Chapter I from Each Angel Burns

Who, if I cried, would hear me, of the angelic
orders? or even supposing that one should suddenly
carry me to his heart—I should perish under the pressure
of his stronger nature. For beauty is only a step
removed from a burning terror we barely sustain,
and we worship it for the graceful sublimity
with which it disdains to consume us. Each angel burns.

- Ranier Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Every Thursday night the Wild Bunch met at The Arm Pit for the special and beers. Back in high school they had called themselves the Wild Bunch, now, thirty-some years later, Charlie Pikawski said they ought to be the Mild Bunch. The “bunch” had diminished, too. These days they were lucky to get six of them together. When Pete Black had time to drive from Boston he’d show up but Father Pete had just celebrated his silver anniversary as a Jesuit priest so his wildness was more of the mystical sort.
       In high school there were over a dozen of them but time took its toll. Tom Hoffman wrapped his GTO around a telephone pole before his twenty-first birthday. Rocco Scutelli hadn’t made it back from Vietnam. Ronnie Mayer succumbed to lung cancer a few years back.

       “Just 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 which wasn’t actually even its name. The sign over the door read “Armie’s Pit Stop”, a poorly thought-out name if ever there was one. The owner, Armand 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.

       The Arm Pit was pretty much your standard mill town watering hole— the aluminum siding exterior was painted a discouraging shade of green and 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 small dance floor, and a raised platform where every bunch of local kids who could pull together a rock-a-billy band had played. The consensus was that those kids were darned brave even if they did stink as musicians. There were a couple of pool tables and the jukebox that was the pride of Middlesex County.
       Armie Kryszkowski’s nephew Gizmo had rebuilt it himself in the back of 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 trade 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 his brother a thousand dollars for the masterpiece. In fact it was three of the Wild Bunch—Vinnie Rizzo, Bull Knox, and Gabe Hawking—who had moved the juke from Bazyli’s shop to Armie’s bar. Gabe stipulated one requirement—no 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 lot 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 of food 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 when 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 of pickled pig’s knuckles, sliced pickled pig heart, and hard-boiled eggs pickled with red 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 she would send along a few homemade fruit pies or an apple cake but those treasures were 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, and 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 Rolling Rock, “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 from his insurance agency with no time to change. “Marilyn will Bobbit-ize him if she finds out. That asshole better be careful.”
        But Vinnie was right. Bull was head over heels and it was a pitiful thing to 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 farts like them. Gabe was inches away from falling for her himself or would have been if 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 just came 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 of the lucky ones. We never fought much, we had great kids. She’s a good cook and liked taking care of the house and I always thought she was happy then... I don’t know what the hell happened.”
       “Things changed?”
        “Yeah... well, it’s not the kind of stuff you want to talk about, y’know? After Nikki went off to nursing school Marilyn started getting involved with 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 she 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 listener. All the guys in the Wild Bunch relied on that at one time or another. Charlie said he should have become a priest instead of Pete. Gabe could listen to confession twenty-four/seven.
       “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. I 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 those poor 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 seat.
       “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 conditioned not to communicate. We communicated just great for twenty-eight years. She 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 together, 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 to communicate my feelings but she sure as hell doesn’t want to do it in the way we used to.”
        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 and... 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 way and women another and, up till the last couple of years it seemed like he’d done a pretty damn satisfying job and all. But now Marilyn tells me that all sex is an 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 the one that came two, three times to my one. ‘All sex is an invasion’, my ass.”
        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 was, as always, his laid-back, good-humored self and they were glad he was there. Pete had a mystique about him that had started back in high school and only grew with the passage of time.
       Peter Abélard Black was, by the agreement of nearly every female who 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. By his senior year he stood just shy of six feet four inches tall and had the sort of body fashion designers, photographers, girls of all ages, and every gay man who 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 complexion 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 have 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 above showing-off.
       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 completely 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 the two best linemen Christ the King’s Crusaders had seen in its sixty year history. With Charlie Pikawski as quarterback, they’d carried the team to its only Eastern Conference Championship, an accomplishment that had not been repeated since. The fact that after all these years Pete still liked hanging out with his old team-mates, and drove up from his teaching position at Boston College to drink with them, secretly pleased all of them. They teased him gently about his vocation but all were proud to count him among their friends.
       “The penis,” Charlie said, turning a chair around backward and slinging 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 Tribe.
        “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 beer.
       “It’s the same thing with the cock,” Charlie continued.
       “Information overload.” Gabe stood up and walked to the jukebox fishing for coins in the pocket of his jeans. In a minute Bob Seger singing about going 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 part of men’s history until we started letting women make us feel ashamed of having 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 my time 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 was draining 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 vows.”
        “Where the hell did you get that stupid name anyway?” Gabe grumbled.
       Charlie glared at him. “It’s just too bad is all. I mean imagine owning a 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 mimed a blessing in the shape of a cross with his right hand.
       “More like....” Whitey used his hand to mime something more graphic.
       “Naw,” Vinnie said. “They’re not supposed to do that.”
       “WHAT?” Both Whitey and Charlie stared at him aghast.
       “Yeah, I read that someplace. Celibacy means no sex—even with yourself.” Vinnie gave a mock shudder and swallowed beer.
       Charlie shuddered. “Man, that’s cold. Ya gotta wonder how an old cocksman 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 want to talk about it?”
       “That’s exactly the problem,” Charlie turned to him. “Women don’t have that problem. They talk about their stuff all the time. You ever hear the girls out in the kitchen when they think we aren’t listening? They talk about their plumbing constantly.”
       “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 hand on Gabe’s thick shoulder.
       “You okay?” Gabe looked at his friend. Though they had all been friends for years, Pete and Gabe had an undiscussed camaraderie that went back to 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 to 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 beers, 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 his judgment.
       “You want to get together for lunch tomorrow? There’s something I’d like 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. She’s 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. Zeke began to whimper pitifully, his long ears drooping and his saggy jowls quivering, letting Gabe know yet again how wretched Zeke was without him.
       “Chill, buddy,” he unlocked the door. Zeke, despite his size, paced back and forth on the seat, his tail thumping madly between the dash and the seat back. Gabe thought that, as usual, Zeke had spent his evening worrying that he would never see his best friend again. Before Gabe could get an arm up to 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 beef jerky, Zeke’s standard Thursday night treat. Zeke shivered in ecstasy. He gobbled up the jerky in one huge bite and sat in the passenger seat chewing in total joy.
       “I gotta tell you, Zeke,” Gabe said as he slid behind the steering wheel 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 to,” he 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 I’d rather be alone.”
        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 wedding in December. If she hadn’t been there she would be somewhere else. She had a rigorous schedule for her evenings—with four sisters in the vicinity 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 would 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 his throat.
       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 how to order...

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from My Last Romance and other passions

     The clouds over the mainland are low and dark. The thin strip of sky that shows between them and the sparkle of lights along the shore is coral and shimmering—that usually means lightning. They must be getting one heck of a storm. I’d say it’s headed this way. The air has that ozone smell that means storm-coming. The gulls are screeching, soaring across the channel in swirling clouds. The lower they fly, the more scared they are. From up here on Flynnie’s bluff they appear to be coming straight at me.
     There’s something sad and dreamy about all those gold lights twinkling away over there. I don’t want to be there—I love life on this island. But they make me wonder if I’m missing anything. It’s like standing outside on the sidewalk and watching through a window at people dancing. I don’t like dancing but they look like they are so happy. I wonder if I’ve missed something.

     Autumn 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 on it.
     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 him.
     “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 me out.
     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 bastards.”
     “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 what happened!”
     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.”
          He sighs. “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 to be.”
     “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 gross.”
     “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 that.
     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.”
     “What happened?”
     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 and coriander.
     “She was my second wife.” He reaches over the counter and fills his beer mug from the tap. “Ready for another?”
     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 with.”
     “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 but “beautiful”?
     “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 match.
     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 his beard.
     “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.

©2005 Kathleen Valentine • All rights reserved This story appears in My Last Romance and other passions. Learn how to order...



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The Old Mermaid's Tale from The Old Mermaid's Tale

      The Old Mermaid Inn is gone.
      I cannot convey in those six words the depth of my sadness in writing them. Why I think it should be here after all these years, I don’t know—except that there was a timelessness about The Old Mermaid Inn which ignited my imagination and set my life aflame.

Part One - August 1960 - August 1963

-Chapter 1-

      In 1960 my hero was a sixteen-year old chess player named Bobby Fischer, not a sports figure of high regard in the coffee shops and bar rooms of Plainview, Ohio. That summer every radio in Plainview was turned to KDKA-Pittsburgh listening to Bob “Voice of the Pirates” Prince. Things were looking good for the Buckos and the names repeated with respect around town were Vernon Law and Dick Groat. Once in awhile some stranger passing through would comment that Roger Maris was having quite a year only to find himself the object of cold stares from faces fired hard and brown by sun glinting off of John Deere tractors in Plainview’s miles of alfalfa fields. The Yankees were the enemy, second only to communists, and there were no communists in Plainview.

     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 all right.
      “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 normal.”
      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!”
      “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 great pride.
      “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, nothing practical.
      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 LakesLearn how to order...

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