like the Duke,” he had joked a few weeks before the end.
No one laughed.
The Arm Pit hadn’t changed. It still smelled about like its name
wasn’t actually even its name. The sign over the door read “Armie’s
Stop”, a poorly thought-out name if ever there was one. The owner,
Kryszkowski had been a race car fan from birth. When he got drunk enough
he would spin a yarn or two about his past glories as a pit boss in Daytona.
Everyone humored him most of the time but occasionally reminded him
that the closest he had ever gotten to Daytona was in the Barcolounger in
front of his television set.
Arm Pit was pretty much your standard mill town watering hole—
the aluminum siding exterior was painted a discouraging shade of green
had metal framed windows high up on the walls that could be cranked open
but rarely were. Neon beer signs sputtered and fizzed in them—Budweiser,
Narraganset, Pabst. Anything fancier than that would be regarded with suspicion.
Inside it was dark which was a good thing. There was a long Ushaped
bar with chrome and vinyl bar stools, a few Formica-topped tables
with black plastic chairs. The back room was bigger with more tables, a
dance floor, and a raised platform where every bunch of local kids who
pull together a rock-a-billy band had played. The consensus was that those
were darned brave even if they did stink as musicians. There were a couple
pool tables and the jukebox that was the pride of Middlesex County.
Armie Kryszkowski’s nephew Gizmo had rebuilt it himself in the back
his dad’s electronics shop. Gizmo was a strange kid—always
had been. He had
a knack with electronics and had changed his name to Gizmo Wannamaker
when he started working for his father. Armie’s brother, Bazyli,
who was a
legend on the dance floor in his younger days, accepted the jukebox as
for some work done rewiring the Moose Club over in Hatcherton, and Gizmo
spent close to two years taking it apart, adapting it for use with compact
disks—it had been designed for vinyl forty-fives—and tinkering
until it had
the best speakers, the highest capacity of CDs, and the wildest light show
in New England. He had even designed a pattern of race cars zooming up
and over the face of the machine. Armie saw it, fell in love and offered
brother a thousand dollars for the masterpiece. In fact it was three of
Bunch—Vinnie Rizzo, Bull Knox, and Gabe Hawking—who had moved
juke from Bazyli’s shop to Armie’s bar. Gabe stipulated one
one would ever remove a Bob Seger CD from the machine except to replace
worn out ones. Armie agreed.
Though Ripley Mills had as many bars and taverns as any comparably
sized mill town along the Merrimack River, The Arm Pit had a couple of
advantages in the opinions of the Wild Bunch. One was that its parking
was hidden by the high brick walls of the old mill buildings that surrounded
it and could only be accessed down a narrow driveway beside the front door.
This prevented nosey wives and girlfriends from taking too many risks when
checking up on their men’s whereabouts.
The second was the dinner specials. Armie Kryszkowski might be a crabby
bullshit artist but he was one heck of a cook when it came to the kind
the guys who hung out there liked.
He featured one menu item a day
and once it ran out that was it so the Wild Bunch made sure they were
there by five on Thursdays. Armie never varied the menu. Monday was smoked
sausages and crispy potato pancakes served with creamed corn, stewed tomatoes,
and chunky applesauce. Tuesday was melt-in-your-mouth calves liver loaded
with sauteed onion and bacon. Wednesday
was Salisbury steak drowning in onions, garlic, and mushrooms. Friday
was the standard fishcakes and beans with coleslaw, and Saturday was
ham and scalloped potatoes. But Thursday night was Armie’s finest—kingsized
green peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground round, ground pork and rice
a-wash in a sea of spicy tomato sauce and served with mountains of mashed
potatoes and those butter-drenched, little deep green peas that popped
you shoved them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue.
Aside from the specials, the Arm Pit offered the usual local bar fare—
potato chips, popcorn, pretzels—as well as gallon sized glass jars
pig’s knuckles, sliced pickled pig heart, and hard-boiled eggs pickled
beets and cloves which were brought in twice a week by an Amish farmer
from just across the state line in New Hampshire. Now and then when Josef
Stoltzfus’s wife had time between chasing after their six children
send along a few homemade fruit pies or an apple cake but those treasures
reserved for the few patrons Armie considered his friends.
Everybody liked Joe Stoltzfus
though he probably wouldn’t want the
members of his congregation to know that. He could usually be counted on
to stick around and down a beer or two after which he would tell earthy,
surprisingly racy, farm jokes that got repeated endlessly after he left.
The Wild Bunch was grateful for the Arm Pit. It was one of the few constants
in a world that had changed way too much over the past thirty-five years. The
Wild Bunch had been there for each other through marriages, divorces,
having kids and having problems with kids, losing parents and jobs, a
couple of affairs, and general all-purpose pissing and moaning. Not that
they ever got sloppy about it. They weren’t the kind of guys to
go out in the woods and drum,
as Charlie liked to remind them. But they were there. And they knew they
were there. And that was good enough.
Lately the Thursday night drama had centered around Bull Knox’s affair
with an exotic dancer from over in Salisbury Beach. It was a sad case—Bull
had it bad.
“The weird thing is,” Vinnie said twisting off the cap on a
“I really think the dumb shit’s in love with her.”
“Don’t even say that,” Whitey Swenson laughed. He loosened
his tie and
unbuttoned his shirt collar. Whitey was the only one of them who always
showed up on Thursday nights in a suit jacket and tie. He came straight
his insurance agency with no time to change. “Marilyn will Bobbit-ize
she finds out. That asshole better be careful.”
But Vinnie was right. Bull was head over heels and it was a pitiful thing
see. He’d told Gabe all about it a few nights earlier.
“She’s not like you’d think,” he said tossing back
a shot of Jim Beam with
his beer. “Naomi’s sweet and funny and really smart. She just
took the job
dancing to pay off her school loans faster.”
Gabe even let Bull drag him over to Kittens to meet her and Bull was
right—she was sweet and funny, smart and too gosh-darn cute for old
them. Gabe was inches away from falling for her himself or would have been
she wasn’t about the same age as his daughters.
“I sure can’t blame you,” he said as they drove back
to Ripley Mills in the
dark of the summer night. “What’s your secret? How does a guy
our age get a
girl that age to even notice he’s alive?”
“She did. I didn’t do a damn thing that I can remember. She
over and sat down and flashed that grin and the next thing I knew I was
...shit...” Bull stared out the window on the passenger side.
“How old is she?”
“Twenty-four. Don’t think that doesn’t worry the hell
out of me, too. But,
damn...” He groaned a deep, painful groan. “The thing is I’ve
been with Marilyn
since we was Juniors, y’know. And it was good. I thought I was lucky—one
the lucky ones. We never fought much, we had great kids. She’s a
and liked taking care of the house and I always thought she was happy then...
I don’t know what the hell happened.”
“Yeah... well, it’s not the kind of stuff you want to talk
After Nikki went off to nursing school Marilyn started getting involved
all these groups. Hell, I thought it was great—give her something
to do and it
was high time she had some fun and not be stuck at home all the time. But
just went off the deep end.”
Gabe was about to turn on to 495 South but then snapped the turn signal
off. It was a good night for a ride on a two-lane and Bull needed some
time to talk.
“What happened?” Gabe wasn’t a talker but he was a good
the guys in the Wild Bunch relied on that at one time or another. Charlie
he should have become a priest instead of Pete. Gabe could listen to confession
“Well, first it was local stuff and I was behind her a hundred percent—
trying to stop them tearing down the old schoolhouse out on the Merrimack
and raising money for renovating the Peterson Mill for that arts center.
thought that was just great but then she started volunteering at the women’s
shelter and .... damn, it’s been all downhill from there.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Not to me it doesn’t. I mean, hell, I thought being around
women, seeing what they been through, she’d think I wasn’t
so bad to be with
but no such luck. Just the opposite.”
“Opposite?” Gabe glanced at Bull who was slumped down in his
“Yeah... It didn’t happen all at once but the last four or
five years it seems
every damn thing I do is some kind of a ‘violation’. That’s
what she says, ‘you’re
violating my identity’. What the holy blue fuck does that mean?”
Gabe shook his head. “Beats me.”
“Yeah, well, me too. And what’s all this stuff about me being
not to communicate. We communicated just great for twenty-eight years.
says I’m conditioned to be uncommunicative and if I really wanted
to I could
share my feelings.”
Gabe chuckled. “Maybe you should share your feelings more often.”
Bull groaned. “Don’t even go there. We used to be pretty good
y’know? I mean, sometimes when you got a houseful a kids it’s
hard finding the
time and the energy. Then once they started moving out we were sorta making
up for lost time for awhile but then that got shot to shit. She wants me
my feelings but she sure as hell doesn’t want to do it in the way
Gabe was silent. The conversation was hitting a little too close to home
and he wasn’t a bit comfortable with that.
“And Naomi... oh man, she is
so great to be with. She’s enthusiastic
shit, she just makes me feel so damn good. I mean, holy fuck, I’m
so sick of
feeling guilty for having a dick, y’know?”
It was Gabe’s turn to shift uncomfortably. “Know what ya mean.”
“I mean, it’s not like anything has changed. God made men one
women another and, up till the last couple of years it seemed like he’d
pretty damn satisfying job and all. But now Marilyn tells me that all sex
invasion. What the fuck does that mean? All sex is an invasion? Well, unless
somebody swapped women on me without my noticing she liked that invasion
pretty damn good for a lot of years.” He raked his fingers through
his hair and
slouched farther down. “‘All sex is an invasion’. That
really pisses me off. I
always tried to make sure she had as good a time as I had. Hell, she’s
that came two, three times to my one. ‘All sex is an invasion’,
Gabe didn’t say anything and began to wish he had taken the freeway.
When Father Pete showed up the third Thursday in August everyone was
a little surprised, not that they weren’t happy to see him. But it
was the fourth
Thursday in a row that he’d joined them and that was unusual. He
always, his laid-back, good-humored self and they were glad he was there.
had a mystique about him that had started back in high school and only
with the passage of time.
Peter Abélard Black was, by the agreement of nearly every female
ever met him, one of the most perfectly handsome men the good Lord had
ever graced the earth with. In high school he was elected to every position
of distinction—from class president, to captain of the swim team,
to King of
the Winter Festival—merely on the basis of his relentless good looks.
senior year he stood just shy of six feet four inches tall and had the
body fashion designers, photographers, girls of all ages, and every gay
ever glanced at him, drooled over. His shoulders were wide, his hips narrow,
and his muscles long, perfectly delineated and elegant. His thick ravens-wing
black hair had just the suggestion of a wave to it, and the flawless, dusky
that hinted at his Algonquin ancestors was the ideal setting for bottle
green eyes that actually made women gasp the first time he looked at them.
Added to that was a disarming smile, and a soft laugh that had been known
to bring a blush to the cheeks of the nuns who were fortunate enough to
him in class at Christ the King High School. In fact, it was Sister Elizabeth
Ann Seton who commented that Peter Black was living proof that God wasn’t
The real irony, of which Sister
Elizabeth and her fellow nuns were unaware, was that not only was Pete
an example of God’s artistry, he was also
and utterly devoted to his Maker. He had been born with a heart that was
as flawless in its devotion as his face and form were flawless in their
beauty. On the night after Pete
announced his intention to enter the Jesuit seminary in Cambridge immediately
upon graduation, half the female student body of
Christ the King cried themselves to sleep.
He’d been an outstanding football player—he and Gabe had been
best linemen Christ the King’s Crusaders had seen in its sixty year
Charlie Pikawski as quarterback, they’d carried the team to its only
Conference Championship, an accomplishment that had not been repeated
since. The fact that after all these years Pete still liked hanging out
old team-mates, and drove up from his teaching position at Boston College
drink with them, secretly pleased all of them. They teased him gently about
vocation but all were proud to count him among their friends.
“The penis,” Charlie said, turning a chair around backward
a leg over like a cowboy, “is like a three year old.”
“Here we go again,” Bull groaned. He belched and the taste
of the green
peppers he had just polished off was not at all unpleasant.
Charlie was the founder, president and sole member—no pun intended,
he claimed—of E.R.E.C.T. Encouraging Respect and Esteem for the Cock
“No, think about it,” Charlie said. “Remember when your
kids were three?
Nothing could be happier or more miserable. They did as they damned pleased,
they refused to perform when you wanted them to and then would turn around
and show off like crazy at the wrong time. And even though you wanted to
wring their little necks at times you were mighty glad you had them.”
“Well, thank you for the enlightenment.” Vinnie drained his
“It’s the same thing with the cock,” Charlie continued.
“Information overload.” Gabe stood up and walked to the jukebox
for coins in the pocket of his jeans. In a minute Bob Seger singing about
to Katmandu would blast the room.
“What the hell is it with you and your fascination with cocks?” Whitey
asked. “You queer or something?”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “The Cult of the Phallus was an important
men’s history until we started letting women make us feel ashamed
them. I’m not bitching about women—I’m just saying it’s
time we guys took
back the cock.”
Vinnie laughed spraying beer through his nose. “Shit, I spend all
trying to get one of them to take mine. Why would I want it back?”
“Help me out here, Pete,” Charlie looked at Father Pete who
a mug of Amstel.
“Can’t,” he said standing up, “I have to go process
some used beer through
mine.” He headed toward the men’s room.
“There’s a new one for ya, Charlie,” Whitey said. “Man’s
cock: a state-ofthe-
art beer recycling unit.”
Charlie watched Pete walk away. “Man,
I don’t understand him.”
Vinnie shrugged. “What’s to get? He’s a priest. He took
a vow of celibacy.”
“He took a vow of poverty too but he drives a damn nice looking car.
Don’t they ever get to take a vacation from all those vows?”
Whitey snorted and elbowed Gabe as he sat back down beside him. “The
president of E.R.E.C.T. wants to know when Pete gets a vacation from his
“Where the hell did you get that stupid name anyway?” Gabe
Charlie glared at him. “It’s just too bad is all. I mean imagine
Howitzer and not taking it out of the closet.”
“Maybe he takes it out of the closet a little too often,” Whitey
said into his
beer. “Maybe that’s what happened to his wrist. How the hell
does a priest get
carpal tunnel anyway?”
Pete had spent the last few weeks with his right hand and wrist in a thick
black, neoprene brace.
Vinnie cracked up laughing. “Hearing too many confessions.” He
a blessing in the shape of a cross with his right hand.
“More like....” Whitey used his hand to mime something more
“Naw,” Vinnie said. “They’re not supposed to do
“WHAT?” Both Whitey and Charlie stared at him aghast.
“Yeah, I read that someplace. Celibacy means no sex—even with
Vinnie gave a mock shudder and swallowed beer.
Charlie shuddered. “Man, that’s cold. Ya gotta wonder how an
like Pete stands it. How could a guy who had as many women as he did
give it up? D’ya ever think about that?”
Gabe stared at him. “D’ya ever think maybe some guys just don’t
talk about it?”
“That’s exactly the problem,” Charlie turned to him. “Women
that problem. They talk about their stuff all the time. You ever hear the
out in the kitchen when they think we aren’t listening? They talk
“Yeah, but it’s all medical shit,” Whitey said. “Most
of our wives are going
through the change, y’know? It’s complicated.”
“Mr. Sensitivity,” Bull said.
Later, as they were ambling toward the back parking lot, just drunk enough
to be blearily nostalgic at the ritual of it, Pete placed his bandaged
Gabe’s thick shoulder.
“You okay?” Gabe looked at his friend. Though they had all
for years, Pete and Gabe had an undiscussed camaraderie that went back
their days of silent communication on the football field. It was that communication
that made Gabe a little uneasy about Pete’s late night drives back
Boston. He had noticed a surprising increase in Pete’s alcohol consumption
lately. In fact tonight Gabe noticed him toss back a shot or two between
something he had never seen Pete do before.
“Sure,” Pete said. “You know me. But don’t worry,
I’m staying in town
tonight. Cathy said she’d leave the back door open.” Cathy
Ryan was Pete’s
older sister. She was married and lived on a hill overlooking the river.
“Good. Looks like rain,” he added lest Pete think he was questioning
“You want to get together for lunch tomorrow? There’s something
to talk to you about.”
“Sure. Everything all right?”
“Yeah, sure.” Pete grinned. “I have a friend who needs
some work done
and I thought you might be interested. It could keep you busy this winter.
not in a big hurry or anything and it might be interesting.”
“How about noon at Chick’s?”
“Works for me.”
Pete squeezed his shoulder and then lowered himself into his white
Mitsubishi. “See you then.”
Zeke’s big bloodhound’s nose poked out of the driver’s
side window of
the Ram scenting Gabe before he rounded the tailgate to the other side.
began to whimper pitifully, his long ears drooping and his saggy jowls
letting Gabe know yet again how wretched Zeke was without him.
“Chill, buddy,” he unlocked the door. Zeke, despite his size,
and forth on the seat, his tail thumping madly between the dash and the
back. Gabe thought that, as usual, Zeke had spent his evening worrying
he would never see his best friend again. Before Gabe could get an arm
block it, Zeke bestowed a huge, loving lick across his face.
“Geez, Zeke. You have to lighten
up on the snuff. Your breath reeks.”
Zeke settled on his haunches in anticipation.“Here, I brought you
something.” He unwrapped a package of
Zeke’s standard Thursday night treat. Zeke shivered in ecstasy. He
the jerky in one huge bite and sat in the passenger seat chewing in total
“I gotta tell you, Zeke,” Gabe said as he slid behind the steering
and turned the key, “Charlie’s getting screwier every week.”
Zeke glanced at him with his tell-me-about-it look. Clearly he had
been expecting this. He swallowed the last of his jerky and began snuffling
around Gabe’s shirt pocket in the hopes of more.
“That’s it, pal, it’s home and Alpo for you.” He
turned up the driveway
behind Whitey’s green BMW. “Wish I had as much to look forward
muttered. Zeke sniffed in sympathy and then bestowed a second huge lick
up the side of his head.
“Geez, Zeke, don’t go getting squirrely on me.” Gabe
lifted his shoulder
and wiped the side of his face on his shirt. “No offense, pal, but
The truth was he probably would be and he knew it. Julie would be at
her sister’s house tonight helping with plans for their niece Tanya’s
in December. If she hadn’t been there she would be somewhere else.
had a rigorous schedule for her evenings—with four sisters in the
and her mother in the granny ranch out by the river she had plenty of places
to go that she was sure he wouldn’t find interesting.
The conversation with Bull the
other night still nagged at him. He had always liked Marilyn in high school.
She hadn’t been as girl-y as
most of the
other girls, not one for fussing with make-up and clothes and all that
stuff. She was the kind of girl
who’d help you tinker on an engine or who
shoot hoops with you. Gabe had actually been proud of Bull for seeing past
the tomboy exterior to the woman inside. It bothered him a lot that Bull
was cheating on her. And it bothered him more that Bull felt the need to.
Zeke sighed and rested his chin on Gabe’s shoulder in commiseration.
“How’d we all get so screwed up, Zeke?” he said scratching
Zeke yawned and whined helplessly.
“Yeah,” Gabe agreed, “that’s my guess, too.”
2009 Kathleen Valentine • All rights reserved. This
is the opening of Each
Angel Burns . Learn
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is definitely here. The flowers in Flynnie’s garden look worn
out except for the climbing roses that twine over the picket fence.
The heads of the sunflowers droop all the way down as though they were
put up before a firing squad. Maybe there was a coup in the garden
today and the sunflowers lost.
Flynnie’s garden is like a party
in the summer—snapdragons and hollyhocks, Japanese lanterns and
columbines, moss roses and lilies of the valley peeping out between
the marigolds. Fat yellow bumblebees, droopy with pollen, drone lazily
between blossoms. The hummingbirds dart nervously in and out of clematis.
Flynnie takes a lot of pride in his garden. As many people come up
here to look at the garden as come to stuff themselves with his fat,
juicy clams, spicy french fries, and crunchy onion rings.
Flynnie’s was the first place I
ate at when I moved here all those years ago. During the winter Flynnie’s
is filled with the artists and locals who live here year round but when
the tourist season is in full swing the artists stay away. Flynnie’s
Clam Shack is one of the island’s main attractions. When the tourist
ferries arrive and all those determined-looking folks armed with backpacks,
water bottles, digital cameras, camcorders, and Chamber of Commerce
maps, fill the streets it seems every map has Flynnie’s circled
It won’t be long now until the tourist
boats only run on weekends—and after Christmas not at all. Then
all of us will get out our fleece or down jackets and tramp the headlands
looking for renewed inspiration to paint. We’ll paint all day
and gather at Flynnie’s in the evenings to drink and eat and
congratulate ourselves for being the lucky ones who get to stay.
The candy pink and white striped umbrellas
over the tables on the deck are flapping with increased fury. There’s
a storm coming alright. I run around the deck cranking them down. Where
the hell is Flynnie? The inside lights are on but I can’t see
“Flynnie!” I love this place.
It is plain and open with plank floors, wooden tables and chairs, ceiling
fans and big, double-hung windows which I begin slamming shut. The wind
is getting steadier now and paper-lined straw baskets bearing the remains
of clam dinners skid across the tables and topple to the floor. Before
the first abandoned clam lands, Mad Max comes bounding out of nowhere
to snarf it up. As I close the windows a few more baskets go flying
and Max occupies himself roaming the wasteland of the floor in search
of fallen goodies. That dog loves clams and makes sure Flynnie’s
floors are always clean. Flynnie says Max is the offspring of a female
chow he once had who mated with a vacuum cleaner.
“Flynnie!!!” I gather up the
baskets, dump the remains in a trash barrel and stack them at the end
of the service bay.
“That you, Babe?” Flynnie’s
voice comes down the stairs from his upstairs apartment—a slightly
smaller and much cosier version of this room.
“Yeah. Want me to come up?”
“Right down,” he hollers drowning
I plop on a tall wooden stool by the bar.
Two or three nearly empty beer mugs sit on paper coasters among a litter
of peanut shells.
“Max,” I call, “beer!”
And, doing it just as Flynnie has taught me, I toss the remaining beer
from one mug with a snap of the wrist. Max bounds across the floor
and, with an experienced leap, catches the beer in his open mouth.
Max has been known to catch as much as four ounces right out of the
air without spilling a drop.
“What happened now?” Flynnie
asks trotting down the stairs, “Your knight in shining armor turn
in his white stallion for a skateboard.” He grins and the gleam
of his white teeth against his dark face makes me smile. It’s
a good thing for Flynnie that he has that grin because the rest of him
is kind of cartoon-like. His gray-streaked, sandy hair sticks straight
up and his beard radiates out around his face making him look like a
cross between an Aztec Sun God and a Kodiak bear. His eyes are buried
under bushy, pale eyebrows. They disappear completely when he laughs.
Flynnie’s age is a mystery to everyone. He claims to be really
old and there’s nothing to tip you off one way or the other. His
skin has been tanned to leather since I’ve known him and it doesn’t
get lighter in the winter. His voice is sort of raspy, like he’s
getting a cold, and his hands are huge with bulging veins and knobby
knuckles. They’re kind of scary looking—like they’ve
spent more than a little time wrapped around somebody’s throat.
He’s wearing a blue chambray shirt with the neck open and sleeves
rolled above his elbows. The veins on his arms stand out thick and
hard. The sturdy, dark legs below his khaki shorts are so bowed you
could sail a Frisbee between them.
“Men suck, Flynnie,” I tell
him. Flynnie knows more about my personal life than anyone.
“I know, Babe.” He lays his
ever-present journal on the bar and draws us each a draft. “We’re
“Don’t say that!” I
hate it when he agrees with me. “That’s just so damn easy
for you guys. You say ‘hey, what did you expect, I’m an
asshole’ like that’s some kind of an excuse.”
He refills a basket with peanuts from
under the bar and pushes it toward me. “Well, it is an excuse.
A lousy excuse but an excuse all the same.”
“Flynnie, this guy worked harder
to get me to fall for him than any guy I’ve ever met. I tried
so hard not to make the same mistake I made the last time but look
He comes around the bar and sits on the
stool next to me. “What happened?”
I shrugged. “He’s going back
to his wife.”
“Yeah? Sounds like you got a better
deal than she did.”
I kick the toe of my sandal against the
bar. “That doesn’t help, Flynnie.”
“No, I don’t suppose it does.”
“Why did he do it, Flynnie?” I promised myself I wouldn’t
cry again but I can feel my throat tightening. “Why would he chase
me like he did and then turn around and do this? I don’t get it.
What’s wrong with me.”
Flynnie gives me a hard look. “You
know better than to ask that. There’s nothing wrong with you.
You’re smart, you’re pretty, you’re a good artist,
you’ve got those big knockers.” He gives me a Flynnie wink—at
least that’s what I think it is when his invisible eye twitches
back in his head like that.
“Let me tell you something, being
pretty and having big knockers isn’t all it’s cracked up
“No?” He sips his beer. “I
don’t think very many people—male or female—would
agree with you on that. I see how the guys in here look at you when
you come around. There are a lot of women who would love to have guys
look at them like that.”
I glance at myself in the mirror behind
the bar and then look away fast. That’s the thing I can’t
ever explain to Flynnie—I don’t know what in the heck it
is he sees when he looks at me but I sure don’t see it. “You
know what, Flynnie, that’s just bullshit.”
“It is not bullshit. There are girls
half your age in town who wish they got the attention you do.”
I stare at him. “So what? So what if guys look at my boobs and
my whatever else they look at. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t
mean they love me or even like me. It just means I have big boobs. Big
deal. It’s not like they’ve done me any good!”
Flynnie laughs and claps his hand over
his mouth to avoid spitting beer.
“I’m serious.” Now I’m
pissed. “I’ve had these monsters since I was fifteen. I’ve
been hauling them around for almost twenty-five years now and all they’ve
done is make my life miserable. And now they’re starting to go
south! Why the hell would anyone want this?”
Flynnie is smiling. He swivels his chair
toward me and reaches out one of those big, scary-looking hands to brush
my hair back from my face. “I never thought of it that way,”
he says quietly.
“Well, why would you?” I pull
back and then instantly regret it. His hand falls back in his lap.
“I’m sorry,” I lower
my voice and look up at him. His expression is inscrutable. “I
didn’t mean to be gross.”
He shakes his head. “You weren’t
“I just want to be happy. All my
life I’ve dreamed about having a nice guy and a nice home and
maybe some kids. What’s so wrong about that?”
“There’s nothing wrong with
it, Babe, it’s just not right for everyone.” He turns back
to his beer. “Being married and having kids is for people who
don’t want to do anything else.”
“Why aren’t you married?”
As long as I’ve known Flynnie we’ve never talked about
He sips his beer. “I have been.
I’m just no good at it.”
“Really?” Flynnie married
is hard to imagine.
“Well, let me rephrase that. I’m
real good at getting married. I’m just no good at staying married.”
I stare at him. “You’ve been
married more than once?”
He smiles slowly and holds up three fingers.
“You’re kidding me?”
“But... no kids?”
“No. No kids—none of the marriages
lasted very long.”
He shrugs. “For what it’s
worth they all left me. Not the other way around.”
“I can’t believe you. You’re
such a nice guy. I can’t imagine anyone leaving you.”
“You know Suze Crawley that works
at the post office?”
“Sure, of course.” Suze is
a big, energetic woman who wears long, flowered skirts with Birkenstocks,
has a thick braid down her back, and grows herbs in the sunny windows
of the tiny post office building on Center Street. All the letters that
arrive around the world from our town smell like Suze’s thyme
“She was my second wife.”
He reaches over the counter and fills his beer mug from the tap. “Ready
I let him fill my mug while I try to imagine
him and Suze together. Funny thing is, I can. Easily.
“Flynnie, I think you and Suze would
be good together.”
He nods. “I thought so too.”
He shrugs. “She said I was too romantic.
Lots of women like that idea in theory but they find it hard to live
“Because you write poetry?”
That’s one of the more enigmatic
things about Flynnie. He is forever sending off poems to these obscure
little magazines with odd names and getting back checks for miniscule
amounts. When the published piece finally arrives in the mail he mounts
the page with his poem next to the magazine cover on tan cardboard.
He frames it and hangs it on the wall of the stairway leading to his
apartment. He says he is waiting for the day when the check covers the
cost of the frame—then he’ll consider himself a success.
I glance up at the wall across the darkening room. There must be thirty
or more poems there.
“Naw,” he says. “She
always liked my poems. She thought I’d be a great poet someday.”
He frowns at his beer letting his mind drift. “No. I’m not
sure what it was, really. She said being my Muse was too hard. To tell
the truth, I never knew what she meant by that. Suze is a beautiful
woman. I didn’t think I ever expected anything more from her
than letting me love her for that.”
I study him trying to figure out if he
is being serious. I like Suze. She’s always friendly and nice
“How long ago was that?”
He shrugs. “Ten years, maybe. It
always took me more time to get over a woman than I actually spent
with her. Figure that out.”
“Did you write a poem about her?”
“Every poem I wrote was about her—well,
while I was with her. It was like that with all of them...” His
voice trails off as a wall of rain crackles against the windows. The
lights dim for a moment and thunder rolls in. Mad Max whimpers and crawls
across the floor to cower under Flynnie’s bar stool.
“Come on, Max,” Flynnie coos sliding off the barstool and
hunkering down to stroke the shaking dog. “Don’t be scared.
I’m here.” Max huddles against him as a brilliant flash
of lightning floods the room. Through the windows I can see the waves
churning up in the channel.
“Damn. Danny Choate and I were going
to go diving for lobsters in the morning. Now the floor will be too
murky.” He stands up and walks to the window as the lights flicker
out but then blink back on. “I’d say business is closed
for this night—we’ll be losing power soon.” He turns
to me. “Want to come upstairs and I’ll fix us some supper?”
“Sure.” I stack the dishwasher
then wipe down the bar and the tables as Flynnie cashes out and locks
up. I watch him out of the corner of my eye. Flynnie the poet. Flynnie the husband
of three women. Flynnie the guy who thought Suze Crawley was beautiful and wanted
only to love her for that.
As we climb the stairs a loud crack of thunder sends Max flying up the
steps past us knocking me backwards.
“What a noble beast,” Flynnie
laughs as he catches me and sets me back on my feet. “There’s
nothing to fear when Max is on guard. Dog-butt stew, Max!” he
hollers up the steps but Max is long gone—under the bed for sure.
“I’m going to cook up a batch of dog butt stew!”
Sometimes Flynnie and Max remind me of
an old married couple.
Upstairs the rain hammers the roof sounding
wild and wonderful. Flynnie lights a few lamps and pops in a CD of Celtic
music. The violins, flutes and bodhrans, underscored by pelting rain,
fill the big open room. I love this space. It always reminds me of an
attic belonging to some whimsical grandmother in a fairy tale. The beamed
ceiling slants down to a few feet above the floor and the room is crowded
with peculiar treasures—pirate’s chests supporting oil lamps
and piles of books, old sofas covered in patchwork quilts, a wooden
cigar-store Indian guards the alcove that serves as a bedroom. An enormous
balsa wood and rice paper airplane hangs from the apex of the ceiling.
A fire smoulders in the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room
and Flynnie’s still-warm coffee cup rests on the arm of his home-made
couch. Flynnie built this place himself, including most of the furniture
in it. The foundation is the remains of an old barn—stone stalls
and tack rooms where his woodshop is now. But from the first floor on
up every board was put in place by Flynnie’s big hands.
“Make yourself at home?” Flynnie
mumbles, his head in the refrigerator. “You don’t mind
lobster, do you? I can make an omelette.”
“Flynnie, for most people lobster
is a treat. We don’t live on it all summer.”
“Most people don’t go diving every few days.”
“Yeah.” I pick up the yellow
legal pad by the sofa. He is working on a poem. “Lobster-diving
isn’t a popular sport in Kentucky.”
“No wonder you left it.” He
assembles the ingredients for his masterpiece on the counter. Everything
Flynnie has ever cooked for me was delicious. “Why do people
live in places like that?”
The power goes out just as we are sitting
down to eat. Flynnie fires up the oil lamps and the soft flickering
glow makes the room even cosier.
“One of these days, I’m going
to rig up a way to run the CD player on lamp oil,” he says but
the rain is hammering the roof so hard we wouldn’t hear it anyway.
We clear the dishes away in silence, the
rain isn’t letting up and it makes conversation more like a shouting
As I stack the plates in the drying rack
the little bird in the cuckoo clock cuckoos eleven.
“Are you staying?” he asks
not looking at me.
“I guess so.”
He nods and gets me a clean white t-shirt
from his dresser. “Here, you get first turn in the bathroom.”
While Flynnie splashes around in his bathroom,
I snuggle down in his comfortable bed and stare up at the rain pelting
the skylight above. This is how it is with Flynnie and me. I get my
feelings hurt, or have a bad day, or just feel lonely, so I climb Flynnie’s
bluff and he makes everything alright. He comforts me and bolsters my
ego. He makes me dinner and invites me to spend the night. We crawl
into his warm bed, chat for awhile and then drift off to sleep. Deep
in the night a foghorn blows, Max barks in his sleep, or a ship’s
bell clangs in the channel. Sleepily we move into each others’
arms. That’s when the real enchantment starts for then Flynnie
is at his best.
We do not speak. We pretend this is all
happening in a dream. Flynnie makes love to me so sweetly, so deeply,
so caressingly that I am reduced to the tender, beautiful, lovable girl that
he seems to see me as but which I can never accept. When finally the first pink
of dawn grows out of the far horizon I sleep the best sleeps of my life.
It is always the same. When I wake there
is coffee on the stove and hot muffins on the table with a note saying
“gone fishing” or “diving with Danny” or “business
on the mainland”, followed by “hope your day is wonderful.”
And the next time we see each other we act as though nothing has happened.
Flynnie carries an oil lamp to the bed
and when he is snuggled in beside me, blows it out and puts it on the
floor. He slides his arm under my head and says, “Sweet dreams.”
“Flynnie,” I say, “do
you love me?”
There is a long silence filled with rain
and distant fog horns.
“Yes,” he says. “I do.”
“Why haven’t you ever said
that to me before?”
He rolls onto his side and traces my cheekbones
with his fingertips. “Good question,” he says finally. “I
guess because I know that you’re still looking for Mr. Wonderful
and I ain’t him.” He sighs. “And I’m tired
of getting my heart broken.”
“Oh, Flynnie.” I kiss his
fingertip and move closer to him.
He leans over and kisses me softly. “Go
to sleep, Babe.”
“No,” I whisper. “I
don’t want to keep pretending nothing happens when we’re
together. I don’t want to wake up in an empty bed tomorrow.”
He is quiet for a long time. “When
you pretend something doesn’t happen, it makes it easier when
it stops happening.”
He is lying very still not touching me.
I push back the quilt and touch his face with my fingertips drawing
them along the plane of his hard, lined cheeks and down through the prickle of
“You’re a beautiful man, Flynnie,”
I whisper. I slip my arms around him kissing his mouth softly. “You’re
the most beautiful
man I know.”
The sound he makes is strange—half
a laugh, half a sob.
“I’m going to make everything
alright,” I tell him, snuggling close, sliding my leg between
his thick, bowed legs. “I’m going to make sure you never
get up and leave me again.”
In the darkness I feel his smile.
Kathleen Valentine • All rights reserved This
story appears in My
Last Romance and other passions. Learn
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In 1960 the Queen of England had a baby and her sister married a photographer.
An Australian ran a three and a half-minute mile during the summer
Olympics in Rome.
In 1960 Howie Goetz celebrated Floyd
Patterson’s knock-out victory over Ingemar Johanssen by backing
me up against the fiberglass tool shed behind the Grange building
and shoving his hand inside my bra. I bit his lip hard enough to draw
blood. During the summer of 1960, while my friends sunned themselves
on the banks of Silver Trout Creek to the lyrics of Itsy Bitsy Teeny
Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini, I plotted my escape from Plainview.
That summer, blowing out the candles
on my eighteenth birthday cake, white angel food with marshmallow
frosting, I closed my eyes and wished for adventure. How could I know
that I was as green as the tender shoots breaking free of the earth
in my father’s cornfields? All I knew of adventure was from
books and dreams and the pictures on the feed store calendar hanging
on the back of the door in my mother’s kitchen. I was restless,
aching to my bones for any experience that was not steeped in rural
sobriety. I was sick of quiet pastures, squawking chickens, and hulking
farm boys who spat out dank, sodden lumps of tobacco before mashing
their mouths against mine.
When the time came to choose a college
I disregarded academic merits in favor of my fantasy of sun-swept
aquamarine waters scenting air filled with seagull calls and the seductive
worldliness of handsome sailors with the constellations of the northern
seas in their eyes. During my freshman year in high school, a current
events teacher showed a film on the construction of the St. Lawrence
Seaway that captured my imagination like nothing in Plainview could.
I followed the progress of the great engineering marvel with fascination
and when the royal yacht Brittania carried the Queen of England and
President Eisenhower through the Seaway on April 25, 1959, I was thrilled.
Something momentous had happened in all our lives, I thought. Suddenly
the far away worlds of Europe and Africa were as near as Lake Erie
and I longed for access to those worlds and all their enticing mysteries.
I was a romantic girl, my mother chided, a dreamer who would have
to grow up one of these days. But the inner life of a young girl is
not so easily dismissed. In my daydreams I formed a place into which
I could slip and find succor like the familiar sweater you put on
the first cold autumn morning when the world turns serious and you
believe that something is beginning.
My parents preferred the assurance
of proximity. They pointed out the convenience and reputations of
local teacher and agricultural colleges. I wanted mystery. I spent
hours in the high school library searching for schools in towns bordering
the Great Lakes. If I could be close to those legendary inland waters
I knew my fantasies would be fulfilled.
“It’s just so far away,”
my mother said as she stiffened bread in a blue plastic dishpan. “Honestly,
Clair, why can’t you go somewhere nearby? You know how your
father worries about you.”
“I wish he wouldn’t. I’m
a big girl and I’ve always been reliable. I don’t know
why he thinks I can’t be on my own.”
“You’re his only girl.”
She sprinkled flour from the canister shaped like a Guernsey cow.
The cow was for flour, sugar came from a pink pig. The rooster held
coffee, and the hen had tea bags. I looked at the pair of salt and
pepper shakers on the table in front of me, a pair of brooding hens.
Everything in our house said farm—screamed farm. When I was
little my father would hide navy beans under the salt shaker and when
one of my brothers or I lifted it he would act surprised and say “Godfrey
Daniel, Louise, the chickens are laying again.”
“I have to be on my own sometime.”
She shook her head. “I don’t
want you going to a big city. I’d never get a night’s
sleep for worrying.”
“You don’t have to worry.
Look. Chesterton College.” I picked up the brochure on top of
the pile in front of me. “Doesn’t this look beautiful?
It’s on an old estate out in the country so it’s very
private. You have to take a bus into the city and Port Presque Isle
isn’t really a city, Mom, more of a big town. It’s not
like I’m going to Cleveland or Chicago.”
“It looks hoitey-toitey,”
she sniffed with a sideways glance. “I wonder what kind of people
send their children to places like that. If you went to the teachers
college over in Robinsonville you could live at home and save money.”
“Aw, Mom,” I groaned, the
last thing I could imagine was living at home to save money. “I
can get a job. See, they have a work-study program that I can enroll
in. I could work in the library or the cafeteria. It would be good
experience for me.”
She punched down hard on the dough
and I could tell from the way her jaw was working that she was trying
not to say what I knew she wanted to say. Girls who go off to the
city get “reputations”.
And in Plainview a reputation is a disgrace to the entire family.
Never mind that half the girls in Plainview are waltzing down the
aisle in the months after high school graduation, and being rushed
to the maternity ward a few months after that. Married girls don’t
have reputations, they have husbands. And husbands make everything
“Mom,” I grasped for my
trump card, “Do you think I’m a good girl or not?”
She turned and regarded me with her
soft brown eyes. There was a dusting of flour along her right cheekbone.
My mother had been a beauty in her day. In her wedding pictures on
the sideboard in the dining room she has a charm that makes it easy
to understand why the big, bashful looking guy standing next to her
seems so amazed that they are there in their wedding clothes.
“Clair, yes, I think you are
a good girl but I also think you have a dangerous imagination. You
get these crazy notions in your head about things that aren’t
I stared at her. “Normal?”
She shook her head and turned back
to her bread. “Normal for people like us.” She sighed,
gave the bread another punch and then turned back to me looking down
as she picked sticky bits of dough from her fingers. “There
are all kinds of people in the world and I’m not saying that
they’re bad people but they don’t have our values. Your
father and I want our children to have happy, healthy, normal lives.
It doesn’t make sense to take chances with people who aren’t
like us. Can you understand that?”
“Come on, Mom, that sounds so
“Elitist?” She looked up
stunned. “How can you say that? We’re normal. Normal,
regular, down-to-earth people, Clair. That’s not elitist, that’s
sensible. You think we’re trying to keep you from having fun
but we’re not. You can have all the fun you want but please
do it in a sensible way.”
Sometimes I think my mother wasn’t
prepared for a child like me. Both of my brothers were like my parents,
solid, sensible, content with life as they found it. Gordon, Jr. wanted
nothing more than to follow in my father’s footsteps and work
the family farm. My younger brother Errol liked working with wood.
He was always out in the barn building things. Daddy said he had a
“good future ahead”. I was their only problem child.
“It’s that red hair of
yours. Your Grandmother Wagner told me not to have any redheaded children.”
She sounded serious but I could tell she was smiling.
Mine was not a family that raised its
children to be foolhardy. My parents were kind people, funny in their
own way but, above all, sensible, a quality in which my mother took
“You know what my problem is?”
she would say to the ladies of her church Sodality as they piled homemade
cookies on styrofoam trays covered with aluminum foil and wrapped
them in cellophane for the weekly Sunday morning bake sale, “I’m
too darn sensible. I mean you read all these stories about women who
go off to the city and meet some good looking guy who wines them and
dines them and then takes advantage and I think, now how am I supposed
to feel sorry for that kind of foolishness? I’m too practical,
that’s the way I am. Why take chances?”
In the end they relented, of course.
Climbing the stone steps from the basement carrying my Grandfather
Wagner’s battered leather trunk, the one that had come on the
train with him from New England as he searched for fertile farmland,
I considered my mother’s words. The stairwell smelled of century-old
must and parsley that hung in fat bunches from pegs on the wall. A
ray of sunshine pierced through dusty basement windows and illuminated
jars of preserves lining the shelves my father had built along the
steps. Patterns of colored light tinted by carefully put up plums,
peaches, tomatoes, and blackberries washed over my arms and I thought
then that I would break this family curse. I would do nothing sensible,
I remembered my mother’s ultimate
nightmare and that became my goal—to do something I would regret
for the rest of my life.
I was too young then to know how common
a lifetime of regrets is.
2007 Kathleen Valentine • All rights reserved. This
is the opening of The
Old Mermaid's Tale: A Romance of the Great Lakes.
how to order...