Charlie’s Rebellion

“You think they’d staff up on Saturday afternoons,” I was waiting in line at the local sub shop, and the woman in front of me was not happy with the speed of service.   It was a favorite spot in town for weekend lunch.  Most of us took the minor wait in stride.

“We haven’t moved an inch in forever,” she continued her complaint to no one in particular, her husband lost in his phone’s screen.  Their little boy was eyeing the primary colored gumball machine placed strategically on the wall beside the waiting queue.

“Adam, what are you going to get? You have to pick something Charlie will like. You two are sharing,” she nudged her husband.

“I was thinking a tuna sandwich,” Adam replied, still clicking on his phone.

“No tuna.  Too much mayo.  Low fat, remember.  You’ll have the turkey with mustard.  And no chips.” Adam nodded mindlessly.

Charlie unzipped his hoodie and started slipping out his arm. “Adam, keep his sweatshirt on.  He had sniffles this morning.  You know Deb came over yesterday. She had the flu like ten days ago.  Now he’s got the sniffles. Charlie! Keep that zipped up.  You’ve got a cold.” Adam bent down and zipped up the sweatshirt, patting Charlie on the curls.

Adam’s phone buzzed, and she grabbed his hand to look at the caller id.  “Your sister?  Don’t answer that.  We’re not going to her house for dinner.  You call her later and explain that.  Her place is a disaster.  Do you know she doesn’t even rinse the dishes before she puts them in the washer?” Adam nodded wearily.  He’d obviously heard it before.  “They can come to our place or we’ll go out.  I’m not eating in that pig sty.”

She looked back at the menu board, “What do you think has less calories?  The wheat or the rye?” she asked no one in particular, again.

Charlie tugged on Adam’s pant leg, pointing towards the gumball machine.  “Ok, just one,” Adam relented and fished in his pocket for a quarter.  Charlie hopped over to the machine and plugged the coin into the slot.  The magic rattle of the treasure falling followed. Charlie opened the plastic red flap to retrieve his prize.

“What? You let him get gum?” she looked up at Adam in disbelief.  “Christ, he hasn’t even had lunch!” she cried.

“It’s just a gumball.  I’ll have him save it for dessert. Come here Buddy.  Show me what color you got.” Adam held his hand out for Charlie.

“Do you know how filthy those machines are? You’ll have to go in and wash his hands.” she declared.

Charlie came back, his fist closed around his prize.  “Give me your gumball, Bud.  We’ll save it for desert.” Adam requested.

Charlie opened his palm to show a large human tooth.

Adam looked startled.  His wife caught her breath, “Oh. God! That’s disgusting.”

Before either parent could grab the tooth away, Charlie popped it in his mouth and swallowed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Seasons

Ian kissed the kids as they ate their breakfast, and hugged me from behind while I loaded the dishwasher.

“Hey, the guys from work just buzzed me.  They’re missing a fourth.  OK if I go?” he grabbed a slice of bacon from the platter on the counter.

“I thought we were going to Butler’s today. It’s the last weekend for strawberries.”  I turned my head to watch him ruffle Luke’s amber curls.

“I know, I know.  But it’s the firm’s end of season golf outing.  It’s been a long few months,” he debated back, still smiling.

“Honey, you just golfed with my Dad last Sunday.  I really wanted a weekend for just us,” I cautiously countered.

His stress level had been high since March, when tax deadlines and client anxiety raged. I saw him pull in his fingers, a tense fist. I hung my head, bit my lip, knowing I had lost.

“I just need a little time for myself, ok?  Tee time is at nine, so I gotta go.” He left through the garage door.

Parking for Butler’s Orchard was to the side of the road.  I pulled in and released Liza and Luke from their car seats.  At the white stand, I paid for three baskets.

“Good thing you made it out early,” the older lady at the register said.  “Not sure we’ll have much more left after this morning.  They’re mighty tasty.  Best season in years.”

As I gave the kids their baskets, I told them to choose one row of plants to pick.  They ran down the slope to the field with seemingly endless lines of knee-high plants, red treasures revealed with every feather breeze.  Luke immediately put a berry into his mouth.

“Hey, guys!  We’re here for picking not eating!”

As I stooped to part leaves and pinch the fruit from the stem, in the relative peace of the sun washed field, they came to me.  Memories of this time last year, another beautiful May morning when I found his phone while he showered.  Text messages filled the screen.

I need you NOW, baby.

Bernie just left, we have the whole day.

Tell her you need to get to the office.

To his credit, Ian never denied it.  He actually told me exactly what happened.  The long days, joking turned to flirting over late night delivered dinners.  Their overnight client trips, drinks at the bar turned to kissing in the elevator.  Sex in hotel rooms turned to making love at her place when Bernie was out.

Love.  Was it love?

It took him a month living at his brother’s to conclude it wasn’t. He decided he wanted his kids, his home and me.  I knew he loved his kids and his home.  But did he love me?  I spent the last ten months looking for proof in his tone, his touch, in how often he called me, held my hand, laughed at my jokes.

He did his penance: willingly talked at marriage therapy, surprised me with date nights, attended school plays, FaceTimed with me before he slept in faraway hotel rooms, and sent roses at Valentine’s.

When I finally allowed him back into my bed, and he hovered over me, I wondered if it was love. Did the movement of my hips and the tease of my tongue make him love me? Or were they just a replacement for her.  With each thrust, a mantra was born that I could not change, “He loves me. He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. Not.”  When finished, he’d kiss my cheek, roll over to slumber, and I would stay awake staring into the darkness of love unsure.

And then it was spring again.  Tensions that had been buried at therapy session and in glasses of wine, overshadowed by holiday cheer and birthday party chaos, and ignored in the peace of routine days, were born again.  It had been weeks since he laid over me, weeks since any touch echoed with “he loves me”.

“It was tax season,” I told myself.  “It’s the stress. He works such long hours.  The deadlines, the responsibility. I need to give him space. Now is his time for work, then he can focus on the kids and me.  Just give him time.”

I stopped picking berries, the flood of memories and the burden of hopes, too heavy.  I sat on the slope, watching Luke and Liza move along the row until their baskets overflowed, juicy red.  I called them back, and they ran to show me their bounty.

“To have the innocence of a six year old,” I thought, “Simple joy from a basket of fruit.”

We headed back to the car, with the promise of a strawberry pie, Daddy’s favorite, for dessert.

I clicked to open the hatch on the back of my SUV.  I looked inside to see Ian’s golf bag, forgotten, laying on its side.  A golf ball rolled out and landed at my feet.

Grad Week

We headed down the boardwalk.  Beachy hair waves – check.  Cute sundress – check. I was ready if we happened to run into Aaron Wheeler, or any of the lacrosse team for that matter.   From numerous Facebook and Twitter pings, we knew other grads from Sherwood High would be at Funland before fireworks.

Grad week at Ocean City wasn’t turning out what I thought it would be.  After six days, I was still looking for that first hand hold, first kiss, first non-familial male acknowledgment I was cute, special, pretty or just somewhat attractive.  My best friend and prom date, Mitch, was at my side, also hoping someone on the lacrosse team would notice him.  He may have had a better chance than me.

Mitch was known as the class cut-up, hysterically funny, spunky and self-assured.  I was his side-kick, sarcastic straightman, or straight-woman.  We could make our rounds at the Friday night parties, welcomed but not embraced.  We were good for a laugh.

Each day that Grad week, we sat out in the Sherwood section of the beach, setting our chairs and towels in between the band/choir gang and the football/lacrosse/cheerleader territory.  We never really fit into any high school pack, so we were stuck in limbo.

I tried hard to break the barrier into lacrosse land.  I used my graduation gift cards on pretty bikinis.

“Bikini?,” Mitch had exclaimed the first day when I took off my cover. “You’re not a bikini babe!  That tummy has never seen the light of day!”

I didn’t wear my bikini with the same confidence as the cheer squad.  My curves weren’t as curvy, my body not so toned.  I tried to walk by the boys playing frissbee or corn hole, dipping my toes into the surf and holding my face up to the sun for dramatic effect. But the damn cheerleaders were doing back flips and handstands. By the last days, I just sulked in my chair, my torso covered in tshirts hiding a sunburned belly.

We made our way into the arcade, grateful for a small burst of air conditioning once we were a few feet beyond the open bays to the boardwalk.  It was Mitch’s turn at pinball.  I stood beside watching the paddles hit, and the ball get tossed into bells and buzzers.

He grabbed ahold of my shoulder and spun me around. I looked up into Aaron Wheeler’s adams apple.  He was all pectoral muscles pushing against a collar-turned-up polo shirt, biceps and beer breath.  “Hey.  Oh.  Dang, Jessie.  You looked just like Sabrina from the back.  You seen her anywhere?”

“Uh, no,” was all I could get out before he patted my shoulder and cocked his head to look over the crowd and leave me, breathless.

“Close your mouth, girl.  You look desperate,” Mitch chided.

“He knew my name,” I looked at Mitch in awe and through the open entrance to the beach, a red firework pierced the navy blue velvet twighlight sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Damn Job Ever

Those were the best days of my life

Oh, yeah.

Back in the summer of ’69. 

Bryan Adams’ song played, and Bud tapped along with his finger on the label of his second or third Labatt Blue.

“Bet you wasn’t even around in 69, were ya, Christy?”

The bartender with over-blond hair looked up from the taps, “Sure wasn’t.  Did I miss out on some fun?” she replied to Bud, one of her regulars sitting in the “regulars” section of the Clam Shanty bar.

“69. Hell, nearly fifty years ago.  I was, what, fourteen?” Bud leaned back on his stool.  “All I wanted was to get out of that house in Liverpool and out of Ma’s way.  All she wanted was for me to get off my lazy ass and work that summer.  Kept threatening to take me to the foundry with her.  Sort odd parts for eight fucking hours a day.”

He took a long sip. “I begged my Uncle Ceril to take me to his farm, up there near Lake Ontario, to dig salt potatoes for like two months. That work’s hard as shit, but better than being with Ma sorting bad pieces from good. Christ. Y’all know how fucking hot that parts room gets in summer.  Hotter than hell.  Better off digging shit all day.”

“Say, Christy,” Bud spoke up to get her attention, “You got some salt potatoes?  Should still be in season.”  She nodded from across the way.  “Put an order in for me. Extra butter.”

“You dug potatoes all summer?” Dave, another regular, asked.

“Nah.  Just through July, then they’re all dug up.  Came back to Ma bitching at me for not working like my sister, Cathy.  She had a full time gig at Vicky’s Soft Serve. Remember that place?” Dave nodded over his beer.

“I’d get on my bike for like the whole fucking day just to get away from Ma.  Leave before she even got up so she couldn’t take me down to work.  I’d ride all over, mostly round the lake.  That’s when I saw them setting up for the Fair.  You know how all them carnies come in a week before the fair starts, set up them crappy games and rides?  I was standing by the fence, watching, and some dude comes over and asks if I need a job.  Hell ya, I needed a job.”

Christy put down a bowl with small potatoes, skins crusty-white from their boil with a pound of salt.   Bud grunted his thanks.

“Never guess where they put me.  The Haunted House!” The regulars chortled.

“Yup.  I was a one of those fucking carnies that jumped from a hole in the wall to scare the piss out of little kids.  Three weeks, man, 12 hours a day, I was a carnie making girls scream.”

Some butter off the potatoes dribbled onto his chin.  He wiped it away with a hand permanently gnarled and nailbeds blackened from years filing spurs off metal parts at the foundry.

“Best damn job ever.”

 

Sand

Becca gathered her beach bag stuffed with large towels and a small soft side cooler with water and snacks. She went into her dad’s office to find the keys, not so cleverly hidden.

In the garage, she pulled off the muslin tarp covering the 64 turquoise Mustang convertible with white top and upholstery. “When Dad had given his ok, he didn’t say which car, right?” she reasoned to herself. But as she pulled his prized Baby out, she knew he hadn’t meant this car.

When she pulled up, Evie and her nurse were at the curb. Becca jumped out to help her into the front seat, her too thin legs under baggy jean shorts, a cotton cardigan over her camisole, covering the catheter port under her right collar bone. A baseball cap declaring her a Sherwood High Warrior covered her bald head.

“She had a good night sleep, so she should be able to get out to the beach for a few hours,” the nurse fussed over Evie. ” I packed her a bag with what she needs if she get nauseous. But be back here by one. No later, Becca.”

“Yes, ma’am. No all nighter, right Evie?”

With that they pulled out from the hospice center and onto the roads they had travelled so often to the beach at the lake.  Those trips defined their childhood summers.

“Your dad let you take Baby?” Evie asked.

“Well, not really but hey, I’ve done worse, right?  I’ll just blame it on you if he finds out,” Bec laughed, looking over at Evie, her face lifted to the light.

“I love riding in this car, top down, sun and fun.” Evie took a deep breath. “Every summer your dad would take us out.  Best times.”

“Becca, can we skip the beach? I really want to go somewhere just with you.”

“Of course, honey. Just tell me where.”

They drove to Forestview Cemetary,  Evie directing Becca to a section shaded by huge oaks and towering pines, a glimpse of the lake ahead. They parked in front of a large stone bearing her family name.

“Here is where I’ll be, Bec. It’s pretty, right? Can we sit a bit?”

Becca put out their towels, and the girls laid down on the gentle slope. The lake,  glittering beyond, confirming life in green and blue.

“I never really liked the beach, Bec,” Evie looked over to the friend she’d known since second grade. She held Bec’s hand tightly.

“I know. The whole sand thing.” Bec replied.

“Sand on wet or sunscreened skin is the absolute worst.”

“We always had to have a clean towel for me to get the sand off you,” Becca remembered.

“I think sand is just water’s dust. Will I just be dust, Bec?”

Three weeks later, as they lowered the casket to the earth, shaded by pines and oaks, Becca stepped forward and placed a towel on top, just above the perfect pink roses.

“To keep the sand off, Evie.”

Best of Charm City

Big John looks forward to the Baltimore Chili Cook-off every year. Held on the infield of Pimlico race track, thousands of music and chili fans gather for a day of food, fun and festivities. Charity groups sponsor tents around the perimeter of one end, serving their version of the Best Charm City Chili. Big John visits them all.

John is big. Six feet eight inches big. He works constructing concrete foundations, so either breaking apart existing slabs with a jarring jack-hammer or hauling loads of wet mud to pour into rebar frames. His upper body is massive, his legs busting against super-sized jeans. He’s an intimidating looking guy, but his friends know him for his quick laugh, helping hands and generous heart.

“How many more tents we got left?” his friend, Joe, asked, a beer in one hand and chili dog in another. They had made it around much of the food area by five o’clock, no-name bands playing at the far end of the field. The headliners were set to start at six.

“Looks like two more after this one.” From his higher vantage point, Big John scanned down the line of tents, over the heads of hundreds of partiers. “The next one’s got Chili-Tots. Love that stuff.”

Big John cut his way through the crowd with Joe in his wake. The wait for Tots wasn’t too long. Joe started to sweat. He had been feeling the heat all day. Sun and spicy food will do that to a guy. But he was now suddenly sweating from head to toe, stomach pains making his core cramp, his arms tingle and his head drop.

“John, Christ, I’m not feeling great,” Joe put a hand on John’s log of a forearm. Big John looked down and saw his buddy’s greening face. “I gotta get to a crapper, like now.”
Big John scanned the landscape, spotting the Port-a-Potty setup to their right. “Common, man, let’s get you to it.” He put Joe in front of him, and they broke through the crowd to the rest area. An extensive line snaked to the entry, too long, Big John knew, for a happy ending.

For speed and dramatic effect, he picked Joe up, carrying him like a big baby. “OK people, I know you’ve got your needs but my bud here is having a bad hot dog type emergency. Can you give us a break?” He implored to the first few people at the front.

The people parted, Joe was delivered to the first vacant plastic stall, and Big John stood guard. Joe eventually exited, color back in his face.

“All end ok, man?” Big John cracked with a chuckle.

“Yeah, that was rough. But I’m good to go,” Joe replied with thumbs up as they made their way back to the main activity.

“Chili Peppers are up in forty. Wanna head to the mosh pit?” Joe asked.

“Hell no. We still have to grab some Chili Taters.” Big John led the way.

Blue Line

Carl dug his walking stick in, a slight incline ahead.  The Priest, this Shenandoah trail he had hiked for nearly thirty years, was hardened, slick now by late November frost. The main trail veered to his right.  To his left, noticeable now with the lack of leaves and vines, a narrow footpath headed west.

Each winter, Carl and his a group of longtime friends drove SUVs and pick-up trucks up a fire lane to a remote spot, close enough to hear the rush of Crabtree Falls.  Truck camping was perfect for bringing in a load of firewood, a Weber grill, and coolers filled with steaks and beer. Also packed was a huge custom wall tent, spacious enough to fit a long folding table for days of card and board games.

Carl knew where this unveiled narrow path must lead.  A blue line was somewhere down the slope. If it was April, and if Carl held his fly rod instead of a walking pole, if he had his waders and not his heavy boots, he’d follow that secret track and find that line.

How many times had he sat on a fallen log on a main trail and pulled out a trail map to discover a hidden stream?  You don’t find a great catch staying on the waters most known.  You go searching for those thin blue lines, barely etched on the map.  You really have to look for those anonymous creeks and streams, racing over rock and falls, their waters reaching for a river beyond. Finding these lines, walking a day with them in peace and appreciation, for Carl, was as good as winning any prize.

He’d be back to this place branching off the Priest.  When the sun was shining through cotton clouds and trees rustled welcome, and the earth smelled of peat and green.  Carl took out a pen and marked his trail guide for his new found path.  Next time he reached this fork, he’d go west and find that line and the rock ledges it bathes.  Carl would rest atop a boulder, next to a simple waterfall, able to look through a clearing in the canopy to a peak of mountain ridges beyond. He would finally come across his line’s pool, with silver fish nestled in the shady edges, feasting on flies both real and crafted.   And he’d send some flies to the center where the water’s depth cooled the biggest ones, hungry enough to come up for a bite.

But now, clouds were rolling in with a cold wind heralding a possible rain. Camp was an hour away, his buddies probably still cocooned in tents and sleeping bags, awaiting his return to stoke the fire and light the grill.  As the early riser, he had become the camp’s breakfast chef. He’d wake them soon for biscuits, gravy, Bailey’s in coffee and a fireside chat about a blue line waiting for them come spring.

 

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