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: The Birthday Party by Barry B. Wright

The Family Within the Green Door

III

Damn my brother! Until our little talk, breaking up with Joan had never crossed my mind. Unfortunately for me, that possibility has managed to weasel itself into my daily thoughts. Now it’s stuck in place with Crazy glue. I thought the summer was filled with promise. In a way, I guess, I still do. Except now it’s tainted. Damn him anyway!  Caught in a conundrum to tell her or not, I finally decided on the latter. I had convinced myself that all this nasty stuff needed to play itself out.

Joan and I continued to spend our afternoons together. In my mind forever was still part of our equation. Often I brought my F.W. Woolworth guitar. My parents bought it for me three years ago. Though I wasn’t very good, Joan insisted on me playing and singing Honey Comb and Dream, her two favorites. She howled when I sang Hound Dog. I welcomed her laughter; it was contagious. We continued to share our dreams. I pretended to capture hers and to lock them in my heart. Gleefully, she giggled every time I did it. The lilt of her voice and the sweet scent of her perfume continued to affect me in ways I have never felt before. Oh, how we kissed.

Our time together melted away too quickly. And, with it, so did my concerns about breaking up.

Joan’s home was different from the others in the neighborhood. It was the only one with a green door and a small green window beside it. Beyond the door I was told there was an anteroom. I guess it made sense since her dad ran his clinic from the home. Sadly, I had heard that the community didn’t think much of him as a doctor. They said he had lost his marbles, had become queer in the head, since his wife’s untimely death. Except for the Duffy family, a family of twelve, his practice was non-existent.  But, I liked him. He and Joan had come out a couple of evenings to watch me play ball. Though my team got trounced on both occasions, her dad always had a kind, supportive word or two to share. For me, that made him a double thumbs up sort of guy.

Except for those two occasions and, I must say, I found this strange, she was never allowed out in the evening. She made it plain that it wasn’t a topic she cared to discuss. Wisely, I guess, I did not pursue it. Sometimes, it’s best not to know the answer. Still, it continued to tweak my curiosity.

Standing at her door, I took in a deep breath and knocked. Until today, sitting on the swing chair with her on the back patio is the closest I had come to being inside her home. I felt nervous and self-conscious. Why I felt this way, I do not know. The guitar slung over my shoulder suddenly felt awkward and heavy. Precariously, I shifted the position of both gift and guitar and waited.

The pleasantness of her father’s smile welcomed me at the door. Normally his eyes were awash with playfulness and wisdom but today I discerned a hint of sadness. A steely proud man whatever the problem, he elicited the bearing of a military officer and the demeanor of an English country gentleman. Proud, strong and fair, his words were soft, reassuring and precise. He took my gift and pointed me along the grey hued hallway toward a room at the end. The living room and what I took to be his office because of the amply filled floor to ceiling bookcases were both heavily curtained. Layered in shadows and pockets of darkness, they offered no welcoming threshold. Though I could not account for it, the pores of this old house oozed with sadness. I felt like I was an interloper in a history that I could not possibly understand; yet its tentacles reached out for me.

Sunlight and dancing dust particles flooded out from the room at the end of the hall. My pace quickened. That’s where Joan waited.

She kissed me full on the lips. I felt my face flush with embarrassment when I realized that her father had entered with me.

“Um, happy birthday,” I exhaled, words stumbling out awkwardly.

Her father snickered as he placed my gift on the dining room table.

Her face beamed. “Oh, good, you did remember to bring your guitar. See, dad, I told you he wouldn’t forget.”

I don’t know why she asked me to bring it. She knew I wasn’t very good. “Where can I put it so that it will be safe?” I asked, scanning the room for a secure location.

“Let me,” her father volunteered. “When you’re ready I’ll bring it to you.”

Taking the guitar from me, he examined it. Glancing at me in astonishment, he said: “I’m looking forward to hearing you play.”  I must have looked dumbfounded because he continued. “Don’t be so humble. It’s okay to be a prodigy. Joan never told me how accomplished you must be.” Positioning his fingers on the struts he played a few chords. And he took in a deep breath. “A Martin D-45…my, my…this is a rock star among guitars. You must feel privileged to own such a guitar?”

Mouth agape, not knowing what to say, I nodded.

“Be assured, it will be placed in a safe location, promise.”

My askance glance at Joan when he left must have said it all because she began to giggle.

“Do you have any idea what that was all about?”

Shaking her head and shrugging she took my hand. “It must be something special.”

“What makes you say that?”

“The way he was handling it—kid gloves and all that like a newborn baby. Well is it?”

“Is it what?”

“Special?”

“Nah, it’s just an old guitar of my dad’s. That’s all.”

My overly casual treatment of the subject belied a growing uneasiness. Grounded two weeks for the broken window was still very fresh in my mind. It sucked. And I did not want a repeat. I would have asked my dad except he was out of town on business. I had no way to reach him. Still… I could have cleared it with mom. “Anyway, who’s coming?”  I asked, trying to divert my decision..

Her reluctance to readily answer my query surprised me.

Tugging my hand she led me out into the hallway toward the kitchen.

Was this a diversionary tactic? Anyway, what was the big deal about who was coming?

“Close your eyes. Don’t open until I tell you,” she instructed.

I smacked my head against the door frame. “Gee, Joan”

“I’m sorry,” came her quick reply as she more judiciously maneuvered me into the kitchen. “You can open them now.”

Vigorously rubbing my head, my eyes followed the direction of her extended index finger to the middle of the kitchen table. On it was strawberry shortcake decked out with fourteen unlit birthday candles.

Strawberry shortcake was my numero uno of desserts. But it wasn’t hers. Hers was chocolate cake—double chocolate to be exact.

Was I about to walk the plank? And this was her way to help soften the plunge?

“Ah…I’m a little loss with what’s going on.” My index finger couldn’t resist scraping some cream with a large strawberry on it and inserting it into my mouth.

She slapped my hand. “Shame on you! Others are to eat that. And take that sheepish grin off your face. It won’t help you.”

Obtaining a knife from the drawer, she smoothed out the location of my infraction.

“There, that’s better,” she said, eyeing me out of the corner of her eye. Several seconds passed before she spoke. “We need to talk.There’s something you need to know.”

“There is?”

She bit hard on her lower lip. I’ve got to know her well enough to know that that was not a good sign.

“You first,” I managed to say. I could tell by the question mark on her face that my reply had momentarily readjusted her trend of thought. Not known to her, I had decided that this was as good a time as any to discuss what was troubling me.

If she had had a pet, right then a there I would have sworn she was about to tell me it had died. Huge gobs of tears filled her eyes.

Whatever it was she was about to say, in that moment it was lost forever.

Following her stare into the space behind me, I came face to face with my nemesis, Chris Brannon.