I pushed on them. Nothing. There was a small split where sunlight creeped in. I could see what looked to be a chain on the outside. That would explain it.
Panic was sitting in my chest. I slid down the barn door and sat on the ground, trying to slow my racing heart. Trying to remember. Trying to solve the mental puzzle. With my hands in front of my eyes. My eyes closed tight, concentrating deep on my thoughts. The images began to clear like the calming of rippling water.
Me and Jack Langley sitting in his Buick, parked in the tall grass in front of the Geary’s mansion on Roseberry Hill. Both of us with ski masks on. Both of us laughing, smoking cigarettes, thinking that it was too easy. Too goddamn simple to break into this house, steal whatever valuables they had and skip town. Too good to be true. Then I remembered what my father said before the cancer took him. That when things seemed too good to be true, it’s probably because they were.
We walked out into the cool evening air, with a brilliant orange flame setting over the western hilltops of Annandale. With a rag wrapped tightly around my wrist, I broke the glass above the doorknob, reached in and unlocked it from the other side.
Inside, the house was quiet. Dark and still. Then I remembered a gunshot ringing through the graveyard silence, sounding as loud as artillery rounds deep in the jungles of Quang Tri. I turned around and saw blood trickle down Jack’s head like a scarlet constrictor before he fell back down the stairs.
Then there was the fat man. 300 pounds if he was a pound, putting my head in the crook of his arm. A head that he could have popped like a cork had he wanted to, but instead, he put a needle in my arm and dragged me off to a shiny black corvette, where he threw me in the back like a rag doll.
There was another image, like a word on the tip of a tongue. It was there, but not there. Close, yet a thousand miles away. A face. A face at the window of the car, as my consciousness slipped into the ether. My head leaned against the window, and I saw a face. His face. Yes. His face.
It was my mother’s shit head husband. Frankie Laroque. He was screaming something. His hands behind his back, before he was thrown into another car. Christ, I thought. Where was Frankie? What happened to him?
Frankie, the greasy fucking bartender at The Dollar who got my mother to elope and marry him in Vegas while high as a kite on methamphetamines. Good choice, mah. You got yourself a real stand-up guy. A real father figure.
He was screaming, “Hurt him! Hurt him! Or was it, don’t hurt him?” I don’t know.
Then I heard a rattle behind me. Someone was unlocking the chain. The door opened and Frankie was thrown to the ground. Soft ridiculing laughter could be heard before the door closed, and the chain, again, locked. The sun too bright to see any faces. Just sharp dressed shadows.
Frankie’s hands were tied behind his back, and his face was worse for wear. Like a fucking steamroller had run over it. His left eye was swollen shut, a plethora of purples and greens, and blacks swirling like a vortex. Dried blood stained his ears, nose, and lips. He was crying. “I’m sorry, Jamie. I’m so sorry. Jesus, I’m stupid. I’m so goddamned stupid.”
“What, Frank? What the hell is going on here?”
“I-I-I,” He stuttered. “I-I sold you out. Okay? I sold you out, and now we’re fucked!”
“What are you talking about, Frank? What the hell did you do?”
He was crying like a baby. This big grown man. 6 foot 3, 220 lbs, weeping like a teething newborn.
“What did you do, Frank? Tell me what you did?” I grabbed him by the scruff of his wife beater and picked him up to his feet. He wouldn’t look at me. He stared at the straw and the shit on the ground. “Look at me, Frank. LOOK AT ME!”
Finally, he listened. But his eyes took the anger right out of me. Like a punch to the gut, I knew he was telling the truth. I didn’t know what he did, but we weren’t getting out of this barn. I let him go. “I-I-I’m sorry, Jamie. They swore they wouldn’t hurt you. They swore they wouldn’t hurt me if I told em who’d been, ya know, ripping them off.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Kid. Your head’s so far up your ass, you can’t see that you ain’t as smart as you think. Young punks and their God complex”
“What? What are you talking about, Frank? Speak English.”
“You were stealing from the wrong people, son. And having your drug riddled fucking mom as your confidante wasn’t exactly an Einstein move, was it?”
He stopped for a second, then continued.
“Look kid. I was in trouble. Big trouble. Debt that I couldn’t repay in ten lifetimes that was gathering interest by the day. Your mom told me one night that you were stealing money from the same guys, and I saw an opportunity man. I saw an opportunity to give them information. To provide them with something.”
“Oh. Jesus. Oh Christ. We’re dead.”
“They swore they wouldn’t hurt you, Jamie. They’d just ask for the money back, that’s all. They might rough you up a little, but not this. And they told me my slate would be wiped clean. I’d be free. I’d be good.”
I looked at Frankie, and then the chain rattled again. The door swung open. I didn’t even look up. I just stared at the shit and dirt on the ground, knowing full-well that I’d be sleeping underneath it soon.
“Way to go, mah. You picked a real stand-up guy”
Angels In The Architecture
I’m stunned, standing in silence. My usefulness a non-entity in this room of pain, blood, birth, and beginnings. It’s beautiful, but terrifying. I hold her hand, tell her it’s alright, tell her that I love her, and that it’ll be over soon. Empty promises escaping my mouth like cold-calculating prisoners. I don’t know what’s happening. There are doctors whispering amongst each other, their faces unreadable. But although she’s sweating, swearing, and writhe with pain, she’s beautiful. Her body a cathedral and from it a blessing. I hold my girl and hear Paul Simon singing he sees angels in the architecture.
“Who’s the loudmouth over there?” The short stocky man asked the bartender as he lit a cigarette.
“Oh, him. That’s just Union Jack going on like a fool trying to get a union started at the mines. Comes here all the time. Gets the guys all riled up. McCarthy this, McCarthy that. The red scare, the Korean war, Christ, he even defends Negro rights in here.”
“Why don’t you kick him out? Sounds like a communist to me.”
“Well, sir, I’ll tell ya exactly why I don’t kick him out. I sure as shit ain’t no red, but it ain’t my place to tell paying customers what they can and can’t talk about in here. Each one of those men over there pays for each drink. Never argue the price, never try to get a deal. Nothing. They come in and pay their way. For me, that’s where it ends. Believing in capitalism means believing in the almighty dollar. That’s what keeps me afloat. I didn’t get into this business after the war because I believed each man in here would be talking sense. No, sir.”
He nodded, smiled a dishevelled grin, and turned around to look at the crowd. Union Jack was standing up, speaking in a tone of aggressiveness and passion so fierce, so telling, so manipulating, that the men were like children staring up at their hero. Believing every word he had to say like it was scripture.
The strange stocky figure at the bar figured that if Jack told his soot-covered disciples to go out and start killing for the good of the people. For the rights of the working class, to take down the ruling class, that they wouldn’t hesitate. He held a power that he admired, no doubt. Union Jack was a monster. A tall, fascinating brute who believed every word he said, so how could that passion and energy not transfer to those who listened?
“Do you think they’d mind if I went over?”
The bartender shrugged his shoulders while cleaning a mug with a dirty rag.
“I can’t imagine. Jack likes to talk. Loves to persuade and loves to debate. So no matter which side of the fence you stand on, he’ll have words to say, no doubt about it.” Then he paused before adding, “Go over at your own risk.”
The stocky man put out his cigarette in an overfilled ashtray next to a bowl of peanuts, grabbed his drink and headed over to the angry working class round table, where the miners sat in fearful admiration, and obedient anger. Dirt still lathered on their work clothes. No doubt in his mind that they had come straight from work.
“You see what they do, don’t you? They start a war 6000 fucking miles away. Mr. Truman. The strongest man in the west will jump at every opportunity to flex his muscle. To show that the Americans are strong, and that they can’t be pushed around. But the Koreans, the communists, aren’t travelling 6000 miles to take us over. Not a chance. They’re doing this to avoid all the problems that are going on in their own goddamn backyard.”
Union Jack was pounding the table with his fist. Spilled beer was flowing like a calm river across the old splintered wood, but no one seemed to notice. Or if they did, they didn’t give a shit.
The miners in unison were shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! You’re right!” Just like the stocky man in the expensive suit had thought. These dirty workers would chant and yell no matter what Union Jack screamed and pounded his fist about. They were hypnotized.
“Tell them Tim,” Jack said, pointing to a dull looking young man on the right side of the table. “What happened after your accident?”
“Hurt!” Jack cut him off. “Then what happened?”
“I-I had to”
“Go to the hospital. Right. And during all that missed time that was only missed because of a company error, did you make a cent?”
“No, sir. Not a penny.” He said, and looked down at the suds floating to the top of his mug with a look of disgrace and shame.
“Not a penny. And you know what? Mr. Freeman has ten million dollars. But no, please, God, no, don’t bat an eye at that. Please put all your money and your military into a non-exist threat half-away across the world. But if we say anything about this, God forbid we say anything about wanting a better wage and working conditions, or Mr. McCarthy and HUAC will come down here, blacklist us, and send us to court. Does that seem right to you? Does that seem just? Does that seem fair?”
The table roared so loud that the other patrons of the bar were startled, and muttered obscenities before going back to their drinks.
“Hello, uh, sir?” The stocky man asked, raising his right hand like he was in grade school. Jack looked at him quizzically.
“I haven’t seen you around. What’s your name, sir?”
“Benny, uh, Benny Harlow. I’m a reporter with the The Worker. I’d, uh, love to interview you quickly, if you had a minute?”
Jack laughed and looked at the table.
“Well, I’m a little shy, ya know?”
The table burst into laughter.
“Maybe we could go outside for a few minutes?”
“Yeah, sure, friend. No problem. Hey, Walt. Get these lowlifes another round, would ya? And put it on my good friend Senator McCarthy’s tab, eh?” Jack winked at Walt, who just rolled his eyes and nodded.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said to himself with the face of an old man who had seen every act of this play, played out far too many times. The same rhetoric. The same arguments. The same speeches, night in and night out. The workers might not tire of it, but old Walt sure as hell looked like he’d heard enough to last a couple of lifetimes.
Jack brought his half-empty mug of beer and wrapped his arm around Benny like this was a long-lost reunion between two war time brothers, who hadn’t seen each other since the days of blood and fury.
Jack pushed through the swinging doors, and the quiet of the late evening mining town hit them with the absolution of a C.S Lewis fantasy world. Stars invaded the cloudless sky, and smokestacks rose like the barrel of an industrious howitzer in the distance behind a mass of equally sized oak trees.
“Have you read any Karl Marx, Benny?” Union Jack asked while grabbing a pack of Lucky Strike from the breast pocket of his work shirt.
“Can’t say that I have, no.”
“Well, you know what he says about capitalism? He says that capital is money, and capital is commodities. Do you know what that means?”
Benny shook his head slowly, lighting a cigarette of his own.
“It means that it’s inherent in the term capitalism. It’s simply about money. That us, the working class. All the men inside that bar, all the men along this road, and roads like this all over the world, are just commodities. We’re not people. We’re not human. We don’t have souls or hearts. We are judged by the ruling class on our usefulness. And our usefulness depends entirely on labour. And if we can’t perform these duties. Then we have no use. Now, do you know what Marx says about communism?”
Again, Benny shook his head, blowing smoke rings into the cool night air.
“Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions. Only in the community, therefore, is freedom possible.”
“I like that” Benny said, and again Union Jack let out a hearty laugh that echoed through miners’ row.
“I’m not saying I’m a communist. You can’t say that here. All I’m saying, sir, is that people are losing their livelihoods. People are losing their lives based on what HUAC is saying, what The VFW is saying, what all of these red channels are saying, and it’s sickening. It’s sickening the amount of power that Mr. President and Mr McCarthy have over us. It’s absolutely sickening. It’s terrifying!”
“You have a big heart, Jack, uh?”
“Jack Brockman, and I don’t know about that. My father died during the depression, and my mother not long after. I fought to stay alive and bounced around all over the country looking for fair wages.”
Benny was starting to feel the magician’s spell of this man. But he had to remember the danger of men like this, and why he was here.
“Mr. Brockman. You have a big heart, though it might be misplaced.”
“What are you saying, mister?” Jack asked, his quick temper from the bar appearing on the lines of his forehead.
“I’m sorry, Jack. But this has gone on far enough. We can’t have this anymore. It’s dangerous. It’s too dangerous.”
Benny hauled out the 45.
“There’s no such thing as fair in this world, Union Jack.”
I drove to the Moonlight Motel and knocked on the door of room 106. The Moonlight was a sleaze joint on the outskirts of town with the cheapest rates around. It was the kind of place where you looked around like your head was on a swivel. Scanning the cars, looking at the windows of the conjoining rooms to see if eyes peeked through the venetian blinds. But then you had to laugh at yourself because even if there were someone up here to spot you, their sins would be the same as yours. This was the lowest point for lonely travelers who were all looking for the same thing.
Mona didn’t answer. I knocked rhythmically for a couple of minutes before losing my patience to the harsh western winds. My right hand turned the knob slowly. The door stopped about three or four inches in. A rusted gold chain at eye level answered why.
“It’s just me, Mona. It’s just me, Johnny.” I said.
My face was pressed against the splintered wood, and with my right eye I could see her sitting at the edge of the bed. “Mona, can you open up? I’m cold.” She got up slowly and emotionlessly, dragging her bare blistered feet across the shag carpet before flicking the chain off its hinge and dragging her body back to the bed.
“Sorry, John. I’m just tired, ya know?” she said.
“Yeah. Boy, do I ever.” I took my jacket off and threw it over a chair in the corner of the room. We sat silently for a couple minutes. Then she sighed, got on her knees and began bouncing slowly on the bed while waving me over with her index finger. “Come here, big boy. Come see, mama. Lay your head between mama’s breasts,” she said, switching gears to work Mona. Playing out the scenario I most often requested from her.
“We don’t have to rush into this, Mona. Could we take our time?” I sat down on the bed, and she came over to massage my neck before kissing it, and rubbing down my bare chest to the buttons of my work pants. “Mona, Christ. Could we take a second, please? My back is sore as hell from shoveling shit all day. Could we just talk for a minute? Please?”
She didn’t answer. I turned around to see her wearing a face of unbridled anger and annoyance. She was pissed. She hated when I did this. It wasn’t what the hour was for. We both knew it, but I still did the same thing every week, anyway.
“Can we just fuck? So you can give me my money and hit the road.”
“I thought you liked my company,” I answered.
“Why do you always do this, John? Why do you always come here like we’re a fucking couple or something? I. Get. Paid. To. Fuck.” She said, clapping her hands together after each word.
I looked her in the eyes and held my stare. It made her uncomfortable because no one ever looked in her eyes to see what was in them and what was behind them. Looking in those sky blue irises would mean acknowledging that she was a human being. And that wasn’t good for rooms at the Moonlight Motel. Wasn’t good for business.
“Why do you do that?” She asked.
“Look at me.”
“Because I like you.”
“Because I see you.”
“What in the hell does that mean, Johnny? Stop trying to make me feel stupid.”
“I’m not, Mona. That’s the last thing I want. I just meant I look at you. I look in your eyes and I can see someone worth seeing, that’s all.”
“You know you only have an hour, right?”
“Yes, I do. And didn’t you tell me you’d do anything? Anything at all.”
“Then talk to me. Sit and spend the hour talking to me.”
“You heard me, Mona. Sit next to me. Talk to me.”
I patted the edge of the bed to my right. Signalling her over with a quick brush of my head. She just looked at me for a minute like a scared old battered dog experiencing love for the first time in its life. Wanting to believe it. Wanting to run towards it, but being fooled too many times to ever trust it.
“It’s alright, Mona. It’s alright.”
She extended her legs and timidly slid her body next to mine, Mona’s eyes scanning for a devil’s trick, but soon realizing there was nothing there but me.
I wrapped my arm around her like it was our first date at a drive-in. All of a sudden, it was just the two of us. Two people. Not a customer and worker, but two people alone in a motel room, with nothing but the sound of the baseboard heater humming like a swarm of angry flies, and the sound of Mona’s heart beating with nervous excitement.
“What did you dream of as a kid?” I asked.
“As a kid. I mean, no offense. But this couldn’t have been your dream. When you were a girl looking at a clear sky filled with stars, you weren’t dreaming of the Moonlight Motel”
“No, of course not,” she said. “No. It was never this.” and then she looked like a
traveller heading back in time, to places, and thoughts that hadn’t been allowed at the forefront of her mind for a long time.
I put my hand on her knee and rubbed softly with my thumb in a counterclockwise motion.
“It’s alright. It’s just me. I just want to talk.”
Tears were filling her eyes, and I took my hand from her knee and raised it slowly to the dark circles underneath. I wiped them and smiled at her. She took my hand in hers and kissed my palm. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. It’s just been so long.”
“It’s okay. I know this is strange for you, hell it’s strange for me. I just realized I don’t talk anymore. I don’t know any folks anymore. And I wanted to know you. You’re the closest thing to a friend I have, Mona. And I ain’t just saying that.”
Mona was silent for a while. But I didn’t press the issue any further. I let her sit with it. Let her come to me on her own terms.
“An actress.” She eventually said in a decibel above a whisper. “Hollywood. A million miles from here.”
“Not quite that far,” I joked. “But yeah, it ain’t close. What brought you here? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I don’t know. Money, I guess. It’s always fucking money. But I’ll admit when I was younger I actually enjoyed it, believe it or not. I liked sex. I liked it a lot, and I was young. When you’re young and beautiful, you get nice looking men. And if they’re not, they’re rich.” She laughed at this, but her eyes looked sad. Sad and ashamed. “But I guess like a lot of jobs. You get comfortable. People tell you you’re great at this and you’d be crazy to go off on your own. It’s a scary world out there. You’re safe here, and all the rest of the horseshit they peddle. Then you wake up one day, and you’re on the wrong end of 30, with a lifetime of sin and regret.”
“It’s never too late, Mona.”
“You’re still beautiful. You must have money stashed away somewhere,” I winked.
Mona shrugged her shoulders.
“A little, I guess.”
“Well, why don’t we take off? Let’s take off and go to Hollywood. I could be your agent. Set you up with the best gigs in town and make sure you’re compensated.” I flexed my biceps and added. “You don’t get what you’re worth. They’re going to have to go through me.”
This made her smile. For the first time since I began paying for Mona’s time, it looked real. It looked genuine.
It gave me a small insight into who she was before this life. The young girl who looked in the mirror and acted out the lines of her school plays. The one who screamed and jumped for joy when she received the lead in Romeo and Juliet. Mona Hatlee, the young girl from the broken home, would get to kiss Robby Reiger. And from there, the sky was the limit.
But inside those eyes was also the girl who went to Robby’s on the east side to go over their lines. Holding that smile until her face hurt. Laughing at everything he said, whether it was funny or not, because that’s just what you did. There was the kiss. The kiss that froze her in time. Then there was the walk home afterwards, along the railroad tracks, papers held tightly to her chest, dreaming of the wedding reception. That was all before Robby and his football buddies put her in the back of his Camry, raped her, and threw her back out onto the tracks, with her dreams scattered like the pages of the play.
“That would be nice.” Mona said.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty broke. Working as a farmhand in Lone Pine for twelve hours a day, and I’m still only getting pennies. We wouldn’t make it far on my salary.”
“Oh, we would do fine.” She added. “I have money.”
“Yeah.” Her eyes finally meeting mine. “I’ve been skimming some for years now. Still those little girl dreams of taking off. It’s all in a little black bag in my closet, piled under a whole stack of shit. It isn’t easy to get at. Money for a rainy day, I guess. If that day ever comes.”
I looked outside as soft rain splashed the motel window. “Well, maybe we should really do it then.”
“Maybe we should, Johnny. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
I rubbed her right cheek with my callused hand and kissed her softly. She kissed me back, slowly sliding her tongue into my mouth. Something we rarely did in this room. Something she hated. But on that night, we made love. Slow, and without rush like we were the last two survivors of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
When we finished, I lit a cigarette, and we shared it. Mona was sprawled across my chest, looping her fingers around my curly chest hair, laughing as she straightened the hairs and watched them return to their natural position like a pig’s tail.
The clock said ten to 11. My time was nearly up. “Well, I should get going, girl.” I said, as I got up and walked over to my work jacket, hauling out the bills for the evening.
“No. No, Johnny. Please. It was wonderful. It really was.”
I insisted as she declined. We played a little back-and-forth game for a minute before I stuffed the bills back in the breast pocket of my work shirt and kissed her again. “I’ll pay ya double next time.” She laughed, then blushed.
“Well, I should get going, Mona.”
“We’ll get out of here soon, I promise, baby. Me and you, we won’t ever see this motel or this room again. I promise you.”
“Don’t hold your breath, but don’t lose faith soon.”
“I could love you, Johnny. I really could.”
“Way ahead of you, baby.” I put my jacket on, opened the door, and walked across the parking lot to my car.
Inside, I pounded on the steering wheel. “FUCK! FUCK! FUUUCK!” I cried, and then my phone buzzed. “No, please no! Please, God, no!”
I almost didn’t answer it, and ran back to room 108 to grab Mona and fly down Highway 29. But then headlights from the far end of the Moonlight Motel began to flicker. They were here. They were telling me to pick up the goddamn phone, or I was next.
I took a deep breath and answered it.
“Yeah.” I said. “ Yeah. Yeah, she has the money. It’s at her place. Yeah. Yeah. Under a bunch of shit she said. In a black bag. In her closet”
I hung up.
Then the red Toyota pulled up in front of Mona’s room. Two men got out and knocked on the door. This time, Mona opened it without the chain. And the men had the bag over her head before she had time to change the expression on her face.
They dragged her out to the car. Threw her in the backseat and drove towards me. I rolled down the window as the driver threw a thick brown envelope into the passenger side. It landed on the seat.
“I’m sorry, Mona. Christ. I’m sorry.”
The Kiss Of Death
Twelve years ago, on a Sunday in mid-August was when I felt the deepest fear I’ve ever known.
My father, my brother, and I were moving my grandmother from her little apartment in Riverview back home to Campbellton. A drive that I was familiar with, and on a good day, nice weather, no traffic, you were looking at four hours to make it from point A to point B.
The day’s plan was for my father to drive the U-Haul with all my grandmother’s belongings, my brother to take my father’s work truck, and for me to ride with my grandmother in her little red civic. Easy peasy.
We spent the morning loading all her stuff in the U-Haul and then we drove out of the small apartment complex parking lot like a three-vehicle convoy. We were highway bound.
The drive wasn’t an easy one from the get-go. My grandmother was visibly anxious, but I couldn’t blame her. Who could? That apartment had only been her temporary home at the insistence of my grandfather, whose intensive cancer treatment regimen demanded him to be closer to his doctor, who was a stone’s throw away across the chocolate river.
He battled as valiantly as a man could. For nearly a decade he underwent treatment. But eventually, there was nothing left for him to give, and he passed away.
My grandmother married him at 16. She had never been without him. Never even learned how to pay a bill. Needless to say, she felt lost and old, like a relic from a bygone era. And going back home to be close to her sisters was the only logical option.
But to deal with her anxiety, she chain-smoked with the windows up to keep out the cold. One after another with production line accuracy.
I kept my lips sealed as my head pulsated from second-hand smoke. Her brittle fingers shook like the onset of Parkinson’s as each cigarette reached her mouth. It was heartbreaking to watch her in that state. A wonderful woman who had treated me with nothing but warmth and love since as far back as my memories could travel.
I just wanted to make her laugh. Calm her down. And let her know that things were going to be okay. We’d all be okay.
But as Murphy’s Law dictates, things can always, and I mean always, get shittier.
This came in the form of my brother, who was driving the black Ford directly in front of us. He began to swerve back and forth over the solid yellow line in strange rattlesnake movements like he was stone-cold drunk, even though all we had that day up until that point was a couple cups of coffee.
This was the absolute last thing her anxious mind needed to be witnessing and processing.
I laughed, and acted like he was pulling a practical joke, because everyone in the family knew that the man joked to no end. A hill he would gladly die on. Some were outrageously funny, others were just outrageous. And this one, to me, seemed to be the latter. But I showed no sign of distress, because I could feel her watching for my reaction. And I felt if I began to slip, then she would slide right past me off the edge of the world.
But in my bones, I was worried. It was strange behaviour, even for him.
Then, the horror that I had been fearing since the swerving began a half-hour earlier presented itself in shattering fashion.
On route 126, still about two hours from our destination, my brother swerved into the left lane, but this time he stayed. And an SUV travelling at 100 km/h met my brother, with what I suspected was the kiss of death.
I screamed his name and my grandmother followed suit as I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. “Wait here.” I told her, then I took off running towards the truck. A parade of onlookers already gathering. Death and destruction peaking interest like nothing else on God’s green earth.
Smoke was rising from the hood of the truck, and inside where it engulfed my brother. I was standing at the door, pulling on it with all the strength I had, and ever would have. Even in that close proximity, I could barely see him behind the thick, cloudy veil.
The door didn’t budge for a while. It seemed like a lifetime in my panicked state, but it was likely only thirty seconds or so. Eventually, it flung open, nearly throwing me to the asphalt as I staggered backwards, trying to regain my balance.
I called his name several times before he came to. He was floating in that purgatory state between consciousness and unconsciousness. Eyes open, but not looking anywhere. Or at anything.
That empty face broke me, but there was no time to stand on ceremony. So I unbuckled the seatbelt, helped him out of the truck, and it wasn’t long before the EMTs arrived to put him on the stretcher and take him to the nearest hospital.
After a series of tests were conducted, he only suffered a concussion and was discharged from the hospital the following morning. The passengers of the SUV were also fine, shaken up with a few cuts and bruises, but nothing life-threatening.
A terrifying experience, but one that ended much better than it could have.
Fork In The Road
It’s hard to put this into words that will make sense to you, because I’m having a hard enough time making sense of all this myself. At least the conventional and rational part of my brain is. But I guess I’ll put it this way. I’ve reached a fork in the road. Plain and simple. One path is the one of least resistance. The one where I lie to myself about being a writer. Where writing comes last in a day filled with a thousand menial tasks and chores. The path where I sit at my laptop long after the sun has set. Too tired to string two thoughts together, yet mindlessly typing just to tell myself that I wrote, and therefore, I must be a writer, right? The other path is the one where I take off for a little while. Maybe up to a year. To sit in silence, and create the novel I know I’m capable of. And that’s the path I must travel. I don’t want you to worry, because this isn’t a mental breakdown or a phobia of life and the reality of it. It’s simply the creation of art. Something that I cannot do with all these distractions. So, I’ll take them all away for a little while, and see if the problem is the noise, or if it’s me.
I’ll be back soon. Maybe with a classic novel. Maybe with nothing. But either way I’ll return with an unforgettable experience. And maybe that’s the most important part.
A Safe Neighbourhood
Jabreel first heard fireworks down the street at 2:04 PM on Saturday, October 12th. The loud sporadic cracking sounds seemed out of place to him in the valley at that time of the day. But at first, he didn’t think too much of it. He just figured the neighbourhood kids were messing around down the street. It wasn’t like they’d invite him, anyway.
He was only 12 years old. Six months out of an Afghan refugee camp. A stranger in a strange land. On top of being picked up and placed in another world, thousands of miles from everything he knew, he was doing it mostly on his own.
His parents were out pounding the pavement and spending time at different organizations around the city. Integrating themselves into this society was how his father put it, before letting Jabreel know that he should be doing the same with the neighbourhood kids. His mother said that they all had to carry a burden. At times, it would seem heavier than others, but with perseverance, the weight would soon feel like nothing more than a bird’s feather. It was a pleasant thought, but not one he completely bought.
All he knew for sure was that he was lonely. Lonely and scared. The weight feeling more like the Rock of Gibraltar than a bird’s feather. So, instead of taking his father’s advice and integrating himself into this new society, he decided to integrate himself into his fantasy books instead. If he couldn’t physically leave the confines of his home, then at least he could let his imagination do the travelling.
Jabreel liked the old Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. He found himself reading and rereading them regularly. He was also a fan of Tolkien, Rowling, C.S Lewis, and Neil Gaiman. The ones who created worlds where the outcasts were tasked with restoring faith to the world. It was a nice idea. Likely created for kids who felt like they didn’t belong. A fantastical way of telling the oddball that they’re special.
Back in the refugee camp, Jabreel and his family read every book they could get their hands on, no matter the language. His father told him that when they got out, he wanted to be able to spin a globe and pick a point on it for his family’s future home. No matter the language or customs, they were going to jump on any chance that came their way. His father became fluent in four languages in those two years, and Jabreel learned two.
As he turned the page of the Odyssey, the sound of fireworks returned. It was now 2:16. This time, they were closer and startled him out of Odysseus’s journey. He got up off the couch, opened the blinds and saw a police cruiser a couple of houses down.
Whatever the situation was, he hoped the officer had it under control.
Back to his books, he went. Nearly lost once again, when a series of shots were fired. And this time, Jabreel knew what it was. He heard enough gun fire in his previous life to stop telling himself lies about neighbourhood kids and cheap gas station fireworks.
Again, he peeked through the blinds and saw that the cruiser was next door, at the Feltman’s. The old couple who brought the family curry on their first day in the new house and their new life. A friendly gesture. One they were clearly nervous about, being a golden age couple who wasn’t used to refugees as neighbours. The food was good, and it provided the family their first full belly laugh since before the camp. And now Jabreel had a bad feeling. Scratch that, a horrible feeling.
He rushed up the stairs, into his bedroom, where he had a better vantage point to see what was going on.
The door to the cruiser opened and a tall, thin man emerged, wearing a smile reserved for dangerous inmates of the loony wards. He wasn’t wearing a hat. His greasy hair flowed softly in the wind, and he scratched at a salt and pepper beard that desperately needed some TLC.
Jabreel was no expert on cops. But this man didn’t look like one. Or at least he didn’t feel like one.
The shaggy cop, or man in cop uniform, made his way around the hood of the car and opened the passenger side door. The weapon he pulled out was close to the size of Jabreel, who wasn’t large by any means, but for a cop’s weapon on a quiet cul-de-sac, it seemed disproportionate, to say the least.
He flung it over his left shoulder, still wearing that Manson-esque smile, and strutted slowly to the door, like a man with no place to be and all the time in the world to get there.
Four quick knocks in succession, then the cop, who by this point Jabreel knew good and well wasn’t a cop, took the assault rifle off his shoulder and pointed it straight at the door. That smile. Waiting patiently for the old man or woman who gave Jabreel and his family curry to welcome them to their quiet world.
Jabreel felt like the wind had been knocked out of him by a prize fighting pugilist. Or that all the air on earth had been sucked clean into the atmosphere, leaving all life to die of suffocation. He wanted to yell. To warn Mr. and Mrs. Feltman that a crazy man dressed like a police officer was waiting at their door.
He wanted to be a hero. But in life, in real life, those moments could feel long, but they were only seconds. And Jabreel hadn’t even begun to untangle his mess of thoughts when Mr. Feltman opened the door and was gunned down by the smiling-maniac.
The man turned around slowly, like a door-to-door salesman who had been rejected for the umpteenth time that day, got in the cruiser, and drove it to Jabreel’s house.
Jabreel ran down the stairs in a panic, though he was completely unsure of his next move. Opening the door would be suicide, and the phone was only a few feet away from the front door. If the maniac heard his voice, he’d shoot through the welcome sign before he even had a chance to tell the dispatcher what was going on.
His only option, he thought, was to lie on the couch with his books, and hope that the man knocked and went away. Assuming no one was home. There were, after all, no cars in the driveway.
Jabreel laid on the couch, gripping his fantasy books so tightly as though through force of will he could transport himself inside these worlds. Be free of this madness. Even though Odysseus’s ten-year journey was wrought with death and pain, he’d take his chances in the cave of Polyphemus over the smiling-maniac.
Four quick knocks. Tac-tac-tac-tac. Jabreel could feel that weapon. Whatever that weapon was pointed right at the door, waiting to end his young life. The one he had survived two years in a refugee camp for. A life, he thought, was now safe.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t move. He prayed. He prayed that it would go away. That the man would go away, and that he could call the cops, the real cops, before the smiling-maniac had the chance to kill anyone else.
Jabreel thought about the real estate woman who had sold the family this house. The pretty blonde one who made him blush just by shifting her eyes in his direction. He thought about her saying that this was the safest neighbourhood a family could ask for.
Then he thought about his father. His mother. And his brother, who didn’t make it out of the camp. His father told him that things would change. That no more would they be scared. They’d be happy and safe. That the days of suffering belonged to the dark ether of yesterday. Jabreel sobbed softly. Without making a noise. Water rolled down his face.
Four more knocks. Tac-tac-tac-tac.
Then silence. Silence. Maybe the man was going away. Maybe he was gone. Jabreel rolled himself off the couch, onto the carpet as quietly as possible, and army crawled to the window. As soon as he peeked through, he saw his father and mother’s used Civic, that they were so proud of, pulling into the driveway.
No. Please. No. Please. God. No.
“What is going on here, officer?” He heard his father ask politely, after stepping out of the car. Barely an accent to be found. The integration seemed like a success. One that his father sounded proud of.
But mere seconds from that question, Jabreel’s father would never feel pride again. Or anything.
Then it was his mother’s screams.
Four quick shots. Silence.
He saw them laying on the concrete slabs. And he let out a horrified scream. The maniac bent down and looked at him through the blinds. He waved. That smile. That awful smile.
He knocked on the door again. This time, there was no waiting. He shot right through it.
Jabreel was back on the couch. Gripping his books. His fantasy books. As if he could will himself inside of them.
Then four quick shots.
Everything Dies, Baby, That’s A Fact
The first time hearing Atlantic City from Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 bare-boned acoustic release, Nebraska, was a special moment for me. As an avid music fan, I believe moments like those only happen a handful of times in one’s life. Those songs that freeze you in time. Those songs that single-handedly remold you and allow you the freedom to think of the world and your life from a different perspective than you’ve had before.
The entire album features a cast of characters who spend their entire lives operating on that very thin line between good and evil. Even the evil characters on this album don’t invite hate, they invite questions about circumstance. Is there inherent good and evil? Or only circumstantial? Is a poor man who can’t feed his family bad for stealing? Or would he be bad for letting his family starve? These questions are posed throughout the entire album, and specifically in Atlantic City. A man in such desperation that he begins to do “favours” for the unruliest of people in order to secure some kind of future for himself and his lover, some kind of hope.
This song formed the framework for my writing. As an industry kid with blue-collar parents, I’ve seen firsthand these types of characters. Maybe in some ways I’ve been one myself. A child feeling trapped by a future written in stone. One that he feels he has no control over, no way of changing. And in that desperation, you act out. But not because you’re evil, but because you’re scared. You’re terrified of what will happen to you if you don’t fight the constricting force of your own fate.
That thin line has provided me with all the inspiration for my writing. I have no interest in writing about characters who never tread that line. The fairy-tale heroes with hearts of gold beating inside of their chiseled frame. In many ways, I also have very little interest in writing about characters who are a hundred per cent pure evil either.
My aim, my goal, is really to make you think about these folks. Whether I succeed at this or not is up to the reader. But for me, I want the reader to put themselves in the shoes of these characters and have an honest conversation with themselves about what they would do if these situations were to happen to them. If the shoe was on the other foot.
If you were to spend your entire life with your back against the wall, would you always make the honourable decision? Or would you sometimes resort to your most primal instincts in order to live another day? These are important questions. Questions that Springsteen asks in Atlantic City, and throughout the entire album. Questions that inspire me to write every day.
The God Of Labour And Steel
I’ve been awake for 26 hours. As soon as my head hits the pillow, I can feel my consciousness drifting off into foreign lands. I’m weightless and ready to hit pause on my life and on the world for a few hours. But it isn’t to be. The God of labour and steel has other plans.
My phone vibrates on the nightstand beside my bed. Before this job, that noise did nothing but pique my curiosity as to who was calling. But at this point, the sound of vibration on hollow wood has the power to turn my blood into ice, and make me want to dash to the bathroom down the hall to empty my guts.
For a brief moment, a tiny speck in time, I can almost convince myself that it could be my parents or my brother, or a spam caller, anyone in the world except the crew office. But no one calls me. Especially at this hour of the night. I know exactly who it is.
“You’re working 326 at 0300 hours.” The voice says.
“Alright” is all I can manage before ending the call.
My wife is sleeping, and my newborn son is in his bassinet beside her. I whisper that I have to work. She stirs, and mumbles something before her soft snores return.
I lean over and kiss her forehead, then I will myself out of bed and grab my pile of work clothes that’s sitting on the floor in front of the bedroom closet.
Before I leave the room, I walk over to the bassinet and spend a couple of minutes staring at my baby’s face. My hands rest gently on his chest, as he breathes softly.
“Sorry, I won’t see you in the morning, buddy. But I’ll make it back as soon as I can.”
I kiss his forehead, then get changed, and I’m out the door.
On the news, they keep reiterating how people need to stay inside. Stay inside and bundle up. Do not hit the highway, they urge. The drifts from the mountains are creating blinding conditions on the 11.
I turn the radio off. I’m already on the 11. I don’t need to hear about how I shouldn’t be, because anyone who is on this death trap certainly isn’t doing it for kicks.
The drive is just over an hour in summer afternoon conditions. In this, it takes me well over two. Anything past 65 km/h lights up my dashboard like a Christmas tree.
I need to pull over twice. Once because the drifts are giving me vertigo, and I can’t tell if I’m on the road or not. The other because I have the heat cranked, which is serving as a bleak reminder of the last time I slept, turning my eyelids into concrete.
After a gruelling, anxiety ridden couple of hours, I see the sign for my exit, and my heart descends out of my throat for the time being.
I coast through the deserted streets of a broken town before reaching the rail yard. The engine sits idling on the shop track, shooting fumes into the clear mid-winter air. It’s large steel frame reminding me of why I’m here and what I do for a living.
For a few minutes, my fingers won’t pull the door handle. The wind off the river is howling like an angry, vengeful God. It’s one of those evenings where any exposed skin will be blackened within minutes. There are no buildings in this yard to block the wind. There’s only you, the empty freight, and the water.
Eventually, the “Fuck It, let’s get it over with” part of my brain takes control, and the wind welcomes me with a nice, long embrace. I walk to the shop to put on my overalls, boots, and all the winter gear I can to keep me from succumbing to the cold, but not restrict my mobility.
This shift is coming right off of the death of a new hire a couple hours south for this exact reason. A single father of two looking to make some money, ends up getting the life squeezed out of him between an engine and a boxcar. The result of a nice, thick warm jacket, and a delayed reaction.
The supervisor calls and says he needs the trains headed west to Quebec to be perfectly arranged for the crew coming in the morning, because if it’s not, they aren’t picking it up. And that’s a problem for him, which, in turn, is a problem for me.
I laugh at this despite myself, and hang up. Fucking asshole. I didn’t know there was an option to just not do the work. If that was on the table, then why was I here and not laying next to my wife and newborn son in the comfort of my bed?
The switch lists come out of the printer, letting me know where every car is in the yard. I grab them, fold them and stuff them in the back pocket of my overalls. Once I’m up the decrepit stairs and in the yard, I take them back out as the wind tries to blow them a mile into Hillside.
My work gloves do a grand total of fuck all to keep my fingers from freezing. Within minutes, I’m sliding them out and squeezing my fists like there’s a stress ball inside the thin cotton.
The cold is making icicles out of my facial hair, and I’m stuck with Billy as an engineer, who mumbles so much that I need to grab my radio and lift my tuque to hear him every time he talks, which is a lot. Eventually, both of my ears succumb to frostbite.
“Bring it back, Billy. 2 cars, 1 car, half a car, 15 feet, 10 feet, 5 feet and stop and stretch,” I say to the engineer as he couples a tank car onto a boxcar. “Set and centred.”
This is transmitted so that I can place my body in between the freight without worrying about a painful end to a short life.
Billy mumbles something, and I hope that means I’m good to go, because I already lost the patience to say “What?” fifteen times after each transmission.
Once I’m in between the cars, I need to turn a valve to shut off the air that’s running through the train, and get down on my knees to separate the hose bags which connects the air.
The only issue is that in my exhaustion and throbbing pain, I forget to turn the valve. This is a problem.
When I make the separation, the pressure sends them flailing out of control like a firehose gone rogue. I cover my face to keep the steel glad hands from taking out my eye, or driving my teeth down my throat, and instead the steel smashes against the middle knuckle on my right hand. It’s a clean break.
After a few minutes of yelling profanities and cursing my life. I lay flat on my back in the snow. A defeated man.
The night sky is clear. There isn’t a single cloud blocking the galaxy of stars. Under different circumstances, I think, it would be beautiful.
I mange to finish the shift, and by the time I get home, it’s the following afternoon. My little boy is up, and I haven’t held him or played with him in a couple of days. But Christ, I’m tired. It’s been close to 40 hours now without sleep.
My wife tells me to go to bed. I know they’re calling in 8 hours to tell me to brave the storm yet again. To hit reset on everything I’d just done. There’s no doubt about that in my mind.
I sit with my little guy, bouncing him on my knee. Telling him how much I missed him and how much I love him. At that moment, staring into his sky-blue eyes, like an epiphany, I know the job will eventually kill me.
I think about that father who died trying to provide for his kids. And I say not me. No, sir.
It wasn’t long after that I said Sayo-fucking-nara to that place and that life.