“Ask Antoin” -Exit 175


He pushed the button on his Dell and heard the computer whir obediently albeit, grogily,   inside the dust-encrusted tower. Flecks of dust caught in the beam of his halogen desk lamp.  Cracker, his deaf white Persian, yawned from her perch on top two weeks of The Roanoke Times. She flicked her tail and blinked adoringly at Anthony.  January’s rattling wind whooshed under the cinderblocks that held their trailer while the faint laughter from the Wendy Williams Show trickled from the back bedroom. The coffee maker sputtered and emitted the scent of scorched beans.Anthony quickly signed in, tick tick tick tick tick… and opened his email. There were two messages from “Exciting Weight Loss Alternative,” his usual from Dictionary.com. and five forwarded, “YOU MUST SEE THIS VIDEO TO BELIEVE IT!!!”  And then there was the email from Naomi. Anthony belched and scratched the flaky skin on his elbow. He was forty-eight and rough, and his years of living alone were irreparably evident in the food in his refrigerator and the age of the bedsheets.
“Dear Antoin, My husband Glen and I love your column each week. I have been having terrible dreams about our son, Edward, for the last three weeks. All I see is his sweet face and then a ‘boom’. He has been involved with drugs for many years and we have been praying for him. What do you see for him? Can you tell me what this means? God Bless you!- .
Anthony clicked “delete” on the next email, and instead, another email from Naomi came up. “Just had another dream about my son. The same. I heard the boom and shot straight out of bed. Please answer!!” Anthony sighed, got up, and poured another cup of burned coffee into his stained Duncan Donuts cup. He scratched his head and mumbled, “Yeah yeah yeah…ok, lady, life sucks. Sorry. Eddie’s a looooserrrrrr…  the world’s full of fucked up druggies and whack jobs.”
Anothony, aka, “Antoin,” was the psychic consultant for the local newspaper and had been for eight years. It didn’t pay the rent- his disability checks did that- but it provided him a certain esteem within community that he used to remain socially acceptable and of sound mind while the local Christian groups routinely flooded his mailbox and windshield with invites to revivals and warnings of hellfire. Anthony reached over to pet the cat, who was purring and smiling, and who briefly stretched out a scarred leg and nails in appreciation.
“Dear Naomi,” he typed. “My Spirit Guide tells me that your son is fine- he’s facing new challenges that will hit him like an explosion. Keep praying for him and keep fresh cilantro in his pillow case to help with cleansing his aura.  I see wonderful things in the next three months….”  Anthony lit a cigarette and smoked three puffs before daubing it out in a houseplant. He allowed himself only five cigarettes a day. There were several upright, half-smoked cigarettes in the plant.  A knock came at the trailer door. “Shit.”
He’d paid the propane bill…. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had been there earlier in the week. “Just a sec,” he yelled, as Cracker made a speedy retreat into the bedroom with Wendy on the television.
She was a little over middle-age, loose, shoulder-length grey hair, and peculiarly vibrant blue-grey eyes. She was faintly smiling, but looked uncomfortable and  held her hands down firmly in the pockets of her ankle-length wool coat. She wore ankle rubber boots. “Mr. Neighbor? Mr. Crown? Isn’t that right?.” Her narrow legs shook beneath her skirt. Before she could ask again, Anthony outreached his hand to the stranger, surprised by his own motion. It was due perhaps to some latent rule of respect toward his elders as a child. The woman started up the three muddy stairs into the trailer, unwrapped her old plaid scarf, and sat on the warm chair once occupied by the Cracker. “Phew, what a chill!!” she said, smiling and looking around the trailer.
“You certainly seem to have brought it in with you….” Anthony looked apologetically but disdainfully toward the unwelcome visitor. “Just what I need,” he thought- “Some nosy neighbor to come complain about the garbage backed up in his driveway.” The truth was, his trailer was a gigantic mess both inside and out. He prided himself as a burrower, and  used it as a defense against unwanted company.
“May I help you with something?,” Anthony asked meekly, trying to hide his annoyance with the woman whose boots were melting all over  the carpet. Anthony noticed her eyes travel to a bowl full of half-dried, week old chili.
“I hate to ask, really….”
“Yes, but…?”  He could sense she felt the rudeness in his voice. “I’m sorry. It’s just that – I’m ashamed to ask in fact- but I live just next to you down the road and, oh, I probably shouldn’t have stopped by….”  Anthony lit another cigarette and walked into the kitchen, which was ten feet away from the entrance of the trailer.
“Is there a problem, Miss….?”
“Hill. We’re the Hills from Hill House- just in the hollow.” He poured a cup of cold coffee from the Mister Coffee into a cup and stashed it into the microwave. When he looked back at the old woman. She was smiling at Cracker who was glaring back suspiciously from the bedroom.
“Ya like cats?”
“Oh, yes, we’ve had many”
“Want another”
“Well, umm…”
“Don’t worry, he ain’t for sale. Right down the road from me?” Anthony chuckled. “I apologize for being such a recluse. I’m afraid we’ve never met!”
“Oh, I know you’re a new-comer. Isn’t this your fourth winter here?” She was pretty- maybe sixty-five, when grey-blue eyes and a soft face. He suddenly felt more warmly toward her.
“My tenth, actually, but who’s counting.”
“And you write for the paper?” she asked energetically.
“Yes, and what about you? Your place is….?”
“Just next door. Hasn’t it been cold lately? I can’t seem to warm up. I’m sorry for not introducing myself sooner, but with the weather, I don’t get out much.”
“I see…. So you came over to…?” The woman stood up, as if to leave, and for a moment, her veneer gave off a youthful glow that caught him off guard. “You want me to throw some more coffee on?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you. It’s just a rather large favor really….”
“Look, if it’s about the garbage, I’m going to the dump today.”
“Oh, no. It’s….”
“Look, I don’t have any money, lady. You want booze? Is that it? That, I got. Don’t tell me you came all the way over here in this weather for a stick of margarine.” The old woman began to look tired and nervous. She gazed out the cigarette-filmed window as if looking for something. There was something so extraordinarily sad in her face that he felt guilty for having been such an ass.
“Since my son died,” she began softly, “ I haven’t had anyone to carry in wood for the stove, and it’s expected to be very cold tonight. Would you mind helping me? I’ll only need a few logs. My husband has it all cut and stacked. I can pay you in a fresh batch of cookies, if that’s all right…?” Anthony swallowed his cold coffee and felt naucious.

“No problem. Just let me get my coat.”
“Thank you so much.”
“Forget it.” Anthony grabbed his coat off the floor of his closet and noticed the Cracker in the corner of the room glaring at him icily. He heard the old woman going down the steps and  before he could get to the door,  she was already trudging through the snow across the yard. She called out but did not turn around,
“It’s just this way!”
“Okay,” he replied, beginning to wonder just exactly where she lived.
The snow became heavier in his eyes. Anthony looked back at the single light from his trailer and was glad it would be warm when he returned. The sound of a vehicle coming from being them on the road overtook the gentle sounds of the frozen tree limbs creaking under the new falling snow. It sounded like an a tractor trailer skidding off the road.  There was a tremendous boom, hissing, and then silence.
Anthony and the woman looked back and saw the truck rammed into a tree, smoke billowing out from under the crushed hood. The snow sound became louder. The phizz of the truck’s radiator and its chemical smell pervaded the air. Anthony began running toward the vehicle but the snow hobbled him. His eyes were suddenly warmed with tears and snowflakes that obliterated his vision in wavy corneal pools. He continued toward the vehicle, there came a breeze, and the smell dissipated. A robin, that had stayed behind and not migrated, sang its music, completely unbothered by the ruckus. The truck was gone.
Anthony turned back to the woman, who knelt in the snow, sobbing, and then gradually appeared to melt into the snow, fading away in front of her home. He ran toward her, feeling as as though he was having a heart attack.
The ancient log cabin behind which she had knelt, sat beside Natural Bridge, its chinking and empty interior exposing decayed logs and planks. The faint smell of oatmeal cookies wafted through the air before the sleet him.
Standing alone, he felt the warmth of tears flood his face. His feet, strangely numb and heavy, would not work, and Anthony found himself half-walking, half-crawling  back to his trailer. The sadness that overcame him was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was as if the very core of his being was bleeding out. His hand was shaking as he unlatched the door. At the computer, Anthony sat at his computer and looked for Naomi’s email. It slowly faded before his eyes.








The Halleluiah Cathedral Exit 143

 

 

 

“Well glory to God! Can we have a hand-clap offering! Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for bringing our wonderful family back on this Lord’s Day! Are ya happy today, friends? Are you glad about what the Lord has done for you this week?”

A six-year-old boy dressed in a miniature three-piece suit, hid his face in his mother’s dress. A bald-headed usher with enormous false teeth grinned and led a family to empty chairs, where he then distributed bulletins to each one. “Thankya, Jesus,” said a grey-haired woman behind them, using her bulletin as a fan.

A young tattooed man wandered into a section in the back. The choir,

a collection of various-sized and aged people wearing ill-fitting robes, began a rousing introduction to the service. The congregation continued standing, some holding hands and swaying, some with arms lifted toward the ceiling lights, some staring with mouths open or close, under the enormous fluorescent bulbs interposed with speaker boxes hung with heavy wire.

Fifteen minutes passed, and an obviously impatient, rotund, and smiling pastor walked on stage gesticulating to the enraptured choir, that it was time to end the looping rocked-out hymn. It was as if his hands were saying, “yadayadayada….” Heads down and hands clasped, the choir came off the stage and disappeared through a small white door. “Pick up your bulletin, if you would. Just a few things we want our church family to be aware of, Glory to God…. The men’s baseball team will be signing up new members in the atrium directly following the service. Women’s Bible Study will be meeting in the Rebecca Room Tuesday as we have a drywall crew coming in to rough-in our new kitchen-glory to God! That’s ok! You can praise Him for that! Sweet rolls and coffee are to follow installation on this next Lord’s day,  January eighteenth. ” On a more serious note- we need volunteers for the annual shrub pruning and bulb planting crew. We only need you for a couple of hours, so whatever time you can give, God will bless you for that. And on a final note- I know you’re busy-we all are-but don’t forget to order your yearly pledge card packets. I know many of you have been faithful about getting that done. Our ushers are coming around now to hand out order forms- if you would prayerfully consider the coming year and place your pledge in the offering plate when it comes around. Well, thank you, Jesus! And now let’s pray…..  Dear Lord, we are a sinful people in the hands of a righteous God. Where we fail, you are faithful…and on one note not on the bulletin, we’re thankful for those of you all who have donated so generously to the gymnasium fund, halleluiah. And we all want to be prayerful for sister Bryant who took a spill and is in the hospital for a hip replacement, thank you, Jesus, we know you have a plan and you are in control.”

A bothered young mother carried her infant quickly out the back of the sanctuary, leaving the smell of dirty diaper in the air. A paraplegic with sad brown eyes and a veteran’s pin sat glued to the video camera and a bald usher in the front row lay prostrate before the curtained riser that was the stage. The preacher surreptitiously glanced at a digital clock stuck inside the podium: 11:05- fifty-five more minutes. Alter call in forty. Breakfast at Denny’s.

The church was just a jump off 81 and was reached by car or by crawling over the guardrail. Dudley crawled under and came in during the intercessory prayer. When the alter call was given, he walked among the tearful congregants and lay prone, looking solemnly up at the preacher. Reverend Dickey went from head to head laying on hands and opened his eyes to see the ragged and shivering golden retriever looking back.

Unsure what to do, Dickey continued down the line. A couple of people looked up and smiled and a woman sneezed. Dudley started licking the bottom of a woman’s shoe. An usher approached the dog and urged him to follow, but Dudley was tired and sad. He’d dodged cars and trucks in frigid weather all night. Instead, he sighed heavily and curled up at the feet of a  catcher just as a portly woman fell out into his arms under the power of the Holy ghost. He fell into the deepest sleep of his life.

An hour after the service, the dog hadn’t moved. A slight drip of blood came from his mouth. A foul smell surrounded him. Reverend Dickey and two elders presumed he was dead, and threw a catcher blanket over his body. The offering had been counted and once again, proved disappointing. But the buffet lines were emptying out around town, and the men decided to call maintenance to dispose of the carcass Monday morning.

Monday morning, the dog was gone and the carpet had been vacuumed. Reverend Dickey unlocked the door to his office and closed it. It was furnished in warm oak, had a burgundy carpet and was encompassed with full book shelves. On the wall adjacent to his desk, facing the door and all who entered, was an enormous framed poster of Jesus on the cross. Several new magazines had been placed in his inbox, and Dickey relaxed into his leather swivel chair. The sermon for next week needed to be planned and he had an appointment with the elders at noon at Shoney’s. He reached into the back of his desk file drawer and pulled out a fifth of Old Crow.

The first sip burned majestically down his throat and his eyes momentarily blurred and rested upon the picture of Jesus. Then a large sigh exuded from beneath his desk. A hairy face lay across Dickey’s socks. Dickey rolled back in his chair and prepared to jump up, securely holding the bottle in one hand.

Dudley thumped his tail loudly and looked adoringly at the Reverend. “Holy shit!” A knock came at the door.

“Morning Reverend,” a happy voice continued down the hall. It was Steve, the maintenance man. Slowly Dickey put the bottle back in the drawer and went to the door, opening it.

“Hey, Steve– how’d the dog get in my office?” Brother Steve, a tall black man in his late twenties,  was pushing a cart of cleaning supplies and toilet paper.

“In your office? I have no idea ‘bout that. I went to put him in the dumpster this morning but he was sniffing around the hall. I gave him one of my McDonald’s sandwiches and a dish of water. Sorry about that.”

“He’s gonna have to go.” Robert looked warily at Dickey, anticipating a new job.

“You gonna take him to the shelter, Rev?” he asked, walking away.

The dog wagged his tale and waited at the office door for Dickey to return, then curled up on the small couch in the office, sighed, and went to sleep. The Yellow Pages. Animal Control… Roanoke County….

“Animal Control.”

“ I have a stray I need to get rid of.”

“Are you in Roanoke County?”

“Yes.”

“You can bring him in to our Roanoke location. I can give you those directions.”

“You don’t pick up?”

“No, Sir. Not unless it’s a wild animal or you suspect its rabid.” Dudley wagged his tale and panted happily.

“I see. Well, he might be….”

“What makes you think so? Describe his behavior.” The good reverend twisted in his chair to avoid the plaintive look of the bedraggled dog.

“Never mind. I’ll bring him in.”

_________________________________________________

At noon, Rev. Dickey cancelled the elder’s meeting and drove the dog to the shelter. Every time he looked in his rear view mirror, the dog wagged his tale. The White Cadillac smelled entirely of indigested  food and road kill. Dickey breathed through his nose and turned up the radio on the religious station, but couldn’t concentrate. Dudley started to whine and look nervously out the window, his long tongue coated with saliva that he flashed on the windows whenever he nervously jerked his head. In the rear view mirror, Dickey could see the dog pacing, uncomfortably and step and re-step on a King James and a pack of old church bulletins.

At the stoplight at Williamson Road, Reverend Dickey reached into the glove compartment for a pint of Jack Daniels. He waited until the light turned green, unscrewed the bottle, drank deeply, smacked his lips and watched Dudley in the mirror looking at him with great expectation. The heat of the whiskey hit Dickey hard, and for a moment, he remembered when, as a child, he had asked for dog and was told, “no.” The dog he had wanted was a bright German Sheppard pup born to a farm litter down the road from him in Alta Vista. Even his wife didn’t know about that pup- she wouldn’t have understood, so he kept the experience sacredly buried.

After a couple of false turns, Dickey found the shelter. Even from the parking lot he could hear the howl and furtive barks of nervous animals and it made him upset. He walked back to the car for another drink. Dudley wagged his tail expectantly, thinking they were leaving. Dickey drank and slammed shut the glove compartment. Dudley had already reentered the car, and he had to yank the rope around his neck to urge him out.

Obediently Dudley strode into the shelter, where it gazed  at the Reverend on last time and whined.  “This one needs a bath!” the animal control worker said, smiling. She was a young girl in her twenties, with metro-style glasses and a nose piercing.

“Will someone adopt him?,” Dickey asked authoritatively.

“May not be adoptable. He’s older. We’ll give him a few days.”

“He won’t be so bad after a bath. He’s not sick-looking….”

“We’ll see. We’ll have the doctor check him out. Thanks for bringing him in, sir.”

“Ur, do I need to sign anything or…”

“Nope- you’re good. Thanks again.”

Driving back to church on 81, the Reverend felt crappy. It was only twelve-thirty, and he was drunk off his ass. “Goddamn dog. Now I have to reschedule the elder’s meeting.” Instead of pulling into the church parking lot, he decided to go home. “They’ll find him a  home,” he told himself.  The cell phone rang. “Yeah, this is Reverend Dickey.”

“Is everything ok? You rescheduled the meeting today….”

“Had to drive that damn dog to the shelter.”

“You mean- the dog from Sunday? He lived?”

“He did.”

______________________________________________

Sunday morning it finally warmed up and the sun shone brightly on what was left of the plowed snow. The congregation came in through the sunny front doors and chatted incessantly, sipping on coffee and nibbling cookies. Reverend Dickey jauntily made his way through the crowd, shaking hands and laughing earnestly. No one asked about the dog.

The processional began, and the elders seated a full house. Reverend Dickey took his place by the choir and clapped energetically. He worked his way to the podium, waiting for the fervent congregation to tire. “Let us pray,” he began. “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for keeping our family safe this week and allowing us to come together again.” It was then he felt the familiar hot breath of the golden against his legs, as it settled happily against his feet, in ghostly form; he felt the weight of the emaciated animal within a shadowy mist beneath the pulpit, and caught his breath.

Newest Story: Subdivision

 

 

Subdivision- Exit 137

VII

The house had served four generations, nestled between the hills of the blue ridge that held it as a child holds a fallen robin’s egg; with awe and concern, attempting to shelter it from life’s struggle. There was much laughter as the house was built in 1799. The laughter of the community had imbued the timbers with extra strength and its frame with the flexibility to endure the elements. The house was proud to stand for its family. A light was kept on in the kitchen at all times, and the door unlocked. The big iron stove in the kitchen warmed numerous litters of puppies and kittens and the occasional calf born in inclement weather. The kitchen, a wide open room with a large pine table, viscerally welcomed all with scents of anise, Sunday dinners, talcum and sweat.

Now, however, two hundred years later, the lovely cut lace kitchen curtains, once a detail of graceful domesticity, had calcified into the gradually decaying demeanor of the house. Having lost their white virginal elasticity, he curtains no longer billowed when the air caught them with each human entrance and exit. Once  lovely and proud portals; gentle veils that opened into the stealth and ample home, now stood rigid, wary, and heavy with human travail; starched sculpted threads that braced the window glass protectively; sharing a symbiotic  relationship of survival, as both face an unkind future. The faithful curtains, hung by careful hands as final touching to the soul of the house,  now cling as static shrouds, a home to past seasons of wooly spider nests and trapped.

The day the bulldozers came, the three-hundred year old oak went first. Several old cow patties lay interspersed with river stone in the field, remnants of his farm. Orange tape had already been posted around the small cemetery: five slouched, hand carved stones. What was left of the cow barn would come down this morning. .

“’Bout time this land was put to good use. Never been anything here but cows,” The fore man’s yellow helmet was marked with dents and scratches and sat askew on his bald head.

“Did the Hellman’s always own the place?” a younger version of the foreman asked.

“From way back; no other records anyway.”

“The guy must not have any clue about the value of this place.”

“Most of ‘em never know. Don’t care. Just wanna be left alone. They got what they needed from the place. Hey, Joe! Make sure that oak tree is loaded separately- thing’s worth a small fortune….”

“Right.”  The man inside the bulldozer gave the thumbs up and continued to push at the fallen tree. An old bird nest crumpled and fell inside the gigantic greenery. In the meadow a half-mile away the barn creaked and sighed. Through its broken door the vision of the heavy equipment lay in the distance, their motors idling. The stalls stood empty and ready for the never-coming spring foals. Hay still filled the stanchions and sweetness of new spring grass in the pasture pervaded the barn. With roof slats torn and scattered, the morning sun sent beams as  through stained glass windows. A sense of timeless holiness, rest and healing permeated the rough dry plank walls.  A mouse rested peacefully with its babies in an empty grain bin. The copula, beautifully built by the family’s first generation, had long since been removed and sold on Ebay for an exorbitant sum.

Eventually the drone of engines approached the barn and mouse sprang up, whiskers sensing a change. “Knock it to the right-shouldn’t take much.”

“How much barn wood are we supposed to salvage?”

“None- termites.”

“Ok. Let’s go.”

Painfully the old barn bent and twisted stealthily to the sudden onslaught of machines. An old pitchfork tipped over in one of the stall and for fifteen minutes, the agonizing sound of splintering, bursting wood, thudding down upon straw and stone was muffled by a bassline of engines and their poisonous ethers. Finally, after more than a few shoves, the barn collapsed into a silent heap. A flock of crows took flight from a nearby pine tree, their caws impossible to hear through the smoky air. The remnants of the barn were loaded unceremoniously into an enormous waiting dump truck.

“That’s a wrap-  good job. Take an hour for lunch.”

From inside the house, the curtains parted ever so slightly- the barn was gone. Perhaps it would be next. The bricks and mortar held tight, and the house seemed to hold its breath against the inevitable. A small ghost child played marbles on the kitchen floor, oblivious to what the house new. Her pinafore had pink flowers and the knees of her stockings were brown with dirt.

In the living room, the faded wallpaper recalled with stains and shadows, each piece of furniture and art that had once lovingly been arranged or hung. The wide oak floor plants boasted a genealogy of dents and bangs, and chronicled the crawling, walking, shuffling, and falling of five generations. The wavy glass windows wouldn’t be of use to anyone- they were custom to their frames and casings. Nor would the carved mantel, too nicked to be of value to antique dealers. Where the iron stove had set and provided thousands of meals and remedies in only a small variety of pots and pans, only rust stains remained on the linoleum. It had been bought by an energetic couple from New Hampshire and the pots had gone to Goodwill.

Outside the windows in the flower bed, Gramma’s yellow tulips were just coming up alongside the herbs. The two remaining birdhouses, nailed to crooked apple trees, were well-worn, but well-built, and had the ability to brood another generation of chicks. The little boy who built them had grown old and died. No one remembered his initials were carved in them.

At 12:30, the drone of invaders returned just as a daffodil unfurled its first petal. The house inhaled and braced itself, looking across the horizon toward Little Brushy Mountain.

Natural Bridge Hotel

 

 

 

The Natural Bridge Hotel- Exit 175

“Can’t we go to the Haunted Museum first?”

“We’ll do that later- first we’re going to see the Natural Bridge.” Jamie sighed and buried her head in her suitcase.

“It’s just a stupid rock with a hole,” she muttered.

“What did you say?” asked her mother.

“Nothing.”

“Brush your hair.”

“Fine. But can we at least go out to breakfast first?”

“No, we’re gonna let you starve. Of course.

‘I just wanted to make sure.”

“But you have to stop whining,” her father called from the bathroom.

It wasn’t Disneyworld, but going to Natural Bridge was better than no vacation at all. Dad was laid off and mom wanted to see Great Granny’s place off Lee Highway, just one more time before the Health Department condemned it. No Mickey Mouse ears this year.  No zippity doo dah water slide. No pics with Chip n’ Dale. Nope. Just a big old funky rock with a hole in it. Whoopi.

“Oh, mom. I’m going to need to buy some Twilight books.”

Jamie sighed with resignation. Her father started singing in the bathroom as he dragged his electric razor across his beard. Jamie took off to the bathroom and saw her father standing in the warm mist with a white towel around his waist, his belly comfortably protruding over the top.

“Did you hear me, mom?”

“Yes, dear. Now if you’re determined to be miserable at least don’t spoil the trip for the rest of us, ok?”

“Ok. So where do we eat breakfast?”

“It’s up to your mother.” Lisa, a woman in her early thirties checked herself in the mirror and frowned.  She wished she’d brought the looser jeans.

“Whenever your father gets done in the BATHROOM…, there’s a little place down the road- if it’s still there. We used to bike there after school for sodas. The Pink Cadillac.”

“Groovy….What’s a soda?” Jamie said, making a peace sign and rolling her eyes.

Lisa had grown up in Natural Bridge but had not been back since her grandmother’s funeral. It had been a somewhat depressing event. At 99, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t lived long enough, but rather the manner in which she passed: choking on a bone left in Irma Ray’s chicken salad after bible study. Naturally, the church folk were “careful” not to name names as to who authored what dish, although the many whispers that would ensue, pretty much ensured that woman’s future exile. The last thing Granny reportedly uttered was “too much celery.”

The ceremony was sweet and flower-filled, the hymns, lovingly selected: “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Blessed Assurance.” The church had original stained glass windows and candle-lit sconces. The pews were built for the size of human beings one hundred years ago, and had stiff, straight polished oak backs to keep parishioners awake. The lovely church seated only seventy-five, and the casket, in front of the podium, was only three feet away from the kicking feet of impatient youngsters who came for the food. There was no basement, but a narrow rickety balcony for a small choir, assessable only by tiny steep stairs.

Granny was at her best. The undertaker even had her smiling which was unusual in itself. Perhaps she was just happy to get away from her friends and family. She wore a lovely lavender chiffon dress Auntie Grace had found in the town consignment shop. She even wore little matching purple clip earrings that came free with the dress. The coffin was a simple, white velvet lined affair. The white carnations worked nicely with the interior. The ladies in the front row were pleased. Granny would have been less than happy with matching lipstick in “mauve morning,” however, as she dislike lipstick of any kind.

After the simple and gracious ceremony, marred only by young Johnny Hofstedder proclaiming, “Lord, daddy- that only lady is stiff as a board!,” she was wheeled out into the back lot cemetery where the backhoe was waiting to complete the job. Next to the backhoe were the long awaited card tables full of potato salads, pasta salads, casseroles, cakes, pies, cookies, buns, barbeque, jello molds, baby back ribs, macaroni and cheese,  but… only one person had forgotten and made-you guessed it-chicken salad. She would be dealt with later.

Jamie was only three, then, but she remembered the feel of Granny’s dress and the look of her tiny white hands clasped ever-so-softly toward Jesus in perfect symmetry with her peaceful demeanor. “Mommy? Why is Granny smiling? I’ve never seen Gran Gran smile before….” The corpse smelled faintly of snuff and Taboo cologne.  Since then, Jamie’s mind had been filled with stories about Granny’s house and  her mother’s childhood wanderings amid the creeks and woods of Rockbridge County. Especially, “The Haunted Monster Museum” had become legendary in her imagination; she’d even Googled it.

She imagined what it would be like to be married to Mark Klein, the man who fashioned the gruesomely realistic creatures.  He was the same artist who had built “Foam Hedge,” a precise replica of the real Celtic monolith. She had even imagined herself married to the man.  Maybe they would sleep in coffins during the day and wear creepy clothes in public. Who could possibly be more exciting than Professor Cline? Maybe he slept in a bed made to look like Godzilla’s mouth. He probably knew every ghost in Natural Bridge personally. He might even have coffins in his basement.

“Do we have to take all day at the Bridge, ma? I want plenty of time for the museum. Do you think he might actually be there?”

“What are you talking about now?”

“Professor Cline. Do you think we might get to meet him?”

“Now Jamie, we had this talk before. He’s NOT a real professor- that’s just a stage name to frighten the kids. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”

“All right.” Jamie dug her elbows in her knees and sulked. “Is he EVER going to be done in the BATHROOM?”

“Oh, hold your horses. I’m almost done.”

“I don’t HAVE any horses…. Although I HAVE asked many times….”

“Yes, dear.”

“We have tomorrow and Sunday as well to go to the Museum. It’ll be rainy tomorrow, so that’s a better day to go to the museum, anyway.”

“MOM!  You promised!”  Her father peered out of the bathroom with his deodorant in one hand.

“That’s about enough, now!” he warned. “You’re almost twelve and I expect better behavior toward your mother.”

“I’m sorry…but you did….”

“Howard? Are you ALMOST done in there?”

“Five minutes, dear.” Jamie rolled her eyes at her mother.

“Can I at least go for a walk down the hall while I’m waiting?”

“Ok. But don’t go too far.”

“Like there’s really anywhere to go to….”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” The solid oak door shut decisively behind her.

Jamie walked down the carpeted hallway, feeling a sense of being watched- as if her behavior was on hidden camera. That’s the feeling she hated about hotels- perhaps she’d watched too many news shows about the hidden cameras in certain hotels- those behind mirrors and in lights.

The hallway was dimly lit. The carpeting was worn in such a way that her feet had the sensation of sinking down through the carpet. She could hear the muffled voices of patrons behind closed doors. She wondered how many of them had to go through the Natural Bridge today- and if they really wanted to. Jamie heard a toilet flush and felt for certain she was being watched. She looked behind her and began to worry she wouldn’t find her way back to the right room. “Psst!” Jamie stopped. “Over here!” a child’s voice said. A shadow appeared at the end of the hall and stepped into the light. “Whatcha doin’?” it asked.

“Um, I was looking for a Coke machine?” Jamie whispered. “Mainly just trying to get away from my lame parents. You?”

“Do ya wanna look around this place with me?” the child asked. She was Jamie’s age, but thinner and taller. Jamie looked around hesitantly. When she smiled, it was the broadest, most mischievous smile Jamie had seen in a long time.

“Sure! But I can’t be gone for long. My parents are going to breakfast soon. How long are you staying here?”

“I don’t know, they haven’t told me yet. So where are you doing today?” the child asked, looking around a bit nervously.

“I have to go see he dumb Natural Bridge thingie.”

“It’s kinda fun.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s ok. I’ve been there a few times.”

“Yeah, well I want to go to the Monster Museum.” The girl smiled again excitedly.

“You’ll love that!”

“Is it really cool?”

“Oh yes. And scary, too!”

“Is that guy- you know- Professor Kline there?” The girl thought a moment.

“Sometimes he is,” she said positively. “Yep.”

“Have you seen the website?”

“Mmmm. I don’t think so.”

“He’s got a lot of cool stuff here,”  Jamie told her.

“I’m Jamie, and you?”

“Miranda.”

“Ok. I ‘spose I better get back. Have you been to the Pink Cadillac? Is it any good?

“I haven’t been there yet.

“Cool. So, maybe we’ll meet up later somewhere.”

“I’ll be around,” Miranda said. “It’s nice to meet you!”

“If you don’t mind my asking, why on earth are you wearing a dress?” Miranda looked a bit confused and pursed her lips. Jamie felt bad for asking. “I’m sorry. It’s like your religion or something, right? I shouldn’t have asked.” Miranda smiled  again.

“It’s ok. People wonder about that all the time.”  Jamie turned and ran back down the hall. The hotel halls felt narrower and she recognized her room without a problem; the door had a certain scratch. Out of breath, she ran in and plopped down on the bed.

“Ready to go?” her mom asked, now in a much better mood, her hair disheveled.

“I’m hungry. I met this girl my age who’s staying here. She said the Natural Bridge thing isn’t that bad.”

“Well halleluiah. Let’s go.”

_____________________

The line at the Pink Cadillac was impressive, but those waiting in line chatted happily. Jamie waited outside by the gigantic King Kong statue wielding a helpless airplane in his fist- another of Professor’s creations. The weather was warm for this time of the year, and Jamie tied her hoodie around her waist and laughed at the screaming toddlers who were too scared to get near Kong to have their pictures taken. “Stupid babies.”

She had a stack of pancakes and bacon and figured she could stroll around the bridge in gastronomical oblivion until her parents were bored or needed a nap. She’d behave well, and if her plan worked, she’d be at the Monster Museum, by 3pm. “Psst! Jamie!’ The lanky red-haired girl with the Cheshire grin was perched on a boulder above the walking path.

“Oh, hey-you made it!  Where’s your folks?”

“Dad’s workin’ in the garden.”

“They don’t mind you comin’ alone?”

“No. Why should they? Hey, we can take off our shoes and wade in the water.Want to?”

“Sure,  why not?”  The girls removed their shoes and stuck their socks inside. Jaime noticed Miranda’s shoes were leather with shoelaces.

“Jaime? There’s crayfish in here you know….” Miranda said, grinning. Her face was like a glowing heart shape and in addition to her sparkling eyes, she had a button nose covered in freckles.

“I love catching crayfish! But we don’t have a bucket or a cup.”

“That’s ok. I can put them in my apron. Let’s catch a few and make ‘em race! Put yours in the right pocket and I’ll put mine in the left.”

“Sounds like you do this a lot!”

“I love it.”  Miranda’s face became competitively serious as she searched the bottom of the river for crayfish, trolling with both hands. “Maybe after this I can show you my dolls in the basement.”

“What? Do you live in that hotel or something?”

“Mmm hmm. My dad takes care of the place. He calls it ‘his hotel.’ Got one! Look!” The brown mini-lobster flailed its antennae helplessly in her hand. “You better catch up, Jamie! I’ll give you a hint: look under the red rocks- they like those.”

“What’s it like living at a hotel? Do you like, get to change rooms? Do you get the restaurant food?” Jamie watched Miranda’s dress get wet as she knelt to scavenge the rocks. Her hair was brown like dark chestnuts, and gold at the tips. “Doesn’t that dress get to be a pain?”

“You have no idea. I hate it, but that’s who we are. Darn! He got away!”

“Don’t come over here- I got one crawling toward me….”

“Jamie,” she whispered. “Mind if I give you a hint? They swim backwards and disappear in the cloud their tail makes. Just put your hand in the water about a foot behind ‘em, and he’ll swim right in.”

“Ok… shhh…. “Got him! Oooo! He’s biting me!”

“Well, bring him here quick!” Jamie sloshed through the water and grabbed Miranda’s apron. It was worn and soft, like much-washed cotton. “Now I showed you how, so you’re on your own.”

“Exactly. How many more questions, Jamie? I have to concentrate!” Miranda took a bit of river weed and threw it in Jamie’s face.

“Careful, or you’re goin’ in, Miranda! Holy crap! I got a big frickin’ one!”

“Put him in my apron pocket- the left one!”

“Yeah, well just don’t forget he’s mine- and he’s in the LEFT pocket, girlfriend!”

Miranda laughed and threw her head back in the sun. Jamie thought she looked like an angel against the glint of the water. Why hadn’t she met anyone like this before? Most girls didn’t enjoy these kind of things, and Jamie always got in trouble playing with the boys, although she didn’t know why. It had something to do with “boys being nasty,” her mother said. Jaime didn’t have the slightest idea what she meant- she thought boys were awesome- in fact, she wanted to be one.

“Jamie!” her father called.  “What are you doing down there?”

“Ok- hold on.” Miranda looked toward Jaime’s parents in the distance.

“I better get going, too, I need to help with raking. My father will be looking for me, too.”

“Catch you later, ok?”

“Yep. I’ll show you my doll collection if you want.”

“Ok, cool.”

By the time Jamie scooped her warm shoes off the walkway, Miranda was sprinting away back toward the entrance. “Silly Mennonite girl,” Jamie thought, watching Miranda’s skirt billow in the spring air. Jamie caught up with her parents.

“Where have you been? I hope not texting….”

“No, I was with Miranda- the girl from the hotel. We were catching crayfish”

“Crayfish?” her father said, “I can’t even get you to eat at a picnic table! Since when have you acquired an interest in nature?”

“It was fun. I’m open to new things. Man, I’m sure glad you aren’t religious freaks like my friend’s parents. Skirts and dresses are man’s invention to slow women down.”

“Well, everybody has their reasons to live as they choose,” said her father.

“Yeah, well, duh….. I just don’t see how that gives them a right to make their kids were ridiculous outfits. I mean, what’s that supposed to prove? I think it’s just to keep them out of the real world. Jaime’s mother stopped to adjust her wedgie and then sat on metal bench and fumbled for new batteries for her camera.

“Jamie,” her father spoke, “parents raise their children with the values they’ve grown to appreciate. I’m sure your friend’s parents are simply trying to set the best example they know for Miranda so that she will have a full and happy life.”

“Yeah, blah blah blah….”

“Jamie, one day you will have children of your own and you will understand what your father means.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure. So what prototype do you intend me to be? “

“Jamie! Must you be so argumentative?” her mother snapped.

“OK, OK, what’s the fuss!  Soooorrrrryyyyy! Oh, and it’ll be a cold day in hell when I have kids- so don’t count on it.” Jamie’s parents gave a knowing look to each other, tried not to smile, and shook their heads in disbelief. “When’s lunch?”

_____________________

Mark Cline’s Monster Museum and Maze lived up to its reputation as one of the creepiest places Jamie had ever been. “Did you say this place was creepy or cheesy, dear?” Howard asked his wife, chuckling.

“That was amazing…,” swooned Jaime. “Do you think he lives around here?”

“Who?”

“You know, duh.  Professor Cline. Miranda says he’s around some of the time.”

“Yes, unfortunately, I mean, yes, in my recollection he is sometimes here.  BUT WE’RE NOT GOING TO SEE HIM.”

“Oh my God, I’m still going to pray….”

“DON’T get your HOPES up, Jamie! You’ll only be disappointed. You’ve wanted to come here all day so just SHUT UP!”

“Don’t yell at Jamie like that!” Lisa quipped.

“But… forget it. Just forget it”…, Her dad said, backing off .

The Haunted Ghost Museum was everything she’d dreamed it would be- sans Professor Cline. When she finally emerged, Miranda was standing at the entrance with her big grin. “Weeelll?”

“Oh my God, I loved it!” Jamie said, grabbing Miranda and dancing around.

“I knew you would!”

“Will you be back at the hotel, Randy?” Miranda looked confused.

“What did you call me?” she said, looking cautiously around.

“Randy- that’s your new nickname- if that’s OK….” Miranda thought about it, looking at the ground and then smiled back.

“OK. I like it! See you later James….” Miranda’s eyes twinkled as she ran back in the direction of the hotel.

_______________________

“Tomorrow we see Granny’s place. It’s been a long day,” her father said, taking off his socks and going into the bathroom. Her mother sprung off the bed and interjectied,

“Honey- can I brush my teeth first?”

“Of course- come on in. “

“Jamie and I had hoped to take baths….”

“I won’t be long.”

“And the zoo tomorrow, too, right mom ?” Her mother yawned and stripped off her too-tight jeans.

“Man, that feels good…. Yes, and the zoo! Jamie? You are driving me CRAZY!” her mother laughed.

“That’s what kids are for, duh!”

“I’m taking you to the zoo and leaving you there!”  Lisa grabbed two pillows and smashed them over Jamie’s head. A full-out pillow fight ensued.

­­­­­__________________

Later that evening, Jamie brushed her teeth and stepped out into the hallway. There was much talking on the lower level, music, and the tinkling of glasses. Jamie hustled downstairs, feeling like she was sneaking out into the night. In the foyer, she met Miranda.

“Hey, Miranda. I didn’t see you in the dining room for dinner. Did you guys eat out?” Miranda was transfixed watching guests come in for a Dental conference. “Is there anything to do around this place at night?”

“Not a lot,” Miranda replied. “Mostly just watch people. But there is a room in the basement….”

“What kind of room?”

“Kind of a hide-out type of room- where they keep the Christmas decorations.  I can show it to you if you want.”

“How’d you find out about it?”

“Mmm, you know, just lookin’ around…. I have to find stuff to do when my parents are busy. They don’t like me underfoot. So you wanna see it?”

“I don’t know, Ran, I have to be back by nine.”

“No problem.” Miranda ran down the hall past the desk clerk who didn’t even look up. A cool breeze followed her and Jaime tried to keep up. They stopped at a coatroom.”

“What’s in here?”

“This is it.”

“What?”

“A door to the basement.  I’ll show you. My dolls are down there.” Miranda pushed coats and a luggage rack aside and unhinged a small door by the baseboard.

“I don’t know…”  Jamie said warily.

“I go down here all the time.”

“ It’s creepy.”

“It’s just for when I want to get away from… well, this and that.”

“This is kind of weird….” Jamie looked directly at Miranda’s face. Her eyes had taken on a far away gaze. Jamie asked softly, “why would you want to get away?” Miranda shrugged.

“Do you think you might come down with me tomorrow?” Miranda asked, not looking at Jamie.

“Yeah, maybe. In the daytime. But I still don’t understand….”

________________

“What are you doing in here, miss?” the concierge’s voice asked sternly. His eyes darted around the closet as if looking for something. Jaime blushed hotly. Somehow Miranda had hidden.

“I’m sorry. I was looking for the ladies’ room.”

“Down the hall, first door on the right.” As she left, the concierge shut the coat closet door tightly. Jaime walked back to her parents room where they were getting ready for bed.

“You’re back early,”Lisa commented.

“Nothin’ really to do.”

“You didn’t meet your friend?”

“Yeah, but …she was busy.” Lisa turned around in bed.

“Is her family staying for long? Howard! You’re driving me crazy with that tv flicker!”

“I’m going to take a shower, mom.”

“Sounds good. Tomorrow will be fun, so you better get to bed soon. You sound tired. Everything all right, dear?”

“Sure.”

Jamie took her new pajamas into the bathroom and started the shower. She used the sample shampoos and soaps until her entire body glowed red from scrubbing. She got into bed with her new Twilight book but fell into a fitful sleep.

At two a.m. she had to use the bathroom. Her parents were snoring soundly and she felt uncomfortable getting out of bed. Realizing she wouldn’t be able to wait until the morning, she walked between suitcases and clothes to the bathroom, passing the room door. She could see light coming through the bottom of the door from the hallway and looked through the peephole. Miranda was outside, darting nervously through the hallway, along with two smaller children dressed similarly. They disappeared down the corridor. It was the last time she saw Miranda and the last time she visited Natural Bridge. A handful of river rocks and a dried out crayfish were  left in the hallway the next morning.

Note: According a national ghost hunters website, Shadowlands, the original owner of the old Natural Bridge Hotel was said to have gone crazy and killed his wife and children. They still roam the grounds. According to sources, several guest rooms are not bookable.

Mark Cline, famous  artist and Monster Museum creator and curator, at one time rented two rooms for entertaining tourists with “mock sceances.” Whether true or not, some participants claim they experienced being ‘ touched’  by spirits. Was this no more than the power of suggestion? Mark neither believes nor disbelieves….

Showpony-exit 168

Showpony

Showpony wrestled himself from the matted hay, exhaled a cloud of steam and walked to the door. The rolling morning mist rose two feet off the dew-tipped grass which meant the ground was warm, like him. But across 81 behind the mountains, the sky was pigeon gray and hung low like a wet sheet on the clothesline. It told him snow was coming, and his legs ached from the wetness already. He’d seen so many winters. Thunder was already half- across the field, his head submerged in a bit of short frosty clover.

The Rockbridge County school bus clamored down the farm lane, past a herd of snoozing Herefords. Its  axels bouncing and  squeaking over the pot holed  road, which propelled the schoolchildren into the crisp wintry air.  Showpony followed his worn path to the fence to see if Man was inside the house eating breakfast; after that, his grain would come. He never tired of thinking of the soft molasses laiden grain and the way it felt on his nose and whiskers in the bucket. Thunder looked up from his grass, ears forward. The kitchen light was on and Man was drinking his coffee and reading the paper. The flash of the black and white television screen was across the room. It was what Man did every morning, but he took longer in the winter. Soon Showpony would hear the rusty ache of the barn door sliding open, and Man would enter and reemerge with two metal buckets of grain. The waiting was difficult on cold mornings like this, and Showpony stomped his foot and exhaled.

________________________________________

“You said a double-latte, miss?” the pretty Starbucks server with cayenne pepper hair asked. “What else?” Caroline eyed the almond biscotti in the cup by the cash register.

“Just the latte, thanks.”

“To go?”

“Yes, please.”

The department meeting was in twenty minutes. She didn’t need the crumbs stuck in her teeth while trying to ask an astute question pertaining to hot stock options. Nodding, she paid with her Starbuck’s gift card and rushed into the stream of commuters making their way down snowy LaSalle Street. The Chicago wind sliced through any nook or cranny of one’s clothes with laser precision. The lake in the distance was ice capped and sullen. She felt her eyeballs freezing, her vision blurred, and although she had no sensation,  knew mascara was dripping down her cheeks. Cowering against the stiff wind, she looked down and watched her boots trudge through fresh-fallen snow when suddenly and hypnotically, her boots became as hooves. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The memories came in between the intermittent stress of life, which seldom paused. The cadence of her feet took on a slow trot; onetwo, onetwo, onetwo…. And she recalled cantering up the driveway as a child; onetwothree, onetwothree, onetwothree. And then the jump; one-two-three-boom. He almost felt her hands against Showpony’s withers, braced and ready for takeoff. He was so reliable. He never dumped her- not once. No matter how poor her position was, the handsome chestnut pony always improvised and delivered her safely over the jump. “What a nice pony!” her teacher would say.

What Caroline did not know, and never would, was that Showpony was actually in love with her. Something inside him made him want to take care of her. When they were horse and rider, he felt comfortably complete with his role in life. Even when her bouncy legs jabbed him in the side, he was fine with that- and even modified his gait to be smoother to make her look better in her lessons. “Good job!” her teacher would call, and Showpony’s heart felt large. It was only on a certain morning that he couldn’t help her. Although he could not see what was transpiring beyond the large barn doors, he sensed her unease and felt anger.

__________________________________________

January morning, 1994.  Ten inches of snow and still mightily falling, like a child scattering cotton balls.  It was the kind of snow that was fun to be in- not too cold, strangely warm in fact. The type of snow in which someone might stay out too long, fall asleep, and wake up dead from exposure. Schools were closed- they didn’t even need to see the news of television to know- and Caroline walked to the stable down the road with two fat carrots in her pocket. From a distance she could already see the horses galloping and kicking in their winter playground. They’d be frisky to ride. Caroline trudged up the gravel driveway and noticed footprints toward the barn; different footprints then Man.

Showpony trotted toward the gate to meet her. His hoofs lifted sparkling snow in the air. He gobbled a mouthful of it and blew it out his nose. Caroline unlocked the gate and took a lead rope from the fence post, and threw it over his neck. Together they trudged to the barn, the pupils in their eyes small in the light of the sun. Entering the barn, she was momentarily blinded by its darkness. Something shifted in the hay and a heavy segment of snow slid off the metal roof.

The cows were up munching on a gigantic hay bale in the far end of the barn, and the Man’s abandoned farm equipment and collection of antique cars wore snow covers. Showpony’s feet clattered on the cement floor and he quietly stood as Caroline haltered him and snapped on crossties.  Icy balls had already started to melt in his mane and stuck like hair beads. She opened the tack room door smelled the sweet pine chips, sawdust, and leather. He’d need a longer girth to accommodate his luxurious winter coat, that made him look like a wooly bear caterpillar, with long brushy hairs that protruded from his ears like a windshield brush. And she’d need a curry comb. Outside in the aisle, she heard him nicker and toss the crossties. As she grabbed his well-worn bridle she noticed him:

He was asleep on the couch by the wall- the couch that served a place for one to sleep in proximity to the maternity stall behind the wall: an oversize stall provided for delivering mares. Above the stranger’s head, was the small window cut out for observing imminent equine deliveries.  She couldn’t place him as anyone she recognized from the hundreds of times she’d been in the barn, and when he rolled over and she saw his scruffy face and red eyes, an intuitive fear washed over her that made her knees buckle.

“What are you doin’ here?” he slurred, looking at her from the top-down. He wore loose khaki fatigues and  a rolled-back snow face mask and scarf. His boots, protruding from a horse blanket, were caked in mud. Tom, the resident barn cat who normally slept there, and whose primary job was to acknowledge all barn visitors, was nowhere to be seen. “What’s your girl?” he asked, smiling in a way that was too friendly. He reached down for a pack of cigarettes under the droopy couch.

“There’s no smoking in the barn,” Caroline said, her stomach tightening.

“I didn’t see a sign. Where can I get some coffee around here?” Caroline heard  Showpony shook the chain ties and stomped his foot. From the field, Thunder whinnied and Showpony answered. Caroline clutched the basket of brushes, bridle and saddle. She felt off-balance.  His skin was grey and wrinkled and he looked unwell. It was look she felt embarrassed to see. She’d never seen a disheveled man and it made her feel unclean. An aching hollowness filled her stomach and she sorely missed the familiar sounds of trucks and cars pulling in and out of the stable, the thump of hay bales being dropped from the loft, Tom mewing to be scratched behind the ears. Only the snow padded lightly on the roof. The man coughed and stood up.

His black hair that stuck to his forehead and his height made her feel much younger than thirteen.  “Go git me some coffee and don’t say nothin.”

“I don’t live here.” Caroline felt her physical body compress, as if it was an air mattress  suddenly deflated. The stranger pulled off his tattered gloves and placed his large filthy hands on her chest. She could smell his stench of alcohol. He slipped his hands under her coat and then unzipped her jeans, forcing her onto the couch. The rape was fast and he smelled. Afterward, he collected his cigarettes, and stuffed them into a small duffle and walked out. Caroline looked out the small hole in the wall. A pierced cobweb flapped in the breeze. The room was barren like a decayed womb.  A chill shook her and the snow that had felt warm seemed to be encasing her. Everywhere she smelled him. She began to cry soundlessly, stood up, pulled her pants up and zipped her coat. Her underware was wet and the insides of her thighs felt sticky.

________________________

Showpony was pawing at the floor now. He pinned his ears back and snorted. Trembling, she unhitched him and led him shakily back to the pasture gate.  Showpony pulled on his halter, blowing steam. She tried to say, “Easy, boy,” but the words caught in the lump in her throat.  A familiar voice pierced the snow-filled air and stung her ears. “Not gonna ride today?” It was the Man standing with the screen door open. How long had he been watching?”

“No,” she shook her head, unable to speak. She began to wobble down the farm lane but instead of the inroad, cut onto 81 and walked on the shoulder. Traffic was beginning to slow as snow accumulated on the wet pavement. A semi roared past, honking. The sound of slush under its sixteen wheels sounded like something cold  poured into a deep fat fryer. By the time she got home, there was no sensation in her feet. Her leggings were grey with slush. She kicked off her rubber boots. Oatmeal was cooking in the kitchen where her mother was watching The Morning Show. Caroline padded by and up the stairs to the bathroom and started the shower. It took a great deal of energy to pull off her clothes. There was no sensation in her skin, which was swollen and white. When she’d finally got in, the hot water felt neither cold nor hot, but only a vibration on her body like a palm hitting a drum skin. Her mind was numb as well. She began to sob, put the stopper in the drain, lay down, and slowly let the water rise over her head. No one would know.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_______________________________________________

The day she left for college, Caroline couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye to Showpony. He was twenty-seven  now, and only occasionally ridden by the Man’s grandchildren.  Her parents drove past the pasture on their way toward D.C.and Georgetown University.  She had an ache in her crotch and hoped they wouldn’t make any comment about her not saying good-bye. “There he is…,” her mother finally uttered. “There’s your Showpony.” It was then she hated her mother. “All those lessons you took. Remember, Caroline? And the shows, and the ribbons…. Remember Harvey?”

“Mmm… hmmm. Oh, yeah!”

“You father and I were starting to think you were part horse! You’d rather been in the barn with them than out with your friends, remember Harvey?”

“Mmm…hmmm, mmm hmmm….that’s how it was….”

“You sure you don’t to pet him good-bye honey?”

“No, mom.”

“I mean, we’re right here-.

“No, that’s ok.”

“I never understood why you stopped- riding, I mean. One day we couldn’t get you off a horse and the next day? Nadda.  Did you fall off or something, dear?”

“I just lost interest, I guess.”

“Well, Mr. Stevens still only charges us twenty bucks a month for board- so there Mr. Showpony can stay. Tell you the truth, Stevens doesn’t often cash our checks! What a sweet man- just loves those horses. And Showpony looks good, too, don’t you think, Harv?”

“Mmm… hmmm….real good.”

“Not too skinny not too fat.  Of course he doesn’t need shoes anymore- so that’s a savings. Have you seen the old riding ring, Caroline?”

“No.”

“It’s a mess. They haven’t done a thing with it- it’s turned into a mud hole. Remember how nice it used to be?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, a farm needs upkeep, right Harvey?”

“Mmm…hmm….”

“That’s why we were happy you were boarding- too much work.” The black Lexus wove in front of a large horse trailer on 81, probably on its way to Lexington. Caroline noticed the eyes of horses peering out the window and thought how trusting they were to willingly enter a rolling death trap going seventy-five miles an hour on 81. It was that trusting spirit that hurt her most- how anyone could hurt such a beautiful willing creation.

_________________________________________

The marble lobby floor of the Exchange was covered in tufts of snow, slush, orange cones and was brightly lit. Commuters pulled down their hoods exposing rosy cheeks and looks of relief. They stomped their boots on rubber mats and stuffed gloves in their pockets as they head toward the elevators.

It’d been ten years since college. Caroline was twenty-six, had an old apartment with bright windows, oak woodwork, two cats, and a view of Lake Michigan. It was that year when her parents decided to move away as well.  Before the move, however, there was the business of allocating Caroline’s belongings to Goodwill. This included not only school mementoes, but a large collection of Breyer horses and riding wear.

“I just wanted to see if you wanted them,” her mother asked cheerfully over the phone. “They’re very nice riding pants.” Caroline felt a pain shoot through her groin.

“Why would I want them? I haven’t worn a size ten since high school.”

“That’s all right,  I just wanted to make sure, honey. They cost sixty dollars, you know. And I also found that old prom picture of you and Darrel, oh, and your SAT scores.”

“Thanks but no thanks!”

“God, Caroline! I can’t believe he wore his hair like that! So did you get your Swine Flu shot yet, hon? we got ours at  CVS this week.”

“Not yet-but I will.”

“So everything’s alright with you?  Oh, and I got rid of your hot curlers. You don’t use them anymore, do you? That’s kind of an ‘80’s thing, right?”

“So when is the actual moving date, mom?”

“Next month. You know, your father always talked about owning a donut shop but I never took him seriously, You should see how excited he is, Caroline! He even looks ten years younger! Can you imagine at our age? A Duncan Donuts store?”

“I’m really excited for you, mom.” Caroline held the receiver away from her mouth and sighed loudly. “Let me know if there’s anything you need help with, ok? Listen, I’ve got laundry downstairs to pick up before someone else steals it, so I need to say ‘good-bye’.”

“Stealing laundry- that’s sad Caroline, really sad. Why are you still living in that apartment building anyway? By now you could get yourself a nice little house in the suburbs.”

“No thanks! Then I’d have to mow the lawn and worry about the roof leaking.”

“But not about anyone stealing your damn laundry. You know, you could even hang a clothesline- I used to do that- save you on your electric bill.”

“Gotta go, mom. Love you- call me.”

______________________________________

The Man stood up from the kitchen table. Showpony sighed in anticipation. Thunder trotted over to the fence. His swayback and bony withers gave him a comical look, like an old nag in a Three Stooges movie. Along with his pronounced swayback, his fuzzy white beard hadn’t been shaved and his eyes glowed like moonstone cataracts. Thunder was two years older than Showpony- thirty-one.  Showpony grunted and knocked on the plastic trough. Birds were already arriving in quick, efficient teams to the birdfeeders in the back yard, swiping seeds and eating them in flight. The snow was coming- they could tell.

Thunder died first- caught his leg in a ground hog hole and had to be put down. The day Showpony died was noneventful. He’d had a normal breakfast, napped, and grazed. He didn’t come to the fence for dinner. The stomach pains started in the night, and by the morning, all he felt was the warmth of the man and the vet beside his body, stroking him, and made his life unroll in his mind. He mentally reached out to her.

A flush of warmth filled Caroline’s body and the morning buzz of the office faded strangely into television snow the way a screen does when it cannot pick up a channel. Her eyes fixed on her favorite George Stubbs horse print, “Bay horse and White Dog” she’d hung over the filing cabinet in her office. The muted, bucolic patina drew her in as always; the brown- grays of nature,  and when the phone rang later that night, she somehow knew. The man had gotten her number-far away as she was- and sounded jovial as always. A fingering creep walked up her spine. When she hung up the receiver, she fell to the side of her bed and cried for the first time.

New Story… “Betty’s Blue Christmas”

 

 

 

Betty’s Blue Christmas-Exit 150A

IV.

“Call Crandall Randolf for all your legal needs…personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice, and disability eligibility.”

“Need cash fast? Visit Vinton Pawn and Gift.”   The green corduroy Lazy Boy thumped upright and Betty pushed her wrinkled feet deep into his pair of well-worn slippers. It’d been twelve months since Frank’s death and his recliner had become the main cat bed now, as Toby, the hairless old Beagle, could no longer make the jump. She could be back from the cellar in two minutes if she started now. A slight breeze came though the warped front door by her ankles as she trudged to the basement door, unlocked the night latch and reached out and pulled a long string cord. The ancient bulb, coated in dust, illuminated the uneven cement deep staircase that led into the blackness.of the basement. It wasn’t a place she often went, as when she used to make pickles and preserves- he’d be the one to take them down for her. It was the place where Toby’s bitch had her pups, and Frank had carried them upstairs in towels for Betty to warm by the kitchen stove. It was the place for all the season’s decorations: Halloween witches, snowmen, pink Easter eggs, and Thanksgiving cornucopias. It was where Frank built his workbench. There was an ancient ringer washer down there, and various museum quality vacuum cleaners- none of which worked. There was even a root cellar built into the wall with a small latching door.

The three-story farmhouse was built in 1886- that’s what was penned on a basement beam, anyway. The wiring was only somewhat frayed with age, in a condition to cause prayer, but it usually worked, although the outlets did not fit the newer appliances. The family that had lived there before Frank and Betty had five children, and throughout the rambling farmhouse, indications of their existence lived on in pencil-marked measurings of their growth, chalk scribblings in the attic, and occasionally the small toy found embedded in the garden along with various buried pets.

If the commercials lasted two minutes, she could possibly be back from the basement by then…..She found herself bribing herself to go down. The thought of mildew and mice crunching wasn’t pleasant.  She flinched as spindly whiskers rubbed the back of her calves- Dutch- the sixteen-year-old tabby. He stared up at her with hazy eyes, surprised to see her at the basement door. He’d only known Frank to go down there and seemed to give the look, “What are you doing?”

The Christmas box was in the far corner of the basement- she remembered that- under the deepest part of the stairwell. She descended slowly, bracing herself against the damp walls as there was no railing, common in old homes, and the stairs were inappropriately narrow, as people of the 19th century had smaller feet, or perhaps, were more dexterous. The crunch of a desiccated mouse under her slipper was only mildly disturbing. She’d gutted chickens and collected live fishing bait with Frank back in the day. Things that were dead didn’t bother her so much- it was the things that could still move.

But she disliked knowing what she’d have to pass on the way to get the Christmas box:  his many unfinished projects, knick knacks, tools and equipment, all of which had at one point or another, been a part of their lives together. The stairs were crooked toward the bottom, and slimier since the flood of ’86. They still had a mildew coating. She could slip on those stairs and crack her skull quite easily, in fact. The thought crossed her mind. At the base of the stairs, Betty reached out toward another light pull she knew was there, because she’d watched Frank disappear down those stairs so many times, counted them, and waited for the “snip” sound of his pulling the cord. Then, he’d turn the cord and disappear, usually humming some Buddy Holly song.

The workbench still had cobwebs. Frank wasn’t bothered by them. He said to her, “just let the spiders alone to do their work. This is their place.” She had tried to explain to him that cobwebs were filthy, and that if she didn’t like them, she shouldn’t come down. Gerber Baby Food jars held nuts, bolts, and screws, keys from the children’s roller skates; not their own children of course, as they’d had none- but neighboring children who’d come to skate in Frank’s cement floor dairy barn. Up and down they’d sped- dizzying the milk cows during Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even been in the dairy barn. It needed to come down, but there was no good reason as it wasn’t hurting anything where it stubbornly sat rotting, boldly leaning to the left against the traffic of Highway 81, as if in defiance of a new era that couldn’t appreciate her integrity.

The Christmas box was still under the stairwell, right next to the spare mower parts. She recognized it because it said “Chiquita Bananas” and had a sexy Cuban lady holding a bunch.  Betty jammed her hands in her pockets and tip-toed by the workbench and the half-done birdhouse he’d been working on. The deepest part of the stairwell was full of pickets and chicken fencing. Two crowbars leaned against the wall by the bulging, worn boxes. The sides were limp and tired, like loose skin, and the seams gave way as she tugged on them. With her foot, she edged them out and realized they might not be able to withstand another trek upstairs.

However, it wasn’t necessary that she bring up all the lights and decorations. She hadn’t bothered with a tree this year-she’d just have to fuss about taking it down again and hauling it out to the woods. Frank usually brought one home from what was leftover Christmas Eve at the Home Depot ( he’d worked part-time in the last years.) Betty decided it only necessary to hang a few lights (to prevent the neighbors from thinking she had died or was in some deep state of depression and the animals were starving.)

She kept the shades drawn so if one of them did come to deliver some plate of cookies, she wouldn’t be obliged to answer the door and go through all the “you shouldn’t haves…”  and “how sweet of you’s, and “bless your hearts.” It wasn’t that she didn’t like people, that she didn’t care, but the thought that they did anything out of obligation toward her made her want to grit her teeth. She could hear them now:

“Oh, mommy, don’t make us go over to that old lady’s house! She’s creepy!” Or,

“The old coot should be in a nursing home anyway.”

She dug in the box for a stray length of lights, and found instead a clump of tangled cords dotted with broken bulbs. Good old Frank. As she vigorously pulled on the clump, other various Christmas accoutrements fell from the moist boxes. “Shit.” She whispered, as if someone might be nearby, and dragged the clump trailing behind her up the cellar stairs and into the tv room. There, she plopped down in the easy chair. It was then she remembered one of the lights was still on in the basement. “Shit.” The cat in Frank’s chair stretched briefly in response, extending his toenails.

At the next commercial, she would make another sojourn. It was late out now- time for Conan O’ Brian. The sky was like a sheet of wet tar, with intermittent twinkling stars. Last year at this time, Frank was snoring beside her, toes pointed sideways in the Lazy Boy, and she had to  poke at him to get him to wake up and come upstairs. He’d said, “Whadaya want now?”  Sometimes on Christmas Eve they’d have a celebratory mug of eggnog- just one little pint from the 7-Eleven  split between them, because they didn’t drink. Their Christmas gifts to each other were always practical: a new pair of pajamas, long underwear, a pound of Whitman’s chocolates, a new tv remote. (There were probably three or four irretrievably lost in the couch.)  She made sure the cats always received a packet of catnip or a plastic bouncy ball (although the dog liked to eat those.)  There were only three of them now- all veteran barn mousers except for Peewee- the kitten they’d found  by the K & W Cafeteria.

__________________________________

The accident should have been more of a surprise, but 81 was known as an unforgiving necessity of living in southwest  Virginia-narrow roads, black ice, limited shoulders, too many trucks.  It happened two days before Thanksgiving. He’d  gone for gas and cigarettes, merged onto the highway, as he had several millions of times, expecting a furniture truck to let him in. The driver probably didn’t even realize he’d hit him. It was at that moment Buster, Frank’s “personal cat,” as he called him, began pacing and hissing as though he had tapeworms, and then at five p.m., an officer knocked at the door. “Mrs. Waldrop?” A sudden dizziness caused her to become unbalanced and she instinctively knew. “I thought I heard sirens….” She said, and grabbed her mouth as if to keep the experience inside where it couldn’t become real.

“I’m afraid Frank’s had an accident,” he spoke softly, taking her hand and squeezing it with his other. “His truck went off the road and flipped. It happened very quickly. Is there anyone you’d like to call?”

“Yeah, yeah- goddamn 81. Where is he?” she asked, as if going to reprimand him. She started to pull on her wool coat.

“They’re taking him to a facility at Daleville until arrangements….”

“Let’s go”…, she continued, as if going to pick up a misbehaving child at school or a lost dog.

“There’s really no rush….”

“No, I need to see him…ask him if he got the coffee…,” she trailed off.

___________________________________________

“Bad credit? No credit? We can help!” blurted the commercial.  Outside there were no Christmas lights, no indication whatsoever that it was two days before Christmas Eve. The cold, stiff globule of tangled electric lights still lay miserably on the floor, where Peewee pawed at them. The light in the basement showed faintly through the bottom of the warped door. She could perhaps simply let it burn out on its own. No, that would never do. She’d never sleep knowing she was wasting electricity. “Is it time to have that talk with your doctor- you know- THAT talk….”

Irritated, Betty returned to the cellar door and repeated the descent. It was the light over his workbench she’d left on, and she felt angrier by the moment to have to go down there, but even angrier with herself for having fear. The light seemed to mock her, and she thought about ripping it from the socket. The stairs were clammy and the cold reached through her slippers to her anklebones. She reached for the light pull and noticed something behind the stack of appliance manuals stacked on top of the bench- a bottle of some sort. She stood on her tiptoes and looked, without reaching for it. It was definitely a bottle of whiskey; Southern Comfort as a matter of fact.  It was open and was three-quarters full. But hadn’t they sworn off drinking years ago? “Making a bird house my ass…” She carefully reached behind the manuals so as not to touch any spider webs and retrieved the bottle. There was very little dust on it.  Peewee  had joined her now and  curled his tail with interest as if sensing some new game to play. “Might as well take this upstairs,” she told the cat. “Might be good in a spare rib sauce….”

______________________________________

Betty reached around the couch for the remote and found it warm, underneath Toby.  Peewee  jumped in her lap and stood on her chest, obscuring the view of the television. The purring increased and it bit her nose amorously.  Unable to see the screen, she looked outside where a scant fluttering of snow had begun. There was an endless infomercial for the “Snuggi” wearable blanket. Pulling the cat from her chest, she struggled out of the chair and followed by three cats, went to the kitchen and took down a packet of catnip from the top of the refrigerator where she hid presents. “You get it without wrapping paper this year,” she mumbled.

The cats lolled about on the kitchen floor, and her eyes set upon the Southern Comfort bottle. It was the 100 proof variety. “That explains a few things…, she said, remembering his trips to the basement before mowing in quite variable patterns, their five acres of unoccupied pasture. They used to drink and smoke L & M cigarettes together when they were dating. They stole liquor from his father’s hiding place in the barn and swigged it around bonfires. Many a fire had been fueled by cases of empty beer. Most of their drinking friends were dead now, or too sick to remember the “good ‘ol days.”

It wasn’t until Betty found out about his drinking at the Moose Lodge with that waitress, Shirley something-or-another, that they agreed to stop. She was substantially grateful he hadn’t found out about her boozy fling with the park ranger.

She’d given the whiskey tumblers away for the church yard sale, and for a moment the thought of not using a glass at all entered her mind.  She turned on the sink to rinse the bottle, immersed it in the rusty warm water, and watched the liquid inside glow. The blue veins in her wrists and hands were  pretty against her thin white skin. Then, she wiped down the bottle with  her robe and looked out at the forested night land behind their pasture. The snow was beginning to stick now and the birds would be looking for seed tomorrow.

She unscrewed the bottle and breathed the aroma of the liquor. It filled her nose, chest, and brain, like the sound of a familiar voice in a crowded room. A juice glass, not too big.  She poured in the first two inches of golden fluid. The cats had finished rolling in their nip and were contentedly licking off residue from their paws. The refrigerator hummed contentedly. Betty sipped, drank, and refilled her glass. Her throat and tongue felt numb and her ears began to buzz. She hadn’t had a drink in 26 years, except the vanilla extract when his mother-in-law visited….

She returned to the den in time to hear the last of the special offer for the “Snuggi, switched around for stations, but only having rabbit ears, the choices were slim: America’s Funniest Videos, This Old House, The Walton’s Christmas Special, The Grinch who Stole Christmas.” The whiskey was beginning to take effect and almost anything became suddenly interesting. “The following is a commercial for the History of Rock n’ Roll- an exclusive offer not found in any store….”

“Well, hell, we’ve got all those records!”

She filled her glass half-full again and called Peewee. The basement looked different now- it seemed to glow, to throb with an ethereal luminosity.   She ran her hands lovingly over the thick surface of his workbench, decoupaged with all sundry types of hammer hits, cuts, burns, and penciled calculations. Frank’s Craftsman screwdriver set was still lined up by size, and hung on the pegboard, ready for use on any size job. The birdhouse wasn’t that awful- he’d already drawn a circle for the entrance hole in pencil, albeit, it was off-centered.  The roof was roughly nailed on, not sanded. “What a fuss,” she thought, “when you can pick up a new one for $6.99 at Walmart. If her memory served her correctly, what she wanted was also under the stairwell. Strangely no longer afraid of the dense, fabric- like webs, she reached for the box of LP’s. It was heavy, but she could manage it with the alcohol buzz.

_________________________________________

The monolithic Hi-Fi had been their first purchased as a couple. It had a lovely mahogany finish and gold colored knobs. She wondered if it still worked after all these years- the last time it’d been on was to listen to the news President Kennedy’s death. Gently, she removed an assortment of figurines and whatnots off the top, slid open the cover, and turned it on. Gradually, the tube fuses became warm and hummed. The turntable spun, and she pricked her finger against the needle to remove and dust.

By now  the dog had waddled in to inspect the commotion. The cats watched warily from the den as Betty placed the first record on the turntable. “Elvis: Gold.  Volume One.” She picked up the needle and placed it in the groove of the third song, “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone.” Betty turned up the base and undid her terrycloth robe. The wide-planked oak throbbed comfortably, giving way to the beat. It ran through her feet and up her ankles. The old glass panes in the front window shook with the vibrations. The red light from the tubes cast shadows against the back wall, and Betty turned off all but one light and began to dance. “Treat me like a fool… treat me mean and cruel…. Buh  uh uh love me….”

Those songs, those rhythms and harmonies, were as much a part of her and as very real as Frank. They had lived their lives through those songs, and  whether or not she wanted them there, didn’t matter. They’d made love to those songs, planted the garden with those songs, taken long drives to the lake and fished with those songs on the radio. They were woven into everything they shared, both glorious and painful.

She hated him for leaving her. She hated having breakfast alone. Going to Kroger alone- she missed his bitching. She missed the way the dog hid his shoes when he kicked them off and the way the cats lay on his stomach while he watched tv. She missed his tomato plants in the spring- the way he’d raise them from his own seeds. She missed the way he sang in the shower. Where was he!? Why did he go without her? Why couldn’t she have gone to get the damn coffee with him? Why’d she have to be alone for Christmas? Betty reached for the glass. She moved the needle on the stereo to “Blue Christmas,” and pretended she was dancing with him, a blank space between her chest and her enveloping arms. For the first time in many months, Betty cried. The tears weren’t cold like they were at the funeral- this time they were hot, and burned her cheeks. Even her teeth hurt. She tripped and fell, curled into a ball, and kept crying.

She played the song ten times before deciding to open the drapes. It was still snowing and there was a ring around the moon. As she danced, she closed her eyes and pretended she felt his hands around her waist, and imagined the smell of his jacket, of the naugahyde,   the  L&M’s, summer night air whisking though the windows of his car and of course Elvis. Always the music.

As she danced, mostly falling down, to Jailhouse Rock, and started laughing Frank had always said she couldn’t dance worth a lick. Betty took the wad of lights and began to untangle them. She actually found enough bulbs in the hardware drawer to replace the broken ones, and finally strung them over the faded front draperies in a way so that the lights showed inside the house rather than to the outside. They reminded her of the colors on the juke box flashing at the Tiki Bar.  She took the needle off and placed it on song six: ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” She took a scarf from the front closet and pretended to do a strip tease for him. She began to remove her robe in a teasing way, imagining he was there, like on “Ghost Whisperer.” Toby looked at her strangely, the cats had grown bored and wandered off.

At the end of the record, the song began to skip. She lay on the sculpted, pet-haired carpet and stared at the lights in the draperies. The dog exhaled deeply. It was hard to get up and harder to find her way to the Hi-Fi. She shut it off with her palm and stumbled upstairs, leaving her robe on the floor. The scurry of animals accompanied her. Scarcely able to navigate into the bedroom, she dove into her bed with one mighty thrust.

______________________________

She went to sleep listening to the roar of 81 and watching the snow shuffle in all directions. The room sun like a kaleidoscope and the drone of infomercials continued downstairs and just before sleep, she was able to convince herself that he might be back that night.

In the morning, the animals were arranged on her bed, except for Toby who couldn’t make it up. He slept across her slippers. For the first time since Frank had died (except for her three-minute) showers, she was completely naked. If felt wonderful and cold at the same time. Today she’d buy eggnog- not a pint, but a whole quart.