Part Twenty-Four of Angel Maker: Ringwood Pub by Barry B. Wright

The afternoon edition of The Echo’s banner headline blared out at him:

‘Queenie’ Found Murdered

“Your ‘boat,’ Jock,” chortled Quentin Hogg, observing Jock’s facial expression from the end of the bar. Quentin turned and alerted the others to take notice.

Nothing about Jock Mahoney was small. He was massive in everyway. His eyes were piercing and intelligent on a canvass shaped by an earlier life in bare-knuckle boxing.

“What about it?!” growled Jock, owner of the Ringwood Pub, taking up his position behind the bar and still immersed in reading the front page of the paper.

“It looks like it’s been to the ‘deadly nevergreen’ and back, don’t it boys?”

Low muffled “ayes” and nods to the reference of “gallows” rumbled in unison from the patrons.

“Cheese it!” Jock bellowed as he slammed The Echo down. The room went still. “Now that you’ve stopped your ‘cackle,’ get off your ‘bottle and glass’ and gather round.” He pointed at the headline. “Read and weep. Crime’s takin’ us over, boys. Our Bournemouth’s goin’ to hell in a handbasket.”

The cook, Patrick O’Grady, a burly red-faced man, emerged from along the hallway that led to the kitchen. Above his shoulder, he carried a large circular brown tray. On it was a traditional full British breakfast of bacon, sausages, black pudding, hash browns, bubble and squeak, baked beans, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, scrambled eggs and coffee. Patrick placed the heavy load on an empty table and served the customer. Once he was satisfied that all was well, he joined the others.

Pavel Sudoplatov placed some bacon and a section of scrambled egg on a slice of his toast as he listened to the men gathered at the bar. As he ate, his trained eyes slowly scanned each nook and cranny of the tavern.

“She was no straight-cut, Jock. She got what she deserved.” Phil piped in making no bones about hiding his malice toward ‘Queenie.’

“She did, did she? And the two children too?” retorted Patrick.

On either side of the main entrance, tables and chairs each fronted a large window. Deep seated booths lined the side and back walls. Opposite the long wall of booths, the bar stretched from the front to the hallway opposite Pavel. Freedom of movement in front of the bar was afforded by an open space that was free of tables and chairs, while sawdust on the floor’s surface ensured an easier cleanup following the usual assortment of patron mishaps.

Three-quarters of the pub’s area was cast in a grey hue. Pavel thought that a mirror positioned behind the bar could have made better use of the natural light that flooded through the front windows. Though from his vantage point, the resulting shadow casted him in the proper light.

The darkened hallway opposite him, narrowed considerably by a variety of boxes precariously stacked to the ceiling along one side, led to the exit, washroom and kitchen. At the corner to this passageway was the sign: Wobbling Topples, Keep Your Wee Johnny in Line. Scrawled above Johnny, which had been crossed out, was Wee. Below the sign was a bucket of soapy water with a mop in it.

Patrick noticed Phil purloining Quentin Hogg’s whiskey glass and downing its contents. “You fockin’ burarco.” And he shoved Phil. “Guard your drinks boys,” he warned, his index finger pointing downwards and hovering above Phil’s head.

Quentin noticed his whiskey glass was empty and, clearly understanding Patrick’s siren complaint, turned to pummel Phil.

Jock stretched his muscular arm across the counter and grabbed Quentin by the shirt. “Pull back, Quentin, if you want two on the house.” Assured he had Quentin under control, he locked eyes with Phil. “Get the fock out! Now!”

Phil stumbled back, raised his hand to contend his forced expulsion, quickly thought better of it, and exited.

“Is he ever sober?” Patrick asked rhetorically, turning his attention to The Echo unfazed by what had just occurred.

“Uh?” Jock replied, distracted as he filled two whiskey glasses and placed them in front of Quentin.

“No matter. Here, did you see this, Jock? Three ‘bolshie’ murdered in their car. Shooter at large. Isn’t ‘tat on the same street where the Inspector lives?”

Shocked by this news, Pavel’s ears perked up and he stopped eating.

“Aye, so it is,” replied Quentin and Jock in unison as the others pressed in to read the article.

Pavel had no doubts that this was retribution for the explosion that killed Klaus Becker at the Cricketer’s Arms. His mind churned as he rethought his options. Now, only he and Anatoli remained. He noticed a black Wolseley pulling up outside. Reflexively, his hand pressed against the .32 automatic in his jacket. Dropping a guinea on the table, he surreptitiously slid out of his booth and along the hallway to the exit.

The sun’s brightness momentarily blinded him. Teary streams smeared his cheeks as he eased along the wall toward the sidewalk. Wiping his eyes clear with his shirt sleeves, he peered around the corner. Sergeant Snowden and Inspector Collier were waiting for Captain Hall to exit the Wolseley. After she joined them, a brief discussion ensued before they entered the pub.

Wishing he had overheard their conversation, Pavel earnestly began to scan the largely vacant street for Anatoli’s vehicle. He must have followed them, he mused. Unless he too…His eye twitched in a rare display of nervousness. He shook off the thought. But, where is he? A horn beeped. Too preoccupied in his surveillance, he ignored it. But, when two halting beeps followed in succession, it gathered his attention.

Part Twenty-Three of Angel Maker: The Stoddards by Barry B. Wright

At the beginning of 1939, the English south coastal resort of Bournemouth proudly proclaimed a population of one hundred thirty thousand. The natural beauty of its cliffs and the wide sweep of its bay embraced a magic carpet of sand while the Bourne River—fringed with parkland and public gardens—stretched into the heart of the coastal community. Bournemouth’s outstanding characteristic and attraction was its breadth of view and openness. The ideal vacation destination, it attracted all types of tourists searching for a place of respite.

Vacationers wanted something different, exciting and unique that contrasted sharply with the commonality of their usual daily existence. That’s what drew the Stoddards to Bournemouth in 1934; they had a service that fitted the bill. And they had no qualms about relieving their clients from the burden of carrying too much coin.

When they found a house suitable for their business and had it suitably furnished, Mary Elizabeth proudly hung out her shingle displaying her shtick: a psychic, medium, spiritualist, mental healer, psychic-analyst, and folklorist. While her husband, Lawrence, advertised his prowess in the local newspaper, The Echo, as a “powerful deep-trance medium.” They did not have to wait long before the clients flooded in. Within the first six months of setting up shop, so-to-speak, their business had surpassed their wildest expectations.

Mary Elizabeth had been known only as ‘Elizabeth’ in the many towns she had visited. Though rarely her choice, she had never stayed long in any town she visited. More often, than not, she had been unceremoniously ushered out of town by the local constabulary.

The line between law and outlaw in her business was razor thin. But, as in any business, experience finally paid dividends. The key to her success was learning how to stay out of reach of those who would have preferred her jailed.

As her business flourished, overtime a comfortable coexistence developed between the Stoddards and the local community of Bournemouth. As far as the community was concerned if she stayed within the letter of the law, the occasional grey areas could be ignored. The Stoddards attracted commerce to Bournemouth during the high season. And, when all was said and done, that, by itself, made everything tickety-boo.

On December 11, 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite. He was reluctantly succeeded by his brother, Albert, who became King George VI. His wife, Elizabeth, became the queen consort.

Mary Elizabeth and her husband, Lawrence, were gregarious, convivial individuals. People easily succumbed to their charming, warm and inviting ways. So, it was, though not without reservation, that they eventually became an integral part of the landscape that defined Bournemouth. And, Mary Elizabeth became fondly known in the community by the nickname, ‘Queenie,’ after the queen consort.

Mary Elizabeth’s ‘special gifts’ unexpectedly expanded in 1937. Haste was a virtue to her way of thinking. The very thought that haste made waste was outside her immediate experience. And, when Lawrence encouraged her to slow down and had pointed out that she had become more accident prone, she dismissed it as a ridiculous observation. That is, until she fell down the flight of stairs in her two-story home. Rushed to hospital, she remained unconscious for two months.

During her convalescence, her usual dream-scape changed. She discovered that within days of her dreams, the events she dreamt about showed up in the news. The frequency of occurrence convinced her that this was no lucky coincidence. Turning this newly found gift into a monetary venture was never in question for Mary Elizabeth or Lawrence. What was in question was how to safe-guard it since they had no idea how long lasting her ability would be.

When Inspector Collier phoned her shortly after Kristallnacht, she was genuinely taken by surprise. Not an ardent fan of hers, she was suspicious of his request for an early morning visit. Still, it could not have been timelier. Her most recent nightmare necessitated that they meet. Witness to the horrific murder of a young child and experiencing it through the eyes and mind of her killer had left her discombobulated and chilled to the bone. So, she easily acquiesced to their rendezvous.

Lawrence poured two glasses of Port and handed one to Mary Elizabeth. They sat opposite each other in silence in front of the unlit fireplace.

“So…What are you going to tell him?” He crossed one leg over the other.

“The Inspector?” He nodded. “The truth. There’s no need to be concerned, Lawrence. So, wipe that look off your face. I have to tell him about what I dreamt.”

“I guess I understand…But…don’t you think he’ll think you’ve gone crackers? He’s well respected in the community. I’d hate to lose what we worked so hard to create.” He got up and poured himself another glass of Port. She refused when he proffered to refill her glass.

She let out a long sigh. “It’s a chance I must take,” she continued. “You didn’t experience the horror I lived through the other night. It was a child…The son-of-bitch murdered a child.” She pulled a hanky from her sleeve and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I may be the only one who’s got the goods on that bastard.”

“Maybe so…I’ve learned on too many occasions never to cross you when your mind is made up, Mary Elizabeth.” There were playful undertones in his comment. He took a sip from his glass and scrutinized her long and hard. “And his son?” He asked raising an eyebrow. “What are you going to tell him about his son?”

She bit down hard on her lower lip and, with a slight shrug, replied: “I’ll have that worked out before the mornin’. But, I can assure you that whatever’s said about his son the Inspector will leave with lots of hope and promise.”

Lawrence returned to the side table and poured another Port.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Lawrence?”

“I feel I’m on the verge of quicksand,” he replied, ignoring her question. “Is playing him a good idea?”

“I would never do that.” Joining him, she wrapped her arms around him. “I will never forget that for such a brief time, we, too, were parents. I can feel what he feels. No, I only want to allay his pain until I can learn more, nothing else. I’ll be careful about how tell him.” She took his hand and led him back to sit down.

“Are you alright, Mary Elizabeth? Since the night our wee Robbie passed, I’ve never seen such a forlorn expression.”

“I’m afraid.”

“Whatever for?”

“These new powers or abilities, whatever you call them…they’re growing. And, the murderer of that little girl has them too.”

The Water Falls by Barry B. Wright

waterfalls-in-the-woodsThunder! The storm clouds gather.

A grosbeak valiantly circles overhead.

When this journey began, my hope was painted against an azure sky when the sun was high and the scent of pine and meadow flowers copiously filled the air.

Many times I have stood at the forest’s edge and let the sweetness and magic of its promise draw me in.

But, today, I hear distant drums heralding a coming storm, it marches across the glen. Have I languished too long? Will my peaceful tranquility feel the coldness of its blade?

My pace quickens, not outward but inward to the sanctuary of the camaraderie of the woods.

Briefly, the path is sprinkled with dabbled sunlight that spotlights a yellow-black spider spinning its web between milkweeds.  An arduous task filled with purpose and hope in advance of the storm.

An ozone scent slides into me. I inhale deeply. In the innocence of my youth, I celebrated the normalcy of its breath but now I only feel sadness and fear.

The die is cast. How long will it last? While the once proud Northern Holy Fern, Walking Fern, Maidenhair Spleenwort Fern and orchids are compelled to hide in its inky bloom.

The gentle breeze lulled my senses; illusions in sunshine blinded my ears while my mind chose what was and not what is among my peers.

Tree trunks cry out; their struggle barely audible above the bellowing noise of the angry wind; their limbs scratch furiously at the sky; strongly with purpose they fight against their bully.

My hypothalamus drives me in earnest to my haven hidden in the hollow round the bend. The tumultuous journey of a storyteller, its story not easily told, arrived long before I was born. I had to see beyond its beauty and be disposed to undertake a promise never to refrain from learning its message riding full rein.

Everything begins one day, that’s just the way it is. Where it starts is rarely where it is. Tomorrow bleeds into tomorrow. If you take notice, pay attention, bear witness and commit, today does not have to be a cellophane footnote as part of the compass in your kit. Choices form the North Star to the future that fits.

Unimaginable yesterdays brought me to the rock where I sit. Before me the stalwart waterfall’s music flows. Though its majestic structure may have been decreed, adjudicated and arranged by forces beyond its control, its conclusion has not been clinched.

Voices and outstretched hands not emptied of hope ride with anguished arrow to my home.

And the falling water asks me as it has done so many times before: Will you stand against the storm?

Joan Sledge: The Mucky Duck by Barry B. Wright

mucky-duck

V

Ouch! It was totally unexpected. Her home form lockers should not have been anywhere near mine. Yet, there she was, five lockers down from me. I couldn’t help but think that it was going to be an ugly school year.

She smiled. I smiled back. She spoke to me but I neither remember what she said nor what I said to her. The exchange was cordial enough but awkward, similar to strangers forced together in a social setting out of their control. But, we were far from being strangers. Or was I wrong?

When Chris was present, he became the center of Joan’s attention.  As for me, I became nothing more than cellophane. I did not exist. Passing each other in the hall, as we frequently did each school day, I wondered: Do you know I’m there?

Growing up is darn right painful.

My feet dragged academically. Hurt had turned into anger. I had become consumed with thoughts of revenge. I found no solace in my brother Ron’s carelessly doted out wisdom: “Suck it up buttercup…plenty more yet to come.” Did he not know I felt diminished? That my heart was broken? That my life was in tatters?

Did Joan even care about the depths of my despair?

I’ve been told too often that time reveals all to those who are patient. But, I’m a kid. Isn’t that in part why I’m called a kid and not an adult? Being patient takes the fun out of things. Doesn’t it? Hmm…I felt as if I had followed the rabbit down the hole into a scary horror show of Alice in Wonderland. The idea of being late for a very important date escapes me because my life was at a standstill.

Life is full of surprises.

The school year trudged on and so did I. Then one day Joan approached me out of the blue. I was dumbstruck. Blood coursed through my veins so quickly that words were washed cleanout of my brain. I could only listen. During those precious moments together space and time stood still. There were no recriminations, no rancor, only clarity. By the time she had said what she wanted to say, I knew there was nothing I needed to add. A quick reminisce drew laughter and we parted as friends.

Though she was with Chris, a quick glance and a knowing smile as we passed in the hall, assured me that she knew I was there. I still loved her; I guess that was the saddest part: loving someone who used to love you.

Two weeks later, everything changed.

I had just exited Sam’s, the neighborhood variety store, when I noticed Joan walking toward me. Her head was slung low. I called out to her and waited. She barely glanced up as she scurried by me. “Joan,” I called out. “Are you okay? What’s the…?” She had already disappeared down the walkway at the side of the strip mall.

Why did I not follow her? It’s something I’ve always regretted.

Toward the end of the week I went around to her house. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. And the house was empty.

I never saw her again.

Time passed like tumbling tumbleweed in a strong northwest wind.

I had become an adult. I now could vote.

As a sophomore at a prestigious university, I had become, according to my parents, the proverbial know-it-all. I’m sure they would have frowned on my regular late night debates over pizza and beer. My defense: it was a yummy experience for fertile minds that provided fresh perspectives and clarity to the world’s problems. The debates were coed. Now that would have raised an eyebrow or two in my family. Mum’s the word was decided by me right from the start especially since I was interested in one of the participants. As of late, my active participation in the learning experience had waned. It leaned toward more lascivious endeavors. My daily state of being groggy and bleary eyed did not add to my hopes of remaining on the Dean’s List.

The lecture I was trying to follow was exceedingly boring. The professor contributed greatly to lulling my brain to sleep. The attention span of a gnat had suddenly become my norm. Not good, when the content of the class—thermodynamics—was a must go to in order to achieve my degree in chemical engineering. Glancing around the hall it was easy to deduce that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. But that was scant solace.

I took in a deep breath and attempted to refocus when a ball of paper ricocheted off my head, landing on the floor at my feet. A quick scan of the lecture hall turned up empty-handed. Bending down, I picked up the paper-shot and unfolded it. A drawing of a female stick-figure and the words “Do you remember me?” was scrawled on it. I must admit, it did not ring a bell. I took a cursory glance around the hall. There was no obvious source of the projectile. Unable to stifle a yawn or two, my attention refocused on the chalkboard several rows down.

Another balled-up paper careened off my head and onto the floor. But it disappeared from view under the feet of the exiting mass of people at the end of the lecture.

Gathering my textbook and binder, I began the steep climb to the exit. In the very back row, in the middle, a very attractive girl smiled at me. She beckoned me to join her.

I sat on the seat beside her. Though there was a familiarity about her, facial recognition eluded me.  “Do I know you? I have a sense that we have met before.”  The corner of her lip curled up slightly but she did not reply. There was playfulness in her eyes that could not go unnoticed. I held up the crumpled paper. “Was that you?”

She nodded. “Not a bad shot…eh? The second one would have solved the mystery I can see swimming around in your head. Though the student stampede may have put you in danger,” she chortled. “Put that down to bad timing on my part…like… in Mister Roberts’s class.”

That hint hit my memory banks like a lead balloon. “Alison!? Gee…It’s great to see you…but…but…”

“If your jaw drops any lower you’re going to hurt yourself.” She glanced at her watch. “When’s your next class?”

“Who cares…the rest of the day’s yours. Lunch? It’s on me.”

“Well, when you put that way…You got a place in mind?”

“The Mucky Duck.”

I’m not big on nostalgia but our walk across campus to the pub was most pleasant. When she mentioned Joan’s name my ears perked up. Unable to get a word in edgewise, Joan somehow got lost in the many twists and turns of Alison’s catch up tales.

As we sat across from each other waiting for lunch and nursing our drafts, I brought up Joan’s name again. I learned that she and her dad had moved to Montreal, Canada. Unexpectedly she and Alison had corresponded by letter for a short time.

“Do you still write each other?” I asked, hopefully.

She stared at me long and hard, took a swig of her draft and cleared her throat. “She stopped writing after… the baby was born.”

I could feel my whole body deflate like a punctured inner tube. The pain on my face must have been obvious because Allison hesitantly continued.

“Chris Brannon…as you knew at the time …Well…She was head over heels in love with him…and…She trusted him implicitly. Misplaced trust…” She took in a deep breath. “It’s the only kind way I can describe it.”

“Then… Chris… was the father?”  I reluctantly asked.

“One day while she and Chris were at Ted Lacey’s…No…She… never knew who the father was from that day. Her father, wanting to protect her, pulled up stakes and took her with him. He had a sister who lived outside of Montreal.”

We sat in silence for what for me felt like an eternity.

Finally, I asked: “Does she still live there?” When my meal was placed in front of me, I had lost my appetite.

Alison’s gaze skirted away from me. I could see that a teardrop had formed at the corner of her eye. She pushed her plate aside and reached across the table to hold my hands. Her grasp tightened. Her words did not come easily; they carried much pain. “About a year after the baby was born, I received a letter from her father. In it, I was informed that …she…had committed suicide.”

When Alison and I parted, it was dusk. We promised to see each other again.

Beside the entrance to my residence was a small copse of trees. Standing in front of them was a young girl smiling and waving at me. She was radiant and beautiful. She appeared to shimmer from the overhead light above the door. My pace picked up from a lumbering gait. But, by the time I got there, she was gone. I could have sworn it was Joan.

Joan Sledge: New Realities by Barry B. Wright

martin-45

iv

Some people are alive only because it’s illegal to kill them. In my book, Chris Brannon fell into that category. So, when I turned to face him and saw the way he looked at Joan and her at him, I couldn’t help myself.  My fist slammed squarely into his mocking face. It was with great satisfaction that I watched him hit the floor like a ton of bricks. Up until then, I prided myself in having a handle on life; now, that handle was broken. And I feared my hand was as well. From Joan’s expression, I saying “I’m sorry” just wouldn’t cut it. Anyway, it would have been one whopper of a lie. She’d have every right to scream “liar liar pants on fire, nose is long as a telephone wire.”

“As soon as his eyes are uncrossed he’ll be just fine,” I blurted out.

Now that was a dumb statement, I thought. The wiser choice would have been to have said nothing and hung my head in shame. If earth is the insane asylum for the universe, I had just become its most favored inmate.

Joan elbowed me aside and knelt beside Chris. Needless to say, I didn’t protest. Damn it! How could I? I had ruined her birthday party before it had even got started.

She peered up at me. It was apparent to me that any love I thought she had for me had been washed away. Her face had turned a cherry red. It was as though she were being boiled. Her eyes shot arrows that her lips silently enunciated.

I needed no translator.

“Get my dad!” she screamed, venomously.

“You don’t understand,” I shouted, “Chris’s …” I stopped mid-sentence. I felt as if I’d been hit by a Mac truck. This was how she had spent her evenings. WITH HIM. Like a hurricane across an unprotected flat plain, my new reality swept in cruelly.

She glared at me. And I recoiled.

Love had lured me here. I was hooked in hopeless battle. How was I not aware?

Escape. Now! Gather your thoughts.

My mind churned with panicked possibilities.

A wall of pursed lips of saucer eyed guests gasped.

When had they arrived? How long had they been there? Had they witnessed my strife and persecution?

She continued to scream for her dad.

But, her dad had gone AWOL.

I glanced back at Joan and thought: we had been in a time and space separate from the rest.

No more.

I cleaved my way through the startled onlookers. I did not care who I knocked aside. My mind did not need to dwell on their faces. I knew them all.

“Where is my guitar?” I demanded. “Where is my FUCKIN’ guitar?”

“Here asshole,” Ted Lacey bellowed, holding it up threateningly like a wood splitter.

Chris and Ted belonged to a gang known as the Lacey Gang. They had bullied me and others since kindergarten.

Ron? Were my eyes deceiving me? No!

 I never felt so happy to see my brother’s face.

Like a bear trap, Ron clamped down on Ted’s arm with his grip

“Put it down or I’ll break your wrist. Now! And carefully,” Ron threatened.

Ted did what he commanded without hesitation.

Ron waved me over. He stared at me long and hard before speaking. “Take the guitar and get the hell home. Dad’s waiting for you. Oh, and one more thing nerd-head. Your language… I think I’d better wash your mouth out with soap later.”

I was about to ask why he was there when out of the corner of my eye I saw Chris making his way toward us. Ron had seen him too. Grabbing me by my shirt sleeve, he positioned me behind him. “Scram! I’ve got some business to take care of here.” I cringed when I saw him pull out a set of brass knuckles. An attitude of tangle with me at your own risk, my brother always had this scary aura of invincibility. Now I knew why.

To say I ran home was an understatement. I flew. Faster I bet than Jesse Owens. That journey was filled with no small degree of trepidation. Every moment I expected members of the Lacey Gang to pop out to exact revenge.

Dad met me at the door. Relieving me of the guitar, he allowed time for me to catch my breath. Then the harangue began. Boy, did he chew my ear off. I was grounded for two weeks. Based on how I felt at that moment, two weeks for taking his old guitar was no big deal. Stupidly, I told him so. Anyway, Joan had hurt me more deeply than he ever could. Silence hung over us like a heavily soaked blanket. I dared not breathe. He had a strange habit of curling over his tongue when angry. Vexed, his stare cut straight through me. I waited.

“Bill, leave the boy alone. Talk later when all’s cooled down,” my mother encouraged from the kitchen.

Like turning off a switch, my dad mellowed.

“What happened to your hand? You’ll need ice on it.” Gently he examined it.

After he had put together an ice pack and wrapped it around my hand, he gave me stern instructions not to remove it and sent me to my room.

Two hours later I was called down to supper. I had just reached the bottom step when there was a heavy knock at the front door. A chair scraped along the floor in the kitchen and dad appeared. With a quick nod of his head, he directed me to take my seat at the table, while he answered the door.

Curious, I decided to linger.

Two policemen met my dad at the open door. Between them was my brother.

“Jesus…” I murmured under my breath.

A bulging piece of liver for a nose and slits for eyes, Ron quietly listened to the conversation, nodding occasionally. Whatever they were agreeing to seemed to be going well. The three of them shook hands as my brother brushed passed me on his way upstairs.

“They won’t bother you anymore,” he whispered through swollen lips. His painful smile revealed a bloody hole where teeth once securely sat.

Supper was tensely quiet. After a very brief exchange of words between my parents, mom won out and took a supper tray up to Ron’s room. By the time she had started down empty handed, dad had already banned me to my bedroom.

My parents had never raised voices at each other until that night. Nor did they ever do it again. Lying in my bed, above the kitchen, I heard the angry muffled tones of my dad, punctuated by my mom’s crying.

Clasping my hands behind my head I reflected on events leading up to today. I felt cast away on a stormy sea where not even the shore wanted part of me. There were too many questions still to be asked and answered.

The night was long.

Haunting shadows became my nightmare.

How do I mend a broken heart?

Joan Sledge: Brother’s Advice by Barry B. Wright

Holding Hands Silhouette

ii

There is nothing like the first love. I remember reading something about it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the book. I do wish I’d paid closer attention.  Never felt feelings like these before. When I’m with her my senses are so charged up I think I will explode. Who knows about stuff like this? I’d ask my closest bud, Tony, but he still thinks girls are yucky. I can’t imagine that my parents would know the slightest thing about it. It’s too personal to share that kind’a stuff with them anyway.

Whom do I go to, my brother, Ron? Until recently, his social interactions with me were an unequal mixture of grunts and beatings, the latter being favored. He told me I wasn’t worth spit. It was something about not standing up to him, and earning my right of passage.

A guy can only take so much before reaching the end of the road. I reached it about a week ago. Boy! Did I get pummeled! At least now I only receive grunts. But, I keep my guard up nevertheless.

Still, our truce is timely. Six years older than me, surely my brother must know something about such matters?

Standing outside his closed bedroom door about to knock, old memories came to the fore. I broke out in a cold sweat.

Here goes nothing, I thought.

“Is that you runt?” he called out.

“How did you know it was me?”

“Are you kidding? Wimpy knock, wimpy brother. So bugger off.” His command was punctuated with a resounding fart.

The pit of my stomach churned in ways I had never felt before.

He must have heard my heart pounding in my chest because he yelled out: “Well, are you coming in or not?”

“I’m thinking about it. Anyway, you told me to bugger off.”

Unexpectedly, his door swung open and we were face to face. Hooking his fingers inside the front of my T-shirt, he pulled me in.

Silence reigned for several minutes. Feeling captured, I sat obediently anchored on his bed.

Drawing up his chair, he turned it around, sat down and rested his arms across its back and stared at me.  “What d’ya want?” he asked, continuing to scrutinize me.

My mouth moved but nothing stepped out.

“Hey!  Give it here!”

Reluctantly, I followed his direction to make eye contact.

“That’s better. I just want’a see if I’m right.”

“Right? Right about what?” I asked, somewhat confused.

“Pull my finger and I’ll tell you.”

“Must I?” I hated doing this.

“Yipe.”

The pungency of his fart was worst than any outhouse I’d ever been in. “What the heck, Ron…That’s awful! “ I complained while waving my hands in front of my face. I would have left right then and there but my legs were wedged between his chair and the bed.

Once he stopped laughing, he took on a more serious demeanor. “How’s it goin’ between you and Joan, anyway?”

“I love her. What can I say? She’s perfect.”

“Oh…I see. She’s your first.” He shrugged. “Watch your backside.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s a pretty piece of stuff; other guys are going to want her.” He straightened up in the chair. “Have you…you know?”

“Kissed her? Of course I have…many times.”

His forlorn askance glance told me that I had completely missed the target of his query.

“Move it,” he said, removing the chair and gruffly sweeping me off the bed with his arm. Reaching under the mattress, he pulled out a Playboy magazine and handed it to me. “Mom and dad can’t know. Do you hear me?”

I nodded.

“Okay then, read and enjoy. It will tell you all you’ll need to know. But, I want it back in clean condition. Oh, another thing…” He pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and retrieved a small square package and handed it to me.

It felt squishy and I could feel the outline of something circular contained in it. “Aww…?”

“It’s a condom. It’s for your banana.”

“My banana?”

“It’s for your hard-on, nitwit. Once you’ve figured out what to do with it, you’ll need it.”

I shoved it into my pocket.

Ron left the bedroom, stood in the hall listening, then returned. “Strange. I thought I heard… dad. What I’m going to tell you is super hush, hush. Mum’s the word. Got it?”

I pinched my forefinger and thumb together and drew it across my mouth.

“I’ve got a film. Just knock if you need it. A little word of wisdom: first love’s no big deal. You’ll be over it by summer’s end. Just remember nerd-head, that there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Now get out!”

 

A few minutes later I was practicing grounders by throwing my Indian rubber ball off the back wall of the house. My first League game was tomorrow and I had managed to secure the position of Short Stop on the team.

I was surprised to see dad’s Ford Fairlane pulling into the drive. He has never been home this early. I called out but he didn’t hear me and entered the house directly.

Until my tête–à–tête with Ron I never thought of the possibility of Joan and me breaking up. Why would I? It’s never happened to me before. What does Ron know anyway? Why did I take that damn Playboy? It’s probably a setup. If mom and dad find out, I’ll be up a creek without a paddle. I can see it now: baby brother caught red-handed in the act of a taboo ritual. “Shit!  I’ve got gel all over the inside of my pocket. Why did I squeeze it so hard?”

Anger can sure change the intent of an action because when I released that ball I knew immediately that I shouldn’tve. I was already in flight when it crashed through the dining room window; four yards away, I was well hidden behind a bush.

Boy! Dad was pissed!  Scared, I huddled lower and watched as he surveyed the damage. Under the circumstances, the last thing I expected to feel was giddiness. Nevertheless, I did. I think it came about when I foolishly marveled at the break neck speed with which I had hopped over those fences. The reality of my situation soon brought me to my senses. The promise and optimism of my summer had… well…to say the least…definitely gone sideways.

Punishment of some kind was a certainty. Only its severity was in question. So, I settled down to wait. My chances would be better, I thought, once my mother came home.

Dusk was beginning to settle in when the worried calls from my parents and hunger pangs drew me home like a magnet.

Joan Sledge by Barry B. Wright

Holding Hands SilhouetteI

Spring had arrived early and, along with it, hopes that our home team, the Milwaukee Braves, would take the World Series again. Last year was the first time they had won the pennant since moving from Boston in 1953.

A cornucopia of scent wafted through the open window. Riding its gentle warm breeze like sweetness from heaven were spicy dianthus, the heavy scent of gardenia, nicotiana, lily-of-the-valley and lilac. My mom had taught me well and as she had promised, identifying those blossoms and more had become as easy as printing and writing my name.

This was my senior year and I felt especially grown up. Graduation was two months off. Though next year meant travelling to another school to complete grade eight, it was not without some degree of trepidation. Still, for the most part, I eagerly looked forward to it.

Chin saddled against the heel of my hand, I was locked in a daydream. Baseball tryouts were still a month away and the newly formed Duffield Baseball League portended tougher competition. So, when the snow had melted and the ground barely dry, I eagerly began to practice with my Indian rubber ball. I was always amazed by its speed as it coursed its way through the uncut grass. Agility in catching and accuracy in throwing were paramount as the ball bounced off the narrow section of wall beside the dining-room picture window. A nasty hop the other day left me with a shiner. Boy, did I get a ribbing from my friends when they found out.

Mister Roberts was one heck of a great teacher but somehow today his voice was surreal and did not resonate with me.  Dipping the nib of my pen into the ink well, I neatly scratched his notes into my notebook from the chalkboard. I casually glanced around. My peers’ expressions said it all. I was not alone in my mental truancy.

Mister Roberts stopped teaching. Bracing himself against the front edge of his desk, he faced us with his usual toothy smile. “No sense me trying to teach you science when you’re not thinking about it. Huh? So let’s stir things up.” He glanced out the window. “What a beautiful day. Real learning begins out there.”

My attention suddenly piqued.  The collective mental slothfulness of the class began to evaporate like falling dominoes.

He picked up a book from his desk and began to read:

“Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.”

Tilting his head slightly, he asked: “Hmmm…Now, what does this poem by Christina Rossetti have to do with science?”

The class shared a dumbfounded collective except Karen who waved her hand wildly in the air.

“Go ahead, Karen,” he said.

“Observation,” she replied.

“You’re right, the first step in the Scientific Method.”

He went to the back of the classroom and returned with a large brown empty cardboard box from the supply cupboard and placed it in the middle of his desk. “Soon we will be going outside.”

The energy level in the class jumped a few notches.

“Quiet down and listen,” he instructed half laughing and beaming a large smile.

Suddenly, a frown etched across his face; his demeanor became unusually stiff as his attention was directed behind us.

I could feel the energy being sucked out of the room.

The class turned.

Time and backbones noticeably became rigid.

The principal stood in the open doorway. His stern and uncompromising appearance sent a chill up and down my spine. An unpleasant twist gathered in my gut.

Conditioned on how to acknowledge his presence, the class in unison said: “Good morning, Mister Monkman.” He barely acknowledged our greeting.  And, without so much as either a smile or an apology for interrupting the class, he waved our teacher over to him.

Beside Mr. Monkman stood the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. To say that I was mesmerized did not do that moment justice.

“Finish copying the notes from the board, class,” Mr. Roberts said, joining them in the doorway. “Once done, write down and explain the skills and tools you will need to do an effective job in observation.”

The three of them stepped out and closed the door behind them.

Every guy’s gaze—that’s fifty percent of the class—was fixed on the window in the door. That’s fifteen pairs of eyes including my own vying to be noticed by her. But, I was sure she was looking at me. I smiled and nodded. She returned it. I gave a circumspect wave. She did the same.

A ball of paper ricocheted off the side of my head and rolled onto my desk. This ticked me off. I knew it came from Alison. Lately, her favorite pastime was bonking me on the head. Once, every day for a solid week, she had left a yucky clump of her hair on my desk. I cringed with the thought of what came next. And I didn’t have to wait long.

Straddled between her desk and Diane Dawson’s, Alison performed a bizarre series of acrobatics. My glare was assailed by a screwed up face and a rude thrust of her tongue.

Ignoring her, I drew a bead line between my nemesis, Harry Brewer, who continued to smile, nod and wave, and the door. One conclusion resulted. And, it did not favor me.

Miffed, I had barely about faced to cocoon myself in a huff when a cacophonous sound of cascading desks followed by a resounding thump turned the room into chaos.

The pain was immediate. The desk beside me had wedged itself against my ankle.  Everyone around me scampered to the door.

Splayed out on the floor between overturned tables and empty ink wells was Alison in a puddle of ink. Her red hair had turned a weird color of blue. Each time she  wiped the tears from her face, she increasingly took on the appearance of a boxer who had been severely pummeled in the ring.

Not without great effort I restrained myself from giggling as I could feel Mr. Monkman’s cold stare squarely on me.

“Don’t move, Alison. Stop touching your face,” urged Mr. Roberts. “Someone, get the nurse.” He retrieved a bundle of paper towels from the back cupboard and fastidiously layered them around her to sponge up the ink. “Now, Alison, please remain still while I clear away these tables.”

Mr. Roberts’ tall muscular frame made easy work of uprighting the topsy-turvy desks on top and around her. I felt a great deal of relief when he removed the desk against me.

“You alright?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

I turned towards its source. Her face was so close to me that I was swimming in the deep blueness of her eyes. I had lost my words.

I felt flush with embarrassment when she used the back of her hand to lift my jaw into the closed position.

“A fight?” she asked pointing to my eye.

“Ah-huh.” I lied without hesitation. There are lies and there are dumb lies. This was the dumbest. But, at that moment, I felt a need to puff myself up. Some might say like a peacock during mating season, and, quite honestly, they would have been correct.  “I’ll tell you about it if you’ll let me walk you home today.”

She smiled. “Okay.”

“What’s your name?”

“Joan…Joan Sledge.”

A low hum settled over the class. The nurse had arrived and was examining Alison. A few minutes later she gave the class thumbs up. Alison was A-1 okay. Nevertheless, she and Mr. Monkman escorted her to the school dispensary. A full week would pass before we saw her again.

By the time graduation rolled around, I had fallen head over heels in love with Joan as she with me.

Time seemed to sprout wings as grade seven ended. And, like a spring board, we were launched into summer. Little did I know at the time that heartache and mystery awaited me at its end.