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Monday, August 12, 2019

Sugar Run Wild

by Dennis “Suge” Thompson

Red lies in bed at Israel Hospice. On Christmas Eve morning, he talks in semi-conscious lucidity about Keats and Emerson, Man-O-War and Secretariat, his speech affected by the intravenous pain medications. A self-educated person and my friend for twenty-five years, Red is the best horse handicapper I’ve met and will likely ever meet, which is one of the reasons I love him. A polymath, he could pick a horse by its gait, its speed breaks, and its shift in class, all the while making some obscure reference to Leda and the Swan by Yeats.
Red and I met at Fairgrounds Park in New Orleans. I was an unemployed letter carrier and a novice handicapper. He was a hot walker for the biggest trainer at the thoroughbred meet that spring in ‘89. On that day I’d paced the paddock, trying to figure the form and get a clue as to which horse would make me money. Living on a broke man’s budget, I knew I had to lay off most races and could only play the ones that would produce a payoff. I watched a large red-haired man lead the nine horse during the post parade, giving the jockey a one-leg lift into the irons before coming out onto the apron to watch the race at the fence.
He stood next me, and without taking his eyes off the nine horse, he asked, “You bet this race yet, bud?”
“Not yet. Still working the numbers.”
“You’d be smart to go twenty across the board on Dante’s Devil Dog. Way underplayed at 20/1.”
“Your horse?”
“I work him. He’s fit and ready. I’m just telling you the smart bet, friend.”
I thought about his tip and watched the chestnut gelding stretch well with each forward step. A big-boned horse with straight legs and well-sprung ribs, his overall confirmation showed endurance and late speed.
“Why is he at long odds?” I asked.
“Hasn’t been raced for nine months. He finished seventh his last outing; lung bleeding slowed him in that race. He’s on Lasix now. Had a bullet workout three weeks ago. I’m not sure why no one’s picked up on that. He’ll run well.”
“Bet big or go home,” I said.
He looked at me and smiled as I walked to the betting window. I dropped twenty across the board on the nine. Sweat from my palm made the ticket damp as I watched the nine horse load. We stood there together not saying a word as the steel slammed shut and the bell rang out the madness racing into the wind. Dante’s Devil Dog broke clean but slowly on the outside, cutting to the inside rail on the turn. He trailed the field through the backstretch, and I could feel anger welling up. Red said nothing. At the ¾ pole, he raised his hand like he was pulling a trigger, and the nine horse made a move, weaving through traffic until he cut away into center track. Head up and full stride, Shane Romero moved him from off the pace to the three spot. Seventy yards from the wire without lifting the whip, Dante’s Devil Dog won with a head bob across the finish. I screamed and hugged the big man standing next to me who’d made my paycheck for the week. We became partners that day.
During the following months at Fair Grounds Park, Red and I spent time talking horses and his life. I learned he’d been born in New York and moved to a farm in Iowa at age eleven. He’d spent his early years around horses and learned to trust them more than people. After a stint in the Navy and a tour in Vietnam, he settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he married a young woman, Cassie LeBlanc, from Slidell, Louisiana.
He and Cassie lived a quiet life, moving to a small house on the corner of N. Dupre and Castiglione Street, a few blocks from the racetrack. He said their time together was the happiest in his life. She worked at a department store on North Broad Street, and he began training a small field of local horses. Together, they made a modest income and had plenty of time to live and love. Red’s life changed one foggy morning when a police cruiser pulled up outside the stable on the backside of the track. Two officers and the racing secretary met him in his tack room. He said he could tell by the look on their faces that something bad had happened. His wife Cassie had been struck broadside during her drive to work. That morning was the start of what he called his missing years.
In December 1986, after sixteen years of marriage, Red packed his pickup camper and everything he planned to carry with him, heading east on I-90 across the South. He spent the next two years bumming through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. He worked day labor in fruit groves and fishing boats, saving up enough money to get by until the next opportunity came along. He worked hard when he worked, drank hard when he didn’t. His life took a turn when he showed up at Tampa Downs outside of Tampa, Florida.
Red pulled up at Tampa Downs in January 1988. He had been given a work lead by a friend on a fishing boat in Tarpon Springs. When he walked into the racing secretary’s office to inquire about a job as a hot walker, he was met at the door by an old trainer he’d known at Fair Grounds Race Track. They talked for over an hour, and Red walked away with a job working throughout the upcoming meet in Tampa. Being back around horses centered him, settling him and his desire to roam. He returned to New Orleans in the fall of ‘88  
          After we met that spring of ‘89, I was rehired in the summer to work as a mail handler at the Bulk Mail Center in New Orleans. I worked the night shift, leaving plenty of time to handicap the matinees and the early evening race cards. In the fall, Red moved into an apartment with me in Metairie. Twenty years my senior, Red and I lived like brothers, sharing expenses and life experiences. After ten years together in New Orleans, we decided to move to Phoenix and take up horse training at Turf Paradise. Red built a strong stable of competitive thoroughbreds. We spent the next thirteen years living in Phoenix during the winter and spring, then travelling to Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota, for the summer and fall.
          The week before Labor Day in 2013, Red came home from the track exhausted and running a low-grade fever. After several days, he turned jaundiced and ached in his abdomen and ribs. I took him to the doctor where he underwent a battery of tests and an MRI. The results came back positive for pancreatic cancer. We spent the next months in and out Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, and in early December, the doctor shared the news. Red was terminal. His final request was to travel back to Iowa to live out his last days.
Christmas morning, I’m reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales to Red. He stares out the window, having not eaten for three days. The nurse had told me that he’ll soon stop taking fluids as his body shuts down. When I stop, he tells me he’d heard Dylan Thomas perform the piece at one of his last readings in New York in 1953, shortly before his death. Even though he was only eight years old when he heard Thomas read, Red recites the opening lines, impersonating Thomas’s melancholy Welsh accent. I stroke his thinning red hair, his forehead warm with fever.
“Can I get you anything? Some water?”
He smiles a toothless grin. He whispers, “Do you remember the bridge jumper at Turf Paradise?”
“How could I forget,” I say. “I damn near killed you for that hot tip.”
“Tell me the story the way you remember it, Suge.”
Betting a bridge jumper is betting against the big money at a track. Every so often, a gambler will put big money down on a “sure bet” horse, say $200,000 to show on the favorite. It’s called a bridge jumper because if the bet doesn’t pay, the gambler is likely to jump off a bridge. The bridge jumper bet throws the pari-mutuel board for a crazy run with the odds on all other horses going through the roof. The smart bettor will play the high odds horses to show, hoping the “sure bet” will finish fourth and out of the money.
“We were sitting under an umbrella table on the apron. You’d taken the day off and were sipping a pina colada.”
“Mai Tai,” he says, “By the way, I’ve never taken a day off.”
I hold his hand and feel him squeeze it. He winks and smiles.
“Sorry, Suge. Go on.”
“I was ready to bet the horse Sugar Run Wild when the board dropped on it.”
Red grins. “You just liked her name. You didn’t even know her speed breaks or class.”
“I remember sitting down disgusted and pissed. You rechecked the form and told me to go three hundred to show on the five horse Gotanaceupersleeve. You said that filly was my ace.”
“That’s how I remember it,” he says. “Keep going.”
“An ace my ass.”
“Now you’re getting worked up,” he says with a grin.
“I jumped up, trotted to the window with one minute to post. Stood in line behind some old bastard reading his bets off a crib sheet. I dropped three bills on your pick as the bell rang, then turned to watch the five stumble from the gate.”  
“Oh shit. Here it comes.” Red sighs, still smiling.
“You spilled your drink standing up to watch, then shook your head before sitting back down. This all sounding familiar?”
He nods. I feel his grip strengthen, then relax.
“You wanted to push me off the bridge when Sugar Run Wild came across in first.”
“Yeah. Damn right. Gotanaceupersleeve had quite the neck stretch at the finish. Too bad she was dead last.”
He laughs and coughs. “You stuck with me, even after the loss.”
I smile. “What choice did I have? You drove that day.”
 “Like you always said, three hundred bucks is running money between friends. You slipped three bills in my pocket and told me to bet the nine across the board in the next race.”
“And how did that turn out?”
“Friendsinlowplaces paid across the board at 5-1. We were solid again.”
Red’s head rolls to the side. His gentle eyes stare out the window. His grip loosens. His breath a whisper.
“We still solid, Suge?
He closes his eyes. His breathing becomes faint, stops, then starts with a gasp. I lean forward, kiss his sunken cheek.
“Always, buddy. All the way to the wire.”

Dennis "Suge" Thompson is a former U. S. Postal Service letter carrier and horse handicapper. He now teaches writing and film at Des Moines Area Community College. His work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colere Literary Review, Out of Line: Writings on Peace and Social Justice, Birch Gang Review, and Literary Orphans. His fiction “Jesus in the Eighth Race” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Senior-Citizen Discount

by Patrick Dobson

Lucy liked bad music, had a dog everyone but she could smell, and owned her own fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood south of the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. Narcissism and/or alcoholism marked former husbands with whom she had bad marriages and no children. She’d had three different last names other than her maiden name.
Lucy had a penchant for celebrity and had spent much of her youth as a rock-n-roll band groupie. She stayed more than one night in jail for various petty crimes, not the least of which was a disturbing-the-peace charge where she’d thrown a shot glass through the street window of The Gate, a third-rate tavern in Northeast Kansas City that convicts and steelworkers from the nearby mill frequented.
By the time I met Lucy, she’d tended bar and cocktail-waitressed at numerous lounges of low repute all around Kansas City. But she’d gone on a self-improvement binge and put herself through nursing school. Along with nursing at a large hospital, she worked a succession of bar jobs, each better than the last. She’d climbed up out of smoky no-name taverns to the rooftop of the Ritz and was making $400 a night serving drinks to out-of-town corporate executives and wealthy adulterers hiding in the dark corners of the bar—after her shifts at the hospital. Her fellow employees at the hotel and the hospital admired her strong will and devil-may-care attitude work and life.
I fell for Lucy the first time we both stepped on the hotel service elevator to the rooftop bar and restaurant. She was getting ready for a shift and straightened her skirt and showed me her teeth. “Anything in them?” she asked. My eyes wandered from her teeth. I had a close look at her fake-blond hair. I saw an anger, vulnerability, and sadness beneath the makeup she used to hide her age that tugged at my heart and stoked visceral desire. She’d been around, something I found deeply attractive.
I told her no.
“I’m Lucy,” she said. She stretched up to her full height, which was a couple inches over my five-foot-ten. “I’ve seen you around. You’re the guy who takes care of the furniture, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
“Patrick,” I said. “I repair and refinish all the antique and reproduction furniture here at the hotel.”
“You do a helluva job,” she said. “It’s about as fancy as a place gets. How much are these things worth?”
“Sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. I have a book with the insurance-replacement values in them.”
“Must make fabulous reading,” she said as she stepped off the elevator into the rooftop kitchen.
She turned and smiled and waved. She made her way around the large standing refrigerators and between the stainless-steel prep tables. “Maybe I’ll see you sometime,” she said.

I was thirty and dumb and just sober after nineteen years of hard drinking. I’d been drinking seriously before my teens—sneaking from my parent’s stash and sopping up leftovers from parties. It got worse from there. Having missed the lessons sober people get out of their teens and young adulthood, I fumbled when it came to relationships with women. But her savage beauty and age did things to my insides. I discovered through the hotel grapevine—a vibrant avenue of falsehood and truth—that she was forty-four years old. I had a thing for older women. My heart melted.
After I met Lucy on the elevator, I moved my attention to the rooftop furniture, refinishing sideboards and armoires that years, hands, and banquets had ravaged. During my days, I wheeled them down to my basement workroom in the engineering department and stripped off the finishes and made them look almost new. I’d wait until the staff was starting to head up to the restaurant for the night shift to return the pieces, hoping to see Lucy again.
Around the same time, she started showing up to work early to take dinner in the employee lunchroom, where I’d see her on my coffee breaks. One day, I made an excuse to eat late and sit at her table. We made small talk and learned a few things about each other. Over the course of a couple of months, she told me of her humble beginnings and how she’d come to work at the Ritz.
“You get sick of feeling dirty all the time,” she said. “I mean, bar sitters only hold your interest so long, you know. After a couple of years, you’ve heard all the stories. The money was all right but hardly anything that would keep a person like me in a mortgage. Renovating a house costs money, you know. The hospital pays well, but since I don’t have a family you can speak of, just a daughter who’s twenty-two now, the Ritz fills in my free time and gives me enough to make me comfortable.
“Plus, I own a little land on the Klamath River in northern California, just five acres, but it’s mountainside and backs up to the national forest. I want to build a place up there where I can retire. I have a pile I’ve put away. The house here will be worth something when I get done fixing it up. Altogether, I figure I have a couple of years on my feet before I can get out of here and find a job at a little hospital or clinic up there in the wilderness.”
She asked over the months what my story was. I told her quite honestly that I’d been drunk most of my life and had sobered up a couple of years before. I had gone to grad school in Wyoming and had a three-year-old whose mom I never married. All I ever wanted to be, I told her, was a writer.
“Now that’s interesting,” she said. “A scholar who fixes expensive furniture and wants to be a writer. Keep your mind to it and you’ll make it someday.”
We came to have a standing date at the employee lunchroom every Friday. She worked Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at the hospital. She caught up on her rest and read detective novels until time to go work on Fridays and Saturday nights in the bar. She worked in the restaurant on Sunday during brunch.
I became fond of Lucy, her drive and determination. I was scared to ask her out, unsure of myself and still getting over the relationship I’d had with my daughter’s mom. For a couple of years, my main concerns had been single-fatherhood and child support. I was broke nearly all the time. Some weekends when I was to spend with my daughter Sydney, I filched food from the employee lunchroom for our dinners on Saturdays and Sundays.
My mates in the engineering department noticed Lucy and I spent time together in the lunchroom. The hotel was like a little village that way. Rumor spread through the hallways and rooms, through the departments and offices like rivulets running to a river. While everyone didn’t exactly know everyone’s business, everyone got a taste for what was going on here and there. Most of us knew, for instance, that the GM was having an affair with the front-desk manager. She, on the other hand, was carrying on with the concierge, who was also close—very, very close—with the day waiter in the lobby bar.
One of my coworkers was a stout mechanic by the name of Bruce. He hated me for reasons I’d never understand, though it appeared he didn’t like the way I directed my own job and kept my own hours. He approached me one day at my workbench. I was repairing a glass end table a guest had broken by sitting on it.
“So, you and the nurse lady’s getting along just fine, I hear.” He stood across the workbench from me, the fluorescent fixture above lighting his body but leaving his head in darkness.
“You mean Lucy?” I said, looking up from the joint I was gluing.
“You know she sleeps around a lot.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “That’s kind of her business, isn’t it?”
“You just ought to know what you’re into, kid.”
“Don’t call me kid,” I said.
“She’s way out of your league, anyway,” he said. “You know she hangs out with all the big-wigs that come to the hotel, and you know we got a lot of them. What’s she want with you?”
“Nothing,” I said. “We have lunch once in a while.”
“Yeah, my ass,” he said. “You got a thing for old ladies?”
“Old ladies?”
“She’s elderly, man. What’re you after? The senior-citizens’ discount at the movies?”
I finally asked Lucy out as fall began to throw its chill over Kansas City’s streets. We had just finished eating on Friday and she was headed up to her shift in the bar. My day was about to end and I was going to pick up Sydney that night. I stopped her at the service elevator. No one was around. She gave me a deep kiss. “I wondered when you were going to ask,” she said. “I was getting sick of waiting and was going to do it myself if you didn’t make a move soon.”
We went to a movie the following Thursday night. She started holding my hand about halfway through the picture. That night, I stayed over at her house and had to get up early to make it home to change before my shift. I rushed through coffee and headed out the door.
I felt light and good. Something special had happened and I felt like my life was turning around. At least now, in my single-fatherhood, I had something to look forward to besides weekends with my daughter Sydney. Possibilities opened up for me. I began to think of taking a long walk across the country. I needed adventure. I wanted to test my legs in my new, sober life. I needed something to write about.
Before long, Lucy and I had become the talk of the hotel. Wherever I went about my business hauling furniture about the public spaces, I’d hear people talk behind my back. It wasn’t mean or spiteful, just whispers. “He’s with Lucy now,” I heard a houseman say to one of his mates one afternoon. “Apparently, they’re pretty hot and heavy.”
A banquet server, a tall, broad shouldered Palestinian by the name of Simon, caught me in the foyer of the main lobby one day. “Say, man, you’re going with that tall woman in the bar, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, you can say we’re dating.”
“Lucky,” he said, and slapped me on the back. “She’s real good lookin’ for an old lady.”
“She’s not old, Simon. She’s forty-four.”
“That’s a lot older than you. You got a mommy thing, don’t you?”
“I suppose I do.”
Meanwhile, Lucy and I spent many nights together. Her busy schedule limited our time together to Thursday nights. We went to the movies and watched more on the VCR. We ate out at late-night diners. We cooked dinner at her house. I even coaxed her into walking the dog, which got us out into the neighborhood after dark. We made love every chance we could.
After a few months, I fell into a kind of comfort with the relationship. This wasn’t love. We were very different people. She liked clubs and enjoyed nightlife after her shifts at the rooftop bar. I preferred to stay home. She read different books than I did. Our talk revolved mostly around the hotel and movies, and even then, we liked different kinds of films. She really fell for blockbusters and chick flicks. I was more a classic-movie kind of guy. I drifted toward art-house flicks and complicated stories. The domestic aspect of our affair satisfied me. I liked the lovemaking and laying around and watching movies I never would have looked at on my own. Nights with her gave me time to think. My thought of walking across the country moved to determination.
But Lucy wanted more from me than I was willing to give. I liked sitting around the house. I wanted quiet and domestic. I loved the walks and breezy conversation. But things were changing. I was becoming more my own person, less willing to go along with whatever happened to me. I wanted to steer my future. I’d fallen in for Lucy and our relationship had become convenient.
She seemed to go along with the program. At least, I thought so. I was content, why shouldn’t she? We went for a walk one night in Loose Park in the early spring. There was still a chill in the air. The trees had just begun to bud and you could smell the green. While we were walking, she said she wanted to take me to a concert.
“I just love the Eagles,” she said. “They’re touring for the first time in fourteen years. It’s called the ‘Hell Freezes Over Tour.’ They once said they’d get together again when hell freezes over. The tickets are $110 each and I’m buying yours.”
“That’s too much money for a concert. I can’t let you spend that.”
“Why not? I’m flush. I’m buying.”
I was stuck. I hated the Eagles and always had, even in my high school years when they were all the rage among my classmates. Moreover, I thought it obscene to spend $110 for a ticket to any concert.
“I have a conscience thing about spending that much money on a concert,” I said.
“But I’m buying. You won’t have to spend a dime.
“Besides the money, Lucy, I hate the Eagles.”
“You’ve got to be joking. They’re one of the greatest rock bands ever. Everyone likes the Eagles.”
“Maybe everyone you know likes the Eagles, but I don’t.”
“Come on. You are joking, aren’t you?”
“I’m not joking and you’re not spending $110 on a ticket for me. I would have a terrible time.”
“I can’t believe it. You have to like the Eagles.”
“I don’t have to, Lucy, and I don’t.”
“You have to, they’re great.”
“Listen, I’m not going to that concert with you.”
This went on for some time. I’d never had a fight with a girlfriend before. Previously, whenever things turned sour with someone I dated, I left and didn’t look back. Things were different now that I was sober. I was trying to be a good guy and stick with something. Our relationship had turned into a routine, which I didn’t mind. I could have kept it up for a long time.
The conversation turned into a shouting match in the middle of the empty park. She accused me of only wanting to be with her for the sex. I retorted that there was more than that, that I liked her for more than her body. She kept at it and wouldn’t let it go. I became resentful. I told her I hated the way her dog made her whole house smell like a dirty kennel. She shouted that I was a bum who didn’t know how to have a social life and that maybe I should start drinking again. It would make me more interesting. She made sport of the kinds of movies I liked and said I was a snob.
She became so angry with me that we left the park and drove home in silence.
“If this is the way you’re going to be . . .” she said when we arrived at her house.
“What do you mean? Standing up when I don’t want to do something?”
“You could at least do it for me, goddammit.”
“But I don’t want to do it for you or anyone else,” I said.
“Well, that’s it,” she said as she climbed out of the car. “You can just forget about us then. Don’t call anymore. I’ll see you when I see you.”
“Fine,” I said as I slammed her door for her and sped away.
I saw her occasionally in the hotel hallways and service elevators over the next couple of months and she was cordial. Within weeks, we started to talk like old friends. Before I knew it, we were again sitting down together for coffee on Friday afternoons.
We fell into routine almost right away. I’d show up at her house on Thursday, we’d make love, order in a pizza, and watch movies. I’d go home and not see her for another week.
In the meantime, I started to notice a woman who worked in the HR Department. Kristi wasn’t as tall as Lucy but was as slender and fit. She was pretty in a severe sort of way with sharp, angular features and bleach-blond hair. Her face twitched with a nervous tic that interested me. She, too, was older than me but only by five years. We began to have coffee in the lunchroom during the day, before Lucy came to work. Lucy saw me talking to Kristi in the way I had once talked to her. I went to Lucy’s less often. Soon, weeks went by between our visits.
One day, Lucy stopped me at the service elevator where she had first asked me to look at her teeth.
“So, you’re with the HR woman these days,” she said. “I’ve heard you and her are going steady.”
“It’s nothing like that, Lucy.”
“Sure, it is. I know you. You’re on to the next good thing.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Are you coming over this week?” she asked.
“Do you want me to?”
“Until you start sleeping with that woman, I want you to come over.”

I had a first date with Kristi. She was a swimmer and liked basketball more than having a stimulating conversation or any conversation at all when her favorite teams and players were on television. She lived in an apartment that, coincidentally, a friend of mine had lived in years before. She had a cat, Scout, that more or less regulated Kristi’s comings and goings when she wasn’t at work.
At the time, I was getting ready for the long trip I’d been thinking about since soon after I started dating Lucy. I planned to walk to Helena, Montana, with a backpack and sleeping bag and then canoe back to Kansas City on the Missouri River. The preparations were intense. I took on double shifts at the hotel, working the day in the engineering department and then changing into a banquet uniform at night. Between work and weekends with Sydney, I spent time with Lucy on Thursday nights and with evenings with Kristi on Friday.
The relationship with Lucy sputtered along for a few more months. Lovemaking. Pizza. Movies. I liked the way we didn’t have to talk to each other. We spoke of mundane topics, as we really never had that much to say to each other anyway.
Soon, I did start sleeping with Kristi and stopped going to Lucy’s. It wasn’t long before I missed the routine I had with Lucy. Except for that one altercation, we never crossed words again. Kristi was a different story, a much different relationship. We rode bikes together and went camping. The bonds that held Kristi and me together grew stronger. Our relationship began to bud about the time it was time for me to leave for Montana on May 1, 1995. I’d spent about a year and a half with Lucy but now found myself as deeply infatuated with Kristi as I had once been with Lucy.
Still, on the way to Montana, on those lonely nights in town parks and in the backyards of people I met along the way, on couches in living rooms and in the woods of Wyoming, and during the solitary days on the river, I thought of Lucy, what she must have been up to, how she was pursuing her goal of one day retreating to her land on the Klamath River.
Kristi came to visit me once on my trip. She drove 350 miles to Lexington, Nebraska to stay with me overnight in a swampy hotel room on the outskirts of town. That night, she asked me about Lucy. We were laying in each other’s arms on the bed. She wanted to know what my time with Lucy had been like.
“It was like an old coat,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
“About the time it gets comfortable, you need a new one,” I replied, realizing what I was saying and hoping that Kristi wouldn’t get offended. She elbowed her way out of bed and stood in the center of the room. “But you keep the old coat around because it fits well and means something to you,” I continued. “You’ve lived an important part of your life in it. You can’t throw it away. It sits in the closet until you find it again the next winter and you remember that part of your life again.”
“So, you’re saying I’m going to wear out on you someday too?”
“To tell you the truth, Kristi, you’re nothing like an old coat.”
“But I will be.”
“Maybe someday,” I said and paused. Who knew where we were going or what was going to happen to us. The 350 miles I’d walked toward Montana were already changing me. I was becoming a new person—more confident, more adventuresome. “But I don’t see it happening anytime soon. After all, you thought enough to come all the way to Nebraska to see me. I’ve talked to you about every other day on the phone. You’ve given me encouragement when I needed it. Plus, we have things to talk about. Lucy and I never had much to talk about.”
“You still think about Lucy?”
“When I’m not thinking of you, and I think about you most of the time.”
“Well, you better get over this Lucy thing pretty damn soon.”
To tell you the truth, twenty-three years later, I’m not sure I’m over the Lucy thing. When I remember that time, I think about Lucy and not Kristi. Sometimes I imagine Lucy in a log house on the banks of the Klamath. The wind sighs in the pines and the snow is just beginning. She’s lit a fire in the wood stove and is sitting in her favorite chair next to an end table with a lamp, the only light in the otherwise dark room. The house smells faintly of old dog and pine resin. She would be seventy now.
Lucy sticks with me, this person I let into my interior and treated so shabbily. I’m not sure I’ll ever get rid of that old coat. Though it was gone, thrown or given away, I remembered it. And Lucy wasn’t an old coat. She did more for me in our time together than keep me warm. She was a catalyst, an agent of change, and in being so, became part of me. I wouldn’t be who I am without Lucy. I’ve become a better man, in part, because of her. My memory of her makes me wish to become a better man still.

Dr. Patrick Dobson has worked as a journalist, book editor, and union ironworker in Kansas City, MO. The University of Nebraska Press published his two travel memoirs, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (2009) and Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (2015). He teaches American History, Latin American History, and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College in nearby Overland Park, KS. His essays and poems have appeared in New LettersbioStoriesWhite Wall Review, Kansas City Star, and dozens of other newspapers, scholarly journals, and literary magazines. His essays and travel pieces can be viewed at

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Good Works

by Kirk Boys

The room is sharp with mildew, tomato sauce, melted cheese, days-old urine, and sweat. It is an all too human smell, not disguised by deodorant spray or scented soap, but one of grit with hard notes of melancholy. My wife and I have arrived here after years of conversation about doing good works. Here where our talking about wanting to do something good for someone else finally takes form.
The “here” is a church hall filled with people most of us only glimpse in the shadows of an alley, huddled under a blue tarp in a makeshift campsite, or sitting under a freeway bridge. Here at St. James Community Hall, well over a hundred homeless people stare at us. They are like ghosts, sitting on folding chairs that line the walls, their looks of distress or anger or resignation haunts me. They are intimidating. They dare us not to feel something. We have only walked through the front door, yet we are stopped, held hostage by those eyes. I do my best to disappear.
The door we have entered is dwarfed by St. James’ twin spires, which reach up into a cold, endless, gray Seattle sky. The bells within those spires peal across a city whose soul is being put to the test by a fast-growing homeless population. The city appears both disgusted and seemingly helpless to deal with the problem. More and more people show up on the city’s streets and there is no escaping their impact.
“Why don’t they just get a job at McDonald’s?” my friend tells me after a trip into the city from his manicured, suburban home. He sees no reason they can’t find work, but he makes his judgement from afar. He is not here. He has no idea, has not been held hostage by those eyes.
It is obvious to me standing within the reach of their eyes, there are no simple answers to their swelling numbers. Not money or rehab or housing or good intentions can, alone, solve this plague of desperation that crushes the human spirit. I wonder what these men and women think seeing us with our clean clothes and our haircuts? Do they hate us? Do they hate people who have nice homes, safe places to sleep, food, cars while they have only what they can carry in a pack or bag or push up the sidewalk in a shopping cart? Do they hate us or only wish to be us?
Here at the cathedral hall they receive a small red ticket like you or I might use for a spin on the Merry-go-round or the chance to win a cake at a bake sale. This is not the County Fair. The ticket gets them a hot meal and shelter for a couple hours.
The hall has a low hum of activity as people shuffle in. There is the occasional scrape of a folding chair on the tile floor or the sharp clang of metal on metal punctuated by random shouts or an angry rant. A napkin and fork make a place setting on long tables for eight. There will be nearly 200 here tonight when all is said and done.
A tall, bearded man with glasses stands at the entrance handing out the tickets to anyone who walks in the door. He hands us a ticket. “We’re here to volunteer as companions,” I tell him. He points a crooked finger toward the kitchen. It is day one of our attempt at good work, and we have little idea what we are supposed to do beyond making conversation with those congregated, to make them, for a couple hours at least, feel as though someone cares. Or so we were told.
We are overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the sheer physicality of their hardship and need. The same people I would have previously gone to great lengths to avoid on a city sidewalk I am now face to face with. It would be a lie to say that I am not frightened.

The kitchen at St. James is separated by walls and metal doors and it is a beehive of activity. Ten volunteers maneuver in the cramped space preparing the evening meal. It is hard work in the kitchen, but it is also a refuge, walled off from the harsh reality of what exists just outside. In the kitchen you can escape the vacant looks. In the kitchen you can exhaust yourself with food prep and cleanup. In the kitchen you are not surrounded by the smell of down-and-out of broken lives.
The kitchen is not our mission.

We are tasked, if only for a couple of hours, to build a bridge between their reality and ours: to witness their suffering, to acknowledge their humanity, to let them know, if only with a glance or a smile, that they are seen, that they are heard. We can’t save anyone, but we can acknowledge them. Such bearing witness sounded noble and good from the safety of our home or in a sermon, but now, faced with them, we want instead to stay safe in the kitchen away from that responsibility. There is just the two of us for two hundred. It is impossible to know where to start. I want to take my wife’s hand and walk back out the door, away from this. No one would think worse of us. No one we know cares if we do this little thing. We have nothing to prove, yet there is something inside that pushes me forward.
We put on blue serving aprons which will designate us as ”companions”. We walk back out into the hall, like tentative swimmers heading away from shore for the other side. Uncertainty wraps itself around me as tightly as the smell of tonight’s spaghetti casserole meal. I put on a smile, stroll between tables into all those watchful eyes.
My wife plants her hands firmly in her apron pockets and does the same. I fear for all five-two of her. Her courage inspires me. Most of the diners are men There are so many. I try hard not to see them as menacing and dangerous. What if one of them were to lose it, to lash out in frustration or psychosis? If she were to be hurt, I would never forgive myself. Anxiety steals up my spine. There are patients just released from the psyche ward at Harborview regional trauma center two blocks away dealing with serious mental health disease. There are substance abusers and petty drug dealers. Fortune has not smiled on those gathered in St. James Cathedral hall for dinner. There are veterans left to fight their own battles or people who’ve hit tough times or had a run of bad luck a lost job a divorce. They are all colors, races, and ages and have nowhere to come but here. They all have red tickets in their hand.
“Talk to them, help them get their meal if they need help, talk if they want to talk. Let them know we see them as people, individuals blessed by God’s grace,” we were told by our volunteer supervisor, but it is hard to imagine God here. There is no cloud of incense, no gold crosses, no choir singing hymns, no sense of well-being or of grace, just survival. We must find the commonality we share.
We are frightened glad-handers hoping to feel better about ourselves by braving the misery that surrounds us and with which we must come to terms.
“Trouble, a fight or someone gets agitated, don’t get involved, call 911,” the kitchen supervisor hurriedly walks out to tell me.
My wife has set off on her own, drawn to a tiny woman with white hair and lipstick smeared on her cheeks in a small circle. She appears to be well past seventy. She has a kind face. How can she be here? She should be baking cookies, playing cards with her friends, or surrounded by grandchildren. A tall young woman with “PINK” written across her butt brushes past and moves quickly to take a seat in a darkened stairwell. Her long, red hair pushed over her shoulder, she seems lost to the world. I watch as more people continue to pour through the door, take their ticket, and line up along the wall.
The hum of humanity has escalated to a low roar, as more flood through the front door with dirty packs, sleeping bags, and plastic bags stuffed full. A thin black man smiles at me from a chair and I decide to venture over. “The food smells good,” I say. I can see, “How’s it going” doesn’t cut it here. I scramble to bring on conversation, but I am inadequate. I tell him my name, and he tells me his, James. James has a warm smile; he’s painfully thin and has kind eyes. He reaches out a hand to shake.
“That’s Gomez,” James tells me pointing at a stout Hispanic man across the table. I reach to shake Gomez’s hand. He offers a weak smile.
“Gomez carries pieces of metal and rocks stuffed in the lining of his coat. From where he comes they believe it gives them energy. I heard the cops talking about him, how they wouldn’t let him into his court hearing. He set off the metal detector.” James laughs, “It’s a trip, man. Right, Gomez? A trip?” Gomez smiles, but it is unclear if he understands.
It feels good to talk with James. He lightens the mood, gets me out of my head. I feel the rush of connection to James and Gomez too. I realize I am up to the task, that they aren’t so different than me, only our circumstance.
Behind me the metal serving doors rattle open revealing servers, eight of them, like actors at the end of a play, they hold serving spoons and tongs. A curtain of steam rises from the spaghetti casserole. There is a slow march to the food, tables fill, and the high-pitch ting of forks on plates fills the room.
A tall, painfully thin man with scruffy black hair sits near the front reading a book, in no hurry to get his dinner.
“What are you reading?” I ask him.
He looks up slowly and turns the book’s cover toward me, a rat-eared copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
“Wow,” I say. I am shocked to find a Vonnegut reader. “He’s my favorite author,” I tell him.
“He reads just as delightfully when I am stoned as he does when I am not,” he says.
“I feel the same way,” I tell him and we laugh.
A man using a walker and wearing an Army Ranger hat asks if I will get him his meal and hands me his red ticket.
“Where are you from?”
“It would take too long to tell you,” he says. “Can you just get my food?”
I get in line with the others. My anxiety is beginning to ease. I scan the room for my wife, who is still talking to the lady with lipstick on her cheeks. I see my wife grin. I shuffle through the line and take in the smell of coffee, the feeling of gratitude, the spirit of humanity. It hits me like a sledge hammer how lightly I regard the conveniences those here aspire to and I take completely for granted daily.
We are all at St. James for a reason. I can’t say what the reason is for anyone else, but for me it is to find something in me that I have secretly feared I did not possess, a courage, a willingness to get involved. I want to believe that if there is a God, that I will see him in the face of a stranger. I want to believe there is an innate good in everyone, but more selfishly I am actually looking for it in myself.
“I like those glasses,” a man covered in tattoos tells me as he passes. “Makes you look smart.”
“Hey, thanks,” I say. I get the man with the Ranger hat his casserole and a slice of pie and deliver it to him. “Thank you for your service.” I tell him as I carefully slide the tray in front of him. “There might be enough for seconds.”
“This is plenty,” he says, waving me off.
Two hours passes, two hundred faces, give or take, have passed by and the hall is nearly empty. I’m not sure what we accomplished. Witnessing the hopelessness of life on the street, serving trays of food, small talk and smiles.
It’s enough for our first time.
I think about the whole of it on our silent drive home. Nerves have been replaced by exhaustion. I imagine it will get easier. We are not going to solve any problems, but maybe we offered a human touch if only for a moment.
Maybe a flicker of good intention starts a small fire? I feel a sense of pride I didn’t feel the day before. I saw the depth of my wife’s heart, how caring she is, how she stood toe to toe with fear.
We got more than we gave.
We’ll be back to Cathedral Hall in a week, wiser for our effort, fears tamped down, hearts in hand.

Kirk Boys’ personal essays have been featured in The Chaos Journal, Gravel Magazine and bioStories. His fiction has been featured in Per Contra, Thrice Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Storie-all write #57/58 and English Department and in High Shelf Press. He has a Certificate in Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s New Writers contest. He has two novels for which he is currently seeking representation. He lives outside Seattle with his wife and a tiny dog.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Drive Between Homes

by Chris Davis

The red Miata behind us slams on its horn, letting my dad know—in the rudest way possible—he hadn’t merged quickly enough. The speed limit on Central Expressway is only 45mph, but people always seem to treat it like a freeway. Buildings fly by the window in a blur: Fry’s electronics, where my mom took me to buy my first iPod; St. John’s Bar and Grill, where my Dad and I used to get burgers and watch Sharks games; Fair Oaks Skatepark, where I’d split my chin open and the only witness had decided to leave, rather than make sure I was all right. It all seems insignificant as we now cruise comfortably down the road. The car behind us may have been in a hurry, but somehow my dad never was, even though he knew my mom would yell at him if he dropped me late at her house again.
“Make sure you bring those pants back next weekend,” my dad says.
Not again. I close my eyes to the buildings outside the window. What is it about the short drive from his house to my mom’s that makes my dad think I need to hear all about how my mom’s the worst person ever? His parents divorced—shouldn’t he know how it feels? Who’s the adult, here?
“Your mom always complains about me never buying you clothes, but every time I do, they go to her house and she sends you back with ratty ones. She’s manipulative like that, your mom.”
I scoff under my breath. My mom says the same exact thing, ironically, on this exact drive, but in reverse. I count the lines on the road as they blip by, trying to count them. Anything to distract me until we get there.
“Did she ever tell you I used to come over all the time and fix things for her? She’d call me up and demand that I fix the washing machine or change the oil in her car, and I’d always do it.”
I try not to picture the scene, but the frustration of hearing contradicting sides of these stories mounts again. I remember him coming over and fixing the fridge, the dishwasher, her car. And I believe him when he says he did it just so he could spend a little more time with my brother and me. But my mom tells me one thing and my dad tells another. Somewhere, the details are frayed, and each of them describes themselves in saint-like recollection, while the other acted out of unprovoked malice and genuine ill-will.
“She’d never say thank you or try and pay me for helping her out. It was always, ‘Louis, you need to fix the refrigerator,’ or ‘Louis, the air conditioning isn’t working.’ Never even a hint of gratitude.”
I roll my window down in an attempt to drown out the rest of his annoyingly calm ranting. The warm summer air beats my hair around my forehead, but my dad’s voice somehow permeates the cab of the truck like smoke. The thing is, I have my theories. I can make a pretty safe guess who was “at fault” from hearing both sides of the stories. But truthfully, does that matter? At all? And how exactly did I become the judge?
“And that’s another thing, she always claims I owe her more child support. I don’t know where she gets this stuff. I pay the agreed-on amount every month—I even keep records of it—and she still tries to weasel more out of me.”
I clench my eyes shut, trying to just get through this stupid car ride, but I can’t shut out the memories in my head: my mom stirring a pot in the kitchen to the crackle of my dad’s record player, while my dad, my brother and I race slot cars in the living room of what used to be called “our house,” before it became “my dad’s house.” I open my eyes to the passing scenery, begging it to stop the mental films playing in my mind—I just want them to stop. I don’t care about who was right or who acted vindictively or who said or did or claimed what. Whoever’s in the wrong—I still love both of them, but I just can’t do it anymore.
“Did you know she told all of her family not to talk to me anymore? As if the divorce was my fault? The whole reason we divorced is because she—”
“You can’t do this anymore!” I burst out, addressing the window, rather than my dad. My voice cracks as I say it. I hadn’t meant to shout, but the tears muddying my vision tell me it’s far too late for restraint. This isn’t a thought-out, well-prepared speech—this is unspoken, unrealized torment spilling out of me for the first time. “I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
I can feel my dad’s eyes on the back of my head as I look out the window, not seeing. I can feel his confusion Looking away from him can’t hide the fact that I’m crying in earnest and shaking as I speak. I feel the truck turn off the expressway as more sporadic revelation pours out of me. “I don’t care if she’s the worst person ever or what she’s done, you can’t talk about her like that. Do you know what it’s like? Do you have any idea what it’s like to have your parents tear each other down all the time? To have the two people you care about the most in the world tell you what a horrible person the other one is?”
The truck stops at the far end of the parking lot and my dad places a hand on my back that helps me ease my breathing.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” I sigh, and there’s a sense of finality in the words. All of what had been holding inside for years was out, and I knew there was nothing else to say.
Wiping my eyes, I see we’re in front of the Home Depot my dad and I frequent on weekends for his work. Memories surface in my head: riding on the flat platform truck as my dad speeds around the store, loading it with lumber that I then hid under; being rolled up by my brother in the giant hanging carpet samples; putting on every piece of protective equipment I could find to pretend I was a superhero. I wish I could be rid of them.
“I’m sorry,” my dad says, and I comprehend a lot more than just the two words.

Chris Davis earned the title of “least prepared person to ever enter space” by NASA, farmed exotic guinea pigs in Peru, and was once bit by a goat. His interests include above-ground spelunking and writing fake bios. He recently graduated the fourth grade and owns over seven houseplants."