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publ. every day fiction 12-6-2013

Love Locks

Love Locks

She wanted help, the thin, jowl-eyed lady. Long pink scars scattered like brush strokes up her brown arms and onto bare shoulders. Her hair hung resignedly past her shoulders. Her lipstick was only approximately in position. She teetered on gold open-heeled shoes.

“Just give me a strong lock and chain; 3 feet of chain that can go around the door handle. My husband threw the other one away. And he broke the last lock I had, like, like it was made of candy. He gets so rough when he drinks. I need to lock the bedroom better. When he decides he wants me, he just comes and takes me. I need a better way to keep him out.”

Kevin sold her a Master lock 5D and three feet of ¼” proof-coil chain.

The next week, she wore a yellow tank top so much too large that both shoulder straps were in danger of slipping off simultaneously. Her barely concealed breasts looked like socks full of sand. She was brown so far down her front that Kevin speculated to Mike she must garden in the 3:00 PM sun, wearing just her red lipstick and nail polish.

She sought out Kevin again, this time as he was front-facing the picture hooks. “I need a lock and a solid hasp,” she said. “So I can sleep in peace tonight. He comes in the window and I never know which sounds are him forcing the latch. The window latches are just the cheap junk that came with the window.”

She bought another 5D lock and a good size hasp. Kevin asked her how she was going to fasten the eye of the hasp to the aluminum slider. “There’s a guy in the mobile home park who can do it, unless you want to,” she said. She cocked her head a little.

Kevin told her he didn’t do side jobs.

He couldn’t avoid the public while working retail, he had discovered. He imagined a membership card based on intelligence, good manners and good grooming. And maybe looks. Revocable.

Three days later, part-timer Carla said: “Kevin, your girlfriend is here.” Kevin looked up to see Lock Lady coming past the front counter dressed in a thin long-sleeve blouse and a black micro skirt. Her nails and lipstick were cherry red and her hair was in a bun with black lacquered sticks.

Kevin fled past the shelf bracket and curtain rod display to the back aisle to hide from her. Somebody else could help her.

“Is Kevin here?” she asked at the service desk.

“There he is,” said Mike, pointing and smiling.

Kevin, usually reserved, said: “Oh, my God.”

“Can you show me some locks that work with slide bolts,” she asked him. “I am going to need a long, thick slide bolt, and a big strong lock to keep it in place. It’s because of my husband,” she said. Kevin decided he would just focus on the sale; not let it bother him. If she wanted to waste time being paranoid, the store still got another sale out of it. He showed her the shelves of contractor grade security hardware and locks.

“That looks perfect,” she said.

Kevin bent over to note the model number on a cashier tag.

From behind him, her thin arm silently extended over Kevin’s shoulder as he knelt in front of the bottom shelf. Her hand reached into his open shirt collar. Her fingers dove into the curly brown hair of his chest and splashed and played in his hair for a few seconds like a dolphin in the bow wave of a cruise ship.

Kevin jumped and shook himself like he had a bee in his shirt.

“Just about the sexiest thing I have ever seen,” she said.

“What are you doing?” he asked, regaining his dignity a bit.

“I just had to touch it,” she said. “So silky!”

“Well, it makes me uncomfortable,” said Kevin, certain he did not have to tolerate this in the name of customer service.

“You don’t know how scary it is, feeling threatened by him all the time. When he gets drunk, he just takes me, whenever he wants. I can’t get any sleep, because I have to be ready to defend myself.” A single tear squeezed out of the corner of her eye.

“I don’t know,” said Kevin.

“You are so helpful, I’m going to tell the manager how much you’ve helped me,” she said. She seemed ready to embrace him, so Kevin stepped quickly back.

“Don’t have to do that,” said Kevin. “Good luck with that.” And he hurried to the next customer.

She bought the hardware.

Two weeks later, Debbie, a long-time colleague of Kevin’s, brought in a news clipping. “Isn’t this Lock Lady?” she asked him as she posted an obit picture by the time clock.

Libby Morrow died in a mobile home fire. She was found in bed, after a cigarette blazed up in her mattress during the night. The firemen had difficulty getting to her. Her unit had been securely bolted at the bedroom door, entry door and all windows.

“She lived in a fortress,” said a firefighter.

Kevin said nothing but the minimum for days.

The manager denied his request to switch to a branch of the store in a different region. Gradually the other employees forgot about Lock Lady and stopped teasing him.

Sometimes, when he stocked the padlocks, Kevin felt a gentle hand on the back of his head.

He didn’t pull away.

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Life Off the Cliff

Lessons that we all have learned from Pete:

Be blunt: rip the Band-Aid off the truth.

Share: it makes your ownership complete.

And laugh: some days refined, some days uncouth.

Bad news? Scream ugly once, then turn the page,

You are the writer at this theater, not the show.

No bragging rights unless you scar with age;

Drive off the cliff, if what you want’s below.

During the blink of light, the gasp of breath, that’s life,

Some brothers lock their doors, seat belts secured.

Back from the edge, to stay unhurt, to just survive,

They never climb the railing, jump the curb.

But some things aren’t revealed at a distance.

Fledgling egrets or nursing otter pups,

Cliffside terns or parading pelicans,

Fluttering monarchs or rhythmic waves of kelp.

Each day’s unique and sunrise is the proof.

One buffets the beach, like storms attack a boat.

Another fades to gray, with sun aloof.

Then, clouds and sea in stained glass seem to float.

Pete, the image of you that is going to last:

You let each and every morning have its day.

You take the good from all you see go past.

You love, and are loved, more than words can say.

aired on:  KZSC radio 6-8-2010

Bull Headed

If I squinted, the farm looked pretty much the same as it had when I left, 9 years ago, blinking back tears. The pond had shrunk; the bluegrass had grown longer and gone to seed.  The fence lay halfway down.

Frost bleached the roof, yet no smoke rose from the chimney of our farmhouse on the knoll.  The front field that the goats used to clear was now overgrown with larkspur, ragwort and blackberry.  No sign of livestock, chicken or ducks.  The horse barn was leaning at an odd angle, as though reeling from a strong wind.  Between the cow barn and the house, the dust seemed as untracked as the snow-powdered mountainsides of the Rockies I had just seen day before yesterday from the train.

I walked over to the corner of the cow barn.  The tall splints Pa and I had fashioned were still in place, still straight.

I remembered the young black bull, Napoleon, no higher than Pa’s shoulder, in a sudden burst charging at the big Hereford bull that was temporarily sharing his pen.  When the other bull leapt out of the way, Napoleon’s amazing forehead had cracked the eight-inch square post that formed the corner of the barn up to the hayloft; hence the splint.

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Dead Battery

pubbed here

He reached the parking lot with just enough time to punch in; to beat the clock.  His veteran ears had been listening to radio news about the Sarajevo trials.  The unpronounceable had committed the unimaginable against the unfamiliar.  “Here we go again,” he said.

“There have been countless genocides,” the newscaster said.  “The Hugenots, Beziers and Albigensians.  Tenochitlan.  Pequots.  Auschwitz and the Sicherheitsdienst.”

He reached for the off switch.  Work time.  “Viet Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, My Lai.”  The announcer pronounced them perfectly.  These names went with his memories of friends:  ‘Frank,’ ‘Stace,’ ‘Tom,’ ‘Ryan.’

His hand dropped to the car seat.      “Lubyanka and Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky,” she said.  “Chmielnitzki.  Vijayanagara.  Khmer Rouge.  Khmer Noir.  Rwandi-Burundi.  Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith.  Kampuchea.  Quiripi-Unquachog.  Hissane Habre.”  He was pinned down.

Millions rolled into a hundred million.

The announcer explained:  “This countdown during Atrocity Awareness Week uses the Voice of America Pronunciation Guide,” she said.  The irony sparked against the fragment in his heart.

“The names are not so hard.  Tianahmen Square.  Deng Xiaoping.  Try repeating after me,” she said.

“DUH-ng SH-how PEENG.”

“Duhng show peeng,” he said.

“OH-marr HAS-san AL BAS-hir,” he said, after her.

“AWN SAN soo CHEE.”  Way too easy.

“RAHT-koh MLAHD-ihch,” they said.

“RAH-doh-van KAHR-ah-jeech.”  She had to break for a commercial.  He picked up where she left off.

“Tan Son Nhut.  Binh Long.  Quang Nai.  Hue Phu Bai.  An Phu.  Loc Minh. Nui Ba Den.  Bu Prang.  Dak Dahm. Quang Tri.”  Place names from his personal collection.

Soon, she was back,  “Trien Phong.  Dien Phuk.  Song Be.  Khe Sanh.  Cu Chi.”  And on.

They hadn’t completed the list when the battery, too, died.

He had to look for his hands, because he felt transparent.  Powerless.

Had it taken him fifty years to see that everyone was in on it, from their DNA on up?  A bus full of his accomplices rumbled by.  Though his boots were bloody and his eyes were scarred with horror, they each had kept a hand on his back:  Andy, Ellen, Ray, Pat.  Citizen perpetrators with less exotic names.  Everyone could turn on anyone.

In the silence of his car, he tried to make sense of that single syllable:  ‘Work.’