short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
NO ONE seemed to like Joyce, which could have been my initial attraction. She was hounded, often violently, in school. I wasn’t a stranger to kids as mindless predators; however, I was disappointed as the years rolled up into high school, the expression hadn't fallen under the sweep of social psychology's scythe.
I was new in school, transferred. The suffocating pressure of the shift in our overarching culture reached its fingers into the student body. A casual observer would think me on this wave, with my unkempt clothes and long hair. This was the year of transition. I'd been attacked and taunted by the general population for my long hair. Some of the teachers took their shots, too.
The next year would change everything, kids coming back from summer vacation, girls with paisley bell-bottoms and flowers in their hair. Boys, their hair long, strutting the hall as if they’d invented a new style.
I shaved my head, but that’s another story.
I kept my head down and my mouth shut for the most part. I moved through the halls on shaman feet. Once, the guidance counselor trying to get through the brick wall of my defensive nature asked: “Do you have difficulty making friends?”
“No.” I had no desire to make friends, thus her question moot. I knew people. I did not have friends.
On the third day as the new kid, a pixie of a girl came under me at my locker and over the din of shoes on linoleum, slamming lockers and the confusion of mingled voices, asked, with half-moon eyes: “They say you killed a guy over drugs? Is that true?”
“No.” My response came flat. I closed my locker. “There were two of them.” I turned and melted away. I hadn’t killed anyone or ever had a fight worth speaking of. Even with my anger, I was hard-pressed to find anything worth a swing. I told the hungry blue eyes what they begged for. I told the story she wanted to hear. And, in doing so, I cast a net far and long, guaranteeing some peace from the rabble for the next three years.
The teasing and taunts came from afar, never in my face.
The first I saw Joyce was in late fall. I stepped from the stairwell. Though the hall was peppered with students seeking lockers and finding exits, I noticed a clot of kids moving determinedly from the far side of the school. The incidental kids drifted out of the way like tapped curling rocks, unaware of the drama. The phalanx was thorough, not complete, kids walking backwards with far more trailing like a kite's tail dancing on spring’s breath.
The chant reached me, climbing above the mingled voices and miscellaneous noises. The rant was cliché, lacking the charm of originality.
“Bye-itch we-itch bye-itch we-itch bye-itch we-itch.” Each syllable sung with teeth-gnashing anger, accompanied by a foot stomping the floor.
A teacher watched with detached amusement from his classroom doorway as the group passed. At the relative epicenter was a child, she was small like a child, an imp, maybe not even human. Her waist-long too-black-to-be-natural hair obscured her face and then didn’t. She clutched books to her chest, her face toward the floor, a splash of bright red hinted she might be biting her notebook.
As the group closed on me, the dancing hair teased her face and me. She was white like sun-bleached winter wheat, the stripe of orange-red now apparent raked the center of her head. As her hair hid and then revealed her face, her antagonists permitted me only taunting hints. I wanted to look at her, see her. I wanted to quietly, thoroughly drink her in until I understood all she was.
I wondered whether she applied her eye shadow with the back of her hand. Now closer, she looked more like a marionette than an imp. She wore a tight button-down black shirt atop black jeans, which looked like they were painted on. Her hands were stark white, jumping from the black of her clothes. She defined androgynous, aside from the dozen-odd bangles on her wrists, suede sack-like pocketbook hanging from the strap over her shoulder and silver dangling strand earrings, reflecting sparks of light like starbursts.
Her feet hit the floor within black combat boots, much like my own.
I didn’t want to take my eyes from her, this image coming toward me. I wondered where the authority was, the authority that would stop such a travesty and punish the perpetrators. I’d seen such embarrassment to our humanity in my old school, usually outside on the streets; however, when kids acted like this within school walls, in the confines of the showers, for example, an adult always appeared to stomp out such foolishness and sometimes hand out detentions.
The teacher had disappeared, eaten, consumed by the doorway.
She stopped a short twelve feet from me. The entirety of the universe became she and me and I knew she couldn’t see me. Rather, she wasn't aware of me. I hadn’t thought to jump in the fray, maybe smacking some of the kids around. I didn’t think to pontificate some lofty high moral platitudes and with the sleight of a verbal phrase get all the kids to see the error of their way, join hands and dance in a skipping circle singing Kum Ba Yah.
I live in the real world. I’d seen this behavior so many times before, I was numb to it.
She pivoted as a ballerina might and if I believed in such, I’d say her toes weren’t touching the pale green linoleum. She circled twice, looking at each kid, the kids still chanting, now stomping in place, the circle closing, angry faces pushed at their prey. She stopped and planted herself into the tile under the largest boy. Her books came up as she left the floor once more and too quick for the eye to follow, the boy was on his back. No one seemed to know what happened but for her and me.
The clump of humanity, the rabble, melted away, the assaulted boy now sitting on the floor rubbing the side of his head, maybe pondering how he got there. The teacher reappeared and without hesitation, took Joyce under her arm pushing her off, away from me.
I THOUGHT to follow but had twelve miles to hitchhike. I didn’t mind the hitchhiking. I was industrious, which was nothing new. I had my first paying job when I was eleven years old: a newspaper route back in the day when newspapers came out in the afternoon. I heard a route adjacent my street came open. “But you gotta be twelve years old,” a boy from school told me.
“I am.” I lied, barefaced.
The boy’s father hosted the area drop. My mother signed the form, thinking the responsibility would do me good. The job wasn’t difficult. I’d ride my bicycle to the drop, get my papers, fold and band each, placing them in the large canvas bag, loop the bag strap on my bicycle handlebars and ride my route.
On the first day at the first house, I balanced my bicycle between my legs, double-checking my list. A woman stood from her weeding and eyed me carefully.
“Yes, ma’am. You’re on my list.”
“You a sub?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“This your route now or just filling in?”
“Oh.” I beamed maybe a bit too proudly. “This is my route.”
She nodded approval. “I want to tell you the difference between good paperboys and bad paperboys. Good paperboys always have the paper on the porch, in front of my door.”
“And bad paperboys?”
I wanted to be a good paperboy.
To my surprise, the ghost house appeared on my list. The ghost house was the oldest house in the neighborhood, aside from the two historical houses, which dated back three hundred years, some said. The yard was unkempt and overgrown. The house, a bastard Victorian style, needed repair and paint. The grass was cut haphazardly. No one ever saw who cut it. If not for a single dim light in a room downstairs at night, we’d have thought no one lived there. Once in a great while, there’d be a report, gossip, of an old woman walking from the house and back again.
I dropped my bicycle to the ground and worked hard to get the wrought iron gate open. The gate hung like Atlas between two large stacked stone pillars. I was tempted to wing the folded newspaper, allowing my small arm and the air to deliver the paper as if by fate. I honestly thought dislodging the gate would bring the pillars crashing down.
The pillars did not come crashing down.
Each Friday, I’d start collections, which took place in three waves. The first wave, I’d knock on the door, paper in hand. “Collecting for the paper!” The second wave was after dinner, having missed some people on the first wave. I’d do cleanup on Saturday delivery.
I learned something early on. “You keep up this great service and there’ll always be a tip for you!” many people told me. Evidently, good paperboys were not the standard. By then, in my mind, there was only one place to leave a newspaper.
I considered allowing the ghost house a free newspaper, just so I could avoid stepping onto the porch and ringing the doorbell.
“Yeah.” The round-faced boy on my route leaned too close as I was collecting. “She’s a trip.” He gave me the money his mother left. I suspect he stole my tip.
I didn’t ask what he meant, which didn’t stop him.
“Old Lady Elderage.” He poked a causal thumb in the general direction of the ghost house. He had a good head on me, being much older, a high school kid. He bent in my face again. “She’s a witch.” His declaration came in a dramatic breathless whisper.
That’s just what I wanted to hear, not that I believed in witches.
I left my bicycle outside the gate and boldly walked up and onto the porch. I had the overwhelming desire to whistle some tuneless song. The porch floor was soft, yielding slightly under my feet. The far side of the porch deck was partially stripped, a scraper left behind awaiting the worker’s return. The dust and stray debris bore witness: the laborer had been absent a long time.
Three layers of paint were apparent on the clapboard siding. The windowsill was partially bare, exposing its rich oak. Dust coated everything. Given the general rundown appearance, I don’t know why I thought the doorbell would work, but I tried it anyway, listening carefully. Following that, I tapped on the thick glass of the front door, sending echoes into the house and a sinking feeling in my gut.
I wanted to leave the porch. My feet were stuck. A glacier somewhere up north moved about three feet. I heard unnatural noises. I knew I couldn't escape. With a rattle, two thumps and a drag, the door opened, wafting me with the scent of wet hay, unwashed animals, a metallic odor like dried blood, something like a week’s worth of dirty laundry and cinnamon.
We looked at each other.
Her hair shimmered soft dull gray-white, brittle, in disarray as if she tried to braid it, giving up halfway through. The flesh of her face was the same color as her hair but with a touch of yellow ocher, five shades deeper around her eyes, which brought to mind some sort of fashionable raccoon. Her nose seemed too small for her face, planted over lips too pale and much too thin, glisteningly wet.
She had no eyebrows.
She wore a robe. Rather, allow me to say: she had a robe draped over her shoulders, obviously, she was unaware her breast and pubic hair were exposed. I hadn’t noticed at first, caught by the dark eyes, the iris as black as the pupil, together floating on heavy cream. I thought she was blind, yet I felt as if I’d never been seen so thoroughly.
I had never seen, in reality, candid details of the adult female form other than a shadow quickly dismissed by a closed bathroom door. Her breast was the soft gray-white of my mother’s canvas icing bag and appeared just as supple. The nipple was not like I’d seen in my father’s hidden magazines, quick moments stolen when no one was looking. Her breast was not large like in the magazines, hanging reminiscent of a teardrop frozen on the cheek, an oval discoloration with a smeared dot of darker color for the nipple.
Her pubic hair, a darker gray-white than on her head, wasn't a neat triangle like the women in my father’s magazines but snarled and unkempt, inching unruly beyond the crease of her leg. I wanted to drink her in. I wanted to review and refine my review, memorizing her as if a new compound spelling word.
“Collecting for the paper,” I managed to stammer. I held the newspaper forward providing evidence of my claim.
She drew hard at the air, the effort obvious on her face, the soft lines drawn tight, a drop of spittle oozed across and down her lower lip to hang motionless in space mocking her breast. At eleven years old, anyone out of school seemed old. I didn’t believe Old Lady Elderage deserved the title. She may have been well beyond school, but to my young eyes she was far from an old lady. She nodded subtly losing the spittle to gravity and retreated, taking the cinnamon away with her.
The house interior sat unreasonably dark, the windows haphazardly covered with whatever was handy. I couldn’t tell of necessity or from poverty. I wanted to step in, to follow her or at least lean in. The interior was crowded with furnishings and books. Books were everywhere.
She returned, moving slowly, shuffling like walking on ice. She had worked into her robe. I wanted to undo the belt, straighten the material and retie her robe not unlike my mother had done for me a million times over the years. I guess I might have been tall for my age. I don’t remember. She wasn’t much taller than me, even with the step-up into the house. She took the newspaper, setting it on a small table among the clutter.
I held a hand forward. She took my hand and with her other hand, peeled coins onto my palm mouthing the accumulating sum. “And.” She layered on the last quarter. “This is for you.”
I expected her voice to wheeze. I expected her voice to labor. I expected her voice to rasp. Her voice was the most brilliant, clear sound ever to vibrate my tympanic membrane.
She released my hand. The door closed. That glacier somewhere up north moved another two feet.
WORD I delivered Mrs. Elderage's newspaper got around like the flu virus in a kindergarten class. I was treated to many an unsolicited wild tale about witches in general and Old Lady Elderage in particular. Often, I’d be asked for information. I’d give up a dumb stare. I was amazed adults would tell stories too, and, with hungry faces, ask me what I knew or thought.
Every Friday would go much the same. Mrs. Elderage would open the door and we’d stare at each other, a forever moment passing much too quickly. I’d tell her I was collecting, she’d shuffle off and return, take the newspaper and then my hand, paying me, finishing with the same: “And, this is for you.”
On the forth week she answered the door with her robe open again. As I was saying: “Collecting for the paper,” I pulled her robe closed and tied the belt. She didn’t react or respond but never came to the door with her robe open after that. I wanted to see her naked body again. I didn’t need to. I held the vision behind my eyelids. Sometimes in a dream much too mature for me to have, my hand would touch her breast and my lips would touch her wet lips.
I found the dreams at once disturbing and exciting.
Months later, toward the middle of October, I heard talk around school about getting the witch real good on mischief night. I informed my teacher, the principal and my mother.
Universally, I was told it was just talk. “There are no witches to get.” I was told I couldn’t be sure the kids were speaking of Mrs. Elderage.
I pleaded the case. I told Mr. Panes, the principal, some of the mean stories gossiped about Mrs. Elderage. When he snickered into his hand at the wrong place, I gave up.
On Halloween, as the other kids were dressing up to go trick-or-treating, I worked my paper route. When I got to the ghost house, what I found stunned me.
The property had been toilet-papered. The lower windows were soaped. Three trash cans sat overturned on the porch and in two-foot letters across siding and windows, someone wrote: Ding dong the witch is dead in white paint.
I tapped on the door, forcing air in my lungs and holding back tears.
She wasn’t home in the dark, alone, while vandals raped her property. I told myself she was visiting friends or relatives for a few days. Kneeling, with both hands, I left the paper at the foot of her door as if making an offering, set the trash cans upright, filled them and carried the containers out to the curb. The toilet paper would degrade by itself. I didn’t know what to do about the paint or the soap. When I asked my father’s advice at the dinner table, he told me the proper course of action would be to mind my own business.
I looked at my mother. “Too bad no one cared enough to stop this from happening.”
My father raised his hand. I snarled at him. This could be the moment, the end of our father/son relationship, which quickly went into a crash and burn.
When I got to the ghost house the next day, a man on the porch struggled with a stiff wet brush. He had removed witch and dead and went at the rest. The newspaper lay were I left it the day before. I stood at the bottom of the steps watching the man work while the glacier added yet another foot.
“Guess you want your money.” The brush stopped its work, but the man didn’t turn from the wall.
“No. I collect on Friday.”
He turned and gave me a slow up-down. “Oh.” He dropped his brush in the bucket and waved me up into the house as he retreated. I followed, stepping just inside the foyer. He reappeared. “Gotta stop the paper, okay?” He peeled some bills off a roll. “How much she owe you?” He nodded over his shoulder across the living room.
Halfway up the far wall, newspapers, still rubber-banned, were neatly piled like stacked logs.
“She pays me Friday.” I didn’t want to be robbed of the experience, an experience with importance beyond any words I could put to it.
He paused, watching me carefully, the same strange lack of contrast between iris and pupil. “Son, my daughter’s dead. Lilith died right on that sofa two nights ago.”
The dirt-sweet scent of cinnamon was gone.
I WAS INDUSTRIOUS and always have been. The paper route spoiled me. I liked having my own money. I mowed lawns and weeded gardens. As I got a longer leash, I found other tasks to do, like helping people move things and cleaning. Struggling water-soaked boxes of mostly old magazines from a basement, I met Jack, a handyman come to fix the downspouts. I was fourteen years old, he was ten years my senior. Jack was good at what he did, fixing things; however, he liked to drink. His work was much better in the morning than in the afternoon.
I worked as Jack’s assistant for a few months. Mostly, I fetched. All too often, I bailed out his afternoon failings. We did odd jobs in the neighborhood, but Jack’s bread-and-butter was private handyman work for shop owners in the local mall. For some reason, everyone to a person overlooked his drinking. Jack either worked cheap or people felt sorry for him. I didn’t like Jack. I didn’t feel sorry for him. He paid me well once I learned to ask for my pay late in the afternoon.
He was much too curious about my sexual exploits of which I had none, excluding my questionable one-sided love affair with Mrs. Elderage. I made up a story or two, just to make him happy. I told a story about a woman who seduced me on my paper route. Jack thought we should stop back and see if she needed any handyman work.
One day, he passed his flask to me, suggesting I try it. The bourbon was warm in my mouth and burned my throat. I liked the taste and the feeling, overpowering, like nothing I’d ever tasted before. As much as my senses were insulted and assaulted, I wanted to experience more of the toxic extreme.
He got me drunk and back to his place. “Ever been done by a man?” he asked casually, as if asking about the price of eggs.
I wasn’t shocked. As I heard stories around about Mrs. Elderage, I’d heard stories about Jack, kids making jokes behind Jack’s back. I wasn’t sure Jack was a homosexual. If he were, it’d not be a problem for me.
“No.” My answer, honest. Jack was not the first man to ask me for sex.
He took my wrist and my chin, his fingers digging into my flesh. I struggled, he put his mouth over mine forcing his tongue between my lips. I could have struggled better if my head wasn’t swimming from the bourbon. I think he took my inability to resist as permission or consent because he withdrew his tongue and then withdrew from me, stepping back, releasing my face and wrist.
I planted my shoulder on his chest, followed through keeping my feet. He lost his. As if high-stepping through deep snow, I danced away from his thrashing arms, took six healthy steps, slammed into the front door, recoiled, opened the door and ran until my lungs caught fire.
I didn’t mind anyone asking. I had a problem when he didn’t accept no for an answer. The good thing coming from my relationship with Jack was the mall. Jack introduced me to some important people, businesses owners, people who often needed a hand now and then. I could always find a few hours work painting, stocking, counting, cleaning, anything behind the scenes.
I’ve always been a hard worker, obsessed with being a good paperboy. Everyone was willing to overlook my long hair, unkempt appearance and antisocial attitude. One day when I was fifteen, I caught up to one of my more productive contacts. He was talking with another man. My contact put his arm about me. “If you need a good man, here he is.”
The manager of the cafeteria smiled. “It just so happens I need kitchen help. Are you seventeen?”
Once again, I didn’t hesitate to lie.
The mall was only twelve miles from my new school, an easy hitchhike.
I liked working the cafeteria. We were supposed to pay for food. I quickly learned to eat from the ends of things, which no one wanted. Everyone did this, even the manager. After we closed up, some of us would pull a chair up around one of our exterior tables. The cafeteria extended out onto the mall, the small fenced-in area hosting ten tables. I was by far the youngest and other than Patty, who was in college, I was the only person still in school.
I’d drink coffee, we’d finish the pot and listen to the stories. I wasn’t the only hippy-like person, but mostly the group was more along conservative lines. Other people, people who worked around the mall, would pass, stop and share a word or two. Some would sit with us, drink stale coffee and share a story.
The most gifted storyteller was George. He swept the mall and had many stories to tell, both large and small. He was an elderly man and if I’d give him money, he’d buy me a bottle of bourbon, the toxic extreme I’d grown a taste for. Unlike Jack the handyman, I’d never drink if I had work to do.
George leaned on his push broom, his rich voice singing from his chocolate face, telling us the story of a child, his nephew, born not like the other children. I knew he told the old Anderson fairytale about the ugly duckling. I liked to watch George tell the tales. I wanted to memorize him, to know him fully, every wink of his eye and inflection of his voice.
He stopped in mid-sentence, rolled his eyes and then twisted to look behind him. “Come, child, come have a sit, so you can listen better.”
I don’t know how George knew she was there. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen her. Watching George, I was looking right at her. She lacked the arrogant demeanor she carried in school. She looked scared, or skittish, like a cat in the garden weighing whether to bolt or not when approached.
She watched me across the thirty feet. I was sure of it. I stood, replaced my chair, swung my army-surplus coat over my shoulder and high-stepped the railing, offering a see ya over my shoulder and a nod to George as I went by. She was on the move. George picked up where he left off.
“Wait up.” We were well down the mall.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She didn’t slow, keeping her eyes front. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I wanted to hear the story.”
Her voice surprised me, deep and rich, not at all what I expected. “I can finish it, if you like.”
She stopped and turned on me, looking up. “I mean: I wanted to hear him tell the story.”
And, there it was, that glacier some place up north racing forward another two feet. Her eyes, black marbles sunk into the off-white construction paper of her eyes saw me like I’d never been seen before. I couldn’t have looked away if I wanted to, watching my perfect reflection watching back. Her flesh was the color of heavy cream, rich and waxen.
She had no eyebrows.
Her eye shadow did look applied with the back of her hand, the color of charcoal, heavy on her lids up to where her eyebrows should be, lighter rounding a good inch under her eyes. Her lipstick was a browned deep bright red like blood mixed with varnish and then dried at a high temperature.
The streak down the center of her head was a white-orange about two inches across. If she told me she colored her hair with the same boot-black I used to shine my army boots, I’d have believed her.
We faced each other for a long time, feet tapping the floor off in the vague distance. I knew the footfalls were the song of John, the elderly security guard marching his first rounds checking every door twice. I could hear George as a shadowed echo. I could hear the touch of cup to saucer now and then.
She smelled of earthy-sweet cinnamon. She spoke. I didn’t hear a word she said until she touched my face.
“Huh?” I asked.
“I said: I know how that story goes. That’s Stevenson –”
She withdrew her hand, keeping my eyes, searching for something. “Not the guy telling the story. Robert Louis Stevenson –”
I shrugged. “Hans Christian.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Ugly Duckling’s not Stevenson?”
“I give you credit for not thinking it a Grimm.”
“So?” She drew closer, closer than I liked my human beings.
I didn’t want to admit I’d not heard her. “I missed the question.” I hoped she’d not ask me to explain.
Her hand came to my face again. I was surprised her hand was warm. “What’s this story, is what I asked.”
Again, I shrugged it away. “Accident, when I was a kid, nothing much.”
“Scar-face in a chant sung to God isn’t much?”
Then, I knew. “Carrot top?”
“One of the nicer endearments, but I could dye my hair.”
“I saw how well that’s worked out for you.”
Her eyes got big.
“I watched you with your entourage in the hall today.”
“Which time?” Her sarcasm touched my ears like angel’s breath.
I laughed subtlety in agreement. “Yeah, huh? Did they round up the kids?”
“Torture would be nice. Detention, whatever they hand out in your school. I’m new.”
“I got suspended for three days.”
I almost blurted out: You’re kidding, but I didn’t need to. In that moment, the world made terrible sense. “They’re going to kill you.” My statement came with the assuredness of either madman or prophet.
“They don’t burn witches anymore.” She could have been joking. “I get teased a lot, but I ask for it, you know. It’s called acting out. I play them. Sometimes I get pushed around and even knocked around, but you saw: I can give as good as I get.”
“They’re going to kill you,” I repeated to erase her argument. And, in that instant, I loved her as much as any man could love any woman.
Boots, not unlike mine just many sizes smaller, tapped out a song on the tile floor sending coded words to Heaven. I watched her walk away, her waist-long hair marking off time like a grandfather clock pendulum. I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Elderage in years, but there I was with a mocking imitation of her beautiful breast stealing down my cheek.
For years, I carried unknown guilt like dead fetal matter attached to a uterus wall. I hadn’t told anyone what had happened, the closest I came was to tell a bastard pornographic story to Jack. I thought I could have done something to save Mrs. Elderage. I was wrong.
The best I could have done was die with her.
After Joyce disappeared from view, I returned to just outside the cafeteria where George wrapped up his version of The Ugly Ducking. He nodded as I came alone side. I nodded back and then turned to my co-workers and other lingerers. In the months of many evenings, I’d done little more than listen while drinking bad coffee. I could count on two hands and a foot the number of words I’d uttered.
“I have a story.” My announcement was delivered confidently as if I’d told a thousand and one tales over just as many nights within a darkened tent.
“I wish to tell the story of the first witch I met.”
I was right about Joyce. She was dead like Mrs. Elderage well before the first snow kissed the sleeping landscape.