28 December 2010

"Danny Nolan"

I sit in the audience, latently aware of the trade lecture being delivered.  I wonder to myself about the origins of baseball, its relationship to cricket, and how many of the heads in this hall watched it regularly.  Baseball baseball baseball.  Anything but the pert tits on the gal two seats over.  {Beat the wife’s by far.}  The Twins beat the Braves by far.  My ears perk up as the one lecture ends and applaud vacantly with the rest as the next begins.  It’s nearly lunch and my stomach feels a sight empty on account of the inedible continental breakfast served this morning.  Before I can lull myself back into the world of comparative baseball my attention is grabbed again by the speaker’s name:  Daniel Nolan.
Danny Nolan!  The name transports me back to my mid-man retail job, just after college.  ‘On hiatus,’ I would tell myself, though I never knew for sure if I would ever rise in the world.  I had a position at Home Depot, managing the Garden Center.  It was a good job and I thrived in it, consisting of a decent combination of physical labor and paperwork to suit my strengths.  A real resume builder.  The only real difficulty was in keeping the crew motivated and in-line.  I used them all; stretch circles, shift meetings, ‘cookie Fridays’; all the tricks of successful management psychology.  It worked quite well, but there are always the sour apples of the bunch.  There was one in particular, a Mark Somethinger, this cocky go-nowhere type; a real slacker.  Never tucked in his shirt.  Set a bad example for the new clerks and looked badly on the rest of us.  So one day I tell him {for the hundredth time!} to tuck it in in the back.  He dropped the bag of beauty chips he was moving and lost all control.  “You petty sonofabitch,” he shouted.  “You never know when to let the <bleep> up!”  I was ready to fire him on the spot {shirttails or no!} using language like that.  And he left that very morning, sure.  But something else he said stayed with me.  It went, “You don’t know him, and you never may meet him, but you’re Danny Nolan to a T.  In every way, shape, and form, you’re <bleeping> identical!”  He skulked away after that, but I still had Stevie from Security meet and escort him off the lot.  Principle of the thing.  But the name stayed on in my thoughts as I shaved the next few mornings, eventually forgotten until that moment at the trade convention.
I listen carefully to his lecture.  I don’t remember the subject by its end, but I can’t forget the way he delivered it.  As far as I could see he was well-groomed and decently dressed, though a little conservative to taste and a little dry in his delivery, perhaps.  But I couldn't see anything derogatory about the man’s bearing.  After the last lecture I catch him on the way to the restaurant.  We talk about this and that over lunch, about his family and his church, football and so forth.  His tie is knotted a little unevenly but there isn't anything about his character to complain about, either.  If this is the Danny Nolan, my apprehensions are put to rest.  He is simply a normal, hard-working family man sure, but beyond that not the least bit like me.

"The Littlest Apricot"

“The littlest apricots taste the sweetest,” as he used to say oh so long ago. 

"Mind the minors, plea-zzze!"
        Quite often, Rachel recalls with a grimace as she awkwardly steps out of her little Prius.  Environment or no, she will never get used to tiny cars.  She shuts the door, or rather slams it, and pushes out the wrinkles in her maroon dress.  It has taken Rachel the better part of thirty years to forget the past, but the damned anecdote about the apricots hasn’t left her.  Whatever.
        The past is past and the old bastard is dying now.  He’s owed her as much; the least she can do is meet him for dinner.  The restaurant is just up the street, a little Italian place called Giuseppes.  Rachel has never been here before, but Sis recommends it; as she has no plans to try it a second time Rachel does not worry whether the food will be good or the atmosphere pleasant.  Her heels click sharply on the pavement as she nears the doorway, an old fashioned green door that matches the wooden shutters and charming gilded sign above them. 
        Fuck atmosphere, Rachel reminds herself.  She’s come to see another piece of her life die.  She enters into a little vestibule, but does not recognize the young couple waiting on the bench.  Perhaps he won’t show, she half-hopes; with half-disappointment.  The place inside is nice and quiet and clean-looking, a real leave-the-kids-at-home-and-enjoy-yourselves establishment.  A green-vested hostess comes and greets Rachel warmly.  Does she wait in the vestibule?  She asks for a table for two and orders a long island to be brought up quickly.  As she sits into the narrow circular table {so cozy and familiar} the urge to get up and leave comes heavily.  But the urge is brief and the waitress brings a tall chilled glass of resolve to her, condensation teasingly dribbling down its outside.  The meeting is long overdue anyway, and what with the drink and all…  Rachel takes a long sip and notices for the first time the corny Sinatra music softly floating by in the background.  He was a big Rat Pack fan, she recalls distastefully.  She dwells on the past a few unhappy moments and sure enough, the past strolls up to the table.
        “Rachel?”  Rachel looks up from her drink with a start; she hadn’t expected to see him so suddenly, hadn’t had time to properly rehearse a nonchalant greeting.  Her old man is just that:  an old man, thin and looking the worse for years.  Definitely holding his end of the bargain, and fast.  On an impulse she stands and hugs him, she doesn’t know quite why.  He feels weak and fragile; she avoids looking at his haggard, beaming, teary face.  They sit down and talk the uneasy talk of the long departed.  His conversation is peppered with reminiscences and nostalgic feeling; hers is airy and aloof, and for this Rachel begins to feel ashamed.  How had they come to this?  She knows well enough, {little apricots} but still the question remains, unanswerable.
        They have dinner, two orders of vegetable lasagna.  “Meat doesn’t sit well with me,” he laughs miserably.  Shame.  She feels ashamed at being so vindictive, for not seeing him all these years.  She missed Ma’s funeral, just to avoid the past.  A lifetime of running from one’s troubles, a life that could have been; how does the expression go?  At the critical moment, that point where Rachel feels compelled to cry, to apologize, to open up and express love; at this moment he remarks how much he loved them all.  “Especially you, dear,” is how he puts it, with teary eyes and a pathetic, crooked smile.
        Especially you.  Has the bastard forgotten, or is he just fucking with her head, with her emotions?  The moment is lost, the shame forgotten completely.  Rachel fumes internally as he prattles on, thinking up a good rejoinder.  Something to really hurt him.  Tit for tat.  The waitress returns to collect their plates.  Dessert?  Dessert?  Rachel’s thoughts become muddled in the interruption, and suddenly it becomes clear again.  She orders apricot pie with a pointed enunciation; looks him right in the eyes as she does it.  {Remember, you fucker.}  The restaurant serves no such dish, and her father continues to look at her fondly with his sickly, pathetic eyes.  Her barb was a miss.
        She asks for the check.  Dinner wraps up in a bit of a blur as they make their way to the door.  He suggests they should meet again sometime soon.  Rachel remains noncommittal; it’s all she can do to keep from telling him off, from really ripping him up good.  The old bastard is dying now, holding up his end of an old arrangement.  The least she can do is be civil.  Rachel steps out onto the pavement without a second glance back and walks to her car.  The clouds seem to be rolling back finally, she notices; and in them lie the promise of a better tomorrow.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *

[I came up with the idea for this while working in Alaska; one of the older park rangers was talking about peaches and said the smallest ones tasted the sweetest.  It struck me as an odd thing to say, and the story sort of wrote itself.]


[This is a story I wrote up a while back; a couple years ago, as a matter of fact.  I think I'd been reading too much Hemingway at the time.]

Tommy sat silently at the kitchen table and watched his father chop onions by the sink.  The smell hurt his nose but it meant they were having meat for dinner.  He eyed the white paper parcel atop the stove.
“What are we having, Dad?”
“Dinner, boy.”
“What kind of meat?”
“Is it beef or chicken?”  Tommy scrunched up his face as though the latter were poison.  He hated chicken liver.
“Beef, boy.”
Tommy sighed, relieved.  Liver and onions and boiled potatoes.  The potatoes were already boiling in the big pot.  It gurgled as it boiled and occasionally hissed when it spat water over the sides onto the burner.
“Do you want any help, Dad?”
The big grizzled man smiled warmly at his son.  He was a good boy.  Considerate in an often thoughtless world.
“Yeah, boy.  You could start frying the liver for me if you want.  Remember how?”
Tommy nodded eagerly.  He’d watched his old man do it a hundred times.  He hopped off the chair and grabbed the wooden footstool from the corner and placed it in front of the counter.  He pulled a big black skillet from off its hood over said counter and moved both skillet and stool to the stove.
“Could you reach me the oil, Dad?”
Without moving so much as a step he pulled down a bottle of canola from the shelf above the stove.  As Tommy took it from his father he couldn’t help but wonder at his huge gnarled hands.  They were red and hairy and some of the knuckles were swollen and discolored.
“You remember how much to use?”
“Yeah, Dad.  And the burner on high?”
“Nope.  High is too much.  Set it on medium high.”
Tommy turned on the burner closest him and poured a generous amount of oil into the skillet.  The potato pot let loose another loud hiss.  Tommy took the white paper package in his hands and tore open the folds, careful not to drop the two livers inside.  They were soft and rubbery and reddish brown, not mustard grey like the chicken type.  The oil snapped and popped quietly as Tommy laid each piece in the pan.
“Don’t forget the spatula, boy.”
“Oh!  Yessir,” and Tommy hopped off his stool and ran to the drawer full of kitchen implements and knives.  He looked but there was no sign of the spatula.
“I can’t find it, Dad.”
“Try the other drawer over here.”
“The junk drawer?”
He gave an assenting grunt and Tommy darted to the other end of the kitchen.  The liver was snapping and crackling louder now.
“Hurry, before it burns up.”  There was no sense of urgency in his voice, only instructive calm.
“Found it!” Tommy cried excitedly.  He bounded back onto the stool and gingerly began scraping up the liver.  They had turned grayish brown on the one side so he flipped them over.  A splash of grease spat with a snap onto his hand.  Tommy’s hands were still much smaller and whiter and softer than his father’s.
“Ow!”  Tommy recoiled briefly.  He rubbed at his wounded hand.
“You okay?”
“Yessir.  It was only a little drop.”
“You did good, boy.  Now step aside and I can drop in these onions.  Should be up in a couple minutes, if you want to go upstairs and wash up.”
“Okay, Dad.”
His old man cupped the onion in his hands and brought them over to the stove while Tommy put the stool back in its corner and walked slowly upstairs.  He didn’t like to wash up and he wished he could have cooked the onions himself, or at least have finished the liver.  He rubbed the red mark on the knuckle of his right hand.  It hurt like a bitch.
“It hurts like a bitch,” Tommy said to himself in the mirror.  He mouthed the word a few times.  Bitch.  It was a fascinating word and it seemed to snap off his tongue.  “Sonofabitch,” he said, imitating Father.  By the time he came down again his father was just setting down the plates on their plain wooden table.
“Jesus, boy, didja take a shower up there, too?”  Father and son grinned at each other and sat down to eat.  They didn’t have to say grace anymore.  Tommy preferred being able to just sit down and eat.  He wolfed down his potatoes and liver as though he hadn’t eaten in weeks.
“Slow down, goddammit!  You’ll choke,” his father said between mouthfuls.  But his potatoes were soft and peppery and the liver hot and filling.  In a matter of minutes they were gone and Tommy slid out of his seat to put the plate in the sink.  His father snapped his fingers at him authoritatively as he tried to swallow what was in his mouth.
“Hold on, boy!  What about those onions?  Finish them up first.”
Tommy’s face dropped.  “Do I have to?”
“I’m afraid so.”
He sat back down and surveyed his plate sullenly.  There was a baker’s dozen big sautéed onion pieces scattered about.  Tommy forked one and begrudgingly put it into his mouth.  He bit into it and it was sweet and crunchy and white like a maggot.  Tommy hated maggots.  Once he’d seen a dead dog at the side of the street and he threw a rock at it.  It was already mostly flattened down the middle but the rock hit its shoulder and it broke open and maggots came out.  White writhing maggots, squirming in the meaty brackish red insides of a dead dog.  Tommy threw up after he saw it and ever since, onions reminded him of maggots.
“When is Mom coming back?” he asked suddenly.
“I don’t think she ever is, boy.”
They ate in silence.  Tommy his maggots, Father his ashes.

"Passive Aggression"

Dean looks back to the garage doorway.  The door to the house is shut, but the music inside is nonetheless audible.  He grits his teeth.  Two months and a day, he tells himself, but {gods above} a drink would be nice about now.  A steak wouldn’t be too bad, neither, but there’s a different story.  Never, Dean tells himself, will he understand vego-tarianism.  Or how Grace can listen to that awful fucking music all day.  Dean Martin belting out overblown love songs with that cheesy orchestra in the background.  She knows he hates that shit.  He’s given up so much to make her happy {two months and a day}; can’t she aim to please a little?  Tête à tête[i] like?  The garage smells of stale wood shavings and used motor oil.  It used to be Dean’s sanctuary {two months and a day} from the music and the stupid monologues about tiddling nothing.  She must be turning the stereo up louder than before.  She’s trying to mind-fuck me, he thinks sourly.  That’s Grace all over though, always teasing too long and too far.  Didn’t she just listen to this song?  Dean suspects she’s got the disc on repeat, but maybe it all sounds the same.  He puts the screwdriver down on the workbench.  The birdfeeder suddenly doesn’t seem to need fixing, and the music {two months and a day} is driving him up the wall with anxiety.  Fucking Dean Martin.  If he wasn’t dead already…  Dean wonders where the old wop is buried.  Two months and two days ago, he might have looked it up and made the drive; maybe to piss on the grave, or just shout at his tombstone.  Probably has his own mausoleum, the hackneyed cunt.  Dean steps outside, on to the lawn.  No, the windows are all open, and he can make out the words to “Mack the Knife” with painful clarity.  He goes around the far side of the house, behind the garage.  Finally, {finally!} the music disappears.  A newfound calm gradually settles over him.  For a full two {months and a day} minutes Dean stands on the far side of his garage, hands in his pockets.  The weather is fair and somewhere a bird is twittering away happily.  Very peaceable out here, he muses.  Maybe he can live outside in the yard amongst the pine needles and recyclables.  Just pitch a tent and surround himself in the relative solace of the trees and his neighbor’s privacy fence, at least until the ‘Neighborhood Watch’ filed a complaint.  Or maybe he could take a shit in Grace’s flower garden; that would show her.   Tête-a-fucking- tête.  Dean strides over to her azaleas with a profound sense of fairness as the band strikes a new tune.

[i] Author’s note:  The expression “tête à tête” is intentionally misused as a matter of character construction.  The man is a bit of a boor, ken.

A Platform; A Pulpit; A Pillar!

So this is my first-ever attempt at blogging!  I'm not much of for daily journaling, or for posting rampant feelings/ire/political opinions/&ca online.  In fact, I've never even had a MySpace, come to think of it.  But recently a friend of mine convinced me it would be a good way to get useful feedback on the short stories I enjoy writing.  {sip of coffee}  So, here it is.  "Rudian Days."


                                                                                                Dan Rudy