The Casket And Wonderland

“At reception, the odor of disinfectant could control malaria in a third world country.” ~Nancy Bachrach, The Center of the Universe

I remember the day we met. She was sitting alone on the school bus, looking out through the window, lost in thought. Some of the other children were casting uncomfortable glances in her direction. They weren’t doing a very good job of hiding snickers and whispers behind their open palms as I made my way down the aisle between rows of well-worn leather seats. I sat in the vacant seat beside her, and she turned to look at me. I smiled. She smiled back and told me her name was Marcie.

Her hair reminded me of soft clay. It was an odd color, not quite blond, not quite brown. The closest I can come to describe it is muddy blonde. She was a pretty girl, with swimming pools for eyes beneath her perfect bangs. We hit it off immediately. I was in the fifth grade, and the year was only half over when my family moved to the neighborhood from Italy. Marcie and I were the same age, and I discovered that she lived a few houses down from me.

She had a warm personality, but there was also something fierce about her. Marcie could be intense. She wasn’t timid like me. As we were getting to know one another, she told me she had two younger siblings, a brother and a sister. I told her my brother was older, and we agreed that siblings could be a pain. Her dad was in the Navy, like mine, which is how both of us wound up living on the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, South Carolina. I learned that we shared similar tastes in music and liked doing the same kinds of things for fun. I also learned that she had cancer.

The doctors had removed all of the muscles from Marcie’s right shoulder, so her right arm was held close to her body with a slight bend at the elbow, causing her hand to hang in a feminine-like gesture. Chemotherapy had caused all of her hair to fall out, and she was wearing a wig, the reason behind the snickers and whispers that surrounded us. I had never met anyone with cancer before, but I wasn’t frightened by it. I was more curious than anything and didn’t understand how the other kids could be so cruel. We formed our own little bubble of friendship that all the ridicule in the world couldn’t penetrate. We were inseparable from that day forward.

We got lost together in an eleven-year-old’s fantasy world. We spent our days role-playing. We would play dress-up in her room, and Marcie’s favorite character to become was Marilyn Monroe.  She said she had Marilyn’s legs. I would play her agent on her quest for fame. We would hunt ghosts in the graveyard after dark and pretend they were communicating with us.  Sometimes she would play the ghost. We’d go down to the shore behind the Captain’s house and look for items washed up beneath the sand.  We imagined they were remnants of a sunken ship or missing treasure.

We used to walk along the top of a huge pipe that ran over the water on the edge of Mallard Pond and pretend we were lost in a swamp, surrounded by gators. Back then we didn’t know it was called Mallard Pond. We called it Alligator Pond. We weren’t really lost, but we were surrounded by gators & marshland (I found out, years later, that they put a gate up to prevent people from going out there after I moved away).  At dusk, we’d look out to the horizon and see the silhouettes of the alligators swimming to shore; that was our queue to go home.

Pitching a tent in Marcie’s backyard was one of our favorite weekend adventures. We’d stay the night out there and make up new lyrics to songs we liked and sing them into my hand-held tape recorder.  My brother liked to sneak up and scare us in the middle of the night. We’d pretend he was a bear in the middle of the woods, and there was  no one around to save us.

Marcie had moments when the reality of what was happening seemed to hit her like a brick wall at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. We went to the school dance when we were in sixth grade, and I remember her suddenly becoming very sad. I sat with her on the floor against the wall and tried to comfort her. There was a slow song playing, and young couples swayed awkwardly against one another on the dance floor. I believe she realized in that moment that she might never experience what it felt like to fall in love. I think that’s when the gravity of her situation really hit me.

Up until that moment, she kept most of those kinds of feelings to herself.  She acted out scenarios in our role-playing that were generated from her fears, but it was always done with a playful spirit. That was her way. I hardly ever saw her confront her fears head-on. She didn’t have the luxury of time to spend her days being depressed. She wanted to make the most of whatever time she had left, but sometimes she got hung up.

I walked into her room one day, and she was laying on the floor. She was on her back, facing the ceiling, and her eyes were closed.  She wasn’t moving, and when I spoke to her, she didn’t answer. I started to panic. Her chest was still. She wasn’t breathing.  I ran to her and kneeled beside her.  I started shaking her and begging that she wake up, but she didn’t. Her body was limp. I don’t know exactly how long this went on. It’s one of those moments when everything seems to be in slow motion, but suddenly a long breath erupted from her, and she let out a tremendous guffaw. I sat there in shock, just staring at her. She stopped long enough to look at my face and started laughing even harder. I didn’t know whether to hug her or hit her. Later, when I asked why she had done it, she said she wanted to see what it would be like if someone walked in and found her dead. I wanted to hug her then, and never let go.

My dad started preparing for retirement when I was in the seventh grade. My parents bought a house in a new neighborhood, and we moved from the Naval Weapons Station. I was forced to change schools. Marcie and I talked on the phone a lot and begged to stay at each other’s houses on the weekends.  It got to a point where Marcie’s mom would never let her hang out with me, no matter how much we pleaded. I think she was afraid to let Marcie out of her sight, and as much as I wanted to at the time, I couldn’t blame her. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for her, knowing she could lose her child at any moment.

Marcie called me from the hospital one day, and asked me to stay the night with her there. I was finally getting a chance to see my best friend. I missed her so much. My mom dropped me off, and we stayed up the entire night. Her medicine was fed through IV’s attached to medicine bags hanging from a portable stand that she could roll around with her if she wanted to go for a walk or use the facilities. She named the stand “Freda stair”,  or “Fred” for short. When we would get up to walk to the vending machine or wander through the halls of the hospital, she’d say, “C’mon, Fred!”.  We played and laughed all night, and it felt like old times. The next morning she told me it was the only time she didn’t get sick from the treatment.  She thought it was because I was there with her, and I’ll never forget it. That was the last time I saw Marcie alive.

Marcie and I called each other often to give one another updates on our lives. Marcie wanted to be an actress, so she was very excited when she called to tell me she received the role of Alice in the play, Alice In Wonderland. She was twice as excited when she told me that the Make-A-Wish Foundation was granting her wish for one-on-one dance lessons with Paula Abdul. One day she called because she thought she was dying.

We talked for two hours, and when I got off the phone with her, I went running to my dad in tears. He tried to comfort me as much as he could, and then told me that I needed to accept reality and prepare for the inevitable.  I know now that he was trying to soften the blow. She was having a panic attack that night, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be for real next time. There was a reason for her panic attack, and the reason for it was nearer than I thought.

Marcie called me sometime after that to let me know she was going into the hospital for heart surgery. The words “heart surgery”, just the words themselves, sounded so foreboding. I wanted  to scream, “No, you can’t!”.  My thoughts were completely irrational, I know, but I had never been closer to anyone in my life, and I loved her.  I couldn’t conceive someone deliberately opening her chest and cutting into her fragile heart.  She assured me that she felt good about it and that everything was going to be fine.  She wanted to call before she went to the hospital, because she didn’t know if she would get a chance to talk to me before the surgery. She didn’t.

I was on pins and needles the entire next day. Every time I called they said she was still in surgery. Then, they told me she was still there, but they didn’t have any information for me or they couldn’t give me any information. Another night passed without any word, and I was a nervous wreck. I called the hospital  as soon as I woke up.

“She has been released,” the lady on the phone said.

Released? From surgery?  What do you mean released?

“They sent her home.”

She’s at home?  When did they release her?

“Last night,” the lady told me.

I was beyond excited. If she was at home, that meant that she made it through the surgery, and it must have gone so well that they decided to send her home early. I hung up and immediately dialed the number for Marcie’s house. Her mother, Pam answered the phone.

Is Marcie there?

“No, she…” she paused for a moment. “I’m sorry she isn’t here.”

Oh, okay. Well, I just called the hospital, and they told me she had gone home. I wanted to check on her. Will you tell her that I called?

“No, she isn’t here baby.  She died this morning after we brought her home….”

I didn’t hear much of what was said after that. I was in shock. I don’t know if Marcie’s mom was still talking when I dropped the phone. Suddenly I couldn’t breath. I had to get out of there. I had to go anywhere. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t true.  It couldn’t be true!

I remember running out to the garage, with my mom and dad at my heels calling after me. I don’t know what they were saying. I just had to get away.  I grabbed my bike and started peddling as hard and as fast as I could.  I peddled past all the houses and kept peddling when the houses ran out. I peddled until the road ran out and hit the trail until there was nothing but a field of weeds and a tree-line of forest in front of me. I peddled as far as I could go, and then I stopped. I was on the backside of the new neighborhood we lived in, and there was nothing and no one around. No houses, no pavement, no people. Just me.  I screamed out an ocean of tears that carved a river of scars through my heart. I screamed until I was hoarse and cried until the tears would no longer come. This was my first brush with death. I was fourteen years old.

I had never been to a wake before, so when I decided I was going to Marcie’s, I didn’t know what I was in for. Don’t get me wrong. It was beautiful, as wake’s go. I remember seeing Marcie’s mom, but I don’t remember anyone else. I know other people were there, but I couldn’t see them. I saw the display of flowers when I walked through the door, but the rest of the room faded away when my eyes fell upon the open casket. There she was. There she wasn’t.

It looked like her, but it didn’t. There was no color in her cheeks, no life in her features. That was her body, but she wasn’t in there. Her body was an empty shell. My friend was gone. The image of her (shell) laying there in the casket, Alice In Wonderland book folded neatly into her lifeless hands, will forever be etched in my mind.

To this day, the hospital scent of disinfectant takes me back to the last time I saw Marcie alive.  This, in turn, opens the floodgates to a strange mixture of some of my most treasured memories and things I can’t seem to forget no matter how hard I try.

~Written In Loving Memory Of Marcia Dawn Cheatwood,

A True Friend & Fighter To The Very End~


The Confrontation~ Girl With a Dream (working title)

I had been over the dreaded confrontation in my mind a hundred times. I knew what my mom would say. I would state my case passionately, and she would object. She would insist I was making the biggest mistake of my life. She would even be heartbroken, but in the end, she would let me have my way. At least, that’s what I was hoping for.

I had been waiting to catch her in a good mood. It was Saturday morning, and I stood in the doorway between the kitchen and den, studying her. She was sitting at the kitchen table in a faded blue, cotton robe with matching slippers, newspaper folded neatly in front of her. She held her favorite mug in one hand and a black pen in the other. Freshly brewed coffee permeated the air. She was fixated on a crossword puzzle. Dark, tousled locks fell around her shoulders, and sunshine leaked through the open blinds, illuminating her tranquil expression. I summoned all of my courage and cleared my throat to make my presence known. She turned to look at me, and her face lit up with a broad smile.

“Good morning, Baby.”

“Morning, mom,” I replied, helping myself to the coffee. I reluctantly took the seat across from her and gingerly placed my full mug on the table between us. It was now or never.

“Sleep well? You look a little tired.”

“Not really.”

“Oh? Something on your mind?”

“You could say that, ” I said stiffly. I had her full attention now. I felt her gaze grow suspicious but kept my eyes averted.

“What’s going on?”

“I need to talk to you about something, and you’re not going to like it.”

“What is it?” Panic waded just below the surface of concern in her voice. I took a deep breath.

“I want to go to San Francisco,” I muttered.

“What? I didn’t hear…”

I looked up then, my eyes meeting hers, “I want to go to San Francisco.”

I had finally sad it. A huge weight was lifted, but at the same time, a dark wave towered above me, waiting to come crashing down. At first, my mom couldn’t say anything. Shock, confusion, and rage wrestled with the features on her face.

“What are you talking about? ” she asked tentatively.

“I want to move to San Francisco and attend the Academy of Art.”

“Have you lost your mind? Your father and I have worked hard so you can go to a good college. You are not throwing your future away because of some silly dream!”

“It’s not a silly dream, Mom. I want to be an artist, not stuck behind a desk for the rest of my life!”

“It’s absolutely out of the question. You are not going, and that’s final!” She rose abruptly and turned to walk away.

“I already bought my bus ticket. I leave from the Greyhound Station in the morning.”

The Wishing Tree

Naked and defenseless against the furious wind, trees stretch out of the shadows, transforming into restless silhouettes against the deep cobalt sky. They were silent witnesses to that formidable night in April. They know the untold story.

Carmella slowly treads along the edge of the circular clearing, absently hugging her forearms in pursuit of comfort as much as warmth. The cover of trees shields her from the stinging wind. A faint trickle grows increasingly more turbulent as she approaches a glistening stream running along the back of the clearing. An ancient Oak, the old wishing tree, sits near the water’s edge. Carmella reaches out with a trembling hand. Her fingertips trace a scar where Jason once carved a declaration of his love for her in the trunk’s rugged surface.

The sun sinks low, deepening the ominous shadows. The surrounding forest is an aphotic tomb imprisoning her soul. She drops to her knees and closes her weary eyes. A dull ache gathers in the hollow of her stomach. The subtle sweetness of wild Honeysuckle that used to grow here still lingers in her mind and mingles with the scent of decaying leaves.

A single tear sketches a path down her pale cheek and pools in the crease of her mouth. She licks the salty dew from her lips. This was once a magical place, a place of dreams and laughter. It is now a lair for torment, a cesspool of anguish, and the origin of all her nightmares.

Karaoke Moon

Forty-six lonesome years. That’s how long I have waited for this night. The moon is hardly ever full on Halloween. Soon the change will come, and once the pain of the bone-shifting transformation has passed, all inhibitions will be lost. I will be free, if only for a few hours. The change takes me every full moon,  but Halloween is the one day I get to blend in with the rest of the world.

I wasn’t always a werewolf. When I was nineteen, my boyfriend and I went camping on one of those rare weekends that neither one of us had to work. The weather was beautiful, so we decided to sleep under the stars around a small fire. The mountain air was crisp and inviting, but the night was forbidding.   I woke to the sound of screaming. The biggest wolf I ever saw was tearing my boyfriend to pieces.  I have never seen so much blood. I kept a pistol stashed inside my sleeping bag and instinctively reached for it. My hand closed around the soft rubber grip, but not before I felt the animal’s canine’s dig deep into my right thigh. I still have the scars. I cried out in horror and shot the creature twice in the chest at point-blank. The beast fell backward with a tortured howl, and to my surprise, ran away on two legs. I’m almost certain it lived, but my boyfriend wasn’t so lucky. When I explained to the police what happened, I left out the part about the wolf running off on two legs. I knew they wouldn’t believe me.  I hardly believed it myself.   The next two days I felt very ill, and my face began taking on new features. My brow became more prominent; my small nose flattened and stretched. Incisors grew long and sharp. Soon I discovered what it all meant, that it wasn’t just a wolf that had bitten me. Since then, my life hasn’t been the same.

I pace back and forth across my apartment, anxiously anticipating the rising moon. It has been such a long time since I have been able to feel safe around people . When I go out in public I get strange looks and fingers pointed at me. These expressions and gestures are always accompanied by whispered exchanges. I miss my old face. I have removed all of the mirrors from my apartment, so I am not reminded of the freak I have become. Not tonight, though. Tonight, even after my full transformation, is my time to shine. I will walk tall and proud among the rest of the costumed freaks. I’ve decided my first stop will be Karaoke, but I can’t say exactly why.

I can feel the change coming.   The moon now sits high and full in the sky.  The first thing I do is strip off my clothes.  I won’t be needing them for a while.  How liberating!  My senses are heightened, and the muscles swell beneath my skin. I’m not surprised as the pain of twisting bones and stretching flesh grips my body.  I’m a convulsive fetus upon the floor, but I’m used to it.  As quickly as it began, it’s over, and I kneel on all fours to release an exuberant howl. The night is young, but I only have six hours before the transformation begins to wear off. The door handle seems to have shrunk as I grasp it with my enlarged, fur-covered hands and give it a turn. I leap out into the alluring night, almost throwing the front door from its hinges.

As expected, Mickey’s is packed.  The place is always hopping on Halloween.   The parking lot is stuffed with cars.  People are staggering in and out. A lighted billboard next to the entrance announces Karaoke and a Costume Contest. Perfect. Drunken attempts at carrying a tune drift toward me and assault my sensitive ears. I weave through the parked cars toward the entrance, and catch the door as a young couple is walking out. They stop to look at me. The tall, dark-haired man doesn’t look so tall standing next to me, and his blond girlfriend just stares with big, round eyes.  She looks like she stepped out of a cartoon.

After a moment of silence, the woman says emphatically, “That costume is amazing! Are you entering the contest?” When I don’t answer, she continues, “I’ve never seen a costume so realistic. You really should sign up.” I nod and slip past them into the dimly lit, smokey bar.

I have been singing for quite a while now and have met some interesting people. Mickey’s sits right on the freeway, so there are people here from all over. I just stepped down from the microphone for the last time. I made “Werewolves of London” my finale, just for kicks. Everyone wants to know who designed my costume. I just keep replying, “If I tell you, I’ll have to eat you.” There is a brunette with green eyes, dressed as a witch, sitting four stools down from me, and she keeps giving me the evil eye. She doesn’t seem to be as impressed by my “costume”. She has been staring at me all night. I hope she won’t be any trouble.

The bartender sets a frothy glass of ice-cold beer in front of me and tells me it’s on the house. I haven’t had a drink all night, but all that singing has made me thirsty. Alcohol has a greater effect on the wolf, so I sip slowly. Next, he hands me a clipboard and tells me I have to sign up if I want to be in the Costume Contest. I have him sign for me, since it’s impossible for me to grip a pen with these claws.  I take in the atmosphere. My nose is piqued by a buffet of different scents. My pointed ears pick up on the plethora of conversations people are having. As time goes by, conversations and laughter become louder. The smoke thickens and stings my nostrils. Finally, they are announcing the participants in the Costume Contest.

I stand before a bar full of people, having just been announced the winner of the contest. I am handed a ribbon and a bag of goodies, courtesy of Mickey himself. Everyone applauds- everyone, that is, except the brunette in the witch’s costume. She just stares at me with those accusing eyes. I am handed a microphone, and the bar grows silent. I clear my throat and try to think of something clever to say.

Before I get a chance to speak, the brunette witch points an accusing finger at me and screams, “She’s a phony! This is a costume contest! If that’s a costume, why don’t you take off your mask and show us your real face!”

Oh no, my perfect night has taken a turn for the worse. I hold the microphone to my muzzle and say, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Everyone in the bar begins to laugh, but the focus is still on me. This feels all too familiar. One person screams, “Take it off! Take it off!”, and others join in. They’re pointing their fingers at me as they chant, “Take it off!” and the crowd begins to close in on me. I’m horrified. How have the tables turned on me so quickly? I can feel a growl beginning to form in my belly. It swells up into my chest and erupts from my throat, hushing the crowd. Everyone stands wide-eyed and agape. Once realized, it’s nearly impossible for a werewolf to control its anger. I suddenly feel the need for a massacre. I have to get out of here now. I made a vow to myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t harm people. I learned to suppress the urge to hunt, but my instincts are taking over.

I burst through the door and embrace the night air. I point my snout to the sky and let out a lonely howl. I can feel the change coming on again. I have to get home fast. I can’t let anyone see me transform. I also don’t have a stitch of clothing to cover my body. The last thing I need is to be thrown in jail for indecent exposure. I get down on all-fours, because the wolf in me runs faster this way. The fresh air tastes sweet after being in Mickey’s all night. My long, pink tongue swings from side to side, lapping it up. I’m almost there now, only one more mile.

I’ve made it just in time. I close the front door as the jaws of pain clamp down upon me. I feel my muscles shrink, and the bones twist themselves back into place as I’m thrown to the floor. My hair is stuck to my face.  I’m drenched in sweat. Exhaustion paralyzes my body. Slides of the night’s events flash through my mind. It will be nineteen years before there is another full moon on Halloween. Perhaps I will try this again, but I don’t think I will be entering in anymore costume contests.

The Interview

“Please, come in. Have a seat.”

“I prefer to stand. Do you have a light?”

“I’m afraid I don’t allow smoking in here. Would you like some water? Or I have Pepsi, if you prefer.”

“No, but I’ll take a vodka on the rocks.”

“Do you drink a lot?”

“It depends on what you consider a lot. It helps take the edge off.”

“Are you on edge?”

“Most of the time.”

“Why is that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? We live in a shit world overpopulated with shit people.”

“Have you always felt this way?”

“Since my Mother was murdered, yes.”

“Didn’t your Mother commit suicide?”

“That’s the hook they’ve got everyone dangling from, if you want to swallow it, too.”

“How do you think she was murdered?”

“I don’t think she was murdered. I know she was. I was there.”

“Who murdered her?”

“I can’t say.”

“You can’t say, or you won’t?”

“Is there a difference?”

“The report says your Mother jumped from the balcony on the sixth floor of an apartment the two of you lived in.”

“The report is wrong, and they know it. She was pushed.”

“Who knows it?”

“The fucking cops, who else?”

“What do you mean they know it?”

“They couldn’t figure out who did it, so they pinned her as a suicide.”

“Why would they do that?”

“They couldn’t have the people in their safe little town thinking they let a murderer go free, now could they?”

“How do you know she was murdered?”

“I told you. I was there.”

“You told the authorities you didn’t see anything, because you were in your bedroom with the door closed when it happened.”

“Well, I wasn’t. I tried to stop him, but I wasn’t strong enough.”

“How old were you?”

“I was eight at the time.”

“Why didn’t you tell the police what you saw?”

“He said I’d be next if I told anyone, and I believed him.”

“Where was your Father when this was happening?”

“I never met my Father. He took off before I was born.”

“Were you and your Mother close?”

“The closest. It was just the two of us against the world. I was all she had.”

“Wouldn’t you like to see the man who killed your Mother pay for what he did?”

“It’s all I’ve thought about for fifteen years.”

“Aren’t you afraid he might still come after you?”

“No. He won’t be coming after me now.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I can’t say. Now, how about that vodka?”

The Five

Seven-year-old Chase Goodman waited all week for that five dollar bill.  He had been by Mike’s Card Shop everyday in anticipation of a newly released deck of playing cards.  The deck was six dollars but since Mike was a nice guy and Chase was a good customer, Mike agreed Chase could have it for an even five.  He had offered to do things for his mom all week, hoping she would throw him a little extra allowance, but it didn’t work.  His Mom was a waitress, working at two different restaurants.  When she finally found time for Chase, she was far too tired to notice all of the extra chores he had done.  As he spread his new deck out in his pudgy fingers, the hard-earned five dollars felt well worth the effort and wait.

Mike took the five dollars from the kid and stuffed it in his cash drawer underneath the tab, on top of the rest of the wrinkled fives.  He closed the drawer and ushered Chase out.

“Five o’clock, Buddy.  Closing time.”

Chase, never flinching, still smiling and preoccupied with his new deck of cards, left with no objection.  The kid had gotten what he came for.  Mike couldn’t remember ever being so innocent and found himself a little envious.  With a half-hearted chuckle, he locked the door behind Chase and flipped his sign from OPEN to CLOSED.  It had been a long day, and he couldn’t wait to have his feet propped up in front of the television, ice-cold beer in hand.  He was thirsty just thinking about it.

Mike reached behind the counter, under the register, to his secret drawer.  He opened it and felt around for his pint of bourbon.  He twisted the lid off and gave a salute to no one in particular.  Then, he put the bottle to his lips and felt all his worries wash away as the luke-warm liquid  lit up his insides like flames from the bowels of hell.  He screwed the lid back on and put the bottle back in its secret place.  He locked the drawer with a key that hung on a key chain attached to his belt for safe keeping.

Mike punched a button on the cash register with his index finger, and the cash drawer flew open with a hard thud.  He reached in to pull the money tray out, but it was jammed.  After several attempts to get it out, he went into the office and came back with a flathead screwdriver.  He wedged the flat end of the screwdriver into a tiny space between the front of the drawer and the tray and tried to pry the tray out.  The screwdriver slipped, which caused his elbow to slip, breaking off the plastic tab that was holding the stack of five dollar bills.  He took the screwdriver and tried to pry the tray out again, from the side this time.  The drawer popped up and Mike caught it before it plummeted to the ground.  The five dollar bill sitting on top floated out of the tray and halfway across the store, landing beneath one of the display tables.  Mike never even noticed.

Satisfied that the day was over, he proceeded to the office so he could count the cash that was made that day.  He finally got to prop his feet up in front of the television an hour later, but found himself troubled, wondering why his drawer had been five dollars short.

The next morning, Santos unlocked the card shop at 7 A.M,  like he did every Sunday.  The card shop was closed on Sundays, but Mike paid Santos to clean it up on the weekends. Santos was grateful for the job.  Mike had told him for weeks that he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else, but Santos kept hanging around.  He had run out of options in the small city and desperately needed Mike’s help.  Mike finally gave in, gave Santos a key, and told him he could do the cleaning on the weekends, but that was all he had to offer.  He also showed Santos his .45 and warned him not to steal anything.

Santos entered the card shop and set out to conquer the task at hand. He went into the office and grabbed a broom out of the utility closet.  He was sweeping under the display tables when he noticed a five-dollar-bill was wedged under one of the table legs.  Assuming it had been a customers and that it wouldn’t be missed, Santos pried the five dollar bill out, folded it in half, and jammed it in his back pocket.

Santos stayed with his mother, Stella, and helped her take care of the house while she took care of his grandmother and worked full-time.  Stella had to hire a nurse to take care of his grandmother when she was working, because her son proved to be unreliable in that regard.  Between paying the nurse, regular hospital visits, purchasing all the medications, and paying bills, Stella barely had enough to feed her family by the end of the week. Santos wished he could do more.  He was twenty-four years old and spoke little English.  He had lived with his father in Mexico until he was seventeen years old.  He found out his father was  lying to him when he had told him his mother died giving birth to him. Santos set out to find her at the age of twenty.

It took him two years to find her.  During those two years he learned most of the broken English he spoke.  He found his Mother in dire straights.  The plumbing wasn’t working correctly in the run-down, one bedroom house Stella and her mother inhabited.  Most of the appliances were broken, and the floor looked like it had never seen a broom. Santos immediately began fixing things up.  He fixed the plumbing and all of the appliances.  He cleaned the house thoroughly, and helped his mother pick things out to sell.  He helped organize a yard sale to generate some extra cash to catch up on bills.  He divided the living room into two rooms and built a wall between them.  He turned the tiny dining room into a new sitting room.  He started taking care of his grandmother, but it was a daunting task.   Since Santos wasn’t comfortable taking care of his grandmother, they all agreed to get her a nurse.  Stella got a second job waiting in an upscale restaurant to help pay for it.  There still wasn’t enough money to pay the bills.  There was never enough.

Santos reached into his back pocket and fumbled with the five-dollar-bill from Mike’s Card Shop. He had finished his work early and decided to walk home instead of taking the bus like he did most mornings.  It was a beautiful day, and it felt good to be outside.  All the way home he considered what he was going to do with the five dollars.  Should he give it to his mother to help pay a bill?  Every bit of hard-earned cash he ever made went to the bills.  He wished, for once, he could buy something for himself.  Not ever seeing the money he earned made him feel like he was working for nothing.

Santos thought of his grandmother.  Every afternoon she would be propped up in her bed, facing the street, looking out through the blinds of the front window.  Every afternoon the dormant life inside her would awake to the sound of the ice-cream truck.  You could see her eyes light up with all ninety-two years of her life inside as It’s a Small World resounded throughout the neighborhood, passing their house.  As quickly as the light inside her was ignited, it was extinguished with the fading sound of the truck’s music.

Sympathy tried to swallow Santos.  He walked into his grandmother’s room, still fondling the five-dollar-bill that lay wrinkled  in his pocket among the lint and dirt.  He kissed his grandmother on the forehead and walked to the front door.  He sauntered outside, then down the stairs to the end of their walkway, and sat down on the curb facing the road.  He thought about the five-dollar-bill and how good it felt in his pocket.  He liked that only he knew about it and that no one would be asking for it.  Then, he heard the ice-cream truck, and in his mind’s eye he saw his grandmother’s eyes light up with all ninety-two years of her life.  It’s a small world after all…

As the white ice-cream truck, with its tacky stickers and peeling paint,  inched closer, Santos stood with the five-dollar-bill still in hand, and raised his arm up to stop the driver.  The driver was a short, chubby little man with very rosy cheeks and tufts of silver growing out of both sides of his head.

“What can I get for you today?  We have everything except the Nutty Bar.  Those always go first! You are what you eat!”

Orange Drea…,” Santos barely got out before he was abruptly cut off by a boisterous and overly anxious ice-cream man.

Orange Dream!  Excellent choice!  Guaranteed to bring a smile to someone’s face!  Is this for you or is there a little one inside?”

“It’s for my grandmother,” Santos replied.

“She is one lucky lady!  Lucky indeed!” chimed the man as he slid open a cooler door and pulled out a neatly wrapped Orange Dream, “That’ll be a dollar fifty, please sir.”

Santos reluctantly handed the jolly fellow the five dollars, “Two more, please,” he said, trying to disguise his thick accent.

“Two more coming right up!” exclaimed the ice-cream man.  He slid the door of the cooler open, once more, and pulled out two more brightly packaged Orange Dream’s.  The man took the five dollars that Santos gave him and threw it in the top of a large coffee can.  Then, he reached into a smaller coffee can and dug out two quarters for change.  He handed the change to Santos and thanked him for his business.

Santos thanked the man and walked toward the house.  As he watched his grandmother through the front window, Santos thought he saw a smile on her face to match the smile in her eyes and felt his own smile growing.  This time grandma’s smile remained long after the fading music from the ice-cream truck vanished completely.

The ice-cream man reached over and hit the kill switch on the music box as he coasted past the last house in Fox Squirrel Run.  His name was Ralph Fizzman, but everyone knew him as the Ice-cream Man or Pops.  His family called him Pops, but he didn’t see much of them anymore.  His friends called him Pops, too, but he could count those on one hand these days.  He really liked driving an ice-cream truck.  He liked to watch the faces of the children light up when he greeted them.  He didn’t have to drive an ice-cream truck.  He was a retired postal worker.  Between his retirement check and social security, he earned enough to pay his bills and put food on the table.  He didn’t need anything extra.  He still took pleasure in the more natural, less expensive gifts that life offered.  What he couldn’t handle was all of the idle time he had on his hands.  Many days he would find himself pacing back and forth restlessly between the kitchen and the back yard.  The feeling that he should be doing something besides waiting around to die kept nagging him.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that his life had become empty.

One morning, while reading the classifieds with his coffee, Pops came across an ad with an Ice-cream truck for sale.  It was the answer he had been waiting for.  He immediately called the owner and paid the man cash from his savings.  He stocked the truck, touched up the paint where he could, installed a brand new sound system, and was running his first route within two weeks.

Pops had one more neighborhood he wanted to visit before he headed home for the day.  The next neighborhood was made up of  low-income housing.  Even the poor seemed to be able to scrape up money for ice-cream.  He was greeted by the familiar cookie-cutter houses and debris-littered streets.  A pair of shoes hung on a telephone wire above the entrance like a Welcome Home sign.  He flipped the switch on his sound system.  It’s a Small World bellowed from the speakers that stood at attention on the roof of the ice-cream truck.  Most of the faces he greeted were familiar.  A few of them were new.  He exchanged money for ice-cream, and the children scattered.

He  made it to the last street and was just about to go home when Clyde finally made an appearance.  Most of the time Clyde was there waiting for Pops, like the neighborhood host. When Pops didn’t see him at the entrance that day,  he worried that something might have happened to him. Clyde was a local homeless man, and he knew everyone.  Sometimes he could be a nuisance, but most people just accepted him as a part of the scenery.  From what Pops could understand he was a veteran that the government discarded,  like so many others.  Pops felt bad for him and fed him an ice-cream the first time he ever met him.  From then on, Clyde was a regular.  Pops didn’t mind.  He liked to watch the broken smile form on his crooked lips as he took the first bite.  It seemed to empty the meaning out of  the little things that bothered him.  Any problems became trivial as he watched Clyde light up at the sight of the neatly wrapped frozen sandwich, as if seeing it for the first time.

“You make Clyde a very happy man today, friend!” he exclaimed.  He wiped the dripping vanilla cream from his black chin and made a clean spot.  His camouflage overcoat, which it was too hot for, looked like it had been tied behind a truck and drug through a mud hole.

Clyde turned, ice-cream in hand, lips frozen into a smile, and started to walk off.  Pops called out behind him and Clyde stopped to face him.  Pops reached into the top of his large coffee can and pulled out the five-dollar-bill sitting on top of the pile.  He held it out to Clyde, gesticulating reassuringly. Reluctant at first, Clyde took the five and thanked Pops repeatedly before staggering away.  Pops hoped he would spend the money on food instead of  booze or drugs, but knew that was probably wishful thinking.

Clyde balled the five dollar bill up and crammed it deep into his front jacket pocket, along with the few bits of coins and pretty rocks he picked up off the street earlier that morning.  His ice-cream started to melt and drip down his face and chin.  His hands were sticky with vanilla.  He wiped his face on his sleeve again, this time leaving a bigger clean spot on one side of his face.  He was craving a fix.  He ached to feel the cold needle pierce his warm veins.   The five dollars Pops had given him was already burning a hole in his pocket.

After discarding his ice-cream wrapper onto a stranger’s lawn, he walked toward Pacer Street.  He had to find Crazy Eight.  His stomach was starting to cramp up now, and the ice-cream he had eaten seemed to be souring.  He had to find Eight fast. Eight was in building 2112 on Pacer Street, where he conducted most of his business for the time being.  He sold anything from crack rock to kind bud, but most of his customers came to him for coke or crystal meth.  That is how he got his nickname, Crazy Eight.  Some people called him Eight Ball.  To his regulars, he was Eight.

Clyde found him in a room at the top of a flight of dark, rickety stairs.  The windows in the room had black plastic bags duct taped over them, and the only light in the room was emitted by a tiny lamp in the corner, opposite from where Clyde stood.  There were men brandishing weapons, standing in the shadows of each of the other corners. Clyde told Eight he needed rock but all he had was a five.  Eight had warned Clyde on his last visit not to waste his time with anything less than twenty-five.  Eight was not happy to see Clyde two days later, waving a five-dollar-bill in his face, begging for another taste.  He told Clyde he would give him one last chance to stop waving that bill in his face and escort himself out.  Clyde didn’t see the three shadowed figures in the corners tense up and tighten the grips on their pistols.

The shot that lodged itself into Clyde’s skull came from Crazy Eight’s pistol, but empty shells littered the floor at the scene of the crime the following day.  They found Clyde laying face-up in a pool of his own blood, his body laden with bullet holes.  Saturated with bloody fingerprints, a five dollar bill lay on his chest.

The Argument

As you wake, your eyes begin to focus, and you recognize the familiar splintered, wooden planks that make up the walls of your secret place. You’ve been coming here since you were a kid, a quiet place no one else knows about. Your lips are numb as your tongue traces their outline, and your head still swims in the bottle of whisky you finished off last night. You push yourself up to a sitting position, from the concrete earth beneath you. Your muscles protest in anguish, and you involuntarily grimace at the smell of sour sweat that seeps from your pores.

What am I doing here?

An empty bottle of Jack lies on its side in the right corner of the room, evidence of another forgotten adventure. Beside it sits the black duffel bag you’ve always kept packed with basic necessities for emergencies: a change of clothes, toothbrush, Swiss Army knife, toilette paper, among other useful odds and ends. You’ve been drinking for years, but it has only recently become a problem. Frequent blackouts now speckle your memory with questions that often go unanswered.

You try to shake off the confusion, only to gain a slight head rush. Your chin falls to your chest to try and stop the dizziness. This is when you notice the large red blotches splattered across the front of your once white t-shirt. Crimson streaks run down your arms and cover the palms of your hands. Your short, brown hair is matted with…


Your eyes dart from your duffel bag, to your surroundings, to your clothes, as reality begins to sink into your unsettled mind. What have you done? Scenes from last night begin to flash through your mind as you struggle to remember what happened. You had pounded down some shots to loosen up before going to your sister, Greta’s, party. The world already had a comfortable haze around it when you arrived. You remember the concerned look on Greta’s face as you made your boisterous appearance. It all gets fuzzy after that.

An argument. You had an argument with someone at the party. Andrew, Greta’s ex-boyfriend. He was talking smack about Greta in front of everyone at the party, in Greta’s own living room. You were so angry, you almost punched the guy. Hearing the commotion but not knowing what was happening, Greta walked in from the kitchen. There you stood with your fist raised to Andrew’s face, ready to strike. She was livid and immediately ordered you out of her house. She had refused to listen to your plea. Feeling betrayed, you stomped into the kitchen with Greta at your heels, grabbed a full bottle of Jack Daniels out of the freezer, and stormed out of her house. Gripped by anger, you remember announcing that Andrew would pay for what he did. After that, nothing. Only blackness, a bloodstained t-shirt, an empty bottle, and a duffel bag to explain how you got here. You pick yourself up off the hard ground and try to formulate a plan of action. The faint sound of a phone rings, and you freeze, listening intently.

Riiiiiiing. It’s coming from the duffel bag, and you hurry to retrieve it. You kneel, fold back the zipper, and reach in to rummage through the contents of the bag. Your shaking hand stumbles upon a mobile phone, and you pull it out.

Riiiiiiing. This time it’s louder. The display reveals that it’s Greta calling. You hesitate before putting the phone to your ear and pressing the button to answer, “Hello?”

“Jackson! Where are you? I’ve been worried sick!” Greta’s voice springs out.

“I’m…never mind where I am. What do you want?”

“What do I want? I want you to come face the consequences of what you’ve done, that’s what I want. You can’t get away with this, you know. Every one knows you did it.”

Silence. You don’t know how to respond. A lump emerges in your throat, and you try to swallow it back down.

“Jackson? Are you hearing me? Are you still there?”

“I was only trying to protect you, Greta. I never meant for this to happen.”

“I know, honey. Cindy told me about the argument.”

“I was drunk!” you burst out, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t even remember! Greta, I don’t know what to do. I can’t go to prison!” You no longer fight back the tears. They pool in your eyes and flow down your cheeks. You feel your life coming to a tragic, miserable end. You never liked Andrew, but you never meant to kill him!

“Oh Jackson, you’ve always been such a drama queen! I spoke with Andrew this morning. He said he wouldn’t even press charges if you’ll agree to pay to have the paint job fixed on his Camaro. He’s even thinking about having the color changed to red, thanks to you!”


“Jackson, are you there?”