Listener, Take 3: Ozark Failures

Welcome to Take 3 of our Listener reaction. This week, a few of us are taking different pieces from the band Listener and writing what comes to mind. Have you checked out Take 1, and Take 2? Today, I tackle two pieces, "Ozark Empire," and "Failing is Not Just for Failures."

**This is a piece of short FICTION.

***

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyTejjdHejs]

They mailed his last shred of dignity to him in 2007, a severance check for two weeks pay and letter signed "cordially." He never got up from that chin shot. It crushed him.

He ran his office like a well oiled machine, allowed himself no indulgences except for the yearly hot rod calendar that was thumb-tacked to his felt covered wall. He kept his papers at right angles, kept his email inbox clean. "These are the things valued by the corporation," he told me once.

Dad raised me on a steady diet of do-right. "Play the part," he said, "tie a double windsor, floss regularly, and by God, keep your blood pressure in check." Dad was risk averse, content to blend in. He ate less than he killed and always kept a storehouse for the lean years.

We were all surprised by the layoff. It was "company wide," the nightly news reported, but some of his co-workers had kept their cubicles. Dad didn't fight, just cashed his check and sank into a deep chair on his back porch for ten months. His jet-black hair grew long, grew until it curled in the back. He read an old collection of Sherlock Holmes, drank a daily sixer of PBR, and watched the blue jays. He slept.

Twice a week, I brought Dad supper and we talked about politics--Dad was a hopeless republican--or the economy. One night in February he told me, "I'm thinking about calling this 'early retirement.' I've got enough, and if I draw SSI...." His voice trailed.

"You can't just hang it up," Dad.

"Can't I?" He pushed carrots around with his butter knife. There was a moment of silence before he unraveled.

"I've been thinking, son. You gotta shake things up as hard as you can. Don't play it down the middle, make some noise. You have to push and push and push your way up. Push until you're so close to the top that no one can pull you down. You've got to take it by horns."

He took a slug of PBR. "I just don't have that kind of energy any more. "

I stared at my plate, mashed my potatoes under my fork.

"You understand, son?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. But what I wanted to say was, "I lost my best friend to sadness."

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIZm11T49yA]

Present in the City, Part 2

This is the second and final part of my Present in the City series. For part one (and the back story), read here.  To download the audio of the Cobblestone Project's panel discussion at Present in the City, click here  and find the panel discussion link (it worth giving a listen; my wife's on there).

***

The cabby's name was Lawrence.  He asked "whereto, boss?"  I gave him the address of my hotel and sunk into the rich pleather seat.  He asked where I was from and I told him Arkansas. He sighed, "ah..." and then slowly pronounced "Ar-Can-Saas; yes, I know Ar-Can-Saas."

"Oh really, how's that?" I said, feigning interest.

"My wife is from Ar-Can-Saas."

Trying to make small talk, I asked how they met.  He said, "that's a long story boss, but lucky for you we have a little time."

"Yes, lucky for me," I thought.

Lawrence was the black sheep of a wealthy Syrian family.  He had come to the United States for college, dithered about for six years, met an American woman, and fell in love.  When his father demanded that he return home, he refused.  Instead, he married and started his own family.

Lawrence's daughter was born with a significant heart defect.  The doctors pronounced that she would require a lifetime of medical attention.  When Lawrence's daughter was a teenager,  he accidentally failed to send a monthly insurance payment.  The insurance company canceled the policy and refused to issue new coverage for his daughter.  Her heart defect would constitute a preexisting condition under the new policy, they said.  The mistake would cost Lawrence thousands of dollars and would ultimately ring the death knell for his marriage.

"My wife took everything, boss.  Everything but the medical bills.  She left me with every single cent of those."

"I'm sorry, man."  I meant it, but it didn't seem enough.  It seemed hollow, cavalier.

"I guess it's all history.  If I had not divorced, I would not have met my new wife.  She is a good woman. She is getting her bachelor's degree in a medical field.  I am driving sometimes fourteen hours a day to put her through school.  And," he said demonstratively as he placed his right pointer finger in the air, "she is from your state.  Do you know her family?"  Inferring that everyone in Arkansas is well acquainted, he told me her last name.  I informed him that I did not know a single French Arkansan.  He said that was a pity because French Arkansans are very good at love.  He chuckled.

"Any kids?" I asked.

"No, not yet.  We are fifteen years apart in age.  We are happy together, and I am not sure she wants kids.  But, she is good to me, anyway."

We pulled into the hotel parking lot and he swiped my credit card.  I told him thanks for the lift, told him to take care of his wife.  He said, "I will boss.  Enjoy your stay."

I entered the hotel lobby wondering if even half of Lawrence's story was true.  I'm not really sure whether that matters.  The truth is, everyone loves a good second chance story; everyone wants to believe that there is love in the end.

Ozark Impressions (Just Write)

The winding S of red tail lights cuts a line through the Ozark Mountain Range. The mountains rise like giant ink blots against a navy blue sky dotted by only the brightest stars. Even those are dimmed, road weary from light-years of travel, I think. Matt once told me that it's the light pollution that all but obscures the Milky Way, at least here in America. Our grandfathers saw the sky naked, he says, glory un-shrouded by the lack of street lights and skylines. The stars were waypoints back then. The elevations of the ink blots are pocked with brighter, man-made stars. Red and yellow, they blink from the tops of cellular towers and broadcast antennas. This valley has been radio-waved for decades now, and the sounds of Rock-And-Roll settle in its basin where the ink blots spill their contents into a thin stream.

The Mulberry River.

At night, while we travel up the highway, coyotes visit the banks of the stream and drink deep. If the moon were full, the river would drip iridescent from their jowls as if illuminated by a great black light. They haunch on the other side of the brush waiting for prey. In the morning the buzzards will circle like smoke over the remains and the truckers will imagine the ghosts that haunt the valley. A young deer, a lost hiker, maybe both.

Most of us travel this stretch toward Fayetteville, Springfield, or Kansas City. There, we'll find our families, taverns, and places of worship. But for now we travel in a more pristine place, a range that hides its small communities. On the down side of these slopes lies Mountainburg, or Chester, or West Fork. Good people have settled in these hills and put down deep roots. They've made babies, started churches, worked honest jobs. This morning they attended Sunday services. The town drunk was baptized and the smell of whiskey was buried once for all in the baptismal pool. Bun-haired women shouted for joy and their long skits swished the dust back and forth across old planks as they swayed their hallelujahs. They're always looking for a reason to holler to Jesus and if we stopped and rolled our windows down, we'd maybe hear it echo in the valley. Even at this late hour.

Welcome to the Ozarks. It's good America.

***

This is my submission to Just Write ~ The Third.  Thanks for the space, Heather.

Tap Room -- Second Fermentation (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a short story by my friend Kevin Still.  It feels real, and I'm enjoying his words.  Read part 1 here.  Good work on this Tap Room submission, Kevin (looking forward to the next couple of parts).  Keep us looking for that one-time glory._____________________________________________________________________

Alan wondered if his new river-loving friend here at the Tap Room might smoke weed. He’d never tried that. Always wanted to, though. She held her glass up to Alan for a toast, “But you can’t blame a girlfriend for caring. And sometimes you just got to let a woman talk her fill, right?” Alan picked up his glass, clinked hers, and drained the final bit of his beer. Yes, Alan thought, looking at the lady sitting beside him. Sometimes it’s good to just let a woman talk.

Not like the bastard in the parking lot yesterday, the one that flagged Alan down as he left the Mexican restaurant. Alan loved good enchiladas verdes, and this place served the best he’d found. He was always careful to take one enchilada, covered in thick green sauce, home for lunch the next day. The only thing better than fresh enchiladas verdes was day old enchiladas verdes, after that green sauce had time to marinate and fester and wallow in itself overnight. Alan had his leftovers in the passenger seat. He wanted to get them home and in the fridge quickly. He had a fear of meat sitting out too long. And then, sure as flies laying maggots, a guy with a broken down Crown Victoria flagged him for help.

Alan stopped his car, looked around the parking lot, and realized they were alone. Reluctantly, he rolled the driver side window down. A middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a button-down Banana Republic shirt covered in palm trees started towards Alan’s car but stopped half way, leaving a good six-foot clearance between the two men. “Sir, thank you. Thank you for stopping. You wouldn’t believe how shitless the people are around here to help a stranger.” The man, easily twice Alan’s age, was sweating more profusely than he’d ever seen a man sweat. He wondered if drugs were involved. Or torture by cartel. The man looked rough.

Alan did not want to get involved, but then he heard himself ask, “What do you need?”

“Sir, I just need a jump, just charged enough to get across the street. I’ve even got my own cables.”

Alan looked out the passenger-side window and saw an Auto Zone on the corner. He looked down at his leftovers, packed in Styrofoam, the meat growing warmer by the minute, bacteria setting in, illness, all that beautiful green sauce gone to hell for a dead battery. Not to mention, Alan knew this “jump-my-battery” routine was a typical ploy to rob people stone blind. He’d seen it on TV. Fellas put on a semi-nice shirt, drench themselves in salt water, stand by a car and flag down some big-hearted Samaritan with a wife and two kids. The Samaritan jumps out, leaves the car running, and then gets smacked square in the forehead with a tire iron while feeling good about himself. The wife and kids get dropped off – maybe, or maybe they’re taken hostage – and the Samaritan is left on the ground hating himself and the Bible stories he rode in on, and for what? Alan ran all this through his mind, looking down at his leftovers with nowhere to go but his empty refrigerator. Screw it, Alan thought. If this guy gets me, he gets me. More power to him. In fact, I hope he tries. I want him to try. I want to know which side of the head a guy like this works on before taking another man’s car.

Without speaking, he pulled his Forerunner beside the Crown Victoria, hood to hood. He killed the ignition and jumped out, leaving his car door open. The man already had his own hood up, one end of the jumper cables attached to his own battery and the other end clanking together, sparking carelessly in the air. Alan wondered for a half-second if the guy would knock him down, attach the cables to his chin and left nipple, then leave Alan’s body flapping like a shored up bluegill as he drove away with Alan’s car.

Curiosity made Alan move closer to the sweaty-man. He smelled like cat piss.

A moment later the cables were attached. “I just bought this damn battery. Spent $94 on it at that same Auto Zone. I think my alternator is out, draining the battery.” Alan didn’t know what the man was talking about. He knew nothing about cars. He thought this might be street talk for hope-you-like-the-sound-of-this-fancy-sounding-car-jabber-before-you-get-jacked, Jack. “Think you could rev up your engine for me, sir?”

Alan gazed at the old man, held his eyes. He wanted to say, “What’s with the ‘sir’?” Or better yet, “You do it. You climb in my car and rev it up. Car’s empty. I’m not even sure you hooked them batteries up right. What say I stand straight, plum over them and find out. Just toss me my leftovers as you drive away.”

But Alan knew the moment had passed. The batteries were attached. The man was kind. Grateful. Still, Alan imagined explosions. The sweaty-man behind Alan’s steering wheel covered in glass and upholstery.

Alan climbed in the driver’s seat of his Forerunner and keyed the ignition. The sweaty-man gave him a thumbs-up, smiling like a Southern Baptist over fried chicken.

“You a Boston fan?” the sweaty-man asked as Alan climbed down and closed the door. The man reached up and fingered towards his own forehead to indicate Alan’s Red Sox cap.

Instinctively, Alan grabbed the brim and tugged it down on his forehead. Aubrey had bought the cap for him years ago, before the twins were born, back when Alan decided that all American men should drink Budweiser and watch baseball. Aubrey laughed when he said things like this. “Tell me again, why not the Cardinals? Don’t they play in Budweiser-land?” she asked when she gave him the Boston cap as a gift. “Maybe I like Boston because I like Irish music,” he answered. “You talk baseball like my sister picks shoes,” she laughed, “you match your hobbies to their accessories.”

Alan stopped thumbing his hat and crossed his arms over his chest. “Hell, I don’t keep up with baseball. Didn’t even keep up with it when I said I was keeping up with it. This is just an old hat.”

The sweaty-man kept smiling and sweating. “1975. I was in Cincinatti. Saw the Reds play the Red Sox in a World Series game.”

Without noticing it was not his car, Alan leaned back on the Crown Victoria. “Is that so?”

“Oh yeah. Went with my brother.” The sweaty-man checked the cables and wiped his brow with the bottom of a palm tree. “Great game. Saw Pete Rose play. Will never forget it.”

There was a silence. The car engines hummed between them. A few people came out of the Mexican restaurant. A family. Father, mother, three kids and a grandmother. Mom walked grandma. The kids jumped and ran circles around the car. They all had Styrofoam boxes. Kids can never sit still for long, and they never eat their food. The sight of them lit a match in Alan’s chest. He looked away and fidgeted with his hat again. He wanted his new friend here to keep talking.

“Who won?” Alan asked.

“The game in Cincinatti?”

“No. The Series.”

The sweaty-man laughed. “Hell, you really don’t know anything about baseball. Reds won. Took the title in the seventh game. I wasn’t there, but my brother and me were home listening on the radio and wearing our Reds hats.”

“You guys have a big hurrah that night? Get blitzed and dance around the house in red underwear and hats?” Alan felt clever. He could hear the kids in the parking lot behind him. One kid said to another kid “no, you’re dog poop.” The father yelled at all three of them to get in the car.

The sweaty-man paused, looking at Alan, appreciation dropped to pity in the man’s face. “Sure, kid. Sure. We kicked back some Schiltz’s and celebrated on the porch. Slapped each other with our hats. We were brothers. We were happy.”

“Sure,” Alan added, still feeling clever. “Damn right, you partied. Should of taken money off folks for a game like that.”

The sweaty-guy leaned over Alan’s hood, a few rogue beads of salt-water dropped off his chin onto the radiator. “Know what else we did that night, kid?”

Alan checked the family getting into their cars. Mom was closing grandma in the driver’s passenger door. All the kids were inside, probably still yelling. Probably still getting yelled at. Alan turned back to the man with the dead battery and shrugged.

“We burned our Cinncinati hats that night. Burned them in a barrel behind the house.”

“Why the hell for?” Alan asked. “Too much Schlitz?”

“My brother and me decided you can’t stick with the winners always. You can’t have the winning team two years in a row. The glory happens one time. And we didn’t wanna chance the Reds winning the Series in ’76.”

The car hummed. Alan heard voices behind him, but did not turn to look.

“Did they? The Reds?”

The sweaty-guy laughed and moved towards the Crown Victoria. He called over the hood, “Let’s just say my brother and me didn’t look like posers when the Yankees limped home the next year. Cinncinatti was a mighty loud place for three or four days. And they had reason to be. We even bought new caps for the Series, then burned those, too.”

This was strange talk over broken batteries, Alan thought. Too much like father-son bullshit to pluck out of the air in a Mexican food parking lot.

The sweaty-guy started the Crown Victoria and let out a yelp. Alan released the cables from his battery and handed them to the other man. Feeling awkward, wanting to leave, Alan slammed his carhood and heard himself ask, “Your brother and you catch many games after the ’75 and ‘76 series? I’m sure you did.”

The sweaty-guy closed his driver’s door and leaned out the window. “Sure, we saw plenty,” he said. “Went to Kansas City. Saint Louis. Milwaukee. Back to Cincinatti a few times.”

“What’s the next game you guys gonna catch?”

The sweaty-guy looked towards Auto-Zone, illuminating with orange and white lights. He looked back and smiled at Alan. “Benny passed away ten years back. Brain tumor. It was a long road there for the family. I tried to go to a few games after that. Tried to take his kids. But it never worked out. I quit going, quit taking them after awhile.” He looked at Alan and smiled, “Maybe glory really does happen only one time.”

Alan dropped his eyes, fingered for his keys in his pocket and realized his car was running. The enchiladas were probably pretty warm by now. He needed to get them in the fridge, so he turned to his driver’s door.