Archive for fiction

Sure Enough (short fiction)

Posted in Prose with tags , , on January 27, 2011 by sethdellinger

Sure Enough

After the cows had been pailed and the barn chores done the man and the boy walked in the twilight down the dusty lane toward a corn field on the other side of the meadow.

The man balanced his elbows on the top strand of fence and scanned endless rows of stalks that had sickened and jaundiced under the scorch of rainless weeks.  Sensing the man’s anxiety, the boy minded his place and stayed silent.

“She should’ve been knee-high by the Fourth of July, and look at her,” the man finally worried aloud.  From his mouth he pulled a stem of timothy and waved it in the general direction of the runty corn.  “We just got to have rain soon,” the man continued, more to himself than the boy, “or we aint gonna have fodder worth a tinker.”

Corn, as the boy well knew, was a mighty important crop to the family.  There had to be the yellow ears that’d feed the Berkshires into sow belly and hams for the winter; and from fodder came the ensilage for Holsteins that gave milk to fetch in what cash money there was.

The boy, still quiet, wondered why God never seemed to make the weather right for crops.  It was always too wet or too dry—too wet or too cold.  No, never exactly right, it seemed.  It rained when you needed to plow; and it didn’t rain when you wanted to grow corn.

Dusk blotted the parched field from view as the two tramped back up the lane.  Reaching the weather-blackened barn, the man and the boy, each in overalls of scrubbed-out blue, sprawled on the side of a grassy bank that formed a driveway up to the barn floor and its haymows.

Sitting in the quiet the boy felt a sudden closeness to this stern man who was his father.  It was nice, the boy allowed, just being there together—not talking words.

The feel of the moment was broken for the boy when the man exclaimed:  “Hey–smells like rain in the air right now!”

They got up and walked beyond the locusts near the watering trough for a better look at the sky.  Sure enough.  It was blacking up, and a breeze started freshing the evening’s stickiness.  In a few minutes a rumbling and a flashing let loose.

The man and the boy stood for a spell in the barn’s open doorway and peered silently at the rain as it spattered into the thirsty earth.  Even in the darkness the two could see the downpour give new green to grass and leaves.   The air smelled good in their noses.

“It’ll save the corn sure as shootin’,” said the man to the boy.  They grinned at each other, and, looking up, they let the rain pepper their faces as they walked side-by-side down the path toward a light in the kitchen window.

Gutty Sark and the Night of the Shave, part 1 of 121

Posted in Gutty Sark and the Night of the Shave, Prose with tags , , , on December 5, 2010 by sethdellinger

Welcome to an exciting new blog series here at Notes From the Fire!  I’m not going to over-explain what will be happening here (about once a week), but I do want to point you to this, the fake manifesto of a fictional Ron Gutshall, which was written by the real me about an imagined version of my real friend Ron Gutshall.  I think if you read that manifesto, you’ll see that what I’m doing here is just a continuation of that.  And although this first entry begins as a somewhat pedestrian work of narrative, I in no way intend to hold myself to that in future installments.  Also, close readers of the manifesto will notice that I here again use the character of Gerald Chapcheeks.  I’m just addicted to the name; consider the Chapcheeks from the manifesto and the Chapcheeks here different Gerald Chapcheeks (or consider “Ron’s” version in the manifesto to be a version written by a compulsive liar).  Anyway, I hope you enjoy.  There will be no futher explanations posted on future installments.

Gerald Chapcheeks was a scamp. Always had been, at least as long as he could remember.  Usually he could be found riding the rails, eating lukewarm sardines out of dented tins in the livestock and empty coal cars of the state train systems, criss-crossing prairie states with the frequency that the rest of the world was stopping at red lights.   

 But nowadays, Gerald Chapcheeks was no longer riding the rails for lack of anything else to do.  No, the last few years, he’d been riding the rails (and stowing away on an occasional riverboat and UPS cargo plane) to stay one step ahead of his nemesis, Ron Gutshall.   

Gutshall had been many things throughout the years—stage magician, ambassador to the Central Arab Emirates, hat model, dark lord of the multiverse, and a coat check boy at the Ritz Carlton—but lately he’d been focusing most of his energy on being the scourge of the hobo underground.  The hobo underground is a loose syndicate of the most powerful hobos, bums, winos and otherwise invisible men and women who litter the landscape of the great nation of America (and a few enclaves in Canada).  While there is no official leadership system to the hobo underground, and no elected officials or set rules, all the hobos just sort of “know” who is in charge.  It’s much like the “cool kids” in high school.   

A few years ago—nobody knows how many—Ron Gutshall took a break from his now-famed 4-year-long transfusion to become a full-time hobo (while his famed hetero lifemate, Seth Dellinger, pursued a career in dopplegangery), and after only half a cross country trip inside what he describes as “a train car only slightly more full of homeless skanks than a Holocaust death train” he had already taken over the coveted spot of East Coast Vice Hobo, a title that he won from Tully Two-Bones in a game of Mexican Pinochle.  By his third month of hoboery, Gutshall  had ascended the ranks of the hobo underground all the way to Southeast President (Albuquerque chapter), and he was champing at the bit to go for the big enchilada: Main Hobo, a title that had been held by our man Gerald Chapcheeks for well over 20 years.            

 Except our man Chapcheeks didn’t want to give up his title.  See, in the world of hoboing, there are very few perks.  But Chapcheeks, as Main Hobo, had enjoyed some of the only perks of the lifestyle for quite a few years.  Namely, a monthly oral de-lousing regimen administered by none other than Babs Baseball (the Minnesota Babs Baseball, not the Leningrad Babs Baseball, who, trust us, are two very different women), a nice name badge, preferred seating on any shared stowaway trip, and a pretty decent VHS copy of Air Bud, which is remarkable mostly for having been manufactured in the dying days of the medium, when fewer major big box retailers were selling video cassettes at all.            

  So Gutshall wanted Chapcheeks’ title and all the perks that came with it (have you seen Babs Baseball?  Or more to the point, have you ever needed de-loused?) and yet Chapcheeks did not want to give it up.  So you can see, right there, is the main conflict of our story, and you can imagine, it is going to be quite a wild ride.              

For the better part of a year Gutshall pursued Chapcheeks across the rickety infrastructure of our nation (once even on horseback, after which Gutshall dismounted, vomited, and immediately blamed this reaction on [to anyone who would listen] that particular horse’s “affection for Rachmaninoff”).  Chapcheeks always stayed  barely one step ahead of Gutshall due to his extensive network of hobo pals, and what the heterosexual Chapcheeks mistakenly called his “gaydar”, clearly having no idea what the term meant.  During this year of pursuit, Gutshall and Chapcheeks came into direct contact three times:  once resulted in a prolonged battle of black magic, of which both men were masters, and the other two times were in line at Golden Corral restaurants, where they both pretended not to see each other.           

Which bring us to where our story begins:           

Gerald Chapcheeks was a scamp.  Always had been, at least as long as he could remember.  Except now, he was a scamp on the run.  On a greyhound bus to Providence, Rhode Island, to be exact.  It was quite rare for Chapcheeks—Main Hobo, I might add—to be on actual paid transportation, but this was a special occasion.  The Northeastern Hobo Alliance, or NEHA, was convening a meeting to discuss what some of it’s members referred to as “the Gutshall problem”.  Everyone on the hobo underground knew that Chapcheeks was in danger; some were in his corner, whereas others were in Gutshall’s corner.  This meeting with NEHA would sort out who was on whose team, with the ultimate goal of finding a way to end Gutshall’s endless cross-country pursuit of Chapcheeks.            

The bus pulled into a rest stop in the black night of rural Connecticut.  Gerald desperately needed to stretch his legs, fart, and smoke 1/16th of a cigar he’d been hoarding for well over a week, so he deboarded the bus, let one out, lit one up, and settled onto a bench overlooking the picturesque Connecticut countryside, although it was almost too pitch black to make out anything more than the most rudimentary shapes.

Suddenly, Chapcheeks’ field of vision was taken up entirely by what at first appeared to be a blob of marshmallow that smelled mildly of Slim Jims.  This blob screamed in his face, “Mustache burglar!” 

Chapcheeks knew that voice.  It was Ron Gutshall.  Chapcheeks’ vision adjusted quickly, and now he could see Gutshall clearly, just a few feet from his face.  Gutshall had on an Abe Lincoln top hat, a purple feather boa, a skin-tight army green M*A*S*H*  t-shirt, and finely presed khaki Dockers.  Gutshall leaned his head back and screamed into the Connecticut sky, “Gerald Chapcheeks, you have finally met your match, you scamp!  Prepare for the battle of your life!  Also, do you have a shoehorn?  I seem to have dropped a piece of gold boullion into one of my knee-high Doc Martens and it is bugging me to no end.”

To be continued!

Wrigley Field (fiction)

Posted in Prose with tags , on November 21, 2010 by sethdellinger

She wandered the aisles, aimlessly, but with an air of intent one would be forced to describe as wanton.  He had long ago learned how it worked.  She walked all the way down one aisle, looking at things haphazardly, glancingly even, then turned on her heel at the end of the aisle, going back the way she came, now closely inspecting the items she’d just moments ago seemed not to notice.  If nothing caught her fancy, they’d proceed to the next aisle, him trailing behind with the cart like some willess comet tail.  Now she’d put something in the cart, ask him what he thought of fuchsia, or if her feet were too big for her legs.

This was housewares.  In an outlet store, not one of those brightly-lit big box stores with the deep discounts, but some junky outlier time had almost forgot.  She was holding up an espresso maker in a tiny white box, with the photograph of the stainless steel appliance on the front, looking polished and perfect.

“Do you think we should have an espresso maker?” she said.

He looked at the ceiling, formed his mouth into a doubtful V.

“I mean, do you think you would like to have an espresso maker?” she rephrased.

“I barely drink coffee.  Tea. If there were a kind of tea espresso.”

“Well.  There isn’t.”

She looked at him for a few moments.  He reread the store’s name on the handle of the cart.  She put the box back on the shelf.

He had become aware over the years of the different sounds feet made on different kinds of floor tiles.  The more upscale the store, the more muffled the footfalls, all the way up to the posh, unaffordable stores with carpet.  The lower rent places, like this place, echoed, as if everyone, even the cowed house-husbands, were rushed business women wearing heels in an antiquated hallowed hall.  Never certain why this discrepancy should matter, he fixated on it anyway—fixated on it more with each passing shopping trip.  It seemed somehow more important to him than the merchandise they bought, or which store name was on the cart handle, or the questions she asked.  The echoes loomed large, like the shadows of ancient monoliths, or a fever the day after the start of a cough.

“Do you think the kids would use this?” She was holding up a red rectangular box that held coffee and tea service for six.

“This again?” he said.

“What do you mean, This again?

He harrumphed.  Moved the cart a little side-to-side, as if it were a slalom skier, skiing in place.  “I mean, what kids?”

“Oh you,” she said, and put the coffee and tea service in the cart.

They walked single file to the end of the aisle, and then she turned on her heel and went back down the aisle again—a rare third trip down one aisle.

She stopped to pick up a large, orange, scented candle with three wicks.  Brought it to her nose.  Turned it around in her hand to get a feel for the heft.  She cleared her throat.  “What is it about you and the kids?”

He pretended not to hear.

“I mean, you acting like they’re not real.” she said.

“I suppose there are worse problems than you having delusions, but I do wish you wouldn’t talk about them in stores.”  He slalomed the cart again.

“You’ve always been such a silly bird.”  She put the candle in the cart.

They came out of the aisle, turned left.  Now they were out of housewares and into clothes.  Their feet clacked on the tiles.  She fidgeted with her purse for a piece of gum.  “I think this is just the cutest little top.”

“Is that a camisole?” he asked.

“No, silly.  This isn’t anything like a camisole.”

“Oh.”

“Would you know a camisole if you saw one?”

“I suppose not.”

“I’m going to try this on.”

“Certainly.”

“You’ll be right here?”

“I’ll be right here.”

“Back in a jiffy.”

He wandered through the clothes racks, the cart ahead of him, click-clacks all around him.  He stopped to ponder a lime green scarf.  He thought it looked like artificial turf, which made him think of Wrigley Field.  Then he doubted himself, unsure if Wrigley was turf or natural grass.  And of all the places in the world, all the monuments, secret coves, legendary pubs and government offices and isolated spots of grass near Verdun or, say, Stratford-upon-Avon, where Wrigley Field would rank in some great unmade list of human places, taking all of individual existence into account.

He realized he had steered the cart to the front of the store, by the registers.  He looked around him.  He left the cart stand alone, walked around the registers, and out the whooshing sliding front doors into a light drizzling rain.  Halfway across the parking lot he realized the lime green scarf was in his hand.  He dropped it to the ground and fished in his pocket for the car keys.  The lock clicked open.  He turned the ignition, sat looking straight ahead, pondering where to go.  After a moment he put the car in gear and drove.

Suicide Note #1 (FICTION)

Posted in Prose with tags , , , , , , , on October 16, 2010 by sethdellinger

1. Georgetown, Great Exuma

             Two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in the Chat and Chill Bar on Stocking Island.  KB, the Bahamian who owns the place, is looking for an argument and can’t find one.  Mandela versus Boutelayzee, Army versus Navy, chanterelles versus portabellas.  Even Mushroom John, who brought his wife, Sandy, down here from their tuber farm in Pennsylvania for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, says the rule is to each their own.  Down the beach Junior is making the best conch salad on the island, conch so fresh it is still wiggling when he puts it down in front of us.  I drink two Bombays on ice to Albert’s five Kalik beers, and after some critical mass of mosquito bites we tumble outside to hit the blue, blue water.  I told Albert there was no blue like Exuma blue before we came, and now he says, “It’s so pretty, it’s corny.”

            Every Sunday at the Chat and Chill, KB roasts a pig, we can smell it where we’re floating, you can smell it all over the island when the wind is onshore.  A jellyfish floats across the beige sand below our floating bodies, and a little school of sergeant majors mistake the yellow in my bathing suit for one of their own.  The floating is so effortless, the sun so soft and warm, I’m almost asleep when Junior hollers that the conch fritters are ready, and we swim to shore and eat them, roll them around in the red sauce that has just the right amount of kick to it, get in one more swim before it’s time to eat the pig.

2. Davis, California

            Early morning on what they call the ‘greenbelt’.  Walking with Lucy, while Audrey leaps between furrowed, fallow fields.  Everyone we know calls Lucy Audrey and Audrey Lucy, which is strange since Lucy is a thirty-five-year-old woman, and Audrey is a German shorthaired pointer, but when you see the way they look at each other, you begin to understand.  Lucy has her sister’s name—Emily—tattooed across her bicep.  Last month, Emily tried to kill herself, succeeded, temporarily, was gone, in almost every way that counts, for more than two whole days.  Then she came back from the dead.

            Last night I heard a nightingale imitating a car alarm in a jacaranda tree.  This morning, a heron teases Audrey with a touch-and-go pattern along the creek.  I remember the day last fall when Murray and Melinda and I walked on Limantour Beach after the storm and watched the pelicans.  The storm had brought out all the animals, tule elk, fallow deer, and three coyotes who ran and leapt and did the kinds of things coyotes do in terrible lovely velvet paintings, while we watched, open-mouthed, from the side of the road.  We were each locked inside our individual sorrows, didn’t know each other well enough to share, but we agreed, out loud, that just like moose, pelicans were surely put on earth to act as suicide preventers, agreed we’d never kill ourselves in sight of one.

3. Ozona, Texas

Nine o’clock on a Thursday night, the bar full of Halliburton guys in their red suits, roughnecks from the oilfields for preseason football, hunting stories, and beer.  It is just dumb luck that I’ve worn my camo miniskirt, and I take the best seat in the house for watching the Pats beat up the Redskins, until the bartender comes over and tells us we’ve entered a private club.  Albert rises to leave.  He recognizes enemy territory, knows that sculptors and Halliburton guys shouldn’t drink together, especially not in Texas.  “In that case,” I say, “I’ll take two memberships and two double shots of Patron Silver, and a Coke.”

            We can mark this down as my last fearless moment.  After a few hours—and dozens of silent, accusatory stares—Albert says, “You might be the first woman to ever drink in this bar,” and I say, “You might be the first sculptor.”  Later, in the parking lot of the Best Western, I pick up both of our heavy suitcases and make a beeline for the stairs.  Albert says, “No! Pam, no!” which makes me lift the bags higher and run for it, and when I get to the top I laugh so hard I pee.

4.  Juneau, Alaska

            They said we wouldn’t see any orcas.  They said the humpbacks were in and when the humpbacks were in you didn’t see the orcas, because the orcas were predators and the humpbacks are prey.  It’s been a long day.  We’ve been all the way up Tracy Arm to the glaciers, and everyone but the captain and I are sleeping when a report comes over the radio: orcas in Shearwater Cove.

            By the time we get there, there’s nothing stirring.  A couple of humpbacks out in the main channel a sure sign the orcas are gone.  The captain is worried about the hour, worried about the fuel he’s got left, worried about his daughter, who’s got magenta hair and a T-shirt that says THIS is what a feminist looks like, who is back from somewhere like Berkeley working on his boat this summer, selling sodas to the tourists through a permanent scowl.  There is a flash of fin on the other side of the channel, distant, but unmistakable.  Orca.  Male.

            The captain says, “That’s four miles across this channel, minimum.”  I show him the silver charm around my neck, remind him that it’s my last day in Alaska, promise to swim for shore if we run out of gas.

            “Don’t lose that fin,” he says, turning the bow into the sunset, but I couldn’t lose it if I tried, the water of Stephen’s Passage backlit, a million diamonds rushing toward me in the sun, and one black fin, impossibly tall, absurdly geometric, the accompanying blast of whale breath above it, superimposed onto the patterns of light.

            Spotting whales at sea is not so different than spotting deer in the woods.  For hours you see nothing, and then you see one, and suddenly you realize you are surrounded.  This pod has twenty-five, by my best counting, the one male, who keeps his distance, and twenty-four females, all of them running steadily west.  We get out in front, and the captain shuts down the engines.  Every time the big male’s fin turns itself up and over and back down under the surface of the water, I can’t help myself, I gasp.

5. Laramie, Wyoming

            In the summer, the trains come through town more than once an hour, and Albert and I, locked all night in the bookstore like a fantasy left over from clumsy childhood, pulling books off whatever shelves we want to and reading to each other—poems first, and then settling into stories—on the old purple couch.  We’d come down that day from Walden, Moose Capital of Colorado.  I was sure we would find some marker on the fence where Matthew Shepard had been tied.

            Later, when we had turned out all the lights in the bookstore and thrown the mattress on the floor in the back room, the cow-boy band across the street tried to play “Free Bird” as an encore, and I watched his face above me change color with the flashing light.  He took my hand and made me feel the place we came together.

            “Holy,” he said, not believing in God.

6. Tampa, Florida

Eight o’clock on a Friday night, and downtown is rolled up tight.  Half a block from the old Tampa Theater, lights, voices, and the slow roll of reggae spilling out into the street.  Albert and I have been having a hard time finding fun in Tampa, and the Jamaicans at the Jerk Hut seem to be having some.  It has the feel of a private party, and no one else there is white, but the bouncer says five bucks a person cover, twelve for a bucket of Dos Equis, you can get yourself some food in the back.

            We fill a plate with jerk chicken and fried bananas, open two beers, and settle in on the perimeter.  The band is talented, everyone in the place knows the words and sings along, and even though Albert keeps trying to bend the lyrics political, all the lines I catch are about love and sex and girls.  Albert is not a dancer, but the beat is irresistible, so I compromise, as others do, by swaying in my chair.  When we are not ignored entirely, we are looked at with pleasant curiosity.

            Earlier that day, I was trying to buy some grouper somewhere other than a supermarket, and the woman at the Born Again Produce stand sent me to the Fresh Fish Market in the projects.  “It’s crazy,” she said. “Water, water everywhere, but that’s the only one there is.”

            The Fresh Fish Market is in a strip mall.  Next door at the Joyful Noise Karate Institute, teenage boys in white and purple robes are grunting in unison; the effect is an odd mixture of eerie and calming.  There was only one grouper left in the case, and the woman behind me in line wanted to arm-wrestle me for it, before she broke into a smile so wide it showered the dingy market walls with light.

            Back at the Jerk Hut, the band is on break, and Albert says, “We might be the only white people to ever drink in this bar.”  And I say, “And you might be the only sculptor.”

            I’m finally beginning to understand, that when we want to kill ourselves, it is not because we are lonely, but because we are trying to break up with the world before the world breaks up with us.

            When the band comes back, a waitress named Shaila with beaded dreadlocks and bright green pumps takes both my hands and pulls me to the dance floor.  She says, “We are going to get everybody dancing tonight.”  Two songs later she says, “I’m going back to get Mister,” and I know Albert won’t be able to resist her invitation.  She brings him to me on the dance floor, and two songs later, Shaila gets her wish.  Every single person—even the bouncer, even the kitchen ladies—are dancing, joyful, to the beat.

Awaken and Awaken and Awaken (short fiction)

Posted in Prose with tags on June 9, 2010 by sethdellinger

Wrapped in green cotton and the dependable glare of the test pattern, Fred Lester has a dream about Cheerios.  Light and crisp and bumpy, the first spoonful of the cereal goes into his mouth without him even realizing it, his jaw so eagerly clamping down that he tastes the cold steel of the spoon along with the milk and toasted oats.  He has barely swallowed when a second spoonful has been deposited onto his tongue.  The sound of his chewing reminds him of an army regiment marching through snow.

The kitchen is his own, but in a shade of blue neither he nor his wife Ellen would ever have considered kitchenish.  Fred does not recognize the table or the chair he sits in, nor the backyard he can see through the screen door.  My kitchen has been moved, he thinks, yet somehow this does not seem unusual.  Or, I am not in my kitchen, but one very similar.  Fred considers for a moment that he may be eating someone else’s Cheerios.  The box, a familiar kindergarten yellow, faces him from the opposite end of the table.  The bowl of cereal on the front of the box is a twin to the one in front of him, making the cereal box into a mirror in which he does not exist.  Fred is stretching across the table to grab the box, perhaps to peruse the nutritional information, when he awakens.

The empty space next to him should be occupied by his wife, but she is not there.  4:07AM.  An empty space in the shape of a woman.  Fred sighs and mumbles words to himself that not even he can decipher, finds the remote nestled in the sheets, and banishes the television glow from the room.  He stares into the fading colors of the ceiling, trying to see around the pulsing violet blobs left from the television set.  At this moment, he becomes unsettled by the notion that perhaps nobody ever closes their eyes, that perhaps the best humanity ever manages is to spend long stretches of time staring at the backs of their eyelids.  Perhaps eyesight is never turned off, and perhaps his dreams, be they of sharp-toothed monsters or of breakfast cereals, these dreams are nothing more than another television set directly in front of his eyeballs.  This thought haunts him for several seconds.

The empty space next to him.  Ellen should be there.  This is a dream bedroom, he considers.  I am traveling from one imagined room to another.  Fred rotates and plants his bare feet on the carpet, propels himself from the bed to the door, opens it, steps into the hallway.  He recognizes this hallway.  This must be his hallways, the bathroom door closed at one end, his daughter’s room next to it, slightly ajar, allowing only slivers of small light.  Fred finds himself conflicted about checking on his sleeping little girl; Lucy being in her bed should be a given.  Even in this house, where the dark room behind him was clearly not true, where his wife Ellen should have been but wasn’t.  Lucy is asleep, he reassures himself.  She is dreaming of a house where her mother must be, since her mother is not in this one.

The stairs protest.  They scold Fred Lester for his girth, the carelessness with whcih he drops his weight onto each step as he descends into the front foyer.  Fred hears and notes these complaints.  He makes silent, empty apologies and promises.  The foyer is not his own.  He can see the cedar coat rack standing tall and silent before him, suffering its burden with practised stoicism.  His long brown coat, Ellen’s long maroon coat, Lucy’s blue windbreaker, everything is there, and yet this feels wrong, somehow.  This foyer is not his own, but it maintains appearances regardless, almost as if making a claculated effort to fool him.  Fred walks through the false foyer and into the kitchen.

Fred Lester is a sensible man.  Fred Lester is an educated man with a family and a home of his own.  The reality that he inhabits is also time-shared by millions of people in the world, and in this reality, his wife Ellen is asleep in his bed, his true foyer has usurped the imposter, and there ar eno Cheerios on his kitchen table.  The Cheerios were a dream, a nutritious and tasty dream, but nonetheless a dream.  When Fred Lester turns on the light to his kitchen, it is the proper shade of yellow that Ellen ha dpicked out herself, that Fred had agreed upon.  This is the kitchen.  There is no question.

And yet, there is the box of Cheerios on his table.

He blinks when he sees it.  He blinks several times in rapid succession, ignoring the impulse to yelp.  Cheerios do not follow men from their dreams into their waking lives, Fred deduces, so these must have always been here.  With further contemplation, he decides that these must be Ellen’s Cheerios, or perhaps Lucy’s, although Lucy favors oatmeal, doesn’t she?  Fred stalks around the kitchen table, blindly opening drawers and cabinets behind him and seeking out a spoon and a bowl, worried about taking his eyes off the ceral box, lest it vanish into another room, or into another dream that he will have later.  There is whole milk in the refrigerator, and Fred procures that as well.  He sits at the table—at his table—and pours himself a bowl.  The Cheerios clatter as they hit the ceramic, piling on top of each other, and Fred resolves now that he will eat every one, every tiny circle in his bowl, every single one in this box.  Are the dreams of Cheerios memories of Cheerios eaten, or of Cheerios waiting to be born?  This seems a mad question, and as such he lets it go.

He asks himself instead what it is that his wife likes about this cereal, as he takes his first bite.  It is hardly as satisfying as the bowl he was having moments ago.  This is what she eats every morning?  He can see Ellen now, dressed in her white labcoat and tennis shoes, sitting down and eating breakfast, idly chatting about something her supervisor or a co-worker said to her.  The Cheerios crunch between his molars.  Ellen is reminding Fred that she is working a double shift today, reminding him that he and Lucy are on their won for dinner tonight.  Make sure you call the landscaper, she adds.  I love you, she adds.  Ellen Lester deposits an empty bowl in the sink and leaves the house.

The kitchen seems to shift around him as Fred Lester slowly awakens.  No.  This is not his kitchen.  He can feel cold realization running through every pore of his body, saturating him.  Not his kitchen, not his house.  A dream.  Fred sees himself in the memory of his house, answering a phone call, his daughter watching a rented movie in the living room, the walls of the living room flashing blue and white.  And the voice on the other end of the telephone says there has been some sort of accident.  Please come.  Please come quickly.

When They Decide Not to Wait For You (fiction)

Posted in Prose with tags on April 13, 2010 by sethdellinger

Miller returned to southern Ohio in time to offer some help and kindness to his failing parents.  After their deaths he found a place in the woods to live and a job as chef in the dining facilities of a state park.  Often in the morning he drove an hour or more to the markets in the city, there to determine the day’s special at the state park cafeteria.  With the crates of fresh selections snuggled into his station wagon, his thoughts on the ride back confronted the culinary equivalent of the writer’s blank page.  Sometimes his head swirled with exciting ideas; other mornings he was in a panic upon returning with the same old eggplant and squash and zucchini and nothing but the dullness of the word ratatouille standing by to mock him.

He lived right on the grounds of the state park, preferring it’s protected forest to the reality of the nearby Ohio hamlet, and Ohio coal town left for dead years before.  Each evening he retired to his cabin where he savored a bottle of good wine and watched TV and sometimes wrote in his journal.  The wine he drank never affected him.  He had studied under some of the best chefs in Paris for many years before getting his own restaurant in Lyons–he had never been the least conscious of his wine consumption until moving back to the States, where any repeated tropism passed for addiction.  Now, like an alcoholic, he drank in secret exactly so people wouldn’t think he was an alcoholic.  He always woke up early, thirsty for water and orange juice.

On this day he was up before dawn.  On his porch, he dipped pieces of a stale baguette into his bowl of coffee and watched the sunrise turn the fog into a magician’s trick.

He was happy to see Parlon Dieter’s truck turning up the dirt path toward his cabin.  He went inside and poured a second bowl of coffee, tore off half a baguette, and carried out a tub of butter.

Parlon Dieter was around sixty, big and strong, with a full head of barely greying hair matted down by his hunting cap.  In the back of his pickup were six rabbits, a deer already dressed, and a single duck.  Miller knew without asking that the deer was two weeks dead.  They both agreed the extra week took out the gaminess.  The other hunters could barely wait the seven days, and the deer tasted of their brutish rush.  Dieter’s patience paid off, and now Miller bought his venison only from him.  He briefly checked over the kill and gave a buyer’s nod even though he would be lucky to move a single rabbit.  He wished he could serve venison to the crowd of salesmen coming to the small convention at the park this weekend, but they were suburbanites working for Ameritech, and he had already ordered dozens of Cornish hens, pre-stuffed, all of them in a row exactly alike.

Parlon Dieter accepted the bread and bowl of coffee with a polite thanks.  His bare hands, sealed thick with callouses, acted as their own set of protective gloves.  Dieter’s wife June had the same kind of hands.  She worked for Miller in the lodge, chopping and cooking in the kitchen, and often Dieter stood by and watched her, the admiration on his face.  He was a shy man whose natural good manners overcame a mountain-man taciturnity.  With each visit to the cabin stuttered out a tiny chapter from his life as if this were the payment required for the coffee and bread Miller had waiting for him.

The two of them stared into the distance as they slurped up their bowls.  They were up on a crest and they could see the length of rising and falling woods extending to the horizon.  Miller’s cabin was hidden and alone, away from the ones rented on a weekly basis by budget-minded families, Ohioans for the most part who had grown up without an ocean and contentedly boated on a man-made lake.  These were the people he cooked for in the summer, vacationers who wanted a tuna melt for lunch and breaded chicken for dinner.  As for his chef specials, venison in traditional brown sauce, duck quenelles and shiitake mushrooms, or stuffed rabbit with cream sauce, it was only because he bought the meat cheap from hunters that his budget could allow it.

The sunrise had burned off most of the fog except in the hallows.  Down there Parlon Dieter hunted ruffled grouse, rabbit, wild turkey, deer, and squirrel.  Dieter confirmed the rumors of bobcat returning, and he told Miller that in recent weeks bald eagles had been spotted on the high rocky knobs to the north.  “Seen a couple bald eagles tumbling in the air as a boy,” Dieter said, “lovebirds spinning themselves into a wheel.”

Then Dieter fell silent.  He held his bowl of coffee with both hands, as a potter might, and stared down into the dark liquid.

“That was a sight,” Miller finally said.

“It was,” Dieter agreed.  “My dad was with me.  Wanted ever after to see it again.”

Miller enjoyed listening to Parlon Dieter talk.  He enjoyed the way the words had to push through his big-man shyness.  He liked the way Parlon Dieter accepted his coffee French style and drank it like a Frenchman.

After another long silence during which Miller considered sharing something from his own life, perhaps his wild boar anecdote, Parlon Dieter said, “Haven’t told you much about my dad.  Save that for later I guess.”

Dieter noticeably relaxed.  He seemed relieved to know what chapter he would be required to narrate next visit.  Maybe then Miller would tell him about the wild boar splayed across the sidewalk.  The boar lay across the sidewalk in the village of Ardennes, a chocolate swirl of blood issuing from it’s mouth.  Had Miller not been a young chef’s apprentice at the time with a still rudimentary grasp of the French language, he would have marched in and asked for the honor of designing a recipe for this beast at their doorstep.

He had traveled to the village with a companion of his, a struggling fellow apprentice from Yugoslavia.  The dead boar sparked their hike the next day with an unknown excitement.  Immersed as he and Goran were in culinary techniques, the tangled black magnificence of the Ardennes woods seemed another version of the dark forces and grand complications at work in a several-course French meal.  The trees, dramatically bullet-scarred from World War II, were known to jam the teeth of buzz saws with all their ingested metal.  His struggling, bewildered friend from Yugoslavia reminded Miller of those fatal childhood tales woven in forests like these.  Goran’s talent was not strong enough to lead him out of the thicket, although for Miller the forest, as well as cuisine, easily parted into it’s separate ingredients.  It was Miller’s temperament to know all the trees, to recognize with as much effort as two plus two equals four, the birch, beech, oaks and aspen.  As soon as he realized that Goran could barely distinguish a contrast between and pine and hardwood, an obtuseness which in the kitchen would translate to likening cumin to cinnamon, his throat tightened with foreboding.  With three years’ passing, Goran was more than ever the lame boy trying to keep up with the piper’s song.  He suffered a nervous collapse and fled back to his home in Sarajevo.  That had happened over twenty years ago; perhaps Goran was dead now.

For a moment Miller forgot about Parlon Dieter standing next to him.  The fog in the dark hallows of the Ohio woods, evaporating as he watched, captured the sensation breathing on him late nights, a feeling growing ever-vaguer that visited sometimes when he was writing in his journal and found himself addressing an entry to an old friend.

Parlon Dieter put down his bowl on a tree stump.  He stabbed the rest of the baguette into his shirt pocket and drove off in his truck to deliver the meat.  The baguette poked out of the shirt pocket like an oversize fountain pen.  Miller knew the big man would need the bread for later, something to munch on to keep his shyness busy.

He took the bowls inside and laid them in the sink.  He caught his own eyes distorted in the metal band as he rinsed out the coffee beaker, and was encouraged to check his reflection in the glass of the Civil War photograph he had framed.  Young soldiers in Civil War uniforms disappeared in the glare, and he could see only himself.  Then he gave in and went into the bedroom and stood in front of the full-length mirror.  He still admired himself but without the pleasure he once felt, a pleasure like too many calories.  He was glad Parlon Dieter had never asked to use his bathroom, where he would have spied his shelf of skin creams, and his layered presentation of towels, over-the-hill divas in their preposterous colors and staginess.

He got in his station wagon and drove to the lodge.  The restaurant, the Wren’s Room as it was called, was in the corner of the lower floor, the one spot where the lodge extended into the mulchy beginning of forest.  Because of the trees, the natural lighting usually felt dreary, and everything seemed damp.

The large dining area was empty except for William, a local boy around seventeen or eighteen.  Promoted to head waiter, he was trying out another new arrangement of tables.  The dull lighting coated the windows with silver so that the boy could watch himself while he worked.  The boy’s enjoyment was clear—he was tasting himself, his appetite growing.  The first few restaurant tricks Miller had shown him had made the boy downright giddy.  About once a week William’s father showed up and sat alone, letting his son wait on him.  The father was a foundry worker who made historical markers for the whole country.  He took a stated pride in the fact that the molds came from West Virginia dirt.  He seemed to take equal pride in his boy and the way each week William might have a little improvement to show him, a linen napkin draped over his forearm, something that told the father the son was prospering in the job.

Miller smiled.  The boy turned around, then came over to take Miller’s garment bag off his hands.  Miller had brought a suit and tie for later, should he decide to play host to the visiting salesmen.  Probably not.  Since sunrise, when that feeling had surprised him and a scrap of his lost companion had floated home, he had begun thinking of how to arrange his evening.  Wine, to be sure, a Bordeaux; perhaps the duck Dieter had killed.  His books would be arranged around him, the journal in his hand, but he would turn on the TV.

In the kitchen, June Dieter was already at work on the rabbits, and there was Parlon Dieter beside her.  She chatted to her husband amiably about one of her old-fashioned topics as she brought the cleaver down six times and deposited the heads in the plastic bag he held out for her.  She was in her late fifties.  Her hair was corded with grey.  She wore it long, tied back in a thick mane.

The baguette was still poking out of Dieter’s pocket.  As soon as Miller walked through the door, Dieter reached for it.

“Want these heads?” June Dieter yelled over.

“No.  Take them.”

“Brought you some thyme and basil and cilantro from my garden.”

“Good,” Miller said.

“What are you going to do with these rabbits?”  She didn’t mind asking questions one after another if there were answers to be had.  Her voice was always on the loud side, and smartened with the whipcrack of Christian cheer.  She was the best there was at dressing and butchering game.

She asked, “You doing the special with the white sauce?  Parlon sure likes it.”

“I don’t know yet.”

She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to face him.  “Samson Meats’ll be here at ten with the Cornish Hens.”

Miller said, “Will they bring them to us frozen or defrosted?”

“Good question.”  June Dieter strode to the kitchen door and pushed it open.  The door swung back and forth.  “William!” she called through the swish, the cleaver slapping against her thigh.

The boy rushed in as if June Dieter had blasted her coach’s whistle.  Miller moved over to his counter, the counter where he created, and studied the row of herbs and oils.  He picked up the thyme Dieter’s wife had laid there and pressed it against his nose and face.  He pulled down the garlic.  Already he was finding his way.  He almost knew what to do with the rabbit.  He would know in a little while.

He glanced over at William, stuttering out a response to June Dieter.  He felt a surge of unwanted power over the boy.  He would have to school him in the intangibles.  First was to remove nervousness from the body language.  Nervousness made people feel their control over you and that was deadly for a chef.  The diner should feel privileged, delightedly helpless, and always a little afraid.

He knew William had grand plans, plans to escape this town, this state, plans to be a European chef.  He didn’t even have to ask.  It was there in the boy’s looks, the suppressed yearning of his slenderness, the quivering elfin miserableness of his features upon making any mistake.  Now William couldn’t answer June Dieter’s question, and his terror showed.  He didn’t know if the Cornish Hens would arrive defrosted or frozen, even though he had taken the message.  Two blooms of red fired up his cheeks.  Miller heard the adhesive in June Dieter’s voice.  Ripping.  It was this ability to summon fervor that made her a leader.  He had discovered her making beds in the lodge, and, oh, what a find: her rough face had discharged an energy commanding Miller to put a butcher knife in her hand.

“Somebody just came in and ordered pancakes,” William added, blanching behind his bright flush.  Under June Dieter’s stare, William’s face ebbed and throbbed with discoloration.  It was June Dieter, not Parlon, who had told Miller about the son they had lost to leukemia and how the six grandchildren their two daughters had given them made her confront her one great hell-bound sin:  an inability to love those six enough to make up for the one she’d lost.

“We’re not making pancakes,” she told William.  “We’re too busy, and where’s Ada?”  She moved to the kitchen door and looked out.  “Oh, it’s just Henry and Lorraine out there.  Parlon, crack a few eggs on the grill.  They’re getting eggs and toast this morning.”

William’s face twisted.  “You tell them,” he said.

“Out!  before this cleaver finds your head!”

It was cartoonish the way the kitchen door fanned the wind in their faces, so quickly did William depart.  Miller knew the son June Dieter had lost had been about William’s age.  He could see her fighting against the kind of calculations a God-fearing person should not make.

Parlon Dieter began cracking eggs into a bowl.  The big, strong man tapped the shell ever-so timidly, turning the egg with each tap to check for a break, then using both hands to pry the halves apart.  He did that six times, and the clumsy innocence of the sight was as pleasurable to Miller as watching the finest chef at work.

June Dieter moved in to help her husband.  Her hand swelled atop the spatula Parlon was holding.  Together they stabbed at the eggs, then shoved them onto a plate.  She flung her iron-colored pony tail over her shoulder with what appeared to be flirtatiousness—for Dieter was watching her closely—and she kicked open the door, and delivered the breakfast plates herself..  She left no doubt about whose hands had guided whose when they had first learned to love each other—and now, lesson given and lesson received, it was easy to picture them pawing each other in bed, something unbearably forceful in their tussling.

After delivering the eggs to Henry and Lorraine, June Dieter sat down to chat with them.  The boy, William, jerked with some confusion at the sight and went back to arranging chairs.

Miller took a handful of thyme and began wandering.  He went into the dining room and walked its far length, away from the two diners.  The floor to ceiling windows returned his reflection.  Outdoors and indoors merged so he appeared to be impaling himself on branches as he paced.  He paused for a moment at the large stone fireplace.  He was standing in the Hansel and Gretel corner, or so he called it.  The trees created the illusion of living deep in the forest, when in fact twenty feet away in the other direction the mowed grass and masonried landscaping began.  An all-cement porch with some umbrellas overlooking a wedge of man-made Ohio lake.

Yesterday or the day before, June Dieter had brought in some corn fritters, and they were good, though he had limited himself to one, and now he was thinking of having her fry up the same batter but as a type of burrito, and upright sheath to hold and display the rabbit stuffing he would create.

He pressed the herb to his nose.  Thyme.  He loved the name and the smell.  He looked out the window at the illusion of deep woods.  His face, too, was out there, hung on a tree and returning his gaze.  He drew close to the glass to lose the mirror effect.  Outside, the forest panted its beefy halitus; the soil held the breaths of gloom in its dampness.  Fifteen thousand years ago a glacier had sliced through this park he was living in, bringing with it the nutrients from all its travels.  Fifteen thousand years ago human beings were the fable that frightened the dark woods.

“June”, Miller said, a soft declarative sentence, hardly meant to be overheard, but in a second June Dieter was up from the table and there by his side.  He didn’t understand how it was that people became so important to you.  His parents, too late, were important to him.  They had brought their peculiar boy into the world and had tried their best, though he had taken too long to understand this, and the love he had for them at the end was in fact a nostalgia for the love he should have had all along.  Then there was Goran, their relationship literally forged word by word as they learned a common language together.  And now in a different way was this woman June Dieter, whom he had found making beds in her white uniform, the frilly short-sleeve cuffs absurdly girlish against her bread-kneading forearms.  And her grey pony tail—ridiculous, of course, except when it worked and became not ridiculous at all.  June Diter had taken a youthful braid, an aging face, and confidently served it up with Appalachian zest.  It was what he had tried to do in cuisine, elevating the unlikely and demeaned into an artful collaboration.  It was where he had once succeeded, but not for awhile—not for a long time.

The say a great chef is great for only eight to ten years, and he had lasted eleven, and no one was sorry to see him go.

And so for the people who would never ask why such a man as he was here, the vacationers with their beers and hoagies, mostly avoiding the restaurant and eating out of coolers or cooking in their own cabins, to those Ohioans or Ameritech salesmen who would never ask why a once nearly famous chef had come to a place that made a joke of who he really was, he could answer them:  he was washed up.

Later, the Ameritech salesmen sat in two rows at the banquet tables and they looked alike, every one of them. The occasional female head or Asian black crewcut or latte skin was an illustrator’s trick to hide the exactly repeated pen strokes.  The people were drawn all the same.

“This puts the death in death row,” Miller said to June Dieter.  They watched from the kitchen.  June Dieter had stayed late to do the cooking, and Miller was padding her timecard to make sure she was well rewarded.  He hoped she didn’t notice that the signs of life she had tried to breathe into the pre-fab meal were completely lost on the samey salesmen.

He put on his coat to leave.  He didn’t care if they were satisfied diners.  They didn’t have the dimension to like or dislike his food.  Rubbery baby carrots and a baked potato were just their speed, a dead and buried geometry to go with the Cornish hens.  Yet June Dieter had tried for more: she’d whipped up bowls of garlic mashed potatoes and carefully seared fresh asparagus.  William served each salesman individually, exhilarated by the stylish gestures he could employ to spoon out gobs of starch.  Then he poured them wine Miller would’ve used for mouthwash.

“I’m leaving,” Miller said.

June Dieter’s eyes roamed over him a but roughly.  “All right,” she said.

Although the dining hall had been closed for the banquet, a man had slipped in and now sat alone at a table by the fireplace.  He seemed patiently entertained by the banquet’s doings and especially by the pomp and flitting-about of William.  The man’s presence had lit the boy’s panic flares.  Geri and Willa—the two night servers—coped with the man’s presence by pretending he wasn’t there.

The man wore an Ohio parks sweatshirt—Ohio, the heart of it all!—the same design as the one on display in the gift shop.  A ruse, Miller spotted instantly.  The man’s smile was too close to an ironic sneer.  The haircut revealed a knowledge of style.  His skin had been looked after.  Then the man brought out a book, and Miller knew.  He was vain, arranging his image even when no one was looking, playing his own little jokes with the sweatshirt.  A man of the world, or at least not of this little Wren’s Room world.

Drawing closer, Miller glimpsed the manicured hands, the clipped and cleaned nails, and on his wrist the expensive diver’s watch masquerading as a budget Timex.  His hair had been colored, expertly so, but colored.

“You’re being ignored.  I apologize,” Miller said.

“Excuse me!” the man called to William.  “What’s the chef’s special?”

Miller allowed him this.  They had looked each other in the eye, but the man still held Miller as a functionary.

“He must be a local boy.”  The man shook his head.

“I’m sorry, technically we’re closed for a business banquet, but yes, yes of course, we don’t get our help from summering gentry.”

“That explains the manners, or lack thereof.  You, excuse me!” he called again.  He feigned (quite well) condescension, but clearly the man was taken aback by William’s slender good looks, a prettiness that went completely unnoticed against the burly, rifle-rack aesthetic favored in this region.  Clearly the man was aware that Miller understood the subtle arching of eyebrows.  It appeared almost staged for his benefit.

To a scurrying, nearly distraught William the man said “Can you find your way clear to wait on me this evening?”

William stood at the edge of the man’s table, gulping breaths.  The man watched him, loving it.

“I’m your waiter, sir.  My name is William.”

“William, I’m struck by your accent.  What town are you from?  I’m getting a strong feeling you’re from Homer or Gomer or Claysville.”

The man had posed one of those silly, unfair questions meant to ridicule.  Miller’s annoyance swelled into anger, but he knew the expression on his face remained calm, even serene.  He was glad the boy was wise enough not to answer, to retreat into polite bewilderment.

“So what’s the chef’s special?” the man asked.

“Rabbit,” Miller told him.

“I’ll try it,” the man said.  He opened his book, Dante’s Inferno.

“An appetizer?”

“You have appetizers here?”

“I can make one, if you like.”

The man went back to his book.  “No thank you.  I’ll settle for terza rima as my prologue.”

Miller went back into the kitchen.  He opened the refrigerator.    In a bowl was the corn-fritter batter June had stirred up and he had thinned out.  Next to it was the rabbit marinading in a puddle of lemon juice, garlic, and the fresh thyme from her garden.  Too obvious, he thought.  Such predictable seasonings.  Already he saw the man’s amused sneer.

“You’re back,” June Dieter said.

“Yes.” He pressed his palms against the counter.  He tried to muscle the shaking from his hands.  He pressed harder.  Obvious seasonings, perhaps, but no more obvious than Dante’s Inferno. God no.

“Are you all right?”  June Dieter had come up behind him.  Her hands dug into his shoulders.  Such strength, Miller thought.  For a moment he leaned back into her care.

“Just tell me what you want me to do,” she said.

William burst in, panicking over the salesmen’s desserts.

“We’re busy!” June Dieter yelled.  “Do it yourself!”

The pieces of cake were already Saran-wrapped on individual plates.  William grabbed at them and began stacking them up his arm.

“Just put them on a tray!” June Dieter yelled.

William’s arm bent and sent three plates to the floor.  His features struggled to remain composed.  June Dieter heaved a sigh and turned her back on the boy.

Miller looked at the boy’s crumbling face.  Goran, he thought.  He was surprised he hadn’t seen it before.  Miller pulled shallots and cilantro and garlic onto the counter.  Where was Goran now?  The carrots were fresh and tangy; he pulled them down.  Dead?  He asked June Dieter to mince shallots and cut the carrots into cubes.  The wine he needed, Bordeaux, a 1989 Talbot, was in his private, locked stock.  As he fished out his keys, he asked June Dieter to go outside and break him off a juniper sprig.  As he had hoped, Parlon got up to do it for her.  He still needed June to help him.

He was working like a short-order cook, and he liked the way that felt.  He poured a dipperful of corn-fritter batter on the flat grill and proceeded to create the most exotic rabbit crepe in the world.  It had sprung into his mind in the moment of necessity.

Miller’s shoulders rumbled with the train running through his body, but inside his head it was quiet.  He looked up to find June Dieter and William, standing as two soldiers, attentive to his next command.  “Do it right,” he said, pushing the bottle of Bordeaux to William.  “You understand he’s trying to disrupt you?”

William swallowed hard.

“You understand you must stay composed?”

“Do you understand that if you don’t stay composed I’m going to slap you upside your head!” June Dieter warned.

Miller drew close to William, lips to ear.  His whisper was close to a hiss.  “You goddamn hillbilly, how are you going to get out of here if you can’t conquer one smart-ass diner?”

William compressed his mouth, his nose, his rapidly blinking eyes.  Perhaps there was hope for him after all, as there never was, really, for Goran.

After William left, Miller went over to the sink and washed his shaking hands.  June Dieter came over.

“Don’t do it,” he asked.  “Don’t assure me.”

Most of the salesmen were gone now, causing a sudden pressure drop into stillness.  A few remained, chatting over coffee and wine.  The last straggles of tinkling cups settled over Miller.

Sitting on a stool, his dinner plate on a wooden chopping block, Parlon Dieter hunched over the braised rabbits.  “Parlon, tell the man how much you like those rabbits,” June Dieter instructed.

Parlon didn’t say anything, but he nodded.  Sometimes Miller conjured pictures—he couldn’t help it, it was Parlon Dieter’s own stoicism that made him do it—of what that face would look like disfigured in love making.  The spread of pounded features—soft broken nose, a razor slice of eyes, cinder lips—he saw June Dieter taking him further, to the point that pain and pleasure broke apart his poker face.  Miller himself sometimes wanted to love June Dieter, that young hair, that old face, he wanted to grab and smother those two worlds.

William rushed back in.  “That guy wants a word with you,” he said, pulling down another wine glass.

“How can you be out of breath running ten feet?” June Dieter demanded.

“And I think he’s rich,” William said.

Miller glanced toward the wine glass.  “What’s that for?” he asked.

“He wants you to join him.”

“Please tell him I’ve left.”

“But he saw you,” William said.  “He knows you’re here.”

“You heard him,” June Dieter snapped.  “Elvis has left the building, boy!  Do I have to go out there and tell him myself?”

“You join him,” Miller said to June Dieter.  “Why don’t you.  The meal is half yours.”

June narrowed her eyes at him.  He saw her frisky defiance.  God, he thought, if only she’d gotten out of here at an earlier age.

“And what exactly should I say?” June Dieter asked.

“Say, Monsieur is disappointed?

“Well, I’ll just say Monsieur,” she said.  “I’ll say I hope Monsieur is enjoying the meal.  I will,” she said.  “I’ll say it.”

Parlon got up from his stool and, still chewing, watched out the window of the swinging door.  “Sitting down,” he reported.  “And she ain’t being asked to leave.”

************************************************************

“Did he mind his manners?” Parlon Dieter asked in his sincere, wooden fashion after his wife showed up very late at Miller’s cabin.  The two of them were sitting outside, encircled by mosquito torches.

June Dieter pulled a chair into their protected circle.  “Oh, Parlon, honey, that man wants a woman about as much as I want a fly in my soup.”

Miller went inside his cabin to retrieve another bottle of wine.  When he returned, June Dieter was telling her husband, “Good gracious, Parlon, where’s your eyes?  Honey, it wasn’t me he was after.  I was nothing but a bodyguard for that poor little boy.”

“Who are we talking about?” Miller asked, though he knew.

“Parlon, you’re a hunter, and you know about predators and their prey, and by God I’m not explaining it further to you.”

“What happened?” Miller asked.

“Nothing happened.  I didn’t leave until that boy was safe and sound inside his car, I made sure of that.”

“It wouldn’t take nothing to follow him.”

“My lord, Parlon,” she said.  “I can only do so much.”

Miller opened the wine with a corkscrew.  He found himself mimicking William’s theatrical nervousness and flair, and was glad the torch flames distorted everything.

“That boy’s too young to know his own secrets,” June Dieter said.

“He’s young, he’s got time,” Miller said, and got only silence in return.  He poured Dieter another glass, then asked, “So, you seen any bobcat yet?”

“Oh yeah, I seen ’em.”

There was a long pause, long enough for the woods to grow noisy around the hollow of their silence, and Miller could feel June Dieter’s muscles ready themselves to jump in and save the conversation.

Then Parlon Dieter said, “When I’m hunting I picture my son stepping out from behind a tree.  I pick out the tree then sit down and wait for him.”

Even June Dieter met these words with a startled shiver.

Miller thought, I should say something.  I should make a move.  And he thought, I can’t.

Goran had struggled three years before giving up—as giving up he should.  He had no talent.  Miller should have told him.  He should have helped to redirect him instead of helping to foster a dream he knew would be broken.  But then Goran might have left, and he wanted Goran there for him as he rose to success, not that he could give Goran much attention during the ascent.  But for the best people in love, love had to wait for them to become the best—how easy to believe that when you were young.  How easy to say goodbye when they decide not to wait for you.

The blood was striking his temples.  Beat, beat, beat.

“A barred owl,” Parlon said, and got up from his chair.  He walked over to the edge of the woods.

June reached down for the wine.  Miller took the bottle and poured it for her.  “Your husband needs you,” he told her.

“Parlon works things out in his own way.”  She reached over in the dark and took hold of his hand.  “He’ll be alright.”


When They Decide Not to Wait For You, part three

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on April 12, 2010 by sethdellinger

This is the third and final part of my new short story, “When They Decide Not to Wait For You”.  The previous two parts are the entries below this one.  if you’re the type of person who likes to read things all together, I’ll be posting the story in one whole piece in a day or two.  Thanks for reading!

The man wore an Ohio parks sweatshirt—Ohio, the heart of it all!—the same design as the one on display in the gift shop.  A ruse, Miller spotted instantly.  The man’s smile was too close to an ironic sneer.  The haircut revealed a knowledge of style.  His skin had been looked after.  Then the man brought out a book, and Miller knew.  He was vain, arranging his image even when no one was looking, playing his own little jokes with the sweatshirt.  A man of the world, or at least not of this little Wren’s Room world.

Drawing closer, Miller glimpsed the manicured hands, the clipped and cleaned nails, and on his wrist the expensive diver’s watch masquerading as a budget Timex.  His hair had been colored, expertly so, but colored.

“You’re being ignored.  I apologize,” Miller said.

“Excuse me!” the man called to William.  “What’s the chef’s special?”

Miller allowed him this.  They had looked each other in the eye, but the man still held Miller as a functionary.

“He must be a local boy.”  The man shook his head.

“I’m sorry, technically we’re closed for a business banquet, but yes, yes of course, we don’t get our help from summering gentry.”

“That explains the manners, or lack thereof.  You, excuse me!” he called again.  He feigned (quite well) condescension, but clearly the man was taken aback by William’s slender good looks, a prettiness that went completely unnoticed against the burly, rifle-rack aesthetic favored in this region.  Clearly the man was aware that Miller understood the subtle arching of eyebrows.  It appeared almost staged for his benefit.

To a scurrying, nearly distraught William the man said “Can you find your way clear to wait on me this evening?”

William stood at the edge of the man’s table, gulping breaths.  The man watched him, loving it.

“I’m your waiter, sir.  My name is William.”

“William, I’m struck by your accent.  What town are you from?  I’m getting a strong feeling you’re from Homer or Gomer or Claysville.”

The man had posed one of those silly, unfair questions meant to ridicule.  Miller’s annoyance swelled into anger, but he knew the expression on his face remained calm, even serene.  He was glad the boy was wise enough not to answer, to retreat into polite bewilderment.

“So what’s the chef’s special?” the man asked.

“Rabbit,” Miller told him.

“I’ll try it,” the man said.  He opened his book, Dante’s Inferno.

“An appetizer?”

“You have appetizers here?”

“I can make one, if you like.”

The man went back to his book.  “No thank you.  I’ll settle for terza rima as my prologue.”

Miller went back into the kitchen.  He opened the refrigerator.    In a bowl was the corn-fritter batter June had stirred up and he had thinned out.  Next to it was the rabbit marinading in a puddle of lemon juice, garlic, and the fresh thyme from her garden.  Too obvious, he thought.  Such predictable seasonings.  Already he saw the man’s amused sneer.

“You’re back,” June Dieter said.

“Yes.” He pressed his palms against the counter.  He tried to muscle the shaking from his hands.  He pressed harder.  Obvious seasonings, perhaps, but no more obvious than Dante’s Inferno. God no.

“Are you all right?”  June Dieter had come up behind him.  Her hands dug into his shoulders.  Such strength, Miller thought.  For a moment he leaned back into her care.

“Just tell me what you want me to do,” she said.

William burst in, panicking over the salesmen’s desserts.

“We’re busy!” June Dieter yelled.  “Do it yourself!”

The pieces of cake were already Saran-wrapped on individual plates.  William grabbed at them and began stacking them up his arm.

“Just put them on a tray!” June Dieter yelled.

William’s arm bent and sent three plates to the floor.  His features struggled to remain composed.  June Dieter heaved a sigh and turned her back on the boy.

Miller looked at the boy’s crumbling face.  Goran, he thought.  He was surprised he hadn’t seen it before.  Miller pulled shallots and cilantro and garlic onto the counter.  Where was Goran now?  The carrots were fresh and tangy; he pulled them down.  Dead?  He asked June Dieter to mince shallots and cut the carrots into cubes.  The wine he needed, Bordeaux, a 1989 Talbot, was in his private, locked stock.  As he fished out his keys, he asked June Dieter to go outside and break him off a juniper sprig.  As he had hoped, Parlon got up to do it for her.  He still needed June to help him.

He was working like a short-order cook, and he liked the way that felt.  He poured a dipperful of corn-fritter batter on the flat grill and proceeded to create the most exotic rabbit crepe in the world.  It had sprung into his mind in the moment of necessity.

Miller’s shoulders rumbled with the train running through his body, but inside his head it was quiet.  He looked up to find June Dieter and William, standing as two soldiers, attentive to his next command.  “Do it right,” he said, pushing the bottle of Bordeaux to William.  “You understand he’s trying to disrupt you?”

William swallowed hard.

“You understand you must stay composed?”

“Do you understand that if you don’t stay composed I’m going to slap you upside your head!” June Dieter warned.

Miller drew close to William, lips to ear.  His whisper was close to a hiss.  “You goddamn hillbilly, how are you going to get out of here if you can’t conquer one smart-ass diner?”

William compressed his mouth, his nose, his rapidly blinking eyes.  Perhaps there was hope for him after all, as there never was, really, for Goran.

After William left, Miller went over to the sink and washed his shaking hands.  June Dieter came over.

“Don’t do it,” he asked.  “Don’t assure me.”

Most of the salesmen were gone now, causing a sudden pressure drop into stillness.  A few remained, chatting over coffee and wine.  The last straggles of tinkling cups settled over Miller.

Sitting on a stool, his dinner plate on a wooden chopping block, Parlon Dieter hunched over the braised rabbits.  “Parlon, tell the man how much you like those rabbits,” June Dieter instructed.

Parlon didn’t say anything, but he nodded.  Sometimes Miller conjured pictures—he couldn’t help it, it was Parlon Dieter’s own stoicism that made him do it—of what that face would look like disfigured in love making.  The spread of pounded features—soft broken nose, a razor slice of eyes, cinder lips—he saw June Dieter taking him further, to the point that pain and pleasure broke apart his poker face.  Miller himself sometimes wanted to love June Dieter, that young hair, that old face, he wanted to grab and smother those two worlds.

William rushed back in.  “That guy wants a word with you,” he said, pulling down another wine glass.

“How can you be out of breath running ten feet?” June Dieter demanded.

“And I think he’s rich,” William said.

Miller glanced toward the wine glass.  “What’s that for?” he asked.

“He wants you to join him.”

“Please tell him I’ve left.”

“But he saw you,” William said.  “He knows you’re here.”

“You heard him,” June Dieter snapped.  “Elvis has left the building, boy!  Do I have to go out there and tell him myself?”

“You join him,” Miller said to June Dieter.  “Why don’t you.  The meal is half yours.”

June narrowed her eyes at him.  He saw her frisky defiance.  God, he thought, if only she’d gotten out of here at an earlier age.

“And what exactly should I say?” June Dieter asked.

“Say, Monsieur is disappointed?

“Well, I’ll just say Monsieur,” she said.  “I’ll say I hope Monsieur is enjoying the meal.  I will,” she said.  “I’ll say it.”

Parlon got up from his stool and, still chewing, watched out the window of the swinging door.  “Sitting down,” he reported.  “And she ain’t being asked to leave.”

************************************************************

“Did he mind his manners?” Parlon Dieter asked in his sincere, wooden fashion after his wife showed up very late at Miller’s cabin.  The two of them were sitting outside, encircled by mosquito torches.

June Dieter pulled a chair into their protected circle.  “Oh, Parlon, honey, that man wants a woman about as much as I want a fly in my soup.”

Miller went inside his cabin to retrieve another bottle of wine.  When he returned, June Dieter was telling her husband, “Good gracious, Parlon, where’s your eyes?  Honey, it wasn’t me he was after.  I was nothing but a bodyguard for that poor little boy.”

“Who are we talking about?” Miller asked, though he knew.

“Parlon, you’re a hunter, and you know about predators and their prey, and by God I’m not explaining it further to you.”

“What happened?” Miller asked.

“Nothing happened.  I didn’t leave until that boy was safe and sound inside his car, I made sure of that.”

“It wouldn’t take nothing to follow him.”

“My lord, Parlon,” she said.  “I can only do so much.”

Miller opened the wine with a corkscrew.  He found himself mimicking William’s theatrical nervousness and flair, and was glad the torch flames distorted everything.

“That boy’s too young to know his own secrets,” June Dieter said.

“He’s young, he’s got time,” Miller said, and got only silence in return.  He poured Dieter another glass, then asked, “So, you seen any bobcat yet?”

“Oh yeah, I seen ’em.”

There was a long pause, long enough for the woods to grow noisy around the hollow of their silence, and Miller could feel June Dieter’s muscles ready themselves to jump in and save the conversation.

Then Parlon Dieter said, “When I’m hunting I picture my son stepping out from behind a tree.  I pick out the tree then sit down and wait for him.”

Even June Dieter met these words with a startled shiver.

Miller thought, I should say something.  I should make a move.  And he thought, I can’t.

Goran had struggled three years before giving up—as giving up he should.  He had no talent.  Miller should have told him.  He should have helped to redirect him instead of helping to foster a dream he knew would be broken.  But then Goran might have left, and he wanted Goran there for him as he rose to success, not that he could give Goran much attention during the ascent.  But for the best people in love, love had to wait for them to become the best—how easy to believe that when you were young.  How easy to say goodbye when they decide not to wait for you.

The blood was striking his temples.  Beat, beat, beat.

“A barred owl,” Parlon said, and got up from his chair.  He walked over to the edge of the woods.

June reached down for the wine.  Miller took the bottle and poured it for her.  “Your husband needs you,” he told her.

“Parlon works things out in his own way.”  She reached over in the dark and took hold of his hand.  “He’ll be alright.”


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