"Do you ever think about what we could be?"
She asks the question as she unsnaps her clutch. Reaching in, she pulls out a single menthol cigarette and an electronic one-touch lighter. I watch as she concentrates on setting fire to tobacco, clicking three times before the spark catches.
"My mom had a phase where she went through those lighters. Smoked the same menthols, too."
She rolls her eyes and closes her clutch. Subconsciously, I notice she crosses her legs, closing off herself, as well.
I can't help but chuckle.
"What's so funny, guy?" Her words are sharp daggers of smoke, and she's trying to cut me.
"You don't like being compared to my mother."
"I don't think any woman wants those dots connected by the man in her bed."
"To be fair, I'm in a chair."
"Don't be a smartass."
"Sorry, it's the default setting."
"Answer my question."
Instead, I watch her dump ashes into a nearly empty can of Tab. I hear the sizzle, and I can't help a grin that sneaks back across my face. "I didn't think they still made that shit," I gesture to her improvised ashtray.
"It is hard to find."
"I remember the first time I had that stuff."
"Is this where you tell me again how I remind you of your mom?"
I laugh out loud. "No, this time it's the grandmother. She bought some in an effort to get me to switch from sugary colas. My grandfather always had real Coke in the bottles. He bought it that way up until he died. Claimed it tasted better that way. I never had much of an opinion on that subject, but the bottles did actually stay colder longer than the cans."
"Cute story. Why are you ignoring my question?"
"I'm not ignoring it, I just haven't yet answered it."
I look around her room. It's tastefully decorated, in an almost whimsical combination of vintage and modern. Her artwork is a mix of thrift-store finds and some of the furniture is Ikea; there's a framed movie poster for a classic Hepburn film next to a signed Broadway playbill for a show I've never seen. A waterfall dresser, complete with mirror and bench, takes me back to the Kennedy administration while I sit in a sleek Swedish chair that barely holds me. At least her bed is sturdy.
One thing I like about this bungalow: the ship-lap walls and hardwood floors are all pre-war original, and they make for very, very nice echoes when things get exciting.
I sigh. Her eyes narrow at me through another exhaled cloud, and I'm reminded of a cartoon dragon regarding an intruding knight in shining. Before she can decide to burn me to ash, I speak.
"The only moments we really have are the ones we live now. Yesterdays fade and tomorrow is never a guarantee."
It's her turn to laugh, and it's a bitter, dry sound. "Cliché much, douchebag?"
"I think we should accept whatever comes our way, and enjoy the present."
"So you don't consider the future. Our future."
"If we pick the present every day, we live in the moment, and we avoid expectation. Disappointment. Sadness."
There's a more pronounced hiss as she drops the butt of her menthol into the soda can. She takes a deep breath, smooths her hair behind her ears, and stands.
My eyes roam and we're both standing, but I don't leave the chair.
Seeing my reaction, she smirks.
"I would say let's live in the moment again, but my kid will be back from her dad's house in an hour. I feel like that short of a future may lead to disappointment."
I can't help but laugh as she gets dressed and tosses my clothes at me.
November Drabble Winner
Thank you to everyone who participated in "No Thank You," especially y'all who actually followed the challenge prompt. I appreciate that very much.
This month's winner is https://theprose.com/post/780006 by Fabulam. I dug it like whoa.
There are a few others who made the shortlist, and they are:
https://theprose.com/post/778680/thanks-for-nothin by beatricegomes
https://theprose.com/post/778474/three-words by FireandIce4664
and https://theprose.com/post/778139/a-polite-pass by Huckleberry_Hoo (which I liked very much but in the end I had to go with the damn dirty vampers).
Africa Lyrics Challenge Winner
Whoa. Guys, check out ALL the entries in this challenge. I actually, honestly, for-real enjoyed each entry, and for the first time since judging challenges, I had incredible difficulty picking a winner.
In the end, I chose Kingslayer's entry: https://theprose.com/post/781456/moonlit-wings
Nice job to everybody who participated, and I sincerely mean that.
Read all of the entries here: https://www.theprose.com/challenge/14351
"I have a new boyfriend."
"Is he taller than me?"
"No, but he's nice."
"Nice isn't me, honestly, so I'm happy for you."
"No, you're not."
"Maybe I'm not."
"I want to tell you about him."
"I'd rather we discuss this in bed."
"I told you. New boyfriend."
"Fine. Tell me about him."
"He has black hair."
"Is it long?"
"No, it's short, but if he grows it, it gets a little curly. I think that comes from his dad."
"What, of his hair? Nah. I haven't missed it since I turned 21."
"That was a long time ago. Do you even remember what it was like to have it?"
"Nice. Please, keep going."
"He likes to cuddle."
"Yeah? Does he have a job?"
"The fuck? He sounds like a winner."
"He makes me happy, and that's doing a good job, I think."
"Doesn't sound like there's a lot of pay involved."
"Well. I'm naked a lot, so I think you'd consider that worthwhile."
"Yeah, but we ain't talkin about me."
"We do talk about you, though."
"How's that? He knows me?"
"No, but he listens."
"What interesting stories do you tell about me?"
"Well, I told him that you'd likely come over tonight."
"I thought you didn't want company."
"Never said that."
"No, you said you had a new boyfriend."
"That doesn't mean I've died."
"So you want me to come over?"
"Know that he will probably watch."
"Didn't figure you would."
"What are the rules?"
"Stop and get a couple of McDonald's hamburgers, plain ones, on your way over."
"Sounds like a weird craving. You late? No way it can be mine, right?"
"You're the worst. They're for him."
"So, what? I fuck his girlfriend but have to pay a burger tax? That's a weird pimp kink. I'll play, no judgement."
"Bullshit. You're a judgy prick."
"No, really, I'm into the whole your-kink-isn't-my-kink horseshit."
"Whatever. That's crap people say because they don't want to end up catching shit. We're all silent judges, at least."
"McDonalds plain burgers. Which is worse, the McDonalds part or the plain part?"
"Just do it if you want to get lucky."
"What's this guy's name, where is he from? Any other rules?"
"Yeah. Don't knock. Just come in."
"Well. If you knock or ring the doorbell, shit gets crazy."
"Trust me and do what I ask. Dammit you ask a lot of questions."
"I'm a curious guy. So? Name? History?"
"I don't know a lot about him."
"But he's at your place now?"
"Yeah, I left him in the bed."
"His name's Buddy, I think his mom is from Newfoundland. Not sure about his dad."
"Yeah, I didn't name him, man."
"Obviously, but you're dating a Canadian?"
"Not exactly dating, but he's a good boyfriend."
"I got a dog, doofus. Bring cheeseburgers so that mutt loves you."
"Fuck me, I'm an idiot."
"True, and I will."
These vignettes are snapshots collected in a scrapbook. Added all together, they make a short film on a small segment of my life in these last few years. When I look back at the gathered pieces of prose, they give me a tangible view of memory and perception. These pieces are real life, tossed out among fantastic stories of the nearly believable.
I wish these little pieces weren't so easy to believe.
I'd much rather convince the reader that vampires exist and monsters walk among us. Murder makes a far more compelling subject, I think.
These holiday stories, they tell the tale of aging parents and the inevitable conclusion of a major life chapter.
My grandmother wasn't a saint, but that's probably because she didn't live long enough to become a villain. My grandfather did.
I don't think my mother will.
She may not be a villain, but her heroic days are long gone. She doesn't even go to bed anymore. I don't know if that's because she doesn't have the energy, or if it's because she's fine staying in the recliner. I know I sometimes sleep in mine, but I almost always wake up in the middle of the night, drunk with sleep and stumbling into my bedroom.
She seems to sleep all the time.
"What do you want to watch on tv?" She asks, for the twentieth time. She punctuates the question with scrolling down the Dish Network guide page, but she nods off with her finger on the remote. I look over at my stepfather, and he shrugs, shaking his head. This is the new normal.
She sleeps this way for five minutes, ten, maybe even an hour. She awakens with a start, asking if I'd decided what channel to watch. "Whatever you want to see," I answer, thumbing to the next page of my book.
We don't really talk. We never really have, at least not in years. This is our routine, this is our love language: it started in the days of Turtles before it became Blockbuster, hell, it started before chain movie rentals were even a thing. We'd snag enough movies to last a weekend, and we'd make our way through them. Sometimes we'd check out six at a time. Now, we surf the half-dozen subscription services we have on our phones, or maybe we scroll down that guide page on the Dish.
What little talking we do on this trip is about a girl I almost dated. She had a feature in the paper, local lady does good over at the District Attorney's office.
Mom always did want me to be a lawyer. I guess reminding me of the lawyer I let get away is as close as she'll get. (The fact that we never dated hasn't really clicked with Mom for decades, and God knows it doesn't click now.)
So I drive back home, and we begin watching television. Or, we begin looking for something to watch, which actually takes more time than watching what's been agreed upon. This trip, I managed to save a small collection of movies I thought would do. Some of them did the trick, but a few were "too weird," as she puts it.
Big words from a lady who sleeps through the credits and most of the stuff in between them.
I'm not sure of the moment everything changed with these trips back home. I know it began to change back when she got a secondary infection from an operation a few years ago. The anti-biotics did a number on her kidneys.
It's been a slippery slope ever since.
This Thanksgiving has given me a harsh live-action glimpse of life back home. Historically, Mom did all the work in the kitchen. Not just Thanksgiving, but all of it. She was a stay at home mom, her job was to make the house a home. She did this expertly, preparing daily southern meals that Paula Deen or Martha Stewart would be lucky to share.
She doesn't cook anymore.
This thing, this centerpiece of pride, a chore that made up so much of her identity (not to me, but to herself) is gone.
My step-father does all the kitchenwork now, and he prepared the Thanksgiving meal.
For the first time, I saw the ghost of my mother sleeping in the chair where my mom used to sit.
"Things are getting harder," he quietly said to me. We whispered in hurried murmurs when Mom stepped into the master bathroom. "Her mind is..." he trailed off. Shifting gears, he continued, "Her moods are hard."
He didn't say it, but he didn't have to.
Her mind is going.
"Did you decide what to watch on television?" She asks, shuffle-stepping back to ease down into her recliner. I smile, and tell her it doesn't matter to me.
We don't talk, we watch television.
She falls asleep again after putting the TV on a true crime show.
Looking over towards the woman who still knows me, but whom I used to know, I think time is the truest criminal. Maybe this is a story about murder, after all.
Smooth, steady pressure (a drabble)
Five and a half pounds is the standard pressure required to fire a Glock.
Ma'at, keeper of the scales, will measure those five and a half pounds against a feather’s weight.
How will I balance?
That's a problem for tomorrow. Meantime, I'll accept "no bill" over "true bill."
Ain't juries grand?
I could lie; say I didn't have a choice. I could've thrown him back, but I knew he’d hurt people downstream.
Front-sight diplomacy failed. Threats were only promises I hadn't yet kept.
I'm a man of my word.
Why did I?
There's a better question.
Why didn't I sooner?
It was one of those rare occasions when the air conditioning was on.
It was the last occasion when we were all there.
My great-grandmother's house was built by my great-grandfather. Legend goes he did a lot of the bricklaying himself back in '38. He'd done his time in the Navy during the first big war, so he sat that next one out.
Like so many other old Southern homes, this one had a living room and a den. Everybody always watched TV and visited in the den; the living room was for fancier furniture and holidays. The dining room was part of that parlor, and held that side of the house's only air conditioner. It was an old Sears window unit that managed to stave off unseasonable heat. Some Christmases, it was actually needed.
This gathering was a birthday, though. My great grandmother and I were born a day apart in early October, and it was tradition that we'd celebrate on the Sunday closest to our shared dates.
Nothing in that house had changed for decades. The air conditioner was a concession made at the insistence of family; sometime in the late seventies, the unit was gifted to my great-grandparents.
On this last gathering of the entire family, my grandmother gave me an unexpected gift.
I tore away the Sunday comics section (I waved away apologies for not using actual wrapping paper) to reveal a sleek black Cobra Nightraven.
On that day, I had no way of knowing she didn't wrap the gift because she was too tired.
On that day, I had no way of knowing that she'd be gone about fourteen days later.
That sleek black jet assumed a place of reverence in my room, in every room since. It never suffered the same abuses, it never fought in those imaginary battles that other G.I. Joe figures endured.
What relative do I want to ban from Thanksgiving? Can we claim the Reaper as a handsy step-uncle from out of state? If so, that's the one I'd vote off the island, he's the weakest link, let's enjoy our time without him.
But he is inevitable.
My mother and I are the only ones left from that Sunday so long ago, and I wish I had a gift from her to sit on the shelf next to that cherished toy from yesteryear.
That stupid jet from Hasbro remains the last thing given to me by a woman we still mourn every holiday season.
In the meantime, I'll treat each holiday like it's our last.
One jungle or another
Sweat stung his eyes, his knees ached, and his lower back barked with every hurried step.
A puff of concrete wall filled his vision before the report reached his ears.
"Fuck!" He scrambled back around the corner of the empty anchor store. The mall had been in its prime during the first Bush administration, and it still clung to life like a stubborn hospice patient. A handful of local businesses still occupied the place, but they were largely cash-only operations with inventory that never really turned. Local gangs invested in trendy fashion shops that never really managed to change trends or be very fashionable.
"I hate this place," he muttered, taking a deep breath and scooting low around the corner.
For the moment, no more shots greeted him as he continued his pursuit.
The last time he'd been to this mall was before Macy's pulled up stakes and shifted to the quieter part of town. Some genius development firm had opened up a newfangled open-air shopping center; a mall by any other name, only this one had shoppers sweaty, cold, or wet between stores. This evening, he had to drop by the old mall to chat up an informant working in a hat store. Everyone knew they washed money for the team who refused to ever wear blue. While talking, the detective spotted the shooter from a case that had been open a few weeks.
The shooter spotted him, too, and everybody's night got ruined.
They'd run through the mall, out an emergency door, across the first floor of a parking deck, and now here they were about to hang a left around the building to start all over again. Luckily, the shooting didn't start until they were outside.
"God damn, I need a cigarette."
It was difficult to see anything around him. Darkness, tunnel vision, and gunsmoke lurked in a windless cloud that surrounded his senses. His heartbeat should have been a kettledrum in his ears, but he could hardly even hear himself speak.
Hands barely trembling, he replaced a partially spent magazine. Operating in the dark, leaning on training and instinct, he moved quickly through the parking lot. He glided from the cover of one car before approaching another. His movements echoed his Army days; one jungle was another, even if leaves had been replaced by steel.
Safety glass spiderwebbed above his head and he flattened himself on the blacktop.
In the yellow glow of a lonely overhead light, he saw movement of stark white athletic shoes.
Quickly and quietly, the green glow of his front sight found the splash of red that Nike never intended as a target.
The evening was shattered again by the detective's 147 grain lightning and thunder, followed by a scream and a curse.
Two more thunderclaps and the cursing stopped.
Groaning, the old man climbed up from the pavement and hobbled to where another man would never grow to be old.
Holstering, he had that cigarette before calling in.
Bare feet slap on blacktop. Another car slows to crawl over one of the speedbumps spread throughout the neighborhood, and I step into the sweet relief of grass. The familiar smell of a papermill covers it all, and a sticky wind thickens the air.
Blue skies burn like the skin of my shoulders in the afternoon sun, no clouds at all.
Like a fortress, the pool stands on a small hill in the middle of a savanna. All approaches to the perimeter are kept free and open, the only shadows cast are from a ten foot chainlink complete with barbed wire along the top. Standing guard within the concrete oasis, a woman in her mid twenties.
Tall, muscular, and severe, she served Uncle Sam in that strange time between Saigon and Grenada. Her uniform now is a bikini that combines with her long brown ponytail to soften her lines and accentuate her femininity, but the mirrored lenses of her sunglasses convey that she is all about business.
Each summer, this oasis is hers, and she is tasked with keeping away the lions.
The pool is private. It isn't a very exclusive club: either provide proof of address within the neighborhood, or pay $50 for the season. Not a member? An all-day pass can be had for $10. Cash only. No checks. Exact change, please.
It is 1985, and Jim Crow just goes by the new name, "Member's Only."
No one ever paid, because by default, the only people who were allowed in were residents.
There is a clear division between neighborhoods. On one half of the blacktop stand sentinels of live oak and Spanish moss, and in the shade of those ancient trees, lined up like aluminum soldiers, are the trailers. On the other side of that street, with no shade to speak of, stands the perfectly-aligned concrete bunkers of public housing. This skirmish line is never crossed without consequence.
The street itself is no-man's land.
This front encompasses only one side of the roughly oval-shaped neighborhood.
For weeks at a time, I sit beneath the watchful gaze of my stepmother. She teaches me to swim; I learn about Marco and Polo and Sharks and Minnows. Uno tournaments fill the hours that aren't spent in the water or caring for it.
If I could only learn to remember shoes.
Three of five days each week, I head back to the house for varied reasons.
Blacktop reminds me of the value of shoes in the summertime.
Sunscreen, too, is an afterthought. Peeling earlobes and tender back reiterate that lions, real or imaginary, aren't the only predators at the oasis.
Hiding within the soreness is an odd comfort, though. The pain isn't so much a hurt as it is a reminder of time well spent; another day poolside and carefree.
Nearly forty years later, the fence still stands in rusted testimony to the divisions that were. No oasis exists; there is only a concrete hole filled with memories.
Those memories still make me smile each night that I lie down and sheets drape across skin slightly burned by a summer sun.
Se7en minutes later
"Airship, airship, how copy?"
"Head back. No support needed."
"Did we see shooting, ground?"
"Shooting is done, airship. You and me will talk later. Ground, out."
The radio traffic clears and another call goes out for EMS. It is a formality, and Detective Lieutenant William Somerset tells them not to hurry.
With the helicopter fading into the horizon, quiet settles in and pressure eases a little. The ambulance has no need to hurry, but he and his partner have work to do.
Detective David Mills sits in silence in a collapsed heap that began as kneeling. In his right hand, a Springfield 1911 dangles with the slide locked to the rear on an empty magazine. His left hand rests on a cardboard box, about ten inches square.
In the box is his wife's head.
"David. David. Look at me, son. Look."
David's eyes move up, but they're still glazed.
"David, you're in shock. You're grieving. You've got to listen to me now, boy, or you're about to spend the rest of your life in prison."
David doesn't move.
Somerset decides to leave him to his mourning, and he gets after his task.
Moving to the corpse of John Doe, he rolls him on his side. Uncuffing one of the corpse's hands, he places his old squarebutt revolver in the dead man's hand. Two shots ring out in the general direction of where he and Mills had been standing just moments before. Thinking fast, the Lieutenant tosses his hat to the ground and quickly rolls back and forth in the dust, crushing the fedora and getting his jacket and suit dirty and rumpled. He leaves his revolver lying near Doe's outstretched fingers.
The ambulance, which was standing by several miles away, is approaching running lights and siren, despite being warned that no living person needed attention.
Looking down the road at the rising dust trail, Somerset goes back to Mills.
"Listen. Listen good, kid, this is important."
"Nothing matters anymore."
"I know you feel that way right now, but you have got to listen to me."
"Doe somehow slipped his cuffs. He knocked my old ass to the ground and got my gun. You shot him. More than once, but you were scared. Easy. Clean. Simple."
"The chopper saw us."
"You let me worry about the chopper. Everybody knows this guy had it coming, son."
"So now we're Greed? Wrath? We get away with it?"
"Think of it as Pride if it helps you sleep, kid. I don't want to see you in jail for this piece of shit."
"Maybe I'm all of it, Will. Maybe I deserve it because I'm a sinner."
"You did God's work here, David. Now let me save you from you."
"None of us deserve to be saved."
"The best we can do is try to earn it."