THE LITERARY LATTÉ Spring 2017
Get comfy with a latté, Lapsang souchong, or glass of wine, and let the LITERARY LATTÉ stimulate your intellect and emotions:
Robert Evans Tells Us Stories
Writer, artist Robert Evans
Robert says, "These two are from a short story collection I wrote in the voice of my brother, The Chronicles of Jim. They are mostly true, so may be more of a memoir."
THE CHRONICLES OF JIM is a collection of 16 dark and often humorous short stories. Jim has a good heart, strong principles, and is homeless at times. He is reconciled to his circumstances until his successful brother comes into his life and Jim begins to rediscover his history, and how he got to where he is. The two brothers must also come to terms with the death of their brother when they were infants.
The stories range from a time when Jim was a child of eight through his 20s. Each of the stories can stand alone, and they can be read in any order, but together they form a single narrative. The collection is available as an ebook on Amazon along with his other work, If Dead Animals Could Read and Book of Marlene. http://www.amazon.com/author/robertpevans
by Robert Evans
Before I started work at the county animal shelter, the director gave me a one-question test, “Can you saw the head off a dog?” he asked.
“Dead or alive?” I wasn’t trying to mess with him. I really wanted to know. It would make a difference to me.
“Why, dead, of course.” He scowled at me. Then he opened a drawer and looked for something that seemed important. After shuffling his paperclips and pens around, he looked up, as if to say, are you still here? So I left.
I guess I passed the test. Two days later I was washing trucks, emptying the trash and cleaning cages, getting them ready for new animals—the jobs no one else wanted to do. I pushed a wheelbarrow full of dog food around the three buildings where the dog cages were lined up along the walls three high. I needed to make each dog move to the back of its cage and lower a guillotine divider before filling its bowl. They showed me that if I just carried a hose with me and let the dogs see it, the dogs moved back right away. “Don’t wet the dogs,” an officer told me sternly. But somebody must have wet the dogs, because they sure knew what the hose was all about.
I was raking leaves, just to get out of the building for a few minutes, when one of the officers called me over. “Hey, you,” he yelled. I felt like I was being taken into custody. He couldn’t say, “Hey, Jim,” once in a while? I cringed every time one of those guys talked to me. They all wore green uniforms with badges and reminded me of wannabe cops or park rangers. They weren’t much friendlier than cops either—all the attitude of a cop without earning it—but at least they didn’t have any reason to arrest me while I was there. “How about cleaning something up. I’ve got twenty or thirty dogs to kill.” That was all he wanted: more cleanup.
“Sure,” I told him. I followed him to a room where there was quite a bit of shit smeared on the floor, and some blood. I didn’t ask; I didn’t want to know. They always had lots of rags and ammonia; it wasn’t so bad.
After I finished, I poked around the hallways, looking for a way to get out back for a cigarette break, when I ran into Ranger Rick again. “Which way to the parking lot?” I asked him.
“Follow me.” He showed me four drums. He must have really crammed those dogs in. “Put one on a dolly and I’ll show you where to put it.” I tilted the fifty-five gallon drum and rocked it onto a dolly. He didn’t offer to help. I followed him down a hall and out the back door. There was a room size refrigerator out there, but I guess it was already full, so he had me leave the drums near the door. There were about eight drums out there already. I added four. A couple times a day a truck would come and take them all away.
I tried not to stare into the drums while I smoked, especially the ones full of dogs or cats. Why didn’t they at least use lids? It was L.A., so some of the drums were full of fighting roosters, with a pelican or a turtle thrown in. For some reason, the barrels of birds and reptiles didn’t bother me so much. I don’t know why. I didn’t try to figure it out.
I would sneak this grey cat out of its cage for a break sometimes. I held it while I smoked out back, so I named it Smokey. I tried not to let it see the drums. But they put an end to my breaks with Smokey. “No removing the animals without authorization.” So all I could do was stick my hand in its cage and pet it as much as I could. Occasionally I would put a toy in a cage for a dog to play with. The toys didn’t disappear right away, so I guess that was allowed for some reason.
As usual, I was having a hard time finding places to park my RV. And it could only go a couple blocks without overheating. After a few days in one spot the cops would knock on my door. Especially in a suburban neighborhood. The homeowners always complained. I’d find an industrial area, but the cops would even bother me there. I parked behind the animal shelter sometimes, but only long enough to run an extension cord in and charge my batteries. I didn’t think I could sleep with all those drums nearby.
After a few weeks, I got familiar with the place—the chains, the needles, the blood. I was even training the other community service aides. They were usually nice ladies. I didn’t think they were sent there by the court like I was. Each morning I walked down the rows of cages and looked at my favorite cats and dogs. The good looking ones got to stay longer; more chance of getting them adopted out. That’s why I was surprised when this dog, Butch, was gone. I found a Lieutenant writing on some forms at the front desk. “You know that Husky that was near the end of the second tier?” He didn’t even look up at first. “Do you know if he’s still around?” He looked at me with an arched eyebrow, like I was stupid even to ask, like it took too much effort to answer me.
One of the lady aides heard me. “Oh, you must mean the one I took home last night,” she said, smiling.
“You going to keep him?” I asked.
“No. I gave him a trim, walked him a little. With some training, he’ll be very adoptable.” I was relieved. I didn’t like to see some of my favorites disappear so quickly.
The Lieutenant finished with his forms. “You can give me a hand if you’re not busy.” We went over to the feral cat building. He prepared a syringe with a needle that looked about a foot long and moved along the cages inserting the needle through the bars and into each cat. “Give them five or ten minutes,” he said. When enough time had passed, I peered into each cage. If a cat stared back at me, I came back later. I gathered up enough cats to fill a drum and take it out back.
I don’t know why they didn’t just use the same procedure on the dogs, but they didn’t. They took the dogs into a back room to inject them. Maybe they just didn’t want any volunteers to watch. And a large dog could be more trouble than a cat. Then Ranger Rick might have to beat it with a chain to calm it down. Some of them went real easy; they thought they were finally going out for a walk—smiling and jumping up on the officer’s leg, all excited. Others knew. They stuck their paws out in front of themselves and shit all over the floor, and the officer had to drag them into the other room by a rope with a choke knot. Their paws left trails of blood. That’s when I came in. More clean up.
Those were the dogs that see things we don’t see. Those were the ones that knew what was about to happen. I don’t think they were better than the others or anything. In fact, I’m sure they were worse off. The dogs that lived in ignorance were better off. But I’ll never understand how most dogs could smile so much, no matter what was going on around them. They could be puking up their guts, and as soon as they paused, and saw me watching them, they would smile at me.
There was a vet that had an office in the back. He was the one guy who seemed to care about the animals. And he looked like he really knew what he was doing when he put on his white lab coat every morning. If I noticed a dog with a sore paw or a cat with a weepy eye, I went to his office and told him about it. He’d follow me to the cage and apply some ointment or a bandage. “Thanks, Jim. You let me know any time I’m needed.” I only bothered him if there was something serious to look into. I didn’t want to waste his time with a lot of crazy questions. Though I just couldn’t help it sometimes.
Like with this border collie that swayed back and forth all the time. He looked pretty miserable. “Hey, Doc. Why’s he do that?”
“He should really be in a larger cage. He needs exercise.”
“Isn’t there something we could do to make him calm down?”
“Oh, Jim.” He smiled sadly. “He won’t be here long.”
“What if I took him for a walk?”
He tilted his head back and rubbed his neck. “Come with me.” We walked to a storage closet and he picked out a leash. “Don’t go running down the street with him. Stay on the property.” He handed me the leash. “If anyone asks you, tell them I said it was OK.”
The collie still swayed in his cage after that, but I felt like I had helped him out a little.
I hung around Butch’s cage sometimes, once he got back from charm school. I looked into his eyes and wondered if he could hear my thoughts or see my future, like a fortune teller. Only he wasn’t telling. He just panted a lot with his tongue hanging out. Maybe he could see the spirits of the dead animals hanging around, or even human spirits. Maybe he could see my aura or alien spirits or other dimensions surrounding us. I wondered about things like that back then. I don’t wonder about anything anymore. It’s not worth it. It’s too painful. That’s why I used to be smarter than I am now. I think my life is always moving toward ignorance. The less I know, the better off I am. I was so smart when I was a kid. I hadn’t learned anything yet. Now I just try to know as little as possible and stay out of trouble, and maybe help out an animal or a human along the way.
The porch of the place was crawling with stray cats. People left them there in the middle of the night. I didn’t know why they didn’t just come in and drop off the cats during the day like they were supposed to. It didn’t cost anything. Too ashamed, I guess. They threw their dead cats onto the porch too. That I could understand. It’s hard to know what to do with a dead animal. But the live ones, I didn’t get it. The cats would live out there for a long time, but there wasn’t much food for them. They usually got skinny and kind of wild and crazy looking.
I had just finished clearing the porch of dead cats one morning, when I noticed a lady at the front desk. She had probably been in back looking through the cages for her lost cat. She stared out at the street for a while. “I’m afraid that little kitten will dart out into the street and get run over,” she said. I was nearest to her so I thought she must have been talking to me.
“I’ll catch it for you if you want,” I said.
“Oh. Could you? Thank you.” She looked relieved.
“But only if you’re sure you want him. Because he’s probably going to scratch me up real good. So I want you to make sure before I go out there.” She nodded. I went outside and pretended I had some food in my hand and a few of the cats swarmed up to me. I grabbed the kitten by the scruff of its neck and it yowled and took a few swipes at me. But it only scratched my wrist a few times. I got a small animal carrier and stuffed him into it.
The lady was real happy. “How many cats is a person allowed to own?”
“You got me.” Oh, no. Not another crazy cat lady. I didn’t want to know about it. I had helped clean out one of those houses a few days before, and it was too much even for me. The smell and misery of the cats was beyond belief. What’s with those ladies? Don’t they care if the cats get sick or hungry or dead? “Have fun,” I said. I wanted to feel like I had done a good deed, so I pretended she was going to be a nice lady with just one happy cat.
I was headed into the back to start work when Ranger Rick barreled up to me. “What the hell is going on here,” he asked.
“I kind of adopted out a cat,” I said.
“Adopted out?” he yelled. “You can’t be giving away feral cats. They need to be examined, given shots, neutered. You don’t just hand out strays. What’s the matter with you?”
“I thought it was one less for us to worry about.”
“Just great.” He looked around the office as if he wanted someone else to share in the spectacle of my monumental stupidity. “Don’t you know that one female produces sixty thousand strays in her lifetime?”
“Wow. Really?” I had never thought about it. He stomped off in disgust. He was right, but it seemed strange, not to give away a cat when someone wanted it. The kitten was not some special breed that we would have cleaned up for adoption. Ranger Rick would have put it in a drum.
A few days later, the lady was back. She waved when she saw me. “Can you help me, young man?”
“Look, lady. You’ve got to pick one from inside and pay for shots and stuff,” I said.
“Oh. That’s so expensive.” She just stood there for a long time. She knew what she was doing. She was wearing me down, sending mind waves into my brain to bend me to her will.
“OK. Meet me here after work and I’ll catch you another one.”
“Oh. That’s nice of you. Thank you so much.”
She was waiting at the bottom of the porch steps when I got off work that night. “We should probably lay low until the officers are gone,” I told her. “I don’t want to catch a bunch of shit for handing out more cats.”
“Should we wait inside?”
“No. They’re locking up.” I thought for a second. Where would a nice lady want to hang out? There were no pie shops or salad bars nearby. “The Anarchy Library is just two blocks from here.”
“A library? I haven’t seen that one before.”
“Actually, it’s just a bar.”
“A bar?” She looked down the street with a concerned snag in her brow. “Hmmm.” Then she looked back at me, and her eyes were a little wide, like I had just told her about a sale on cat food at the Kmart.
“Yeah. The first time I stuck my head in there I thought they might have some books, or maybe people would be discussing philosophy and I might learn something. But it’s just a bar. Punks hang out there. They just like the word anarchy. They think it means party, like: let’s party, dude.”
She laughed. “Then, let’s party, dude.”
I laughed too. She might be fun. We walked to the Anarchy Library. She got a white wine. I got a beer. It was a small place with a couple of tables. Two spike haired punks in black trench coats were shooting pool. We sat in a corner at the end of the bar and blew their minds. I bet they didn’t get many little old ladies in there. Her name was Marjorie. “So, do you come to the library to study anarchy?” she asked, as she downed a good portion of her wine.
“That’s right,” I said. “I should have an advanced degree in it by now.” The bartender gave me the stink eye like he’d heard that one a few times before. “And I study at other branches when I can.” I was getting pretty good with the library jokes. “Though putting in those long hours of study can get awful lonely.”
“Every one is alone in the end.” Marjorie stared at her hands. All of a sudden she was serious. Maybe it was the wine.
“I do actually go to a real library once in awhile,” I said.
“And what do you like to read?”
“Mostly books about snakes.”
“Oh. You’re a herpetologist, then.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I read a little too.”
Damn, she’s smart, I thought. All of a sudden, that made her seem kind of sexy, even if she was on the old side. I was trying to do the math in my head. I was in my late thirties; maybe she was sixty or seventy. Was that old enough to be my grandmother? Hell, she was still pretty. She must have dyed her curly hair dark brown. “You live around here?” I asked her.
“Yes. Over on Clark street. How about you?”
“Me? I was born right near here. In Bellflower. But I travel around. I have this RV.” I felt bad exaggerating like that, making myself sound better than I was.
“A native. That’s rare. Where have you been in your travels so far?”
“Oh. Let’s see. San Pedro. The fishing’s good there. Ventura. They have a very nice marina. And I was in San Francisco not too long ago.” I had to be real. She might want details. And she was such a friendly lady, I didn’t want to scam her.
“That must have been nice.”
“Yeah. They have a nice airport there.”
“You fly, too?”
“A trip to Oregon. Maybe. Now and then.” I was starting to stretch things now. It must have been the beer. “Want another drink?”
“Yes, please. A strawberry daiquiri, bartender.” she said.
“A beer for me.” I felt in my back pocket for my wallet, just for effect. “Oops. I haven’t got any cash. How about you?”
“You like to fish?” I asked her.
“I’ve never tried it.”
“It’s a lot of fun. Sitting at the beach, watching the waves, waiting for a bite.”
“I do like the beach.”
“Well, there you are. We should go some time. It can be every bit as philosophical as a night at the Anarchy Library. We’ll watch the waves, the sky, the clouds, and wait for the ocean to deliver the dinner.”
“La mer. The source of life,” she said.
“Yeah. All that shit.”
“That’s very philosophical,” she laughed. She was real smart. Now she was speaking French. I liked that. A lot.
“Let’s go get a cat, before it gets too late,” I said.
We made our way back to the shelter and I chased the cats around. I didn’t catch one right off. I’d almost grab one, then I’d let it get away, just to make her laugh. When I finally held up an orange tiger cat I knew she wouldn’t be able to say no. “How about this one?”
“Yes. He’s so cute.” We had no cages, so I tried to hand it to her, but it hissed and dug its claws into me. “Maybe you could put it in my car,” she said.
“OK. Where are you parked?”
“Wait. Get me that calico too.
“OK. Just one more.” I grabbed it with my free hand.
“And that black one. He looks so lonely.”
“I think maybe you should get these two home and situated before we catch any more. It’s not healthy to have too many cats. I don’t think I can hold more than two, anyway.”
“Oh, well. We can always come back,” she said. When we got to her car, the cats wouldn’t let go of me. “I better ride along and put these in a safe place for you.” As we drove, I kept one cat on each side of me, so they wouldn’t fight with each other.
When we got to her house I pulled the cats off my shirt and dropped them into her laundry room. She put some milk and food into bowls for them. She showed me her parakeet Elvis and her dog Bubba. I noticed two cats lurking around. “So how many cats do you have?”
“Just Bob and Bing, and the two new ones. How do Dean and Jerry sound for names?”
Four cats. That’s not too crazy, I thought. “What about that kitten I caught for you?”
“Oh. He ran off. I’ll have to get another Eddie.”
“What about the two new ones you just got?”
“You don’t mean that they would replace Eddie, do you? They’re already grown. No. They could never replace him. He had such a young, lively spirit.”
OK. That was still four. For now. So when one thing led to another, at least I told myself that I hadn’t spent the night with a crazy cat lady.
The next day she invited me to move in with her. I had used up every parking spot within a couple of miles, so I was glad to oblige. “You could park it over there.” She pointed. “Over on that side. So I can still get my car in and out of the garage.” After work, I got the engine to turn over one more time and pulled it into her driveway, where I’m sure it gave up the ghost. The white smoke was either steam from the leaky cooling system, or oil burning with the gas from a blown head gasket.
“You won’t need to live in that old thing any more. We can clean it up and use it for vacations.”
Her place was messy and cozy. I was glad she was no neat freak. There were blankets and sheets over some of the furniture where the upholstery was worn through. She had shelves full of animal and fairy figurines. You had to expect that. And little crystal things. And snow globes with sparkles inside, instead of snow. And she had books everywhere. Maybe I would get some real reading done for a change. Though a lot of them were romance paperbacks.
I settled in and eventually got my own room, after I told her I couldn’t sleep with her again. “I’m sorry if I misled you. It must have been the booze that night.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yeah. I just don’t feel right.”
“Don’t be that way. I can change your mind.” She smiled and rubbed my shoulder.
“I’m stubborn. Don’t get your hopes up for no reason.” Then I felt kind of full of myself. “Hell. It’s not like I’m some great prize or something.”
She sighed and dropped her hand. “I still like having you around. I’ve got lots of space.” It turned out she owned the house and a duplex behind it with a couple of renters. Their rent covered her expenses. It was a sweet deal.
The worst job at the shelter was cleaning out the sewer traps. We’d lift up one of the manhole covers and there were these five foot tall baskets down there. It took two guys to lift one out. They were full of all the bloody filth and viscera you would expect. One time there were a bunch of puppies in there and it kind of shook me up. The pregnant dogs were in a separate room. Some of their puppies must have crawled down behind the bedding, so when they hosed the place down, the puppies washed down the drain with all the other crap.
I walked back to the doc’s office that day and slumped into one of his chairs. “What’s up Jim?” he asked. I let out a long breath. He waited for me to say something. I opened my mouth but couldn’t figure out any words. He watched me for quite a while. He was actually concerned, but what could he do? Give me a pill? Bandage my paw? I got up and wandered down a hallway. It was too early to leave. When I got to the back door, I touched the door knob a few times before I finally got the door open and left without telling anyone.
I started getting up later, and sometimes missed a day at the shelter. If my probation officer found out I was skipping work, he would be very unhappy. But life with Marjorie was making me lazy. She made it too easy. She’d give me money and I didn’t have anything to spend it on but booze. Marjorie drank almost as much as me, so she didn’t complain. I missed being healthy. And I had been pretty healthy for a while, when I had no money for booze or weed. But don’t get me wrong. I still made myself useful. I fixed the garbage disposal, kept the toilets flushing, even mowed the lawn when she got after me. I tinkered with the RV occasionally, but not enough to get it running.
A couple of weeks went by before the inevitable came up. Marjorie asked me about paying some rent.
“I don’t really make any money. I just volunteer at the shelter,” I told her.
“Nothing at all?” She was real quiet for a couple of days. I didn’t know what she was thinking. But I was pretty sure she was working up the nerve to kick me out. And I didn’t think the RV would start. I imagined pushing it, to give it a little momentum, just enough so it would roll down the driveway and a few feet down the street. I could park it out of sight from her house and if the police tried to make me move, I would just have to tell them it was impossible. They might leave me alone, if there was no other option. Or maybe Marjorie would give me the money to fix the engine. It would be a good thing for both of us. And I would be able to get down to the beach again for some fishing.
Then one day, there it was. “Jim. Let’s talk.”
Oh God. Here it comes. “I know,” I said.
“It’s not right for you to just stay here like this. I’ve been thinking. What if we got married?”
I almost jumped out of my chair when she said that. I had been so ready to go to my room and pack up my shit, that my legs were spring loaded. “What? Married? Where’d you ever get an idea like that?”
“It would make things right. Married people don’t pay rent to each other.”
I felt bad for her, but I was going to have to say it. “But I don’t love you. You know that.”
“That’s OK.” She looked down. I know it must have been embarrassing for her to bring the whole thing up. “But you would have to do a husband’s duty once in a while.” She smiled when she said that.
“I already fix stuff and do your shopping when you’re not up to it.”
“You know I’m not talking about any of that. I need someone to keep me warm at night.”
“Yeah. I know.” Oh, man. What a choice. I picked at the label on my beer, until I had almost peeled it off. “It’s nice of you to offer, but I don’t think I could do it.”
“It just wouldn’t be right if I don’t love you.”
“You know, the house would be yours when I’m gone.”
Well that did it. I had to jump up and get some air. “That’s too much to think about,” I said. I headed out the door, walked down to the corner liquor store and bought a forty. While I leaned against the wall outside and took a few sips, I weighed my options. I’d be set for life. But sleeping with an old lady to get her house. What kind of thing was that to do? I liked her. She was a nice lady. Maybe that was why I didn’t want to take advantage of her, just to end up with a place of my own. It wouldn’t be a short term arrangement either. She was real healthy. I would be in it for the duration. I had to admit we were comfortable together. And a lot alike. We cared about animals. We didn’t mind if the other one was drunk. So many couples got bent out of shape over that. But not us. She liked books, and knew stuff I would have known if I had had more time to read and study. Or if I had stayed in school. And who would want to be all cramped, living in that RV again? But that was a purely selfish reason. I couldn’t let that influence me.
When I got back, Marjorie watched me, waiting for an answer. “You’re going to have to give me some time,” I told her. I went to bed and sneaked out to work early the next morning.
I was hanging out with another dog by then, one that reminded me of Butch. He wasn’t a Husky like Butch—he was a Golden Retriever—but he was big and friendly like Butch. I didn’t give him a name. I didn’t give any of the animals names any more. He whimpered when I leaned my face down next to his cage. Wild dogs don’t bark. It’s only when they were domesticated by man that they invented barking and whimpering. They think it sounds like human speech. At least that’s what I’d read.
I looked into his eyes and wondered what he thought of me. His round drooping eyes were filled with kindness. I could tell he wasn’t being critical or judgmental, but he was asking if I could do better than taking advantage of an old lady. I almost started to cry, god damn it. Where’d that come from? I tried not to think about it, but what popped into my head all of a sudden, was this idea that my parents must have had expectations for me when I was growing up, and how disappointed they must have been when I started to get into trouble.
I reached through the bars and gave him a scratch behind the ears and worked my way down below his chin. Good dog. Wise dog. He lifted his head and really got into it. But when I was done he dropped his chin and gave me this look like, “You can’t buy me off with a scratch under the chin. What are you going to do? Take the easy way out or be a good human?”
I got a new head gasket and some oil on the way home from work that night. It was starting to get dark. Marjorie watched me as I got a desk lamp, plugged it into an extension cord, took it out to the driveway and hung it from the engine compartment hood on the RV. It took a while to remove all the extra stuff that’s in the way: intake manifolds, pumps, wires, distributor, everything. I drained the oil and loosened the bolts around the head. It was a bear lifting it off the block with no pulley. My hands were covered in black oil up to my elbows. I liked getting dirty, working hard for a change, but I needed to rest my arms before bolting the head back down, so I climbed into the driver’s seat and closed the door.
Marjorie was at her window, watching me. I felt like I was sitting in a cage. The extension cord snaked from the truck, across the driveway and into her house. She was holding onto the other end for all I knew. I wondered what she thought. I wondered if she would get more cats after I was gone. I wasn’t asking. She wasn’t telling.
Robert Evans works as an artist and illustrator as his day job. The rest of his time is spent writing. His current novel is about a mentally challenged girl who solves crimes with the reluctant assistance of her father. He resides in Mill Valley.
Listen Without Flinching
by Robert Evans
When I was about ten years old, my father started to tell me something and my mother stopped him. “Oh, Don. Not that. It’s horrible.”
He had been telling me about when he was a kid, and his old blind aunt Eloisa. “The other kids in the neighborhood liked to go over to her house with me because she let us have candy.” He had reclined his stuffed chair and closed his eyes. “The house was always dark because she didn’t need the light to find her way around. She would throw the pieces of candy at us one by one and we’d try to catch them in our mouths. Her aim was pretty good, too. She must have targeted the sound of our voices. Then she would gather us around and tell us weird stories. She would stop and laugh as she told them, because she would have to translate from Spanish. I guess the words sounded funny to her when she said them in English. The worst story she ever told was the one about the flies.”
That’s when my mother would cut him off. “Not the flies, Don.” I didn’t protest. I was afraid to hear more.
And why was his aunt speaking Spanish? I was thirty-five years old before my brother Mark mentioned seeing Mexican relatives at a funeral. I always missed funerals and weddings. I was either in jail, or hiding out in the desert, or off in my RV with no phone. Mark said that at the party after my grandmother’s funeral, half the room was filled with relatives he had never met before. “They were all friendly and rowdy and having a good time, while our side of the room sat in chairs and barely moved.” Mark talked to the relatives and found out we had gone to the same schools as our cousins but never met them.
“Why wouldn’t they let us know our relatives?” I asked Mark.
“I think maybe they figured dad could pass for Caucasian and get a better job, so they agreed to separate the family.”
“Who agreed? Mom and Dad, or the aunts and uncles?”
“I don’t know. I was too embarrassed to ask.”
I think I even remember my aunt and that dark room myself, and a narrow slit of dull light between the thick curtains shrouded by layers of sheer fabric. I concentrate sometimes and try to see the details. I must have gone over there just once when I was about two years old. She died soon after that. Sometimes the smell of my own breath reminds me of the smell of her breath that day, and brings back the whole thing. I think the memory stayed in my head because of the braided wire that hung down from the hearing aid she kept in her pocket. I remember sitting on her lap and the exquisite feeling of chewing on plastic covered wire and the sharp taste of metal when I broke through to the wire inside.
Over the years, when I go back to that room in my head, I try to imagine what my father’s aunt told those kids. I imagine them getting close to her to listen in the dark and their horror when flies crawled out of her empty eye sockets. Or flies hatching from the candy in their mouths. Or the walls and rugs writhing and alive with a blanket of flies. I can’t stand it and I have to turn my mind off. A few years go by, and the memory will slowly come back again and I have to pick at it like a scab. The only way I could get rid of it would be to hear the whole story.
I don’t see my parents much, but I made up my mind that the next time I was with my dad, I was going to ask him to tell me a few things, no holds barred, and I would listen without flinching.
I got him alone, so my mother wouldn’t be able to stop him, this time. “So, Dad. Do you remember a story you started to tell me a long time ago, about your old aunt. Some story about flies?”
“A story? She told us lots of stories.”
My heart beat faster. He wouldn’t remember. I would never get the flies out of the darkness in my head.
But he kept going. “She told us a story about a man trying to break into her house and we all got so scared, that we ran to the kitchen and grabbed all her knives. Then we sat in a circle around her for protection.”
“But what about the flies?”
My mother came into the room. I cringed. She would ruin my chances to hear the story again. “Oh, Don. You remember. Something about raisins. A boy couldn’t stop eating them.”
“Yes. Something about raisins and flies. And worms. When they took him to the doctor.”
“And I would stop you because I didn’t want the boys to get any ideas about knives,” my mother said. I couldn’t believe it. She was helping him with the story. But now the kids were eating flies mixed with raisins in the dark and I couldn’t stop them. The kids had no way to see the difference. And worms. Now there were worms. I didn’t press him for any more details. I was a coward. I’m sorry. I couldn’t go any further.
“That’s enough,” I said. I left their house pretty disappointed in myself. If I ever went back and tried to ask him again, maybe I would seem crazy obsessed. I would scare them. They were getting too old for me to cause them any more trouble. That was my chance and I blew it. Maybe, just maybe, I could still go back and ask them after some time has passed, if they were still around.
Maybe I could even ask them about our relatives. Sometimes when I’m driving, I press hard on the gas and turn the wheel to drive to their house and get it all out in the open, but I think better of it. I keep driving.
Autumn leaves in December, Sleepy Hollow, San Anselmo, CA.
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Perry & Buddha, Alpine Meadows Bear Creek reflection J. Macon King.
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